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A trip to Brooklands

Last week, there was a “technical away-day” where 50 or so of us were summoned to our Hampshire headquarters for a day of briefings and workshops, followed by dinner with yet more networking. It was a long day, but as a bonus our bosses had organised a private, evening tour of Brooklands, the motorcar and airplane museum.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the museum tour – I have at best a less than tepid interest in motor history, and I thought I’d be bored rigid. But I am happy to admit that I was completely wrong. Our guide was extremely good, and told us lots of stories about the people behind the exhibits, so I got a lot more out of the visit than if I’d simply walked around it looking at yet another old car or motor bike.

Way back in the early days of the motor car, there weren’t any dedicated race tracks for them, so motor races happened on the public roads. At least, that was what happened on the Continent – cars raced on dodgy roads through small villages, and the inevitable happened and members of the public got killed. So of course it was banned in Britain. As an unintended side effect, French, German and Italian cars all improved massively due to the amount of high-speed testing they got, but British-built cars lagged behind. So a wealthy land-owner with an interest in motor racing decided to build a dedicated race track, complete with banked curves. That was in 1907, at Brooklands, and it was the first in the world.

Our guide also told us the story of Barbara Cartland’s involvement with Brooklands. The “Ladies Reading Room” there is named after her, which seemed an odd tribute to a prolific romantic novelist. It turns out that Barbara Cartland wasn’t always such a caricature of pinkness – back in the 1930s she had been involved in organising women’s motor-racing at Brooklands, and had also been the motivating factor behind air-towed gliders. Previously, so our guide said, gliders had been launched by towing them behind cars, but the length of the tow-rope limited the height they could get and therefore the endurance. But if you launched it from an airplane instead, you could start off much higher – and Barbara Cartland stumped up the money and was a passenger in the first long-distance cross country glider flight. Subsequent developments led to the troop-carrying gliders that were used as part of the D-Day assault, so there was more to Barbara Cartland than perhaps met the eye!

As an aside, Barbara Cartland grew up in Malvern, and went to the same school as me. When I was a very young girl, her mother still lived here, just around the corner from us. She used to open her house and gardens to the local community. The story in the family is that I met Mary Cartland and sat on her knee – she must have been in her eighties or even nineties then. But if family legend is true, then I have sat on the knee of the step-great-great-grandmother of the future king! How is that for a claim to fame?….

Downtown Montreal

My first impressions of Montréal were of a modern, high-rise, somewhat identikit Northern American city. And of roadworks. Lots of roadworks. The city authorities seemed intent on replacing the sewers all over the downtown, there was a lot of redevelopment going on with new skyscrapers and new bridges being built, several major road junctions were undergoing complete remodelling, and much of the rest of the road network was being resurfaced. The locals said that Montréal has two seasons: Winter, and Cone Season. And we were there firmly in the middle of Cone Season.

This meant that sat-navs were almost completely useless, as every other main road seemed to be completely blocked. Even the local taxi drivers couldn’t keep up with the road closures and diversions. I took several taxis across town which got horribly lost – one driver did two three-point turns when he realised his way was blocked, and at one point even reversed at speed the wrong way down a one way road!

The most inconvenient section of the roadworks, at least as far as I was concerned, was the one directly outside my hotel. Indeed, directly outside my window. I was due to be working the late afternoon/evening shifts of the equipment trial over the second weekend, so I badly wanted to have a bit of a lie-in. Fat chance when a pneumatic drill started up directly outside my bedroom window well before 8am on the Saturday! You’d never find British workmen so keen at the weekend! Fortunately, the workmen seemed to take the Sunday off, so I was finally able to have a bit of a lazy start to the day before heading off to work.

Québécois specialities

I didn’t get much time to explore Montréal; I was there to work, not go sightseeing. And whilst some of the younger lads in my team had the energy to go out sampling the nightlife after a full day’s work, I simply didn’t. But there’s little point in travelling all that way and not making at least an effort to engage with the local culture, particularly when it comes to food.

