Sunday, 31 May 2009

Nine strangers and an owl - the 2009 BCN Marathon Challenge

Nine strangers, a former hire boat called Tawny Owl and more than fifty miles of Britain's finest Industrial Revolution heritage promised for a good weekend. I hadn't set foot or keel on the BCN since I left Aston University in 1986 and the reinstated BCN Marathon Challenge was an opportunity to reestablish my acquaintance, through a request for a ride on CWDF. Our appointed rendezvous at the Star City moorings saw these nine strangers meet with windlasses, sleeping bags and assorted anecdotes of canal exploits.

As the clock struck nine, we set off and immediately, we pulled up behind Papua New Guinea's finest, NB Kerchez. Our ascent through the Perry Bar flight slowed as each pound became lower, until we were in the mud. The coordinated attempts to get water into three pounds drew an appreciative crowd. Shortly we were coasting above rooftops towards Rushall Junction, where the lush peacefulness of the Cut contrasts with the motorways nearby. The Rushall Canal saw our second set of locks. The proximity to the Manor Arms stirred the slaves into renewed vigour at the locks, but our skipper cried "Onward!!" and we sailed wistfully past the moored Kerchez and their pints of foaming ale. At Catshill, four boats arrived at the same time and a gardener was so astonished, he rushed inside for his camera. Our arrival at Anglesey Basin was also memorable for the pursuits of a couple who had probably chosen the worst day of the year to get so intimately acquainted by the canal, and their prairie-dog appearances above the grass was seen by all.

We winded and returned along the Curley Wyrley, winding left and right, this way and that, along the contours of two hundred years of industrial history: past the submerged boats by Birchills, past the reed-filled arms and basins, the long-vanished blast furnaces, steel mills and finishing shops. Tawny Owl nosed her way past mischievous kids swimming at Pelsall and into the sylvan charms of the Cannock Extension. We knew about the swathe of old coal-mines here, but only the ghosts remain under the trees and the grasses and a picture-book canal as pretty as any in England.

We sailed on until darkness fell and we tied up in Goscote, rarely recommended but peaceful. During the night, we heard the sounds of a mysterious boat with a vintage engine passing in the night. Surely not the ghost of 'amptons past?? But we all heard it, at a quarter to three. An hour later, we too were under way, slipping our moorings to continue the quest. The green beauty that had accompanied us much of the way on Saturday gave way to the grittier, dustier shadows of our industrial heritage. As we rounded Horseley, the engine stuttered and we drifted. Prolonged duty at the weed-hatch required bow-hauling to Chillington Wharf. A passing early morning jogger looked astounded to see us pulling a boat in the half-light on a Sunday morning. "Don't ask!" I muttered, as he passed us. "It's difficult enough for us to explain to each other!"

After a brief diversion to the end of the Bradley Arm we returned to the main event, as the sun rose gloriously over Tipton, a bright glow warming the old wharfs and basins; little fragments of Black Country history now merging into apartment complexes and modern warehousing. We talked of Steve Bull and the Tipton Slasher, making up what we didn’t know for sure. Yet again, we did battle with Kerchez before swinging into the Titford Branch. We gazed wistfully into the few watery yards of the Crow branch, but continued ever upwards – paddle gear rattling, feet slipping on dusty ground, clouds of smoke from a laboured engine, backs creaking, and those old black bricks echoing with so many familiar boaters’ curses. Twenty minutes later we were winding gracefully for a second look at the foundry, the engine house and the Tat End Branch. Worth putting our nose in to say we’d been there, done that? “No points,” muttered the skipper and we motored onwards.

However, that motoring halted at the junction and once more the slaves were required to take up the ropes. An immaculately dressed Sikh family watched our performance from a bridge, shaking their heads in disbelief. “We’ve been very naughty,” we told the wide-eyed child before Robert made the ultimate sacrifice of the human ponies and ended up in the Main Line. The family scurried away.

