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Wednesday 27 October 2021

Tuning Gadget

This is my old guitar tuner from the nineteen-seventies. It works by resonance: when an in-tune guitar string is played, the matching part of the tuner will vibrate in sympathy. In the photograph the E indicator on the left is vibrating, showing that the lower E-string is tuned to the correct pitch.

I never used it much. I usually found it easier to tune by ear, by tuning one string against a piano or tuning fork and then resonating the other strings against each other at the fifth fret, or by oscillating the harmonics at the fifth and seventh frets (either you’ll know what I’m talking about or you won’t).  

However, I do now use an electronic tuner which works in much the same way as the older one, by sensing the frequency of vibrations in the wood of the guitar, working out what note it makes and displaying it digitally. Here it shows the lower E-string is slightly sharp, vibrating a little more rapidly than it should. The string needs to be slightly less tight. 

The electronic tuner is better in noisy concert settings when everyone else is trying to tune their instruments at the same time and you can’t hear your own. It is more accurate: with the old tuner you had to judge the indicators by eye. It is also chromatic: it detects and indicates any note in the 12-note chromatic scale (including semitones) whereas the old tuner only picks up the six notes of standard guitar tuning. So you can use it to tune a ukulele which has a C-string, or change your guitar to DADGAD tuning. 

It will measure the pitch of almost anything. Our central heater boiler is an A-sharp. My electronically adjustable standing desk motor is between an E and an F. My beard trimmer seems to be a two-note mixture of C and G. And my nose and ear hair trimmer (ugh!) starts off at E and rises to G-sharp as it picks up speed. I haven’t yet measured Phoebe’s purr, though.

You can even measure your own voice. When you sing or speak it causes your whole skull to resonate, so by clipping the tuner to the end of a ruler held at the other end in your teeth, you can see the frequency. For example, you can test how accurately you can sing a musical scale or arpeggio, such as the C-E-G-C of a C-major chord: 

Not very in my case. Sorry about the horrible noise. Well, you try singing with a ruler clamped between your teeth. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Iceland 12: to Fljótsdalur

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Sunday 4th September 1977

Einhryningur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
Leaving Einhryningur

Our last day of walking, on the move again from Einhryningur to the Fljótsdalur youth hostel. The route drops from the mountains into the Markarfljót valley. Ahead of us, to the south, the ice cap over the Eyjafjallajökull volcano shimmers in the sunlight. The volcano, you may recall, would later erupt in 2010 causing enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: south towards the Markarfljot valley

As we descend from the mountains, the Markarfljót valley looks like a dry estuary with a stranded island. You expect the tide to come in, but Paul says it has not done so for hundreds of years. The estuary is filled with an outwash ‘sandur‘ plain, the Markarfljótsaurar, consisting of sand, clay and other glaciofluvial deposits from the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers.
Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: the Markarfljot sandur plain

Along the plain is a long flat road to the hostel. I talk to Tony for a while. He is a mature student who used to work in stockbroking. He had to overcome a lot of prejudice on switching to the lower status of trainee design technology teacher. He seems very happy and content. I take encouragement from this, being about to switch from accountant to psychology student. Nearly everyone on the walk has been to university, and all say they would have got more out if it as mature students.

Ed falls further and further behind as the day goes on. He deserves a medal for finishing. As he sits with eyes closed, someone says he looks as if he is trying to escape from reality. “What do you mean?” he replies, opening his eyes. “This is reality.”
Fljotsdalur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977

The youth hostel at Fljótsdalur (meaning: River Valley) is an old farm house converted by Dick Phillips, the tour organiser. It feels as if we have returned to civilisation out of the wilderness. There are tables, chairs, cutlery, crockery, bookshelves with an extensive collection of books about Iceland, hydro-electric power and comfort. Yet it is still isolated. Many years later, interviewed by BBC Radio Stoke, Paul said of Fljótsdalur: “The silence is broken only by the booming call of a Whooper Swan, or the whirring wingbeats of a Red-Necked Phalarope...” 

The hostel lies on the northern side of the Markarfljót plain between the Tindfjallalajökull and Eyjafjallajökull ice caps. Dick said he imagined Icelandic farmers of times past sitting out the dark days of winter, waiting for the first sight of the spring sun above the lowest point of Eyjafjallajökull.   

