“Click, click, click”. As I walk through the foggy campus of Keele University, I can hear the noise of Christopher Matthews’s crutches coming towards me.
“Alright cripple?”, I shout. Not because I’m someone who likes to shout abuse at random disabled people, you understand. Chris is a very good friend of mine, someone I’ve known since we started secondary school, and he describes himself as a cripple.
He was born in October 1991, with a condition known at Peters anomaly plus. Peters anomaly is a condition where the sufferer has cloudy corneas meaning they have very little eyesight. The plus bit is more a minus actually, meaning he also has brittle bones. Not a great combination.
“I’ve broken myself 12 times now, not including operations.”
Chris seems very proud of this fact. He starts from his feet, moving up his body and listing every part of his body he’s broken.
“I’ve broken my right big toe, my right ankle twice, my left femur, my right femur four times, my left humerus, my right humerus twice and my right radius.”
I was present one time he broke his right femur.
“It was in year eight,” Chris recalls. “We were in a drama lesson, which is quite ironic because it was quite dramatic. It should have been a simple break but I spun around, fell over and landed on my knee. Instead of my leg breaking normally, it bent and nearly punctured the skin.”
The hospital didn’t want to operate because of Chris’s brittle bones. He was in hospital on traction for four months before being allowed out of hospital on crutches.
“The leg still had quite a bend in it, so I was on crutches for seven years after that,” Chris says rolling his eyes.
A lot can happen in seven years. Chris’s parents had fought hard to get him into a ‘normal’ school, moving to Ellesmere in Shropshire as the local Lakelands School was considered to be fairly disability friendly. This is when I first met him.
“It's slightly scary to think I might not be a university now because I'd have been labelled as disabled and gone to a disabled school. I wouldn't have been happy.”
Chris is an intelligent lad, who always smiles and likes a joke. His intelligence meant he found school to be a doddle, and other pupils were fairly accepting of him. The school put on assemblies and made everyone wear blindfolds to find out what it’s like to be Chris.
“It took a while for people to get used to the blindness. I had an operation when I was six years old but I'm blind for life. I can see the same detail in roughly two metres that the average person can see in 60. It works out to be about three percent of an average person's sight.”
Chris went on to sixth form where he was given a bit more freedom than school and, like any normal teenager, he discovered drink and girls. He remembers one college party particularly well. “There was a girl I wanted to dance with. I’d had a few too many ciders so left my crutches with a friend and I was off to find her. I didn’t have much luck but I didn’t break anything or get a slap, so I’ll live.”
He flew through his A-levels – managing two years at sixth form without breaking a single bone - and ended up at university studying maths and accounting (with a little bit of Japanese thrown in).
It was when he was in his first year at university that his broken leg couldn’t stand the pressure and broke in three places during a spasm in Chris’s sleep.
He was rushed to hospital, something which Chris is getting used to now, where he spent several months before they decided to operate.
Not to be beaten, Chris started his first year at university again.
“I was on my way to recovery and in November last year I ended up breaking my left femur. That was impressive. My crutch slipped in the rain on the way to a lecture and I did a roly poly and landed on a parked car. They decided to operate on that one the next day – thank God!”
He missed another two months of university but passed his first year. He is now in his second year, and making plans for the future.
“When I graduate I'd quite like to go to Japan for a couple of years. I'd like to think I'd find someone who'd like to go with me and help out a little bit. I'd like an accountancy job out there, or something to do with finance. They get paid so much out there. I'll probably go out there for a couple of years and then might come back here for an accountancy job.”
But how does his disability hinder him at university? We take a walk through the campus so he can show me the students union. I say a walk – from his student halls there’s a long hill down to the SU. He whizzes off in his wheelchair slaloming around bemused students and deliberately aiming at parked cars to make me panic, as I start a light jog in a bid to keep up. It’s one hell of a sight, and all too easy to forget that he can’t actually see where he’s going.
It’s obvious that it’s a route he knows well and he tells me he has done it many times, merry on alcohol like any good student after a night at the SU.
