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I suspect that the thing that many laptop users hate most is the built-in mouse, usually a "Touchpad" but for some the even more despised "Accupoint" rubber blob that sticks up out of the keyboard between the keys. Over the years I've had to struggle with both of these, some, even, on the same machine! I have never come to terms with them and really only use the Touchpad if all else fails. Give me a proper mouse any day. However, the problem with a mouse, a "normal" one that is, is that it usually comes accompanied by the amount of wire required for attaching to a desktop tower computer; few have a short length that would suit a laptop. Also, plugging it in occupies a USB port and on many machines there aren't a large number of those to start with! A wireless mouse would certainly solve the problem of the wire but, as most require a wireless receiver, the problem of occupying a USB port is not resolved. Indeed, many of the older wireless mice had such large wireless receivers that they alone occupied a lot of space on the side of the machine, often exactly where you would want to use the mouse! The answer to the problem would seem to be a wireless mouse but one that uses Bluetooth wireless technology rather than "normal" wireless. Most laptops now come with Bluetooth wireless technology built in as standard. This is often used for things like connecting a mobile phone, so as to transfer photos, music and such like. So, when my recent wired mouse was diverted to my wife's computer, for reasons I won't go into here, a search for a suitable replacement became urgent. Bluetooth mice are not thick on the ground it seems and even those seem to carry a premium that prices them, on average, around twice the price of other wireless mice. I can see no reason for this other than that manufacturers seem always to capitalise on rarity. I suppose that's why it's called capitalism! Then, I noticed a product on the eBuyer website. It was a brand of which I had never heard - Xenta - but seemed to be exactly what I wanted, at a very reasonable price, just under £8, including a delivery charge of £2.50. So I ordered one. I must admit I had never done business with eBuyer before but I was very pleased with their service; buying from their website was easy and the product was delivered, well packaged and protected, within a couple of days. This mouse is much the same size as most and fits comfortably in the hand. It is all black, with the Bluetooth logo to indicate the technology it contains. It has just the normal two buttons, with a clickable scroll wheel between. Just below this is a button to change the DPI setting between 800 and 1600. Underneath there is a compartment for two AAA batteries (not supplied), into which I fitted a couple of Maplins 1000mAh rechargeable batteries. The mouse contains technology to reduce battery consumption by switching it to standby after a while when no movement is detected. There is a recessed on/off switch, for which you may need a ballpoint or something similar, to operate. Just below this is the Bluetooth pairing button. Alongside this is the manufacturer's label, which says "Made in China"; isn't everything these days! Connecting to your laptop is fairly straight-forward, or should be. First you make sure that the Bluetooth wireless is switched on on your machine. It may not be, as standard. Of course, if your machine doesn't have Bluetooth built in then you will require a Bluetooth receiver as well, but then, you probably would buy an ordinary wireless mouse if this was the case. On my HP Pavilion, the wireless network and the Bluetooth wireless can only be operated separately using HP's Connection Manager software. During the initial installation (no special software is required; you machine should already have all the driver software needed) you will need to pair the mouse with the machine and it is at this point that you flip the mouse over and press the pairing button underneath with a biro, until the mouse is recognised. Well, that's what's supposed to happen. With this mouse, no matter what I did, it would not be recognised by my laptop. Yes, it knew there was a mouse there but, clearly, the pairing button just did not work. Fortunately, Windows enable you to select "Pair without pairing code" as an option and, after this the mouse was recognised and successfully connected. I used the mouse for an evening and then shut everything down, including switching off the mouse. The following day, I started up the machine but the mouse pointer just would not respond to any movement of the mouse or its buttons. I tried new batteries, re-installing, shutting down and starting up again, but to no avail. The machine still knew the mouse was there but responded as if it was dead which, I suppose, it was! I contacted eBuyer and explained the problem. They accepted without quibble and asked if I wanted a refund or a replacement. I was prepared to give it another go as, apart from the fault, it was exactly what I wanted. They immediately dispatched a replacement and didn't need me to return the broken one. The replacement arrived a couple of days later. I went through the same installation process and this time it completed without a hitch. It worked all day long and, when I shut the system down, switching off the mouse, and then restarted again the following day, this time the mouse reconnected immediately. So, I think we just have to assume that the first one was faultily manufactured; it happens. As to it's replacement, I couldn't be happier. It does exactly what it says on the tin; what more could you want. Only time will tell if it remains working reliably or how long the batteries will actually last.
What is it about the design of a bog standard kettle that seems to baffle most manufacturers? We've now had three in just over that many years and all have proved faulty. The first, the lid snapped off due to inadequate hinges. The second, the lid never opened adequately and eventually wouldn't open at all; we could have carried on using it but life is too short to try filling it through the spout! So, a trip into town was required and this time I went first to our local Wilkinsons for the third. I find myself using this retailer more and more these days. Their range is good and prices very reasonable. They had a large selection of different brands of kettles at all sorts of prices but the one that attracted my was their own brand kettle at just £20. This kettle is shaped like a truncated cone and is constructed in stainless steel. What immediately attracted me was that, unlike most other kettles, the lid was not attached to the body. It lifts right off, giving full access for filling by any means (we use a jug filled in the utility room from a filtered tap) and is held securely in place by spring clips around the rim. The handle provides a good grip. There is a clear panel on each side showing the level of water in the kettle and these do not suffer from the usual problem of lag between the filling the kettle and displaying how much has been poured in, a problem on other kettles that regularly results in over-filling. The kettle sits on the now almost ubiquitous contact base; this one is made of glass and beneath are six very funky blue LED lights, that light up when the kettle is switched on, making the kettle look like a rocket ready for take-off at Cape Canaveral! The On switch in just below the handle, on the kettle. The kettle automatically switches off when the water is boiling, as normal. The kettle is rated at 3Kw and so heats water at a speed comparable with most modern kettles. It is no more noisy than its competitors, in operation. The spout has a fine mesh filter to prevent debris from being poured out with the water. So, there you have it. What could be more simple? A good design. A reasonable price. A funky design. It's not rocket science!