Of course, being North America, much of the food – including the huge portion sizes – was clearly influenced by the USA. There were lots of burgers, nachos and pizzas on offer. But there were some distinctively Canadian and Québécois offerings too.

I was buying a sandwich lunch in a supermarket when I saw and simply had to sample a Maple Mars Bar. That’s right – it’s a standard Mars Bar but with the caramel flavoured with maple syrup. It was extremely sweet, and really quite sickly. Not as nice as I had hoped, but definitely worth trying.

Then there was poutine, which was available on the menu in all the local bars and cafes near my hotel. It is a major regional specialty of Québec, and I thought I’d better try it at least once. This is poutine:

Poutine

It’s basically chips, topped with curd cheese and covered in gravy. It tastes exactly as you might expect it to taste, and I have to say that one serving of it was quite enough to satisfy my curiosity!

Jet-lagged

I’ve just returned today from ten days in Montréal, and I’m so jet-lagged I don’t know what day of the week it is, or what meal I’m meant to be having next. I’m going to try to stay awake until mid evening, then collapse into bed and just hope I sleep through the night to try to reset my body clock. But I’m expecting to feel shattered for the rest of the week.

It wasn’t a holiday though. I’ve been participating in a big equipment trial, trying to integrate my experimental system with a complementary one from the University of Dayton, and some Canadian hardware. It’s been very hard work, but ultimately very interesting, and has allowed my team to test our kit much more extensively than in the comparatively limited equipment trials I’ve been running over the past few years.

It’s so good to be home! Equipment trials are extremely hard work in general, but doing it abroad is worse – even things like the power supply voltage and shape of the plug require thought to make sure that it will all work when we turn it on. Plus Montréal is Francophone, so there was the added challenge of dusting off my limited French. In fact, most people were bilingual, and provided that one made a token effort in French they were usually happy to switch to English. Which was just as well!

Sunday lunch at The Swan

I never know quite how to refer to my late husband’s stepfather. Is he my father-in-law? My ex-step-father-in-law? Whatever the technical description, Peter clearly counts as Family, and we make a point of keeping in contact. He has a regular summer annual holiday with friends in Wales, and has to drive practically past the end of my road on the way there and back. So we have instigated a tradition of meeting up for a pub lunch to break his journey.

Some years, he’s heading home on a week-day, so that limits us to a pub within spitting distance of my workplace. That means sacrificing food quality for convenience. Other times, such as this year, he’s passing through on a weekend, which offers considerably more choice of places to eat. We’ve had a number of very pleasant lunches together at the Inn at Welland, but I left it too late this year to book a table there. It gets very busy, especially for Sunday lunch, and the only table they could offer me was inconveniently early.

I then remembered that my team from work had gone to The Swan at Hanley Swan for our Christmas lunch last year, and I had been pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. You need to book in advance there too, but fortunately they had a table available for Sunday lunch. The Swan has a reputation locally as being something of a gastropub, so I was pleased to have a good excuse to see what they are like.

I am delighted to report that they lived up to their reputation. The centrepiece of their menu was, as you would expect, a traditional Sunday lunch with a choice of meats (beef, lamb or pork). Neither Peter nor I could manage that much to eat at a lunch time, so we both had a large salad with slices of Herefordshire beef. It was delicious. The desserts also looked really tasty, though I confined myself to a coffee. There was a sign on the table saying that they’d need it again after two hours, but that was plenty for a two course lunch and a good gossip. I’d certainly be happy to eat there again.

A few days in the Welsh Borders

Work has been absolutely manic recently – I’m in the middle of a series of equipment trials, and it’s all very high pressured at the moment. I looked at my diary and realised that if I was going to have a break this summer, it would have to be this week, or not at all. So I booked the week off, then looked around for somewhere relaxing to go for a few days for a change of scene.

