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About fifty of us from work attended an annual technical away-day last week, with a day of presentations, strategy updates and workshops, all based at a hotel near Cirencester. For the last few years, the organisers have tried to lighten the event by including a trip to an engineering-related attraction in the locality. Last year we went to Brooklands, which was slightly more interesting than I had expected. This year was a guided tour around the GWR STEAM train museum in Swindon, which was exactly as interesting as I had feared.

I have spent far too much time on GWR “services” over the past few years, most notably on interminable rail-replacement coach journeys across the Cotswolds, or being turfed out of a train that got cancelled while I was on it, or just failed to turn up at all. The Bristol Service is particularly bad for that; it feels like it gets cancelled more often than it actually runs! So I am not well disposed to GWR as a company, though I recognise that the current incarnation has very little in common with that of the days of steam.

The STEAM museum is housed in a huge railway shed at what was the Swindon railway works, before it was closed down with the death of the UK’s heavy rail industry. It houses several original steam locomotives, and is moderately interesting for about 3/4 hour. Unfortunately, although that was indeed the length of the enthusiastic but somewhat less then fascinating guided tour we were given, we also had the same amount of time again free to wander round and “enjoy” the exhibits, and that was taking it a bit too seriously for me.

Fortunately, the adjacent railway shed has been turned into the Swindon Designer Outlet, with lots of retail outlets all holding their Black Friday sales. I sneaked off there for the other 3/4 hour and managed to get some of my Christmas shopping done! I noticed, when I got on the coach back to the hotel, that I was far from the only person carrying shopping bags!

Nearly a Disaster

I was in the kitchen yesterday, playing on my iPad, as you do, when I got called away by something needing my attention. So I put my iPad down on the nearest flat surface, which happened to be the ceramic hob. Which was off, and had been for several hours since breakfast.

When I came back into the kitchen, just moments later, I was greeted by a cloud of acrid smoke and a horrible burning smell. I must have knocked the control knob of the hob on my way past, because it was on full blast.

The melted remains of my iPad case

Fortunately, I had a rugged case on my iPad. It might have been drop-proof, but it clearly wasn’t heat-proof, as you can see from the photo above. Luckily though the iPad itself wasn’t damaged at all. So I only needed to replace the case (which I did the same day – it’s clearly worth having one!) and not the tablet itself. Phew! The hob is a bit of a mess though, and it’s going to take a bit of elbow grease to shift the melted plastic……

Ten Times Table

After all the fuss and stress of travelling to London and back through the floods, I decided I would treat myself with a trip out to the theatre. Malvern Theatres had another Alan Ayckbourn play on this week, which again was one I didn’t know – Ten Times Table. I made use of my Standby membership to buy a ticket for the Saturday matinee. It was clearly popular, as the best seat I could get was way back on row N in the stalls.

I was therefore surprised to see that, a little way in front of me there were three completely empty rows that were still vacant as the curtain went up. If those seats really were vacant, I would have been offered one of them when I phoned. It looked like a block booking had failed to turn up. Sure enough, five minutes into the play, there was a huge disturbance as two coach loads of people filed in, and tried to work out where they should be sitting. They kept crashing into the bin in the aisle, sitting in the wrong seats, and telling each other to be quiet in a loud whisper. The actors did a stalwart job of ignoring the commotion and carrying on with their lines, but it was really distracting.

I spoke to one of the incomers in the interval, and it turned out that there were 94 of them, in two coaches from near Cirencester, who were diverted by the floods and then stuck in gridlocked traffic for 45 minutes. They had rung through to the theatre to say that they would be a bit late, and were told that the performance would not be held for them. Probably the right call, but it was disruptive for everyone else when they did arrive.

Also at the interval, the five people sitting directly behind me were moaning loudly to each other that they couldn’t hear the dialogue. So they complained to the box office, who supplied them with amplifying headsets for the second half. Except that they couldn’t work out how to use them, and all I could hear was a loud hiss of static, turned up to maximum volume, for the first part of the second half until they gave up and worked out how to turn them off.

After all that, it was probably just as well that the play wasn’t all that good. Certainly not vintage Ayckbourn. It was more of a farce than a black comedy, poking fun at how committees worked. You got the feeling that Ayckbourn must have sat in one too many committee meetings and wanted to get his own back. But it lacked much of the subtlety and black humour of his best pieces, and although it was laugh-out-loud funny in places, it didn’t really make you think. There was a stereotypical Tory wife, and a young Marxist historian on a committee, trying to organise a local pageant, and you could anticipate the inevitable clashes. So I was very pleased that I’d only splashed out on a standby ticket – I would have been annoyed if I’d paid top whack.

