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A Very Rude Awakening

I was woken up very suddenly at 05:15 one morning last week by a klaxon going off, very loudly indeed. It wasn’t the smoke alarm, as that makes a different sort of beep, which meant it had to be the burglar alarm. Which was very odd, as I was sure I hadn’t actually set it the previous night before going to bed. With the noise ringing in my ears, I put the bedside light on. Or at least tried to – all I got was a dim crepuscular glow out of it. Even more odd. Fortunately, I keep a torch within easy reach, and with its aid I went to turn off the alarm and investigate the cause.

About half the lights in the house weren’t working at all, and the rest were producing at best a dull glimmer. The oven was making a dreadful noise, so I turned it off at the main fuse box, but the mains-powered clock on the microwave was still ticking away happily. I phoned the helpline number for the electrical distribution company, but they had no knowledge of any power faults in my area. It wasn’t just me though – I could hear the burglar alarm on next door’s house screaming away. The woman on the phone line and I agreed that it was most probably a prolonged brown-out, where the voltage on the line drops but doesn’t fail altogether. At that point, next door’s burglar alarm finally fell silent, and my house lights came on as the power supply went back to normal.

It seems to me that a brownout is indeed the most likely cause. Some of the newfangled energy-saving bulbs I’ve got won’t work with dimmer switches, and they were presumably the ones that failed to come on at all. The ones that were glowing dimly were therefore likely to be slightly fancier bulbs which do work with the reduced voltage that a dimmer switch provides. Some of my devices (e.g. the microwave) can clearly cope with low voltage, and kept going, but others (such as the oven) objected strongly. But I was concerned that my burglar alarm had gone off – it’s got a battery back-up which is meant to kick in to provide continuity through a power cut. That’s the trouble with the neighbour’s one – the battery is knackered and won’t hold its charge, so the alarm goes off with every single power-cut, no matter how short; and we get a lot of those up here on the top of the hills. However, I couldn’t tell how long the power had been faulty. If it had been a long time then it’s reasonable for the alarm to have discharged the battery.

I decided the best thing to do was to get someone around to service the alarm and check on the battery condition. So I took Monday off work and arranged for a technician to call. He thoroughly tested the alarm system and gave it all a clean bill of health. Apparently, my battery is holding its charge well, and doesn’t need replacing for at least another two years. So we’ll just have to put last week’s Unfortunate Incident down to a long-duration brownout. 

I do hope it doesn’t happen too often – it’s a horrible way to wake up and put me in a filthy mood for the rest of the day! But at least I suppose I know that the burglar alarm works!

Private Lives

I’ve not been to the theatre for a while – they didn’t have anything particularly interesting on over the summer. But now that the schools have gone back, and the autumn season at the theatre has started, there’s a few things coming up that look interesting. Last week’s offering was Private Lives by Noël Coward. I’ve seen the play before, years ago, but decided it was worth a revisit, so bought myself a standby ticket to the matinée performance.

The first Act is set on a pair of hotel balconies in the South of France, in the early 1930s judging by the costumes. One room is occupied by newly-weds Elyot and Sybil, and the other by Amanda and Victor, also on their honeymoon. Elyot and Amanda were previously married for a highly volatile three years and subsequently divorced. They meet, unseen by their new partners, and of course the old attraction raises its head again. They realise that they can’t live without each other, but argue so much (and so violently) that they can’t live with each other either.

The plot is paper-thin. Even if I hadn’t seen it before, I could have guessed that Elyot and Amanda would run off together, and be pursued back to Amanda’s Parisian flat by their wronged spouses Sybil and Victor. The success of the play depends purely on the chemistry between the actors, and whether they are able to master Coward’s studiously witty and quick-fire dialogue. This lot managed pretty well, though they cantered through the lines at top speed and sometimes stumbled a bit as a result. It perhaps didn’t help that the play was just starting its run, and the performance I saw was just the second one – presumably things will tighten up a bit as it continues on tour. 

Overall though, I thought it was a pretty successful revival of a theatrical classic, and made for an enjoyable afternoon.

