Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hard Hat Area

This "cut out and keep" style piece of engineering is an impromptu piece of protective work fashioned this afternoon after the drama of part of the ceiling coming down.
This is my office ceiling, and the central beam is encased in old plaster. For many months now I have been aware of a big crack, ever widening, in this plaster.
I showed it to the Area Buildings Surveyor. He stood on the desk and poked at it with his car keys. "Oh, yes, it's very dry and powdery in there. I'll get someone to look at it".
Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Another Buildings Department person passed my way. "Come and look at this!" I implored. "I'm sure it's not safe".
Everyone I showed it to agreed it did not look safe. Most alarming, they concurred, especially given it's in my office, directly above where the volunteers sit to have their tea. Yet, bafflingly, at odds with the universally accepted truth that the alarmingly cracked beam was an accident in waiting, no builder appeared to repair or even shore it up.
Today the plaster came down at last, having, like me, given up waiting for a repairman. It lost the will to hang on and descended in a cloud of dust, plaster and bits of wood.
"Get out of there," yelled McColleague from the safety of Beyond the Door. "You mustn't breathe that stuff in. You might get anthrax!"
I thought she was joking. We went to the warden's shed to borrow some protective face masks. "Ah, in case of anthrax spores," nodded the Head Warden, sagely.
What? Anthrax? What? I was agog and aghast and immediately felt a bit chesty. But it's all true, old plaster can contain horsehair and, possibly, anthrax spores.
Oh well. We have hoovered it all up now and covered the hole with tyvek and tape to prevent more dust sifting down into the coffee and walnut cake. I am doing my bit to ward off anthrax with the liberal application of alcohol. Can't hurt, anyway. Cough.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Office Move

As if things weren't manic enough this week, what with the countdown to opening to the public again at the weekend, we have undertaken the huge project of moving the estate office over the past couple of days. The portacabins have been a fixture for many years now, providing a base for my colleagues. I have my own office in the house itself, whereas the Property Manager (my boss), Estate Secretary, Learning Officer are based at the top of the estate. The plans have finally been approved and building is due to start on a permanent structure for them. The new office is to go on the site where the portacabins have stood for the past eight years. This means that the portacabins have had to be emptied, ready to be hoisted over the wall, where they will continue to be used while the new office is built. McColleague and I have been helping with the carrying of office furniture and supplies to temporary storage. This is very team spirited of us and nothing to do with the free lunch laid on for all office move workers over the past two days.

So, we carried out box after box of files and photos, phones, cables, keyboards and monitors. My Boss has the most cluttered office of all and, despite McColleague and I going on an emergency box buying exercise in town, we ran out of storage units. "Just put everything on the floor," he said. "It'll be fine".

We were doubtful, but obliged. I eyed the pot plants and mystery brick pile with grave misgivings. "I'm glad he got rid of the fish tank," I said. McColleague nodded.

Once the office was as empty as it was going to get, we stood back to let the men with machinery do their thing. This was their time to shine. Hard hats and reflective jackets abounded.

As it turned out, my misgivings about the items left in situ were unjustified. The big crane was impressively smooth in its movements and well controlled. When the portacabin was finally in place we scurried round to peer inside. "Wow, all your stuff is fine," we yelled over to my Boss. "Hasn't shifted at all. Come and look!"

"Hey, that's excellent," he beamed. "I even left a glass of water on the desk, to test how good these guys are."

"They're good," we agreed. "Is it lunch time now?"

Tomorrow will be trickier, as now all the items that were taken out, have to be put in, and access is only posible through a slippy, slidey sea of mud, all churned up by the heavy machinery. Best chance of hilarious comedy accident is going to be while shifting the photocopier, I reckon. Like the Somme, with stationery.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Busy, busy, busy

Well, this is it, my last weekend off until November. And I use the term "off" in the loosest possible sense. I spent today trying to rearrange the chaos that is my office into a comfortable and non-hazardous area for me to work and volunteers to take tea. The mops and buckets do spoil the ambience though. The long-awaited and oft-promised volunteer room has not been completed in time to get them out of my office for the start of the season. In fact, it is fair to say that work has not, as yet, even commenced on the volunteer room. Unless you count the arrival of a skip a couple of months ago.

