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Listed Building Consent

I had a really interesting chat with our neighbours over our New Year’s Day  lunch about the major renovation work they are doing on their cottage. It was originally an early 19th Century toll house on what would have been the old turnpike road, and is Grade II listed. That means that, although it requires a great deal of work to renovate it and turn it into a comfortable (albeit small) home, everything they do needs Listed Building Consent from the local council.

Fortunately, it seems that the local conservation officer is broadly sympathetic. The council do not want a derelict cottage causing an eyesore and crumbling into irreversible decline, and they realise that they have to allow some changes to make the building viable as a modern home. So they are allowing my neighbours to drag it at least into the 20th Century by adding a proper bathroom and some external lighting. Hopefully even double glazed windows, at least at the back of the property where it’s less visible from the road. But all the bureaucratic hoops add at least three months to everything they do, so the renovation is going to be a slow process.

Fortunately, my own cottage is not listed, so I don’t have those constraints. But before we moved here, Christopher and I lived in one of the big old Victorian mansions in the centre of Great Malvern that had been converted into flats. That was a Grade II listed, and leasehold to boot.

I used to really rather enjoy myself when I got cold called by companies trying to sell me a conservatory. I would say that I’d always wanted to have a conservatory, but didn’t think I’d be able to as there were some issues. At which point the caller would say that they had a range of conservatories and were sure that they could help – what was the issue? So I’d say that the house was Grade II Listed, and in a Conservation Area, so I didn’t think the planning authorities would allow me to have one. That stopped some of the less desperate companies, but I did occasionally get one saying that they had some “heritage” designs which had proved acceptable on occasion, and they would be happy to work with me on getting consent. In that case I said, I’d be very interested indeed – except that we lived on the side of a very steep hill. The flat was only first floor at the front, but was second floor at the back, with stunning views over the Severn Plain. it would be brilliant to have a conservatory to take advantage of the views, but what would they propose? A cantilevered construction perhaps? At that point they invariably hung up on me! How rude!

New Year’s Day lunch

For the last few years, I have hosted my immediate neighbours for lunch on New Years Day. We all seem to enjoy ourselves, and it’s fast becoming a tradition.  I’ve got the biggest dining room and the most chairs, so it makes sense for me to be the host. Each household brings a course, so that no one person has to do all the cooking, which seems to work well.

Yesterday I dusted off the “good” wineglasses, napkins and cutlery – all wedding presents which don’t get a lot of use, as I don’t in general host many dinner parties. I cooked some really creamy dauphinois potatoes, and Delia’s  braised red cabbage & apple, which is pretty much idiot-proof and tastes really good. We had a homemade cream of tomato soup, a baked ham (for the meat eaters) and a nut roast (provided by the vegetarian couple next door), followed by a really yummy lemon cheesecake from my neighbour over the road.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Thank goodness for dishwashers though – otherwise I think I’d still be doing the washing up!

Happy New Year.

A Room with a View

I had an interesting couple of days in London last week, taking a small team of our software engineers to a “hackathon”. For those who haven’t come across the term before, Wikipedia defines a hackathon as “a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.” I was definitely counted amongst the “others” in that definition – I’m not a softie, and the last programming language I was really proficient in was FORTRAN77.

The organisers of the event seemed to have somewhat stereotypical views about hackers, and fed us a diet of pizza, doughnuts, coffee and beer. The meeting timings were also unusual – starting mid-afternoon and continuing until 10pm. They obviously thought that hackers were nocturnal creatures by habit! But that did leave me with a bit of a dilemma. The hackathon was held in Docklands, in the shadow of Tower Bridge, and I really didn’t want to have to head across London late at night to one of the company’s preferred hotels closer to the centre.

I went into our corporate hotel booking system, without a lot of hope, and was astonished to find a hotel just five minutes walk from the event venue, that just squeezed in under the corporate price ceiling. Someone must have done some tough negotiating, as it was clearly Tourist Central. I was particularly impressed when I opened the curtains in my room and saw this:

Tower Bridge from my hotel window

And this:

Tower of London from my hotel window

It was just a pity that I was so busy working that I didn’t have much time to enjoy the views!

More Mouse Problems

The mice came back in November, as they have done every year for well over a decade. It’s no coincidence that my annual rolling contract with the pest control company has a renewal date in November. The change in weather drives them to take shelter indoors, and then they hold tap-dancing parties directly above my bed. Martin the Mousekiller was very good as usual – we agreed a convenient time for him to turn up, he put more poison down, removed a dead mouse from the loft, and presented me with his invoice for another 12 months call outs.

