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The Annual Pudding Overdose

After the day’s Retail Therapy, all attention turned to the main event of the weekend, the Pudding Club. We met up the the residents’ lounge of the Three Ways House Hotel for drinks and a good gossip. All too soon, it was time to get changed for dinner. I’ve learned over the years of the absolute necessity of not wearing anything too tight around the waist, so it’s one of the extremely few times a year that I will actually wear a dress – preferably one that stretches around the waist! So much more comfortable after several helpings of pudding too many….

In accordance with the time-honoured routine, we all met up in one of our rooms, bearing our tooth-mugs from our rooms, for a glass of wine before dinner. Disappointingly, most of the really nice glass tooth-mugs of the last few years had been replaced by nasty plastic cups. My room (a small and somewhat idiosyncratic room in the old servants quarters under the eaves) still had the old glass goblets, perhaps to compensate for nearly bashing my head on the ceiling every time I went to the bathroom. But all my friends had the nasty plastic replacements – we quizzed the hotel manager about it, and he said it was because too many of the good goblets had been nicked by the guests. It was the same story with flannels; they’ve stopped providing those too, because too many went walkabout, to the tune of hundreds of pounds every few months. That’s a real shame, but I suppose they couldn’t withstand the constant drain on resources in the current climate.

Anyway, after a glass of wine, we all convened back in the resident’s lounge for a pre-dinner elderflower pressé with all the other guests, and the introduction to the main event. Dinner started I with a very light main course – I had a fillet of fish with vegetables and a caper sauce. I held back on the potatoes – they were very nice, but additional carbohydrates at that early stage of the evening would not have been a good idea!

Then it was time for the Main Event. Seven traditional puddings were paraded in to the room, to much cheering and banging of cutlery. This year, they were:

  • Passionfruit and Meringue Roulade with extra cream
  • Sticky Toffee and Date pudding with custard
  • Butterscotch pudding with butterscotch sauce and custard
  • Very Chocolate Pudding with chocolate sauce and custard
  • Rhubarb Crumble and custard
  • Marmalade Bread & Butter pudding and custard
  • Sussex Pond Pudding and custard.

At this point in the evening, it becomes necessary to plan ones’s tactics, in order to squeeze in the maximum number of puddings. Do you start heavy and go lighter? Or start light and get stodgier through the evening? I decided to start with my favourites, and then move down the list as far as I could.

I’ve had Sussex Pond Pudding before, and not much enjoyed it. It’s essentially a suet Pudding, with whole lemons embedded in it, and it’s a sweet and sour experience, but not necessarily in a good way. I was happy to give that a miss. Likewise the Rhubarb Crumble – I hate rhubarb. I can also take or leave bread and butter pudding, it’s ok but not one of my favourites. That left the top four, all of which I’ve had before at the Pudding Club and I knew I liked a lot.

I managed a decent portion of the top three puddings, then decided to sit out a round to settle my stomach before attempting a fourth helping. Unfortunately, at that point, the friend sitting opposite me decided to try the Very Chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce and custard. It really was extremely rich, and smelled it! At that point, my stomach rebelled, and pointed out in no uncertain terms exactly what it would do if I tried to force the chocolate pudding down! So I ended up on a total of three puddings, all of which were gorgeous.

The Annual Shopping Experience

It’s a full year since the last time a group of us loosely associated with work went on the annual Civil Service Sports & Social Club “Pudding Club” weekend away. I’ve been so busy at work recently that the date rather crept up on me, and I suddenly realised mid-week that it was imminent. So that was a nice surprise!

As usual, I was picked up on the Saturday morning and we drove to Stratford for the first act of the weekend, Recreational Shopping at the tail end of the winter sales. The group have done this for so many years that they’ve got the timings down to a fine art, so six of us met up within five minutes of each other at the first rendezvous, a coffee shop by the river. We had tea / coffee / hot chocolate and toast with butter and jam to fortify ourselves before hitting the shops.

We’ve all got our favourite shops to visit, so we split up and headed out to do some serious browsing before lunch. As with each of the last few years, I was particularly keen to get myself a new cashmere jumper, to replace one that the moths have been eating. I like wearing cashmere jumpers to work, as they’re warm and fairly smart, but I really do not like paying full price for them. But at the end of the sales, there were very few sweaters left in my size. There were plenty in XS, but I’ve not been able to fit into that for years! Fortunately, I found the last M sized sweater in the sales, in a very pleasant deep blue-green, that was a very acceptable price. I was wearing it today to work, and it is very warm and soft.

I also spent an age in Lakeland, looking at tons of solutions to problems I didn’t know I had! They have a gadget for anything kitchen or home-related that you can possibly imagine. I suddenly realised that I’d just spent the past five minutes comparing the merits of three different mould and mildew remover sprays for the bathroom! I had to forcibly remind myself that I already have two bottles of something similar under the kitchen sink, and that buying more isn’t going to magically make the mould in the bathroom go away – the problem isn’t a lack of bleach spray, it’s my lack of willingness to get the ladder out to reach the awkward bits behind the shower!

