Mark and Matt’s big bike ride for Kandersteg

Many readers of this blog will be aware that my family is a big part of my life – I have two sons who are growing up far too quickly! Cycling is another big part of my life – it’s one of the ways that I keep fit and it’s also one of my eldest son (Matthew)’s passions, which means I spend quite a bit of time supporting him in various cycling-related endeavours.

Another big part of our family’s activities relates to Scouting. I was a Cub Scout, a Scout, a Venture Scout (for a short while) and a Cub Scout Instructor in my youth – and I got a tremendous amount out of that experience. My sons are both Scouts too… which leads to this blog post…

Back in November, Matthew was lucky enough to be one of just 16 Scouts and Explorer Scouts across Milton Keynes District to be selected for one of two international trips in 2019 – to the International Scout Centre in Kandersteg, Switzerland and the World Scout Jamboree in the United States. Matthew was selected to go to Kandersteg and needs to raise quite a chunk of money to fund this amazing international trip.

As well as various group-related activities, Matthew was looking for an individual challenge that he could carry out in the hope that friends, family and other people who would like to support the cause could sponsor him.

Cycle route from Milton Keynes to Paddington Basin via the Grand Union CanalMatthew and I decided that a sponsored bike ride would be a good idea. But it had to be demanding. Not a few laps of the country park but something that would be a significant challenge for a 13 year-old – so we settled on a bike ride from Milton Keynes to London (in a day).

Because of the risks involved with road riding, we decided to use the Grand Union Canal, which actually makes it longer and a bit harder because not all of the surface is tarmac.

You can see our route on the image in this post – starting at Milton Keynes Central station, and ending at Paddington Basin (just along from the Microsoft offices at Paddington Central…).

I may have done a few 100 mile rides on the road for “fun” but ~70 miles (111km) on canal towpaths will be a stretch even for me… let alone for Matthew, whose furthest ride before we started training was 26 miles (40km). We’ve been training (up to around 75km) and this Saturday we’re hoping to do the ride for real.

Matthew on his bike, in Scout uniformSo, that’s what we’re doing – my ask of you is this:

If you’ve ever found my blog useful, or you have other reasons to support my son in his fundraising (it’s amazing how many people have themselves been on similar trips that have made a huge difference to their lives), please consider donating at Matthew’s crowd-funding page.

I’m sure I’ll be tweeting progress on Saturday… in the meantime – thank you in anticipation of your support.

If you’d like to know more about what we’re doing, there’s info on Matthew’s crowdfunding page and you can find details about the Kandersteg International Scout Centre on their website.

Kandersteg International Scout Centre logo

Thank you for your support.

[Update 11/6/18: Matthew and I completed the ride on Saturday and he was awesome. I’m incredibly proud of him. He got a bit tired around the 50-mile point but kept on powering through and nailed it. And then an over-zealous security guard at Paddington Basin’s Pocket Park (Merchant Square) told us we had to move our bikes…

Thanks to everyone who supported us on this endeavour – we smashed Matt’s fundraising target for the ride (raising nearly all the money we need for the trip from just this one effort!).

Huge credit is due to the family and friends who joined us at key points on the route as well to my wife Nikki and my youngest son Ben, who followed us along the route and provided food, drink and support.]

Weeknote 11a: A more relaxed pace of life (Week 8, 2018)

Last week, for the first time in ages, I got my weeknote out on time. Indeed, I wrote it on Thursday night, published on Friday afternoon, and then ran away to The Cotswolds.
Restored Massey Ferguson Red Tractor at Vegetable MattersMy wife and I spent the weekend in and around Chipping Campden with great weather, wonderful views, fantastic food and a lovely hotel. And on more than one occasion I felt like I was living in an episode of The Archers (not just because of the restored tractor at the local farm shop).
It was just a more relaxed pace of life in a rural idyll. A place where people are friendly and they talk to one another. And a trip into Moreton-on-the-Marsh showed that many businesses remain closed on Sundays – which is no bad thing either.
On Sunday afternoon, we drove back over the beautiful Cotswolds and the Northamptonshire uplands – then we got to Northampton and boom! Into the chaos of Sunday afternoon the M1, massive distribution centres, traffic, modern life…
It made me think that not all progress is good!

Look after yourself, look after your mind

Last Tuesday was World Mental Health Day – a day aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health. 2017’s theme was mental health in the workplace.

The thing about mental health issues is that most people don’t understand – until we experience problems ourselves – and then we realise just how common those issues are. That’s why days like World Mental Health Day are so important.

