April 22, 2015

Pressing on

Another bright sunny day today so it was a good time to tackle 56NE’s up-front bits, namely the front of the main tube, the engine frame and the engine itself. There are one or two rusty bolts that ideally I’d have liked to replace – the ones holding the exhaust manifold on, for example, but I’m afraid that that wasn’t going to happen on this occasion. What I did want to do, though, was degrease and clean everything up, touch in any little chips in the white coating and paint on the tube and engine frame together with any little bits of corrosion that were beginning to show themselves, and also decorrode and repaint the radiator brackets that were actually looking pretty awful.

I managed to get all of those things done and 56NE’s front end ended-up looking a bit cleaner and tidier as a result, as the following pictures show.

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I was happy with how it turned out, anyway. What was disappointing, though, was that my new radio antenna again failed to show up. This is annoying because I’m heading down south for a few days from tomorrow to give my friend Val a hand with her house move and if it doesn’t arrive before I leave, I’ll have all of the hassle of having to pick it up from the local post office in Plazac. No big problem but just a nuisance. I’ll have to see what tomorrow brings but what is fairly certain is that the weather’s about to change. I’d like to get a bit more done before I head off but I’ll have to see what the weather gods have in store. From the look of the sky this evening and the cloud that’s building, rain is in the offing so it’s probably just as well that I am going off for a while as I think my work here would have come to stop in any event.

April 21, 2015

A long day’s work

We’ve had a stonker of a day today with blue skies, continuous wall-to-wall sunshine and a high of 26 degrees Celsius. One of the things that you don’t have to worry about on a day like today is getting things soaking wet because before you know it, they’re back to being bone dry again. So what better day to get stuck into giving 56NE the thorough clean that it’s overdue for.

I don’t think that 56NE’s former owners ever did more than the bare minimum when it came to keeping it looking presentable for the summer tourists in Brittany. Even when I bought it, the inside of the pod was covered in a film of grime and areas that you couldn’t see, like under the rear fuselage covers, were a grimetastic disaster. And since then not only have I flown it for two more seasons without doing as much myself in the cleaning stakes as I really should have, it’s also been parked out in the open under covers which also encourage more grime to be deposited as the air blows through them.

Now I know that 56NE is not in the first flush of youth, but there’s no reason why an older aircraft should be a dirty one. If an aircraft looks dirty and down-at-heel, that’s the way it flies and it’s amazing how by just giving it a bit of spit and polish, it seems to become more sprightly and altogether more lively. My plan for today, therefore, was to start on 56NE’s deep cleaning process, including the inside of the rear fuselage, covers and tubes, and the interior of the cabin. And because of the weather, I needed to have no fear about softening the grime with a weak detergent solution and hosing it away, including in the cabin even.

It all went very well. At different times I used a sponge, a brush and even the floor mop to reach areas that I couldn’t get to by hand – the bottom of the inside of the fuselage cover and up in the nose of the pod, for example. Then I used the hosepipe with a small high pressure spray to wash the grime away, just taking care not to spray up behind the instrument panel or onto the battery terminals, and tilting the aircraft afterwards to pour the water out of it. It’ll never come up like a new aircraft – that would need a miracle of sorts – but I was very happy with the results, as the following pictures show. Take it from me, the fabric, tubes and everything else in the internal areas shown in the first two were all beyond filthy.

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It’s definitely the cleanest that 56NE has ever been since I’ve owned it and I haven’t even started on the outside yet. The cleaning and rinsing water that I periodically had to keep throwing away was as black as ink, so I must have shifted quite a lot of dirt, grease and muck. Once I’ve finished the cleaning, I’ll be able to go on and touch up the places where the white coating has been abraded or chipped off. I’ll have to use paint, of course, but someone has already been very busy in the past with the paint pot, not always as neatly as one might have hoped, so there’s no point losing any sleep over that. After all this, I’m hoping that when Wim and I leave for our west coast trip that 56NE will be a credit to its owner – just have to wait and see 😉

April 20, 2015

Useful day

Victor dropped in for a coffee this morning, which was a nice surprise, and we were able to sit out in the sun for an hour or so while we chin-wagged and scoffed a few biscuits. It’s a hard life I know, but someone’s got to do it 🙂

While he was here, he was able to help me with a little job that needed two people to do safely. Someone had forced one of the battens into one of the wing covers that I’ve just fitted and put a couple of nicks into the batten pocket. Luckily it was close to the wing root and therefore easily accessible but it was impossible for one person to both insert the batten and also ease its tip across the nicks. It only took the pair of us a couple of minutes, but at least I can now cross that job off the list.

