Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Flipping website software

Ever since I setup my Gite website (at I've been using IBM's Rational Application Developer (RAD) to edit and maintain the website.

Two reasons for this, one I work for IBM and thus I am able to use our software for free "for personal self-development", and two, it's actually pretty good for what I want to do with it.

One of the main things I like about RAD is that you can create page fragments and templates and automatically embed them into other pages - so each month of the booking calendar is a separate HTML fragment which gets automatically combined together for the main 'availability' page and also embedded within the separate 'this month's calendar' popup page. When I edit the availability diary then both pages are automatically created by RAD from the single booking calendar fragment.

The other big thing I like is the automatic page templates and website navigation tool. I have defined the structure of the pages and our website in RAD and then when we add or edit pages in the site structure they are automatically generated with consistent HTML and all the left hand menu navigation tree (including all the different styles according to whether it is a level 1 or level 2 hierarchy page you are looking at) also gets automatically generated.
This took a bit to get working the first time I did the site but its been working perfectly ever since.

Earlier this year I upgraded my laptop from Windows XP to Windows 7 and had to reinstall RAD onto the new laptop. Unfortunately something went wrong in the process and ever since then the embedded page fragment stuff for the booking calendar hasn't worked properly and I've had to edit the calendar in both places manually, and the templating has been a bit dodgy - some pages pickup the site template and others don't for no readily understandable reason.

But up to now I've been able to work round these little niggles and all has been well in the garden of website Zen ...

Until tonight. Earlier in the week I noticed there was a new upgrade to RAD available (version instead of version fixpack 1 that I'd been using previously).

So I downloaded and installed it.

Bad move.

Today I went to update the booking calendar as we've taken a booking for July, and of course since this was the first time I'd run the new RAD software it took ages to load up and initialise itself.

Ages later it had finished and I went to edit the website calendar. To my pleasant surprise I found that the automatic page generation was back working again properly and editing the calendar HTML fragment caused both the different calendar pages to be automatically created again - just like it used to be last year.

Made the changes, published the changes, and went to check the availability diary looked OK.

It did and it didn't.

The calendar for 2012 looked fine but the navigation menu down the left hand side of the page had disappeared for reasons best known to RAD (well not known to me).

Most pages had the navigation menu appearing fine, but the website home page and the availability calendar didn't have any navigation menu for some reason.

Looked at the HTML, looked at the RAD config, changed the page template to see if that would resolve the issue .. and promptly made the problem much much worse as the navigation menu got eliminated from every single page in the website.

A website without any visual means of navigating from one page to another is somewhat limiting so I really did need to fix this issue !

So its now 10 past 1am in the morning and I have finally finished fixing the website.
Despite all my efforts, fiddling with the page template, changing the navigation sidebar code, reverting back to an earlier site design, copying the structure file to another filename, and lots of other ideas, nothing worked. No navigation menu on any pages at all.

And to tease me further the website sitemap resolutely correctly showed the entire site structure correctly so I know the site structure isn't corrupted in some way, it just doesn't render in the left hand navigator any more.

After lots of attempts to fix the root cause of the problem I did what any IT person would do when its late at night, I bodged it!

Fortunately I had taken a copy of the entire website earlier in the week before I installed the new RAD software so I knew what the HTML for all the pages should be, so I used this backup copy of the website contents to manually edit each and every page in the website and hand-craft the correct navigation menu HTML onto the bottom of each page so the page now displays correctly. RAD is still playing up and isn't automatically generating these navigation structures for me but I've put the correct HTML onto each page myself so the whole site now looks OK.

Of course going through each page of the website, manually editing it, getting the HTML correct, etc is a laborious task and I made a few mistakes on the way, so it took me several hours to do.

Hence the late night.

Anyway, job done now, time for bed. At some stage I will no doubt find what the problem was and will then have to re-edit all the pages again to take the hand-crafted menu structure off once the auto-generated menu structure reappears.
But that is a problem for another day.

As I said, flipping website software. Grrr


Friday, June 15, 2012

An Ignominious end for SeaFrance .. or is it?

Word of the day - "Ignominious" ?

A wonderful word that I had perfectly in mind for the title to this Blog posting, but then recent events have tried to spoil my plans, but I won't be thwarted and am still going to use Ignominious. There I said it a third time.

Anyway, I digress,

Whilst passing through Dover the other day on my way to the Gite (see swimming pool filter installation story), I was reminded of the sad tale of Sea France.

Sea France for those that don't know, SeaFrance went into liquidation on January 9th this year after the French courts ruled that a French government bailout was illegal and the company was forced to cease trading.

