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Not much of a substitute

Normally around this time of year, I’d be taking my annual Girls’ Weekend Away to the Pudding Club, via some extensive retail therapy in Stratford and Broadway. But not this year. I haven’t actually left the house for nearly two weeks – I’m working from home and getting a weekly supermarket delivery.

Instead of strolling round the sales and topping up my underwear drawer, I ordered some multi-packs of knickers online from M&S. And instead of pigging out at the Pudding Club I treated myself to a portion of Morrison’s Winter Berry Sponge on the Saturday night. It was tasty, but really not in the same league as a Pudding Club extravaganza!

Hopefully things will be back to normal (or at least a New Normal) next year. Though how many of the shops / tea rooms / hotels will have survived until then is another question. There was an alarming number of vacant shop units in Stratford last year, and I can only imagine that will get worse.

A lockdown MOT

My mother’s car, which I inherited, was due its MOT this month. Well, actually, it was originally due it over the summer, but the government in its wisdom back in the first lockdown decided that MOTs were not that essential, and handed out automatic 6 month extensions to all cars which were due one. So even though COVID cases were relatively low in July, when it was originally due, the expiry date was pushed back to January.

Now, despite the fact that the pandemic situation is much worse than it was in July, and we are back in a pretty strict lockdown, it appears that MOTs are essential after all. It might be that the government is concerned about dangerous cars on the road, but I suspect the Treasury is at least equally concerned about the loss of revenue…

In normal years, when I have an MOT due, I like to take the day off work and make an occasion out of a necessity. I drop the car at the garage, then take the train into Worcester to do a little light shopping. Then I have a two-course set lunch at my favourite restaurant, possibly treating myself to a glass of wine since I won’t be driving for hours. In the afternoon I either potter around one of the museums, or plonk myself down on a comfy chair in the library and catch up on some reading until the mechanic phones to say my car is ready. Then I get the next train back to Malvern, having turned an administrative chore into an enjoyable day out.

Obviously, none of that was going to be possible today. The trains are running, but the shops, museums and restaurants are all closed, and the library is only open to people who book in advance to use one of the computers. Instead, I booked a taxi to take me straight home from the garage, and worked from home until the car was ready.

The taxi driver was delighted to take me back into Malvern in the afternoon to pick it up. He was telling me that his work has really dried up and he’s getting hardly any fares – nobody is going out as there’s nowhere to go, and that is hitting the taxi drivers hard. No one is making theatre trips, no taxis are needed back from the pub/restaurants, there are no lucrative long distance airport runs as nobody is going away on either holiday or business, and New Year was a complete washout. I felt thoroughly depressed by the time I got to the garage. Though at least my car passed its MOT ok.

Here we go again

Oh well, back in to lockdown. Not that I was going anywhere anyway. I’ve been pretty much snowed in for the past week. We had about 7cm (3”) of snow up here on the hills on Monday and Tuesday last week, which still hasn’t completely melted yet. The council did a good job at keeping the main road clear, but I have a shortish but steep drive down onto the road, and that was completely impassable.

It would have taken well over an hour to dig the car out, and there isn’t really anywhere to go at the moment. So I just stayed put. I reckoned that, as long as the Morrison’s food delivery I had ordered for last Tuesday was able to get through, and didn’t have too many items missing, then I had no need to go out. And fortunately, in the middle of a blizzard on Tuesday lunchtime, the van turned up, right at the beginning of my appointed delivery slot. The driver said that he had ignored his planned route, which took him to some lower-lying villages first, in favour of ticking me off his list before the conditions got worse! That was very sensible of him, as he would have struggled getting up the big hill an hour later in the face of driving snow.

Now the drive is nearly clear, and certainly passable, but I’m still not going anywhere because we’re back in lockdown. I’ve been back at work since yesterday, but not actually in work – my dining room table is once again substituting for the office. Presumably until at least mid February. Or March. Or April. Depending on which of the vacillating politicians one believes.

Tier hokey-cokey

Two weeks ago, where I live was in COVID Tier 2, so we could only meet in small groups outdoors. In the mini-lockdown before that, I could talk to my neighbour over the fence, or up on the hill, but not in her garden. Then a week ago, Herefordshire was downgraded to Tier 1, meaning we could if we wished have six people meeting indoors.

