Thursday, 21 June 2007

"Pull harder Mr. Allnutt"
We all know that "Play it again, Sam" did not appear in Casablanca but choose to ignore that fact in the name of Art. I cannot recall whether Katherine Hepburn actually made the utterance above to Humphrey Bogart in the film African Queen but I am now making my bid for immortality by creating a new legend to be perpetuated by future generations. I am sure the Hollywood version of the missionary's sister would have said this if the scriptwriters had been smart enough. So start quoting it and remember me when you do so.
Most of the film was made on location in East Africa and Margaret's father saw some of this taking place on Lake Victoria. If you have not seen the film I suggest you read the book by C.S.Florrester which, without the Hollywood ending, is a much better story. However, those of you who have seen the film will understand why I believe that at least part of the location work was carried out on the Aylesbury Arm. As we passed, those reeds those nearest to the boat lay down in supplication and then rose slowly after our passing to resume their original stance. So even the reeds believe me.
On arrival at the town basin we experienced the warm and helpful welcome for which Aylesbury Canal Society is renowned across the canals. However, ACS is under threat.In order to pay off DEFRA's fines for failing to make the Farm Payments on time, BW has had its grant cut and is now embarking on an accelerated programme of property redevelopment. (how long, I wonder, will it be before BW is solely a property company and the Environmental Agency take on the management of the canals?) In Aylesbury they are conniving with Bucks County Council to move the boats out of the town to enhance their redevelopment plans. It seems that their view is that a canal should not be occupied by canal boats with real live people actually living on them. A canal basin should be surrounded by new apartments and coffee shops where commuters can be at one with a sanitized water feature whilst the boats are moved out of town and out of sight. After the horrendous concrete structures erected in the 1960's one would have thought that the council would not be in such a hurry to repeat this folly. Improve the area, by all means. Make it more accessible for all canal users - pedestrians, ramblers, cyclists, anglers etc - but don't forget why the canal is there at all. It was not built to be gazed at but to be used.

Returning to African Queen,
is it possible that the Aylesbury Arm
provided inspiration for other scenes too?

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

An Armless Arm
One of the more popular vehicles of self-deprecation aadopted by the British is the time it takes nowadays to plan and build anything. In 1814 when the canal arrived in Aylesbury the residents of what was NOT the county town at that time might have had similar feelings. The original plan, launched in 1794 had been to connect the Grand Junction Canal at Marsworth to the Thames at Abingdon. Opposition from the Thames Commissioners scuppered that idea but an arm was built as far as Aylesbury. The construction of six miles, sixteen narrow locks and eighteen narrower bridges actually took only three years. Planning, debating and negotiating - particularly the over the water rights with the Grand Junction Canal Company - accounted for the other seventeen years.
When we arrived at Marsworth this morning to start our descent from the Chilterns into the Vale of Aylesbury work was in progress to replace the balance beams on the two-step staircase locks and so we had a wait of about four hours. It was pleasing to note that these beams were made in England from English Oak . When BW closed the Bulboune yard back in 1995 they had started bringing complete lock gates in from the Netherlands. I am unsure of the origin of the wood used.
Due to our delayed start of the great descent we stopped overnight near Wilstone and walked across the field to see the Jolley family whose daughter, Kate, sculpted the gecko which graces our tiller pin on high days and holidays.

Monday, 18 June 2007

It's a load of rubbish
Recycling is quite a challenge on the canals as BW provision is very rare and local authorities cannot agree on what they can take. Some will take card and paper, some paper only; some take only aluminium cans, other steel too; some take all plastic, other cannot cope with polystyrene; aluminium foil throws everything into further chaos. However, we know that at Cosgrov there is a site near the caravans where we can get rid of all the bits we have been carrying around for the past few weeks. Well we thought we knew! No sign of bins but there is a sign - FACILITIES FOR RECYCLING IS NO LONGER PROVIDED DUE TO HEALTH AND SAFETY CONCERNS. WHAT???
I think it's time to recycle some of the H&S jerks who cannot understand that the purpose of risk assessment is to determine how to manage the risk. Elimination of the risk by banning the activity is a giant cop-out. And while we are on the subject of rubbish, what do the local authorities who are planning to charge by weight for collecting rubbish (in addition to the Council Tax, no doubt) think the result will be? Have they heard of fly-tipping? If driving to the council tip incurs a charge then it will be easier to throw it under a hedge somewhere. That will certainly save everyone money and improve health and safety.