As I drove through Dover the sad demise of the Ferry company was all too evident on the checkin lanes where the SeaFrance name had been hastily sticky taped over on the signs over the lanes:

No more SeaFrance, their name stick-taped over on the Dover check-in lanes

And on the French side in Calais when I returned back through the port the SeaFrance checkin booths were now hidden by recently erected DFDS booths that now stood in front of them. As I drove along the quayside to load onto my boat I spotted the SeaFrance ferries were now tied up and looking forlorn (although still rather ablaze with lights) in Calais port:

Waiting for a buyer, SeaFrance ferries tied up and unused in Calais port

And that was to be my Blog posting about an ignominious end to SeaFrance.

But just when I was about to publish this prose, news came through from Craig over on ThisFrenchLife that Eurotunnel has been successful in its bid to buy three of the SeaFrance ferries for €65 million, and I found more news on the BBC website that a key condition imposed by the French courts was that the SeaFrance ferries would be leased back to a workers co-operative.

There's a brief press release from Eurotunnel on their site, but other than confirming the same facts and stating that the ferries would require "a technical overhaul before being brought into commercial service" (to catch up with necessary maintenance work), there's no details of when, the new company name, etc.

Obviously it would make most business sense if the ferries could resume operation before the peak summer holiday period, but even so I suspect that Eurotunnel will have missed the proverbial boat as most families will surely have booked their summer ferry crossings by now and they're unlikely to be able to pick up a lot of trade even if they were to start operation imminently?

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dover spends a pile of money

A few weeks ago I came across news that Dover was investing £11m in upgrading berth infrastructure at the port in order to accommodate the new super-ferries (such as P&O's Spirit ferries) in berth 3.

At the time when I read the article I thought it was saying that Dover had spent their £11 million on "just" a 4 metre wide pile that weighed in at 246 tonnes, and that this was an awful lot of money to pay for a single metal pile sunk into the harbour seabed.

The Dover press article only really hints at the size of the construction work and when I was passing through Dover on my way to the Gite with a load of work to do I was able to see that two of the ferry berths were closed off whilst it looked like they were pretty comprehensively refurbishing and extending them.

Construction work on pier 3 at Dover Harbour

246 tonne pile and pier extension in Dover Harbour


Thursday, June 07, 2012

Mission accomplished - new swimming pool filter+pump

Now that my back has recovered from what seems like digging out the Suez Canal outside our Gite, I can now write about the "fun" we had fitting the new sand filter and pump to the swimming pool at our Brittany Gite.

I wrote a week ago of having packed the car ready to go to the Gite, with the main task for my 3 day trip being to install a new sand filter and large pump in place of the little Intex pump that used a paper filter that we've used previously.

To help me with the task I'd enlisted the help of Geoff the plumber who had previously installed a new oil boiler in the Gite and a wood burner in the second house that we're slowly renovating.

First task was to decide the location of the pump and filter and then plan the pipework to and from the pool. The obvious place to site the pump and filter was inside our barn as there's electricity already laid on in there and we quickly concluded that it'd be better to dig a trench and bury the pipework under the gravel driveway so that people (and cars) wouldn't trip over the pipes and damage them.

We had some false starts with trying to lay out the positions of the pipes and it was early on the first day that Geoff reminded me that I should have bought some 45-degree pipe bends as that would have made it easier to position the pump and filter exactly where we wanted to. The debate over whether I had brought enough pipework and pipe bends and connectors continued for most of the next two days and whilst I'd *thought* I'd brought more than enough with 5x 3m lengths of pipe and 10x 90-degree bends and 10x straight pipe connectors, we ended up with only just enough of both the pipework and all the joints that I'd taken over to France. No doubt 45-degree bends would have helped as well.

Peeling back the weed-proof membrane and moving the gravel off the drive was the easy task but digging out the trench to lay the pipework in turned out to be a mammoth job that took us together the rest of the first day, myself then Thursday evening up to 10pm, and then the pair of us most of the next day before we'd got all the groundwork prepared.

We needed to dig a trench deep enough so that the flow and return pipes to/from the pool would be sufficiently protected under the ground, and as there was a couple of inches of gravel to go back on top we decided that about 4 inches down should be enough, but we also needed to dig the trench big enough to lay a drainage pipe to take away water from the sand filter when it was set to "back-wash" the sand.

I had some 65mm yellow perforated agricultural drain pipe that we used to take away excess water from behind the retaining wall next to the barn, so this was perfect for the job as the holes along the length of the pipe would let the water drain away into the ground. Whilst digging we were doubly lucky in finding that a 75mm yellow drainage pipe had already been laid straight across the front of the barn about 3 feet out from the building so by using a T piece of drainpipe and lashings of silicon mastic to fill in the gaps caused by the differing sized pipes, we were able to T the sand filter drain into the existing length of drainage pipe which would mean that waste water would be dispersed to soak into the ground over a decent length of the driveway.

The major challenge though were the rocks we found.

Starting to dig the trench, a very big stone is right in our way and the existing drainage pipe is visible
From other groundworks we've done at the Gite we've found a plentiful supply of large rocks, so much so that all of the flower beds are now lined with boulders that we've dug up from the ground. I knew we'd find a few rocks in the way of the trench but the size of them surprised both Geoff and I and getting some of the rocks out of the ground was a complete nightmare as they were physically too big and heavy to lift even with two of us.