We were the only county to be moved down a level, while most of the south east was bumped up into the draconian Tier 4. I have a cynical suspicion that the politicians wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to move down the alert scale as well as up, and decided that minimal harm would be done by picking Herefordshire – a rural and sparsely populated county. Conveniently ignoring that we adjoin Wales, which is struggling to contain a significant third wave.

My house has a Worcester postcode, but is actually in Herefordshire by less than 500m. The rest of Malvern, however, stayed in Tier 2. I think that meant that town was out of bounds except for work or medical appointments, but to be honest it’s getting difficult to keep on track of what is or isn’t allowed. The hotel/pub at the top of the hill is in Herefordshire by less than 20m, so was allowed to serve small groups inside – but only if all the people in a group lived in Herefordshire. Which meant they had to check everyone’s postcode before working out whether they could serve them indoors, outdoors or not at all.

The reprieve didn’t last long though – we’ve been bounced back up into Tier 2 today due to rising cases. Hardly a surprise. I predict we’ll be at least Tier 3 in another fortnight, unless there is a significant change in the virus trajectory. Looks like I’ll be working from home again in the New Year…..

Hobnails and chains

The mice are back! They’ve been very quiet for months, but the recent cold wet snap seems to have driven them back indoors. I was rudely awoken at 01:10 on Thursday morning by the sound of something in hobnail boots walking across the floor of the loft, dragging a clanking chain behind it! Or at least, that’s what it sounded like.

On the assumption that it was probably just a mouse, rather than a poltergeist, I sent an urgent text straight after breakfast to Martin, the friendly pest controller whom I have on an annual rolling contract. This is always a busy time of year for him, but I was really hoping he’d be able to fit me in before Christmas. He surpassed himself as usual, and turned up at 08:30 this morning to investigate.

He confirmed that there had been a fair amount of recent “rodent activity” in the loft directly above my bedroom, but didn’t have an explanation for the clanking chains. The bait he’s put down in the loft should be enough to stop an entire family of mice, so hopefully I won’t be kept awake by them for much longer. I have however renewed my annual contract with him – I’m sure they will be back at some point.

Nothing Significant to Report

I’ve not been posting much because nothing much has been happening. Lockdown 2.0 is very much like Lockdown 1.0 but a bit slicker. The shopping is largely sorted, mostly because Morrisons have expanded their delivery service. It now arrives weekly, picked from their Tewksbury store. That makes more sense than previously, when it was delivered from a regional hub north of Birmingham. Their substitutions for missing items are generally intelligent, and the use-by dates are usually reasonable so I only have to do minimal top-up shopping at Waitrose or the local convenience store. I’m glad I’ve got a freezer though, as that makes things much easier.

I’m going into work only about once a fortnight at the moment, working from home the rest of the time. I’ve sorted out my wifi, and use a work-supplied 4G dongle which provides enough bandwidth for videoconferences. I’m fortunate that I can do most of my job from home, and our facilities manger has done a very good job of making the office environment COVID-safe for those days when I do need to go in.

Obviously, I’m not going out unless it’s strictly necessary. I’m pleased I managed to get to the theatre and the pottery during the brief window that they were open over the summer, and I do miss them. I also miss my previously regular back massages – I’ve not had one since February and the knots have really built up in my back and shoulders. But overall, things are going ok, with nothing much happening and so nothing much to say….

Give a car again

Ten years ago, shortly after Christopher died, I was having coffee in Waitrose, idly flicking through the free newspaper in the coffee shop. I came across an article about a recently launched “social enterprise” / not-for-profit company which promised to take old unwanted cars of your hands, regardless of condition. They would realise the value from the car, either through selling it or scrapping it through an authorised breakers yard, and give all the profit to a charity of your choice. I had both Christopher’s Mini and my 15 year old Polo on my drive at that point, and I didn’t need them both.

This seemed like an ideal way to dispose of my old Polo, and I duly donated it via to St Richard’s Hospice, which had done such a good job in caring for Christopher. I was the first person who had donated a car to St Richard’s, and I remember having to look up their Charity Number to provide to giveacar. The hospice clearly thought it was an excellent idea, it got written up in the local press, and they have incorporated it into their regular fundraising publicity. Until very recently a total of nineteen cars had been donated to St Richard’s, raising many thousands of pounds.