After this shock to the system it was good to moor at Fenny Stratford one again (ten mins after the heavens opened of course) and to chat to Gordon on nb Alderbaran. Beckie was out with Alex and his new brother Matthew. Perhaps we will see them on our return in August.

Swing bridge and stop lock at Fenny Stratford

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Tunnel Vision
After the recent heavy storms Stoke Bruerne tunnel is a two mile cold shower and to add to the enjoyment we meet six boats during our passage. We emerge into glorious sunshine to be met by about 80 people with cameras. And music. And boats moored four abreast. And more people. And trip boats trying to turn round. And yet more people. see Waterways World August edition p60 for a rear-end view of us!The Canal Museum is free this weekend and all the boats attending the Braunston rally last weekend seem to have come here. In a mischievous moment, Margaret assures the boats about to enter the tunnel that it is not wet inside and that they will be fine in T-shirt and shorts. Creeping between the boats, I am looking for the lock. About two hundred people with ice-creams or pints of beer are congregated where the lock should be but .... oh yes, there it is and I can just see a boat entering through the left hand gate. I shall be able to share the broad lock with it when someone opens the other gate. If they don't open it soon I shall have to stop and get lined up again. Maybe they are hoping for some excitement -if I ram the gate will that satisfy them? At last the message gets through - boat cannot enter lock when gate is shut - and a kind but rather bemused lady pushes the balance beam to give me access. There is such a carnival atmosphere that it seems a shame to leave but we need to keep going if we are to get to Aylesbury by June 23rd for Ballinger Players' production of Educating Rita.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Watford Gap
After a quick foray up the Welford Arm (1.5miles) we moored at Crick where were joined for elevensies by the famous author Martin Lloyd. (The Passport; Trouble with France; Trouble with Spain; The Chinese Transfer, his first novel). The tunnels are getting longer as we progress - Husbands Bosworth yesterday was 1166 yards, Crick which we pass through this afternoon is 1528 yards and tomorrow we have to tackle Stoke Bruerne which is exactly twice as long. The weather has been glorious all day but a nasty trend is emerging - ten minutes before we moor for the night the heavens open and soak us comprehensively so that we steam all evening. Tonight we start the descent via the flight at Watford (not that one). These will be the last narrow locks for a while as we join the GU main line at Norton Jct.
Back in the days when hitch-hiking was my normal mode of transport I changed lifts frequently at The Blue Boar (Watford Gap Services) without ever noticing this flight of locks. It is impossible not to notice the M1 when on the canal.
Elderflower Junkie
For the past few days the boat has been overrun with the paraphernalia relating to Margaret's annual Elderflower Cordial production - tanks of stewing flowers, bottles full of sterilizing fluid etc. This year there has been a problem. Whilst the flowers are abundant it has been difficult obtaining citric acid which is, apparently, an essential ingredient. Many pharmacists no longer stock it and when we find one that does we are restricted to one packet. Why? Because "it can be abused" I confess I have heard Margaret curse under her breathe on occasion during the production process but I would not have called it abuse and to my knowledge it is never been directed at the citric acid. I was going to publish the recipe but having revised my risk assessment in the light of this new data I can only make it available on receipt of a signed waiver.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Foxton on the Up
Although we have been climbing steadily since leaving the Trent some nine days ago we have still not reached the summit. (That reminds me - do you remember Exquisite Form Inc changing its name to The Summit Corp in around 1969?). At Foxton we have to climb 75' by means of two five-step staircases. Whenever illustrations of dramatic locks are required it seems that the Five Rise at Bingley, has a better publicist than Foxton where there are TWO sets with room between them for boats to pass. There is always an audience at these locks and today is no exception. It takes us just about an hour which isn't bad and we carry a little Brazilian lad up two of them. At the top there are now four boats who have been waiting a similar length of time for us to clear the locks to start their descent.
The Top Five at Foxton

In 1900 an inclined plane was installed to try to alleviate this problem in face of increasing competition from the railways. The passage was reduced very considerably but fifteen years later the running costs forced its closure and it was dismantled and scrapped. Fortunately the canal enthusiast is a persistent animal and over the last few years the remaining traces of this structure have been uncovered and the area now has viewing platforms, a museum and a refurbished pub. The docks at the bottom have been renovated and the top pound has been dug out and re-watered. One day we may see the inclined plane back and working.

