Top Five from 2023

The PistonHeads.com Photography Forum had a thread to share your favourite photos from the previous year, in this case, 2023. As it is usually your “top five” photos, I chose five and also decided to share them on my blog, as I have done in previous years.

This was my favourite photo of Henry, taken when we were in Peebles on our Summer Road Trip. Owen had not been feeling very well and did not want to go out, so I took Henry for a walk to the park. The colours on this rocket worked well with Henry’s t-shirt.

I could not have a favourite photo of Henry without one of Owen too. I took this one at a friend’s barbeque in the summer, whilstt is not technically perfect, I liked how the colours of the bubbles work with Owen’s shirt and draw your eye through the image.

I do not do much “street” photography, but enjoyed the Coventry Photography Meetup group photo walk at the War Memorial Park. This was the only photo I was happy with from the morning, but I am still really happy with it and it made it worth it. Even the 5:30 alarm!

Another photo from our summer road trip, this time from our final stop in Saltburn-by-the-Sea. As we were finishing up our dinner, I could tell that it was going to be a good sunset, so I rushed back to the flat we were staying in, grabbed my camera kit and headed back down to the beach. This was my favourite photo from that evening – and I took a lot! It was almost totally dark by this point, but that meant I could use a long shutter speed to blur the sea.

I managed to shoot more mountain biking last year, including three downhill races at Stile Cop, this was my pick of the images that I shot at the most recent race, in December. It was the first outing for my Fujinon XF 50-140mm f2.8 lens, and it was a good job I had it, as my old lens would have really struggled in the woods on a rainy December afternoon. Of all the shots I got during the race, this was my favourite, you can tell that the rider is fast, and their red kt stands out from the dull background.

Bike Check – Owen’s Vitus Nucleus 24

Owen has outgrown his trusty Orbea MX-20, at least it has lasted two and a half years, unlike his previous bikes which only lasted twelve and five months respectively. Owen got the Orbea for his fifth birthday, so Henry should be upgrading to it soon.

We wanted a hardtail for Owen’s next bike, and I got a good deal on this Vitus, which is the smaller version of the bike I started my MTB journey with, in 2014. I swapped on Owen’s SDG saddle and pedals but figured that the bars that came fitted to the Vitus would fit him. I also moved his mudguard and bottle cage across. I did try to set up the Maxxis Snyper tyres tubeless, but they did not hold air, so I have left the tubes in. Owen was excited to have Maxxis tyre, like me and Brandon Semenuk, mostly Brandon Semenuk though. The tyres are not particularly grippy either, so we will likely swap them to the classic Minon DHF and DHRII combo, which I run on my Four. Hopefully, we will be able to set them up tubeless. The other main upgrade we have planned, once Owen has done some growing, is to fit a dropper post. We will also have to see how the Clarke brakes and Box drivetrain fare, I usually only fit Shimano.

Owen got the bike for Christmas but has only been on a few rides so far, as he needs to take it easy for a few months. We had a good ride at Hicks Lodge on New Year’s Day, and he seems to be getting on well with it – including conquering his fear of riding up kerbs. We are looking forward to more bike adventures later in the year.

2024

Happy New Year!

Owen and I started 2024 as we mean to go on – riding mountain bikes! We saw in the new year at home, my best friend Partho, his wife Marilena and their two sausage dogs, Otto and Leo, who came round to our house for a dinner party. We had Pastitio, a Cypriot meat, pasta and béchamel sauce dish, similar to lasagne. Jen was going to make it, but Partho and Marilena offered to make it and bring it with them, as they had the correct pasta from Cyprus. Instead, Jen made a “Burnt Basque Cheesecake” for dessert. It was one of the tastiest dinners of the year. It was a low key evening, but really nice to spend some time together. Henry did not quite manage to stay up until midnight, but Owen did, just. He was flagging by 23:30, but we kept him going.

Thanks to their late night, the boys gave us a lie in this morning. After a late breakfast, Owen and I loaded up the van to drive to Hicks Lodge, for a first proper ride on his new bike. Everyone else had the same idea, so it took us a while to get parked up. When we eventually got to the trails they were wet, but still running well. Owen seemed to take well to his new bike – I need to stop giving him such long head starts, as I struggled to catch up with him on a few sections. He has lost some fitness whilst recovering from his recent illness, and could not keep up his initial pace, and we only managed one lap. It was great to be back out together though. Hopefully we will be doing much more riding together later in the year – one of his new years resolutions is “not to say no, to going for bike rides”.

We have not got any riding trips planned yet, as Owen still needs to take things easy. However he is looking forward to our trip to Manchester for the “Bricktastic” Lego show. We have a few other trips planned: Jen and I will be going to York in a few weeks, we hope to repeat our trip to Weston-Super-Mare for Cruise to the Prom and we will be joining my parents, brother, sister-in-law and new niece, for a week on the South Coast, near Brighton, in the summer holidays. Jen and I also have a trip to Rome to rebook. Hopefully we will also be able to squeeze in a few more trips.

As in previous years, I have set myself some goals for the year ahead:

Spend more time with my friends

Life always seems to get in the way, but this year I am going to make a more concerted effort to spend time with my friends. I saw a couple of my best friends, separately, yesterday and it was really nice to spend time with them. We all just need to be a bit more organised, especially as the lads all have big birthdays coming up, which we should probably celebrate.

Make my blog more robust

My blog went offline for a few months last year, and the replacement I deployed has not been great either. Last year I focussed on making what I had more robust, e.g. failing health checks triggering an AWS Lambda script to reboot the server, but I think I need to start from scratch and get something more reliable.

Refresh my photography portfolio website

A goal carried over from last year. My original plan to do customise the skin I’m using in Adobe Portfolio failed, because that option is not available. So all I need to do is choose some new images, hopefully it will not be a big job.