Within minutes though, the prop was free and we sailed down the Spon Lane locks, under one of the finest bridges anywhere in the world and so on to Walsall. We were going to be a little late, but we didn’t mind. This exhilarating weekend was concluding with a cruise past more of Britain’s unsung social history - Monmore, the Gospel Oak, Ocker Hill, Anson, Bentley: lost power stations and collieries, abandoned wharves and bridges. If only BWB could properly package and market the glorious greenery, landscape and vitality of the Curley Wyrley and Daw End Branch with the complex social history of the Walsall Canal and there would be so many more boats in this part of the world.

Our final vignettes are of an angler naked but for his pink-edged grey Y-fronts, of the antics of the graffiti artists, of families fishing together, herons feeding, a flash of kingfisher and the smell and sounds of working boats turning in at Walsall. Who needs the Llangollen or the Kennet & Avon when you can have such fun on 54 miles and 33 locks of the BCN?

As the last celebrations concluded late on Sunday evening, on a former hire boat, those nine friends - and many others - drank a toast to Brindley, Telford and Boulton and the men of FMC and other enterprises and to all those working men and women who built this heritage and on whose endeavours much of our present lifestyle is built.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Barton Turn to King's Bromley

Our early morning departure is spoilt a bit by the antics of a following boater. He is keen to remind us of the rules on mooring by the water point. It's really tempting to explode in an indignant explanation of how much time and effort we had put into avoiding doing just that, and that the really unfortunate moored positions of the other two boats had been partially the cause, and furthermore we had not delayed him at all. Instead, we move on.

The building by the bridge at Barton Turn is beautiful but the guidebooks say nothing about it. I am surprised that the Trent & Mersey Canal Society never published a guidebook. Their website is now dead and I'm not sure even if they still exist.

We pass Barton Marina, a definite possibility for a longer term mooring, but we keep moving. We arrive in absolutely glorious sunshine at Wychnor Bridges and its curious footbridge, requiring an awkward turn to get under the smaller, lower narrower arch. It's a lovely place to moor, but I'm anxious about anywhere on the river, and this is an area with what must be a particularly higher than average risk of flood. 

We pass the lock and move onto the Trent one last time. The Cut here is very narrow and crosses the floodplain through wetlands. The towpath steps across the marshes on long elegant footbridges. The main river course is very short but is met on a tight bend with narrows immediately east. We see an approaching boat and hold well back to let them through. It's easy for us to stand absolutely still in the slight current and much more tricky for them. We exchange pleasantries as they swoosh past.

Alrewas Lock is lovely and we moor up in the village to explore. One passing boat had recommended the village butcher and so we bought the necessaries for a full English. I could have stayed all day; indeed, I could retire here - this is England at its best. There's even a canalside thatched cottage for sale. Tempting.

But we head on. Shortly afterwards we come across another set of pompous boaters. We are struggling with the wind and the shallows on the towpath side. The wind is pulling the bow across to the left and it is tricky keeping hard right. An oncoming boat has kindly left the gates of Common Lock open for us, but is bearing down on us. I am sure he will recognise that the conditions are tricky. I have decided that the easiest way to do this is to wait until fairly late and then take a dive for the bank, as staying to the right is not working. But no, he starts imperiously waving me to the right: easy for him, the wind is pushing him right anyway. I am concentrating far too hard on getting past him safely to catch the name of the boat, but rest assured I would name it if I could, you arrogant, pompous ****. It was a green 45-60' boat, new-ish trad. I am furious with the muttered  passing comments from the git on the tiller and his equally stone-faced mutt of a companion.

But to add insult to injury, I suspect that their helpfulness in leaving Common Lock set for us is as much to do with the fact that there are two extremely aggressive male swans there. They are in a worse mood than I am, and are hissing at us. This is going to be tricky, and I am at eye level with one of them as I come in to the lock. T is up front and stays on the boat as the other swan guards the upper gate. We wait on the boat but it's a stalemate. I get off, shouting, hissing myself and waving two windlasses. We manage to push one back into the water and prepare the lock as fast as we can. Even while the lock is filling, they encroach again.

Kids from an approaching boat are running towards the lock and we have to shout warnings to the parents. They are as alarmed as we are at the swans behaviour and usher their kids back on board.  Eventually in a huge display of outstretched wings, the two of them fight and both move up the canal a bit allowing us to depart and the other boat to get into the lock. The swans stay either side of us - on in front and one behind - all the way up to Keepers Lock.

