On the ecclesiastical trail in Shropshire . . .

In August last year, we had a great day out visiting Ironbridge and Wenlock Priory in Shropshire, between Telford and Shrewsbury. We intended also to visit Buildwas Abbey on the banks of the River Severn, north of Much Wenlock during the same trip. But I hadn’t checked my English Heritage handbook carefully, and we found the entrance gate to the abbey securely padlocked.

Not so yesterday, and Buildwas Abbey was the focus of our second ecclesiastical foray into Shropshire, a round trip from home of exactly 86 miles.

But, as on other days out, we always look for other National Trust and English Heritage properties close by to really make a day of it. On this occasion, it was Langley Chapel, about five miles west of Much Wenlock (map) over the other side of Wenlock Edge, and perhaps one of the most rural locations I have visited in a long while. There were minor roads, very narrow, edged by tall hedges, and just wide enough for one vehicle. I was commenting to Steph that my father would have said on such an occasion – just to encourage my Mum: ‘I hope we don’t meet a double-decker bus coming the other way!‘ Well, we did. Almost. I had to slow for a right angle bend, and just ahead of us was a large truck approaching down the lane, with several vehicles following slowly behind.

Rural and isolated it might have been. But what a glorious spot, with just the sounds of the lambs bleating in the meadows, and the wind rustling through the young wheat crop.

20160527 001 Langley ChapelOur first stop was Langley Chapel, an early 17th century building with its original roof dating from 1601. The chapel has no known dedication, and has not been used for services since the end of the 19th century. It was not altered during the 18th and 19th centuries (as happened in many other churches and chapels). It still retains the original Jacobean furnishings and fittings typical of a Puritan place of worship, such as box pews, a reading desk, and communion table, not an altar. the slightly raised chancel is paved with re-used medieval tiles.

Read more about the chapel and its origins below. Just click to view a larger image.

20160527 011 Langley Chapel

Buildwas Abbey
Founded in 1135 by Richard de Clinton, Bishop of Coventry, Buildwas Abbey was originally a Savignac monastery that eventually merged with the Cistercians. Situated on the Welsh borders, it suffered frequently in the civil turmoil and was often raided by Welsh princes. It was closed in 1536 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.

We were the only visitors (as at Langley Chapel). It was a haven of peace, and sitting there in the sun, taking in the beauty of the ruins, and some the fine dressed stone that can still be seen, many thoughts raced through my mind about the people and events that those noble ruins must have seen.

A particular fine feature is the Chapter House, with its columns and beautiful vaulted ceiling, and medieval tiles paving the central part of the floor.

20160527 078 Buildwas Abbey

The Chapter House.

These monks certainly knew how to choose a location to build their communities.

Three sheets to the wind . . .

Three sheets to the wind?¹ Well, hardly, but maybe well on the way after all. This was the conclusion by an old friend and colleague from IRRI, Gene Hettel, when I posted the photo below on Facebook during a short trip (Wednesday to Friday) to Montpellier in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of the south of France last week.

Three sheets to the wind?

I travelled to Montpellier with another old friend and colleague, Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (we were graduate students together at The University of Birmingham in the early 70s, colleagues there during the 80s, and research collaborators during the 90s after I joined IRRI).

Our trip took us via Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Not my favorite, but as we only had hand luggage we didn’t have to face that perennial CDG problem: lost luggage. But the walking distance between terminals was certainly a challenge for me, and my ankle and lower leg were quite swollen and painful by the time we arrived to Montpellier. I did put my walking stick to good use, however, and was able to have us boarded on each of the four flights before all other passengers. This brought another advantage: first occupancy of of the ‘allocated’ overhead luggage bins. All flights were full, and everyone had hand luggage.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, in the early evening of Wednesday, we set off for the city center by tram, to the Place de la Comédie on the Ligne 1 route (Mosson-Odysseum) from Place de l’Europe.

There were plenty of restaurants around the square, and we finally chose one with tables set up under an awning. That didn’t work out as intended. The waiter wanted to seat us near others who were smoking, and I just couldn’t face being two feet from someone who would be polluting me with cigarette smoke all through my meal. However, all seating inside the restaurant building was non-smoking, and that’s where we ended up. A few minutes later the heavens burst and there was quite a downpour.

But were we ‘three sheets to the wind’, as Gene cheekily described us? Well, we were certainly merry after a couple of beers (and a couple of small ones earlier in the hotel bar), a nice bottle of red Languedoc, followed by a couple of cognacs each. Brian looks particularly surprised because I dropped my walking stick and it hit the ground with a clatter just as I took that selfie.