Photograph a rally

Rallying is my favourite form of motorsport, and it has been over ten years since I last saw one live. So I would really like to get to a forest and see some rally cars sliding around on gravel roads. My dad has also said we should go to a rally this year.

Complete a 50km bike ride

My goal last year was to do three 50km rides, I did not even manage to do one. This year I have set myself a more achievable target. Fitness wise, I am sure I could do three long rides, but it is more having the time in the summer, and what else I would have to miss.

Ride 25km with Owen

Like last year, this is more Owen’s goal, as he wants to beat his longest ride to date, which stands at 20km – his goal last year. I will have to think of somewhere we can do a long ride, without too much climbing. Sherwood Pines was a good bet last year, but it would be better to ride somewhere else this time.

Ride at Bike Park Wales with Owen

Another goal carried over from last year. We had booked on to the Little Rippers Halloween ride at Bike Park Wales, but had to cancel, as Owen was in hospital. He needs to get his bike fitness back before a big day at a bike park.

Ride at 417 Bike Park with Henry

I had completely forgotten that we rode the pump track at 417 Bike Park last year, Henry had been keen to ride the bike park trails, but we had not paid for that and I promised him that we would come back. Henry must also have forgotten about it, because usually he would keep reminding me. This will likely be one for later in the year when Henry has moved on to Owen’s old Orbea.

Ride at Bwlch Nant yr Arian

Another goal carried over from 2023, Bwlch Nant yr Arian in Mid Wales has some great looking trails, and is also known for their daily Red Kite feeding – which is enough of an excuse for me to go for a ride. It also seems like somewhere that might be worth visiting with Jen and the boys as part of a Mid Wales trip.

Ride one more of the “10 of the best XC trails in the UK” with Partho

In 2022, Partho shared an article with me called “10 of the best XC trails in the UK“. I have ridden a couple of the trails, and parts of a few more, last year we planned to try and ride a few more together, but it did not happen. We discussed it last night and decided we would aim for a more realistic “ride one of the trails”.

Sort out the boys toys

Last year we redecorated our lounge, and have kept it mostly free from toys, and it is lovely. There is so much more space. The downside is that the toys are piled up in their room, so we need to sort them out – ideally maintaining the nice “grown up” lounge. We need to sort out some storage and to be be ruthless, as realistically there are only a few toys that they play with regularly.

Tidy my garage

I did not get around to this last year, if anything, the garage got messier, as more bikes arrived. A thorough sort out is needed and I also need to be ruthless.

MR2 jobs

Last year marked ten years since I bought my MR2 Roadster, for the most part it has been cheap motoring, and very reliable. Last year I planned to tackle those little jobs that will prolong it’s life, things like cleaning the drain holes. The wheels could also do with a thorough clean and a good coat of wax. However, I’ll need to get the garage tidied first… There are also a few blemishes on the paintwork that I would like to get addressed.

Make sure that my pensions and investments are working for me

When I changed jobs a few years ago, I made sure I could access my old work pension, but other than that have just left it sitting there. I had a work pension with my new job, and set up a SIPP to boost my work pension, but other than paying in to it monthly I have not checked how it is getting on. I think some sort of of “health check” is needed, and maybe some consolidation. It is a boring job, but one that keeps getting put off, having it written down as a goal should mean I am more likely to do it.

Get my weight down to 90kg

For the last ten years, at least, my goal has been to get my weight down to 85kg, which has clearly not happened. 90kg is more achievable, but if I get there, I will try to keep going to 85kg. My plan is more riding and less pizza.

Hopefully 2024 will be a better year than 2023, it has got off to a good start, so I will do my best to carry on with these positive vibes…

A Look Back at 2023

2023 has been a mixed year – the first nine months were pretty good, but the end of the year has been hard for all of us, as Owen has been ill. He seems to be over the worst of it now, so I will focus on the good stuff! The highlight of my year was our road trip to the Lake District, Scotland and Saltburn-by-the-Sea – it was not the big European trip that we had planned, but nonetheless, it was our best family holiday to date. In the spring we also had trips to Somerset and another to Legoland and to visit my brother in Kent. This month Jen and I both celebrated our fortieth birthdays, although our plan for a long weekend away in Rome had to be postponed. At home, the year started off with a new sofa, which then kicked off a full redecoration of the living room, including a new carpet, after a central heating leak. Clearing the room out, and only bringing back what we need has made as much of a difference as the new decor, but we still need to sort out all of the other stuff stashed around the house…

2023 has been a fairly good year on the bikes! And also in the workshop as I am ending the year with three working bikes! I started the year with only my hardtail Clockwork Evo, and pretty much rode that into the ground. Which forced me to pull my finger out and get my Orange Four ridable again. Some of my favourite rides of the year were: Llandegla with Owen, the first ride back on my Four at FoD, Sherwood Pines with Partho and Owen, and riding at the Golfie but most of all, I loved all the family bike rides we were able to go on. I also got myself a new bike for riding around town, which has proved more fun than I was expecting.

I have also had a good year behind the camera, shooting more mountain bike races, and even a bit of motorsport. I went on a landscape photography workshop in the Peak District, but sadly had not yet got around to processing and sharing the images, as it was the week before our summer road trip. The boys continue to be my main photographic subjects, usually on our regular walks in the woods up the road from our house.

Although my website, in particular this blog, have had a rubbish year, with a lot of downtime, I feel like I have progressed a lot as a developer this year, both at work and on my personal projects. The main thing that I want to keep on with is using Infrastructure As Code, in particular AWS CDK to define the infrastructure for my projects.