It is all rather manic at the moment, trying to put everything in place for re-opening next weekend. There are still fallen branches all over the car park which need removing. The heavy oak furniture needs putting back in place in the house. I have interviewed and selected staff for the role of Kiosk Attendant but the kiosk itself is not yet built. We had to stand on the grass with our interviewees, sketching the kiosk in the air and asking them how they feel about outdoor work.

The Family Room was still set up as Santa's Grotto until two days ago. I have been studiously ignoring it since December, as it Is Not My Room. It is the province of the Learning Officer. During the open season it is set up with various activities for children to enjoy. At Christmas is was transformed into a Grotto, where children could visit Father Christmas. McColleague and I were not involved with the setting up of this room as a Winter Wonderland. Our warden cohorts were banned from putting so much as a bauble on the tree. Only certain members of the team were to be trusted with such a key role. McColleague and I watched with great interest, as we lugged trestle tables from the broken marquees and carried folding chairs into the house, as boxes of lights and cuddly toys were taken into the room. "Flipping heck, " we said, full of festive spirit, "how can it take three people three days to hang a couple of stockings on the wall and spray some fake snow about?"

As is often the case, those who love the pretty, nice, fun side of events - like putting up Christmas decorations - are not as keen when it comes to the clean up. They disappear. After the Christmas events McColleague and I had taken all the foliage out of the house, carried out the trestle tables and chairs, and noted that the Grotto was still as it was, waiting, in stasis, for the clean-up fairies to work their magic. And so it remained throughout January and most of February. Every time I saw the icicle lights above the door I would itch to take them down myself, but this year I have decided to be a bloody-minded Doris. When it got to two weeks to open day I sent an email, appealing to my colleagues to dismantle the Grotto.

Glory be, the Learning Officer and her volunteer arrived to spend a day doing just that. Hooray! They're a good bunch, really. McColleague and I got on with our numerous jobs in the house and at the end of the afternoon we wandered over to see how much had been done. As far as I can make out, two people working for an entire day, in a small room, has led to a small, denuded Christmas tree being left outside the door. "Flipping heck," we said, the spirit of the season descending upon us again.

I am not chucking that tree in the skip for them. I am NOT.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What's Brown and Sounds Like a Bell?

While creating my educational and informative talk the other week, I was struck by how very poo-oriented my career path has turned out to be.

The house being so close to the cow sheds means that it is also close to a very large pile of manure at this time of year. And the slurry pit. Which gives this place that authentic medieval atmosphere. "Ew! What's that smell?" ask the children when they arrive at the courtyard.

"That," I say, "is the smell of the country." Their noses wrinkle in distaste.

"Smells like poo."

"It is poo".

They brighten up at this. Poo is always interesting. I explain how poo is useful, how poo went into the wattle and daub of the house. Poo helps the crops grow. I could give whole educational workshops, solely about poo.

Then there are the bats, whose inoffensive, mouse-like leavings have to be hoovered up and swept away each morning. "Oh, it's not all glamour in this job", I assert to those who pass by while I'm shaking the bat poo off the tyvek sheets of a morning.

Every year swallows return to their nest in the front porch. They are a great visitor attraction, swooping in and out just over your head, bringing back bugs snatched from the moat's surface to a row of gaping yellow beaks. And they are clean too. They do not soil their own nest. No. They poop over the side and leave a pyramid of poo on my doormat. Then, when the youngsters fledge, they inevitably fly into the house instead of out of the porch and away.

On such occasions visitors attempt such helpful manoeuvres as clapping their hands at the darting, diving birds, or shouting "Shoo! Hie!" and gesticulating at open windows. This serves only to make the birds more nervous and poopier than ever. "Well thank you for that," I mutter through clenched teeth, "but I think if we just leave them alone they'll find their way back out".

On discovering a swallow had left a big blob of poo on one of our portraits I contacted our curatorial experts for advice. Just what is the recommended method of removing bird poo from oil paintings? (Turns out it is distilled water, on a cotton bud, rolled, not scrubbed, across the offending matter). While I was given that helpful answer by one individual, my favourite response was from someone who told me that I "really shouldn't be letting birds poo on the paintings in the first place". Right you are then. Thanks for that. I shall stop making my own frames out of glue and packets of Trill then, shall I?

