Saturday, 29 June 2013

Five years on

Several new jobs, and a move overseas, have all played havoc with our time spent on board North Star.
Five years after buying North Star, we are nearly completed with all the work. It feels like painting the Forth Bridge though.
I'm hoping to write up some of our cruises but more interesting for the family - who are now growing up and moving out - is probably what mum and dad are currently up to with the boat. 

Monday, 27 June 2011

Flash locks again

Three years ago, I wrote about flash locks, suggesting that one of the last operating flash locks in Britain was probably on Bottisham Lode in Cambridgeshire. At the time I couldn't find decent images of a flash lock. I am delighted that the old waterways books blog has posted on Thames flash locks, complete with a lovely engraving of one.

Friday, 10 June 2011

On the Mississippi in Baton Rouge

I've been on the Mississippi twice in a month. A few weeks back when the floodwaters were trashing Memphis and this last week, where I have spent time around Baton Rouge with those same floodwaters now receding slowly. They were starting to roll up the tiger dams but the water is still high. Just north of the port on the west bank, the waters still lap into the parkland.

Putting the orange and white tiger dams away as the waters recede
I don't know if the barge-trains stopped when the flood waters were at their highest, but they are moving again this week. Long, flat, deep pans of coal, gravel, grain being propelled through the grey muddy water by vast, squat tugs.

I see no pleasure boats and at the port authority they confirm they are not encouraged. The river is simply too busy and too dangerous for small, light craft. Baton Rouge takes Panamax ships - up to 80,000dwt - and the barge trains create significant wake across the width of the river. It's no place for little boats. I wondered how many leisure boats would be on the British canals if the waterways had adapted to larger cargo vessels down the years. Probably very few.

Tugs attend a swift-moving ship heading downstream on the Mississippi at Baton Rouge
Not sure whether I was more excited by getting out on the mighty river, or sitting near Iggy Pop on the plane back from Miami last night. Trouble is you don't want to disturb him. He's a bit scary!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Garmin - creating geographical blindness?

I have had a Garmin GPS for years. Possibly ten years. I once escaped arrest in China by pretending that my GPS unit was a mobile phone. Last Christmas, after our old Garmin GPS unit (called Daniel after one of the male voices that tells you where to go) started to become very unreliable, especially in London, was replaced by a newer, sexier model. The new model is called Daniel (after one of the voices on....errr....our old GPS unit) and is very slim-line, very Nuvi and very irritating.

The old Daniel used to scream blue murder if you drove within 5 miles of a speed camera. The new Daniel seems unbothered. He amost shrugs his shoulders in a huff as if to say "You want me to make noises as well as show it on my pretty little screen?"

But a far bigger irritation with the new unit - and I believe - all Garmin GPS units is that it shows me exactly where I am but with no real context. A couple of weeks ago I drove from New Orleans to near Baton Rouge and noticed that the main references visually and as reference 'cues' were road numbers...I-10, Highway 44, Highway 22. These take priority over place names, especially as every 'place' of any size in the US is a 'city'. There are no villages or towns, just 'cities'.

The Garmin maps in units everywhere use exactly this same context of roads, not places. This means that when I am driving along in an unknown area I have absolutely no idea where I am passing and where is just off my route. It often flags up street names, but not the name of the village, town or city in which the street sits. You drive along in a complete sea of ignorance, with no idea where you are, except that a) you are precisely here, now, b) what road you are on and c) when you next have to turn.

Garmins's GPS units are creating geographical blindness, a complete lack of spatial awareness.  The maps in Garmin units are not maps at all, just a means of filling in the bits between the road you are on now and another unknown road. Almost like a painting that manages to show nothing at all apart from what you want it to show at that moment. 

Stagnant Sunday afternoon at Lime Farm

I hate that day, every year, when you open the boat up after the winter. Today was that day for us, and we churned up the M11 and A14 to the bowels of North Warwickshire to return North Star to her cruising splendour. A levels, staggering amounts of travel (Washington DC last week, New Orleans next week) and a thousand other engagements have prevented us cruising at all so far this spring.

We have been on tenterhooks (whatever they may be) since the snow in December when we were iced in at Ansty and didn't manage to drain the water tank until a week later. Will we have survived without damaging the pipework? We don't know. Actually we don't know how we will know either, as the water pump is behind a bulkhead and so very inaccessible.

We decide that the easiest test - and quite possibly the stupidest - is simply to fill the tank and see if the boat floods or sinks. It doesn't, but we remain unconvinced. How on earth do you check all the pipework? Answers on a postcard.

Quite remarkably, the batteries have retained 70% charge and the engine putters into life almost instantly. With the pleasant rumble of the BMC in the background, we busy ourselves with cleaning inside and out, listening to the cricket and a bit of Wogan. You know you're getting old when you can listen to Wogan without feeling old. If you see what I mean.

The afternoon was humid, stagnant and just about typical for June: the sound of squirrels, pigeons and robins chattering all around, the air warm and perfectly still. Maybe opening the boat up isn't as bad as it used to be either. Maybe that's also a sign of getting older.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

BCN Table of Distances

I recently bought one of the original BCN Table of Distances, partly because I had recently lost out in an auction for another BCN share certificate. And partly because I wanted it.

