Saturday, 26 December 2009

River Irwell

I recently spent a day in Manchester, and we had a few hours to spare in the morning before our departure by train. We wandered down the Rochdale to Castlefield, me boring T with tales of how his mum and I used to walk down these towpaths in the late 80s plotting to buy the old warehouses and convert them. Our exploration of Castlefields was hastened by the constant drizzle...
"It's this climate that actually encouraged the development of the cotton industry here. The dampness made it particularly easy to work the material"
"Dad, I don't care. I'm getting wet!"

The Science Museum was closed so we headed into town - via Waterstones - and sat warmly in Starbucks I read in one book about the Irwell and how it had once been used for navigation to Hunts Bank.

Since then, I have found virtually nothing in detail about the Irwell. The Nicholsons simply ignore it altogether, as they ignore the Ship Canal.

On returning home, I went straight to the TNC website to see what they thought of it. If there was a canal that had been opened for just 15 minutes in Burkino Faso (the Ouagadougou & Keadby perhaps), the TNC will have been up it, photographed it and moaned about the lack of real ale. Sure enough, the TNC provide the only commentary on the Irwell. They have done it not once, but twice.

It is a great pity that given the Irwell's central location and the possibility for it to form a massive water feature for the centre of Manchester, as the Thames and Seine do for London and Paris respectively.

I intend to return to Manchester soon to explore the Irwell, although I lack the courage of the TNC to take North Star up to Hunts Bank.

The overheating BMC 1.5

Everyone seems to love the trusty old BMC 1.5. Even my unofficial Chief Engineer says it will go on for ever. This is my fear. That it will go on poorly long enough that there's not sufficient justification for removing it and fitting something either:

a) much older
b) much newer

The lastest saga is that on our recent trips, the engine has overheated rather too quickly, requiring a shut down and then a slow cruise for an hour. Not particularly pleasant in the total darkness.

It turns out that the skin tank is only 4.5 square feet and should be 8 square feet. It is being proposed to double the size by putting an external skin tank.

I am assured this has been done to loads of boats in a similar predicament (Why are there loads of boats in a similar predicament? Was there a whole generation of boat-fitters who couldn't fit an engine in a boat properly?) I can't help feeling, however, that a big tank stuck under the counter on one side is going to affect the swim of the boat. Also, I hate the thought of drilling holes in the side of my boat. Below the water line.

I heard that marinised Isuzu diesels are very cheap right now because Isuzu are withdrawing from the market. Tempting.

Winterising too late

One of those dilemmas. Should I winterise? Or not?
North Star is due for some heavy duty interior rebuilding in February and so will need to be moved in 5 weeks' time. I wa rather hoping not to have to drain all the water and was hoping for a drizzly, mild, grey winter.
As the temperatures dropped day by day over the last two weeks I watched, hoping that there would only be a day or two of sub-zero and - rather stupidly - keeping my fingers crossed and blindly hoping everything would be alright.

Then two weeks ago, I decided that this was unlikely to work. The ten day forecast for Daventry was suggesting that it was going to be colder than the inside of a Texas post office in July. Sadly, my witless attempt to save a little bit of effort have kicked me back, as I am told that there is damage to the gas heater.

My next dilemma is that North Star is due for her safety inspection in February and I am not sure if she will pass with a damaged gas heater. If she doesn't pass, then is the insurance valid? Damn, damn and damn!

At least Santa had elves

With two months of travelling - mainly to remote parts of China, lots of extra work, lots of football games and all manner of jobs at home, blogging has had to take a rest for a while. At least Santa had elves to share the load. And reindeer.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Two games....nine goals

Only one of them ours. Oh the Premiership is a lot harder than the Championship


Tuesday, 17 November 2009


Ah, how a downloaded EP can bring the past to life. Ammæli (Birthday) sung by Björk with The Sugarcubes; great memories.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

North Warwickshire autumn day

Fierce storms have blown across southern England for almost 24 hours, bringing down trees and flooding roads. Today in north Warwickshire, the sun rises into a clear sky. It is cold but still: the winds have flushed the Indian summer away and autumn is here in all its glory. A few trees hang steadfastly to their leaves, an ever-decreasing minority among the bare, stark branches. All around us, birds fluff up against the call and peep sadly.

For once we motor across the marina at Calcutt with not a breath of wind to throw us onto the rocks. We turn out in front of NB Caracol and together climb the three Calcutt locks. Steaming coffee is downed by helms and lock-wheelers of both boats. At the top, Caracol motors away while we wait a while to change a gas bottle.

Under way, we look out across the little Napton reservoirs and look for a space among the Calcutt moorings. There are none. There never are. It's one of my favourite places and I would love to be moored up here alongside the reservoir for the winter.

We turn north at Wigram's and squeeze through the first awkward stretch and the succession of blind bridges. Oxford bridges are either completely blind or on the verge of total collapse. We open up the engine to test the new exhaust; it works. But within five minutes, smoke is pouring from the lagging and the base. Father-in-law Bill, who knows a thing or two about engines, reckons its just the grease and dust and fluff burning off. Nothing much fazes Bill in the engine room, whereas everything fazes me completely.

Our SmartGauge shows 94% charge after a heavy recharging by the lads at Calcutt. I have been so impressed with the attitude of everyone at Calcutt Boats - highly recommended. The charge steadily increases as we motor northwards.

Lower Shuckburgh appears to our right, and past a favourite farm, then on towards Flecknoe and the long-lost Wolfhamcote where a wooden working boat has sunk, a victim of the winds last night. Debris floats forlornly while several people look on wistfully. It's one of those situations where you don't know quite what to say.

We turn into Braunston and moor up below the bottom lock. After a certain well-known Braunston company showed no interest in doing our refit (actually wasting our time a few weeks back), we have been in discussion with Phil at Wharf House Boats. He and Sue are an absolute pleasure to deal with: a good mixture of old-fashioned honesty, blunt opinion and plenty of creativeness. He shows us their current projects and we are impressed with the quality and style.

We stop for a quick pint at the Admiral Nelson - mixed feelings about the place these days but very glad to see it open again. Then - much later than we had planned - we are setting off once more for Calcutt.

We are being followed by two fast hire boats, once of whom completely mucks up passing us and swings into our bow, finally pushing both of us to the side. We motor into the strengthening southerly wind. XC Wind had predicted 14kt souwesterly dropping to 9kt by 3pm, but it's surely the other way round. The old BMC 1.5 is struggling a bit and at Lower Shuckburgh in the gloom the oil temperature light suddenly comes on, the water temperature slips up and the oil pressure drops back badly. Bill looks at the gauges pensively, orders a tick-over speed for five minutes until the oil temperature light goes out.

We return to Calcutt Locks in the total darkness but now regard them as our home locks and work them swiftly, albeit with floodlighting from the new headlamp and offshore Crewsavers and LED torches for everyone.

Some days just work out well. This was one of them. A wonderful cruise on one of my favourite stretches; pints of Tribute and Black Sheep; bacon butties; the smell of diesel and a warm engine; golden autumn sunshine; Turneresque sky ("it's like the bridge at Maidenhead"). A great day. Messing about on boats, eh? Keep it secret.

16.2 miles, 6 locks

Dolphin Capsizes Laser - brilliant!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Capt Ahab's branch-line BCN

I have been following Capt Ahab's great posts on forgotten little corners of the BCN recently. Highly recommended: interesting stories, great photos and lots of wandering around. This is where the internet is at its best, for me!

There is no winner.

Once upon time, there was a great ocean race and since 1851 the winners were presented with an ornate silver trophy, known fondly as The Old Mug but more famously as The America's Cup.

For more than 130 years, the New York Yacht Club successfully defended the cup against all challengers, but then in 1983 the cheeky Australians spectacularly won the trophy. But it seemes ever since that day, the America's Cup has been mired in endless lawsuits, media battles and arguments about the legality of different boats, different locations.

These days, it divides the sailing world and each camp ferociously defends its reputation and its righteousness. It's sad. No-one seems to sit back and think about what it does for the reputation of the sport.

I no longer care for the America's Cup anymore. It was truly the most spectacular sporting affair in the world raced for by the most beautiful yachts of the day. It was never an accessible race: it was always the preserve of the richest people in the world, but it was always simply a race of skill and tactics. Now, frankly, who cares?

These days, your majesty, all the yachts come second. The lawyers come first.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Happy 240th Birthday today, Birmingham Canal Navigations

On Monday 6th November 1769,  three boats belonging to the canal company are towed slowly between the fields of Birmingham Heath towards the very edge of the town. With the sun low in the autumn sky, crowds watched as the boats are brought in alongside the temporary wharf at Friday Street. Some 200 tons of coal from the collieries at Wednesbury, five miles distant, are unloaded onto the wharf. The coal was immediately being sold for 4 1/2d per long hundredweight, around half the price of coal the previous Friday.

It was an exciting event, and although the canal was far from finished, this was the first commercial voyage, and in the subsequent weeks and months, boats were moving loads of coal in to Birmingham to meet a seeminly instatiable demand.

For Birmingham and the Black Country, 6th November 1769 was the dawn of the Canal Age. The area would certainly have grown without the BCN, but it would probably have grown very differently and although much heavy industry has now departed, the routes of the canals are also the axes of industry that made Birmingham the workshop of the world.