There’s lots of interesting historical sites on the Welsh borders, which Christopher and I used to visit in day-trips from Malvern. I’ve not been back there since he died, and knew I’d find them enjoyable to revisit. But I was so tired after the previous week’s full-on equipment trial that I really didn’t want to drive for a couple of hours each day. So I decided to rent a little cottage just outside Chepstow for a few nights, and do short day-trips from there, minimising the amount of driving I’d have to do each day.

Tintern Abbey

I first went to Tintern Abbey when I was a child, and found it fascinating even then. It’s got real atmosphere, and is a very impressive set of ruins. There’s also a rather good tea-shop next door, much improved since I was last there, which serves a delicious cream tea.

Caerwent Roman town walls

Caerwent is only a few miles away from Tintern, but is scarcely known and very little visited – though I was pleased to note that there is a small car-park and a new toilet block since I last visited with Christopher over ten years ago. It’s the remains of a Roman town, Venta Silurum, located in a field just off the A48, with a small village (two pubs,  a church, some houses and not much else as far as I could see) all built on top of it with the looted stone from the Roman town. The original walls date from the early 4th Century, and are still remarkably intact as you can see in the picture above. In places they are still over 5m tall, despite so much of their stone being robbed to build the village. Less well preserved (foundations only still visible in the fields) are the Roman forum-basilica, a temple, and a row of shops with houses behind. Very evocative, and not at all what you would expect to find in a muddy Welsh field!

Chepstow Castle

My final day-trip was to Chepstow Castle, an imposing edifice built on the banks of the River Wye, right on the Welsh border.  Parts of it date back to immediately after the Norman Conquest, and it was fascinating to see that there was a layer of Roman tiles incorporated into the Norman keep – clearly “quarried” from nearby Caerwent! You can just about make them out in the picture below – the reddish horizontal layer just below the top of the curtain wall to the right.

Chepstow Castle Keep

Always the wrong glasses

I got a new pair of glasses two years ago, the first for many years, and to be honest I’ve never really got on with them. The prescription was too much of a compromise, so neither my distance vision nor my near vision was as sharp as I thought it should be. In fact, when I was doing some embroidery last year, I frequently ended up taking my glasses off and holding the work close to my face so that I could see it clearly enough! That was annoying, but manageable. However, when I felt my distance vision getting worse too, something had to be done as I need to be able to drive safely!

I had an eye test, and was completely unsurprised to be told that my vision had deteriorated and that my old prescription was no longer suitable. What was less expected was to hear that my near and distance vision prescriptions had diverged so much that they couldn’t give me a single-vision lens that would cover both requirements. My choice was between bifocals/varifocals or two separate pairs of glasses. I’m not yet ready to accept that I’m old enough for bifocals, so two pairs it was.

My distance pair are much better for driving than the previous ones – anything over about two metres away looks sharp and crisp, and the lens is (so far at least) much less scratched, so that there is less dazzle from oncoming lights. And my reading pair aren’t bad either – fine for playing on my iPad or reading a book/newspaper. I struggled using the desktop computer at work though – I found I either had to sit really close to the screen or awkwardly far away, depending on which set of lenses I was wearing. So I ended up going back to the opticians and getting a third pair of spectacles, purely for computer use!

Now of course, the problem is that whatever I want to do, I’m inevitably wearing the wrong pair of glasses! If I’m typing away at work on my computer and someone comes over to my desk to talk to me, I can’t see them properly so the first thing I do is have to change glasses. Or I’ll be sitting at home reading when the phone goes in the other room and I have to get up to answer it, and can’t see clearly. Or I’ll have my distance pair on when I get in, pick up the post, put have to change my glasses again before I can read the contents. I’m sure I’ll get used to it in the end,  it at the moment it’s driving me round the bend!

Generations of decorators……

When Christopher and I first bought this cottage, it needed a lot of work doing to it. Most urgently, it needed completely re-wiring, as the original rubber-insulated electric cabling was beginning to perish. We found a semi-retired electrician, Jack, who spent many weeks crawling around in the attic and chiselling channels in the walls to replace all the wiring. By the time he’d finished, the house needed completely redecorating, and it was far too big a job for us to take on ourselves. Jack recommended his brother, Derek, who had a painting and decorating business, so we happily went with that suggestion.

