Human warmth

I have been living in Southampton for two-and-a-half years now, but have never had cause to use the heating in my flat.  I can usually get by living parasitically off the heat of my neighbours (one of the advantages of flat living: just ask Edwin Abbott) and waste heat from my culinary adventures.

There is now a hint of traditional winter in the air: a nip, if you will.   I’m also finding that visitors to my demesne are starting to arrive wearing ALL of their clothing in a desperate attempt to stay warm.  Offers to share my rather limited body heat have generally been re-buffed as (a) inadequate and (b) wholly inappropriate.  People also seem to take little comfort when informed that shivering is an excellent route to weight loss, though no-one has (yet) tried to deck me.

So, on returning from my last sojourn across the Irish Sea, I resolved to at least test the heating system to ensure that I knew how it worked and could (if suitably motivated) dispel any frost forming within the flat.  In this way, I may narrowly avoid becoming some sort of social pariah in the winter months.  I can move away from being considered ‘cold and unfeeling’ to merely ‘unfeeling’.

My flat does not have central heating but, in a throwback to my childhood, is equipped with night storage heaters: though unlike in the 1970s I believe these can be encouraged to produce heat without 24 hours written notice (if you are willing to eat the cost of the peak electricity consumed).  Yesterday evening, and more importantly last night with its promise of frost, was the time scheduled for the first heating test.

In theory, storage heaters have pretty basic controls: you choose how much heat to store during the night on a scale from 1 to 6 (with no link to a more widely known unit of energy) and the rate at which you would like it released on an apparently similar (but probably rather different) scale from 1 to 6.  However, puzzlingly, my flat has a rather flash looking controller with up to four programmes for when to turn on and off some sort of heating device.  How could this fit into the heating system?  The documentation that came with the flat gave no clues and the device itself gave nothing away, save its manufacturer.  As a result, I was forced to use an internet image search to discover what purpose the controller served.  I now know it to be an RF07T Towel Rail Controller.  Yes, my flat is possessed of a radio-controlled heated towel rail with a more sophisticated control system than the central heating for anywhere I have ever lived.  What the internet is unable to explain is why I need such an exquisitely controllable towel rail.  I would also have to say that in my tests last night, the towel rail seemed to be on regardless of what I did to its controller.  I think I shall have to download the instructions if I wish my towel rail to follow bow to my will: to- date, I have merely hung my bath towel over it while it was entirely quiescent and relied on ambient heat to dry my towels (after they had, in turn, dried me).

Having identified the RF07T as a red herring, my attention turned to the storage heaters themselves and I can confirm that my tests were a success.  When I awoke this morning, the flat was unnaturally warm despite only choosing 4 for storage and 3 for recall.  Unlike my childhood, the first use of the storage heaters for the winter (or in this case last three winters) was not accompanied by the dreadful smell of burning dust: so perhaps the technology has moved on.  Future visitors need only give 24 hours notice of their arrival and I have the option (but not the obligation) to ensure that they are toasty warm throughout their visit (or until the storage bricks run cold).

I think we can all now agree that I am a splendid human being and an excellent host.  The possibility of a warm welcome awaits all who visit and suggestions that I spend my spare time farming cold comfort can now be put to rest.

Snow day…

like show day.  Like snow day I know?

Today I awoke to see snow from my bedroom window and while I downed my breakfast porridge the skies poured forth their white, flaky bounty with some vigour.  “So what?”, I imagine those of you living at higher altitudes or latitudes shouting at your screens.  Well, I’ve been in Southampton for 18 months now and this is the first time I have seen snow – so my inner 8 year old was quite excited.  If I’m honest, it was pretty weak snow – only a few millimetres worth and it was more air than snow, a sort of snow mousse – but the weather has to be given some credit for trying.  It struggled to lay, though away from tarmac-covered surfaces it had a go – but by early afternoon it was all gone.  I feel that there is a metaphor for life somewhere in that last sentence, but I shall leave its extraction as an exercise for the reader.