It was recognised as a historic event on the day and local poet John Freeth felt compelled to write a poem to commemorate their arrival: Inland Navigation - an ode (published in full earlier).

Happy 240th Birthday, Birmingham Canal Navigations

Inland navigation: an ode

For ancient deeds let History unfold
The page where winder's are enroll'd
And tell how Jason, from the Colchian shore,
The golden fleece in triumph bore,
A nobler theme the Mind inspires,
And every skilful Artist fires
With heart-felt joy a work to see
Cut out for grand utility;
A project form'd, by which, 'tis plain,
That thousands must advantage gain:
And sure that plan must be of noble use,
Which tends in price provision to reduce.
Blest Navigation! Source of golden days
Which Commerce finds, and brightens all its ways.

Sons of Commerce haste to pleasure,
For the joy belogs to you;
May you live to reap the reasure
That must happily ensue.
treasure from Staffordian plains,
Richer than Peruvian mines.
And by what the Artist gains
All his principal designs.

Not a son of limping Vulcan
But must truly joyous be;
Envy from the banquet skulking,
'Tis the Artist's Jubilee.

So quick in performing this weighty affair,
So great was the industry, prudence and care,
Eighteen months have scarce run,
Since the work was begun:
How pleasing the sight!
What a scene of delight!
As the barges come floating along:
Then cease from your toil,
Nor hammer nor file
Be handled today,
All care shall away,
Whilst bonfires are blazing,
(What can be more pleasing?)
All free-cost, to gladden the throng.

Could our Forefathers from the shades but trace
The noble plan
Their Sons began,
To what amazement would the work appear!
A train of Vessels floating by the place,
Where sprightly Steeds, at trumpet sound,
In contest wing'd along the ground,
And thousands to the pleasures would repair.

But what were those days,
Compared to these?
Each day at the heath is a fair:
To see Bridges and Locks
And Boats on the Stocks
And numbers continually there.

Every breast, elate with joy,
Gladly views the happy day;
Cease dissension,
Lamp contention
From these regions haste away,
We alone on Trade depend;
Be in that our emulation,
'Twill support our Navigation,
And the liquid tract extend.

But for this good care and trouble,
Which has nobly been display'd
For our Coals, this instant, double
What we give, we must have paid.

Griping souls, that live by fleecing,
And upon their teams depend,
To all ranks of life how pleasing,
That their day is at an end.

Long their tricks were overbearing,
Now the vile oppressors may
Sell their nags and burn their geering,
For the roads 'twill better be.

Not a son of limping Vulcan
But must truly joyous be;
Envy from the banquet skulking,
'Tis the Artist's Jubilee.

Blest Genius of thsi fruitful Land,
Whose living fame the wonders tell,
Of they far more than common skill,
Whose matchless art all doubts dispel,
And kingdoms with amazement fill.
When that fam'd Peer, to patronize his art,
Had set the laudable design on foot,
Which brought his measures into grand repute,
Astonish'd mortals, from each distant part,
The model view'd
And wond'ring stood;
But how much more when brought to bear
And Vessels under Vessels steer!
The neighbouring Counties saw the good effect,
And now behold the vast increase
Of Tracts, fair Commerce to protect,
Which fills the bright Mechanic with delight;
Nor will the undertakings cease,
'Till Trent and Severn wit the Thames unite.

What mortals so happy as Birmingham Boys?
What people so flush'd with the sweetest of joys?
All hearts fraught with mirth at the Wharf shall appear,
Their aspects procliam it the Jubilee year,
And be full as gay in their frolicksome pranks,
As they who were dancing on Avon's green banks.

Their never in war was for victory won,
A cause that deserv'd such respect from the Town;
Then revel in gladness, let harmony flow,
From the district of Bordsley to Paradise Row;
For true feeling joy on each breast must be wrought,
When Coals under Five-pence per hundred are bought.

Rejoice then, ye Artists, drive sorrow away,
And over your cups social gladness display;
The Wealthy will chearfully cherish the cause,
The Poor give their honest and hearty applause;
Nor dread from the winter's approach any harm,
When blest with good fires, their bodies to warm.

But let not the joys be confin'd to the Town,
All over the Country shall gladness be shewn;
The Tradesman, Mechanic, and Cottager too,
Shall all share the bounty that soon must ensue,
And when o'er the houses sol scarcely can peeop,
Be better prepar'd a good Christmas to keep.

The Heavens are kind, and have plenty bestow'd,
Rich crops have been gather's, and trade has been good,
And since food and fuel diminish in price,
Have not we much reason to sing and rejoice?
From Winter's approach then what harm can we fear,
When bounteously furnish'd with comforting cheer?

Birmingham, for arts renown'd
O'er the globe shall foremost stand:
Nor its vast increase be found
To be equall'd in the land.
From the Tagus to the Ganges,
Or from Lapland Cliffs extend
To the Patagonian Strand,
For mechanic skill and pow'r
In what kingdom, on what shore,
Lies the place that can supply
The world with such variety?

What relief in the fare
Of all heavy ware,
When the whole undertaking is finish'd!
In affairs, what a turn,
When cattle and corn
In their rates shall be greatly diminish'd

In war or in peace,
All commerce would cease,
Was it not for a free Navigation:
'Tis of riches the source,
When such plans we enforce,
And of freedom our dear preservation.

Arts, genius, and science,
On thee have reliance,
And reverence they conquering pow'r,
Whole castles of wood,
Floating bulwarks have stood,
To the terror of Gallia's proud shore.

Still may our Vessels, o'er the briny deep,
To sundry ports their various courses keep:
May Naigation, Liberty's dear friend,
Her wonted fame to greater lengths extend;
Open her sluices and through mountains force,
To distant Lands and easy intercourse:

And Birmingham, for every curious art
Her Sons invent, be Europe's greatest mart;
In every Kingdom ever stand enroll'd
The grand Mechanic Warehouse of the World!

John Freeth, 6th November 1769

Sunday, 1 November 2009


We have never been happy with the electrics on North Star, and we suspect that everything dates from the day North Star was built.

We bought new lesisure batteries but we still sat in the darkness in the evening and put up with no fridge, but it was all one step up from camping.

The heavy work this year has been on bringing the electrics into the mid-20th Century, and two more batteries, an inverter, new engine room wiring and a new distribution board. The addition of a SmartGauge system has pulled the entire system into the 21st Century.

But in some respects, the SmartGauge just tells me how bad the situation is. We cruise all day and manage to get the charge from 25% to 31%. Although, admittedly, the autumn day is not very long, surely we should get more than 6% charge on a day of motoring - maybe seven hours. I'm confused.

Also in the area

We passed NB Armadillo several times last week. It is funny to see photos of places and boats on other peoples' blogs. We almost moored up behind Armadillo one night, but kept on going for 30 minutes. They even noticed the same Great Central Railway signal gantry.

I see that the Armadillo crew had the time and good sense to go ashore and see the old church at Wolfhamcote, as well. It is clear that the Armadillos are prepared to stop their boat, get off their laptops and actually get outside and see the real world, unlike some people who sit on my boat Tweeting and moaning that you can't get Facebook in Northamptonshire. Sorry. It's a "dad thing".

Then I notice that Granny Buttons was also as taken with the medieval ridge and furrow patterns around Lower Shuckburgh.

We chugged past both Piston Broke (near Hilmorton?) and Ubique (by Braunston Turn), without hitting either of them.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Braunston - just say "No"

Poor experiences with two businesses at the Oxford end of Braunston this week. We waited all morning on Wednesday for one person to turn up as agreed with him, then today we have returned specifically at the request of another company and then they refuse to send someone out to look at the boat.

So much for the recession, eh? Reminds me of the episode this summer when one engineer promised and promised and promised and promised to sort out our engine. Waste of space. That cost us two month's cruising.

Finally, a third business in Braunston - down by Grand Union end  - were delightful to deal with and may well get our business. Could be £10,000-worth of work, as well.

If businesses don't want work, they should just say No. It's not like a car where a wasted trip is perhaps just a few minutes. It can be days wasted getting boats to somewhere your business is not wanted!

From Northamptonshire back to Warwickshire

After a water top off, we set off back across the border. I never tire of the little scene around Braunston Turn and soon we are sailing above the valley of the Leam, passing the deserted villages of Braunstonbury and Wolfhampcote.

By the bridge, we look into the undergrowth and see the last vestiges of the Wolfhamcote loop. We pass the squalor of the Puddlebanks moorings and then onto the more tranquil surroundings.

I have become particularly fond of this stretch of canal, with the green slopes above us to the east and the distant views over the wide Avon valley to the west. Ahead we see the woods above Calcutt, and Napton hill to the left.

The Stewart & Lloyds tug Vesta passes us and we let a boat pass us in turn. Once again, we drift with the wind onto a moored boat. I can see the advantages of bow thrusters in these conditions!

Even by three o'clock, the light is fading and we turn west at Wigram's with a heavy heart, for this is our last cruise this year. We should manage a few weekend excursions, but we sail silently back along napton Reservoir. We need an engineer to look at the exhaust so need to moor up above the locks, only making it back into the marina in total darkness.