More flooding

Worcestershire was really hit badly by flooding on Thursday. Not as badly as Yorkshire, as far as I can tell from the news, but it still caused chaos. Not only were the train lines to Oxford and Cheltenham flooded, as I found out through personal experience, but also the route to Hereford was flooded at Ledbury, and the Birmingham New Street Line was under water at Bromsgrove. So Malvern and Worcester were virtually cut off. And there was flash flooding on many main roads throughout the county as well, to the extent that the rail replacement coach was up to its axles in water on several occasions, and we passed though several villages where the inhabitants were trying to protect their homes with sandbags. So it’s just as well that I decided to press on with my journey on Thursday afternoon, as I’m not sure that it would have been easy to get back to Malvern anyway.

My conference in London was very interesting and well worth making the effort to get to. But then I had to get home again. The train line was still flooded at Moreton in Marsh (the clue is in the name!) and it was a choice of another rail replacement coach over the Cotswolds or going home via Birmingham and hoping that the line through Bromsgrove was open again. I decided the latter was the lesser of two evils. It wasn’t a particularly smooth journey – my train from London to Birmingham was heavily delayed around Rugby and I ended up sprinting the length of the concourse at Birmingham New Street to catch the Malvern train by less than ten seconds. I must have looked dreadful as, even though the train was heaving, and it was standing room only, a woman immediately offered me her seat!

I’ve checked this morning, and the main line to London is still flooded at Moreton in Marsh. There is also concern about a rail bridge over the River Avon at Evesham which may be unsafe due to the extremely high water levels. I am very relieved that I don’t have any meetings in London next week. And I do hope that the water starts subsiding soon so that the people in the lower lying villages can start getting back to normal.

More GWR misery

I’ve got a meeting in London on Friday morning, and I really can’t cope with getting the stupid o’clock in the morning train, so I decided to come down the day before and stay overnight within easy striking distance of the meeting location. My aim was to get the 13:10 train from Malvern, change at Worcester, getting in to Paddington at 16:24, then a short tube ride to my hotel and relax there until dinner time.

I had reckoned without the downpour leading to massive localised flooding. The route between Hereford and Oxford was flooded in multiple locations, but I managed to get the 12:51 train from Malvern heading to Weymouth, and was told by the guard to change at Bristol for the fast train to Paddington.

That’s actually an entirely reasonable route and on a good day can be faster than going via Oxford. But today wasn’t a good day. The train got just beyond Worcester, then ground to a halt. After an agonising wait, I saw the driver walk past me to the cab at the rear end of the train, and we then reversed back to Worcester. Apparently, the line was flooded and impassable.

At that point I did consider abandoning my journey and trying to make my way back to Malvern. Except there were no trains running in that direction either. Instead, we all piled onto a rail-replacement coach for a very sodden journey over the Cotswolds. There was a huge amount of flooding, and we went through several “road closed” signs and through some really deep flood water. I don’t think a car would have made it; it felt as if the coach only just did!

We were told there would be a train to Oxford from Moreton in Marsh, so we all got off the coach there and waited. And waited. The train was apparently just out of sight round a bend, but was stuck at a signal where the points had got seized. We saw two men in overalls stroll down the track to try to free the points, but the train never appeared. So after nearly an hour standing on the station in the cold, we got back on the coach which then took us to Oxford.

I caught a London train there by about 10 seconds – I sprinted through the barriers and the train doors closed behind me as I got on. If I’d been at the back of the coach or slow getting off it, I would not have got there in time. I finally arrived into Paddington at 19:40, over three hours late and absolutely exhausted. I grabbed a bite to eat at Paddington station, and finally made it to my hotel at 20:50. I do hope tomorrow’s meeting is worth all the effort of getting to it!

Arrivals and Departures

It’s been ages since I’ve been to the theatre. Partly that’s been because I’ve been too busy, and partly because there hasn’t been much on lately that really interests me. The theatre has put up its prices quite a bit recently, and that’s also put me off. But I was idly looking at the theatre website earlier this week, and noticed to my surprise that there was an Alan Ayckbourn on, one that I hadn’t seen before. I wondered how I’d missed the fact it was being performed – I am on the mailing list and always check out what plays are coming up. Anyway, I hurriedly phoned up the box office to get a ticket to the Saturday matinee.

It turned out that the lack of publicity was because it wasn’t being shown on the main stage, but at the Coach House Theatre, a much smaller (and less expensive) associated venue that is run by the resident amateur company, but also hosts productions from smaller professional outfits. The main theatre acts as a booking office for the Coach House, and publicises its productions on their website, but they don’t make it into the printed brochure.

Arrivals and Departures is set on a railway platform, during chaotic, and indeed somewhat farcical, anti-terrorist operation run by a mad, pompous major. The two main characters are Barry, a garrulous Yorkshire traffic warden who may be able to identify the suspect, and Ez a taciturn female soldier who is there to babysit him during the operation.

