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Daffodil Sunday

The local stately home, Madresfield Court, has once again opened its gardens to the Great Unwashed on Daffodil Sunday. They didn’t hold it for a few years, which must have put quite a hole in the budgets of the local school and church, who together benefit from the admission fees. But tradition has been restored, and the event is now firmly back on Malvern’s social calendar.

They picked a good week this year, when the daffodils were at their peak. Since the date is fixed some time in advance, it can be a bit touch and go. I remember one year when Christopher and I went, there had been a harsh winter and the daffodils had barely started to emerge. Instead, the woods were carpeted with crocus, which was equally spectacular. Other years, it’s been a bit late and the daffodils have started to droop. This year however, they were spectacular.

A carpet of daffodils

What you can’t see in this carefully-framed picture are the thousands of people who were there! According to the local paper, there were over 2000 people who visited that afternoon, and it certainly felt like half of Malvern was there. However, when you have 67 acres of woodland, it’s easy enough to lose even a few thousand people!

End of financial year overload

It’s coming to the end of the financial year – both for the company and for our main customers. So there is huge pressure on us all to finish projects, write up final reports, give presentations and demonstrations, and of course to bid for follow on work for next financial year. Every year we promise ourselves that it will be easier next time, and every year we’re wrong. This year seems to be particularly hard, and I’ve been juggling several projects and multiple bids for new work. I’m shattered, which is why I’ve not been blogging much lately. Only six more working days to go until the end of March, and then I might be able to catch my breath! In the mean time, a combination of paracetamol, coffee and chocolate are keeping me going……

Sorting out the IT

Managing the home computer network was always very much Christopher’s role. The network around the house developed organically over the years, and is a mixture of wifi, wired Ethernet and Home Plugs (i.e. Ethernet over the ring main). He never explained it all to me properly (or if he did, I wasn’t listening), so I don’t understand the decisions he made, or how it’s all connected together. It’s all at least nine years old, dating from when we had the extension built, and it’s getting increasingly unreliable – one home plug has completely failed, my printer has stopped printing, the external hard drive backup has failed, and worst of all my broadband keeps falling over. The latter may be the fault of BT and/or my internet service provider, but I suspect that the geriatric router doesn’t help the case.

I’ve finally decided that I really ought to upgrade everything – strip out the aged and obsolete components, and start from scratch with a more modern solution. It would be good to have wifi upstairs in the extension, but the metallic lining on the cavity-wall insulation has a Faraday-cage like effect and there is no signal there at all. However, I’m really not confident at picking and installing a new network infrastructure. It’s not going to be as simple as a single wifi access point and router – the geometry and construction of the house just isn’t conducive to a straightforward solution. So I’ve called in an expert and had a chap from the local IT support company round after work today. I’ve given him a list of what I want to achieve, and have asked him to cost up supplying and fitting a modern network that reaches all the main rooms in the house.

So hopefully I’ll soon have a modern, comprehensive and maintainable wifi network round the house. If the broadband then continues to fall over, I’ll be able to harangue BT and my ISP safe in the knowledge that it’s not my equipment that’s at fault. 

Was that AM or PM?

I had rather a busy week last week. I had a meeting in Hampshire on the Thursday, followed by another meeting just over the county boundary in Wiltshire on the Friday. Rather than spend two and a half hours coming home on Thursday night, then the same again getting back down to that same neck of the woods again on Friday, I decided to stay overnight on Thursday. I went with a colleague to the first meeting, and he was happy to drive, so I got him to drop me off at a local hotel after the meeting on Thursday afternoon. The plan was that I’d get a taxi to my next meeting first thing on Friday morning, meet my colleagues there, and then cadge a lift back home to Malvern with one of them.

The most convenient (and from work’s point of view, most cost-effective i.e. cheapest) place to stay turned out to be a Georgian coaching inn in the village of Stockbridge. I’d never heard of Stockbridge before, but it’s clearly very famous in the fly-fishing world. It’s set on the River Test, apparently “one of the best chalk streams in the world”, and in season it must be heaving with fishermen. The high street (or rather, the only significant street, as it was a very small place) was full of fly-fishing shops, upmarket outdoor clothing stores, and tea-rooms. Even the fishmongers doubled up as a delicatessen and coffee-shop. It was very twee, and reminded me very much of some of the tourist-trap villages in the Cotswolds. Fortunately, it was well out of season, otherwise I don’t think I’d have been able to get a room at the hotel.