“My friends push me back up the hill. I’m surprised we haven’t had an almighty crash after a few too many vodka and cokes.”
He might describe himself as a cripple but it’s obvious Chris doesn’t let it stop him doing what he wants with his life. As he says with a smile, “I refuse to let my disabilities stop me from going to the pub – I’m too stubborn.” I think we can all find a little inspiration in that.
Chris... my crippled friend.
The Oswestry Advertizer picked up on my winning of the Sir William Lyons Award and ran a great story about it this week. Many thanks to Emily at the 'Tizer!
2012 will be remembered for me as the year I was lucky enough to win the Sir William Lyons Award.
For those who don't know, Sir William Lyons was the founder of Jaguar. He set the award up with the Guild of Motoring Writers in 1966 as an attempt to encourage young people to write about the automotive industry.
I was delighted to have been shortlisted and invited for an interview with a panel of experts at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, London. I returned a month later to receive the award at the annual Guild dinner.
To enter the award, I wrote the following pieces:
An overview of Jaguar design director, Ian Callum
Jaguar has come a long way over the last five years. Since the sale of Jaguar to Tata, the brand has returned to the cool British brand it was in the days of the E-Type. And a lot of this can be attributed to Jaguar's design director, Ian Callum. Callum is responsible for the design of the entire current Jaguar range, including the stunning F-Type – the first picture of which has been leaked this week ahead of its Paris motor show debut.
He was once quoted as saying: "Jaguars should be perceived as cool cars and cool cars attract interesting, edgy people."
Five years ago Jaguar was perceived as anything but cool. The brand did nothing to attract interesting, edgy people – instead it attracted elderly people who wore flat caps and lived in suburbia.
This was thanks to disappointing cars such as the S and X-Types – two cars which lacked the handsome looks of Jaguars of old and weren't helped by a poor reputation for reliability. Neither car stole customers from German brands like Jaguar hoped.
Callum joined Jaguar in 2000 – a job he'd dreamed of since a young boy. At the age of 14 he'd lusted over an XJ6 in a showroom and decided that one day he wanted to design Jaguars.
While Callum had input in the 2004 facelifted S-Type and the 2004 X-Type estate, it was the later generation of Jaguars that Callum really made his mark.
The new XK was launched in 2006 and shocked the world with its striking looks. Its critics complained that it looked too much like an Aston Martin, something that could not be said of Jaguars of the last decade.
The following year, the C-XF was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show. This was the concept car that gave the first hint of what the S-Type's replacement would look like.
At the time Callum told the press: “Great Jaguars turn heads in the street. They make people stop and pay attention. They evoke instant desire. That's what the C-XF does and that's what the next generation of Jaguars will do."
When the production XF was unveiled later that year at Frankfurt, the design proved controversial. The chrome mesh grill harked back to Jaguars of old while the rest of the car looked like nothing ever seen with a Jaguar badge before. But it soon became a success, winning awards and being loved by the general public and motoring journalists alike.
Two years later the new XJ arrived to a similar reception. The shape of the XJ had hardly changed over the last 40 years and while the mechanics of the latest XJ were based on the previous model, Callum's design was completely different to any XJ seen before.
And that's what Callum does best. His designs are controversial and new, completely different to Jaguars of the past but stunning to look at. That's what appeals to interesting, edgy people who now buy Jaguars. Callum has saved Jaguar.
What gives a car or bike 'iconic' status?
The Land Rover Defender is one of the most iconic cars money can buy. Park a 2012 Defender next to a 1948 Series One and you will be able to see clear similarities. Yes, the current Defender might be fitted with the most eco-friendly engine ever fitted to a Defender, and back in 2007 it lost its legendary front flaps (Defender style air con) but, even with luxuries such as heated seats, it's still the same old, iconic Defender.
It's a bit of a motoring cliché to describe the Defender as iconic. But how is it iconic? Is it because it's an old design lacking in modern safety features such as crumple zones and airbags, in which case surely iconic is a bad thing?