Remains of the rail tracks on which the caissons transported boats up and down the hill. The rails came from the GWR when it changed from 7' to standard guage.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Horses for Courses
In 1950 the first campaign rally organised by the newly formed Inland Waterways Association (IWA) took place at Market Haraborough. This is now an annual event taking place over the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August. This year it is at St. Ives in Cambridgeshire.
After visiting Fleckney yesterday we moored overnight near Foxton and came along the lock-free arm to Market Harborough this morning. I think this was originally part of an unsuccessful planned route to Northampton. Last time I came here the basin was a mess and full of toffee-coloured hire boats of the then ubiquitous Anglo-Welsh fleet. It has undergone something of a facelift in the meantime and is now full of the no less numerous CanalTime hire boats.
As we came up Taylor's Turnover Lock yesterday we were tempted to convert Gecko to horse power as there was a fine looking beast grazing the lock bank. At present leisure boats like ourselves are permitted to use red diesel which attracts a lower rate of duty and consequently is around half the price of DERV. Our ever-supportive Government has now relinquished this derogation of the EU regulations and so from next year our heating, cooking and lighting costs will double overnight. If we lived on land we would still be able to buy fuel exempt from duty and attracting only 5% VATto run our central heating and hot water. But as we represent only a minute proportion of the electorate why should the British Government stand up for us like other European governments have for their boaters? President Bliar (Freudian slip?) would prefer to spend our money of a Grand Farewell Tour. This change in regulations will hit us particularly hard as we have no gas on Gecko and so rely on diesel for all our power requirements .

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

No Food at the Inn
One of the reasons we enjoy life on the inland waterways is the 'old fashioned' values of helpfulness and courtesy which prevail. Last night we moored near a man taking his boat up to Market Harborough single handed. As the locks are all twice as wide as a narrowboat along here we arranged to set off early with him and work up the flight together. About half way up we passed a boat from Rippon which was preparing to set off from its overnight mooring. To their enquiry as to whether we were going up the locks we informed them of our arrangement, expecting them to follow the two of us. However, they quickly pulled out behind Gecko and in front of our single-handed partner. It was obvious they intended to join us in the next lock and leave the other boat to manage alone. Consequently we let them overtake and take the locks ahead of us. Their unusual behaviour was summed up by our lock partner thus "Flat cap, overalls - different rules"
Being on the outskirts of Leicester (the Beirut of the canals) all the locks we are negotiating today are chained and padlocked to deter vandals from emptying the pounds. However, lack of maintenance by BW achieved the same result at one lock and we had to open all the paddles on the next lock until sufficient water came down to lift us off the mud.
The navigational bible for the inland waterways is Nicholson's. There have been ,and are, many other guides around but they all fall short in one area or another. When Robert Nicholson first published his guides they were very personal in their assessment of facilities and local amenities. I well remember the entry for Fleckney, Leics and how appropriate it was -
'A grim industrial town with no apparent reason for its existence'
When the Ordnance Survey acquired the guides in 1989 the sanitized version read:
'An industrial village just 10 mins walk form the canal. Very useful for its supermarket, fish & chips and take-away Chinese.'
Back in 1998 Denny and Nikki from Minneapolis came over in mid February for their first visit despite having promised that they would do so every year since 1979. On the Saturday we took them to the Cotswolds and enjoyed a walk around the Slaughters. (What, Americans who can walk? I hear you say). That evening we tried every B&B within driving distance and failed to find anywhere to sleep. Our equally unsuccessful search for food did, however, provide us with the reason for this unseasonable tourism when we waked into a restaurant bedecked with red hearts. Yes, St. Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday that year and we ended up driving home to sleep. The next day, in response to popular demand, I tracked down a hire boat available for a couple of days cruising - at Foxton. On Sunday night, therefore, we found ourselves in Fleckney having walked almost five miles in a large circle from the canal but at a pub which proclaimed how good their Sunday lunches were. Sunday dinners were a different matter - they did not exist. So to cap my inability to find a bed on Saturday I now demonstrated how not to find anything to eat in an English country pub. My reputation improved only imperceptibly when I persuaded the party to follow me across a field and back to the canal in less than half a mile. When the battery was flat in the morning and we were unable to start the boat I gave up all ideas I had of becoming a travel guide.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

It's a shame about Leicester

We have been told that there are many things to interest us in Leicester and the evidence from the canal supports this. We have also been told not to leave the boat unattended even on the mooring provided by BW with a cage and only accessible by key. Hence, like so many other water travellers ,we have driven down the avenue of the Mile Straight admiring the architecture but without stopping.

