Sunday, 11 July 2010

Back to Burnham

A restful night and proof that a Stag is indeed a comfortable boat! We are up for a 7.30 departure out into the Orwell where we head out into a southerly, stronger than yesterday afternoon. This is not going to be so pleasant.
We motor down the Orwell. Some are steadfastly tacking there way out to sea; others like us are more lazy and have the diesel engaged. As we leave the protection of the Harwich Shelf, we feel the full force of the wind and the short, typical North Sea chop. Under power, the Stag cuts cleanly through it. Alan cooks up a fried breakfast and we then put up the sails with a single reef and beat past Walton and Frinton. We are too close to the wind, so tack in towards Walton. It's slow going, and we are one of a handful of boats on the same track.
I sit low down on both tacks and face the stern; I get queasy - surprisingly - and decide to lie down for a while. Both Alan and Ray are sceptical, suggesting that it will only get worse as the only usable berth (it has to be on the port side because we are on a long starboard tack and heeled over) is up in the forecabin and so particularly prone to the choppy sea. But I am tired and know I will feel better. Sure enough, I emerge an hour later, into the bright sunshine and the fresh breeze, feeling 1000% better.
We have, in the meantime, crossed the sands and are approaching the Crouch estuary. Fishing boats are out in the freshness, men relaxing over a small forest of rods. We skim close and raise a few frowns, then start the short tacks up the estuary. We join a procession of yachts punching the tide and tacking quickly and sharply between the high seawalls. In places, the seawall has been deliberately broached to create wetlands inland.
We cross carefully through a fleet of 707s racing into the Roach, before crusing slowly along the Burnham front to pick up the mooring.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Northeast to Levington

I couldn't pass up an opportunity to join a trip on a Stag 28 up from Burnham to Levington. I don't know the owner but have been in touch by e-mail. He needs crew; I need a boat.
We meet at the cafe behind Prior's boatyard at Burnham-on-Crouch, where I sit nursing a latte in the burning sun. They do a 'Full Monty' breakfast and I do wish I had the time for it: eggs, bacon, sausages, the works.
But we are soon striding purposefully down the pontoon moorings to where Malcolm, the ferrryman, is waiting in the launch. The three of us - Alan, Ray and I - are quickly whisked out to the boat, where we ready her for departure.

The Stag 28 is a well-known, well built boat from the 1980s. It is renowned for being sturdy and quick, but there was only a short production run. Like other consumers, sailors will buy what is cheapest and so the Peter Milne-designed and Emsworth-built vessels didn't sell well. They always get favourable reviews though.

With the tide still flooding for an hour, but with a good southerly abeam, we set off quickly down the Crouch. We are but one of a flotilla of boats heading out; the tides of the Thames estuary are dteremined and good timing is important for getting anywhere. Alan has been sailing here for 50 years and knows the ins and outs of the river, the tides and the swatchways. I, on the otherhand, need to double-check everything. These days, an iPhone subscription is pretty much all it takes to get all you need.

We zip along purposefully, aiming at the mass of wind turbines on Gunfleet Sands. There are around 40 here, but the London Array, further out, will bring 400 of the beasts into the Thames Estuary.
We are headed for the Swin Spitway where we turn through 90 degrees and head for the Wallet, the next channel in. There are several channels across the shallows, but this is the easiest.
We shortly turn again and speed along past Clacton, Frinton and Walton.

All too soon we see the cranes at Felixstowe and decide to carry on awhile. We cross the deepwater channel - not at 90 degrees as recommended, but there isn't a single commercial chip in sight - and head for the Deben Estuary. As we see the Martello Towers on the shoreline, we turn through 180 degrees and beat back to the deepwater channel. We cross it and turn in to follow the yacht track in.

Harwich and Felixstowe are both quiet but there is a nice procession of small yachts heading up the Orwell. We listen in to an emergency as a small boat, the Estelle, puts out a Mayday; they have water coming in to the boat. A golden rule of sailing is that water must remain primarily outside the boat. The Harwich lifeboat is launched, but heads inland as the Estelle is off Wrabness, up the Stour Estuary.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

To new moorings

We have other business at hand today, involving much running around the northern half of Northamptonshire during the day. We set off from by the long-closed New Inn on the Kilsby Road and make our way around the eastern outskirts of Rugby. For the third time in as many weeks, we skirt the bristles of the aerial farm.

Approaching Hillmorton Locks, we see a boat coming out of the top lock and slow to allow him to pass; he takes the cross-current nicely in his stride and this allows me to slip into the northern lock without stopping. We lock down through the flight, again bemoaning the inoperability of the old cross-filling mechanism. This allowed half of the water of every lock to be saved by first filling the empty adjacent lock before spilling the rest into the pound below. The mechanism still seems to be there but BW no longer trust anyone to use it.

Hilmorton is full of hire boats today: most friendly and cheerful, several - sadly - were foolish and irritable. We relax and let them cluck around helplessly. Glad it's not our boat they are bashing around.

Rugby appears, hovers around the southern horizon through the gaps in the trees and then we are in Newbold Tunnel again, enjoying the son-et-lumiere show. Our BMC is providing the "son" and Warwickshire ratepayers have stumped up for the "lumiere".

Just a mile or so down the Cut and we are turning in to Lime Farm, where John and Sarah are tying up their returning dayboat. It's a very pleasant surprise to see Andy and Diane's boats at the head of the arm.

6.1 miles, 3 locks

Apologies to NB Longsdon

Late afternoon, Sunday 13th June and we slow down at the bridge just east of Newbold Tunnel to pick up H and the dog - Sadie.
Sadie is a rather elderly Springer Spaniel and a bit fragile: she's not particularly keen on boating, sadly, and it requires a stationary boat close by the bank so she can be lifted aboard.

We have a boat, Longsdon, 50m behind us and as we approach the bridge, I signal to them that we are stopping. They wave in response that they have seen, and I turn forward to concentrate on stopping North Star. We pick up them up and set off again, and as I open up the throttle, I turn to thank Longsdon behind us. To my consternation, they have misinterpreted my signal and believe that there is a boat approaching from the tunnel towards the narrow bridgehole: they are reversing and preparing to be passed in a very narrow channel, with boats moored along the towpath for a long distance. I feel rotten, having misled them.

I hope that they catch us up before we get to Lime Farm so I can apologise but they don't. I note they have a blog, but no e-mail address. I hope this apology reaches them! They were very good to immediately take avoiding action and I am sorry my poor signal misled them.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Once more up the North Oxford

The refit is complete. In fact, there is still work to do, but it is beyond the original agreement and Wharf House have won orders at Crick. We need to move on and out and either get the work done next winter or find someone else to do it during the summer. It's little things and we can probably do some of it, but time is really limited this year.
M has GCSEs coming up, so refuses to sail this weekend, so there's just the three of us head up the M11 and A14 again for Braunston, returning kit that had been removed from North Star back in November.
We are happy campers as we take possession and execute a somewhat messy turn, winding among the moored UCC boats and residential boats. We don't touch anything, but there's plenty of blue smoke and water sprayed around.

We enjoy the stretch up from Braunston towards Barby: we never tire of the canals in this area.

As on previous weekends, numerous boats are happy to moor up to enjoy the evening in peace: it's a pleasant landscape with a nice stretch of hedgerow alongside the towpath. We keep going with a view to mooring at Hillmorton and eating at Badsey's, but with the England-USA game starting soon, we moor by the old New Inn short of Hillmorton Wharf and walk to the Royal Oak. I really can't stand these cookie-cutter suburbopubs with their plastic menus. They have no real ale - and I seem to remember they were out last time as well. Every door and open window has people smoking in it. The food is edible, but these plastic pubs are fairly dire.

6.8 miles

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Stretton Stop to Braunston

The proximity of the railway line worries us but once again, we are impressed at the quietness of modern trains, and they barely disturb us all night.
In the morning, Kate Boats kindly send up a mechanic with a crowbar and spanners to help adjust the alternator. Almost immediately, he is cursing the BMC for having non-standard bolts and he disappears to get the right spanner. All is fixed quickly and they refuse payment - so I stick a few notes in the Air Ambulance tin in the shop. Kind people.

However, on departure, the arrival of boats in both directions causes chaos as there is barely the space to pass. We end up waiting for more than half an hour as three boats in succession arrive from the south and steam on through the narrow gap, seemingly ignoring the five boats patiently waiting an opportunity to start again. There's more than a little muttering and grumbling from us and the boats around us.

It seems a long day as we have to reach Braunston, and we need to motor quicker than we like. We are not a quick boat at the best of times, and any kind of deadline makes for stressful sailing: plenty of concentration needed and long stretches of tickover through Barby.
Late on, the sun dips slowly and majestically, creating a warm, golden summer evening. The wise moor up south of Barby and enjoy the warmth with a drink and a barbecue. We grit our teeth and press on.
We arrive back at Braunston hours late, and with no mooring.
16.1 miles, 3 locks

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Stop to Stop: Sutton to Stretton

We are woken in the night by an odd, repetitive noise. It turns out to be a haggard man, propelling his boat and a second boat under tow, simply by waggling the tiller. He apologises for disturbing us and disappears into the gloom.
In the morning, rain has freshened the shrubs and trees all around; a constant hum from the mass of overhead cables is testimony to the continuing damp in the air.
Just an hour after setting off, smoke pours from the engine-room and we grind to a halt. It would appear that the alternator belt is on its last legs - and, stupidly, we don't have a spare. However, given that we have only put 20 hours on the clock since a new alternator and belt was fitted by Calcutt Boats, we didn't really expect to need one at this point!
North Star limps another few miles before the belt finally parts by Bridge 11. Calcutt sends a new belt by taxi and two hours later we stand in the engine room - looking at the wrong belt! They have sent the wrong one. Another even more tense call ensues and another belt is dispatched.
We have lost much of the day - from around 10am to 4pm - and our engineering contingent need to head up to Yorkshire. We are grateful to Brookfield Farm at Ansty who allow us to use their lane to park a car and load the departing party.
We decide to break for dinner at the Rose & Crown at Ansty, who no longer have visitor moorings - clearly for Health & Safety reasons. We moor up beyond the bridge and head up the lane to the pub. It is one of those pubs that is now 99% restaurant with a single table left for those who just wish to drink. However, there is a good range of decent drinks and an extensive menu.

