Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Stourhead House and Gardens

As a special Bank Holiday treat, I was released from the office to get some fresh air and exercise at the beautiful Stourhead House and Gardens. The house was built for the Hoare family in the 1720s and stayed with them until 1946 when it was turned over to the National Trust. While parts of the house remain occupied by a descendent of the family, large parts of it are open to the public and remain decorated in Regency style.

Continuing my quest to find interesting bookshops, I was happy to see that the old granary had been converted into a mini bookshop. I particularly liked the fact that there was an honesty box, it's always heartening to know that some people are still trusting!

We learnt all about the Hoare family history on our trip. It's no surprise they could afford such a lavish house, as they own the last remaining family bank in England. You need £500,000 in cash plus several million in assets to even open an account - there's inspiration for our MBA students!

One day I want a library just like this.

The Pope's Cabinet, made for Pope Sixtus V, is the jewel of the Hoares' collection, featuring semi-precious stones, gold-covered figures and 150 compartments to hide all of their treasures in.

There is a selection of letters sent between the family members and you can pretend to be one of them, writing with a quill on the bed of the Italian room.

We walked around the whole lake, following stunningly landscaped gardens. Not even the rain could spoil the afternoon.

You can find more information on Stourhead at

St Fagans - Museum of Welsh Life

On Saturday, I headed back across the border to Cmyru and the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans. Museum may sound a bit staid, but St Fagans is so much fun, we could have happily spent all day there. The site features buildings from different periods of Welsh history, from the Celtic tribes to farmers and miners.

Our first stop was the main farmhouse - we wanted to take a piglet back to the office with us. We then went back several centuries to explore the Celtic yurts.

Traditions are still very much alive at St Fagan's - not only can you observe historical Welsh customs, you can take part and sample the food.

I wish we could have stayed in St Fagans: there was so much to learn, and so little time! And best of all, it's free. It's definitely worth a visit while in Cardiff: you can find all the details at

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

English Language Centre Social Programme: Week 3

So, Week 3 has been and gone - we are whizzing through the summer. I can't believe that it's now less than a month until I leave Bath and begin my PhD adventure. Eee! I feel like I say this every week, but once again we were manic in the office, so there wasn't much time for getting out and about with the students.

Whoever says British immigration regulations are lax clearly hasn't tried to register 200 new international students. Not only do we need to check everyone's visas when they arrive and all of their academic documents to check they 'deserve' to be here; they also need to register with the police, a tortuously long process which includes writing down every school they have ever been to. We also had three Bank Holiday trips to prepare for as well as three at the weekend. 

However, I did have my best night of the Social Programme so far on Thursday. Our official activity was a salsa class, taught my a very creepy man with a terrifying voice. Needless to say, I was happy to get out of there, although I did enjoy watching the dance skills of some of the students. Afterwards, we went to The Salamander, one of Bath's friendliest little independent pubs before heading to Moles for Stereo Types, their indie disco. I had been pestering everyone to go to indie disco all week, as I'm fed up with the conventional club music and to share the music I love with the students. I'm so glad we went as I loved just about every song and so did the students :D

The last remaining revellers at end of the night, with a photobombing member of staff
Then on Friday night we got a real treat - tickets to Bath Rugby vs Cardiff Blues at the Rec. I've really gotten in to rugby later - it's much more fun to watch than football. It was great to show the students a sport that is so typical and popular in our region of England, which many of them had never seen before. The fact that Bath won was the cherry on top!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Bath Folk Festival

With a rare evening away from the SPO, we decided to catch the last of the Bath Folk Festival. The festival is renowned for the diversity of talent it presents and our evening was no exception.

Gypsy Folk Session @ The Royal Oak (Lower Bristol Road)
We started the evening with a laid-back session of gypsy folk, with musicians coming and going. A Russian lady appeared and sang a few of her traditional folk songs. Many instruments were passed around and the gentleman in the middle even plaid the spoons at one point.

