Who Moved Stonehenge?

Stonehenge Visitor Centre
What was wrong with the old center?


For years and years, I’ve been a loyal visitor to Stonehenge. The ancient monument sits proudly alongside the A303 and every time I go past it I want to go and visit it. I first went there as a child, aged about 4 or 5 probably. I remember at the time being allowed to walk amongst the stones and actually climbing and sitting on them whilst the guide droned on about where we were. I must have had some kind of moment there back in 1970, as I have always loved going to see the site.

Until today, that is.

Today, I drove along the A303 and sat in traffic jam after jam. I’d had enough, so took a familiar detour to go along the ‘other’ road (B3083 to Shrewton, and then turn right along the A360) that meets up at the same roundabout, but passes the Stonehenge visitor centre. Imagine my surprise when I found the road ahead closed, and a strange new building on the landscape, approximately two miles from the monument itself. Instead of the familiar and always friendly visitor experience, I was greeted by a very modern and slightly disturbing piece of architecture, and no sign of a tunnel under the road to scamper along in eager anticipation. Oh no, those days are now a relic, just like the monument.

On arriving, and after paying a fiver to park (you do get it refunded), you go to a large and fairly open covered space. To your right are a very dominating set of three toilets. To your left, a cafe. Behind the toilets is an exhibition, and behind the cafe is a souvenir shop. Between the two is a set of kiosks to buy your tickets. I already hated it.

Regardless, the ticket buying is slick, the exhibition very techy… but I am sad to say not a patch on the underground time tunnel of before. It doesn’t come close to raising the excitement of it’s older version, and everything is on display in museum type cases. Modern, brightly lit, and not at all what it was – that’s great, some might say – that’s progress!

Out of the exhibition you can see a mock neolithic village, complete with fibre glass sarson stone on a wooden frame. it looked fake, it is fake and it doesn’t help. Up until then I am going with the new feel, but then the very worst thing happens. You get on a bus to go and visit the stones.

The new visitor centre is about 2 miles from the stones. You can walk it, if you’re energetic enough, and can go past barrows and other antiquities. Lovely. But a bus is a must for anyone who is older, infirm, too young, lazy, wants a bit of help… in fact, nearly everyone. And sitting on a  bus for two miles to get to the monument is nowhere as exciting as a time tunnel and rushing through it to get to the stones!

This is not the way to build up anticipation and excite the youngsters – or indeed the old ‘uns! It is a sure fire way to build an anti-climax. This, English heritage have done in spades. So much of an anti-climax that I couldn’t wait to leave. So I go on the bus to trek the two miles back and was ushered, I kid you not, into the shop. Filled with the usual ‘henge based goods, it did nothing for me. I went for a bite to eat instead.

Pork Pie Salad
Pork Pie Salad - but it is revolting

The cafe feels new, clean, modern – excellent, I thought. I found a pork pie and salad box for £4.75 – a bit high, but it looked tasty. At the till I learned that despite the ‘offer to buy’ on the shelf, the price to pay was a hefty £6.75 instead. I protested, but to no avail. I decided to pay up, and eat. And when I did I just about gave up – the food is a disgrace. The pie was filled with a tasteless mush not at all resembling pork chunks – more like mechanically recovered meat from the inside of a sausage.. revolting texture, and all encased in the most abysmal and salty pastry I’ve ever had the misfortune to taste. Two salad potatoes, two slices of cucumber, a cherry tomato, some ‘slaw and about a tonne of lettuce – mostly iceberg, nothing close to tasty.

Tasteless, badly priced and served with no more than a wooden fork that would be at home at a seaside chip shop.

It cost me a fiver to park, £17.50 to get in and (with a drink) £9 to eat – except I didn’t – I left it.

I toyed with the idea of joining English Heritage today. And then decided not to. This is NOT the experience I want each time I go to Stonehenge – a conveyor belt of tourists, not one ounce of excitement and everything geared towards getting people in and out fast. A two mile bus ride… it’s a nonsense. A pastiche of what was there, and as far as I can see, there’s no reason why the centre could not have been a *lot* closer to the monument.

Now, if English Heritage also run their other 400 sites throughout the country in the same way I want no part of it at all. I’ll not join an organisation so clearly disjointed from the user experience and so appallingly and obviously driven to a quick buck. This is NOT what English Heritage used to be about, and not what I want it to be now. So I’ll keep my cash and buy membership to the National Trust instead.

And what is even more sad, I’ll never visit Stonehenge like that again. I’d implore you all to protest if, like me, you have gone to it since the 70s or before, and now found your visit there to be something very removed from what it was. OK – so the stones are in the same geographic location, but everything that was special about them has been moved. Or ‘re-moved’… you decide.

Rolling Stage Hire, stage on a truck

As the year moves on I am getting more and more excited about the prospect of getting the Rolling Stage Hire vehicle up and running! The stage is attached to an Iveco 17t two axel rigid truck, and folds down on the passenger side. Behind it is the actial side of the rigid box, but that has a set of double patio doors in it. The inside of the box has a fully fitted studio space, and can act as a broadcast studio or as a main office for an event. There is another room, set up as a ‘green room’ too.

The vehicle comes equipped with a 2Kw PA system, best for playing music or talking to members of the public. It *can* be provided with a full live PA for a band, but at the moment that isn’t the main purpose for the truck. There is a lighting rig to finish it off, mounted on a ‘Duratruss’ system.

