Monday, 27 June 2011

Flash locks again

Three years ago, I wrote about flash locks, suggesting that one of the last operating flash locks in Britain was probably on Bottisham Lode in Cambridgeshire. At the time I couldn't find decent images of a flash lock. I am delighted that the old waterways books blog has posted on Thames flash locks, complete with a lovely engraving of one.

Friday, 10 June 2011

On the Mississippi in Baton Rouge

I've been on the Mississippi twice in a month. A few weeks back when the floodwaters were trashing Memphis and this last week, where I have spent time around Baton Rouge with those same floodwaters now receding slowly. They were starting to roll up the tiger dams but the water is still high. Just north of the port on the west bank, the waters still lap into the parkland.

Putting the orange and white tiger dams away as the waters recede
I don't know if the barge-trains stopped when the flood waters were at their highest, but they are moving again this week. Long, flat, deep pans of coal, gravel, grain being propelled through the grey muddy water by vast, squat tugs.

I see no pleasure boats and at the port authority they confirm they are not encouraged. The river is simply too busy and too dangerous for small, light craft. Baton Rouge takes Panamax ships - up to 80,000dwt - and the barge trains create significant wake across the width of the river. It's no place for little boats. I wondered how many leisure boats would be on the British canals if the waterways had adapted to larger cargo vessels down the years. Probably very few.

Tugs attend a swift-moving ship heading downstream on the Mississippi at Baton Rouge
Not sure whether I was more excited by getting out on the mighty river, or sitting near Iggy Pop on the plane back from Miami last night. Trouble is you don't want to disturb him. He's a bit scary!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Garmin - creating geographical blindness?

I have had a Garmin GPS for years. Possibly ten years. I once escaped arrest in China by pretending that my GPS unit was a mobile phone. Last Christmas, after our old Garmin GPS unit (called Daniel after one of the male voices that tells you where to go) started to become very unreliable, especially in London, was replaced by a newer, sexier model. The new model is called Daniel (after one of the voices on....errr....our old GPS unit) and is very slim-line, very Nuvi and very irritating.

The old Daniel used to scream blue murder if you drove within 5 miles of a speed camera. The new Daniel seems unbothered. He amost shrugs his shoulders in a huff as if to say "You want me to make noises as well as show it on my pretty little screen?"

But a far bigger irritation with the new unit - and I believe - all Garmin GPS units is that it shows me exactly where I am but with no real context. A couple of weeks ago I drove from New Orleans to near Baton Rouge and noticed that the main references visually and as reference 'cues' were road numbers...I-10, Highway 44, Highway 22. These take priority over place names, especially as every 'place' of any size in the US is a 'city'. There are no villages or towns, just 'cities'.

The Garmin maps in units everywhere use exactly this same context of roads, not places. This means that when I am driving along in an unknown area I have absolutely no idea where I am passing and where is just off my route. It often flags up street names, but not the name of the village, town or city in which the street sits. You drive along in a complete sea of ignorance, with no idea where you are, except that a) you are precisely here, now, b) what road you are on and c) when you next have to turn.

Garmins's GPS units are creating geographical blindness, a complete lack of spatial awareness.  The maps in Garmin units are not maps at all, just a means of filling in the bits between the road you are on now and another unknown road. Almost like a painting that manages to show nothing at all apart from what you want it to show at that moment. 

Stagnant Sunday afternoon at Lime Farm

I hate that day, every year, when you open the boat up after the winter. Today was that day for us, and we churned up the M11 and A14 to the bowels of North Warwickshire to return North Star to her cruising splendour. A levels, staggering amounts of travel (Washington DC last week, New Orleans next week) and a thousand other engagements have prevented us cruising at all so far this spring.

We have been on tenterhooks (whatever they may be) since the snow in December when we were iced in at Ansty and didn't manage to drain the water tank until a week later. Will we have survived without damaging the pipework? We don't know. Actually we don't know how we will know either, as the water pump is behind a bulkhead and so very inaccessible.

We decide that the easiest test - and quite possibly the stupidest - is simply to fill the tank and see if the boat floods or sinks. It doesn't, but we remain unconvinced. How on earth do you check all the pipework? Answers on a postcard.

Quite remarkably, the batteries have retained 70% charge and the engine putters into life almost instantly. With the pleasant rumble of the BMC in the background, we busy ourselves with cleaning inside and out, listening to the cricket and a bit of Wogan. You know you're getting old when you can listen to Wogan without feeling old. If you see what I mean.

