Day Trip to Bath

Admittedly, I'm a little late with this post, as I went to Bath at the end of June.

With three friends I had booked on a coach day trip through a local firm. We had a pretty civilised departure at 9am (unlike a trip we have booked to go to a craft show in London, when our departure time is around 7am). It was at the start of our recent very hot spell and I was concerned about that, but the coach had very good air-conditioning, so spending time on there was preferable to sweltering elsewhere.

Traffic was light and we arrived in Bath a little early, which was great. I was armed with sunscreen, hat and layers of linen clothing. We located the tourist information centre, after a slight detour into the Radley shop, as there was a sale on. The Radley fans bought nothing, whereas I bought a canvas tote and a purse.

We bought a ticket for the tourist open-top bus tours. They aren't cheap, but when time is limited and it's very hot, the top deck of a bus has a breeze and it's a great way to see the city. We did the city tour first, followed by one which went round the outskirts. Plenty of opportunity for photographs, although that wasn't always easy when the bus was moving. I took my Panasonic TZ70 small camera, but it took some decent pics.

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There was an exhibition in Bath, called Minerva Owls, wherein various owl sculptures were dotted around the city. We saw a few of them, but, again, time was limited.

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Between the bus tours, we found time for the somewhat obligatory shots of Poultney Bridge, although a boat that seemed to have got stuck below the weir would not get out of shot. I'm sure it wasn't deliberate…

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We found a lovely little café, the Courtyard Café, near Sally Lunn's, where we stopped for some lunch. As none of us were driving, we were all able to have a couple of glasses of wine, whih was most pleasant.

I didn't get time to go into the abbey, but walked round the outside. Next time…

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All too soon it was time to return to the coach and make our way home. For £22 it was a bargain, compared with being faced with driving, parking, driving home again - and no wine!

Bath has some lovely buildings - and superb chimneys.

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July books

Flesh and Blood

by Bill Kitson

Started 28 June 2018
Finished 10 July 2018

Possibly the best of the Eden House Mysteries, but that may simply be because I like the subject matter. An excellent tale and a very pleasant read. I find the main characters credible and good company. Again set in Yorkshire, this sees Adam and his fiancée, Eve, get caught up in another murder mystery which has plenty of twists.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Mediaeval England

by Ian Mortimer
Narrated by Jonathan Keeble

Started 5 July 2018
Finished 9 July 2018

These books go into some detail about the minutiae of daily life in the relevant period. Sometimes a little dry, but generally interesting and they give a good picture of "real life" - as best the historians can reconstruct. And yes, the title uses "medieval", but I prefer the other spelling.

The Ship of Brides

by Jojo Moyes
Narrated by Nicolette McKenzie

Started 9 July 2018
Finished 13 July 2018

I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook, absolutely loved it. It tells the tale of some Australian war brides who were taken to England, and their husbands, on an elderly aircraft carrier. By the end of the story I had forgotten how it started, so engaged with the lives of the "brides" I had become. This is the first book by Jojo Moyes that I have read/listened to and now she's on my list. The characters were very well drawn, with their faults and foibles, and the narration was superb, really bringing the characters to life and drawing the listener in to the story. I am already missing the people I got to know.

The Venetian Game

by Philip Gwynne Jones

Started 10 July 2018
Finished 15 July 2018

I enjoyed this, although it felt a little inconsequential. I wasn't that engaged with the thriller plot, but I enjoyed the main characters. I will look at the next in the series, I expect. Venice played a starring role in the book, and, although I have only visited it once, it was interesting to see it through the eyes of a resident.

A Tangled Mercy

by Joy Jordan-Lake

Started 15 July 2018
Finished 27 July 2018.

This novel is amazing. I really wasn't sure what to expect and had no idea that it was based on real events. It covers two periods of history: 1822, when, in Charleston there was a slave revolt; and 2015, when a doctoral student relocates to Charleston to investigate the history of the revolt. The investigation was also prompted by some documents her late mother had left. During the course of the novel the two stories come together and develop. I have to say I didn't anticipate the final explanation almost until it arrived. Looking back there were clues but the mystery was perfectly paced and satisfyingly resolved. Not an easy subject and some fairly harrowing chapters, but overall I enjoyed reading it and I learnt a lot. Ten days later, I'm still thinking about some of the issues raised.

The Despatcher

by John Scalzi
Narrated by Zachary Quinto

Started 16 July 2018
Finished 18 July 2018

Only a short audiobook - a couple of hours. Thoroughly enjoyed it though. Narration was excellent, but then Zachary Quinto has a very pleasant speaking voice. Thought-provoking storyline and I hope there are more stories around this subject to come. I have some Scalzi in my Kindle queue, so this was a nice introduction to his writing.