After he’d gone, I got on with fitting the new shock absorbers. It didn’t take long, an hour or so, and they didn’t look too bad at the end, as the following pictures show.

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The top shot is of the side that was damaged, so as you can see, no permanent damage was done. After I’d got the second one off, I found out part of the reason why 56NE’s wheels were canted in a bit. As the following pic shows, the top rubber bush was totally shot.

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So although I was a bit miffed at the time that the damage to 56NE’s undercarriage occurred, it looks as though it actually did me a bit of a favour. I would otherwise never have got around to replacing the shock absorbers, but based on the evidence they were in pretty poor shape and probably well overdue for the knackers yard.

I’m now waiting for my new radio antenna to arrive from England so while I’m waiting, I think I might go ahead and give 56NE the thorough clean that it needs. I started by giving the fabric in the cockpit and the seats a bit of a scrub and was amazed by how black the water became. The seats have obviously not been cleaned for ages and I have to admit that it showed. Here’s a pic that I took of them afterwards while they were still drying, which also shows the patching that I had to do to repair the holes in them made by the wretched rodent.

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They’re far from perfect but replacing them or their covers even, would take too much work for what is, after all, quite an old aircraft. The seat covers are well stained with this and that but there’s still a lot of grease and dirt on them which just might come off if I give them another good scrub. That’s maybe a good first job for tomorrow as we’re expecting a good ‘washing’ day – warm, dry and sunny. So it’ll be sleeves up and get scrubbing – must remember to put my rubber gloves on so I don’t get wrinkly, sore hands 😉

April 19, 2015

Shock horror!

Well, not quite, but I couldn’t resist the headline. The new shock absorbers arrived yesterday but I couldn’t fit them because I had to cut the grass as rain was forecast for today. It duly arrived, but mainly during the night, but as it’s still a bit cool with a few spits of rain in the air, I shall fit them tomorrow when the weather’s forecast to be back to being warm and dry again.

But I have had a chance to compare them to the old ones, and here’s the surprise. The new ones are much closer in style to the old ones than to the ones fitted on my friends’ UK built X-Air as you can see by comparing the following pic to the one in my last post.

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The new ones are slightly longer than the old, which will help to deal with the slight canting in of 56NE’s main wheels, but have the same number of spring coils (13 compared to the 8 of the UK version). Why should this be? I don’t know for sure, but think that this is probably one of the several modifications that were made when the X-Air received its approval under the UK’s microlight ‘Section S’ regime. It’s also understandable. The more coils there are in a given length, the smaller the gaps are between them and the less travel they allow when the shock absorber and its spring are compressed. And the more travel you have, the more accommodating the suspension is to ‘hard’ landings, as I recently found to my cost.

As I mentioned in my last post, when I contacted Fournales Suspension SA during last week, they confirmed that the travel on the X-Air suspension should be 58mm, and although I can see that from the picture I posted of them this would probably be achievable by the UK spec shocks, I doubt that either the old or the ‘original equipment’ new ones that I have just received from Randkar would be compressible to such an extent. Is this important? I think it is, at the fringes at least.

Usually, as I’ve found up to now, you can make the odd ‘hard’ landing without any problems, but with runways being what they are in this part of the world, there is always the opportunity, especially when landing on a piste that you’re not familiar with, that you might end up with one that’s a tad harder than usual. If that happens, whereas you would probably get away with just a red face with ‘UK spec’ shocks fitted, the chance is that you could end up with a broken suspension leg, as I did, with the lower travel ‘French spec’ shocks. The solution? Obvious – if in doubt, go around – don’t ever take the chance of dumping it down hard if you can possibly avoid it.

