Archive for the 'Neil Mukerji' category

Solar PV installation

Solar what?

I’ve not got a history of being especially green, yet I’ve just done something (apparently) rather “eco”. I’ve sold the M5, and rather than replacing it I have invested those funds along with some savings into a fairly noticeable set of solar panels for the house roof. There are three good reasons to do this:

1) It is ecologically preferable. Just 3 years ago we were a 3 car family, totalling nearly 10 litres and 700hp of motoring genius. There were all sorts of excursions such as trips to the Nűrburgring etc, but since then we’ve moved to larger house and become more invested in our local jobs and making a nest for our imminent family. It makes sense to try and put something back in. That said though to be honest I’d be quick to buy another large V8 if I thought I’d have the time and money to drag it sideways around circuits all weekend. Hmm.

2) More convincingly, there are substantial financial incentives currently in place for solar PV installations. Install after March 2012 and these incentives start fading annually, but install before April 2012 and there’s a tasty government backed, indexed linked “Feed in Tariff” (FiT) that should provide ROI for 25 years.

3) Most interestingly, this is some geeky apparatus. I’ve got some rather cool kit and can produce lots of stats and graphs. Fruity!

Research

So anyway, all this started at the beginning of the year when the cost of heating water here at home was starting to get to me. At that point I was interested in solar thermal (and I still am), but my research from that point forward suggested that it would make sense to get solar PV first (to get in before the April 2012 deadline), and worry about solar thermal once I’d recovered from that. I’m fortunate that my friend Henry’s (of three peaks fame) father is the project leader for Rushcliffe Solar, and was able to point me in the right direction on many of these matters.

Still it wasn’t until July, when amidst British Gas’s announcement that they were going to significantly increase energy costs from mid-August, that I took a slightly different route to work and noticed a couple of nearby homes had recently had some panels fitted.

The above photo neatly highlights both the different styles of panels available, and the restrictions that roof size can make on an installation. Personally, I don’t like those silver trimmed efforts on the right, and I really like those black panels on the left. Also, the house on the right was clearly restricted to 12 panels by the size of their roof. With a good panel yielding around 245W, that installation on the right can at best produce 2,940W, whereas the 16 panels on the left could produce 3,920W. Systems under 4kW are eligible for the most favourable FiT, so I wondered if the installation on the left was exactly what I was looking for.

That evening on the way home from work I decided to visit the house on the left and see if they wouldn’t mind giving me some details. I was lucky enough to find the owners extremely enthusiastic and more than happy to pass on as much information as I could digest. Those are 245W Solar World PV modules, and they were installed by a company called Eco Fusion. Later that week I called up and soon had a site survey booked in.

Installation size and pre-requisites

I also realised that I’d probably have to do something about my house’s original 1975 fuse box:

So I booked an electrician from Diane’s business group to come in and replace that. As it happens he arrived on the same day as the PV survey, which handily allowed him to confirm their requirements. Once he had finished the fuse cupboard looked rather more satisfactory:

Anyway, back to the PV survey, which is where things got interesting. I’d roughly measured the roof, and had feared that we would only be able to have a 2×7 panel array up there. The survey guy explained that in order to protect against wind and to ensure running water doesn’t surge over the gutter, it’s necessary to ensure that the panels are at least 200mm from any roof edge. Consequently, we could only fit a 2×6 panel array on the main roof. He therefore suggested that we put 4 panels on the extension roof. Let’s put this into context with a photograph:

Yeah, it’s an ugly house. At least there’s no beauty to lose by coating it in solar technology! The house faces a little east of south, so the extension roof would be okay in the morning but would be shaded by the main house roof later in the day – not ideal. Still, the surveyor left and I mulled things over while I waited to hear back from them. I went out for a run and, having memorized the roof and panel dimensions, pondered the situation.

Suddenly I had a Eureka moment – what if the panels could be mounted in landscape rather than portrait? I knew the panels were 1001mm wide and a 20mm gap is required between each panel. So for panels + gaps + run-off the roof would need to be (4×1001) + (3×20) + (2×200) = 4464mm from ridge to gutter. There was only one way to be sure, and that was to get up there and measure it with a tape measure, and I was pleased to note it could be managed with a few mm to spare! So I called the shop and put this suggestion to them, and after and hour or so they came back to me and said it would work out.

I should note here that since then I’ve done some reading around as to what the minimum recommended distance from the edge is, and I’ve seen a variety of responses from 200mm to 600mm. So it would seem that my supplier (perhaps predictably) was willing to (literally!) sail a little closer to the wind than most. Still, there’s plenty of room from the left and right, and the panels can’t be seen over the ridge at all from the rear of the house (the danger point for wind-loading). We’ve had heavy rain and haven’t suffered with water flowing off the panels over the guttering at the front either.

Final specification

I had been quoted for 16x245W Solar World SW245 Mono panels (3,920W), and a Fronius TL 3.6 inverter (max input 3,800W, max output 3,600W). Obviously I questioned this – there’s the potential for the panels to overdrive this inverter. I was assured this was standard practice and that the inverter could cope with it just fine. I’ve pondered this and concluded that peak output is extremely unlikely to be delivered by the panels for long, and these inverters are designed to sense overload and shut down. If that happens, or if it’s damaged, I’ll hold Eco-Fusion accountable, but it does seem like a sensible approach.