One of the attractive bridges on the Mile Straight

Last time I passed this way was about 20 years ago on a hire boat with some friends. I was driving as we approached Freeman's Lock in Leicester and anticipating a refreshing pint of ale at the end of the day. Ahead I saw a wide expanse of water, as still as a mill pond so I swung the tiller over to describe a large circle with the boat. Half way round I realised my mistake. My analogy of a mill pond was very apt - unseen in the evening sun was an au unprotected weir stretching right across the middle of my mill pond. Depending on your point of view incredible skill or luck was responsible for me completing the circle without foundering. When we approached the same site this morning in Gecko I remembered my previous escapade and behaved very responsibly. This is now overlooked by the Leicester Town football stadium.

Can you see the weir?

Monday, 11 June 2007

The Solution for Global Warning?
This evening another Landmark Friend, Fiona, brought her toddler son Lucas to visit whilst Tony had to work. She also brought a very tasty vegan cake that she had baked for us. It is a well supported premise that vegetarians contribute more than there fair share of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere but I had never thought of such a novel solution as making them into cakes.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Glorious Devon
A long weekend in Torbay where Margaret was brought up. Unbroken sunshine. Paddling in the sea. Mist rolling in and the fog horn sounding. Second BBQ of the season - this time with Margaret's brother Clive and Wend.

Drive out to Coleton Fishacre (NT) - Art Deco gem hidden away on coast near Kingswear. What is happening to Gecko left on the R. Soar amid forecasts of heavy rain? Drive back via Bath and follow Fosse Way from Cirencester all the way to Leicester. Relief to find no rainfall - hurrahh the forecast was wrong again.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Sir John Smith
Today we are on our way by car to Torbay but thinking of the memorial service this morning in the chapel of Eton College. Of course his memorial will exist well beyond our lives and his:
Through The Manifold Trust he was instrumental in bringing HMS Belfast to London and SS Great Britain to Bristol.
He founded The Landmark Trust which rescues and restores vernacular buildings and makes them available for occupation as holiday lets.
As a director of The National Trust he is credited with persuading that body to take on the Southern Stratford Canal and restore it for leisure use and, arguably, giving impetus to all subsequent canal restoration projects. He also reunited the founders of IWA after their rift. His contribution to the inland waterways may never be fully appreciated. (Recently The Manifold Trust contributed substantially to the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration campaign)

For a fuller obituary go to The Independent Online

Thursday, 7 June 2007

A Barrow Ride
Just as we set off from Loughborough this morning we received a call from our Landmark friend Joe to say he was coming for a ride.
Barrow-on-Soar to Loughborough on the Ivanhoe line - 4 mins.
Loughborough to Barrow-on-Soar by canal - 90 mins.
I wonder why the canals declined as a mode of transport.
After a relaxing walk around Bradgate Park with John and Joe we enjoyed a marvellous dinner at The White Swan in Sileby. (01509 814832). If the bar snacks are anything like the restaurant meal we had then this should be on your list of Good Grub Pubs. To top of the exquisite food and charming company the landlady/chef, Teresa decorated our table with some Geckos from here collection.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Who has seen Big Ben?
I am not keen on water with a mind of its own. I like it to stand still whilst we navigate Gecko. But today we have travelled several miles down the River Trent from Shardlow and even more miles up the River Soar. And survived! The waterway to Loughborough has so many weirs it was difficult to know when we were on river and when on canal. However it only needs a weepy film on tv to generate enough waster to cause the Soar to flood. Then it's easy to tell. The first locks we encountered after leaving the Trent were obviously replacements as there was evidence of older locks alongside.

Kegworth Old Lock

Loughborough boasts the largest bell foundry in the world - Taylors - where Great Paul, the 17ton bell at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, was cast. Local residents may also tell you that Big Ben was cast here but this is another of the many stories which surround this bell. It was actually cast in Stockton-on-Tees and weighed 16tons. As the tower was unready Big Ben was first hung in Palace Yard but it cracked in use. The metal was recast at the only other bell foundry now existing in England - Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the east end of London. In this process it appears to have lost 2.5 tons. Along with most natives of this country and all tourists - I have never seen Big Ben but I am very familiar with its sound and with St. Stephen's Tower which houses it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

1947 was a very good year
If you endured the Big Freeze or the floods which washed away the Cavendish Bridge near Shardlow, you might not agree whole-heartedly with this statement. However, those of us who were born in 1947 and also within the Chinese Year of the Golden Pig stand by it.
On our many trips to the Derby cousins in the Standard Vanguard Phase II (not the egg-shaped Phase I) we children would start the journey up the A5 by playing pub cricket but would gradually fall into the torpor induced by four hours without exercise.
The wake up call was provided by a clanking and rattling a few miles outside Derby as we crossed the River Trent at Cavendish Bridge. In 1941 Sir Donald Bailey developed the giant Mecanno like bridge which bore his name and when the stone bridge here was washed away it was replaced by one of these amazing structures. The design brief was to produce a bridge that could span up to 200ft, be carried in a 3 ton truck and assembled quickly by six unskilled men using no specialised equipment. This particular example was erected in 1947 and finally replaced in 1957.