When I checked in on the Thursday afternoon, I asked the hotel receptionist to book me a taxi for the following morning to take me to my next meeting. I originally said for nine o’clock, but then thought that might be a bit tight so we agreed on 8:45. I was down in reception, all checked out and ready to go, at 08:40 as I find that taxi drivers usually turn up promptly and I didn’t want to pay any waiting time. But there was no sign of a taxi. By 8:50 I was getting twitchy, and at 08:55 I asked the receptionist (not the one I’d spoken to the previous day) to check that the taxi had in fact been booked. I pretty much stood over him as he phoned up the woman who’d been on the desk the previous day and asked her if she had in fact actually booked me a taxi, and if so with whom? It turned out to be with a local company that he didn’t use himself, so he then had to look up their number and call them.

It turned out that a taxi had indeed been ordered for me, but the driver for some reason had got it into his head that it was for 8:45pm not 8:45am! Quite why he thought anyone would want to go to an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere at that time of night escapes me! Fortunately he was pretty local to Stockbridge and didn’t have another job on, so he turned up within ten minutes and put his foot down on the journey. I finally got to my meeting just a few minutes after the people who’d come from Malvern, so that wasn’t too bad. It did put me in rather a foul mood though for the first part of the morning!

Gaslight

Many years ago, when I was in the sixth form at school, one of the other girls was studying for some sort of drama exam. I forget exactly what – my school certainly wasn’t relaxed enough to offer drama or theatre studies as an A-level, even if such a thing had existed back then. But as part of her exam I remember that she had to learn and stage a monologue from Gaslight, a classic play written in 1938, that appeared to be a melodramatic thriller about a woman being driven mad by her husband. I only ever saw the one extract, but it struck me as a play that I should keep an eye out for, as it looked quite interesting.

Fast forward thirty years or more, and I’ve finally had a chance to see the whole play. It was this week’s offering at Malvern Theatres, starring Kara Tointon as the put-upon housewife. Apparently, she’s quite famous and perhaps as a result the theatre was almost fully booked. I only managed to get a seat right towards the back of the circle for this afternoon’s matinee performance. I was right in my assessment – it was indeed a melodramatic, Victorian-style thriller. For the second week in a row, one of the key roles was of a violent, controlling psychopath. I wonder if Malvern Theatres is trying to send out some sort of message? The plot this week was about what these days would be classed as domestic abuse – not much physical violence admittedly, but emotional abuse, isolating the woman from her family, and slowly driving her out of her mind – or rather manipulating circumstances so that she feared she was going mad. 

The husband was a thoroughly unpleasant character, and the actor got roundly booed at the curtain call – which was a bit unfair, and he looked rather taken aback by that reception! The scene I remembered from school turned out to be right at the end, when the down-trodden wife snapped and finally showed some spirit. I’m pleased I’ve now seen the whole play to finally put that one scene in context. It did rather spoil some of the tension of the play for me though, as I knew that at some point the worm would turn and the husband would get his comeuppance.

Not Dead Enough

Panto season is finally over at the Malvern Theatre’s, and they’re back to showing things I might actually want to watch. This week’s performance was Not Dead Enough, a murder mystery adapted for the stage from a book by Peter James. This is apparently the third in a series of “Detective Roy Grace” novels to be turned into a play, and I remembered part way through that I’d seen the first one, A Perfect Murder, a couple of years ago. I had only been moderately impressed, and if I’d made the connection I might not have bothered going to this one. But as it was I bought myself a standby ticket for the Saturday matinee.

When Brian Bishop’s wife was killed, he was sixty miles away, asleep in bed. Or so he claimed. But a whole load of evidence indicated that he was lying. Could the detective work out the perpetrator and motive in time to prevent the thoroughly unpleasant, sadistic, pyschopathic serial killer from striking again? And could he even keep his mind on his job, when he’s being distracted by having an relationship with the glamorous pathologist whilst trying to track down his wife who’s been missing for years….