The panels do degrade with time. Their specification sheet (linked to above) states they carry warranty to produce at least 90% of rated power after 10 years and at least 80% of rated power after 25 years. After 8% degradation they will match the inverter.

Installation

So, before the installation we had some scaffold arrive:

Now, that evening I decided to make use of this. Note the yellow tinge on the roof – there was a huge amount of moss and general roof garden up there. So I decided to get up there and blast it all off – with some kind assistance from Robin the second and Ben the first. The roof was cleaned by nightfall.

The following morning the house roof looked rather different.

It was suggested as a result of this process being documented on Facebook that we had removed a protective layer on the tiles by pressure washing them. Certainly there was a fairly radical change in colour which suggested some kind of staining had been removed. I inspected them carefully and compared the way they handled water being poured over them with the tiles on the back of the house (that we didn’t clean). There was no difference. I consulted an experienced roofer and trusted friend on the matter, and he seemed to think there was no issue. Still, to be safe I gave the roof a couple of coats of transparent tile seal.

Installation day itself was miserable – overcast with pretty constant drizzle. Did this stop the installation? Hell no!

At about 10am a 3 man team arrived – two for the roof and an electrician. There was work to be done in the electrical cupboard, and the inverter was to be installed in the loft.

On the roof the rails went up first, and then the panels were fixed in place.

In the loft:

In the electrical cupboard:

By 3pm they were finished – very impressive given what they had to achieve and the weather. The panels are connected into two groups of eight and then feed into the black (DC) side of the inverter. From the inverter a cable runs to the roof edge and then subtly down the side of the house and into the electrical cupboard where the distribution board is driven.

Measuring

The installation came with a Wattson energy meter. This is a fantastic piece of kit, especially if it is installed correctly, which it almost was. It comes with a couple of sensors which clip around live cables, and by measuring the EMF it knows how much current is flowing in those cables. Sadly though, it doesn’t know which way the current is flowing. It is bright enough to understand that one of the sensors may be for generated input power, which makes it ideal for the job.

It was installed with the generator clip in the right place, but the usage clip connected to our main feed from the grid. Under circumstances where we were generating less than we were using it worked a treat, but as it always assumed that the current sensed between the house and the grid was inbound (not export), when we generated more than we used it got things wrong. I fixed this by installing that clip within the distribution board on the feed to the RCDs (post-generator input), but that meant that it knew nothing about our night-time only circuit which powers things like our storage and immersion heaters. Fortunately the Wattson can have additional inputs, so I invested in another clip and now the system works perfectly.

The Wattson logs all data and I can access it via USB using my laptop and the inevitably named software “Holmes”.

I’ve also got an Environ Current Cost meter and internet bridge. I’ve connected this in such a way that it measures only our generated power and it logs this every 15 minutes on the internet. This means that from anywhere in the world, I can at any time see how much energy the house is generating. Which, as a geek, makes me very happy indeed. So for instance, here’s our generation stats so far today:

Isn’t that wonderful! The blue line and scale on the right are the temperature in the office here at home. Here are the two meters next to each other earlier today:

That’s 3.17kW of energy being harvested from the roof on the left, and an export (hence the minus symbol) of 2.7kW on the right. From that we can deduce that the house is using a little under 500W, which is about right (fridge, freezer, server, laptop, computer, 2 screens, modem, router, switches etc). I have even seen generation figures of just over 3.6kW which is nice and proves that everything is certainly working as it should. To drive all this the electrical cupboard has a couple of wireless transmitters and a total of 4 sensor clips:

Financials

So as you can see from the generation meter above, in the ten days since this system was brought online we’ve generated 146kWh. At the current FiT rate of 43.3ppkWh, that’s £63.22 I’m owed. Put into perspective against the massive capital outlay required to install this system that’s not much, but it’ll continue to grow with no additional effort. There are also other revenues. Firstly, my supplier pays 3.1ppkWh exported. As they can’t tell exactly what was exported they assume 50% (which probably suits them more than me), but that’s another £2.26 off my next bill so far. If that is averaged over the quarterly cycle that’s a more meaningful £20 saving. More importantly though, our daytime usage from the grid has more than halved since these panels were installed, so especially in the summer months those bills will be drastically reduced.

As I’d expect from such a big financial outlay, this is a fantastic toy. However, compared with say a car (and I spent more on the 330d when I bought it), it should prove to be rather more profitable! As it happened it was installed on my 32nd birthday, and it is my hope that the capital expenditure will have been recouped before I am 40. I will post again some time around late October when I’ve got statistics for the system being active either side of equinox – hopefully from there I’ll be able to extrapolate with enough meaningful data to make a more accurate prediction. Until then, here are some photos of the completed system:

 

12 meals, 4 men, 3 peaks, and an M5

Last weekend saw the execution of a long standing goal of mine – to complete the National Three Peaks Challenge. As that Wikipedia article suggests, while it is usually the case that participants try to complete the challenge within 24 hours, many do make a more leisurely weekend of it, and that’s exactly what we did. Some people also club together in a minibus, but at nearly 1,300 miles, that didn’t really appeal to us. So, naturally, we took the M5:

So above we have this story’s cast, from left to right: The M5, Jonny, Neil, Henry and Ben. This photo was taken in Woking at around 6pm on Thursday evening, as we set sail for Carlisle. Needless to say we immediately came to a standstill on the M25, so took the opportunity to take a cheesy in-car photo.

