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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!

Finally finished the bathroom

I originally called in the plumbers way back in May. And as of last Friday they finally left. The leak behind the bath must have been going on for many years. It took nine weeks with a dehumidifier just to dry out the bathroom so that work could commence repairing it – the first five weeks to get the walls dry, and then another four weeks to get rid of the indoor pool that was lurking underneath the floorboards! My electricity bill has gone up by £20/month just running the dehumidifier!

I have to say that the so-called “family bathroom” does look much better now. It’s got wipe-clean mould-resistant walls, new flooring, and a smart new bath. I also took advantage of having a plumber on site to get them to look at the shower room in the extension too. There was a rotten floorboard there too, presumably resulting from the leak I had there a few years back. Since the plumbers had nearly a whole pack of flooring left over from doing the main bathroom, I got them to fix the floorboard and redo the flooring in the shower room too.

It was a long drawn out, challenging and expensive job. But I do at least now have all three of my bathrooms working fully for the first time in many months. Phew.

White Van Tetris

This morning I had the gardener and a team of plumbers working on the house and garden. Which led to a new record for the number of vehicles squeezed onto my drive – two cars and three vans. And of course you could be sure that whichever vehicle was the most blocked in belonged to the person who needed to be elsewhere. So we all spent much of the morning shuffling my car and their vehicles around to let people out!

The bathroom is gradually coming along, although much more slowly than I’d hoped. The new bath is in place, though without any taps as yet. There is new laminate flooring, which looks much better than the old vinyl, and they are now fitting some low-maintenance plastic panels to the wall. This is apparently the latest thing, replacing tiles, with no grout that needs cleaning, just a wipe-down surface. It’s a bit bling-tastic, and is proving something of a pain to fit – they are beginning to realise that no surface in my house is perpendicular to any other one….

Bathroom Mayhem

The plumbers are back to deal with the fallout from the leak in the main bathroom. It would appear that the leak has probably been going on for years – there was a veritable swimming pool of water sitting underneath the floorboards, and I’ve had to have a dehumidifier working 24/7 for several weeks to dry it out.

I’m going to need new joists, new floorboards, a new bath, replacement pipework to upgrade the leaky galvanised steel pipes, and a replastered ceiling. That’s before they then do the more cosmetic stuff of re-tiling and putting down new flooring. They’ve made a start today, but it’s going to take all next week to finish it.

Today’s problem is how to remove and replace the old steel pipework. That involves working in a very confined space in the loft, and they can’t use an angle grinder as that would set light to the Victorian sawdust loft insulation! So they are having to use a hacksaw and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It does not appear to be going well……

The tradesmen return

My cottage certainly seems to be a regular source of employment for the local tradesmen. This week I’ve got Rob, my long-standing decorator, here for his annual week as “artist in residence”. Unfortunately, this year my list of things I want to have done exceeds both my budget and the length of time I’ve hired him for, so I’ve had to prioritise.

Usually I get him to maintain the exterior paintwork. That’s like painting the Forth Bridge – if he does a section each year then no sooner has he finished than it’s time to start at the beginning again. However, I decided this year to have him concentrate on painting some of the woodwork inside the house. The hall woodwork in particular was looking very yellow and was quite chipped. Plus the leak in the main bathroom had caused some of the window frame to rot, which needed stabilising – fortunately it wasn’t a structural timber, so it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. And the window frames in the living room and my bedroom were looking in need of some TLC.

That’s going to take up pretty much all of the allotted week, so the outside jobs will have to wait until next year.

Not a good start to a holiday…

I went away for a few days last week to a cottage in the Cotswolds. It’s somewhere I pass through often, usually on my way to a customer meeting, but it’s been several years since I have spent time pottering around. There are a lot of Roman ruins around Cirencester, and I particularly wanted to have another look at Chedworth Roman Villa and the Corinium Museum in Cirencester.

I’d booked a small holiday cottage in a village between Cirencester and Fairford, on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, and within easy reach of the main sites. But the holiday did not get off to a good start.

Check-in was from 15:00 and I got there at 15:30 last Monday. The landlady lived next door, and the instructions were to pick up the keys from her. So I knocked on the door, only to be greeted by a very flustered elderly woman who looked very surprised to see me. She said the cottage wasn’t ready, but handed me the key anyway. But it wouldn’t turn in the lock. I knocked on her door again to say I couldn’t get in, so she took the key off me and let herself in through the back door. She then put the key on the side.

For the next half hour she pottered in and out between her house and the cottage, bringing sheets, towels, loo roll, tea towels, etc etc – all the things that should have been done before guests arrive. The cottage clearly hadn’t been hoovered or dusted since the previous guests had departed, but I didn’t want her hanging around any longer so I was prepared to overlook that.

But at some point in that half hour, the keys vanished! I can only think that she must have absent-mindedly picked them up on one of her trips into the house, as I turned the place upside down and couldn’t find them. The landlady said she would give me the spare set of keys – so far so good. But she clearly had never checked that they worked when she got them cut – the key shaft was too wide and would not even go into the keyhole, let alone turn. So that meant that I couldn’t lock up the cottage, either from the inside or the outside!

That really wasn’t good enough and although the cottage was otherwise ok and in a good location, I wasn’t happy about having to carry my iPad with me at all times, let alone having to sleep knowing that the back door was unlocked. The weather wasn’t very good either, so once I’d seen the main sites I was interested in I decided to cut my losses and come home a day early.

