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A sudden deluge of painters

The re-building of the porch isn’t finished – I’m still awaiting the replacement pane of glass which is due to be fitted tomorrow, when the door will be whisked off to the joinery to be refurbished (and hopefully re-hung without a huge gap at the bottom).  However, I was worried about the new timber structure being left unprotected from the weather for however long it takes to finish the rest of the work. The component bits of wood all arrived from the joinery having been already primed, but that’s not exactly weather-proof, and the forecast is for weeks of rain. But Rob my usual decorator has already had his regular week as artist-in-residence for this year, so wasn’t available to do the painting. I therefore had to get the builders to arrange the decorating, and they decided to contract it out to a local company whom they use regularly.

The first I knew of this, however, was just after 09:00 on Tuesday morning, as I was getting ready to go to work. Four painters in three white vans suddenly turned up and comprehensively blocked my car in! They then proceeded to ruthlessly undercoat the porch, inside and out. It looks much better already, and at least it’s much more weatherproof now. They won’t be able to do the topcoat until the chippies have completely finished the job and the weather clears up. I have however requested that they give me notice next time before they turn up, if only so that I can move my car so that I can get off the drive and into work without a huge palaver! 

Rebuilding the Porch

I’ve been having trouble with my wooden porch for ages. A few years ago I had a major problem with a leaking roof and the builder pointed out then a load of other problems with it – he was basically angling to get me to agree to have the whole thing rebuilt. I couldn’t afford that at the time, so got him just to fix the roof (which took multiple visits over several months) and install some better ventilation. Then just last year I had some of the rotten timbers and planking replaced at the front of the porch, which I knew at the time was just postponing the inevitable. It was clear that at some point fairly soon I’d have to bite the bullet and get some serious work done on it.

Back in February I started having problems closing the porch door – it looked like the newer part of the porch had shifted and was causing the door to stick. I got Rob the decorator/handyman to come around and look at it, but I wasn’t pleased with what he found! The new wood was in fact ok, but the old structural timbers behind it were very rotten, well past the point of fixing with wood hardener. Worse, the porch, being Victorian, had been built without a damp-proof course and the whole thing was gradually rotting from the bottom up, causing the whole porch to slump down at one corner. It was no wonder that the door was sticking!

I bowed to the inevitable and arranged to have the porch rebuilt from the ground up to the level of the top of the door. The top bit above that appears to be relatively sound, so I saw no reason to completely replace it. But even the chunk that I’m having done is a pretty big job, as I want it to match as much as possible the old porch, and that means having it all made by hand by a joiner. An off-the-shelf plastic porch would just look wrong on a house this age. But of course once the men turned up on Friday to start demolishing the old structure and installing the new one, they found more problems that will need fixing. Some of them are largely trivial – I’ll need a new doorbell, and I may as well have a new robust internal shelf than re-use the old and rather flimsy one. One of the new panes of glass was the wrong size, so one of the windows is currently boarded up, as the toughened glass needs to be sent back to the glaziers to be reworked, but that will be at their expense not mine, as it’s their problem.

But the big remaining issue is the porch door. At some point it was clearly re-hung at an angle, problably due to the inherent crookedness of the original porch. But the new porch is proudly upright, which means that the door doesn’t fit any more! Or at least, it fits at the top, but there is about an inch gap at the bottom! The bottom half has clearly been planed away multiple times over the last 100 years to cope with the shifting porch. I don’t want a whole new door – that would be excessive, but at the moment it just looks silly, as well as being very draughty. I think I’m going to have to send the door back to the joinery for them to glue on a wedge-shaped strip to make it the right shape again. So what I thought was a moderately substantial but fairly straightforward job is getting more and more complicated……

Rancid butter and lumpy milk

My fridge has decided to make the most of the recent hot weather by stopping working, or working at best intermittently. Bottles of milk have been barely lasting overnight before going off, and my butter dish has resembled an oil slick. I think it’s the door seal that has failed – the compressor still seems to be working fine, and the ice-box is frozen solid, but the door no longer makes that satisfying “clunk” sound when it’s closed.

