Wednesday, 22 November 2017

I told you I was ill!

Eventually, these words appeared on Spike Milligan's memorial.

This morning, I have been to see the Doctor to receive the diagnosis of something that has been bothering me for a while. It's one of those things that has been creeping up for a long time and slowly the symptoms have been getting more serious.  Being a proper man, I have of course, been in complete denial.

Back in April, I was hauled in for the usual health check that happens every time your age ends in a zero. Lots of blood taken for testing, height, weight, lung function, heart function, blood pressure. Usual advice to loose some weight (OK, lets be honest, lots of weight!) and improve diet. Since I already eat a healthy diet with plenty of  fish, fruit and fresh fruit and veggies and don't really like red meat other than game, improving the diet is difficult.

The blood tests came back with some concerns and was called back for further testing. The nurse explained that my white cell count was high and needed to be "monitored". Was I feeling unwell in any other respects? As it happened, I've had this niggling ache in my major joints (shoulders, elbows, hips, knees) and what can only be described as "sore bones" for a while and could it be related? At which point everything got a little more intense. A third test just before we went on holiday to the US and a further test when we returned.

Then a phone consultation where I was told that it was still high, but it specifically was not any of the "dread" diseases - high white cell count, sore bones and painful joints if you check it out on Google hinted it could be Leukaemia, which will explain why I was wandering around all summer looking worried!

Eventually, I give in to the inevitable and visit the Doctor, who based on the symptoms, suggests something called "Polymyalgia Rheumatica". Or PMR for short. More blood tests.

The blood tests were inconclusive, so the next test is a week's treatment with a massive dose of steroids to see if it makes a difference. Which it did! Followed by a week off the treatment to see if the symptoms returned. And they did...

So that's it. Proof conclusive, resulting now on a long term course of treatment with steroids for about 18 months, plus additional drugs to deal with the side effects.

So what is it? It's one of those auto-immune "syndromes" where the immune system decides to set about destroying the large muscle groups that control the shoulders, arms, hips and legs. It also causes extreme tiredness and insomnia at the same time, mood changes (what, me?) along with a general feeling of being "unwell" and loss of strength in the muscles.

The steroids have some seriously unpleasant side effects as well, but I can put up with those to sort the main problem. Obviously, I can no longer partake in competitive sport as I will fail any doping test. So just as well I've never taken part in any organised sports, isn't it? There's a risk of increasing weight, although I shall deal with that, and (quite frightening) severe mood changes and the risk of suicidal thoughts.

And probably the most significant, suppression of the immune system so I need to keep clear of anyone with colds, flu, sniffles and other minor ailments. So if you should sneeze and I run a mile, you will know why!

Friday, 3 November 2017

Not Quite so SMART Meters

We had an offer from our energy supplier to install new smart meters at our house. The only real advantage it offers us is that I no longer need to wander outside every month to take the meter readings.

We had arranged a date for a couple of weeks ago, but the work couldn't be done as both meters are outside and it was raining on the day arranged. So, rearranged for this afternoon.

The fitter called earlier in the morning and said he could start immediately if it was convenient. As he was in Eastleigh at the time, "immediately" was about 20 minutes later. When he arrived, he explained fully what needed to be done and the approximate time that it would take and got to work first on the electric meter. While he was at it, he updated all the cabling and tidied up the cable routing. That was easy.

Gas meters are a bit more involved, but it took less than 20 minutes, including the Gas Safe tests and purging the air from the system. Now all he needed to do was commission the system by getting the meters to talk to each other and to the meter network. And this was where the problems started. The meters didn't want to talk to each other. It might have been because the meters were on opposite sides of the house, but he thought this very unlikely, more likely a defective communications module on the gas meter as the electric meter had connected to the network. So, having conferred with the Grid Company, they requested that he install another gas meter.

So out with the meter he'd just installed and in with another from the van stock. Repeat the Gas Safe tests and purge the system.

More communications problems, it seems.

Another phone call and he reports that, with regret, he has been told to remove both new meters and reinstall the old meters. Electric off again for 20 minutes and re-run the Gas Safe tests and purging of the system.

He was a little(?) unimpressed with the people at the Grid. It turns out that their network is weak in this area and that a signal booster is required for Smart meters to work! The people at the Grid control centre are well aware of the problem, but don't think it important to communicate this to the companies that they contract to do the installations.  So we are back where we started.