As these two strangers sit and make small talk whilst waiting for the operation to commence, we see flashbacks of their past which round out their characters. In the first half, we see Ez’s memories and realise why she is so taciturn and doesn’t want to be touched. The second half is then an almost exact mirror-image of the first – to the extent that all the entrances and exits are on the opposite side of the stage, and people shake hands with their left hand, not their right. This time we see Barry’s backstory, and realise there’s a lot more to him than we first thought.

I thought it was very cleverly done. Of course, being an Ayckbourn, it was very funny in places, but with a lot of tragedy mixed into it alongside his trademark observations on unhappy marriages and some pointed observations about “entitlement”.

It was a very enjoyable way of spending a Saturday afternoon, and I shall have to make a point of monitoring the theatre website in future, rather than relying on the printed publicity, as otherwise I might miss out.

More Needle-felting

Although my experience with the mutant blue-tit was somewhat off-putting, I had been given a second needle-felting kit for my birthday, so I thought I’d try again. This one was proudly Welsh, and contained undyed raw British wool from Grey Welsh Tops, Dorset Horn, Black Welsh and Brown North Ronaldsay sheep – so it was all in natural shades from white through grey to brown and black.

I was glad I’d had a go at the Horror Bird first, as the instructions on this kit weren’t particularly clear. Each step was illustrated, but the photos were no more than 1.5cm square, which made it very difficult to see what they were on about. And one of the steps seemed to be missed out altogether in the instructions. However, the end result was rather more acceptable than last time.

A needle-felted rabbit. Or is it a hare?

On balance, I think I’d probably be better off sticking to embroidery!

The mice are back – yet again

It’s only about eight weeks since I last had Martin the Mouse-Killer around to do his stuff. But the weather has been so wet recently that the mice have taken refuge in my loft yet again. They’ve been holding evening cocktail parties above my chair in the living room, followed by all-night roller-discos directly above my bed. At least, that’s what it sounds like!

I am so pleased that I have Martin on an annual rolling contract to deal with the mice. I texted him yesterday asking for some help, and he came round first thing this morning to have a look. That’s what I call good service! He opened up the loft hatch to investigate, and said “Hmm, yes, you’ve had quite a lot of ‘activity’ up here – I can smell it”. At which point a very dead mouse dropped out of the loft onto the hall carpet!

He’s put a load more poison down, which should quieten the activity for a while. I expect I’ll see him again in another six to eight weeks – and I’ve asked him to bring the annual invoice with him next time. My contract is due to end in November, and I’ve told him already that I’ll definitely be renewing it!

Needle Felting Fail

I was given a needle felting kit for my birthday. It’s not a craft I’ve ever tried before, but according to the kit it was “easy peasy” and suitable for complete beginners from the age of 10 years upwards.

If only it was that simple……

The reality was rather different! The result looks like a diseased bird crossed with Marge Simpson…… If I saw something like that on my bird feeder, I’d run a mile!

The mutant blue tit

Garden Dominoes

I have a very steeply terraced garden, with the first terrace nearly as high as the house, and two more levels above that. When we moved in, the so-called “retaining walls” of each terrace were concrete slabs, held in place by friction. I remembered enough of my civil engineering classes to work out that the underlying slope was steeper than the critical angle of soil, and therefore that the whole thing was inherently unstable. I lived in fear of the whole lot cascading down the hill in a thunderstorm and ending up in my kitchen!

Eight years ago, I used a chunk of Christopher’s life insurance money to stabilise most of the garden terracing with steel I-beams and railway sleepers. It really transformed the garden, and I reckon it will take a medium-sized earthquake before any of it moves. However, there is still a stretch of the old concrete slabs in place behind the garage, which were too tricky to replace due to the wall below.

The old retaining blocks remaining to the side of the garage – the bottom of the image is over 2m above the ground.

There was a really heavy downpour overnight on Tuesday, lasting well into the morning. It was so bad that there were flash floods in the centre of Malvern, with the water nearly up to car door sills. After every heavy storm, I always walk around the house looking to see what, if any, damage has been done. And on Tuesday afternoon, I was very concerned to see the state of the retaining wall. I think that the downpour must have washed away some of the soil behind the slabs, as some of them had quite definitely shifted.

A close up of the bit I was most worried about

I sent a worried text to my regular gardener, and asked him to send around two strong men, a ladder, and a couple of lump hammers to put it back in place, before it all crashed down like a pile of dominoes! To his credit, a team of men turned up on Wednesday afternoon and refitted that stretch of the wall together like a jigsaw puzzle. It now looks a great deal more stable, and I hope to be able to survive the next few storms without finding my garden in my garage!