The original Cavendish Bridge

There is now no bridge here as the A6 bypasses the village but the position of the bailey bridge is still visible ( with the bypass in the distance)

Monday, 4 June 2007

Toast & Top Hats
As a child breakfast consisted of cereal, milk and sugar. That is, real milk - from Channel Island cows - not the white water which currently masquerades as milk. I recently bought some 'Gold Top' milk in a supermarket trying to recapture the taste of my youth but was perplexed that the label proclaimed only 4% fat. The point of Channel Island milk was the richness of its cream which is hardly achieved by restricting the fat content! I suppose if I look hard enough I shall find low fat dripping and lite suet. Ugh!! When we visited our cousins in Derby we encountered a strange product called Sterilized milk. This homogenised and creamy flavoured milk is still available in its distinctive bottle with the Crown Cork closure. Whilst the cousins benefited from the egalitarian creaminess they never had the experience of opening a new bottle of real milk and, by very careful pouring, depositing an unfair share of the cream on their cornflakes. Nor did their bottles develop a top hat in the winter when the frozen cream would rise out out of the bottle by about two inches pushing the gold top up with it. Sometimes on a Sunday Dad would make rasher sandwiches liberally sprinkled with vinegar and pepper. But for some reason we never had toast. This was a mystery to me until we visited the cousins. Here I discovered that the technique practised by Aunty Dot was to toast the bread under the grill until it was black and then take it into the back yard and scrape the black off with a bone-handled knife. Not until I left home did I discover that toast could be produced with less effort by removing it before it burnt.
Over the past few days we have met each of the cousins again and in the process started the BBQ season.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

How to make toast
Two months ago we left our winter moorings in Stourport-on-Severn and today we arrived in Shardlow, south of Derby. These two towns apparently share the distinction of being the only inland ports in England developed primarily for the canal trade. Whilst there had been trade on the Rivers Severn and Trent for many years before the canals arrived no transshipment ports existed prior to James Brindley cutting his 'stinking ditches' - not his words. His vision was of a 'silver cross' of canals linking the four corners on England - NW, NE,SW,SE. Sadly he did not live to see it fulfilled. Brindley might still recognise many of the buildings in Shardlow however - salt warehouses and the like - despite many of them now being used for residential purposes. Stourport has a further distinction in the canal history stakes - it did not exist before the Staffs & Worcs cansl arrived - and so claims to be our first canal town.

On Monday we have to get the engine serviced at Dobsons yard but this afternoon we visited the Heritage Centre. For 50 pence we spent a happy couple of hours browsing the fascinating pictures and documents relating to the history of Shardlow and environs. This is well worth the visit but only opens on Saturday and Sunday afternoons between Easter and October as it relies exclusively on volunteers. A little money from the national lottery wouldn't come amiss.

Toast? - I'll tell you about that tomorrow.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Get your kicks on Route 6
Sustrans is an organisation which promotes sustainable transport. A significant part of their strategy has been the construction of cycle routes, the longest of which links London to the Lake District. Route 6 crosses the Trent & Mersey Canal here at Swarkestone where it follows the bed of the disused Derby Canal (closed in 1964) From here we made two excursions - one on foot and one by bike.

The only stretch of the Derby Canal still in water

The pedestrian trip was fairly short - up to the hamlet of Swarkestone to take a look at the Pavillion - a Landmark property we had only seen before in the dark.
This is a fascinating place for two people to stay. There is no accommodation on the ground floor: the bed/sitting room is in the middle; the kitchen is to the right in the picture and the bathroom is in the turret immediately above. To attend to the call of nature it is necessary to scale the staircase in the other turret and walk across the open roof.

After a quick glass of Margaret's elderflower fizz we extracted the two Bromptons from their locker and set off along the superbly paved cycle/footpath into Derby. For five miles or so we followed the Derby Canal bed until we joined the River Derwent for the last mile or so up to the weir. The weather was hot and the path was very well used by walkers and cyclists.