The trip to Carlisle took nearly 5 and a half hours. We passed the time with a mixture of foul jokes and excellent music from our iPhones. Needless to say we also ate a lot – sandwiches, sausage rolls, chocolate éclairs etc – all most civilised. Having got so far north and west we marvelled at how late light faded as we neared the top of the M6 and Carlisle – a moody shelf of cloud covered most of the sky but left the horizon free to reveal dusk.

We checked into the Carlisle Travelodge to discover that Ben had indeed carried out his threat to book two double rooms. He claims that was all that was available. It certainly was by the time we got there, so we decided a few beers were in order to ensure a near-instant passing out.

The following morning we rose early to continue our journey to Fort William. I love the Lake District, but Carlisle isn’t a city I’ve got much inclination to spend time in – there are certainly prettier places nearby.

Still, that didn’t matter because we were soon back in the M5, on the M6 and then into Scotland. Once north of Glasgow, Scotland offers some stunning views, and we were in high spirits.

By midday we had found a McDonald’s for various preparations, and were at the foot of Ben Nevis to start our ascent at 12:35.

We were blessed with a clear day, which made for glorious views throughout our ascent.

The fine day did mean we were rather hot though, and this combined with our general lack of preparation meant we found the going quite tough:

After over 2 hours we were high enough to find a patch of snow.

Finally, after 3 hours of hard ascent, for the first time I reached the top of the UK.

This vantage point offered some seriously impressive views – here’s a quick 360:

Here we all are – on top of Scotland, and indeed the entire land-mass!

Here are a couple of other stills:

Frantic iPhone social media updates from the summit!

So after 3 hours of climbing it was time to descend:

Henry and I then thought it might be a nice idea to run the rest of the way down. That bright idea lasted maybe 20 minutes, but in that time we covered a huge amount of ground and had a lot of fun. A few close calls and general creaking of ageing joints made us realise that such activity on day one was foolish, so we slowed to a brisk walk.

The entire team managed the Ben Nevis section in 5 hours. I had climbed Scafell Pike and Snowdon twice previously, and can safely say that Ben Nevis really took the game up a level – the sheer scale of the Highlands is just that much more serious than the other peaks. Climbing Nevis had been a personal goal of mine since I first drove around its foothills in 2004, so I was delighted with this achievement. We were shattered, but managed to locate our B&B, and popped out to a local pub for a much deserved slap-up meal with beers. Here’s Jonny’s “monster burger”.

That marks the close of the first full day’s adventure. I was delighted to note that Henry and I were in a twin room rather than a double which was far more civilised. Worryingly though, Ben had ensured he once again got the chance to share a double with Jonny…

Saturday morning was overcast; a weather system had arrived on the west coast of the UK which was to set the tone for the day. Still, our B&B had a beautiful view:

Ben took the M5’s wheel leaving me free to snap away and marvel at the car’s overtaking prowess.

We estimated that the car’s total weight was around 2.2 tonnes, yet that magnificent V8 beat away sending us from corner to corner, around truck and minibus, with incredible ease. This was the super saloon in its element, and Ben in his. Henry was suitably impressed:

Much as I love the Highlands, trips there involve Glasgow. Which in my humble opinion, mings mercilessly.

As such I was delighted to escape back to merry England.

That delight was short lived. Carlisle was full of traffic, and the weather at Wasdale was rather inclement.

I’d like to thank Henry for this particularly unflattering photo:

As we started climbing, visibility became somewhat reduced:

At one point we had to cross a stream which proved to be quite a challenge:

We ended up in thick cloud. In stark contrast to the previous day’s climb where we found loads of people milling around at the top of Nevis, there was a lone member of Mountain Rescue at the top of Scafell Pike, and he was about to call it quits for the day. I tried to take a picture of the view:

And this is the only picture of any of us up there:

Despite being so stiff, it took us just a couple of hours to reach the summit. It was so unpleasant that we stayed there for just a few minutes. I then chose to run down – I had no wish to stay out in the cloud any longer than necessary! It was pretty hairy – I had a couple of slips and a minor dunk at the river crossing, but I managed it in 51 minutes keeping my total time under 3 hours which was pleasing. I also ran iMapMyRun, so have a crafty little elevation graph:

From Wasdale we had to move to Ambleside to locate our bunk house for the night. As luck would have it, this permitted me to fulfil another personal goal – to pilot an E39 M5 at full chat over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes (check those Wiki links if you don’t know what those are, especially the Hardknott one as it contains good pictures). Sadly, four up with luggage and minimal visibility weren’t ideal conditions, but it was a great run nevertheless. The M5 is an absolute animal, and it just ate up the 30% gradient hairpin bends – not without expending some effort mind – it’s rare that I know the LSD is hot, for instance! I really had to concentrate!

We had a few beers that night and an excellent meal in Ambleside – nice tasty local lamb!

We spent that night in a bunk house. Our room slept 10, but only 2 unfortunates were sharing with us. It was certainly preferable to sharing a double bed(!), but still a little weird. I took a top bunk and was pleased not to fall out. I was less happy to be photographed in the morning:

So I thought I’d return the favour:

So, it was Sunday morning, and time to blast to Snowdonia. That didn’t take too long:

That was a lovely little B&B, and the weather was nothing short of fantastic. After a quick bite to eat, we embarked on the Watkin path. As it says in that Wikipedia article, the Watkin path is “the most demanding route direct to the summit of Snowdon” and “starts at the lowest elevation of any of the main routes”. We had conquered Ben Nevis, so why not?!

