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Meet Pepi the cat… He is very special, and not just because he’s so handsome!

He came into our lives in late summer, a couple of months after the sudden (and devastating) loss of one of our beloved dogs, Hamish, to a terrible disease.

It happened like this. We feed – fed – the local birds on our patio, and one day I realised that the shadow beneath the patio table was darker than usual. Inky black, in fact.

As I watched, at the speed of light the shadow detached itself and neatly made a meal of one of the sparrows. I opened the patio door to try to help the poor little thing, but the cat (for such it was) ran off.

Over the next few days we played a game that he always won. I’d remove his hiding places, and he would find a new one. The birds, seemingly unaware of the brooding black presence, kept being eaten. I even tried to make the patio cat-proof (no chance!).

To cut a long story short, in defence of the birds I started feeding him. (I also moved the bird feeding station down into the garden, close to some bushes where they have more natural protection). Mark decided the cat’s name was Pepi, after an Egyptian pharaoh. Pepi decided to stay.

We hadn’t intended to get a cat… We had cats and dogs for years, living happily together, but our last cat passed away at the venerable age of 17 before we got our two setters. Cats just seemed to come into our lives – waifs and strays mainly, which people from the nearby town would dump in the village, thinking that tiny kittens would be fine somewhere rural. (This, by the way, is not true. All pets need proper care).

As Hamish and Lexie had not been brought up with cats, they chased them, and we’d never had many in the garden as a result. But when Hamish died, Lexie – who is blind – could no longer help with the cat patrol, so I guess Pepi saw an opening for a stray. But how to care for our new arrival, who clearly doesn’t care much for humans?

Food has been the answer so far. He clearly appreciates having his grub presented in a bowl rather than having to catch it. I have to say, we’re not yet sure whether he’s a he or a she because we can’t get close enough to see… He comes running when he hears the little gate open as I go to put his food down, and stands back politely, a couple of feet away. Just far enough. If I try to get closer, he backs off, and he won’t feed until I’m safely back inside with the door locked.

This is a photo of him trying the new Purina Pro Plan wet food – Purina have kindly sent me some samples to try. When I realised it was fish, my heart sank because Pepi’s never been fond of fish – I guess because there aren’t many running round the local gardens or farm barns. I had to give a whole pack of a well-known brand of fish-flavoured cat food to our neighbour (to her delight), so I feared the worst.

However, about ten seconds after the photo was taken, the plate was licked clean. Success! Pepi has finally been introduced to fish!

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The A470, or what passes for the main north-south route in Wales.

The A470, or what passes for the main north-south route in Wales.

It’s official: driving down those lovely rural lanes is ten times worse for you than driving the country’s crowded M routes. In fact, the figures for last year reveal 100 deaths on Britain’s motorways and 1070 on country roads.

This may sound unbelievable, but not to anyone who has been driving these roads for the past 40 years, as I have. In that time I have seen drivers doing things that would make even William Hague’s meagre hair curl.

I will long remember the man who simply accelerated at my elderly Mini Traveller on a single track stretch of country lane, taking its wing mirror off (it would have been more but I was in a small car, which I managed to part-perch on a verge). I managed this tricky manoeuvre while being certain he would – he must – brake, but he didn’t.

He did, however, stop further down the road after the collision – I thought, to apologise, as I went to his car. Far from it – he was furious. He bellowed at me, as if this explained all: “I’ve been driving these roads for thirty years!”. My daughter, who was in the car with me, said tartly that in that case, there was no time like the present to start learning to do it properly then… But he drove off in his grand car, his spinning wheels creating an impressive cloud of dust as he accelerated back to motorway speeds.

Over the years, he’s been far from unique. I recall another lady tearing round a blind corner and nearly taking our car out as it sat at a junction a few yards further down. This was another single track road, and she, having gone round the bend like Lewis Hamilton on steroids, was shaving the hedge as she approached and very nearly took out the car bonnet.

Again, this was another driver who “knew” she was right. She wound down her electric window (why is it always posh car owners?) and delivered a lecture on how she was in the right because “I am on the main road and you shouldn’t be there”. Apparently, nobody was allowed to sit at a junction while she was speeding down “her” roads.