Elephant Talk @ Green Park Tavern
That relaxing session helped us to recharge our batteries after a long day in Windsor ready for the main event: world-folk-electro mash-up Elephant Talk. We had been promised a band that made us dance and they did not disappoint - our calf muscles still didn't work several days later! Singer Sarah Joy has an incredibly powerful voice, while Mat Tarling and Jon Maybey fiddled and guitared us into a frenzy. The whole room got involved in mini-Ceilidhs creating an electric atmosphere (although we would have loved a window or two in the room!)

You can listen to their music at

The Bath Folk Festival is now over, sadly, but look out this time next year for more musical joy.

English Language Centre Social Programme: Week 2

Well we're now nearing the end of Week three and I still haven't written up Week 2 yet :s Week 2 was bittersweet as many of the students I had gotten close to left on Friday. A large amount of the week was also spent preparing for the new arrivals - about 200 of them - with endless reams of photocopying, but I still managed to partake in a few interesting activities.

A lot of our time this week was spent in the pub - it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it ;-) On Wednesday night, we took the students out for a quiet drink in town before heading to Opa for Spanish Way (a Spanish pop themed club night). Then on Thursday, we were back again, but this time we had party games (see below). Finally on Sunday, we invited the new arrivals down to the pub with us as a way for everyone to get to know each other. We insist that meeting friends for a chat in the pub is a key part of British culture; it's not that we are all alcoholics, I can't even drink!

Party games
On Thursday night, we all regressed back to infancy with an evening full of the games we used to play at birthday parties when we were five, including Pass the Parcel (a very difficult phrase for non-native speakers to understand), balloon races and Pin the Tail on the Donkey (played with a trunk and an elephant in China, apparently). I nearly scorched my Eeyore by leaving him too close to the disco lights and learnt a valuable lesson in fire safety.

Our Saturday trip this week was to Windsor. The spectacular castle is of course the main attraction, but as I got to visit it last year, this time I had to stay with the students who were not interested in going inside. Instead, we went to Eton, which is incredibly picturesque. I loved how the street is so fragrant because every building has flowers hanging outside. We didn't take a tour of the college, but snooped around whatever was open. I think we were most impressed with the cakes at The Foxy Cake Co.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A Day Out in Wells & Glastonbury

While Tom Hardy has been winning rave reviews for his portrayal of Batman’s nemesis Bane this week, I have been spending time with his nineteenth century namesake, reading The Return of the Native. It is not one of Hardy's most famous novels, but engrossing nonetheless, and full of his usual motifs of country life and beliefs, fate, sexual politics and the questioning of accepted morals and values. Hardy's novels, set in the semi-fictional area of Wessex (comprising Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and parts of the surrounding areas) are some of my favourite indulgence reading. When I have a break from academic reading, there's nothing I enjoy more than a little bucolic drama. Maybe it's because the West Country has been my home for many years now that I love Hardy so much, or maybe it's Hardy that makes me so drawn to the West. Either way, it felt particularly fitting that the day after I finished The Return of the Native we headed off into the Somerset countryside for  one of my favourite day trips, to Wells and Glastonbury.

The day started at Wells, the smallest city in the UK, where we admired the beautiful Cathedral, home to the oldest working clock still in its original setting, which shows not only the time but the phase of the moon. We also visited Vicars Close, where part of Harry Potter was filmed (most of our trips involve some small location of Harry Potter).

Vicar's Close, with the Cathedral in the background
We then hit the market, and tried to sample as much free cheese as possible. Taking the anthropologists' view of culture, cheddar and cider are just as important to West Country culture as arts and architecture, perhaps more so as they are so integral to the identity that the region presents to the rest of the world (or maybe I'm just greedy and love cheese!). I was also very happy to see the Wells town crier busy entertaining the crowds, as I had not seen one in real life before.

Moving on to Glastonbury, we had told the students that it is a wonderfully alternative town and we weren't disappointed. Our welcome to Glastonbury was a thunderous performance from the Pentecostal Drummers, combining the locals' loves of music, paganism and beards.