Two Museums

On my one full day off, I was absolutely determined to go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a world-class museum that is effectively the New York equivalent of the British Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I spent four hours thoroughly “doing” the Egyptian and Mesopotamian collections, by which time my feet were aching so much that I called it a day and gave the art gallery a miss. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for years, and I was very pleased that I braved the subway, and the stiflingly hot walk from Lexington Avenue to Central Park, to get there.

Conversely, the Tenement Museum in New York was just a few blocks away from my hotel. On my last day, I had a free morning before I had to head off to the airport in the afternoon for my flight home. It was too far to head uptown to have another go around The Met, so I decided to stick to attractions very much closer to my hotel.

First, I wanted a decent breakfast. The hotel was undergoing renovations to its kitchen and restaurant, so there was no cooked breakfast available, just bagels, fruit and yoghurt. And for the last week of my stay, not even that – I had been grabbing a pastry from the 7-11 like a true New Yorker! So I asked the hotel where I could get a “proper” American breakfast, and ended up walking three blocks to an old-fashioned New York diner where I had a stack of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup. Yum!

Then I waddled three blocks in the other direction and got to the Tenement Museum just as it was opening. As you might guess from the name, it’s based in an old block of tenement flats – so old in fact that it is now the US equivalent of a Historic Listed Building. It is approximately five years older than my cottage!

Shockingly, the entrance fee was the same as for The Met. But whereas The Met’s ticket allowed three consecutive days’ access to world-class art and artefacts, the Tenement Museum allowed me a one hour guided tour of a single floor of the building, in the company of an “educator” who “engaged in conversation” with the punters about the people who used to live there. It was social history brought to life, but in an extremely didactic way.

It was moderately interesting, and the museum had clearly done some thorough research into the life of an immigrant Irish family who had lived in the tenement building for a few years. They had redecorated one of the (tiny) flats to be representative of how it might have looked when the family first moved in, around 1870. Surprisingly, to me at least, it was less of a slum than I had expected – at least at that date. Given the semi-derelict state of the un-renovated rooms, the building clearly went downhill over the next few decades.

The other thing that surprised me was when the “educator” said that many flats in New York were still much the same size as the one in the museum. That had a smallish living room, a tiny kitchen, and one small bedroom. There were renovated tenement blocks all over the Lower East Side neighbourhood, so I suppose that, give or take an indoor bathroom these days, the floor plans would be much the same. That explained why there were so many laundrettes around – at least one every few blocks – as I suppose the flats are just too small to make it worth having a washing machine.

Sussing out the Subway

Because my team and I were working at various locations in New York, we needed to use the Subway to get around. I was, perhaps naively, expecting it to be very similar to the London Underground – but I was wrong. It was much more complicated and we all found it challenging.

There were some aspects that were much better than the Tube. It was significantly cheaper, for a start, with any journey costing $2.75, no matter how long it was or where in the city it started. There was no concept of “zones”, just a flat rate, so a trip to the far end of Brooklyn, which took nearly an hour from our hotel, cost the same as going just one or two stops. And you could get a weekly season ticket for unlimited travel over 7 consecutive days for $33, which is pretty good.

But the Subway system seemed to have been starved of cash and investment compared to London. The transit authority was just beginning to roll out a contactless payment card, and only a few lines had it. Whereas London has had Oyster cards for years. Instead, the MetroCards were just thin bits of card with a magnetic strip on them. They were refillable, but easily damaged – mine got bent so much in two weeks of use that it it was no longer usable. And it would be really hard to use the Subway if you had luggage; there were very few escalators or lifts, just lots of stairs, and I didn’t see any wide entrance/exit gates for people with luggage/pushchairs, just narrow turnstiles. I decided it would be much easier to get a taxi back to the airport on my final day, rather than wrestle my case down the multiple flights of steps and then struggle to get it through the turnstiles on the subway.

But it was the labelling of the stations and trains that really confused us. There are multiple stations with the same name, but on different lines and many blocks apart. There are three different stations called “Canal Street”, for example, serving five lines, but several blocks away from each other. And as well as several stations sharing one name, one station could have two different names! The closest metro station to my hotel was on the corner of Delancey St and Essex Street, and was called by either of those two names, apparently at random.

Once you’d found the right station, it was then a case of getting on a train going where you wanted. That was easier said than done. You would have thought that some maps or graphics would be helpful, showing which stations were served from which platform. Instead, you had to quickly develop a mental map the boroughs of New York. Did you want to go to “Uptown and Queens” or “Downtown and Brooklyn”? The trains seemed to have both their origin and their destination written on the side, so you couldn’t use that to work out which way it was headed. Then there was the whole issue of whether the next train was a “local” or an “express”. The latter doesn’t stop at all stations, but we never worked out how to tell which ones it was missing out. Some trains had electronic boards inside saying what the next station was, but many didn’t. And some stations had helpful electronic boards giving the next few trains and how soon they would arrive, but again many didn’t.

The upshot of all this was that we all took a while getting used to how the subway operated. Several of us got on trains heading in the wrong direction, or failed to get on the correct train because we weren’t convinced it was right, and one of my colleagues had an unanticipated trip to the Bronx, after unwittingly getting on an express train rather than a stopping service. We all ended up downloading an interactive Subway Map app onto our phones, which helped a bit. We would have been even more confused without that!