Monday, 24 April 2017

The purple-headed mountain, the river running by...

A strong candidate for the purple-headed mountain of Cecil Alexander's famous hymn is Blorenge, near Abergavenny, which I photographed last summer from the Sugar Loaf Mountain car park. The 'river running by' would be the Usk.

I first climbed Blorenge during a holiday in 2009 – or rather, I strolled up it, as there are two car parks near the top. Now that we live less than an hour's drive from Abergavenny, the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons has become a popular destination, so last Monday S-- and I braved the bank holiday traffic and returned for a leisurely 6-mile walk around the hill, ending with a nice stiff climb up the western side.

The walk had a serious purpose. One of my trusty old walking boots recently fell apart, so I had to buy a new pair. Very nice they are, too – and a bargain at £40 from Scott's in Lydney – but far too pristine for a seasoned long-distance hiker like your humble blogger. I ask you, how's this girl going to get any 'cred' on the mountain and forest tracks, wearing shoes that look as if the hardest trek I've tackled is walking up the high street? Unfortunately for me, Blorenge isn't a great place for mud. It would have to be sought with diligence!

Keeper's pond looked a likely hunting ground, so I eschewed the nice smooth path on the right and took to the rough ground on the left, but without any great success. The pond once supplied water to a forge in the valley. You may just be able to make out the car park, in the middle distance, where we started the walk.

Our path skirted the hillside, with lovely views of the Usk Valley and Sugar Loaf on the other side, then descended to join the track of an old mineral tramway.

Soon into view came a sight to gladden Angie's heart – a tunnel!  I'm not sure why I find old railway and tramway tunnels so fascinating, since deep caves and potholes hold no appeal.  Perhaps it's the knowledge that there will always be daylight at the other end. They also evoke happy memories of our children running through them, making loud "puff puff" noises.

Yes, it was quite muddy down there!  

The next two photos show the view over Abergavenny, with Skirrid in the middle distance. I've included the second, from my holiday in 2009, as it was taken with my little Fuji camera, which I still have, though rarely use. After singing the praises of the camera on my new smartphone, I've begun to have second thoughts. The Fuji, with no modern technical wizardry and only a modest lens, has produced a lovely shot that needed no photo enhancement... all of which goes to show, I think, that lighting and composition are far more important. It's also good to have an optical zoom lens, especially when trying to film things on the opposite side of a wide valley.

A little further round the hillside is the tranquil Punchbowl Lake. From here it was up... up... up to the summit where, unfortunately, the mist came down, down, down and rather spoiled the view.  Never mind; it was a great walk and I will return.

Mission accomplished!


Sunday, 16 April 2017

Matilda Tertius

My first satnav quickly acquired the name Matilda as it was apt to tell the most dreadful lies. Perhaps you know the poem that inspired it:

Matilda told such dreadful lies, 
it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes. 
Her Aunt, who, from her earliest youth, 
had kept a strict regard for truth, 
attempted to believe Matilda; 
the effort very nearly killed her 
and would have done so, had not she
 discovered this infirmity...

After giving useful service (most of the time) Matilda was retired in favour of an app on my new Samsung smartphone, which henceforth became known as Matilda Secundus, or Matilda Too for short – not a spelling mistake; it means Matilda also. She gave fine service for two years, but just before Christmas began playing up — doubtless because I'd dropped it once or twice too often.

Last year my partner S- signed up for a Sony E5 smartphone from Virgin. It wouldn't have been my first choice but the deal was a good one, and since it mainly gets used for emails and Facebook, any old thing would surely do, so long as it was cheap. However, my opinion of the E5 quickly changed when, last summer, we climbed Pen-y-Fan and each recorded our exploits. The E5 photos from the summit were at least as good as the ones I took with my Canon SX500 bridge camera, and a couple of them were markedly better.

So last month I turned my back on Samsung and ordered a Sony E5 for myself from Talk Mobile. At £10 per month for 2 years, including more data, texts and phone minutes than I'll ever need, it was actually £2 a month cheaper than Matilda Secundus, so I'm not quite sure whether it qualifies as an 'upgrade'. Perhaps 'regrade'.

One feature of the Samsung that I miss is the 'home' button beneath the screen. To wake the E5 from its slumbers I have to briefly press a small, rather fiddly, power button on the side. I note, though, that Samsung have also dropped the home button on their new S8; a retrograde step in my view. Apart from that, there really is little to choose between the two phones... except for the camera. Samsung's offering had the same resolution (13 megapixels) as the Sony, but all reviews admit that the Sony produces better photos. The question uppermost in my mind, though, was whether it would be a suitable replacement on country walks for my rather bulky Canon SX500.

My first test was a nasty one – a view of Quainton Road station, taken from a distant bridge and looking into the sun. This showed all too clearly the deficiencies of smartphone cameras; they are not good in challenging lighting and they only have a digital zoom, so the more one zooms, the poorer the picture quality. I'm sure you'll agree that the Canon wins hands-down.
Sony E5

Canon SX500
In less challenging conditions Matilda Tertius performs very well, bearing out my earlier experience on Pen-y-Fan. Here are a couple of shots from a recent stroll in the Mendips. I should have taken more, but was still mostly placing my faith in my trusty Canon SX500.

Bluebells at Ebbor Gorge

My friend Lucy in Priddy
Look carefully at that last photo. Do you see a faint white blur in the bottom left corner? That's the smartphone case encroaching on the camera lens — definitely something to guard against in the future.