Tim West from Middlesbrough is a die-hard Land Rover fan who will argue until his death that his Defender is an example of one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced. He told me: “It is a direct derivative of the original Series One. Just the shape alone is iconic. Show a silhouette of a Defender to anyone who has even the smallest knowledge of cars and they will tell you it's a Land Rover. It is a symbol of ruggedness, of the ability to achieve the otherwise impossible. It defines the brand that is Land Rover.”
But even Tim admits it has its downfalls: “It is also symbolic of dismay, frustration, expense and unreliability. But we'll forget about those ones.”
Another 'iconic' British vehicle is the Morgan. The first Morgans were introduced in 1909 as a cheap way of getting from A to B over the Malvern Hills. Admittedly they're a bit different to Land Rovers in that they're built to go on twisty roads through mountains rather than over them, but they've both got a strong fan base around the world and have inherited iconic status.
It would seem that liking old English designs is a terribly British thing to do. One Dutch review of the Morgan 3 Wheeler stated: “The English people are crazy. They are terribly behind, and proud of that.”
It's hard to disagree with this statement. Compare the Morgan to European sports cars, or the Defender to European 4x4s, and on everything – safety equipment, performance figures, fuel efficiency, standard equipment – the British rivals are way behind. Does this mean that, frankly, cars have to be a bit pants to be iconic?
All the iconic cars on the roads – the Defender, every Morgan ever built, the Reliant Robin, the Mini, the 2cv, the Austin Allegro – are a bit crap.
Of course, some people would argue that there are exceptions. As a Land Rover enthusiast the Range Rover springs to mind for me. The original sparked the SUV rage and the latest one is brilliant. Loved by lottery winners and football players alike, there's obviously something about the Range Rover that makes it stand out against its rivals.
But, compared to its rivals, technically it's a bit rubbish. They're known for being a bit unreliable, which should be unforgivable on a car that can cost several times what most of us earn in a year, but they sell well because they have an image which portrays them as a little bit more special than the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes ML and the like. Park a Range Rover of any age on your drive and the neighbours will think you've made it. Sure, an X5 will impress them, but not quite the same as the iconic Range Rover.
American writer Augusten Burroughs in his memoir, Magical Thinking, wrote: “I like flaws and feel more comfortable around people who have them. I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” I think this hits the nail on the head about why cars which are a bit rubbish are loved by so many and earn iconic status. It's said that cars reflect our personality.
Defender drivers tend to be the outdoor type who can be a bit hot headed and don't particularly care about their appearance. Yes, it's a massive stereotype, but in my experience it's true. Morgan drivers are often a bit eccentric – they hark back to the old days and complain that 'things aren't made like they used to be'. Their cars reflect this. People aren't perfect so they like cars that aren't either.
These flaws in iconic cars are often what people describe as character. A friend of mine drives a classic Mini – one of the most iconic cars ever produced – and if he accelerates hard or brakes heavily he can feel the engine try to escape from the car. He describes this as 'character'.
In which case, does character make a car iconic? In my opinion, possibly. Bland cars that are absolutely perfect but lack character never make iconic status. Can you remember the Mitsubishi Carisma from the mid 90s? It was a reliable, sensible family car but it was one of the most boring cars ever produced. Because of this, most people have now forgotten about it and it certainly isn't iconic.
The Carisma's rival, the Ford Mondeo, on the other hand, probably could be described as iconic. No, it's no Land Rover, but a Mondeo is iconic of the working man in the mid 90s. Can you imagine Tony Blair targeting Carisma man? It doesn't have quite the same ring to it. But the Mondeo is a fairly bland car.
Foibles lead to character, and character goes a long way to iconic status. For a car to be truly iconic it needs to have caught the imagination of the general public. It needs to be loved by many. The Mondeo is an exception – it is iconic in that it represents an era, but as a fairly bland car it's not truly iconic. People will not be driving their Mondeos to classic car meets in 20 years time. Defenders, however, will be iconic for years to come.