At least the fitter would get an early finish on a Friday with his other three jobs for the day being rescheduled. Well, it turns out not to be that simple as he is the area supervisor and is needed to help another fitter with a problem installation. Quite how he managed to remains smiling all day is a miracle!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Price Comparison - Buyer Beware!

A quick change from the usual classic transport and travel themes of this blog to look at "U Go Confuse a Meerkat Supermarket" websites.

Although I was born in Hampshire and have lived here for all but about 12 years, the only great grandparent I ever knew came originally from Yorkshire and I think the gene for being a bit canny with the money must be dominant. I don't mind spending money, but I do like to get best value and really dislike being ripped off.

When we moved into the current house, we were put onto the standard variable tariff with the existing energy supplier for as long as it took me to find a better deal. Our energy supplier for the past 3 years has been one of the small start up businesses that undercuts all the major suppliers. The downside is that their customer service is rubbish, but they are getting better. We have an annual fixed price deal which we renew about this time of the year.

This year, I thought it was about time to Confuse myself by Going and Comparing the Market. As I have accurate consumption data for the previous years, this should be easy.

So, entering the usual stuff; name, address, postcode, electrical consumption, gas consumption, type of property, current tariff, inside leg measurement, etc, it quickly came back with a long list of alternative suppliers, all of which were estimated to be around £200 cheaper than our current supplier. Even the "Big Six" energy companies were cheaper with their fixed price contracts.

I was, to say the least, a little sceptical, so investigated further. What they are doing is a little naughty. Actually, it is nothing short of outrageous! 

As my current fixed rate tariff is coming to an end, they assume that I am going to transfer to the existing supplier's standard variable tariff and used that to make the comparisons. And they do not include any rates from my current supplier as they are not on comparison sites, presumably because they won't pay the commission. Even taking the cheapest of the suppliers proposed and comparing against the estimate from the current supplier, changing to a "cheaper" supplier would not save us the £200 suggested; it would cost us around £50 more!

I am sure that they cover themselves in the small print, but the bottom line is that comparison websites, even the ones with loud spoken consumer spokesmen who get themselves on the TV and radio are not helping you make an informed choice; they are making themselves a nice little commission from getting you to switch. 

Although to give some balance, if you are still on a standard variable tariff or paying quarterly bills, they will undoubtedly help you save money (lots of money in most cases), but if you are already on a fixed rate with a small supplier, be very careful about what is presented as a "saving", especially as you need to look further than the headline "you will save this much" headline figure to find out how much you will actually be paying. And if you are interested, our supplier is "Extra Energy" and they are based in Birmingham

We'll get back to the usual topics next time!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Holiday Planning - the Fred Pontin way!

Back in the 60s and 70s, holiday planning didn't start until after Christmas. Usually on Boxing Day, the holiday adverts would start, with the prime TV slot being about 2 pm. Frequently, the "winner" in the battle to get this slot was the holiday camp business of Pontins, rival to Butlins, Warners and Maplins (who were fictitious, but  summed up everything about those Hi-di-Hi holidays). Pontins adverts were famous because the boss, none other than Fred Pontin himself, reputedly the inspiration for Joe Maplin would encourage you to "book early".

Fred Pontin in his usual pose, encouraging you to "Book Early!"

Booking early is something that I like as well. When we were burning to a frazzle in the Arizona desert in the middle of a heatwave earlier this year, Ann said "can we go somewhere a little cooler next year? Like Finland?" 

We spent a while living in Finland between August and November 1981 - and celebrated our first wedding anniversary there - while I was working for Nokia.  At the time, no-one outside of Finland had heard of Nokia as it was before the mobile phone revolution, but they had a computer business and that was the bit I worked for. 

One of the new products was an electronic point of sale terminal, with some software that would deal with stock control and inventory levels as well as calculating the value of a sale and cashing up each evening. For the early 1980s, this was pretty revolutionary. My task was to create the documentation and manuals to widen the product to the more general market. As it turned out, it really was too revolutionary for the rest of the world who were stuck with old fashioned cash tills and manual stock checking, but it got us a few weeks living in the Helsinki suburbs.