On a more positive note, it looks as though the latest X-Air shocks, which are made by Endurance in India (not surprising really, as that’s where the X-Air is made), are of a slightly improved design. The ones that are currently fitted to 56NE, which I now think after all were original equipment, have a shorter cylinder than the new ones with an exposed rod or leg that’s visible in the above pic (chrome plated). In the new ones, the leg is fully enclosed, an improvement that by keeping out dirt and contamination will probably lead to the units having a longer life. Hopefully, not that that will concern me too much, as I can’t see me fitting a new set during the rest of my flying career. I only hope that by voicing such a comment that I don’t provoke the gods and end up doing another hard landing next week 😐

April 17, 2015

Making progress

We have a dull, cool morning today, with a little bit of drizzle, which is why I’m indoors typing this. But for most of the week, we’ve enjoyed temperatures as high as 27 and 28 degrees Celsius, which has allowed me to get on with the work I want to do on 56NE.

The incident of a week or so ago which involved some minor damage to 56NE’s undercarriage caused me to take a closer look at its shock absorbers, not the least because the one on the side affected got slightly bent. It wasn’t enough to prevent 56NE being flown (after all, I landed back at Galinat OK after the incident and safely took off again and landed down the road at the field near my house) but it was definitely enough to make me examine them much more closely than I had up to then.

Ever since I first acquired 56NE, I’ve noticed that the main undercarriage wheels were slightly canted in at the top, but more so than I’ve seen on any other X-Air. I’ve also noticed that the coils of the springs that enclose the shock absorber bodies were much closer together than on other X-Airs, and you can see what I mean in the following image.

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On the left is one of the shock absorbers on my friends Ken and Peter’s X-Air and on the right is one that is on 56NE. The difference in coil spacing is very evident and as it is not a trivial matter or one that should be overlooked, I decided that all was not quite right. It was suggested that all I needed to do was find a shop selling shock absorbers and buy another pair of a similar pattern. However, I decided to look into things in a bit more detail and although it took me most of a glorious day earlier this week with an outside temperature of over 28 degrees Celsius, it was lucky that I did.

Randkar, the X-Air distributor based at Frossay in the Loire, publishes a detailed parts guide, but this does not include much by way of individual part specifications and nothing by way of details on the shock absorbers themselves. However, during my on line researches I contacted a French company called Fournales Suspension SA which offers an alternative design shock absorber for the X-Air and in their reply they confirmed that the distance between the upper and lower fixings is 280mm, the upper fixing is for a bolt of 10mm diameter, the lower fixing is a fork and that the compression travel is 58mm.

I knew all of this apart from the compression travel, which is a key figure and is, of course, affected by the gaps between the outer spring coils. There was no way that with the tiny gaps between the coils on 56NE’s springs, that a compression travel of this magnitude would ever be possible and as well as partially explaining why my last hard landing had resulted in undercarriage damage (ie because there was insufficient travel for the shock absorber to actually absorb the shock of the landing) it also suggested to me that the shock absorbers fitted to 56NE were probably not standard equipment.

So it then became clear that I should really replace them. I was slightly taken aback by the price quoted by Randkar of over 300€ for a new pair (the Fournales price was 1080€ with a production delay of 10 days!), so I thought that I’d look to see if any suitable alternatives might be available.

I had to start off by estimating the force that might normally be needed to compress 56NE’s shock absorbers. There is no published figure that I know of but as the maximum all-up weight of the aircraft is 450 kg, in order to allow for a heavy-ish one wheel crosswind landing, I estimated that 200 kg would be a reasonable figure. If that’s in the ballpark, that would put the shocks on 56NE some way outside of anything that I’ve come across fitted to a heavy motorbike, let alone a scooter, and in my searches I also hadn’t come across anything else of the right pattern and dimensions on any other kind of vehicle. Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t something out there.

I then sent a hand-drawn picture of what I was looking for together with the numbers to a couple of specialist French shock absorber companies and they replied by return saying that they could not supply. I also sent the same information off to Hogan Shocks in the UK, a world-class manufacturer of motorbike shock absorbers, who can supply a made-to-measure pair for only 210€, and this is what they told me after I’d also sent them a photograph of what was currently fitted. They said that what I had was a not very expensive shock absorber combined with a very powerful spring and that it was therefore something slightly out of the ordinary. They regretted that they couldn’t supply anything of a similar specification and suggested that I should be very careful about anything else that anyone offered to replace it.