Winter. What a horrible season. You can't go outside without being blown away or getting frostbite. It's dark by mid afternoon and all you want to do is stay indoors and hibernate.
I don't know if it's obvious, but I hate it. This winter has been worse than ever for me - a new part time job in retail has meant that I've even started to hate Christmas. Time when I should have been with my family getting merry was spent working late preparing for the dreaded sales.
So I decided I needed something to look forward to. I told myself that in the New Year I'd invest in a new tent. And, when a friend sent me a link to this Coleman Lakeside 4 at a bargain price
, I couldn't help myself.
Now I don't know about you, but if I buy something like that I can't wait to try it out. Which is why I decided to spend a weekend camping. In January.
I even persuaded a few mates to come along.
The weather on the cold Derbyshire moors was freezing. In fact, temperatures were as low as -12 at night. I regretted not buying a tent heater (I gave up the idea when the nice man at the camping shop suggested I should get an electric one as it was perfect for heating up his conservatory). The pipes to the toilet block were frozen and we couldn't have a shower. But you know what? It was bloody brilliant.
So what did we do on a January weekend in Derbyshire? On the Saturday, as three committed petrolheads, we set off in search of some quality strips of tarmac weaving through the peaks. It soon became obvious that Derbyshire had been ruined by pointless 50mph limits and scameras to enforce them, so our drive out turned into a hunt for camping shops. Martin wanted some gas for his tent heater (his usual shop had sold out), and Matt wanted some kind of bedding (the bright spark had forgotten his and was apparently a bit cold the night before).
We weren't very successful. We'd all have to be cold for another night.
Fortunately the site yours truly had booked was next to a very nice country pub, the Duke of York. The roaring log fire, ale on tap and legendary game pie meant it was the perfect way to spend an evening.
The following day we packed away (as best as we could as the tents were frozen solid. Should have packed a hairdryer to defrost them.) Then we did the full touristy thing - visited Bakewell for a Bakewell tart, and then visited the simply awesome Black Rocks.
If you're reading this and thinking we're stupid for camping in that weather, I'm sure you're right. But you really should give it a try. Do what I didn't - buy a tent heater, and take along lots of layers and camp near a pub and you'll have a great time.
After all, if you leave camping until the summer, do you really think the weather will be that much better? At least it didn't rain.
All journalists are bombarded with press releases. Read any local paper and try to work out how many stories originated from a press release - it will be quite a large proportion.
Unfortunately the majority of press releases are boring and it's all too easy to slip into churnalism mode - churning out generic stories using copy sent from PR companies.
As a lot of reporters don't like press releases, any workie is likely to be passed piles of them and expected to produce good, usable copy from the dullest of the dull.
This is exactly what happened during my fortnight at a local weekly paper.
In preparation for my university group of first year journalists escaping over summer and spending time on work placements our lecturer, Tor Clark, advised that it's always a good idea to read even the most boring press releases in full, as they might surprise you. He told us about a press release he received from the local Womens' Institute about their trip to Blackpool. There was a full page about what a lovely day it had been, how they'd had ice creams and walked along the beach. And in the last sentence, it was casually mentioned that "Unfortunately Gladys felt ill on the journey and when we arrived in Blackpool she collapsed and passed away."
Suddenly this press release jumps from the recycling pile to a page lead.
Now, not all press releases will have gems like that, but it's still worth doing some digging and asking some more questions. Companies might send you a highly polished press release complete with very nice quotes they'd love you to use, but phone them up and ask them a few questions and they could easily let slip something slightly sexy.
The closest I came to this happening was a secretary of an organisation ranting about why their funding had been cut and blaming several big names in the area. Unfortunately at the end of the conversation she remembered who she was talking to and took back all she said and insisted it shouldn't be reported. We could have a long discussion on the ethics of this situation - but the truth is, I was a workie on a paper that relied heavily on the locals, and if I upset them it would not go down well. I therefore played it safe but still produced a solid story that was published with a byline.