Although now the day after the Bank Holiday, the sunshine and warmth has brought out substantial crowds again. A couple have patiently waited for us to come up Hunts and Keepers and so T is ordered to stay behind and lock them down. he's actually really enjoys setting the locks and does it quickly and - now - with a smile. 

We take on water and dispose of the Clarkson at the Fradley facilities. It's times like this when I am most graceful for the low pulling power of North Star's 1.5l engine, as we have great low speed control. Given there are just inches to spare between moored boats, we can silently slide through without spilling anyone's G&Ts!

Despite the lure of the Swan (ironically), we pass through the junction and head on up the T&M towards King's Bromley. We need to get to the marina at King's Bromley as we have a long journey home tonight and then I'm on a plane tomorrow for China. No room for doing anything other than motor on.

We turn in at the marina, and once again the wind pulls us all over the place. Over those years of hiring boats, I never remember having so much difficulty with the wind, but then maybe I wasn't manouevering in marinas so much.


7.1 miles, 10 locks


Monday, 25 May 2009

Ragley to Barton Turn

An early start but yet another crowd at Stenson Lock; they get up early to watch the boats in these parts. Stenson is a nice little place: popular marina and nice cafe. 

Somewhere nearby is where Tom and Sonia Rolt's Cressy cruise came to a premature end on the outbreak of war in 1939. Don't know exactly where.

We approach Willington and its staggeringly huge new marina. Ironically, the half mile approach is particularly narrow with overhnaging trees encroaching on the line of sight. There is a steady stream of boats coming the other way, as well. Suddenly a large black dog leaps into the Cut by the footbridge and we can't see where it has gone. We are forced to idle the engine, as is an oncoming boat; the trees prevent us from seeing where the dog has gone. It's owner crosses the footbridge, totally oblivious to the chaos his witless behaviour has caused. Although we are closer, we wave the oncoming boat on as we just can't see the damn dog. They tell us the dog is out of the water, and we set off. Dog and owner are heading for the marina, it seems. oat owners, perhaps? 

We arrive at Willington, with pleasant online moorings in the centre of the village. We moor up in a space being reserved for a 70' boat heading the other way. The Canadian chap is remarkably relaxed and we promise to move on and out when they arrive. All smiles and courtesy; wish it was all as friendly as this.

Again, a lack of time to explore is frustrating: wanted to see the bridge over the Trent but no time. I'm getting grumpy because this is not how I wanted it to be. I see the boat as much as a way to see England as an end in its own right. However, we quickly decide to have lunch by Willington Gravel Pits - maybe those rare Whiskered Terns are still around. They are not.

In the afternoon, we start crossing the wide and shalow valley of the Dove, a far cry from its deep craggy landscape further north. Burton approaches beyond, but the town mostly faces away from the Cut. Even so, the Trent & Mersey seems to be respected by the town.

Horninglow Basin is one of those places you just know about, without knowing why. It is a huge disappointment though, and is just a basin overlooked by the dual-carriageway and a couple of permanent moorings. It's the last winding point for broad beam boats, as the locks are narrow from here on.

Dallow Lock, half a mile on, is the first of the smaller locks, and with it's small rise is particualrly easy. Small boys play mischievously in the arch alongside the canal. These are not the threatening, evil, brroding monsters you see occasionally, but cheeky kids up to no good but in the time-honoured tradition of small boys down the ages.

We pass Shobnall Fields and approach Shobnall basin, long the home of Jannel Cruisers - but I think now another company. I need a map and so we moor up to use the chandlery. The lights are on so I enter and start browsing the maps and books. "We're closed" a voice booms across loudly from the counter, and I turn to see a stern-faced man indicating the door. What, am I supposed to guess from the lights, the open door and no 'Closed' sign that you are closed? I am tempted to get the map - I can see it - but decide that I'll take my trade elsewhere. It still amazes me that you can get this kind of unwelcoming attitude. On the other hand, good to see a business doing so well that they can turn trade away to the competition. 

