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 lay-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.




Sunday, 12 February 2017

Winchcombe and Bellas Knap

A snowy day in mid-February is probably not the best time to explore the Cotswolds. However, S- was lecturing in Gloucester and I didn't fancy a day alone at home – even with Wales playing England in the Rugby Six Nations – so I searched the Internet for interesting places to explore and settled on Winchcombe.

Considering that it was the middle of winter and the thermometer was hovering around zero, the town was surprisingly busy with tourists, most of whom seemed to be heading for Sudeley Castle or trying to photograph Winchcombe's honey-stoned buildings. I had more important things on my mind — lunch!


A couple of pubs looked inviting, but one glance at the Light Bites menu outside this attractive half-timbered building settled it for me. This is the Wesley House Restaurant, where they serve smoked salmon and cream cheese on granary bread for £8. I added a glass of Savignon Blanc and settled into a soft settee near a blazing log fire to while away the best part of an hour.

It would be fun to come back here and dine in the restaurant, not least because Cornish mussels and scallops feature on the menu. Moreover, the cheese board looks amazing. Sadly, all I seem able to buy in my home town is 'standard supermarket' Brie, Camembert, Feta and a dozen varieties of Cheddar. O for a decent wine and cheese shop!  Or perhaps it's better for things to be as they are, as I learn to maintain my still new sleek figure.

My motivation for coming to Winchcombe was not, however, to sip fine wine and feast on salmon, pleasurable though this was. So surrendering my seat beside the flaming logs of Wesley House, I made tracks for Bellas Knap, a particularly fine example (declares the English Heritage website) of a Neolithic long barrow.  But how about this for a frosty welcome?




This really is a place to which I must return when the hills are not shrouded in mist, though I did manage to take a few interesting photos. At least 38 people were once buried here in the early Neolithic period (3700-3600 BC). Sadly, though, the site suffered badly from over-enthusiastic excavation by Victorian archaeologists, who left the place in ruins – just as they did the barrows around my hometown of Newquay. It fell to more sensitive folk to restore this barrow to something like its former glory in 1928.


Most of the stones from this chamber were removed in the 1860's. Despite the mist one does, however, get an impression of how very long this long barrow is.


Exploring this chamber was good fun. Notice the two standing stones at its entrance. I recall something similar (though on a grander scale) at West Kennet Long Barrow.


It was very cosy in here, even though there was nowhere to sit down. A good place, I concluded, to eat my apple before heading back to civilisation.




Friday, 3 February 2017

To err is human; to really mess things up takes a computer

In the not-too-distant future I need to submit to the surgeon's knife for some non-urgent 'corrective' surgery. The details are unimportant. I saw my GP just before Christmas and, clinical letter in hand, he promised to set the wheels in motion.

On January 3rd a letter arrived from GP Care (catch phrase: great patient care). It informed me that:
    Your referral letter from your GP has been reviewed by our assessment service and you are now invited to make an appointment at your choice of hospital from the list enclosed.

I chose the hospital in my home town at 2pm on 1st February and two days ago obediently turned up for my appointment.  They had no record of it! A rather flustered and apologetic nurse explained that my doctor hadn't sent a referral letter. "But it says on this letter from GP Services that he has," I protested.
"He should have sent it to us," she explained. "Different budget. Without it, we won't get paid."

She also gave me a Feedback and Complaint leaflet, urging me to complain as my input would have more effect than theirs.  Within an hour I'd sent off a courteous but firm email.  An hour later the phone rang: "The email address they gave you is the wrong one," explained the cheerful soul. "We don't deal with outpatient complaints but I'll forward your email."

I also had the good sense to pop into my Health Centre and explain my problems. They promised to sort it all out for me.  True to their word, the phone rang early yesterday:
"Have you had another appointment for today?"
"No"
"It says here that you're booked in today but that the patient doesn't need to be told (!)"
"What shall I do?"
"Don't know.  Pretend I didn't tell you! I'll get back to you."

Yesterday morning the Health Centre rang again.
"Have you had a letter with an appointment for February 14th?"
"No."
"Well you will do.  All appointments for this procedure are now in Cheltenham.  Is that ok?"
"Yes, that's fine. Thanks for your help."

No sooner had I put down the phone that it rang once more. This time is was the correct complaints department. "We've got a new computer system," the lady explained in pained tones. "and it's giving us grief. There have been lots of instances like yours, of people turning up for non-existent appointments."  I sympathised with her and hoped that her troubles would soon be behind her. She deserves better.  We all do.

Now I wonder when that appointment letter will arrive?

Post Script
The letter confirming my appointment for February 14th arrived today (Feb 4th). I suspect, however, thet I may not be out of the woods yet.  It reads:
    Please accept our sincerest apologies but unfortunately it has become necessary to cancel your outpatient appointment on 13th February.  Your new appointment....  Tuesday 14th February at 14:05
But I was never told of an appointment on the 13th.  Perhaps it was another of those for which the patient doesn't need to be informed.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Bognor Regis Girls

I've never felt particularly proud of being born in Bognor Regis. Mum and dad ran this shop in Argyle Road but I have no early memories of it as we moved to Newquay when I was still a baby. Consequently, I grew up feeling a strong association with Cornwall — an association strengthened still more when a respected local historian declared me to be Cornish.  "But I was born in Bognor," I sadly pointed out. "Rubbish," he replied, "Of course you're Cornish!"