A year or so ago we went on a cruise around the coast of Turkey on a gulet. We had a great time and were lucky to enjoy good company. The evenings we spent chatting and listening to music; one of the passengers had a Bluetooth battery-powered speaker that he fed music from his iPhone. The device he had was the Bose Soundlink. The sound quality was superb: more than loud enough and with a good deep bass sound that was quite remarkable for the size of the device. However, relatively small as it was it was still quite large and, when you picked it up, quite heavy. When I checked it out on the Web it also turned out to be quite expensive at well over £200, even with the best offer I could find. This year we went on another cruise, this time down the coast of Croatia. Although I didn't especially expect to be the music provider for this trip, I felt it would be nice to be able to sit out on the sun deck, my wife and I, and listen to some of our favourite music, fed from the extensive library on my Nokia mobile. What I really wanted was something with a comparable sound quality to the Bose but in a smaller package and at a lower price. Weight is a big issue when you consider that the normal (normal except for Thomas Cook, whose weight limits are laughable) baggage limits of most travel companies. I started researching on the Web and was amazed to find the number of these devices on the market. I read many reviews but then decided I could only choose based on my own experience. So, I simply set out to tour the local stores looking for these various devices, pairing them up with up with my Nokia and playing them in store. I was amazed at the range of sound quality from quite different devices; neither size nor price seemed to bear much relevance. However, the one I kept coming back to was the Jawbone Jambox. This diminutive device, a fraction of the size of the Bose and less than half the price, never ceased to amaze. In all the reviews I had read it got the big thumbs up. The normal price for the Jambox is quite high but everywhere it seemed to be substantially discounted to just over £100. However, in out local Currys I found one on offer at under £100 if I was prepared to take a white version. I really didn't care what colour it was so I took it. The Jambox is about five inches long, an inch wide and about an inch and half tall. It is a stereo speaker but the sound seems to come out equally in every direction! On top are three buttons: two control the sound level; the third is for pairing the speaker as a speaker-phone for your mobile for conferencing. On the side is a slide switch which turns the device on and off and, when held in the fully up position for three seconds, sets up Bluetooth pairing with your music feed device; a voice announces that it is awaiting pairing. You then just turn on Bluetooth on your feed device and select the Jambox, and away you go. Below the switch is a standard jack socket and a long flat double-ended jack lead is provided in order to connect devices that are not Bluetooth enabled. This is also a good choice if you want to prolong the battery life of your mobile by switching off the Bluetooth, so long as you aren't too far away. The lowest socket is to recharge the device from the provided USB charger and lead. I got many, many hours of use out of the Jambox before I found I needed to recharge it. You also get a protective sleeve for carrying it around. This collapses flat when not in use so takes up very little space. The sound quality has to be heard to be believed. The most astonishing thing is the bass level and quality out of a box so small. Sound levels can go up quite high enough to fill a room. If you place the device close to a solid surface, you also get extra sound reflected from the rear of the device. We used the Jambox a lot whilst we were away but, since returning home I mostly use it connected to my laptop. Although the HP Pavilion has Beats Audio, which is better than the usual sound you get out of a standard laptop, the Jambox beats (sorry) it hands down. I'm sitting here listing to Keane's Strangeland on Spotify as I type this review. Excellent!
When visiting London to enjoy a show, the big question is whether to eat before or after. Most restaurants offer pre- and post-show reservations and menus, designed to ensure maximum enjoyment for the best value for money (bearing in mind how much you've probably already spent on tickets) in the time available before either the start of the show or your last train home. On this occasion the visit was with my wife and our daughter, to see "Wicked" (highly recommended; haven't seen a musical we've enjoyed so much in years), at the Apollo Victoria, opposite the mainline station. At the time of writing the Crossrail excavations mean that the forecourt to the station is a total nightmare. I did the usual, of consulting TripAdvisor for recommendations and there were quite a few. In the end I opted for Santini, as its name implies, an Italian restaurant on the corner of Ebury Street and Lower Belgrave Street, just around the corner from the station. It accepts booking, not that we were likely to find the place full at 6.00pm, their advertised time of opening in the evening. Still, better safe than sorry. I had pre-booked a table and selected the pre-show menu at £25 per head. When we arrived we were quickly shown to our table and offered menus for A la Carte and Pre-Show selections. However, we then discovered that the whole table musty select from one or the other, not just individual diners! We decided to go with the A la Carte menu as the Pre-Show menu did not have selections on which we could all agree. The manager assured us that even so they would make sure we were served and ready to go in time to get to the theatre. And so it proved, even with us selecting three courses. The food was excellent and in decent quantities. We were promptly served without ever feeling we were being rushed. The food here isn't cheap and for the three of us the bill came to just over £210, although that did include us choosing a pricey Greco di Tufo wine, as it was a special occasion, and a discretionary service charge (tip), which I didn't begrudge seeing as how well they had looked after us. I would certainly have no qualms about eating here again if we were in the area.
