In Praise Of Honest Mechanics, And The NHS

Ten days ago, I wrote about my car failing the MOT test, and needing two new tyres.

Always Something

I didn’t use it after driving it home, and then three days later, Julie used it to take her daughter and grandchildren out for the day. They did a fair few miles, and had an enjoyable day. However, when she returnd home that evening, she said she could hear a ‘rubbing noise’ when turning right. I drove into town and back, and couldn’t hear it.

Last Friday, she cut her hand at work. It was in an awkward place on the edge of her right hand, and bleeding badly. So I drove to collect her, leaving her car in the car park. We had two options then. Either drive the shorter distance to the main Norwich Hospital, and possibly wait for many hours to be seen, or drive up to Cromer on the north coast, where there is a minor injuries unit open from 08:00 until 20:00. That seemed the better option, and off we went.

Arriving close to 7:30pm, we wondered if we were going to be too late. But no. An efficient receptionist booked her in, then asked me to wait in the car park due to Covid-19 restrictions. Less than ten minutes after I got back to the car, Julie appeared, her wound closed with steri-strips, and a dressing covering the injury. When you hear so many complaints about our health service, I think it is only right to balance that with praise for the marvellous service we received last Friday.

Well done the NHS.

On the way home, we used the main relief road to avoid Norwich, and it has many roundabouts. Once negotiating those, I could hear the ‘rubbing noise’ that Julie had spoken about previously.

On Sunday morning, I returned to the car repair dealership I had used for the MOT, service, and tyres, and asked them to investigate the noise. The manager drove the car around the forecourt, and agreed he could hear the noise. However, after some examination of the wheels and steering, he was unable to speculate on what might be causing it. He suggested I leave it there overnight, and he would get a more experienced colleague to examine the car today. (Monday) I agreed, and Julie collected me and took me home. Although this Monday is a public holiday in England, they were open from 10:00 until 16:00.

Me being me, I feared the worst. Major repairs just before our holiday, and yet more eye-watering expense. While I was out walking Ollie, Julie rang them just before 1pm, and they said the car was ready. They had found a loose back plate on a front brake disc, and that was moving enough to cause the rubbing sound on full right lock. As they had worked on the car recently, they said they would not be charging me anything at all, because of the possibility that they may have caused the temporary fault.

When I collected the car, they gave me a Diagnostic Wheel Alignment report, telling me they had additionally checked the alignment to put my mind at rest. This alone usually costs £59, but there was no charge. I think good service like this should also be praised, especially for a large chain of car repairers that doesn’t always have the best reputation here.

So, well done to Dereham branch of Kwik Fit too.

50 Years Behind The Wheel

It just occurred to me that I have been driving for fifty years this year. I passed my driving test at the second attempt, in March 1969. At the time, I had a 1963 car, bought for me by my Dad, and I was insured on his policy. I stayed on at school just long enough to drive into the car park a few times, after a fifteen-mile commute in heavy traffic. I could buy three gallons of petrol for less than ten shillings, (50p) and finally take my girlfriend out in a car, after two years on buses and trains.

The car represented freedom to me, and I would drive anywhere, anytime, just to experience the thrill of not being dependent on timetables and bus arrivals.

Over the following decades, I drove just about anything that went on a road. Heavy trucks, vans of all types and sizes, motorcycles, mopeds, and small scooters. I owned all sorts of cars too, everything from unreliable rat-traps, to brand new luxury saloons. I towed trailers, used 4-wheel drive vehicles off road, and managed to drive a few amazing sports cars too. I was a driver, in every sense, oblivious to traffic, with an inbuilt sense of direction, and no fear of any road conditions. I drove in France, Belgium, and Greece, using hired left-hand drive vehicles, or my own right hand drive car, carried across The Channel on a car ferry. I could drive from breakfast to darkness, and think nothing of it.