Afterwards, we get under way again, to see a gorgeous sunset behind us. We make it to Stretton Stop, but remain a little concerned about the tightness of the belt. It seems too loose and we haven't brought all the tools back to the boat.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Back to Sutton Stop

We leave Coventry Basin rather sadly. We have enjoyed our day in the city and know there is a lot more to see, but we do need to head back to Braunston.

We have only a short hop this afternoon, back to Hawkesbury Junction, where we will make another attempt to sample The Greyhound's legendary meat pies.

An interesting art trail has been created along more than 5 miles of the Coventry Canal, placing charmingly surreal sculpture that really brightens up the now rather run-down urban surroundings. The art adds to the increasingly eclectic architecture of canalside residential developments - although most of these still see the canal as an entity to be put firmly behind fences, barriers and the truly hated 'No Mooring' signs. (Funny that moored boats are always, but always, a feature of the developers' publicity brochures!)

Sadly, some of the art has been obliterated by the work of vandals' graffiti.

Equally sad is the disappearance of Coventry's industry: no more Courtalds, no more Rover (?), no factories at all. Big expanses of crushed brick, the occasional remnant wall and a few chimneys are all that remain of Coventry's canalside industry. To my surprise (because I don't like Jimmy Hill, I suppose) I have rather taken to Coventry.

The Greyhound lives up to its reputation with an excellent range of real ales and great pies.


5.1 miles, 1 lock

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Sent to Coventry

We have spent a small fortune on creating our six-berth boat from the original two-berth boat we bought. Not even all that small, in fact. So I am sitting on the roof with a cup of coffee wondering why we have crammed seven people in for the maiden voyage. Moving around the boat now requires choreography. It's easier being on the roof with a cup of coffee. While the water tank fills from the tap.

The water point at Hillmorton is slow beyond all possible description of the word. You have this sense of clouds passing, along with entire weather systems and Ice Ages. While the water dribbles out of the hose, I watch as new tropical seas cover the Midlands, dry out and become new coal seams. A man walking a dog passes several times. The dog looks visibly older.

We set off for Rugby, a comparatively modern town which hasn't been "ignored" by the canal as some guidebooks suggest. The town simply didn't exist when the canal was dug out of the sandstone and clay and, instead, the canal linked together the towns of the day - Hillmorton, Brownsover and Newbold-upon-Avon. Today, the Oxford Canal cuts a swathe across embankments and through cuttings; originally, the canal meandered up the Avon and Swift valleys some distance. Close examination of the maps suggests that considerable stretches remain in water, although not particularly accessible.

We chug slowly through Newbold Tunnel and on out into the streaming rays of dusty sunshine. Almost every bridge reveals an old cut off arm some with moored boats, some just guarded by long reeds and overhanging boughs. Who would have thought such sylvan delights lie between Rugby and Coventry?

We wind our way round the bends at Hungerfield and into All Oaks Wood, after which is a particularly popular mooring stretch. Beyond we plunge headlong into the south-westerly winds at Grimes Bridge; if this was at sea, we would heel over and pick up speed dramtically. On the North Oxford we concentrate on keeping the boat off the moored boats.

We track the West Coast main line towards Ansty, feeling rather insignificant as the big Virgin trains flash past above us. The cutting shelters us from the wind and set our sights on Sutton Stop for the evening. Despite the wind, Bill and T bring North Star round the tricky junction perfectly but we have to moor up at the far end of a line of boats, rather too close to where cars park by the bridge. A small hatchback is already sitting there with windows throbbing in tune with the sub-woofer.

We wander back to The Greyhound, only to find that they have stopped serving food. We need to press on towards Coventry as we have little food on board. We look to moor by the Longford Engine pub but are put off by fairly dodgy activity on the tow-path. Instead we search out fish and chips - successfully - before slipping the lines in search of central Coventry.

The light is fading, and we are a little alarmed by a lad warning us of stone-throwing ahead. However, we don't see a soul as we putter through the suburbs of Coventry, a city none of us have visited before.

It is really getting dark and the shadows of old factory walls and wasteland trees spread over us. We are suddenly brought to an ignominious gliding halt as something stops the prop dead. Quick thinking in the bow gets a line ashore, but I have to spend an hour in extreme discomfort unravelling what feels like a complete keepnet from the prop. I need two knives and am cursing anglers by the time we are free.

Just twenty minutes later, shortly before 10pm and we inch quietly through Bridge 1 and into the terminal basin, a place that is very atmospheric but clearly lacking in real usage. It's a picturesque finish to today's journey, but we had expected it to be teeming with boats: there are just three of us for the night and one resident boat adrift by the bridge.

20.3 miles, 1 lock

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Onto the North Oxford

We have had difficulty choosing our route for this commissioning voyage. The Crick Show means it will just be too busy to get to Yelvertoft and Welford, our preferred choice. I am keen to go back up the Grand Union, but a discussion with the crew suggests the North Oxford is preferred.
It has been raining all morning, and we are all rather anxious as we leave Wharf House, slipping out among the UCC hire-boats. They are now too busy to fuel us up, so we head for Braunston Boats a little reluctantly: they had been extremely rude to us last year, and they never responded to my polite e-mail complaint. We motored down the half-mile, light rain forming a million glittering ripples on the brown water.
Coughlan himself serves me and is pleasant and helpful. I wonder about mentioning my irritation with our reception before, but decide against it. We joke about the damn diesel declaration and I go on my way.
Our departure is spoilt by the impatience of an arriving boat being so pushy, turning in before we have completed our reversing out. We are forced back onto the far bank, and mutter darkly about our continued bad luck with any link to Braunston Marina. It also distracts us from having a better look at the land currently up for sale in the village. The house two along from the Braunston hotel is on the market (as is the hotel itself) and has land that stretches right down to the canal. It has about 100' of canal frontage, but much of it is right opposite the marina entrance and the narrow stretch opposite the toll office.

We turn north and pass familiar fields of rich green, deeply furrowed by hundreds of years of ploughing. We see the house at Willoughby Wharf that is still for sale, then the big barn conversion at the end of the cutting. Why do we know the location of all the houses for sale?

We wait a while at the start of Barby straight for the in-laws to head off for church, and then motor on with the sun dipping into the clouds to our left. A gang are clearing out the lovely old buildings clustered just south of Rugby: men stand by a flatbed truck and watch us pass.

The tall masts loom up ahead, and we pass under the railway arches, turning west for Hilmorton and Badsey's, where we head after mooring below the locks. Pints of Church End's Vicar's Ruin are downed quickly. Followed by pies. Yes, we are back on the Cut!

7.9 miles, 3 locks

Friday, 28 May 2010

North Star returns

At last, North Star is back with us. After six months, the boat is ready for us again. The first few months she was at Calcutt Boats where a lot of electrical and engine work was completed, then Phill Abbott and Wharf House Narrowboats took her to pieces to create a 6 berth boat.

What started as modification has become a complete refit: only the engine room remains untouched by Phill. The cross-bed has become a lengthways bed with fitted wardrobes. The bathroom with a cross-bath and lousy shower and a Thetford is now a smaller, neater affair with a shower cabin and a proper toilet and pump-out system. The massive, largely unused, kitchen is now shorter, fresher and there is now a dinette/double berth. The old stove has been replaced by a smaller one and up front are two single berths doubling up as bench sofas. Three new windows replace two small portholes to add light at the front end.

I am a little sad at the loss of the portholes. Although of doubtful historical validity, I love the tug look and even now I look lovingly at tugs moored up (and there's one advertised on ABNB this week).

After arriving at Braunston, T and I head for the Admiral Nelson for dinner. I feel I should like this place more as it has such a history but I always feel there's not enough range of ales and the food is good - but nothing special. I like it, but want to like it more.

The mattress has not been delivered so we have to both use the single berths up front.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Cafe Leopold

I have been in to Cafe Leopold on Colaba Causeway in Bombay a few times this last week, and also the Taj Mahal hotel, just around the corner. I am sure most people usually refer to these the other way around.
The scars are still there - physical and psychological - 18 months later. I am impressed with the spirit of the staff there, with one waiter complementing me on my boots. In fact, the second time I went in, he introduced me to one of his colleagues as "the guy with cool boots". Possibly only in India is friendship ever so warm and so instantaneous.

On arrival at one place, I asked the taxi fare and immediately said "150?" as it had been 150 Rupees earlier in the day in another taxi.
"No, sir," came the smiling reply. "It's only 75. Only a fool would pay 150 Rupees."

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The worst and the best of England today

After driving more than an hour to see the Landguard Fort in Felixstowe, I arrived at 4.02, just two minutes after "last tickets issued" and 58 minutes before it actually closes. I asked at the ticket office if I could come in as I had been a little delayed by traffic on the A14 and had come a long way.

The staff member by the ticket office was brusque and unhelpful. "Can't you read the sign?" he asked bluntly, pointing at the sign saying The Fort is Closed.