Stunning views soon followed:

Towards the top the Watkin path gets rather hairy. Yes, this is a path – can’t you see it?!

We went the wrong way at one stage, so reaching the summit took 3 hours.

No group photo at the top – just this reverse iPhone shot of Jonny and me standing at the top of Wales:

A special mention for Jonny at this point. Our friend Ben was supposed to be joining other Ben, Henry and me for this trip, but unfortunately he couldn’t make it. I drafted Jonny in, and I may have failed to convey quite how much effort would be required and what sort of kit should be brought. Ben, Henry and I had all climbed Snowdon and a few other hills in the past. Poor Jonny didn’t have much hill climbing experience, no water pack, not even a ruck-sack. Ben Nevis certainly made an impression on him, and he had incredibly painful legs for the remainder of the trip (as did we all for that matter). Even so he soldiered on (with extremely entertaining wit at times), and has now really earned his stripes. So, Jonny – well done!

Soon after starting our descent we realised we had failed to take a group photo, so we took one near the top:

We opted to take a more interesting route down – along this ridge:

The overall Snowdon time was four and a half hours – not bad given we took a wrong turn on the way up and deliberately took a long way down. That night we feasted like starving animals in a rather average Chinese restaurant:

And so we returned to Woking on Monday afternoon – all safe and sound and in one piece:

So to summarise, some stats:

  • 1,278 miles, at 25mpg, at an average of 51.2mph (£305 of fuel)
  • 12.5 hours climbing time
  • 10.5 hours transfer time from Nevis via Lakes to Snowdon
  • 12 meals (significantly more than the fuel spend)
  • 1 epic weekend

A massive thanks to Ben, Henry and Jonny for making this such an excellent weekend. It was a shame that more couldn’t join us – Ben and Robin were certainly missed – so here’s to them too. This trip was the M5’s swan song (and a mighty fine effort too) – it’s now on sale, so it makes sense to end this blog post with my favourite two photos: from Woking to the top of Ben Nevis – what a team!

2008 Impreza STI

My friend Tom has just been round to show me his new purchase: a 2008 Impreza STI. Typically I didn’t take a photo of the whole car, but I did take a picture of its brakes.

Ok, so they’re not floating or drilled like the 330d’s, but that is a multipot caliper, so I was pleased. I was significantly more pleased to be given the keys for a test drive. Turning from a T-junction onto a trunk road, let there be no doubt that despite a 100hp disadvantage, this car would ruin the M5. Grip grip grip grip grippy grip grip all the way through 90 degrees to the speed limit all in just a passenger’s gasp. Nice solid brakes, sharp steering, joyous.

It’s got a fancy trick variable centre differential. I tried to molest this in such a way that would, shall we say, make it behave more like the M5. Instead it just got a bit twitchy, and eventually my mechanical sympathy made me stop.  Having calmed down, I decided it’s a lovely place to be, despite not being as opulent as the big 5.

The turbocharged 2.5 litre engine certainly seemed to drink as courageously as the M5 too – around 21mpg for a mixed bag it would seem.

I love the way that the rpm dial takes centre stage on the dashboard, with the speedo as an apparent afterthought. The seats are dead comfy, and the controls are nicely driver focused – I especially liked the short shift gearbox.

The power all lurks relatively high up in the rev range and there is of course some turbo lag, but this is without doubt an extremely fun car, and on the road, undoubtedly a quicker A to B machine than the M5.

So bravo to Tom – it’s been over 7 years since his last Impreza, and indeed about 3 years since Smith moved on his WRX wagon, so I’ve certainly missed these machines.

I wonder if we might see this, the M5, and a certain E46 M3 at the Nurburgring later this year…?

The Rowbarge Fire

Yesterday evening I was supposed to be attending a birthday party at the Rowbarge in St Johns. The Rowbarge holds significant memories for me as it is directly across the road from my best man Robin‘s childhood home and isn’t too far from where I now live, and has therefore been a regular venue for all manner of events, from a cheeky afternoon pint to landmark occasions. Yesterday afternoon I received a telephone call to advise me that the evening’s celebrations were to be relocated because the Rowbarge was on fire.

I couldn’t get anywhere near it by vehicle – for those that know the area St Johns Road was closed from the Ketch to the Renault garage. Apparently six fire engines were on the scene handling a fire that had broken out in the kitchen and quickly spread throughout the building. Today I visited the pub, and was shocked to see the state it was in.

The sign says “Due to fire we are closed for the foreseeable future”. I can’t help but feel so sorry for the landlords, Nick and Anna, who lost their son in a road accident in December 2009 and now have this situation to contend with. I would guess, without any real experience, that the hole in the roof was created by the emergency services to tackle the fire that had started from the rear of the premises, which now look like this:

The door on the right above is the side door from the beer garden into the extended restaurant area. The accommodation block, just out of shot to the right, appeared not to have been damaged. I will be interested to see what happens next. :(

** Update 20/02/2011 **

Four weeks on and it looks like this:

The windows have been covered with metal sheeting and the roof protected from precipitation. I’ll update again with any significant changes.