The snow was accompanied by quite chilly conditions (for the jewel of the Solent that is, but obviously very toasty compared to 99+% of the universe).  It struck me that if these conditions continue much longer I may have to turn on the heating and eschew the shorts as I cycle to the gym – but not today, my legs once again did their best to make a little vitamin D in the weak winter sunlight.  In lieu of heating, I am currently cooking a raw (golden) beetroot – quite a slow and energy expensive process.  Perhaps foolishly, after cooking I shall allow it to cool (like a sort of vegetable storage heater) and then use it in a salad: nothing says salad like sub-zero temperatures and a mini-blizzard!

Lest readers are left with an image of the author as some sort of hard-as-nails, macho stereotype I can reveal that my other main task today has been sewing missing buttons back onto some shirts.  I wouldn’t want to suggest I’m about to take the world of tapestry by storm, but I am a somewhat competent seamstress (seamster?) in this very limited area.  I may not be quick or elegant, but buttons I have reattached tend to stay attached.  Oh yes ladies (and/or gents), I’m the complete package!

Wintry wardrobe

Despite many Southampton trees clinging on to some of their anthocyanin-dyed leaves, it is hard to deny that winter has laid its wintery cloak upon us.

I have yet to turn on the heating in the flat, but I have stopped flouncing around with my torso clad only in a t-shirt – I have moved to longer sleeves or added a cardigan – so it is definitely growing colder.  Soon, I may have to stop journeying to the gym wearing shorts – though seeing lasses wearing even less in the way of leg-covering at the end of last week has sparked the last gasp of my manhood into continued resistance to the lure of long trousers.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, whilst the fairer sex tend to have colder flesh and a greater desire to run the heating when indoors, when outside they seem much better able to resist the cold than we members of the weaker sex.

I, of course, have a long history of wearing shorts all year round.  As a young lad, I tended to fall over quite a lot (some would say that little has changed) and this tended to destroy the knees of my trousers.  Given that trousers do not grow on trees (surely a project there for the genetic engineers among us), for much of my primary school career I was dispatched in shorts right through the depths of the Kentish winters of the 1970s – and in those days, we had proper winters!  For, as my mother quite rightly said, “Your knees will mend the trousers won’t”.

As I approach middle-age – apparently they’ve moved the goalposts and I have yet to arrive (I assume this is linked to the receding retirement age) – I find myself far less reluctant to wear a vest than I did when younger.  I still hate to wear a jumper – I’d rather be cold – so I use the layers approach and I’ve realised the vest can play a useful role as layer no. 1.  As a result of my recent vest-wearing, I have noticed that I seem to have a rather abrasive navel given its ability to erode the inside my vest and deposit the results within’t.  Should I be moisturising more thoroughly?

However, the biggest joy brought by the return of winter is the ability to wear a scarf without appearing overly affected or victimised by that fickle jade, fashion.  I nurture the illusion that I look rather good, raffish even, wearing a scarf.  Readers should feel free to help me to maintain this illusion despite all the evidence.  I suspect early exposure to Tom Baker’s Doctor might have something to do with this, though my own scarves are very modest in both length and colour-scheme compared to his.  The scarf doesn’t really work on the bike, so I’ve had rather more chance to wear it now that I live within walking distance of the city-centre: which is a definitely plus to my new life on the south-coast.

The Traveller

I look at myself as a traveller, rather than a tourist.  This is not because I consider myself superior to the tourist hordes (though obviously, I do and am), and not because I go out of my way to seek out the authentic local experience (though I do try and avoid the nearest fast food chain, Irish pub or venue serving “English” food).  No, I make the distinction because the tourist generally chooses their destination with the object of seeking after pleasure – whereas my destinations are chosen for me by “the man” and my object is business-related.

After more than a year with work taking me little further afield than the horrors of Woking, the last month I have been racking up the air miles (or I would have been, if I travelled by airlines which offered such “incentives”).  Milan, Paris and Berlin have all be graced with my suited presence.