Yes, there are all kinds of crap to deal with.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why Planning is Pointless

Summer 2006

“The group meets on Thursday lunchtimes at the Priory. They bring their lunch with them, have a cup of tea, and then we have a guest speaker.”

I nod in my “I am interested in what you are saying, please continue” way with one eye on the ebb and flow of visitors around us. My volunteer is encouraged by this positive response.

“So, would you be willing to come along and give a talk?’

“Me? Um….I suppose I could do….when?”

“February 2007.”

That’s a long, long way away, I think. “Yes, fine,” I say.

February 2007

I turn the page in the diary (yes, it finally found its way home to me) and see “Talk at Priory” written in big letters. And it had seemed so far away up until this point. Fortunately I had a week to spare so could knuckle down and prepare the talk of a lunchtime. I was determined to do it properly. They had specifically asked for images to accompany the talk, so I created a colourful and entertaining slideshow on my laptop. The talk was to be 30 minutes long, so I rehearsed repeatedly until my timing was spot on. I was unfamiliar with the venue so looked it up online and planned my route. I double checked that the venue would be able to provide a screen and projector. I then decided to take my own, after having qualms that they may have thought I meant a traditional slide projector. McColleague was coming with me for moral support and, admittedly, the free lunch, and was due to arrive on the morning in question with plenty of time to help me get ready. All was prepared, all was in order.

The Day of the Talk

“I’ve found a bat! Just outside the back door, on the wall. Come and look.”

I followed my husband outside. There was indeed a bat. A long eared brown, as it turned out, with a badly broken wing. I dashed back inside and rang our local bat expert at her environmental consultancy. Following her advice we managed to get some water into him, via a wet cotton bud, and then put him snug and safe in a ventilated shoebox. He was injured beyond our ability to help him, so we needed to get him to a proper bat carer. Many phone calls ensued. Time flowed swiftly. “I have to go out soon,” I said on my nth call to the bat experts. “I have to be in Town X by 12.”

“Town X? Which way are you going? Will you be going via Town Y? I could meet you halfway in Town Y and take the bat off you, you see.”

“Hang on, I’ll get my road atlas….”

Of course my original route didn’t take my anywhere near Town Y, but I calculated that if I left in the next 10 minutes I could get to Town Y and still make it to Town X on time for the talk. We agreed to meet in Town Y train station, a nicely central venue.

I hung up the phone and started to gather my laptop, projector and leaflets together. I picked up the directions I had neatly printed off the night before and chucked them in the bin. McColleague arrived. “Change of plan!” I yelled as I thrust the bags at her. “We have to go to Town Y now, first.” I filled her in on the bat mercy dash we were now undertaking as we loaded the car. “Now, I know you don’t like bats” I said, “but you have to hold the shoebox.”

McColleague sat beside me in the passenger seat, shoebox held gingerly on her lap, as we roared off. (I roar everywhere in my car at the moment, the exhaust has blown). I glanced sideways at her – she was carefully holding the shoebox off her lap as we went over the cattlegrids, to spare its tiny occupant as much of the bumpiness as she could, bless her. We made it to Town Y exactly half an hour later and as we drove into the station car park we spotted the battered land rover of the nice chap who would care for our bat. I pulled up alongside him and we both emerged into the cold sunshine. The shoebox was handed over and I returned to my car – I had to, we were blocking the road and I am sure the occupants of the vehicle waiting to get past had dark suspicions about what had just transpired here. I gave them a big “it-wasn’t-drugs” smile as I manoeuvred past.

“Ok, McColleague,” I said as she tried to find our current location on the road map, “I am fairly confident I know where to go. The only thing is, I’ll be entering Town X from completely the other direction to that I originally planned to, but it just means the Priory should be on the right, rather than the left.”

“Right,” she said, in that way of hers.

“Ok,” I said, some time later, “we are now in Town X. Keep looking for signs. The Priory is a tourist attraction, its got to have signs.”

It didn’t have signs.

The swearing began.

“Ok, it’s a big enough building, surely we should just be able to see it, somewhere.”

We couldn’t see it.

The swearing continued.

Through sheer luck and intuition combined with a few exciting bits of navigation involving dead ends, 3 point turns and inspired braking, we actually found the venue, on time, and a parking place bang outside.

“It says ‘Parking Reserved for Vicar at All Times’.”

“Yeah, well, he’s not here and we are. We’ll say we’re unloading and if they want us to move it later we will.”

