The solar panel people have been and there are now 20 solar PV panels neatly installed on our east-facing roof, with cables running down the side of the house and into the inverter hanging on the wall of our utility area.

Nothing is quite straightforward at Treforest. To get the inverter in the right position, I had to take down a little shelving unit that has been there for decades. It wasn’t very decorative – bare wood, with no paint, varnish or polish – so I wasn’t that sad to see it go. The interesting bit was how it had been fixed: the shelves were nailed to four wooden supports which in turn had been nailed on to the walls using 2-inch masonry nails. Whoever did that meant those shelves staying up. Whoever did that gave no thought whatsoever to how some poor sap might take them down.

A bit of brute force with a hammer lifted the shelves off the supports and a bit more work with the hammer and some pincers removed the nails from the shelves so you could handle them without piercing yourself.

Then came the supports. I tried hammering in a wedge and levering the supports away, but they wouldn’t budge. I did more damage to the wall than the support, I think. Next I chiselled into the supports, splitting them by the nails. The resulting fragments of wood were easy to remove. This left eight nails protruding from the wall by less than a centimetre, which meant 80% of each nail was still embedded in the masonry. My pincers were too small and weedy to get and maintain a grip. My hammer was not a claw hammer – good for hitting nails in, but not for pulling nails out. By now, the hardware shop in town was closed, so I decided to leave it until morning, when the electrician would be coming. He would be bound to have a claw hammer.

In fact he did, but it still took a mighty effort to heave out those nails, which brought off the surrounding plaster, leaving me with eight holes to fill, smooth and decorate. In fact, more than eight, because there were several holes revealed under the supports, where (I imagine) earlier attempts at nailing had failed. Take my advice: think about future generations, use screws. (My great-uncle Bill, a joiner in the family building firm, always used to hammer screws in, just giving them a turn at the end. “The slot’s for taking them out,” he said.)

The panel fitter (a former roofer) told me that some of my roof tiles were looking a bit dodgy round the roof lights. Since the roof lights had only gone in last November, this sounded alarming. “Let’s take a look,” he suggested. So we climbed up the ladder lashed to the scaffolding – a long ladder which even so only just reached the level of the planks, and a wobbly ladder because it was so long – and went to investigate.

Was this sensible, I hear you ask, to climb up a high, wobbly ladder? At my age? After all, the scaffolding planks must have been at seven metres, two and a half storeys, since the land slopes down outside the house.

The last time I went up high on ladders was shortly after I joined Shell. I was doing an audit of a plant shutdown at the Stanlow refinery. The manager handed me over to a plant supervisor to show me round. I was kitted out with boots, overall, gloves and helmet. The boots didn’t fit properly and rubbed, but they did have steel toecaps. The helmet was cool. I used to keep it visible on the parcel shelf in my car when driving round the refinery and it gave me much easier access through the various security gates. I have a photo of Eleanor aged about three wearing it, looking very cute. Anyway, the first thing the supervisor did was start climbing a sixty foot reactor column. I decided that this was some form of test  of the besuited office auditor chappie and went after him. We got to the top – great view over the Mersey – and came down again. Then he climbed another reactor column, and so did I. After that, things were OK. One thing, though: the ladders didn’t wobble.

Back to the solar panels. I climbed carefully and the ladder didn’t wobble much. We looked at the tiles, and he wasn’t talking about the tiles round the roof lights at all, but the ones along the valley, which have been in place for quite a few years, since the roof last leaked there, and where it hasn’t leaked in the intervening time. Also, the tiles weren’t that bad to my eye, just not up to his perfectionist standards. I don’t complain; he had replaced three or four broken tiles in areas of the roof not immediately connected with fitting the panels.

It’s a good view from up there, and it was good to see the panels up close, an opportunity that won’t come again.

The panel fitters went, leaving the electrician to finish his job. It’s always the electrician at the end.

The next morning, I got up and almost the first thing I did was check the display on the inverter. The panels were producing about 300 Watts, somewhat below the rated 3.9 kW. But it was early, the sun was low on the horizon and there was a layer of frost over the panels. Ninety minutes later it was up to 1.3 kW and rising. I am having to make determined efforts not to keep checking the thing – it’s addictive.


