Category: Yeovil

Family on the move

Our eldest son, Tony, has paid us a visit for the first time.Tony & Kate in Skipness castle With a bit of reasonable weather, with all our first time visitors we like to show off a few of the treasures of Kintyre and seem to end up at Skipness Castle, a place with a fascinating story to tell despite barely having experienced combat. Far from being a ruin today, this place was inhabited until the seventeenth century, lived in by the favoured few with their servants no doubt, but the place is now said to be haunted by a Green Lady, although we did not see her on this occasion. Within the castle walls today the light seeps through small window openings casting shadows on the quiet world within. Kate at SkipnessBut the stones used to build this castle glow with colour. A pink sandstone etches the corners of the structure, surrounds the windows and the fireplaces and picks out other details in a way that would not be out of place in a modern dwelling. Built by ‘Sven the Red’ when the Western Isles were part of Norway, he clearly had an eye for colour and wanted to create an impression on anyone approaching its walls. The roof balcony, created for the more liberated to wave from, was however a later addition.

Of all the new sights around him on his visit, Tony seems to be most impressed by the green lushness of the undergrowth that surrounds us, this being such a contrast with what he is used to seeing deep in the south of England. Frequent and persistent rain over recent weeks has promoted accelerated growth of everything with roots to suck it up and leaves to wave about. Bracken has been shooting up out of the ground, uncurling its long fronds, roadside verges have grown hairy, encroaching on the space available for cars, and trees now full of sap are bowing under the weight of their leaves. Everything is rushing, it seems, to get from flowers to seeds in the shortest possible time before the summer is over.

It is this point in the year, when the land and the sea are finally beginning to warm up, that Kate and I might have expected to find ourselves exploring the Highlands and Islands under sail aboard Cirrus Cat. Instead of castles, this blog would have been dotted with pictures of island wildlife, perhaps of tidal shores, of windblown spray and seaweed strewn beaches. Instead, I must report that these plans have yet to come to fruition, and may yet stay on hold until next year the way things are going for us. And the explanation for this starts with a journey south that will end when we have radically changed the lives of two members of our immediate family, and our own too.

Our first port of call is Yeovil in Somerset where we arrive to help our middle son, Mike, move from a place that has been his home for many years. He is coming to stay with us in Carradale. Moving to the Highlands of Scotland can be a life-changing experience, but living back with Mum and Dad can be even more of a culture shock – Mike thought he had left home for good over fifteen years ago – and his presence in our home promises to turn our own lives around as much as his own. In the intervening years we have each changed a lot so we are eagerly looking forward to having this older person around us and getting to know him better.

Closely following him on the journey north, as soon as the sale of her house in Sussex allows, will be my mother, her arrival establishing a three generation family set here in Carradale village. Neither of these moves are part of a long established plan; this is not how our family does things, it seems. For example our own decision to move to Scotland, although based upon solid reasoning, was implemented ruthlessly quickly as soon as we had reached our decision. House hunting via the Internet got under way then, almost before we had told anyone else, we found ourselves moving in. The whole process from deciding where we wanted to set up our home to re-locating lasted no more than three or four months, a remarkably short period of time in which to be turning your life around. Surely other people don’t do things this way. But yes! I had not previously appreciated that this was a family trait, something I should find comforting. But in some strange way I find it rather disconcerting that all of us move around so readily, following the advice of Albert Einstein who once said ‘Life is like a bicycle. In order to keep your balance you must keep moving’.

The Saga of the Leak – part the second

Now the men of Wessex Water they make their own laws regarding when, where and how to dig to find a leak, when it is proper for sod to be turned, how deep to dig and when they should extract payment for doing so. And if their own people do not follow those laws and rules then the noble men who manage Wessex Water can exact penalties against wrongdoers or indeed may also award gifts to those who have been wronged. Such a gift has now been bestowed upon the bearded Malcolm and his good lady and this saga has already passed into the folklore of the men of water with their listening sticks and their spades. It pays to complain.