Owen is growing up and starting to get his own interests – mainly computer games, reading and history. Sadly for me he seems to be drifting away from MTB, he often takes some convincing to join me on rides. Then gets upset that he does not get to ride much. Hopefully the new bike he got for Christmas will spur him to ride more next year. His main riding goal for the year was to ride twenty kilometers, which he achieved in September. He also joined a karate dojo, and was making good progress with that before being taken ill. He will be able to restart karate in the new year and work towards his yellow, and hopefully orange belts. Of course the main thing that happened for Owen his illness and subsequent hospital visits. Thankfully we are over the worst of it now though.

Henry has also had a big year – starting school being the highlight, I think he preferred nursery, but he is doing well with his reading and writing, and seems to be making friends. Outside of school he has joined our local Cycle Speedway team and enjoyed going to the weekly training sessions. He continues to be a right little diva – he knows what he wants, and he makes sure everyone knows about it.

At the start of the year, I set myself some goals. I posted a halftime update in June September, but here are the final results:

Pass the AWS Certified Developer Associate exam

Pass – This goal was carried over from 2022, but I managed to get it done in the summer. I then started studying for the AWS Security Specialist Certification – I was almost ready to take the exam when Owen got admitted to hospital.

Rebuild my Orange Four

PassIt was so good to be back on the Four! However, I was not expecting to be the bike I rode the most all year.

Refresh my photography portfolio website

Fail – I did look in to this, but was disappointed that there was not much manual customisation available on the Adobe Portfolio service, which powers my photography portfolio. I have started to select some new images for the portfolio, but did not get very far.

Photograph more bike races

Pass – I shot four bike races this year, the Cannock Chase Winter Classic XC race, and three downhill races at Sitle Cop downhill trails. This is by far my favourite type of photography, and I am glad that I have been able to do it more often. I even sold a few images, not quite enough to pay for my new lens though.

Take a wildlife photo I am happy with

Fail – I put this on hold, as I have realised that to get an image that I will be happy with will require time, in addition to a much longer lens. Whilst I could have borrowed the lens, time was the bigger constraint, so I made an effort to concentrate on sports photography.

Complete at least three 50km bike rides

Fail – I did not manage one. I had planned one, including route and childcare, but the weather forecast was rubbish, so I wimped out. I did manage one ride over forty kilometers, with the Godiva Trailriders, and given that was at a much faster pace than I am used to, I am sure that fifty kilometers is doable.

Ride 20km with Owen

Pass – After a few failed attempts, we managed this, at Sherwood Pines towards the end of September with Partho, when I had borrowed the Fuji X-H2S. It was one of my favourite rides of the year.

Ride at Bike Park Wales with Owen

Fail – Owen did not ride much earlier in the year, so I did not feel that he would have the bike fitness for a summer trip to Bike Park Wales. We had booked to join the Little Rippers Halloween ride there, but had to cancel as Owen was admitted to hospital.

Ride at Bwlch Nant yr Arian

Fail – This one is on me. I still want to ride there, I just need to pick a weekend and go! I will be carrying this goal over to 2024 for sure.

Ride some more of the “10 of the best XC trails in the UK” with Partho

Fail – We did not manage to get too many full days together to ride, so it was just the odd ride at our usual spots, Cannock Chase and Sherwood Pines, as always though, it is just good to be abke to get out together,

Tidy my office

Pass – Given the current state of my office, I am only just scraping a pass. But for most of the year, it has been a lot tidier than it was. My excuse is that towards the end of the year I need some mess in there to disguise the christmas presents I have stashed. Ideally I will give it a quick spring clean tomorrow before I restart at work though.

Tidy my garage

Fail – I have got too many bike projects on the go, and too many bikes in general. This year I think I sold two, and added three, only one of which was for me. This is another goal that needs to be carried over to 2024.

MR2 jobs

Fail – Again, I had too many bike jobs, so wil need to carry these over to 2024.

Van upgrades

Pass – I had the interior of the van insulated and carpeted, a Loaded Bikes system installed to transport the bikes securely and an awning rail fitted. The interior is a nicer place to be and it is easier to get the bikes in and out of the van. However, we have not managed to have the days out in the van that we would like. The boys and I (minimal help from the boys) managed to get the awning set up to give us some shade on a very warm visit to Mallory Park. I think it is one of those things where we need to get dates in the calendar reserved for van days out, otherwise something else always crops up. The van was great for our trip to Scotland though.

Monthly blog posts

Fail – My blog was offline for two months, so those months were missed. I feel like I have been getting better towards the end of the year, so hopefully I can carry the momentum forward to 2024.

Flagged emails

Fail – I have just checked and I have 639 flagged emails, more than I started with. Hopefully none of them are too important… At least I have been making a concious effort to address them though.

Get my weight down to 85kg

Massive fail – Again! Looking at the data from my Withings Scales Amazon affliate link, I was losing weight for most of the year, but put a load back on this month. At one point, whilst Owen was in hospital, my weight dipped below 90kg, but I’m not sure that being so stressed you forget to eat is really a sustainable weightloss strategy.

Once again it looks like I have failed to achieve more of my goals than I acheived. I think for next year I need to try not to over commit myself, but given the past few months I am mainly happy that we are ending 2023 without daily hospital visits and two (mostly) healthy children.

New Lens – Fujinon XF 50-140mm F2.8

As a fortieth birthday present to myself I upgraded my trusty Fujinon XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 lens to the New Lens: Fujinon XF 50-140mm F2.8 – Fuji’s equivalent of a 70-200mm f2.8 lens, aka the standard sports photography lens. It is a bump up from a good consumer grade lens to pro grade lens, albeit with less reach. The new lens had been on my radar for a while, but it was only when testing the Fuji X-H2S camera body that I decided I should prioritise a lens upgrade. I had planned to call in at my local camera shop, LCE in Leamnington Spa, and buy the lens on my birthday, but got a good Black Friday deal from LCE online, the week before, so got it a bit early.