New Year’s Day

That was a December!

A few days after the SOGs lunch (see last posting) I drove to Herefordshire to see my mother and family at The Green and deliver Christmas presents, leaving Diana and Tris at home (Diana had Council meetings). After a few miles I realised I was wearing the wrong shoes – trainers rather than black leather. This was a problem not so much for the shoes themselves as for the orthotic insoles in them, which go in my other shoes as well (except trainers). So I did a turnabout, waiting for the next convenient roundabout rather than instantly blocking the A322 with an attempted U-ie, and greatly surprised Diana when I came back in through the door. As I put on the right shoes, she told me that my mother had phoned and the lane outside her house and the drive to the house were blocked by a tree that had just fallen down in high winds. It almost made the wasted half hour not a waste.

So, I approached The Green from the other end of the lane and parked in the farmyard. Mum was out so I collected the key from my sister-in-law Ann next door and unloaded the car. Ann said that the local council had in fact cleared the tree so the lane was now open. Remarkable alacrity from the council. I stayed a few days, put up the heavy curtains over the front door (effective draft proofing), helped with shopping and left the presents and a Christmas cake. Nice to see the family.

Then I headed to Cornwall for a site meeting at Treforest. Since the beginning of October, the upstairs at Treforest has been pulled apart and reconfigured to put in a loft room and proper stairs. The work was approaching its end and I wanted to be there when the decorators started work, to answer any questions and avoid things like the yellow paint of the hall being used in the bedroom.

It rained pretty much the whole time I was there. It was raining on Sunday afternoon as I arrived and called into Tesco to stock with milk and food and stuff. It slackened off a little on Monday morning when I walked around town and bought some Christmas presents and failed to buy others. It rained the rest of Monday, such that I didn’t even fancy going out for fish and chips. It rained on Tuesday and eased by the evening when I did go out for fish and chips. It rained on Wednesday morning and I packed the car between showers. It rained most of the way home.

The next day was the Woking Writers Circle Christmas Dinner. We have not gone for real Christmassy dinners the last few years (2009 and 2010 were Chinese) and 2011 was no exception. We went to the Greek Olive, a Green restaurant – pardon me, the Green Olive, a Greek restaurant in Chobham and had a pleasant mezze with lots of different tastes and some nice wine. Dermot had created a multiple choice quiz, which caused some controversy. One question asked which two animals were crossed to make a quagga, and I picked the right answer, according to Dermot. However, there was a vociferous school of thought which claimed the quagga as a species in its own right. Technically they were correct, but since the ‘umpire is always right’, I scored the point and won the quiz. No prizes, just smug satisfaction.

At the weekend Diana and I both went to Cornwall again, for the final week of works. The new doors were all fitted, though not all of them had handles yet – we had to be careful not to trap ourselves in the sitting room – some lengths of skirting board were missing (still being made to match by the carpenter) and decorating not yet finished, but generally it looked about done. We showed our neighbours, who have the almost mirror image house next door, what we had been up to.

On Tuesday we went to see Sherlock Holmes 2 at the Regal, Wadebridge’s two-screen cinema. Lots of action and disguises, but not much plot, and what plot there was pulled out of a hat.

On Wednesday we went round the house looking at everything with a critical eye, this time spotting all the little blemishes and writing them down, in preparation for the final site meeting on Thursday when we went round again with the architect and building manager. This resulted in the official ‘snagging list’ which the builders and their sub-contractors have to fix before the job is complete. We’ll be down again in January to see how it’s turned out and start planning the next step – carpets.

On Friday we packed ourselves up (except for my phone charger, as it happened), called in at Tesco to buy sandwiches for the journey (preferable to Little Chefs and motorway services, we’ve decided) and a turkey, and went home. On Saturday it was the final pre-Christmas shop in Waitrose (not too harrowing), putting up the tree (a synthetic one with fibre optic branches and glowing branch tips – dead easy!), final present wrapping and the discovery of the missing phone charger. Fortunately, I can borrow Diana’s cable, when she doesn’t need it.