Until recently I ran my own business; I was a Domestic Energy Assessor. When you run your own business, especially one of being a DEA, where margins are... marginal, costs are critical. In order to advertise my services I used to drop flyers door-to-door. I printed them myself, cutting down A4 four to a page to A6 size, using an old HP C7280 ink jet printer and a Rymans paper guillotine. The results were surprisingly good though not of the very highest standard. Bearing in mind that many would immediately be binned, it was certainly good enough. I have also been politically active for well over 40 years and two years ago stood as a candidate for my local ward in the borough elections. I didn't get elected but I got bitten by the bug. I decided to stand for the subsequent county elections, being held this May. For the borough elections a suitable election A4 leaflet was printed on behalf of myself and my co-candidates by our Election Agent, so I wasn't involved in the process, other than designing and writing suitable content. This time I decided to do it all myself. Composing a suitable leaflet wasn't a major problem; I decided to go for a tried and tested approach: an A6 flyer, listing the issues on which I would be standing. I suspected that it might get a more favourable reception than the "book" published by my main opponent, the sitting councillor, extolling his "virtues" and trumpeting his "successes". So, having designed my leaflet (A6 gloss double sided 170g), I then needed to find a printer. I approached a local one and asked for a quotation; around £150! That was way beyond what I was prepared to pay. I trawled the Web for online printers and compared their prices. Most were around about the £60-£70 mark, so half that of the local printer! I eventually found one that would charge just a fraction over £53, delivered. That printer was Saxoprint. Saxoprint appears to be a Europe-wide printer but I was dealing with its UK division, according to the contact details, which listed it as based in Chiswick in London, with a .co.uk website. So, I decided to go with them. The website is quite straight-forward; as a customer you do have to register with them though. Having registered you can then proceed to request your print job. First you choose your leaflet type; the choices include: flyers, folded leaflets, business cards, posters, to name but a few. I needed Flyers. You are then offered a number of types, which include: number of sheets; paper size (A6 Landscape in my case); number of sides to be printed (both); and types of paper (gloss, 170g). They then offer you a range of choices for time to complete the printing, ranging from up to 4 days to Next Day, and choices for speed of delivery from 2 Working Days to "Express" which, strangely, could also take up to 2 days! After all this you are quoted a price and invited to add the print job to your "basket". Clearly they expect that you may well want to add additional print jobs at the same time; I didn't. Printing only proceeds once you uploaded you electronic version of the document to be printed and have made payment. They will accept documents in a number of forms; I uploaded a PDF. Once it has been inspected and verified by Saxoprint, the job can proceed. Payment is accepted either by Paypal or by Bank Transfer. I preferred the latter and selected that option, not realising immediately that I would be taken into an intermediary application to set up my bank transfer authorisation. Now, if I am going to have to set up a transfer I'd rather do it directly through my online banking facility rather than through an intermediary, so I aborted the application and went over to sign onto my bank account directly. Saxoprint sends you confirmation emails as you proceed and one of these contained the details of their UK bank account so that you can set up the transfer authorisation, which I did. They ask you to enter the references for the transaction so they can match it up but what they ask for is longer than can be contained within the reference field! In practice, they just need the print number, which is on the email. The bank transfer was processed over night, as is normal these days. You keep check on the progress of the job in the Customer Area, by checking the Order Overview. It stated that no payment remained outstanding and that the print job was in progress. A day later I got an email saying that the job was complete and had been dispatched to me. I waited... and waited... I contacted Saxoprint and asked them where it was. They told me that it would be delivered the following day. It eventually arrived by UPS, three days later! This for a job ordered Express Delivery, which was supposed to take only 1-2 days to deliver! I raised this with Saxoprint and they admitted that this was not as agreed and offered a £10 voucher against a future print order, which I will use for my "Thank You" leaflets after the election. When I came to look at the parcel that had arrived, all became clear: the label showed that it had been dispatched from Dresden, Germany! Despite the website giving every impression that you are dealing with a UK based organisation, the reality is that, it seems, all printing is done in Germany and from there dispatched throughout Europe. So, what was the product like? What was produced was what I expected and the quality was certainly good enough to serve as my introduction to my electors. Would I use Saxoprint again? Well, I certainly will use them one more time and after that will depend upon the service I get that time. Should delivery take longer than advertised I will be looking elsewhere. Otherwise, Saxoprint may have found themselves a new customer.
No, I don't mean for ears that are different on each side, although most of us have ears that are not symmetrical, just as many of us have one side of the face that isn't a mirror image of the other. In my case, though, I do have different ear passages, due to a cycle accident I had years ago, when I fractured my skull. However, in my case it is the shape of the ear lobes that is the problem: I just don't have adequate support for the standard style of earbuds; they simply fall out. In the past I have tried various solutions, including a kit of two putty-like materials which, mixed together and inserted into the ear, mould to its shape, and set, such that earbuds could be fitted to the moulding to keep them securely in place. Sadly, that kit no longer seems to be available, nor does the substance continue to work after about a year or so. Mostly I use a pair of Koss earphones that are of the type that fit inside the ear passage. They work well for most purposes. However, the earphones supplied with my mobile phone also include a microphone for making calls. They have the standard earbuds and so I would either have to buy a replacement headset with in-ear earphones or else find a solution that would keep them in place. Eventually, after trawling the Web for some time, I came across the Acoustibud, manufactured in the US by a company called Burton Technologies. They seemed to exactly fit the bill. A pack of Acoustibuds containing three pairs of different sized pairs cost me $15 (£10). You can't buy them in the UK as Burton has no UK based suppliers, not even Amazon! I got mine from an outfit called Aerostitch, who specialise in items for bikers. They market Acoustibuds as a ideal for earphones to be worn inside a crash helmet. They took about a week to arrive from the US and arrived in a cardboard box far bigger than the item it contained!!! Acoustibuds are made of a very soft rubber and can be obtained in black or white; I bought a white set. The difference in size of each set relates to the width of the five rings that surround the ear canal tube, which secure the earbud in place in your ear. I found that of the three sizes, both the medium and largest sizes would work for me. Each Acoustibud is fitted to the Earbud simply by stretching the cup over the earpiece. They will fit all of the standard diameter earbuds, including the slightly larger Apple ones. Make sure you first check in which direction your ear canal enters your head so as to make sure that you fit the Acoustibud facing in the same direction. Inserting the whole assembly into your ear may require a little bit of screwing motion but once in place I found that they stayed securely attached. They also felt very comfortable. A warning note comes attached to the packet reminding users that the Acoustibuds completely seal the ear from outside noise. This has implications both for maximum recommended volume and also for the ability to hear noises from the environment. This is most important for riders on the road, regarding awareness of surrounding traffic, so, be warned! In use I found the Acoustibuds to provide good communication of sound from the attached earbuds. They also seemed to be secure from being dislodged during normal use. I am very happy with this purchase and consider them good value for money. Only time will tell regarding their durability.