With everything else going on, I did not get much of a chance to test the lens, only a few walks in the local woods, but managed to get to the second round of the Racers Guild Winter Series at Cannock Chase to put the lens through its paces.

Mountain biking in December in the UK is cold, wet and muddy, an added complication is that it also gets dark mid afternoon, which is not great for photography. Driving up to Cannock Chase it the weather was not too cold, but it was the heaviest rain I have driven through in my MR2 Roadster for a long time. It was still raining heavily when I parked up, so I waited until it had stopped, before getting out of the car, donning my waterproofs and heading to the track. As I was late getting to the track the best angles had already been claimed by other photographers, so I was somewhat restricted in where I could shoot from. I also did not want to walk too far down the track, as I knew I would have to make a quick exist due to other commitments later in the afternoon.

As the riders came down for their first timed runs, I lined up a shot to catch them splashing through a puddle, which worked a bit too well, both the camera and I got splashed with muddy water – what a way to christen a new lens. Fortunately it is weather sealed. As the afternoon drew on the light got darker – I was definitely glad of the extra light from the wider aperture of new lens, I would have really struggled to shoot this race with my old XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8

The other area where I noticed an improvement was the autofocus. I do not know if it was the extra light getting to the sensor, or the faster focus motors, or maybe both, but the autofocus felt like it was on a par with the X-H2s and XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 combination I used at the first round of the winter series. Athough this was only one race, so I need to shoot some more to get a better feel for it.

The last rider down the hill got the biggest cheers – Santa Claus going the extra mile to test the 2023 crop of kids bikes!

Owen’s Extradural Empyemas

Yesterday was a good day – Owen did not need to visit a hospital, for the first time in 63 days! The last few months have been pretty rough for all of us, especially Owen. He was in hospital for almost three weeks, then has been on “home leave” for 23 hours a day for the last six weeks, but needed to return to the hospital daily for intravenous antibiotics. He has not actually been discharged yet, but as he has been told he can stop the antibiotics, we are classing this as a win! This blog post may seem a bit disjointed, as it has been updated over the space of a few months, often at times when I was quite sleep-deprived. It was mainly written so I can look back on what happened, especially if Owen has questions in the future.

We think it all started at the end of September, Owen was falling over a lot – even more than usual. Enough that I was concerned enough to think I needed to call the doctor. However, Henry became ill, with whichever respiratory illness was going around school at the time, and we thought nothing more of it. Whilst Henry was off school, Owen had his flu vaccine and then became quite poorly. The boys were meant to spend the weekend with my parents, as Jen and I had a night out planned, to see Jo Whiley DJing in Coventry, so my mum came to stay and look after the boys on the Friday night, as Owen was too poorly to travel. His condition got worse over the weekend, he had a fever, was sick a few times and at points he was almost delirious. We still thought it was a bad cold or a reaction to the flu vaccine. By the Monday, he was feeling a bit better in himself but was complaining of sore hips. At this point, we visited the doctor, who suspected “Irritable Hip Syndrome”, but sent us to A&E to rule out anything more sinister. I dropped Jen and Owen off at the hospital and returned to collect Henry from school – then had to take him back to school for a meeting, which children were not really meant to attend. He was so good and sat quietly whilst the teachers explained to the reception parents that we needed to read lots with our children. By the time we got home from the meeting, Jen and Owen had finished at the hospital, so we collected them and all went to McDonald’s. The verdict from the hospital was that Owen had “Irritable Hip Syndrome” and a Urinary Tract Infection, for which he was prescribed antibiotics.

Owen’s health continued to improve, and he was back at school on Thursday, albeit with strict instructions to take things easy and to go to the office for his antibiotics at lunchtime. On Friday we had a nice evening watching Redbull Rampage and eating pizza with our friends Partho and Marilena, and their two sausage dogs. I had even managed to make a big batch of cookie dough for dessert. The rest of the weekend was quiet, we went for a walk in Millison’s Wood and I joined the Godiva Trail Riders for a ride around my usual loop. On Sunday Owen had the last of his antibiotics. By Monday he was back to normal, his hip was feeling better, so he rode his BMX to and from school. He even went swimming in the evening. Then, unbeknownst to me he woke up in the night feeling poorly. Jen was at the gym first thing in the morning and when he started playing up at breakfast, saying that he was too poorly to go to school I thought he was trying to get another day off. I told him that if was ill, he would have to go back to bed and stay there. Which he did, for the whole day, because he was actually quite ill. Wednesday was slightly better, he managed to make it down the stairs, to sleep on the sofa all day. By Thursday he still had headaches, although they were improving slightly. At this point, we called the doctor again and were directed straight to A&E.

Jen dropped Owen and I off at A&E and we were seen relatively quickly, although there was a bit of a wait to see the senior doctor. When we eventually saw her, Owen had decided that he did not have a headache anymore and that it only happened “at home, when my brother is annoying me” – I thought we were about to get sent home and had wasted a day, but thankfully, as it was Owen’s second visit in two weeks, she took it seriously and booked Owen in for a CT scan and some blood tests. By this time it was the evening, and Jen took over waiting with Owen. The CT scan showed something on Owen’s brain, which normally would not require further investigation, but given the headaches, an MRI scan was requested, and Owen was admitted to the hospital. Little did we know how long he would be staying in hospital!