I’ve seen cars stuck in ditches and telegraph poles, after their owners failed to negotiate icy bends. I’ve flinched as a motorcyclist bounced off the side of our car after he failed to stop at a junction. I’ve had a friend thrown off a bicycle into a ditch by a speeding car – he ended up in hospital with a broken wrist and concussion (the car didn’t stop). Our current neighbour’s boy barely escaped with his life after a high-speed collision with a bus on a narrow road.

We were all lucky, from the looks of the statistics. It is clear that those driving down country roads have a lot to learn, and I have a few humble suggestions that might make these roads a safer place.

1. On country lanes the national speed limit sign is often displayed. This is NOT 70mph. The national speed limit varies depending on the type of road and vehicle. On motorways and dual carriageways, it is 70mph. On single carriageway roads, including all country lanes where this sign is seen, the national speed limit is 60mph. If you’re towing a trailer or caravan, it’s 50mph. A handy guide can be found at http://www.drivingtesttips.biz/speed-limit-uk.html
2. Even though the speed limit may be 60mph, that does not mean you have to drive at that speed. ROSPA research says inappropriate speed contributes to 14% of injury collisions, 15% of crashes resulting in a serious injury, and 24% of collisions that result in death. In poor weather, or poor visibility (as on roads with sharp bends), DROP YOUR SPEED.
3. Even when you are on a through route, keep an eye out for any junctions. Vehicles may have to move forward and encroach onto the through route just to see if there are oncoming vehicles. Also, speeding vehicles do not always notice that there is a junction.
4. A related point: don’t travel at a speed so great that you are likely to miss a junction. Remember that country roads were not designed by modern engineers, but were created by Romans, herders of sheep and cows, and folks taking their carts to market. Such routes can stop and start pretty randomly, and their details are not always well marked on maps.
5. Aha, I hear you say, but I have a sat-nav: be very careful when following instructions in rural areas. Often these will take you on the most direct route, but that may by no means be the safest. If in doubt, check a paper map to see if you’re being taken up an inappropriate short cut. If you want to know what one of those looks like, watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybzZP2FdiXs. That’s a short cut.
6. Keep your wits about you. If there are farms on your route, tractors can appear very suddenly. They can also appear from field entrances, and they rarely look or stop. They are definitely going to come off better in most accidents.
7. Herds of animals can also appear with very little warning. Farmers do move animals around by road, and it would be wise to adjust your speed to allow you time to stop before ploughing into a herd of cows, should one be round that next bend. In spring, lambs are also expert escapees and often manage to congregate on the road, having a little harmless fun – unless you are driving so fast you turn them into lamb chops prematurely.
8. In icy conditions, take bends on rural roads with extreme care. These roads may well have adverse cambers, due to their haphazard nature. Ice will also remain under stands of trees long after it has gone from clear stretches of road, so watch out for sections in the shade when it’s cold.
9. Watch out for other stuff on the road. It’s not just ice you need to think about – tractors often deposit mud, and animals deposit all sorts of other interesting things. If it’s wet, or you are flying round a bend, none of these substances will do anything for your traction.
10. Don’t just stop in the middle of the road. It’s amazing how many people stop dead to admire the view, or a cute baby animal. Check behind you before you hit the brakes. Think about whether another road user will be able to see you and stop before hitting you. If you really must stop, use a lay-by. If you break down, put your hazard lights on – push the car to safety if at all possible. But check the verge can take the car’s weight first, and that there’s not a deep ditch/gravel to trap you. Such things provide endless amusement for breakdown services.

Remember: don’t become a statistic! Let’s stay safe out there.

It is with some difficulty that I am writing this post, because thinking about losing Hamish still moves me to tears.

Hamish was a Gordon Setter – a big, beautiful black and tan dog with a heart like a marshmallow and a passion for tennis balls that passed all understanding. It was just under two months ago, on Friday 9th of May – my beloved father’s birthday – that he passed away, on a warm spring day with the bluebells and rhododendrons in full, glorious bloom. He would have been ten in September.

