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Calling in the plumber

You would think that with three bathrooms in one smallish cottage, I should have an embarrassment of plumbing amenities. There’s what an estate agent would call the main “family bathroom”, an en-suite in my bedroom, and a very handy shower room in the extension. But over the last few weeks, it all started going wrong.

The electric shower in the en-suite broke, there seems to be a leak in the shower in the main bathroom, and the shower in the extension won’t drain properly, even with several bottles-worth of drain unblocker. Then to really cap it all, the flush mechanism broke on two out of the three toilets so that they were unusable. Either I’m very unlucky, (or clumsy?) or there’s a design flaw, as exactly the same thing went wrong at the holiday cottage in Ironbridge last month….

I’ve been meaning for a while to call in a plumber to sort it out, but have been so busy at work that it never got to the top of my to-do list. However, when the second loo broke, that was the final straw! I was on to my final back-up and Something Had To Be Done. I didn’t want to call in the plumber I used last time, as I didn’t like his attitude. But the new one comes with recommendations and seems to be polite and efficient.

He turned up when he was expected, with two plumber’s mates, and sorted out the immediate problems. He’s cleared a blockage in my main drain, which was causing the drainage problem with the third shower, and has fixed both the broken toilets. The electric shower will have to be completely replaced, so that’s a job for another day, and the leak in the main bathroom needs to dry out before it can get fixed. So he’ll come back in a couple of weeks to finish the job. But at least I know have one working shower and three functional toilets – which is significantly better than I had this morning!

Lunch at Stokesay Castle

Stokesay Castle gate house with castle behind

Stokesay Castle is about half way between Ironbridge and Malvern, so it was an ideal place to stop for lunch on the way home from my short holiday. It was one of Christopher’s favourite English Heritage sites, and we used to go there at least annually to look at the wonky gatehouse and solidly-built tower, great hall and solar block in the castle courtyard. It must be over ten years now since I last visited, and I enjoyed seeing it again.

Previously, I remember that there was a small tea-shop in one corner of the courtyard which sold cold drinks, ice-creams and little else. There was hardly any seating, but you were encouraged to eat your ice-cream on one of the benches in the castle grounds. That was missing a clear retail opportunity to extract more cash from the punters, but there was no space for anything more. However, English Heritage have clearly been thinking about how better to monetise their visitors, and have recently converted a cottage at the end of the car-park into a good sized cafe / tea-rooms. I had a delicious, but rather enthusiastically-priced, ploughman’s lunch there, before reacquainting myself with the castle.

Wroxeter Roman City

Just fifteen minutes from the industrial heritage of Ironbridge is the site of the fourth-largest Roman town in Britain. There’s not a huge amount of it visible these days – most of it is under farmland, with much of the building stone recycled into the churches in the local villages. But there is still a substantial chunk of bath-house wall standing, and enough foundations of the basilica and forum to give an idea of how impressive it must once have been.

Wroxeter Roman City – the remains of the baths

There was also a small reconstructed Roman town house on the site. It was built about ten years ago as part of an experimental archaeology project, and filmed by Channel 4 for a documentary series “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. The premise was that six modern builders (chippie, plumber, plasterer etc) would have to build the villa from scratch using only tools and methods that would be recognisable to the Romans. So no power tools, and absolutely everything had to be done by hand, under the eye of a somewhat pompous academic archaeologist who was prone to hissy fits if he spotted something anachronistic (like a wheelbarrow!). I remember it made quite an entertaining TV series, so it was interesting to see the finished house.

The reconstructed Roman town house

Pork Pies and Plumbing

The holiday apartment was owned and run by a family-run business who make self-proclaimed “world-famous pork pies”. Indeed, the very comprehensive welcome pack included one of their very tasty pork pies, which meant I didn’t have to cook dinner that night! The matriarch of the family had clearly decided to expand the business by turning some of the original workshops in a courtyard behind the shop into holiday lets. The one I stayed in was small, but one of the best-appointed holiday cottages I’ve stayed in.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. On my second evening there, the toilet flush mechanism broke. Just one of those things, nobody’s fault – but it rendered the loo unusable. I phoned the emergency number from the welcome pack, and within five minutes the manager from the pie shop was there to have a look. He agreed that it was indeed broken, beyond his abilities to mend it, and that he would have to get a plumber round. But it was 6pm already, and the plumber couldn’t get there until the next day. That could have completely spoiled the holiday, as you can’t do without a loo!

