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Ten Years

Christopher died ten years ago today. That’s hard to grasp. Time is such a fluid thing. Sometimes it seems ages ago, other times it still feels remarkably recent.

Over the past ten years I have scattered his ashes in interesting and tranquil places on three continents. But I haven’t made it to China – he wanted some of his ashes scattered on or near the Great Wall. That remains to be done; and given the current situation with international travel in general, let alone to China, I think it may well be several years yet before I can contemplate fulfilling that particular wish.

I always find this time of year very sad. But I’m keeping myself very busy with work. I’m running a socially-distanced equipment integration trial at the moment, mostly coordinated from my dining room table, so I don’t have time to mope.

Socially Distanced Throwing

Like all “non-essential” customer-facing businesses, Eastnor Pottery was closed to the public for the duration of the lockdown. I’ve been keeping an eye on their website and was very pleased to see that they re-opened a couple of weeks ago, in line with the general relaxing of the lockdown restrictions. I contacted Jon the Potter to see if he had any availability for a throwing session, and as luck would have it he had a short-notice cancellation for last Saturday.

The pottery has really expanded over the years (well, more like decades) I’ve been going there, and they’ve got lots of space both indoors and outdoors. Which is very convenient now that social distancing is called for. The main throwing class took place with just five well-spaced potters wheels in the main workshop, and I had the small front studio all to myself. I had a potters wheel, a bucket of water, and a large bag of clay, and just enjoyed getting back into the swing of throwing again.

In more normal times, Jon and Sarah provide non-stop tea, coffee and biscuits, and a ploughman’s lunch. All of that is infeasible with the current regulations, so I took a flask of coffee, a bottle of water and a packed lunch. They are clearly taking anti-Covid precautions very seriously, so we were all asked to wear masks indoors, and had our individual socially-distanced picnics in the garden. It’s a strange feeling to think that was the first time since March that I’ve left the house for something non-essential, and I really enjoyed myself.

There are going to be so many casualties in the business world. So even though the “new normal” felt odd, it was really good to see that the business had survived lockdown and was finding a way to get back on its feet again afterwards.

Defences Breached!

The mice are back! And this time they’re not just in the loft but in my bedroom!!

Its unusual for me to notice rodent incursions during the summer – it’s usually only as the nights draw in and the weather turns colder that they move into the loft. And in general they stay in the loft, rather then invading the main part of the house. But I’ve been sleeping with my bedroom window open during the recent warm spell, and I suspect that they have got in that way.

Anyhow, last night I was woken up by loud “clunks” from the radiator on my bedroom. It sometimes makes that noise as it cools down and the metal contracts. But I’ve not had my heating on for several months, so it couldn’t be that. I turned on my light and put on my glasses – and saw an unmistakable rodent tail hanging down from the bottom of the radiator! Then I saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye, and there was a second mouse running along the picture rail!

There was no way I was going to be able to get back to sleep – I’d be tense all night waiting for a mouse to run over my pillow! So I took myself off to the spare bedroom for the night. This morning when I got up I saw another uninvited visitor in the hall. I got a good if fleeting look at it, and it was definitely a mouse. It bolted at the sight of me and ran under a bookcase. I’m hoping it was one of the same ones from last night, otherwise there’s at least three of the little sods.

I was very impressed with the pest control company that I have on an annual retainer. I sent an text message to them over breakfast, requesting urgent help, and the owner was here by lunch time to lay down bait. He’s put some under the bed, and more under the bookcase where it was last seen.

I shall be sleeping in the spare room though for several nights yet, until the poison has had a chance to take effect!

Broadband Woes

I’ve not been posting for a while, as my broadband has been down. It went off suddenly and completely, in the middle of a huge thunderstorm about ten days ago. Strangely, my phone line still worked, albeit rather noisily, but no internet. I phoned my ISP from my mobile, they ran some tests, and said there was a “battery fault” on the line. I would need to report it to BT and they would send an Openreach engineer to have a look.

It’s surprisingly difficult to report a fault on the line to BT if you don’t have an internet connection. I had to look up Customer Services in an old fashioned phone book, which was filed away at the bottom of a cupboard and half forgotten about. I’ve now stored the number in my mobile for future use! BT agreed there was a fault on my line, and raised a ticket for an engineer to fix it. This was on a Wednesday, and I was assured that it would be fixed by the following Monday.

That deadline came and went, so I phoned on Tuesday, to be told that Thursday would be the new deadline. The customer service agent, to give credit where it’s due, did recognise that being without broadband during lockdown is extremely challenging, particularly if one is working from home. He gave me a £20 credit on my bill for the missed appointment which I promptly spent on mobile data to use my mobile as a hotspot so I could get back on line. Shockingly, the 4G hotspot is noticeably faster than I expect from my broadband! I managed a couple of video conferences with work with far fewer problems than I’m used to.

Thursday also came and went without any fix. I phoned again, and was told it was more complicated than they first thought, they’d probably need to close the main road, that would need permission from the council, and the new deadline was next Tuesday! I was not impressed!