On that Monday he had been happy, healthy, splashing about in Llyn Brenig with his friend Lexie. On Tuesday evening he ate his turkey but didn’t seem interested in his biscuits. I wasn’t unduly concerned, but on Wednesday my instincts told me he just wasn’t well, so I phoned the vet. I could see that the inside of his eyelids – he had very baggy eyes – was very pale, which just didn’t seem right. I couldn’t get an appointment till 4.30, which worried me but not knowing what was wrong, I waited… Now I wonder if that was a bad decision. I have wondered many things since that day.

When we went in, a short walk before his appointment produced a stool with blood in it – which I took along to show the vet. She took blood samples, and said to call her back if he got worse – she prescribed, as I recall, some interesting goo to calm his stomach and antibiotics. At that stage, none of us knew what was wrong.

That night, he wasn’t interested in his food. I squirted some of the goo into his mouth as instructed, and that was all he had to eat. Other than that he slept, and when he got up to go to bed he was wobbly. I phoned the vet, and at 11pm we were back at the surgery, where she did the blood tests on the spot. I could see from her face that the news wasn’t good.

She also looked at the inside of his lip, which was pale, almost  yellow and said that was typical of IMHA. This, I now know, stands for immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia, which is where the body’s white blood cells turn against the red blood cells and attack them. She gave him steroids straight away (I know now this was prednisone), and broke the news then that only 50% of dogs survive this terrible disease. Hamie stayed in overnight with her watching over him. I worried about him, of course, he had terrible separation anxiety, but what can you do if your dog is terribly ill?

Through the next day, the news was in turns good and bad – he had responded a bit, then he didn’t seem to be responding. He stayed in on Thursday night too – all I could do was to cry and send healing wishes in the direction of the surgery. On Friday, the vet said he wasn’t responding well and we went in to see him as soon as we could.

I was shocked by how weak and ill he looked – poor Hamie, our lovely big bouncy boy, so poorly he couldn’t stand… The expression in his eyes broke my heart and still does, when I think of it now. The vet suggested we take him to the Small Animal Hospital in Liverpool and my husband went home to clear the back of the car to carry him. When he returned Hamish was carried out, with his drip, and placed carefully on his comfortable dog bed, and we set off, Mark fretting about finding the place but luckily my phone turned out to have a sat-nav app. I vaguely remember the journey and how hard I tried to make sure we didn’t take any wrong turns, and we didn’t.

It made no difference. I rushed to book him in, but as we went to get him from the back of the car I could see how weak he was – he was lying down, panting heavily, his big head hung low. I just knew – I pleaded with him to stay with us, feeling his heart still beating in his chest and willing him on… He just put one of his big paws gently into my husband’s hand, and died. 

There is a blur, where the hospital rushed him in and tried to revive him, and then I remember a vet gently telling us that he hadn’t survived. She said he had probably suffered a blood clot – it’s the most common cause of death with this illness. Something unrecoverable, she said. And I remember the bluebells, and the rhododendrons on that terrible, empty journey home. 

I am writing this with tears running down my face, but I have to write it. He was the best, most wonderful of dogs, and there is a huge gap where he used to play, and rush round making sure everything was right in the world of Hamish. He was so sweet, so kind, so gentle and loving, and this cruel, awful disease cut him down and took him from us in a matter of days.

I am haunted by memories and fears – fear that I did something that could have caused this, though the cause is often unknown. Fear that I should have spotted something was wrong sooner, or taken him to the hospital earlier. All sorts of things. I would give anything to have him back. His friend Lexie – his aunt – misses him dreadfully, as we do. I don’t think that terrible gap can be healed.

But what I would say, I would beg people if you see your dog has unexplained bruising, a pale inner eye or lip, bloody stools, lack of appetite or weakness, do go to your vet. Don’t wait. And if your dog is found to have IMHA, try to get the best possible help as soon as possible. I will never know if I could have done more – if I could have done something to save him. I have to live with that, if I can.

Goodbye, my darling boy. I miss you more than I can say. 

 

Your last day

 

If I had known that it was your last day

I would have thanked you,

Though my thanks are small and mean

Compared to all the love you gave.

But I did not, so when you told me that you loved me

As you did, always, all I said was ‘yeah’

And went about the grey-grind morning.

 

Now all the time is spent, and there is no return

To that warm land where we once played

And you would frolic, love in every minute

Grasping every moment as a gift

Smiling at the sheer joyness of it all

Lighting all the world by being.

