Holidays in the COVID-19 Pandemic Age

As is the case for most people over the past 18 months, my holiday plans have been totally disrupted by the pandemic. For many, of course, this has been the least of their problems, after bereavements, missed healthcare and key workers becoming burned out.

For me, a holiday that was needed last year is absolutely essential now. My last few holidays haven’t been entirely relaxing for various reasons. A combination of work and personal pressures since, with very little time for myself, means that its been a hard slog to get to this point. I had very little time off at Christmas and very little since after two intense and tiring projects.

Holiday plans started off being a trip along the west coast of US and Canada in May 2020, before changing to Barbados in November that year as COVID struck. That holiday changed destination to Maldives as Caribbean flights were cancelled, before again being pushed back to January when travel in November became impossible. When the new UK lockdown was announced for January 2021, Maldives was clearly not possible either, and so October was chosen as a suitably distant time to try again. October was due to be Singapore, with an intention of going on from there to another destination after a few days.

As it got to August 2021, it was clear that Singapore wasn’t an option any more but, at about the same time, Canada announced their intention to open up to UK travellers (amongst others) in September. A new booking to Canada was therefore arranged.

I am typing this blog post in the Club lounge at London Heathrow awaiting a flight to Vancouver, so the saga of this holiday has hopefully ended well (just as long as we haven’t caught COVID on out travels!). Just to point out that I couldn’t normally justify or afford the cost of flying in Club class long haul, but the British Airways & American Express collaboration means that 2 of us are travelling for about £500 each (and Avios air miles of course). More details of the Amex Companion ticket here!

Back in the office

I started working for my current employer in January 2020, when the Covid pandemic was only just beginning to be on everyone’s radar.

After nearly three months in the office, getting to know my new colleagues, the country was locked down and for almost exactly a year we only communicated with each other by email or Microsoft Teams. For my immediate team, this was pretty much daily during a catch-up call first thing in the morning, but for many colleagues in other teams and business units in the office, it was rare that we communicated at all. We did have a weekly office call, but I was sadly often too busy to attend.

I have been very busy throughout the pandemic, after a slow start, and am now working on my second project designing nationally important infrastructure without physically meeting my project colleagues or, on my current project, clients. Only 2 years ago, work on my latest project would have required my secondment or to work in a project office in Birmingham, but a side benefit of the pandemic (every cloud and all that) is that it’s proven that remote working is feasible for the majority of our projects.

Being back in the office has had significant benefits for my mental health and productivity – having two large computer screens is also a godsend for my eyesight and ability to use large spreadsheets – while I also get to chat to colleagues in other teams and enjoy a light, spacious and airy office rather than a cramped, hot & airless small bedroom.

Even now though, the office remains quiet on many days of the week. Even though all social distancing measures (except being spaced out at our desks) have been lifted, there are some for whom working from home is easier and preferable. We are all encouraged to come into the office once a week, but it is not enforced. With Covid cases still high, that’s not unsurprising. For me though, especially when being double-vaccinated, the risks seem low.

Buying a new car in 2021

In this age of Pandemics and general supply chain constraints, buying a new car has new challenges, as well as a couple of opportunities and benefits.

My Mini Countryman was bought in 2018 on a 4-year PCP finance deal and so needs replacing (as I am not intending to pay the balance of the agreement for its current value). With new cars having a long lead time due to the worldwide shortage of computer chips, I could not afford to wait until 2022 to purchase a replacement.

While a hybrid or electric car would be more environmentally friendly than a diesel or petrol car, home charging is not an easy option at my current home (maybe a future post topic) and will have to wait until next time. Hopefully, by that time, we will have been able to instigate a charging solution on the estate and battery range will be better.

Having got used to a larger car (the Countryman is about 4 times the size of the classic Mini!), a compact SUV was my chosen car category and in the end, choice was narrowed down to Jaguar E-Pace, Range Rover Evoque or a BMW X2.

Living on Tyneside, there’s only one JLR dealer in North Tyneside and, just before the social distancing rules were relaxed in July, I headed with my housemate to the Stratstone Jaguar Land Rover dealership. On arrival, we found that appointments were required and there were none for the day. A friendly salesman agreed to call us later that day to arrange

Instead, we went to Lloyd BMW in Newcastle and test drove an X2, which I liked but not enough to buy there and then without seeing alternatives.