Californian hiking

I get up when I want, except on Saturdays when I’m rudely awakened at 5am by Robin’s sick joke of leaving the heating on overnight. I seized the opportunity to catch up with the online world, and once Jamie had left for work at 6am, I had a good shower and felt decent for the first time since I left the UK. Today was always planned to be hike day, so at around 9am Robin and I headed to Sierra Madre to meet up with his friend Will. We weren’t looking for an all day hike, but Robin wanted to show me close up the magnificent mountains which can be viewed from his porch. On the way there I spotted some deer on the side of the road – something that Robin hadn’t seen before (but then, he doesn’t see much).

Here’s a Google map view of the area. We were setting out to explore the beginning of the trail up Mount Wilson, in the San Gabriel mountains. Mount Wilson’s peak is at 5,710 feet (1,740 m), and we started from Will’s house which is conveniently situated right at the end of the trail road, at around 1,000ft above sea level.

It has been a reasonable day in Pasadena – around 19 degrees with sunny spells. As such, the going was immediately hot work.

We were soon able to take in fantastic views both over the city and of the landscape.

After half an hour or so we had covered about a mile and a half, so we stopped at a stream. We had only intended to go this far – a 3 mile hike sounded fine – but we had plenty of time so decided to go further up Mount Wilson. The next stop was at a disused camp site another couple of miles up the trail, so that’s where we went. The going immediately got a bit tougher: the track was narrower, steeper and rockier. There was plenty of evidence of wildfires in recent years, and it wasn’t hard to see why they weren’t quickly contained – we really were in the wilderness. These mountains got it all: hot sun, snow, wind, and fire. Here’s Robin under a fallen tree just near the disused camp site:

From that check point it was another 2 miles to a ridge point, so we decided to soldier on. However, we soon changed our minds after about a mile! I was reminded of a comment recently made by the H-man: “it’s not a proper walk unless I have to use my hands”. The path was very narrow, very steep, rocky and slippery, with a sheer drop to one side. With altitude our lack of fitness was more obvious, and in the clouds it grew cold with very little visibility. So like a bunch of girls, we turned around – but not before confirming that we had climbed to over 4,000ft – a 3,000ft delta. I was pleased enough with this as it is significantly higher than Snowdon, my previous highest climb. Perhaps one day I’ll return and reach the summit!

Going down was fun though! Bounding down the same slopes that we had laboured up was extremely rewarding. At pace it was of course a little dangerous – put a foot wrong and it would have been all over – but that’s part of the fun. I would describe it as being the on-foot equivalent of rallying! We managed to descend 500ft in 15 minutes – at which point I captured Robin looking radiant in his sun-hat.

Here’s a graph of our descent over 90 minutes captured on Robin’s iPhone.

Once we had finished retracing our steps and had said goodbye to Will, there were only two things on our minds: beer and burgers. So first stop was ‘Tops Burger’ – for my inaugural gen-u-wine American drive-thru fast-food experience. What a menu!

We both opted for a 1/4lb Tops avocado and bacon burger, and we chose to share a large fries. This turned out to be a mistake: we should have shared a burger, and shared a small fries! We drove straight home to crack open some beers and enjoy our meal on Robin’s porch.

The burgers came pre-cut with ‘Fancy Ketchup’. Just look at all that filling!

Lunch time!

The burgers were thoroughly enjoyable! We did manage to eat them both, but there was no way we were going to eat all of those fries. We ended up throwing most of them in the compost bin, but before doing so we weighed them: 538 grams. That’s right – the remainder of one large portion of fries, having been attacked by two ravenous hikers, weighed over half a kilo. Astounding!

Thoroughly full we tidied up, and I showered leaving Robin to do a spot of gardening.

The rest of the day had been spent mooching around the house and the ‘hood. Robin made a lovely sausage goulash:

Jamie arrived home from work, and we enjoyed a smashing meal. Here are my wonderful hosts:

So now for my final mountaineering act of the day, I’m off to the highest non-bunk bed in the world:

Arrival in California

Just a quick note to celebrate the first day of my visit to see Robin and Jamie. After a 10am departure from LHR-T5 on BA279 (all rather civilised) I arrived at LAX at before 1pm local time courtesy of this sky-chariot.

It took over an hour to get collect baggage and clear customs, but eventually I got through and was able to  join Robin on US soil for the first time in 18 months. Late October it may be, but I was whooshed to Robin’s home in the E30 325i convertible with the top down, and what fun it was! Here’s a photo of Robin’s car back at his house:

And here are some photos I took on the way there:

After a brief stop at Robin’s house to touch and feel everything that I’d already seen by Skype and blog post, we headed off to meet Mary and the highly amusing Edmund at the Rose tree cottage – a traditional English tea room.  Having sampled what I’m sure is the finest tea on this continent, we moved on to Pasadena, and visited Lucky Baldwin’s English bar. This place was littered with the flag of St George, and served plenty of ales – although it did remind me rather more of a continental bar than an English pub.

From there we moved on to ‘King Tacos’ – where we sampled some cuisine which looked like this:

Despite its appearance, it was extremely tasty, and cheap too! We then retired to Robin’s to catch up with Jamie, where I’m writing this blog post. I’ve been up for over 24 hours now – it could well be time to retire. I hope to report more tomorrow!

