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Not in France

I’ve got nearly a week off work, with leave that was booked well before Covid Lockdown. Today I ought to be having a glass of wine over dinner in Lille, having spent the day exploring WW1 battlefields and some of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in northern France and Belgium. It would have been another of my historical-themed holidays, with a knowledgeable tour leader, but also a good amount of free time to explore independently and find some nice restaurants. Obviously, that’s all been cancelled. Instead I spent all yesterday morning queueing outside Waitrose in Malvern!

Although legally the holiday company is obliged to give me a full cash refund since they cancelled the holiday, they have followed the example set by ABTA and most of the rest of the travel industry, and just offered me a credit note, to be used against a future holiday with them. I can’t be too cross about that – if they had to pay out to everyone they would definitely go bankrupt, whereas this way there is a chance that they might be around next year to run the holiday. The refund is bonded by ABTA, so should be protected, and worst case I paid by credit card so I could get my money back that way.

The holiday company hopes to run the WW1 Battlefield trip again this time next year. But that’s going to be dependent on the UK lifting its ban on foreign travel, France and Belgium being prepared to let foreigners in, travel insurance being available at a reasonable price, and there’s the little matter of Brexit which may (or may not) have happened by then. So many unknowns. There’s little point in worrying about it now.

Instead, I shall make the most of having a few days off work. I’ve been finding working from home very tiring and draining. So although I won’t get a change of scene, I should at least get a bit of a rest.

Another food parcel

After the relative success of the Morrison’s “lucky dip” £35 food parcel the other week, I thought it was worth ordering another one. It is much easier to get a delivery slot for a pre-packed food parcel than it is for a proper shop, and the last one certainly had enough in it to keep me going. This second box had very similar contents to the previous one, but with some significant changes:

  • No sliced ham
  • No cabbage
  • Only one can of soup (chicken this week), not two cans
  • a smaller pack of sausages, just 6 not 10
  • one full sized tin of baked beans, not 3 little tins
  • fusilli pasta rather than penne
  • one roll of kitchen paper, not two – but it was a jumbo roll so probably about the same volume
  • only two rolls of toilet paper, loose in a separate bag, clearly broken out from a larger multi-pack
  • somewhat randomly, three wonky mangoes

So overall, not quite such good value as last time. I expect prices are going up on essentials due to the supply lines being stressed in the current crisis. But still, enough to keep me going, and without having to queue for hours on end outside a supermarket. I shall have to try to think of some more interesting things to do with mince, as otherwise my diet could get a bit monotonous.

I was pleased, though somewhat surprised, to get the mangoes included in the pack. I’ve been doing fine for vegetables over the past few weeks, as I’ve got several packs of greens in the freezer. But I have been really lacking for fresh fruit in my diet, and have been reduced to snacking on the dried fruit in my larder. I wouldn’t say that mango is a favourite of mine, but I quite like it. I don’t think I’ve ever bought one before, though!

Morrisons’ Food Parcel

For several years now I’ve been getting a weekly or fortnightly grocery delivery from Morrisons. It’s been extremely convenient, though I have wondered how on Earth they make it profitable. While I’ve been in Coronavirus quarantine for the past few weeks, the online shopping and delivery has been an absolute lifeline. However, the whole country seems to have woken up to the benefits of online grocery shopping and it’s been getting harder and harder to secure a delivery slot.

Morrisons has realised that it is unable to serve a large percentage of its potential customers, and obviously that is not a comfortable position for any business. But it appears they simply don’t have the staff or capacity at the moment to temporarily expand their online shopping service enough to meet the demand. So they have, very creatively in my opinion, come up with a work around. They offer a box of groceries for £35, delivered by courier on a day of your choice, and claiming to contain enough food to feed a family of two for a week. The disadvantage is that you don’t get to pick the food – you get what you’re given, either a meat-eater’s box or a vegetarian box. You still have to queue online to book one, but the delivery slots are far easier to get than a regular shop. So I thought I’d give it a go.

My first £35 food parcel arrived today, on time, and well packaged in a cardboard box. The cold items were packed in an insulated bag with some still-frozen ice-packs. In my meat-eater’s box there was:

  • 1L longlife milk
  • 10 pork sausages
  • pack of 2 chicken fillets
  • pack of 500g mince
  • 4 slices of ham
  • big block of Cathedral City cheddar
  • pack of back bacon
  • pack of butter
  • bag of new potatoes
  • bag of onions
  • bag of carrots
  • a small cabbage
  • a cucumber
  • a pot of tomato and basil pasta sauce
  • tin of vegetable soup
  • tin of tomato soup
  • 3x small tins of baked beans
  • loaf of sliced white bread
  • pack of pitta breads
  • portion of microwave rice
  • pack of penne pasta
  • pack of 2 kitchen towels
  • last, but definitely not least, a pack of 4 toilet rolls.