The next weekend, having had little or no interest from Stratstone, we drove over an hour to Lloyd Jaguar Land Rover. Like their BMW dealership in Newcastle, their service could not be more different and after test driving both an Evoque and E-Pace, I have now paid the deposit on a beautiful Black Edition E-Pace. Quite when it will arrive is anyone’s guess. October/November 2021 is what was indicated at the dealership although I am skeptical. Watch this space…

Williams Shapps Rail Review – Positive First Impressions

After a bit of light reading this evening, I must admit to being, generally, pleasantly surprised by the long delayed Williams Shapps rail review and the plans they set out for the future of rail.

Most of the excellent legwork was done by Keith Williams and his team, while Shapps and his colleagues don’t seem to have watered it down too much (it would have been embarrassing if Williams had disowned his own report). There’s some occasional shameless re-writing of history, and barely a mention of the role of rolling stock owners, but there are some apparent clear commitments to electrification, fares reform and, finally, to promoting rail freight. The devil will of course be in the detail, but it seems a decent opportunity to re-boot the railways. Hopefully rail unions won’t stand in the way of the much needed reforms, though the report has some points that will no doubt set their alarm bells ringing.

Finally, it’s great to see Margaret Calvert’s work on Rail Alphabet 2 typography recognised and given its due prominence at the front and in headings throughout the report. As well as the original BR typeface, she was responsible for the Tyne and Wear Metro typography and, with Jock Kinnear, our national road signage.

Eat at Home Sunday Lunches from Local Restaurants

As the pandemic has continued, many restaurants have had to think of new ways to serve their clientele, keep some revenue coming in and hold onto their staff. In Newcastle, my housemate and I have tried the Sunday lunch offer from two different restaurants – Blackfriars & 21. These are two of our favourite restaurants in the city and considered by many to be two of its best. It’s not particularly cheap, however both offer excellent food. Both restaurants offer other meals during the week to eat at home and their menus change regularly.

Although offering the Sunday lunch to eat at home, the two restaurants have gone about the concept in different ways.

Blackfriars at Home

This restaurant fully cooks the Sunday lunch and either delivers (for a fee) or allows contact-free collection. There is a choice of meat and a vegetarian option too, Up to 3 courses can be ordered, with a limited range of 3 starters and 3 puddings. This is simple (and less hassle for us) but of course the food is never at its hottest when it’s delivered, although its hot enough to eat if you wish to. You can of course warm it up at home, but that risks drying the food out.

The food is delivered with the meat/nut roast and portions of veg, cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes in several foil containers, with Yorkshire puddings in a paper bag and gravy in plastic pots (which can be heated up in the microwave). Starters and puddings are delivered in a similar manner, depending on the food (pots for soup, containers for starters like goats cheese and walnuts or for puddings like sticky toffee puddings.

The quality of the food is always very good, and often excellent. Blackfriars have changed their delivery method to be a taxi rather than their own staff, which has helped the food arrive hotter. Delivery charge for us (about 2 miles away) is £8, so collection makes it cheaper. A 3 course Sunday lunch is £22.50 per person.

21 at Home

21 is probably our favourite restaurant in Newcastle. It is, without fail, excellent and staff are professional without being too formal. It has been a Newcastle institution for many years and does a fantastic cheddar cheese and spinach soufflé (more on that later).

21 only part cook their lunches and sell it in a box for 2, with the main for 2 (beef) costing £32. Although its billed as for 2 people, the food provided is enough for 3. The restaurant only offer collection and this happens on the preceding Saturday.

Although only partly cooked, the final preparation isn’t difficult; the restaurant provides detailed instructions and a timing sheet – the timing starts at Lunch-50 minutes. The beef, swede/carrot mash and bacon/cabbage come in vacuum packed plastic which go in a pan of hot water, with the beef then going in the oven for a short while before resting. Cauliflower cheese, roast potatoes & Yorkshire puddings just go in the oven.

As well as the Sunday lunch box, starters and puddings and many other items from their menu are available to add to the order. These items include the aforementioned soufflé, which comes part prepared as a part-cooked soufflé with sauce to pour over. This soufflé is a favourite when we go to the actual restaurant.

One drawback of 21’s Eat at Home offering is that you have to book at least a week in advance, which can be limiting. Collection is on the Saturday afternoon, with efficient time slots for turning up with the car and a friendly welcome to patrons.