We push on, passing the old breweries and out into the open countryside beyond. It's actually very attractive despite the huge sheds, presumably bonded warehouses. Just to the south is Branston, home of Branston Pickle but someone told me it's made in Cincinatti or somewhere now. Maybe it wasn't Cincinatti, but I don't think it comes from Branston now. Just up the road is the Marmite factory. The kids look impassively back at Burton: they hate marmite and aren't fussed on pickle either. 

We have decided on Barton Turn for mooring, having heard good things about the Barton Turns pub. There are visitor moorings, but two boats have moored in a spectacularly impressive strategic position and we can't get in behind, between or in front of them. It's really frustrating and we think about what to do. The options aren't easy: the A38 runs alongside the canal and only for a few hundred metres is there peace and quiet and shelter from the noise. As it is late and we intend leaving early and there are two water points, we decide to moor obstructing the water point, ready to move the boat if anyone requests.

After a good meal at the pub, we return to find a hire boat has moored in front of us, now effectively blocking the second water point. We hadn't counted on this development and reconsider our plan. But it is late now and there isn't much choice. I'm not having anyone using the lock in darkness and then mooring in an even darker environment above; we'll have to stay put.

The following morning, we can't get away as quickly as we would like and a boat arrives. despite our immediate departure as he approaches, not delaying him one second, he is clearly having a go at both us and the hire boat. I'm really tempted to get off at the lock and go back and have a go at him, but Helen suggests otherwise. I watch as he remonstrates with the hire boat family. It's all so unnecessary but there's this whole sector of the waterways community who are just so unpleasant these days: they see the slightest infraction or perceived discourtesy and blow it out of proportion.


12.8 miles, 5 locks

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Sawley to Ragley

An early start after a long traipse with the cassette. Reminds me of that Top Gear episode with the caravans where Jeremy Clarkson empties a cassette and asks why anyone would want to go on holiday and empty turds out.

Thw wind always seems to whip under the M1 bridge and the gravel pits beyond. As always I am happy to get into the Trent & Mersey entrance where everyone can relax.

Always somany nice boats at the marina at Shardlow. We tie up to have a walk through the village but then start up for Burton. I have no idea where we are heading, but we need to get a mooring somewhere on the T&M or Coventry for a few weeks until we can get further south.

Aston lock is easier than it was a few weeks back, but we warn an approaching boat that it may be difficult. We get into fresh territory beyond Bridge 11 and enjoy the middle Trent Valley. There aren't as many pubs as we would like.

Swarkestone approaches. As a few weeks ago, I'd really liked to have explored the old arm leading down to the Trent and the old locks on the Trent itslef at King's Mill, but we needed to keep moving. Walking the old Derby Canal would also be an idea. Oh well. Another time.

We are being watched by a fair Bank Holiday weekend crowd at the lockside, which we all hate. not only do we get asked stupid questions constantly, but idiots swarm over the gates and paddle gear and then get ratty when politely asked to move. The situation isn't helped by my stupidity in not lifting the fenders and we jam between the gate and our lock companion. Much throttle frees us and we slide in smoothly. Tom's windlass slips and the paddle drops with a huge clatter of spinning gears; at least the crowd scatters. It used to be so time-consuming getting the kids through the locks, but now Tom is an old hand and can manage all problems with ease and that scowling teenage nonchalance that keeps idiots at bay. Who wants to engage a sulky 16 year old with pleasantries about whether you can "cross the Channel in your barge?"

We also come across Mark, a mysterious man who has just bought a small boat with a wonderful old Lister engine.  He steers and acts with great exaggerated flourishes. 

A need to allow GCSE revision requires an early finish and we moor up at the Ragley Boat Stop at 4pm, as does our new-found friend Mark. Everyone takes to him, including a lot of the families in the pub garden. He is constantly showing people over his new pride and joy. While he is proud as punch over his engine, I am increasingly concerned about our BMC 1.5. It's clearly not firing properly and even though it's been serviced, the load over the last few days shows that all is not well. I have already spoken to a man from Calcutt Boats, BMC specialists, about a proper assessment in a few weeks. Hope it lasts that long, to be honest. 