7.8 miles, 3 locks

Hilmorton back to Braunston

We start off early this morning, trees wreathed in mist and all the sounds echoing through the trees and hedges. Turtle doves call gently; I can see their shadows in a tree.

We pass under the battleship grey arches of the railway. With a growing hiss and a rush of air, a grey and red train thunders across high above our heads.

Slowly, the mist lifts and a cold south-easterly wind picks up, light at first but enough to cause problems later.
Again I marvel at the lovely moorings along Barby Straight and further on, although a little mistake passing an oncoming boat drives us onto moored boats near Onley. It's only a light scuff against one boat, but it's tricky getting off again, and the situation isn't helped by the scowls of one of the owners. "You think I like being dragged against your boat any more than you do, you idiot?".

There is a real line of boats heading north out of Braunston, and we wait for three boats at the bridge at Willoughby. At Braunston Turn water point, there is complete chaos as five boats wait for water on both sides. We eventually get through and continue on up to the marina, where we wind and moor up. We have a couple of boat-fitters to see.

6.7 miles, 0 locks

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Hilmorton to Newbold-on-Avon and back

The North Oxford doesn't think much of Rugby, skirting first its eastern suburbs, then running to the north of the town. Rugby always seems to have been content with the railway in the valley, leaving the canal well alone as it passes by. It's odd, as there is no real semblance of industrial activity on the canal around Rugby.

The locks at Hilmorton take the Oxford swiftly down almost 19 feet to its low point, although that is almost 7" higher than it should be for a perfect junction with the Coventry, due to a rather unfortunate surveying error when the canal was first built. What with the construction errors in the tunnel, they didn't have much luck connecting Braunston up to the outside world.

Hilmorton deserves a few older buildings and warehouses than it actually has, in order for it to compete in the "Fradley cute" stakes. And a pub. The three locks, each doubled up, sweep gently down a slope, round a corner, under a bridge and down a final step into the countryside once more.

After a short distance, the Oxford finally decides to get up close and personal with Rugby and slides into the northern industrial suburbs on long embankments, over aqueducts and past the odd furtive teenage drug dealer. By bridge 58, the canal curves sharply past new apartments and by a rather grim little park, but it is enough to attract a large group of boats moored on both banks. Beyond, and under the awkward bridge, the still waters make a final bound straight across the young River Avon before curving away towards Newbold.

We turn North Star in the arm, and have partially completed the job - including running the stern aground on a piece of concrete - before discovering a full-length winding point right next to the entrance. I feel somwhat foolish, especially as the 'aground' bit holds up three boats. Typical.

After a walk up to The Boat for a drink, we start the return journey. A rather worrying smoking engine room delays us for an hour while we strip off insulation material and try to work out what is causing it. We think it's a broken exhaust connection.

We make it back to Hilmorton, but the need for an early start means we have to get up the three locks this evening. It's hopeless, this darkness at half four. Our new headlight throws shadows of trees onto the surface of the moon, so the absence of a sun doesn't make a huge difference. We settle for the night too close to the railway, too close to the back road into Rugby but also near the little wetland again.

9.6 miles, 6 locks (the same ones twice!)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Braunston to Hilmorton

After a completely fruitless morning waiting for a boatfitter to look over North Star, we set off for Rugby up the Northern Oxford.

As with Wormleighton further south, the canal meanders around Braunston, hugging the 300 foot contour, with the Victorian spire ever-present and the valley of the infant Leam off to the West. More common gulls and large flocks of barnacle geese, and a signal gantry standing forlornly in a field reminds us of a long-lost railway.

The canal is noticeably narrower gauge than the stretch south of Braunston, and bridges seem to be deliberately placed on the tightest of bends. Few boats come the other way but we know that we are one of a procession northbound, as we move over to allow for numerous boats - seven in all, perhaps? - to pass us. Our engine problems require a slower process, but we are not entirely bothered. We enjoy the graceful, slow cruise through the medieval field patterns, coverts, copses and hedgerows around Barby Hill and then on towards Norman's Bridge and the noisy M45.

Behind us, the sun suddenly appears below the clouds and lights up the countryside all around. From a grey, even light, Northamptonshire is now a technicolour landsape of verdant greens and screeching oranges and yellows; behind us, the glare makes it impossible to see anything.

We head up the long, long Barby Straight, marvelling at the time and effort put in by the permanent moorers with their gardens - such a far cry from the junk and plastic of the boats on the Puddlebanks.

As the sun sets, the smoke from a smouldering log makes it difficult to see ahead, and - unexpectedly - there is no room at the inn, the Royal Oak and we need to continue a while. The noise from the railways, high above, prevent us staying overnight and we turn the bend towards Hilmorton where it is quieter.

Opposite, the forest of radio masts punctures the sky, while behind us we can hear unrecognisable birds in what seems to be a wetland area between the Cut and the railway.

6.5 miles, 0 locks

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Calcutt to Braunston

After an enforced sojourn at the top of the Warwickshire plain, North Star is once more able to slip its lines and head out onto the canals. Naturally, at the very moment the bows leave the small jetty, the wind picks up to gale force 9 (Marina's Law of Wind) throwing the boat in unexpected directions.

The whole family joins in locking up the Calcutt Three and we are immediately alongside the lovely Napton Reservoir. I'd be more than happy for one of the upper level linear moorings here, looking south over the still waters. No space though.

Almost immediately though, we have noticed fumes in the engine room and suspect - with rather heavy hearts - that we still have the same old engine problems. It's not quite the same as Adrian Flanagan being swept off the back of his yacht within hours of setting off on his (successful) round-the-world, round-the-top voyage, but it is a disappointing start.

We turn north at Wigram's, discovering that the horn doesn't work either, which - given the tortuous nature of the North Oxford, may cause us problems later. Indeed, at the very first bridge, under the A45, we have to back-pedal fast to avoid an oncoming hire boat. We get to be able to spot Anglo-Welsh and Black Prince boats at a distance soon.

We pass the mellow buildings of Lower Shuckburgh - if ever there was a setting for a small canalside pub, here it is! Helen decides that the cluster of farmhouse and ramshackle buildings is definitely the place for us. I recall she said that about a place outside Long Itchington, Shirley, Alrewas, Shardlow and Weston as well.

We motor on past Flecknoe up among the yellow ash and alder and oaks, and weave through the fields - the plains to our left, the slopes to our right. We watch common and lesser black-backed gulls wheeling around in small groups. It's grey but a warm grey sky and the dog gets for a scamper on the towpath for a while. She really doesn't like it on the boat, sadly.

We pass the site of the old railway bridge that announces the approach to Braunston, and the loops off to west and east. One day I want to get permission to walk the fields around the old canal loops. None of it is a public right of way.

We glide effortlessly across the Braunston Puddlebanks, passing a motley collection of boats. It is good to see a variety of boats, every one a picture of beauty to its owners, possessors of memories of voyages and adventure. The background of wasteland that many moorings create is somewhat less pleasant. I know from experience, that the owners - or lessors - of these little plots defend their little New Age empires as being somehow environmentally-friendly, as if somehow owning a collection of old vehicles in various states of disrepair is part and parcel of the ultimate Gaia lifestyle. I don't agree, but love the fact that I live in a country where people who don't agree can live without one fearing the other. But still, parts of the Puddlebanks have become a right old eyesore.

The last stretch is sublime though, passing the brick bridge and then the triple bridge over Braunston turn. Such a shame that at such an iconic location, someone was able to erect concrete sheds, garages and boxes on the north bank.

Despite a short cruise, we decide to take up a space just by the junction and opposite the busy workers of the Mill House refurbishment.

7.6 miles, 3 locks

Friday, 23 October 2009

The get-away boat

I'm thinking James Bond, I'm thinking Ocean's Twelve....  I'm thinking a narrowboat with a load of scrap metal on the roof.

Thieves in Wolverhampton have stolen a load of unwanted scrap metal and got away by loading it on a boat. They even built a jetty. Then they came back the following day and made off with the rest of the metal on a bike. Brilliant. Like being back in the 1790s.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Strange Maps

Not sure whether I should thank or curse Granny Buttons for recommending the brilliantly quirky Strange Maps blog. I am spending way too much time reading it.

The end of the upgrades is in sight

It's been more than two months, but we are almost ready with North Star 2.0

The first cruises had shown up all kinds of issues and many of those have now been addressed.

We had constant elecrical problems, many of which were baffling everyone as some didn't make much sense. Replacing all the wiring at the back end and upgrading to a new distribution board has fixed that.
Fitting more dials and instruments should help with managing the engine better and we have swapped the control panel over to the other side, so allowing eaier access to the boat from the back.

A bigger decision was to fit a 2.5kW inverter to run the fridge, charge laptops, a couple of table lamps and maybe a microwave: we really hated not having a fridge while on the move. But of course, doing one thing leads to another and so now we need an extra two 120aH batteries, and so a new battery compartment needed to be installed. Put it where? Ah, no. We need that space for the calorifier next year. Let's think....

Loads of little jobs got done, including new headlamp connections, new gas regulator and fittings, bigger scuppers, repared water pump, changed switches...

We are going to get one more cruise this year, next week when I get back from South Africa, and then we are going to decide if we want to have the boat accessible during the winter or have her laid up. We do know that we want to get the bigger changes done next spring and that means identifying a suitable fitter to do the job.

The Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg

I have a ticket that says "Non-White" on it and in the days of apartheid South Africa that fact would have ruled my entire existence. Today it's a deliberately awkward token for me, as a white person, to gain entry to the Apartheid Museum in a quiet suburb of southern Johannesburg. The complex is an award-winning building in landscaped grounds that are such a contrast, possibly deliberately so, to the Gold City theme park and casino next door; the regular clatter of a joy-riding helicopter from the theme park adds an unintentionally sinister backdrop to the museum.
The whole story of apartheid is exceptionally well told, like a modern-day Chaucer's Tale, unravelling the journey of how a group of real Johannesburg people got to  where they are today. You start with them walking up a bare, brick slope in the heat, past enclaves of San art before diving down into a maze of rooms that looks at every aspect of the hated form of government.

The museum cleverly pieces together the social, economic and cultural backgrounds and manages to do so without too much emotion. Indeed, the museum manages to portray the historic antecedents of Boer, Zulu, San and English natives and settlers very evenly. But from the beginning, the writing is on the wall for the indigenous populations as the settlers force their ways and their means on those already there. It culminates in the election in 1948 of an overtly racist government. Perhaps some of the most chilling moments are watching newsreel clips of cabinet ministers casually defending the indefensible, alleging that the litany of laws and rules was for the benfit of all people.

The Apartheid Museum doesn't need to add emotion, because you add your own at appropriate moments. Whether it is anger at Malan and Vorster, or feeling your eyes water when you read the visitor book that shows all Nelson Mandela's prison visitors from 1964 to 1970 - 29 visits in all, all an hour or less - in neat handwriting, including the 1966 visit of his mother just before she died.

Man does terribly trange things to man, but not many can compete with the sophisticated, instituionalised hatred, contempt and brutality bred here in South Africa in those dark days.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

River quality issues - shall we bleat after all the decisions have been made?

A month ago, the newspapers were full of stories about the "disgusting state" of our rivers in Britain. Only 5 rivers, or 0.08% of the total, were described as in "pristine" condition, while 117 rivers were considered "bad". The media quoted an Environment Agency report, which proves to be non-existent; the facts come from the current and ongoing assessment of river quality around the country in preparation for the eleven River Basin Management Plans that need to be finalised for Decemember.

The reality is that our rivers have actually never been cleaner. Not since medieval times, anyway. The Water Quality web-page of the Environment Agency starts "River quality has improved greatly since 1990"
"Rivers shockingly clean" doesn't sell newspapers though.

So what exactly is going on?

In the past, Britain measured its water quality using a simple General Quality Assessment (known as the GQA) which measured biological, chemical and nutrient load. In the future, we will use a wider range of indicators standardised across Europe. Because there are more really, really remote rivers across the whole of Europe - think particularly in northern Scandinavia - which have never had any industrial or human impact, the term "pristine" is used to describe these almost totally untouched watercourses.

In fact, it is worth remembering, before we start using the wider range of measures, that Britain's rivers are remarkably clean. 72% of England's rivers were in the top two biological categories ("excellent" or "good") compared to just 55% in 1990. In Wales, it's 88% of rivers. The chemical and nutrient scores are equally as impressive.

It really isn't fair to look at the rivers in England and complain that they aren't as clean as rivers in remote parts of Finland, Sweden or north-western Spain.

However, this doesn't mean we can sit back and relax. Almost every week there are news reports of dreadful water pollution incidents, including a spill of cyanide recently into the River Trent. The media has reported that the UK looks set to miss many of its EU water quality targets for 2015. It has been estimated that it will cost £9 billion to get our rivers up to standard. An investment of even a fraction of this sum could have significant impacts on other spending plans by authorities in the UK. It is critical that boating interests are represented publicly in the discussions and lobbying, but in the UK our voice seems absent.

While boating interests - mainly commercial - are active in Europe, campaigning on a variety of issues related to the WFD, in the UK, NGO action on rivers seems to include everyone but the boaters! Perhaps there is a sense, from various quarters, that boaters are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Actions over the years to reduce boating activities on various waterways suggest that there remains a gap between boaters and environmental interests. Let me think, are you happy for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to be speaking up for river users in that area? It is notable that although the RSPB and angling interests are directly involved with the novel Our Rivers campaign, there are no boating organisations mentioned as headline sponsors. We boaters are simply conspicuous by our absence. If the wind blows against us in the future, don't bleat about how unfair it is: everyone else seems to appreciate how important these issues are. We, on the other hand, prefer to blog about idiots pulling out our mooring pins or fascists blocking the water point.

Bleat now and bleat loud!

Syndicate to restore or preserve a historic boat

I have thought long and hard about this post for many months.

I'd like to either join or form a syndicate to help restore or preserve a historic boat.

My strong preference is to work with a 'new group' rather then buy into a share of a boat that is already privately owned. The reason is that anyone who has single-handedly - or with an existing group - restored or preserved something will inevitably have such strong ownership and opinions, that it will be impossible for a newcomer to have a truly 'equal' role. I don't want to be just an additional source of funds.

This isn't placed as an advert per se, although do feel free to e-mail me if you have any ideas. It's more a statement of intent.

I don't want to convert a boat but to preserve as much as possible of the original vessel. I do not want to recreate something, and - for those who do appreciate there is a difference - I have a preference for preservation over restoration.

Anthropomorphic canal dogs' rectums

Lot of them about. Each claiming to be the laziest dog on the Cut.

Recently, a small girl saw our dog standing patiently beside Helen, who had not realised that dogs were not permitted within the boundaries of a local sailing club. The girl, maybe 8 years old, strode defiantly right up to the back end of our dog, pointed very closely to the dog's rectum and proclaimed "You mustn't let anything come out of here because children might go blind!"

Wonder how all the anthropomorphic dogs would have responded?

A sketch of the future for the waterways museums?

I have already said what I think of the Waterways Trust a couple of months ago, but have been surprised that it is now far and away the most popular post. Even more surprising is the number of hits from Gloucester and Chester ;)

Maybe I've struck a nerve.

I did double-check the post a few times for anything m'learned friends might not like. But the more I look at it, the more I believe I am right.

The Waterways Trust is too remote from those whom it most needs. It has a chequered reputation and needs to restore it. Meanwhile, like many societies and clubs, it relies on an aging, devoted band of volunteers but the 'attraction' doesn't pull in the new people like they expect. From the outside, from a distance, it feels like "Give us your money".

This is an oranisation that seriously needs a revamp; it needs to re-establish itself. Most importantly, it needs to understand what its role is because they are probably trying to be too many things all at once. There is a big difference between a collections-focused organisation and an interpretation-based entity. Look at the differences between the London Transport Museum, for example, and the Black Country Living Museum.

For the rather steady stream of readers from Gloucester and Chester reading these posts, in particular: I am not happy that I don't like the Waterways Trust, and I would dearly love it to do well. But it's in such a jumble and it is its own worst enemy. You don't need celebrity endorsements; you need paying customers and a real strategy. Start looking at heritage railways, the BCLM and a variety of museums across the globe.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Why are so many Thames sailing barges for sale?

Why are so many Thames sailing barges for sale?




Lady Daphne


I am sure I have seen others for sale recently, as well. I don't know why, and it is wrong to speculate. I have this dream of having a fleet of them. And delivering stuff up and down the Thames. Profitably.

The Lincoln Keel

I never even knew there was a Lincoln Keel, but it seems there was. The barge Misterton, now being restored is one of a very small number of boats built for working in the Lincoln area; it is also one of the few Lincoln Keels in existence. Dating from 1923, when seemingly it was a sailing barge, it later worked with an engine. It now seems to be down in the London area somewhere, looking very pretty from the photos.

My very slight connection with this boat is that I seriously considered buying the owners' first boat - Iris #3- which is also a pretty boat, if somewhat smaller. I had a look over Iris #3 in West London early this year, but the layout now effectively precludes a through passage from the engine room into the boat, without a lot of work.

Why didn't I think of that....

His and hers tiller pins. Cool.

Oldest boat still afloat?

I think it's Laplander, but what about the oldest cargo-carrying boat? What about the oldest unconverted or unrestored boat - that is, in its original condition?

The hopelessness of one-way tweeting

It is clear that some people use Twitter simply for broadcasting outbound. Most celebrities tweet this way. In this sense Twitter becomes a mini-blog, which may be of some interest for fans of people like Stephen Fry and possibly Jordan.

But.....for the average person in the street, isn't tweeting one-way a bit like hanging out of the bedroom window and shouting in the darkness? It seems a bit nutty.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

BCN Marathon Challenge Redux

Seems my article Nine Strangers and an Owl has been published in the BCNS's Boundary Post magazine.
I'm giving J.K. Rowling a run for her money. But not much.

Let's hear it for the fluffy fried eggs

I don't do commercial endorsements. No. But there is something deeply satisfying about Haribo Starmix.

I saw my dentist last week and mentioned them. He didn't seem bothered by my little addiction. I suspect my enjoyment of these sweets is helping pay for his retirement villa somewhere in the sun.