At that point, I decided that enough was enough and that, as I said to Victor, the safety of my aircraft was worth more to me than 300€. So I decided to immediately place an order on Randkar to obtain a pair of original replacements with delivery ASAP as 56NE was, and still is, standing outside in my garden propped up on one wheel and a jack. I knew that Randkar had the items in stock and off went an email to them requesting urgent supply with payment by bankers card and despatch that same day. But now for a little game of ‘spot the difference’.

While all of the above was going on, I’d also had to do something about getting a replacement radio antenna for 56NE. I’d checked and found that although the one on MYRO was an excellent one, having been MOD surplus equipment, removing it was a bit too involved. So I needed to source another new one. Despite searching on the internet, I couldn’t find anything suitable in France and I refuse in this day and age to start looking in Yellow Pages and phoning around on the off-chance. Those days are long gone in my book and the sooner French suppliers realise it, the sooner they’ll start to get their economy moving again. So as usual, I turned to a supplier in the UK, Corby Radio. I sent them a message, got a reply by return and after a further brief exchange gave them an order, paid for it and had it despatched all on the same day. And all for the princely sum of £31.

So what about my 300€ order for a pair of shock absorbers placed on Randkar? I know from experience that any order placed on P & M in the UK is received, processed and despatched the same day, usually for next-day delivery, if the parts are in stock. So surely Randkar would do likewise? Not a hope! Not having had a reply from them after sending a previous email, I followed up with a telephone call and was asked by them to send an email. So then I painfully went through the process of telling them that I wanted a pair of shocks that I knew were in stock and that I wanted to pay for them and have them despatched that same day. Not possible, I was told, and that if I wanted such a thing I’d have to pay a surcharge, probably of 30-40€!

What is it about French companies? Unfortunately, I think that they will never, ever learn and until they do, France will sadly remain mired in the economic mess that it currently finds itself in. I used to care but as I am now finding that this attitude towards customers and customer service is pretty uniform, I’m now just becoming impatient and beginning to think that really it’s their own fault and they reap what they sow. It took them until the next afternoon (over 24 hours) before a very nice young lady phoned me to expedite the order and take my bank card details. Imagine if I hadn’t been home 😐

April 13, 2015

Work started

I want to get the jobs I have planned on 56NE done as soon as possible so I know that it’s ready for our planned trip up the west coast, and also because I want to miss as little of the good flying weather to come as possible. Yesterday was the ideal day to get cracking as we had a high of 24 degrees Celsius with no wind to speak of and with the prospect of 28 degrees as the week progresses, it should be a good few days to get everything done.

The only downside, as I’ve found so many times in the past, is the ruddy insects. I don’t know if it’s something to do with living in a rural area where there are lots of animals, but as soon as you venture onto the grass when the sun comes out, you are instantly plagued by swarms of small flies. They are a total nuisance as they aim all the time for your eyes, ears and mouth and once they have homed-in on you they are very persistent and never give up. I’ve swallowed loads of the little blighters in the time that I’ve lived here.

It got so bad yesterday that I needed to do something and it occurred to me that I should see if the mosquito repellent that was left over from last year would have any effect. I was encouraged as I sprayed it on when I saw that although it had pictures of mosquitos on it, it was actually labelled ‘Insect Repellent’. And I was even more delighted when I found that it actually seemed to work! At last I wasn’t having to constantly swat the damn things away from my eyes and mouth and could concentrate on the job in hand, which yesterday was to swap the wing covers over.

It isn’t too difficult a job but just takes time as you have to be careful not to do any damage to them in the process. The first one went like clockwork but for some reason, although I did the second in exactly the same way, one of the cables that has to be fed through inside the wing managed first to entwine itself around the trailing edge tube and then around the cross member tube, requiring the wing framework to be withdrawn from the cover after its having been carefully inserted on both occasions.