Make that twenty cars. After I had picked up my late mother’s car from a windswept station car park the other month, I was in the same situation as I was after Christopher died – with too many cars on my drive, one of which was very old and costing me money to keep roadworthy. I needed to dispose of my trusty but now 17 year old Mini.

I looked up giveacar, and they were still going strong, but with a rather slicker website than ten years ago. I filled in an online form on a Sunday, they phoned me the next day to discuss, and the car was picked up on the Thursday of the same week. It had a current MOT and a full service history, and still drove very well – provided you didn’t want to open the passenger window at any point! I’ve just heard that it was auctioned and raised nearly £350 for the Hospice.

I have to say it all worked seamlessly. I got an old but still viable car taken off my hands with absolutely no fuss. Someone has bought a good little runner with a very low mileage and only mildly dodgy electrics. And a charity I care about has got a bigger donation than I was expecting. Overall, it’s a win-win-win. I would thoroughly recommend them to anyone who needs to dispose of an unwanted car.

Back at the Theatre

Throughout Lockdown, I’ve been occasionally checking the Malvern Theatres website to see how they were getting on. It’s mostly been a long and sorry catalogue of shows cancelled or postponed. I could see that the cinema had re-opened a number of weeks ago, but it wasn’t showing anything I was interested in seeing. When I clicked on the site this week, however, I was very pleased to see that they actually had live theatre on, for the first time since March. And, even better, there was a Saturday matinée performance planned. I‘d never heard of the play, Mooney and his Caravans, but I want to support the theatre, so I decided I’d treat myself to a ticket, and see what the experience was like.

The “new normal”, Covid-secure way of going to the theatre is going to take a bit of getting used to. In order to ensure social distancing, the theatre seating has been split into well-spaced “bubbles” of between one and four seats. You have to book all the seats in a bubble, and there are no paper tickets anymore – just e-tickets that you can either print at home or show on your mobile. You have to pre-book, there’s no on-the-day or standby tickets. There’s no programmes, nor any ice-cream in the interval (in fact, there wasn’t even an interval) and of course the audience have to wear masks. At today’s matinée, the entire audience in the stalls numbered in the very low twenties, and there would have been even fewer than that upstairs in the Circle. Clearly, that’s not going to be a sustainable business model in the long term. Nor probably even in the medium term.

The play is apparently an old Repertory Company standby. Big, touring productions with famous (i.e. expensive) actors are quite clearly off the agenda for the foreseeable future, but a lower-cost Repertory model with a limited cast (this was a two-hander) is much more affordable. The actors were both former members of the Malvern Youth Theatre, who have recently turned professional – and were presumably back home in Malvern. The play was directed by the Theatre’s Chief Executive, so keeping it all in-house.

The performance itself wasn’t socially-distanced. The two actors were not wearing masks, and occasionally actually touched each other. The fact that is comment-worthy in itself says something about how strange things are at the moment! The play was about a young working-class couple, recently married, who want to better themselves by moving out of Selly Oak to the Cotswolds countryside. They move into a static caravan on a caravan park, but are ruthlessly bullied and exploited by the owner. It’s not an uplifting play, by any means, but I suppose that is very suited to our current times.

I was very pleased that the theatre had reopened, and hope that they will be able to survive this enforced “new normal” and come out the other side able to put on the big London-bound shows once again. But if there is a period of smaller, Repertory-style productions first, while the arts sector painfully rebuilds, then so be it. Today’s performance was well acted, thought provoking and interesting – and the ticket price was much more affordable than before Lockdown. And I felt very safe – the Theatre Management is clearly taking thoughtful and serious anti-virus measures, even though it must be crippling them economically.

Ladies Wot Lunch

I had a really enjoyable day off on Friday, meeting up with one of my oldest friends for lunch. I first met P when I was seven, when my family moved into the house three doors down from her. We’ve remained in contact ever since, though of latter years it’s been more by email and Christmas cards than in person. So meeting up for lunch and a good gossip was long overdue, and the recent relaxing of Covid restrictions gave us the kick we needed to stop procrastinating and actually meet up.