The loud noises above my bed which had been keeping me awake at night died down after a few days, along presumably with the mice. Unfortunately, my burglar alarm also died around the same time – or rather, the loudspeaker attached to it did. The alarm was still working, but at a much reduced volume, coming only from the control panel. Living out in the middle of nowhere, I do depend on my neighbours being able to hear the alarm if it goes off. So it needed to get fixed, though I didn’t want to pay emergency call out rates for something that clearly wasn’t an emergency.

The alarm company sent a technician this morning to service the alarm and fix the problem. He initially thought that the loudspeaker would need replacing, but on closer examination he found that was in full working order. It was the cabling from the control panel to the speaker that had failed. That runs through the loft space, right where the mice were active. It seems that the most likely cause of failure was a mouse nibbling through the insulation and breaking the connection. Not good. But it could have been worse – the technician said that if the mouse had bitten through both cables and shorted them, the control panel would have gone bang!

He wasn’t keen to go crawling around in my loft, and I wasn’t keen on the thought of an exploding control panel if it happened again. So we agreed that he’d install a new loudspeaker closer to the control panel that would mean he didn’t need to route wires through the loft. It all seems to be working again now, and is hopefully a bit more mouse-proof.

Rail Replacement Bus

I’ve had a load of off site meetings this week – Woking on Monday, Chelmsford on Tuesday, then Oxford on Wednesday. Chelmsford in particular is much further than I’m prepared to drive, so trains it was. What could possibly go wrong?

A colleague gave me a lift to the meeting at Woking on Monday. But when we got there, we found that half the people we had wanted to meet hadn’t made it in to the office. Overnight engineering work on the Woking-Waterloo railway line had over-run, all the lines were closed, and there were no trains at all, either into or out of London. That was not a good start to the week.

Network Rail finally managed to clear the engineering work and the lines reopened, but of course all the trains and drivers were in the wrong place, so chaos reigned for the rest of the day. The train I managed to catch in the afternoon was running about half an hour late, but I counted myself lucky it was running at all!

On Tuesday, I needed to get from Chelmsford in north-east Greater London, across to Paddington and out to Oxford. I specifically asked the man in the ticket office in Chelmsford to sell me the most flexible ticket,  as I wanted to have maximum choice of trains during the rush hour. And, since work was paying, I wasn’t overly concerned about spending an extra couple of pounds if necessary – my time costs more than that. But he said that there was only one type of ticket available, and sold me an off-peak day single.

Once I got to Paddington however, it became apparent that off-peak tickets were simply not valid on the direct rush hour trains to Oxford. I  had missed the last off-peak train by just two minutes, and my best option was to take a stopping train to Reading and change there for a service to Oxford. That added 45 minutes to my journey and I was not happy!

Wednesday was worse however. I had a very good meeting at the Physics dept with some academics I am working with, and then shared a taxi to the station. At which point I found out that there was yet more engineering work, and the Cotswold Line was closed all week between Moreton-in-Marsh and Worcester. Which meant an hour and a half’s journey in a Rail Replacement Bus over the Cotswolds. My stomach sank at the thought, and rightly so. The coach was very bouncy and I felt horribly travel sick. By the time I finally got home after a three hour journey (which should normally take well under two hours) all I could do was crash in bed and wait for the room to stop spinning!

So that was two lots of engineering works and one incompetent ticket clerk, together adding up to three days of unnecessarily long and tedious rail journeys. And, worryingly, I still have ongoing projects with the people in all three locations, so I expect I’m going to have to repeat the journeys again soon……

 

 

The Weeping Window

I went to a dinner recently at the Imperial War Museum. I don’t think I’ve been there before, but it looked to be very interesting and I think I’ll have to go back there when the galleries are open to the public and have a proper look around. One exhibit though I couldn’t miss, even though it was dark outside and not looking it’s best:

The Weeping Window

The Weeping Window cascade of ceramic poppies falling from a window in the cupola is part of the massive art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red that was temporarily installed at the Tower of London in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WWI. After Remembrance Day that year the installation was broken up and most of the poppies were sold for charity (in fact, I’ve got one of them in the fireplace in my living room). But two of the “set pieces” have been on tour around the UK so that more people could get to see them.