I was used to ancient cars with non-syncromesh gearboxes, right up to the latest smooth-as-silk automatic transmissions. I had cars without heaters, and cars with air-conditioning. Some with sunroofs, and others with steering as heavy as a cart. I didn’t care, as long as I had access to something to drive, whether on four wheels or two. In some jobs, I was lucky to be given company cars. The latest models, changed every two years, all costs met by the company providing it for me. Going back to paying my own car bills in 1979 came as something of a shock after that.

Then I joined the Ambulance Service in London, as an EMT. I got specialist training, which I enjoyed, and very soon was out on the streets of the capital, rushing around at comparatively high speeds, with blue lights flashing, and sirens blaring. Most of the time, this was achieved on the wrong side of the road, to avoid the usually static traffic jams all over that city. I used elderly ambulances that still had electronic bells on the front, then progressed to the V8-powered vehicles that were introduced before I left, in 2001. Every other day, for almost twenty-two years, I pushed that ambulance around central London, oblivious to any personal danger, and driving as if it was second nature to me.

But driving in London can never really be described as a ‘pleasure’. As anyone who lives there can tell you, you have to learn a special way of driving there. The first thing is to become very skilled at parking. You usually have no more space than the actual size of your car to get into. And you have to be quick too, or lose the spot to someone behind. Once on the move, you must learn to be ruthless. Never hesitate at roundabouts or road junctions, or you will still be waiting to pull out at bedtime. Let anyone out, and they will be followed by a tidal flow of vehicles that leave you almost back where you started. Selfish driving is the only thing that works, in that vast city.

Fast forward to 2012, and I move to Norfolk. No traffic jams, polite drivers, (in the main) and roads that are often empty, away from the tourist season. I had to learn to drive all over again, at the age of 60. I don’t have to worry about parking anymore, as our driveway has enough room for three cars. I had to learn to be patient behind slow-moving farm machinery, and to be careful on the many small roads where the speed limit is far in excess of anything you can do in London. And I no longer enjoy driving, especially at night, when the oncoming car lights leave you dazzled, on the unlit country roads.

So after those fifty years, what are my conclusions?

Get a car with an automatic gearbox. Changing gear is tiring, and boring too.
Pay into a breakdown service. It is essential, with the electronic systems in modern cars.
Never forget to have enough fuel, especially if you live over five miles from the nearest petrol station.
Unless you live in a field, 4-wheel drive is unnecessary.
If you can afford it, sell the car, and get taxis.
Even better, if you are wealthy, employ a driver to drive your own car.

I have now got to the age where I actually look forward to the day when I won’t be driving at all.

But I have never forgotten the excitement of that first car, aged just 17.

Crazy drivers

I got up in good time today, as I intended to do something rare; that was to go out on my own, to visit the Muckleburgh Military Collection at Weybourne, on the north coast. The twenty-mile drive would only take around thirty minutes, and allowing for some time at the museum, I would be back in plenty of time for Ollie’s walk, and he would not be left alone for too long.

As it doesn’t open until 10, I left home around 9.40 after the morning commuters were long gone, and the local country roads fairly quiet. However, in the space of the next twenty minutes, I was to have three narrow escapes from potentially serious car accidents that could have left me badly injured, or perhaps even dead.

Less than five minutes into the drive, I noticed a car ahead pulling out from a side turning, indicating a right turn. The windows of the small car were fogged up and obscured, the driver having not bothered to clear them before leaving home. As I got closer, the car just turned, seemingly oblivious of my presence. I stamped on the brakes, managing to stop before hitting the side of the car. The young female driver didn’t even glance at me as she passed, confirming my suspicions that she had not even noticed my car approaching.

Some time later, with the roads clear ahead, I approached the small village of Thornage. Up ahead, I could see a Post Office van parked on the left, and the postman was returning to it, having posted some mail into the adjacent cottage. As I drew level, I indicated to overtake the parked van, checking that there was nothing coming the other way. Suddenly, the van pulled away from the side, and accelerated alongside my car, the driver yet again oblivious to my presence. This left me driving on the wrong side of the road, and I blew the horn, and dropped back. The postman then braked hard, almost causing me to drive into the back of him. He waved me past, and as I looked at him, he mouthed the word ‘Sorry’. All I could do was to shake my head at him, and reflect on another lucky escape.

