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.