Wednesday, 31 July 2019

A life without TV

My posts nowadays seem to cover tech issues a lot more than they did a few years back. I suppose that's an indication of how electronic equipment has come into every aspect of modern life, and how important it now is to be familiar with it, and to know what it can do for you.

This is a serious matter: so much of ordinary living in 2019 involves using a bit of tech. It would surely astonish any time-traveller from forty years ago. Just as it astonishes many people older than me (and often a bit younger), who profess bewilderment at the general obsession with screen-based gadgets, wearable or otherwise.

Of course, one electronic item with a screen has been with us, in one form or another, since the late 1930s: the television. Such long acquaintance seems to absolve the TV from the taint of tech, although modern flat-panel screens are as super-complex and super-capable as any smartphone or laptop.

My family didn't acquire a television set until 1959, when I was seven. It was a second-hand device in a brown wooden box, with a square screen so small that a large magnifying-glass had to be placed over it, to make the picture watchable. And that was a black-and-white picture scanned onto the front end of a cathode-ray tube, with only 405 horizontal lines - very low-resolution! It quickly broke down. Its replacement had a larger screen, and did not need the magnifying-glass. On such equipment I recall seeing the very first episode of Coronation Street, which from the start thrust a classic formula into our eyes: gritty characters full of prejudice and pretensions, always at odds with each other, always hard done by, living in a rainy world of terraced streets, pubs and corner shops. I haven't watched Coronation Street since the 1980s, but I gather it's much the same, except with the old characters replaced by more modern versions.

Like most people of my generation, I watched a fair bit of TV when young. It was the only in-house screen entertainment going. I remember many favourite shows, drama series and documentaries. Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Pinky and Perky, Sooty and Sweep, Blue Peter, Animal Magic, Dr Finlay's Casebook, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Alias Smith and Jones, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, Peyton Place, Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars, No Hiding Place, Softly Softly, Dr Who, Lost in Space, Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads, The Lovers, Top of the Pops, The Ascent of Man, Civilisation, The Money Programme, University Challenge, Mastermind, Call My Bluff, All Our Yesterdays, Wicker's World, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, Danger Man, The Prisoner, The Avengers, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), The Saint, The Sweeney, Department S, The Persuaders, The Water Margins, Doomwatch, The Wombles, The Forsyte Saga, Poldark, Blake's Seven...the list was very long and spanned twenty-odd years of regular viewing. I have omitted all the programmes that Mum and Dad liked, and which I watched too.

A long period followed in which I was much more selective. I might make a point of watching, say, Inspector Morse, or Blackadder, but I never now sat in front of the telly all evening as a habit, or for want of something else to do. I was too restless for that.

Gradually I lost the TV habit. This was helped along from the mid-1980s by being able to record programmes on VHS tape, making live viewing unnecessary. Freed from a fixed viewing schedule, there was no longer a need to stay in and watch a programme. But the snag with recordings is that you still have to make time to watch them, and often I never found the opportunity. And yet it didn't seem to matter, being disconnected from regular viewing.

The radio had always been a good way to hear the news, and listen to the kind of 'serious' programme not much seen on TV, as well as music generally. It had retained its appeal, and more and more became my prime source of broadcast material. It had that great advantage: you didn't need to stare at a screen. You only had to listen. And while you did so, it was still possible to get on with something else that needed most of your attention.

In the year 2000 I got my first computer, and my first digital camera. Now I preferred to be photo-editing, very likely listening to the radio while I did so, and be nowhere near a TV. This occasionally got me into trouble with M---, who objected to my not watching programmes like Strictly Come Dancing with her. Some compromises had to be made while we were together. Needless to say, in the ten years I have lived entirely on my own, the TV has mostly been off, and the radio on. This may explain why I am so unfamiliar with the programmes that flit in and out of the news. Mind you, I don't think I've missed much.

