Monday, 21 September 2009

The Observatory Science Centre Herstmonceux

I know, I know, this isn't even close! But you don't want to hear about my trapped nerve, my dodgy back or my wonderful play. You want to hear about the Independant Republic of Shoreham Beach. Well, the top road is exciting, now we've got the slalom and the lower road has lost the magic since it was re-surfaced. I enjoyed the shake, rattle and roll. It added a bit of the Wild West to a small part of Shoreham Beach.

Anyway, welcome to my blog. If you're a regular, sorry. If you're a newcomer, I'm apologising for being three days late.

Talking of which, I've only just realised that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, so I thought I'd better mention The Observatory, Herstmonceux.

If you haven't been yet, it's fabulous. It's owned by Queen's University of Ontario and operated by Science Projects, a charity specialising in promoting learning through interactive exhibits. There are hundreds of these at the Observatory and a Discovery Park where you can roll a ball up a giant Archimedes screw, balance on a wobbly "boat" or race wheels down a ramp. My favourite is the giant pipe tower where you have to guess where the sound will come out and my son likes the whispering cone, (which he shouts into), and the DNA "climbing frame". It also has workshops, discovery days, seasonal activities and even kids parties.

The Observatory is set in 380 acres of Sussex countryside and lies next to a 15th century castle. That, however, does not mean it's easy to find. If you whizz along the A27 and miss the turning for Wartling, you can end up in Pevensey. Pevensey is nice but it doesn't have an Equatorial Group of Telescopes. When you find your way back to the right road, the first sight of the Observatory is startling. Six massive copper clad domes rise above the gently sloping woodland. How on earth the local planning committee thought that copper cladding would help them blend in is beyond me!

Despite being called the "Observatory," the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) at Herstmonceux left in 1990. Nevertheless, their brief stay has been described as "a sort of golden age for the RGO, when the best and most innovative work was done."

The Royal Observatory was founded in 1675, in a country village called Greenwich. As London grew, so did the sprawl and pollution and by the end of World War II had reached such proportions, that the Observatory had to be relocated. A suitable site was eventually found at Herstmonceux, where the air and skies were clearer. Significant building work began there in 1953, but the architect, Brian O'Rorke, had a difficult brief. He had to produce something that was elegant and attractive in design. He succeeded, but the ornamental lily pond was too much for one astronomer, who fell in. The buildings were completed in 1956 and the following year the staff left Greenwich, the scattered departments were re-united and the Royal Observatory was renamed the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux. It was 1957 and Herstmonceux was open for business.

The move had taken 10 years but, within a decade, it had started to decline. Arguably it began when the powerful Issac Newton Telescope was opened by the Queen in 1967. Intended to compete with it's counterparts in the USA and Russia, it was quickly realised that it was in the wrong place. Inclement weather meant that it could only be used 33% of the time. In 1979 it was moved to La Palma in the Canaries where it could be put to better use. A combination of that and factors such as technological advances, policy decisions and budget cuts, made the RGO's presence at Herstmonceux difficult to justify. In 1990 the RGO left Herstmonceux and moved to Cambridge. Then in October 1998, the Royal Greenwich Observatory was shut down completely.

In it's heyday, the RGO at Herstmonceux had over 200 staff. The castle provided accommodation for astronomers and visitors, a library, the Director's residence and offices. Within it's grounds, the cricket pitch, tennis courts, swimming pool and clubhouse buzzed with activity. Then at night, the sound of nightingales and music floated around the Telescopes. It must have been idyllic.

Today, some of the Telescopes are still open and the Observatory is a hive of activity with parties of school children racing from one exhibit to another. I haven't got the foggiest idea how most of them work, but I still have a go and accept my son's distain when he realises I know nothing. It's a wonderful place to lose yourself and Herstmonceux always makes me smile, from the moment I see those copper domes, to the moment I leave.

My thanks to Chas Parker for his fascinating story of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux and whose words have appeared in quotes.

Have a good week and see you next Monday - promise.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Dancing Sheep

Welcome to my blog. Nice to see you. If you are new, welcome, welcome, welcome. If you are a regular, great to see you again. I hope you've had a good week.

For those of you who get this emailed, I apologise for the delay. It should have been with you yesterday. However, last night over a glass of wine and a diminishing supply of crisps, I thought, why should my blog get a knackered writer's thoughts last thing on a Sunday night? Not good enough. So I've decided that from now on, the blog shall go out on a Monday instead. Can't say fairer than that.

