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Generations of decorators……

When Christopher and I first bought this cottage, it needed a lot of work doing to it. Most urgently, it needed completely re-wiring, as the original rubber-insulated electric cabling was beginning to perish. We found a semi-retired electrician, Jack, who spent many weeks crawling around in the attic and chiselling channels in the walls to replace all the wiring. By the time he’d finished, the house needed completely redecorating, and it was far too big a job for us to take on ourselves. Jack recommended his brother, Derek, who had a painting and decorating business, so we happily went with that suggestion.

Derek brought with him his son, Rob, as his apprentice. I found out later that this was in fact Rob’s first job once he’d decided to join the family firm. I certainly noticed at the time that Derek was giving him very firm direction! They were both very hard workers and did a very good job, so we were happy to use them again and again.

Keeping on top of the paintwork in this house is like painting the Forth Bridge – there is always something that needs a fresh coat. Derek retired many years ago, but Rob took over the family business and I hire him for a week each summer to keep the house in reasonable decorative order. This year I had a long list of jobs for him, including covering over stains from old leaks on the ceiling of three rooms, mending a broken gutter, and replacing and painting several sections of soffit and fascia on the extension which were looking distinctly rotten.

Today things came full circle, as Rob brought his own younger son with him on work experience. Billy has just left school and is considering whether to train as a painter/decorator and join the family business. Today he got a bit of a baptism of fire, working with his dad to replace a large section of my garden decking, which was so rotten that the planks crumbled when you stepped on them. They’ve replaced the worst half this time, and we’ve agreed that I’ll have the other half replaced next year, as it would otherwise be too big a job to fit in to the allocated week along with everything else I want done.

I can tell I’ve lived here a long time when I’m on my third generation of decorator!

Great Pottery Throw Down axed

Jon the Potter will be disappointed. The BBC has confirmed that it has axed The Great Pottery Throw Down, despite the fact that the last year it had some of BBC2’s highest viewing figures. Over three million people watched the second series, apparently, and it fuelled a massive demand for pottery classes from viewers who wanted to give the craft a go.

Jon has been running workshops at Eastnor Pottery for adult beginners almost every weekend since the show first aired, to keep up with demand. I’ve certainly noticed that almost everyone who’s attended a workshop at the same time as me has been a massive fan of the series.  Last time I was there, a few weeks back, Jon mentioned that enquiries were just beginning to get less crazy, and that another series would be very timely to stoke up the levels of interest again.

The series is made by the same people who made The Great British Bake Off, which had a major falling-out with The Beeb when it transferred to Channel 4. The cancellation of Throw Down looks remarkably like revenge.

Mamma Mia Here We Go Again

I admit it. I succumbed to the publicity and hype, and bought myself a ticket to see the newly-released sequel to the original Mamma Mia film.

Malvern has a one-screen cinema as part of the theatre, so I didn’t have to trek into Worcester to see it at one of the big cinema multiplexes there. Usually, this far out in the sticks we are several weeks behind the times (my sister would say years behind but that’s another matter….), but on this occasion the cinema is actually showing the film from its general release day. They’re clearly expecting it to be popular – they’re showing it twice a day for two weeks, which is pretty much unheard of in Malvern. The matinée showing this afternoon was a bit under half full, and I had a comfy seat in the middle of the front row of the circle. The leg-room was a bit restricted, but I had a good unobstructed view of the screen.

The plot was as flimsy, unsubstantial and see-through as a net curtain, and was really there just as an excuse to break out some old Abba tunes. However, most of the well-known tunes were used in the original film, so they were rather scraping the bottom of the back-catalogue with a load of decidly “B-side” songs. I don’t know why they didn’t just recycle more songs from the first film, since so much of the plot and most of the characters were also recycled. The main exception to that was a new character, played by Cher, singing one of Abba’s bigger hits that wasn’t in the previous film. Who would have guessed that the hotel manager would turn out to be an old boyfriend of hers called Fernando?!

