Saturday, 20 December 2014

Christmas Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been used for many different reasons over the centuries, from making magic potions to decorating the house at Christmas. Its history stretches back into the mists of time and many legends have grown up about it. Being a parasite, it must have puzzled our ancestors because it grew out of the branches of other trees and had no roots like any proper plant and could not grow in soil. It is also an evergreen, so when the leaves fall from its host plant, the mistletoe remains green throughout winter. These two features imbued it with mystic properties, the least of which is that you can steal kiss whilst under its branches at Christmas.

Essential for magic potions

Kisses must be plentiful around the county of Gloucestershire because that county has an abundance of the plant and you will find entire stands of trees filled with more mistletoe leaves than their own native leaves. It seems to thrive in this area more than any other part of Great Britain that I have visited. 

Almost any winter skyline around Gloucestershire contains trees covered in mistletoe
It will often cluster around certain areas, but it is surprisingly widespread around Gloucestershire.  Some streets in Cheltenham are lined with trees so full of mistletoe that they act like evergreens and still appear to be in full leaf  all winter.  In some rural places there are tree after tree filled with the characteristic spherical bunches of mistletoe.
Despite the sheer abundance of that part of the world, it is still sold in the local shops at high prices, when someone armed with long pruning shears, taking a short walk in the local wood,s would get them more than they could carry. I am not sure what the legal aspect of picking mistletoe is, most wild plants are protected in the UK and you are not allowed to pick them but mistletoe is hardly an endangered species. At leat not in Gloucestershire.

This is my Christmas post and so I wish all my blog followers a happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Last of its Kind

Last month we said goodbye to the old road tax disc that has been with us since 1920. Up until now it was an offence to drive a car with no tax disc, in all but one or two rare circumstances. Now we no longer have to display a paper disc in the windscreen of our cars to declare to the world, and traffic cops, that we have paid our dues. Mine expired in November and now there is an unfamiliar empty spot in my windscreen. In this digital age, the authorities can keep track of all your official documents from the MOT certificate, through insurance to road tax via a handheld computer. We still have to pay for all these things, but can do so on line, apart from the roadworthiness test, still fondly referred to as the MOT, which has to be carried out by a competent and authorised mechanic. This name, MOT is a legacy from a time when there was a Ministry of Transport. Now it is the Department for Transport, so this test should be a DFT test and so has probably been left unchanged, since many people would start calling the roadworthiness test a DAFT test.
Although the official government name is the Departmen For Transport, the signs often say of.  Maybe it should be the DOT test.
One thing that I found interesting with these discs was that if you simply slipped the new one into the little plastic holder over the top of the old ones, you slowly collected a record of how much the tax had increased year on year and it gave you a record of the rate of inflation. It seems to have increased at around five pounds per year over the last few years, but I recall on older ones it would jump ten pounds regularly.
 Many years ago in one of the many different kinds of work I have been employed in, I was required to drive a Crown vehicle. That was not for some company like Crown paints, but the kind of crown worn by a certain head of state of the UK. The Queen did not pay road tax on her vehicles, so Crown vehicles did not have a tax disc. This was replaced by a white disc with the royal crest in the centre in the form of a small black and white line drawing, so it did not show up well. To be able to drive said vehicles, you needed a special form which declared you were a fit and proper person to drive her majesty’s vehicles. In my case this was a perfectly ordinary Vauxhall Cavalier, although a rather powerful version, and I understand it could do slightly in excess of 130Mph if you were very naughty, which of course I never was. You had to carry this official piece of paper around with you at all times in case you were challenged and on a couple of occasions I was. Typically, I was parked in a busy area, quite legitimately and was just emerging from my car when a police officer would approach looking pleased with themselves and something like the ensuing conversation took place. “Excuse me sir.” “Yes constable?” “You do not seem to be displaying a current tax disc on your vehicle.” “No constable, I do not need one.” “I see sir,” said in a sceptical tone of voice, “may I ask why?” “Certainly.” And at this point I produced my piece of paper which explained I was driving a Crown vehicle. “Oh I see sir. - Sorry sir, is there anything you need sir?” This said indistinctly as the man was now bending over the front of my car and peering closely at the white disc, which he could now see plainly, although in rather small letters, that it was indeed a Crown vehicle. The kind of fawning that occurred after incidents like that was funny. I have no idea who they thought I was and I did not explain. Not too many years after that, the law was changed and all Crown vehicles not directly used by the Queen had to display a tax disc just like any other kind of vehicle and spoiled my fun. So it is the end of an era indeed.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Autumn Has Gone and it is Winter Already