There’s enough there to keep me going for a while. It’s not all stuff I would have chosen myself, but there is nothing there that I’m not prepared to eat. I can see the makings of a good few entirely acceptable dinners there, as well as soup or ham&cheese toasties for lunch. And the kitchen paper and loo rolls are very welcome additions.

All in all, I’m very impressed with the quality and variety, and at £35 including delivery, it seems a very good deal. If (when?) this crisis continues I will certainly consider getting another one.

Washing Machine Crisis in Lockdown

My washing machine started making ominous noises last week on the spin cycle. It really sounded quite unwell. But given that the U.K. public is not allowed to have house calls at the moment, I didn’t see how I’d be able to get it fixed. I was just hoping that it would hang on in there until the current Coronavirus restrictions are over when I could get a repairman in to replace the bearings.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. It completely gave up the ghost on Saturday afternoon, inevitably with a full load of sodden towels inside it. Then it was a case of how on earth do I get a replacement during Lockdown. The government might not consider white goods to be “essential shopping”, so all the local retailers are closed, but I really didn’t want to spend the next however many weeks doing my laundry in the bath! I checked online, and I could buy a new washing machine over the internet or by phone from several of the larger outlets, but they had limited delivery slots before Easter, and in general would leave it on my drive so I’d have to plumb it in myself and dispose of the old one.

This morning, more out of hope than anything concrete, I phoned the electrical retailers in Ledbury that I’ve used for the past few years. Their shop was indeed closed to customers, but they were answering the phone. The good news was that warehouse was still working, and they had a limited number of washing machines in stock. Better still, they were able to arrange to deliver one today! Even better, provided that social distancing was observed (i.e. I kept at 2m distance), the driver would be able to install the new one and take away the broken one!

The range of machines they had in stock wasn’t huge, but I was more bothered about getting a replacement quickly. I did a quick search online to confirm that the model they proposed fitted my requirements, and that the price was acceptable, and phoned them straight back with my credit card details. I really can’t fault the service at all. I phoned them at 10:20 this morning, before my first telecon of the day, and by lunchtime I had a new washing machine installed and working. I told the driver that, if it wasn’t for social distancing, I’d give him a hug for getting me sorted out so quickly and efficiently!

Right now, I think it’s more important than ever to try to support local businesses, though that’s admittedly hard under the current conditions. The driver said, from a government-mandated safe distance, that they had been extremely busy just before lockdown with people buying freezers. But since then business has virtually dried up. I do hope that they are able to keep going and come out the other side of the economic turmoil, as I have been very impressed with their service over the past few years.

End of FY in lockdown

Today is the last day of the Financial Year for both my company and our main customers. It’s always an extremely busy time of the year, with project reports to be written, reviewed and delivered. I’ve had three significant reports to review and approve in the last two days, which is about par for the course.

What’s different this year of course is that we are all in lockdown, working from home. It feels very surreal to be reviewing reports and providing performance feedback from the dining room table! Everything takes so much longer, and I’ve already had to spend a good 40 minutes on the phone to my ISP to get them to fix my broadband, which completely died on me just three days in. Not what you need when you are working from home!

I spent the first week just with my laptop, but that’s not good for my eyes, my posture, or my blood-pressure. Since it looks like this will be going on for some time, I’ve made the effort to replicate my setup at work, with a separate screen, keyboard and mouse. That’s much better. But teleconferencing , email and WhatsApp are no substitute for walking past someone’s desk and actually talking to them about what’s going on. It makes it so much harder to manage the projects effectively.

Hopefully things will get easier once the new Financial Year gets under way, and as we all get used to these new working conditions. At least it’s keeping us all from mixing in large open-plan offices, and swapping covid germs.

Bureaucracy in the midst of Covid

My mother died last month. We had been expecting it since around Christmas, and fortunately we were able to hold the funeral well before everything was shut down with the Coronavirus pandemic. Now it’s a case of sorting out the paperwork. My sister and I were both named as executors of her Will, but in practice I’m leading on sorting things out – as the family told me “You’ve got experience doing it”….