As a result of all this travel, I have discovered that Stansted Airport is entirely useless.  It is very close to Fish Towers, but has flights to no useful destinations unless your business involves sun, sea, alcohol abuse and gland games – sadly (or, if I’m honest, happily), mine does not (yet).  This means several hours of travel, before I see the airport let alone a plane, as I trek to Heathrow or Gatwick (neither of which are sited with the best interests of the denizen of South Cambs).

I have also been reminded about how vile flying truly is.  The poor flyer has to pay to be treated like a bovine with a grudge against the state who is possessed of a sufficient knowledge of chemistry combined with and weakly anchored enough moral compass to do something violent about it.  After you have cleared this feeble pretence at security, you put on your hiking boots and munch on your Kendal mint cake as you walk to a neighbouring county (or state) to find your gate before being locked into a cramped metal box with lousy air for a couple of hours.  I really feel that they should be paying us to endure this – but apparently, large numbers of people are willing to part with hard cash for this mis-treatment.

ImageMy trip to Paris was very different as I took the train, as the good Lord intended.  No nasty airport terminal full of the worst that multinational chains can offer.  Half-decent patisserie from Le Pain Quotidien and a very brief stroll through security carrying all the liquid I could handle.  A comfy lounge with free wi-fi followed by a very short stroll onto a comparatively spacious and comfortable carriage.  Even better, the train leaves from the centre of London and arrives in the centre of Paris – rather than an obscure location some miles and many minutes away.  The trip will also have made my nephew dead jealous – yes, I now find myself train spotting at one remove and taking pictures of all the interesting rolling stock I see while abroad as part of my avuncular duties.  For those unfortunate enough to follow my Facebook feed, the trip also clearly showed how poor I am at self-photography: the look of dread concentration on my face as I attempt to work the iPhone was really quite worrying (luckily, WordPress refuses to accept images of such poor quality, so here is a Gare du Nord train photo for my nephew instead).


As well as the travelling, I have been sampling international hotels – or at least those approved by my employer.  These are perfectly adequate (if not entirely luxurious), but do suffer from a fault which seems common to almost all hotels.  Given the vast body of research that suggests 16°C is the maximum temperature that is conducive to sleep, why are all hotel rooms set at a temperature more suited to a Turkish bath?  I have also found that it is almost impossible to cool rooms anywhere close to a comfortable temperature for a good night’s sleep.  Surely, all this excessive heating is costing the hotel business a small fortune each year – dropping the thermostat a few degrees (as a standard) could provide the first chain to implement it with a huge competitive advantage (and I’d only want a modest fee for myself for originating the idea).

My visit to Paris offered other advantages over and above the mode of transport used to achieve that romantic city.  My meeting took place in a chateau (dating back to 1399, so the oldest building in which I have yet given a talk!) some way outside Paris.  I stayed in Paris overnight (opposite the Gare du Nare – which was very convenient, if rather expensive) and took the Transilien train out to Mery sur Oise in the morning (these services are almost entirely run by very new, very funky new rolling stock as shown below – but both my journeys were on some really antique old examples).


Despite its enormous cost, my hotel did not include breakfast in the room rate – and I refused to pay a further €17 for hotel breakfast fare -so, I walked out of my hotel (imagining I was Jason Bourne.  Something I could do again in Berlin, as my hotel was on Alexanderplatz) turned the corner and saw no sign of a slightly beaten-up mini but did see an Artisan Boulanger.  So, a fine breakfast of orange juice and artisanal patisserie.  The chateau, as well as offering a more interesting and attractive venue than most of my business meetings, also did a fine line in patisserie-based snacks for the delegate (and, indeed, the keynote speaker).  Even the Gare du Nord on my journey home could offer something.  As a result, for roughly 24 hours my diet was nearly 90% patisserie – heaven!  (Obviously, not something to do everyday – but great fun when it is almost forced upon me).  Sadly, on more normal trips I am forced to snatch any food I can find when there chance presents itself – Berlin was a particular low point as I only just made my flight home and so was forced to eat easyJet’s over-priced fare to avoid my blood-sugar levels falling dangerously low.