I explained again that I had come a long way and it was just two minutes after the 'last tickets' time.

"No. It's against the insurance. You can read the hours on the sign outside." He pointed me out then, as if to prove the point, slammed the big heavy doors closed behind me.

How do these unfriendly, unhelpful people hold down a job in the tourism/heritage industry? I donate money every year to English Heritage but I have noticed time and time again that there is a huge difference between them and staff at, for example, the National Trust. I occasionally come across rude and unhelpful staff at the former; never at the latter. I would have let it lie had it not been for his brusque and unsympathetic approach. If there really was a genuine reason he couldn't let me in less than an hour before it closes (and Tilbury Fort let me in within the last hour last year), there were a thousand ways he could have done it better.

On the drive back, I listened in to Colin Berry on BBC Suffolk. I am sure that his programme is the kind of radio show I mocked when I was younger. But Colin Berry, who I remember from occasional BFBS programmes, plays an incredible range of music from the 1960s and 1970s. It's not just the top hits from those years, but the lesser-known songs. He fills the intervening gaps with a variety of wonderful anecdotes. It's not particularly surprising that his show runs on no less than five BBC local stations across East Anglia. Colin Berry is the kind of anachronistic, enigmatic character that ranks up there among the "Best of England" for me.

Isn't it typical that within a couple of hours I can come across the worst and then the best of England?

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Night passage to Ipswich

The motley crew of Stratos 6 sits and munches sandwiches in the twilight. The wind has died away completely and it looks as if our night passage will need to be under power rather than sail. We are not allowed to set off until the Wrabness Point north cardinal starts flashing. We watch silently as men quietly dig in the mud away to the east of us. Presumably he's after bait.
To the north, we speculate which building is Griff Rhys-Jones' house and which is the Hospital School. Not an easy guess.
To the west, low cloud, brightly lit over a mirror-like Stour at Mistley.

"it's lit" someone says, and immediately we finish off our coffees and teas and turn to the task if getting under way. We slip the mooring just as the tide starts to turn and we depart on the first fo the flood towards the floodlights and noise of Parkeston Quay.
We look ahead for the next buoy and plot our course carefully, solemnly ticking off each waypoint.
The orange and brilliant white lights are passed slowly as is the hulk of Radio Caroline, and we are approaching Shotley Point. A massive, floodlit dredger is also on the move and we are hopeful he has seen us. We cannot turn past Shotley Horse because of our draught and need to keep close to the main channel, which is now being excavated in a flurry of pumps, pistons and sprays. Up close, it's a real mechanical monster.

We are able to turn - at last - and scoot away from the big ships and find the quiet of the Orwell much more relaxing. We quickly pass the home base of Levington and continue up river towards Pin Mill. We are surprised by the number of craft out at night, but hope to avoid any departing commercial vessels as the channel narrows dramatically below the Orwell bridge.

A few missed buoys cause some concern, but soon enough we are under the great concrete bridge and approaching the old port of Ipswich. Ahead we see the lock and a quick call is all it needs for the gates to open and allow us in to the inner harbour.
Another successful exercise completed. We hope to celebrate, but Ipswich seems to close early so we settle for a beer or two onboard.

The blind leading the blind

We leave Titchmarsh Marina with the last of the flood, but Peter's task today is to navigate us blind, down from the Marina to Pye End. He is sat at the chart table and is allowed only charts - no GPS - and the curtains are pulled tightly closed so he is relying on us. We are only allowed to "see" 50 meters ahead from the topsides.
All is very tense as there is a very real risk of going aground - albeit on mud and with still a few inches of flood tide - but Peter is an experienced sailor and feedsback precise instructions as we return observations on what we see from the top.
It is relatively easy to navigate down the narrower channel, because the echo-sounder can be used to judge the channel but out in the bay we are more exposed and the channel is less distinctive and more shallow!

Peter guides us admirably to within 10 metres of the Pye End buoy and we are all impressed.

For the rest of the day, we practice a variety of manouevres around the bay, but also watch with some amusement as a brand new Oyster yacht twists a spinnaker badly and ends up with what - from a distance - appears to be a huge red bra. Large numbers of staff wrestle with a snuffer and the spinnaker itself while we tut-tut in disapproval.

We spend several hours repeatedly rescuing our danbuoy, enjoying the warm sunshine. All too soon we head in to join the ferries and dredgers and trawlers and container ships in Harwich harbour and pass them to moor up off Wrabness Point. Tonight will be our test night passage, from Wrabness to Ipswich. Keith and I will be making the pilotage plan and in charge of the voyage.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

To the Secret Water

It's our turn today. Keith and I are to skipper Stratos 6 back south again.

I am to take us as far as the Landguard beacon - off the southern tip of Felixstowe - and then Keith will take us up into the Walton Backwaters - Arthur Ransome's Secret Water - to Titchmarsh marina on The Twizzle.

The wind has veered slightly to southerly, requiring long tacks today and it will be a slower journey than yesterday. It makes passage planning tricky because I am not sure what speed we will be making. I estimate a 20% increase in distance and a 10% lower speed. After our first hour, it seems the estimates aren't far out. I want to avoid messy tacking around Sizewell Bank and the Whiting Bank further south, so plot a course out to sea. We head out on 130 degrees then south-west directly towards Sizewell. We pass several inbound vessels and keep a careful listen on the Lowestoft Port Control frequency. They get very wound up by an arriving Dutch vessel who has not waited for permission to enter the harbour. Anger in official situations is characterised by extreme politeness and explanations that would be patronisingly clear to a three-year old. Wonderful to listen in on these Dutch scoundrels being torn to pieces with dripping sarcasm in clipped Oxford English. Further out we see trawlers, some of whom are not using their AIS - very naughty. Further still, tankers lie at anchor and small container ships sail purposefully in towards the Hollesley Channel. Keith uses binoculars to tell us the details of the trawling gear being used. Once a Fisheries Protection Officer, always a Fisheries Protection Officer. Keith is clear rather sad that he cannot now legally board any of them.

My initial concerns about depth under the keel inshore are put in context as we watch a German coastal container ship ploughing through those waters.

We tack back onto 130 degrees and I look set to win a bet that we will hit my artifical waypoint set in the GPS earlier. However, we have tacked a little late and it requires some effort by the helm to sail unnecessarily off route, adding maybe half-an-hour to the journey.

Eight hours into the journey and the wind has backed a little, creating an easier passage to Cutler and then to the Platter Sands. A huge container ship has been looming behind us for a while and it's touch and go as to whether we will make the crossing point before him. We could make it but decide to gybe round to pass behind. If anything happened to us while passing in front, they would have absolutely no time (or depth) to respond, so we err on the side of caution. As the leviathan passes by, its stern is already being dragged to the south by a tug, while a second tug prepares to pull the bow to starboard as it turns past Landguard Point. Just to make it all that much more complex, a smaller container ship is preparing to pass it by the Navyard.

We turn back to cross the deepwater channel and head for the Pye End safe-water beacon, the first and most critical reporting point for the approach to the Walton Backwaters. I hand over to Keith with a sense of immense satisfaction at completing the task.

Keith is a study in earnest concentration as we slowly pick our way across the bay, passing Dovercourt to starboard and lining up the various buoys. We are cutting it fairly fine now and we are monitoring the echosounder and the clock to ensure we have time to cross the bar at the marina. We will be able to moor in The Twizzle but it will not be a comfortable berth overnight and we will not be able to get off the boat until high tide.

The shallowest parts are, surprisingly, way out in the bay, where we see less than a metre under the keel but as we turn into the narrower channels, banks just feet away, the water deepens. The sun, low in the sky to starboard, creates a soft and warm light as we look out over the marshes and estuaries. We twist and turn up the inlet, passing rows of moored boats before finally reaching Titchmarsh Marina. Instructor Keith suggests holding on "just in case" - and we later discover that the low-tide weight of a fuel barge moored in the marina entrance has reduced the depth over the bar more than charted. We drift slowly into the marina with 10 minutes to spare and moor up on a visitor pontoon.

We have made it to the Secret Water.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

North to Lowestoft

We rise early, and I am suffering from the cold. Dan and I am sharing the cramped forecabin and even with the hatch open, the condensation is excessive, covering the walls with drops of water. None of us are keen to use the terribly cramped shower in the heads and so there is a steady procession to the excellent showers.

Another cooked breakfast sets us up for the day and we prepare the boat. I am surprised how quickly we are working as a team and the work is done in just a few minutes. Hatches and latches, engine, exhaust, galley and heads, lines, sails, GPS and charts; course to steer. We are ready to leave. With a quick call to the lock-keeper the lock is being prepared for us.

The weather has turned even better, with the sun shining and a Force 4 southeasterly blowing. We clear the harbour quickly and turn across the deepwater channel at Inner Ridge, and run north. I keep the log - my role today- and enjoy it, working with the charts and the chart-plotter.

As we run the coast, our easiest sail setting suggests going up the inside of the Whiting Bank although we had originally planned to go up outside it. It's often worth compromising in the interests of time and effort.

We watch as we pass the entrance to the Deben and then the Ore, using the time to practice taking bearings and fixes. We are just four kilometres offshore so the various masts and Martello towers are all visible. Helming quickly becomes the least interesting activity, not least because the Jenneau sails steadily and powerfully with very little input. I must admit I prefer the feel of a tiller as there is instant and recognisable feedback from the boat whereas a wheel often needs some thought.

We exchange stories about our lives as we sail northeast, the entrance to the Ore, the Orfordness lighthouse and then the deserted former research buildings all providing plenty of topics from shoals, currents, beaches and World War II conspiracies.