 

And now I know, and knowing is such pain

How much you meant, too late –

Too late to say you lived in everything

My heart, my life, my noonday sun,

My boy. And never once again

To see your dear, dear face,

Or light my day the love that filled your eyes.

 

Now I howl, into that vast absence

My thanks, too late, for your brave, generous heart.

My day is still, for you gave me my action

The hollow of my soul breaks, I would give

My all, just for the chance to say

I love you, always, there on your last day.

 

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With the confirmation that the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, MH370, was  in all probability hijacked, its communications systems deliberately disabled, a raft of new questions arise about the airliner’s fate. The most tantalising is the possibility that the plane could have landed somewhere, intact. 

Again, it is necessary to look at the questions that arise from this news. Who took the plane? Suspicion appears to be falling on the co-pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, with the confirmation that he gave the last ‘all right, good night’ message to air traffic control, minutes after the first plane communication system (ACARS, the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) was disabled. 

After the transponder was also switched off, the plane continued to communicate with an Inmarsat satellite on an hourly basis for over six further hours – for more than seven hours after takeoff in total. The satellite positioning is inexact – it was never intended to pinpoint airplane locations – so the ‘best guess’ location for the plane is a massive swathe of the earth that ranges from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the southern Indian Ocean.

One big question, which was obvious from the outset, is why the alarm was not raised. If one of the pilots took control of the plane without the consent of the other, the other pilot must have been neutralised immediately to ensure that he was unable to punch in the four-digit code to the transponder that would have alerted air traffic control to the hijack. This of course is not outside the bounds of probability, and is something that a hijack plan would have had to take into account.

The other big question is why there was no communication from passengers. During the 9/11 hijacks many passengers phoned home or their offices. However, those planes had seatback phones and the Malaysian Airlines plane did not, so passengers would have had to rely on being able to get a mobile signal. As the plane is reported to have been flying at an unusually high altitude for parts of its journey, it is possible that passengers were simply unable to connect. 

However, during the early part of the hijack the plane was flying over the Malaysian peninsula, where it would be quite likely a signal could be obtained. It is possible, though, that at this stage the passengers were unaware that there was a problem.

The other issue is the plane’s complete disappearance. It does not seem to have appeared on the radar systems of other countries along its possible northward route, such as India. However, its unusual flight height, which seems to have varied from extremely high to extremely low, may mean that it managed to evade detection.

Given this, the problem of finding the plane is immense. Some of the southern part of the search area is over extremely deep water and if the plane crashed into the water here it will be extremely difficult to find. If it was put down somewhere on land in the northern search area, it has been pointed out that although in theory it requires a runway of considerable length, any large flat area might have been considered a possible landing area by the hijackers. It has to be added that while planes have landed successfully off-runway, for a large passenger plane to achieve this without serious damage would be unusual.

However, the hijack scenario presents another uncomfortable question. It is now over a week since the plane vanished. No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the hijacking, so if this is what happened, the hijackers must have been acting alone and for some reason have not made contact since the plane was taken. Presuming that the plane was taken for a purpose, the fact that the purpose has not become evident suggests that at some point it met with mishap. 

In perhaps the most tantalising puzzle of this century so far, the fate of MH370 remains shrouded in mystery. Who took the plane, and why? Most importantly, where did it land? Is it possible that some of those on board are still alive? Remarkably, in an age of seemingly blanket surveillance and satellite supervision, it seems likely at the moment that the airliner may never be found.

 

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To say that the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is a mystery at the present time is to understate the case. The information that is available is so sparse and contradictory that it appears almost anything might have happened.

 So what are the possibilities? First, some facts.  The flight, bound for Beijing, took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport for Beijing at 12.41am on 8 March (local time). Communication was lost less than an hour later, at 1.30am, at which time the plane’s transponder recorded it off the east coast of the Malay peninsula. The flight was carrying 239 people – 227 passengers and 12 crew. 

 All this is known. Beyond this, the story becomes positively murky. According to ABC News, the 777’s data reporting system shut down at 1.07am while the transponder – which sends information back to air traffic control about the plane’s location and altitude – switched off at 1.21am.