This is the third in Marston's "The Railway Detective" series, featuring Insp Robert Colbeck and his colleague, Sergeant Victor Leeming, of the nascent Scotland Yard pain-clothes crime investigation force. Like many police detective stories, our hero has not only to battle against criminals but also against internal interference and incompetence, in Colbeck's case in the form of his immediate superior, Supt Tallis. Colbeck became associated with the resolution of a robbery on the railways in the first novel and so is now, much to the frustration of Tallis, called upon, at the request of the railway companies, to resolve any further crimes that happen across the railway networks. In this latest story the apparent crime is that of a railway passenger seemingly having fallen from a train crossing a viaduct in north-west England. But, did he fall or was he pushed and, when he fell, was he already dead? More importantly, who was he? Fortunately for Colbeck and his investigation. the event was captured by a landscape artist who just happened to be painting a picture of the viaduct and so can supply important evidence to help solve the case. It eventually transpires that the crime has an origin in France; there a British company is helping to build France's railway network. However, someone doesn't want this to succeed and the death in England is just part of a plot to sabotage the construction effort. So, Colbeck and Leeming are sent to France, much against Tallis's wishes, to uncover the perpetrators. The story is fast-paced and uses Marston's favourite device for advancing the action of omitting details of the action itself but reviewing it in subsequent conversation between various characters. It's a writing device that works well in small doses and, fortunately, Marston uses it only in short doses but to good effect. I have become very much a fan of these novels and look forward to getting hold of the subsequent ones in the series.
I am a great fan of Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole novels. However, this is a one-off that does not feature his idiosyncratic hero. In fact, this book has been made into a film, although I haven't seen it. I was attracted to it by the fact that Nesbo is the author and that it was felt worthy of a film. Once again it is a crime novel but in this case it features a character with no police connections. Indeed, it could be said that this is a story told from the opposite perspective. Roger Brown is a recruiter, the headhunter of the title. Regardless of his name, this is a story set, once again, in Norway. Brown is a man confident in his superiority as someone who can spot the perfect candidate for a job. When he does he does whatever it takes to make sure that his man gets the job. In Clas Greve he believes he has just such a candidate. But has he? Brown also has a little sideline, to supplement his income that supports a high maintenance wife and her art gallery. He steals pictures, and, it would seem, Greve has just the one that will solve all his problems. But, nothing is as it seems and the story line twists and turns as gradually the true motivations of the characters are revealed. Along the road, Nesbo comes up with some of the most gruesome and unpleasant scenes I have ever read in print; I defy you not to squirm. Not all of the events ring true although many are rationalised towards the end; many rely upon the police not really doing their job. Overall I did enjoy the book. I don't know if Nesbo is intending to write more stories around Brown but, if not, well, I still have a few Harry Hole books still to read. Also posted on Goodreads.
My views on this book will obviously be coloured by the fact that I am a huge Dawkins fan. I've now read most of his books and this one was a must. I found it in a local charity shop. It's the 1996 revision, the original version having been published 10 years before. In this book, Dawkins tackles the issues surrounding the mechanisms of evolution and the objections from various sources to Darwin and Wallace's world-changing theories on evolution by natural selection. Specifically he addresses the objections by those who refuse to accept that complex organs such as the eye and the ear could possibly have come into existence purely by genetic mutation and natural selection. The Blind Watchmaker of the title is, in fact, a computer programme written by Dawkins to mimic the effects of gene mutation on the outcome of the structure of a "digital organism". These biomorphs are fascinating and demonstrate the huge changes that can result from quite minor mutations. His comments on the length of time taken to produce these "creatures" is very evocative of the way in which computer power has increased over the years since then. The majority of the book, though, covers the objections raised by various academics and he deals with each in turn, demonstrating the repercussions of their arguments, taken to their natural conclusions, and how they are each and every one at odds with the real world. Dawkins, being Dawkins, searches in every nook and cranny, overturning every rock in search of some possible justification for the objections raised and in every case demonstrates the falsity of these argument, ranging from the simply mistaken to the down-right absurd, and I'm not just talking about the Creationists. I enjoyed this book very much and found it very thought-provoking. It is, at 400 pages of fairly small print, a long read; it's not the sort of book you would sit down and read cover to cover. But, read it you should, whatever your beliefs on the validity or otherwise of Evolution. Review also posted on Goodreads.
"Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you". Who are they? Those who would use your identity to impersonate you in order to get hold of money and goods and leave you holding the bill. So, a little bit of paranoia does no harm! In order to do this they often need to get their hands on documents that demonstrate that the bearer is the person whose name appears on them. Often this will be way of documents thrown away by householders; it is still a source of valuable treasure to those who make it their business to acquire false documents, rummaging through dustbins and even rubbish tips. In theory, banks and other financial organisations that provide access to money and goods should only accept evidential documents that provide positive proof that they belong to the named owner but it has been known for documents as mundane as advertising blurb to be accepted. So, rendering sensitive documents unusable by the ungodly makes sense. I shred *everything* that has my name and address on. We've been using a shredder for many years. It was a straight-cut shredder, which sliced documents lengthwise. This isn't a perfect approach to destruction as someone with enough time on their hands can reconstruct documents shredded this way although it will likely only be for the information they contain rather than being able to physically use them as proof of identity. When the old one started to fail we decided it was time for a new one, and one that made a better job of destroying documents. However, we didn't want one that cost the earth and claimed to be able to shred trees before they were made into paper. The one that seemed to tick all the boxes was a Ryman own-brand one, the XC600CM. The shredder is a reasonably compact size, standing about 18" wide, 6" deep and around 24" high with a slot to accept up to A4 width paper. It also claims to be able to shred CDs and credit cards, though I haven't tried it on either of those. It also states it can handle up to 7 sheets at a time but I think that's pushing it a bit; it slows down noticeably the more you throw at it. The recommendation is that you do not use it continuously for longer than two minutes without giving it time to cool down. The shredded paper ejects into a mesh bin; I did notice that paper dust can escape but this isn't a serious problem. In fact, you get more dust in the air simply emptying the bin when it's full. This is because it does a stonking job of shredding paper. The machine is described as a cross-cut shredder but in reality is closer to a confetti shredder; the output looks more like tiny strips about a few millimetres wide and about a centimetre long. The shredder head, when you lift it off to empty the bin, is quite heavy, demonstrating a substantial build quality that should ensure that it last a good long time. If you do forget to empty the bin then the shredded paper can stick to the underside of the shredder head so make sure that you empty regularly. Disposing of the shredded paper is also an issue. Our council provides a green bin for all recyclable material and they do ask that shredded paper be enclosed within a bag before depositing it in the bin. I confess I didn't do this with the old shredded but with this one, it is essential. I just use and old plastic supermarket bag and tie the handles together to stop the waste escaping. It seems to work. I am impressed with the efficiency and reliability of this Ryman shredded and, at just under £25 it is good value for money as well.