But on Friday lunch time a very pleasant young Openreach engineer turned up to see for himself. He knew nothing about any potential road closures, but said the “battery fault” was 1100m from my house, and drove off in his van to see if he could find it. While tracing the line, he found a green roadside BT cabinet about a kilometre away. He opened it, and a load of water gushed out! It must have got flooded in the thunderstorm, as the downpour really was of biblical proportions.

No wonder my line was shorting out and was too noisy for a broadband connection. It’s marginal at the best of times, let alone when the phone line is under water! But he dried it out and I now have the internet back. A big relief. But one good thing has come out of the saga – I’ve been issued a work mobile to use as a 4G hotspot to make remote working easier. So at least I’ll be able to retain the benefits of having enough bandwidth to use a videoconference service, without costing a fortune in personal mobile data charges.

Christopher’s Tree 2020

In previous years, Christopher’s stepfather Peter has made a point of meeting up with me for lunch on his way home from his annual summer holiday with friends in Wales. Like so much else, that looks like it’s just not going to happen this year. Both Peter and his friends are of an age where they are are particularly vulnerable to Covid, so even when lockdown is lifted, I doubt it would be wise to him to stay with them this August.

In previous years, I’ve taken the opportunity over a pub lunch to catch up on the progress of Christopher’s Tree, which Peter had planted in a Woodland Trust site near him. It’s coming up to the tenth anniversary this year, so the tree is getting quite large now. Peter kindly sent me a recent photo, and it certainly looks healthy.

Christopher’s Tree in late Spring 2020

Badly in need of a haircut

Lockdown isn’t going too badly here, on the whole. I’ve not been furloughed and am managing to work from home ok, notwithstanding my lousy “broadband” which keeps dropping out. My freezer and larder are well stocked with food (thanks Hugh for the tips about local places with short queues), and I’m not about to run out of loo roll any time soon. My regular gardener hasn’t been here since lockdown started, even though social distancing would be easy outdoors. However, the window-cleaner is still doing his rounds and was quite happy to mow the lawn as well, so that’s taken care of for now.

Probably my biggest problem is that I’m absolutely desperate for a haircut. I was just working up to my quarterly trim when I had to go into self-isolation, and then lockdown was announced the following week. I don’t think my hair has ever been this long. Every week I look more and more like Prof Mary Beard, the Cambridge Classics don off the telly, just a slightly lighter shade of grey! And even when the hairdressers do reopen, I bet it will be virtually impossible to get an appointment, since everyone is going to be equally desperate. Oh well, I’ll just have to brush up my Classical Greek to sustain the Prof Beard impersonation…..

Not in France

I’ve got nearly a week off work, with leave that was booked well before Covid Lockdown. Today I ought to be having a glass of wine over dinner in Lille, having spent the day exploring WW1 battlefields and some of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in northern France and Belgium. It would have been another of my historical-themed holidays, with a knowledgeable tour leader, but also a good amount of free time to explore independently and find some nice restaurants. Obviously, that’s all been cancelled. Instead I spent all yesterday morning queueing outside Waitrose in Malvern!

Although legally the holiday company is obliged to give me a full cash refund since they cancelled the holiday, they have followed the example set by ABTA and most of the rest of the travel industry, and just offered me a credit note, to be used against a future holiday with them. I can’t be too cross about that – if they had to pay out to everyone they would definitely go bankrupt, whereas this way there is a chance that they might be around next year to run the holiday. The refund is bonded by ABTA, so should be protected, and worst case I paid by credit card so I could get my money back that way.

The holiday company hopes to run the WW1 Battlefield trip again this time next year. But that’s going to be dependent on the UK lifting its ban on foreign travel, France and Belgium being prepared to let foreigners in, travel insurance being available at a reasonable price, and there’s the little matter of Brexit which may (or may not) have happened by then. So many unknowns. There’s little point in worrying about it now.

Instead, I shall make the most of having a few days off work. I’ve been finding working from home very tiring and draining. So although I won’t get a change of scene, I should at least get a bit of a rest.

Another food parcel

After the relative success of the Morrison’s “lucky dip” £35 food parcel the other week, I thought it was worth ordering another one. It is much easier to get a delivery slot for a pre-packed food parcel than it is for a proper shop, and the last one certainly had enough in it to keep me going. This second box had very similar contents to the previous one, but with some significant changes:

  • No sliced ham
  • No cabbage
  • Only one can of soup (chicken this week), not two cans
  • a smaller pack of sausages, just 6 not 10
  • one full sized tin of baked beans, not 3 little tins
  • fusilli pasta rather than penne
  • one roll of kitchen paper, not two – but it was a jumbo roll so probably about the same volume
  • only two rolls of toilet paper, loose in a separate bag, clearly broken out from a larger multi-pack
  • somewhat randomly, three wonky mangoes

So overall, not quite such good value as last time. I expect prices are going up on essentials due to the supply lines being stressed in the current crisis. But still, enough to keep me going, and without having to queue for hours on end outside a supermarket. I shall have to try to think of some more interesting things to do with mince, as otherwise my diet could get a bit monotonous.