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: Eyjafjallajokull from Fljotsdalur
Eyjafjallajökull from Fljótsdalur 

Here is the map of the second half of the route on which the last five huts are indicated by blue arrows (click here for a greatly enlarged version):

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977

(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Caer Rhun Hall

One small aspect of our holiday near Conwy twisted an old thorn in the side: Caer Rhun Hall, a private accountancy college. I seem to remember its name emblazoned in large bold letters along the dry stone wall at the front, but may have imagined that. There are no letters now.

As mentioned in other posts, after leaving school I started to train as a Chartered Accountant but didn’t pass the exams. Well, technically, I did, but you had to pass all the exams of each stage in a single attempt. I managed to fail different ones each time, including ones I’d previously passed.

Only a few years earlier, accountancy had been a profession for the privileged. Trainees, known as articled clerks, did not receive a salary; in fact they paid their employer a ‘premium’ to take them on. A sum of around £500 (£10,000 in today’s money) would have been typical in the late nineteen-fifties. A recently-qualified chap at the firm where I worked told me he had been the first there not to have to pay, and I was one of the first to receive a salary, starting on £360 p.a. (£5,000 today). It covered my board and lodgings. Everything else depended on parental generosity, so in that sense it was still a profession for those with advantages.

You studied for the exams in your own time by correspondence course, for which an outfit called H Foulks Lynch effectively had a monopoly. You were supposed to complete and post off one unit each week, and, for most people, that went on for five years. By heck, it was tedious. No wonder accountants had such a reputation for being dull and boring when five years of their youth had been spent evenings and weekends on their own in their bedrooms studying such riveting subjects as commercial law, company accounts, auditing, income tax, and estate duty, instead of getting out and enjoying themselves like they should have been at that age.

Take a look at this, if you can face it:  


And that was one of the most interesting topics because it had a large practical element. For a really good night’s sleep, consider the other titles listed on the back. 

H Foulks Lynch then acquired a competitor. Caer Rhun Hall began to offer residential cramming courses. You could forget about the dreary correspondence course and just spend four weeks at Caer Rhun instead. It was a hard six-day week, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and it was costly, but they were so sure of themselves that if you didn’t pass you could go again for free.

Needless to say, only the rich kids could afford it, i.e. the sons (there were few girls) of wealthy clients who got sports cars for their birthdays. Then, because they had transport and were self-assured around company directors and top businessmen, they got sent out on the best jobs, the public companies and large manufacturers, while we the proletariat were stuck in the office doing shopkeepers and small traders. And they were the ones who pissed about with their correspondence courses, went to Caer Rhun Hall and passed their exams first time. Chartered Accountancy still favoured the privileged.

Chip-on-shoulder, yes, but I suppose in truth my heart wasn’t in it. Things worked out well enough in the end. And it did give me the confidence to deal with relatives’ estates and take on HMIT when they tried to tax me on expenses. 

Nevertheless, I still felt perverse satisfaction last week to see Caer Rhun Hall now out of business and abandoned.  

Urban Explorer visits the abandoned building:
(you can use the YouTube tools to watch on 2x speed) 

Saturday 16 October 2021

Iceland 11: to Einhrningur

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Saturday 3rd September 1977

At Krókur, it is the first time I have had to get up in the middle of the night for a pee, awoken by the cold. I should have bought a long ‘mummy’ sleeping bag instead of the one I have. The down-filled ones were only £35. Now, three years later, they are nearly £100.

Outside, the night is still and silent, the sky full of stars. No street lighting here. In the morning, those of us in the stable part of the hut are up ages before those in the posh, wood-panelled part. Our breath has condensed and frozen on the underside of the iron roof. When the sun comes up it warms the roof, melts the ice, and it begins to rain inside. There are a couple of warning drips and then all hell is let loose. I have never seen us get out of our sleeping bags so quickly, especially me and the other ‘Rip van Winkles’ who are all in that part of the hut. Neville, however, gets a soaking because he is wearing his down jacket inside his sleeping bag, jammed in so tight he cannot get out. He wriggles helplessly like a butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis, only to find it is still a caterpillar. It must have been really cold to be a ‘duck-suit’ night.