This coming week, I believe I will manage to stay on these shores – though will have to head into London at least once (and perhaps more often).  Hopefully, with a little less travel this poor blog will be slightly less neglected.  Interestingly, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of recent updates, people continue coming to GofaDM in hope of enlightenment or entertainment (unfulfilled hopes, obviously).  Based on the geographical stats provided by WordPress, the sun truly does not set on this blog – the map is now coloured in shades of orange from east to west and north to south (thought is still a bit patchy in Africa and no Antarctica).  Still, it is good to have ambitions still to be satisfy – I don’t want to end up like Alexander the Great (though, if I am being realistic, this is probably quite a low risk).

Tropical Paradise

I’ve made it north of the border, despite a few minor issues with rolling stock on the way up.   The heating failed on one carriage (fortunately not mine) of the DMU carrying me to Peterborough (and the boiler did not respond to a re-boot) and someone broke the door of coach D at Northallerton.  Apparently, they had put their foor in the door to stop it closing – now that’s what I call a pushy salesman (and rather a feeble door – or an unusually sturdy foot).

As hoped, it is a tropical paradise here in the southwestern ‘burbs of Edinburgh: 6°C people!  T-shirt and shorts weather!  The inside of my house hasn’t reached such a temperature for the last week, let alone the world beyond.  Even better, I am staying in a house where they run the heating for more than 10 minutes a day, so it is quite literally like summer (only warmer and drier).

My only disappointment is that home doesn’t seem to be under several feet of snow.  I can only find one webcam even slightly near Cambridge (in the Market Square) which does show snow, but no sign of woolly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger roaming CB1.  Even the (now Dutch) trains seem to be running more-or-less normally – which is more than can be said for their new Dutch website which is rather too red (I do hope this doesn’t extend to the trains which are currently rather restfully livered in white and grey) and decidedly erratic: unless HTTP Error 500 (Wrong kind of snow on the web?  Frozen points at the server?) is the look for which they’re aiming.  I trust their inability to run a website doesn’t bode ill for the future reliability of services to (and from) Whittlesford Parkway…

Most love Winter

Or so claimed, the splendidly named, Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore in his poem “Winter”.   This appeared in the volume of odes entitled “The Unknown Eros”, widely considered his finest work,.  From a rather cursory survey of his masterwork, I can tell you that he was no Pam Ayres.  He must also have moved in a rather different social circle to me, as I know of no-one who claims to be enamoured of the season (unless it be for the opportunity to ski – or otherwise slide – at relatively modest cost that it affords).  But, with a name like that, I can forgive him quite a lot!

Still, love it or (more likely) loath it, it has become clear that winter is – or at least its heralds are – upon us.

Yesterday evening, on my way to see (and, perhaps more crucially hear) the Endellion String Quartet, I saw a gritter abroad in the twilight – my first sighting of the season.  Encountering a working gritter in a car can give rise to concerns about damage to your paintwork.  Meet one on a bike and the main concern is having a shovel-full of salt hurled in your face.  Luckily, it wasn’t spraying – and so I didn’t receive my RDA of sodium for the month of October in one go.

This morning, a little after eleven, I was finally forced to admit defeat and turn on the heating for the first time since Spring.  And, to silence any doubters out there, here is photographic ‘proof’ that the heating was running (at least for the few seconds needed to capture the image):

(Seeing the picture, I can’t help thinking that the controls – hidden since Spring – could do with a wipe-down with a damp cloth.)

So, in Fish Towers at least, 20 October 2011 marks the official start of Winter – a bit of a shock coming, as it does, barely two weeks after high summer.  Still, according to the boffins in Bracknell, by Sunday we should be back into late summer warmth.  It’s all very confusing and not just to me!  I have tulips coming up in the front garden – which even given my rather limited knowledge of horticulture, I’m pretty sure is not supposed to happen until Spring.  I’m also still harvesting fresh tomatoes and raspberries, and gathering up vast quantities of fallen leaves.  I feel like I’m living in a pizza or maybe a violin concerto: within the grounds of Fish Towers I seem to be enjoying the four seasons – all at the same time!