But such men do not take kindly to water hissing from their pipes and they do not like to be beaten. So they have paused for thought, weighed up the balance of skills and technologies available to them, planned a new campaign of assault and consulted the oracles regarding the most favourable day of the week on which to begin. Meanwhile the hissing of the leak continues unabated although the water still flows in the pipes and tubes so life continues with little change – until the Day of the Dig. This is the day the whole of Somerset will not forget, the day when the soil was peeled back so that the pipes beneath were revealed to all, a day when every substance which lies hidden below was exposed to human eyes, a day when the long-lost knowledge of pipes would be re-discovered, finally, once and for all time, never to be forgotten again.

On the morning of the chosen day the sun rose above the horizon but it hid its face from the men of Wessex and the wind it blew cold. Wessex men with machinesThose men they had arisen early, champing at the bit like stallions in protective clothing, their large boots thudding to the ground as they emerged from their coloured vehicles. They had brought with them their listening sticks, they had brought their spades but most of all they had brought their favourite machine, a rather nice grey and red one with a long arm for digging deeper and further.
”Let digging commence”, they cried with one voice as they laid into the ground. Rapidly the first hole appeared, swiftly followed by a second and a third. Tracing the leakThe men of Wessex fell over themselves to dig deeper and further, the competition amongst them was intense. By noon and soon after their fifth cup of tea they had traced a pipe as far as the house of Malcolm and Catriona, the black plastic seeing the light of day for the first time for many years. There it was at last, the knowledge guarded by the men who built was at last revealed to the men who dig, the lost pipes had been found.

But what of the leak? What of the hissing beneath and the water that escaped to run away into the ground? Tracing the pipe is only part of this saga as despite eight holes having now been dug, we still have water seeping away into the night. No wonder there are floods around the other side of the world in Australia!

The men of Wessex departed to their homes and families no doubt to sing songs of pipes lost and found, to brag of the holes they had dug that day, to tell tales to those who would listen of great deeds and how many sugars they took in their tea. For the bearded Malcolm and his lady however the story had yet to end. The saga of the leak must have yet another chapter, the one in which the leak is finally quenched so the water flows no more. Make yourself comfortable where you sit and read on to the end of this tale.The pipes that enter the house

Now the thing about pipes that lie hidden beneath the ground outside houses is that they work best when they are connected to pipes within houses or, as they say locally, “That’s what he do round here”. This final chapter in this saga is about connecting the without to the within and the men who do these things, not Wessex men but men from Sherborne, that is across the border in Dorset. So it was that a Dorset man, this one calling himself Sid, came to the house of Malcolm and his good lady to make a connection that would stop the leaking water from leaking and hissing away. There was much discussion as to the best way this could be done, whether if the water ran backwards in the pipes within the house it would still flow from the taps in the same way, so that the lady Catriona could bathe herself and make free with the oils and essences to purify her skin as she was wont to do. And at last ‘The Day of Connecting’ dawned, another day when the wind it blew hard and cold but nothing could prevent the connection being made for the lost pipes had been found by the men of Wessex and the Dorset man called Sid wielded his spanner for all to see. The pipes bent beneath his will and became one with the water inside and all was well at last. The deed had been done and the leak was no more.

So it is that the saga ends.

We now have a quiet house, one that hisses no more. Sleep is difficult, of course, as the noise of silence is deafening but it is pleasant to know that all is well with our pipes once more. This whole process has been a learning experience for us both although not a particularly enjoyable one. While waiting for this or that to happen we have felt trapped, unable to leave the house for any length of time in case someone turned up to dig another hole. We both feel like a break, perhaps even a holiday is called for, a term not generally applicable to retired persons, so where better than a few days in Scotland in mid-winter. Flight and accommodation booked, transport arranged, off we go!