I also replaced a couple of the original bolts that secure the aileron brackets and tensioning cables, after the thread on one stripped, with much better old ones that I’d kept when I refurbished MYRO back in 2009, so that was handy. I eventually finished off in the early evening and was pleased to have got the job over and done with. Here are a couple of shots of the wings with the replacement all-yellow covers on and the yellow and blue ones that I’d taken off ready to be rolled up and stored in my grenier.

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So now I’m all ready to get going on the hull jobs. As well as giving it a thorough clean, which will do wonders for it, as 56NE’s radio antenna broke some time ago, I also want to fit MYRO’s, which is nearly new and is going to waste at present. Although I don’t need radio at all for local flying, we will need it for our west coast trip so I want to get my kit in, working and ready. As I type this, the day’s already warming up with a clear blue sky and no wind to speak of. So I’d better think about getting myself organised – and getting my insect repellent spray out again.

April 9, 2015

Quick hop

56NE has been standing out under covers at Galinat since August 2013 and to say that it is in need of a really good clean is an understatement. I’d also like to renew a few nuts and bolts on it and give it a thorough general check-over before our planned flight up the west coast of France in early June. It also came with a complete set of spare wings when I bought it and I stupidly originally fitted the wrong set of covers, so with the list of jobs steadily growing and especially as I’d now like to change the wing covers over, it made sense to get it back to my house where the work can be done more easily.

I got permission from the owner of the field just down the road where I took off from in August 2013 to fly it back in there and as there’s a guy who rents it and is about to put cows on it, there was some urgency for me to get it ferried over ASAP. The weather hasn’t played ball recently because although it’s been dry and bright, the winds have been a bit too high for comfort. However, it looked as though things would improve today so long as I made the flight early in the morning, so as Wim also planned to come over to help me dismantle 56NE, we agreed to fly into the field together at 9.15 am.

For once everything went as planned. As I approached the field, I could see Wim below me turning onto his downwind leg, so I peeled off to give him some time to land and followed him in a few minutes later. The landing was quite ‘interesting’ as the field is below a small hill with trees and a power line on its top. You have to get your speed right down (70 kmh for 56NE), just skim the top of the hill and then push your nose down a bit to hit the right spot on the field. This, of course, adds a bit more airspeed, which is why it’s important to get your speed down as low as you can as you crest the hill, because although the field is pretty long, especially by Dordogne standards, it soon gets used up if you come in too fast and the trees and house at the end of it would loom up pretty fast.

I’d attached my new little sportcam to 56NE before taking off and shot a video of the whole flight, including the takeoff and landing, which you can view by clicking on the following image. In the video, as I taxi back up the field before parking you can see what I mean about the hill with its trees and power line (also visible with part of one of its twin water towers in the image below).

Field at Le Bousquet

Wim and I then set to to get the wings off 56NE and walk them one after the other the few hundred yards up the road to my house. After we’d done that, Wim walked ahead while I taxied 56NE up the road to my front garden – imagine doing that in the UK, you’d be hung, drawn and quartered if anyone saw you, let alone if a galant law-enforcer actually caught you doing it! So two hours after landing, 56NE was back on my front lawn where it started out from nearly two years ago.

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I didn’t have time to start doing any work on it today, so later on I just got it covered up for the night.

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So it was a good day’s work. We had a high of 24 degrees Celsius today with wall-to-wall sunshine and it looks as though we can expect more of the same going into next week. So it will be a good time to be airborne but in general things can only get better as from now as the year proceeds, so the sooner I can get the jobs I have in mind finished, the sooner I can get back in the air and enjoying the summer’s flying.

April 7, 2015

Early night tonight

Because I’m slightly knackered. I bought a Honda ‘motobineuse’ (rotavator) just after I arrived here but apart from using it to dig out an old plastic tarpaulin half-full of sand that the previous occupier of my house had thoughtfully left buried in my front grass, it’s stood idle for the rest of the time. I originally bought it to use to level out the humps in my front grass that were like waves in the sea as a result of the aforesaid resident once having a vegetable patch in the most prominent place imaginable, right in the front of the front grass, but despite said waves being a pain in the backside every time I’ve mowed the lawn since, I’ve never got around to doing the work.