We weren't supposed to be flying from Stanstead but my mistake turned out to be a good move. When we were booking our ski trip on the Crystal website we were comparing various packages and I have to confess that when I went back to one that we'd looked at previously, I thought I had arrived at the same holiday. Turned out, however, that the flights were different; not from Gatwick, as I had thought; my fault for not checking closer. As we approached our departure it became obvious from the weather forecasts that heavy snow was due and that there could be serious travel disruptions. Although Stanstead looked like it would be less affected than Gatwick, we would still have to get there so we decided that staying overnight the night before could be a good move. I did some investigating on the Web, for over-night accommodation including car parking for the week we would be away. There were plenty of options but mostly well over £100. Warman's Barn House stood out at around half the price. Suspecting that there might be a problem I checked TripAdvisor for reviews and found a range of reviews right across the spectrum. This is unusual. I read several of them but could come to no firm conclusion as to whether I should avoid this or go ahead. In the end I decided to go ahead as it would only be for one night. The accommodation is actually managed by The Ash public house, which is across the road. The Ash advertises itself as a "Gastropub" so it did seem that we would at least be assured of a good evening meal. The cost of the stay, plus parking, was around £60! We arrived mid-afternoon on the Friday and parked in the pub's large car park. Checking in at the pub, we were asked about transport to and from the airport, which is not included in the price of the accommodation. The pub has an arrangement with a local taxi firm and for convenience we went ahead and booked our short travel. The cost was £4 per person to the airport and a flat charge of £12 for the return to our parked car. So, an additional £20 but still a lot cheaper than the other alternatives. We walked across the road with our luggage to the accommodation, which is on the driveway of a typical Essex converted weatherboard barn. The rooms, just three in all, are built in a complimentary design. They are the ones you can see in the foreground in the picture above. We were in room 3. The entrance is a simple lockable gate style door that offers little by the way of draught-proofing; a large gap under the door would let in the wind but, fortunately, during our stay there was little if any wind at all. The room is very large and, in one corner is a large, separate bathroom with a basin, toilet, bath and a shower attachment over the bath, with a glass splash-screen. The entertainment in the bedroom was a small, old CRT TV bolted to the wall, with a Freeview set-top box, and so required two remotes. There was also tea and coffee making facilities. One large wardrobe was available for clothes although we didn't unpack. The bedroom is heated by a single wall-mounted electric convector heater and the bathroom by a heated towel rail. The room was very, very cold. Clearly, no heating had been switched on in preparation for our arrival and probably not since the last occupant, which may well have been the previous weekend. The weather was very cold, as the snow on the ground testified and, no matter how well insulated, any room will cool rapidly in such weather. So, the first thing we did was switch on the heater full-blast! As my wife had some work to do before we left, we popped across to the pub and spent most of the afternoon there, me reading and my wife using their Wi-fi. I must admit that the pub wasn't especially warm and the open log fire wasn't throwing out a lot of heat. Not only that but the drinks were extortionate: a pint of Real Ale and a glass of red wine came to just under £10!!! We went back to our room later on and found that it had warmed up appreciably since we had arrived. Content that the temperature was heading in the right direction, we returned to the pub for an evening meal. Our evening meal was excellent and, I have to admit, I rather overdid it by choosing a dessert when I probably should have stopped. The wine was from an extensive list and very enjoyable. At around £60 for the two of us, all inclusive, it was also very reasonably priced, which was a pleasure after the experience earlier in the bar. We enjoyed a good night's sleep and, if anything, in the morning the room was too hot! We certainly switched off the radiator long before we departed, the fabric of the room having heated up enough to retain a decent temperature all on its own. It only remained for us to have a shower and get dressed to leave for our holiday. This drew our attention to the one really disturbing issue about our stay: the surround of the shower end of the bath was badly stained with what looked like a nasty reddish mould. This was ingrained in the gap between the shower-screen and the wall to which it was attached and around the edge of the bath where it joined the wall. Most unpleasant to see. At least the water was hot and we were able to shower and get out quickly. The Swan doesn't offer breakfast, one big drawback of this accommodation, so we went early to the airport to have our breakfast there. The airport is only about 10 minutes away. The taxi arrived on time. Our car had already gone from the pub car park, having been taken away for storage the previous evening. We were given a sheet of instructions, with a number to call for the taxi to collect us and take us to our car when we returned. The car turned out to be parked on a business park between the pub and the airport; we had passed it on our way out. It was there safe and sound on our return and soon we were on our way home. So, would we stay here again if we were flying from Stanstead? I doubt it. Although the accommodation wasn't bad overall, the initial cold welcome was a drawback and the issue with the state of the bathroom was unacceptable. Unless there were definite improvements here, I would rather stay at slightly more expensive accommodation. Clearly, the pub relies upon you eating and drinking there to make up for the low initial price charged. Abridged version posted on TripAdvisor, with pictures.