At the end of the day some press releases are boring, no matter how you look at them. On my last day I wrote one about the local tip having an open day. I phoned them up, got quotes, and tried to find an angle that was interesting. In the end I gave up, decided it would probably be spiked, so wrote a very sarcastic article about what an exciting day it would be. I was very surprised when it was used in the paper exactly how I wrote it. It turns out I'm not very good at writing in a sarcastic manner and I just sounded genuinely excited about bin lorries.
My next work experience spell will be at a motoring publication, Fleet News. I've done work experience at a similar magazine in the past and can remember being given lots of press releases but being slightly stumped about how to handle them (I was young and it was my first insight into journalism). Therefore I decided to open it up to Twitter on how to handle a press release when working for a car magazine.
Jamie Fretwell, journalist for Auto Express, tweeted:
"1) Remember releases have news manufacturers want you to write about. Other stories need to be dug up & investigated and... 2) Ascertain really quickly what is the most important fact. Then succinctly tell your editor why your readers should know."
Andrew Noakes, lecturer in automotive journalism at Coventry University, added:
"If a release has technical info you don't understand, don't just copy it into your story. Find out what it means first."
If you have any tips about how to handle press releases, please share them below.
I must admit, I rarely visit the library. It's not a conscious decision - I just rarely find the time. I do read a lot but it's just too easy to find books I want on Amazon and have them delivered the next day.
But would I visit the library more often if it came to me?
The mobile library in North Shropshire does just that. It visits rural communities where, unlike in my case, the library isn't just a 10 minute walk away.
I was eager to find out who uses the mobile library and how popular it is, so I joined driver Terry Alcock on one of his rounds.
We set off from Oswestry Library at 8.30am prompt and headed south along the A483 to our first stop in Llanymynech. The journey took no time at all and there are regular buses along the route into Oswestry - so is the mobile library purely for the lazy who can't be bothered a trip to Oswestry?
While considering the answer to this question I started to notice a theme that would continue for the rest of the day. The majority of users who used the library are elderly and their highlight of the fortnight is when Terry visits the village in the mobile library.
Jumping on the bus to Oswestry sounds easy to you or me, but it's not for a lot of these people. Terry provides them with a bit of banter, stamps, and of course a large selection of books to read.
Unfortunately the mobile library isn't a hit everywhere. We pulled up in Pant where we had just one customer (who had driven to the mobile library).
Terry told me of the uproar in the village when they tried to move the stop into the car park of a nursery school.
"As soon as I pulled in I was approached by a woman going nuts saying it wasn't safe for the kids. I suggested she brought them out to the library to have a look at the books but she wasn't having it. We had to move back to the stop at the edge of the village."
The Oswestry Rural mobile library alone costs in excess of £40,000 a year to run. When this is the welcome it gets, is it worth it?
Terry said: "The leases are coming to an end on the buses this year. With the cuts the council are making, will they renew them? Who knows."
"Four drivers have been lost recently. They're trying to cut back without hitting anyone too hard."
I was sceptical to begin with. A huge chuck of money is being put into these mobile libraries which are driven around rural areas for just a handful of people.
But as the day went on, I met more and more people who would be lost without the library.
One of our last stops was in the village of Maesbrook. Terry looks forward to this stop as he is provided with a cup of tea and a slice of cake.
A group of villagers hold a coffee morning every two weeks in the village hall especially for the visit of the library. In winter up to 30 people turn up for a chat and to have a look at the books on offer. The contrast between here and Pant is astonishing.
Villager Nina Morgan said: "We would not do coffee mornings without the bus. Wewould be very lost without it."
With the council making cuts left, right and centre the future of the mobile library is clearly under threat. But having met the people who use this resource it's clear that it's loss would be another nail in the coffin of our rural communities along with the decline of the village shop, post office and pub.
Next time I'm passing through a village that's being visited by Terry or another driver in the mobile library, I'll be sure to jump on board and borrow a book or two - whilst I still can.