Helen and I enjoy a few beers - although the Pedigree isn't great - while the children do their own thing onboard; revision presumably. We eat at the Boat Stop that night, a prerequisite for a free overnight mooring. The food is OK but not great.


9.3 miles, 5 locks

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Nottingham to Sawley

A late start: it always will be if we are having to trudge up the M11, the A14 and the M1 to get to the boat.

We settle up with Nottingham Castle Marina and set sail, once again messing up the exit to the west. The wind carries the boat across the Cut. I hadn't even noticed the damn wind!

We make a last trip down the Beeston Cut and up about 4" at Beeston Lock. The Trent seemed very slow as we motored on up towards Cranfleet. I always dread running aground at the entrance to the Cut there. Waited on some plastic boats to lock up, while a big white cruiser did wheelies up and down the river. Well you know what I mean.

We continued on to Sawley. I was miffed because I wanted to go on to Shardlow. Any of the pubs there beat the Plank & Leggit hands down.

Leaving Nottingham

Need to move North Star south. It's just too far to get up for the weekends, even though there's a lot to see in the area.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

North Star to move south or southwest?

It's difficult to know where to move North Star. Although there is a lot of interest around Nottingham, the rivers in the area need a bit more experience and careful planning, so we want to move her onto the canal network proper. We are also keen to use her more frequently and Nottingham is just beyond a comfortable haul on a Friday evening.

So we're thinking. Somewhere along the Trent & Mersey? Maybe around the BCN? No logical places. We keep thinking of the Welford and Crick areas as that is close to the 'top end' of the A14....well we see it as the top end of a square formed by the M11, A14 and M1.

It's tempting to bring her down to the London area: the big voyage - Nottingham to Stortford is really appealling but then what? Hmmmmm.

Canal guidebooks

An interesting recent post on CWDF...."Pearsons or Nicholsons guides?"...asking which of the two main canal guidebooks the forum users prefer to use. I wasn't surprised that Nicholson's were preferred but was by the margin: only one or two preferred the Pearson's guides.

I responded that I always use both because they have different styles and content, but generally use a wide variety of additional local guidebooks, pub guides and specialis guidebooks.

A while back there was a canal bibliography published - I noticed a year ago how dated that had become.

I find both the Pearsons and Nicholsons guides very frustrating, but then perhaps I am looking for much more detail than the average user wants.

Maybe this can be Plan B.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

BCN Marathon Challenge

Looks like I might have got myself a berth on a boat doing the BCN Marathon at the end of the month.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Water World

Some group in London is one of 24 promised money to "chart the history of the Regent's Canal" for the Mayor of London's Story of London Festival later this year. Unfortunately, the Evening Standard ("We're sorry we're so useless") manages to print a photo and caption but not a single additional word on the entire page. It really is a dire newspaper and no wonder the freesheets are wiping the floor with them. What has London done to deserve such a miserably poor newspaper?

From Camden to Scotland

With plenty of lochs [sic] on the way.

Yes. If ever proof was needed that journalists are generally clueless, this weird article about Camden provides just that. It states blandly that the canal goes from Camden all the way to Scotland.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

BCN Marathon Challenge 2009

I really want to take part in the BCN Marathon Challenge at the end of this month. I had hoped to get North Star to Birmingham for it, but there's no chance of that now. I've been in China and S.E. Asia much of the last month and so she remains in Nottingham.

I'm going to have to beg, steal or borrow a berth on another boat. I'm so disappointed.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

London Canal Cavalcade 2009

This year's Canal Cavalcade was much better than last year's. It's still an incredibly cliquey event, with two distinct groups: those inside and the general public. It is fun though and in the warm May sunshine and a few beers it's also soporific by the time you get to 6 o'clock. I'm still so jet-lagged after a marathon 30 hour journey back from rural Vietnam on Wednesday.

I couldn't find the Lee & Stort IWA Group - they were doing their human fruit machine bit but I missed it.

The stands along the south bank of the canal are as cramped as ever and I am amazed no-one ends up in the water. There is much better use of the stretch past the bridge on the Paddington Arm this year.