The Saga of the Leak – part the first

There was once a town in Somerset in the west of England where a bearded man called Malcolm lived with his young wife, Catriona. The man’s wife, a flaxen-haired lady, was often to be seen paintbrush in hand smoothing a coating of some exotic elixir across the walls within which they lived for she enjoyed, if not the smell, then the feel of the paint as it flowed from her brush and the resultant effect. Despite all this they lived happily together in a house which was blessed with many wonderful features, not least of which were the pipes and tubes through which electricity, gas and water flowed to and fro endlessly, both into and out of the surrounding land, seemingly without effort at all. Without these hidden pipes and tubes life would have been difficult indeed but by using their contents carefully and wisely Malcolm and Catriona were able to do many strange and amazing things and were able to live their lives in warmth and comfort. For example they could talk to others around the world as if they were next door, they could make tea using water as pure as many a mountain stream and they could warm their toes before a fireside glowing hot without the use of coal or wood. All these things were made possible by the pipes and tubes which ran into and out of the house.

Many years ago, when the house was built, there were men who had knowledge of just how these pipes and tubes were connected, of where they entered the building and where they left, men who used their knowledge wisely in constructing such a splendid dwelling but men who, nevertheless, chose to keep their knowledge to themselves. Perhaps they passed on this knowledge to their sons and daughters who, as is the way of things in the land of Somerset, then filled their own heads with so much else that the knowledge became lost for ever. Perhaps the men who built the house drew plans and drawings which described how everything worked, what secret places there were within the house where this pipe or that tube could be found so that water or gas could be drawn off when needed. Perhaps when they buried those pipes deep beneath the house they never expected anyone to need the knowledge they alone possessed as once hidden down under the clay on which the house was built those tubes would forever continue to bring electricity and water to those that lived there, no matter how many years should pass. Who can now tell what these men thought or did for time has passed and the house still stands but the pipes and tubes are older now and access to the wisdom of those who built it is now lost to those who now live within.

So it was that the Malcolm and his lady awoke one day to a strange sound, a sound which followed them about as they passed within the house, a sound which comforted the lady Catriona while she painted the walls but which nevertheless unsettled them, especially at night when the house was peaceful and quiet. To describe this as a hissing sound, high in pitch but its source low in the house, may not adequately portray the noise nor the effect it had on them both for this was the sound of a leak, of a liquid escaping from a pipe somewhere beneath their feet, something uncontrollable and mysterious, out of sight but not out of hearing and persistent in its nature, annoying. Somewhere, they knew, the pure water that provided them with so much comfort and sustenance was escaping, oozing out, and running away into the land beneath them. And of course, not having the knowledge of those who built the house so many years ago, knowledge secreted away or simply forgotten, the location of the pipe with the mysterious hole which was allowing the water to spill away could only be guessed at.

Now this part of the land of Somerset used to be named Wessex and water which flows over and under the land is owned by a company called Wessex Water who allow many different pipes and tubes to pass through the land. Many of those pipes are known to them and the location is drawn on maps and plans so that men can dig down and allow light to shine on a pipe when this is needed. But sadly, because the men who built the houses were secretive or forgetful there are many pipes which are unknown even to Wessex Water. Fortunately however, Wessex men are well versed in discovering lost pipes and they have many skills and machines available to them which enable them to locate a pipe when they need to, even when this is hidden underground. The first of these is the ‘listening stick’, a steel rod a metre and a half long with a cup-shaped wooden piece at one end which is placed against the ear while the other end is thrust into the ground. All leaking pipes share the same characteristic, the whistling and the hissing, which can be heard through the long rod of the listening stick, especially where a leak is beneath or close to a solid structure such as a house. Where the pipe is leaking into the soil away from a house a second and highly sophisticated skill is deployed – the hole. As it happens no modern equipment is needed for this; the requirements are simple. First there is the fork and then the spade. These shamanic tools are placed in the hands of a skilled artisan who is plied with cups of tea until eventually, a hole appears in the ground.

Thus the saga begins, with all this technology available and after many cups of tea and many holes having been dug our brave Somerset couple should reasonably expect to know where the mysterious pipe lies, where the water is running away, where the hissing is hissing from, to have rediscovered the knowledge long lost since the house was built.

But they don’t.