When away in the caravan, I never watch any TV, unless it's something unmissable and I have a good enough 4G connection to watch the programme on my mobile phone screen, using an app. I'm just back from a fortnight in Norfolk. While there I wanted to see only one item, which was a film. I didn't actually get to see it, as the BBC iPlayer wouldn't let me. So I shrugged my shoulders, and got Classic fm up on my radio instead. At home it's exactly the same story, except that I have the options to watch in live mode (on my TV or laptop) or in catch-up mode (on my laptop only). Usually it's more convenient to watch a programme in catch-up mode, effectively making the laptop my prime means of viewing any TV.

So why not make it my only means of watching TV? Especially after I next buy a laptop, which will be a significant upgrade?

It has really come to this, that I see so little television that I might as well get rid of the TV set standing in my lounge, and rely entirely on the laptop. The apparent size of the TV and laptop screens are about the same - the more distant 32-inch TV screen seems no larger than the much closer 13-inch laptop screen. And the laptop screen has much higher resolution. Nor will it cost me more, streaming everything to the laptop, as I already pay for unlimited broadband.

I'm not going to junk the TV set just yet. It's there, it works, and it's fine for occasional viewing, and it's not yet in the way. But it dates from 2008, is seriously outmoded, and will certainly go when I finally get down to redesigning and redecorating my lounge. It's a good make - a Samsung - but it's not compatible with modern gadgets. I can't make it work with my Samsung phone, for example.

I've thought of spending money on a fancy 4K, 60-inch replacement. It would rest on my mantelpiece, and the panel would nicely cover the width of the chimney-breast. I'd sit on the settee directly across the room, which would be a little further away from the screen than now. There could be speakers each side of the fireplace, to get the best sound.

But I'd rather spend my money on another laptop, probably a 4K fifteen-inch, and sit wherever I like.

Assuming there is something on that I want to watch!

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

New kit in the offing

I'm now out of the cooling-off period for that Vodafone-to-BT mobile phone service switch, and the rewards are coming. On or after the 8th August, I can claim my prepaid credit card, with £65 to spend on whatever I wish. And BT have told me that their major reward  - a JBL Flip 4 bluetooth speaker, 'worth £119' - has left their warehouse and is going to be delivered shortly. Delivery details to follow.

Why am I not jumping with joy?

I suppose it's because I feel bought. It feels as if I've taken part in a game that has somehow undermined my personal integrity, or is at least alien to how I really want to do things.

These 'gifts' were all inducements to make me desert Vodafone and come across to BT. And although I can tell myself that it was a very good deal, and that no person of any sense would have ignored it, I still feel that I sold my customer loyalty cheaply. After all, BT's bait was worth only £184 (that's £119 plus £65). And that's the retail value to me: the true cost to BT would be much less.

Thank goodness I had a proper reason for moving to BT, which was to get a better mobile phone service. And I did get that: BT connected me with hardly a blip while on holiday, whether on breezy East Anglian shorelines, or deep in East Anglian forests. I would probably have had a weaker or patchier connection if I'd stayed with Vodafone - although in all honesty, not that much weaker or patchier. The difference has been enough, however, to make me feel that I've secured an ongoing benefit worth having, independently of any other consideration. I didn't merely react to a slick offer. That'll be some consolation when, six months from now, the speaker, and whatever other gadget I buy with that £65, are no longer new and shiny.

I'm uncomfortable playing the Switching Game, even if in this instance I've come out ahead. I'm not much looking forward to the next time I need to do it.

Well, the deed is done. I will make the best of it, and enjoy the new kit. At least I can see a definite use for the speaker, at home or in the caravan. Playing music (or listening to a catch-up radio programme) on my phone is something I do quite a lot of, but it's not a high-quality audio experience. Linking the phone to a speaker with bluetooth will greatly improve the sound output.

