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.