Following the recommendation from my classmate Rod on my literary tourism post a few months ago, I had to check out The Speaking Tree bookshop.

This being Glastonbury, the shop was of course bursting with books on all kinds of alternative subjects, from drugs and psychedelia to witchcraft and 'the Goddess'.

Fellow student helper Christie in The Speaking Tree
Part of the wicca section
I couldn't resist taking a picture of this giant mural on the High Street either. I recognise the artist, but can't remember who it is. One for my dad's expertise I think! EDIT: As I suspected, Dad recognised the artist as Stik.

The main attraction of our trip to Glastonbury though was of course the Tor. It is a mile's walk up a very steep hill, but worth it for the spectacular views and the feeling of being completely surrounded by countryside. Although Egdon Heath, the setting for The Return of the Native is much further south, near Weymouth, I still felt like Eustacia Vye roaming the countryside so imbued with pagan significance (the Tor was believed to be the entrance to the underworld by the Celts, and this importance lives on today in pagan communities).

While Eustacia hated her rural home and couldn't wait to get out to a 'greater' life in the city (preferably Paris), I loved getting away from civilisation and out into the endless green of the Somerset countryside. If you get a chance, I highly recommend climbing up to the Tor and feeling like you've travelled back to a time when nature still ruled over industry.

English Language Centre Social Programme: Week 1

I've now been working at the Social Programme at the University of Bath's English Language Centre for a week and a half. As the complete lack of posts this week proves, the job has been keeping me very busy. I have actually started writing several posts in this time, but haven't had a chance to finish any of them! I hope to rectify this now, starting with weekly updates of our activities and what aspects of British culture we have been sharing with the students.

This week is a bit of a strange one, though. The weekend was one of the busiest of the summer, with many groups either leaving or arriving. Consequently, much of our time over the last week has been spent preparing for arrivals, loading people onto coaches, settling people in and dealing with any issues along the way, meaning that we have had less time for other activities. In addition, as one of the more experienced people in the office (returning for my second year in the Social Programme) I tend to stay on campus doing admin (I am a bit of a photocopying addict now) while others are out on the trips. So, there are only two activities for this week's round-up (plus a Saturday trip coming up in the next post).

Skittles @ Widcombe Social Club

We describe skittles to our students as a traditional British pass-time, but I imagine it's not the most popular activity these days. The other student helpers and I had certainly never played before this job. It's a shame though as it's actually really fun - like bowling, only more difficult. Part of the fun is certainly the competitive element though - I was the leader of 'Team Katie' and desperately cheering on my team throughout the night. We came second :(

Live Music @ The Bell - Count Bobo and The Bullion
Live music obviously isn't limited to Britain, but going to a local pub for a free gig is certainly something that lots of locals enjoy. The Bell, especially, is a spot well-loved by Bath residents, so our students got to chat to  many people as well as enjoying the ska-jazz fusion of Count Bobo and The Bullion (photographed by fellow student helper Bethany Squire). You can listen to their music here.

We had a great time dancing along to some of the more energetic tunes, and my new Turkish friends (on the ends, with me and a Czech girl) even tried to teach me how to belly-dance. I failed!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

All Change Please

Over the last few days I've been very busy packing, cleaning and unpacking again as I move from Cardiff to Bath. I've had a wonderful year in Cardiff, as this blog will attest, especially thanks to the local institutions like Sherman Cymru and Chapter which welcomed me so warmly. Now, though, it's time for a new adventure.

For the next two months, I will be working at the English Language Centre at the University of Bath. Having completed my degree here, Bath feels like home, so I am very happy to be back, and even more so as I have lucked into a room with spectacular views of the Abbey, spa and surrounding countryside. Part of my job involves introducing international students to British culture, so expect many entries over the next few weeks about our events, from Shakespeare in a field to folk music, as well as the usual rants about what I'm reading or watching. I'll miss Cardiff and it's vibrant cultural scene, but I'm sure Bath will have plenty to keep me busy!