I still plan to buy a pair of bluetooth earbuds with that £65, although to get good ones I'll need to stump up as least as much again. (I've been doing a little preliminary research) While on holiday I got talking to a gardener in the Abbey Park in Bury St Edmunds, who was sporting a pair of medium-cost bluetooth earbuds he had purchased for very little on eBay. They looked good, and although he admitted they were a bit soft at the bass end, they did the job, and he was able to enjoy his favourite music while working. His taste seemed to lean heavily towards the heavy metal and thrash end of the spectrum. For lighter fare, he also liked Exit Eden (he played me Paparazzi) and Apocalyptica. We agreed that (a) he knew his bands; (b) his musical taste was far more evolved that mine; but (c) we were both lucky to have been around to witness and personally investigate every music genre that had had its moment in the past decades.

I prefer ear phones or earbuds to any speaker. First: I think you get a louder, clearer sound. Second: they are portable. Third: they are private - nobody knows what you're listening to, and you can enjoy The Moody Blues, Engelbert Humperdinck, ELO or Abba without odd looks coming your way. Fourth: you are not disturbing anyone with your dreadful noise. So I'd pop them in, even at home.

I must look married

I style myself 'Miss', and have done this for many years.

I was in fact married once, and could - if I wanted to - claim 'Mrs' for a title. But 'Mrs' implies the existence of a husband, current or former. I don't want to give the impression that there's a man in the background.

My marriage was not a success, and ended in divorce. I'd rather not dwell on the saga. I made a bad mistake. It was of course a relief to escape from something that had gone wrong - no doubt the feeling was mutual - but then there was the inevitable self-analysis that followed, which drove down my self-confidence and self-esteem. The divorce proceedings, when they finally came, were stressful and coincided with a major conflict at work. I emerged from both these disasters feeling wretched, and heavily diminished as a person. It took me a while to rebuild my life. I was damaged, wary of relationships, and determined not to repeat the experiment.

Calling myself 'Mrs' would invite enquiries into that unhappy part of my personal history. I just don't want to discuss it.

So I've called myself 'Miss' instead. I don't mind the idea that I've stayed single. That doesn't matter one bit. The semi-pejorative term 'spinster' belongs to a past era, and no longer carries any stigma. In society as it now is, adult women can be completely independent, as a matter of free choice. I could be any lady who put her career first, and now enjoys an active retirement without family and without ties. I don't even mind if someone decides that I must be too quirky or too unattractive to have ever been fancied.

There was also - ten years ago, now - a possibility of going semi-professional with my photography, and I reckoned that 'Miss' was a better title to use for that venture than 'Mrs' would be. Nothing came of it. By mid-2011, I had sold off my expensive photo equipment and was resigned - in truth, perfectly contented - to remain strictly an amateur snapper. But I kept up the 'Miss'. It was by then very much part of my self-image.

I would have thought that long use of 'Miss' - telling the world that I was single - would have a big effect on my demeanour. Surely I couldn't have the air of a wife? Surely I seemed at ease about having no partner, as if it were my natural and deliberately chosen state? I even thought that I might come across as irredeemably self-reliant, perhaps even intimidatingly independent.

So I have thought. But I don't often get called 'Miss' by the strangers I encounter. Almost invariably, whenever I turn up anywhere - a caravan booking for instance - I get called 'Mrs Melford'. It could simply be that 'Mrs' is widely regarded as a more courteous title than 'Miss', especially for an older woman. I do see that where the title is unknown, or not clear, it's a reasonably safe bet that an older woman will have been married at least once in her life. So using 'Mrs' is likely to be a good guess.

Do I mind? Not really. I always let it pass. It seems unnecessary, and punctilious, to correct the speaker (who might be male or female). I suppose I'm signalling 'Yes, I'm on my own, but I used to be married'. And indeed, that's no less than the truth. But I shouldn't conclude that they think I'm a divorced lady. I'm quite old enough to be a widow - although if anybody is assuming a past tragedy, they must think me very resilient - a merry widow indeed!

What miffs me is not radiating obvious singleness. Somehow I'm sending out the kind of vibes that a married woman does. Is this because I've absorbed the ways of my local married girl friends, whom I see a lot of? If so, which ways in particular? And how did I do it - through some sort of social osmosis?

I shouldn't complain. As I'm so often taken for a married lady, it's rare not to get a high degree of respect, kindness and courtesy wherever I go. Who am I to cavil? And although I keep my wedding-ring finger bare, I'm clearly taken to be either the victim of a bad marriage, or a widow, and in either case worthy of gentle treatment. In most cases, it's not worthwhile to correct such assumptions.

As I want no more entanglements, and no more relationships, I'm happy to play along with any kind of misunderstanding that keeps all potential suitors at a manageable distance. On the whole, I think that being a 'probable Mrs' keeps me safer from unwanted attention than being an 'obvious Miss'. Safer from which predators? I'm talking about a certain type of older man who is on the lookout for a Useful Woman. In other words, somebody needing a home help, or a nurse, or a house that can be turned into money for their personal spending. I intend to stay nimbly out of their way.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Hot, hot, hot

My latest caravan holiday has taken me to East Anglia. I had nine nights on the coast at Kessingland, a bit south of Lowestoft. Now I'm in the forest north-west of Thetford, in the heart of Breckland. And believe me, I wish I still had those sea breezes! As I write this, it's completely still - the air is not stirring - and it's the hottest day of the year so far.

I don't like heat. I avoid going out in hot weather, preferring to keep cool indoors. It's not just a matter of personal comfort, either: very hot weather is definitely not good for one's health. Unfortunately, this - my only foray into Norfolk and Suffolk for some time - has coincided with a heatwave, and I hate it. Heat like today's is a bit extreme, of course, but with Global Warming now starting to kick in with a vengeance, I think I can safely assume that in future years a spell of hot and humid weather (ever worse as the years unfold) will be an annual event, warranting a new strategy of keeping my caravanning for the cooler months only.

A small caravan is no place to be when it's really hot. You can pull down the blinds, and open all windows on the shady sides of this little box, but it's not enough. The interior just heats up inside until the air temperature is the same as outside. It got up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) yesterday and today. Here's the proof. Yesterday:

And today:

It's been even stickier today. The only proper relief is to get in the car and drive off somewhere, enjoying a delicious blast of refrigeration from the air-conditioning. Look at this shot from mid-afternoon:

It was lovely and cool in Fiona - but as you can see, the air temperature outside was 37 degrees Celsius! The photo also shows something else rather remarkable: an average miles-per-gallon figure of 37.3, since arriving here in Breckland. That's a testament to the long, straight, and (by Sussex standards) empty country roads in these parts, and the lack of hills. At home I average 31.5mpg. I suppose I should rejoice that my fuel bills for this part of the country will be low. But I'd swap extraordinarily good fuel consumption for some bearable weather - and some decent hills to catch the breeze from. Flat-land forest is fine, but it's rather monotonous.

So I'm not having a good time here, and I really, really hope that the intense heat produces some proper thunderstorms tonight. I want fresher conditions for the rest of my holiday. I'm not optimistic about getting them.

An experience like this does put you off. I knew that East Anglia was a warmer, drier and sunnier place than (say) the West of England, but I didn't expect to be cooked. This area won't be high on my list of places to revisit. In any case, I want scenery. So, if I give the South-west of England something of a rest, the obvious not-too-far-away alternative is Wales. Nice to know that I've got Pembrokeshire lined up for September!

Friday, 12 July 2019

The new SIM is in and working, but there's a temporary snag

As promised, the new BT Mobile SIM card arrived today. I immediately took out the old Vodafone card, and popped in the new one. But of course, my phone was locked to the Vodafone network, and I now needed to unlock it with a special code I'd already obtained from Vodafone. Would it work?

Well, to my surprise it did. 'BT' replaced 'Vodafone UK' at the top of the screen, and I was good to go.

The signal? Certainly better than Vodafone's. I live in a marginal-reception area, where the 4G signal is never excellent, and struggles to be adequate. Vodafone usually shows me one bar out of four for signal strength - on a good day. I'm now getting two bars out of four with BT Mobile. That's twice as good. A 100% improvement. I'm pleased.

The snag? I have to use the temporary mobile phone number that came with my new BT Mobile SIM card for the next few days. I gave BT the code to port my usual number from Vodafone a couple of days ago, and, as soon as my phone was unlocked, I got a message that they were already working on changing the temporary number to my usual one. This seems to have gone ahead automatically. But they need two working days to complete the porting process, and it's a Friday today. Nothing will happen over the weekend (isn't that feeble?) and it will therefore be Tuesday before my usual number is installed. That could be first thing on Tuesday, or close to midnight - who knows.

I can still be contacted by email, but it's a bind that someone wanting to speak to me, or text me, won't be able to for a few days. Unless I let them know what the temporary number is. Fortunately time flies, and this situation will be but a fading memory soon enough.

At least I've heard more about the major freebie that comes with the SIM card deal - that JBL Flip 4 bluetooth speaker. It will be sent to me 5 to 6 weeks from now, with an email advising me on the precise delivery date. I'm not on holiday then, so I should be able to wait in for it. It will have to be signed for on arrival at my doorstep. 

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Hello BT Mobile!

In the end I didn't wait until early August to switch my mobile phone provider from Vodafone to BT Mobile. A friend prompted me to act now.

I did it late last night. It turned out to be easy.

I simply delved into the support pages on the Vodafone website, and studied what they said there. I got hold of a PAC, the code you need when you want to switch provider and take your existing mobile phone number with you.

Then I logged onto the BT website - I'm already with BT as a broadband customer - and worked through the very attractive SIM-only offer I had my eye on. After giving BT that PAC, I went ahead and completed the order. The £15 a month I'll now be paying (for a 12GB SIM) will simply be added to my ordinary monthly BT bill. I'll be paying for broadband and the mobile phone service together. So far as I can see, this new combined payment will commence with my next BT bill in early August.

Meanwhile, in the next couple of days, a shiny new SIM card will wing its way from BT. On receipt, I just pop it into my phone, use the Network Unlocking Code I've already obtained from Vodafone, and - hey presto! - I should get a mobile phone service from BT, using the EE network. I have every reason to think EE's service will be better for my needs than Vodafone's OK-but-not-brilliant service. Certainly rather cheaper, on the particular deal I've gone for.

Initially I'll be allocated a temporary mobile number, but within at most 24 hours I should be switched to my usual number, ported from Vodafone. For that brief interlude I can phone out, and text, but won't be able to receive any calls and texts - unless I give the temporary number to people who might want to get in touch. I can still get emails, of course.

So what about final billing at Vodafone? Well, I'm ending the two-year contract with them four weeks early, so there's an Early Termination Fee. And I have to pay for the period from the last billing date to the disconnection date. This translates into a final bill of £60 or so in mid-August. No surprise there. It means that in August I get two mobile phone bills, Vodafone's and BT's, but I can handle it.

I shall soon forget all about Vodafone taking their pound of flesh. By switching now, I qualify for BT's current freebies - the fancy JBL bluetooth speaker, plus a £65 BT Reward Card. (This is a fixed-value, single-use credit card. I'm thinking I might be able to put it towards a pair of bluetooth earphones)

So all in all, an excellent outcome - provided the switchover goes smoothly. Fingers crossed on that.

Next day (Wednesday)
It's fourteen hours since I took the plunge and set things in motion with BT Mobile. So far, so good. My BT account is now showing both the broadband and the mobile phone services. That temporary mobile number is shown there too. 

I've also had an email telling me that my new SIM card is on its way and will arrive in two days' time, on Friday, which is convenient as I can continue to use my regular phone number with Vodafone until after Friday lunchtime. (Even a brief time on a temporary number would be inconvenient, as my friends wouldn't know that number, and couldn't call or text me) Swapping SIMs on Friday afternoon, with a number-port happening overnight, would mean being 'live' with BT Mobile, using the correct mobile number, by Saturday morning.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

It's now signal over price

I was supposed to get a phone call from Vodafone on Monday 24th June, to discuss a switch to SIM-only six weeks before the end of my current phone-purchase contract. (The precise end date is 8th August) It didn't come. I eventually phoned Vodafone myself, and was told - surprise, surprise - that they didn't let customers do such a switch. I'd been misinformed. I could upgrade to another phone before the end of my contract, yes, but not move early onto a SIM-only deal. I'd have to wait until 9th August, then choose from whatever SIM-only deals were being offered by Vodafone at that time. Meaning that I was likely to miss out on at least one current deal that would have expired by then.

Silly me. I thought it was a little too good to be true!

I like my Samsung Galaxy S8+ smartphone, and it's only two years old. It makes sense to keep it, and, ongoing, just pay for a SIM card. That would probably save me £45 a month. And then in 2021 - in two years time - buy a new smartphone outright, swap the SIM card into it, and enjoy the same monthly saving of £45 indefinitely. As good as a pay rise.

It's irksome, having to wait another month until I can do anything about this. I've been with Vodafone since 2012, and my experience with them has been pretty good, but my long-term loyalty is beginning to waver.

In fact I'm having a rethink altogether about what I want from a mobile phone provider. Great deals and super-keen pricing aren't everything. Forget the freebies and other inducements - what am I supposed to be buying? A mobile 4G service that I can use whenever I need it. The really essential thing is to get a good calling and data signal most of the time, in most places. At home or away. Geographical coverage matters.

I live in the sticks, not in a city. At the best of times, the 4G signal I get at home from Vodafone is hardly more than 'just about OK'. It's never strong, and it's often marginal. If taking a voice call while indoors, I usually need to move near a window. And there are often times - depending on the weather - when I can't get any mobile internet, and have to switch to Wi-Fi - ironically my BT home broadband. Not good, Vodafone!

And yet it isn't at all uncommon, when pitched on a Club or farm site somewhere in the country or on the coast - at places where I ought to expect poor 4G - to get a better signal than at home!

When on holiday it's important to get decent mobile internet. At all times I'm updating certain key spreadsheets, so I want Dropbox to work. In the evenings I want digital radio, and the ordinary DAB signal doesn't always come through. I need mobile internet if I ever want to stream a particular TV programme (live or catch-up) onto the phone. I need it to publish a blog post, complete with photos. And remember, I spend a quarter of the year away in my caravan.

I have to ask: why doesn't Vodafone always give me the best 4G connection possible?

Next question: could somebody else give me better 4G? And if they can, wouldn't it be logical to give them my custom instead? Then I might not only have a stronger signal at home, but do better on my travels?

When you begin to ignore price, and concentrate instead on availability of service, you get different answers to the question of 'which mobile provider is best for me'.

Well, I summoned up the coverage maps on Ofcom's website (see and found that - for home, and the caravan sites I frequent - Vodafone was generally quite good, but not always the very best. In fact O2 or EE would be the better choice for wide and strong coverage at most of the places I go to, as well as at home.

I think, then, that between now and 9th August, I will have to look seriously at what kind of SIM-only deal O2 or EE can do for me.

EE is owned by BT, and since I have my broadband from BT, it makes sense to study BT's SIM-only deals.

If I do make the switch from Vodafone to BT/EE, I'll need a porting authorisation code (a PAC), to transfer my mobile phone number to the new provider. Something to get on 9th August. I've already obtained a network unlocking code (an NUC) from Vodafone, to be used after inserting the new SIM card. (If this NUC has expired by mid-August, I do at least now know how to generate another)

I dare say there will be some downtime while going through the switching process, but I'll warn my friends and wait it out.

So Tigerlily (my Samsung Galaxy S8+) may well, from mid-August, be using a new SIM card (a nanoSIM, actually) and - I hope and trust - be showing more reception-bars on the display than she usually does at present.

