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Counted Cross Stitch

I’ve always enjoyed doing craft work as a hobby. Perhaps it comes from being an engineer and wanting to make things? I suppose these days my main craft hobby is pottery, but I also knit, sew and embroider amongst other things. But one thing I’d never done is counted cross stitch. Until, that is, I was given a kit of St Michael’s Mount as a birthday present.

I soon realised why I’d never attempted counted cross stitch before. You start with a blank piece of canvas with 14 holes to the inch (that’s an awful lot of stitches!), a printed out page of graph paper with a virtually indecipherable key on it, and a load of skeins of embroidery thread, in this case in twenty subtly different colours. I wasn’t sure whether my eyesight, patience, or manual dexterity was up to the job, or which one would give out first! But I thought I really ought to give it a go, since it was a present. I could only embroider for a few hours a day maximum, and only sitting in the window seat in the living room, where there was enough strong natural light to see by. And if the sun went behind a cloud I had to stop sewing!

It took all summer, but fortunately I finished it before the clocks went back. I took it to our local framers to be mounted, and I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out. I have to say I’m in no hurry to do another one though!

St Michael’s Mount

Nutter and Nuttette

A tit on the bird feeder – possibly a coal tit?

Back in the Spring, I bought some bird feeders for the garden and hung them in the corner between the two bedrooms. That used to be a very boring part of the garden – other than an acer tree turning vaguely pink in autumn,  nothing much ever happened there. But since I started regularly restocking the bird feeders with nuts, seeds and fat balls, that corner has become like an outdoor aviary. It’s a mass of activity, from first light until dusk, with well over a dozen birds regularly there at any one time. They’re mostly a mixture of different sorts of tits, and they generally get on pretty well. If the food stocks are getting low then there are some squabbles, which the great tits usually win, but most of the time they all feed happily on the same feeder, or wait in the adjacent bushes for their turn.

However, the undisputed king and queen of the bird feeder are a pair of nuthatches. They are both really hard birds, and bully all the others massively. Nutter and Nuttette will only tolerate each other on the feeder (and even then, they prefer to have one each). If any other bird has the temerity to approach the feeder while the nuthatches are there, they get headbutted viciously and driven away. In fact the male, Nutter the Nuthatch, has even been seen to do a kamikaze dive onto a squirrel that was trying to get into the peanut feeder! The squirrel was rapidly scared off and Nutter took its place on the feeder. It’s a very literal illustration of the term “pecking order”, with the nuthatches clearly right at the top!

It’s certainly added a huge amount of interest to that corner of the garden. Though now the Dawn Chorus is louder than ever, and directly outside my bedroom window, so there is something of a downside. 

Altercation with the Newsagent

For years, I’ve had newspapers delivered at the weekend by the closest newsagent, who is several miles away in the nearest village. It’s too far (and probably too dangerous, given how fast the main road is) for a regular paperboy/girl to do the round on their bike, so a chap drives out in his car to do the deliveries for me and my neighbours. He gets here too late to catch me in time for breakfast during the week, but I tend to have a lie in at the weekend, so it doesn’t matter so much if the paper’s not delivered before 09:30. I do pay through the nose for the convenience of getting the papers delivered though.

For a small company, the newsagents are surprisingly blasé about cash flow. They send me a bill monthly in arrears, I put a cheque in the post a day or so later, and then they don’t cash it for weeks. But three months ago, I put a cheque in the post as usual but they didn’t cash it at all. The following month, they sent me bill for two full months, assuming I hadn’t paid. I went to see them in person, and pointed out that I’d put a cheque in the post, showed them the counterfoil in my cheque book, and said I’d only pay the second month’s bill, since as far as I was concerned I was up to date. The chap said he hadn’t even got around to opening his post from the previous month, so my cheque was probably in a drawer somewhere!

However, the same thing happened again last month. Again, my bill hadn’t been made up to date. I really don’t like being told I’m delinquent in my payments, when I know that I pay my bills regularly. I’ve had enough. So I’ve gone to my bank to cancel the outstanding cheque, paid the newsagent’s bill in full and closed my account. It’s a bit of a case of cutting off my nose to spite my face, as now I don’t get a paper delivered at the weekend. If it was an isolated case, I’d be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider that the cheque might have got lost in the post. But it strongly smells of bad organisation at their end, and I’m not prepared to put up with bad service – I’d rather do without. 

There doesn’t appear to be any other newsagent that will deliver this far out of town, so they’ve got a monopoly situation. My choices are either to drive into town, spend a token amount at Waitrose and pick a free paper up from there as part of the MyWaitrose benefits, or consider a digital subscription on my iPad. I suspect I might go for the latter and see how it works out.

Family Visitation

I had my sister and brother-in-law staying here over the weekend. We have all been so busy this year that I don’t think we’ve actually seen each other since the New Year, and they certainly haven’t stayed here for over three years. It’s shocking how time flies by! I sometimes stay overnight with my sister if I’ve got an early meeting in London, but she’s been travelling so much for work lately that she’s not actually been around when I’ve needed to go to Town, so that’s not worked out. But they had been having a week’s holiday in North Wales, and Malvern is sufficiently on the way back to London that there was really no excuse not to call in. 