Dracula

by Bram Stoker
Narrated by Alan Cumming, Tim Curry and others

I have read Dracula before and I was surprised to find I enjoyed it. It made a change to read the original, having watched a load of Dracula films over the years (and my favourite is still "The Fearless Vampire Killers", although it was called "Dance of the Vampires" when I first saw it!). It's been a while since I read it, so I thought an audiobook version with a cast would be fun. It was, I enjoyed listening to it as much as I did reading it. I had hoped for a bit more of Tim Curry, but Alan Cumming and Simon Vance did a grand job. Yes, it's stylised, but that's just how the book is. This version is definitely worth a listen though.

Started 19 July 2018
Finished 22 July 2018

The Singularity Trap.

by Dennis E Taylor
Narrated by Ray Porter.

Started 29 July 2018
Finished 31 July 2018

I loved the Bobiverse Trilogy from this author, so was more than happy to give this one a go. It wasn't as entertaining as the Bob books, but still had some laugh out loud moments. To start with, I was unsure where the story would be going; it starts with the tale of a guy who signs on to an asteroid mining ship, and somehow gets infected when a strange artefact is discovered. Gradually he is turned into metal. I did wonder if this was the whole story, and what else could possibly fill the rest of the book. I needn't have worried, as I pretty soon became engrossed. The concept isn't as out-there as in the Bob books, although it certainly is thought-provoking, revealing some of the less laudable aspects of human-kind. Dennis E Taylor is definitely on my must-read list and Ray Porter is firmly on my listen-to list. He brings these books to life really well.

In between audiobooks and text books, I have been listening to some of the Audible free series: this month it has been "Pitch" and "Real Crime". The former is about music and its influence on people, the latter is a British podcast series about some of the most notable crimes in recent times. I remembered most of them, but they were still interesting and well presented.

I have also been working my way through my digital copy of the sci-fi magazine "Analog".

June Books

The Outcasts of Time

By Ian Mortimer
Narrated by Barnaby Edwards

Started 1 June 2018.
Finished 5 June 2018

I picked up this audiobook on offer, so figured it wasn't exactly expensive! I'd seen the book elsewhere and had been tempted to read it - I think it may have been one of the Kindle First selections one month, when I went for a different one. A definite change of pace and subject from Earthcore, which was quite welcome!
I enjoyed the book and liked the narration very much. That said, it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Interesting to see descriptions of the centuries as though through the eyes of someone from the past, and the supporting characters were often entertaining, but really it was a catalogue of social and domestic changes that had taken place. Not exactly a thrilling plot-line, rather gently interesting.

The Dark Web

By Geoff White & Bernard Achampong
Narrated by Geoff White

Started 5 June 2018
Finished 6 June 2018

Not so much an audiobook, this is an Audible presentation/documentary in 10 short chapters. Also, it's free to subscribers. I found it sufficiently interesting to finish the episodes, although it probably didn't impart much in the way of new information. It did, however, flesh out some of the things I already knew, so definitely worth listening to.

West Cork

Started 7 June 2018
Finished 9 June 2018

This is another Audible freebie, about a murder that took place in 1996 in western Ireland. As it happens, the day I started it, I had a call from my brother and I happened to mention that I was listening to this, knowing that he and his family were regular visitors to the area, as his wife's family come from round there. Turns out he was aware of the story and is very familiar with a lot of the places. He's seen the house where the victim lived. I'm only a few episodes in, but the pace is lovely, the story-telling is gently understated - as much as telling the tale of a murder can be. I don't believe the murder has been solved, so I'm interested to see the journey this takes me on. Intruiging - and an unfinished tale, as the main (only) suspect has been formally accused of murder in France, although he is unlikely to be extradited. Do I believe he is guilty? No, but I'm not convinced of his innocence, either. Worth listening to.

The Memory of Trees

by F G Cottam
Narrated by David Rintoul

Started 10 June 2018
Finished 11 June 2018

I don't think this was as scary as I had expected it to be, although it was nicely atmospheric. A very rich bloke hires a tree expert to reforest his land. All good, until strange things start happening. It had its tense moments and overall I enjoyed it. David Rintoul as the narrator helped; always good and a voice I love.

A Little History of Philosophy

by Nigel Warburton
Narrated by Kris Dyer

Started 11 June 2018
Finished 13 June 2018

This was interesting and I know more about philosophy than I did before starting it. It still doesn't exactly excite me, although some of the concepts and arguments were interesting. The book was well read and clearly written, but about as much philosophy as I ever want to deal with.

