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Basic ID security

I booked a holiday recently for later in the year, just another holiday cottage, but through a company I’d not used before. I did it all online, and provided my mobile number.

A few days later I got a call to discuss my booking. All very well, until the caller asked me to confirm the first line of my address before she would go any further.

Hang on a minute. She called me, from a number I didn’t recognise, and which was not the same as the contact number on the holiday company’s website. And now she’s asking me to provide personal information over the phone? She could have been anyone. Next thing I bet she’d have been asking for my credit card details to “complete the booking”.

It was very probably a legitimate call from the holiday company. But on principle I simply don’t ever hand out personal details of any kind to people who call me out of the blue. I would always initiate the call, on a number that I trust. And what was worse was that she didn’t seem to see that there was a potential issue with her protocols.

There is so little data privacy these days that I’m probably fighting a losing battle. But it makes me very cross when companies that ought to know better act in an indistinguishable way from scammers.


I am not green-fingered by nature, and neither was Christopher. When we were thinking about buying this cottage, we were very wary about taking on the garden – and rightly so, as we really didn’t know what we were doing. However, one of the last things that Christopher planted in the garden before he fell ill was some oriental poppies. For some reason, they seem to have thrived and come back each year more flamboyant than ever. They’re not exactly neat and tidy, but they certainly are eye-catching!

A trip to Hellens

There is a very interesting old house about 15 minutes from me, which dates back in part to the Norman Conquest, though much of the remaining fabric of the building dates from when one of the owners in the Tudor period married into money and was able to afford to do it up.

Hellens Manor

Unusually for such a historic house, it’s been in the same family for the last 800 years or so. It’s now owned by a Family Trust, presumably to avoid issues with inheritance tax etc. The family don’t technically live there any more, at least not full-time, but they still have an apartment there, and the house is still very much used. It’s nothing like a sterile National Trust property, primped and preened to be at its best. Hellens is delightfully shabby, clearly has serious damp problems, and is stuffed full of family portraits and photos. There were fresh towels in the bedrooms at the foot of the four-poster beds, I caught sight of an ironing board in a service corridor, and the toilets for public use are clearly in the house laundry – there was a load of washing still in the tumble drier!

There is a team of needlewomen from NADFAS (national association of decorative and fine arts, I think) who are very gradually renovating and replacing some of the textiles in the house. There is a pair of crewel-work curtains in the drawing room that they completed a few years ago after over 4000 hours of sewing, and they’ve recently made a set of chair covers for the dining room.

I like to visit Hellens every few years to see how they’re getting on with the renovation and the garden – it really puts my issues with maintaining my cottage into perspective! The opening hours are quite restricted, and you can only visit as part of a guided tour. The story you get varies according to which of the guides is giving it, and what bits of the history have most captured their imagination. They all though cover the story of the unfortunate daughter of the house who eloped with the stable boy, and on her return was locked in her bedroom for the next thirty years!

Since it was a Bank Holiday today, I was off work, and Hellens was open in the afternoon. The sun came out, and I decided to pay a visit. It was well worth making the effort. It’s as shabby and interesting as I remembered from my previous visits, and the NADFAS needlework really was exquisite.

Calling in the plumber

You would think that with three bathrooms in one smallish cottage, I should have an embarrassment of plumbing amenities. There’s what an estate agent would call the main “family bathroom”, an en-suite in my bedroom, and a very handy shower room in the extension. But over the last few weeks, it all started going wrong.

The electric shower in the en-suite broke, there seems to be a leak in the shower in the main bathroom, and the shower in the extension won’t drain properly, even with several bottles-worth of drain unblocker. Then to really cap it all, the flush mechanism broke on two out of the three toilets so that they were unusable. Either I’m very unlucky, (or clumsy?) or there’s a design flaw, as exactly the same thing went wrong at the holiday cottage in Ironbridge last month….

I’ve been meaning for a while to call in a plumber to sort it out, but have been so busy at work that it never got to the top of my to-do list. However, when the second loo broke, that was the final straw! I was on to my final back-up and Something Had To Be Done. I didn’t want to call in the plumber I used last time, as I didn’t like his attitude. But the new one comes with recommendations and seems to be polite and efficient.