Thursday was a glorious hot day—but we were in meetings all day (in connection with the program evaluation I’m leading, and for which we travelled to Bonn recently). At around 5:30 pm we were all done, so set off into the city center again, joined by Professor Wayne Powell, Chief Scientist of the CGIAR (until the end of June), and an old friend from Birmingham graduate student days. Wayne is Welsh, as is Brian, and both are passionate rugby fans (of Wales of course!). Anyway, Wayne took us to one of his favorite watering holes for a glass or three of wine, on a little tree-lined plaza near where he has an apartment, and about 400 m west of the Place de la Comédie. The hostelry was owned by twins who Wayne had given the nickname Les Misérables—and they were!

Afterwards, he pointed us in the direction of a favorite restaurant close by (he and his wife couldn’t join us as they had friends just arrived in Montpellier), and we enjoyed a delightful fish supper before heading back to the Place de la Comédie through a maze of narrow streets, to take the tram back to our hotel.

At the CGIAR Consortium office, where we held our meetings last Thursday, I bumped into an old friend from IRRI: Lori Dagdag. Lori used to be a senior manager in the IRRI finance department, but a decade ago or more she moved to Washington, DC to work as Finance Officer in the CGIAR Fund Office located in the World Bank. What a lovely surprise. I haven’t seen her since just before I retired in 2010.

Lori and yours truly.


¹ Three sheets to the wind – drunk!

The innate hostility of inanimate things

Friday 13 May. It was not a good day. In fact, it went downhill about mid-morning, and stayed that way for the rest of the day. By the end of the afternoon I was climbing up the wall in frustration.

Having posted a comment on Facebook this morning about yesterday’s events, one of my old friends, Malcolm, from Southampton days replied: Sometimes when computers display what someone once called the innate hostility of inanimate things, I truly doubt whether I really am a rational being!

Yes, yesterday’s angst was caused by a Brother printer that, all of a sudden, decided that it no longer wished to cooperate with me. I bought this particular all-in-one printer (the DCP-J315W model, now discontinued by the manufacturer I believe) in October 2011. It prints, scans, and copies (or did).


It has given me good service, and I don’t have much to say against it. That is, until yesterday. But I guess it’s not just this particular printer, but Brother in general. I should add that I fitted a continuous ink supply system that has also provided excellent service, and my printing costs have been a fraction of what I would have had to pay using disposable cartridges (the cost of printer ink is a scandal; but that’s for another day).


Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was busy printing a couple of documents in preparation for a short visit to Montpellier in the south of France next Wednesday. This has to do with the program evaluation I’m leading of the genebanks managed by 11 of the CGIAR centers. There was a paper jam, and everything came to a halt. I have to admit that getting into the back of the printer is not easy as I have to rotate it on the shelf and hope I don’t disturb any of the ink supply connections.

The jammed paper was removed intact, and I set the printer on its way again. But then I noticed that many lines were failing to print. Time to use the cleaning maintenance procedure that is programmed in the printer. After a first pass, I was not satisfied with the resulting test pattern, so decided to complete a second clean.

And that’s when the printer seized up and I saw this error message on the LCD screen.


Unable to Print4F? Not very helpful! Whatever did that mean? And it was no good looking in the User’s Guide, nor in any Brother manual online.

However, there were many sources of information online, some helpful, others entirely misleading, with ‘solutions’ to the problem. It seems that during the cleaning process extra ink is pumped through the printer heads, and this accumulates in a sort of waste tray or sponge. By using a maintenance menu that involves pressing a selection of buttons on the printer in a specific order and number of times as the printer powers up (instructions that are nowhere to be found in any Brother literature) it’s possible to purge the system and reset it to zero, ‘fooling’ the printer that there’s no excess ink problem. That should have worked, and in more than 95% of instances apparently it’s sufficient to get the printer operating again. Alas, not for me. It seems that there is either a real problem with the printer head or the waste sponge needs replacing, by a professional, neither of which will come cheap. Probably almost as much as the cost of a new printer.

So this morning, I bit the bullet and have ordered a new printer that comes with refillable ink tanks: the Epson ET-2500.

Epson Expression ET-2500 Eco Tank Printer

Not cheap, but in the long run I hope it will meet all my needs. The reviews I saw were promising. Having splashed out on a new notebook computer earlier in the week (my old Acer Aspire ONE has the Windows XP operating system and I decided that I needed an up-to-date Windows 10 machine to be able to work more effectively during this program evaluation) I hadn’t anticipated yet another computer-related expense so soon. This printer won’t be delivered until after I’ve left for Montpellier. So setting it up is a ‘pleasure’ deferred until next Saturday.

Four seasons in one day . . . and white asparagus

I’ve just returned from a week-long trip to Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. And on two of the days, our meetings were held in the former Bundestag (the German parliament building) in United Nations Plaza, just south of the city center, and close to the south/ west bank of the mighty River Rhine. It’s now home to the Crop Trust.


The River Rhine, looking southeast from the Kennedy Bridge (Kennedybrücke).