The afternoon was humid, stagnant and just about typical for June: the sound of squirrels, pigeons and robins chattering all around, the air warm and perfectly still. Maybe opening the boat up isn't as bad as it used to be either. Maybe that's also a sign of getting older.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

BCN Table of Distances

I recently bought one of the original BCN Table of Distances, partly because I had recently lost out in an auction for another BCN share certificate. And partly because I wanted it.

The BCN Table of Distances is heavy - just under 8kg - and is all solid, rubbed leather, bindings and heavy paper. Each of its one hundred pages simply shows the Birmingham Canal Navigations in strip form. Every branch, every arm, every wharf, bridge and lock.
My copy is copy Number 9 and is from the Short Distance Collectors Room. Quite what this was, or who they were, I don't know.
The long-lost Danks Branch 
I have gazed so longingly and wistfully at its pages - many covered in pencilled calculations - that my wife has suggested that I might want to date it. I also don't know who did all these calculations or why? Maybe someone writing about the BCN? A "short distance collector"? Who knows. All part of the mystery.

I do wonder how much more of the heritage of Britain's canal are sitting around in old attics and sheds?

Canal and Community: The Towpath Wars

Two hundred and fifty years of canal building has given Britain a wonderful legacy of waterways, spanning much of the country. Britain's canals bring leisure amenity into the very heart of cities, towns and villages forming a venue for so many interests: boating, canoeing, running, walking, angling and form a perfect backdrop often for those who just want to sit and reflect.
In the 1950s and 1960s, small groups of pioneering activists took on the mantle of protectors of the waterways. They spent years, working tirelessly to reconstruct - often from virtually nothing - and reopen abandoned and unloved stretches of dank, greasy waterway.
In the countryside, the amenity value is clear at its very highest, and the landscape value is also at a maximum. But the waterways are in crisis that extends far beyond the short-term funding and maintenance crisis.

Netherton Cottages 
On the one hand, there are those who take full advantage of the amenity and put nothing back. The classic example is the modern apartment or excecutive housing developments with their stern "No Mooring" signs and their unsympathetic landscaping. Both developers and house-owner benefits enormously from proximity to the water but shoo away those other users who actyually contribute more. I, and you, pay more financially in one year's BWB licence than these developers or house owners do in a lifetime sitting alongside the canal. Yet they earn, in premium land values, a considerable, and ever-increasing, sum.
On the other hand of the social scale, the potential amenity value is huge for inner city areas yet the canal remains largely blighted. Attempts to open up the canal to local residents seems, tragically, doomed to failure. For every successful intervention of landscaping and access provision, there are maybe thousands of failures: blackened, broken seats; broken railings; derelict, weed-strewn gardens; graffiti- littered bridges and walls; grass littered with old mattresses, smashed glass and blowing paper.
Much of Birmingham and the Black Country turns its back on the canals, erecting barriers at the end of their property to hide the canal from sight. For the canal is evil.
As the canal is hidden from sight, it becomes suitable ground for the scum of society, those who live only to destroy, distort and hurt. Those for whom damage and distress seems cool. The more the canal is isolated, the more it hides and nurtures the predators.
Our cruise through Wolverhampton last Sunday started with teenage boys through rocks and stones at us and ourt boat. Why? Because they could? Who knows?
It continued with a distressing physical attack by a lad on a girl, leaving her on the towpath crying.
Further along we saw many feral ponies, some in a poor state of health. Men hanging around furtively under bridges, gangs of youths idle, scowling. The canalside had become threatening and dark. All along, we saw extensive graffitti on every firm surface.
Two hundred and fifty years of history, heritage and industry turned vandal's playground; our leisure intrusion was clearly unwelcome. Our boat was a middle-class spectacle: something strange and something alien. We were asked by one of the stone-throwers "Are you foreigners?". A positive answer would have been the pretense for a barrage of rocks. As it was, a few were hurled towards us as we sailed away.
Yet among the darkness, there were many glimpses of light. Many people asked what the boat was like inside. Two years ago at Titford, a small group of initially unfriendly teenagers were won over by being invited on board to see the engine and the cabin inside. They knew nothing about the canal that ran close to their homes but were fascinated as we told them about the collieries, the maltings, the forges, the history.
"Probably my grand-dad," one said, as we talked about the men and women who worked in the grime, soot and unceasing noise. I told them there was a good book about it all, Dickens 'Hard Times'. They asked about the Pumphouse and - as there was an event on - I offered to show them inside. They were fascinated. Later that evening, in the dark and rain, they reappeared dragging a young policewoman.
"Show her the boat! Show here inside!" and so we duly did. Again, there was genuine interest in every aspect of it all, from the boat, to the canal, to the history. Yet no-one had ever bothered to reach out and explain.
Our societies all largely cater for a certain type of person. For the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society, it's boaters. For the angling societies, it's the anglers. The BCNS, in its instructions for the BCN Marathon Challenge, suggested that the Challenge was not just for boaters but also for anglers or walkers or cyclists "however you can". It was a fascinating suggestion, but one that was ultimately shallow, facetious even. How much attempt had been made to engage with these significant others, those who share our love of the canals.
It was certanly an opportunity to engage but one that was doomed to failure. Assuming these anglers, boaters, birdwatchers or cyclists knew enough about the Challenge to have obtained a set of the rules, how were they supposed to take part? Just make it up?
It confirms how little many of us know about others who use the same waterways. We recently discussed whether to go to the right of the canal as we passed a line of anglers, or the left or stay in the middle. Speed up or slow down? In the end, we confessed that we all had absolutely no idea. None of us had ever asked any one of the thousands of anglers we had passed.

