Stargazing Oxford 2014

I’ve really enjoyed Stargazing LIVE on BBC2 this past week. The kids have been watching it too, and although some of it has gone over their heads they were really interested in the programmes. I was therefore quite excited about visiting Stargazing Oxford, a festival of astronomy based activities hosted by the Oxford University Physics Department.

We arrived early afternoon and as it was a lovely sunny day one of our first activities was solar observing. Astronomers had set up a telescope with a special solar filter that allowed us to see the sun safely. Looking through the telescope we could clearly see several sun spots; the kids were particularly impressed!

The lecture theatre had talks throughout the day, covering various aspects of astronomy and planetary science. We attended a presentation about the solar system where one of the scientists talked about the planets and some of the moons orbiting these. This was a perfect introductory level talk, most of the others sounded interesting but were probably more suited to teenagers or adults.

Magnetometer made at Stargazing Oxford
Magnetometer made at Stargazing Oxford

Next stop, some AstroCrafts. These were science based activities, where the kids got to make barometers and a magnetometer. There was also the opportunity to make a comet and to present the weather forecast for Mars. Back on Earth we’ve set the barometers up at home so no need to watch the weather forecast anymore!

Our barometers in action
Our barometers ‘in action’

After cake and coffee at the Science Cafe we looked around the stalls on offer and spoke to the scientists about topics such as meteorites and infrared thermal imaging.We also met a student who was going through the selection process to be one of the participants on a one-way mission to Mars (whenever that may be). The kids were excited to see Chris Lintott who they’d been watching on Stargazing Live earlier in the week.

Trying to lift a meteorite at Stargazing Oxford
Trying to lift a meteorite at Stargazing Oxford

We queued for a while to visit a show in the inflatable planetarium. After taking our shoes off we had to crawl through a darkened tunnel into the planetarium where we listened to a short night sky talk. It was a little hard to hear the presenter as the sides of the planetarium seemed to magnify whispers between people, but the kids enjoyed the novelty.

night

Onto my favourite part of the day, night sky observing. Several telescopes had been set up outside for visitors to look through. These were focused on the Moon and Jupiter. It was fantastic to see Jupiter along with four of its moons, wow! Back when I was a kid I remember going to see Halley’s Comet through a telescope. This memory has stayed with me so I hope my kids remember viewing Jupiter and its moons when they’re older.

Overall we had a great afternoon and evening at the event, helped by clear skies. There was plenty to see and do and even though we spent several hours there we didn’t cover everything. Although a family friendly event there was definitely more of interest to the 8+ age group.

One final point, it was refreshing to see so many female students and scientists, they’ve certainly helped inspire my daughter. I don’t think anyone could persuade her to go to Mars though (thankfully).

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Robin Hood at the Oxford Playhouse review

Each year our run-up to Christmas starts with a visit to the pantomime. I’m not one for watching ex-soap stars on stage so for the last 6 years we’ve trusted our family outing to the Oxford Playhouse production, which this year is Robin Hood.

Robin Hood
Robin Hood
Courtesy of Oxford Playhouse

Robin Hood is written and directed by Peter Duncan whom I was rather excited to see  sitting near us on opening night. Adults of a certain age will remember him from his time as a Blue Peter presenter. Since then he has been Chief Scout, an intrepid family traveller and he now writes and directs the Oxford Playhouse panto. If his kids don’t think he’s a cool dad what hope have we?

Robin Hood tells the story of a group of  Merry Men living in the forest where they rob from the rich to give to the poor. In a modern twist, the Sheriff of Nottingham tries to entice them out of the forest with a “Right to Buy” scheme so that he can capture them. Entwined around all of this is the love story between Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

The Robin Hood cast
The Robin Hood cast
Credit: Nick Holmes

Of course, this being a pantomime it also incorporates songs, dance, terrible jokes, a man dressed as a woman and a woman dressed as a man. The audience have a job too, to hiss and boo at the baddies, shout ‘it’s behind you’ and ‘oh no it isn’t, sing along to the songs and laugh at jokes.

As we visited on opening night the tickets were cheaper although this did mean the performance wasn’t quite as polished as it will be later in the season. A couple of things didn’t quite gel for me in the first half but the second half was fantastic.

Sergei sneaked in without a ticket!
Sergei sneaked in without a ticket!

The first half included a water fight, a David Bowie dance scene and plenty of sweets.  We met Dame Teresa Tuck (Daniel Stockton), who was a fun and larger than life character but I felt some of her jokes and innuendo fell a little flat early on. Possibly the audience weren’t sufficiently warmed up or perhaps they were just the wrong jokes?

The second half was brilliant and encompassed all that I’ve come to expect of the Oxford Playhouse panto. From its opening Mumford & Sons number I enjoyed every second. There were plenty of toe-tapping songs in the second half which really pepped things up, along with tight rope walking and a flying Robin. They’d managed to incorporate this years big hits, including Daft Punk and that blooming fox song which my kids keep on singing, along with tunes that the older audience members know and love.