We joke about Aldeburgh, or Chipping-Norton-by-the-Sea as we call it, and its galleries, tea-shoppes and the excellent fish and chips. Where else will people queue for an hour outside a chipshop?

As Aldeburgh slips over the horizon, the boxes and domes of Sizewell appear, so framing our next discussion about nuclear power.

The final approach into Lowestoft is laboured as we need to pick up the East Barnard east cardinal marker then a succession of bouys to keep us off the sands. Lowestoft needs an approach from the northeast and there can be a strong swell across the entrance, especially with wind against tide as it is as we get nearer. We pick up the Newcome Sand buoy but keep well out from the South Holm buoy to get into the Stanford Channel with depth to spare, watching the echosounder. It gets alarmingly shallow - and still Lowestoft is some distance away - then suddenly the depth increases and we turn southwest for the entrance to the harbour.

A rig is being refurbished alongside the entrance, creating the perfect aiming point as the swells try to push us away. We radio in and get permission to enter. Lowestoft is a busy place with an unhealthy mix between yachts and commercial vessels.

We pass the little light white beacons, the swell vanishes and we are in the calm. Seconds later Stratos 6 is turning sharply in to the sheltered inner harbour of the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club.

Monday, 26 April 2010

A night at Shotley

Shotley Marina sits opposite two of Britain's busiest ports - Felixstowe and Harwich. High-intensity sodium lighting casts a ghostly glow over the whole area and a constant hum with the occasional clunk is a reminder of the loading and unloading activity round the clock. Shotley Marina though, manages to feel a little remote from it all.

Shotley is well-known in navy circles as the home of HMS Ganges, a major cadet training centre right up until 1976. From 1899 until 1905, the actual wooden sailing vessel HMS Ganges was moored off Shotley Point, but the establishment moved ashore just six years later.

By coincidence, the father-in-law of Keith - my fellow trainee Day Skipper - was a Captain of HMS Ganges and told us many stories about the place. After HMS Ganges transferred to Cornwall in 1976 it became a Police Training Centre but now lies empty and somewhat forlorn, awaiting some new role.

Shotley sits just hundreds of metres from both Harwich and Felixstowe but is more than 40km by road from the former and 32km from the latter. It takes the best part of an hour to get to Harwich by car.

Despite the glow and the hum, we enjoy our dinner in peace, enjoy a couple of pints in the Marina bar and then sleep soundly.

Up the Orwell then out to Cork Sands and beyond

The morning is spent understanding every square inch of the boat, and especially the safety equipment. Exercises on getting the boat away from the pontoons remind me how much more careful one needs to be with carbonfibre yachts compared to the steel hull of a narrowboat. There also seems to be much more protocol involved with yachts. It really is not done to push off with hands, feet or poles; it's also a lot more dangerous. It becomes clear that understanding and using all kinds of springs and lines is crucial.

Instructor Keith's elegant boat is moored alongside, so a pinpoint manoeuvre is necessary: a bit of propwalk, plenty of propwash and we are sprung away, motoring around the marina and out into the fresh breezes of the Orwell. Peter takes us up river where all four of us practice serious Man Overboard tactics: no beam reaches, tacks and figures-of-eight but simple engine on, sails down, tight turns and Mayday. Going overboard in May in the North Sea is a Mayday affair foremost. If all goes well, you can always cancel the call but the odds are that hypothermia and rapid action by the coastguard and RNLI will be involved. Each of us gets two attempts. Surprisingly all efforts are successful, and Keith seems impressed.

We turn, raise the sails and turn towards Harwich, closehauled with a fresh southeasterly initially on the starboard bow. The boat is a Jenneau Sun Odysssey so sits well and feels solid through the water.

We head out of the main channel as we near Fagbury. Felixstowe has huge ships and we need to stay clear. We approach the Stour but a long shallow spit stretches unfeasibly far across the bay here and we need some quick calculations to decide how close we can sail to Shotley Horse beacon and so cut the corner into the Stour. Our estimates suggest we will be fine, but it is a reminder that we have a deep draught - 2.2 metres - for a yacht regularly using east coast rivers! This boat has a fin keel so no mistakes are tolerated: muck up the calculations and we could lose the boat. A 2.2 metre fin keel doesn't sit on the mud!

We follow the Stour to the ferry terminal at Parkeston Quay and anchor alongside the moorings opposite. One bulky, boxy ship, the Stena Transfer, lies idly by the wharf. Whatever happened to the naming of ships? They used to have attractive names or at least meaningful in some way. Did someone really say "I know, let's call this the Transfer?"

I draw the short straw and prepare lunch. There are very large quantities of tinned food and some fresh vegetables. We have fresh rolls but the filling is a little challenging. We have tuna and eggs but no mayonaise, and tuna salad cream sandwiches doesn't have the same ring to it. We manage with soup though.

A hundred metres away, oystercatchers, common gulls and what looks like sanderlings. Far too late for sanderlings though. The tide is still ebbing so more of the shoreline becomes available to the birds. The south shore is scarred, not by the ferry terminal or the facilities but by the constant use of corrugated sheeting - the bane of modern day aesthetics. The Victorian railway station is attractive but masked by the shabbiness of the boxes and blank sheeting. There's no need for anywhere to look like a badger's arse with a hat on, but they usually do these days.

The wind has backed to eastsoutheast making it a trickier departure from the estuary, but it makes for an interest beat back up past Shotley, across the main channel then out past the Harwich shoals known as The Shelf. We keep the port hand buoys to port, but keep the Shelf east cardinal to starboard, even though the yacht channel is inside it. These are deceptively shallow waters off the Navyard even though we are more than half wasy across the estuary and close to the Felixstowe side. Our turn south allows speed to pick up and we are all scurrying below to put on hats and coats.

We pass Cliff Foot buoy and the North Sea opens up to us: big container ships and a fat, ugly dredger bear down on us from the east. A tug is at the stern of the container ship helping swivel the bow northwards as it turns on the Beach End buoy. Off our starboard bow, the rise of The Naze fringes the horizon and we see the Pye End safe-water mark. A Force 3 suggests a good afternoon sailing and we practice many routines. Peter gets the first go, taking us off to The Well, a well-known 'hole' in an area of otherwise quite shallow water. His test is to get over the deepest part. Several tacks get us very close.

Keith, a former Navy officer with the Fisheries Protection fleet, gets the next challenge and we are heading out towards the Northeast Gunfleet east cardinal buoy and on up to the Rough Tower, a curious offshore former gun emplacement atop two concrete legs and now a private residence. At this point I am to take over and guide us back in to Harwich. It is fairly straightforward, with a direct line for the Cork Sands yacht beacon followed by a run in alongside the deepwater channel port hand markers. The wind dies as we approach Cork Sands and the engine is needed to take us back into the flurry of activity in the harbour.

We lock into Shotley Marina and moor up. It's been a long, hard day but one with exceptional interest for all the senses.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Getting practical - the Day Skipper beckons

The sun sets over the Shotley peninsula as I drive in to the marina at Levington in Suffolk. I'm nervous, not least because I am several hours late. I am the last to arrive aboard Strata 6, a 36' Jenneau Sun Odyssey. I have taken advantage of a cancelled trip to China to take the practical Day Skipper RYA course. No meetings now, so an unusual window of opportunity. East Anglian Sea School have a place available and now I am aboard the boat with fellow students Peter, Keith, Dan and our instructor Keith.

Keith and I are working for our Day Skipper qualification, Peter is a budding Coastal Skipper and Dan is just starting out and looking to earn his Competent Crew badge. It's a good mix, although as the boat has only three cabins and the saloon, I will need to share the forecabin with Dan - and there really is not much space.

The first few hours are spent discussing safety on the boat, especially gas and fire, the two biggest enemies on any boat. We have extinguishers, blankets and alarms on board.

We are all a little awkward with each other: polite but somewhat forced conversation.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Ashes to ashes - a blast from the past

In 1979, I spent part of the summer in the Eyjafjöll district of southern Iceland, on a school expedition. Despite having subsequently lived all around the world, I have always had a soft spot for this quiet, rugged pastoral landscape and the friendly local people.
Within hours of arriving and setting up camp near the village of Skógar on the grassy bank of the river below the majestic Skógafoss waterfall, storm force winds whipping off the Atlantic flattened our tents. The village opened up the community hall for us, where we stayed for a few days until moving on to the Sólheimajökull, a glacier we were to study. Skógar was still the nearest inhabited place and for the durationof our stay, we were back and forth, different groups studying the coastal geomorphology, the glaciers, the local topography, the human geography and - the volcanic heritage of the area.

Skógar, you see, sits in the shadow of one of Europe's most unpredictable and dangerous volcanoes, Katla. And Katla lies grumpy and smouldering in anger below an icecap, Mýrdalsjökull. Three major glaciers stream down from the icecap, one being Sólheimajökull, and all three glaciers have been prone to jökulhlaups - or massive glacial flooding. Until just 40 years ago, it was considered just too dangerous to cross the wide gravelly plains that spread out beyond these glaciers.

With Katla and Mýrdalsjökull to the north-east, locals looked upon the lower, smaller icecap to the north-west as the benign, friendlier, picturesque backdrop to their red-roofed farms and grazing cattle and sheep. This was Eyjafjallajökull, best known for the waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss and Dölufoss and the recently restored Seljavellir swimming pool at the head of the valley. Walking or riding up the Skóga valley, a narrow path leads up to the 1093m high Fimmvörðuháls pass and then down to the Thorsmörk Nature Reserve in the remote but beautiful valleys beyond.