I can’t complain too much though – the fridge must be close on twenty years old, and I didn’t pay for it it in the first place. When Christopher and I first moved in here, we bought the fridge off the previous owners, along with most of the kitchen appliances. One of the first things we did to renovate the cottage was to get an electric shower installed in the en-suite, instead of the very temperamental mixer shower that was there already. The Midlands Electricity Board (remember them?) had an offer on at the time, so we got them to install it. Electric showers take a lot of current, too much for the existing household wiring, so they needed to run a length of heavy-duty electric cable from the en-suite, through the loft, and out to the meter box outside the back door. They merrily drilled from the meter cabinet, all the way through the kitchen wall and then kept going, drilling right through the side of the fridge that was against the wall! Oops! I naturally made a huge fuss, and the MEB agreed to buy us a new fridge, mostly to shut me up. Christopher and I made sure that we chose a good quality larder fridge that was much more than we could have afforded ourselves, and indeed it has lasted well – until now. However, twenty years is a reasonable lifetime for consumer white goods, so I decided I’d replace the fridge rather than trying to get it repaired.

Over the years I’ve had the kitchen redecorated and reconfigured, so that the old fridge was not quite built in, but was surrounded by shelves and kitchen units. Which meant that I needed to replace it with something of a very specific size otherwise it wouldn’t have fitted into the space available. I only had leeway of a centimetre or so at most, and it turned out that the old fridge was a non-standard size. I went down to the local electrical appliances store in Ledbury, whom I’ve been quite impressed with over the past few years, and they had to search hard through their brochures to find a fridge that would fit the space. But in the end they found one, from a German manufacturer I’d never heard of, but that they assured me were a quality make. So I should hope – I’m not intending to replace this one for at least another twenty years!

Border Castles

Goodrich Castle

I decided to make a long weekend out of the trip to Caerleon, staying overnight in a small hotel in a village a few miles away. It’s not a long journey from Malvern – well under two hours, but even so that’s longer than I like to drive in one go. So I broke the journey in each direction by visiting one of the Border Castles, presumably originally built to help subdue the Welsh, but in both cases finding themselves on the wrong side in the Civil War and being slighted by the victorious Parliamentarians. Goodrich Castle is on the English side of the border, and is a picturesque ruin now. Over the years that I’ve been going there, I’ve seen English Heritage develop the visitor facilities from a ticket-office in a portacabin to a large bespoke shop / tea-room.

Raglan Castle

Raglan Castle, in contrast, is on the Welsh side of the border, and is in the care of Cadw, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage. The castle itself is more impressive than Goodrich, but Cadw hasn’t invested in it as much – the toilet facilities are basic compared to those at Goodrich, the shop is much smaller, and there is no tea-room. They’re really missing a trick there – judging by how busy the castle on a Sunday lunchtime, I’d have thought they’d have a made a fortune offering light lunches.


Roman Army Study Day at Caerleon

It’s been a while since I’ve been on an archaeological study day with Andante, so it was clearly time to expand my archaeological horizons further. This weekend, I opted to learn more about the Roman army, on a Study Day at the Legionary Headquarters at Caerleon, a few miles outside Newport in South Wales.

Roman barrack block at Caerleon

Twenty of us assembled in the car park just outside the little Welsh village of Caerleon on Saturday morning, and were first taken to view the excavated remains of some of the legionary barrack blocks. Eight men would have shared a pair of rooms – the one in the front being storage for their equipment, and the one in the back having four sets of bunks for their sleeping quarters. Our guide lecturer, Dr Mike Bishop, is an expert on the Roman army, and it was fascinating hearing about how it operated, and drawing parallels with the modern British Army.

Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre

We also went to the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre just outside the fortress walls – surprisingly well preserved after nearly 2000 years. OK, it’s hardly the Colosseum, but not at all bad for South Wales!

Much of the rest of the Legionary Fortress is buried under the village of Caerleon, and indeed much of the stone was robbed to build the village in medieval times – many Roman buildings were apparently still standing as late as the 13th century, but were deliberately destroyed by the English as part of their campaign to subdue the local Welsh princes. We went to the remains of the Fortress Baths, which are very imaginatively displayed with sound and lighting effects to give you an impression of how magnificent they must once have been. A huge number of beautifully carved intaglios were found in the main drain, and are now on display in the museum. These would originally have been set in rings, and the heat from the hypocaust system would have loosened the glue holding the gemstones in place so that they fell out. You can just imagine the frustration and disappointment of the owner when they got home and realised they’d lost the stone from their favourite ring!