If our urban canals are to survive another 60 years - and I fear many arms, branches and lengths in the Black Country will not - then we need, collectively as anglers, birdwatchers, boaters, businesses, cyclists, residents, skateboarders, walkers to work together. The canals are heritage for all. If we share our experiences, our interests and our demands, we will both defend and promote the canals better. The sooner we learn that we as boaters are just one part of the wider canal and waterways community and start looking to engage with others, then we will be a very big step along the path of furthering our cause of preserving it all. When our urban canals are safe, pleasant and contributing to the value of local residents, then our task will be that much easier.

Heron at Oldbury

Monday, 30 May 2011

BCN Marathon Challenge 2011

After a two year gap, while the Chasewater Reservoir was rebuilt and filled up from a BWB tap, the BCN Marathon Challenge brought about 30 boats to the clear, tranquil waters of the West Midlands again.
In an air of quiet, determined competition, half the battle is won in pubs, dining rooms and studies across the country, as teams plot their route to maximise the number of points. There are points for distance, points for locks, points for questions and multipliers for boat draught, number of crew and numbers of crew. More crew, less points; more draught, more points. Computer programmes get written and shared, tactics get debated in computer forum: "More crew, go for locks; less crew, go for distance".
2009 winner NB Muskrat and 2009 runner-up Tawny Owl were both known to be lurking on the BCN the night before, the former keen to retain their title, the Tawny Owl - on which I was a crew member - keen to replace them. We were also tweeting the event as @nbtawnyowl, even though not one member of the eight-strong crew really understood what tweeting was or how to do it.
They don't make bridges like this anymore
The weather forecast suggested cool, grey weather and as our bows rose up the top of the Crow, we were disappointed to see tug Joanna with not one but two butties, and former Yarwoods butty Manchuria, waiting for the off. Protocol dictated that first up, first out would prevail and we faced the prospect of descending the Crow behind two working boats and two bow-hauled butties. Quick discussions ensued.....should we start at the top and risk significant delay or return to the bottom of the Crow, get extra points for doing the locks twice but lose the 20 point Titford Pumphouse starting bonus? Oh questions, questions, questions.
Saturday dawned battleship grey, true to form and at the stroke of 8 o'clock, Tawny Owl slipped its moorings and headed down for Uncle Ben's Bridge. We planned to wind there although the instructions indicated the Navigation Inn winding point, we knew that there is no winding point there and that the bridge hole by the Navigation was very shallow.
We solemnly passed the shattered shell of the Langley Maltings, then ploughed down the 6 locks ahead of the working boats who, politely, had nodded the others through in front of them. With a crew of eight, locks are a breeze and a slick routine established itself quickly, using one lock's water to fill the next. We stuck our noses over the wall to ensure the little stub of the Jim Crow branch was still in water (it is) and commented approvingly on the restored - but unoccupied - cottage by the bottom lock.

All that remains of Combeswood Tubeworks

Our route took us through the Brades staircase and the Netherton Tunnel to "the dark side". Most of us confessed we had never been south of the ridge, so we were on new territory motoring down to Hawne Basin. We had passed Atlas and Malus in the Netherton, wreathed in orange smoke but saw only two more moving boats all morning as we marvelled at the luxuriant greenery along the Dudley Canal. In 2009, we had marvelled at the beauty of the Rushall and Daw End, this time it was the turn of the Dudley Canal. All agreed it was well worth a detour.