Then, after a swarm of earthquakes under the pass, on March 20th, two volcanic eruptions took place in adjacent gullies, Hrunagil and Hvannárgil, and the world changed for Skógar and the people of the plains below the icecaps. While barely recovering breath from the first eruptions in the pass above their farms, on April 14th, Eyjafjöll woke. The world focused in on the volcano belching out light brown ash, pumping steam and rock out into the atmosphere. The airspace over much of Europe closed down, bringing silence to the skies for the first time in 70 years. Europe slowed down, paralysed, stranded and uncertain. Airliners sat idly at airports, people queued at ports and at railway stations and Europe watched for spectacular sunsets and sunrises. Not content to wait for tourists to come to Iceland, instead Iceland came to Europe.

The people of Skógar are safe for now, with evacuation and contingency plans humming into action quickly, the Icelandic civil defence scurrying around breaching dammed up road embankments, moving people and livestock.

Ash continues to fall locally, burying the bright green mosses and grasses and the black shards and pebbles of earlier eruptions in a cloak of brown-grey powdery ash. A rugged landscape for rugged people becomes a moonscape, waiting for rain to wash the slush away. I worry for the future of the friendly people of this beautiful, quiet little corner.

For now - just for now - Katla sleeps nearby. I hope that Jon Krukkur's predictions in the Krukkspá were right and that Katla now lives in the sea and over the horizon.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Kitchen counters, windows and lollipop ladies

We are having new kitchen counters on North Star. Because they are essential for boating. One of the more famous arguments between Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman was over whether the fledgling IWA should campaign for granite worktops.
They weigh a ton and fill the entire eastern end of the Volvo, and are justification finally for driving a car the size of Rhode Island. In the event of an accident on the A14, our kitchen counters will be instantly protected by 46 air bags.

But now I'm also worrying about how I'm going to tow a GP14 with a trailer missing the mast support. I'll need to strap it to the roof and even a V70 looks like a Soviet-era nuclear-missile launcher or an automotive pole-vaulter with 25 feet of mast lashed up there.

I have these visions of not being able to make it round corners without spearing road signs and impaling lollipop ladies.

I arrive in Braunston to discover that North Star has sprouted windows - three of them - so losing her stylish tug looks. I can't get in because I'm in a hurry to get to Molineux, where the visit of Stoke almost guarantees an exciting game of stylish, memorable football. Or maybe not. Stoke are playing Bolton next week. They are having to close Machester Airport for the afternoon.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Back afloat by May

Although nothing has been done in the last week, it seems it's full speed ahead now and we expect to have North Star back for the May Bank Holiday weekend.

First cruise is planned to be up to Welford and back, funnily enough, and then back to Wharf House for painting and a solar power installation. It's like standing in the wind tearing up £50 notes.

Goal in the 98th minute. So close, but so far...

First time at the Emirates, and gutted to be hit by a goal deep into Fergie-time.
The (far) better side won but held out for 98 minutes and were within a few breaths of the final whistle.
Arsenal scored more against Barcelona. Trouble is these stats don't count for much.

Continuous sex? Cruisers in Bedford

I was rather startled to read this week that continuous cruisers are the preventing the opening of a riverboat restaurant in Bedford. In The Metro on Tuesday, a headline screeched "Riverboat restaurant proposals could 'interfere with crusing site'". It was enough for me to put the latte down and read on.

It seems that the riverside area is a popular spot for dogging and cruising. Yes? And? But it appears that neither activities are quite what they seem to the uneducated. In fact, it is fairly critical to understand the difference between dogging and dog-walking and between cruising and ....errr... cruising. Far be it for me to start a blogging dictionary, but I suggest Googling them and - this being the key part - remembering the difference. Phoning up your kids to explain that "we've been cruising for two weeks now and if it wasn't for his dodgy knee, your father would be out dogging every night" would, of course, need to be rephrased. Or maybe not.
Furthermore, continuous cruisers would be advised to wipe that smile off their faces.

It would appear also that Northamptonshire Police are concerned about the possible clash between locals and cruisers but will not object to the planning application. I should point out, that the application is for the boat not the use of the riverside area by people to have sex in the bushes, which seems to be possible with no rezoning or monitoring by the planners.

I suspect that the British knack for diplomacy will result in a mutually beneficial ending with the cruisers keeping their speed down and the boat having a small ads noticeboard in the window and only charging a few quid extra for a table by the window.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Welford, Naseby and the Northants Alps

I did enjoy Welford last weekend, and was extremely disappointed that there is no space in the marina for North Star. I left my details but there's at least a two year wait. We were pointed towards Yelvertoft, but there's something about this little corner near the source of the Avon.

We drove around Welford and liked the village, as much as we like nearby Naseby and the much smaller Elkington. We gravitated towards the Warwickshire-Leicestershire-Northants border area as it is the centre of the canal network, with routes radiating out in all directions. However, in recent months we have discovered that there is so much more to this quiet, unknown part of England: villages of golden brown stone and blood-red brick, muddy lanes, dripping copses and woods, long views from the raw heights, hidden history. It has been wonderful to watch as pheasants wander arrogantly across paths, ducks and geese taking off from lakes, red kites soaring at speed, even a pair of puzzled cormorants miles from any water.

It has been attractive enough for us to start turning to rightmove to look at houses. One particular one - a converted barn north of Willoughby - got the pulse racing but it is just a little too remote.

We are always muttering that once we get on the boat our horizon gets restricted to a world about 100m from the towpath, and we need to get away from the Cut more. At Welford, the presence of the great battlefield of Naseby is an obvious attraction and we have been making plans to walk the area using the excellent audio tour from the Naseby Battlefield Project. This can be combined with a hunt for the source of the Avon which is considered to be at one of several spots in or around Naseby or Cold Ashby. Sadly with DIY, sailing, a need to get to Aldeburgh and thrashing Arsenal at the Emirates tomorrow, I can't see the time this weekend. Maybe the May Bank Holiday.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Oxford Canal to be filled in for high-speed railway

The Department of Transport have finally decided that the new high-speed railway from London to the Midlands and Scotland will run over the current course of the southern Oxford Canal between Aynho and Wormleighton, so effectively truncating the canal.

Transport minister Lord Adonis, who was speaking at a presentation on CrossRail at the Guildhall in London, was apologetic about the effect that the railway would have on the canal but gave us little hope that there was any way to change this.

"We recognise that the canals in Britain create hundreds of jobs and each year many barges - perhaps one hundred - are used on Britain's canals but sadly progress is progress. Constructing a high speed rail link is a priority both in terms of the economic boost for British manufacturing and the many jobs it will create."

When pressed, Lord Adonis suggested that it may be possible to keep small stretches of the canal in water, notably through the centre of Banbury, it was inevitable that the course of the canal would be obliterated.

"Sadly yes, at least 28km will disappear completely. However, the rich heritage of the canal will not be entirely lost as the new railway station at Fenny Compton will be named Fenny Compton Simcock International Parkway."

The Guardian has, unsurprisingly, been the most vocal critic of the plan, and their article today pulls no punches. The Banbury Observer, meanwhile, is chiefly concerned about the impact the development will have on the town's Grade II-listed bus station.

Only in Britain could we allow our waterways heritage to dissolve bit by bit like this. I just don't know whether to laugh or cry. Actually, maybe I do.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Slate floor, sawn hornbeam floor

North Star will need a new floor at the end of the refit. Apparently there are like billions of possibilities. I hadn't really noticed.

It seems we are having 'slate' in the bathroom. Or the heads. Whatever.

And 'sawn hornbeam' for the rest of the boat. Meanwhile, Helen has been painting one of our bedrooms lilac. Except the paint is named 'fresh linen'. What is it with all these DIY companies?

As I sat on the train every morning all last week, I was thinking "We need sawn hornbeam for the floor of the boat. And that lilac paint reminds me of something, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is."

Ha ha....Day Skipper Theory in the bag

Did the exams today after a two-day revision session at Accenture's offices in Fenchurch Street. This part of the City really is dead at the weekend.

Did each exam in about 35 minutes. Confirmed that I passed. Now for the real stuff, and the practical course!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Wharf Inn, Welford

Originally the George Inn, run by the Gilbert family, the pub at the end of the Welford arm is now The Wharf Inn, hard by the road and the canal, with the nascent River Avon an additional attraction alongside the garden.

It's all a bit scruffy and the garden is full of old and new kegs and bits of pub equipment.

However, the pub has a real pub feel. It's about drinking, socialising, good beer, good food and good company rather than hanging baskets and manicured lawns. It's all capped by cheerful and enthusisatic staff.

They did an excellent ham, asparagus and brie baguette that hit the spot, along with a really original range of real ales, including Slaters Original. If I didn't have work tomorrow, I'd still be there now.

An added attraction is that BW and the local authorities have created five local themed walks centred on the end of the canal here. A fascinating little corner of the world.

Refit update

A gorgeous day today compared to yesterday, and I had planned to have a trial sail in a Lark today, but we need to see progress on North Star. We could have done it yesterday but Helen was at the Ideal Home Exhibition. For me, an Ideal Home is one you rent from someone else that doesn't need me to work on any part of it.

We drive north and for the second time have to divert through the backstreets of St Ives to avoid the closure of the A14 at Godmanchester. This roadworks seems to have gone on for months now.

The work is progressing very well and Phill and his team have worked their way forwards from the bedroom. The bathroom has been removed entirely and a new vanity unit is being installed next to where the shower cabin will go. The pump out tank and calorifier are already installed under the main bed, and pipe runs all in place.

Slick. Sweet. We are happy.

Drysuits and that scene from Alien

Drysuits extend the sailing season so that as well as skimming the ripples in the glorious Greek warmth as the sun dips below the headland, you can also sail in a blizzard on the outskirts of Wakefield in February.