Pat, the youngest of us, wears all his clothes all the time, even his two-pointed, tea-cosy hat. He did not bring anything like enough to wear. He never complains about the cold, he just looks it. “Gloves on in the hut?” queries Paul.

Dick Phillips walking tour, Iceland, 1977

Dick Phillips walking tour, Iceland, 1977

Today’s walk is comparatively easy. The countryside above the Markarfljót gorge is astonishing, but the weather deteriorates as the day progresses and after a wintry downpour we are glad to reach the next hut, Einhrningur. Paul coaches our pronunciation. The trick is to stress the ‘h’ and shorten the second syllable, flicking the ‘r’ off your tongue – Ein-Hr-ningur. It means unicorn. Say it right and you sound like one, or at least like a horse.
Einhrningur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
Einhrningur mountain in a wintry downpour

Einhrningur, Dick Phillips tour, Iceland, 1977
Einhrningur hut

Those who have been walking in shorts have chapped legs. James, the landscape architect, is worst. He borrows Debbie’s Nivea skin cream. “How do you use it?” someone asks. “You have to snort it,” James responds sarcastically as he takes off his shorts and begins to rub the ointment up his thighs and high into his crotch. “I thought snorting went up your nose,” someone else says. “He thinks it’s a suppository,” suggests one of the bridge school G.T. boys. “Suppositories are useless,” James responds, “of no benefit whatsoever. They’re too big to swallow, they taste disgusting, and for all the good they do, you might just as well shove ‘em up your arse.”

With only one more day’s walking to go, the evening has a party atmosphere. The hut is the most enormous and luxurious yet, with proper bunks. James produces a bottle of whisky, no wonder his rucksack was so heavy, and we share out our remaining Mars bars and other treats. Someone sets the challenge of swinging the length of the hut hand-over-hand on the overhead beams, and then swinging back underneath the long table. Only four can do it – the bridge school of course – but Gavin tries and fails about two hundred times. I make a decent attempt but cannot do it either.

The food, already here for us, is plentiful. There is dehydrated chicken supreme, sliced spam, peas, Smash potato, Angel Delight, and apple custard. A kind of yoghurt called Skyr is received with great enthusiasm. In the morning there is Sol Gryn porridge and real eggs, and not only sandwiches to take along during the day but also chocolate bars – Old Jamaica, Three Musketeers (American Milky Way) or just chocolate. I could eat it until I’m sick. It is a big improvement on the Marathon bars we had earlier in the walk, which Paul had carried next to the cooking fuel and tainted with the taste of paraffin. Those, we renamed ‘Parathon’.

(next part
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Monday 11 October 2021

North Wales

Sorry for not responding or commenting last week. We were away in a cottage without internet at Llanbedr-y-Cennin above the Conwy valley. It is a bit off the beaten track. On the other hand, we had views down to the river and a J W Lees pub just across the road. You can’t have everything.

This green and ancient land is scattered with the remains of Iron Age hill forts, and was the location of the busy Roman township of Canovium, most of which has long disappeared.

Cross the Conwy river and you are in that part of Wales where Welsh is spoken, a language that seems to have too many Ls and Ds, and unusual combinations of letters. Words and place names echo round your head like catchy tunes as you try to make sense of them. Moel Siabod and Pentrefoelas are doing it right now. It is also not far from John Going Gently territory. Lovely. As is the countryside.


We have been many times. We came on honeymoon, then again with the kids, and now just two of us again. We have looked down from the Carneddau ridges into the cockpits of military jets flying fast along the Bethesda valley, so close we could see the pilots, and then marvelled as they lifted their jets on to their tails and blasted vertically into the stratosphere. We have looked up to the balconies of Llandudno hotels where guests, gin and tonics in hand, peruse the sweeping two-mile promenade. And we have looked along the precariously high and exposed walls of castles, afraid of losing our footing. Harlech is terrifying.

Yet we still found new things to do. We visited the enormous 80-acre Bodnant gardens for the first time. We circled on foot into the hills from the village of Abergwyngregy, past its 120 feet (37m) waterfall, returning with views across the Menai Straight to Anglesey. And we walked up from the village of Trefriw around the beautiful lakes of Llyn Crafnant and Llyn Geirionydd, one of the finest walks in Britain. 