Churchill

by Roy Jenkins
Narrated by Robert Whitfield (Simon Vance)

Started 14 June 2018
Finished 25 June 2018

Fascinating, although rather peppered with high-brow language, which, for me, detracted from the story. I have the paperback copy of this book, but the print is a bit small and I found it easier to listen to than to read.

The Haunted Lady (Eden House 5)

by Bill Kitson

Started 6 June 2018
Finished 18 June 2018

I like this series of books; they are well written and have entertaining main characters. Somehow I managed to read the fifth book before the fourth, but it doesn't really matter.

The Thinnest Air

By Minka Kent

Started 18 June 2018
Finished 28 June 2018

This was a Kindle First freebie and I enjoyed it. A woman goes missing and her sister starts to dig into her life. Of course, all is not what it appeared to be. No masterpiece, but an entertaining read which did keep me guessing for a while.

Sleeper's Castle

By Barbara Erskine
Narrated by Charlotte Strevens

Started 26 June 2018
Finished 30 June 2018

I usually enjoy Barbara Erskine books and this was no exception. Not my favourite (which is "Lady of Hay"), but it was well read and an enjoyable audiobook.

It's the weekend!

It seems to have been a very long and arduous week, which is par for the course of late. I made a visit to one of our offices midweek, which I enjoyed. It was worth my time, although the journey there and back, plus being unaccustomed to the office setting, has left me really rather tired. I used to travel longer than this every weekday - at a time when I was quite unwell. I couldn't do it now - clearly I am "getting older" as my team like to remind me. I have had two rehearsals this week, which have added to my fatigue, particularly when I've had to dash out of the door having only just closed the laptop for the night.

Tomorrow is the choral society's summer concert and I'm a little apprehensive. I feel under-prepared and not confident in some of the pieces. Certainly in the major work we are doing; excerpts from Vivaldi's Gloria. Such is the lot of an accompanist. This is a piano reduction of the orchestral score and, as is the way with Baroque music, there's a lot of twiddly bits and no little amount of contrapuntal writing. I love it, but my fingers don't. I can play it, but I have struggled to become familiar enough with my part to be able to forget about it and concentrate on the choir and the conductor. On occasion I've almost suffered from note-blindness, where I've looked at the music and it's meant nothing to me. Slightly disconcerting, but I reckon it's a result of tiredness rather than anything else. Forgetting how to read music could be a tad awkward for someone who relies heavily on her sight-reading skills! I'm sure we'll get through it; the adrenaline will kick in and we'll rise to the occasion. As a reward, the concert ends with one of my absolute favourite pieces: Bridge over Troubled Water. It's a very moving way to end and has been well-received before.

It's the society's 30th anniversary this year, so this concert is going to be fairly light-hearted and very much a celebration of 30 years of singing and raising money for charity. Since I've been a member, the concerts we give have raised over £1000 a year for local charities. It feels good to be able to give back to the community. I spent a long time studying music and, as I didn't become a professional, it's very rewarding to be using my (somewhat diminished) skills at last. I love accompanying people, so I've found my niche. Some members have been with the choir for the full 30 years, which is impressive. I am lucky enough to have moved to a small rural town which has a very strong community and a flourishing music scene. Our concerts are well supported by the community. I was astounded a couple of years ago when we received a standing ovation for an excerpt we did from Handel's Messiah. Granted, I think we did a good job with it, but that was most unexpected and very gratifying. Here's hoping tomorrow night comes close!

Blooming lovely

I have been busy today: mowed my lawns and also one at the parents' bungalow. I was pleased to see my Dad's favourite poppies in bloom again, although the feelings were tinged with sadness that he's no longer here to see them and also that the bungalow sale is progressing, so I won't be able to see them for much longer. I did pick off a seed pod, so maybe I'll be able to get some growing in my garden. I love poppies, which is just as well, given I have one tattooed on my shoulder.

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My garden is doing remarkably well considering how neglected it was last year. The roses are in bloom, bless them: always reliable.

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The Cotinus (smoke bush) has grown a lot, despite being fairly savagely trimmed back, as were the penstemons, but then they are usually pretty resilient.

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Whilst it's now too hot and I'm too tired for any more gardening, today has encouraged me to believe that I can get the garden back on track. Still got a lot of work to do on the front garden border, but I'm making progress.

May books

The Speed of Sound

by Eric Bernt

Started 1 May 2018
Finished 9 May 2018

Thoroughly enjoyed this book, although the ending seemed a little sudden. Interesting central topic; that buildings might retain a record of all sounds ever created within their walls. I enjoyed the relationship between the doctor and her autistic patient, as well as the overall plot.