He turned up when he was expected, with two plumber’s mates, and sorted out the immediate problems. He’s cleared a blockage in my main drain, which was causing the drainage problem with the third shower, and has fixed both the broken toilets. The electric shower will have to be completely replaced, so that’s a job for another day, and the leak in the main bathroom needs to dry out before it can get fixed. So he’ll come back in a couple of weeks to finish the job. But at least I know have one working shower and three functional toilets – which is significantly better than I had this morning!

Lunch at Stokesay Castle

Stokesay Castle gate house with castle behind

Stokesay Castle is about half way between Ironbridge and Malvern, so it was an ideal place to stop for lunch on the way home from my short holiday. It was one of Christopher’s favourite English Heritage sites, and we used to go there at least annually to look at the wonky gatehouse and solidly-built tower, great hall and solar block in the castle courtyard. It must be over ten years now since I last visited, and I enjoyed seeing it again.

Previously, I remember that there was a small tea-shop in one corner of the courtyard which sold cold drinks, ice-creams and little else. There was hardly any seating, but you were encouraged to eat your ice-cream on one of the benches in the castle grounds. That was missing a clear retail opportunity to extract more cash from the punters, but there was no space for anything more. However, English Heritage have clearly been thinking about how better to monetise their visitors, and have recently converted a cottage at the end of the car-park into a good sized cafe / tea-rooms. I had a delicious, but rather enthusiastically-priced, ploughman’s lunch there, before reacquainting myself with the castle.

Wroxeter Roman City

Just fifteen minutes from the industrial heritage of Ironbridge is the site of the fourth-largest Roman town in Britain. There’s not a huge amount of it visible these days – most of it is under farmland, with much of the building stone recycled into the churches in the local villages. But there is still a substantial chunk of bath-house wall standing, and enough foundations of the basilica and forum to give an idea of how impressive it must once have been.

Wroxeter Roman City – the remains of the baths

There was also a small reconstructed Roman town house on the site. It was built about ten years ago as part of an experimental archaeology project, and filmed by Channel 4 for a documentary series “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. The premise was that six modern builders (chippie, plumber, plasterer etc) would have to build the villa from scratch using only tools and methods that would be recognisable to the Romans. So no power tools, and absolutely everything had to be done by hand, under the eye of a somewhat pompous academic archaeologist who was prone to hissy fits if he spotted something anachronistic (like a wheelbarrow!). I remember it made quite an entertaining TV series, so it was interesting to see the finished house.

The reconstructed Roman town house

Pork Pies and Plumbing

The holiday apartment was owned and run by a family-run business who make self-proclaimed “world-famous pork pies”. Indeed, the very comprehensive welcome pack included one of their very tasty pork pies, which meant I didn’t have to cook dinner that night! The matriarch of the family had clearly decided to expand the business by turning some of the original workshops in a courtyard behind the shop into holiday lets. The one I stayed in was small, but one of the best-appointed holiday cottages I’ve stayed in.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. On my second evening there, the toilet flush mechanism broke. Just one of those things, nobody’s fault – but it rendered the loo unusable. I phoned the emergency number from the welcome pack, and within five minutes the manager from the pie shop was there to have a look. He agreed that it was indeed broken, beyond his abilities to mend it, and that he would have to get a plumber round. But it was 6pm already, and the plumber couldn’t get there until the next day. That could have completely spoiled the holiday, as you can’t do without a loo!

Fortunately, the next-door holiday cottage was vacant that night, so the manager gave me the key and showed me where its bathroom was. It was a bit inconvenient, having to pop next door, but fortunately the weather was dry overnight so it wasn’t a very big deal. The next morning there was a knock on the door, and it was a young man in a butcher’s apron. He was the owner’s son, and had been sent round by his mother to apologise profusely, to keep me updated on the whereabouts of the promised plumber, and to offer me a selection of pork pies and pasties to compensate for the inconvenience! I’ve been back home for several days now, and I still have some of the pork pies left – in fact I had some for lunch today!