Well, here in the Independant Republic of.. things are beginning to slow down. The water no longer has the allure it once had, and eyes turn towards the few crooked trees that brave the salt air and blustery wind. Not for us the vibrant displays of Autumn colours; the laden blackberry bushes, and dew dusted meadows. Nope, we have concrete, and cars, and bare-bottoms at the back of kite-surfer's vans.

Well, is it just me, or do all women have a gremlin in the form of a bossy great grandmother who lies in wait ready to spring out the moment you want to put your feet up? I do, and the combined forces of my star sign and said gremlin ransacked my week. Instead of relaxing with a play or two, pretending to understand The Economist, and reading about Teddy Kennedy, I cleaned the house. I scrubbed, polished, dusted, hoovered, sorted out my wardrobe and, for a bit of light relief, went foraging in the hedgerows for pudding. After making a blackberry crumble, I started the washing. Madness. By the end of the week, I could not face another duster, so gave the gremlin the heave ho and, with just the slightest twinge of guilt, set off to the Findon Sheep Fair. So incidentally, did thousands of others.

The Sheep Fair started in 1261 when Henry 111 granted a Royal Charter to the Lord of the Manor of Findon, Walter de Clifford. Today the Fair is a much smaller affair and the sheep are more of a side-show to the stalls, Fairground, and entertainments. Nevertheless there were sheep pens, a sheep competition, and a display of sheep and shearing by a charismatic New Zealand shepherd. He introduced us to the different breeds of sheep displayed on the podium; told us about maggots (deadly); sheared a sheep and sold it in a mock auction. He was very entertaining but not entertaining enough to explain the growing crowd as his performance built. Sheep are interesting, but c'mon? Then a friend enlightened me, "the sheep dance at the end. Just wait."

Now I've seen Babe and Big Barn Farm, so I know what sheep can do, but I must say I was a tad bit skeptical. I waited, and true to his word, the disco music came on and the sheep were primed. The dreadlocked sheep shook it's head and hips and the little black face did a couple of kicks. I couldn't quite see the one that did the moon-walk but I didn't need to, the shepherd did a demo. It was worth going to the Sheep Fair just to see that. If he got them to sing, he could be on the X-factor. He'd certainly be better than the lady in the duo with the dog that didn't sing.

If you want to find out more about the origin of the Sheep Fair there's a great little history at, , but for me, it's time to sign off for another week.

I hope you have a good one, and see you next Monday.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Take Six! Adur Arts Live '09

Hello and welcome to my blog. If you're a newcomer, come on in. If you're a regular, nice to see you again.

Here in the Independent Republic of.., it's been a mixed bag of weather. Last week Mother Nature went off like a stroppy teenager, "don't like September, want do October". Someone clearly had a word because the temperature shot up and the shorts came out again.

This last fortnight has been dominated by two things; getting ready for school and celebrating my Birthday.

I had a lump in my throat when our bundle of joy started full-time school. I foolishly thought he too may stop to ponder this momentous step but no, out came the train set and off he shot like a whippet out the traps. Kids have no sense of occasion.

Adults, on the other hand, do, and my Birthday treat was dinner and a trip to see War Horse at the New London Theatre. It's a play adapted by Nick Stafford from a book by Michael Morpurgo. It's set in the 1910's and is about a boy, Albert, and his beloved horse, Joey. At the outbreak of war, Albert's father cruelly sells Joey to a cavalry officer. Albert's devastated and when he learns that the officer has died, joins up determined to find Joey and take care of him. Joey meantime is in the thick of the action, flanked by his friend, another horse, Topthorn. As Albert gets closer to finding his horse, poor Joey's being worked to death on the battlefield. I won't tell you the ending of this award-winning play, but it's worth the trip to London. As for the horses; all I can say is, puppetry's come a long way since Sooty and Sweep.

I said a fortnight ago that I was taking a week off, and those with sharply honed skills of observation may have noticed that I've pinched an extra day. See if you can guess why in this carefully constructed interview.

So Liz, nice to see you. Did you have a good journey?
Yep. Straight up the stairs, turned left. Dead easy.

What are you working on at the moment?
Apart from this interview, I'm writing a 10 minute play for Take Six! part of Adur Arts Live '09. It's one of six rehearsed readings of short plays from six established playwrights. It's on from 12.00-1.00pm on 17th October at Shoreham Methodist Church in Shoreham.

Who are your role models?
Any parents who can outwit their four year olds without making them cry.

What would you change about yourself?
My star sign. It's the bane of my life.

What's your next project?
Household tips for Virgos.

Did you spot it? It's subtly embedded in the second question, the bit about the six play readings on the 17th October between 12.00-1.00pm at Shoreham Methodist Church.

It would be great to see you there and if you do come, don't forget to pop by and say hello. Have a great week and see you next Sunday.