After lunch, we spent the afternoon in the National Roman Legion Museum, being given a guided tour by the Senior Curator, Dr Mark Lewis. We started in the public area of the museum, being told the stories behind some of his favourite exhibits (including gravestones, a coin hoard, and a burial where they had got a forensic scientist to reconstruct the man’s face from his skullbones). We then went down into the basement, off-limits to normal visitors, to visit the storerooms, where Mark had got out a selection of items for us to examine and handle. His only request was that we should handle the items over the table, and lift them no more than a few inches – so that if we dropped them, they would be likely to survive! There was a whole range of priceless stuff which we were very privileged to be able to see and touch – pieces of armour for both men and horses, glass beads, delicate glass bottles, large intact Samian ware bowls, roof tiles, etc etc. What the Roman Legion wanted, the Roman Legion got – so there was a lot of high-status stuff, imported from all over the Empire.

It was an absolutely fascinating day, and I learned a huge amount – both our guide lecturers were deeply knowledgeable and hugely enthusiastic about their subject.

An afternoon at Eastnor Castle

Eastnor Castle

Eastnor Castle is the local stately home on the Herefordshire side of the hills (Madresfield Court is the equivalent on the Malvern side), and I live not far from the back gate of the Eastnor Estate – close enough to get annoyed by the loud music from the regular festivals they hold in the Deer Park. Last year, for the first time, the Estate Management provided us locals with a complimentary one-time family ticket to the castle and grounds, as an acknowledgement of the inconvenience they put us to. I took the opportunity to go to their Chilli Festival – I don’t even like chilli, but it was an interesting day out.

The Management seem to be fine-tuning their attitude to their long-suffering neighbours. They’ve clearly decided to be nice to us, but not too nice. This year I received another complimentary once-in-the-season ticket, but this time it was stamped in big red letters “Not Valid for Chilli Festival”. A bit of a shame, as that’s the most interesting event the castle holds, but it’s generally a near sell-out so I suppose they don’t want any free-loaders. So I looked for the next most interesting event they held, and decided to cash in this year’s ticket voucher last weekend, when the castle were holding a falconry event.

Birds of Prey at Eastnor Castle

The birds came from the International Birds of Prey Centre in Newent, Gloucestershire. I’ve never been there, though it’s really not far away at all. The team flew a number of different types – an eagle, a harris hawk, a kestrel, and a falcon. I found it really quite interesting, especially seeing how agile and graceful the birds were. The falcon was particularly impressive, the hawk flew at speed just inches above my head, and the eagle looked as if it was eyeing up some of the smaller children……. I watched the flying display, then headed into the Castle to have a look around the state rooms. Altogether, it was a good way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, especially since it was at their expense not mine!

Like Painting the Forth Bridge

It’s that time of the year again when Rob my trusty decorator is here for his annual week as Artist in Residence. It really is a never-ending task to keep the external woodwork in a reasonable condition – each year he does a section of the exterior windows / soffits / eaves and by the time he’s finished the last section it’s time to start all over again. 

This year he’s concentrating on the windows in the extension, which I don’t think have been repainted since they were installed about ten years ago. I always ask him to look out for any problems or maintenance issues as he goes round the house, as he sees things from a different perspective to me. That usually means finding small areas of dodgy wood that need filling or hardening before he paints them. I wasn’t expecting Tuesday’s problem though – he pointed out that the window in the shower-room had been installed upside-down by the original builders! There’s a neat chamfer that’s meant to be on the bottom to let any rain drain away, but instead it’s at the top, directing the water straight into the house! Fortunately, it’s on a very sheltered south-east corner of the house, well away from the prevailing wind and any driving rain, so it’s not actually been an issue. I had my suspicions at the time about some of the subcontractors our builder used, but since I last saw the builder in the same chemotherapy suite at Worcester Hospital as Christopher, and he’s since died of lung cancer, there’s no recompense to be had there.