We strode into the church, and spotted the organisers. “Hello,” I boomed, “I’ve parked just outside the door and –“


The nice lady pointed to the sign explaining that a service was in progress.

We continued in awkward whispers for a while until we were able to go and set up the laptop and projector.

They had supplied a projector and, hooray, it was the right kind with the right leads and everything. It refused to work. Or, rather, it failed to detect the presence of my laptop. We shut everything down and started again. Nope. “Helpful” men gathered around and made “helpful” suggestions and tried to press buttons.

I checked the time. Only 10 minutes until I was supposed to begin the talk. Never mind, I had, fortunately, brought my own projector.

We set it up, turned it on, same problem. Bollocks, it must be the laptop. Why doesn’t it work with the projectors, why, why?

The audience was filing in now, people taking their seats and looking at the “No Signal” being projected onto the screen with interest.

McColleague and I had a crisis meeting behind a leaflet.

“We’re agreed then. I shall start the talk regardless and you shall parade around the audience, laptop held aloft, so everyone can see the slideshow regardless.”

I began the talk, apologising to the audience for my lack of visuals and explaining our technical problems. I then remembered how I hadn’t made any notes, as I had based my talk on the accompanying images, which were like my visual bullet points. Oh pants. But then, a miracle! The volunteer who had originally persuaded me to come and give a talk in the first place had been quietly working away behind me and had managed to get my laptop to talk to the projector! There, in all its big glory, was my presentation, on the screen, glowing in wonderful technicolour.

“Wow,” I said to the audience, “it appears we have got it working after all! Roger must be some kind of technological god, and I will worship him!” My eyes met those of the vicar and I remembered where I was. I launched into my talk with gusto.

Amazingly enough the response at the end was overwhelmingly positive. Lots of people came up to talk to me, ask questions, take leaflets. I even managed to recruit a new volunteer and somebody else wanted to book me for a talk for the W.I.

McColleague and I finally extricated ourselves and made our way back to the car. “I don’t know about you,” I said, “but I really want a drink.”

The Day After

I have a bit of a headache.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I Can't Believe it's not Hair Product

I held the phone in one hand and began dialling the number with the other.

"Hang on!"

My daughter reached forward, pushing my head down to her eye level and plucking something from my tresses with the speed and aplomb of an ape picking lice off a hairy chum.

"What? What is it?"

"You've got something in your hair."

"Oh my god, is it cooties?"


A bit of a pause.

"It's butter."

The number I had dialled rang on throughout this exchange and was answered at this point, but I was laughing too hard to speak.

I mean, it's enough to have butter in your hair, but understandable, if it is in the long bits at the front that may have accidentally encountered the toast at breakfast. But this was a sizeable nugget of butter, right on the very top of my head. How? How is it possible to get butter there? And to complete the hilarity was the knowledge that I had just finished a busy morning of interviewing people for seasonal staff vacancies. I had also been looking after a photographer who had come to take some pictures for conservation purposes. At no point had any of these people commented on my buttery barnet. They must have seen but didn't like to say anything. Maybe the interviewees thought it was a test of some sort. Maybe they thought I had become confused about using product in my hair and had unwisely opted for a dairy product. I may never know.

Eventually I managed to regain my self-control. "I'm sorry," I sputtered down the phone, "I've just been informed there is butter in my hair."

Luckily it was my mother, who opted to completely ignore that interesting and informative conversation starter and chatter on regardless. I handed the phone to my daughter and left them to it. I had buttery hair to de-grease.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Great Escape

The thaw is almost complete and the world has become a soggier, boggier place.

The snow has caused almost as much arboreal damage as the storms in January. The drive down to the house is a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, with fallen trees partially obscuring the road in many places, with others leaning over the track at ominous 45 degree angles. Branches scrape against the roof and windscreen of the car as I carefully weave my way between the foliage. Bastardly hazardous trees. I comfort myself with the knowledge that todays dangerous tree is tomorrows firewood.

It is not a smooth journey, but I make it. Finally, I am off the estate for the first time in four days. I am giddy with excitement. The world is big, colourful, busy. What shall I do? Where shall I go? How shall I celebrate my newfound freedom? I go mad and visit the library. In a frenzy of unrestrained travel-lust I go to the supermarket too. It is everything I dreamed of, and more.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Snow Day! Snow Day!