A decade of driving

As this decade draws to a close I thought I’d reflect back on the motoring changes I’ve experienced. As we celebrated the new millennium I was the almost proud owner of a 1992 Ford Escort estate. With a lusty 1.4 litre engine it could barely pull the skin from a rice pudding, but it was mine and I could deploy that 75 horsepower to take me wherever I chose. As this period pre-dates my digital camera ownership, I only have this rather sorry excuse for a photograph:

What a beauty! I upgraded those 13 inch wheels to – wait for it – 14 inch wheels. With extra driving lamps I ranged across the country – I shared my first trip to the Lake District and even nipped across the border to Gretna in this machine. It had manual windows and mirrors, no central locking, no power steering – not even ABS. Looking back this was useful, as it provided an excellent bare bones introduction to motoring.

Yet this wasn’t the only Dagenham Destroyer in my fleet – hell no! I was also the extremely proud owner of a 1990 SWB Transit – used to cart around my sound and light gear.

A real rust wagon – powered by a 2.0 litre petrol engine that offered neither performance nor economy. Whether I was in the Escort or the Transit, I was always seen tearing around the streets with all the apparent vigour of a tortoise with gout.

Having had the Escort since acquiring my licence in 1996, during 2000 I began to look towards moving on. I was driving my dad’s car occasionally – a Vauxhall Vectra SRi (pictured here in 2005 at the Nordschleife entry gate – an episode I’ll cover later).

Suddenly I had all the modern luxuries – electric windows and mirrors, 15″ alloys, air conditioning, remote central locking – even traction control. Perhaps most importantly for me, its two litre engine developed 136 horsepower, with – compared to the Escort – very useful low down torque.

2000 was my first year of full time employment, so as 2001 arrived it was certainly time to stop borrowing the Vectra, and replace the Escort. Being 21, my needs weren’t very complicated: I needed to be faster than anyone else I knew, I wanted it to be reliable, and I had heard that rear wheel drive was A Good Thing. This ruled out the Peugeot 306 GTi6 I was considering, and the Audi A6 Quattro that wasn’t pure RWD, so I got myself one of these:

This car introduced me to a whole new world of motoring – both on-road and virtual. It absolutely ignited my passion for driving (and perhaps, oversteer) and also introduced me to car internet forums. The latter provided a double-edged sword – such forums attract all sorts – but one forum in particular led to some absolutely fantastic road trips around the UK. The first of these was a visit to the Lake District in early 2003.

While all this was going on my sound and light business had outgrown the little old transit, so I “upgraded” to a 1992 LWB 2.5 litre diesel effort. Look how beautiful it was!

Okay, so it was an eyesore. But it did offer significantly more load space and payload, and with power steering and a classic diesel chugger it was far more the freight machine I was looking for.

Still, back to the cars. With almost 200hp and over 200 lb/ft torque at my disposal, in the 328i I was fast, it was reliable, and RWD was good. After two years though it was time to move on, so in February 2003 I took the next natural step: it was time for an M3.

Still to this day this has been my favourite car. 321hp, 258 lb/ft of torque and a proper LSD. I didn’t care that the interior was a bit manky, and I liked the fact that it was a saloon and not a coupe. I used this car a lot. I shared my maiden voyage to the Nürburgring with this car, multiple trips to Cornwall, the Lakes and Wales, and had an epic tour of Scotland.

Sadly I was separated from this car by a local garage who rather carelessly wrote it off for me in March 2005. While the insurance wrangle was taking place I once again took ownership of the old family Vauxhall Vectra SRi. Of course, this was quite a step down, but as a utility wagon it was very useful. The transit had recently died, I had wound down my sound and light business, so it was a good one-stop interim solution.

There was however a complication. I had a trip to the Nürburgring already booked before the M3 was written off. I therefore had to take the Vectra – a grim prospect at the best of times – but significantly more so given that its gearbox was obviously broken. I therefore fitted a refurbished item and headed to Germany.

In convoy with an E36 M3, an E34 M5 and an E39 M5 the SRi was completely out of place – an utter embarrassment. However, it redeemed itself with some massive lift-off oversteer:

All jolly hilarious, until on the way home the car once again spat its gearbox. Having to come home from Bonn on a flat-bed transporter is horrible, and the entire trip was perhaps the low point of my motoring decade. The Vectra therefore finally left the family, and I was car-less.

By this time Diane and I were living together, so we got by using her Peugeot 106 Rallye. Despite being of French origin I feel this little car was certainly good enough to warrant more than a passing mention in this post. It was light, had over 100hp, and developed a good chunk of torque from its little 1.6 litre 8V unit. So despite being a touch unreliable and a FWD scrabbler, it was a lot of fun.

We had this car from 2004 to 2009, so it certainly made its mark on our motoring decade. So, back to March 2005 then when I was car-less. After much research, I concluded that for the money I’d received for the green M3 I simply couldn’t do any better, and so bought another M3!

Rather than the all-I-could-afford green saloon, this was perhaps my ideal E36 M3 Evo. Techno-violet with heated silver leather – this thing even had electric rear vent windows! :)

I had this car for a year, ensuring it took in all the usual Cornwall/Lakes/Curborough/Nürburgring trips, and even a camping holiday to La Rochelle. At the end of 2005, we once again – but briefly – became a three car family. Robin and I invested in a £50 Ford Sierra Ghia for our charity “Staples 2 Naples” rally trip.

The car was of course horrific, but everything worked, and it didn’t let us down at all despite thorough abuse all the way from Woking to Naples. We scrapped it in Rome and flew home; something I really regret.

By early 2006, despite the M3 Evo being a fantastic example, I felt it time to move on from the E36, so I traded it in for an E46 330d sport touring. This represented a significant step down in terms of performance and a shift away from motorsport in general. Yet the new car was a lovely place to be, extremely practical and pleasingly efficient.

