Thursday, 23 March 2017

Ukulele Finger

A few weeks ago I tore the nail of my right index finger. I can't remember how it happened, but it's the sort of daft thing I frequently do. I'm equally adept at chipping bits out of my nails. The solution is always the same; file the offending nail smooth again, wait for it to grow and hope that, this time, it survives a little longer.  Some hope!

The problem with damaging the nail on my right index finger is that it's the one I use to strum my ukulele... and I do strum it rather a lot... and rather enthusiastically. Unfortunately, this not only prevented the nail from regrowing properly but actually made it worse. Before long I'd worn it down to the quick and it hurt like ****. I experimented with using a plectrum, but without great success, then tried strumming with my 3rd finger, but that wasn't particularly successful either.

There was but one solution, so yesterday I presented myself at Spa Rituals in Coleford and explained to Claire that I was suffering from advanced Ukulele Finger. Could she fit me in without a prior appointment? Yes, she could. And here (above) is the result — my first beautifully shaped gel finger nail, lovingly created for the bargain price of just £2. You can easily see the outline of the damaged nail beneath it. It looks a bit more photogenic with a touch of nail varnish (right).

Yesterday evening I strummed my little ukulele for an hour or so, practicing a few songs, including one for Sunday's 'Open Mic' at The Feathers in Coleford. I'm delighted to say that the nail came through the test unscathed.

I've made an appointment with Claire for a fortnight's time, when we'll see how my gel nail is bearing up. If, as I confidently expect, all is well, I have a tricky decision to make.  Should I:
  • allow my real nail to re-grow and gradually file away the gel? I've managed to play my ukulele for the past 3 years and only had this problem once, so what is the chance of it recurring? 

  • kiss goodbye to broken and torn nails for evermore, and have all ten nails treated? That's certainly a very tempting prospect, not least because one of my thumb nails presently looks as if I've used it to tighten screws. It would, though, entail returning for Claire's tender ministrations every 3-4 weeks. And though I enjoy being pampered, is it what I want, month after month? 

Right now I'm tempted to go with the second option, just to discover how it feels and looks, though I may feel differently by April 5th. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Gas boiler woes

One of my frequent pleasures at the end of a day is to soak in a nice warm, bubbly bath. Last Friday evening was such an occasion. I ran the bath, added a big dollop of lavender bubble bath liquid, stripped off (photo inadmissible) and put one foot in the water.  It was freezing cold!  Mystified, I wrapped a dressing gown around my naked frame and went downstairs to investigate.

Hoping that it might just be a glitch, I turned off the boiler, counted to 10 and turned it on again. Well, it works with computers, so why not with boilers? It didn't.

According to the manual, fault F62 indicates a gas valve shut-off delay, which basically means that gas is continuing to seep into the boiler after the valve has supposedly closed. A couple of 'helpful' videos in YouTube informed me that repairing this was likely to be painfully expensive as I would most likely need a new control board (£162) or gas valve (£120), or possibly both. With repair costs and call-out charge, I could well be looking at a bill in excess of £400. Ouch!

"Ah," I hear you say, "Why didn't you insure it?" Answer: because I never do. Every time I buy a new computer, washing machine, fridge, freezer, camera, vacuum cleaner, television, video recoder or fully automated foo-foo valve I am offered insurance against it malfunctioning. I say 'no' every time and over the years must have saved myself many, many hundreds of pounds.  Perhaps, though, this time my luck had run out.

I did a cursory Internet search for boiler repair cover. Top of the Google list was Scottish Power and their cheapest offering was £6.71 per month; maximum repair cost £500; I pay the first £50. Well, I moved into this house 52 months ago, so (discounting inflation) would have paid out 52 x £6.71 = £348.92. Add the £50 excess and – assuming the worst-case repair bill – I'd just about be breaking even. Actually, though, I've had gas boilers for the last 45 years, never insured them and never – until last Saturday – had one go wrong. That's a lot of maintenance money saved.

This tale has a happy ending. My trusted gas repair man arrived today, diagnosed a sticky gas valve, opened and closed it a couple of time and the fault disappeared. If it recurs within a few days, then he'll fit a new one for me. Hopefully, though, all I'll have to pay is his modest call-out fee. He also showed me how to safely override the fault for a single heating cycle, so if I am unlucky enough to get another 'F62', I won't have to live in a cold house until he arrives.  What a guy!

Will I be taking out Scottish Power's Boiler Cover?  I think not.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Forest Oddities #3. Laurence Olivier abandoned in the forest.

During World War II the Forest of Dean became strategically important as a place where men and materials could be hidden away in relative safety. The granddaddy of them all was Acorn Patch, which became the second-largest open-air ammunition dump in the UK.