We decided to meet for lunch in Oxford – it’s about half way between Malvern and where she lives, north of London. I suggested we book a table at Brown’s restaurant, which is a fairly large bistro-style place – big enough that they have enough space to remove tables to allow for social distancing. The food isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s reliable.

I was astonished at how quiet Oxford was. Granted, it was before term had started, but I was a graduate student there for long enough to know that it is usually still pretty busy over the summer. What really struck me was the complete lack of large parties of tourists – one got so used to seeing crocodiles of Chinese/Japanese/French/American tourists following their tour leader and blocking the pavements. But not this time. Also, I was astonished at how much on-street parking there was available. My friend P was easily able to park really close to the restaurant, when normally it’s a struggle to find anywhere suitable to park. There were a lot of shops that were boarded up, and lots of the restaurants were still closed. The council was obviously trying to help the local economy, because at least one of the streets had been closed to vehicles, with tables and chairs set out into the road, so some of those restaurants that were open could offer outside seating. Though how enticing that will be as we move into autumn is an open question!

We had a really good catch up over lunch. We were both horrified to realise that the last time we had met up was eleven years ago, but Christopher was there so it must have been that long ago. Which meant that we had over a decade of news and gossip to catch up on. We’ve both decided that we really mustn’t leave it anywhere near so long next time!

A “New Normal” hotel stay

Hook was a convenient place to meet, and relatively straightforward to drive home from. But it is not particularly easy to get to from Malvern by train – you have to change at Reading and Basingstoke. The trains aren’t running to a full timetable yet, the changes are awkward, and it is actually impossible to get from Malvern to Hook by mid-morning on a Saturday, when I needed to meet J&P. So I needed to set off on Friday afternoon and break my journey overnight.

I decided to stay overnight in Reading, as there are several hotels within just a few minutes walk of the railway station. I’ve stayed at the Ibis before on business, but it’s a bit basic at the best of times. In the midst of a pandemic, I thought it would be a bit too austere. So I splashed out an extra £20 to stay at the Novotel next door – same chain, but more up-market.

It was a very odd, and somewhat unsettling experience. You couldn’t walk in off the street, but had to knock on the door and a receptionist would let you in. There were boxes of disposable face-masks by Reception, and bottles of hand-sanitiser wherever you looked. You were strongly encouraged to use the sanitiser before touching any of the lift buttons, and to wear a mask in communal areas such as corridors. Only one person (or I suppose one family group) was allowed in the lift at any time.

The receptionist couldn’t find my booking at first, which really worried me, but she made up for that slip by upgrading me to an Executive room. The room had really been stripped back due to taking precautions against Covid. There were no cups or tea & coffee – though you could get a sealed plastic bag from Reception with paper cups, tea bags, milk etc. All the toiletries had been removed from the bathroom – so there were no little bottles of shampoo, or bars of soap. Fortunately, I had several in my sponge bag that I had “liberated” from previous hotels, so that was fine.

The biggest difference was with breakfast. The breakfast buffet is a complete no-no at the moment. So instead the hotel offered a breakfast bag to be ordered the night before, then collected from Reception, either to eat in your room or takeaway. To order it, you either had to dial 0 on the in-room phone to speak to Room Service, or contact them on WhatsApp. Except that the in-room phone had also been removed, presumably because it was too difficult to keep clean. So I had to order my breakfast bag through WhatsApp – definitely a new experience for me!

They were a bit disorganised, and my breakfast wasn’t ready when I went down to collect it the next morning, which was a bit annoying as I had a train to catch that I really didn’t want to miss. But in the end, there was so much of it that I ended up taking a lot of it with me. For £12 I was given two cups of tea, plus a brown paper bag with

  • a hot ciabatta-style roll filled with sausages and egg
  • a warm croissant with butter and a pot of strawberry jam
  • a warm pain au chocolat
  • a small bottle of orange juice
  • a small carton of milk
  • a pot of instant porridge with a small jar of honey, I just needed to add boiling water from the kettle in my room
  • a yoghurt
  • a banana

That little lot did me for both breakfast and lunch, which after all is what one hopes for from a breakfast buffet at a hotel.

Overall, I think I was right to upgrade myself to a more comfortable hotel in the current circumstances. Travel is awkward enough at the moment, without adding unnecessary austerity as well!