In our first month together we went to the Lake District, to Birmingham, to Wales, to Scotland, and to the Nürburgring – some 5,000 miles! I chopped off the droopy tail pipe and sorted some nice straight tips, and changed the wheels to the more recent items (more recent above, originals below).

As we leave this decade, this is now our primary family car. We sold the 106R in 2009 when it became a little too unreliable, and frankly basic, for our liking. We’re now married, own a dog, and this is our car. I write this article from the Lake District – marking this car’s 4th visit there with me. However, this doesn’t end my motoring decade review – not by a long shot!

I realised that, much as I love my tractor (330d, above), it lacks a certain bit of motoring soul. I filled this in January 2007 with the purchase of a 1988 E30 M3!

With a screaming straight four and LSD I was back in the M-club, and what a party it was. I loved it so much I decided in July 2007 to upgrade to a 1990 E30 M3 Evo II.

I held onto this car for another year, during which it featured in two BMW Car Magazine articles and two trips to the Nürburgring.

In amongst all this I decided to take up a spot of rally navigating. Pictured here with driver/owner Simon Stevinson, I spent a few shifts in 2007 in the nav-seat of his E36 M3 Rally Compact.

It was a great little car, and Simon an extremely composed driver, who I can’t thank enough for being so patient with me while I learned the ropes. I had a massive amount of fun in that car – we had many battles, and I’ve even got a trophy or two as a result somewhere. It was fantastic having to deal with the elements, and at times fix the car, to get us through to the end of the day. I would have loved to have taken the next step to driving and car ownership, but I sagely (and perhaps boringly) concluded that I couldn’t afford to allocate funds in that way.

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Ultimately though, when I became married in August 2008 I decided that both rallying, and E30 M3 ownership, and all the oil and rust which was involved, wasn’t really becoming of a husband. I therefore packed in the rallying and sold the M3. Immediately I realised that in doing so I had lost much of my identity, so 4 hours later I rushed out and bought a nice sensible family car:

That’s right, it’s a 2000 E39 M5 – 400 horsepower to you. This basically brings us up to date – we’re a two car family with a wonderful E46 330d sport touring and a V8 M5. The 330d is a great utility vehicle. I’ve modified it to play DVDs on the move to entertain my passengers, it has iPod integration, stealth sub and a built in inverter. It’s a fantastic, quick machine, boasting 200hp and 40mpg. We love it, and it is backed up by a super saloon sporting an astonishing blend of performance and comfort. While both cars have been around the block a few times (both just under 120,000 miles), they still scrub up nicely and provide everything we currently need on the road. Oh, with the exception of four wheel drive – that’s my prediction for the 2010s!

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This sums up my review of the decade. Throughout these years I’ve documented a good deal of motoring action which has, in some parts at least, been well received. I’ve even landed a regular slot writing for BMW Car Magazine. I’ve had an absolute ball these ten years thanks to my cars and my motoring friends. I can’t thank those friends and family enough for their support of my crazy ventures, and as my last blog post of the decade I’d like to thank you all for reading, and wish you a very happy new year. :)

Lake district December 2009

A couple of days of Lake District action to catch up on. I have been amazed by the constant severity of the weather here. During previous visits I have wished for a decent attempt at winter weather, and this time we’ve got it. I’m used to snow covering the hills during winter, but here we’ve got proper snow coverage even in the relatively low lying towns like Ambleside. As a result, many of my usual pastimes such as white knuckle rides over mountain passes are completely off the agenda; they would be a suicide mission, ending prematurely at best. Furthermore even the fell climbing I’m used to has proven too much.

Our aim on Monday was to have a bit of a walk and to generally give the antipodeans a feel for the Lake District. The morning was damn cold – some minus 4 degrees.

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After a certain amount of scrapy scrapy, we headed north-west from Ambleside to Skelwith Bridge, and from there we walked to Elterwater – a beautiful little village. We parked the tractor up:

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Got out our walking sticks:

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We got our hike on:

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Brenden loved a bit of it:

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We made found a snowman:

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It was a touch icy in places:

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Brenden and Emily were clearly getting on nicely with the great British countryside:

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Even Robin popped in to join us:

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After a spot more trekking:

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We happened upon the delightful Brittania pub in Elterwater. Hound friendly, a great selection of drinks, open fires, low beams, real ales etc – it had it all.

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After a stride back to the car we set out to see how viable climbing Sca Fell would be the next day. As it happened, getting across the Wrynose and Hardknott passes just wasn’t feasible at all, so we attempted to drive the long way around. Sadly, even getting to Wasdale wasn’t possible so we had to scrub that idea. In any case, we headed back to base (Ambleside).

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We found Ambleside’s “Royal Oak” to be most accommodating that night. The next morning we woke to find a stunning view across lake Windemere.