So what were the highlights?

My favourite character was the outstanding Sheriff of Nottingham (Andrew Pepper). He played to the audience, acknowledging our boos and responding with witty comments. He was also a dab hand at playing the spoons! The Sheriff had a bad boy act going with Guy of Gisbourne (Kris Manuel) which worked very well, particularly the Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ routine.

Guy of Gisbourne and Sheriff of Nottingham
Guy of Gisbourne and Sheriff of Nottingham
Credit Nick Holmes

The costumes were excellent, in particular the tree dancers. The dancers were dressed in brown and green body suits, with brown troll-like wigs and gloves with leaves on. The tree was the focus of the traditional ‘it’s behind you’ scene which in previous years has involved skeletons. The change this year was definitely for the better.

I enjoyed the musical numbers, with both Robin Hood (Jos Vantyler) and Maid Marian (Leonie Spilsbury) having great singing voices. The musical accompaniment was professional as always, although my seat was very close to the speakers which meant it was slightly over-powering at times.

The audience singalong, led by Big John (Christopher Barlow) and Willow Scarlett (Anna Wheatley), worked really well. The adults sang along to the traditional ‘Robin Hood Robin Hood’ tune whilst the kids had a Robin rap. Of course, the adults were the best but my kids would probably dispute that!

The evening finished with the obligatory wedding and happy ever after ending. Heading back to the car park, I was tinged with sadness that our panto outing was over for another year, but at least we still have Christmas to look forward to.

Kids reviews:

The panto was very funny. The funniest person in it was Willow because of her puppet voices, although the puppet show was a bit random. I enjoyed it when Robin came flying in on his rope. I also liked the tree dancers as they were very spooky. (Daughter, age 11).

I liked the Sheriff because he made us say boo and hiss. I didn’t like it when they threw the sweets out because I didn’t get any. Robin’s costume was best because it was green and he had a bow and arrow. (Son, age 8).

More info:

  • Robin Hood runs at the Oxford Playhouse until 12 January 2014. Tickets are still available for many of the shows, and range from £14-£24.50. Further details can be found on the Oxford Playhouse website.

This review is completely independent of the Oxford Playhouse, and all views expressed are those of my family.

Prescott Hill speed climb, Gloucester

A couple of weekends ago we went to Prescott Hill speed climb, a racing event where cars compete against the clock to be the fastest to the top of a 200ft hill.  Prescott Hill is, according to their website, a prestigious motor racing venue and also home of the Bugatti owners club.

Readers who know me may think this a rather strange choice for a day out as I’m really not into cars. I don’t mind what I drive as long as it’s safe, economical and gets me where I want to go.

However, I have a soft spot for the big old American cars I used to watch in Dukes of Hazard and The A-team back in the 1980s. When I saw a half price Groupon offer for the autumn classic event, showcasing American cars I decided a visit would be fun.

£26000 for the red car!
£26000 for the red car!

Upon arrival we had an interesting moment trying to park the car on a slippy and bumpy hill. I was very glad we’d visited on a sunny day as the prospect of trying to get off the hill in muddy conditions was not appealing.

The main racing took place in the afternoon, so we used the morning to watch practise runs, wander around the cars and see some of the other entertainment on offer.

Haurel and Lardy
Haurel and Lardy

These Laurel and Hardy impersonators put on a silent show and mingled with the crowds, happily posing for photographs. There was also musical entertainment with a band playing 1950s American jukebox classics.

One of the non-racing attractions I enjoyed most was the Demon Drone Wall of Death motorcycle stunt show. After queuing for a while we were ushered up stairs into the wooden motordrome, overlooking the wall of death. The performers rode 1920s Indian motorcycles whilst performing various tricks such as riding side saddle, arms out and two to a bike. Each time the bike went round, the wooden platforms we were standing on wobbled a little, which scared my son as he thought it was going to collapse. Every other kid appeared engrossed by the show though!

Demon Drone Wall of Death
Demon Drone Wall of Death

If you’ve got eagle eyes you may recognise the man standing in the middle of the above photograph.  It’s Philip Serrell, an auctioneer and presenter of various TV programmes about antiques, who was filming during our visit. I’ve not got a clue about antiques though so had never heard of him until I looked him up after the event.

It was  tricky getting a photograph of the riders in action. The picture quality below isn’t great, but it gives you an idea as to the rather impressive stunts.

Demon Drone Wall of Death
Demon Drone Wall of Death

Of course, the main attraction was the cars.  The great thing about Prescott is the opportunity to wander around them freely, take photos and maybe speak to the owners. There are no barriers or restrictions which was refreshing, although you do need to keep a close eye on your kids in amongst all the cars.