Just outside Thornage, the road narrows significantly, as you approach the town of Holt. There are signs indicating this. They say things like ‘Road Narrows’, ‘Oncoming Traffic In The Middle Of The Road’, and ‘Slow’. Because it is hard for two vehicles to pass, small areas have been provided as passing places, and as high hedges obscure the bends, it is very difficult to see what might be coming around them. Fortunately, I have driven this way many times, and was aware of the problems. As a result, I was going significantly slower than the speed limit.

Approaching one of the obscured bends, I saw a large truck coming at me. The driver must have been travelling in excess of 60 m.p.h., and his vehicle took up almost all of the available road space. I stopped immediately, and watched him come on, sure that he would drive straight into the front of my car at speed. At what seemed the last minute, he noticed me and applied his air brakes. In a cloud of dust, and a hiss of air, he managed to stop less than six feet from my front bumper. The young man driving didn’t bother to acknowledge his dangerous behaviour. Instead, he slammed the truck into reverse, and backed up into one of the passing places. As I drove slowly past his vehicle, he ducked down, as if to retrieve something, presumably to avoid my gaze.

I continued to Weybourne, considering myself lucky to be alive, and praising the four-wheel disc brakes fitted to my car. On some of the quietest roads in England, I had escaped disaster not once, but three times. In less than thirty minutes.
Small wonder I don’t go out much…

There will be some photo posts about the Military Collection, in due course.

A rabbit in the headlights

As I have said before, I am used to living here now. The transition to country life has had its good and bad parts, but on balance, life here is very good, at least for those of a ‘certain age.’

I can put my hand on my heart and say that I am now reconciled with the lack of choice for eating out, although it would be nice to enjoy a Tapas, or perhaps a Greek Mezze, without having to drive into Norwich. Never mind, I have had my share before, so it’s not as if I am missing out. I have also resigned myself to the strange ‘closed on Mondays’ thing that is the norm here. I just don’t go out to eat on a Monday, unless for an Indian meal, as they are always open.

Anything I might miss as a result of choosing to no longer live in a city, is easily balanced by the peace and quiet, feeling safe, and enjoying the benefits of country and coast, not far from my door. Then there is Ollie to consider. He is a country dog, afraid of traffic and loud noises, content in the knowledge that he will be going somewhere exciting, even if it mostly the same place everyday. He would not even like town life, let alone that in a city. So, contentment reigns. Sort of.

There is one thing about living outside of a city that I don’t think I will ever get used to, or become comfortable with, as I came to it too late in life.

Driving after dark is a chore. After a lifetime of well-lit roads and urban motorways, driving along country lanes, and on the unlit major roads of East Anglia is something I really don’t like. The constant oncoming streams of headlights, unfamiliar bends and junctions, all add up to a very taxing driving experience. This is made much worse by the current habit of most drivers to use main-beam headlights at all times, and not bothering to dip them when they see another car (me) approaching. Add to this modern high-intensity lights, fitted to some sports and luxury cars, and driving becomes something like trying to navigate with a searchlight directed into your face. If that wasn’t enough, many local drivers also utilise their additional driving and fog lights, whatever the conditions. A small hatchback coming towards you might appear to be the size of a medium truck, illuminated by up to six forward-facing lights.

Years ago, lights on cars were not that great. You had to use main beam to see anything, but there was an accepted courtesy, an unspoken rule of the road; you dipped them when something came the other way, or was in front of you. This once widespread practice now seems to have been abandoned in this ‘I’m all right Jack’ society that surrounds us. As long as they can see a few hundred yards ahead, enabling them to drive too fast, in perceived safety, they don’t care about blinding other road users. Modern headlights are so much better than they were even ten years ago, so the use of main beam should only be necessary on stretches when you are the only car visible.