It was really good to catch up with them properly. They admired the new porch – which looks virtually identical to the old porch, just slightly more upright – and rifled through my collection of Agatha Christies, borrowing most of the Poirot mysteries. In return though, they did leave me six months’ worth of National Geographic magazines, which will keep me amused for ages. 

How the Other Half Loves

After a disappointingly barren summer,  Malvern Theatres has had a couple of interesting things on in quick succession. This week’s offering was How the Othe Half Loves, the 1969 Alan Acykbourn classic. Apparently, it had a prolonged and critically acclaimed run in London last year,and is now on tour around the country – although with only one of the original actors from the West End run. I had seen the play before, years ago, and enjoyed it, so thought I’d use my Standby Club membership to go to the Saturday matinée. The theatre was quite full, but I still managed to get a very good seat in the stalls.

As you would expect from an Ayckbourn, it’s a black comedy looking at unhappy marriages – three of them in this case. Frank and Fiona Foster are well off with a pleasant, comfortable house and lifestyle, but she is clearly bored with him, and is having an affair with Bob Phillips, one of Frank’s employees. Bob is the office lothario, despite being married with a young baby. His wife, Theresa, is barely coping, and their flat is untidy and chaotic. As Bob and Fiona try to cover up their affair from their increasingly suspicious spouses, they embroil the third couple, William and Mary Featherstone, as unknowing alibis. William is very controlling, and Mary is shy and naive. In their own ways, both Bob and William are domestic bullies, whilst Fiona is an entitled bitch. So plenty of material there for Ayckbourn to dissect and make us laugh at.

It’s very ingeniously staged. The Foster’s house and the Phillips’ flat are both depicted on stage at the same time, with action taking place in both of them simultaneously. The funniest bit was when the Fosters and the Phillips both invite the Featherstones to dinner on successive nights, and the two disastrous dinner parties are staged side by side with the Featherstones swivelling between an avocado starter and packet soup with added air freshener courtesy of the unseen uncontrolled baby.

The play, or at least this staging of it, was less subtle and more in-your-face than I had remembered. However, it was played for laughs and was undoubtedly very funny. When I wasn’t cringing, I was laughing out loud, which has to be a good thing on a damp autumnal Saturday afternoon. 

Tap dancing rodents

The attic has been blessedly quiet over the summer, but the change in weather over the past few weeks seems to have driven the local mice to find some shelter. At any rate, I’ve started hearing the occasional pitter-patter of tiny feet above my chair in the living room, and the other night it sounded as if there were rodent tap-dancing lessons being held directly above my bed! It was clearly time to contact Martin, the mouse-man, to deal with them. I have to say that he is very prompt and reliable – I texted him last night to request a visit, and he was here at 08:10 this morning with his tubs of bait. He said there had indeed been a fair amount of rodent “activity” in the loft, so he has replenished all the bait and I now just have to wait for it to take effect.

The same thing happens every autumn, so I’m pretty much used to it by now. It’s one of the penalties of living out in the country. I enjoy watching the wildlife in the garden (this year I’ve had everything from hedgehogs and rabbits to foxes and muntjac deer). But I’m not so keen on wildlife in the house, whether that be a blue tit under the bath or mice in the attic. 

A Very Rude Awakening

I was woken up very suddenly at 05:15 one morning last week by a klaxon going off, very loudly indeed. It wasn’t the smoke alarm, as that makes a different sort of beep, which meant it had to be the burglar alarm. Which was very odd, as I was sure I hadn’t actually set it the previous night before going to bed. With the noise ringing in my ears, I put the bedside light on. Or at least tried to – all I got was a dim crepuscular glow out of it. Even more odd. Fortunately, I keep a torch within easy reach, and with its aid I went to turn off the alarm and investigate the cause.

About half the lights in the house weren’t working at all, and the rest were producing at best a dull glimmer. The oven was making a dreadful noise, so I turned it off at the main fuse box, but the mains-powered clock on the microwave was still ticking away happily. I phoned the helpline number for the electrical distribution company, but they had no knowledge of any power faults in my area. It wasn’t just me though – I could hear the burglar alarm on next door’s house screaming away. The woman on the phone line and I agreed that it was most probably a prolonged brown-out, where the voltage on the line drops but doesn’t fail altogether. At that point, next door’s burglar alarm finally fell silent, and my house lights came on as the power supply went back to normal.

It seems to me that a brownout is indeed the most likely cause. Some of the newfangled energy-saving bulbs I’ve got won’t work with dimmer switches, and they were presumably the ones that failed to come on at all. The ones that were glowing dimly were therefore likely to be slightly fancier bulbs which do work with the reduced voltage that a dimmer switch provides. Some of my devices (e.g. the microwave) can clearly cope with low voltage, and kept going, but others (such as the oven) objected strongly. But I was concerned that my burglar alarm had gone off – it’s got a battery back-up which is meant to kick in to provide continuity through a power cut. That’s the trouble with the neighbour’s one – the battery is knackered and won’t hold its charge, so the alarm goes off with every single power-cut, no matter how short; and we get a lot of those up here on the top of the hills. However, I couldn’t tell how long the power had been faulty. If it had been a long time then it’s reasonable for the alarm to have discharged the battery.