I had my first “episode” back in 2007, when I let work-related stress build to a point where I was diagnosed with anxiety. It took a few weeks off and a change of job role to set me straight.

But stress-related anxiety is not something that one “gets better” from (at least not in my experience). Instead, I’ve learned to spot the signs and to take action. I’ve begun to recognise when I’m heading in the wrong direction because I’m agitated with colleagues or customers over apparently trivial things. My work isn’t going to get less stressful, so I’ve put coping strategies in place: I exercise; I try to take a break most days (even if it’s just a short walk, although I really must stop combining the short walk with confectionary purchases…); I blog (I find the writing cathartic).

Hopefully no-one notices. It doesn’t affect my ability to do my job (unless my job has unreasonable expectations) and a good manager (or team member) will recognise when someone is struggling.

So it’s ironic that, in the week of World Mental Health Day, I found myself finishing the week with a tweet about working late on a Friday again (which I probably should never have sent). And when I finally stopped for the weekend I realised why I was in the state I was in: I hadn’t managed to get to any of my “Caveman Conditioning” (circuit training) sessions; I travelled in evenings to be in the right location for the next day’s work and avoid an early start; I ate crap food; I didn’t get enough sleep (Premier Inn beds may be comfortable but a hotel is still not home); I hadn’t blogged in ages; and I’d had a cold all week.

This week has had less travel but still a lot of pressure. But I’m starting to wonder how much of that pressure is perceived. How much stress do I add by insisting that things are done to a particular standard? And really, does it have to be me? Do I have to say “yes” to every request?

I have deliverables to produce by the end of this week so, yesterday, I set Skype for Business to Do Not Disturb, closed Outlook and got my head down. My productivity soared. Stuff happened without me. The world did not end. Unfortunately, I checked email at lunchtime and fell into a pit of despair but, after responding to some messages, I closed it again and cracked on as best I could with the document I need to write. I wrote some more. I felt (a bit) better.

I won’t pretend that I’m not looking forward to a week off work next week. Even if most of my half-term plans revolve around a huge clear-out and getting on top of my home admin. That will be another set of tasks off my list, off my mind.

I posted another tweet this week – much more positive than last Friday’s whinge:

I was amazed how many liked and retweets it got: that’s a lot of people who recognise the situation. I’m not sure that the person who took the time to say “thank you” yesterday realised the positive impact they made but the little things really do help.

Further Reading

Saving money by fixing household appliances, instead of replacing them!

Over the last few months, I’ve had engineer callouts to our dishwasher (7.5 years old), tumble dryer (13 years old) and washing machine (also 13 years old). All of these household appliances are heavily used but they’re also from good brands (Bosch/Siemens/Neff) and they’re generally going strong… I also managed to get them fixed for very little, in most cases… saving hundreds of pounds against the cost of a replacement.

Case 1: Dishwasher with error message E:24 or E:25

Neff’s E:24 and E:25 errors mean there’s something stopping the dishwasher from draining (generally a kinked hose, blocked filter or something obstructing the pump). Our machine would run the first few minutes of the cycle (a self-test, apparently) before failing with one of these messages.

Despite following advice on the ‘net, I couldn’t work out what it was (I gave the pipes a good clean – especially around where they outlet pipe was plumbed into the drain – and checked for objects blocking the impeller on the pump).

A £65 engineer call-out from a local firm checked the appliance over but the error returned – and so did the engineer. This time he did a more thorough job and, although he couldn’t find what had been preventing the machine from running, the error has gone so whatever it was has been dislodged and our dishes are getting cleaned (without spending a few hundred pounds on a new integrated dishwasher…). Total cost to repair: £65.

I didn’t use the video below (I used others at the time) but this is a pretty complete view of the process I followed, and I didn’t see the engineer do much more!

Case 2: Washing machine tripping electrical supply

A few minutes into the wash cycle, the electrical circuit would trip on our Bosch Classixx 1200 Express. I managed to run the drain cycle and remove the trapped washing. Then I tried plugging the washing machine into a different circuit but saw the same issue – so I knew it wasn’t a general problem with the supply but with the machine. A call to a local engineer (not the one I used for the dishwasher!) was all that was required to get this machine working again (he fitted a replacement heating element). Total cost to repair: just under £75 (including parts and labour).