Troops began to mass in the forest in preparation for D-Day and the 144th Field Artillery Group, 3rd Army, found themselves stationed at Wigpool, near the end of my 'Walk 11' from the book Exploring Historic Dean. Here the forest bears the scars of extensive mining for iron ore. In one of the shallow iron workings (scowles) the resourceful Field Artillery Group set up an open-air cinema. The SunGreen website (a great source for local history) has this fascinating account by Terry Halford:
    "A large white sheet was hung up at the face and wooden seats were put in on the rear slope. These seats were said to be made out of the wooden vehicle crates which were present in their hundreds on the common. A local told me that the cinema was used several times a week both by locals and by the US servicemen stationed there. He also said that new films were being shown, he can remember watching Rebecca with his girlfriend."
 This place is still known as Yankee Cinema. (Left) The rock face, against which the screen was hung
(Right) A view back up the slope where the wooden seats had been.

The troops left suddenly just before D-Day, exchanging the peace and camaraderie of the forest for the horrors of the Normandy beaches, and leaving their wooden seats and film cases lying around. One wonders how many of those troops survived to tell the story. But that is how, most probably, Laurence Olivier (and the rest of the Rebecca cast) came to be abandoned in the Forest of Dean.

At this point I hope that no forest wardens are counted among my readers, for if you follow in my footsteps you will discover that Health & Safety has left its mark. In order to protect the public from their presumed stupidity, a barb-wired fence has been erected around the Yankee Cinema. I walked the perimeter in search of gaps and thankfully discovered that some other rebellious soul has placed two heavy branches against the fence, creating a relatively easy crossing point.

I'll concede that some sort of fence is needed to stop animals and children wandering over the edge, but the slope is perfectly safe.  Or would these same people fence off every cliff edge and deny access to every castle wall and river bank in the land?

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Forest Oddities #2. The 1906 Gold Rush

Around the turn of the last century some bright spark noticed that the geology of Lea Bailey resembled the gold-bearing rocks of South Africa, where fortunes were being won. In 1906 he persuaded a group of venturers to invest in his project and 300ft into the hillside they did indeed strike gold... 6 grains (about 0.014 ounces) per ton of rock removed. By any standard, that is a very small amount indeed and the project was quickly written off as an expensive failure.  It may even have been an investment scam.

Lea Bailey's hole in the hillside then remained dormant for 15 years, until the Wigpool Coal and Iron Syndicate arrived on site and drove the tunnel further on into the hillside, in search of iron ore. There turned out to be rather more of this than of gold, but still not enough to justify the expense. Six years later that venture, too, fizzled out.

So why, you may be wondering, is there a narrow-gauge railway on the site, 90 years after the mine was abandoned? The answer is that there have been a couple of attempts to turn the old mine into a tourist attraction, the latest by the Lea Bailey Light Railway Society.

In the few years that I have known the site, not much seems to have happened, but the Society's website paints a different picture, with regular volunteer working parties, and open days planned for May and September.

On a site that has seen so many failures – even the railway was a flop – it would be easy to write off this Society's plans as yet another pipe dream, but that would surely be unfair. Indeed, I never cease to be amazed at the achievements of groups such as these that, through dogged determination and sheer hard work, restore moribund mills, mines, railway engines and whole railway lines to working order.

There remains one more forest oddity on Walk 11, from my book Exploring Historic Dean. "What could it be?" I hope I hear you ask!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Forest Oddities #1 and some dots to join

This little series of posts has been inspired by a walk I recently made in the north of the Forest of Dean, guided by this book – Exploring Historic Dean. I love unearthing local history and the walks in this book have served as a wonderful introduction to the area, keeping me enthralled for many hours.

The Forest was once a hive of industrial activity and has its fair share of quirky relics from the not-too-distant past to show for it – such as a viaduct on a steam carriage road – but Walk 11 in the book really takes the biscuit. So I invite you to join me as I return to Drybrook, Lea Bailey and Wigpool.

First, a learned quotation to add a little culture to this post:

You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
Steve Jobs

The large white building in this photo is Euroclydon House, built in the 1860's for mine owner TB Brain, who is said to have added the tall tower so that he could keep an eye on his workers at Pluckpenny Colliery, to the south. I prefer to think that he actually built it to take in the magnificent views west, down Hope Mansell valley and with the Brecon Beacons beyond, not least because there didn't seem to be much happening at Pluckpenny. In 1889 Mr Brain recorded: "William Wilce of Ruardean spent nearly £40 in 1884 and 86 in opening a pit and driving out a heading. I lent the necessary tackle.  Money lost, did not find any coal to work."