But despite the film being decidedly cheesy, it was a lot of fun. There were some snappy one-liners, some good ensemble acting, and both Piers Brosnan and Colin Firth got to do some singing and dancing. All the cast seemed to be having a whale of a time, and their enjoyment was quite infectious. All together, it was an enjoyable way of spending an afternoon, the main downside being that I’ve now got Abba’s SuperTrouper on the brain!

Doing yet another MOOC

I’m getting quite in to the “Massively Open Online Courses”, or MOOCs, available totally for free from the FutureLearn platform. They keep my mind ticking over, give me something new to learn, and I can easily fit them around work.

I did a mind-blowingly challenging one a few months ago from a Japanese University on quantum computing, so I decided to change the pace a bit and am currently doing a much less demanding course from the Open University on “Health and Well-being in the Ancient World”. It’s a rather superficial gallop through Greek and Roman medical practices, comparing and contrasting them with today. To be honest, I’m finding it somewhat wishy-washy, and non rigorous, though that is probably somewhat inevitable given the wide non-specialist audience that it is aimed at.

I’m finding that the most interesting parts are the side-alleys and rabbit holes that one ends up exploring through web searches. I’ve come across a fascinating site on the history of toilets from Neolithic times onwards – and what’s slightly worrying is how many of them I’ve actually visited! (Though thankfully I’ve not been to the World’s Worst Toilet!) Plus I’ve found myself wondering whether Trojan archers would really have worn brightly coloured knitted onesies (probably, yes!) and trying to decide which set of Roman Baths I should plan to visit next…..

Christopher’s Tree

Christopher’s tree, summer 2018

Peter, Christopher’s step-father, has sent me the now-annual update photo of how Christopher’s tree is doing. You can see how much it’s grown from the original sapling in 2012. In fact, it’s doing so well that it’s rather difficult to distinguish it now from the neighbouring trees. It certainaly looks strong and healthy.

A brief stop in Shrewsbury

It wasn’t too bad getting to Port Meirion from Malvern on a Friday. Although it was a  very long journey,  there was a choice of trains and if the connections had gone badly wrong there were alternatives. But it was another matter coming home again on the Sunday. There was only one train that would have got me back to Malvern at a reasonable hour, and any delays could have left me stranded. There is little point going away on a relaxing weekend break, if you then get home tired, late and grumpy!

So it made sense to take an extra day’s leave, break my journey home at a sensible mid-point, and not tempt fate by trying too challenging a journey on the Sunday. There are far more trains back to Malvern on a Monday, and I wouldn’t be held hostage to the trains running on time to meet tight connections. Plus, if you get an open return you can break your journey on the return leg without additional cost, which gives a lot more flexibility.  With that in mind, I looked for places to stop overnight on the rail route between Minffordd and Malvern. Shrewsbury seemed the obvious place – an interesting historic town centre, lots to see to keep me busy for a few hours, and a choice of routes home on the Monday (either via Hereford or via Birmingham, so plenty of options).

Shrewsbury Castle

I stayed in an old coaching inn, which Charles Darwin set off from on the journey when he visited the Galapagos, subsequently coming up with the theory of evolution. I then spent Monday morning ambling around Shrewsbury. I’d stayed there years ago with Christopher, so didn’t feel the need to do it thoroughly. But there were a few sites that we’d missed last time, like the castle – originally Norman, then turned into a fortified stately home, and now a regimental museum. That was surprisingly interesting.

Altogether a much better option than trying to get home in one step from the far side of Snowdonia!

Following in the footsteps of Number Six

On the Saturday afternoon I joined an hour-long The Prisoner themed walk around Portmeirion village with a guide. He pointed out key locations from the TV series – such as the house occupied by Number Six, the eponymous Prisoner. Today it’s a shop selling Prisoner-themed gifts, including copies of the iconic blazer for £150. Needless to say, I didn’t buy one, though I did get a fridge magnet.

The Dome was Number Two’s house in The Prisoner TV series

The guide pointed out to us how the director had used clever camera angles to make The Village seem larger and more isolated than it actually is. There’s also a lot of trompe l’oeil on the buildings, with painted-on windows making the houses seem grander and more spacious than they really are. Most of the indoor scenes of the series were in fact shot at Borehamwood Studios in London, and the interior of Number Six’s house was at least three times larger than the building is in reality.