North Wales is plagued with unsurfaced right of ways which are popular with off roaders, bikists, ramblists and other general outdoorsy types.
As a lazy outdoorsy type I've done all these lanes a number of times as a passenger in various friend's 4x4s - especially in that of Don Parry, an off road instructor who works for Land Rover and therefore is a bit of an expert at pushing these vehicles to the extreme.
Don's always been adamant that my Freelander would be well suited on a lot of the lanes he uses on the Land Rover Owner Adventure Club Wild Wales trips - so after years of "maybe one day", I bit the bullet and arranged a day of trying out the Freelander's abilities on these tricky trails.
The first rule of driving these rights of ways (green laning), is to never go alone. You never know what could happen - you could get stuck, or breakdown and be miles from civilisation. That's why I was being followed by my mate Rob in his tricked up Land Rover 90, complete with waffle boards, tow ropes and a winch - "just in case". I should emphasise that when green laning it's looked down upon to use most of these tools on the right of ways - it's not off roading and if you have to use a winch to get up a lane, you're likely to be damaging the surface and will upset the locals. It is however, better to be safe than sorry.
On our first lane of the day, a half ORPA (Other Route with Public Access) and half BOAT (Byway Open to All Vehicles) near Llangollen, there was never a risk of the Freelander having any issues thanks to the firm surface and few ruts. It was a pleasant start to the day, trying out the Freelander's Hill Descent Control (a clever mechanism that uses the brakes to control your speed when going downhill so you can take your feet off the pedals and concentrate on steering), before taking a sharp turn and heading up through woodland.
I have to admit to being a bit apprehensive after this first lane. It was a pleasant drive and if all the lanes of the day would be this easy I'd be happy - but I knew that things were going to get much trickier on the next lane, an ORPA known as the Wayfarer. The Wayfarer is one of the most popular routes in the country for 4x4s, bikes (both powered and unpowered), and ramblers. It's six miles long and has only just reopened after being closed for repairs for 18 months after a section got badly washed away and was impassable. Since the repairs I've been along the track once as a passenger, and I knew there was a tricky section with a bit of an axle twister where the repairs had been made.
We decided to do the sensible thing and walk a section of the lane before taking the vehicles up there. The last thing we wanted to do was get part way along and then have to reverse all the way back.
Unfortunately we didn't have the time or energy to walk the entire length of the lane (which I have done before on shorter lanes when I've not been sure of what's around the next corner), but we walked far enough to settle in my mind that there was nothing to particularly worry about.
The axle twister was indeed tricky and took a couple of goes before managing to get the Freelander through it. Rob's expert spotting helped a great deal here - when you're in the vehicle it's difficult to judge which wheel is doing what, and you have to rely on a confident spotter to tell you where to turn the wheel.
I will admit that it was my driving here that let the Freelander down. As soon as there was any hint of the wheels losing grip and starting to spin, it was instinctive to hit the brake pedal, back up and have another go. This didn't give the traction control a chance to kick in. As the traction control is reactive you need to let the wheels spin for the system to realise there's a problem, kick in, and help the vehicle continue forward. This is different to how diff lock on other Land Rovers work. Diff lock is proactive, i.e. when you think you're going to lose grip you lock the differentials to prevent all the power going to one wheel which causes it to spin.
In the end, as soon as the Freelander started to spin its wheels, I pressed down on the accelerator instead of the brake. This caused the traction control to kick in, stop the wheels from spinning and make light work of the difficult terrain.
The one thing I would have liked in this situation was a low range gearbox. First gear in the Freelander is a bit high for tackling off road obstacles - and to go any slower you need to slip the clutch which is obviously not ideal, creating unnecessary wear.
After getting through this section the Freelander plodded along nicely at tickover in first gear. This is equivalent to third in vehicles with a low range 'box - the ideal gear for tackling gentle lanes at a relaxed pace.
