Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Year In Penrith Flora

Penrith, Cumbria, UK. March 2020 to March-2021.

It was only meant to be a long weekend but Covid intervened.

We bought our house in Penrith as a second home to enjoy the pleasures of the North Lakes over the winter and let out as an AirBnB over the summer while we were in Italy. We were staying in a cottage near Hadrian's Wall with friends for a long weekend of walking as the Covid epidemic was rapidly unfolding. 

It was apparent that a lockdown was looming and so we decided not to return to crowed London but instead stay in Penrith notwithstanding that it was still something of a building site. The kitchen carcasses were in but not much else. Our kitchen fitter worked late on the eve of lockdown to install the worktop, the dishwasher, sink and hob. We could live without cupboard doors.

We followed the stay-home guidelines and only went out of the house once a week for shopping and daily for our exercise. As a city boy with little interest in nature even I could not fail to notice the changing flowers with the passing seasons. 

Warning: all species identification tentative!

March 2020 - Penrith Beacon. Many of our walks were straight up Fell Lane to the local landmark and a circuit of the woodland that surrounds it. Doing the same circuit over the 12 months really brought home how each flower has its own time slot.

April 2020 - There are many delightful sunken paths.

April 2020 - Spring started with enthusiastic shrubs - Wild Cherry...

April 2020 - ... and Japanese Quince.

May 2020 - next up, Bluebells.

May 2020 - a switch from blue to pink: Campion.

May 2020 - and then to white: Wild Garlic.

May 2020 - my favourite type of woodland is mixed broadleaf trees with an understory of fern - young fern shoots have lovely curled tips like a bishop's crozier.

May 2020 - we saw several fields with all twin lambs. I assumed this was normal until we saw a TV programme which explained that only single lambs are let loose on the fells with their mums. Twin lambs require more looking after by the ewes and are therefore kept closer to the farm so they could be kept an eye on.

May 2020 - The beacon is a managed commercial woodland therefore much of it is conifers. Not my favourite but the conifer shoots are lovely bright green tassels.

June 2020 - Summer brings out the Clover.

June 2020 - Eli is a Husky-Malamute cross. Here he is "in the foetid pond [...] just standing, letting all the unpleasantness soak in" [1] This is Thacka Beck a local nature reserve, the beck runs on from here through the town and was once its only water supply.

June 2020 - Foxgloves.

June 2020 - Campanula.

August 2020 - Triffids, possibly Gunnera Manicata, they were impressive.

August 2020 - Himalayan Balsam. An invasive species that I used to help try and eradicate on the River Wandle when I volunteered down in London.

August 2020 - Rosebay Willowherb. It looks more like a weed to me, growing along the verges, but en masse still provide a bold splash of colour.

October 2020 - Leaves. Some wonderful autumnal colours. 

October 2020 - Fungi. 

October 2020 - I love old walls covered in moss looking like they have been there hundreds of year (which they probably have).

December 2020 - Baubles, The Beacon. Seems to be a local tradition!

February 2021 - Snowdrops. We saw a few pathetic little clumps and then went for a walk along the River Eden and there they were in profusion.

February 2021 - Crocuses. I love the colour purple, I get that from my mother.

February 2021 - Crocuses, St Andrews Graveyard.

April 2021 - Daffodils, Fell Lane on our walk up to The Beacon.

Now we are back round the calendar to start again!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

My Life In ... Summer Jobs

The eleventh in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

There was a meme on Facebook that said to list 10 jobs you have done including one ringer that your friends had to guess. I spent my entire working life in IT; every job I ever had was clearly technology related. To slip in "Trainee Lion Tamer" would be a bit obvious!

However before I started a career chained to a desk in an office I had real, mostly outdoor, jobs in the summers during school and college. So here is the true alternative CV.