The Forgotten Ones

by Steena Holmes

Started 9 May 2018
Finished 14 May 2018

Rather to my surprise I enjoyed this book. I was deterred as soon as I realised a main character was an elderly man with terminal cancer. A bit too close to home and it did upset me at times. Aside from that, the book was interesting, although I wasn't quite sure the secret was as terrible as it was made out to be. I was also a little unsure of the ending, but overall I enjoyed it.

The Kaiser's Gold

by Bill Kitson

Started 18 May 2018.
Finished 25 May 2018

I had forgotten about these books, written by a friend of a friend. This is the second in the Eden House series and it was most enjoyable. Not too demanding, but no less entertaining for that - and well-written. Kept me guessing about whodunnit.

Earthcore

by Scott Sigler
Narrated by Ray Porter

Started 21 May 2018
Finished 1 June

Thoroughly enjoyed this, if enjoy is the right word. Scary, gruesome and exhausting, with rather more foul language than I'd like, it was quite a roller coaster ride. It starts with a discovery of a vein of platinum, with a company who wants to mine that find. However, it's very deep underground and as they dig down, well, they meet something unexpected. I have to say I didn't always know the direction this book was taking, which makes a change. As a result I found it fascinating and very enjoyable. I have read some reviews which suggested it would make a good film and I tend to agree.
As ever, Ray Porter is a great narrator. I'm always happy to see his name against an audiobook.

I should also confess to having abandoned "As Good as True" by Cheryl Reid. It started out with unrelenting misery and I guess I simply wasn't in the mood for it. At the moment I'm looking for escapism, but I may go back to it one day.

Rievaulx Terrace and Abbey

On my last visit to Yorkshire I promised myself a trip out to Rievaulx. I have been there before, but I don't recall actually going round the Abbey itself, so decided this was something I should do. As it happens, my friend received information on a wildflower walk which was taking place during this week, so booked us on to that.

We headed off to Rievaulx Terrace, which is a National Trust property (both members, so free entry) and had a look round before the walk started. Along the terrace there are around 12 viewpoints, where a gap has been created in the trees to provide a view across the valley and down onto Rievaulx Abbey.
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We joined the walk at 1.30pm and it took around 90 minutes. We were taken down a central path through the woodland, not the usual tourist path. As a result we were sandwiched between modern planting and woodland planting created when the terrace was developed, in the 18th century. The chaps running the walk were very interesting, pointing out a variety of wildflowers. Among the ones we saw were ramsons, English bluebells, Helleborus viridis, a rather rare, green hellebore, an early-flowering orchid, forget-me-nots, the delightful adoxa moschatellina (town hall clock flower), cowslips, primroses and many more.

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Orchis mascula - early purple orchid.

What was particularly interesting was the discussion around native planting and using non-native plants to restore the gardens, because they were plants either used in the 18th century, or by the Victorians at a later date. We learnt about various conservation techniques and decisions that were being made regarding viewpoints over the valley - not least the fact that they don't believe the trees were originally there; that the terrace was probably originally designed as a kind of infinity terrace, sloping away out of sight to provide uninterrupted views of Rievaulx. It was also likely designed not as a promenade, but to be seen from a carriage. Unfortunately, the trees have to stay, as they cannot now be removed.

At either end of the terrace is a temple: one Ionic, which is open at times, the other Doric, which is closed. We later learned that some of the decorative tiling from the Abbey had been used on the floor of the Doric temple.

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Ionic Temple

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Doric Temple

After the walk finished, we decided to head down to Rievaulx Abbey itself. This is owned by English Heritage, but I am a member, so free entry there as well. After a stop for some tea and cake we headed off to walk round the Abbey ruins. The weather was superb, almost too bright, as it made photography tricky, trying to expose the stonework correctly without bleaching out the sky. My camera has built-in HDR, but it's not fantastic. My iPhone, however, made pretty good work of applying HDR to the scenery, so my best photos are a mix of phone and DSLR.

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In this photo you can clearly see the older, 12th century stonework in the foreground contrasting with the later 13th century stonework of the presbytery in the background.

The Abbey was both added to and reduced over time, as lay brothers left the monastery, leaving only the Cistercian monks in residence. It was sacked by the Scots in the 1320s and, of course, Henry VIII later put an end to a vast number of churches and monasteries in England, of which Rievaulx was one.

However, the ruins here are extensive and quite, quite beautiful.

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I'll leave you with a shot of some of the beautiful foliage on the path away from the Abbey.