 At a press conference, Malaysia’s defence and acting transport minister Hishamuddin Hussein, said the authorities were investigating whether the communications systems had been deliberately shut down and that there were ‘four or five possibilities’ why they may have been shut off. He spoke of this being done intentionally, under duress, or as the result of an explosion – though obviously the latter would beg the question why the systems went off at different times.

 An even odder fact has emerged – that a third system, which transmits routine maintenance data, had continued to attempt to establish a satellite link for hours after the other two systems went silent. However, beyond the point where the transponder stopped working, there was no further communication from the crew.

 With the transponder inactive, as on 9/11, air traffic control was no longer able to track the planes and at that point flight MH370 effectively disappeared from their radar screens. However, it was later revealed that military radar, which tracks all air movements but not with any detail about the nature of the flight, had picked up an unidentified aircraft on a radically different bearing, crossing the Malaysian peninsula from east to west near the Malaysia-Thailand border and flying out into the Straits of Malacca. 

 Why did the two systems pick up such different things? There are two different types of radar – primary and secondary. Air traffic control uses secondary radar, which sends signals requesting information from the plane’s transponder. The plane transmits data back, including its identification, altitude and bearing. Military systems use what is known as primary radar, which sends out signals that pick up the echoes which bounce back from airborne objects. 

 There is, of course, one word of caution at this point. It has not been confirmed, and it is not yet possible to say that this military trace picked up the missing flight and not some other, as yet unidentified aircraft. 

 This total confusion of data has led to equal confusion on the ground, with searches covering an extraordinary area – as yet to no avail. People are left asking all sorts of questions, based around the one key riddle of what happened to the aircraft. Clearly, something extraordinary and catastrophic happened to it, so what are the options?

 The aircraft suffered a sudden, total loss of structural integrity in mid-air at the point when the transponder stopped working. Against this theory is the excellent record of the 777. Although Boeing had issued a warning to check for structural corrosion around a satellite antenna on the aircraft, this particular plane is said not to have been fitted with the system. This also does not explain why the three communication systems stopped working at different times, and why the third continued to attempt to transmit data for hours after the transponder signal was lost.

A terrorist set off an explosion on the flight. This would have had to cause instantaneous disintegration, otherwise the pilots could very quickly and discreetly have punched in a four-digit code that would have alerted air traffic control to their situation. Against this theory, again, is the fact that the communication systems stopped working at different times.

Sudden, uncontrolled decompression caused the passengers and crew to lose consciousness, with the aircraft continuing to fly until it ran out of fuel. This has indeed happened – Helios Flight 522, flying from Cyprus to Athens,  crashed in 2005 because a sudden decompression incapacitated the crew. While this would explain the lack of communication from the pilots, again the fact that the three communication systems stopped working at different times suggests a different scenario.

Pilot error. In modern accidents, pilot error has become a much more common factor than structural failure. The last major unexplained disappearance of a plane was Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, which went missing with 216 passengers and 12 crew – the Airbus A330-200 simply disappeared beyond radar cover at night over the Atlantic ocean. A massive search operation eventually located the plane and its cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and data recorders, which revealed that the accident was the result of a junior pilot fatally mismanaging the flight system, pushing the plane’s nose up after its pitot tubes (which measure air speed) froze temporarily, to the extent that it simply became unable to fly and fell out of the sky. If something of this kind happened on the Malaysian Airline flight, which was in contact with air traffic control, why were no messages sent out? And again, why did the communication systems stop working at different times?

Maintenance error. Again, as planes have become more and more safe structurally, maintenance errors have crept up the list of reasons why planes crash  – either due to a lack of maintenance causing a structural failure to be missed, or due to a major mistake in maintenance (real life examples include using the wrong screws to re-attach a vital part, or indeed not re-inserting them at all). For this to be a possibility, the experts will need to explain how a structural issue could cause the communications systems to fail separately.

Fire. This scenario would envisage a sudden, locally-catastrophic fire that immediately destroyed the pilots’ communications equipment, the transponder and then progressed to destroy the other two systems. This would tie in with a report from an oil rig worker off the south-east coast of Viet Nam, who described seeing a plane burning at high altitude at about the time when the Malaysian Airlines flight was initially reported to have crashed.