The next day, Owen had the MRI and after it had been analysed, it was decided that Owen would be transferred to Birmingham Children’s Hospital for an operation the following day. There was some uncertainty if the infection/pus had spread from Owen’s sinuses into his skull, but either way, it was putting pressure on his brain and it needed to be cleaned out. Owen was also started on a course of intravenous antibiotics. Another CT scan was ordered, this time focussing on the sinuses. Henry and I were able to visit in the evening and deliver a McDonald’s before Owen had to stop eating in preparation for the operation. Owen and Jen got taken to Birmingham by ambulance – Owen’s first ride in an ambulance. However, it was not deemed to be a serious enough case for the lights and sirens to be needed. He was initially admitted to the “short-term surgery” ward, which sounded positive, but was then moved to the renal ward, as they had space, and there was no ENT ward. Whilst all of this was happening, Henry and I had a quiet morning at home, waiting for my mother-in-law to arrive to look after Henry and take him to a party, so that I could join Jen and Owen in Birmingham. Keeping things as normal as possible for Henry was going to be a big part of Owen being in the hospital.

By the time I got to Birmingham, Owen was ready to go into theatre for a FESS (Functional Endoscopic Sinus Surgery) procedure. He was able to walk himself to the operating theatre – bizarrely we had to go through an event, unveiling a new plaque, to get to the theatre, squeezing past photographers and dignitaries. This an article about who the plaque was commemorating. Jen and I were able to go with him to the anaesthetic room, which allowed me to meet the surgeons (Jen had already met them) and for us to be able to reassure Owen, who was getting quite nervous at this point. Owen went to sleep fairly quickly and Jen and I were left twiddling our thumbs, whilst the surgeons got to work. We went for a little walk around the block, but did not want to be too far from the ward in case Owen came back. In the end, the surgery was a bit longer than expected, as they fitted a neck line, to make administering the antibiotics easier. It was the evening by the time Owen came back from surgery – 24 hours since he had last eaten. And he was hangry! His nose also hurt, unsurprising as there had been a camera poked up it! As we were trying to sort him out with some food, the neurosurgeon came to visit us and gave us an update on Owen’s condition. I was impressed that he had gone into theatre for Owen’s procedure, even though it was being led by the ENT team, so that he could get a better handle on what the infection was. He also took the time to explain Owen’s condition – a bad sinus infection, which was putting pressure on his brain. Inside the skull, there is a membrane between the sinus cavities and the brain, but the surgeons were unable to tell from the scans if the infection had crossed this membrane yet. It seemed like we were lucky to have caught it early, as usually the first people know about it is when the patient collapses. In Owen’s case, they were able to treat it from the sinus side first, and monitor the brain side, rather than needing two separate operations. It also became clear that this would not be a quick road to recovery, with a long course of antibiotics required. The neurosurgeon said that he hoped to have Owen “home for Christmas” – bear in mind this was mid-October.

The neurosurgeon had also arranged for Owen to be moved to the neurosurgery ward so that they could keep a closer eye on him. On the ward, it became clear that Owen was one of the least poorly children there, which certainly put our situation into perspective. As difficult as it was being on the ward, the care he received was second to none. We quickly got into a routine on the ward, with Jen and I alternating staying with Owen and looking after Henry at home. We had to get into a routine because fourteen medical things had to happen each day, most of which the nurses left us to do:

  • 4x sinus flushes – squirting a saline solution up his nose to rinse out anything, as he could not blow his nose for the first few weeks
  • 3x thirty-minute intravenous antibiotic infusion
  • 2x doses of anti-seizure medication
  • 2x doses of nose drops
  • Another thirty-minute intravenous antibiotic infusion
  • A nose spray
  • A wash with some special antibacterial soap

In addition to all that the nurses had check Owen’s blood pressure, oxygen saturation, temperature and neurological responses every four hours. And of course, he needed to eat and drink – which all needed to be logged by the nurses, along with any trips to the toilet.

I was surprised to meet the physio team, but I think it must have been a standard procedure for patients on the neurosurgery ward. They were happy that Owen was fine walking and using stairs, so discharged him from their care straight away. I raised that Owen is usually pretty active and my biggest concern was that he could be bed-ridden for months and that lack of movement may lead to issues, so the physio told us about the play centre at the other end of the hospital, which really changed Owen’s stay for the better! We had to get a nurse to do some paperwork each day that we wanted visit but once that was done, Owen was free to leave the ward and visit the play centre, albeit only the indoor facilities, as his neck line precluded him from going outside. Being able to get off the ward was great, Owen could stretch his legs walking down the long corridors and the play centre was the sort of things little boys dream of – a big room full of toys, musical instruments, games, video games and staff there to make sure you are having a good time! On our first visit, after initially trying out the drum machine, Owen gravitated towards the Lego, building a Lego hospital, which endeared him to the staff straight away, and as they could see he loves Lego he was given a Lego Minecraft set, supplied by the Fairy Bricks charity. We finished up our visit with half an hour on the PS4. The only downside to the play centre was that we could only visit in the gaps between our various commitments on the ward. So usually we could only fit in a few short visits a day, but Owen made the most of these visits! There was also a smaller playroom on the ward, which Owen could use when we did not have enough time to walk across the hospital.