For this year's skiing holiday we took a break from our usual money-saving options of a self-catering apartment or a cheap B&B hotel. We had already decided to go to Austria, to the ski resort of Alpendorf, and when our first choice hotel was revealed not to have rooms when we wanted to travel, we decided, to hell with it, we deserve some luxury. So, we chose instead the 5 Star Oberforsthof Hotel, half board. The hotel was organised as a part of a package holiday with Crystal, our usual ski holiday provider. The flight to Austria was from Stanstead and arrived at Salzburg airport. From there it was just an hour's drive on the coach to a rendezvous point with a local taxi, to take us the short distance to Alpendorf and the hotel. The hotel is quite modern; built well within the last 10 years. The covered entrance colonnade leads to the Reception where we received a warm welcome and the very kind offer of a free room upgrade; we would be in room 223. The Welcome ~~~~~~~~~ Although the manager who received us speaks excellent English, one thing I have found in the years we have been visiting Austria is that people with a good grasp of English are far less frequently found in Austria than in most of the rest of Europe. This applies to young and old alike, so isn't just an age thing. This is also true of the hotel's staff. I confess my own German is little better than "Get By" (I learned French at school) but between us all, and with a little sign-language, we managed to make ourselves understood. Our room ~~~~~~ ...was large and very clean, with a balcony overlooking the valley and superb views, when the weather was good. The double bed was actually two singles bolted together and so very large. The room also had a sofa bed, a separate armchair, a couple of tables and chairs and a unit containing a mini-bar. Our room also had a kettle and a coffee machine, which is one possible reason why we got an upgrade, I believe: I had contacted the hotel in advance about tea and coffee in the rooms and was told that not all rooms have these facilities. Normally we would take a travel kit but we were right up against the baggage limit so left it behind. There was also a TV attached to the wall but not a single English language TV services were available, not even CNN or BBC World News. The best was Channel 31, the local service for Alpendorf, which showed the mountain webcam feeds, interspersed with weather reports, to the background of the local radio station, which did at least mostly play British and American pop. The separate bathroom was also very large, containing both a bath and a stand-alone shower cabinet. The toilet was also roomy and a separate room off of the bathroom. The bathroom floor was heated, which was nice, but what we didn't immediately realise was that the temperature was directly controlled by the thermostatic radiator valve on the heated towel rail at the end of the bath! Towelling robes and slippers were provided for use in your room or, if you want to use the hotel's leisure facilities, for going down to the spa, which we did. Also provided is a wicker basket containing towels that you can take with you down to the pool. These are replaced after having been used. There was no problem with adequate hot water but the actual shower head fell of of the wall whilst I was adjusting it and was never satisfactorily repaired during our stay. Also, the soap dish, by the wash basin, drooped alarmingly, clearly not being properly fixed to the wall. However, the biggest problem was that there was no facilities for drying our skiing wear, specifically the base layers, which we normally rinse out and hang to drip dry overnight for use the following day. We were forced to use the heated towel rail, which meant there was nowhere to hang the towels! All it needed was a fold-out airer attached to the wall at the other end of the bath, that could be extended over it. Also, when you get out of the shower, what is it you want to hand? A towel. However, there was nowhere to hang a towel close to the shower cabinet although there was certainly space for a hook. In fact, adequate hooks or pegs was a problem in general, one that I have found in far too many hotels, not just this one. Although three generous-sized wardrobes were provided, when returning from a day's skiing you don't want to put you outer clothing on a wardrobe where they will not be able to air adequately; you want to hang them on hooks. A few hooks were provided, squashed into a small area behind the door, where they couldn't really air properly, but the long wall of the corridor leading past the bathroom, where there was plenty of room for some hooks, was completely devoid of anything at all! There was a set of folding glass windows between the bathroom and the bedroom that could be opened! We had these closed most of the time because, overall, the temperature in the bedroom was on the high side for our preference, even though the separate radiator in the bedroom was off completely, and we didn't really want the heat from the bathroom leaking through. We mostly left the door onto the balcony, which could be opened as a inclined window instead, open to allow the room to cool down and to provide some ventilation at night. Overall, the room was always comfortable though. Room servicing (as opposed to Room Service) was variable: the room was always kept spotlessly clean and the beds turned down for us before we went to bed but far too often we found ourselves having to contact Reception to complain that, once again, tea and coffee cups had been taken away to be washed and not replaced! Food ~~~~ ...and drink: the Bar is really quite small considering the size of the hotel. The serving area takes up a lot of room, with seating squashed in all around it. The range of drinks is generally good and not unreasonably priced, with the added interest of some very nice locally sourced farmhouse schnapps. Be aware though, the bar has NO smoking restrictions and we did find that Austrians generally still smoke a lot! Refuge could be found next door where a large lounge with leather settees and armchairs enabled you to relax in a smoke-free atmosphere, in front of a frequently lit, roaring log fire. The restaurant is excellent and with a smoking ban; if you want to smoke you have to go outside. Breakfast is the usual buffet affair, with plenty of choice by way of cereals, cooked food and cold meats and cheeses. There were also a decent selection of fruit but largely in the form of fruit salads rather than actual apples, pears, bananas and so on, which was a pity, as these were provided in your room! For our evening meal we were allocated a table for the duration of our stay. The food was excellent, if a touch "Nouvelle Cuisine". Each course, in itself, would not be considered a decent meal but when you've had 5 or 6 courses, you come away knowing you've had your fill, and not had a chance to get bored. The wine menu was extensive, with a full range of prices, starting at around 25 Euros. We took the opportunity to re-familiarise ourselves with Gruner Weltliner and also found a truly excellent red St Laurent, similar to a Pinot Noir. Service, throughout the week, was always friendly, polite and attentive, just as I like it. Leisure facilities ~~~~~~~~~~ All the hotel's leisure facilities are in the basement, one floor down from Reception. This is actually the Ground Floor on the downhill side of the hotel. As we were skiing, the most important facility was the ski and boot room. The hotel doesn't have lockers. Instead there's a room with stands for your skis and heated ski boot racks where the pegs that you hang your boots on blow warm air into them to dry them out and make them nice and warm to put on the following day. You can get into this room from outside via the gates below the entrance. Your room key will gain you entry. The entrance to the Spa gains you access to the swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna and solarium. The pool is very nice and is surrounded by glass walls that look out onto the hotel's gardens. Around the pool are chairs and loungers on which to relax. Beware the sauna: nudity can be expected; apparently this is not unusual in Austria, in the sauna! I can't vouch for elsewhere! There is also a fully equipped exercise room, with weights machines, treadmills and static bikes. You should be able to find something you like to keep you fit, if the weather isn't suitable for skiing. There are also pool tables, an electronic dart board and other games also available in the basement. Conclusions ~~~~~~~~ We very much enjoyed our stay at the Oberforsthof and would certainly have no qualms about staying there again or of recommending anyone else to stay there. It might sound, from my review, that the hotel is less than perfect. Certainly, there are issues but none of them could be considered more than minor niggles. It will be interesting to see if the hotel's management responds to this review and if other guests, especially any using our room, report improvements. Largely, the issues revolve around the designers of the hotel not seeing it from the point of view of a guest; of being more interested in aesthetics that practicality. This isn't the first and certainly won't be the last hotel guilty of that, no matter what "Star" rating it has. Abridged version of review posted on TripAdvisor.