Bodnant Gardens

Llyn Crafnant and the derelict Klondyke lead mill near Llyn Geirionydd

Almost all of our walks over the years have been from books bought thirty years ago for £1.80 and £1.99, which must be the best value walks books we ever bought. The pages note which we’ve done, with whom and when. Even after all this time, with common sense the directions still work for us.

Mrs D. is always very quick to remind me that North Wales is where I usually manage to injure myself. I have suffered twisted ankles and tripped over uneven steps on the Conwy bridge. More seriously, I slipped in sodden woodland and sat down heavily on a tree stump, damaging my coccyx. I had to carry a stiff board around at work for a month, unable sit on anything soft or curved. It was a kitchen chopping board with brightly coloured pictures of vegetables. And I fell in the bath, breaking a lower rib which clicked painfully in and out of position for a couple of weeks. It eventually set in a lob-sided lump. The doctor showed no sympathy whatsoever. “Your modelling days are over,” he told me.  

This year, it was Mrs D. who went down on a slippery stone near the derelict Klondyke mill, bruising her knee and hip, and limping. I’m not saying a word. Not one. 

Friday 8 October 2021

Iceland 10: to Krókur

links to: introduction and index - previous day - next day

Friday 2nd September 1977

Late yesterday evening at Hvanngil, Dick Phillips arrived bringing further provisions. With him were Paul’s wife Judi and another walk leader called Jenny.

Injured Ed, fearing he is holding everybody up, discreetly offers to return with Dick in the Land Rover. He is told he can but there is no compulsion. He decides in that case to continue. I don’t think he realised what he was letting himself in for on the trek, but what tenacity. Dick does take Gavin’s five tons of obsidian, though.

The early risers disappear for a short walk in the morning sun and we are slow getting away. When we eventually do, it is a beautiful day on winding mountain paths with a black desert and more rivers to cross (the Markafljot and the Hvitmaga), and further views of the high rhyolite. Paul’s wife, Judi, is walking with us. She is chatty and spontaneous, the opposite of quiet, considered Paul.

I will let the photographs do most of the talking.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: between Hvanngil and Krokur

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: between Hvanngil and Krokur

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: between Hvanngil and Krokur

Now Neville is not going so well. He has bruised heels, although not blistered. You learn a lot about yourself through walking. It separates mind from body. You are minded to keep going but your body wants to stop. I articulate this philosophy and get the piss taken out of me for the next couple of hours.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: between Hvanngil and Krokur

We don’t go as far as the itinerary indicates. Instead of a cave at Lifrarfjöll, we stop an hour early in a hut at Krókur. Its name appears to mean hook. Like the village of Hook in Yorkshire, it is on a sweeping switchback bend in the river.

Hut quality had generally been improving but Krókur is a step back. It has two parts. I choose the roomier stable section in spite of the smell of horse poo. It is preferable to being crammed into the other part, despite its wooden floor, walls and ceiling.

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: approaching Krokur
Approaching Krokur - the hut is in the valley just left of the left hand figure

Dick Phillips tour, Iceland 1977: the hut at Krokur
The Krokur hut

After dark we see the Northern Lights: electrically-charged particles from the sun colliding with the gases of the atmosphere in bands of green across the night sky. They appear at a point on the horizon and expand upwards in glowing fluorescent lines that change shape constantly, and then slowly fade as another point begins to appear low down on the horizon. Incredible! 

(next part)
Some names and personal details have been changed. I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was there.

Friday 1 October 2021

New Month Old Post: Hedge Trimmer Safety, 1968

(first posted 20th September 2016)

The Black & Decker D470 (U-272) Hedge Trimmer

If you want the kids to cut the hedge and mow the lawn, get them some dangerous power tools and they’ll do it happily while you’re at work. On no account stay home to watch or they won’t do it. Or if they do, they’ll make it look so risky you’ll have to do it yourself. 

Black & Decker D470 U-272 Hedge Trimmer

My brother and I fell for it. We moved to a house with a six-foot high hedge all along the side. We had to cut both sides because it was next to a field. Dad came home with two seriously businesslike items of equipment: an Atco petrol mower and a Black & Decker electric hedge trimmer with a sixteen-inch blade. The mower, to which I owe a useful understanding of engines, particularly the operation of the clutch, is long gone, but the hedge trimmer is in my shed. It still works, and I still use it.