One project that I have thought might be worth doing with Owen “one day” was to make a stop-motion animation, and a long hospital stay seemed to be the ideal time for such a project! I installed the Stop Motion Studio app on Owen’s iPad and we started experimenting with Lego characters on the table at Owen’s bed, quickly learning the basics and that we ideally needed something to support the iPad. When Owen had built the Minecraft “Abandoned Village” Lego set from Fairy Bricks, we realised that it would be perfect for a stop motion animation, as there were multiple characters and buildings. We found a quiet corner in the ward playroom, built an iPad support out of Megablocks and put our new-found skills into practice. Owen was rightly proud of the end result, showing all his visitors and any doctor or nurse who came to his bedside. This is the film we made:

Whilst in the hospital Owen also got a lot of Minecraft practice, I had planned to set up a Minecraft server on AWS so that Owen could play with his friends, but I could not get into the AWS console on the hospital WiFi. I got as far as setting up an EC2 instance using CDK, via the hotspot from my phone, but realised that it would be easier to pay for Minecraft Realms and get Owen playing as soon as possible. The only issue with Minecraft Realms was that Owen could also not connect to it over the hospital WiFi, so he had to tether to my phone to connect to that too. We invited one of Owen’s friends to the realm, and when we next logged in, his friend had been busy – he had built Owen a house, and left him with lots of supplies and some nice messages on the wall. It was so sweet to see how they interacted through the game. Owen’s friend’s mum also got involved, building herself a nice house and garden. The only downside is that Owen can only have one world loaded at a time, so I think it will be worth carrying on my project to get a server set up.

When we were driving to the hospital in Birmingham every day I noticed a billboard on the side of the hospital, highlighting their campaign to fund an iMRI scanner for the neurosurgery team. This would allow the neurosurgeons to be able to perform MRI scans mid-operation and ensure that they have removed all of a tumour, for example. Whilst Owen did not need brain surgery, it was the neurosurgery team leading his care, so this appeal is close to our hearts. The Birmingham Children’s Hospital Charity also do great work all over the hospital, including things like the play centre and running a Santa’s Grotto for patients.

After about a week on the neurosurgical ward, Owen was moved next door, to the gastrointestinal ward, as he was the least ill child on the neurosurgical ward and they had too many patients. Whilst it was good that he was considered the “least ill”, it was concerning that he was no longer on the neurosurgery ward. Other positives were that there was a bit more room around the beds, so it was easier day to day for us. And for Owen, the ward had a Nintendo Switch that he could borrow. Before Owen could be transferred back to the hospital in Coventry the last thing that needed to happen at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, was for Owen’s neck line to be replaced with a more durable “Hickman Line”, which goes into Owen’s heart, which is what you can see in the photo at the top of this post. This type of line means Owen can go outside and lasts for up to a year – although Owen should only need it for a few months at most! The downside is that it needs to be inserted and removed under general anaesthetic, meaning that Owen had to have a second, short operation, and still has another one to come in the new year to remove it.

Once Owen had recovered from his operation he could move back to Coventry, as a bed and transport became available. It was past Owen’s bedtime, on the day after his operation, by the time we were able to be transferred. As Owen was still awake we decided to get the taxi to Coventry, as it felt like a big step forward for Owen’s recovery and we did not want to risk waiting for more transport to be arranged the following day. When we arrived back at UHCW we were shown to our side room – after more than a week on wards it was nice to be in a quieter room with our own bathroom! It was also a nice touch that Owen had the same nurse looking after him who had looked after him before his transfer to Birmingham. And that she remembered him. We both had a good sleep in the room, but it was only in the morning that we learned Owen was in the side room to make sure he was not bringing any infections over from Birmingham. So the trade-off for our good sleep was that Owen was not allowed to leave the room. He did manage to borrow another Nintendo Switch from the ward play worker, so he did not get too bored between the various medicines and nose flushes. Being nearer to home also meant more visitors, so even though Owen was confined to the room, he as kept occupied.

Jen and I had a trip to Rome planned around this time, which we had to cancel. Fortunately, Henry was keen to stick to his part of the original plan – a four-night sleepover at my mum and dad’s house. After two weeks of alternating looking after each of the boys, it was nice to be able to have some solo time at home, to get jobs done and in my case get back out on my bike – it definitely felt like hard work after a few weeks off the bike, especially with much muddier trails.

On one of my bike rides I had a message from Jen, that as Owen was no longer in isolation in his side room, he could leave the ward and come home between his doses of antibiotics! I raced home, but Jen and Owen beat me, it was nice to get back to a full house though, even if Henry was not there. We had a quiet few hours at home, before I returned to the hospital with Owen for another round of medicines etc. The next morning we were able to come home again, and word had got out, so a few of Owen’s schoolmates called round to see him. Seeing his friends really cheered Owen up, as did his favourite dinner – Jen makes a great toad in the hole, but it must have tasted even better for Owen after a few weeks of hospital food! We also managed to squeeze in a quick Lego build, and a photo (the one at the top of this post) for the Lego #BuildToGive campaign – where Lego donate a set for the Fairy Bricks charity to distribute to poorly children in hospitals each time anyone shares a picture of a Lego heart on social media. Henry also got involved from Grandma’s house.

Jen took Owen back to the hospital – with an MRI planned first thing the next morning, the results of which would decide if the three times a day antibiotic could be stopped. Unfortunately, as is the way with these things, we were unable to get an answer from the doctors in time for Owen to come home, but the headline was that the size of the abscess had reduced. We were also told that we could stop the nose flushes. I took over from Jen, and the disappointment for Owen of having to stay in hospital one more night was somewhat reduced by him beating me at UNO. After he had fallen asleep the nurse gave me the good news that he was only due one more dose of the three-times-a-day antibiotic, which meant we could go home the following morning. Although, we would still need to come back each day for the daily antibiotic. Naturally, it still took some time for us to get all the paperwork completed for Owen to come home, so Jen came to join us after she had dropped Henry off at school. Eventually, at lunchtime, we were told that we could go home, and collect the paperwork when we came back in for the evening for his daily antibiotics. It was nice to be able to potter around together and to do a bit of Lego at home with Owen. And Henry’s face was a picture when he saw the three of us picking him up from school – he had really missed Owen. Henry had even promised that he was “not going to fight with Owen ever again”. However, that soon got downgraded to “I am not going to fight with Owen whilst he has his line in”.