But now I’ve bought myself a ride-on mower the work has had to be done because it’s got a 38″ cut which is wide enough to span across the dips in the waves, meaning that only the tops would be mowed and the grass in the dips in between would never be cut. That’s unless I went over them again by hand, and why would I want to do that? My garden will never be level in the neat and tidy way that British gardeners like to think about their lawns but I can get it level enough for the ride-on to do a good enough job, which will save me an awful lot of work over time.

I started the job on Friday by skimming the top off a hump in the grass that I’d artistically disguised by standing a bird bath on it and using the soil removed to fill up an adjacent hollow. This is easily said but I found that the effort involved was quite considerable and after I’d finished work, it was pure luxury to stagger indoors and stand under a glorious hot shower to ease my aching muscles.

Based on previous experience, I suspected that I might find anything under the hump as I think that the previous occupier principally saw the grassy areas surrounding my house as his own private landfill, but fortunately I only found a few old half-burnt logs, broken bricks and other similar detritus that anyone else would have disposed of by taking it to the dump. After getting the areas as level as I could by hand, without a roller unfortunately, I finished off by scattering a goodly quantity of ‘gazon de regarnissage’ (grass seed to regenerate an existing worn lawn) over them, and this is how they looked.

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I’ve said on various occasions that you’ve only got to poke a stick into the ground around here and the next thing you’re pulling out umpteen lumps of rock. Just in case anyone thought that this was me exaggerating a little, here’s a shot of what I extracted just by skimming a few inches off the top of the hump in my front grass.

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I wanted to continue the job on Saturday but I couldn’t because the ruddy rotavator wouldn’t start. There was no spark but another (wrong) spark plug worked OK, so all had to do was buy a replacement. Easy in the UK, almost impossible after mid-day on Saturday in rural France. I went back to the local Pôle Vert gardening shop in Thenon where I’d previously been unsuccessful in buying a new belt for the ride-on mower thinking that buying a spark plug would be much easier. Just give them the reference, they look up the equivalent from the range that they sell and Bob’s your uncle. Nope, that was an impossibility as the workshop computer was switched off, so once more they were ‘désolé’ at being unable to supply such a complex spare part.

That meant, of course, that Saturday was effectively wasted and Monday too, because being Easter, absolutely nowhere was open for business. So after a frustrating wait, I managed to get hold of a spark plug today, which allowed me to finish off the job and level out the ‘ocean waves’, and here’s how it looked at the end of it.

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To say that I’m pleased to have finished it is an understatement as now I’ll be able to sell on the rotavator, which has been taking up space in my wood store that can be more usefully used by my new ride-on mower. I had an interesting conversation at the end of the day with the old boy who owns the field opposite my house. He recently cut down a clump of trees that were on the corner of the field opposite my neighbour, Benjamin’s, house, and has been moving the logs back to his house where they will be stored for a couple of years until they’re seasoned and ready to burn. He’s 78 years old and told me that even when you’re retired in France, you still need to work a little bit to make ends meet 😉

He told me that he and his family were always ‘paysans’ working on the land and my guess is that he still lives in the family home just up the road in Le Bos de Plazac. He said that things were very difficult during the war because his father was taken away for the whole of the six years and even though he was only a young child, he had to help his mother to work on their land to feed the family, and even up until relatively recently with the introduction of mechanisation, the work was very labour intensive. He says that he’s paying for it now with rheumatism and arthritis in his joints and he has to take it a bit easy moving his logs around. Apparently, as well as the ones opposite my house, he’s got quite a lot more scattered here and there in the surrounding countryside that he cut down in past years on bits of land that he still owns.

We talked about how his cutting the trees down had opened up the view over towards the other side of the Vézère valley and how I’d decided not to take off from his field in 56NE a couple of years before for safety reasons, because it was a bit too short as a ‘piste’. He said that that hadn’t worried them too much during the War because not only had they dropped parachutists there, but from time to time British aircraft, presumably Lysanders, had landed there too. What a fascinating old boy and what an interesting end to the day.

April 2, 2015

April fool

With our planned flight up the west coast in mind, I recently ordered a new little pop-up tent on Ebay. And it arrived from Germany yesterday, on a date that could hardly have been more appropriate, as it turned out, as I’ll explain below.