The winter wheat is in

Not only has autumn come and gone but it is December already and Christmas is heading towards us like an express train. One of the things that you learn when retired is that work was not the most time consuming part of your life and once you do not have to go to work, your time is filled with so many other events that you wonder how you managed to fit in work at all. This year has been less busy than last year when we had to deal with the sudden death of my brother in law and sort out all his affairs, but we still seem to have had to put off, what was originally planned as a summer, trip to see my sister until the last week of November. She lives in Ipswich which is a port on the East of the UK and is just short of 200 miles from us. To get there we have to skirt around London, so you have to pick your times to avoid the M25 in rush hour. We had an easy journey there, despite the occasional moron trying to kill us with their thoughtless driving and arrived sometime after two o’clock in the afternoon after a brief stop at South Mimms Motorway Services for lunch.

The town of South Mimms is not too far from where I was born and is a part of the familiar territory of my childhood and it was not until I had grown up that I realised what a strange name it is. If there is a South Mimms, you may assume that there must be a Mimms somewhere, but you would be wrong. There is a North Mymms which is as you can see spelled differently although both are derived from the same source and were once spelled interchangably, but there is no Mimms or Mymms somewhere in between the north and south Mimms. But I digress. Still that reminds me… and to digress a little further, South Mimms Services once caught fire when I was having a coffee there. I must assume it was not my fault, since most places I visit do not as a rule burst into flames and I had visited South Mimms Services several times before without any similar incident. On that occasion, I was travelling with my two sons to visit my mother who lived on the East coast. A short time before anything went wrong, both my sons had decided to go to the toilet whilst I finished my coffee. When the alarms went off, at first, I wondered if it was just some kind of test or exercise and judging by the reaction of most of the customers there, that feeling was general. The staff obviously thought otherwise and started telling people to leave. I was a rather concerned about my two sons by then but I met the No 1 son just emerging from the loo and assumed the other would have had enough sense to go outside when the alarm went off. As we went past one of the food concessions, we could see a chip fryer blazing away and so began to realise it was not just something minor. Outside I was relieved to find that No 2 son had been sensible, and now all collected together, we went to the car park in order to leave. However, the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley and we found that we could not even get close to the car park exit because it was jammed solid with cars fleeing the fire. Finding ourselves in the car park and well away from the blaze, and it being a nice day, we decided to forget trying to leave for a while and we stayed to watch what would happen. I was very impressed with whoever had built the place, because it was a good half hour before the fire spread significantly and there had been plenty of time to evacuate everyone there, even the most determined to finish their meals that they had paid for, fire or no fire. The fire brigade arrived with several appliances and after looking at the blaze, simply cleared an area around the buildings and let it burn. The fat fire by this time as so intense they could do nothing about it with any safety and so simply acted as policemen to keep people away. That was some time ago and a new buildings have replaced the old, but I always recall seeing the old one blazing away whenever I visit South Mimms Services.

