Skip to content

In need of tradesmen again

I’ve had over a month free of tradesmen working on the house. The last time was in early January, when I had Dynorod around to unblock the drains. I’ve rather enjoyed a month free of writing large cheques in return for getting the house put back to how it ought to be! But I might have known that it was too good to last….

The first thing that’s gone wrong is that a stain has appeared on the hall ceiling. I first noticed it just as the heavy snow was thawing, and it made me think that something in the loft had maybe frozen in the cold and was now leaking. But it’s not a big enough stain to come from a burst pipe, and I’ve had a poke around up in the loft and everything feels dry. So I’m going to just keep an eye on it and see if it gets any worse. At the very least, I will have to add “Painting the hall ceiling” to the long list of jobs I ask Rob the Decorator to do when he has his week here over the summer. At worst, it will be a job for a plumber to track down and fix a leaking part of the hot water system.

The next problem is more immediately annoying. I was doing several loads of laundry yesterday when both the washing machine and the tumble dryer stopped dead, mid-cycle. I checked the fuse box in the garage, and the utility room ring-main had tripped off. But resetting it made no difference – the appliances were still as dead as a dodo. I managed to wriggle behind the machines to unplug them, and plugged them in to an extension cable which I ran across the kitchen from a socket on a different ring-main. Both appliances happily switched themselves back on and carried on with their programmes. So that implies to me that it’s the plug socket itself that has died for some reason. That is beyond my DIY capabilities, so I’m going to have to call in an electrician. In the meantime, I can carry on as usual, but have to take great care of the cable running across the kitchen floor, as it is something of a trip hazard….

Eerily Quiet

My house is on a main road, and even though I have double glazing throughout I can usually still hear the regular stream of traffic going past. I’m so used to the sound of the traffic that it took me quite a while today to work out what was different. There has been hardly any traffic at all – the occasional tractor and 4×4 but virtually no lorries, vans or small cars. It’s really quiet – apart from the wind howling round the chimneys.

The lack of traffic is because Storm Emma has clashed with the Beast from the East, and unleashed a significant dump of snow on the Malvern Hills. The road has been gritted, but there hasn’t been enough traffic on it to work the salt into the layers of snow, so it looks very dangerous and nearly impassable to ordinary vehicles. Not that I intend to find out – I’ve got drifts of snow up to at least a foot deep on the drive, and it’s going to be a major shovelling job to free the car. And it’s still snowing heavily with more promised for the rest of the day.

I’m so glad that I brought my laptop home with me so that I could work from home today. There’s plenty of food in the house, and I don’t actually have to be anywhere in particular over the weekend. So I’ll sit tight and hope that the promised thaw sets in on Sunday…..

The Beast from the East

It’s cold. Very cold. I don’t think it’s got above freezing all week, and the strong winds from the east are making it feel even colder. But there’s not (so far…..) been a great deal of snow. We’ve had about a centimetre or so up here on the hills, and the roads have remained clear. I’ve just seen a gritter lorry go past, and there is a steady stream of traffic going past the house. There is more snow forecast for the rest of the week though, and I’m fully expecting to have to dig out the car at some stage. But I’ve got a full larder and freezer, and I’ve brought my laptop home from work. So if necessary I can work from home if it gets too difficult or dangerous to drive in.

The wildlife seems to be suffering though. There has been dozens of birds feasting on the bird feeders – blue tits, great tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits, as well as nuthatches and woodpeckers. Other birds are too large or aren’t agile enough to balance on the feeders, so they hop around on the ground underneath in the hope of picking up bits the tits have dropped. So there are robins, blackbirds, a wren, a crow and some dunnocks as well as several male pheasants (but interestingly, no females). My bird identification book has been getting a lot of use! There’s one I’ve not been able to identify yet – it’s small enough to use the peanut feeder, and had a dull green back with a yellow belly. Not sure what it is, and it’s been too easily startled to get any photos of it.

Philip the pheasant in the snow

There are three pheasants that are very regular visitors. They all have quite different markings, so are very distinctive and identifiable. This is Philip the pheasant – he has a very broad white collar like Harry Hill, a large white patch on the top of his head, and a very grey backside. He visits the garden several times each day, and struts about as if he owns the place. He was looking very forlorn earlier when his head was even whiter than usual due to a topknot of snow!