View from Wall of Death down to start of calvacade
View from Wall of Death down to start of calvacade

After the practise runs finished it was time for the calvacade. This appeared to be a rather random procession of cars and motorbikes along the race route. It was our first chance to see some of the American classics and my son was so excited he took a blurry photograph of every car taking part.

The calvacade
The calvacade

After lunch, my daughter and I enjoyed looking around the cars on show. There were plenty to view with Chevrolets, Mustangs and big old Cadillacs on display. I was a little disappointed that more of the American cars weren’t racing, but that was probably just my expectation.

American classic
American classic

The  racing started at 2pm. There were a variety of different classes throughout the afternoon with Morgans, Triumphs, pre-war Aston Martins and Bugattis being some of those taking part.

As to be expected from the venue the course was well maintained, almost picturesque in appearance (never thought I’d say that about a motor racing track).  Spectators were able to stand next to much the track, which wound up the hill through woodland.  The course was quite short (1127 yards) with a hairpin bend and sharp corners to negotiate. Most drivers took about 50 seconds to complete it.

Morgan on the hill climb
Morgan on the hill climb

How would I describe the racing? Fast, exciting, noisy and great fun! Have a look at this short clip of a couple of the cars:

Overall we had a great day out, and I’d certainly visit again. I’d also be happy to recommend it to those who aren’t particularly interested in cars, as I really enjoyed myself.

More info:

  • Prescott Hill run a number of events throughout the year, further details can be found on their website.
  • The site is partially accessible, with dedicated parking and disabled toilets available. The spectators area around the race track itself would be difficult to access as there are steps and sloping areas to negotiate.
  • There are burger and chips type catering vans as well as a club house which provides meals. The English breakfast looked to be a popular option with the drivers, and cost around £7. A lot of people had taken picnics to eat on the hill overlooking the race track, and this would be my choice next time round as there’s not much available for vegetarians apart from chips.

Costs

  • We paid £9 per adult for our tickets via a special offer on Groupon. The standard price is £18 per adult, but having looked back through Trip Advisor it looks like there are usually Groupon deals for most of the events.
  • If you’d like to become a member of the owners club a new Bugatti Veyron costs a cool $1.6 million! Although I don’t think you actually need to be an owner to join.

Uptonogood 2013

For our review of the 2014 event read here. Otherwise read on to find out what we thought of the 2013 one.

I’m not a fan of heavy rain. After running Reading Half Marathon in atrocious conditions earlier this year I’m firmly of the opinion that my enjoyment of outdoor activities is weather dependent.

When the other half decided to enter a local mountain biking event, Uptonogood, I held off making a decision until the day beforehand so I could check the weather forecast first. Despite very windy conditions there was no rain predicted so I signed up too.

The event was family friendly, with 5 and 12 mile off-road rides alongside 25 and 45 mile routes for adults.  Eldest daughter and other half entered the 12 mile ride with a mid-morning start time. My son had other activities early on so we opted for the 5 mile ride starting at 1.30pm

Fast forward to the morning of the event and the Met Office had sneakily updated their forecast to one showing an 80% chance of heavy rain, hail and thunder at 1pm. Aargh!

On the way to Uptonogood
On the way to Uptonogood

My son and I left at noon to cycle to Upton, where the event was being held. Despite setting off in sunshine there were some ominous clouds in the direction we were heading, and I was glad we’d brought waterproofs.  We arrived in time for a BBQ lunch and homemade cakes, and met up with the other half of the family who’d just finished the 12 miler.

Burger before the start
BBQ lunch

The rain started a few minutes before we set off. It was pretty light to begin with, but soon progressed to a torrential downpour.

Ready for the start
Start of the 5 mile family ride at Uptonogood

The first part of the ride took us out of the village towards the Ridgeway.  After a short road stretch, we soon headed upwards onto the Downs.  I know the area well, and it’s a lovely cycle ride, but the downpour did spoil things a little!  We tried hiding under trees for a few minutes, in the hope that it would pass over, but we’d have been waiting quite a while.

The route was well signposted, and on good tracks.  A short section through a field was incredibly slippy, resulting in a few of the kids parting from their bicycles.  The rain was unrelenting, and all of the riders were soaked through with mud streaks up our backs; we looked like proper mountain bikers!

Still smiling, despite the rain
Still smiling, despite the rain

The last part of the ride was on tarmac, albeit most of this had disappeared under streams.  We cycled through deep puddles as we were already so wet it didn’t seem like it would make a difference.

As we rode down the track back into Upton the rain started to ease and by the time we finished blue sky and sun had reappeared. Still, getting off our bikes was a very uncomfortable experience as we were soaked to the skin and had squelchy shoes. Despite the weather, we had a fun time.  I’d certainly enter again, hopefully on a longer dry ride next year!

More info: http://www.uptonogood.org.uk