Twelve months ago

Every so often Kate and I find ourselves posing the question to each other, "What were we doing this time last year?”, not for any deep or meaningful reason, but simply because in the two years or less since we both ceased gainful employment and began doing other things with our lives, even we are beginning to lose track of where we have been and what we have done. The answer to this question if posed at the present time is that we were mid way through six months of living in northern Italy, for me the longest period I have ever spent outside the UK and therefore an experience of some significance. What is rather strange, however, is that it takes no effort at all to remember our Italian sojourn because a number of rather bizarre happenings are combining to act as reminders for us, things that seem to be stretching the boundaries of coincidence considerably.

The apartment in which we were living, tucked away in the village of Torri at the end of an ‘interesting’ fifteen minute drive from the Italian Riviera town of Ventimiglia, was owned by native English speakers, a fact that became evident when we first glanced at the content of the bookshelves that would sustain us throughout the winter months. It would be no exaggeration, indeed a considerable understatement, to say that our lives were made more enjoyable through having such a library at our disposal. Many a rainy day did we spend in front of our log fire, reading our way through novel after novel, all of which were new to us and most very much to our taste. How could whoever placed these books there have known?

So here we are back in the UK, twelve months has elapsed, and a film based on the Stieg Larsson novel we read in Italy, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, is opening at cinemas across the country. It doesn’t stop there though. At least three of the books on our shelves were written by Henning Mankell whose creation, the Swedish detective Wallander, really got under our skins. So to see him come to life on television here in Britain has been a real treat, as well as taking us straight back to the fireside sofa in Italy. Then as if this wasn’t enough, when we recently heard the name Aurelio Zen this too immediately rang bells for us. Michael Dibdin’s novels featuring this Italian detective have an amazing feel to them, Italian life just oozes out of every word despite them being written in English by an Englishman. Having now watched the TV version we are not disappointed. It is almost as if whoever stocked those now far off bookshelves must have had an uncanny, even spooky, ability to see into the future. Surely this cannot just be coincidence.

The reminders of our Italian living do not, however, start or end on the bookshelves. Being ever conscious of our making best use of pension pounds (or Euros), it was not long before our daily and weekly shopping in Italy had introduced us to a new experience. We have my brother Graham to thank for our initiation to the place – he shops there regularly – and we did have our reservations at first but sooner or later we found we had caught the ‘Lidl’ bug. Now if you prefer to buy your foodstuffs with labels you recognise, Kelloggs for breakfast, Heinz for lunch, Cadbury’s for a snack, then a Lidl supermarket is not for you. The problem is not that they don’t sell any products you recognise (they do) but simply that the brands and labels are not those you will be used to. So for example you may find yourself buying ‘Crownfield’ corn flakes for breakfast, ‘Campo Largo’ is the brand for canned goods and if you are looking for a Mars Bar then you’ll need to find a sweet bearing the name, ‘Mister Choc – Choco Caramel’ which only reveals itself for what it really is when you bite into it. All this was part of the learning experience we went through when we first arrived in Italy so that by the time we left in April 2010, we had become thoroughly Lidl-ised, possibly even addicted.

Imagine our surprise when we first started exploring Yeovil after our arrival here in August last year when we found ourselves within easy walking distance of our own Lidl supermarket. This was like home from home for us and the reminders of our Italian life were everywhere we looked. But there was still one thing missing for us, one product that was a particular favourite of my brother Graham, and soon became ours too as thanks to his generosity a bowl full of these things always appeared before us at the end of our climb up to his Torri apartment. It was not until early December that our local Yeovil Lidl finally started to stock our favourite ‘Crusty Croc’ crisps, paprika flavour. Thanks Bro’ for introducing us to a snack that now takes our minds back twelve months with consummate ease.

Ensuite sink & shower

And what has been happening around the home whilst all this reminiscing has been taking place? Well, I am doing another apprenticeship in plumbing, connecting complex bits of copper together so that water can flow around the shower and the small sink we have squeezed in. Kate puts herself at great risk by holding the pipes together so that I can apply the blowtorch and solder them up; such bravery. She still has both eyebrows so things must be going reasonably OK.