The tour ends this month, marking the centenary of the end of WWI. I was very pleased to finally get to see at least part of the artwork, even though I was definitely cutting it fine with only 10 days left before it is dismantled! I don’t usually get on with modern art, but this was really quite impressive. It looked quite spectacular floodlit in the evening, and my iPhone snap really doesn’t do it justice.

A rainy day in Glasgow

I was invited to give a talk last Friday at a conference held at Glasgow University. I’ve been working quite closely with the university for a few years now, and have previously tried to go there-and-back in a day. It’s doable, flying from Birmingham, but it makes for a very long day and I find it absolutely exhausting. So I was quite pleased when the conference organisers insisted that I join them for the conference dinner on Friday night, meaning that there was no way I could catch the evening flight home. I’d have to stay overnight, and fly home on Saturday. Which, if I timed the flights right, would give me most of a day free to explore Glasgow.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the weather. There was a “Yellow weather warning” for rain overnight on Friday and into Saturday, due to the remnants of one of the Atlantic storms wringing itself out over the city. Which meant that any outdoor activities / sightseeing were definitely off the menu. The hotel I was staying in was near the University, in Glasgow’s West End, so I decided not to venture into the city centre, but to find something indoors nearby to keep me out of the rain. The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery was only just over a mile away, but by the time I had walked there I was soaked through.

It was one of those  High Victorian buildings that look really gothic and imposing. Inside was a really eclectic mixture of “stuff” – ranging from a very good, if small, Ancient Egyptian collection (much of it on long-term loan from the British Museum) to “Sir Roger”, a stuffed elephant. There was also apparently a good art gallery, but I’m really not interested in paintings so I gave that wing a stiff ignoring. I spent ages in the Egyptian gallery, gradually drying out, and then wandered into the central hall, with a vague idea of getting a coffee from the museum cafeteria. I  found that the hall was being set up with rows of chairs, and people were gathering – clearly something was about to happen.

I took a seat out of idle curiosity; I had several hours to go before my flight home, and didn’t want to get wet again, so I thought I may as well wait and see what was going on. It turned out to be a free organ recital. They had even set up some CCTV screens so that the audience could get a good view of the organist’s hands and feet, as otherwise he was just a tiny figure up in the organ loft. It was actually pretty fascinating to watch, particularly when he opened the recital with the first bit of Bach’s Toccata in D Minor, when you really could see him “pulling out all the stops”. The entire building shook with the force of the sound!

So if you happen to find yourself in Glasgow  in the pouring rain with time to kill, you could do a lot worse than pop in to the Kelvingrove Museum for their free organ recitals, daily at 1pm.

First snow of winter

I was so glad that HMS managed to fix my boiler last week, as it’s turned cold. Really cold. It would have been utterly miserable without central heating!

It even snowed heavily on Saturday for several hours. Big, fat, “proper” snowflakes. Fortunately it didn’t stick, but it was still heavy enough for me to cancel my plans to go out – I hate driving in snow! I must remember to stock up on salt / grit again soon. Last winter was so harsh that I completely ran out, and if last weekend is anything to go by, I’m going to need more!

Condemned Boiler

It’s that time of year again when I get a series of emails from Christopher’s gmail calendar, reminding me to do a load of admin chores. “Get septic tank emptied” (done), “renew house insurance” (done), and most recently “Get boiler serviced”.

I had to wait a few weeks for the boiler servicing company I use, HMS, to have a free slot – they’re always busy at this time of year doing annual servicing of gas and oil boilers. As the weather closes in, and the heating comes on for the first time since the summer, all of Malvern simultaneously decides to call them in. But yesterday was the appointed day and the boilerman turned up promptly at 08:30.

I wasn’t expecting any significant issues. I knew he’d moan that the oil tank was too overgrown with vegetation- much of which is actually deliberately there to screen it from the kitchen window, as it’s rather ugly. But although that’s a violation of the regulations, it’s not actually particularly dangerous so I ignore their moans every year.

So I was shocked to be told that my boiler installation was so unsafe that it really shouldn’t be used at all until a major fault was remedied. Apparently, the over-pressure-release pipe had become blocked and there was nowhere for it to vent to. It sounded very serious, but I was reassured to be told that it was unlikely to be catastrophic or fatal. There are apparently no recorded deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning from an oil boiler. Unlike gas, by the time an oil boiler is coked up badly enough to emit dangerous levels of CO, it smells so badly of oil that you would know there was a major problem. The most likely impact if I kept using the boiler was a burst pipe – annoying and messy, but not life-threatening.