So next year, we are going back to Finland and the last 24 hours has been a mad booking frenzy. Two rental properties, three hotels, a rental car and flights. We got a cracking deal on the flights: London to Helsinki by British Airways Business Class (regular readers will recall that Ann has been thoroughly spoilt over the years and doesn't travel at the back of the plane) with change from £400 for both of us, return, plus a wodge of "Avios" miles that I am still using from when i was travelling for work.

It is much too far to drive now that you can't get direct ferries to Denmark or Sweden and the only option is to drive all through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, then a ferry to Copenhagen, across the big bridge to Sweden to drive to Stockholm and then a further ferry to Finland. 

We'll stay local to the airport on the first night having picked up a rental car and have rented a cottage in the middle of the Finnish lakes about 20 miles north of Kuopio (Google maps is your friend). On the way, we are planning to revisit the home of probably the most famous Finn - Sibelius.

home for a week

View from the terrace
The cottage is quite small, but has a little covered patio for the barbecue and its own sauna in the small wooden building that can be seen from the terrace. And a pier and private beach on the lake. And a boat with a little outboard motor. I'll need fishing lessons.

So after a week here, we'll head off to Savonlinna, closer to the border with Russia. It's a festival town with regular musical events and a renowned Opera Festival. We've booked a hotel overlooking the harbour on the lake.  

A couple of pictures of Savonlinna

Following that, a couple of days on the outskirts of Helsinki to give easy access to a few places to visit and then a rented apartment right in the City of Helsinki for 4 days to do the sights.

And the timing - the first half of June, so it will be light until about 11 pm and dawn will come again at about 1 am.

One of the places on the visit list is Hvittrask, formerly home of three world famous Finnish architects and designers in the same sort of style as Charles Rennie Macintosh and William Morris. There's a museum and restaurant; its about 20 miles west of Helsinki

Seurasaari - an island open air museum of buildings from all over Finland. Everything from turf huts to palatial farmhouses.
The Orthodox cathedral on the harbour front. Taken in 1981 during our long stay

A very young Ann aged 24 at the base of the Cathedral
You'll notice a lot of blue sky in the pictures. Although it is a long way north, the weather in early summer is often very good with bright sunny days and quite reasonable temperatures in the mid 20s Celsius. winter, though, is a different matter. The worst I experienced when visiting was -40 Celsius. That is the sort of weather when you are very pleased not to be a brass monkey...

And to "finish", a couple of tourist board images of Helsinki.

Off his Trolley!

Regular readers (assuming of course that I actually have any) will know that there is a book on the subject of the buses and coaches produced by Guy Motors in the works at the moment. Progress is good with the first draft of the text almost finished.

A coupe of weeks ago, we headed up to Carlton Colville on the outskirts of Lowestoft to the home of the East Anglia transport Museum. Lowestoft has two claims to fame: first it is the most easterly point of the British Isles and second, it was the home of Eastern Coach Works who built the bodies for thousands of buses, mostly on chassis produced by Bristol Commercial Vehicles.

The museum is quite special because it has an operational trolleybus circuit and a fleet of buses to run under the wires. Being just about old enough to remember trolleys running in Portsmouth, I have always found these electric vehicles to have a fascination all of their own. With all the current hysteria on low emission vehicles and the impracticalities of running public transport on batteries, I don't understand why we don't look again at the trolleybus. Although I am writing this at the same time as the former Great Western Railway line is closed for the weekend so Network Rail can check they have got their wiring right on the latest electrification scheme. Let's hope someone has a shilling for the meter.

But getting back to our topic... Lowestoft is quite a trek from Fareham and so it took us just about four hours to get there. As this included a half way round trip on the London Orbital Car Park Motorway and the Dartford Crossing, that probably wasn't too bad. The plan was to arrive in the early afternoon for a spot of photography and the highlight of the weekend - twilight running.

So here are a few pictures from the event:

The only remaining operational Portsmouth trolleybus is 313, which did actually run on route 5 and 6 along Copnor Road and was one of the routes that I went on as a child. We look after the prototype Portsmouth trolleybus on behalf of Portsmouth Museums in our "collection", but there is little or no hope of it ever running under its own power again and it's hidden away in a corner, so can't even be seen easily. It would be so much better if it were here, even if not running.