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Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve

Bempton is a favourite day out of mine when I'm up in Yorkshire. I'm not an obsessive birder, but I do like to see them, particularly sea or wetland birds. I also enjoy the challenge of photographing them. Of course, I failed even to see the peregrine falcon during my visit, although I witnessed the impact it had on the other birds, as they all flew up into the air when it skimmed close to the cliffs.

Occasionally when I have been, the sky has been black with flying insects, effectively ruining most photos, but luckily that wasn't the case this time.

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If anything, the conditions were just a bit too good. My sunburnt arms will attest to that, as will some of the less than ideal exposures on my photos. At times I could neither see the viewfinder lights, nor check my shots on the screen afterwards. I do quite miss the swing-needle light meter on my old film camera!

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There is quite a length of coastline at the reserve, with plenty of boardwalk viewing points for people to see the birds. On such a beautiful day the sea makes a stunning blue backdrop, setting off the birds in flight very well. Exposing correctly can be tricky, between sea, sky, white birds, dark birds, green grasses and dark grey cliffs.

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I tend to under-expose for the ground and leave my camera set there. I did try a few in an automatic mode, but that didn't work at all. I'm also lucky in that my zoom lens has a manual focus option, so I can set it and wait for a bird to fly past at the right distance. Otherwise the auto focus just hunts around and is not fast enough to catch flying birds.

I saw a number of birds I had never seen before, too: a whitethroat, a reed bunting and a skylark. The highlight is always the appearance of any puffins. I saw some in a cleft in the rock, but at a considerable distance and only just visible. Luckily I also spotted a couple who were very close to one of the viewing platforms, so was able to join the queue for the prime spot!

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April books

Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterley
Narrated by Robin Miles

Started 29 March 2018
Finished 13 April 2018

This was, at times, at slightly plodding account, but all thoroughly fascinating. I have seen the film of the same name and really enjoyed it, so I figured that the book would contain more information, which it did.
Hidden Figures tells the story of the black workers at NACA, later NASA, and how they were instrumental in getting mankind into space and later on to the moon.
In the days before the computers we know today, there was an army of people, human "computers", whose job it was to perform calculations and find the solutions to engineers' equations. Most of these computers were female, and most of them black. This was at a time when the US had widespread segregation still. The book charts the journey of several women; their struggle to get a decent education and to carve out careers in the white male dominated space industry.

I enjoyed this book and, more importantly, learned a lot. Like most people, I suspect, I had no idea what the set-up had been at NACA/NASA - I've read about the achievements and seen films, of course, but I didn't know anything about what went on behind the scenes. I now have a few more women to look up to!

The Bat

by Jo Nesbo
Narrated by Sean Barrett

Started 14 April
Finished 20 April

I enjoyed this, the first in the series of novels about Harry Hole. I tried reading one, but I couldn't get into it, so thought I'd see if the audiobook captured my attention more. It was certainly an improvement and I enjoyed the book. A bit surprised to find it was set in Australia, but I believe a number of them are set outside Norway.
Will I read or listen to more? I don't know, I'm still undecided. They aren't completely to my taste, not in the way some of the other "Scandi" detective series have been.

The Disappeared (Joe Pickett 18).

by C J Box.

Started 21 April
Finished 29 April.

The latest in C J Box's Joe Pickett series, about a Wyoming game warden, this book sees a new governor send Joe away to investigate the disappearance of a British tourist This, of course becomes somewhat incidental to the story, which ends up involving all sorts of conspiracies. Joe's master falconer friend, Nate, turns up and things get complicated. A good read, as are all the other books in the series. For me, Box manages to depict the Wyoming scenery perfectly, so I get a real sense of the size and wildness of the country. Joe is always a likeable hero - now I'm waiting for the next book in the series…

A round-up of my adventures in web-land

This post is a (rather long) summary of my recent attempts to join the Indieweb movement, as viewed from the perspective of someone who, although far from stupid, doesn't have a great deal of experience with all things internet. The TL:DR version is "it wasn't easy, I had a lot of help, but I did it".

For a few years now I have been blogging from 10 Centuries, as it offered a very competitively priced and easy approach. Initially I made use of it by sending a private message from App.net, which was posted to my blog site. Then I subscribed and was able to use custom domains. Currently I have three blogs hosted on there: my main blog, my craft-related blog and one for the local choral society, for whom I am the accompanist. I don't intend on leaving the service, as it very much suits my needs. There's a really nice social side to the service, where I have made some good friends. Mostly we all "met" on the aforementioned App.net service. It was a good place to hang out and it piqued my interest in blogging and connecting with people on the internet. The owner of 10 Centuries, Jason Irwin, holds views very much in line with those of the Indieweb and is currently working on making his platform much more compatible with various indieweb components.