Restrictive Diets

The Three Ways House hotel in Mickleton hosts the Pudding Club at least weekly throughout the year. It’s held on a Friday each week, except for Good Friday; the hotel feels it would be disrespectful to hold such a gluttonous feast on Good Friday, but clearly doesn’t want to miss out on the Easter tourist traffic – so they hold the dinner on Easter Saturday instead.

As well as the standard  weekly Pudding Club dinners that are open to the general public, they also can be persuaded to hold private dinners for groups. That’s the case for our regular event – for the past twenty years or so, the Civil Service Sports and Social Club has held an annual Pudding Club feast for members and their friends. Each year, about a third of the guests are newbies, whilst the rest are returners, some with many many years of attendance. For some of the women in my group from work, this was the 18th year they’d been!

Because it’s become such an annual treat for many people, it’s not just the puddings themselves that are necessarily the main draw, important though they are. The whole weekend away, meeting up with old friends, catching up on the news, and of course enjoying the Cotswold scenery / long country walks / shopping opportunities (delete as necessary) are a huge part of the attraction. This means that the event continues to attract returners who might otherwise not consider a gluttonous Pudding Club to be for them.

Last week’s dinner was a case in point. Out of the fifty or so of us, there were two guests who were diabetic, one who was gluten-intolerant, and one who had gone vegan since she attended last year. You would have thought, on the face of it, that some combination of flour, sugar, eggs, cream, and/or milk in the form of custard would have been critical ingredients in every traditional British pudding. But I was very impressed to see how the kitchen rose to the challenge and managed to produce a selection of puddings, in individual portions, that were tailored to the particular dietary requirements.  They didn’t manage to make a full seven puddings for each of the restrictive diets, but the vegan was on my table and had four puddings made specially for her, (together with endless jugs of soya custard) all of which she thoroughly enjoyed. And, to be fair, four helpings of pudding is more than enough, particularly when each one was larger that the rest of us were going for from the main selection.

We had a long chat with the manager about their ability to handle specific diets, and he said that, given enough notice, they were always prepared to give it a go and see what could be done. It did though make for much more work for both the kitchens and the front-of-house staff – there was one extra waitress that evening whose primary task was to keep tabs on the four “special” diners and look after them. And I imagine the issues of avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen would also take some handling. But I thought it was very inclusive of them, ensuring that everyone was able to participate and enjoy the atmosphere of the Pudding Club.

The Annual Pudding Overdose

After the day’s Retail Therapy, all attention turned to the main event of the weekend, the Pudding Club. We met up the the residents’ lounge of the Three Ways House Hotel for drinks and a good gossip. All too soon, it was time to get changed for dinner. I’ve learned over the years of the absolute necessity of not wearing anything too tight around the waist, so it’s one of the extremely few times a year that I will actually wear a dress – preferably one that stretches around the waist! So much more comfortable after several helpings of pudding too many….

In accordance with the time-honoured routine, we all met up in one of our rooms, bearing our tooth-mugs from our rooms, for a glass of wine before dinner. Disappointingly, most of the really nice glass tooth-mugs of the last few years had been replaced by nasty plastic cups. My room (a small and somewhat idiosyncratic room in the old servants quarters under the eaves) still had the old glass goblets, perhaps to compensate for nearly bashing my head on the ceiling every time I went to the bathroom. But all my friends had the nasty plastic replacements – we quizzed the hotel manager about it, and he said it was because too many of the good goblets had been nicked by the guests. It was the same story with flannels; they’ve stopped providing those too, because too many went walkabout, to the tune of hundreds of pounds every few months. That’s a real shame, but I suppose they couldn’t withstand the constant drain on resources in the current climate.

Anyway, after a glass of wine, we all convened back in the resident’s lounge for a pre-dinner elderflower pressé with all the other guests, and the introduction to the main event. Dinner started I with a very light main course – I had a fillet of fish with vegetables and a caper sauce. I held back on the potatoes – they were very nice, but additional carbohydrates at that early stage of the evening would not have been a good idea!