I decided the best thing to do was to get someone around to service the alarm and check on the battery condition. So I took Monday off work and arranged for a technician to call. He thoroughly tested the alarm system and gave it all a clean bill of health. Apparently, my battery is holding its charge well, and doesn’t need replacing for at least another two years. So we’ll just have to put last week’s Unfortunate Incident down to a long-duration brownout. 

I do hope it doesn’t happen too often – it’s a horrible way to wake up and put me in a filthy mood for the rest of the day! But at least I suppose I know that the burglar alarm works!

Private Lives

I’ve not been to the theatre for a while – they didn’t have anything particularly interesting on over the summer. But now that the schools have gone back, and the autumn season at the theatre has started, there’s a few things coming up that look interesting. Last week’s offering was Private Lives by Noël Coward. I’ve seen the play before, years ago, but decided it was worth a revisit, so bought myself a standby ticket to the matinée performance.

The first Act is set on a pair of hotel balconies in the South of France, in the early 1930s judging by the costumes. One room is occupied by newly-weds Elyot and Sybil, and the other by Amanda and Victor, also on their honeymoon. Elyot and Amanda were previously married for a highly volatile three years and subsequently divorced. They meet, unseen by their new partners, and of course the old attraction raises its head again. They realise that they can’t live without each other, but argue so much (and so violently) that they can’t live with each other either.

The plot is paper-thin. Even if I hadn’t seen it before, I could have guessed that Elyot and Amanda would run off together, and be pursued back to Amanda’s Parisian flat by their wronged spouses Sybil and Victor. The success of the play depends purely on the chemistry between the actors, and whether they are able to master Coward’s studiously witty and quick-fire dialogue. This lot managed pretty well, though they cantered through the lines at top speed and sometimes stumbled a bit as a result. It perhaps didn’t help that the play was just starting its run, and the performance I saw was just the second one – presumably things will tighten up a bit as it continues on tour. 

Overall though, I thought it was a pretty successful revival of a theatrical classic, and made for an enjoyable afternoon.

Tour of Britain

There was an unusual air of excitement and activity around British Camp this lunch-time. I read in the local paper on Friday that the Tour of Britain cycle race would be passing through, and using the steep climb up to British Camp for the “King of the Mountains”. Well, the Malvern Hills hardly count as “mountains”, but it is undoubtedly a long and steep climb up the hill from the valley below. The world and his wife were expected at British Camp to watch the final stages of the climb. The paper’s advice was to get there early to get a decent vantage point, as it was expected to get very busy.  A close look at the route, prompted by an email from my sister, showed me that I wouldn’t even have to walk up the hill for ten minutes to see the race – the route went right past my house!

The first sign of activity was from cars using my drive to turn around in – the car parks were all full, and they were parking on the verges all the way down the hill. Then the police out-riders started going past, setting up a moving roadblock in front of the race. It was a good day to be a burglar in Worcestershire – I reckon there must have been thirty or more police motorcyclists involved! Then there were the race cars and race stewards on motorcycles, one of whom did stop briefly on my drive before thinking better of it and blocking my neighbour’s drive instead.

The leading group

A helicopter was hovering overhead, but it didn’t look like a police or air-ambulance, so I suspect it was a heli-telly. Finally, after a huge amount of fuss and build-up, the leading group of cyclists came into view, followed a few seconds later by the peloton, and then huge numbers of support cars with bikes on the roof, three ambulances and yet more police cars and motorbikes.

Whizzing past

Apparently, Mark Cavendish was in the race somewhere. I’ve heard the name but they all look pretty much the same in their lycra uniforms so I’ve no idea which one he was.

Exeter’s Underground Passages

One of the more unusual attractions I came across was Exeter’s Underground Passages. They were built from about 1450 onward to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city, through lead pipes into the heart of the city. The pipes sometimes leaked and repairs to buried pipes could only be carried out by digging them up, just as we do today. To avoid this disruption the stone masons working on the cathedral were directed to dig some deep trenches, line them with stone, and build vaulted roofs over the top. These “cut and cover” trenches were then back-filled, and when the inevitable leaks occurred the plumbers were sent down the passages to find and fix them without disrupting daily life above ground.

A blurry shot of one of Exeter’s underground passages.

There are a daily guided tours around the passages, but each tour has very limited numbers of people on it, as the passageways are so narrow and cramped. All tours for the Sunday were fully booked by the time I found the nondescript entrance to the passageways (next to Next and opposite John Lewis), but I was able to book a slot on the first tour on Monday morning, leaving me plenty of time to catch my lunch-time train home.

We all had to wear hard hats, and I could really see why. The tunnels were very narrow and low. Most of the time I couldn’t stand up fully (and I’m only 5’2″) and I kept banging my head. Some of the people on the tour were 6′ or more, and they looked very uncomfortable at times – especially on the way out where a section of the tunnel was less than a metre high. That was quite a challenge! I found it all absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit.