Sunday, 22 October 2017

I'm back, with a little project and a postscript

The last 18 months haven't been totally devoid of projects, but we have been away quite a lot and ......well, fellow bloggers will know that from time to time you just need to take a break.

A while ago I fitted some beech worktops for my elder daughter (
and, of course, kept the offcuts. With the birthday of grandchild number 3 coming up, I thought she might like a version of the well-known remove-a-block game:

particularly if it came in a customised box.

So the blocks were cut and sanded, and the box emerged from some bits of plywood that were lying around in the workshop, with the grooves for the lid cut by passes over the table saw.

I used the pantograph I made a few years ago from Matthias Wandel's plans ( to carve Lizie's name in the lid and the job was done.  A little heavy to post, so she may only get a card on her actual 4th birthday, with the present arriving when we visit a little later.

And a postscript for a little task which took a while to work out, but is quick to describe: we are recycling a child's cot around the family, and discovered that one of the swing catches which allow one side to rise and fall had been broken.  The makers told us that they no longer had stock of this ABS plastic piece, so I set to making one, using a piece cut from an ice-cream box lid with a couple of pieces of machined wood attached (araldite, with a reinforcing screw for the stressed part), together with a thin metal stopper which (not having much metal in stock) I cut from the casing of an old aluminium door handle. Both items were spray-painted - you'll be able to tell that the homemade one is on the left.

And it works.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Installing a window, and fixing a loo

My elder daughter's plan for part of their stable block (as they don't keep, and don't intend to keep, horses) is to turn a couple of the rooms into a pottery workshop for her husband. Our latest trip to South Wales involved a diversion to Telford to pick up a window frame purchased on Ebay for the princely sum of £5 which was to be installed in one of the stable's end walls to admit some natural light. When the roof (the patching of which was covered in my last post) is eventually re-covered with profile sheeting there will be GRP sections to let light in from above.

Again I took a Land Rover full of tools, in particular saws of all varieties, electric and hand - but the most used star of this show was my Bosch multitool with its small, oscillating blade.  This offers such accurate and reliable cutting that most of the window work and the cutting out of a door opening from one stall to the next were achieved without even changing the blade.

The stable walls are built with timber studs, board lining and tongue and grooved cladding. First I removed the board lining and cut out the cladding to the required size.

Then parts of 2 studs were cut out and a new stud inserted to the left of the window as we look. The frame went in sweetly and was secured to the side studs, with bits of repair needed to the cladding.

I know what you're thinking - the cladding (and, in fact, the studs and the lining) at the bottom of the wall are rubbish.  You're right.  This is why phase three of the work will be to remove the rotten sections and build a sleeper wall of concrete blocks to protect the woodwork in future.  I will probably renew all the cladding on this elevation as it faces the prevailing wind and has taken years of punishment.

The glass for the frame cost six times as much as the frame itself but we still thought the project a bargain.  Son-in-law is pleased with the amount of natural light now available inside.

This job took most of the time available during this visit.  However, plans to rebuild a downstairs bathroom and utility space in the house were radically transformed by the discover that a malfunctioning toilet doesn't, in the event, need to be moved at the cost of massive disruption.  Investigation of the cistern revealed that the water valve had been installed 'out of the box' without adjustment, with the result that only 3 litres of water were available for every (not surprisingly inadequate) flush.  Ten minutes to remove and adjust the valve and bingo! a 6 litres flush doing the job well.  No need to dig up the floor. Hurrah!

Monday, 15 February 2016

A little roofing adventure

We're just back from a few days spent at our older daughter's in the Welsh valleys.  Most of our visits there have the focus of a particular DIY task - this time it was the repair of the roof of their stable block.  No, they don't have horses, but the former owners did, and left a stable block in a pretty tatty condition which is soon to be home to a range of pottery activities. However, part of the felted roof has been leaking so badly that the underlying plywood panel has rotted and fallen away. Ultimately, the objective is to put on a roof of profile steel sheets, but we agreed that a useful interim measure would be the replacement of the rotted timber and some partial re-felting.

This was a job for the Land Rover, as the scaffolding tower was needed for access, so the trailer had to be towed.  The Landie is getting used to carrying lots of my tools, but this time space had to be reserved for younger son's dog, who is staying with us at present. Stock items included nails, screws, battens and two rolls of heavy roofing felt, left over from the days before we gave up on felt on our own stable and took the profile steel route.

Here's the stable block. The main problems centred around the valley between the two roof elevantions, where a small scaffolding tower went up. Some other patches of missing felt were replaced from the ladder.

The best part of four panels (each 8 feet by 4 feet - still manufactured imperial in all dimensions except thickness - 18mm!) had to be knocked out to get rid of the rot.  The most difficult part was working on my knees on the ladder and not falling through the roof.  That would definitely have slowed things down.
We bought the plywood from a local builders' merchant on Friday afternoon, and on Saturday morning I set up the electric circular saw and did most of the cutting up on the roof, having had help to drag the full sheets up from the ground. It was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle but generally went well and I soon had the first layers of new felt in place.
This was another job that was hard on the back and the knees, but at least the risk of falling through the roof had receded. I was lucky with the weather, too, as the first rain came as the last battens were going on.
So, will it stand up to the rest of this winter?  We hope so, and intend to have the steel roof on before next winter's storms.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Remembering my father-in-law, Graham

So, this post stretches to the limit the idea of 'it's a stock item', because most of it comprises the words of the tribute I was honoured to deliver at Graham's funeral last week, but I'm going to claim that words are a stock item as I've worked with words since completing an English degree many moons ago.

Readers of this blog (and you know who you are, you lovely few) may remember that projects to help my FIL cope with his motor neurone disease have regularly featured.  My favourite three are the two about the construction of a ramp at their Belstone bungalow:

and the one that documented the four progressive stages of enabling him to keep using his Kindle when the buttons became too tricky for him to manage:

In writing his tribute, I used the technique that had (sadly) served me well just over two years ago when Graham's wife, Joan, died very suddenly of a heart attack, and I sat with their daughters Elizabeth and Helene and took notes as they chatted about their memories.

Here's the story of an 'ordinary' life - of course, I think it was extraordinary in many ways.

Graham Ward 1934-2015

It’s just over two years since many of us met here in the immediate aftermath of the sudden death of Graham’s wife, Joan. They had been married for 54 years. Perhaps I can begin this morning by taking stock of what was said that day. I quoted Joan’s philosophy, which she maintained even in difficult times: ‘When you wake in the morning, think, “What can I do today that will make this a good day?” and then do it.’

That day, Graham was already using a wheelchair, more than four years into the cruel decline caused by his motor neurone disease.  It’s perhaps the most remarkable thing that I can say about him that no one, over the past two years, has managed to honour Joan’s words more successfully than he has. While we so much wish to celebrate this morning the vivacity of the man before he was stricken with MND, we should start by saluting the ways in which he managed, despite the progressive loss of physical function and, ultimately, his voice, to find ways to bear his condition and, often, indeed, rise above it to enjoy a trip out with family and friends or a tasty snack at Exeter Quay or the Garden Centre. He even made new friends in this period, whose only pictures of Graham will be of a chap in a wheelchair, smiling for as long as he was able, zipping around in the wheelchair-adapted Peugeot the family incomprehensibly christened the Bubble Car.

Graham was born in Rochdale in 1934 and always remained a proud Lancashire Lad.  He was the youngest of three children.  Muriel, the older sister, died some years ago but Margaret, who still lives in Rochdale, is here with us. She has always had a special ability, as required, to cheer Graham up and make him laugh, even in recent times.

Graham left technical school at 15 to take up a graphic design apprenticeship. Like many of his generation, being denied a longer period of education made him determined to provide it for his children, all of whom went to university.  It also spurred him on to read extensively and deeply in history and English literature, and all Anthony Trollope’s novels were on the Kindle that he used until its buttons were no longer manageable.

In 1952 he was called up for National Service, and for him, as for so many, this was a life-changing and life-enhancing experience.  The boy from Rochdale found himself successively in Egypt and Cyprus, meeting the challenges of making new friends or at least rubbing along with all sorts of people, and coping with a system where his superiors demanded unquestioning obedience. He wasn’t the sort to find that easy – hence, in later life, the number of letters he wrote to newspapers and other bodies. His army experiences were important in two other ways in particular: he entered service as a fairly skinny teenage boy and emerged as a fit, muscular man who was devoted to various sporting activities for the rest of his life.  Also, he had a cheap camera with which he documented his experiences whenever he could afford film, and he came out of the army knowing that he had an eye for a good picture and determined to make a living as a photographer.

Back in Rochdale, he found work with a firm of studio photographers, and fell in love with Joan, whose husband Brian had died in an RAF accident, leaving her with two children, Elizabeth and Paul, aged 3 and 1. Their marriage two years later was understandably difficult for members of Brian’s family.  But, as time passed, and the love that Joan and Graham had for each other and that Graham had for the children became evident, then acceptance did occur. This acceptance quickly deepened into mutual affection and love.

After Joan’s death, Graham told my wife Elizabeth that he would not have married Joan had he not known that he could love her two children properly – which he absolutely did.  As there are now step-parents and step-children in the next two generations of the family, we feel we have learned a lot from Graham’s example. Helene, the daughter born to Joan and Graham a year later, completed their family.

A nice aside: at the wedding Paul, too young to remember his natural father, turned to Joan’s life-long friend Pat, who was minding him and Elizabeth, and said: ‘I’m very happy. I’m getting a daddy today.’ 

Four years after Helene’s birth, Joan and Graham took the opportunity of a £10 Pom passage (the assisted immigration scheme) to take their family to live in New Zealand, choosing Christchurch on the South Island as they didn’t want to join the larger ex-pat community on the North Island. Graham had secured a job in a photographic studio and Joan trained as a teacher. New Zealand fitted Graham like a glove. The adventurous, practical outlook of New Zealanders meant that his sporting enthusiasms and love of expeditions and camping fitted in well, albeit on a shoestring as money was tight. His children still remember long walks in the bush and Graham’s sometimes unjustified confidence in his navigational skills. 

In his active life-style Graham did not always have the unquestioning support of his family. Joan loved the open countryside but preferred to shelter from the sun, and Liz remembers some of her teenage rebellion being focussed on stopping going with Graham to early-morning weekend swimming sessions.   Her dad didn’t hold this against her, no more than he expressed any disappointment in Paul not sharing his enthusiasm for soccer – after his own amateur career Graham coached a spectacularly unsuccessful Topsham team for a few years. This was the team which progressed from many double-digit defeats to a single glorious draw, but never won. Graham believed in a very direct style of play – years later I totally failed to convince him of the value of an occasional back pass when sitting with him as he shouted at the television during European matches.

As the young Paul didn’t take to football, Graham unselfishly adopted his son’s enthusiasm to the extent of successfully building with Paul a plywood dinghy from a kit. This was the son who would subsequently sail his boat (a bigger one, of course) in a gale across the Bay of Biscay to Spain.

A practical, outdoor life was what Graham wanted and speedos or shorts were his attire of choice – he even tried shorts years later at County Hall in Exeter – but his boss didn’t approve. The only thing that didn’t work out for Graham was a brief foray into glamour photography. When Helene helped him a couple of years ago to put together an illustrated talk about his life as a photographer, he revealed that the only such studio session he attempted made him so nervous and uncomfortable that he almost had a breakdown.

Six years later, Graham’s father became very ill back in England, and money wouldn’t stretch to allow for a there-and-back visit. After a family conference, and with Elizabeth interested in attending university in the UK, it was decided that they should leave New Zealand and head back. After a short stay back in Rochdale and following Graham’s father’s death, they decided to move to Devon (as close to a New Zealand lifestyle as you can get in the UK?)  After a short spell living in a caravan (a bit cramped for 5 – Paul slept in the bath) they rented for a while in Exton before moving to Tops-ham (not, Graham would repeatedly correct me, Top-sham). For a while Graham worked as an insurance salesman – a job he hated and at which he was hopeless – the only saving grace of this whole episode being his meeting with Colin Hickmott which led to a lifelong friendship with him and Thelma – indeed it was on Thelma’s recommendation that Graham eventually moved to Langford Park Nursing Home.

After several years with a photography business in Exeter, Graham became the official county photographer for Devon, a job which suited him down to the ground.  He engaged cheerfully and easily with a wide range of people (was there ever a more natural extrovert?) and drew on his wide experience as a technical and landscape photographer when the assignments demanded.  He took truly beautiful photographs of the then new M5 viaduct over the Exe estuary, catalogued a succession of Lord Mayors in their regalia, and had no trouble with Miss Devon as she kept all her clothes on.

Outside work, he became a key member of the Topsham community, and is especially associated in many people’s memories with the planning, funding and building of Topsham Outdoor Pool.  He loved Topsham and made some lifelong friends there.  He joined in gamely with everything, particularly if showmanship was involved, as in refereeing the Mud Football game.
We have been very moved to see the number and nature of Facebook responses to the Pool’s announcement of Graham’s death. This is the very positive side of social media. With his daughter’s help, Graham wrote his account of the building of the pool 18 months ago for publication in the Estuary magazine. I particularly liked his memory of local junior school children, invited to the official opening of the pool, being singularly unimpressed by Graham’s efforts to fill it in front of them with a garden hose from an ordinary tap.  He knew when he was beaten, and called in the Fire Brigade.

At the Pool he was one of the original Nutters, the early morning swimmers. We think the name suited. 

Graham was generally good at making things, and he and Joan had always found that they could be particularly happy when sharing a project, usually the purchase and upgrading of a house.  In his mid-fifties Graham took early retirement from Devon County Council and he and Joan embarked on a grand round-the- world tour – they travelled east, returning along the way to New Zealand and spending time with Brian’s family in Tasmania as well as visiting Muriel in New England. Liz’s children remember the excitement of plotting where their grandparents were as they crossed the map of the world and postcards from everywhere came through the letterbox.

When they returned they began the search for a new house.  In Clyst St George they bought Church House which needed extensive rebuilding, so much so that for months they had only a ladder connecting the ground floor and their upstairs bedroom.  Graham’s mother had moved to Topsham before Graham’s retirement and after a few years was beginning to struggle. So, pooling their resources, they bought into Pytte House, a grand property in Clyst St George which had been divided years earlier into 6 homes, each full of character.  Here they increasingly cared for May, helped in the summer months by Muriel who came over each year from her home in the United States.  These were on the whole very happy years – the house was often buzzing with visitors – children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces on Devon holidays – and all the Pytte House residents got on extremely well.  Number One had a great open plan kitchen / living space long before such things became popular and here different generations would work and chat together and conjure up amazing meals. It was at one of these that Graham’s coughing fit inspired the comment from his step-grandson Hugh which appears on today’s order of service.
The Pytte House occupants shared the maintenance of the grounds and infrastructure, including a badly-behaved septic tank, so Graham became a member of another crazy club, the Sewer Rats. Most communal celebrations included beautifully presented and illustrated expressions of sentiment in appalling doggerel verse, something Graham revelled in. He liked dressing up, too. A photo which almost made it the cover of the order of service shows him at Joan’s 60th birthday party (in Number One, Pytte – quite an occasion!) wearing a kaleidoscopic waistcoat.  His love of bright colours is brilliantly expressed in today’s lovely flowers. And as for his outfits on the floats at the Topsham Carnivals – well, enough said!
They lived in three different houses in Pytte until they downsized, too soon as the subsequent move to Baldwin Drive in Okehampton showed, to Pound Lane in Topsham.  At this time Helene moved back to Topsham and to help her out they often collected Ellie and James from primary school.  They were the most lively and youngest looking grandparents at the school gate.

However much they did to the Pound Lane house and garden (and they did a lot) it remained too small a property, so they tried to burn it down.  No, seriously, they had undertaken as always to make gallons of soup for the Pool’s New Year’s Day swim (great to see that that’s still going) and were working with gas burners in the integral garage.  A gust of wind, some papers under a workbench, and the garage was alight. Fortunately they got out and the Fire Brigade got there quickly, but not before the front of the house and its services were extensively damaged.  Having benefited from the kind hospitality of Topsham friends, they were able to return to a repaired house three months later.

A few years later, The Bartons in Okehampton was their last home-improvement project.  It was here that Graham had the first signs of his illness, when he noticed that he was struggling to fasten his shirt buttons. But he was more interested in the fact that he and Joan joined the Senior Council in Okehampton, which acts as a forum for older people and liaises with the County Council.  Graham also returned to an enthusiasm of his youth – singing.  In Rochdale he had been a keen Glee Club member, and now he joined the Men’s Forum, whose contribution today we greatly value. Sadly, as his voice weakened he was no longer able to sing, but one of the many ways in which he enjoyed seeing the younger generation take up the reins was the performance in Les Misérables at Okehampton College of his grandson James.  He was both particularly touched and amused to find a wheelchair space reserved for him in the middle of the front row labelled ‘For James Cox’s grandfather’. Later we are going to hear a piece of music from Les Misérables which Graham requested when he talked to Liz about his funeral about a year ago. It’s a symbol of his pride in, and love of, all his children and grandchildren.

Graham’s condition didn’t admit of much thinking about the future – it was too remorselessly mapped out – but in one way he did look forward, and that was to the future of his family, including his seven great-grandchildren. All but one of these treasures have arrived during Graham’s illness and we know that in some small measure they have mitigated the emotional effects of an illness which was a particularly harsh one for such a man of action to endure. He lost muscle tone progressively through his body but only at the very end was there any hint that the speed of his mind had been affected.

After a brief occupancy of  Ottersmoor, the bungalow in Belstone, Joan and Graham moved back to Okey to Castle Ham’s assisted living facility shortly before Joan died. The staff there, and subsequently at the Chollacott home in Tavistock and finally at Langford Park in Newton St Cyres worked marvels in supporting Graham. We have to single out the Langford Park staff, and key workers Denise and Roger in particular (Graham referred to them as his A team), because of the degree of assistance Graham needed from them. The family thank them most sincerely.

So what was Graham really like? I have at home his ‘name mug’ which begins by describing him as ‘even-tempered and level-headed’ – no help there, then.  However, on the other side of the mug we read of ‘a man of esteemed action who loves to be just’ – now that’s more like him. Graham displayed, amongst other characteristics, a fascinating combination of determination and impatience. In his 70s he learned to use a personal computer, and succeeded in digitising his vast collection of photographic images, no mean feat.  This didn’t come without a price, though. No one, it seems, had ever had a more wilful set of computer equipment.  He would ring Helene one day to protest that his printer wasn’t working even though he’d told it 6 times to print a document. Then, the following morning when he finally switched the printer on, he would ring her again to complain that it had now printed out 6 copies that he didn’t want.

To his family and friends, he was a thoroughly reliable, practical and loyal man. If you had a problem and needed help, Graham would be one of the first to offer his assistance, sometimes driving the length of the country to do so.

So, how would an impatient man deal with his debilitating illness which gradually robbed him of more and more capacity? Well, to the admiration of us all, he learned, if not patience, at least endurance; and displayed a quite remarkable degree of good cheer when he had company, which was often. Just a month ago, he was showing with his eyes his silent appreciation of being taken out for a breath of fresh air and a bite to eat at Lutzy’s on the Quay.

Over the last couple of years Graham passed on to his children and grandchildren his large collection of tools, cameras and photographic equipment and took pleasure from the sense that these things would again be used. He loved to see that in their parenting, his children and grandchildren are as loving and involved as he had always been. He gave up very reluctantly his active role as father and grandparent, but he took consolation from a sense that, as in a relay race, the baton had been passed on. This athletic image for his legacy will, we think, serve Graham well.


Friday, 28 August 2015

House-warming present

Rather late, but then I'm often rather late with jobs, I put aside two days this week to lay a small (6m x 3m) patio at the Bury house my older son and his family moved to in the spring.  This was more a case of stock tools than stock items, as the stone, sharp sand and landscaping fabric had to be bought in.  This was a triumph of Ebay deals - excellent communication with each seller and delivery of tons of material at the promised times.

Son and I shared the horrible job of removing the turf and digging out enough soil to produce a sand foundation for the stone.  Both of us have occasional back issues, and this isn't a favourite task.  The hope that the turf laid a month or so after their arrival would lift easily proved to be in vain.  Barrowing in the sand, levelling it and laying the slabs one by one was less physically demanding.  I worked to a jigsaw-like plan to avoid unsightly joints and kept a good eye on the spirit level as I worked away from the house.  It's Indian sandstone, with a riven finish, so the spirit level has to be interpreted with due allowance made.

The last backbreaking tasks were pointing up all the joints and loading the waste onto the trailer to bring home to contribute to some land-levelling to be done here later this year.

Two good days - and the weather helped by being dry but not too hot. Here's to the first BBQ!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Throw it away!

After another three days' work in elder daughter's kitchen, I have had to concede that some stock items should just be thrown away - a difficult admission for me to make.

The focus of this trip was the removal of some very dodgy old worktops and their replacement with the beautifully simple and elegant solid birch ones which Ikea sell at a reasonable price.  This was the third stage in 'lightening' a dark room: new led ceiling lights have been fitted and the programme of re-painting the fronts of all the storage units is almost complete. Fortunately I had the kitchen to myself for a day and a half (with assistance available when required from son-in-law, who was busy marking university exam papers) as Elizabeth and daughter and grandson had decamped to Devon for an overnight visit.

Getting the old worktops out without damaging the kitchen units and the walls was surprisingly difficult - they had been well fitted.  A deal of careful sawing was required to divide them into manageable bits, the one with the pot sink in it weighing a ton.  This was the start of the 'interesting work'.  The measuring and cutting of the new tops proceeded steadily, with little in the kitchen exactly square, and cutouts needed for the hob and the replacement sink.

The fact that the new sink was a slightly different size to the original meant that the plumbing of the tap and the wastes (from two bowls and the adjacent dishwasher) had to be reworked.  In the end, after a minor leak on the old tap, a new one was bought and fitted, but the big disappointment was the use of my recycled stock of push fittings for the 1.5" drainpipes.  Late on the second day when testing took place, they leaked.  A lot.  Fortunately the incoming pipes had service valves fitted so there was no damage.  Note to self: always in future use welded abs fittings, with just the one compression fitting to allow the assembly to be removed. That's what I did the following morning, starting the plumbing again from scratch, and this time it was fine.

So, there's still some boxing in and re-tiling to do. And some rationalisation of my plumbing stock - I'll be throwing away anything that has a used rubber seal in it.