Over time, I became more aware of the "Indieweb". I followed conversations, picking up bits of information along the way - and also becoming more and more certain that this was all pretty meaningless to me. Talk of "APIs" and such like pretty much went straight over my head.

I heard about the Micro.Blog Kickstarter and decided to back it. Mostly because I was interested in the book; it's only recently that I have engaged with the blogging side of it - but I'm hooked!
I can't recall where I first came across it, most likely on either 10Centuries or Pnut. As might be expected, both of these sites comprise a fairly high number of what I would call "techy" people.

I wouldn't necessarily say that dissatisfaction with Twitter was the reason I joined App.net, as I'm not a particularly avid user, but I have always believed that, in life, you get what you pay for. I realised that I, like so many others, had been sucked in to the idea of the "free" internet, almost without noticing. So, I decided to pay for the services I enjoyed. I support a few podcasts that I listen to (not all of them, just the ones I value the most). I also support the writings of a few bloggers/authors. Granted, I'm in a position where I can afford to do so, which isn't the same for everyone. "Free" social interaction is very attractive for a lot of people. Who wants to pay for every place they use on the internet ? It becomes expensive after a while!

A lot of the time the conversations I watch are very much above my head and I spent some time just feeling that all this was completely beyond me, which irritated me, but also spurred me on - I don't like to be defeated! Then I realised I was trying to understand people who had been involved with all this for years, whose experience levels far outstripped my own. It also crossed my mind that we all start somewhere, and that, although I'm no concert pianist, I have never, ever, considered not playing the piano. So I thought maybe I should have a go. I also thought that this might prove a point, one way or another. If I could get somewhere, then that meant the whole Indieweb thing wasn't only for the geeks. I also hoped that, just perhaps, my experiences might help someone else.

In order to play around, I needed a site that I had full control of. Whilst 10Centuries genuinely promotes the view that I still own my data, the hosting itself is closed off - or was - in that I couldn't add any code to my site, for example. I knew this was something I would have to be able to do so it became necessary to look for hosting elsewhere.

Domain

I already had a domain I wanted to use, so that was ok. The first step into Indieweb is having a domain that is yours (ok, effectively you rent it from a registrar). The content on your domain is under your control. if you fail to renew, it goes, but that's under your control, not someone else's. In Indieweb terms your domain represents you on the web. Most hosting companies will offer a free domain, for at least the first year. I did, in fact, pick up a new domain with my hosting, but haven't used it yet. Getting your domain from your hosting provider does make things more simple. I didn't, and I didn't transfer mine from its current registrar either, as it's a .uk domain, which requires some additional steps (apparently).

Hosting and blogging platform

There are a lot of hosting companies out there to choose from, and people's requirements vary considerably. In my own research I came up with a few things that I required (or didn't require).

Options range from fully-hosted WordPress services, something I didn't really want, to a VPS set-up, which is completely DIY - also something I didn't want.

WordPress.org was an obvious contender for blogging platform I had read that it was reasonably well supported in the Indieweb community. Basically, it had to be something pretty user-friendly. I knew I had no intention of running my own servers and I knew I didn't want to have to configure anything much myself: way beyond my skill-set. There are a myriad of blogging platforms and WordPress isn't for everyone, but it seemed to me to be a decent starting point. It's not the only blogging software, not by a long chalk, but it's probably a relatively easy one to start with. Most of the large hosting companies offer some form of shared hosting, with what is termed a "1-click" installation of WordPress, at the very least. I had previously used WordPress.com, so I was a little familiar with the setup.

I discounted a VPS, partly on the grounds of cost, but also because I really didn't want to be responsible for all aspects of the software I had on there - way beyond my current skill-set.

I wanted someone who provided WhoIs privacy, simply so that I didn't have to add that to the cost, or potentially forget to renew it. When making comparison lists, it's very easy to find that some things just aren't mentioned and you have to dig down into some detail to find what you want.

Does email come with the package - and do you even want it? I didn't, as I have email for my domain with Fastmail. Some companies include it, some charge extra for it; something to factor into calculations.

SSL isn't a great concern any more, as most hosting comes with a LetsEncrypt certificate, which is free. You'll have to pay for something with e-commerce, but baby steps…!

Do you have any geographical preferences for your hosting - and whether you do or not, does the company you choose have their servers in one location, or around the world? Privacy laws differ and, if that's important to you, then give it a lot of thought. I would have preferred to have UK/ROI hosting, but couldn't find something suitable (which isn't to say it doesn't exist, just that I either couldn't find it, or it didn't suit my requirements).