Mostly, in fact, I’ve found it much easier this time around than when I was dealing with Christopher’s Will ten years ago. The government’s Tell Us Once service is much more mature, and their computer systems seem significantly better joined up. It only took one, admittedly rather tortuous, website to tell a whole load of government departments, which saved lots of individual phone calls.

Most of the other organisations I’ve had to deal with have also been straightforward and helpful. Banks, Premium Bonds, car insurance, even the Inland Revenue have all been efficient, sympathetic, and paid up promptly. Her pension took a little bit more effort to sort out, but even that was done with only a couple of extra phone calls.

There had to be one organisation though that spoiled things. And this year, the hands down winner of the IcyJumbo Award for Atrocious Customer Service goes to Hargreaves Lansdown.

My mother had a small ISA account with them. I informed them of her death within a week of it happening, and sent off the Death certificate that afternoon. A week later, I got a reply, returning the certificate, and saying that they would send me the Estate Closure Forms within 30 days. Then nothing.

When the 30 days were up I phoned them, sat on hold for 30 minutes, and asked where the Estates Pack was. They said they’d send me one within another seven days. This is now in the midst of the covid epidemic, the stock market is in free fall, and her small savings had lost a month’s worth of value already due to them sitting on the forms. But they said, when I asked, that there was no way they would back date my instructions to the date I informed them of her death.

Five days later, the estates pack arrived in the post. Followed the next day by a second one sent to my father’s address. One of those was presumably the one they should have sent out a month earlier, but didn’t.

The good news is that the sum of money involved is small enough that I don’t need probate. The bad news is that they require a certified copy of the Will, certified by a professional such as a lawyer, doctor, teacher etc.

I phoned them up again on Friday and asked them how the hell they expected me to get a certified copy of the Will at the moment. I have been in contact with someone with covid-19, so although I am currently healthy I am self-isolating in accordance with government instructions. And even if I were free to leave my house, which I’m not, the entire country is also in lockdown. All the doctors are busy saving lives, and all the teachers, lawyers etc are working from home. There is simply no one available to witness a document.

The unfortunate man on the phone line saw my problem, but kept repeating like a mantra “our processes require a certified copy of the Will”. Which isn’t going to happen until I’m released from quarantine, and I can find a suitably qualified professional to witness a photocopy of the Will. I am particularly cross because, if Hargreaves Lansdown had done their job promptly, as every other organisation I dealt with did, I would have been able to settle the entire estate before we went into lockdown.

As it is, it could be weeks before things get back to enough semblance of normality, and in the meantime the stock market is extremely volatile and the value of the investments is plummeting by the hour. All due to the incompetence of Hargreaves Lansdown and their intransigence over their processes, even in a time of National Emergency. I am Not Impressed At All.


I went to an industry dinner about twelve years or more ago, where the after-dinner speaker was a Government Chief Scientific Advisor. He was a very interesting man, a professor of epidemiology at I think Imperial College. He gave the most terrifying after dinner speech I have ever heard. It was all about the next global virus pandemic, and what would happen when it happened. I remember clearly him talking about the need to close schools, leisure facilities etc to slow/limit the spread. His key message was that it was very much a case of “when” not “if”. The only upside to the truly dreadful scenario he painted was that there was clearly someone in government whose job it was to think about such things. We all went away from the dinner thoroughly depressed.

Well, those prophecies all seem to be coming true now. And even that ray of hope seems doubtful, given all the dithering, U-turns and just plain appalling communications coming out of Whitehall in the past few weeks. One gets the very strong feeling that the emergency planning didn’t go far enough and that the Government is making it up as they go along, which is hardly reassuring.

Worcester Flood

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. An awful lot of rain, particularly in the Welsh mountains that feed the local rivers, which then flood several days later. The river Severn has been particularly badly affected, and the flood defences have been tested to the extreme. Malvern is too high to be directly affected, but we have effectively been an island as all the main routes across the Severn, Wye and Teme have been flooded.

Worcester in flood – view towards the Cathedral

I was on the train back from London on Saturday, and this was the view from the railway viaduct, as we crossed the Severn. The view to the south, towards the Cathedral, was pretty flooded (above).

Worcester in flood – view across the racecourse

However, the view on the other side was much worse – it’s hard to tell where the racecourse ends and the river starts! And this was several days after the peak of the floods – it was even worse the previous week.