Now, I’m of a generation when boy-scouts still wore shorts and tried to do a good deed every day and tents had stout metal poles and guy ropes that could stand up against a force 10 gale, so all this stuff about tents popping up and being put away in 5 seconds is all new to me. So after the lady who delivered it in its one metre square cardboard box had gone, I couldn’t wait to get it out on my kitchen floor. As it turned out, that was my first mistake, but I’ll come back to why after I’ve shown you the next two pictures of the tent itself in and out of its fabric carry-bag.

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It looks quite innocent, lying there on the floor, doesn’t it? Yes, I thought so too, but appearances can be deceptive as I soon found out. I knew that in principle, all you had to do was release the elastic strap that was stretched around the body of the tent and it would then very helpfully open up and self-erect. So that’s what I did, inadvisedly as it turned out. As soon as I released the strap the tent took on a life of its own and jumped up like a snake coming out of a giant jack-in-the-box, increasing its volume by many multiples.

I had visions of those cartoons you see when someone pulls the pin on an inflatable life-raft before getting out of the sinking ship but fortunately, even though the force of it all was enough to throw me backwards against my fridge door, once the tent had sprung into shape there was still room enough for both it and me in my kitchen. As it started off standing on its end, after a bit of a struggle, I managed to wrestle it over and round and got it aligned across the room, at which time I was able to take the next shot.

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Prior to all of this excitement, I’d been sure that I would be able to watch how the tent unfolded as a guide to refolding it and getting it back in its bag. No chance! The whole thing had happened with such amazing alacrity that the main action was all over in the blink of an eye, but I still harboured a faint hope that it couldn’t be that difficult and certainly not for someone with an intellect as keen and sharp as my own. So after poking my nose inside and assessing it for size, I launched into the job of getting it down and repacked.

There was no obvious place to start, so I started by gathering the fibreglass rings that give it its structure all together on top and trying to wrestle them into some sort of circular shape. I thought I was doing pretty well until the ones on the bottom somehow flew out sideways making the structure flip back up again in a kind of weird distorted shape, knocking my glasses askew and making me look like Captain Mainwaring on Dad’s Army after being slapped in the face by a wet kipper. However, after readjusting them and undeterred by the experience, I gave it another go. This time I refused to give in and using all my manly strength and giving no quarter, I coiled the springs into a circular shape. Voilà!

But no, I knew immediately that I had failed. The circle of springs and fabric lying on my kitchen floor was of a diameter at least twice that of the carry-bag that was supposed to contain it, so back to the drawing board. Or, more correctly, the internet. And it seemed that I was not alone in being unable to fathom the complexities of re-folding the humble pop-up tent. As soon as I googled the term, up popped dozens of links explaining how it should be done, including a myriad of Youtube videos. What would we do without it eh?

I started by watching an instructional video of a young Chinese chap doing the necessary but I have to admit that the ‘Hahs!’ and grunts of his companion behind the lens put me off a bit and when I came to emulate the former’s deft moves in my kitchen the lesson had apparently not sunk in and I failed hopelessly to achieve the desired results. Shamefacedly, I returned to my computer screen and this time ended up watching a lightly built but slightly unkempt young lady who clearly enjoyed camping and put me to shame by expertly flicking her wrists and getting her pop-up tent into a neat round coil in a brace of shakes while smiling the whole time at the camera.

So what could I do? This time I could not be beaten and returned to the task with new determination. I grabbed the framework as she’d instructed and gave it a twist and a heave, but without success. I tried again, and all of a sudden, as if knowing that it was beaten, the tent meekly collapsed itself into a neat round heap on the floor. All well and good, but I had no idea what I’d done differently that time compared to before! So back I went to the computer, got the young lady fired up again on my computer screen and this time paid a bit more attention to her exact moves.

I cracked it after that. Now I’m an expert in re-packing pop-up tents. Pretty soon I might even make my own Youtube video to show how it’s done. Just keep watching this space 😉

April 1, 2015

Tractor driver

My, let’s say, somewhat strained relationship with lawnmowers continues. I don’t have enough grass to justify spending a lot of money on a ride-on mower, what is called a ‘tondeuse tracteur’ over here, and in any case, I’d have had to be mad to do so given the number of mowers that have been destroyed under my stewardship by rocks that they’ve come across nestling in the grass. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t envied those lucky souls who glide seemingly effortlessly around their estates leaving a swathe of beautifully manicured greensward in their wake.