The next obstacle was what is known as the sleepers. The right of way cuts across a bog which, if a vehicle drove onto (or indeed if a walker walked onto or a biker rode onto), they would just sink. To prevent this from happening planks of wood have been laid down. These work well but there is a bit of a step up from the track onto the sleepers. Fortunately with a few well placed rocks to create a bit of a ramp, and with some very careful spotting we managed to get the Freelander onto the planks.
With gravity on our side getting off the sleepers shouldn't have been an issue, but just to make things interesting there was a pool of water at the end with a few large rocks conveniently placed to create a large hole in the Freelander's sump if they were hit.
This is where I decided to change into my wellies and check the depth of the water myself before driving the vehicle into it. This is a good idea if you have the time - you never know what's hiding in water and there have been occasions where anti-4x4 types have hidden barbed wire in water to burst tyres. A few burst tyres is one thing, but you can imagine the damage it'd do to horses which are the vehicle of choice for some lane users.
After surrounding the big rocks with smaller ones, with Rob's spotting we managed to get the Freelander nicely onto the rocks without grounding out once.
After this we had an easy run to the highest point of the lane. Unfortunately there is lots of evidence here of 4x4s going off piste for a bit of fun. This should not be done on public lanes - you have a right to drive on the track itself but not on the land around it. Churning up land gives 4x4s a bad reputation, and ammunition for those who want our right to drive these trails taken away. If you want to drive off road, willy wave and get muddy - go to a private off road site.
On a lighter note there is a guestbook here kept in a metal box to protect it from the elements. People often write in it how they got to the remote location, so I was happy to put in a cheeky note saying "a Freelander made it here!".
Now it was all downhill to the end of the lane. There were a few interesting bits but by driving carefully and with gravity giving us a helping hand the Freelander made light work of the obstacles. It was along here we saw a few other people, not a surprise on such a popular route, firstly a group of ramblers and then a couple decked out in vintage motoring gear. They had everything except the motorbike, but it turned out they were doing the same as what we did - walking the route before driving it. They were friendly enough, asking how passable the sleepers were.
Before we knew it we were off the lane and heading towards the touristy town of Bala for lunch. I regularly find myself in Bala when in North Wales - it seems to be the centre of everything and has an excellent chippy - just the job after a hard morning of green laning.
By the time we left Bala it was starting to get late and the weather had taken a turn for the worse so decided to tackle just one last lane before heading home.
This turned out to be my favourite lane of the day - a not very well known ORPA that goes in a big loop near the village of Rhydymain. This lane seemed perfect for the Freelander. There were spectacular views across the valley and it was challenging enough to be interesting, but not too challenging that we needed to leave the comfort of the vehicles in the now heavy rain to work out how we were going to get through sections.
In fact, the biggest problems on this lane was the width of some of the narrow gates. The Freelander is wider than you'd expect, especially with the large mirrors which don't fold in. I've seen a Discovery scrape nicely down the side of one of these gates in the past, and we were getting through with barely an inch on each side.
After this lane we said our goodbyes and headed home after a good day of pushing the Freelander to the limits. It was on the way home along the A5 that we faced the biggest hazards of the day, including an idiot in a Focus ST overtaking on a bend and sheep in the road.
I couldn't help but feel proud of the Freelander and how well it had done on the lanes. She's pretty much standard (just ignore the garish stickers, bright orange CB radio and the light guards) yet had done the job well. On lanes like these where farmers and ramblers will hate you if they think you're tearing up "their" countryside you're better off in a standard vehicle that blends in.
If I was to modify the Freelander I would perhaps fit some more suitable tyres instead of the road biased tyres it currently wears. It's tempting to fit a lift kit but these are expensive and complicated (having to extend things like brake hoses) so I think I'd be more tempted to upgrade to a standard Discovery or Defender. These would also come low range gearboxes and, in the case of the Defender and some Discoverys, a diff lock.
