Season’s Greetings

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How time flies! Here we are at the end of the year and wondering where the months have gone by. It only seems like yesterday that we were sitting down and listing all the things we wanted to tell you about 2013 in last year’s Christmas Letter. In this online and expanded version of our printed 2014 Christmas Letter, just click on the text in red to read stories in more detail, and see lots more photographs. Also click on any of the photos to view larger images or open galleries.

It’s also hard to believe that we returned from the Philippines more than four years ago.

But one thing is certain. Our four beautiful grandchildren are growing up very rapidly.

Given that Callum (4) and Zoë (2) live in Minnesota and Elvis (3) and Felix (1) in Newcastle upon Tyne (about 250 miles north of Bromsgrove) we don’t get to see them in person very often. But through the wonders of Skype etc., we can chat with them online, and see what mischief they are getting up to on a weekly basis. All four of them attend nursery daily, but Callum is probably starting school next year. It’s been great to watch their personalities develop, and what fun we’ve had now that Callum and Elvis are talking, and Zoë catching up fast.

Our road trip to the West
As in past years, we spent several weeks in the USA this past summer, from the end of May until mid-June. And we made another road trip, but this time starting in St Paul and flying back from our final destination: Billings, Montana (MT). So where did this road trip take us? Across the Great Plains as far west as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming (WY) – a journey of 2000 miles in nine days – and all interesting sites in between. These included the Great Plains west of the Missouri River (where the West truly begins), the Badlands, Black Hills and Mt Rushmore in South Dakota (SD), Devil’s Tower National Monument in WY (of Close Encounters of the Third Kind fame), the Little Bighorn Battlefield in MT (Gen. Custer and Sitting Bull), Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, of course (via the Beartooth Highway), and finally the Bighorn Mountains in WY.

What a trip! Now 2000 miles in nine days might seem ambitious to some (like traveling every day from home to Newcastle, something we’d never contemplate in the UK), but driving (with automatic transmission and cruise control) on those open Interstates makes driving a pleasure in the USA.

Apart from our second day from the Missouri River to The Badlands, we had great weather. Crossing the Great Plains we skirted the northern edge of a major storm that caused havoc from MT east through SD and Nebraska, with hailstones the size of baseballs causing millions of dollars of damage in Billings. Luckily we didn’t see those – just torrential rain for a couple of hours that made us leave the highway for a while as the worst of the storm passed us by. But by the time we’d reached The Badlands the clouds had lifted and we traveled through the park for more than a couple of hours wondering at all the magnificent landscapes.

Mt Rushmore was much more impressive than either of us had expected. And the Black Hills are stunningly beautiful. No wonder they were held sacred by many native American tribes. We had a couple of wonderful days with beautiful weather to explore this area. Then we headed north into Montana, and traveling the Beartooth Highway to enter Yellowstone through the northeast gate. The Beartooth Highway is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the whole of the USA. It’s certainly very impressive.

Yellowstone was a little disappointing, because we’d hoped to see more wildlife. Since it was early in the season – some of the access roads had only opened a week or so earlier – there wasn’t too much traffic. We’d hate to be there at the height of the season. Probably bumper to bumper cars, all stopping here there and everywhere whenever a bison or elk sticks its nose above the parapet, so to speak. Even with the light traffic we encountered, there were the odd traffic jams, as car stopped as soon as any wildlife was spotted.

But the Yellowstone and Grand Teton landscapes are stunning. The Geyser Basin with all its geothermal activity is impressive. We even got to see Old Faithful blow her top – although she almost became Old Faithless as she kept us waiting a good 20 minutes. Certainly it’s a photographer’s paradise.

Chilling out in St Paul
Returning to St Paul for another week, we enjoyed time again with Callum and Zoë, Hannah and Michael. And overall, the weather in Minnesota was rather better this year than we’ve experienced for the past couple of years. So we enjoyed cooking often on Michael’s new gas BBQ. But before we knew it, our time in MN was over, and we were headed back home via Amsterdam on our usual Delta Airlines schedule.

And although we did experience a couple of storms while in St Paul they were nothing compared to one that hit the city just a day or so after we left. The amount of rainfall must have been incredible, and the groundwater table rose dramatically and found its way through the walls/floor of their basement. Hannah and Michael will have to have some special drainage work done in the New Year before they can complete redecoration of the basement – that’s where we sleep when we visit.

Up in Geordieland
We have been up to Newcastle a couple of times so far this year, in March and at the end of September when Elvis celebrated his third birthday and had a very large party to which about 30 friends from nursery and beyond were invited. Phil came down to Bromsgrove with Felix in June just a few days after we had returned from holiday in the USA. Phil and Andi have been very busy decorating this year, sorting out a front bedroom for the boys with bunk beds, that can also double up as a playroom.

Taking full advantage of our National Trust membership
We took full advantage of the excellent summer, and got to as many National Trust venues as we could, thirteen in all. We have been members of the NT for four full years now, and have thoroughly enjoyed our visits. Mike usually blogs about each visit and posts a range of the photos taken, but he is rather behind in his writing. We have more or less now picked all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of NT properties close to home. So in 2015 it looks like we’ll be making more overnight trips, or even two or three day mini-breaks.

Christmas in July
One of the summer highlights was a day trip to Kew Gardens, a Christmas gift from Hannah and Michael, Phil and Andi. And this was combined with an afternoon cream tea at a hotel in Richmond. We drove to London, something that we faced with a great deal of trepidation, particularly concerning where to park. We had considered the train, but getting to Kew from central London is not so easy, and the hotel for tea was almost three miles from Kew. So driving was the only practical option. Then we stumbled across a website, JustPark (that operates in many countries) through which you can book a parking space on someone’s private drive. The place we found was only five minutes walk from the Kew main gate. What a wonderful day we had, brilliantly sunny and warm, and we walked over eight miles through the Gardens. Afternoon tea and scones (with lashings of clotted cream and strawberry jam) were most welcome afterwards.

On the homefront
Steph continues hard work in the garden – which was looking splendid this past summer, and also enhanced by a new fence we had installed on the two sides that are our responsibility way back in February. She is as active with beading as ever, and wears a different necklace every night at dinner.

Is he really retired?
Mike has also just finished an 18-month consultancy with IRRI to organize the science conference at the 4th International Rice Congress that was held during the last week of October in Bangkok, Thailand.

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From all feedback the conference was a success, with a record number of delegates (>1400), scientific papers delivered (210) and posters (>670) displayed. All in all, the culmination of some broad vision of what could be achieved and meticulous attention to details – since those are what the delegates remember. Inevitably there were a few (minor) glitches but actually everything went ahead much smoother than anticipated, given some of the challenges we had faced during the planning phases. Mike enjoyed his return flights on Emirates – the pleasures of using air miles for an upgrade. During a planning visit to IRRI in August, he had chance for a great night out with friends and colleagues from his former office at Sulyap Gallery Café and Restaurant, a great venue in San Pablo near Los Baños.

L to R: Eric, Yeyet, Vel, Zeny, and Corinta

What does 2015 hold in store?
We have no fixed plans for 2015 – that’s one of the delights of retirement. We do whatever takes our fancy. Mike has nothing in the consultancy pipeline, but you never know when something may come along, although he continues as one of the editors of the journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution and reviews between six and ten manuscripts a year. Mike’s book (with two colleagues) on genetic resources and climate change was published in mid-December last year.

We are actually hoping that 2015 might be the year we get the whole family together – certainly some plans are being mooted but nothing finalized yet.

Anyway, we take this opportunity of wishing everyone

A Very Merry Christmas and Prosperous and Happy New Year 2015