Then it was time for the Main Event. Seven traditional puddings were paraded in to the room, to much cheering and banging of cutlery. This year, they were:

  • Passionfruit and Meringue Roulade with extra cream
  • Sticky Toffee and Date pudding with custard
  • Butterscotch pudding with butterscotch sauce and custard
  • Very Chocolate Pudding with chocolate sauce and custard
  • Rhubarb Crumble and custard
  • Marmalade Bread & Butter pudding and custard
  • Sussex Pond Pudding and custard.

At this point in the evening, it becomes necessary to plan ones’s tactics, in order to squeeze in the maximum number of puddings. Do you start heavy and go lighter? Or start light and get stodgier through the evening? I decided to start with my favourites, and then move down the list as far as I could.

I’ve had Sussex Pond Pudding before, and not much enjoyed it. It’s essentially a suet Pudding, with whole lemons embedded in it, and it’s a sweet and sour experience, but not necessarily in a good way. I was happy to give that a miss. Likewise the Rhubarb Crumble – I hate rhubarb. I can also take or leave bread and butter pudding, it’s ok but not one of my favourites. That left the top four, all of which I’ve had before at the Pudding Club and I knew I liked a lot.

I managed a decent portion of the top three puddings, then decided to sit out a round to settle my stomach before attempting a fourth helping. Unfortunately, at that point, the friend sitting opposite me decided to try the Very Chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce and custard. It really was extremely rich, and smelled it! At that point, my stomach rebelled, and pointed out in no uncertain terms exactly what it would do if I tried to force the chocolate pudding down! So I ended up on a total of three puddings, all of which were gorgeous.

The Annual Shopping Experience

It’s a full year since the last time a group of us loosely associated with work went on the annual Civil Service Sports & Social Club “Pudding Club” weekend away. I’ve been so busy at work recently that the date rather crept up on me, and I suddenly realised mid-week that it was imminent. So that was a nice surprise!

As usual, I was picked up on the Saturday morning and we drove to Stratford for the first act of the weekend, Recreational Shopping at the tail end of the winter sales. The group have done this for so many years that they’ve got the timings down to a fine art, so six of us met up within five minutes of each other at the first rendezvous, a coffee shop by the river. We had tea / coffee / hot chocolate and toast with butter and jam to fortify ourselves before hitting the shops.

We’ve all got our favourite shops to visit, so we split up and headed out to do some serious browsing before lunch. As with each of the last few years, I was particularly keen to get myself a new cashmere jumper, to replace one that the moths have been eating. I like wearing cashmere jumpers to work, as they’re warm and fairly smart, but I really do not like paying full price for them. But at the end of the sales, there were very few sweaters left in my size. There were plenty in XS, but I’ve not been able to fit into that for years! Fortunately, I found the last M sized sweater in the sales, in a very pleasant deep blue-green, that was a very acceptable price. I was wearing it today to work, and it is very warm and soft.

I also spent an age in Lakeland, looking at tons of solutions to problems I didn’t know I had! They have a gadget for anything kitchen or home-related that you can possibly imagine. I suddenly realised that I’d just spent the past five minutes comparing the merits of three different mould and mildew remover sprays for the bathroom! I had to forcibly remind myself that I already have two bottles of something similar under the kitchen sink, and that buying more isn’t going to magically make the mould in the bathroom go away – the problem isn’t a lack of bleach spray, it’s my lack of willingness to get the ladder out to reach the awkward bits behind the shower!

I considered myself lucky to escape from Lakeland at the relatively trifling cost of some mini ice-packs for my lunch-box and a pie tin in a size I hadn’t already got. I didn’t get off so lightly at the next shop I went to, which sells eyewateringly expensive hand cream. I’m at the age where cheap hand cream isn’t worth the bother, and this stuff is very good, but even so I felt as if I’d been mugged! The cashier gave me her card and said that if I ran out before my next scheduled trip to Stratford, to give her a call and she’d get some couriered to me. At that price, so I should hope!