We realised that our planning was awry as we were 90 minutes ahead of schedule by the time we winded at Hawne, so decided we would earn 1 point for exploring the Boshboil Arm. On our return at Windmill End, we crossed at full tilt, to the astonishment of gongoozlers, into the 100m-long arm, before reversing out. We knew it was short, but not that short!
We earned no points for the return through the tunnel, but picked up the track again at Dudley Port Junction as we headed west again towards Wolverhampton. We used the Blue Book to identify the historic past of the area, struggling to imagine Spring Vale, Bilston Gas Works, the old Bantocks boatyard and all the industry around Catchem Corner.
Wolverhampton proved as undesirable as in the past, with our only trouble there - as last time out. Unpleasant, racist, stone-throwing youths were followed shortly after by the shocking sight of a young man punching a girl then stamping on her as she lay on the ground. Even as he turned his aggressive attention on us, we were on the phone to 999, requesting help. As someone with roots in Wolverhampton, I was as sad this weekend, as I was in 2009, that the only unpleasant experiences were in that town - not in Birmingham, Walsall, Oldbury, Dudley or Sandwell. We motored on towards Pelsall Common as the day turned slowly to dusk and to night. We passed the 14 boats of the Wolverhampton Boat Club - rather surprised they weren't joining the BCNS event - and then Joanna and others resting up for the night.
All through Wolverhampton, we had seen ponies - feral, perhaps - in the rough ground, alongside the canal, just wandering wild. We wondered if this was My Little Pony Land.
All along the waterway, we were waved at by beaming children and adults, many of whom said they had never seen a boat "up here".
As darkness descended, we turned into the Cannock Extension, mindful of the two white vans parked on the towpath at the junction. Inside, two men watched TV. In front, a young woman sat in a Peugeot.
We moored up for the 6 hour break in the quiet of the fields and trees.
At 3.45 we were woken, not by our alarm clocks, but by the sound of Yeoford chugging past. It was all hands to the mooring lines as we set off for The Grove. The gloom of night lifted as quickly as it arrived and we were in the grey light of Pelsall. Darkened houses, drawn curtains, just the sound of birds as we set off again.
We turned a bend to see two young men carrying a very large circular mirror along the towpath. "We've been to a party," said one, grinning broadly. It sounded suspiciously like a prearranged phrase to be used in the event of being asked by a policeman. Good parties here: you get to take furniture home in lieu of a paper bag full of lollipops and a bit of cake. Still, no more damn ponies.
We swung back and forth in the cool morning air, observing the correlation between house value and propensity to make a feature of the canal at the end of the garden. The inhabitants of one new conmplex of executive housing has seen fit to add twee pontoons jutting out precariously. We frowned disapprovingly and headed onward to near the northern extremity of the BCN, where we winded and started our southward trek down the Daw End and Rushall Canals.
We follow NB Firefly down the Rushall flight then turn onto the Tame Valley Canal where we discuss how or if we should make diversions for more points. Back along the Tame Valley for 21, up to Ryders Green for 32 and maybe more, back and forth along the Walsall for a few more.
But we are tiring fast. We turn right at Golds Hill and make our way up the long last stretch to Walsall. Last time, we had marvelled at how slow the Walsall Canal is, and it was the same this year. We were reduced to a slow creep, wondering how many others were doing the same, just out of sight.
So relaxed, we all spent much of the time snogging
An hour ahead of schedule we turned in to the Walsall Town arm, joining six other boats queueing to be gauged at the narrow point. The basin has changed since last time, with a bg complex of flats and houses just by the entrance. The sight of one boat, let alone a whole bunch of them, brought residents to their balconies. We finished our marathon, spinning nicely to reverse in alongside Dove.
24 hours cruising since 8am yesterday. The BCN Marathon Challenge brings a great community together, and the show is not about the best boat, or the oldest or the cutest. A 20' Dawncraft or hybrid GRP boat is as welcome as the most expensive or traditional craft. In fact there is a distinct shortage of marina gin-palace craft in the Challenge. (They are all at Crick) It's a very unpretentious, hands-on, get-dirty event which is about canals. And your boat. And eating and drinking with friends. For me, no other canal event evokes the pioneering "use it or lose it" spirit of the early waterways activists quite like the Challenge.
Bring on BCN Marathon Challenge 2012!