I try not to, but I always do, pick out the 'fluffy' ones: the hearts and the fried eggs. I'm a grown man, for goodness sake, and I sit on the train in the evening rustling through a plastic bag in search of fluffy fried eggs!

The cola bottles are OK too, but I'm no fan of the little bears or the engagement rings.

You have no idea what I am talking about, do you?

In a corporate office, somewhere in suburban Bonn, some executives must have sat around and agreed that a mixture of fluffy hearts, fried eggs, tiny bears, cola bottles and engagement rings were the perfect combination of objects to stick in a plastic bag. Errrr. Right.

Glad they did though.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Bob and the art of beaming

Some years ago, I lived in Holland and then also in Texas. I was asked once what the difference was between the two cultures. While I like both of them, it was notable that while the Dutch tend to be tolerant even of activities of which they personally disapprove, Texans tended to be quite strongly intolerant of anything which they did not personally endorse. I suppose you could say it is the difference between an unusually liberal culture and an unusually conservative culture. I admit I did feel more comfortable in Holland. With a tolerant and liberal upbringing, I struggled regularly with the, increasingly faith-based, conservatism in Texas. Texas is one of the great 'cultures' in the world but it's not quite 'for me'; I did the right thing and moved on (to China, of all places).

Meanwhile I had always viewed England as being tolerant, and it was my benchmark; not so liberal as Holland but more so than most places I have lived or visited. But many experiences in the last couple of years, including those online, force me to reconsider. As just one example, for more than a year I regularly inhabited the main UK waterways online forums, but I no longer go there very much. I feel that a relatively small bunch of contributing regulars just go beyond giving their opinions and prefer to then attack the opinions of others. Even innocuous discussions about technical matters regularly degenerate into tiresome flame wars and trolling competitions. Each to their own: as I did with Texas, I just migrated elsewhere.

I felt increasingly dejected. After 17 years as an expatriate, I had been enjoying our return to the UK, but it was feeling more like Texas and less like Holland now. Still a good place but conservative-leaning rather than liberal-leaning. I am sure many will disagree, suggesting that the country has become too namby-pamby liberal and that's the problem. I started seriously to think about the possibilities of leaving again.

Then I met Bob.

During the last year, we have been trying to find a sailing club nearby. It needs to have the right mix of racing, cruising and social activities for adults (some sailing clubs are decidedly focused on the cadet fleet) - and I cannot even begin to rationalise exactly what the idea club looks like. At one club Open Day, we happened across a man called Bob (name changed for some reason) who cheerfully said that he would take us out. Although we sail, we had a non-sailing visitor with us and so we stuck together and Bob took us out in his Enterprise. Bob turned out to be absolutely the perfect gentlemen and, although in his 60s at least, really hit it off with my normally somewhat reserved teenage kids. There was something exceptionally relaxed, confident and "right" about Bob.

As we sailed around, we kept finding ourselves in a tangle with younger teenagers and kids in Optimists and Toppers. Bob knew them all, and gently helped them on their way each time. Even though boats were regularly bumping into his beautifuly-kept GRP dinghy, he was unfazed.

"Boats are for sailing," he beamed.

I realised that I don't see people beam very much. This man was beaming! Doesn't he read the papers? Doesn't he know that everything is broken and everyone is grumpy?
No. This man beams and forgives everyone and just relaxes. He sails. Everyone likes him. I mean really like him. Before the word 'nice' became an insult, Bob was what you would call nice.

Despite being clearly an excellent sailor, he was simply relaxed about our more ham-fisted mistakes with his boat. He was the picture of happiness.

The world needs people like Bob. Because the world needs tolerance, friendship and the ability to chill out. Just because we can give our strident opinions, it doesn't mean we actually should, no matter how technically superior we may be to others. Even though we wish a pox on all those around us who screw everything up, do it all wrong, rip us off, do us down, it's worth noting that it's people like Bob who get liked.

Because people like Bob beam. And are happy. And I believe Britain is a country of Bobs trying to become more Bob-like.

Monday, 28 September 2009


Now investigating solar panels. I thought it would be simple, but nothing ever is with marine electrics. "Sailing Today" reviewed 30 or so solar panels last month and I'm trying to work out the differences.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Sailing and drifting

After a week of being unwell with a growing cold and nagging toothache, today I was enticed out into the open and into an Enterprise dinghy to give the Hertford County Yacht Club a try out. Wasn't really feeling up to it but it was warm and sunny.

Ended up having a really pleasant couple of hours at an uber-friendly club, being shown the four corners of the lake by Tom, in whose boat we were 'sailing'. There was absolutely no wind, so it ended up being a bit of a paddle but I think I was more up to drifting than sailing.

It's that glorious time of the year when the first trees start turning a paler green in preparation for turning yellow, and the afternoon light is just soft and golden. Poetical.

Decisions, decisions

We are getting to the end of the work and now I have some last minute decisions, mainly electrical.
  • Should I get a solar system to trickle charge the main system?
  • Should I fit an inverter just to run the fridge and charge phones and a laptop? Worth it? If so, pure or modified sine wave?
  • Should I fit extra batteries if I'm using an inverter? What size inverter?
  • Should I fit a calorifier tank even if we're not ready to have the hot water system installed? How big?
For a variety of reasons, I'm seriously considering dumping the BMC 1.5 as well.

Memories of a window sill

Long ago, I used to be taken to my grandparents house in Stranraer, a small ferry port in southwest Scotland. It's not a famous place, although every person from Northern Ireland will tell you they got stuck the night there once. My grandfather owned the town pharmacy, on Hannover Street, the crooked old main shopping street: number 37, I think it was. In those days, they would switch the parking from one side of the street to the other on alternate days.

In the mornings, early, very early, a man would come and change the signs. He would presumably climb a ladder and fold the signs over on one side of the street. Then he would fold the signs out on the other side. In a town where "Horse stumbles in George Street" was reputed to have once been a headline for the Wigtownshire Free Press, the changing over of the signs was pretty much it, as far as secretive goings-on were concerned.

One small boy, however, was determined to catch the man doing his duty. I would force myself awake, somehow, in that cold little bedroom in the attic and clamber over to the windowsill. I would peer down trough the misted panes, waiting as the grey light smeared into a paler dirty white over the low hills. Bad-tempered gulls would wheel, signs that a boat was just in. I would trace my name into the condensation and wait for ever. The light would grow and I'd eventually fall asleep back on the bed.

I never did get to see the sign-changer, and now I have no connection with Stranraer, except a brief stirring when the Scottish football results come in. As Billy Connelly once joked about Partick Thistle, for a long time I believed the town's name to be Stranraernil. I do have memories but I have no idea what to do with those: you can't really share them because no-one else cares for the memories of others.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Ludham, Hunters Fleet picnic cruise

I also recall that this weekend - maybe Sunday? - Saturday is the annual picnic cruise for the Norfolk Heritage fleet classic half-deckers and cabin yachts from Hunters Yard at Ludham

Sigh. And I have other plans made for me.

The simplest of pleasures

As Halfie has suggested, some of the simplest pleasures in boating are just the patterns and sounds all around us. Such as the vortices formed when a lock gate opens.

On the Cut - 2

A long way to fly

Lesser Whitethroat

I was fortunate enough to visit east Africa in January 2008, and one morning was sure I saw a Lesser Whitehroat sitting on a branch. I was surprised because it is difficult to see them in the UK, but I assumed that this little chap (not the one photographed) was some local African bird, maybe an east African whitethroat or something.

Then I read this week that the Lesser Whitehroat does indeed migrate to the Horn of Africa, after all.

101 Places to See After You Die

The cemetery.
The Styx.
Hell (day trip preferred).

I still can't get over the odd titles of this seemingly endless cash-cow of books and TV programmes. Anywhere you want to see and anything you want to read or do, has to be done before you die. Even if you believe in reincarnation (I didn't when I was a barn owl, and I don't now), then you would go and see them when you are alive in the next life.

On the Cut - 1

I think the only Erewash Carrying Co boat I have seen, and it's such an attractive, mellow chocolatey colour scheme.

Getting photos sorted in Blogger is driving me nuts. I think this is now my third time spent trying to get it working properly, and I find it intensely irritating and counter-intuitive. It was 1000 times easier to do a lot of this in TypePad, so I do wonder why I switched to Blogger. Hopeless. I want to use Flickr....I want a medium-sized thumbnail with click through to larger version. Why, why, why is this so difficult to achieve. It really should not be this difficult. I seem to be cursed with a set up that has crappy, tiny photos or ones that bleed over the right nastily. My kingdom for a horse!

Historic boaters meeting, Dudley this weekend

Working boats this weekend - Saturday and Sunday - at the Black Country Living Museum, although not shown in most of the 2009 canal event listings.

Historic boaters and even some historic boats!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Black Bess

They don't post much, but I love the ultra-simple design of the Black Bess blog. Really clean, crisp and elegant.

One week of cruising from Napton

I have one week left for 2009. One week of cruising from Calcutt, and then I need to be in whichever location we shall be using for our winter mooring.

I do enjoy the planning but I do want to have just a bit more summer. Please.

More photos

I need more photos. Hmmmmm. Picture worth a thousand words.