A yellow trolleybus with doors at the front - so it must be Bournemouth and this one is from a batch that was right at the end of production. Bournemouth Transport actually took the very last trolleybus that was built for the home market

This one was new to Reading Corporation, but when their system closed, it found its way to Teeside who kept their system running a little longer. It has recently been thoroughly restored and repainted for its first public appearance at this event.

Upstairs on the Portsmouth bus trying to hide behind one of the poles is a familiar figure! This one was restored some years ago at Carlton Colville and is still in spotless condition. At one time, Portsmouth had a degree of civic pride and this was reflected in the Corporation transport fleet that was always turned out clean, although the seats became rather grubby over the years

Now for some twilight running. South East London didn't have the tube, but it did have an extensive trolleybus network, so after a good night out, we'll take this one to Woolwich. Many of the LT fleet found second lives after that system closed with some going to Spain or Portugal.
And after a night out at the seafront, we need to get home, so the trolley from South Parade Pier to "The Tivoli" will do nicely and we can walk along Chichester Rd a little way. "The Tivoli", which was a cinema in Copnor Road close to where the Co-Op dairy used to be, had long gone when I was a child, but was what one asked for when paying the fare.  New conductors must have been very confused with passengers asking for fares to places that no longer existed!

I don't suppose you'll have seen one of these before. This is a "half decker", an early attempt at getting a large number of people into a low vehicle. You can see from the window positions how the seating is arranged in groups of four. The upper deck passengers leg space was between the seat backs of the lower deck and steps were needed to climb up or down into each compartment. The design was not a success and this is believed to be the only surviving example of about twenty to have been built. My interest in this is that the prototype was built on a Guy chassis

Apart from a general interest in trolleybuses, the Bournemouth and Reading / Teeside vehicles, plus a few others running on the day, were built by Sunbeam who were the largest builder of electric vehicles in the UK. In 1948, Guy Motors who had previously also built large numbers of trolleys bought Sunbeam and Karrier (both businesses having been previously sold by the Rootes Brothers) and decided to sell everything under the Sunbeam brand.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Scotland the Brave!

As part of the research for the forthcoming Guy Motors book, I needed to visit a couple of museums and collections. Two are in Scotland and one in St Helens, a town that may be in Lancashire or it may be in Merseyside, depending on which version of local Government reorganisation is currently in effect.

Scotland is a bit far for a day trip or a weekend excursion, so we decided to turn it into a week away with most of the time spent in a Forest Holidays cabin close to Strathyre in the Trossachs.

First stop: The North West Transport Museum in St Helens, the home to the last Guy bus chassis to be built for UK delivery. First registered in 1970, it was also amongst the very last traditional "half cab" bus to be built.

Also resident are a number of Guys previously operated by Lancashire United, another undertaking that purchased products from Guy Motors until they just couldn't buy them any longer; Guy Motors having been swallowed up as part of British Leyland who knew far better than their customers what the market needed.

We stooped for a couple of nights in Dunfermline at an exceptionally nice B&B. You know you've picked a good one when the welcome tray in the room includes a small decanter of malt whisky and Sunday took us to the Scottish Vintage Bus Museum at Lathalmond. The biggest bus museum in the world, it claims and they are undoubtedly correct in that claim. It is HUGE! They are also custodian of several Guy vehicles and had agreed exclusive access for some photography, along with a look in all the sheds once the museum had opened to the public.
A panorama view of the main display hall

A wartime utility Guy Arab 
Sister to the one in the museum at St Helens

Bus travel Hong Kong style. 106 passengers!

Another Arab

Not the most efficient use of space, but at the time, no-one had thought of putting the engine under the floor and the entrance at the front. Arabs were also available as single deck buses

Originally built as a wartime utility for use in London, this one has an interesting history that includes a new body for use in Edinburgh
In the main exhibition hall, we found this 1929 Leyland Lion, now long retired from running around Edinburgh

Much newer, but still following the half cab layout 
Bedford OB with Duple Vista bodywork. Let's all say it together: "Didn't you have one like that once?"