New Year forecast: showers

As we move into the final phase of our house refurbishment we start it with a new spring in our steps because it is an important transformation we are about to make. The plan is to install a shower in a large fitted cupboard connected to our back bedroom. We bought the pieces for this some weeks ago – the shower tray, the shower cubicle, two large plastic sections to make the walls watertight and a funny little waste trap – so all we have to do is to connect these bits together and its done. Easy really.

Except that this is a first for us both. We are complete virgins when it comes to shower installation, babes in the wood. So the first task is to convince ourselves that we can do it! Well we can check that one off because we did all the convincing necessary months ago before we started on the whole project. A shower is a simple thing after all, water flows in through some pipes and goes out through some other ones. Kate stripping wallpaperA shower cubicle is merely a means for airing the water for a short period, the time it takes to get the human body clean, and then it allows the used water to escape the house under gravity. Simple really.

Next comes the difficult bit. Where does one start on a job like this? Well there is the cupboard space to make ready, wallpaper to strip off (Kate loves doing this), some wooden bits to demolish (I’m getting good at this) and then… Well sooner or later we’ll need some holes for all those water pipes so this seems to be a good place to start. Gravity is the medium by which the water will flow away so this means that the pipes will need to be slanted downwards. Hmm, this is suddenly a little more tricky as the shower tray, by its very nature, is already level with the floor. So either it will have to be raised up higher in some way or else the pipes will have to run under the floor. A decision has to be made before we can go any further.

At this point we decide to read the instructions. Sadly this is not like assembling kitchen units where there is a clear path starting with “Stick the little round plugs in all the holes on part A” and ending with “Now fit the legs”. With the shower there is no one clear thing that has to be done first, no natural order. So after much deliberation we finally decide that the shower waste water must flow down the same pipes as used by the bath, which is in the next room, and I begin by making a hole in the wall at what I hope is the appropriate spot. This is by no means easy as our walls are solid but after a lot of noise and banging, whirring away with the drill, chipping away with a chisel, there is a passage through which a pipe can pass. Straightforward really.

But the other piece of this part of the project is the bathroom, the same one that lies just beyond the far end of the hole I have made. We have a whole host of ideas for smartening things up in there, starting with the pine ceiling boards (may they rest in peace) and moving on through new tiling and replacements for the sink and the toilet, both of which are cracked. Oh, and we have already bought those bits, too. There is just so much to focus on, too much is buzzing around our heads. We need to re-group our thoughts, take time off perhaps, and let our unconscious brains come up with a plan.

So we leap on an early morning bus headed for Taunton and treat ourselves to some New Year’s Eve shopping, not really our style at all but enough of a distraction to give our heads a rest. After a cold day ducking in and out of shops to find warmth Kate comes home with a nice new outfit and some shoes while I manage to force open my wallet sufficiently to buy a matched pair of cup shaped pieces made from a soft silicon-rubber. Be careful not to let the imagination wander here; these are PoachPods, the latest cooking tool for making perfect poached eggs. They float like green lilies in boiling water until four minutes later the egg is cooked right through and waiting to be flipped out onto its toast underlay. Quite exquisite.

En route home from Taunton we drop into our local pub, the Great Western, to sample some ale and we slip easily into conversation with the owner of a dog which has the head of a Great Dane and the hind quarters of a Bulldog. When this perfectly proportioned beast turns her large brown eyes towards us we are done for, trapped in their gaze, but she is fickle too and the next person to arrive gets the same treatment. She has a habit of leaning gently against your leg and will actually fall over if you move away, making you feel the guilty party. We like this pub because of the random nature of the customers and their willingness to chat to whoever comes in through the door. An itinerant portrait artist called Peter modestly starts to show us his latest sketches and talks too about dinghy sailing. He is about to head off to London for the New Year festivities whereas we stagger homewards to warmth, hoping for an early night. Fat chance! There is a party happening across the road. This and the fireworks make sure we are still awake for the start of 2011, which is sort of nice.

Soon we’ll be back at work after our short break. One thing we can forecast for this year is that there will be lots of showers.

Happy New Year all!

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