Oil service personnel don’t have the same powers the equivalent gas engineers – the latter have the power to condemn in unsafe appliance and put it out of service. Oil is apparently going in that direction (Nanny state or what?) but all they can do for now is strongly recommend. Nevertheless, the boiler was formally deemed Dangerous, with a label stuck to the front saying that it really shouldn’t be used until the problem was fixed.

That was unfortunate to say the least. It’s suddenly turned cold, and I would be without heating until it got fixed. Fortunately I have an immersion heater for emergencies so I wasn’t left without hot water. And I have a couple of electric heaters which I pressed into service. But I really hoped I wouldn’t have to go without a boiler for very long – the weather forecast looks pretty chilly for next week, and this house can get very cold without the central heating.

However, HMS, really pulled out the stops and ordered the parts to arrive urgently. They then shuffled around their order book to make a free slot, and sent someone around this afternoon to fix the problem and un-condemn the boiler. The heating is back on, the house is gradually warming up, and I have a full tank of hot water again. I was really impressed with how quickly HMS turned the repair around and fitted me in. The back-office staff kept me informed by email and phone of what was going on, and they squeezed me in to an already-busy work schedule. It’s service like that which keeps me going back to them every year – even if they do always moan about the climbing rose scrambling over my oil tank to disguise it!

Banana Cake

I had some very elderly bananas left from my packed lunches, that were far too brown to eat but not yet so far gone to be binned. So I thought I’d be brave and try cooking a banana cake to use them up. It’s not a recipe I’ve done before, as baking is really not something I normally ever do. But I looked on line and found a recipe for Easy Banana Cake which made it sound very simple. So I thought I’d give it a go.

The trouble is that I’m not used to baking, and I really don’t like the short hand that is used in recipes. Delia Smith is pretty good – she gives exact weights and times, and basically treats her readers like idiots, leaving nothing to chance or left unspoken between the lines. If I’ve got a set of scales and a kitchen timer then I can generally cope with one of her recipes. But too many cook books and recipes assume a basic level of knowledge and indeed competence in their readers, and I find that difficult.

It didn’t start well. “Grease and line a 2lb loaf tin”. Hmm. I have a loaf tin, but I’ve no idea what size it is. It certainly doesn’t weigh 2lb empty. And line it with what? I’ve got very old rolls of both greasproof paper and baking parchment, but I don’t know what the difference is. And how tidy do you have to be lining it? I bunged in some greasproof paper and hoped for the best.

The next step was to melt the butter, caster sugar and vanilla extract in a pan. Butter isn’t a problem, and I had half a pack of caster sugar in the cupboard. I was sure I had some vanilla extract somewhere, and after a search I found it. It had a Best Before date of 2008. I think Christopher must have been the last person to use it! But it still smelled ok so I put it in the saucepan with the butter and sugar.

Once that was melted, I had to stir in two mashed very ripe bananas. I wasn’t sure how ripe was acceptable. What about the black bits where it’s really gone extremely ripe? And how big a banana anyway? And mashed to what level of consistency? I decided to use the not-black bits of three medium sized bananas and reckoned that was roughly equivalent to two whole ones.

The next step was to add in a beaten egg and mix well. It didn’t specify the size of egg, but I decided I could live with that. Then I had to stir in self raising flour and milk. I clearly don’t use self raising flour very often, as the packet had a Best Before of 2016! Not as far out of date as the vanilla extract, but not good. But there were no weevils or similar in it, so I thought it should be ok. I did think that perhaps the self raising aspects might have lost their potency on the shelf, so I found some baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and decided to add a bit of each. They both expired in 2015, but I was beyond caring at that point. I poured it into the loaf tin and bunged it in the oven for the stated time.

The final instruction was “Leave to cool and enjoy”. But should you turn it out of the tin while it was still hot? Or leave it to cool in the tin? And when should I remove the greasproof paper? When it was hot or after it had cooled? And I had a vague feeling that wire racks might be involved.

After all that angst and stress, I can report that the banana cake rose very well (perhaps the additional raising agents were still potent!) and tastes good. But I’m not sure it’ll be something I’ll be repeating very often!