The play turned out to be a police procedural, with a rather strange split set. The back half of the stage was raised, and represented a pathology laboratory where a lot of the action took place. The front half was the police station, split up into a couple of offices and an interview room. It was rather cramped, and I’m not entirely convinced that it worked as a set. What really didn’t work though was the plot – the twist at the end was completely unbelievable. Even Agatha Christie wouldn’t have stretched her readers’ credulity in such a far-fetched fashion. I won’t give the plot away in case someone actually wants to read the book that it’s based on. But it certainly broke one of the ten cardinal rules of Detective Fiction.

Nevertheless, the theatre clearly had something of a hit on its hands. The auditorium was virtually full, and there were at least five coaches waiting outside at the end, from all over the West Midlands. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed the play – I thought the best bit was the ice cream I treated myself to in the interval. But I appeared to be in a minority. I certainly shan’t be buying the Roy Grace series of detecive novels any time soon!

Minor advantages of having grey hair….

I’ve been back on my travels again recently, visiting more university departments. Last week I had a meeting with one of the professors at Imperial College, London. The meeting was scheduled for 14:30, which meant I could get a very civilised mid-morning train down to London, and still be in plenty of time for my meeting. I turned up at Malvern train station in good time for my train, only to discover that it had been cancelled. A broken down train on the line over the Cotswolds was causing chaos, and the line was closed.

The very helpful man in the ticket office had a solution, which he’d obviously had to trot out multiple times already that morning. I should buy a ticket as normal, but it would be accepted for travel via Birmingham to Euston. The main-line train from Birmingham is a fast one, so even though I’d be leaving Malvern half an hour later, and changing trains at New Street, I would still get to London in time for my meeting. 

Unfortunately, the train to Birmingham was a tiny little commuter service with only three coaches. It had come from Hereford, where it was half-term, so it was absolutely crammed with families going to enjoy the delights of Birmingham. Plus everyone who had wanted to get the cancelled intercity to London was also having to catch that train. I resigned myself to standing for the next hour. I was really pleased though when one of the women travelling as part of a family group turfed her 10 year old son out of his seat and offered it to me – there are clearly some advantages to having grey hair! I remember the first time someone stood up for me on a bus, a few years back, I was absolutely horrified! But now I’ll gratefully accept any seats offered….

I managed to get to my meeting on time, but things were little better on the way home. I got to Paddington half an hour before the time of my train, to find that every single service on the display boards was either delayed or cancelled! This time it was due to a broken down freight train somewhere near Slough, that was affecting every service into and out of Paddington. The incoming service was so late arriving that the staff had no time to sort out any seat reservations, so it was a complete scrum and was standing room again as far as Oxford. I know the ropes by now, so had sprinted to the correct platform as soon as it was announced, so I managed to get a seat. I finally got home less than half an hour late, which was good in the circumstances, but it felt as if the journey was a bit jinxed by broken down trains in both directions. 

Great Western Railways really does seem good at adding extra stress to ones journey. The trains are so unreliable, I routinely now aim for the train before the latest possible, to give me slack to cope with disrupted journeys and missed connections. At least work was paying this time – it’s even worse when it’s my own time and money that’s being wasted!

The morning after…..

Every year it astonishes me, the morning after the excesses of the Pudding Club, just how much we all manage to put away at breakfast the next morning. We met up in the dining room at 09:00 and breakfasted extremely well on a full English, plus cereal, toast, fruit, yoghurt, and in the case of two of our party, freshly-cooked haddock. I suspect that I probably didn’t need the second piece of toast, but the jams and preserves were so tasty that it didn’t feel as gluttonous as it undoubtedly was!

We then waved one of our group off in a taxi to the nearest railway station so that she could get back home to Hampshire, whilst the rest of us girded our loins for yet more Retail Therapy, this time in the picturesque but very touristy Cotswold village of Broadway. There are lots of interesting independent little shops in Broadway, but due to Sunday trading laws most of them don’t open until 11:00. However, the gang have been doing this for so long now that once again they have the timing sorted. Our convoy of three cars converged in the main car-park in Broadway at 10:59am, in time to pay for the parking and hit the shops just as they opened.

We took a pause for breath around noon for a rejuvenating coffee, and in my case a toasted tea cake, though none of us could face even a light lunch. We really are loyal customers, or perhaps just creatures of habit – we visited the same coffee shop this year as we have every year I’ve been attending, and even sat at the same table!

