An old school friend

Friends are important, we humans are fundamentally social beings

At my sister’s recent book launch, I was delighted to meet an old friend from school days, Nick Henderson. Although he looks older – as, of course, I do too – his personality is entirely as I remember from the mid 1960s. We agreed to meet again this morning at the Golden Cross in Cirencester, and it was a delight.

Nick and I last met when we were both living at home and very probably still at school. For a year or two we used to hang out quite a bit. I remember going with Nick to see a local band called The Corals during a record-breaking attempt at playing non-stop without repeating any songs; the drummer, one Colin Flooks, another lad from our school year, later became famous as Cozy Powell. And yes, they did break that record – in fact they smashed it by playing for 11½ hours.

TheCorals
The Corals during their record-breaking session, photo from The Wilts and Glos.

Nick and I talked about many things, catching up on our personal journeys over the last half century, recalling the cross-country runs that were compulsory on Wednesday afternoons at school, and thinking about Daglingworth Brook, the River Churn and how the water is channelled in and around the town. The drainage courses have changed over the years, altered for many reasons, beginning in Roman times when the town was young, and continuing right down to the present.

Friends are important, we humans are fundamentally social beings; renewing a connection after such a long gap has been a very special thing for me. More so than I had expected or imagined.

For more about Nick, take a look at his website and/or a site he edits, Anglicanism.org .

Going out on a limb?

I’m looking forward to seeing the book in due course

This is a ‘must post’, I think.

The History Girls blog
The History Girls blog

My sister, Cynthia Jefferies, has been a successful children’s author for some time; now, heading in a slightly different direction, she is about to publish her first book for adults. It’s an historical novel, The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan, set in the period after the Civil War. Cindy provides some background  in a post on The History Girls blog – you might like to swing by and read what she has to say.

I’m looking forward to seeing the book in due course, meanwhile I wish her every success with the launch.

And ‘going out on a limb’? You’ll need to check out those History Girls to find out what that refers to.

Early steps towards life

Imagine an RNA molecule that can replicate … this is already quite life-like.

I have a really exciting story for you today, especially if you are interested in the origin of life and evolution.

RNA
A section of double-stranded RNA

A recent article in the magazine Science reports that Thomas Carell, a chemist at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, has outlined a process that can generate all four of the building blocks of RNA from compounds and conditions present on the pre-biotic Earth.

Why is this significant?

To understand, we need to grasp the importance of RNA. Its cousin, DNA, is the molecule used by most living things on Earth to store the genetic information that controls their form and function. RNA is also capable of storing genetic information, and some viruses use it in exactly this way. RNA is also essential in all living forms because it acts as a go between in the production of proteins from the DNA genetic material. RNA is less stable than DNA and copying errors are more likely. For this reason, DNA is a better long-term genetic store than RNA, but RNA is more dynamic. Think in terms of DNA as a library of printed recipe books, while RNA is like hand-copied notes on scraps of paper that enable the recipes to be taken to the kitchen.

But RNA has additional tricks up its sleeve. No only can this molecule store genetic information, it can also catalyse biochemical reactions, including the synthesis of simple proteins. RNA is a bit of an all-rounder, and it’s not so hard to imagine that quite soon after being randomly synthesised by Carell’s process, RNA molecules might be formed as the dissolved RNA bases came into contact with tiny rock templates that could act to stabilise the process.

RNA also has the potential to self-replicate. Imagine an RNA molecule that can replicate (albeit with occasional errors). This is already quite life-like. Now image the population growing in places where the Carell process was providing reliable supplies of the four bases. Some of those RNA molecules will have errors, sooner or later an error, or a combination of errors will provide a version that replicates more efficiently, or gets trapped inside a lipid membrane that protects it from breakdown, or catalyses the production of a protein that makes the RNA more efficient in some way. If all of those things happen you have something that might be regarded as an early living form – an enclosed lipid membrane with a self-replicating genetic system that can mutate and evolve. Nothing more that that would be needed to kick of an expanding array of related forms.

Voila!

The story as I describe it here is not complete and likely incorrect in many ways. I accept that. But though it’s a simplistic view, it’s also likely to be broadly correct as a bare outline. Over the next few years and decades I expect much more detail will become clear, especially detail about what is or is not possible. And I expect to see many of the steps to be experimentally demonstrated. Watch this space…

Walking the Swiss bisses

We were constantly surprised by the next unexpected vista

Every summer we go away somewhere different for a week – Donna and me along with two daughters, their husbands, and our four grandchildren. This year we stayed in a ski chalet in Haute-Nendaz in western Switzerland, just over the border from France.

Although prices are high in Switzerland, there are many wonderful compensations in terms of mountain scenery, clean streets and clean air, friendly people, and the walks. I had expected walks with big and tiring changes in elevation – and we certainly did our share of walks of that sort. But the bisses: what a wonderful experience!