I considered myself lucky to escape from Lakeland at the relatively trifling cost of some mini ice-packs for my lunch-box and a pie tin in a size I hadn’t already got. I didn’t get off so lightly at the next shop I went to, which sells eyewateringly expensive hand cream. I’m at the age where cheap hand cream isn’t worth the bother, and this stuff is very good, but even so I felt as if I’d been mugged! The cashier gave me her card and said that if I ran out before my next scheduled trip to Stratford, to give her a call and she’d get some couriered to me. At that price, so I should hope!

We all met up for lunch at the usual pub, together with another colleague who had further to travel, and compared notes. We’d all had a pretty successful morning shopping, and were ready for lunch. But in view of what we knew we had coming that evening, we didn’t want too much food, or we’d be unable to maximise the gluttonous opportunity later on. I think the pub staff must have been very disappointed in us – they were clearly hoping to sell us seven lots of three-course lunches with drinks. Instead, it was seven small starters, two jugs of tap water, and some lime-and-sodas. Not as profitable for them as they would have hoped! But it left us all with enough room to do justice to the Upcoming Event, and with more money to blow on further shopping before our next rendezvous later that afternoon in the residents’ lounge of the Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton, home of the Pudding Club.

Eighty Years Ago

My neighbours are renovating their cottage which is grade II listed. They are understandably keen to collect images and information about how it used to look, so have been looking through piles of old postcards and photos of the locality. They came across this lovely example from 1937 which is of my cottage.

Taken over eighty years ago, but still recognisable

The first thing that struck me was how quiet the road is! It’s a busy main road these days, and the only time I would dare to walk down the middle of it like that is when it’s been closed to traffic by the police or by heavy snow.

The Hills also look very different – there are many more trees on the lower slopes now, and a significant wood has grown up in the waste ground at the front right of the picture.

Despite those relatively cosmetic changes, the house is still very recognisable. In particular, you can make out the big bay window to the front room, and the troublesome porch. The house has been extended at both ends since 1937, so overall must be at least half as big again now as it was then.

It also looks as if there is another roofed structure in the front garden, just to the right of the big tree (that’s not there any more either). I think it must be a roof over the well, as I do have a disused well underneath a bird bath roughly at the same position. That seems a bit odd, as I’ve read elsewhere that from approx 1927 all the cottages in this little hamlet were supplied with drinking water pumped from a spring on the other side of British Camp, and there are still large water tanks in my loft from that date. Perhaps the well was a backup, or used to water the garden? Also, although it’s difficult to tell, the clothes the women are wearing look to me to pre-date the 1930s. I’m no expert, but perhaps Malvern was something of a fashion backwater? (My sister would say it still is!) Or maybe the photo was in fact taken earlier, and only labelled as 1937 subsequently?

Another Marco Restaurant

I’ve been doing an increasing amount of work with a number of British universities recently, and spent a couple of days in Scotland this week following up on some earlier discussions.

I was booked on an early flight from Birmingham to Edinburgh on Monday morning. It wasn’t the first flight of the day, but still would have meant leaving Malvern at a ridiculous time of the morning, which I wasn’t prepared to contemplate. Instead, I went up to Birmingham airport by train on Sunday afternoon and stayed overnight. The hotels actually on the airport were either full or demanding an extortionate price for their last few rooms, so I stayed instead at a hotel just outside the airport, which advertised itself as having a complementary shuttle bus to/from the railway station. I couldn’t immediately see where the shuttle bus went from, so phoned the hotel Reception for directions.

The very helpful Receptionist told me which bus stop to go to, and added that I should look out for a white minibus with a big picture of Marco Pierre White on the back. My heart sank a bit, since one of the hotels I stay in near our Hampshire HQ has a Marco Pierre White restaurant, and I’ve been left distinctly underwhelmed by the quality and price of the food, and indeed the service.

Unfortunately, the hotel was too far off the airport to head over there for dinner, and the bar (which served light meals) was very noisy and busy, with no spare tables. So if I wanted anything to eat on Sunday night, Marco’s was the only choice. He seems to have franchised his name out to far more hotel restaurants that he could feasibly keep an eye on personally. The restaurants presumably feel they can charge a premium for the “big name”, and indeed this hotel seemed very proud of the association. However, the menu was uninspiring and the burger I chose was expensive and not even particularly tasty. The service was slow, but the waiter was  friendly and brought me a large glass of wine, whilst only charging me for the small glass I actually ordered. So that at least was a bonus.