We all met up for lunch at the usual pub, together with another colleague who had further to travel, and compared notes. We’d all had a pretty successful morning shopping, and were ready for lunch. But in view of what we knew we had coming that evening, we didn’t want too much food, or we’d be unable to maximise the gluttonous opportunity later on. I think the pub staff must have been very disappointed in us – they were clearly hoping to sell us seven lots of three-course lunches with drinks. Instead, it was seven small starters, two jugs of tap water, and some lime-and-sodas. Not as profitable for them as they would have hoped! But it left us all with enough room to do justice to the Upcoming Event, and with more money to blow on further shopping before our next rendezvous later that afternoon in the residents’ lounge of the Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton, home of the Pudding Club.

Eighty Years Ago

My neighbours are renovating their cottage which is grade II listed. They are understandably keen to collect images and information about how it used to look, so have been looking through piles of old postcards and photos of the locality. They came across this lovely example from 1937 which is of my cottage.

Taken over eighty years ago, but still recognisable

The first thing that struck me was how quiet the road is! It’s a busy main road these days, and the only time I would dare to walk down the middle of it like that is when it’s been closed to traffic by the police or by heavy snow.

The Hills also look very different – there are many more trees on the lower slopes now, and a significant wood has grown up in the waste ground at the front right of the picture.

Despite those relatively cosmetic changes, the house is still very recognisable. In particular, you can make out the big bay window to the front room, and the troublesome porch. The house has been extended at both ends since 1937, so overall must be at least half as big again now as it was then.

It also looks as if there is another roofed structure in the front garden, just to the right of the big tree (that’s not there any more either). I think it must be a roof over the well, as I do have a disused well underneath a bird bath roughly at the same position. That seems a bit odd, as I’ve read elsewhere that from approx 1927 all the cottages in this little hamlet were supplied with drinking water pumped from a spring on the other side of British Camp, and there are still large water tanks in my loft from that date. Perhaps the well was a backup, or used to water the garden? Also, although it’s difficult to tell, the clothes the women are wearing look to me to pre-date the 1930s. I’m no expert, but perhaps Malvern was something of a fashion backwater? (My sister would say it still is!) Or maybe the photo was in fact taken earlier, and only labelled as 1937 subsequently?

Another Marco Restaurant

I’ve been doing an increasing amount of work with a number of British universities recently, and spent a couple of days in Scotland this week following up on some earlier discussions.

I was booked on an early flight from Birmingham to Edinburgh on Monday morning. It wasn’t the first flight of the day, but still would have meant leaving Malvern at a ridiculous time of the morning, which I wasn’t prepared to contemplate. Instead, I went up to Birmingham airport by train on Sunday afternoon and stayed overnight. The hotels actually on the airport were either full or demanding an extortionate price for their last few rooms, so I stayed instead at a hotel just outside the airport, which advertised itself as having a complementary shuttle bus to/from the railway station. I couldn’t immediately see where the shuttle bus went from, so phoned the hotel Reception for directions.

The very helpful Receptionist told me which bus stop to go to, and added that I should look out for a white minibus with a big picture of Marco Pierre White on the back. My heart sank a bit, since one of the hotels I stay in near our Hampshire HQ has a Marco Pierre White restaurant, and I’ve been left distinctly underwhelmed by the quality and price of the food, and indeed the service.

Unfortunately, the hotel was too far off the airport to head over there for dinner, and the bar (which served light meals) was very noisy and busy, with no spare tables. So if I wanted anything to eat on Sunday night, Marco’s was the only choice. He seems to have franchised his name out to far more hotel restaurants that he could feasibly keep an eye on personally. The restaurants presumably feel they can charge a premium for the “big name”, and indeed this hotel seemed very proud of the association. However, the menu was uninspiring and the burger I chose was expensive and not even particularly tasty. The service was slow, but the waiter was  friendly and brought me a large glass of wine, whilst only charging me for the small glass I actually ordered. So that at least was a bonus.

Even though I’d stayed locally overnight, I still had to be up much earlier than I would like, in order to get the half-hourly shuttle bus back to Birmingham International railway station, and then the monorail shuttle to the airport. I decided that the sensible thing to do was to have breakfast in the departure lounge, once I’d passed security etc, as that way I wouldn’t have to rush it. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hotel had laid out a tray of croissants, together with pots of tea and coffee in the Reception area. That was a nice touch, to help those guests who were having to depart at a hideously early time, before the full breakfast service was in operation. And it was free, so even better!