Tour of Britain

There was an unusual air of excitement and activity around British Camp this lunch-time. I read in the local paper on Friday that the Tour of Britain cycle race would be passing through, and using the steep climb up to British Camp for the “King of the Mountains”. Well, the Malvern Hills hardly count as “mountains”, but it is undoubtedly a long and steep climb up the hill from the valley below. The world and his wife were expected at British Camp to watch the final stages of the climb. The paper’s advice was to get there early to get a decent vantage point, as it was expected to get very busy.  A close look at the route, prompted by an email from my sister, showed me that I wouldn’t even have to walk up the hill for ten minutes to see the race – the route went right past my house!

The first sign of activity was from cars using my drive to turn around in – the car parks were all full, and they were parking on the verges all the way down the hill. Then the police out-riders started going past, setting up a moving roadblock in front of the race. It was a good day to be a burglar in Worcestershire – I reckon there must have been thirty or more police motorcyclists involved! Then there were the race cars and race stewards on motorcycles, one of whom did stop briefly on my drive before thinking better of it and blocking my neighbour’s drive instead.

The leading group

A helicopter was hovering overhead, but it didn’t look like a police or air-ambulance, so I suspect it was a heli-telly. Finally, after a huge amount of fuss and build-up, the leading group of cyclists came into view, followed a few seconds later by the peloton, and then huge numbers of support cars with bikes on the roof, three ambulances and yet more police cars and motorbikes.

Whizzing past

Apparently, Mark Cavendish was in the race somewhere. I’ve heard the name but they all look pretty much the same in their lycra uniforms so I’ve no idea which one he was.

Exeter’s Underground Passages

One of the more unusual attractions I came across was Exeter’s Underground Passages. They were built from about 1450 onward to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city, through lead pipes into the heart of the city. The pipes sometimes leaked and repairs to buried pipes could only be carried out by digging them up, just as we do today. To avoid this disruption the stone masons working on the cathedral were directed to dig some deep trenches, line them with stone, and build vaulted roofs over the top. These “cut and cover” trenches were then back-filled, and when the inevitable leaks occurred the plumbers were sent down the passages to find and fix them without disrupting daily life above ground.

A blurry shot of one of Exeter’s underground passages.

There are a daily guided tours around the passages, but each tour has very limited numbers of people on it, as the passageways are so narrow and cramped. All tours for the Sunday were fully booked by the time I found the nondescript entrance to the passageways (next to Next and opposite John Lewis), but I was able to book a slot on the first tour on Monday morning, leaving me plenty of time to catch my lunch-time train home.

We all had to wear hard hats, and I could really see why. The tunnels were very narrow and low. Most of the time I couldn’t stand up fully (and I’m only 5’2″) and I kept banging my head. Some of the people on the tour were 6′ or more, and they looked very uncomfortable at times – especially on the way out where a section of the tunnel was less than a metre high. That was quite a challenge! I found it all absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit.

Pottering around Exeter

Exeter’s not a particularly photogenic city. What the Luftwaffe didn’t flatten during the War, the town planners demolished in the 50s and 60s and replaced with some truly horrible modern monstrosities. But there was enough to look at to keep me interested for a weekend.

Exeter Quays

The river-side docks have clearly had a lot of investment over the last few years. The warehouses and boat-houses have been re-purposed as craft shops and eateries, and it’s quite a pleasant place to wander around and grab a light lunch looking out over the water. Needless to say, I did NOT avail myself of the opportunity to hire a pedalo or kayak!

A return visit to Exeter

When I went to Penzance in May, I stopped overnight in Exeter on the way home, simply to break the journey since Penzance is such an awkward long trip especially by public transport. I picked the hotel in Exeter on the basis of convenience and price (or as work would put it, “value for money”), and indeed it was one of those modern chains so beloved by work. They are usually entirely acceptable but hardly luxurious, and this one was a rather ugly multi-story block well located within a short walk of the Cathedral Green. My room was on the fourth floor, with a really good view of the car park through a large picture window. Too good a view in fact – the window opened but wouldn’t close again! It was one of those windows with a catch that’s meant to stop it opening by more than an inch or two, allowing in air but remaining secure. However, the catch was on the ground in the car park, four floors below and the window swung wide open, hanging on by just one corner! It was, without exaggeration, a death-trap.

To do the hotel justice, they were suitably horrified. The receptionist, whom I initially summoned up to have a look at my broken window, quickly decided that this problem was well above his pay-grade. He called for reinforcements in the shape of the duty manager, who swiftly decided that I most certainly couldn’t stay in that room a moment longer. I’d pre-paid for the room, and that was immediately refunded, and I was moved into an upgraded room for a free overnight stay with breakfast (which since I hadn’t originally paid for breakfast was a very good deal). I was also offered a free overnight stay for a return visit, to be used at a mutually agreeable date.