As well as the exterior re-painting, I’ve also got a whole host of little jobs inside which need doing when I’ve got access to a painter / handyman. That’s been very useful, because it’s been raining too hard for the last few days for Rob to do much outside. So he’s been working through my list, firmly screwing on door-knobs (the living-room and bathroom door handles keep coming off in one’s hand – very disconcerting!), and repainting ceilings in the bathroom, hall and study to cover up dodgy stains (all from leaks that were fixed several years ago, so are only a cosmetic issue rather than a serious problem).  

I’m hoping that the weather improves tomorrow, as I’ve now run out of indoor jobs that need doing, and he really needs to get on and finish the gloss on the windows.  But if it’s still too wet, he’ll have to come back next week to finish the job. It’s unfortunate timing, as the previous few weeks have been dry and sunny. But he must be used to being at the mercy of the elements.

Strictly Murder

My sister very kindly renewed my Malvern Theatres membership for my birthday last month, so yesterday I took myself off to the matinee of this week’s production, Strictly Murder. It’s a thriller, set in rural France in the immediate run- up to the outbreak of WWII. Peter and Suzy are a British couple, living in poverty deep in the countryside. They appear to be happy, the only problem being that he seems to be commitment-phobic, and won’t marry her. But then some people turn up from Peter’s past, and it becomes clear that he’s not who he said he was, and that he has a secret and probably very violent past.

Of course, as it’s a thriller, you have to look out for plot twists and turns, and not take anything on face value. The playwright plays with the audience’s sympathies – it’s not clear at first whom we should believe, or who is the baddie.  The author was also very smart at saving money on hiring actors – two of the main characters were identical twins, and since they never appeared on stage together, the producer could easily get away with just one actor playing both parts!

I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. It was just a shame though that the audience was very small – the theatre must have been well under 1/4 full, and I had no trouble at all getting a very good standby seat just a few hours before curtain up. I suppose it was so nice outside that people didn’t want to spend the afternoon cooped up indoors. And the cast didn’t have any “big names” to draw in the casual punter. But I thought it was a good start to what I intend to be another year making good use of my membership card.

Staying firmly off the road this weekend

It’s Three Counties Show time here in Malvern, when around 100,000 people descend on the showground to look at tractors, cows and sheep. I used to quite enjoy the show when I was a girl growing up in Worcester – but mostly because we were given a day’s holiday from school every other year so that we could attend it. Since then however I find it a monumental pain due to the horrendous traffic it attracts. All the roads for miles around get heavily clogged up with day-trippers, and simple journeys to town and back take far longer than they should. 

It’s been more annoying than usual this year, as I’ve spent the past week running an equipment trial at a disused airfield some 20 miles away from Malvern – and getting there involves driving right past the showground. It wasn’t too bad on Monday to Wednesday, but on Thursday there was a lot of traffic heading there to set up stalls etc, and Friday, as I had expected, the roads were pretty bad with the commute taking at least 20 minutes longer than normal. So this weekend I’ve decided to stay at home, even though the weather has been gorgeous, as I really don’t want to get stuck in another traffic jam…. Hopefully, normal traffic should resume tomorrow. 

Back at the pottery again

I was back at Eastnor Pottery again at the weekend, finishing off the shallow bowls that I threw a few months ago. Jon the Potter had wrapped them up in plastic, so although they were a bit mouldy (which soon scrapes or sponges off) they were still in a leather-hard state and good for turning. It’s quite funny, but the plastic bags he uses to wrap up unfinished pots are ones I gave him about 5 or 6 years ago, which were soft film wrappers that my local laundry / dry cleaners / ironing-service used. He could do with a re-supply, but I don’t use that company any more, so don’t have a ready source to recycle in his direction.

I had nine bowls, all variations on a theme, most of them about the size of a soup bowl. I turned them all, then picked the best four to decorate. I cut the rejects in half with a cheese-wire to get a good look at the profile. I still suffer from “heavy bottom syndrome”, and despite turning a deep footring into the pots, they could still be thinner and lighter. Trouble is, if you go too far then you end up with a hole in the bottom and a useless pot! Jon will fire, glaze and refine the four completed pots, and I’ll pick them up in a month or two.