Our choice of resort this year was the same as it would have been last year, had we not had to cancel our holiday at the last moment: Alpendorf in Austria. I had been attracted by the apparent extent of the skiing available, but would it live up to expectations? We were travelling once again with Crystal but had to change the hotel from the one we intended to use last year, to a 5 Star hotel (Oberforsthof), as the other one did not have any vacancies on the dates we wanted to travel. It turned out to be a good choice. I will review the hotel separately. We flew from Stanstead, which was actually a mistake on my part but turned out to be a happy mistake; we had intended to fly from Gatwick. The day we were to fly was the day the UK was covered in snow. A flight from Gatwick might have been in jeopardy but in the event there were no delays of any note from Stanstead. We drove to the airport on the previous day, in any case, and stayed over night, just to be on the safe side. Stanstead is only around a half hour further away. The Flight ~~~~~~ Thompson is the carrier of choice for Crystal and the flight had the added bonus that we got a 23kgs baggage allowance rather than the "normal" (normal that is unless you are flying with rival Thomas Cook - 15kgs!) 20kgs. We exploited it to the limit, though taking with us this time just our ski boots and not our skis, which we were hiring in resort. The flight, into and out of Salzburg, was uneventful: Thompson no longer provides any in-flight entertainment, so bring your own, or hot meals, other than snacks, so bring your own! Arrival at Salzburg and clearance to transfer went smoothly and without any substantial delay. Transfer to Alpendorf takes just over an hour, the final leg to the hotel, in our case, being completed by local taxi, hired for the purpose by Crystal. The Resort ~~~~~~~ To be honest, there's not very much to Alpendorf. It's just a single road off of the one running up and down the valley, with mostly hotels and a few shops at the lower end and, above that mostly private chalets and apartments. Signs suggest more development is on the way. There is little by way of independent bars and restaurants or night-life. However, the hotels do provide such that it isn't really necessary to go out. We did spot two bars advertising "Apres Ski". One was associated with the Rothirsch Hotel and the other, which we did visit, is a bar right across from our hotel and next to the 6-man chair lift (Sportsbahn Gernkogel1), called, colourfully, Butz & Stingl. This latter we did like and lunched there a couple of times; their Gulaschsuppe is recommended. The other recommendation is the restaurant separate from but associated with our hotel: Oberforsthof Alm, on the opposite side of the road to the hotel and situated right beside the piste down from the chair lift to the gondola (Gondelbahn Alpendorf) so great for ski in/out. The food here is excellent and up to the high standards of the hotel itself, and not exceptionally expensive. There are a couple of places where you can hire ski equipment and it would be my suggestion that you don't bother pre-booking with Crystal as none of them will be very far from where you would be staying and the prices and range of equipment seem to be very reasonable. We were happy with our skis. I would also suggest that it probably isn't worth pre-booking your area ski pass either. These are easily bought at any of the town level ski lift stations; the passes themselves are contactless proximity cards that you simply need to keep in your pocket; I put mine in the pocket on my ski jacket sleeve and left it there all week. The Skiing ~~~~~~~ Austria is not known for its "joined up" skiing, though this does appear to be changing. Alpendorf is a part of Ski Amade/Salzburger Sportswelt, with includes the next "big" town (Sankt Johann), Wagrain and on through to Flachau, all of which are covered by the area lift pass. Alpendorf, Wagrain and Flachau can be reached on ski with the single current proviso that to get to Flachau from Wagrain you have to hop on the free ski bus across the town to the next gondola. That will change next season (2013/14) when the cross-valley gondola connection is completed, avoiding the need to ski down to Wagrain (unless you want to). However, there are many other villages and towns which seem to be completely inaccessible by ski, the most bizarre of which is Sankt Johann itself. Its ski area seems to be completely isolated and only accessible by ski bus, unless you're staying there. However, if you do want to visit then the town is only 10 minutes away by bus, which runs at intervals between half an hour and an hour and a half, until early evening (no matter what the pocket timetable says!), and is covered by your lift pass. I would call the skiing "challenging". Red runs predominate and even some of the few Blues can be a bit daunting in places. This is probably Intermediate and Expert Heaven. The vast majority of the lifts are modern high-speed 6-seaters (with heated seats!) and gondolas, with just a few slow, old lifts from days gone by, which can easily be avoided. Lift queues are almost unknown and the slopes free from undue congestion. Many slopes are covered by snow-makers and those in Alpendorf were turned on for the whole of the last day of our holiday. Mountain side bars an restaurants abound and, if you wanted you would only need to ski a few hundred metres before your next beer. Prices are not extortionate although the Lisa in Flachau did take us aback a little. It seems to cater predominantly for the those who like loud music; it didn't even have Gulaschsuppe on the menu! Of all the ski areas, we did like Flachau the most and, had we known what to find there, might have chosen to base ourselves there instead of Alpendorf, around 15kms away by ski. It's slopes are widest and sunniest we skied and offer an enormous variety of really long unbroken ski runs. From Alpendorf it takes around 1 ½ hours to reach by ski, including the short ski bus transfer across Wagrain, once you've learned the route. Conclusions ~~~~~~~ We enjoyed our holiday here, despite the weather being less favourable than it might have been. We had three days of excellent weather and all-day skiing, one day of iffy skiing and two days of near white-out conditions, when we did other things instead. Would we go back again? Doubtful. The new gondola, to be opened next season, will be a big improvement but, apart from that, the area still contains far too many local areas that really don't have adequate connections to justify the cost of the ski pass that covers them. Bit of a swizz really. Maybe, in a couple of years there will have been further developments to justify a re-evaluation. Until then, I suspect we will once again try somewhere complete different.