I’ve often thought that you can tell how good a business is by how it behaves when something goes wrong. And in this case, they were all over the case – helpful, keeping me informed on progress, and compensating me with delicious hand-made pork pies. I’m just very relieved that the next-door holiday cottage was empty at the critical time, or it could have been a lot worse!

A Few Days in Ironbridge

Easter seemed very late this year, and after the hectic end-of-year at work, followed immediately by working on a big bid, I really needed a break. The trains were predicted to be chaotic over the Bank Holiday, as usual, so I looked for somewhere interesting within what I consider to be a driveable distance. Ironbridge in Shropshire fitted the bill – only an hour and a half or so drive away, but with enough to see in the immediate vicinity to make it worth staying for a few days. I booked a small self-catering apartment right in the middle of the town, and spent my time just pottering around.

The original “iron bridge” dating from 1779

I’m sure that last time I went to Ironbridge, about 15 years ago or more, the bridge wasn’t a red-brown colour. It turns out that I’d timed the visit perfectly – it underwent a massive conservation effort all last year, and was shrouded in scaffolding for the duration. That would have ruined thousands of people’s holiday photographs! As part of the restoration, they discovered the original colour of the ironwork was red-brown, not the blue-grey it’s been for decades, and so it was repainted. I was glad that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me!

Yet another pair of glasses

About this time last year, at considerable expense, I bought myself three new pairs of glasses: one for distance, one for using the computer at work, and a third for reading. For the next few months I was constantly swapping glasses depending on what I was doing – it was really quite tiresome.

Then a month or so ago it dawned on me that I really wasn’t swapping my spectacles over nearly as much as before. My normal (distance) pair were just fine for using on the computer, and I only really needed to change glasses at work if I was spending a while reviewing a printed document. Hmmm. Sounded like my vision had changed again and I’d got even more short-sighted. I went back to the opticians to get it checked out, and yes indeed I needed an even stronger prescription.

I really didn’t want to shell out on more pairs of glasses than necessary, so had a really constructive discussion with the opticians about the way forward. We decided that since all the frames were virtually new and perfectly serviceable, I should just “shunt all the pairs of glasses along one”. So last year’s distance pair become my computer glasses. The previous computer/middle-distance glasses are now my reading glasses. And I’ve had new, stronger lenses put in my old reading glasses so that they have now become my new distance pair.

I picked the new pair up this week, and now I’m trying to “break them in”, having all the usual issues that the floor isn’t in the right place and the walls seem at an angle. At least I’m off work for the bank holiday so I can get used to them at home, and deal with the low-grade headache that changing a lens prescription always seems to cause. But now that I’m back to having the correct prescription, I’m also back to changing my glasses every few minutes depending on what I’m doing!

Turning and decorating

I was determined not to leave it too long before I went back to the pottery, and so last Sunday I joined day two of a weekend throwing course that Jon was running.

On the first day the participants learn how to throw pots, they are dried out overnight, and then on the second day they are shown how to turn and decorate their half-finished pots. Since that was the stage I was at with mine, it made sense to join them. It’s easier for the pottery staff if everyone is at roughly the same stage – if I’m throwing while everyone else is turning, then they need to keep me supplied with ready-wedged clay, which I’m the only person using. It’s not so inconvenient if I’m turning whilst the course participants are learning how to throw, as I’m pretty much self-contained and just sit in a corner getting on with it. But overall it’s easier if we’re all doing roughly the same thing.

I had fifteen small bowls that I threw last time, which had been dried to the “leather-hard” stage and then wrapped in plastic. I tidied up the bottoms of the best ten, taking off the extra heaviness on the bottom and turning a foot-ring to make them more stable. Then I down-selected five from those to decorate. I’m not at all artistic, so I concentrated on bold colours (blue and turquoise) and simple patterns. Plus I painted a plain white slip on the inside to add some further contrast. They looked quite striking, but I forgot to take a picture of them before I left. I’ll have to get one when I pick them up in a few weeks time.