The BCN Table of Distances is heavy - just under 8kg - and is all solid, rubbed leather, bindings and heavy paper. Each of its one hundred pages simply shows the Birmingham Canal Navigations in strip form. Every branch, every arm, every wharf, bridge and lock.
My copy is copy Number 9 and is from the Short Distance Collectors Room. Quite what this was, or who they were, I don't know.
The long-lost Danks Branch 
I have gazed so longingly and wistfully at its pages - many covered in pencilled calculations - that my wife has suggested that I might want to date it. I also don't know who did all these calculations or why? Maybe someone writing about the BCN? A "short distance collector"? Who knows. All part of the mystery.

I do wonder how much more of the heritage of Britain's canal are sitting around in old attics and sheds?

Canal and Community: The Towpath Wars

Two hundred and fifty years of canal building has given Britain a wonderful legacy of waterways, spanning much of the country. Britain's canals bring leisure amenity into the very heart of cities, towns and villages forming a venue for so many interests: boating, canoeing, running, walking, angling and form a perfect backdrop often for those who just want to sit and reflect.
In the 1950s and 1960s, small groups of pioneering activists took on the mantle of protectors of the waterways. They spent years, working tirelessly to reconstruct - often from virtually nothing - and reopen abandoned and unloved stretches of dank, greasy waterway.
In the countryside, the amenity value is clear at its very highest, and the landscape value is also at a maximum. But the waterways are in crisis that extends far beyond the short-term funding and maintenance crisis.

Netherton Cottages 
On the one hand, there are those who take full advantage of the amenity and put nothing back. The classic example is the modern apartment or excecutive housing developments with their stern "No Mooring" signs and their unsympathetic landscaping. Both developers and house-owner benefits enormously from proximity to the water but shoo away those other users who actyually contribute more. I, and you, pay more financially in one year's BWB licence than these developers or house owners do in a lifetime sitting alongside the canal. Yet they earn, in premium land values, a considerable, and ever-increasing, sum.
On the other hand of the social scale, the potential amenity value is huge for inner city areas yet the canal remains largely blighted. Attempts to open up the canal to local residents seems, tragically, doomed to failure. For every successful intervention of landscaping and access provision, there are maybe thousands of failures: blackened, broken seats; broken railings; derelict, weed-strewn gardens; graffiti- littered bridges and walls; grass littered with old mattresses, smashed glass and blowing paper.
Much of Birmingham and the Black Country turns its back on the canals, erecting barriers at the end of their property to hide the canal from sight. For the canal is evil.
As the canal is hidden from sight, it becomes suitable ground for the scum of society, those who live only to destroy, distort and hurt. Those for whom damage and distress seems cool. The more the canal is isolated, the more it hides and nurtures the predators.
Our cruise through Wolverhampton last Sunday started with teenage boys through rocks and stones at us and ourt boat. Why? Because they could? Who knows?
It continued with a distressing physical attack by a lad on a girl, leaving her on the towpath crying.
Further along we saw many feral ponies, some in a poor state of health. Men hanging around furtively under bridges, gangs of youths idle, scowling. The canalside had become threatening and dark. All along, we saw extensive graffitti on every firm surface.
Two hundred and fifty years of history, heritage and industry turned vandal's playground; our leisure intrusion was clearly unwelcome. Our boat was a middle-class spectacle: something strange and something alien. We were asked by one of the stone-throwers "Are you foreigners?". A positive answer would have been the pretense for a barrage of rocks. As it was, a few were hurled towards us as we sailed away.
Yet among the darkness, there were many glimpses of light. Many people asked what the boat was like inside. Two years ago at Titford, a small group of initially unfriendly teenagers were won over by being invited on board to see the engine and the cabin inside. They knew nothing about the canal that ran close to their homes but were fascinated as we told them about the collieries, the maltings, the forges, the history.
"Probably my grand-dad," one said, as we talked about the men and women who worked in the grime, soot and unceasing noise. I told them there was a good book about it all, Dickens 'Hard Times'. They asked about the Pumphouse and - as there was an event on - I offered to show them inside. They were fascinated. Later that evening, in the dark and rain, they reappeared dragging a young policewoman.
"Show her the boat! Show here inside!" and so we duly did. Again, there was genuine interest in every aspect of it all, from the boat, to the canal, to the history. Yet no-one had ever bothered to reach out and explain.
Our societies all largely cater for a certain type of person. For the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society, it's boaters. For the angling societies, it's the anglers. The BCNS, in its instructions for the BCN Marathon Challenge, suggested that the Challenge was not just for boaters but also for anglers or walkers or cyclists "however you can". It was a fascinating suggestion, but one that was ultimately shallow, facetious even. How much attempt had been made to engage with these significant others, those who share our love of the canals.
It was certanly an opportunity to engage but one that was doomed to failure. Assuming these anglers, boaters, birdwatchers or cyclists knew enough about the Challenge to have obtained a set of the rules, how were they supposed to take part? Just make it up?
It confirms how little many of us know about others who use the same waterways. We recently discussed whether to go to the right of the canal as we passed a line of anglers, or the left or stay in the middle. Speed up or slow down? In the end, we confessed that we all had absolutely no idea. None of us had ever asked any one of the thousands of anglers we had passed.

If our urban canals are to survive another 60 years - and I fear many arms, branches and lengths in the Black Country will not - then we need, collectively as anglers, birdwatchers, boaters, businesses, cyclists, residents, skateboarders, walkers to work together. The canals are heritage for all. If we share our experiences, our interests and our demands, we will both defend and promote the canals better. The sooner we learn that we as boaters are just one part of the wider canal and waterways community and start looking to engage with others, then we will be a very big step along the path of furthering our cause of preserving it all. When our urban canals are safe, pleasant and contributing to the value of local residents, then our task will be that much easier.