OK, I am moaning again. Sorry. But it really makes a difference. I now hate driving after dark, which in the winter is anytime after 4pm. It has become wearing, and dangerous too. Dazzled by oncoming lights, I have missed turnings, driven too fast into sharp bends, and narrowly avoided hitting cyclists and parked cars. Returning home after a long drive here, I feel worn out, eyes tired, body tense from the stress of this unnecessary experience. For all those who know no different, who have always driven on unlit roads, this might all seem silly.

But believe me, I really am like a rabbit in those headlights.

A Rural Appreciation

Last Friday, I had occasion to go to Wymondham. This is an attractive market town, and lies south-east of Dereham, about sixteen miles. I was not going to see the nice part of the town, as I had to visit one of the industrial estates on the outskirts. My mission was to purchase some parts for the wood burner chimney assembly, in the hope of finally solving the problems we have had with it since installation.

It was a lovely day. Blue skies, and unseasonal warmth that allowed me to wear shorts. It was nice enough to lower the car window and I set off, listening to a local station on the radio.  Once I had left Dereham, traffic was negligible. Heading out through Yaxham, past Yaxham Waters Holiday Park, I was surrounded by farms and fields, and with speed limits rarely more than fifty, I was able to take in the scenery, and enjoy the drive. I had chosen to take the winding ‘B’ road, and for much of the journey, I saw few other cars. I quickly passed through the small villages of Whinburgh, Garvestone, and Thuxton, some little more than hamlets. They must have problems with speeding traffic though, as there were many signs, stating ‘SLOW DOWN-CHILDREN PLAYING’, or ‘PLEASE DRIVE SLOWLY THROUGH OUR VILLAGE’.

Making the turn at the delightful village of Kimberley, I passed under old railway bridges, reminding me of a time when this area was better-served with local trains. Further on, I could see an enormous lorry coming towards me, on a very narrow stretch of road. We were not going to be able to pass easily, so I pulled into a farm gate recess, and flashed my lights, to tell him he should go first. As he slowed to pass me, he made sure that I could see his wave of appreciation, seconded by a hearty blast on his vehicle’s horn. This small incident could only happen in a place like this. Back in London, we would both have carried on, seeing who gave in first, or passing within a whisker, teeth gritted. On the last stretch of winding road before arriving at Wymondham, I reflected once again that I actually lived in this pleasant place. I wasn’t just visiting, this is where I dwell, and these are the places that I drive through.

On that sunny morning, with a sixteen mile trip accomplished, stress-free, in under thirty minutes, that was a good feeling.

This afternoon, still plagued by the back pain that I wrote about earlier this week, I was of a mind to have another decent walk with Ollie. Once on the move, as long as I don’t stand still too long, and get a few sit-downs along the way, it is manageable. I headed off on the familiar route, away from the meadow, and towards the large pig-farm. The sun was warm on the exposed areas near the blackcurrant orchards. These small bushes do not shield you from the elements, and provide no shade. The light breeze was amplified by the longs stands of trees fringing the fields. If you closed your eyes, you might believe that it was the sound of water rushing by, and not many leaves rustling. I noticed an unusual amount of red and black butterflies. They lifted from the path in advance of my footfall, their wings intertwining with those of others, as they flew off towards the bushes. I was also aware of the number of bees around. Not only workers busy on the beds of violet-coloured weeds in the verges, but huge bumblebees, as noisy as tiny motorcycles, and as big as my thumbprint.