Much of this I knew before coming to live in the Forest of Dean as I once had a week's holiday in the little white-walled cottage that you can see beside the road to Euroclydon.  At the time, I had no thoughts of leaving my beloved Cornwall but looking back, as Steve Jobs observed, I can join up the dots.  My love affair with the Forest of Dean was intensifying and, unknown to me, this would be my last holiday in this area.

It was, indeed, a lovely holiday. We canoed down the Wye, marvelled at the Severn Sisters, criss-crossed the Forest on numerous paths and got caught in an enormous thunderstorm near Moseley Green – not so funny at the time, but I smile about it now. The week culminated in a glorious day in and around Symonds Yat, with a meal by the river at the Saracen's Head Inn.

The Severn Sisters, looking up the River Wye towards Symonds Yat

A meal at the Saracen's Head. Perfect!
A final thought... There is a finite probability that I may end my days at Euroclydon House.  It's now a nursing home.  More dots to join up?

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Plastering a wall: the Mary Berry method

I've plastered over many a crack and screw hole in my time, and more than a few grooves too that had been chased in walls for electrical cables. Never before, though, have I tackled a big hole like this one. This is where the fuse board used to be before my house was rewired. You can see the new distribution board on the left.

Fortunately, my great friend B had recently prevailed upon her son to re-plaster one of her bedrooms, so she was able to send me home with me a nice piece of left-over plasterboard and a ¼ bag of thistle. Before planning this job, I thought that thistle was something you accidentally sat upon whilst resting on a long walk, but I'm learning fast.  It's plaster. And if you think my plaster-boarding looks a bit rough, just remember that there's nothing but a big hole behind most of it. Tricky, I'm sure you'll agree.

I've never used 'real' plaster before, but only Polyfilla, and hadn't a clue what to do next, so I watched a couple of YouTube videos. There were electric stirrers, plasterers' hawks and hunky guys who made it look very easy, but they were plastering whole walls – not big holes like mine. I told myself, however, that it surely can't be much more complicated than icing a Christmas Cake so, in the words of Mary Berry's recipe for Royal Icing:

Beat the icing until it is very stiff and stands up in peaks.

The silly look is because, by this time,
that's how I was feeling.
I added water to a few trowels-full of plaster until mine too stood up in peaks and with this I roughly filled the hole. I quickly discovered that any 'new' plaster that gets on the 'old' dries rapidly, so I filled a window cleaner bottle with water and kept squirting to keep the old wall damp. It worked.

My plastering now resembled the peaks and troughs of a roughly iced Christmas Cake and would have reduced a professional plasterer to tears, but I pressed on, undeterred.

If you want a smooth icing you may need to thin the icing down a little...

Sounded simple enough, Mary, so I thinned down my plaster, kept squirting water and set about smoothing it out with a big flat trowel. The trick seemed to be to wait for the plaster to set a bit, give it a squirt or two, smooth it again, wait again... etc, and add little dollops of sloppy plaster to fill in any left-over low bits as I went along. Yes – just like smoothing out that Christmas Cake.

Well, a plasterer I shall never be (nor ever wish to be) but I'm still rather proud of my efforts. The next job will be to stick in place some new polystyrene architrave to match the stuff on the other side of the distribution board, then comes the easy bit – painting it all. A nice pastel shade of blue, I think.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Jack o' Kent takes on the Devil

Once upon a time Jack o' Kent and the Devil were in dispute (a frequent occurance) and to settle the matter they had a contest. Jack jumped from Sugar Loaf Mountain to Skirrid, where his heel mark can still be seen. It must be true – I've seen it. The Devil, however, was unimpressed, thinking this a pretty lame antic, so an enraged Jack picked up three huge stones and flung them in the direction of Trellech, 13 miles away.

History does not record whether or not this settled the matter, though before long they were arguing again – this time over whether Sugar Loaf Mountain was higher than the Malverns. However, the Devil quickly realized he was losing so tried to cheat by adding a few giant-sized buckets full of soil to the Malverns.  It didn't work.  Hurrah!

Last Monday I went to look for Jack o' Kent's three stones. Thankfully they still stand where they landed, at crazy angles, in a field on the edge of Trellech. When I arrived, a group of cheerful souls from California were about to engage in a spot of divining, to locate a ley-line that, they explained, ran through the site. One of them assembled some copper rods then diligently set about her task. I left them all to it, went off for a 6½ mile walk and returned later to take this photo in peace and quiet.

NB. One activity in this account is, in my humble opinion, completely barmy. I'll let you decide which it might be... though the walk was very nice.