Disappointed by the Puddings

In the afternoon, we moved on from the shops of Stratford to the Three Way House Hotel in Mickleton, the home of the Pudding Club. As usual, we started the evening with a bottle of wine, before moving to the lounge for the Main Event. This year we were pleasantly surprised when the expected complementary glass of sparkling elderflower cordial was replaced by a glass of Prosecco. It’s at this point in the evening that the selection of puddings is revealed – and this year our party was sorely disappointed. The selection was:

  • Passionfruit Charlotte
  • Ginger syrup sponge
  • Lord Randall’s pudding (an apricot and marmalade sponge)
  • Bread and Butter Pudding
  • Very Chocolate sponge pudding with chocolate sauce
  • Jam and Coconut sponge
  • Sussex Pond pudding – a steamed suet crust filled with sugar and whole lemons.

Wot no sticky toffee??!! We were outraged! It’s by far our favourite! None of us likes Sussex Pond pudding – who wants to eat a whole lemon? It really is a teeth-curdling as you would think. And Lord Randall’s pudding isn’t much better – the marmalade makes it quite bitter. I personally can’t stand desiccated coconut, so that was another pudding written off. I don’t like the texture of Bread and Butter pudding and this one was very soggy. And the Very Chocolate pudding smelled absolutely delicious, but I know from previous years that it is far too rich for me and I didn’t want to feel sick.

That left just two puddings that I actively liked – the ginger syrup sponge, and a really delicious passionfruit Charlotte. I also tried helpings of Lord Randall’s pudding and the Bread and Butter pudding, but didn’t particularly enjoy them. It turned out that the hotel hadn’t chosen the selection of puddings for the group this year. Instead, the organiser had asked the longest-standing members, who had been at least ten times each, for their favourites and had chosen from those. Though I find it hard to believe that Sussex Pond pudding was really the first choice of more people than Sticky Toffee and Date. I do hope that next year the organiser reverts to letting the hotel choose what to serve – after all, they host Pudding Clubs over 50 times per year, so must have a good idea of what makes a good combination.

Annual Retail Therapy

I’ve been so busy lately, that it had pretty much slipped my mind that it was time for the annual Pudding Club outing, and its associated retail extravaganza. Fortunately my ex-colleague who organises our participation in the event sent me an email saying I’d be picked up from home at 09:15 last Saturday. It was a smaller party than previously this year – just five of us travelling from Malvern, and meeting up with a sixth for lunch in Stratford. We had coffee in our usual cafe on the waterfront, and then hit the shops.

Last year, my bank registered the extremely unusual activity on my credit card and blocked it. This year, I got away with it – partly I suspect because there really wasn’t that much that tempted me. The shop that sells very expensive hand creme had shut down, so that saved me £50. I always find that Lakeland has stuff I didn’t realise I needed, but this year I managed to escape from there at the relatively trifling cost of a set of wooden spoons and an insulated jacket for my outside tap. I did however succumb to buying my annual cashmere jumper from the closing down sale at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill. The same closing down sale, in fact, that they had on this time last year. Apparently, they are still in lease negotiations with their landlord, and waiting to see who blinks first. I imagine at this rate I’ll be buying a sweater from them in the closing down sale next year too….

We all met up for lunch at our usual pub. We’ve all learned from experience the importance of having the right amount of lunch before the Pudding Club. Too much, and we’re too full to do it justice. However, too little lunch is also bad, as it leaves you so hungry by the evening that you fill up on vegetables and potatoes with the main course, to the detriment of the puddings. I decided on a Croque Monsieur with a side order of chips to keep me going until dinner time. I think that the waiter seemed disappointed that his table of six all just ate from the “light bites” menu, and couldn’t be tempted to have any profit-enhancing main meals or desserts!

After lunch, the others all went off to do some more shopping, but I was pretty much All Shopped Out by then. Instead, I decided I’d have a look around the Shakespeare Birthplace museum in the centre of Stratford. I’ve not been there for many decades – I remember visiting all the Shakespeare museums in Stratford with my father the summer before I left home. That was about 35 years ago. Since then, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has got extremely commercial and is clearly setting its prices to rip off as many foreign visitors as they possibly can. It was £18 just to visit the Birthplace – though when I looked as if I was about to baulk at that, the chap in the ticket office assured me that the ticket would be valid for a whole year. That is possibly just about of some use to me – next year’s pudding club will be in a year’s time, and may or may not fall on the right side of the ticket validity cut-off. But it’s no use to a foreign tourist on a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Merrie England.

The museum was quite interesting. Not £18-worth interesting, but nevertheless quite interesting. If my ticket does turn out to still be valid on the date of next years Pudding Club, I’d certainly make use of it and think I’d got adequate value for money. But I won’t be shelling out for a new ticket for probably another 35 years!

Shakespeare’s Birthplace