Approaching the tin sheds of the open-air pig farm, I looked for the appealing gangs of piglets. They are older now, and though still tiny, were preoccupying themselves with bothering the huge sows for milk. If they failed to get their own mother to rise from her slumbers, they scuttled off to bother another sow, being told off with smacks from a large snout. The farmer has bulldozed a veritable mountain of manure into one area, forming a construction similar to the compounds seen on the news in Afghanistan. The last rains have left a fetid lake inside this mound, and the combination of this, and the smell from the manure, has attracted a lot of small flies. I decided to push on, to the Rabbit Field, so Ollie could try to chase some bunnies. It was not living up to its name today though. No long-eared residents were visible, and I saw a bird of prey hovering above, which no doubt accounted for their absence. I decided to cross the Holt Road, and revisit a walk from last summer.

It proved to be a good decision. Entering the path behind Gingerbread Corner, at the rear of the pretty cottage that gives the junction its name, we soon saw lots of rabbits, both in the woodland, and on the fields to the left. Ollie was off, chasing enthusiastically, oblivious to the couple in the parked car, who had no doubt sought romantic seclusion. No sooner had Ollie lost the trail of one rabbit, another appeared, and he was off again. Around the bend in the path, we came across the ‘deserted’ farm. This group of buildings around a substantial farmhouse appear to have been abandoned. The barn roof is almost gone, and weeds grown inside the store-rooms. An old broken bath and toilet are dumped unceremoniously just inside the small barn, and the nearby field seems, to my untrained eye at least, to be untended. There are signs that someone might still live there though. Broken glass in a lean-to has been boarded with wood, and the grass on the drive approaching the house has been cut short. In two of the upper windows, curtains are fitted, and the wheelie bin contains refuse for collection. I cannot imagine living in such style, in a house and land with so much potential.

I crossed the small country road, and took the path south-east, towards the back of Dereham, and the cemetery. This is overgrown, but has a good flat walkway, and I can cover a lot of ground this way. Ollie stopped for a drink at a remarkably clear-looking puddle, and we continued on to the end. The next option would have been to cross a busier road, and pick up the path across fields, to Swanton Morley. But we had been out a long time, and still had to retrace all our steps. By the time we got back, Ollie was hot and tired, and I was weary. We had walked around seven miles, in just under three hours. Allowing for a couple of stops, and a lot of contemplation, I didn’t think that was at all bad. In all that time, I only saw one other person, but lots of birds and insects, dozens of rabbits, and one very happy dog.

I must conclude that a rural life is a good one, and I really do appreciate it.

 

A country home

As the cold weather arrives, it becomes easier to see the differences between life in the countryside, and the big city. When it gets cold, it really is cold. There are no flats on either side, or above and below, to help heat your home. The wind hits the walls on all four sides, and the whole place cools down in moments. A light fall of snow settles instantly on the cold ground, with no mass sewerage, and underground transport systems, to help warm it up, and melt it away.

Driving on Friday, the snow was coming down really hard, and seemed to be flinging itself at the car windscreen. It was coming at the car so thick and fast, I felt the urge to fling up my arms and protect myself, despite knowing full well, that thick glass separated me from any of it. The roads stay so wet, that spray is a constant problem, and after the shortest trip, the car looks filthy, as if it had been dipped in mud, and left to dry. No point washing it yet though, as it is still raining as I am typing this.

I have noticed that I write a lot of stuff about the weather. Even when I am on a different subject, the weather creeps in there somewhere. Being in the countryside makes you so aware of weather, on a scale unimaginable to a city dweller. This morning, a thick mist enveloped the river meadow, appearing from nowhere, like a gas cloud on the Western Front. The sun was strong inside it, and the effect was like a powerful torch, shining through net curtains. Looking at it from my window, it was how I imagine the end of The World might look.

There is little to enjoy about walking with Ollie. The river is swollen, muddy brown, and moving unusually fast. The ground is still sodden in places, though frost-hardened in others. Piles of rotted leaves make it slippery underfoot, and a cold wind gets through even layered warm clothing. Caught out in a sleet shower two days ago, I could literally feel the temperature dropping as we walked. Ollie seems to notice none of this, of course, and runs around as if it is still high summer.