Other Eat at Home options

Another very good restaurant in Newcastle is Dobson & Parnell, which is a sister restaurant to Blackfriars. It is another that we frequent often and, like Blackfriars, when at their best they can equal or surpass 21. The added attraction of Blackfriars and Dobson & Parnell is their staff, who are unfailingly friendly and willing to accommodate dietary needs in a way that few others will. For example, my housemate has a nut allergy and they will not just remove the nuts from a dish but also go out of their way to replace them with something that works as well, or better.

Dobson & Parnell do not usually do a Sunday lunch option for eating at home, but they do have a midweek eat at home option, which we haven’t yet used. Their website is here.

The Future of Restaurant Eating at Home options

When I picked up today’s lunch from 21, they asked whether we would continue to use the service after the restaurant opens up in May (they have no outdoor seating, so cannot open before then). I think that we would, although would prefer to eat at the restaurant itself. There are occasions when we might wish to eat at home though and as there’s enough food for 3 people in the main course, it’s a potentially cheaper option.

I expect that other restaurants will consider carrying on with the eat at home option as long as there’s demand for it and it doesn’t get in the way of their restaurant service. All such establishments will be keen to maximise revenue to make up for the unprecedented period they’d suffered and the Eat at Home option could make better use of kitchens and staff during quiet periods, or when demand outstrips their seating capacity.

Ch…ch…ch…changes…..

It has been nearly a year since I last posted (oops) and much has changed since then. As well as the small matter of a worldwide pandemic, we’ve left Europe, the household has grown with the addition of two cats, I have changed employer and there’ve been some sad and difficult family matters to attend to (although the worst of these are largely behind us we think).

The change of employer and cats are linked, as Hild & Bede are from an unexpected litter of kittens that arrived in the household of a colleague at my new employer. We brought them into the family before I had joined the company, as a friend (and now colleague) knew of our feline interest.

My change of employer had been a long time coming and was a relief when it happened, even though the past year since I joined them in January 2020 has not been the easiest. Soon after joining the new company, a large commission was suddenly stopped and that led to many of us being put at risk of redundancy. I survived the cull, but of course have spent the last 12 months working from home and that has meant not developing the relationships with colleagues that I otherwise would have done. Hopefully a return to the local office, and others, is not too far away. Too many of my colleagues are only known to me through Teams calls and emails.

That of course brings me onto COVID, which has been such a huge, and unprecedented, part of our lives for the past year. Unlike many other families who’ve had a desperately sad and tragic few months, we’ve emerged mostly unscathed. My mother contracted the virus in hospital late last year but thankfully only experienced relatively mild symptoms. If I’ve had it, I’ve been asymptomatic.

At the time of writing, the UK is awaiting the loosening of lockdown restrictions and more vaccinations. I’ve yet to have my first jab and expect it’ll now be May before that happens, due to the shortage of vaccine announced earlier this week. I’m very much looking forward to being able to eat out at restaurants, visit cafes and go on a much-needed, long delayed holiday!

Making a go of the garden

After years of having a smallish patch of grass in my smallish urban garden, I’ve made a start of adding some colour, height and texture. My garden is north-facing and a lot of it is in shade for most of the morning, so finding shrubs that might survive was tricky.

The large Dobbies garden centre nearby had a decent range overall but was disorganised and had few plants that suited the garden. It was also expensive. I trundled off to B&Q instead and, while having a much smaller range, found a few small shrubs there for about £15.

Knowing my limitations, I bought some ground cover fabric and pegs and some bark mulch too. This means less weeding in future, or that’s the plan anyway.

The area I’ve started with is between the path and fence – about 1m wide. My garden fork has a severely bent prong which made digging over the poor grass rather tricky and I swapped to a spade instead. The mower’s grass collection bin made a useful receptacle for grass and roots that were removed.

After a couple of hours’ hard digging and some raking, I had a vaguely level strip of ground to lay the fabric on. With a bit of cutting to size for the narrow strip to overlap under the main roll, I managed a decent coverage and pinned it down.

The shrubs were dug in as best I could, in a logical but not-entirely-planned-fashion. A cross cut in the fabric allowed them into the ground. I gave them a good dousing of water too. Two of them might be a little too close to each other if they survive!