Derek brought with him his son, Rob, as his apprentice. I found out later that this was in fact Rob’s first job once he’d decided to join the family firm. I certainly noticed at the time that Derek was giving him very firm direction! They were both very hard workers and did a very good job, so we were happy to use them again and again.

Keeping on top of the paintwork in this house is like painting the Forth Bridge – there is always something that needs a fresh coat. Derek retired many years ago, but Rob took over the family business and I hire him for a week each summer to keep the house in reasonable decorative order. This year I had a long list of jobs for him, including covering over stains from old leaks on the ceiling of three rooms, mending a broken gutter, and replacing and painting several sections of soffit and fascia on the extension which were looking distinctly rotten.

Today things came full circle, as Rob brought his own younger son with him on work experience. Billy has just left school and is considering whether to train as a painter/decorator and join the family business. Today he got a bit of a baptism of fire, working with his dad to replace a large section of my garden decking, which was so rotten that the planks crumbled when you stepped on them. They’ve replaced the worst half this time, and we’ve agreed that I’ll have the other half replaced next year, as it would otherwise be too big a job to fit in to the allocated week along with everything else I want done.

I can tell I’ve lived here a long time when I’m on my third generation of decorator!

Great Pottery Throw Down axed

Jon the Potter will be disappointed. The BBC has confirmed that it has axed The Great Pottery Throw Down, despite the fact that the last year it had some of BBC2’s highest viewing figures. Over three million people watched the second series, apparently, and it fuelled a massive demand for pottery classes from viewers who wanted to give the craft a go.

Jon has been running workshops at Eastnor Pottery for adult beginners almost every weekend since the show first aired, to keep up with demand. I’ve certainly noticed that almost everyone who’s attended a workshop at the same time as me has been a massive fan of the series.  Last time I was there, a few weeks back, Jon mentioned that enquiries were just beginning to get less crazy, and that another series would be very timely to stoke up the levels of interest again.

The series is made by the same people who made The Great British Bake Off, which had a major falling-out with The Beeb when it transferred to Channel 4. The cancellation of Throw Down looks remarkably like revenge.

Mamma Mia Here We Go Again

I admit it. I succumbed to the publicity and hype, and bought myself a ticket to see the newly-released sequel to the original Mamma Mia film.

Malvern has a one-screen cinema as part of the theatre, so I didn’t have to trek into Worcester to see it at one of the big cinema multiplexes there. Usually, this far out in the sticks we are several weeks behind the times (my sister would say years behind but that’s another matter….), but on this occasion the cinema is actually showing the film from its general release day. They’re clearly expecting it to be popular – they’re showing it twice a day for two weeks, which is pretty much unheard of in Malvern. The matinée showing this afternoon was a bit under half full, and I had a comfy seat in the middle of the front row of the circle. The leg-room was a bit restricted, but I had a good unobstructed view of the screen.

The plot was as flimsy, unsubstantial and see-through as a net curtain, and was really there just as an excuse to break out some old Abba tunes. However, most of the well-known tunes were used in the original film, so they were rather scraping the bottom of the back-catalogue with a load of decidly “B-side” songs. I don’t know why they didn’t just recycle more songs from the first film, since so much of the plot and most of the characters were also recycled. The main exception to that was a new character, played by Cher, singing one of Abba’s bigger hits that wasn’t in the previous film. Who would have guessed that the hotel manager would turn out to be an old boyfriend of hers called Fernando?!

But despite the film being decidedly cheesy, it was a lot of fun. There were some snappy one-liners, some good ensemble acting, and both Piers Brosnan and Colin Firth got to do some singing and dancing. All the cast seemed to be having a whale of a time, and their enjoyment was quite infectious. All together, it was an enjoyable way of spending an afternoon, the main downside being that I’ve now got Abba’s SuperTrouper on the brain!