Case 3: Condensing tumble dryer not heating fully and clothes damp at end of cycle

The engineer who fixed the washing machine didn’t work on condenser tumble dryers, so I had to call Siemens’ official engineers to fix our elderly TXL 733. With the engineer call-out charge and the list of parts required, I was looking at nearly £300. Definitely beyond economic repair! Reviews on new A++ energy-rated models with heat pumps were not great – so we went with another condenser (moving from C to B at least). This cost £95 for engineer call-out plus £299 for a new appliance, minus another £50 cashback (due soon) for buying another Siemens/Bosch appliance.

Incidentally, I didn’t buy from John Lewis (as I normally would) – Co-op Electrical delivered the new appliance the next day.

Case 4: Washing machine making a loud vibration noise

After paying out to get the machine fixed once, it was on borrowed time. No more engineer call-outs – at some point you have to cut your losses and buy a new appliance. For the last few washes, our machine has been incredibly noisy and after returning from holiday with a lot of loads to run, I was ready to have to buy a replacement today.

But, before ordering a new machine, I decided to search the Internet and, thanks to these two videos I found the problem – a shirt collar stiffener that had worked its way out of my shirt and into the workings of the machine!

Shirt collar stiffener extracted from noisy Bosch washing machine

Total cost to repair: £0.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Replace Repair?

I may still have a teenage washing machine (and a dishwasher heading toward double digits too) but newer appliances are not built to last as long as these were. Maybe these quick and relatively cheap fixes can help others keep their appliances going for a bit longer…

“You need to work less”. Musings on finding the elusive work-life balance

“You need to work less”, said David Hughes (@davidhughes) as we were discussing why I carried a power supply with my Surface Pro. This was in response to my observation that the device will get me through the work day but not through travel at each end as well.

“Actually, you have a point”, I thought. You see, weekdays are pretty much devoted to work and pseudo-work (blogging, social media, keeping up to date with tech, etc.) – except for meals, sleep, the couple of hours a week spent exercising, and a bit of TV in the evening.

David commented that he reads – rather than working – on the train (I tweet and email but really should read more). And when I asked how he organises his day, he introduced me to ToDoIst. It seems that having a task list is one thing but having a task list that can work for you is something else.

Today was different. I knew I wanted to get a blog post out this morning, finish writing a white paper, and find time to break and meet with David in my favourite coffee shop. I’m terrible at getting up on working-from-home days (more typically working well into the evening instead) but I had managed to be at my desk by 7am and that meant that when I left the house mid-morning I’d already got half a day’s work in. For once, I’d managed some semblance of work-life balance. The afternoon was still pretty tough and I’m still working as we approach 7pm (my over-caffeinated state wasn’t good for writing!) but I met my objectives for the day.

Now I’ve added ToDoIst to my workflow I’m hoping to be more focused, to wrap up each day and set priorities for the next. I need to stop trying to squeeze as much as I can into an ever-more-frantic existence and to be ruthless with what can and can’t be achieved. Time will tell how successful I am, but it feels better already.

How a lack of digital skills threatens digital transformation

I follow some very smart people on Twitter. Sometimes they tweet and blog stuff that’s way over my head. Often I agree with them. Occasionally I don’t.

Last night, I spotted a tweet from Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) that I felt compelled to rebel against. I’m late to the party (the tweet is nearly a week old – which is an age in the Twittersphere) but this is what Matt had to say, together with my response:

I’ve long held the view that locking down PCs is missing the point. Even when BYOD was “a thing” (around 2010), I was writing that we needed to stop worrying about devices and operating systems and to start looking at data and applications. Now that’s becoming mainstream thinking – mobile device management (MDM) is finally being replaced with mobile application management (MAM) – and organisations are finally realising that laptops and “hybrid” devices are also mobile devices (it’s not just about tablets and phones).

The age of lockdown is also starting to wane. Yes, organisations will still have corporate builds and still control what employees can do with the tech running on their networks but to get back to Matt’s statement – I simply don’t buy that the lockdown is causing people to have an inability to navigate the Internet safely.

A general lack of digital skills

You see, I’ll suggest that the reason “the workforce [do not have] the heuristic skills necessary to safely navigate the Internet” is a general lack of digital skills. We (in general) have not evolved our technical skills for the use of “office productivity” tools since the mid-1990s. When I was at Uni’, I used MS-DOS 6.0 and WordPerfect 5.1. By my final year, I had progressed to Windows 3.11 for Workgroups and Word for Windows 2.0. And the way most people use a word processor they might as well still be on that platform. In general, people don’t use the features and functionality in our bloated Office products. They just type words, put blank lines in for spacing, pick some fonts manually (ever heard of styles?) and save.  I could use similar examples for presentations in PowerPoint or for spreadsheets in Excel. The introduction of the ribbon in Microsoft Office circa 2007 was said to be an attempt to surface the features people use the most (but features couldn’t be removed entirely because telemetry told Microsoft that everyone uses some of the features, just not all of us, all of the time).