Having been into every significant shop on both sides of the main street, plus examined thoroughly all of the smaller shops in the arcade on the way back to the car park, we finally conceded that we’d shopped enough and that it was time to go home. That was the event over for another year – and already we’re anticipating repeating it next year! It’s a huge amount of fun, even if I didn’t feel hungry for several days afterwards!

Pudding Club Gluttony

Of course, the Retail Therapy was only a side-show to the main event of the weekend, our annual trip to the Pudding Club. We made the short drive over the Cotswolds to the picturesque village of Mickleton, to the Three Ways House hotel. I always rate a hotel by whether it provides flannels, a box of tissues, and something to read in the bedrooms, and this one passes those tests with flying colours. The reading matter is Cotswold Life Magazine, a rather up-market, aspirational “lifestyle magazine”. I can’t say that I’m currently in the market for dinner at the Michelin 2* restaurant Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, but it was mildly interesting to read about its tips policy. 

After settling in and speed-reading the magazines, I met back up with the group in the bar for a pre-dinner drink and gossip. Surprisingly soon, it was time to change for dinner. I’ve learned the hard way that, when at the Pudding Club, it is absolutely essential not to wear anything at all tight or constricting around the waist. So trousers are out. I very seldom wear a dress, but there are times when one is appropriate, and a gluttonous all-you-can-eat-and-then-some event is one of those. I’ve got a brown woollen sweater dress which stretches in all directions, which was ideal under the circumstances.  But what to wear with it? I’ve discovered that tights are definitely a bad idea, and stockings are no better, due to the requirement for suspenders which are extremely uncomfortable around the waist by one’s third pudding of the evening! Last year I discovered the magic of hold-ups which fit the bill admirably. Unfortunately I laddered my one and only pair when at L’s wedding last autumn, but I was able to find another pair in Marks and Spencer in Stratford just before we headed off to Mickleton, so that was all right.

Once we were all in our (very stretchy) finery, we met up in one of our rooms for more drinks before dinner. One of the group had been given a huge bottle of gin as a present the previous day, so there was a choice of red wine, white wine, and gin – though we all felt very self-conscious smuggling bottles of booze and our tooth-mugs through the bar! Then it was time for all 63 of the Pudding Club guests to congregate for a complimentary glass of elderflower cordial (hence the desire to pre-load with something stronger!) for the Main Event. 

There was no starter, no bread rolls, and just a very light main course with a choice of mushroom risotto, haddock fish cake, or braised blade of beef. I had the beef and it was absolutely delicious. The red cabbage, swede and carrot accompaniment was also very good, as were the Dauphinois potatoes. That’s my favourite way of cooking potatoes, but I had to hold back since we’d all been warned not to have too many potatoes, as that would damage our ability to stuff ourselves senseless on puddings. 

Then came what we’d all been waiting for. The puddings were paraded in one by one, to the accompaniment of cheers and banging of spoons on the table. It’s a different selection of puddings each time. This year they were : 

  • Lemon roly-poly with lemon sauce and custard
  • Passionfruit roulade with extra cream
  • Sticky toffee and date pudding with toffee sauce and custard
  • Ginger syrup sponge with custard
  • Chocolate and orange pudding with chocolate sauce and custard
  • Bread and butter pudding with custard
  • Apple crumble and custard

There are also some strict rules that have to be followed:

  1. You can only go up to get a portion of pudding when your table is invited to by the maitre d’
  2. You can only have one pudding in your bowl at any time
  3. Therefore you have to finish your portion of pudding before you go for another. If you don’t clear you bowl, the entire table is barred from having any more until your bowl is clear!
  4. After six rounds, it’s a free-for-all, and anyone left standing can have more servings as and when they want
  5. At the end of the evening, you all vote for our favourite pudding. You can only vote for one pudding, but you can cast as many votes as you had portions of that pudding. So someone being really gluttonous and having multiple helpings of a pudding can really skew the result.

I’ve never seen the third rule put into practice before, but it was this time! One of the women on our table (who was not one of our party, I hasten to add – we all know better!) found the ginger syrup sponge too sweet and tried to leave it. She was spotted, and we were all told that none of us was going anywhere until it was eaten. Since this was only the second round and we all had lots of room left, there was a huge amount of peer-pressure on her and her friends to clear her plate. They did so amid much protesting, but rules are rules and they were clearly stated up front.