Doing it the Chesterfield way

I am really not surprised at the dramatic progress on restoring the Chesterfield Canal, and I hope to get at least as far as West Stockwith with North Star during the next few years. Once I get past being a tidal coward, that is: I'm happy in a dinghy or a yacht in the tides, waves and salty stuff, but then I can turn a dinghy on a 5p piece and get myself out of trouble in the face of adversity. With North Star I can get myself into trouble in 3' of still waters, let alone 5 knots of ebb tide in the Trent.

I am not a great supporter of new restoration projects, to be honest, especially given the absolute inevitability of staggering government funding cuts in the years to come. We need to protect what we have already. But I have an increasing admiration for both the Chesterfield and the nearby Grantham Canal, because they have such a balanced approach that - I believe - is missing from many of the far bigger, far older canal societies. I would absolutely bet that neither the Chesterfield Canal Trust nor The Grantham Canal Society aren't moaning about a lack of new members or younger members or a lack of volunteers!

The Grantham and the Chesterfield, both (or will) suffer from only being accessible from a major river - the Trent. In the case of the Chesterfield, a lengthy journey is necessary along a tidal stretch which is intimidating to many boaters. Both canals will also simply form there-and-back excursions, again less popular and less likely to attract the lucrative hire fleets - although Canal Time is well located for both these canals.

It is probably because of - rather than despte - these locational adversities that both societies are particularly dynamic. At a number of events and rallys in the last few years, I have seen their evangelistic volunteers out there educating, teaching, informing, chatting and proactively presenting their case. Funnily enough, at the National I was also impressed with a similar style of campaigning from the Derby Canal Society; is there something in the water in this part of the world, for goodness' sake?

The I look at the woeful state of national level campaigning, the dismal state of the major waterways museums, the witless marketing of BW (how many 'bathtubs in a lock' boards do we need to pay for, eh?) and the bitter infighting of some of the more established societies.

I am so pleased to see not only the arrival of nb Python at West Stockwith for the use by the Chesterfield Canal Trust, but also the use of a variety of press to publicise it: that is good PR, and the smiling, cheerful Chesterfield restorers are a bit of a beacon of hope in what are rather gloomy days.

UK to miss EU water quality deadlines

Environmentalists and boaters are wary bedfellows: most boaters are passionate about the environment, although not perhaps the full spectrum of increasingly politicised issues of our environmental friends. But at the same time, many boaters remember being stiffed by environmentalists over the Yorkshire Derwent and the Basingstoke; more recently, boaters have been frustrated by the increasingly irritating complaints of biologists in Environmental Impact Assessments, noting the focused opposition of certain environmental groups to the restoration of the Droitwich Canals, for example, and similar growling over the original planned restoration route of the Lichfield & Hatherton.

So it is with some alarm that it appears that the UK will not meet EU water quality deadlines by 2015. Time and time again, boats have been blamed for poor water quality on canals, when time and time again, it has been quite clear that agriculture and surface run-off from industrial sites and roads are the prime cause of local declining water quality.

Despite this, I can well see that boats will be unfairly targetted anew. Yet a number of surveys have shown that the presence of boats on a waterway actually usually reduces pollution. Although this seems curious and perhaps counter-intuitive, the rationale is quite straight forward. Pollution is generally diluted quite fast, even in the worst cases and so water ecosystems have been shown to be fairly resilient. One of the biggest problems is when pollution just stays in the same area beacuse of the low flow rates - such as on many canals. Even with a visible flow, the water flow on most canals is extremely slow. But when boats are regularly moving, mixing, churning the water, the dilutive process - even at a local level - is enhanced or even initiated in many cases. Boats help reduce pollution.

Sadly, there is a lack of relevant research in this area, but I suspect that, once again, boats will be cast as the easy culprits, and there may be attempts to reduce boat numbers or put ever more restrictive requirements on their operation.

Almost two months now

I just want to get back boating again. I hate having the boat laid up this way.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Why didn't he ever get round to writing Volume 2? Pity.

Urban explorers

In my post on Langley Maltings I came across, for the first time, bands of 'urban explorers' who seem to deliberately break in to properties and facilities to photograph them. I must admit I am really shocked because they are quite openly advertising themselves on websites along with their photographs. On the other hand, I am impressed that they seem also to have a sincere appreciation for the architecture, design and heritage of the places they visit.

A real moral dilemma but it may be the only way to see the hidden industrial heritage of much of Britain (or anywhere else)


In May, during the BCN Challenge, on those long late hours and those even longer early morning hours when fatigue had long since taken over, the crew of Tawny Owl were sustained and amused by the graffiti of Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Of course much of it, or even most of it, is vulgar, crude and rather pathetic, but as we motored along, we made up stories about the various names spray-painted on the walls and bridges to amuse ourselves. Childish, I know, both us and them, but it did keep us laughing when we weren't bow-hauling.

It came as a surprise to learn that BW staff in Scotland cannot clean graffiti off the bridges on the Union Canal for fear of destroying the underlying structures. Most of them are classified as Ancient Monuments. The bridges, that is; not the BW staff.

Just a few weeks ago, Hackney Council in London were chastised for cleaning off a Banksy from a wall. I wonder how Scots law is so different from English such that in London you can't stop the authorities, while in Scotland you can't get them started!

Is there a bowyer in the house?

I am so deeply, deeply impressed to have discovered a bowyer online. Only in England would it be possible to come across someone who makes a healthy living out of making longbows! It comes as absolutely zero surprise to discover that he both blogs and owns a narrowboat.

I have ticked the box and move on now to find an astronaut, a rocket scientist, a cooper, a qualified wizard and anyone who uses a punt gun in their normal course of work.

I'm thrilled. It must be so great to sit on a plane and before take-off the snooty bloke next to you wipes his forehead with the little tiny towel that's hotter than the surface of the sun, turns to you and says "What line of business are you in?" and you say "I'm a bowyer! I make longbows". Brilliant!

Also, if you're on a really long flight and in the middle of the night, the PA system goes "Bing Bong. Is there a trained bowyer on the flight? We are paging for a bowyer. Please make yourself known to the crew. Thank you". Guess that's not all that often though. Unless, of course, you have a PhD in making longbows. Then you can just get up and offer your services when they ask for a doctor.
"Can you make him better, doctor?"
"Put an apple on his head, I'll stand all the way down there in Business Class and let's see what I can do."

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Farewell Langley Maltings

Late on Tuesday 8th September, fire destroyed much of the Langley Maltings on Western Road in Oldbury; it is believed that arsonists started the blaze that went on to destroy the upper parts and roofs of a building that had been an icon on the Oldbury skyline for 139 years, and a building that had been used for its original purpose until just four years ago by Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries. It was one of the last few remaining malthouses in England to make floor malt.

The story of the maltings at Langley goes back to the mid-19th century when Walter Showell, a Birmingham man, started to build up the Crosswell Brewery, seemingly named after the local Well of the Holy Cross. The maltings were constructed in 1870 near the brewery, but those first maltings were detroyed by fire in 1897 when a lamp was accidentally overturned. They were replaced the following year to a design by Arthur Kinder & Son, the renowned London brewery architects. The maltings used two parallel three-storey ranges of malting floors, and between the two ranges, the kilns. Either side of the kilns were two canal arms, filled in at some stage. Both brewery and maltings had, as elsewhere, been built to make use of canal transport although here only the incoming barley was delivered by boat. Sadly, the company quickly switched to rail transport then road only after the Second World War. Part of the maltings, including the roof on the southernmost range, were destroyed in 1922 when one of the kilns was again destroyed by fire, not to be rebuilt until 1977. The main malting floor remained supported by iron columns until the very end.

Showells were taken over by Allsops in 1914 who in turn merged with Ind Coope in 1934 who then sold Langley Maltings in 1944 to Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries. Ironically, the founder of Wolverhampton & Dudley was originally an Oldbury maltster, George Thompson. The Thompson family owned one of the competing breweries - Arden Grove. By 2005, just 13 people worked the entire malting operation and it closed in early 2006.

Towards the end, the maltings were clearly struggling to operate in the modern age: changing climate and agricultural practices meant that pests and vermin were getting difficult to control, and by-products which had formerly been used by farmers had to be disposed of as commercial waste. As floor malt no longer commanded a price premium, so the cost of producing this type of malt was not being met. Furthermore, making any food product in old buildings surrounded by wood and iron, rather than the more typical food-grade stainless steel, was adding yet more cost. The wet summer of 2004 resulted in a terrible yield of that year's spring barley harvest in August: spring barley is mainly used for malting, while winter barley, harvested a month earlier, mainly goes to animal feed as rolled barley. These all added up to being the final straws for one of England's last maltings. They specialised in Maris Potter, Proctor and Pioneer barleys, and each supply was kept isolated, and stored with a moisture content of 12%. The barley needed to be monitored to ensure the temperature didn't rise; if it did, the barley needed to be moved around to be aerated.

Most of the original maltings were used to the end, although the barley storage facilities were modern. The barley input used an auger to lift the barley into the storage bins where it dried out and waited for malting. The barley would be steeped in water for two days then left on the floor for a further six days as it grew, being turned once, and then it was left for three days in the kiln; the whole process took a fortnight. The water was drawn up from a well on site - perhaps the Well of the Holy Cross? - at a constant temperatire of 11 degrees Celsius. Each kiln used a coal-fired furnace to create the hot air.