For these lanes though there is no need for snorkles, massive tyres and winches. Rob has all of these on his 90 - I was worried that he'd find the day too tame (there are certainly more extreme lanes in Wales for those who feel the need), but he said the excellent views more than made up for it.
I check the website of my local paper, the Shropshire Star, on a daily basis.
When I visited this morning there was a story I couldn't help but feel I've read before. It was about drivers in Wem, a small town in North Shropshire, who are "continuing to dice with death" at a level crossing in the town.
A quick search on the website revealed that this certainly isn't the first time I've read the story - in fact there have been eight different stories in just over a year about drivers "risking their lives" at the crossing.
The first time this story was used it included a CCTV video of a driver driving dangerously through the crossing and details of the driver who was subsequently banned from driving.
But recent stories include nothing but a few statistics from Network Rail.
Is this a long running campaign by the Shropshire Star to encourage the people of Wem to take a bit more care at the crossing? No, I don't think so.
It takes a matter of minutes for a journalist to contact Network Rail, get a few figures, and then report a sensationalist story about a small level crossing in a sleepy Shropshire town. I just wonder how many times they think they can get away with posting the same story before it stops selling papers.
I wonder if it's a coincidence that each time the story has been used it's been later in the week - an easy Friday afternoon story for lazy hacks perhaps?
Read the stories for yourself:Driver banned for rail crossing madness – posted Thursday 6th May 2010 Drivers in court over railway crossing failures – posted Thursday 3rd June 2010 Drivers still risking lives on Wem level crossing – posted Thursday 8th July 2010 More drivers fined for ignoring Wem level crossing signs – posted Thursday 29th July 2010 Motorists fined for ignoring Wem crossing lights – posted Thursday 2nd September 2010 Drivers still dicing with death on Wem level crossing – posted Friday 19th November 2010 Drivers still risk death at Wem level crossing – posted Friday 6th May 2011 Drivers still risking lives at Wem level crossing – posted Friday 10th June 2011
I reckon Frank Turner's fourth album could catapult him into mainstream territory. Don't get me wrong - with songs like the "atheist anthem" that is Glory Hallelujah ("There is no God, so clap your hands together", repeats Turner) - England Keep My Bones is as mainstream as cheese rolling.
But being alternative is as fashionable as ever, and I reckon middle class teenagers across Britain will be queuing up to download this album from iTunes. In fact, as I write this, it's a nudge away from being in the top 10 of the iTune charts. And there is no doubt in my mind that Turner deserves this success.
Just like with his previous albums, each individual song has its own identity. They don't blend into one generic sound. They're all catchy and brilliant in their own unique way. With cheeky acappellas slotted between hard punk tracks you never know what to expect next.
Do your bit to stick two fingers up at auto tuning by buying England Keep My Bones here
Yesterday I was in London protesting with other students against education cuts, or more specifically Nick Clegg breaking his pledge to abolish university tuition fees.
As you've no doubt heard, protests didn't go as peacefully as planned and wild accusations about out of control students have been storming the media.
Everything was going smoothly to begin with. We marched from Whitehall, holding our banners and smiling for the press. The atmosphere was good. But soon the attention of the media turned from us to violence breaking out at the home of the Conservative Party.
I arrived at the Millbank Tower just as the first window had been smashed. A masked middle aged man calmly walked away, as other masked yobs threw eggs and other objects at the building. Were they bothered about student cuts? Sorry to be blunt, but were they bollocks.
So how do I explain the cocky young students seen being arrested in the papers today? I can't. They messed up, they got caught up in the excitement, and thanks to their naivety they thought the only way to make their point was to be violent. I'm sure they're going to pay.
Did police respond quick enough? No. We were moved on by marshals who asked us nicely, but there was no one preventing the violence which broke out. It was a good 20 minutes before I saw riot vans arrive.
Just remember, before you brand all us students as idiots who did nothing but make fools of ourselves protesting violently, there were in excess of 50,000 of us in Westminster yesterday. Out of those, it's reported there were 50 arrests, and I firmly believe they weren't all students.