Even though I’d stayed locally overnight, I still had to be up much earlier than I would like, in order to get the half-hourly shuttle bus back to Birmingham International railway station, and then the monorail shuttle to the airport. I decided that the sensible thing to do was to have breakfast in the departure lounge, once I’d passed security etc, as that way I wouldn’t have to rush it. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hotel had laid out a tray of croissants, together with pots of tea and coffee in the Reception area. That was a nice touch, to help those guests who were having to depart at a hideously early time, before the full breakfast service was in operation. And it was free, so even better!

Above the Snow Line

There was more snow forecast yesterday, though Scotland and the north east were expected to get hit far more heavily than the midlands. Nevertheless, when I saw the snow starting to fall mid afternoon yesterday, I hurriedly packed up my laptop and left work to get home promptly. I absolutely hate driving through snow; it reminds me far too much of trying to get Christopher home from hospital when he was seriously ill in the middle of a blizzard. I left just in the nick of time, because just after I got home it started snowing really heavily – big fat flakes which looked alarmingly like they might stick.

It was forecast to snow on and off all night, though the temperature was meant to be hovering just above zero, so I was hopeful that it wouldn’t get too deep. When I got up this morning, there was a worryingly white glow coming through the bathroom window. That generally means that there’s a layer of snow on the timber revetments holding up the slope. But because the window is frosted, it’s not possible to assess the depth of the snow. Opening the bedroom curtains initially didn’t give much more of a clue – the grass was clearly white not green, but I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see how bad it was.

Fortunately, it turned out to be little more than a light smattering of a centimetre or so. All the same, it took well over five minutes to get the car driveable – the driver’s door had frozen shut again, so the only way in was by clambering in from the passenger side. But the roads were clear and I had no trouble driving in. In fact, most of Malvern was completely free of snow; as I drove down the hill there was a pretty clear line below which there was no snow on the ground at all. It was just the tops of the hills which were above the snow line. My car was the only one in the car park at work with a layer of snow on the bonnet – not for the first time…..

New Year, New Tradesmen

On Christmas Day, the kitchen sink decided it was a good time to get completely blocked. Obviously, there was no way that I was going to be able to get an emergency plumber away from his Christmas Dinner for anything as relatively trivial as a blocked sink, so self help was clearly required.

I tried to clear it first with the plunger. Admittedly, it’s a pretty elderly plunger – I think we bought it soon after we moved in here. It turned out that the rubber was perished, and over-enthusiastic plunging just caused it to part company with the handle! So that was no good. Next I tried pouring drain-unblocking fat-busting chemicals down the sink. That partially worked, to the extent that the sink drained slowly and noisily, but was at least usable over the Christmas period.

On the day after Boxing Day, I tried getting hold of one of those 24/7 plumber/drain clearer companies to do the job properly. I was initially offered a same-day appointment, albeit for a significant amount of money. I agreed, through gritted teeth, but they phoned me back an hour later and said they wouldn’t be able to get to me until the Friday. So much for 24/7 emergency call-outs! I was not impressed, and anyway was due to be visiting my parents on the Friday, so I cancelled.

My parents recommended an old-fashioned hardware store close to where they live, that happened to be open between Christmas and New Year, so I was able to replace the broken plunger with a new, heavy duty one. Enthusiastic and regular plunging with that has at least kept the kitchen sink draining well enough to be usable for the last week or so.

However, there was clearly an ongoing problem. There was a heavy frost overnight earlier this week, and I noticed that there was a frozen puddle outside the kitchen window, even though it hadn’t rained. It looked like the problem might not be so much with the sink itself, but with the drain. And that is way outside my limited DIY capabilities. I needed professional help for that.

So I have taken today off work to wait in for Dynorod to turn up and fix it. They’re not cheap, but they’re not the company that let me down after Christmas, and actually I’ve been moderately impressed with their professionalism. They were in regular phone contact this morning, telling me that I was on the job schedule, and giving updated times when the service engineer would get to me. And when he got here, he quickly diagnosed and fixed the problem with a cheery “Just leave it to me, luv”.

It turned out to be a blockage in the external U-bend outside the kitchen, where the outlet from the sink joins the main drain. It needed rodding to get rid of a significant blockage of congealed grease. The chap said it was like these “fatbergs” that have been in the press lately, but on a much smaller domestic scale – he called it a “fat snowball”! I felt entirely justified in calling in the professionals, as clearing it required specialist tools that I don’t have, as well as being an unpleasant and somewhat messy job!

I do hope this isn’t an omen for the rest of the year……

New Year’s Day Gluttony

For the past few years, in fact since Christopher died, it’s become a bit of a tradition that my neighbours over the road invite me round for lunch on New Year’s Day – a very enjoyable way of getting the year off to a good start. Last year, we varied the routine, as my neighbours also wanted to invite the young couple who had recently moved in to the cottage up the road. Since I’ve got the largest dining room and the most chairs, it made sense for me to host the event, with each household contributing a course so that no one person had to cook the whole meal.