More detail on the implements is available from the excellent article by the Brewery History Society and Amber Patrick's notes of their visit to Langley Maltings in September 2005.

Oldbury itself was a town well-known for its pubs, and despite a population of just 7,000 in 1840, the town then had more than 70 pubs: one for around every 100 people. The Crosswells Brewery was just one of three major breweries and a handful of home-brew operations.

Photographs taken by various groups of deliberate trespassers show that much of the equipment was still there, intact. I am in two minds whether to link to these photo sets - here, here, here and here - because they must surely be taken through trespassing, although from the comments on the various forums, it seems these Urban Explorers are as upset as anyone else.

Langley Maltings have gone - perhaps. The structure of the maltings were actually rather straightforward and the more complicated lower levels were not destroyed, so it may well be possible to recreate the gables and roofs.

More photos or video tagged with langley maltings on Flickr

Waterways map after Harry Beck

Wonderful map of Britain's waterways created in sthe style of Harry Beck's Underground map. Not perfect but a real eye-opener.

NASA use a photo

Was tipped off recently that NASA has used one of my photos for an article on tropical deforestation and climate change. A couple of friends have said that I'm too easy on the copyright for my photos on Flickr as I just let anyone use them, but I'm really, really not a good photographer. I was just in the right place at the right time for the photo of burning forests, in Mondulkiri, south-eastern Cambodia.

Tragedy of the forests

Not sure why I'm crowing about this. Astonishment really. Would have thought they had far better photographers and cameras. Couldn't they point the Hubble downwards?

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Narrowboat electrics

Is it me, or is it that the more you read about narrowboat electrics, the less you understand?

You are here

Beijing's new Terminal 3 airport has signs all over, proclaiming, most helpfully "You are here".

Thank you. I know I am.

Next I hope they can provide a map alongside these signs that tells me where I am relative to the rest of the terminal. Until then: I am here.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Guaranteeing your kids good behaviour

Threaten to follow them on Twitter or add them as a friend on Facebook. Works a treat. Or blog about them. Apparently I am the worst dad in the world. And no-one has less dress sense than me. And my music is 1980s.

Monday, 7 September 2009

When bloggers blog about blogging

Always amused when the new wave of bloggers mutter about the frisky newcomers.

Oh ah. I'll give them a month. Or two. Or a year.

As sure as a flame war on a forum ends up with one participant calling the other a fascist, every blogger patronises newer writers. However, I have to disappoint, but I had three blogs back in mid 2003, waaaaay before some of these crusty canal bloggers. I'd given up on two of them before most of them started. There are still a few little links working out there as a legacy that I was, indeed, "there".

Blogging truths
  • No-one cares what we think.
  • No. Seriously. No-one.
  • Not even our mums.
  • Yes, I know they say they read it. They don't. They read one post a year ago.
  • If we could write, we'd be paid to do it. And we wouldn't blog.
  • People who are paid to write can string coherent sentences together...and only use an ellipsis when it is appropriate to do so.
  • Writing regularly or a lot doesn't change any of this.
  • But it's very relaxing and there is a sense of huge importance, like maybe someone is going to say "You know, I think we've found the next Albert Camus, and he knows a thing or two about pigeon racing! Or the Shropshire Union."
    You just can't help but feel that Barack Obama checks up on your blog just before retiring for the day.

...and today I am sailing.....

Yeah. It's what I've been sailing on the lake at Welwyn Garden City. Yep. 103 kph.

Love the way virtually the whole boat is airborne.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Concept boat 'Whitefield' for sale

One of the most unusual boats to be seen on the canals of late is up for sale. NB Whitefield, seen on TV and the magazines, has striking style with a paint scheme that is best described as 'bright'.

The discussion on the forums has been intense and generally extremely negative, although with a visible minority suggesting that they would go for it, with a few changes. The owners probably didn't endear themselves to the waterways community with some seemingly aloof comments about boat shows, boat yards and other narrow boats; all these comments are in the test report.

It was a brave attempt to break into new ground, but these kinds of concept boats have not done well in the past. It is fair to say that there is a higher proportion of olde worlde traditionalists of a very conservative nature on the Cut than almost anywhere else. It is admirable to be different, but it could turn out to be difficult to sell something quite so unique into such a conservative market; the owner is relying on their being one other boater with such avant garde taste and a serious amount of cash. This other boater also needs to be in the market for a secind hand boat some time soon. That seems to be a lot of planets needing to be lined up at the same time.

I wish them well, but I suspect - like many - that this boat will simply not sell. They may have more luck taking it to the Canal du Midi or the Loire and selling it there. After all, it has its roots in the Mediterranean cabin cruiser world. Or maybe a Russian oligarch is looking for a narrowboat.

America's first canal

I was intrigued to read of one man's restoration efforts on America's first industrial canal, before realising that the American's use the word 'canal' to mean any ditch, drain or, as in this instance, mill race.

It's still interesting to read of the efforts to clean up the Mother Brook at Dedham in Massachusetts, constructed in 1639. However, it made me wonder were the first real canal was in America. Turns out to be the South Hadley Canal, also in Massachusetts, opened in 1795. Rather surprisingly, the canal is no longer navigable although much of it is still in water. It's not clear when it stopped being used for navigation.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Telegraph still loves the waterways

The Daily Telegraph frequently writes rather glowing commentary on the canals and the waterways community and has done so again in Cool canal authors take the slow boat.
The article is resoundingly positive and even tackles the turbulent undercurrents of community action as well as the verdant idyll part!

As always these days, it pays to ignore the largely witless comments. Just because you can comment, doesn't necessarily mean you should. One gormless idiot writes "I presume you must have these canals under guard by ex-Royal navy ninjas armed with Argentinian gaucho bolas to deal with jetskiing nitwits." Yes, of course we do. Keep taking the tablets.

Cropredy tragedy almost repeated

On hearing of the recent tragic death of a woman who fell from a narrowboat in a lock, most of the waterways community were shocked but satisfied that this was genuinely an incredibly rare accident. After all, a person could hit their head on falling or tripping pretty much anywhere; the canal location was merely a location for the tragedy.

But now we hear of a second, eerily similar accident at a lock in Newbury. Fortunately, this time the person survived although it appears it was a serious accident: as at Cropredy, the woman hit her head as she fell. Good to see that two bystanders lept into the emptying lock to pull her to safety on a ledge - presumably the cill.

We have a rule on our boat that everyone has to be visible to others when locks are being worked and if that is not possible - for example when locking up on big river locks - then we use a two-way radio to communicate and keep talking to each other.

North Star almost ready

It's disappointing to need so much work doing on North Star, but not entirely unsurprising; we think she was stationary in the marina more than the previous owners cared to realise. We have already had her out on the Trent three times, half way along the T&M, around the BCN and back out to Warwickshire in just three months.

Calcutt Boats have been excellent, always e-mailing to advise on progress, and getting detailed estimates before starting the work. They have had plenty of opportunity to increase their work but on several occasions have advised that it doesn't need doing right now.

The original reason for heading to Calcutt was to have a big overhaul of the BMC 1.5, but that turned out to be straightforward and was - as we suspected - a matter of adjusting the timing.

The far bigger issues have taken much more time, effort and money.
We have needed a new alternator, improved wiring for the entire back end of the boat, and we decided to have the Smart system fitted. Then we decided to fit a filter to the bilge pump outlet, rewire and refit the headlamp, increase the size of the gas locker drains, replace the stern tube greaser delivery tube with a wider bore version, reroute wiring at the front of the boat, switch the engine control panel to the other side, fit new distribution board and repair a number of niggling little broken things. Oh and fit a new headlamp. The old one struggled to pick out someone standing in front of it; the new one should allow five-a-side evening football on the surface of the moon. A bigger concern will be luring ships onto Lizard Rock.

In an ideal world, I would have done some of this myself, but it's not. It has also unexpectedly allowed me a few weeks sailing. It's still 'messing about in boats'. Wonder if you could successfully gaff rig a narrowboat?

Friday, 4 September 2009

Death comes in twos

I discovered that two people I had known and admired - many years ago - have died.

Keith Waterhouse died earlier today, aged 80. I knew him only briefly as I was - for a while - a friend of his son when we were at school together. I suspect that Bob wouldn't remember me, let alone his father, but I was influenced by the man who was the favourite writer of the Mirror and then the Mail for the best part of a generation. The first time I met him he, he looked at me and then his son before asking 'Are you also insufferable?'. He seemed disappointed by my response that I didn't think so. I read his books and have loved his style and wit ever since. Good innings, though.

I was even more saddened to then read of the death, in June, of Graeme Kidd who I knew at Aston University back in the early 1980s, when he was a leading light in the world of the Birmingham Sun, the student newspaper. He once described the definition of the word 'crestfallen' as that moment when you tread in cat-shit in the darkness and feel it oozing up between your toes.
He was always an entreprneur, especially in computing and publishing, and so I was intrigued - but not altogether surprised - to learn of his later career as mayor and all-round alchemist of good fortune for the town of Ludlow.

The world is missing two men who gave a lot back.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

And another sailing star!

Quadriplegic sailor Hilary Lister has completed her Round Britain sailing adventure - an astounding achievement! She becomes the first female quadriplegic to do this.