Look at what you are actually getting for the price - there are offers a-plenty, but what is the year 2 cost? Also, the cheap price may turn out to be too limiting for what you might want. There may be restrictions on the number of sites you can have, or the bandwidth you can use.

in the end I opted for Dreamhost - it had been recommended by a few people, it offered pretty much what I wanted and wasn't excessively expensive. Over $100 a year, though, although there are 2 & 3-year options which reduce the cost. As said earlier, I picked up a domain with them, which I hope to use. I thought it suited me, being a craft-obsessed, piano-playing person (it's crotchetcrochet.com). I do have some plans for it, in time… Yes, because I can't help myself, it's highly likely that I will try to get some kind of non-WordPress installation up and running, so I can play with it on that site. Glutton for punishment, me…

Configure domain with new provider

If you registered a domain with your host, then this will likely be done for you. I had to point my domain to Dreamhost's nameservers. Fortunately, both my registrar and Dreamhost have excellent how-to sites. A bit of reading and things were (relatively) fine.

I had some complications because of who my registrar is (Gandi) and because I didn't want to move my domain. I had to unhook my DNS from Cloudflare and then move them to Dreamhost. I then re-enabled Cloudflare under Dreamhost and had all sorts of problems. Possibly because I had redirects on my domains which route the bare domain to www, so that I can use a URL rather than a static IP. I think I ended up going round in circles thanks to some choices I made with my WordPress setup. But that's my problem at times - what seems quite obvious to some people isn't always to me.

Install blogging software

Most hosting providers offer a 1-click install of WordPress, which sets everything up for you pretty quickly. I didn't have to know about PHP or MySql as all that was set up for me. Otherwise I'd probably still be writing with crayons on paper (ok, with fountain pens on very nice paper, but still…).
When I said I wanted an SSL certificate, my hosting provider applied a certificate to the root domain. Currently, wildcard certificates don't seem to be available for free; I believe this has something to do with the auto-renewal process not working properly, but I'm not entirely sure. I did wonder if I would need to have a certificate for the www subdomain, too, but that wasn't an available option. Within the WordPress software some changes had to be made, as WordPress assumes that the page you will want to use is the "www" one. So I had to tell WordPress that my site is on the bare domain, but that just entailed putting the url in a couple of boxes in the Admin panel.

Configuring the blog

Choice of theme is important, obviously. It defines how your site will look, but also some themes will play more nicely with Indieweb principles than others. Generally the recommended WordPress ones are Independent Publisher, or SemPress. I opted for SemPress. Changed the page layout, altered some colours - all these things are easy enough to do. I only wanted a simple blog to contain my posts, which is why I set up WordPress on a the blog subdomain, leaving the main domain free for whatever I might choose to use it for.

Once I got to this point, I had a site up and running, but of course, it doesn't end there…

One thing I learned after I had made some changes is that when using a theme, it is good practice straight away to create a "child theme" to which you can make changes without having them overwritten by any theme updates. After a bit of encouragement from online friends, I consulted the relevant WordPress codex pages and seem to have succeeded. Yes, to do this, I needed to be able to SFTP into my site, and for that I use Filezilla, which is very easy to use. You will be allocated an SFTP username for your site when setting it up. It's just a secure way to download files, change them and upload them back. Not much more complicated than opening a document from a network drive really.

Enhancements

I wanted to make my site Indieweb-compliant, so I had more work to do. There is an Indieweb plugin for WordPress which handles a lot of the things needed. I installed that and set to work. The plugin makes it easy to set things up so that you can be "verified". The instructions are clear and once I had added my domain to my Twitter bio (oh the irony of having to use a silo'd site to verify my identity), that was done. I could also use my Github account, which I created in an over-optimistic moment of madness once. There's no code on there, nor is there likely to be any time soon!! I was mildly confused by the fact that very few sites seem to be able to be used for this verification process, to be honest.

I next enabled the following plugins:

Webmentions
Semantic-linkbacks
Post kinds
Micropub
Bridgy

I admit I don't really know what they all do, but that's something I will work on. I certainly don't understand how they do what they do and I don't know that I want to!

I have purchased a backup solution for my site, Updraft, which was very easy to set up and runs in the background. That cost around £50, but I have the option of running it unsupported in the future, or a reduced-cost renewal. I know it's only a diddy little WordPress site, but I'll likely renew - after all, most of my other data is backed up to a removable drive, two cloud sites and I also run an Arq backup from my main Windows box, as well as Time Machine backups on my Macbook. I do like a good backup.

Issues

Pesky post titles

I added the rss feed for my site to my Micro.blog account, as I wanted my posts to show up there - after all, that was the whole point of the exercise, really.