Hijack. This is an option that is clearly being seriously considered by officials, who are examining the backgrounds of the crew and all the passengers. Terrorism or hijack were made to look more likely by the discovery that two passengers were travelling on stolen passports, though investigations suggest the pair were trying to enter Europe illegally. However, this remains one of the solutions that (so far) fits the known facts. Again, why would the pilots not have had time to enter the alarm code to alert air traffic control?

‘Suicide by pilot’. Again, this has happened in real life. Silk Air Flight 185, which crashed into a river in Sumatra, is a controversial example – this hypothesis was not accepted by the Indonesian National Transport Safety Committee, but the American National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which modeled the crash, concluded that the only way to achieve the flight profile was as a result of deliberate flight control inputs. EgyptAir Flight 990 is another example of a disagreement between the home country and the NTSB, which again concluded that the plane had been deliberately crashed. While a relatively rare occurrence, a deliberate act by a crew member would also fit the known facts.

Passenger suicide. This would echo the scenario above and indeed the hijacking theory. To achieve this, a passenger would have had to be familiar with the flight controls on the 777 and how to fly it. As an example, Fed-Ex flight 705 was hijacked by a Fed Ex employee taking a lift on the flight, who attacked the crew in an attempt to disguise his suicide as a plane crash – the crew managed to fight him off and subdue him, though they were badly injured. In both the crew and passenger suicide scenarios, one key question is, if the plane is confirmed to have flown on for several hours after the transponder stopped working, why did the culprit not crash the plane immediately? One possible answer is that CVRs record cockpit conversations for a minimum of 30 minutes and a recommended two hours, so the culprit may have wished to erase all evidence of their act from the recorder, in case it is ever found. 

 These are the main options that appear to be under consideration. There are other, wilder theories ranging from missile attack to alien abduction, but none that fit within the realm of the possible. Could the plane even have landed safely? Some relatives cling to this hope. This plane requires a substantial runway though – pilots suggest 11,000ft. There are very few unattended runways of this size in this part of the world, and the plane certainly has not landed at any ‘official’ airport. 

 Even if an abandoned runway of this size exists, to land on an un-maintained runway, without the aid of air traffic control guidance or the automated systems that pilots rely on for landing would be an extraordinary feat. However it is one achieved by an Air Canada flight in 1983. This ran out of fuel but nevertheless managed to land at an air strip one of the pilots remembered from his air force days, at a remote spot called Gimli in Manitoba. Unfortunately (to the crew’s dismay) the strip had been turned into a motor sport park since that time, but the plane was brought down safely, and the remarkable feat saw the plane labelled ‘the Gimli glider’. So while unlikely in the extreme, this is not entirely impossible.

 What happens now with flight MH370? Everything depends on whether the plane can be found, and the CVR and flight data recorder retrieved, and whether the remains of the plane and the data provide answers to this deepening mystery. On the positive side, these seas are not deep (around 80m). Retrieving a plane from the Atlantic is far more difficult, in theory, because of the extraordinary depths involved (the Titanic is 3784m down, for example). However, the uncertainty over the location of the Malaysian Airways plane makes finding it extremely challenging – the search area is immense and vague. It is to be hoped that the intense search-and-rescue activity and examination of satellite data can produce answers for the grieving families. If, as seems increasingly possible, no trace of the plane is found, it will go down as a mystery on a parallel with Flight 19, which disappeared in 1945 in the Bermuda Triangle.

Residents of Staines have finally unearthed (or rather un-watered)Image the dastardly nemesis that has caused the river Thames to flood their properties – the Depressed River Mussel. The Environment Agency has admitted that it has avoided dredging the river to ensure that the rare creatures are not damaged.

A spokes-mollusc for the species is reported as saying: ‘Oh, don’t mind me. Brain the size of a small pea and yet somehow nobody has managed to scoop me up in a bucket. Get on with it, won’t you? I haven’t got all day to be hanging around here, feeling bad about the world.’

New Age activist Lucinda Strop, speaking from a flooded mansion on what used to be the banks of the Thames, has volunteered to provide counselling for the mussels, so that they can lead a more fulfilled life in another location. ‘I have a lovely pot with some wine, cream and onions that I think they will absolutely adore,’ she told local press.