Another proud day for British sailing.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Enjoyed the National Festival; not fired up though

The amount of time and effort put in by volunteers is staggering, as is the amount of commerce driven by prospective boat buyers, ale drinkers, consumable seekers, pie and pastie eaters. You get to see owls (essential elements for waterways restoration, Aickman insisted), the fire brigade cutting open a small car and paratroopers. If you slope off to the fringes of the show, you discover a small bit of water - the Soar - and a few boats.

Criticism of the efforts and dedication is not on, and it probably rakes in shedloads of money for the IWA and twenty other societies and campaigns, but it all feels like the circus it has become.

I'm not one of the in crowd, but I suspect that the National is most probably hugely important as a social event for those who are. The waterways community is a tight-knit one and the summer series of rallys and shows strengthens the community.

But in 2009, there looms in the background - like eight gargantuan power station cooling towers - the threat of dramatic cuts in funding for all government departments for many years to come. BW, the EA, county councils and local councils are going to be holding much smaller purses. Canals and waterways - especially of the softer, cuddlier 'partnership' variety - are almost bound to be be very low down the priority list. Look at how DEFRA managed to repay the farmers fiasco from other DEFRA obligations.

I enjoyed myself at the IWA National Festival, but as I sat in the queue to get on the M1 at 5.30, I wondered if those early Nationals were 'enjoyable'. Surely, as well as the enjoyment, I should have been stirred, outraged, fired up and energised?

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Norfolk Wherries - on Flickr

Are The Broads less friendly than the canal network?

Stupid question, of course, because everyone will have different experiences.

We found many stern 'No Mooring' warnings on the banks of The Broads. That may just be a reflection of the more general 'moor anywhere' attitude in Norfolk though.

We found there to be far fewer moorings close to key places - such as Horning - but maybe offset by more non-village staithes. There was a mixture of very pleasant boaters and very arrogant boaters: same everywhere I suppose. The most arrogant were always, always, always in the biggest boats.

At The Swan Inn, after spending maybe 25 quid at this pub we stopped briefly in our little day boat - no more than 4 minutes to pick up something we had left in the car. While we were gone, the man employed by the pub started having a go at my teenage children who were left on board. He wanted them to move the boat immediately because there was a bigger boat that wanted to use the mooring. The fact that it had plenty of space to moor forward of us was immaterial to both the boaters and this idiot - they just wanted 'our space'. He just bullied our children while the 'big boat' family looked on. You bunch of cowards.

He disappeared before my wife and I returned. Shocking behaviour, and fairly disgraceful intimidating attitude from the big boat (know the name, tempted to name them bu won't). We were in the little day hire boat.

We had looked at booking to stay at The Swan Inn for a long weekend in October; decided against it. Would rather patronise somewhere more friendly.

At the public staithe, also in Horning, we asked to raft up alongside a bigger boat. "We'd rather you didn't," came the disdainful response from the flying bridge. We had fenders, they had fenders. We shrugged our shoulders.

"How's about I come down from the Midlands in 15.6 tonnes of steel narrowboat and provide you with the luxury of two can call them Bow and Stern?" I am thinking, but I smile through gritted teeth.

The jury is out on the friendliness issue: it always will be. Bet there are plenty of Norfolk-big-white-plastic-boat-with-blue-cushion-covers who make it onto the GU near Northampton and recoil in horror from the inconsiderate behaviour of narrowboaters. I understand that The Broads sailing community call the GRP boats "stinks": It is, however, supposed to refer to the boat, not the crew.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

The mix of sail and power

It occurred to me that the Norfolk Broads is one of the few inland waterways where sail and power are regularly in the same space at the same time. It can and does happen occasionally elsewhere, such as the vicinity of sailing clubs on various rivers - notably, for me, at Trent Lock. However, you can and do meet substantial yachts - some of them pleasure wherries - under sail in the confines of a river. Fine for both parties under certain states of sail but when running or most states of reaching in a narrow stretch, the yacht has a boom out and that can dramatically increase the space of the 'envelope' needed to operate (whichever side the boom is on). When running close hauled, the sail boat needs to tack constantly and that can be utterly confusing for an oncoming stag-weekend party of boozed up lads. When mooring, it can be more tricky with a strong preference to avoid the lee bank.

Surprising then that we were never given any warning about sail boats and protocol before hiring a day boat from a yard in Horning, and the motor-boaters we met had also been given no real advice. These boaters also had absolutely no idea how yachts or dinghies worked, so were oblivious to the potential mishaps. Having said that, you rarely hear of any significant problems so maybe it all works out OK through common-sense.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Too much wind

It is frustrating to turn up at Hunters Yard in Ludham to find that there is just too much wind for us to sail Sundew, the Waveney One Design half-decker. It was like an end-of-summer day out for us all, but it was a wise decision. We have never sailed anything like it and although ae confident, it's simply not worth taking risks with your own safety, the safety of others and potential damage to valuable, classic boats.

We hung around hoping that the wind would drop a bit - it was gusting to about 26 knots - by walking around Ludham Marshes alongside Womack Water to the Thurne but, it was clear that the wind was picking up. We watched one experienced sailor struggle with a cabin yacht. It was an emotion of mixed envy, admiration and relief: it really was blowing and the sail was reefed in, but he was still heeling. It was going to be a day of constant sail trimming, all hands ot halyards and sheets with possibly not a moment's relaxation to enjoy the beautiful landscape.

That landscape is truly magnificent: how on earth does Norfolk get away with it, keeping it all so secret. The Broads has a bit of a reputation for being the place your grandmother would see as slightly dull, but even the first ten minutes revealed that Nelson's county is a fabulous place with just the right mix of classic English landscapes, chocolate-box villages and kiss-me-quick chavs on a weekend bender. All life seems to be here.

It's a bad sign when you start noting down the houses for sale. Time to go home.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Mike Perham - huge star

Fantastic to see Mike Perham complete his single-handed round-the-world voyage when his boat passed the Lizard at 09.55 this morning.

This is a quite staggering achievement for anyone, let alone a 17 year old. At a time when we only hear about the bad things teenagers do, his achievements are a huge boost.

Makes ya proud to be British, eh?

Mike is raising money for Save the Children and the Tall Ships Trust: the fund-rasing for charity hasn't been going as well as the sailing so a little bit of help might be needed.

Has The Waterways Trust lost its way on purpose? Or by accident?

I would dearly love to see more money invested in the conservation, preservation and restoration of boats. I have long felt that too much is spent on adding more restored mileage to the canal system while the architecture, engineering works, boats and equipment fades into dust and mildew.

But will I give money to the new Waterways Trust Supporters Scheme? No.


No. The Waterways Trust lacks focus, lacks imagination, lacks a vision, trys to be the jack of all trades and is, unsurprisingly, master of none. I have no idea what the purpose of the Waterways Trust is. And that's after reading about it again on their website.

Over the last few years I have watched from the touchlines as many have expressed their anger at the inability of the Waterways Trust to adequately look after boats and equipment in its care.

We all appreciate that the Waterways Trust is in an uneviable position, but the reality is that their campaigns have been solely based upon the precept that supporters should just give money and let the Waterways Trust campaign with that money. There is little real attempt at society 'democracy' or transparency, so it is little wonder that so many are reluctant to give much - other than the entry fee at a museum. Currently, the Waterways Trust seems to function primarily as a clearing house for donations. The idea is that I donate and then the Trust decides where that money should go. How's about I give the money directly to the Cotswold restoration project, the Droitwich or the councils alongside the River Soar instead? Meanwhile - wake up guys!! -your museum collection is falling to pieces!!

Part of the problem is that The Waterways Trust probably believes its own press: lots of warm cuddly talk about 'partnership' but what does that mean? The Waterways Trust needs to sit down and decide what it is doing. They need focus, and that should, surely, be on the boats, equipment and engineering. That collection and the associated collected knowledge and skills of staff and volunteers is just too valuable to lose. Bluntly, the skills that they can contribute to the restoration of canals are probably only really valuable to those schemes because they are cheaper than the same skills provided by environmental and engineering consultancies. This means, in effect, that anyone donating to the Waterways Trust is simply subsidising those restoration schemes indirectly. It's not a sustainable business model.

The Trust should stop being a partnership. Period.
  • Start being a society devoted to the management, preservation, conservation and restoration of the boats, equipment and engineering of Britain's waterways.
  • Start fund-raising based on a strategy of educating and interpreting this
  • Leave restoration to the restoration societies.
  • Open up so that people can see, clearly, what the Waterways Trust 'is'
  • Make membership something worth having and doing.
  • If necessary, provide some boats, equipment and artefacts to museums around the country so that members living a long way from one of the museums can join in or contribute more locally.
  • Develop sponsorship packages to encourage and realise corporate financial contributions
  • Stop putting out corporate rubbish press releases - it makes you look even more ridiculous
  • Redevelop interpretation and displays to improve accessibility to all (too much at Stoke Bruerne is aimed, for example, at an 11 year old)
  • Develop commercial plans to exploit the collection (as government money is going to be even more limited in years to come)
  • Actively encourage volunteers to contribute, not just as cash donors but as involved, active participants
Simples, as that irritating little Russian meerkat says.