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That (this) morning we decided that as Sca Fell wasn’t accessible. we should attempt to climb something else – settling on Helvellyn, the third highest peak in the Lakes (and England for that matter). Further reading on that Wikipedia page to which I just linked suggested that during winter months anyone considering climbing Hellvelyn should first consult “weatherline”. Here’s the entry for today:

Issued: Tuesday, 29 December 2009

FELLTOP CONDITIONS REPORT from Helvellyn at 1.30pm on Tuesday 29th December 2009. There is significant snow and ice at all levels. Snow depth increasesi with height to reach between 20 to 30cm. With the recent wind the snow has shifted and drifts of over 100cm are common with some evidence of loose windslab. The deep snow makes the going slow. Significant cornices have formed along the summit ridges, so please keep well back from the edge and advise others to do likewise. Full winter clothing, footwear and equipment, including ice axe and crampons are essential for anyone venturing out onto the fells. Several Lakeland tarns, such as Red Tarn, have frozen. The ice is not that thick, so please do not be tempted out on them! Summit statistics today (these are taken when the Fell Top Assessor is on the summit, they do not represent max/min figures for the past 24 hours). Temperature, minus 3.4C. Wind chill, minus 13.4C

Between the four of us, we were prepared to some extent: we had two walking poles and two water packs. No ice axes or crampons in sight! We didn’t know all this of course, so set off regardless. It was a picturesque journey north from Ambleside:

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Upon stepping from the car we soon realised that yesterday’s calm, bright conditions were history; today was colder, overcast and damn right breezy.

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We began our ascent, and quickly made progress. In the photograph below, the car was left at lake level:

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The snow quickly became deeper:

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The wind grew in strength:

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The going soon got really tough. Hail in the face, snow drifting so fast it immediately covered the tracks laid by the person in front. Frightening stuff; time to sit down:

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This picture just about shows the rate of snow drifting:

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At this point, given that we weren’t fully prepared, we decided to turn back. Even those with crampons, ice axes and rucksacks full of various other unimaginable kit were turning back. So we bailed too. Fortunately romping back down the hill in deep snow was tremendous fun!

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We had climbed quite a distance – certainly enough to justify a bit of relaxation for the rest of the day. We tried to explore the Kirkstone pass, but unsurprisingly, that too was formally shut. So with little else to do, we headed into town for some ale and whisky, pausing briefly to photograph lake Windermere.

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So far, while the roads that have been closed due to snow and ice have certainly proved to be a disappointment, we’ve had a wonderful time sampling perhaps the most beautiful slice of English winter.

Arrival in the Lake District

Today we waved goodbye to the hound, loaded the now repaired 330d, and headed up to the Lake District. From Woking’s grey drizzle we motored through Oxford’s sunshine, got snarled up in some West Midlands traffic and landed in snowy Cumbria within 6 hours – pretty good going.

Some views from the A591:

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I fear the Hardknott pass and friends may not be on the agenda this trip! A quaint view from our hotel room:

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We’re up here with Emily & Brenden, so check his blog for more photos (later, I imagine). :)

Rage Against The Machine make it to Christmas #1

It has been an extremely interesting week for not only the British music industry, but also for the internet and social media. The battle for the UK Christmas number one single has been fought on many topics. I won’t hide my point of view here: I thought the X-Factor’s offering was painful at best, and I am delighted to have such an entertaining song at number one from RATM, but I would like to focus on how it happened.

Tracy and Jon Morter, a couple that I’d never heard of before, started a Facebook group originally titled “Rage against the x-factor“. It strived to get members to buy RATM’s “Killing In The Name“, in the hope that it might outsell the X-Factor’s single. Given that the power of traditional broadcast media and interruption marketing has meant that every X-Factor winner from 2005-2008 had been number one, this seemed like quite a task. Yet, although it was close, that campaign succeeded.

As I write, that group has just shy of 1,000,000 members. The initial growth was completely viral. Tracy and Jon invited their friends, who invited their friends, et cetera. This wave swept through my Facebook account. I can’t remember which of my friends appeared in my news feed as having joined the group, but it was enough to convince me, which means my other friends may have also seen it in their news feed, and so on.

Twitter became a vital key, attracting the attention of the likes of Stephen Fry and Bill Bailey. With retweets from celebrities came a massive following, with #ratm4xmas trending, and eventually crunch point: media attention.

Suddenly Jon Morter was being interviewed live by Jo Whiley on Radio One. Rage Against The Machine were interviewed and played live on Radio 5 – predictably ignoring their promise to keep the version clean – which of course attracted yet more attention.

Zach de la Rocha, Rage Against The Machine’s lead singer, was interviewed when their number one success was announced, and said something quite inoffensive that raised my eyebrows. He referred to the “UK kids” having “spoken”.

Here, I think he’s got it all wrong. Facebook’s insights would be able to confirm. If we consider kids to be those under 18, I wonder how many of them changed their usual music buying patterns as a result of this campaign. Aged 30, I am confident that I and my peers changed ours a lot. Prior to this week, I hadn’t bought a music single in over a decade. Why would I? Albums, yes. Yet for everything else there’s the likes of Spotify and Last FM.

Social Media has torn traditional marketing apart. It has reached to all ages. It got people’s attention when it suited them – when they checked Facebook or their Twitter feed. Traditional marketing relies on people observing bus shelter adverts, wanting to listen to radio DJs, wanting to buy a magazine or newspaper to see the adverts. In this case, it also relied, heaven forbid, on people wanting to spend their Saturday evening watching the X-Factor.

Yet Social Media marketing arrives as a message from your friends, when you decide you want to see it. Your friends have already done the research, they’ve shown an interest, and maybe you would like to as well. Simon Cowell and the X-Factor will be back – presumably at number one next week. This campaign has of course been a flash in the pan, but for Social Media, it is perhaps a coming of age. It’s a marketing tool that can be ignored no longer.

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