At his Middle School (then aged around 9-11), my son was commended for his tech skills because he was able to offer classroom IT support to the teachers. That’s not because he’s a tech genius but because the staff at the school didn’t know how to use Windows+P to connect to an external screen. To be fair to his teachers that’s not unique to them – it’s the same in most offices too. Similarly for booking calendar appointments for meetings (a black art to some) or not sending email attachments to share documents. The list goes on.

We teach our children to be safe on the Internet but many adults struggle too. “Would you like to see the dancing pigs?” Oh, go on then – click anything to make the box go away. Followed by “Oops, why is my browser opening all of these windows showing sites with pictures of scantily-clad ladies?”. This is not a new phenomenon either.

I’m in danger here of going off on a bit of a rant, so I’ll stop for a moment and focus on what many of us talk a lot about today – digital transformation – or rather how the digital skills gap is hindering our ability to transform.

Digital transformation

Consultants like me work with organisations to help them adopt new technologies in order to address business issues, embrace change and, ideally, adapt their business to innovate – perhaps even disruptively. At least, that’s the idea – far too many organisations seem to want to “run an Office 365 project” rather than to “deliver a flexible workstyle facilitated by modern end-user computing services delivered using a software as a service model”. If they can’t see past the tech, it’s unlikely they will deliver true digital transformation.

Even if their business processes evolve, do the staff have the skills to embrace the change? Do we have one generation (mine) still stuck in 1995, whilst the millennials want to do everything with apps on their phones (incidentally, I think a lot of the stuff written about millennials is rubbish too – but that’s something for another post)? As Lewis Richards (@stroker) notes below, being digital is a mindset.

People Change Management

Many of us understand change management from a technology or service standpoint – but what about people change management? This is where models like the ADKAR model (from Prosci) can help*

ADKAR stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement – as illustrated below:

The Prosci ADKAR model

It’s about taking people on a journey and helping to manage organisational/people change:

  • We build awareness with communications, model offices, etc. to help people become aware that a change is on the horizon. People are naturally resistant to change, so we need to make them aware of it, take away the initial shock and let them get their heads around what’s happening.
  • After we’ve made people aware of change and helped them to understand why it’s happening, we turn our attention to helping people to embrace the potential. Initially, this is about desire – selling the benefits of the change so that people are asking “when can I have this?”.
  • Knowledge is developed through training. That might not be classroom-based – it could take many forms – but fundamentally it needs to address the skills that people need to adapt to the change – avoiding the digital skills gap I mentioned above that’s be brought on through years of introducing new systems and expecting people to just “get on with it”.
  • Once equipped with desire and knowledge, people gain the ability to function in the new way.
  • Finally, business changes need to change to take advantage of new capabilities. Critically, the new methods and processes need to be reinforced to ensure that organisations don’t fall back into their old ways of working.

Using this model (or something similar), we can equip people to adapt to change and even embrace it. And with suitably skilled people on board, digital transformation has a much better chance of success.

In conclusion

People’s apparent inability to use technology well is not down to the way that corporates have traditionally managed devices. It’s down to a general lack of education and training around digital skills. As we navigate the current wave of digital transformation we have an opportunity to redress that balance. And if we don’t, then we won’t see the benefits and we’ll fail to transform.

 

*This is not an advert for ADKAR – that’s just the model that I’m familiar with. Other change management methodologies are available. Your mileage may vary. etc. etc.

My social media journey

Last week, I spent some time with the risual Marketing team recording a short interview on “my social media journey”. The idea was that I have an established blog and I’m prolific on Twitter – what could colleagues pick up from my experience that might help them?

Then the team decided to put it out on YouTube! You can watch the video below but I apologise for the constant glancing at my Surface screen – I only had 20 minutes to prepare and we shot it all in one take!

For those without time to watch the video – these are the notes I prepared in advance for Jordan’s questions:

risual: First off, can you talk about what influenced/inspired you to start using social media/your blog?

Mark: I started blogging in about 2004. We didn’t even use the term “social media” then around about then having a “weblog” had started to become popular. I just wanted somewhere to store my notes and thought they might be useful to others too. 13 years later and there are around 2500 posts on there!

I’m pretty bad at remembering things – even today it surprises me when I search for an answer and my own site comes up in search results!