You can see more about it at www.rollingstagehire.com

Edirol UA-101, external USB soundcard, Garageband

Have you ever wanted to split the output from your garageband tracks into different channels? It turns out that whilst you can bring multiple inputs into garageband and record each to a separate track as you are composing, so you can output these tracks when you play back.

The secret lies in using a decent external sound card and plug it in to your USB port. As an example, I recently bought an Edirol UA-101 device off eBay (they are a bit like hen’s teeth though) and wanted to use it on the community radio station as part of an outside broadcast solution. These wonderful little boxes allow you to set your mac playback through to USB and then collect it and split to different channels. The UA-101 has ten such (or five stereo) which is more than enough for what I needed.

Just connecting it to the mac and it is identified as a valid sound device – go into your Settings/Audio and set it to be the playback device. In Garageband preferences, make sure that it is being used there too, and you can then allocate a channel per track so that on playback you can send each track out. From the UA-101 you then connect the output to a mixer and you can then manually fade in each track from Garageband exactly as you want it. This avoids having to adjust the audio levels in garageband all the time (something I find great fun, but a little clunky), and you can then send your mixer output off to be recorded at the levels you create with the mixer. Genius!

Obviously, there are later models than the UA-101 that you can use – Saffire, Roland Octa to name a few. These are more and more frequently using Firewire over USB, and that’s not a bad thing in general – but I kind of like the way the USB interface works. Oh, the Octa is around £450 new, but the UA-101, if you can find one second hand, will be about half of that or less…


Community Radio

Can you believe it? A new radio station is starting up, and I am slightly involved in that.

This makes the count of three – Hospital Radio in Chelmsford, Saint FM in Maldon and Burnham and now Chelmsford Community Radio. I am sure it will be a real drain on my time and energy, but you know what… I’ll love every single minute of it!

There is much to tell about this new venture, but in essence it is not yet broadcasting on FM – only through the Internet. Check it out on www.tunein.com for example. As soon as Ofcom open the next round of applications we will go for a full FM license as well. If you’d like to help or get involved, then go to www.chelmsfordcommunityradio.com and use the contact form there. We’re looking for people with all kinds of skills, not just presenters. If you have some time, live locally enough and want to be part of a new sound in the town, get in touch!

Seagate GoFlex Satellite, iPad 2 and Apple TV

I bought a Seagate GoFlex Satellite hard drive whilst I was away on holiday, for the princely sum of about £110.00, thanks to the exchange rates.

But exactly what is a Seagate GoFlex Satellite drive anyway?

Basically, it’s a small and very portable hard drive that has a wifi broadcaster in it. Built in to the firmware is a media server and it has a rechargeable battery built in to. Basically, you can think of it a an external hard drive for your iPad. It can hold music, videos, documents, files of any kind, so it is a pretty useful device all round, and the fact that you can connect to it through wifi is really cool… it can stay in a bag or coat pocket and you can watch your videos or listen to your extremely large music library on your iPad.

The latest version of the firmware also allows you to set the device up as a bridge to a wider area network too. This means your iPad can connect to the GoFlex wifi, which in turn connects on to your normal wifi that gets you onto the internet. Lovely – I can now listen to music and surf the web at the same time.

But all of this is only useful if you have got a very small capacity iPad, or iPhone, like me. My iTunes library alone would need six iPads to fit all of it on, and so an external device like this is super useful for me. But there is a slight issue for me. I also own and use an Apple TV device.

Apple TV boxes are awesome. You can call up any content on your iPhone or iPad (or mac computer) and stream it to the Apple TV, which plays it through your normal TV set. I love this and really enjoy being able to show images or videos to a group of friends all at the same time. The bad news is that the GoFlex media player does not allow you to stream directly to the TV.

Worse, the GoFlex media player does not really like anything other than MP4 files for video, and that’s not yet what most of the videos are that I like to play.

The good news is there is a solution to both these dilemmas.

Firstly, you could use Handbrake to convert all of your video files to MP4. It works a treat and if you let it run overnight it’ll pretty much convert most of your stuff flawlessly, depending on how much stuff you’ve got of course! However, you can also use other video playback apps from the app store and connect them to your GoFlex device too.

But the best news is that the GoFlex device also has a HTTP connection, and if you simply type in the IP address of the GoFlex Satellite into a web browser on your iPad, you will see the same media server interface created through HTML. This is very good, because from there you can play a video AND you can send it to your AppleTV as well. And it works, perfectly!

To make this a little more robust I tried connecting the Apple TV and the iPad to the GoFlex Satellite wifi instead of the usual connection to the web. I then set the GoFlex wifi to use the house wifi to get out to the internet. In effect, AppleTV was connecting to things like YouTube through the GoFlex Satellite and it worked perfectly. The videos on the GoFlex device played through the iPad and on to the Apple TV and out to the main TV screen, and I could also read email on the iPad as I was doing all of this.

So – I now have an ultra portable hard drive for my iPad so I can keep as much data as I need when I am travelling, and I can watch videos of my own choice on airplane journeys, and of course I can watch them on my home TV when I am there, too. I’ve yet to try it on a long car journey with the kids watching videos they want to watch, but apparently the GoFlex Satellite allows multiple simultaneous connections… I’ll test that another time, but for now I am delighted with the new gadgetry!