CGIARI am leading the evaluation of an international genebanks program, part of the portfolio of the CGIAR (now the CGIAR Consortium). The evaluation has been commissioned by the Independent Evaluation Arrangement (IEA, an independent unit that supports the CGIAR Consortium) whose offices are hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. Regular readers of my blog will know that for almost nine years from 1973 and 19 years from 1991, I worked for two international agricultural research centers, CIP and IRRI respectively. This evaluation of the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (also known as the Genebanks CRP) focuses on 11 (of 15) CGIAR centers with genebanks.

Joining me in Bonn were two other team members: Dr Marisé Borja (from Spain) and Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (from the UK). Our meeting was managed by IEA staff member Ms Jenin Assaf. Dr Sirkka Immonen, the IEA Senior Evaluation Officer was unable to travel at the last moment, but we did ‘meet’ with her online at various times during the four days of our meetings.

20160428 001

On our way to dinner last Thursday evening. L to R: Jenin Assaf, Marisé Borja, Brian Ford-Lloyd, and yours truly.

Brian and I traveled together from Birmingham, flying from BHX to Frankfurt, and catching the fast train from there to Siegburg/Bonn, a 20 minute taxi ride into the center of the city. The weather on arrival in Frankfurt was quite bright and sunny. By the time we reached Bonn it was raining very heavily indeed. In fact over the course of the next few days we experienced everything that a northern European Spring can throw at you (as in the Crowded House song, Four Seasons in One Day).

Now you can see from the photo above, I’m still using a walking stick¹, and expect to do so for several months more. While walking is definitely becoming easier, my lower leg and ankle do swell up quite badly by the end of the day. I therefore decided to wear ‘flight socks’ for travel. Even so, I had not anticipated the long walk we’d have in Frankfurt Airport. We arrived to a C pier, and it must have been at least a mile by the time we were on the platform waiting for our intercity express (ICE) to Bonn. Now that 40 minute journey was interesting, reaching over 300 kph on several occasions!

We stayed at the Stern Hotel in the central market square in Bonn, which is dominated at the northern end by the Bundesstadt Bonn – Altes Rathaus, the city’s municipal headquarters (it’s the building at the far end of the square in the image below).


On the first night, last Monday, we met with an old friend and colleague, Dr Marlene Diekmann, and her husband Jürgen. Marlene works for the German development aid agency, GIZ, and was one of my main contacts whenever I had to visit Germany while working for IRRI. Jürgen was the Experiment Station manager for ICARDA based in Aleppo for many years before the Syrian civil war forced the closure of the center there and evacuation of personnel. South of Bonn is the Ahr Valley, a small red wine growing area where Marlene and I have walked through the vineyards in all weathers. It’s amazing how the vines are cultivated on the steep slopes of the valley.

Arriving at the end of April, and with the weather so unpredictable, and unseasonably cold, we missed the cherry blossom festival in Bonn a week earlier. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any cherry blossom anywhere in the city.

Cherry blossom in the streets of Bonn, mid-April 2016. (Photo courtesy of Luigi Guarino).

But there was another delight – culinary – that we did experience, having arrived just as Spargelzeit or ‘asparagus time’ began.

With so many food options to choose from in Bonn, Marlene suggested that we should try the Gaststätte Em Höttche, a traditional German restaurant right next door to the Stern Hotel. That was fine by me as I didn’t fancy a long walk in any case. The food was good (as was the weissbier or wheat beer), and we ate there the following night as well.

And since it was Spargelzeit, it wasn’t just any old asparagus. But white asparagus! Big, white, succulent spears of heaven. Just click on the image below for a more detailed explanation. Enjoyed on their own with a butter sauce, or with ham, schnitzel or fish (halibut was my particular favorite), white asparagus is offered on most menus from the end of April to June. The Germans just go crazy for it.

white asparagus

On the final evening, we had dinner with a number of colleagues from the Crop Trust, at the Restaurant Oliveto in Adenauerallee, less than half a kilometer from the hotel, on the bank of the Rhine.

After a wrap-up meeting on the Friday morning, Brian and I returned to Frankfurt by train, and caught the late afternoon Lufthansa flight back to BHX. Where the weather was equally unpredictable – and cold!

As far as the program evaluation is concerned, the hard work is just beginning, with genebank site visits planned (but not yet confirmed) to Peru (CIP), Colombia (CIAT), and Mexico (CIMMYT) in July/August, to Ethiopia (ILRI) and Kenya (ICRAF) in October, as well as the CGIAR Consortium Office in Montpellier before the end of May, and FAO in Rome by mid-June. We’ll be back in Rome to draft our report in mid-November. Before that, there will be lots of documents to review, and interviews over Skype. No peace for the wicked!

¹ The walking stick came in handy on the return journey. Waiting in line at Frankfurt Airport to board our flight to Birmingham, one of the Lufthansa ground staff pulled me and Brian out of the queue and took us first through the boarding gate, even offered me a seat until the door to the air-bridge was opened. And we boarded the plane first.