I've only ever sailed in the golden months, and I really miss it, so a drysuit has become an imperative. I decided to bite the bullet and go down to Brookbank at Waltham Abbey, which is a little like shopping in an industrial estate in the Ruhr, but they have a good choice of everything. Last time I was there, it was sub-zero and you could see your breath in the air after you'd gone in.

Drysuits, for the uninitiated, are one piece suits that keep the water out. Wetsuits, on the other hand, keep a micro-thin layer of water in, so have to fit like a glove. Drysuits have a neoprene neck seal and arm seals; most have rubber booties at the end of the legs as well, to reduce the number of holes. All of them have a massive zip diagonally across the chest, which is where you get in. But not quickly and not easily.

First, I had to confront an irrational fear.

"What happens if water does get in? Won't water rush in and fill the suit and sink you...and stuff?" I ask breathlessly and somewhat anxiously.

The shop assistant, a young man in his twenties, looks at me as if I am totally insane: "You're in water, so you can't sink. Anyway, you should be wearing a lifejacket"
He remembers to smile at the crazy person and shows me to the drysuits for the paddlers. These are the expensive ones as they like to attach themselves to their boats, but then escorts me upstairs to an impressive wall of drysuits.

Drysuits are not a fashion statement. You look like an anaemic Michelin man with a massive scar across your chest. Stella McCartney and Hugo Boss have never shown drysuits on the catwalk, and Gok Wan wouldn't be seen dead in one. So all drysuits are black or red or grey, or combinations of any two of those colours.

I grab a handful of suits and go downstairs to the changing rooms. I realise I have no idea what to take off or keep on. There's no way I'm asking the shop assistant for help. He's probably already on the phone to summon assistance.
I take off my jeans and shirt and look down at my socks. I'm standing in boxers and a T-shirt wondering whether to strip naked in a semi-public place in an industrial park in Waltham Abbey. (This should bring up some good Google hits)

I peer out of the side of the ill-fitting curtains. I have never seen more than about five people in the shop. As I prepare to strip off, the room is suddenly full of women shopping for shoes, canoeing gloves, helmets and whatever else. Two children are watching a kayak video on a TV less than three feet away. Curses.

I decide that I will never sail naked under a drysuit anyway, just in case I have to be rescued by a Coastguard helicopter (admittedly a little unlikely on small lakes in the Lea Valley). I clutch a black Gill suit and pull it on. I pull it up and wriggle my right arm. This is the tricky bit and I have to twist my head severely to get it in. I lose the head hole and try to share the arm hole with my arm. More curses.

I try to extricate my head with my left hand. It's all a little weird, having to use my hands to hold and steer my head around like some kind of disembodied ghost. My head is bent sideways and I can't get it out. I'm already having visions of firemen having to cut through an expensive drysuit with the Jaws of Life.

"You OK?" a voice calls cheerfully.

"Yes, fine" I respond, sounding as if I am skipping around a wooded glade with nymphs. I have my head stuck at 90 degrees in a neoprene suit and I can't find my ears.
My right hand decides to plunge through the head hole and acts like the runway lights for my head to squeeze through. I'm using the word "squeeze" in its tightest possible meaning here, as I was convinced this would appear like that scene in Alien. With a lot of silent squealing and grunting, my head was born again. With a big heave, I emerged triumphant, sweating and aching.

I pulled the big zip closed and walked through the curtain. It all felt good, but I definitely need a bigger size. As a word of friendly advice, it is critically important that you discover you have the wrong size drysuit before you get it fully on. After admiring myself for several minutes in a show of narcissistic self-preening that would have made Mr Bean proud, I returned to the cubicle to remove it.

I undid the zip then paused for thought. Now what? I couldn't remove my left arm. Damn! Getting the right arm out first was clearly going to be impossible unless the top half of my torso was removed. No, it would to be my head first. Given that my head had been almost spring-loaded into the suit in the first place, this would also seem to be impossible. The suit wouldn't lift enough off the shoulders. Check. Shoulder height critical!

I could have called the shop assistant but this would have been too awful.
"Help me, I'm totally useless and can't get in or out of sailing gear properly!"
I sit down for a rest, then get a bit angry and try to somehow jump my arm out of the suit. I bounce around the cubicle. On one bounce, I notice a woman on the other side looking my way. She can clearly see a bloke jumping up and down in a changing cubicle. It's like a private version of Riverdance in here. I catch her eye on my next bounce. I think she is already gathering her kids and heading for the exit.

Suddenly and with no explanation, other than that there is indeed a God, and my left arm twists back and my elbow pops out. Suddenly my shoulder can clear the top and I am free.

"Yes!!!" I shout silently. "I can take the Nationals now I can get the drysuit off!"

Having worked my way out of the drysuit, I now know what to assess in each suit. I return the collection of medium drysuits and return laden with Medium Large and Large drysuits. None are easy, mainly because these huge zips are painfully slow to work, but over a two hour period I try on every drysuit in the store. There's always something not quite right and when you are spending more then £300 on a single piece of clothing, you want perfection.

The closest I come to perfection is, totally unsurprisingly, the very first, black Gill I tried - well a Large version of it. Typical.

I may look like one of the dispensable bad guys in a Bond movie, but at least I'm warm and dry.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Day Skipper theory

After a couple of months I am close to completing the Day Skipper theoretical course. There's so much to learn. Narrowboats and dinghies are quite simple in comparison, but once you get onto estuaries and offshore the amount of knowledge needed seems to grow exponentially: tides, lights, pilotage, weather forecasting, colregs, navigation.

What is it with Harwich?

The finest harbour on the east coast of England, Harwich should have reaped the rewards of military and commercial occupation for the last 400 years. Sadly, the town is a shadow of its former self and despite whole streets - and even quarters - of truly outstanding architecture and urban form, the town feels somewhat squalid and run down.

The town has a formidable conservation society, the Harwich Society, but has yet to cope with the impact of large out-of-town shopping: in both Harwich and Dovercourt, boarded up and whitewashed up shops indicate that the recession continues to bite in this pretty corner of Essex.

I was astonished that despite the warmth of the older buildings, the strength of the Harwich Society and some individual efforts, the whole place looked grim and unloved, even on a bright day. Ten years ago, when we lived in The Hague, my wife missed the ferry and she had to spend the day with two toddlers, in Harwich. Her report, on arrival home, was not exactly glowing, and that layover was in July.

There were glimpses of encouragement, including the friendly lady at the RNLI Shop and the staff at the cafe on the Ha'penny Pier, but even this little cluster of structures at the port struggle to stay open. It came as no surprise that the original Ha'penny Pier was destroyed by fire and they couldn't be bothered to rebuild it. The original Continental steam-packet service left from this pier, then - later - from the adjacent Trinity Pier. The town could benefit from developing the Ha'penny Moorings, but little is done for visiting yachts, and most head for Shotley across the Stour or other marinas. Although the area is limited by its location crammed between the Navyard and Trinity Pier, there is no reason why this pier couldn't be developed to the mutual benefit of the town and sailors.

Of course, there's nothing wriong with Harwich or its people: it's a pleasant, friendly place. However, there is an endemic problem with urban Britain that manifests itself most in smaller towns. Small town Britain has adopted poorly to the decline in manufacturing and providing unskilled and semi-skilled jobs remains a huge problem. Current and past rules, regulations and policies in Britain have made it difficult for politicians and councils to do much other than encourage industry. It's not really a full range of instruments, more an 'on' or 'off' tap to encourage or discourage commerce and industry.

The result is that the approach to Harwich is characterised by a massive anti-vandal steel fence running for several miles along one of the most glorious estuarine scene in eastern England, then unnecessary roundabouts and high, blank walls. The Parkeston Quay complex has looked, for more than thirty years, like it's on its last legs. Tumbleweed, empty car parks and concrete blocks were probably on the glossy architects' drawings.

The shame of it all is that it all could be spectacular: a Torquay or Nice of the east coast. Easy to snigger at the thought, but the Essex Riviera is entirely possible. Take a drive down the Stour from Manningtree and Mistley to Harwich then round to Clacton. If some politician or council official can start looking beyond party politics and start responding to the very real need to build a new Harwich, this could become a year-round attraction with a real diversity of opportunities for all.

The end of a long journey

A little belatedly as work has been hectic the last few months, but all good things have to come to an end.

Nick Jaffe, a young Australian, has recently completed his huge single-handed journey from the Netherlands to Australia. It's a great achievement for him, but his last sailing post echoes the sentiments of many: that sailing is about the journey, not the destination.

Sailors are truly unusual beasts in that we are happy until we arrive somewhere.

Congratulations, Nick.

North Star gets stripped out

Almiost as soon as North Star berthed up at Wharf House Narrowboats, Phill and his guys started stripping the boat out. There are so many choices to make, not least the size and location of new windows. We love the external appearance of the tug-style but the down side is that it is claustrophobic inside, especially during inclement weather. We have settled on one 36" and two 42" windows.

"What finish?" asked Phill

"Errr. Glass?"

"No. For the framework."

So another night was spent discussing whether we should have black (my preference) or gold (Helen's) framing. I'm grumpy anyway because people shouldn't be inside during daylight hours, and don't see the need for picture windows on any boat other than a cruise liner.

The floor in the bathroom was found to be unexpectedly rotten. I say "unexpectedly" but I really mean "unsurprisingly" as nothing surprises me with any cost aspect of anything that floats in this country.

The Morso Squirrel stove is discovered to have a serious crack running through the top and back, so that will have to be replaced. Whoosh! There goes another £700, with 15% winging its way to Alistair Darling.