Of Matilda Tertius' two deficiencies – poor in challenging light and no optical zoom – the later would be the easiest to correct with a simple clip-on lens like this one from Amazon. It's small enough to fit in a handbag, or even a pocket, and at that price is surely worth a try... or is it just too cheap? I mean, what sort of lens do you get for £13.99?

Alternatively, there's this little monster, which doesn't use the smartphone lens at all, but connects via Bluetooth. There's just one tiny drawback – it costs £320, or £165 second-hand from Amazon. That's rather an expensive piece of hardware to clip onto a cheap smartphone, even one with the up-market name of Matilda Tertius.

Friday, 7 April 2017

My latest tattoo

If you have a butterfly tattooed on the back of your neck, a heart adorning your left buttock, or even Death and Glory emblasoned across your chest, then God bless you.  Such artistry is not, however, to my taste. I prefer my tattoos in more subtle places... places where I'll rarely, if ever, see them.  Allow me to explain.

Every couple of years, people in my age group are invited to take a test for bowel cancer — known affectionately as the poo test.  It's all wonderfully simple.  You do it yourself in the privacy of your home and post off a few small samples of poo, which are then tested for traces of blood. 2% of tests will yield a positive result and this will trigger an investigation to find out what is causing the bleeding.

Just over 3 years ago I found myself among the "2%" and was advised to have a colonoscopy – basically a camera on a long hosepipe, stuck up my bum — to investigate the problem.  They found a tubular adenoma (polyp) that was thankfully benign but showed early signs of structural change. As you can imagine, I was very glad to be rid of it. The spot where the polyp had been was marked with a tattoo – the first I'd ever had!

Since I have a proven tendency to produce bowel polyps, I was automatically recalled after 3 years for another colonoscopy.  The procedure was the same as last time.  After a day on a low fibre diet, I had to give up all food and instead drink 4 litres of a strong laxative (Klean Prep) to clear out my bowel, and at least a further 3 litres of liquid to prevent dehydration.  Believe me, that's a lot of liquid! Three years ago, several friends told me to expect violent, uncontrollable diarrhoea but it really wasn't too bad.  By the 4th litre of laxative, though, I admit to loathing the taste, even with the addition of generous quantities of lime juice.

For the procedure itself I accepted a mild sedation. One lady I heard of said that she nodded off completely; others described a sense of detached euphoria. And me?  Well it must have worked since I felt nothing uncomfortable, though I wasn't aware of being sedated. I chatted with the nurse throughout and contentedly watched the camera view on the monitor.  And yes, there was my little tattoo from 3 years ago.

This is what polyps look like in the early stages. I'll leave you
to Google photos of later ones. They're not at all nice.
This time the colonoscopy revealed another polyp, which they removed and marked the spot with a tattoo, so now I have two. Earlier today a cheery nurse phoned to tell me that the polyp was, as they had suspected, benign. However, since it was again a tubular adenoma, and these can turn cancerous, they want me back in 3 years' time.

I've heard of people refusing the poo test as it's rather messy, and if something is wrong then they don't wish to know about it. They're entitled to their opinion, of course, though I do think it extremely foolish.  My mum's sister died of bowel cancer in her early 70's and it wasn't a pleasant death.  I have often thought that, if these tests had been available in her day, she might have lived for many more years.

I have subsequently discovered several other members of the "2% Club". Three people at church, and even my sister-in-law and her husband, have also failed the dreaded poo test and had colonoscopies.  Perhaps, for those of my vintage, one might even call it a right of passage.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The life I love is making music with my friends

O crumbs, it's another ukulele post!

Last November I blogged about amazing myself when I plucked up the courage to sing a solo at a Ukulele Fun Day in Coleford. It wasn't a performance blessed with great artistic merit (far from it) but the folk there were so supportive that I felt determined to have another go at the next Fun Day... and the one after that... and.......

To put it bluntly, it seems that there's no shutting me up, these days! Those who know me well will understand what a huge step forward this is for me; not so long ago I would only sing along with others, and then very quietly indeed.

Last Sunday's gathering was a little different as it was Mums' Day and several folk were away on 'family duties'. Consequently, not so many as usual were planning to make use of the 'open mic' – and therein hangs a tail. My good friend Bridget had helped me work on an old Steeleye Span number called Marrowbones and was anxious to hear me sing it. It's an amusing tail about a woman who plans to turn her husband blind so that she can have an affair with someone else, Unbeknown to her, though, the doctor has spun her a yarn and the 'old man' wins the day.

Unfortunately, though, Bridget was late arriving and missed my performance, but then persuaded Janice that there really was time for me to sing it again. Angie doing an encore? Truly, wonders will never cease.

Janice and Alastair do a wonderful job organizing these events, entertaining us with their own performances and taking photos. These two photos are theirs and once again I thank them for a wonderful afternoon of fun.

This weekend my brother celebrates one of those significant birthdays with a '0' at the end, and there's to be a musical family gathering to which a hundred or so friends have also been invited. And what a surprise (!) the evening will include an 'open mic' session at which S- and I hope to sing a duet. The song we've chosen is one by Willie Nelson that, for me, sums up much of what ukulele playing means to me:

On the road again, 
just can't wait to get on the road again,
the life I love is making music with my friends
and I can't wait to get on the road again

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?