Fortunately, the next-door holiday cottage was vacant that night, so the manager gave me the key and showed me where its bathroom was. It was a bit inconvenient, having to pop next door, but fortunately the weather was dry overnight so it wasn’t a very big deal. The next morning there was a knock on the door, and it was a young man in a butcher’s apron. He was the owner’s son, and had been sent round by his mother to apologise profusely, to keep me updated on the whereabouts of the promised plumber, and to offer me a selection of pork pies and pasties to compensate for the inconvenience! I’ve been back home for several days now, and I still have some of the pork pies left – in fact I had some for lunch today!

I’ve often thought that you can tell how good a business is by how it behaves when something goes wrong. And in this case, they were all over the case – helpful, keeping me informed on progress, and compensating me with delicious hand-made pork pies. I’m just very relieved that the next-door holiday cottage was empty at the critical time, or it could have been a lot worse!

A Few Days in Ironbridge

Easter seemed very late this year, and after the hectic end-of-year at work, followed immediately by working on a big bid, I really needed a break. The trains were predicted to be chaotic over the Bank Holiday, as usual, so I looked for somewhere interesting within what I consider to be a driveable distance. Ironbridge in Shropshire fitted the bill – only an hour and a half or so drive away, but with enough to see in the immediate vicinity to make it worth staying for a few days. I booked a small self-catering apartment right in the middle of the town, and spent my time just pottering around.

The original “iron bridge” dating from 1779

I’m sure that last time I went to Ironbridge, about 15 years ago or more, the bridge wasn’t a red-brown colour. It turns out that I’d timed the visit perfectly – it underwent a massive conservation effort all last year, and was shrouded in scaffolding for the duration. That would have ruined thousands of people’s holiday photographs! As part of the restoration, they discovered the original colour of the ironwork was red-brown, not the blue-grey it’s been for decades, and so it was repainted. I was glad that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me!

Yet another pair of glasses

About this time last year, at considerable expense, I bought myself three new pairs of glasses: one for distance, one for using the computer at work, and a third for reading. For the next few months I was constantly swapping glasses depending on what I was doing – it was really quite tiresome.

Then a month or so ago it dawned on me that I really wasn’t swapping my spectacles over nearly as much as before. My normal (distance) pair were just fine for using on the computer, and I only really needed to change glasses at work if I was spending a while reviewing a printed document. Hmmm. Sounded like my vision had changed again and I’d got even more short-sighted. I went back to the opticians to get it checked out, and yes indeed I needed an even stronger prescription.

I really didn’t want to shell out on more pairs of glasses than necessary, so had a really constructive discussion with the opticians about the way forward. We decided that since all the frames were virtually new and perfectly serviceable, I should just “shunt all the pairs of glasses along one”. So last year’s distance pair become my computer glasses. The previous computer/middle-distance glasses are now my reading glasses. And I’ve had new, stronger lenses put in my old reading glasses so that they have now become my new distance pair.

I picked the new pair up this week, and now I’m trying to “break them in”, having all the usual issues that the floor isn’t in the right place and the walls seem at an angle. At least I’m off work for the bank holiday so I can get used to them at home, and deal with the low-grade headache that changing a lens prescription always seems to cause. But now that I’m back to having the correct prescription, I’m also back to changing my glasses every few minutes depending on what I’m doing!

Turning and decorating

I was determined not to leave it too long before I went back to the pottery, and so last Sunday I joined day two of a weekend throwing course that Jon was running.

On the first day the participants learn how to throw pots, they are dried out overnight, and then on the second day they are shown how to turn and decorate their half-finished pots. Since that was the stage I was at with mine, it made sense to join them. It’s easier for the pottery staff if everyone is at roughly the same stage – if I’m throwing while everyone else is turning, then they need to keep me supplied with ready-wedged clay, which I’m the only person using. It’s not so inconvenient if I’m turning whilst the course participants are learning how to throw, as I’m pretty much self-contained and just sit in a corner getting on with it. But overall it’s easier if we’re all doing roughly the same thing.

I had fifteen small bowls that I threw last time, which had been dried to the “leather-hard” stage and then wrapped in plastic. I tidied up the bottoms of the best ten, taking off the extra heaviness on the bottom and turning a foot-ring to make them more stable. Then I down-selected five from those to decorate. I’m not at all artistic, so I concentrated on bold colours (blue and turquoise) and simple patterns. Plus I painted a plain white slip on the inside to add some further contrast. They looked quite striking, but I forgot to take a picture of them before I left. I’ll have to get one when I pick them up in a few weeks time.

Dodgy Tyres and Dodgier Electrics

I was on my way home on the first day of the equipment trial, when half way up the steep hill my Mini made a loud “Bong!” and a warning light lit up on the dashboard. Oh great, the tyre pressure sensor had alerted, and I had a flat tyre. I managed to limp home but there was very little I could do about it at that point – I was working long hours on the equipment trial and had no time to get a new tyre. Fortunately I have my sister’s old car for just such emergencies, and so I used that until the end of the Financial Year when I finally had the time to attend to the issue.