Then a week of doing not really a great deal, just chilling out at one of the Forest Holidays parks between Callander and Strathyre. We'd booked a single bedroom "Gold" cabin, complete with huge wooden decking, a hot tub and a gas barbeque. For Scotland in September... We were lucky with the weather. There isn't a huge amount of stuff to do int he area, which for us was one of the attractions, but we did manage to fit in a session of archery on Wednesday and both lived to tell the tale. Robin Hood has nothing to worry about.

Home for a week - a one bedroom "Gold" Forest Holidays lodge
A couple of trips around the lochs filled two of the days, along with an explorations of some waterfalls. The first being the falls of Leny, very close to where we were staying. It's on all the maps, but it isn't really even a rapid. So on to the Bracklinn Falls. It's about a mile's walk from the parking and quite impressive, especially the footbridge over the falls.

Long exposures with waterfalls creates this unusual effect

This bridge needed to be hand carried a mile before being erected. It replaced an earlier bridge that was swept away in floods

And we also found one of the sites where Red Kites had been reintroduced into Scotland. A local farm has set up a conservancy which includes a hide and scattering of food for the birds. The food is mostly venison offal and is roughly cut before being scattered on the ground, which attracts the birds, but still keeps them wild.

A long term ambition, probably when the next royalty cheque arrives, is to upgrade a couple of my lenses for a single Canon 100 - 400 zoom. It is one of the white lenses in their "L" series where L seems to mean that they are "L ishly" expensive, but all the reviews say that for wildlife and sports photography, this lens and my camera are the ultimate combination. So, I thought, just to check it out, I'd hire one as it is what I have done before prior to purchasing an expensive lens. The only slight problem was that I got the week wrong, so I'll have to think of another excuse. It does mean that the lens used to take the bird pictures might be for sale in the future if anyone has a Canon camera and is looking for a lightly used, well cared for Sigma 170 - 500 mm zoom. As you can see, the images are a bit soft, but it is only one-quarter the price of the Canon. I hope Ann isn't reading this...

Finally, on the way back home, we called in at "Dodds of Troon", a well known and long established bus and coach operator who happen to own a Guy coach that was formerly a company demonstrator. I had asked if I might be able to take a few pictures and permission was granted. The coach has been off the road for a while with a poorly engine, so we were restricted to taking pictures in the shed - but we managed.

The chassis is a Guy Warrior UF and is fitted with a classic "Seagull" body built by Burlingham in Blackpool. Burlingham were shortly after absorbed into Duple and there are just the beginnings of some common design "motifs" with Duple's range of the time. you'll need to buy the book for an explanation of that, though...The "Seagull" model name came about from the first customer for this body style, Seagull Coaches, and the style was fitted to Leyland and AEC chassis as well as to Guys. To my eyes, it is one of the most elegant coach designs created. It is, by all accounts, something of a monster to drive - obviously a manual transmission, but with a "Chinese" gearbox with the gears scattered all over the place, rather than the usual H arrangement, there's no power steering,but it does have full air brakes. For a vehicle that is now 60 years old (just like your writer) it is in remarkable condition (unlike your writer). 

And that's it - until this coming weekend when there is another little trip.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

It's 1963 Again!

When I was very young, a trip to the seaside usually involved a journey to Hayling Island. Living on the south coast, it was just a short bus ride away, or, if very lucky, a ride on the "Hayling Billy", a short branch line from Havant to the Island, crossing over the weak and rather rickety bridge that was to be official reason for the line's closure. Personally, I think the huge traffic jams that built up at Langstone crossing played a part in the decision, even though the cost of rebuilding the bridge to take anything heavier than the life expired class A1X locos would have been ruinous.

This week, I managed to get myself an "official pass" to spend a couple of days out doing some photography at a preserved line that I had not previously visited - the Kent and East Sussex Railway. As it was on the way, I fitted in a trip to the Bluebell Railway, but it is to the K&ESR that we shall go to first in these rambling thoughts.

Because of memories of the Hayling line, I have always liked the A1X engines and an opportunity to see one running is always worth the effort. It so happened that 32678, one of the final locos to have run on the line was rostered for my visit.

32678 running around its train at Bodiam
Looking at the timetable, and having all day to waste spend on the line, I was able to wander back and forth and get the full value from my ticket. First train of the day is a rake of British Railways Mark One coaches, hauled by a GWR "pannier tank", or "Duck" as anyone who has ever read or watched Thomas the Tank Engine will call them.