On Owen’s first night at home, we had a bit of a scare, as he woke up screaming with stomach pains. Even though he was an inpatient, the ward told us to take him to A&E, Jen took him over, and it sounded like chaos, the ward where Owen had been was full, which meant A&E had nowhere to send patients, so they were also full. In the end Owen said he was feeling better, so Jen brought him back home, and we had a doctor check him over the next evening – and they said that they could not find anything wrong. He had a couple more episodes of this, but without the trips to A&E.

Although Owen still needed to go to the hospital for his daily antibiotics, having him at home, sleeping in his own bed (and us sleeping in our own bed!) and going to school was a big step forward. It did not take long for Owen to get back to his usual self, it was funny hearing one of his school friends saying it was good to have loud Owen back again. Even though things were getting back to normal, we still had to visit the hospital every evening for Owen’s antibiotics. It did not seem that the ward was set up to deal with longer-term patients on home leave, it was just a case of turning up every evening and seeing what happened, usually, we were put in a small side room, and sometimes Owen would be hooked up to the pump for his antibiotics straight away, other times we would have to wait for an hour or two, depending on how busy the ward was. Eventually, Owen was able to get booked into the day unit on the ward, four days a week, where things tended to run a bit smoother, Owen was usually their last patient of the day, so they were waiting for him. One thing that particularly annoyed us during this period was that we were paying at least £5 per day to park at the hospital, we applied to get a free parking pass, but the requirements were that you had to have at least three appointments a month, for three months. Daily appointments for two months did not cut it. It is madness that someone having nine appointments over three months gets free parking, but someone having sixty appointments over two months does not qualify!

In addition to the daily trips to Coventry hospital, there were also regular trips to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, for MRI scans, reviews with the consultants (both neurosurgery and ENT) and eventually an ultrasound scan to look for gallstones – a side effect of the antibiotics that Owen was on. Nobody had mentioned this at all, even when Owen was being checked out for the stomach pains he had been experiencing. It was only because a doctor mentioned it in passing. The scan showed that there were not any gallstones, but it did highlight the missing link in communication between the hospitals. Another example of this was when we were told that Owen would be stopping his antibiotics mid-November, which had been a date we were all focussing on, only then to be told that there were at least another four weeks to go, but as usual we just adapted to the new routine and carried on with it. It all seemed to be getting to Owen, as he had a few issues at school, he needed first aid at school most days, and it almost got to the point where he was going to be kept inside at break times, we are yet to get to the bottom of why, but anxiety about his line probably played a part of it.

Owen has not yet been officially discharged, from hospital, but after a review of his most recent MRI the neurosurgeons were sufficiently pleased with his progress that they said the antibiotics could be stopped, and that they would start the process to get his Hickman Line removed, which should be a day procedure. Until that happens, the dressing for the line still needs to be changed weekly, at Coventry hospital, but hopefully, that will be a quick job.

After seeing the neurosurgery team in Birmingham, we dropped OWen back at school, relieved that we would have a few days away from hospitals. Then we got a phone call from school… This time it was about Henry – “You need to take him to A&E?” He had bumped his face on a bench and split his nostril, so nothing major, but after thinking we would be avoiding the hospital for a few days, it was not ideal. Fortunately, it was a quiet day at A&E and Henry was seen quickly. He seemed fine in himself and was very well behaved waiting, he could probably sense how unimpressed I was to be back at the hospital. He mentioned to the nurse that he had bumped his head “but it is OK now”, so the nurse had to check him for signs of concussion. She also needed to get second, third and fourth opinions on Henry’s nose, so we were in there for a few hours. Eventually, they settled on a steri-strip to hold his nose together and a follow-up appointment with the ENT team when the swelling has subsided – another hospital trip. When Henry and I got back, we all went to KFC for a “traditional Japanese Christmas dinner” to celebrate. The next day, yesterday, we successfully managed to avoid hospitals!

This post ended up being longer than I planned, I guess that’s what happens when you have too much time on your hands your hands in hospital. The TLDR is that Owen had headaches for a few weeks, we took him to A&E, and they found an abscess in his skull, he was admitted to hospital in Coventry, and transferred to Birmingham Children’s Hospital for an operation to clear out his sinuses, then had a few months worth of intravenous antibiotics. He is making a good recovery and is now back home. Fairy Bricks gave him some Lego – donate to them! And the Neurosurgical team at Birmingham Children’s Hospital looked after Owen really well – donate to their iMRI appeal too!

My Fortieth Birthday

I only usually do birthday posts for the boys, but it was a big one for me today! The last few months have been pretty stressful, for various reasons, and plans for the day got changed, not to mention a birthday weekend away being cancelled. But in the end, it was just nice to have a day off work and spend time with family and friends.

After presents and cards with Jen and the boys, we got soaked walking to school. And then got home to a broken washing machine – it had sounded poorly for a while, so at least we already have a new one on order to be delivered later in the week! With the bad luck out of the way, the fun stuff could start – we took the MR2 to meet Partho for breakfast at The Barn At Berryfields. Given the poor weather, I had not been expecting to drive the MR2, but I figured that all of the rain overnight would have washed the salt off the road. It was good to get out with Jen in the MR2, even if it was just a short trip, with the roof up. Breakfast was tasty (as always at Berryfields) and not too big. It was great to catch up with Partho – he had made a card for me with photos spanning our 25 years of friendship, which was a really nice touch.

After breakfast, I packed the van and went to Leamington Spa to ride the new mountain bike trails on Newbold Comyn. It was cold and rainy, and my kit was still wet from yesterday’s even wetter ride, but I was not going to miss out on one of the few things that was able to go to plan. Even if my shopping trip to Leamington was scuppered by a too-good-to-miss Cyber Monday deal last week, and my Clockwork Evo, which I had hoped to ride, still being in bits in the garage. Jen had also hoped to do some shopping in Leamington, but her trip was replaced with a trip to her parent’s house to sort out the half-washed load of washing. I had a short but fun ride on the excellent trails – which were holding up surprisingly well given the recent weather. I can confirm that being forty is no barrier to jumping your bike and having fun in the mud!