The tour was actually more interesting than I had expected, and fortunately you didn’t have to be an über-fan of the TV series to appreciate it. I was pleased though that I had re-watched the first two episodes of the series the previous week so that I had some context to hang it all from.

Scattering the Ashes

Scattering the ashes

One of the main reasons for going to Portmeirion was to scatter some of Christopher’s ashes there, since we hadn’t managed to get there when he was alive. In the evening, once all the day-trippers had left the village, it was extremely peaceful. I found a lovely tranquil spot to scatter the ashes into the estuary of the Afon Dwyryd. The water was so still, it looked like a mirror.  I think he would have approved.

A surreal few days

Portmeirion isn’t exactly easily accessible from Malvern. It’s on the far side of Snowdonia, on the coast, and I’m simply not prepared to drive for 4+ hours through the mountains to get there. It was actually quite an easy journey by train, perhaps because Great Western Railways didn’t feature at all for once.  I changed at Birmingham for the slow train to Pwllheli, on a two-carriage train which appears to stop at every significant oak tree on the Cambrian coast. It took most of the day to get from Malvern to Minffordd, the nearest station to Portmeirion, but on the plus side the views from the train were stunning – sea to my left, mountains to the right, and sheep and lambs frolicking in the fields all around.

I’d phoned ahead to warn the Portmeirion Hotel that I was coming by train, so there was a complementary minibus waiting for me at Minffordd station to take me directly to the hotel. I had booked one of the Village Rooms, rather than staying in the hotel itself, so once I’d checked in, the minibus took me and my luggage back up to the top of the village to my room in Cliff House – perched as you would expect from the name at the top of the hill and within a short walk of all the main buildings in the village.

Portmeirion central plaza

The Village was built from 1925 onwards by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. I don’t know what he was smoking at the time, but it was certainly effective! The place is really very surreal. It’s now run by a charitable trust, presided over by Sir Clough’s grandson. He’s a Welsh-speaker, and is very keen that the staff speak Welsh too. So that just adds to the sense of unreality of the place. You’re effectively walking around on the film set of one of the most surreal TV series from the 60’s, looking at Italian-style architecture thousands of kilometers from Italy, and can’t understand a word the staff are saying to each other! It was very, very weird!

I think the novelty would wear off if you were staying for a week. You’d have to have a car so that you could get out and explore Snowdonia. Without a car, one really is a prisoner in The Village. But there was plenty to keep me occupied for a weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Staying on a film set

Christopher was big fan of The Prisoner TV series. Although we were both far too young to have watched it when it was first broadcast in the late ’60s, it was repeated in the ’80s and we both had seen it then. In his last few years, Christopher was a member of what I think was called LoveFilm, a sort of cross between Netflix and a video-library. We didn’t (and indeed I still don’t) have enough bandwidth on our broadband connection to be able to stream films, but with LoveFilm you chose films online for a monthly subscription and got DVDs sent through the post. When you had finished viewing them, you sent them back and the next lot would then turn up. It worked well, and he spent hours watching all sorts of films that I simply wasn’t bothered about. However, some of his selections were of interest to both of us, and I well remember that in about 2009 he borrowed the entire series of The Prisoner, all seventeen episodes of it, which we watched over several months.

The series is set in the Welsh village of Portmeirion – an extremely bizarre-looking Italianate village plonked down incongruously on the coast on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. It looked fascinating on the TV, and we looked into visiting it. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and he was taken ill and died before we managed to get there.

Portmeirion main square

I don’t like unfinished business, so I decided that I should make the effort to get to Portmeirion, stay there overnight, and scatter some of Christopher’s ashes there, since it was somewhere he particularity wanted to go. The majority of the buildings in The Village are used either as self-catering cottages, or as hotel suites, so there is plenty of choice for somewhere to stay.

Portmeirion colonnade and houses

During the day, the village is heaving with day-trippers. Particularly so on hot and sunny weekends like this last one. But in the evenings, all the day-trippers are kicked out and the residents have a free run of the place in peace and quiet. That was really enjoyable – if somewhat surreal.