My other blog sites are also fed across to my Micro.blog account. These appear as the title of the post, with a link back to the full article. Micro.blog treats posts without a title as status updates and this was what I wanted to send from my new WordPress blog. Assuming anything I wrote was shorter than the 280 character-limit and had no title, it would appear in Micro.blog in full, rather as a Tweet does in Twitter. Accordingly, I decided to use the post type "status" and not add a title. Unfortunately, the SemPress theme I chose forces a title - I have since found the code that does this. As a result, my posts were "Post number…" followed by a link back to the "post", which was mainly a short status update. Not what I wanted. Nobody is going to take the time to click on a link every time! I don't know how to override that bit of code in my theme, so a very kind soul (one of many in the wider Indieweb community) gave me a piece of code that I could use to remove the post title from the rss feed for any posts of the type "status". Now my WordPress default post type is set to "status" so that this just works. If want to write a long-form post, I will change that, either in MarsEdit, or in the admin panel, depending where I am writing from.

Comment approval

I enabled the Webmentions plugin and, I have to say, it just worked. Now when i post on my site, that post goes to Micro.blog and any replies appear on my site (as well as in the Micro.blog timeline). It's great to see conversations showing up on my blog! Initially I had to approve every single comment - although WordPress implies that it will verify subsequent comments, it doesn't work, at least not in the way I needed it to. After consultation with the Indieweb gurus in the Slack room, I had a couple of options: auto-approve all comments made via webmentions, as the risk of spam is almost negligible, or auto-approve comments for a person, after I have manually approved their first one. I elected for this option and added a piece of code that another kind Indieweb soul had written and shared.

Cross-posting

I have used Bridgy to post to Facebook, but I have yet to figure out how to get it to post a photo as well. I tried some suggestions, but they didn't work. This goes on my to-do list. No doubt a simple solution, but I haven't found it yet. Partly because cross-posting hasn't really bothered me, but it is nice to have the option to post the odd photo to a couple of places in one go.

Conclusion

My set-up is very simple but, even so, it hasn't been without its issues. That said, I do have a site up and running. I'm not a coder, I'm borderline techy at best and yet, albeit with a lot of help, I have made it. I don't think it's any secret that the Indieweb isn't for everyone, yet. It requires some patience, a lot of learning and not a little determination. A far cry from the "create your account now" of the usual social media silos. I do think the bar to entry is getting lower though. There are some great people putting in significant amounts of effort so that us mere mortals have a chance of being in control of our content on the internet. All I can say is: have a go, it can be done. Have the courage to stick your hand up and ask for help, there are people who will gladly assist.

There is a cost barrier to the Indieweb, however, as it does rather require that you put your money where your mouth is!

Micro.blog does a good job of pulling together people's various existences on the web into a social stream where people can interact. It also provides a relatively low-cost, frictionless entry into owning your own content, in that it will provide hosting for you, as well as cross-posting to the dreaded duo of Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, the overarching issue with any of these social spaces is simply critical mass. Twitter and Facebook have that: most people are there so that's where most people go. It will take a lot for that to change, particularly for it to change in favour of one or two other social networking sites, so they in turn reach that critical mass. I don't really see it happening, to be honest. Most people really don't care enough. Which is fine, it's their choice. I doubt I will leave Facebook, as I can keep in touch with friends easily on there. I don't use it a great deal, however, other than to post the occasional amusing anecdote. I certainly don't live my life in public on there. For me, I'm quite happy for none of my Facebook friends to know about my other life, out here on the wider internet. I doubt many, if any, know that I have several blogs and have done any of the things I've been up to recently. And you know what, I'm quite happy with that.

At this point, I feel the need to acknowledge and thank some of the people who have helped me and encouraged me in my venture:-

  • Jeremy Cherfas who is largely reponsible for encouraging me to attempt all this and has been a great moral support.
  • Jason Irwin for running 10 Centuries, my favourite little corner of the internet, hosting three of my blog sites and thus affording me my first steps out into the Inter-world, being ever-patient and helpful, and for sharing photos of his gorgeous puppy, Nozomi.
  • Colin Walker for the ability to remove pesky post titles, for a handy plugin which opens comments on my blog, as posting via XML-RPC doesn't.
  • Chris Aldrich for advice in Micro.blog and Slack.
  • Gregor Morrill for the wonderful comment-approval piece of code.
  • Manton Reece, for creating Micro.blog.

No doubt I've forgotten people, but these are the main ones who have helped and encouraged me over the last 7 weeks - has it really only been 7 weeks?!

Oh, and I have pondered at length over where this post belongs. I should post it on the WordPress site, my new home. But my main blog is on 10C and I have decided that's where my longer posts will live.