Well, I’m hardly going to turn down a free night away, so I was pleased to accept the offer.  I settled on a two-night stay in Exeter over the August Bank Holiday, with the first night free, and the second at a heavily discounted price. Even better, there was a bottle of wine chilling in the room, and an envelope with vouchers for free coffee, some free drinks from the bar, and money off all food and beverages for the duration of my stay.

Things always can and do go wrong, but it’s how a company responds to put things right that makes the biggest difference. And in this case they did a good job at sorting out the problem and recompensing me for the trouble I’d had.

Annual lunch with Peter

Every year Peter, Christopher’s step-father, has a holiday with friends in Wales, which pretty much involves him driving right past my door. So every year we try to meet up for a pub lunch on either his way there or home again. The last couple of years he’s been coming past Malvern on a weekday, so we’ve been limited to the pubs close to work where we can grab a quick meal in my allotted lunch break. But this year, he was heading home on a Sunday, which gave me much more freedom in picking somewhere to eat.

I settled on Sunday lunch at the Inn at Welland, about a ten minute drive from home, which has a good reputation for being a bit of a gastro-pub. I’ve not been there for a few years, but very much enjoyed it last time. I’m happy to report that standards have been maintained, and the Sunday lunch (roast belly of lamb with all the trimmings, followed by creme brulee) was delicious. My only criticism was that the portions were perhaps a bit small – I managed pretty much all of mine which is unusual for me, and Peter had no trouble clearing his plate. Another slice of lamb would have been welcomed by both of us.

The place was pretty full with families taking Grandma out for Sunday lunch, so I was pleased that I’d had the foresight to book us a table in advance. We had a good chat, caught up on a year’s worth of gossip, and made a date to repeat our annual get-together the same time next year!

A couple of days in Glasgow

I’m doing a lot of liaison work at the moment with various universities, and needed to catch up with what’s going on with the physics departments at Glasgow and Strathclyde. That involved an overnight trip to Glasgow, catching the early flight on Monday morning, two days of highly academic meetings and laboratory visits, then the evening flight back to Birmingham, finally getting home after 10pm on Tuesday evening. I’m still both physically and mentally shattered! 

Glasgow seemed like a bit of an odd mix – the centre had clearly been “gentrified” and was really quite pleasant, albeit in a dour Scottish sort of a way. The area around Glasgow University, which is slightly away from the city centre to the north west, was also rather nice and surprisingly green and leafy.  But Strathclyde university, in the city centre, was in a somewhat less gentrified area, and I was staying right next to the Central Station which was a decidedly less than salubrious neighbourhood. It was as if the gentrification money ran out from one block to the next.  It was interesting visiting the universities, and I expect I’ll be returning there as I’m working closely with a couple of the professors. But I can’t say that I feel any strong desire to spend any time in Glasgow on holiday – it just didn’t strike me as my kind of place.

Christopher’s Tree in summer

Christopher ‘s stepfather, Peter, has sent me the latest annual update on “Christopher’s Tree”, which is on Woodland Trust land near to where he grew up in Kent.  We had problems in getting the photo to me, as my mailbox was too full to accept a full-sized image and I still don’t know the password to get in and clear it out. I thought I’d sorted that out last year, but apparently not and I really can’t face a transatlantic phone call to the godaddy helpdesk at the moment. So we’ll have to make do with a low-resolution version for now. It certainly looks as if the tree is doing well – it looks healthy and in full leaf. It’s a maple tree, and by the look of it, it’s a bit bigger than a sapling now, though obviously there’s a long way to go before it’s fully mature.

Waiting for a break in the weather

I didn’t get my accustomed lie-in on Saturday, as the carpenter was here at 09:00 sharp to fit the missing pane of glass and to take the crooked door back to his workshop for some TLC. It’s now been re-shaped and re-hung straight, repairing the list that has crept in over the past hundred or so years as the west corner of the porch gradually sank. The painters have been back to undercoat the door, and are now waiting for a break in the weather before they can put the top-coat on. There’s probably about a day or so’s work left to do, but there’s no point in doing it if rain is forecast. I’ll be glad when it’s over, and I don’t have to try to squeeze past builders vans as I go to work and come home.