One thing about BT, they do have some good offers. Currently there's a £15 for 12GB twelve-month SIM-only deal going on, with a free JBL bluetooth speaker chucked in, plus a £65 voucher to spend. What a good deal - it ticks all my boxes and more - but it ends on 25th July. And I have to wait until 9th August. Grrrr.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

The Long Pipe

I couldn't help noticing it: a long, continuous, yellow pipeline running away to the horizon.

I was on the A99 between Wick and Keiss. The pipeline ran under the road, on rails. The map told me that these rails began - or ended - at the shoreline, with the landward end deep in the Caithness countryside, at a place called Hastigrow. And were dead straight.

The pipeline was mounted on little trucks that enabled it to run on this railway. Why?

The answer is that the pipeline is fabricated in welded sections inland at Hastigrow and, as sections are added, moves forward towards the shoreline, to be eventually floated out to sea and sunk onto the sea bed, becoming part of the oil or gas extraction network in the North Sea. I think this must be only at long intervals, as the rusty state of the rails suggests that the existing miles-long pipeline hasn't been moved for some time.

And yet the installations on the Keiss shoreline don't seem to have been mothballed, and the pipeline itself looks in good condition, ready to use. At the Hastigrow end - I had to go and see - it's quiet, but again not shut down. 

I'm guessing that a team of engineers and security staff have to be kept on, to ensure that the pipeline doesn't deteriorate in the dire Caithness weather while awaiting the next step, flotation out to sea. Meanwhile the pipeline completely fills the available length of railway track, which is built absolutely straight to make it easy to tug the pipeline forward and out to sea. 

What a strange thing to see, in this wilderness of rough grazing, heather and peat. When was it all first built? A plaque on the road bridge gave a clue, although it was somewhat hard to read.

It gave the date of the road bridge - March 1994 - and shows it raised by hydraulic means, so that a strange-looking diesel locomotive could pass underneath. So far as I can make out, this beast has funnels like a ship, presumably allowing it to enter the water, hauling the long pipeline behind it, without getting drowned. A bit like those dark blue tractors that pull land-based RNLI lifeboats into the water. Did the rails originally run into the sea for some distance? They wouldn't have lasted long in the salt water. Perhaps it was never done like that.

Other puzzles: why there was a pair of silvery metal collars in the middle of each section of piping? And what was the purpose of the little huts that enclosed the pipeline at intervals - were they there to protect some critical weld from the elements, or to shelter welders doing some special job on the pipe? Who knows. There was nobody about to ask.

However, a little research on the Internet throws up these articles, which between them contain all you could possibly want to know about the operation at Keiss and Hastigrow. Too much information, even for the most curious of cats!

Does this railway line - more accurately, these two parallel railway tracks - win the coveted 'Most Northerly Railway Line in the British Isles' award? No, it doesn't. The inland terminus at Hastigrow is slightly more northerly than Georgemas Junction, but not more northerly than the station at Thurso, which proudly retains its crown and contemptuously sees off this upstart.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Invergordon murals

Invergordon is a town north of Inverness, on the Cromarty Firth. It was formerly a naval base, and - whisky distilling apart - still looks to the sea for some of its raison d'ĂȘtre. Otherwise it's another stone-built Scottish town with a wide, straight main street and not a lot in the way of obvious tourist appeal. Except for one thing: its murals. The place is full of big wall-paintings that commemorate moments in its history. And they are worth seeing.

I didn't know about these murals before I went to Invergordon, but once I began to notice them I found myself taking an extensive walking tour of the town to see as many as I could.

My first stop was the station, which is extensively adorned with murals. This is the approach to the southbound platform.

(Click on any of these to get a larger view)

As you can see, the theme is the Scottish soldier going off to battle from this very station. Once onto the platform, there are further wall-paintings showing the station staff doing their bit, and the goodbyes of the families left behind.

I drove on a bit, parked, and then spent the next hour or so just walking about. I soon saw more murals on the sides of buildings, mostly those lining the main drag. They seemed to be the work of local artists. 

The one above glorified local sport, with the emphasis on service personnel of the past. A bit coy on what might be under that man's kilt, I'm thinking.

A pipe band, painted in faithful detail. 