Christmas was the three of us. So was Boxing Day. Grateful not to be driving anywhere.

On 27th, Ellie and Joe came for a few days, brought by Joe’s parents Chez and Richard, who stayed for a very pleasant lunch. After they had left, Ellie launched into bedroom clearance. She and Joe now own a house in Oxford, with space for books and stuff – and believe me she has plenty of both in her old bedroom. Or rather, she had plenty. Most of it is now in Oxford, quite a bit in our waste and recycling bins and some at the hospice shop. We drove them up on Thursday with the back loaded high enough to obscure but not obliterate the rear view. There will be another trip, though, with the back seats folded flat to give enough space for the (disassembled) desk, telescope and other large objects.

Last night was New Year’s Eve. Tris went out with friends. Diana and I stayed in, trying not to estimate the carbon footprint of the fireworks display around Westminster and the London Eye.

Happy 2012!

Kitchen on the Brink

The day after the degree ceremony, 10th September, Diana and I headed down to Cornwall. By the time we had packed, it was mid-afternoon, so we were too late to call in on Ashley and Rosie on the way. We wanted to get down there. The kitchen was due to start on 19th September and we needed to empty it before then. Whilst it might appear from the dates that we had plenty of time – a whole week indeed – to do this, in fact we only had a couple of days, since we were booked into an Arvon Foundation writing course in darkest Devon from the Monday afternoon through to Saturday morning.

Many years ago, before my parents-in-law owned it, the extension at Treforest was used for holidays lets, with its own shower room and kitchen area. We got rid of the cooker there  when we started letting the whole house, but the rest remained as a utility area. That meant cupboard space and drawers, mainly empty, to put things into. So most of the kitchen contents went in there. We had to keep a few things separate – kettle, toaster and the like – and carry them into the breakfast room or beyond for easy access while the kitchen was being taken apart and reconstructed. The only way through the house to the extension is through the kitchen, although you can walk round the outside to the back door. So we got most of that done.

On the Monday morning we went down into town to make our final selections of door and drawer handles. Out of the ten or so we had selected, four were no longer available. We looked at the other six and didn’t like them in real life. Then we saw an older-style one, which after some umming and ahhing we decided we liked. We borrowed a door, worktop sample and handle to see in combination with the floor samples we had. We picked up the decorative glass tiles from the Natural Tile shop. We had lunch and set off for Totleigh Barton in Devon, a few miles East of Bude.

State of Readiness

Original post: Thursday 29th September 2011

It was around the beginning of summer that our retirement plans began to come into sharper focus. For some time we had known that we intended to stop letting out our house in Cornwall, and indeed had informed our letting company so that they didn’t put it in their new brochure and start selling dates in 2012. But we were now on the home stretch with only six more lets confirmed and the final week still available. With every set of keys that came back, a weight lifted – another week gone by with no problems to sort out.

We had a date in mind for the start of work on our kitchen in Treforest (mid-September), but still some decisions to make about tiles, flooring, worktop, door and drawer fronts, handles, integrated dishwasher – quite a lot of decisions, really. There was no alternative but a quick sprint down to Cornwall for a few days. Wadebridge Kitchens gave us samples of worktop designs in a swatch no bigger than ten square centimetres and four examples of unit doors in different woods which we laid in various positions around the old kitchen, seeing how the light fell on them at different times of day and at night and we exercised our imaginations in extrapolating from these small areas to a whole kitchen, so that two days later we made a decision. We also called in on the Natural Tile & Stone company in Wadebridge and surveyed numerous tiles, before settling on one called ‘Pearla’ plus a number of decorative glass tiles from a artist/craftsman in Wales called Steve Robinson. Finally we went to Astons in Wadebridge about flooring, looking for a vinyl floor similar to the old one we were taking up. They didn’t have anything at all similar, so we took a brochure away. Later, I sent for samples from the manufacturer, but we didn’t decide on the floor until the last week before work started. We didn’t manage to decide on handles either, but took a brochure away. We found eight or ten we liked the look of from the pictures, but here again we could leave it until the last week before deciding.