Twitter was a bit different. I really didn’t “get it” at first, then it clicked one day when I was watching a keynote video and saw the moderated tweets on the hashtag alongside. I could really see the value. I started tweeting soon afterwards (at a Microsoft event) and over time Twitter has become my main social media output.

risual: In terms of starting off, did you have a goal? How did you build up your follower count?

Mark: I didn’t really have a goal, but the site sort of took off – as I wrote more, more people read it. Then I put some ads on the pages and it started to make money. Then Google changed their algorithm and I started to lose money ;-). I’m not in it for the money though.

Actually, there was a time (around 2005) when I was double-blogging on my own site and my employer’s site – myself and Jamie Thomson [@jamiet] (who also went on to be an MVP) had a bit of an internal battle at as the company’s most prolific bloggers – me for infrastructure and him for data!

As for followers, I’m not too worried about the number of followers – more in the quality of those followers.

If you create good content the followers will come naturally.

risual: How much time do you spend updating your blog or using social media daily?

Mark: Not enough and too much at the same time! I would like to have more time to write blog posts but you do have to be in the right frame of mind. I have loads of part-written posts – and even set up a Kanban board in Office 365 Planner a few nights ago to try and sort out my blog post planning!

Twitter is a lot easier – you can tweet on the train, in gaps between meetings, etc. But it’s good to tweet at times when people are around (UK and US business hours) – all too often I find myself catching up on Twitter at bedtime when I should be sleeping. It’s not healthy!

risual: Do you think it’s helped you engage better with other tech professionals with the ability to keep up to date with what topics are “hot”?

Mark: Absolutely. My personal brand has been greatly enhanced with blogging and tweeting. It’s probably how I got my MVP Award and, even though I’m not an MVP anymore I’m still recognised by Microsoft as what their marketing folks call an “influencer”.

risual: What do you get out of it all personally? You’ve obviously got a very busy job and have no obligation to do it, but do, why?

Mark: Narcissism! No, not really. I think personal branding is important in our industry. It’s amazing how often I meet people in the real world that I know via social media. In fact, I once attended an interview where the interviewer told me he read my blog – that was a bit of a curved ball!

risual: It may seem like an obvious question, but what’s your own advice for those starting out on Twitter hoping to build a following?

Mark: Not obvious at all!

  1. Just dive in there and start RTing things you think are relevant.
  2. Tweet links to your own blog posts.
  3. The more you tweet the more followers you will get. It’s just the way it is. Having said that, quality is more important than quantity.
  4. Engage, reply – don’t just broadcast.
  5. Don’t just tweet things to advertise your company! People don’t want to be marketed to (at least not in an obvious way). I sometimes tweet risual posts that I’ve been involved in – or if it’s something that could really make a difference to people – like what we’re doing in Education. But I also mix it with lots of tweets from other people (not just Microsoft!) and about 10% personal stuff. People follow people, not brands!

I have about 43,000 tweets at the moment. Over an 8 year period that’s not many a day (<15 on average) although I have to admit a big chunk of my tweeting was when I was working in a role where it was actually a part of my job!

risual: How do you keep up to date with the latest technology news in order to talk about them when they’re still hot out of the oven?

Mark: I listen to podcasts (like the Microsoft Cloud Show and WB-40) and Twitter is my main news source. I’d like to read more blogs but don’t have the time.

Twitter is a bit of an echo chamber at times but I’ve created some lists of people who tweet interesting content (I have a CTO watchlist, a Microsoft watchlist and a risual list) and I try to keep up to date with them. I don’t actually read all of the tweets for all the people I follow – mostly just the ones on these lists!

A month without social media. Well, sort of…

Ben Seymour (@bseymour) made a very pertinent point in a recent Milton Keynes Geek Night talk when he said:

“At no point did I find myself wishing I’d spent more time on Twitter”

So, when one of my friends said he would give up social media for January, I thought it would be worth a try too. After all, if a brand and marketing communications Consultant can do without #socmed, then so can I!

Actually, I made some exceptions:

  • Twitter is work. It’s how I keep up to date – and how I build my personal brand (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious). Having said that I’ve been too busy for most of January to tweet much.
  • Ditto for my blog.