By the time I got home and cleaned up, it was time to pick up the boys from school and meet my parents at Hickory’s restaurant for some BBQ food with my mum and dad. Dad convinced me to share the BBQ platter with him (I did not take much convincing) – it has been quite a few years since I last had the platter, so it was good to try the latest version, as it has all of the main things from the menu, which has been subtly updated in the years we have been going there. I will certainly be ordering some of the newer dishes on future visits. We came back home – to our newly refurbished living room(!) for birthday cake. Jen had asked me what I wanted, and I said “Devil’s Food Cake”, but it turned out that my mum has a unique take on Devil’s Food Cake, so Jen asked her to make it instead. It was a lovely cake, Henry also seemed to enjoy it, asking for a second helping. I am very lucky that both my wife and my mum make great cakes!

With the boys in bed, I ended the day with a wee dram of single malt, building the Lego Porsche that Jen bought me and thinking that as birthdays go, this has been a pretty good one!

Mushrooms of Coventry

The other week most of the photographs I took were of mushrooms, both in my local woods, and on bike rides around the city. The first ones, were a mountain of mushrooms in the “fairy village”, I had noticed them on a previous bike ride and thought it would be worth returning with the camera.

Whist photographing the mushroom mountain I noticed a tiny baby mushroom growing out of a log – I needed to use the macro extension tubes to get close enough. It is hard to tell the scale from the photo, but the lush green plants surrounding the mushroom is actually moss. The mushroom was less than one centimetre high.

After I got back from my photo walk in the woods, I went out for a bike ride, taking my X100V along in my rucksack. I am unsure if it is the weather, or if I am more attuned to seeing mushrooms, but they seem to be everywhere in the woods at the moment. The X100V is not the best camera for this type of photography, but it is the best one that easily fits into my bag.

Later on in the week, I went back to the woods with Owen and Henry, Owen was excited to see the mushroom mountain by the fairy village. It was even bigger than when I photographed it. Henry was just happy to be messing about in the woods, but I managed to get him to pose for about three seconds. Unfortunately I was too slow to capture my friends from Godiva Trailriders who rode past us on their Saturday morning ride.

Where we have been 2023

The boy’s school has got a geography display, showing where students have travelled to this year. They asked for parents to share some photos for the display, and I could not resist sending a few in. As I had collated a group of images I thought I would also share them here.

Cheddar Gorge Panorama

Cheddar Gorge: from our Somerset weekend. The boys, particularly Henry, did so well walking around the top of the gorge. It was a long walk for little legs. I was not sure that the panorama would work well, so I snuck in a photo of Owen too.

Lake Windermere: from the first stop on our summer road trip. I had been tempted to send in one of the photos that Owen took, but did not have them to hand.

Hadrian’s Wall: also from our summer road trip, but I thought it would be relevant as Romans are one of the history topics at school.

The England/Scotland border: I just wanted to see if a photo of the van would make it on to the display.

The Tweed Valley: I do not think anyone else at school would have appreciated the Tweed Valley, so I added a shot of Owen riding at Glentress. I skipped out Edinburgh from the second part of our road trip, as it looked like someone else had already submitted a photo for that.

Saltburn-by-the-Sea: This photo of the pier at Saltburn, from the last stop on our road trip, is one of my favourite photos that I have taken this year. I also felt like I should add in a photo of Henry, as I had included a few of Owen.

The boys have not seen the display yet, but the geography teacher has thanked Owen for the photos. I do not think we have got any more trips planned with the boys in 2023, but when we are on our travels next year, I’ll be sure to get some more location photos just in case.

Super Power Words

Now that Henry has started school properly, he is learning to read, and each week he gets sent home with three “super power words” to learn. Back in 2020, when Owen was in reception, he had the same words to learn, except we were teaching him at home. At the time, I thought it would be cool to have an iPad app for Owen to practice on, but I did not have the skills to knock one up quickly, nor the time to learn. Fast forward three years, to when Henry is learning to read, and I am working as a software developer full time, and it is the sort of thing I can knock up in an evening after the boys have gone to bed. So I did – as soon as Henry came home with his first set of super power words!

I used Create React App to bootstrap a basic application, as Next.js would be overkill for something so simple. Then it was just a case of adding a function to randomly display the words, and a click handler to call it. Initially, I hardcoded the words, to get to a “minimum viable product”, where testing showed I needed to add some more logic to prevent the same word being shown twice in a row. The plan was always to share it on my GitHub, so I changed it to read a list of comma-separated words from environment variables, and whilst there added the option to change the heading to make the app usable for other people.

The “user acceptance testing” (showing it to Henry) identified that the words needed to be all in lowercase, except “I”, and that the “a” character was not displayed as taught at school, so I figured that teaching a four-year-old to read was one of the few valid use cases for the “Comic Sans MS” font and switched to that.

To get the app onto Henry’s iPad, as he does not like laptops, I used AWS Amplify, which combines a basic CICD pipeline and serverless hosting, for a cheap hosting solution for simple web apps. I was also able to hook it up to Henry’s domain name. Builds are triggered by pushing app changes to the main branch of the GitHub repository for the project. When Henry gets a new set of words it is just a case of updating the environment variables in the Amplify web console and re-running the latest build.

If you want to try for yourself, you can check out (or fork!) the repository, create a .env file, set your environment variables and run “npm start”. Or simply have a look at www.henrycraik.co.uk.