The cold has meant that we have had good use of the newly installed wood burning stove. It has also taught me just how much wood can be used up in one evening, so my forecast for wood use has had to be re-calculated. This area shuts down even earlier now, with darkness at 3.45pm, and inhospitable climes, there seems no point going out anywhere, unless you really have to. So, by around 7pm, the whole village is battened down for the night. Christmas lights have appeared on some of the houses, though fortunately, not to the excess that you see elsewhere these days. We even have a lit tree inside, my first for over 20 years, though I have still resisted any exterior decoration, save for a door-hanging seasonal wreath.

And this is only early December. We still have the other three months of winter to deal with yet, and I have had enough after only two weeks! This is the part of living in the country, that I am not looking forward to. It makes me wish that I was rich, and could decamp to a house in a different climate, for the duration of the coming English winter. Or perhaps I would stay here, with a four wheel drive car, snow tyres, unlimited heat available, and shop on the Internet. All irrelevant, of course, as I am not at all rich, so will have to make the best of it, along with everyone else.

One bonus of living here was apparent today. Driving back from Norwich this afternoon, heading West, the setting sun produced the most beautiful red sky, a classic ‘shepherd’s delight’. Because of the fields, and no buildings for miles, the massive sky was a joy to behold, a real marvel. I doubt the locals even noticed, but then they have never lived in a city.

A few bad days

Since last week, I have been a bit fed up. That sort of edginess where everything starts to assume a real importance, and to begin to really get you down. Of course, the funeral for Julie’s Dad did not help matters, although it went off well, despite being a sad day for all concerned. Driving home last Friday, we hit appalling traffic, adding almost two hours to the normal three-hour journey, so I started the weekend feeling tired and low.

Then the weather turned again. Driving rain, sleet, hail, and a cold wind as well. Everywhere was dark and gloomy, and the ground was muddy, and covered in leaves. Taking Ollie for his walk was a real chore, although he didn’t even seem to notice the change. Then the clocks went back an hour, so we got up to what felt like a late start. This ridiculous, uniquely British tradition means that it now begins to get dark at 4pm, making the evenings seem long and dull.

I decided to do some ‘serious’ cleaning, and tackled the double oven. This is only a year old, but the fan assistance, and high running temperatures, seem to make it harder to clean than a ‘normal’ gas oven. As the doors drop down towards you, it is much more difficult to get right inside, to ensure a thorough job. The oven cleaner is like acid, and stripped the skin from two fingers with ease. (I know that you are supposed to wear gloves but I find them too cumbersome.) After two hours on the cooker, I did the rest of the kitchen, and felt stupidly tired afterwards, another sure sign of my advancing years. I then discovered that the cleaning fluid had somehow managed to get inside the seal of the glass doors, and I was left with white streaks between the two sheets of glass, impossible to remove. This made me angry and frustrated, far in excess of what should be expected for an ‘oven mishap’. A sure sign that the accumulation factor was kicking in.

Then the computer started to play up. Every time that it was shut down, it re-appeared with error messages, lost all my photos, and did not recognise me as the administrator. I have had to ‘system restore’ three times in two days. This made me acutely aware of my lack of technical prowess with computers, and electronic items generally. I would happily have thrown the whole thing out the window, then stamped on it for good measure. I still don’t know what the problem is, so have had to resort to standby only, without shutting down. No doubt I will eventually have to get someone in, to patiently point out my schoolboy error, for a large fee. Naturally, Julie wanted to do her Internet shopping for Christmas, so it came at the most inconvenient moment. (What doesn’t?)

The next day, Ollie’s eye seemed to be tearful again. After two operations, and a lot of distress, it seems that they may not have worked fully, so we will soon have to start that process all over again; contacting vets, claiming off the insurers, and making numerous trips to and from Newmarket, at 100 miles a time.

That is why the blog has been quiet. Not many readers recently, and not much input from me either.

I woke up to bright sun today, and have a lot to get done this week. The sun did not really improve my mood though, and I have little enthusiasm for anything, to be honest. Hence, ‘A few bad days’.