© Google Street View
King George V must take a lot of the blame for my antipathy towards Bognor. The story goes that his majesty's health was poor after a lung operation, so he was advised to spend time convalescing in the health-imparting sea airs of Bognor. He famously replied: "Oh bugger Bognor!"

Fifty years were destined to pass before I returned to Bognor Regis. Mum and dad's shop had become an Indian restaurant, and very nice it was too. I showed the proprietor my old photo, explained my connection, and was given complimentary drinks to go with my excellent meal.

Standing outside, the following morning, it wasn't hard to imagine throngs of happy holiday makers calling in at the shop to buy food in preparation for a day on the nearby beach. Incidentally, dad once told me that the tyre inner tube in the old photo was being sold as a beach ring. In those early post-war years, purpose-made beach items were presumably in short supply.

Here are three of my photos from that return visit.




To Cornish eyes the beach is uninspiring and the pier has little to offer in comparison with the fine headlands of Newquay. Nonetheless, there is a certain tranquil beauty there, which has recently inspired me to think better of my birthplace. It was whilst soaking in the bath last night that a song came to me, in praise of Bognor.  It has a certain Beach Boys quality to it, don't you think?

Well, London girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear
and the Scottish girls with the way they talk
they knock me out when I'm up there.
The Cornish farmers' daughters really make you feel alright
and the Forest girls with the way they kiss
they keep their boyfriends warm at night

[Chorus]
I wish they all could be Bognor Regis,
I wish they all could be Bognor Regis,
I wish they all could be Bognor Regis Girls


Bognor Regis Girl

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Lychees by the score

"When I kiss you it will be an important event, 
like ones first taste of lychee."
(Lord Peter Wimsey in Have His Carcase)

For some inexplicable reason, I had lived my 68 years without once tasting lychee. I've seen it many a time on the desert menu at Chinese restaurants, but banana fritters have always won the day. Maybe the name sounded too much like leaches to tempt me. 

Photo from Naomi Schillinger's Out of my Shed blog
'Twas a couple of Saturdays ago that my lychee famine ended. Almost every Saturday morning finds me at the fruit & veg stall in our small open-air market. The vegetables are, without fail, unquestionably fresh. Unlike their supermarket cousins, they do not shine in artificial light and (shock horror) often have soil on them.  But, despite refreshingly low prices, I like to think that the producers have received a fair return for their labours and have not been driven to near-bankruptcy because their parsnips are not the regulation length, their courgettes the wrong shade of green or their carrots too spindly and not brilliant orange. Incidentally, have you tasted purple carrots? Very nice they are, and once a common sight before we were all taught that carrots should be orange.

But this is supposed to be a post about lychees, not carrots, so back to the market. At the left hand end of the stall lies the fruit. There are always apples (frequently Russetts, yum yum) and usually plums, grapes and peaches. On this particular Saturday, though, they were joined by a tray of small, rough-skinned green and red things.  "They're lychees," said the lady behind the stall. "Try one."  I did, peeling back the thick skin to reveal a firm white pulp. "Very nice," said I — though whether as nice as being snogged by Lord Peter Wimsey, I couldn't possibly speculate.  "I'll have some, please."

One week later... "Those lychees were lovely," said I. "Here, have this lot!" said she, "They're past their best, so I can't sell them."  Which is why I came home with about 3 times as many lychees as the week before.

Here they are in my fruit bowl. If you click the photo to enlarge it, you'll see that some have a fine coating of mildew, so definitely 'past their best'. However, this is simply the result of juice from the pulp permeating the skin; when the skin is peeled off, the fruit beneath is perfectly fine.

It was, however, clear that those lychees wouldn't remain edible for much longer, so last night I set about peeling and stoning all but the most healthy-looking specimens, and planning to breakfast on them. 

Thanks to Slimming World, I have discovered the delights of Overnight Oats. For this I put 35g of oats into a jug, plop in 200g of fat-free yogurt and top it with a handful of fruit — usually something squashy like blackberries but this time, of course, chopped lychees. I then stick the jug in the fridge, where it remains overnight.  According to Slimming World, the 'jug' should actually be a sealable container (like one of those old Kilner jars) but I've never understood the reason for this. Maybe some folk have smelly fridges.  Anyway, by breakfast time the yogurt and fruit have soaked into the oats. A final whisk with a spoon, and I end up with this...


Believe me, it's very yummy; perhaps more so with blackberries or raspberries, but yummy nonetheless. And for those of us wedded to the Slimming World plan, it has no syns and doesn't eat into the dairy (Healthy 'A') allowance.

And now I see that I still have 8 lychees.  What shall I do with them?