We tried bending the pipe slightly to avoid some of the larger rocks but on Thursday afternoon we found the pipework trench was blocked by a rock that must have been 20 inches wide by 30 inches long by 18 inches deep. There was no way we could go round it, it was too big to go under, and we tried drilling into it in the hope that it would split, but no luck there either. It just had to come out of the ground !

In the end with a bit of lateral thinking we came up with a plan that must have been inspired by the Egyptian pyramid builders. Using a long piece of 2 by 2 timber and another rock I was able to insert the timber slightly under the edge of the rock and lever it up just a bit. Into the gap Geoff inserted a sawn tree branch log from our woodstore from when we had our oak tree pollarded last year. By wedging the branch under the rock we were able to prevent it dropping down slightly into the hole.
We then repeated the same exercise, again lever the stone upwards, insert another tree log underneath, and again the stone would be raised a little higher and prevented from dropping back down into the hole.

Repeat the exercise little by little, inch by inch, log by log, until we had the rock raised up above the ground level and then with great difficulty we were able to roll the rock onto the driveway leaving a massive hole in the ground where it once had sat. We got better with this technique as the trench progressed but it was still hard physical labour and took quite a while to get the rocks out of the ground in this manner. It also took an awful lot of wood and counting up afterwards we found it had taken 40 logs individually wedged under the rock to get the stone out of the hole.

Using levers and 40 pieces of wood as props underneath we managed to inch the big stone out of the hole

Finally got the big stone out of the ground - Geoff and I could barely roll it along the ground, let alone lift it

Lots and lots more stones we excavated from the trench, probably over 1 cubic metre of stone in total !
Eventually by late Friday afternoon the groundwork was complete and we could lay the pipes, glue them all together, dismantle clean and check that the pump is all working (phew it was), then fill up the sand filter with the 5 bags of sand I'd brought over, and finally remove the stoppers from the swimming pool to fill the entire system up with water and check that it worked and didn't leak.

Drainage pipe now in place underneath, trench partially filled in and the flow and return pipes connected up to the pool

Close-up of the connecting tails that link the new underground pipework to the inlet and outlet on the side of the pool
But we were not to be so lucky. As Friday afternoon wore on into Friday evening we found drip after drip, leak after leak in the pipework joints that meant that we had to put the pipe stoppers back into the pool, drain down the pipework, cut the offending section and re-glue the joint back together again to fix the leak. We managed to finish the job in the end having just about used up our entire stock of straight pipe joints in the process.

The problem in the end turned out to be the solvent glue we'd used on the pipes and joints. I'd had a bottle of glue left over from previous plumbing jobs and as it was still flexible we'd used that rather than buying new. In hindsight this proved to be a poor decision as the glue was obviously "going off" and when we turned the pump on it managed to find every weakness in the joints. The new pump has a lot of work to do to push the water through the sand filter so is a beefy 1 horsepower pump = leak city Brittany !

Geoff hard at work cutting out and fixing yet another leaking pipe joint

Completed pump and sand filter in the barn with the drainage pipe already buried
Eventually we managed to find and fix all the leaks, then we found that the rubber seal around the top of the sand filter was also weeping under the pump pressure so it took several more attempts including part of Saturday morning before we fixed that problem as well. We needed to be able to remove the top off the sand filter to change the sand every few years so we couldn't permanently fix the top into place. PTFE tape didn't do the job and nor did gas PTFE tape, so it came down in the end to using a semi-flexible sealant (a bit like Plumbers mait) that Geoff normally uses on gas pipe fittings before we got a completely leak proof system.

Then we "just" had to fill in the earth into the trenches, but this required a couple of wheelbarrow loads of extra earth to be dug up from the far end of the garden to fill in the holes left behind by the vacated stones, then carry/roll/distribute those same massive heavy stones around the edges of the flower beds, finally lay back the weedproof membrane, gravel and job done!

The finished job looking out from the barn past the pump towards the swimming pool - you'd never know we'd been very hard at work!
And it all now works perfectly, the pump hums away quietly and is definitely pushing the water round faster than it did before and the filter seems to be making quite a difference; when I left on Saturday the pool was getting clearer already.

Actually its not all quite finished. Because we didn't have any 45-degree pipework bends it meant that the flow and return pipes couldn't be "tucked back" to the side of the barn and so we've left some of the pipework visible until I return back to the UK, can buy some more joints - including some 45-degree bends - and then post them all over to Geoff who is going to adjust the pipework run and then fill in the remaining hole in the ground that you can see on the photo above.

And then 2 days after we'd finished the guests that were in the Gite called to say that one of the feeder tail pipes that connects the new pipework to the pool had sprung a leak and Geoff had to go back and replace it. I've ordered some new stronger flexible pipework which I will send off to Geoff in a day or so.

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