But spring is upon us (well almost, if it would only warm up a bit) and the grass is getting high again, so the time has come to wheel the trusty lawnmower out and give it a dust down ready for action. I can’t say that I’m relishing the prospect, although it cannot be denied that I need the exercise after a winter of almost total idleness, so now that the supply of hidden rocks seems to be almost at an end, I found myself once again idly perusing the small ads for a bargain-price ‘tondeuse tracteur’.

Experience has told me that there’s no such thing as far as a French seller is concerned. They leave their machines out in all weathers until they are a mass of rust and when the engine eventually packs up, they still think that there’s someone mug enough out there to take it off their hands for two or three hundred euros. So my expectations were hardly high – that was until I came across a machine being sold by a fellow British ex-pat. And that’s why I found myself driving down into the Lot-et-Garonne in the rain on Sunday to take a look.

The seller only wanted 195€ for it, or something like £140, so so long as it started, ran, cut the grass OK and looked as though it might continue doing so for a couple of years or so, it was hardly an extravagant purchase. Well, it seemed to tick all of those boxes so then it was time to see about getting it home. I’d taken my trailer with me but unfortunately it was just too small to accommodate the beast. The seller had a larger one, so I suggested that if he loaned it to me, I could drive home with the mower and then return to pick up my trailer either later that day or in the morning.

Now I don’t know if it was because he was a Geordie and I am a Southerner and he thought that I might never return with his more expensive trailer, but he didn’t like the idea and suggested instead that for an extra 5€, he would follow me home with the ‘tondeuse tracteur’ on his trailer. This seemed far too good an offer to turn down but I tried to explain to him that I hardly lived ‘just up the road’ from his house. He wouldn’t have it though, so off we went – on a journey that took the best part of two hours! I knew he’d be a bit miffed at the end of it, but nobody could say that I hadn’t tried to dissuade him, so I parted with another 20€ and after unloading the machine, off he went again with his wife, who’d ‘come along for the ride’ in the passenger seat of their Renault.

All I could do on Sunday was park it up outside and cover it up to keep the rain off it. However, on Monday there was enough of a gap in the showers to fire it up and give it a spin. I’m glad to say that it worked fine and when I looked behind I was more than pleased to see that I was leaving a neatly cut 38″ wide swathe behind me as I drove. Here are some pics that I took of it parked outside the back of my house.

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And so it came to yesterday evening. My neighbour Benjamin was out with the engine of his push-mower roaring away as he cut his grass, working up a good sweat as he did so. So that gave me the opportunity to fire up the little red beast and go driving past him into my garden, waving regally as the Duke of Edinburgh does as he glides past the crowds in the royal coach during Ascot Week. Benjamin looked suitably impressed, but pride comes before a fall.

I wanted to pick up mowing where I’d left off on Monday, but as I dropped the blades, I noticed that now there was no grass shooting out from the side of the blade housing. On stopping and checking, I found that for some reason, the blade driving belt had jumped right out of its pulley wheels, so I dutifully fed it back in and tried again. So then it snapped. The machine was then put back under wraps and I’ve spent part of today looking for a replacement part. Local suppliers can’t be bothered to check their stock unless you give them chapter and verse on the machine, its maker and year of manufacture and the actual reference number of the original belt. I’m not sure what world they live in – the machine is second-hand and at least 15 years old so I guess that as usual, they think that if they don’t bother, you’ll buy a new mower off them. Fat chance.

As usual, the internet seems to have come to the rescue and I’ve located what I think will be a suitable replacement of the right length and dimensions for under 25€ including delivery. The only problem is that, as usual, it’ll probably take 3 or 4 days to arrive (it’s only got to get to my place from Agen, less than 2 hours drive away), so I may have to wait until after the Easter week-end to see if it works. If it does, as I think it will, I’ll then be able to join the ranks of the idle land-owners who mow their lawns while sitting down and smoking a large cigar 😉