Archaeologist (1966–1972). My childhood passion was archaeology, particularly the Roman period. For six years I spent the summers working on the dig at the Lunt Roman fort. It was initially as a volunteer but when I reached 16 they were able to add me to the payroll of the Coventry Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. It wasn’t a huge wage but it was my first real paying job and helped contribute to my record and hi-fi collection.

Those early wages were paid in cash, in an envelope, on Friday afternoon. The notes were carefully folded so you could see and count them through a small greaseproof window and check that they had the paid correct amount.

The dig was run by Brian Hobley and the deputy director, flamed haired Margaret Rylatt. She claimed that all she needed to change a flat tyre was her hairbrush and lipstick as that was enough to persuade some gallant gentleman to change the tyre for her. For some years after I was particularly taken by redheads especially if the hair was hennaed not natural. Only belatedly I realised why I found redheads attractive: I was an impressionable young adolescent and like Konrad Lorenz’ ducklings I had been imprinted by that early encounter.

I was there the year the army engineers reconstructed the timber gateway. Much of the turf rampart was made of turves cut and laid by me personally. Part of the purpose of this reconstruction was to study the erosion patterns cause by weathering. 

As a healthy young man I got given the more physical tasks. No gentle scraping with a trowel like on Time Team, I was handed a pickaxe and shovel and a wheelbarrow and told to “dig that trench”. Weeks of hard physical labour out in the summer sun did my physique and suntan a power of good I can tell you.

Catering assistant (1969). The University of Birmingham run an archaeology summer school at Wroxeter directed by their archaeology tutor Graham Webster. As a schoolboy I could not afford the tuition fees but they did offer the opportunity for one student to attend for free in exchange for some light catering duties. The main one was buttering several sliced loaves for the lunchtime sandwiches. I became remarkably adept with a long kitchen knife at cutting into the butter longways and buttering an entire slice in one deft, swift movement – an early time and motion study in action.

They also used local prisoners on day release to do much of the heavy digging. They had a daily allowance of tea leaves that I had to use for mid morning and mid afternoon breaks. To maximise the darkness of the brew I was instructed to use 2/3 of the tea in the morning and then in the afternoon reuse the morning's leaves topped up with the last third fresh tea leaves. Tannic doesn't begin to describe it.

Building labourer (1970). I cannot remember how I got this gig but I spent a week over one Easter break labouring on a building site in Coventry. They had finished casting the basic office block skeleton and were preparing for fitting the walls and windows. I was basically given a broom and told to sweep the areas clean, pretty mindless stuff but it paid.

In those days the casual labourers were regarded as self employed. Builders would pay the labourer a lump sum, cash in hand, at the end of the week on the assumption that the recipient would pay their own National Insurance and income tax - a practice known as the Lump. Many, of course, did not. I may or may not be amongst that number!

My fellow labourer was a Geordie whose accent you could cut with a knife. I could not understand a single word he said. I kept having to say “I didn’t quite get that”, “could you repeat that please”. Eventually I gave up, it was too embarrassing, I just used to smile, nod and grunt noncommittally.

Barman (1971). For one night only! My brother had a weekend nights job as a Barman at the White Horse near Balsall Common. One Saturday he asked me if I would stand in for him as he had a prior commitment. It was the most fraught evening of my working life. Thank goodness it was in the days when pubs mostly only sold beer or lager or gin and tonic. Wine and more exotic drinks were practically unheard-of.

I could handle serving the rounds typically consisting of three pints of beer and a gin and tonic but it was before the days of electronic tills when you had to mentally add up the price. I just used to make up a figure that was about right and take their money. No one ever queried, thank God, which probably meant I was under charging. I was never so relieved when the evening ended.

Dustman (1973). There were a few openings for replacement dustman while the regular crew took their holidays. It was fascinating to see into people's bins. And serious bins they were too, big 28lb galvanised steel with a handle either side. As you went from house-to-house down their driveways you had to guess where they had hidden their bins. Once you’d found it you had to hoist it up onto your shoulder and carry it back out to the cart and tip it in the back of the lorry.