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Hellooo

The time had come to review my energy supplier.  Just over a year ago I left E.On – who had chosen to raise their prices when most suppliers were cutting theirs – and sign up with First Utility.

First Utility are a relatively new player in the field and the largest outside the "Big Six", so it clearly payed them to be competitive as they fought to attract customers. Consequently, I expected to stay with them for several years.  It wasn't to be.

I was soon put on my guard with persistent offers of long-term deals if I switched from my relatively inexpensive tariff to a more expensive "inflation proof" one for 18 months. These culminated in an unsolicited and very pushy phone call for a never to be repeated Black Friday offer. I said that I couldn't possibly make a decision without looking carefully at the tariff, and rang off.  Surprise, surprise; it was still significantly higher than my existing deal. By now, I was definitely smelling a rat! Then, as the contract neared its end, this email arrived —
    Hello Angela.
    Good news, we’re pleased to confirm you’ve updated your tariff to First Fixed November 2017 V9. This guarantees you’ll be protected from energy price rises until 30 November 2017. There’s no need to do anything, your tariff has been automatically updated from 04 December 2016.
I immediately emailed them, stating that I had NOT authorised this update and requesting to be returned to my original tariff. I would, I explained, review my energy supply arrangements before the end of January, but doubted that I would continue with First Utility. Back came this reply —
    Hello Angela.
    Thank you for your email. I have cancelled the request as this was not made by yourself. Your current tariff has now reverted to the original iSave Fixed January 2017. I hope this information helped. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in contact with us.
So now the search was on. Deals change from week to week.  Early in December the comparisons on MoneySupermarket.com for my lowish fuel consumption had looked like this:


I'd no idea who Flow were. Co-operative Energy had, I knew, recently gained an accolade for having more complaints per 1000 customers than any other supplier.  Anyway, it was actually too early to consider a change as I would have incurred cancellation charges.

This week the comparison looked like this:


Scottish Power also have a somewhat tarnished reputation, having been fined £18million by Ofgen for "failing to treat customers fairly." Well they've had a few months to get their act together and (who would have believed it?) they were cheaper than my existing deal ... and a lot cheaper than the ones with which First Utility had tried so hard to tempt me.  Yes, it was a rat I'd smelled!

Rather than make the transfer on the Internet, I chose to phone Scottish Power and discuss my misgivings about their past misdemeanors — evidence of this girl's new-found confidence to confront the baddies.  I dialed their number...

"Hellooo," said a cheery Scottish voice. I liked that. I liked it a lot. And I know I'm far too easily impressed!  I also know that, for all their Scottish credentials, they're owned by the Spanish. But yes, the deal was as described on their website and on MoneySupermarket.com, and yes, they could have me swapped over on the very day that my First Utility tariff expired.

So that's that sorted... until 30th June 2018. By which time Scottish Power, buoyed up by their growing customer base, will probably be raising their prices to match.  Time will tell.

Life was so much simpler when I had a choice of just one supplier (SWEB) and paid them every quarter.


Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Island Holiday

One activity guaranteed to lift the gloom of the darkest winter day is to plan this year's holidays. Scanning a map of the Kingdom for interesting places that I've never visited, my eye settled on the Isle of Man.

In the days of Yahoo 360 (remember that?), I had a passing on-line friendship with a lady who lived on the Isle of Man and waxed lyrical about its beauty, whist bemoaning its lack of nightlife and the cost of getting to the mainland. Well, nightlife has never been important for me, but the isle does indeed appear to be a very beautiful place. It's high time, therefore, that I went and found out for myself.

One thing I'm not planning to do is sunbathe on a beach in Douglas! The Wikipedia article on the Isle of Man makes interesting reading — average high temperature in September a modest 16 degrees and 11 days of rain out of 30. However, I'm undeterred. With hills, mountains, Neolithic remains and quaint towns to explore, railways to ride on and miles of coastal footpath to trek, I'm convinced that a week will fly by.

My first task was to find a nice holiday cottage; preferably one with a reasonable degree of privacy. I must be an antisocial sod, but I don't relish the close company of other visitors in some holiday complex. Fortunately, I found a little beauty on the Welcome Cottages website – a traditional, detached Manx cottage on the west side of the island. At £660 for the week, it was no bargain (twice the cost of our 2014 cottage in Rye) but it's everything I'd hoped for and more beside. I quickly paid my £250 deposit.

Next came the task of getting there.  My friend from all those years ago was right; it ain't cheap. I toyed with flying from Gloucester and hiring a car on arrival, but decided in the end that it was far simpler to take Bluebird on the ferry from Liverpool. That added £278 to the cost of the holiday. One begins to understand why budget holidays in Majorca are a lot more popular than a week in Mann, though I know where I'd rather be!

To complete this holiday, I'm also going to book a couple of nights in Liverpool. It's a long time since I've been there and, at the very least, Paddy's Wigwam beckons. "Liverpool has world-class tourist attractions" boasts the city's website. I'm sure they're right.