Back in Woking, we blitzed the internet looking for dishwashers. We had decided on a Miele – expensive but good, based on our own experience – but couldn’t decide which one. The internet gives you lots of things, but I always find it a pain, flicking between half a dozen alternatives with a screen for each, and possibly two or three screens for all the information. But I did find a Miele Experience Centre (yes, that’s what they call it) in Abingdon, where you can make an appointment to see appliances and have them explained to you. They do not pressure you to buy, since they do not sell from the Centre. Possibly this is one of the reasons Miele is expensive.

Eventually, I managed to make an appointment for 3 pm on Friday 29th July. Ideally I’d have liked a slightly later time, but they had a staff meeting at 4, they said. This fitted nicely in with a plan to visit daughter Eleanor in nearby Oxford and deliver her birthday present only a day late. The Experience Centre was easy to find, just off the A34. We parked, went in and were greeted by someone who said “You must be my 3 o’clock appointment”. “If you are Zoe, that’s right,” I said. She showed us the toilets, which was a good thing to know, and took us through to a coffee lounge where we had a coffee and a cupcake, which was a pleasant way to start. Then we went to see the dishwashers and receive a detailed explanation of the features, and how they got better as the price increased, right up to the most expensive one which clears your dining table and individually cleans and polishes every item. Oh no, that’s a butler. But it does have automatic load recognition, an autoclose door and an interior light, among other things not possessed by the average Jeeves*. We decided that these were not worth the exorbitant price and went back down the range to something merely expensive. After making use of the toilets, we headed for Oxford.

We stopped at the Redbridge Park and Ride on the South of Oxford and took the bus into the centre, sitting on the front seats of the top deck to enjoy the view over walls and down into gardens, and getting off in Abingdon Road. We walked up to Modern Art Oxford, a gallery in Pembroke Street recommended by younger daughter Tris, to kill time before Ellie was due to arrive home. I’m not sure I ‘get’ a lot of modern art. Clothes airers covered by snug-fitting knitted cosies – I don’t see the point. There were also pieces constructed from venetian blinds, painted in bright primary colours. The smaller ones were a bit meh, but a large one hanging from the ceiling yielded interesting curves and shadows when you looked at one blind through another placed at an angle to it. The gallery shop had candlesticks assembled from pieces of copper pipe and T-joints painted red and blue, selling for prices that even plumbers never imagined.

We arrived at Ellie’s, to find her delayed at work, but son-in-law Joe let us in and fed us tea and biscuits. Ellie eventually arrived, bearing pizza, and we were joined by Tracey, Ellie’s friend from secondary school. That sounds unfortunate. Not her only friend, let me make clear, but one of her best friends. We handed over the birthday present, a black top hat. Eleanor does role-playing games and she has plans for a top hat. I tend not to pry further…

August also saw some unexpected expenditure. After 25 years, our water softener gave up the ghost. Last time I filled it with salt, I thought there was too much water in the container and emptied it. Then I saw water coming from the overflow pipe, dripping onto the grass and killing it with the salt content. The container was full of water again. I phoned Harvey Softeners in Woking to see if I could get it repaired. We don’t do that model any more, they said, we’ve had two more generations since then. We haven’t got the parts. What would a new one cost? If ordered from the service department, at a discount to the price from the sales department, just under £1000. Gulp! I spoke to Diana, but we had to go for it. Woking is a very hard water area and kettles get covered in scale in no time, visible evidence of what would be happening out of sight in the boiler, central heating pipes and washing machines. We’ve never regretted buying the first one, only a few months after moving into the house – the only thing Diana says she has bought from a cold-calling door-to-door sales-person.

Finally, I should mention the Woking Writers Circle August meeting, which each year varies the read-and-comment format of our regular third Thursday meetings and this year took the form of a dinner at the Red Lion in Horsell. This being the holiday season, several people were away, but those that remained had a good time, even being joined a little later by a couple of non-diners, who had only come for the beer. Well organised by Dermot, say I.

*Note to pedants: yes, I know Jeeves is a valet, not butler. But it sounded good.