The contents varied enormously. A number of the council houses still had solid fuel fired heating and hot water. Their bins were full of ash and very heavy indeed. There was one house where every week the bin only held a couple of cat food tins and an empty half bottle of gin. I used to wonder if they dined on cat food. Looking back I now realise they were probably getting Meals On Wheels delivered.

Most of the time I was working with a fellow pupil from school who was a classical music fan. We often worked in pairs: one would go on ahead and pull out the bins, the other would follow behind with the cart to empty and return the bins. Ross had gone in whistling some operatic aria to the astonishment of the householder that they should have such cultured dustmen. As I went in to return the bin I was asked "Do you whistle opera as well?" “No”, I replied “I prefer Pictures at an Exhibition, but the original piano version of course". And with that flounced out leaving him jaw dropped.

At one house I was walking back to the street having returned the bin when the dog of the house rushed up and hit me in the bum. The owner was suitably apologetic and it turned out that I was not the first recipient of its canine teeth. When I went back the following week the owner came out to explain that in consequence he had to have the dog put down. Such a shame, please train your dogs well.

Another fringe benefit of working on the bins was in those days Robertsons jam jars had paper gollies on the back which you could slip out from behind the back label - a form of dumpster diving. When you had collected 10 you sent them off to exchange for an enamel brooch. Over the course of the summer I easily collected enough to acquire the entire set of brooches that was available at the time and even a golly pendant. Now considered non-PC they were discontinued in 2002.

Hospital porter (1974). My parents moved to Farnham when my father took up his new post as chief architect to Waverly District Council, formed following the local government reorganisation. I got a job as a porter in Farnham General Hospital. I was issued with a brown warehouse coat much like that worn by Arkwright in Open All Hours. The gig consisted of waiting in the porters’ room to be assigned a patient to transfer from A to B: ward to theatre, recovery room back to the ward, to and from the x-ray department and so on.

The operating theatre gave me an example of the importance of unique identifiers which I later used as an anecdote when I was training computer systems design. On the operating list were two patients with the same surname, the same initial, the same date of birth and the same operation. It was in fact identical twins in for the same procedure. Those uniquely numbered wrist tags were important!

The least favourite assignment was the “Jerrys “, taking patients from the geriatric ward to the day room every day at 10:30. If you got a job any time shortly after 10 you might dawdle to avoid being back in the porters room at 10:30. I am ashamed to say I too succumbed to this avoidance. If I could go back and talk to my younger self I might choose this as one item on the agenda. To show more compassion towards the elderly and demented, we will all be there one day.

The favourite assignment was working the late shift and doing the evening meal run from the kitchen to the wards. If Mary the cook was on she would always do an extra tray of chips for us porters. Work done we would retire to our room with a piping hot tray of delicious chips to scoff.

I also saw a number of corpses. The first body I ever saw was at the age of 10 when my Gran died. My father decided that I was mature enough to be allowed to see her lying in her bed. I felt honoured to be considered worthy of this trust. It surely helped me now. Another of the porters' roles was to collect people who had died on the ward and transport them to the morgue. It was all done respectfully: curtains were drawn around the bed, we had a special trolley with a cover onto which we would place the deceased so they could be discreetly wheeled off the ward. 

One time I had to remove a body from the cold storage lockers and lay them out in the chapel of rest for the relatives to visit. It was really weird seeing a person who looked asleep but you knew they were never going to suddenly open their eyes and sit up. Another time, passing the dissecting room I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of an autopsy in progress. I averted my eyes pretty quickly, I can tell you and saw very little but that was enough.

Post script (1976). Then college ended, I graduated and went looking for work in the “real world“. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I quite fancied being a studio potter so looked for work while I could continue throwing pots at evening class. I ended up getting a job as a trainee COBOL programmer, found that it quite suited me and so began my career in IT.