I was pleased, though somewhat surprised, to get the mangoes included in the pack. I’ve been doing fine for vegetables over the past few weeks, as I’ve got several packs of greens in the freezer. But I have been really lacking for fresh fruit in my diet, and have been reduced to snacking on the dried fruit in my larder. I wouldn’t say that mango is a favourite of mine, but I quite like it. I don’t think I’ve ever bought one before, though!

Morrisons’ Food Parcel

For several years now I’ve been getting a weekly or fortnightly grocery delivery from Morrisons. It’s been extremely convenient, though I have wondered how on Earth they make it profitable. While I’ve been in Coronavirus quarantine for the past few weeks, the online shopping and delivery has been an absolute lifeline. However, the whole country seems to have woken up to the benefits of online grocery shopping and it’s been getting harder and harder to secure a delivery slot.

Morrisons has realised that it is unable to serve a large percentage of its potential customers, and obviously that is not a comfortable position for any business. But it appears they simply don’t have the staff or capacity at the moment to temporarily expand their online shopping service enough to meet the demand. So they have, very creatively in my opinion, come up with a work around. They offer a box of groceries for £35, delivered by courier on a day of your choice, and claiming to contain enough food to feed a family of two for a week. The disadvantage is that you don’t get to pick the food – you get what you’re given, either a meat-eater’s box or a vegetarian box. You still have to queue online to book one, but the delivery slots are far easier to get than a regular shop. So I thought I’d give it a go.

My first £35 food parcel arrived today, on time, and well packaged in a cardboard box. The cold items were packed in an insulated bag with some still-frozen ice-packs. In my meat-eater’s box there was:

  • 1L longlife milk
  • 10 pork sausages
  • pack of 2 chicken fillets
  • pack of 500g mince
  • 4 slices of ham
  • big block of Cathedral City cheddar
  • pack of back bacon
  • pack of butter
  • bag of new potatoes
  • bag of onions
  • bag of carrots
  • a small cabbage
  • a cucumber
  • a pot of tomato and basil pasta sauce
  • tin of vegetable soup
  • tin of tomato soup
  • 3x small tins of baked beans
  • loaf of sliced white bread
  • pack of pitta breads
  • portion of microwave rice
  • pack of penne pasta
  • pack of 2 kitchen towels
  • last, but definitely not least, a pack of 4 toilet rolls.

There’s enough there to keep me going for a while. It’s not all stuff I would have chosen myself, but there is nothing there that I’m not prepared to eat. I can see the makings of a good few entirely acceptable dinners there, as well as soup or ham&cheese toasties for lunch. And the kitchen paper and loo rolls are very welcome additions.

All in all, I’m very impressed with the quality and variety, and at £35 including delivery, it seems a very good deal. If (when?) this crisis continues I will certainly consider getting another one.

Washing Machine Crisis in Lockdown

My washing machine started making ominous noises last week on the spin cycle. It really sounded quite unwell. But given that the U.K. public is not allowed to have house calls at the moment, I didn’t see how I’d be able to get it fixed. I was just hoping that it would hang on in there until the current Coronavirus restrictions are over when I could get a repairman in to replace the bearings.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. It completely gave up the ghost on Saturday afternoon, inevitably with a full load of sodden towels inside it. Then it was a case of how on earth do I get a replacement during Lockdown. The government might not consider white goods to be “essential shopping”, so all the local retailers are closed, but I really didn’t want to spend the next however many weeks doing my laundry in the bath! I checked online, and I could buy a new washing machine over the internet or by phone from several of the larger outlets, but they had limited delivery slots before Easter, and in general would leave it on my drive so I’d have to plumb it in myself and dispose of the old one.

This morning, more out of hope than anything concrete, I phoned the electrical retailers in Ledbury that I’ve used for the past few years. Their shop was indeed closed to customers, but they were answering the phone. The good news was that warehouse was still working, and they had a limited number of washing machines in stock. Better still, they were able to arrange to deliver one today! Even better, provided that social distancing was observed (i.e. I kept at 2m distance), the driver would be able to install the new one and take away the broken one!

The range of machines they had in stock wasn’t huge, but I was more bothered about getting a replacement quickly. I did a quick search online to confirm that the model they proposed fitted my requirements, and that the price was acceptable, and phoned them straight back with my credit card details. I really can’t fault the service at all. I phoned them at 10:20 this morning, before my first telecon of the day, and by lunchtime I had a new washing machine installed and working. I told the driver that, if it wasn’t for social distancing, I’d give him a hug for getting me sorted out so quickly and efficiently!

Right now, I think it’s more important than ever to try to support local businesses, though that’s admittedly hard under the current conditions. The driver said, from a government-mandated safe distance, that they had been extremely busy just before lockdown with people buying freezers. But since then business has virtually dried up. I do hope that they are able to keep going and come out the other side of the economic turmoil, as I have been very impressed with their service over the past few years.