I managed the first four puddings. The lemon roly-poly was quite heavy, but very lemony, and I was glad I’d taken a good amount of custard to cut through the suet pudding. The passionfruit roulade was gorgeous – passionfruit mousse rolled up inside a thin meringue crust. I love passionfruit, so I thought that was going to be my favourite. That was until I had the sticky toffee and date pudding, which was just fractionally even yummier. The ginger syrup sponge was very gingery, but was overly sweet – not surprising, as out of each four-pint pudding bowl, one whole pint was golden syrup!

I then sat out a round, thinking I’d go back the following round for some chocolate orange pudding. However, one of the group had a serving of that while I was sitting it out, and the smell of Terry’s Chocolate Orange was overwhelming. It was so sweet and chocolaty that my stomach just rebelled, and threatened that I would Seriously Regret It if I tried to eat anything else at all. So that was that. Four puddings is respectable, and I don’t think I’ve ever managed more than that. At least two of my group managed seven rounds – respect! 

The votes were very close, with my two favourites, passionfruit roulade and sticky toffee & date, being the two front runners. In the end, passionfruit roulade one by just one vote – the critical vote being that of one of our group who loved it so much she had two helpings, and therefore cast two votes for it. 

It was a huge amount of fun. Good company, good food and such a massive overload of calories that it’s a very good job we only go once a year!

Annual Retail Therapy

The year has gone by so quickly that last weekend was time once again for my now-annual gluttonous girls’ weekend away at the Pudding Club with a group of friends who are all loosely associated with work. Val, who organises it, has been going for 17 years so has the schedule tightly tied down so that it all runs like clockwork.

I was picked up at 0915 on Saturday morning, and five of us in two cars met up in the usual car park in Stratford. Even though the two groups had set off separately, from different parts of Malvern, the timings by now are so precise that we arrived in the car park within two minutes of each other! We then went to the usual coffee shop for a sustaining cup of tea/ coffee/ hot chocolate and toast / croissants, before starting on the shops. We met another of our party there, who had travelled up from Hampshire. The remaining two would meet us for lunch at the usual restaurant, where – rather annoyingly – we weren’t on our usual table! Val said she’d have “words” with the restaurant staff for next year, as that was just not good enough!

It is part of the tradition to go round the sales in Stratford, which has a lot of interesting stores, both chains and small independent shops. The others in the group all seem to be much better at shopping as a leisure activity than I am, but I know the ropes now and had come prepared with a list of things that I really wanted to buy, but which are difficult to get in Malvern. Top of the list was a new cashmere jumper to wear to work. I’ve bought one every year that I’ve gone on the Pudding Club weekend, and right on cue just last week I put my elbow through the sleeve of the rather nice blue jumper that I bought a few years back. So I clearly needed a new one. The winter sales were still on, but coming to an end, so there was very little available in my size. There was plenty  of choice in extra-small, but I’ve not fitted into that size for several years! At this late in the season, you have to be prepared to put up with whatever selection of colours are left over and clearly weren’t selling well at full price. But I did managed to find a very acceptable jumper in my size, in a shade of blue very similar to the holey jumper. Even better, it was reduced from £130 to just £49, so I felt very pleased with myself. 

I then absolutely shocked myself by spending the same amount again on handcream! I hadn’t thought it was possible to spend nearly fifty quid on handcream, but this was very strong stuff and my hands are in an absolutely shocking state at the moment. It wasn’t all on one pot, I hasten to add, but on three different concoctions which together are promised to deal with the chapping, dry skin and general ill-effects of central heating and air conditioning at work. I’ll see what I think when I’ve used them for a few weeks. 

There’s a big M&S in Stratford, so I also managed to buy a range of essentials to replenish my underwear drawer, and a White Company store which has a range of rather comfy nightshirts. I’d had to throw away several nightshirts this year when they started fraying round the seams, so I was able to convince myself that was a necessary purchase. I was quite pleased though that Val had decided to bring forward our departure time from Stratford by half an hour compared to usual, as that meant I didn’t have the time to go around Lakeland and impulse-buy a whole load of cookware that I quite definitely do not need! 

So all in all it was a very successful outing to the shops – though it’s probably just as well that it’s only once a year!