This is the view from my bedroom window upon waking yesterday. It was a wonderful moment of fulfilled expectations. I'd have been mightily naffed off to find no snow after the panic buying of the day before.

Even though I have no real excuse not to go into the office, seeing as though I don't have to leave the house to get to it, I still get to enjoy time out since nobody else has made it into work. I have donned my special hat, my gloves, my boots, my coat and spent as much of the past two days as possible outside. The dog has been happier than ever, bouncing around excitedly and eating snow.

The cows are safely ensconced in the sheds, their desire to escape somewhat reduced at present. The farmer arrives on a quad bike each morning and tends to them, so they are quite content to stay where they are at the moment.

The sound of breaking branches keeps reaching my ears. Those brittle damson trees are cracking under the strain of the snow. None of them have fallen on any ramblers, however. Yes, despite the four inches of snow and the impassability of the track, we have still had people climbing over the gate and interrupting our snow fun. I should have spent my time building some kind of fort and stockpiling snowballs, thinking about it.

The ducks, meanwhile, are forced to congregate together in the one part of the moat that isn't frozen. Fortunately they know there is grain to be had from our woodshed, and arrive, noisily, at dusk to demand feeding. Much like me, really.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Big Freeze Frenzy

The moat is frozen, snow is forecast and there was no buggery bastard bread to be had in the supermarket. The shelves were entirely cleaned out. Arsing panic-buyers. I bet they have freezers full of bread now. Loaves and loaves of it. I actually needed bread, I only had four slices left. Thank god my daughter knows how to make bread happen with flour and stuff.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Further Adventures of Little Brown Calf and Chums

Little Brown Calf has formed a gang of four. They really should be in the cow sheds. That's where they started the day, anyway.

My presence was tolerated while I took a few pictures of them enjoying the long grass of the orchard, then I got a tad too close and they kicked up their heels and took off up the road, towards the main gates. Fortunately I'd just closed them, so they couldn't make it onto the main road.

Moments later the farmer arrived so was able to chase them back down to the sheds again. He called in, with my beef box. I know, I know, those calves are so adorable and here I am happily stashing the body parts of their shedmates into the freezer, but, in my defence, they really do taste as good as they look. And I can vouch for their free ranging, happy life.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Adventures of Little Brown Calf

It is that time of year again, when the calves refuse to stay in the barns a moment longer and squeeze through gaps too small for their mothers to follow.

This little fellow keeps catching me by surprise. I glance out of the window and think "Feck! That's a big dog!" Then I realise it's a calf and relax again.
First thing this morning he was busy chasing ducks around the moat. An hour or so later I spotted him with two of his bovine brethren, a tiny herd in the midst of the huge field they had found their way into.
I continued on my way and met the farmer. "Your calves are in the big field!" I cheerily informed him.
He was unsurprised. It transpires that this is a calf with a genetic tendency to explore.
"You know who his mother is?"
I pondered. Only one cow it could be.
"Is it Jumping Cow?"
"The very same!"
That explains a lot. Jumping Cow did much as her name suggests. She would simply leap over the fence, racing horse style, and head down to the ticket office. I'm not quite sure why she liked the ticket office so much, but that's where she'd go. Quite a talking point for the visitors.
There is also Cow Who Can Open Gates With Her Tongue. Now that is impressive. But inconvenient, when you want to keep the herd in the shed. Such behaviour always leads to a bout of cow whispering.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Creatures of the Night

I am frequently asked whether the house is haunted. Some of the previous occupants firmly believe that spirits reside within these timbered walls and tell tales of nocturnal disturbances. There is one oft-told story of a ghost getting into bed with my predecessor.

I have not encountered any such happenings since my arrival in the house three years ago. And, to be fair, it is unlikely any wandering spirit would find room in my bed. What with the cats, my husband, and my good self, there is barely a square inch of unoccupied duvet up for grabs.

Mind you, I daresay a ghost would be less likely to leave small mammallian body parts, hairballs, or semi-digested cat crunchies on my duvet, so maybe I've got the bum deal after all.

EDIT: I hasten to add my husband is not responsible for leaving any of the above listed items on my duvet. I was referring to the cats. Although ghosts probably wouldn't leave wet bath towels on my side of the bed either.