As you will know, if you are a regular reader of my reviews, my wife and I are avid skiers. We both learned to ski quite late in life (so, you are really never too old to learn) but have taken regular skiing holidays ever since. Over the years we have built up what we consider to be the optimum set of kit but we are never too set to consider improvements. The secret with skiing is keeping warm but not too warm that you sweat uncontrollably. The way that I have found that works is to wear multiple layers of clothing rather than one single, thick layer. Most especially, I wear proper "Base Layers" against the skin rather than something simple like a T-shirt. The reason relates to the fabric from which they are made. T-shirts are made from cotton and cotton soaks up moisture but holds on to it. The consequence is when you stop, the moisture starts to evaporate and you feel cold. Proper base layers are made of an artificial fabric that has the properties of moving moisture away from the skin and into the surrounding clothing. The skin feels dry as does the base layer closest to it; the evaporation takes place away from the skin. I actually wear two base layers: the first is a simply long-sleeve vest; the second is almost the same but with the addition of a zip-up high-neck. It works very well with just a ski jacket over the top. However, one area where just a single layer of clothing is normally all that is possible is gloves. As a consequence I have now standardised on a couple of pairs of really good gloves, with Gore-Tex insulation, from one of my favourite outdoor wear manufacturers: Trek Mates. I have reviewed them here. However, even gloves as good as these can still leave your hands feeling a bit cold in extreme conditions. Until recently I thought that I would just have to put up with it but then, whilst one day browsing in Sports Direct at their sale of JJB Sports bankrupt stock, I spotted a pair of what were described as Liner Gloves, from a well-known manufacturer: Karrimor. On examining them is discovered that they were close fitting (in sizes of S/M and L/XL; I chose the latter) and made of the same material as my body base layers. Not only that but each pair, in the sale, cost just £2.50! I bought two pairs for me and two of the smaller sizes for my wife. We've now had a chance to try them out on our recent skiing trip to Austria and can declare them an unqualified success. Not only do they keep your hands feeling dry, the extra layer adds to the insulation qualities. Also, when you take your gloves off to read, say, a piste map, the inner gloves can be left on and are thin enough to still enable handling of items such as paper maps. Not only than but they provide sufficient insulation on their own for a short period of time. I don't know how long Sports Direct's sale is going on but get down there now and see if you can snap up a pair before they all go. If they have, I believe you can get them off of Amazon (other outlets are available), but probably not at that price.
I am an avid reader. I will often have more than one book on the go at a time. They will usually be different types of books so that I don't get the "plots" mixed up. I will change from one book to another when I start to find one starting to become wearing. I may even finish the new book completely before going back to the original. In recent years I have been catching up on classic novels and in this way I have now completed reading the works of John Buchan (The 39 Steps, Huntingtower, Greenmantle...), L Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz...), Leslie Charteris (The Saint) and Ian Fleming (Bond). I am looking forward to starting tackling Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and have already downloaded Jude the Obscure. Many of these, being classics, are now out of copyright and so are freely available as eBooks through sources such as The Gutenberg Project. Jude the Obscure I chose through having read an article listing the 100 [supposedly] greatest books of all time. I was alarmed to discover that of the 100 listed I had only read eight! I determined to improve that record. Amongst those listed I noted one that will be familiar to most people - James Joyce's Ulysses. This I chose as my first. Ulysses was written by Joyce just after the end of the First World War but is set in a period before this war broke out. The events take place on a single day in Dublin, at that time part of an Ireland still ruled by Britain, and revolve around two principal characters: Stephen Daedalus and Leon Bloom. Joyce achieved huge notoriety with this book, it being banned in many countries, including Britain and America, for many years. I really had to find out what all the fuss was about. The book is divided into three section which we can loosely describe as a Prologue, Main and Epilogue. The Prologue introduces the principal and secondary characters and the setting of the main section. Both the Prologue and Epilogue are reasonably intelligible to most readers but seem to contribute very little to the substance of the book. The main section, however is a very different story, if you'll excuse the pun. Reputedly, the story, split into 18 sections, though there really aren't any indicators such as chapters, to indicate that you have moved from one section to another, is Joyce's re-imagining of the events of Homer's Odyssey into events involving his own characters in the setting of a single Dublin day. The events that Homer described spanned 10 years! OK, I'll take his word for that! Notwithstanding this section's allusions to Homer, which I confess I couldn't identify, the biggest issue that makes it a challenging read is Joyce's use of a multiplicity of languages, modern and classical, and of obscure words that most readers would need a dictionary to understand. I certainly did. This is clearly deliberate and for the purpose of saying "How clever am I". However, it seems that the notoriety of this book is largely centred around the final section of the Epilogue of the story, which is probably the most bizarre piece of writing I have ever read. It relates Molly Bloom's (Leon's wife) musings on her relationships with her husband and with other lovers. The whole section, running to many pages, is written entirely without any form of punctuation or paragraphs. It reads like a man's impression of how women gossip, rambling on from subject to subject with hardly a pause for breath. Yes, there are many sexual references, which may have been considered shocking in their day but over which a modern reader of the "Shades of Grey" generation would hardly bat an eyelid. I doubt I have ever read a more self-indulgent and pretentious work of literature in my entire life. Joyce clearly wrote this as an exercise in demonstrating that he could fool both his admirers and his critics with a work of seeming intelligence and depth but in truth intended simply to dare anyone to call him out. I was determined to finish the book in order to see if there was any real merit but, on closing the book after the final page, I confess that I could find none. What I can say is that I have now read Ulysses, so you don't have to. Be sure in the knowledge that if you never read it, your life will not be any the less rich.