"Duck" arrives to collect the first train of the day
This took me to the end of the line at Bodiam and then back again to Northiam where a 20 minute wait later, the A1X arrived complete with a train of proper coaches

Second train arrives. Notice how small the loco is when compared with the carriages

Formed as part of the train is an exquisitely restored former Metropolitan Railway First Class carriage. There's a surcharge of £2.50 for this, so any seat back to Bodiam and then travel in appropriate style all the way back to Tenterden.

You can just imaging John Betjamin travelling in here

I asked for a single to Verney Junction when paying my supplement. It took a few minutes to sink in... (Verney Junction being the furthest extreme of the Metropolitan Railway in rural Buckinghamshire). As the picture shows, you can see the quality of the restoration work.

Now back at Tenterden, I had intended to take another return trip, but missed the train while wandering around the museum. for those who prefer those strange diesel things, here is an oddity:

Designed and built at Swindon in 1964, where they had a reputation for doing their own thing, I suppose this is what happens when a bunch of steam engine designers are told to build a diesel. You'll notice the "proper" wheels joined by steam engine style connecting rods and driven from a jack shaft. Power came from a diesel engine via a hydraulic transmission. The idea was to replace the by then ancient locomotives used on short trip working, but this was a service that was dying in any case and so the entire fleet of these and other class 1 locos had ridiculously short lives with British Railways with some being sold for industrial use, mostly in coal mining.

Now it was back to Northiam by car to intercept the vintage train.

32678 arrives at Northiam heading back to Tenterden
Now leaving Northiam
Having processed the images, I had this idea: a quick repaint of the first coach in the picture above would re-create a scene reminiscent of the Hayling line. So, with the aid of Photoshop, here we are:

One final picture from this trip - the pannier tank leaving Northiam on the last round-trip service to Bodiam.

Picking Bluebells.

En-route to Tenterden, I spent the day at the Bluebell Railway, famous for being the pioneer standard gauge preserved railway and home to many former Southern Railway locomotives and carriages. On my visit, I was lucky enough to have two such locos in service:

Starting at Sheffield Park, the first train was going to be hauled by 30541, a small loco originally built for freight, but perfectly able to haul passenger trains as well. Here it is sitting while the tender is filled with water. My carriage for this trip was a 1930s express coach; as I was only going one stop, I slummed it in 3rd class

First stop: Horsted Keynes - a former junction, home to the motive power workshops and a location that will be very familiar as it is the "go to" location for film makers searching for a period railway station.

A trip to the loco depot is required. Much of the stock is held out of service awaiting overhaul, but rather than being stuck outside under tarpaulin, most of it is displayed in a shed. Lighting is poor and access is tight - but at least it can be seen.

Another class A1X, this time "Stepney" made famous by the Rev W Awdry in his "Thomas" books as "Stepney - the Bluebell Engine". A 10mm lens is the only way to get a picture, I'm afraid...

Sitting outside in gentle steam was class O1 number 65 of similar age to "Stepney" and one that survived in service until the early 1960s. Again, it was the lightweight of this engine that led to its longevity.

And a little newer is this U class 2-6-0 loco, designed by Richard Maunsell and built by the Southern Railway, although the design follows many of the elements of his earlier N and S classes built for the South Eastern Railway.

The sound of a whistle announced the arrival of a train - 541 arrives from East Grinstead while, from the south, another train was approaching from Sheffield Park:

847 is an example of class S15. The history is a little complicated, being originally designed by Robert Urie for the London & South Western railway primarily for express freight. They are closely related to class N15, better known as the "King Arthur" class. Following the "grouping" which brought the Southern Railway into existence, Maunsell became Chief Mechanical Engineer and set about improving the locomotive stock. 847 is an example from a later, improved batch. Although designed as freight locos, they were quiet capable of running relief passenger services and did so regularly.

Having made a quick run through the station to the right platform, this train took me to East Grinstead and eventually back to Sheffield Park.

Just arrived at Sheffield Park. I've jumped off the train and crossed the bridge to the other platform to take this picture. In the background, you can see a set of vintage coaches

Leaving Sheffield Park with the return service to Horsted Keynes.

A thoroughly enjoyable two days!