Returning to my present trip to visit my sister, the next morning we decided to go shopping with my sister.  Her home town is a busy place and  we opted to use the local bus service, rather than drive in. We all have our pensioner’s bus passes so it is a cost effective means of travel. It was Friday and so happened to be what has become known as Black Friday. Something we have only recently imported from America. Since it seems to have boosted sales over there in the States, it must be a good idea here, seems to have been the thinking. It turned out to be just what the high street wanted, a demonstration of massed bad behaviour. The hunger for bargains at any cost, led to riots and bad language in many stores across the country, making the name Black Friday more apt. I cannot help but wonder why that name, after all Black days usually record a disaster of some kind. In Ipswich, there seemed to be nothing like the pandemonium seen elsewhere, but the shops were rather crowded.
The iconic statue in Giles Circus, commemorating the cartoonist Giles

My sister is not quite classed as disabled, but can only walk slowly and we have found that walking slowly is at least as tiring as walking normally, if not more so, which meant that we were all a bit tired by our outing. So after a morning’s shopping we returned home and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and we helped my sister with her new ipad. Living away from family, an ipad is useful for keeping in touch with other members of the family via FaceTime. Technology and my sister do not mix well, so an ipad is probably the least likely to go wrong on her and we got her linked up to FaceTime. Her No 1 son and his family live in the next county, whilst her No 2 son lives in France, so FaceTime is a good means of keeping them in touch.
A market in central Ipswich with christmas decorations
On day two of our visit, we went to visit her No 1 son, my nephew, who lives on Mersey Island close to Colchester, the town where I went to college. To get to the island you have to drive across a short causeway. The causeway floods occasionally at certain tides, which is passable under normal circumstances, but occasionally can be high enough to cut them off from the mainland every now and then.
The causeway
Other than this occasional nuisance, it is great place to live, particularly if you like boats. When I was at college, I used to have a friend who lived there and we went canoeing and sailing around the surrounding rivers and estuaries together. When he got married, I bought one of his canoes and used it for a few more years closer to my home until it was stolen one day. Before intruding on my nephew and his wife, we spent a little time exploring Mersey Island and had lunch.
Mersey Island. The tide was out whnen we were there

Arriving a little earlier than planned, we came to their house and met their youngest child for the first time. My nephew and his wife now have two small children who are charming and although initially shy of their great aunt and great uncle were happy to play around us whilst we chatted. My nephew seems to have inherited his mother’s talent for art and has built the most intricately detailed railway layout (for his son of course) which requires a month or so to take in all the detail, it is so full of different landscapes.
A section of my nephew's layout  (It is worth clicking on this image to enlarge it and see the  amazing detail.)

We spent some time trying to get my nephew’s ipad to link to his mother’s, but something went wrong with the verification, so we had to go before we got a result. I do not like driving in the dark and we had to leave early if I was not going to have to drive back to Ipswich in the dark.

Whilst we were visiting, because she has no room for guests in her tiny flat, we stayed at a nearby hotel as usual and for the first two mornings we got up and came to her for breakfast, on the last morning, we took breakfast in the hotel.  On entering the dining room of the hotel, we were greeted by a really odd sight. I think the circus must have been in town, because the dining room was full of the strangest looking people. There was a midget, with a fairly large wife and small baby, an exceptionally tall man with a shaved head except for a long topknot he had sticking up vertically and tied with a band. A man in largely African regalia and, remember this is November, a woman wearing the closest fitting short shorts that were unable to fully conceal her rather ample rear quarters. We were heading home directly from the hotel so had bid our farewells to My sister the night before. It was Sunday when we returned home and I was amazed at how much traffic there was on the road the whole time we were travelling. We were not held up for long by this traffic, which in our direction seemed to be moving fairly well, but some roads had queues miles long going the other way and I wonder were all those Sunday drivers were going. The morons were out in full strength as usual and we watched a number of near misses as they made unpredictable or simply foolhardy moves as they jostled to get a few seconds ahead of each other. Despite all the unpredictable and occasionally dangerous road users around us, we got home in a reasonable time and without mishap. Unfortunately I had shut off the dash cam for this journey, something I must never do when driving in Essex again. It would have been entertaining to watch. It seems to me that by far the majority of drivers on the road are good sensible people and they drive carefully. If that were not true, there would be more accidents because many a potentially dangerous situation was avoided by the good drivers being aware of what is happening around them and making sure they have ample time to avoid the idiots.
Bye for now, soon be Christmas.
Don't panic, I took this one last year.