That worked really well, and everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves, so we decided to do the same thing again this year. I looked out my best crockery, cutlery, glasses and tablecloth (all wedding presents as it happens – it’s nice to get a chance to use them), and the neighbours all appeared bearing dishes of food. We had a thoroughly gluttonous lunch of vegetable soup, then nut roast, roasted ham, baked potatoes and mixed veg, all followed by lemon soufflé. I’m feeling absolutely stuffed now!

It was a very enjoyable mealtime, and I do feel lucky to have such good neighbours – we’re only a little hamlet up here on top of the hills, but we all get along very well. We were jokingly talking about augmenting the now-annual neighbourly get-together with a summer garden party. Though I’m not sure that any of us has a garden that’s flat enough to host it, what with being on the side of an extremely steep hill!

Walking around Ancient Rome


No sooner had I finished the on-line course on the “Hobbit”, when I got an email from FutureLearn saying in effect “If you liked that, how about this?”, and pointing me towards a free short course run by the University of Reading on Ancient Rome.

The USP of this particular course is that it’s based on a 3D model of the city, as it might have looked in its heyday. The lecturer has used architectural CAD software to build models of individual houses, temples, baths, forums , aqueducts etc, then assembled them all into one huge digital model which you can navigate through.

The basic software he’s used is called SketchUp; it’s available as freeware for PCs, and in fact I’ve used it in the past myself. When Christopher and I were considering getting the extension built, we used SketchUp to build a 3D model of it from the architect’s drawings, so that we could visualise what it might look like. It was easy to get started with SketchUp, but pretty tricky to build an accurate scale model of even a single building from plans and drawings. So I’m in awe of the amount of work it must have taken to build a representation of an entire city of a million inhabitants.

Part of the course involves downloading sections of his model and then  “walking” an avatar around it. That’s a bit hit and miss on my iPad, as my so-called broadband is not really up to the job of downloading a complex CAD model. But on the occasions I can get it to work, it’s quite fun. Yesterday I found myself walking around the Pantheon, with nobody else there!

I’ve been to Rome a number of times, most recently on a specialist archaeological trip looking specifically at how the ancient city has left its mark in the present day. So I’m pretty familiar with the background and content of this course, but it has still been really interesting to  visualise how the city might have looked two thousand years ago. It’s not entirely accurate of course – not only has the lecturer had to use lots of educated guess-work where the archaeological evidence is missing, but it all looks clean and pristine, with none of the dirt, mess and chaos that there must have been. Nevertheless, provided you accept the limitations of the model, it’s a very good way of “bringing alive” how Ancient Rome might have looked and worked.

Snow-ly returning to normal

Between Saturday evening and Monday morning, we had a total of 11″/28cm of snow up here on the hills. It took several more hours of shovelling on Monday morning to uncover the car, and to re-clear the bits of the drive that had already been shovelled clear once on the Sunday. Fortunately, it didn’t matter too much that I was well and truly snowed in – the maintenance staff hadn’t been able to clear the car park at work, so the site was only open to people who could walk in. Everyone else was asked to work from home if possible.

On Tuesday though, I was keen to make it in if possible. It was the day of our team Christmas Dinner, and the colleague organising it had picked a rather nice gastro-pub that I’ve not been to for years. First though I had to get the car de-iced – the driver’s door was frozen solid so that the only way in was via the passenger door and climbing over the handbrake! But it started ok, though the journey in was a bit hairy with lots of partially cleared roads and pedestrians walking in the middle of the road because the pavements were impassable.

I made it in to work ok, but really couldn’t face the drive out to the pub in Hanley Swan on poorly cleared B-roads. Fortunately, a colleague with a 4×4 was offering lifts, and I was really happy to cadge a ride off her. The Christmas lunch was excellent- really tasty, good portions and well presented. I’ll have to put it on the list of places to go to when I’ve got friends and family staying.

The thaw seems to have started in earnest today. The roads were mostly ok this morning, and I’ve gritted my drive so that’s remained ice-free. But I still have at least a 6″ blanket of snow over the house and garden. At least I suppose that shows that the house is well insulated so I’m not losing much heat through the roof!

Snowed In!

Snowed in!

It started snowing overnight, and hasn’t stopped all day. This was the view at lunchtime today. Since then, there’s been at least another inch, making 10″/25cm in all so far, with more forecast for overnight. I think it’s safe to say that I’m snowed in!  The main road is passable with care – there have been gritters and snowploughs going up and down the hill all day, but the real challenge is the steep slope getting onto and off my drive. It took three hours to semi-clear the drive this afternoon, but I’m expecting to have to repeat the exercise again in the morning. I’m going to be so stiff from the unaccustomed exercise – a shovel full of snow is remarkably heavy, and I’ve shifted many cubic metres of the stuff!