We have to choose showerboard colour, so Phill shows us a catalogue of showerboard. They all look the same.
Helen has ordered flooring samples. They all look much the same.

I'm beginning to see the advantage of a single-handed dinghy. You don't have to choose showerboard for a Solo.

Phill shows us over another boat that he is finishing off. It is a stunning boat, inside and out, not because it's all flashy, but because it is delightfully simple.

"Simple costs a lot more."
"Ah, but it's worth it."

RYA Dinghy Show last weekend

London's Alexandra Palace is truly a spectacular venue, perched high up above the suburbs of north London gazing south towards the Thames. It's ornate ironwork, timeless stones and eternally warm yellow bricks is one of the most delightful spectacles in London.
Curiously, Ally Pally seems much smaller on the inside than on the outside, but it is still a great arena for the RYA's annual Dinghy Show each March.

The Dinghy Show is an opportunity for sailors to discuss real sailing. No blazered crews, no GPS, no helicopter pads, no tenders and no acres of chrome. Just sailing. With sails. In the wind.

Many class associations present a few boats to seduce the unassociated or curious, usually with the promise of a day's trial sailing somewhere in the coming months. The Larks, for example, are being presented to the curious at Fishers Green SC next Saturday (although amusingly, volunteers on the FGSC stand were unaware of this!).

The world of sailing is populated by some very specific categories of people, notably the traditionalists (Enterprises, Solos, Graduates), the classicists (various One Designs from the Broads, the East Coast and Cornwall - and the Herons), the kids (Oppies, Toppers, Mirrors), the fit and active (Lasers, most of the RS's, Phantoms, Cherubs) and the insane (49er). You only ever see 49ers the right way up and stable when they are at a motorway service station behind a Volvo.

Most of these classes were present at the Dinghy Show and most did an excellent job of selling themselves, and delightfully dissing other classes. The only people who didn't warn me that Enterprises right with only two inches showing above the waterline were, oddly enough, those on the Enterprise stand. The implication was that when you roll an Enterprise, you need a salvage contractor to pump it out.

Funnily enough, the least 'sold' boats were the various Lasers and RS's. Maybe when you sell that many dinghies, you don't really need a class association. But the genuine warmth, friendliness and cheerfulness of the class associations certainly makes you head towards the Herons, the Enterprises, the Solos and the Cherubs.

Plenty to do, see and learn over two days, with the prospect of getting to see a celeb. "He's almost a cert for a medal at Weymouth," someone muttered to a mate, while nodding in one direction. All I could see was a stout gentleman in a blazer, looking lost.

The one downside was that the catering was just simply dire. The tables were filthy, everything was slopped into plastic trays and it was all so horribly unappealling. Truly awful. The food at the Excel in January was excellent, but I guess that's the difference between a monopoly and the free market, eh?

I was very surprised that there was no bookshop on site, other than the standard RYA selection. At Boat Shows, the book stands are always very well patronised.

I made my way home laden with class leaflets and brochures, and still no idea where I will land.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Timothy Spall encounters Richard Montgomery

Good to see it's not just Timothy West and Prunella Scales on the celeb boating A-list. Getting a bit bored of reading all their antics. Anyway I almost tripped over Ms Scales at the Wigmore Hall a couple of months ago. "Don't get up. Oh!"

Seems that Timothy Spall, forever Peter Taylor in my mind now, sails and describes a close encounter with the Richard Montgomery at the mouth of the Medway as his worst ever holiday incident.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

New media, old media: Captain Ahab gets noticed

As a regular reader of Captain Ahab's Watery Tales, I was particularly pleased to see him recognised and interviewed by the Express & Star newspaper.

However, it did strike me as odd that a local newspaper would consider it news to report on someone who is reporting on the local area. Isn't that what one would expect a local newspaper to do?

To be fair, the Express & Star has quite good coverage of local history, but still it is remarkably difficult to get historical information on the industrial archaeology of an area from the local newspapers. The mainstream print and broadcast media is ever less interested in its educational role and concentrates on the much more lucrative entertainment role, but at what cost to local communities? Is there a social responsibility (Just Google it if you aren't sure, Mr Murdoch) of media? If they are prepared to steer readers towards statements or positions on the political agenda, then why not on the socio-cultural agenda?

Local newspapers should - maybe even must - inform and educate people about their surroundings, whether natural, cultural or historical. They do have more than simply a reactive responsibility to report what happened yesterday.

In the meantime, congratulations to Captain Ahab for showing a local newspaper how one can and should record and report on old canals and industry.

Humber keels

Fascinating little snippets about Humber keels. It is so good to see that some of Britain's heritage craft are still appreciated.

Another peaceful cruise across the Leam valley

What makes England a very special place is that there are few extremes of beauty or size or nature, but that much of the entire country is extremely pleasant. You never have to walk far from any point in the land to discover a landscape worth admiring; it's a land of history, of varied geology, mellow topography, and interesting asides and corners. Every spot has a tale worth hearing; it's England's patina.

So the valley of the Leam - a river not even known by most who live anywhere but Leamington Spa - is a low, weak valley, edged by fragments of old woodlands. The wide flat valley is indistinct, broken up by the inconsistent lines of large fields and the ghosts of old railway lines.

Even in winter, this is a landscape worth seeing. Those forested shards lie like a dark smudged haze along the ridges and among the reedy beds of the streams. Skittish sheep and lambs forage in pale green sharply ridged fields. Red brick farms decay every day, dripping slowly back into the soil below. Men in boiler suits search for something with perky Jack Russels. A harrier hovers discretely and expectantly nearby; a greenfinch shivers among the thorns and bare sticks.

We break the still waters at Calcutt and motor south, through the locks. Healthy couples walk, wrapped against the damp, watching us pass by. We turn at Wigrams and nod at other boats: it's the curt, acknowledging nod of winter boaters. Faces wrapped against the light northerly breeze, gusting to nothing, and hands tightly gripping the tiller or mugs of tea.

Our gang of eight work their way through slabs of bacon sandwiches, chipped mugs of Liptons and exchange old facts: did you know that boats heading for London pass each other in opposite directions here?

My favourite farm, a handful of shattered outbuildings and a raggedy house lie alongside the water, fronted by the ugliest collection of corrugated huts, overgrown huts and barns. Lower Shuckburgh church looms behind by the road.

Too soon, we sweep across the infant valley, the Leam a glittering trickle below and the old railway beyond. North Star returns again to Braunston, where we were so annoyed by the marina earlier in the year, and on towards the padlocked locks. So to the end of the day.

8.1 miles, 3 locks

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Go Charlie go!

Seven year old Charlie Simpson is raising money for Haiti by cycling round South Park in Fulham (with his dad!). Do sponsor him! He hoped to raise £500; he's up to £46,000.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The listening councils?

I am getting more hits than ever with a shedload of hits seemingly from Wolverhampton Council and Walsall Council. Different IP addresses as well for all of them. Wonder if they are cursing me, disinterested or just curious?

Started the Day Skipper theoretical course

About seven weeks of missed Tuesdays then a whole weekend in March. All very interesting stuff with bundles of charts, almanacs, plotters, bits of rope, dividers. No boat though. All in the classroom.

Monday, 18 January 2010

BCN Marathon Challenge 2010

On blogs and forums, skippers and crews are layihng out their plans for the 2010 BCN Marathon Challenge. It's on 29th and 30th a maximum of 24 hours between 9am Saturday and 3pm on the Sunday. There is handicapping to help the bigger boats, smaller crews, more locks, more unused arms. Check the BCN Society webpages for more details.

Urban angst - partnerships for the future?

In the last weeks, I have been somewhat critical of planners in Wolverhampton, Walsall and Banbury. A few months ago, I dissed those of Daventry and Sandwell. I am also getting a fair number of page-hits from the council offices of these very places.

I know I am not being totally fair on the planners and officials. Much of their world is determined by four groups who are - in the short-term - rather unchallengable: national politicians, European politicians, local politicians and the civil service nationally. This overlay of plans, rules, regulations and protocols is what creates the plethora of Biodiversity Action Plans, local development frameworks, demands for creating extra this and extra that even when it may not be needed.

But all the politicians simply reflect the lowest common denominator of national (and supra-national) politics: bland policies lead to bland cities. It is clear that charismatic cities tend to have charismatic leaders and mayors, whether it's London, Caracas, New York, Berlin, Mexico City, Wolverhampton or Daventry.

Decision-making for the city of cities, and probably even small towns, needs to be made by politicians who are truly only beholden to local interests, not national party politics. Some form of Partnership for Wolverhampton would seem to be an ideal new "development agenda".

We need vision and leadership, not political in-fighting with one group of politicians simply blocking or attacking the plans of other politicians simply because ofg the colour of their rosettes.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The refit starts soon

It has been enormously difficult to decide what to do. New kitchen and hall? Or refit the boat?
Well it has been enormously difficult for Helen to realise the priorities here.

Seriously though, it has been difficult. Our kids are getting to that age where we won't be having them with us much longer. Another couple of years, max. Unlike many (and despite some of my teasing posts here) we both get on very well with both our teenagers and they seem to enjoy spending time with us still. But we know we are on borrowed time, and reckon there are just two more summer holidays left on the boat. Until they come back with their own kids in a decade because they can't afford to go anywhere.

So our plans for a leisurely refit, doing one room at a time has been replaced by the new plan to get the whole boat bedroom, new bathroom, central heating, decent toilet, new windows, grenade launchers, remodelled kitchen.

We'd like to do more ourselves but there's simply not enough time right now. Not when there's a bit of wind most weekends and the possibility to get out on the water.

Culinary highlight of 2009?