Civilian sport this time.

This last one in my gallery of shots, which records the burning-down of a hotel, is my favourite.

I didn't find all of Invergordon's murals, but I may have found most of the best. Naturally, as I did at Saltash last year (see Torpoint, Rame Head, and Brunel's best bridge on 1 December 2018), I managed to find ways of making myself part of one or two of the murals. Great fun.

You'll gather that although it was a very sunny day, there was a stiff breeze. My hair doesn't normally look like that.

If you're into wall-paintings and anywhere near Invergordon, I'd strongly recommend having a look. There must be several murals somewhere around the town that I didn't see, and they might be spectacular. However, if you don't care for these things, I'd give the place a miss. There's not a lot here. Perhaps there's a vibrant community life, but if so I didn't spot it, and there's nary a hint of it in the following shots. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Banksy in the far north?

On the A838 road to Durness, between Tongue and spectacular Loch Eriboll, is a long stretch of elevated moorland, a northern part of the 'Flow Country' - Sutherland's vast bogland. It doesn't sound very interesting, but in fact it's an amazing landscape of heather and squishy peat, with wide views southward to mountain peaks. The A838 is the only road. Before the nineteenth-century Clearances, a lot more people lived in this area than do now, and some of them had to travel to and fro. Wayside hostelries like Moine House were built to provide them with food and shelter on their slow way through this bleak country.

Moine House is such a roadside cottage, built in 1830 when the the first road was made across the morass. Here it is, in this 1874 Ordnance Survey map (click on it to enlarge):

And this is it now, on a modern map:

They realigned the road in the 1990s, and it now passes the rear of Moine House. 

The cottage has become a shell, its roof gone. Mind you, it still offers shelter from the ceaseless wind, and even on a sunny day the wind is troublesome. Here you feel terribly at the mercy of the elements. In the winter, with the land all around utterly desolate, it must seem on the very edge of the world.

Whether driving from Tongue in the east, as I was, or from the west, the chimneys of Moine House come intriguingly into sight, and you can't resist stopping to take a look. Nowadays it's a proper tourist stop-off point, complete with explanatory information panels - and something else, which I'll come to in a moment.

This what those panels say:

At a distance, you can take in the isolation of the cottage, and the amazing views from what would once have been its front door.

But get closer, and you see something unexpected through a window frame.

You enter, and a series of murals is revealed.

This is of course art, though however skilfully done, and whatever the 'message', I'm sure it's entirely unauthorised. It also - in my opinion - distracts (and detracts) from the atmosphere of the building itself, introducing an alien, disturbing, and somewhat urban keynote. It shouldn't be there. Bare interior walls would have emphasised the weather-scoured character of Moine House much more appropriately. I don't even care that, tucked away on the left-hand side of the chimney-breast is a mural that might well have been sprayed by Banksy himself. That too has no place here.

Is it really an original Banksy, or just something in his style? I'm not sure. The woman's face could be his, but not the red lettering below. And besides, where is his usual wry joke or social comment? I've come across similar stuff before, as here in 2016, on the side wall of an old pub in Banbury:

The maid doesn't quite have the trademark Banksy look, although the humour is spot on. 

I'll leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide. 

I can see the force of urban art, but I wouldn't want it in my own home. To like it is to belong to an oppressed underclass. It's about Them against Us, Haves against Have-nots. Extreme urban art dwells on squalour, defeat and hopelessness, and assumes personal hatred of a mindless, uncaring authority. It's about fighting back, but without hope of success, and never winning. 

That's not my point of view, nor how I live. So I had to reject the murals at Moine House. In fact I think the place deserved to be restored to its original umarked state. This is a matter of cultural background, taste, and one's personal sense of what is right for a particular space and setting. I accept that you may not agree with my reaction. 

Seeking an escape, I found myself looking out through the empty window frames at a distant view that seemed eternally beautiful, compared to the contrived ugliness inside the cottage.   

Imagine living in this cottage, day after day, year after year. What would it do to you, for good or bad?