Looking at a bisse
Looking at a bisse

I must admit, I had no idea what a bisse was when we drove from Geneva Airport, around Lake Geneva, and then south-west to Nendaz. I hadn’t even come across the word ‘bisse’. But we soon found a leaflet of local walks and discovered that several of them followed the local bisses. A bisse is an irrigation stream running gently downhill, almost following the contours of the mountains and hills. As a result the bisse paths are gentle and easy walking for the most part, and they wind around the slopes through woodland and meadow. The views of the mountains and valleys are spectacular; following the path through woodland and then coming out into the open again we were constantly surprised by the next unexpected vista.

The view from a bisse
The view from a bisse

All the way, the path is accompanied by the sparkling water hurrying  down its channel, sometimes shallow, sometimes deep, and sometimes disappearing into a large pipe and reappearing beside the path again a little further on. Some of these paths follow one bisse gently uphill and then pick up a different one for the return, making a lovely, circular tour through the countryside.

Further reading

A bowl of cacti

She gave me a beautifully arranged little bowl with a variety of colourful, healthy-looking cacti in it.

CactiLast time I saw my sister, Ruth, she surprised me with an early birthday present. She gave me a beautifully arranged little bowl with a variety of colourful, healthy-looking cacti in it. Lovely!

So – did she grow them painstakingly from seed? Or did she buy them fully grown and re-pot them in this beautiful arrangement? Or perhaps she bought the little earthenware pot already planted up.

To see what she did, scroll down for a larger picture…

Down

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Down some more…

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Here is the answer…
Cacti
She crocheted them, pot and all! How clever! How unexpected! And what fun. Thank you, Ruth!

The Fly Line

A private railway built to transport coal from the local pits…

Visiting my daughter and her family in York recently, we walked near Aberford just outside Leeds. This was my son-in-law’s suggestion, he does a lot of walking and is interested in wildlife, footpaths, history, good walks and a whole lot more. Parking in Aberford, we followed a bridleway west along the bed of an old railway line.

Railway

The Fly Line was a private railway built to transport coal from the local pits to the nearby Leeds and Selby Railway Apart from the removal of the tracks, the old line is remarkably well preserved. We walked under the bridge shown in the photo above, and through a rather muddy tunnel. The Ordnance Survey One Inch map for 1885-1900 shows the line (marked as a mineral line) and the Six Inch map for 1842 to 1952 shows it in more detail, as well as the the coal pits along the line. But it fell out of use in 1924 and is not seen on later maps. The line passes through delightful woodland and I’d recommend it as an easy and enjoyable walk for anyone.

The railway was built by the Gascoigne family who also owned the coal mines and lived in the nearby Parlington Hall. (There’s more detail about Parlington Hall and its railway on a dedicated website.) Most of the old house has been demolished, and although we didn’t visit the remaining wing, we did get a distant view of the triumphal arch, built to commemorate the American victory in the War of Independence.

TreeAlong the way we came across a great example of two (or possibly three) trees, cross grafted as saplings. Someone had clearly tied them together tightly, possibly after removing a slice from each and lining up the cambial zones carefully so that they would heal and grow as one. That must have been decades ago and the result today is most striking.

On the whole, a fine day out and a great way to break our journey back to Cirencester from York.

The old florist’s shop

The shop had a wonderful cellar, always full of mysterious packages of garden chemicals and other shop stock…

The centre of Cirencester has buildings of a variety of ages, from the Roman City Wall (a small part of which is visible in the Abbey Park) to Victorian and more recent constructions. Walking in the town with my camera today, I took some shots of a 19th century development.

CastleStreet01-mod01

These are the upper floors of a three-storey terrace, a planned development that replaced older properties. The section at the right hand end was used as a florist’s shop for many decades (now Vodafone). I remember it as a child because my father was one of four brothers who owned and ran the shop as part of a larger business with several plant nurseries in the country areas around the town.

The shop had a wonderful cellar, always full of mysterious packages of garden chemicals and other shop stock, and before Christmas there were sometimes hyacinth bulbs being forced for early flowering. There was a marvellous fusty, moist, florist’s aroma in the cellar, but the most exciting thing was the knowledge that the cellar was bigger than the shop floor above. Castle Street was widened when the new development was built, but the cellars of the old buildings were retained. There are stone pillars in the cellar that support the heavy masonry above.

Here’s another view of the same shop from a different angle, the photo was taken by my father in the 1960s. I love the fact that this image includes the shop window displays as these always fascinated me as a young child. I also remember that my grandfather’s office window was above the main door on the corner, and the landscape design office was on the top floor with the small bay window.

JefferiesShop

And finally, for comparison, here’s another view of the same shop today.

VodafoneShop