I turned off notifications for LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger and some more. And then I realised how many channels I have – for example WhatsApp is one of the methods my son uses to contact me. That’ll be another exception then. Then there’s Strava. Hmm… well, I guess it’s not so much social media as where I track my activity…

The main one to drop was Facebook. So, how did that go? Really, I haven’t missed it at all. Sure, I was probably the last person in our town to know that a McDonalds is being proposed for the BP garage 2 miles up the road (which apparently has divided opinion…) but is that really so important in the great scheme of things? I did miss some contact on Messenger – but anyone who knows me well also has my mobile number…

And the biggest observation from my month of social media abstinence? Well, I watched a few series on Amazon Video (two seasons of The Man in the High Castle and Mr Robot). As my wife noted, it seems my digital addiction just switched channels…

Making the Airfix A20005 Engineer Jet Engine Educational Construction Kit work

Airfix manufacture educational construction kits for both combustion and jet engines. The combustion engine is set A42509 and the jet engine is set A20005. My son was very keen to receive a jet engine for Christmas and he very quickly set to work building it.

I can’t recommend the kit because the instructions are poor (the black and white images don’t exactly help) but we got it working – sort of – in that it would whir and puff but the fans wouldn’t turn.

My son didn’t seem to mind, but it annoyed me that his new toy didn’t work. So, this afternoon, I set to work with my favourite search engine and found some really useful advice. Firstly, making sure the compressor turned freely (thanks to Phil Parker):

“By taking the red cone off the back and shoving the spindle back and forth once everything is in place you can put enough lash in to get really free turning.”

After following Phil’s advice I could blow on the blades and turn the compressor but it didn’t work under its own power. So, I found some more advice on the Unofficial Airfix Modellers Forum:

“[…] clean up the parts where you’ve removed them from the sprues […]”

My son set to work with a knife to remove a couple of bits of plastic on the main fans that were snagging. After this, we were able to run the engine with a “twist start” and after it had run for a while and loosened up some more, we were able to start it using the controls in the kit.

Looking at the reviews on Amazon, there are a lot of people struggling with this kit (we wouldn’t have bought it if my son hadn’t been so keen) but hopefully, this post will come up in someone’s searches and help them out…

A tale of three road tolls: part 1 (the Dart Charge)

London’s orbital motorway, the M25, is not a circle (as many people suggest) but has a short section of trunk road joining the ends and crossing the River Thames east of London. That road, the A282 Dartford Crossing, has an associated charge which, until recently, was collected at toll booths.

Originally the tolls were to be removed on 1 April 2003 under the original Private Finance initiative (PFI) scheme contract that was used to finance the Queen Elizabeth II bridge but instead, under the 2000 Transport Act, the A282 Trunk Road (Dartford-Thurrock Crossing charging scheme) Order 2002 allowed the continuation of the crossing fee, which officially became a charge and not a toll.

Since 30 November 2014 the toll booths have been removed and replaced by an electronic charge [update: there are some overnight journeys that are not charged], but that’s not without its issues, as I found when I travelled to Dartford and back a few weeks ago.

Dart charge warning letter and PCNI hadn’t used the route for years, but had heard about the changes (I even contacted the operator to see if my new tag for the French motorways, also operated by SANEF, would work – it won’t!). I also saw the signs advising me to pay by midnight the next day (confusingly using the same symbol as the London Congestion Charge, which is unrelated). Unfortunately, faced with congestion, delays, a stressful day with a difficult customer and an equally stressful journey home (total driving time for the day was 6 hours for around 180 miles – a pathetic average speed considering it was mostly on motorways!) – and I forgot.

It was an honest mistake and, when I realised a few days later, I called the Dart Charge contact centre. Aided by some extremely patient and helpful people, I was told not to worry, to wait for the penalty charge notice and that I would be given a chance to pay (without penalty) on my first infringement. But I’d travelled both ways! In turns out that’s OK too – just pay all outstanding charges on receipt of the first notice.

I was also told how I could sign up for automatic payment in future (a facility I tested on a journey to France a few weeks later) – if only the official government website for the Dart Charge made that clear but it’s one of those sites that’s been so over-“simplified” that it’s no longer clear.  The warning letter is equally confusing: because my PCNs arrived on different days (and I needed to pay before leaving the country on Easter holidays!), I couldn’t see how to pay all outstanding charges in one hit online. Luckily the contact centre for the Dart Charge came to my rescue again!

Gov.UK suggests setting up an account but doesn’t mention the advantage of doing so is to provide a pay-as-you go facility. Indeed the only reference to payment in advance is by post! There’s actually better advice in the Daily Telegraph article about the changes!

So, if you are planning to use the Dartford Crossing (by bridge or tunnel), I recommend signing up for an account and paying as you go by credit or debit card to avoid a lot of stress (and potentially hefty fines). Definitely worth it!