Above the Snow Line

There was more snow forecast yesterday, though Scotland and the north east were expected to get hit far more heavily than the midlands. Nevertheless, when I saw the snow starting to fall mid afternoon yesterday, I hurriedly packed up my laptop and left work to get home promptly. I absolutely hate driving through snow; it reminds me far too much of trying to get Christopher home from hospital when he was seriously ill in the middle of a blizzard. I left just in the nick of time, because just after I got home it started snowing really heavily – big fat flakes which looked alarmingly like they might stick.

It was forecast to snow on and off all night, though the temperature was meant to be hovering just above zero, so I was hopeful that it wouldn’t get too deep. When I got up this morning, there was a worryingly white glow coming through the bathroom window. That generally means that there’s a layer of snow on the timber revetments holding up the slope. But because the window is frosted, it’s not possible to assess the depth of the snow. Opening the bedroom curtains initially didn’t give much more of a clue – the grass was clearly white not green, but I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see how bad it was.

Fortunately, it turned out to be little more than a light smattering of a centimetre or so. All the same, it took well over five minutes to get the car driveable – the driver’s door had frozen shut again, so the only way in was by clambering in from the passenger side. But the roads were clear and I had no trouble driving in. In fact, most of Malvern was completely free of snow; as I drove down the hill there was a pretty clear line below which there was no snow on the ground at all. It was just the tops of the hills which were above the snow line. My car was the only one in the car park at work with a layer of snow on the bonnet – not for the first time…..

New Year, New Tradesmen

On Christmas Day, the kitchen sink decided it was a good time to get completely blocked. Obviously, there was no way that I was going to be able to get an emergency plumber away from his Christmas Dinner for anything as relatively trivial as a blocked sink, so self help was clearly required.

I tried to clear it first with the plunger. Admittedly, it’s a pretty elderly plunger – I think we bought it soon after we moved in here. It turned out that the rubber was perished, and over-enthusiastic plunging just caused it to part company with the handle! So that was no good. Next I tried pouring drain-unblocking fat-busting chemicals down the sink. That partially worked, to the extent that the sink drained slowly and noisily, but was at least usable over the Christmas period.

On the day after Boxing Day, I tried getting hold of one of those 24/7 plumber/drain clearer companies to do the job properly. I was initially offered a same-day appointment, albeit for a significant amount of money. I agreed, through gritted teeth, but they phoned me back an hour later and said they wouldn’t be able to get to me until the Friday. So much for 24/7 emergency call-outs! I was not impressed, and anyway was due to be visiting my parents on the Friday, so I cancelled.

My parents recommended an old-fashioned hardware store close to where they live, that happened to be open between Christmas and New Year, so I was able to replace the broken plunger with a new, heavy duty one. Enthusiastic and regular plunging with that has at least kept the kitchen sink draining well enough to be usable for the last week or so.

However, there was clearly an ongoing problem. There was a heavy frost overnight earlier this week, and I noticed that there was a frozen puddle outside the kitchen window, even though it hadn’t rained. It looked like the problem might not be so much with the sink itself, but with the drain. And that is way outside my limited DIY capabilities. I needed professional help for that.

So I have taken today off work to wait in for Dynorod to turn up and fix it. They’re not cheap, but they’re not the company that let me down after Christmas, and actually I’ve been moderately impressed with their professionalism. They were in regular phone contact this morning, telling me that I was on the job schedule, and giving updated times when the service engineer would get to me. And when he got here, he quickly diagnosed and fixed the problem with a cheery “Just leave it to me, luv”.

It turned out to be a blockage in the external U-bend outside the kitchen, where the outlet from the sink joins the main drain. It needed rodding to get rid of a significant blockage of congealed grease. The chap said it was like these “fatbergs” that have been in the press lately, but on a much smaller domestic scale – he called it a “fat snowball”! I felt entirely justified in calling in the professionals, as clearing it required specialist tools that I don’t have, as well as being an unpleasant and somewhat messy job!

I do hope this isn’t an omen for the rest of the year……