Just remembered being asked at work what surprised me most in 2009.
I thought they were Wotsits until I saw the legs hanging out. Turns out they were deep-fried bees. I was in southern China at the time. I remember thinking that "You're kidding, right?" should be in the Berlitz Mandarin phrasebook. This is not the first time I have needed it, either. Like when I was asked "How do you want your camel cooked, sir?"

Would the last person to leave Walsall.....

I read this weekend that Walsall's Illuminations are to end. No. I didn't either, and that would seem to be part of the reason that the very last illuminations were held in 2008, and from 2012 they may be replaced by "concerts and laser shows". Because presumably nowhere else has concerts and laser shows.

A little research shows that the Walsall Illuminations date back to 1951 when the Arboretum was lit by candles in glass jars, and attendance peaked in 1989 when 370,000 people turned up to see them. In 2008, just 111,000 turned up. Only three other places in Britain officially hold "Illuminations", those at Mousehole and Matlock Bath eclipsed by the gargantuan and globally famous Blackpool Illuminations, so it would seem that the £200,000 net cost of the Illuminations was just too much for the Council to bear. I do hope some form of impact assessment was conducted to ensure that the area is not losing a considerably greater sum in lost revenue from visitors.

I can't help think that the rarity of Illuminations - and the fact that Walsall is a lot closer to much more of the British population than Blackpool - could have been leveraged to create something even more spectacular. However, I also know better than to ever criticise any local council because any organisation that close to the political classes is inevitably able to wheel out reports, spin doctors and slick pressers that are totally patronising yet serve only to reinforce the sheer mediocrity of what Britain has become recently.

So, great decision in Walsall! That's £200,000 saved. Switch off the lights on the way out.

Wolverhampton - an opportunity not to be missed?

In October 2009, a seemingly innocuous article published online by Lonely Planet, the guidebook publishers, showed which cities were "favourited" least often by online readers. By December, an updated article based on hundreds of online comments, was published which added Wolverhampton to that list. A great deal of journalistic licence prevailed and suddenly Wolverhampton was proclaimed one of the worst places to live, be in or visit.

Predictably, many rose defiantly to defend Wolverhampton and her people, although the misguided PR efforts of some actually made the situation far worse. There were suggestions from elected officials that the town should be visited "because it has a Premier League football team" and "a park" and because the nose cone of Concord was built in the town. Former local football legend, Steve Bull, went as far as to say, in effect, that Wolverhampton was no worse than Dudley or Birmingham. The subsequent attempt by Wolverhampton netizens to add "Wolvo-positive" comments on Lonely Planet has been equally creepy. It's been like watching a real-life Frank Spencer.

I love the whole of the West Midlands area, and especially Wolverhampton. I was born locally, went to university in Birmingham and make a 250-mile round trip every couple of weeks as a Wolves season-ticket holder. I spend many weekends boating or walking the canals of the region.

I believe that the Lonely Planet article, disgraceful as it is, should be used as a rallying call to help Wolverhampton grow, because - bluntly - there is a good reason why Wolverhampton is not "favourited" by readers of These reasons are complex but it is not a phenomenon unique to Wolverhampton. Those who live or work in attractive or interesting tourist destinations trend to take them for granted, while people in most areas see no tourism merit in the area where they live.

There is no point simply reacting angrily to Lonely Planet. It was certainly disingenuous to add Wolverhampton to a list based upon one (actually quite logical) criteria simply because it fits another unrelated criteria. There are tens of thousands of cities that are not covered by Lonely Planet: there is no more reason to pick on Wolverhampton than there is Jiaozuo in China or Sugar Land in Texas.

But maybe it is worth setting the hyperbole and Concorde nose cones aside and consider whether the people of 21st Century Wolverhampton have been served well by the officials, industrialists, bankers, politicians and planners over the last 50 years. It would be a question worth considering for the whole Black Country and maybe even the West Midlands. In fact, Wolverhampton's history and heritage actually does provide sufficient reason if there was investment and a real vision that included a wider set of indicators than presently used in Britain. it is interesting to see how Asian cities understand that they are in a global dogfight for inward investment and understand the need to build on heritage, build, suport and promote entertainment and incidentals.

It is interesting to see how, for example, the Korean city of Suwon and the surrounding province of Gyeonggi-do has developed in the last ten years, although - admittedly - it does have a UNESCO World Heritage site in the city. It is, however, an industrial city in the shadow of much bigger Seoul, ironically also on the Lonely Planet list. Suwon and Gyeonggi-do have invested constantly and tirelessly in education, industry, housing, parks, museums, art, infrastructure and all the little things and is a flourishing dynamic city. Even on a misty, wet November Tuesday evening.

Suwon commissioned architects to make all the public toilets in the town (you do remember public toilets, don't you?) architecturally unique: each one is amazing. Can you imagine the response in Wolverhampton or pretty much most parts of Britain, if residents were told that the city officials had commissioned architects to build stunning toilets? "What a waste of money", "They should spend it on this, that or the other!", moan, moan, moan. Look at The Cube in nearby Sandwell. Building a vibrant future for cities means investing in a whole range of different things, many of which might not make sense but when taken together start to differentiate Town X from Town Y.

The city of Jiaozuo in China is another case in point, although there is very little information available about it. This city of around 1 million people in north-western Henan province in China used to be a cold, miserable, desperately polluted place. It was a desperate place, full of badly designed, half-working rust-bucket steel mills and chemical plants. I spent a week there in 2002 and it was absolutely dire. There was a permanent smog because of the coal dust and pollution and it was grey and grim. I vowed never to return because it was just awful.
Then, five years later I heard that there had been a curious revolution in the city. The mayor and various officials had decided that the city's future needed to be different and they worked to unearth every possible aspect of the city's cultural and natural heritage. They invested massively in parks, roads, education, marketing, promotion and cleaning up the air and water. They pressed local companies into working with them, despite some opposition - even from many residents. They had this vision that was ridiculously expensive, ridiculously over-ambitious and unworkable.

They then went and did it.

Within a short time period, Jiaozuo had been spectacularly changed. A Chinese language tourism journal has written up the achievements (and unfortunately I cannot find the article right now) but the city leapt into the big time. It became - and possibly -still is one of the fastest growing tourism places in northern China, competing...remember...against the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the temples and warriors of nearby Xi'an and Luoyang and the Shaolin temple, also not too distant.

Jiaozuo officials created a hopelessly unachievable vision and simply made it happen. They brough sceptics around and worked with equally cynical media. The upshot now is that I understand that it has attracted inwarded industrial investment to the city, more than replacing the rust-bucket industry that previously belched out smoke and filthy water.
Wolverhampton needs a visions. It needs policiticans, officials and civil servants who will - just for a short time - forget about disagreeing with each other because they are Labour/Conservative/LibDems or whatever and start building a new Wolverhampton. One that includes more museums, more galleries, more human spaces, more heritage interpretation, more jobs, more inclusiveness.

The people of Wolverhampton have been fired up by the Lonely Planet (even if Wolves forwards haven't) so maybe it's time to consider what would be a suitable city for them, their children and grand-children. It's not about minimising public spend but about creasting a future. Maybe, come May, it's worth asking prospective political representatives "What's your vision for the area? And drop the party political stuff for a few minutes. Talk like a leader, for once"

Chances would be a fine thing

The former Chances Brothers glassworks in Smethwick (discussed earlier here) has been in the news again.
In August, the Express & Star reported that the current owner of the property, Anthony Copeland, a developer, suggested that the Grade II listed building would not now be converted into appartments as planned but the site would be used for a new-build business hotel.

Although a new build hotel would most likely be of the brick-and-gable-roof style of building so much loved by ring-road hotel architects in recent years, it would at least protect the remaining structures from being altered drastically. That might save them until some time when more appropriate and sympathetic conversion or adaptation might be feasible. However, the Express & Star also reported that the developer had been working closely with English Heritage and been very taken by the heritage of the site - good news indeed.

And this week, the Express & Star reports (not available in online version) that the task of archiving Chance Brothers history is now well under way. Sandwell archivist, Laura Brett, is part way through the mammoth task. The company gifted more than 1,000 cubic feet of archives to Pilkingtons who bought them, and around one third is expected to have been catalogued by this summer. Laura reports "there are many amazing things amongst the archives".

Laura will give a talk on these archives this coming Thursday at Smethwick Library at 2.30pm. Undoubtedly well worth going! However, you can also get a good feel for what is going on from Laura's Chance Archives blog.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Venice to be Hull of the Med - experts

Climate change experts have reacted positively to architects plans that could allow Venice to adapt to rising sea levels in the Mediterranean by becoming more like Kingston-upon-Hull.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Ireland's Royal Canal book review

Interesting review of recently published latest edition of the prime historical account of Ireland's Royal Canal. I picked up several brochures about Ireland's waterways at the Boat Show - it is really, really tempting and you can sail on so many of them as well.

Keeping canal meetings a guarded secret

A mysterious article in the Watford Observer indicates that "a vounteer group dedicated to the upkeep and promotion of the Rickmansworth section of the...Grand Union canal is to hold a public meeting for prospective new members". It will happen on Tuesday at a local church.

Most bizarre. None of the sloppy journalist, newspaper nor volunteer group see fit to provide any more information....

...which volunteer group?
...what time?
...which Tuesday?

Clearly telepathy is going to be a requirement for prospective new members.
The Rickmansworth Waterways Trust website sheds no further light on the matter.
Well, call me old-fashioned but if they wanted to keep it a total secret, they shouldn't have mentioned the church or the day. Or Rickmansworth. Because, you can be quite sure that there will be people who will doggedly track down the location and time and have the audacity to turn up.