I checked the tyres over the weekend and the two back ones were indeed significantly under pressure. Fortunately, I have an electric pump that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket and so I was able to pump them back up again. It looked much more like a slow puncture than a catastrophic failure. But, rather oddly, the tyre pressure sensor wouldn’t reset, and still loudly bonged saying there was a problem.

The rear tyres were still losing pressure at a slow but unacceptable rate, so I took a day off on Tuesday and took the car along to the local tyre company for them to have a look, with the tyre pressure warning light flashing on the dashboard the whole way there. They must have seen me coming, as they almost immediately diagnosed two nearly-perished tyres and prescribed two new ones. To be fair though, at the last MOT I’d had an advisory notice about the rear tyres, so I knew that they would need replacing some time this year. But even with two new tyres, and all four correctly inflated to the factory standard, the light wouldn’t go off on the dashboard.

So this morning I took the car along to the garage for Mike the Mechanic to have a look at it. Apparently, it’s an MOT failure now, if you have a faulty warning light on the dashboard. I didn’t know that, but it’s considered to be a safety issue. So even though I’ve never had a tyre pressure sensor on any of my previous cars, simply disconnecting it was not an option. It had to be fixed.

In the end, it turned out to be a faulty connection to the reset button. I knew the electrics on my Mini were dodgy – the passenger window won’t open, and its locked me out before now when I’ve been de-icing the windows. This is another example of the same dodgy wiring. And it seems I’m not alone – I was moaning to my friend Fiona last night about it. She also has a Mini, and she too has problems with dodgy wiring on the tyres pressure sensor circuit, leading to incorrect alerts. Clearly it’s something I’ll have to keep an eye out for.

End of year overload

I’ve not posted much recently, because I’ve simply been too busy with work. Next Friday is the end of the Financial Year for both the company and our main customer, and the “end of year push” to complete projects and write them up is well underway. Each year we tell ourselves that it will be better next year, but it never is.

This year is particularly challenging because I’ve got two major projects on the go which both finish next Friday. This week I’ve been running a big equipment trial in Malvern, with five subcontractors, and about twenty techies, culminating in orchestrating a demo to our stakeholders. On my other project, I’ve been working closely with a number of universities, and have been witnessing and participating in their equipment trials in Oxford and Birmingham, and attending multiple meetings in London.

My “resource demand signal” (management new-speak for what the project managers cumulatively are expecting me to deliver) has been running at ~40 hours/week for the past month. That would be fine if I worked full time. But I don’t. It’s no wonder I’m tired!

I’m keeping going on a diet of caffeine, paracetamol and chocolate. Not the healthiest combination, admittedly, but the end of the Financial Year is in sight at last. Just one more week to go…..


Back at the pottery – at long last!

Its been far too long since I’ve spent a day throwing at Eastnor Pottery. I had to look back at my diary to remind myself when I was there last – it was last June, when I threw a selection of small bowls. I had another session booked for September to turn and decorate them, but I had to cancel that when I was sent out to Montreal on business. For one reason or another, I never got around to rebooking – I think I’ve just been too rushed off my feet at work, so I’ve been using the weekends to recover from exhaustion, rather than actively doing anything that I enjoy.

But that’s really not an acceptable situation, and I knew that I’d enjoy myself at the pottery if only I could summon the energy to book a session. So, despite the fact that the end of the Financial Year is fast approaching, and work is even more manic than ever, I got in touch with Eastnor Pottery and asked if they had any slots available on one of their throwing workshops. They did, and I spent all day yesterday there, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Jon the Potter had even kept the bowls I’d made last June, in the expectation that I would turn up at some point to finish them. Unfortunately, however, even though they were wrapped in plastic, nine months is rather too long to keep pots damp and malleable. They had dried out completely, and were far too brittle to work with. I broke them up and put them in the reclaim bin where they will get soaked in water until the clay breaks down and can be recycled into fresh clay for throwing. It was very reminiscent of breaking up Easter eggs – the dried terracotta bowls had just the same texture and much the same colour as a chocolate eggshell.

I then spent the rest of the morning throwing some small bowls. My mother has asked for some to replace one I threw 15 years ago that is now showing its age and getting a bit chipped around the rim. I threw 15 bowls in total, using up a whole bag of clay in the process. By about 2pm I was beginning to get tired and losing my concentration – my pots started getting wobbly, so I decided to call it a day and come home. I did make sure however to book into another workshop next month to turn and decorate them – I don’t want to leave another nine months between visits!