I decided not to use the bark and will get some blue slate chips to cover the ground instead. The amount required though probably needs a bulk bag which I’ll have to order online.

My next plan is to plant some more shrubs at the end of the garden where there is some sun and which can give a bit of height and privacy, as the layout of the houses around me is such that there’s a fair bit of traffic past the waist height fence and gate. It will also make mowing the lawn easier.

Reflections on a long life

It is now a few days after my uncle’s funeral in Toronto and after all the travel, emotion and general stress it’s a good time to reflect.

My uncle moved to Canada with his then wife in the 1950s, some years after travelling across the country with the Royal Navy to join his just-built minesweeper in Vancouver towards the end of the Second World War. He later visited (and loved) Australia too, but Canada won the coin-toss when deciding where to emigrate to.

The family grew to five, with the birth of 3 children. Sadly, the youngest was killed in a motorcycle accident in the 1980s. My uncle’s eldest child travelled from Canada on her own to be bridesmaid at my parents’ wedding in Pontefract in 1968 and he was my Godfather.

In 2014, we were able to arrange a memorial event for my father, which coincided with my uncle’s penultimate visit to the UK. We were delighted that he could join us; he and his sister shared some wonderful stories of their childhood. I’m sorry now that I couldn’t join him and his family for his 90th birthday party but feel that I made up for this, in a small way, by attending his funeral.

To Canada, with sadness

On the night of Wednesday 13th March 2019, my Uncle Jim died peacefully in Canada at the age of 92 while holding his granddaughter’s hand. His death wasn’t unexpected as he’d been very frail for a year or so, although even up until 2 years ago he was still sprightly. My cousin went over from the UK for a few days earlier this month to help his daughter Margaret look after him in his final days and the wonderful picture of them together shows he still had a twinkle in his eye. Like my father, he’d suffered from prostate cancer but, unlike Dad, it hadn’t spread and so he died with it rather than as a result of it. After all, 92 isn’t a bad age for anyone. Jim was a wonderfully kind uncle and my godfather. As an engineer himself, he always took interest in my life & my career. He’d moved to Canada several decades ago after serving there in the Royal Navy.

I last saw him when he came over to the UK for a family wedding in 2014, about a year after my father’s death. We held a memorial event for Dad to coincide with Jim and his family’s trip which was the first time that all 13 surviving cousins had been together. For a 90 year old, Jim was remarkably sharp and retained his fantastic humour. He was always the Joker and there are some spectacular family yarns about some of his pranks.

After Dad’s death, I resolved to go to Jim’s funeral whenever that would be. Dad and Jim were close as brothers and, despite the distance, we probably saw him as much as we saw our other aunts and uncles. I was determined that our side of the family would attend the funeral and even if I hadn’t had such a resolve to go myself, realistically I was the one to go.

So, I am writing this post on a British Airways 777 heading to Toronto only 4 days after Jim’s death and having had a stressful few days in the meantime trying to find vaguely affordable flights and getting work done that I should have been doing next week. I’m fortunate to have an understanding manager and an employer that generally understands the importance of their employees’ wellbeing. That said, I didn’t give anyone much choice about the matter.

I am meeting a cousin in Toronto, daughter of Jim and Dad’s last surviving sibling, Ruth. Another memorable family gathering was her wedding on Holy Island in 2002. We have a lovely picture of the three brothers (Dad, Jim & John) walking together on the day after the wedding while waiting for the tide to recede from the island’s causeway. It is comforting to think that the three of them will be back together again, along with their sister Mary.

I’ve never been to Canada until today, and I’ll add the fact that I never visited while Jim was alive to a growing list of life’s regrets. By going to his funeral though, I feel that I am honouring him and my Dad and I know that both of them would be pleased that I am supporting the grieving family who are left behind.

RIP x

New Car Buying Tips for Numpties (By a Numpty)

Many of these tips are based on the premise that, like me, you have decided to follow the path of buying a brand new car on a PCP deal, with PCP being the type of finance deal that means you essentially only pay for the car’s depreciation over a period of 3-4 years and have a large payment at the end if you choose to keep the car. I bought a MINI, but other car brands are available. If you’re used to buying cars this way, these tips from a newbie may be obvious, but if you’re inexperienced or hate haggling (like me) then these tips will hopefully make you feel more confident of getting a good deal.

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