Electric hedge trimmers are brutal pieces of equipment. They cause more than three thousand injuries in the U.K. every year, mainly lacerated fingers and electric shock. After all, they are designed to cut through twigs the thickness of your fingers. Today they boast numerous safety features. They have two switches to ensure you keep both hands on the machine at all times, and the blades stop the instant either switch is released. They have blade extensions: fixed teeth which extend beyond the cutting blades so you cannot hurt yourself by accidentally brushing the trimmer against your leg. They have cable protection such as coiling and a belt clip to stop you cutting through it. They have guards to protect your hands from flying or falling debris.

Not only that, they also come with pages of warnings against the ill-advised actions of idiot users. They tell you to wear heavy duty gloves, non-slip shoes and suitable clothing, not to wear a scarf or neck tie, and to tie up long hair. They suggest eye and ear protection, but to be aware that ear protection impedes your ability to hear warnings. They advise against using the trimmer in damp weather, and to watch out for roots and other obstacles you might fall over. And you should always use an RCD (GFCI) circuit breaker.

Your imagination starts to work overtime as you picture the terrible accidents and injuries that might occur. The manufacturers really do think you are an idiot. They say you should never use the equipment while tired or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You must not permit bystanders, especially children and animals. You should not cut where you cannot see, and should always first check the other side of the hedge you are trimming. Never hold the trimmer with one hand, they say, hinting that those who do might henceforth be left with only one hand to hold it with. And to ensure they have covered everything, including themselves, they tell you never to use the trimmer for any purpose other than for cutting shrubs and hedges. They seem unwilling to specify what these other purposes might be in case you take it as a recommendation. “Do not use the trimmer for shearing sheep,” they could say, “or for grooming your poodle.”

Some manufacturers even include warnings about vibration-induced circulatory problems (white finger disease), and provide advice specifically for those whose heart pacemakers might be affected by the magnetic fields around the motor. And all of this is before they get on to things that might go wrong with petrol driven trimmers and their toxic exhaust fumes and inflammable fuel, which I suppose would have applied to the motor mower my brother and I used to enjoy unsupervised.

The warnings seem so comprehensive they must be based on real accidents and incidents that have occurred over the years since home power tools emerged in the nineteen-sixties. Did someone, somewhere, magnetically disrupt their heart pacemaker and drop down dead? Did someone else, in their business suit straight from the office, catch up their necktie and die through strangulation? Could you really chop up your pet cat hiding at the other side of the hedge? And did some simpleton, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, imagine their hedge trimmer as a light sabre, and prance down the garden like Obi-Wan Kenobi to be electrocuted when the power cord tightened around their ankle and tripped them into the fish pond? 

Black & Decker D470 U-272 Hedge Trimmer

So, just how many of these safety features do you think are designed into the 1968 Black & Decker D470 (or U-272 in the United States) electric hedge trimmer? Practically none of course, save for blade extensions and a few warnings. The manufacturers thought it more important to tell you about its power, speed and ruggedness, and the sharpness of the tempered spring steel blade. There is nothing to prevent you from using it one-handed, and it will keep going even when you put it down. One-handed is actually useful: you can reach further without having to move your step-ladder.

Black & Decker D470 U-272 Hedge Trimmer

When you switch off it takes two or three seconds to stop. That is why my brother did have an accident. At home on his own one summer afternoon aged about fifteen he helpfully thought he would trim the hedge. He caught the end of his finger in the blade and had to phone Mum at work because he thought he might need to go to hospital, which he did. He had cut about a third of the way into the side of his nail and only noticed when his arm began to feel wet. 

Maybe I shouldn’t use it, but I do. It may be so old as not even to get a mention on the Black & Decker web site, but why buy a new one when it is still good? Modern ones are so feeble they need replacing within ten years. This one has already lasted over fifty.

In any case, hedge trimmers are only the third most frequent cause of garden injuries requiring hospital treatment. Far more people are hurt by lawn mowers and even by plant pots.

Black & Decker D470 U-272 Hedge Trimmer
Instruction sheet for the Black & Decker D460 and D470 (U-272 or 8120) hedge trimmers