Thursday, 16 August 2007

West Side Story
In the early nineteenth century burials in London were getting out of hand with overcrowding etc and so the government authorised the building of seven private cemeteries around the metropolis. One of the most famous today is Highgate Cemetery which we visited in August. Many visitors are attracted by the grave of Karl Marx which, by the way, supporters of Marxism paid to be moved from its original position to accommodate the crowds. Other notable graves include the parents of Rod Stewart.
However, Highgate Cemetery has a Jekyll and Hyde personality. The first cemetery was built to the west of the lane in 1839 but when this became crowded the East Cemetery was built in 1854. Marx rests in the latter. For a couple of pounds each the public can wander around this area which resembles an open park. But for real Hammer House of Horrors atmosphere you need to join a guided walk around the West Cemetery. This is really spooky and a lot more interesting than the East side. Walks are not frequent - probably only two per day but are extremely good value.
In uncharacteristic August fashion, the day was sunny and hot so we went for a walk in Kensington Gardens and were drawn to the Diana memorial. Despite all the bad press it received when first completed it is a relaxing area which is very popular with children and an appropriate monument to the sad life of the princess.
From there we gravitated to The Serpentine where we joined the tourists by renting a pedallo for an hour. This is a bit like propelling a tandem - it is obvious that your partner is not pushing their weight.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Where did August go?
On our way into London we picked up a stray Maggie at Alperton and transported her to Paddington Basin where we found L'Attitude Adjustment keeping a berth warm for us.
During the three weeks we spent in the region of Little Venice we took in a few plays, did some sight seeing and caught up with a few friends.
Absurdia at the Donmar Warehouse was brilliantly zany
Spamalot was not Pythonesque enough for me
Merchant of Venice at the Globe was a fantastic afternoon's entertainment

The big event of the month was the arrival of our first Grandchild

Dominic weighed in at 8lb 8oz on Aug 14 just 360 days after Doug and Gem's marriage.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Brentford Birds

We arrived here yesterday in torrential rain which is appropriate as most of the boats here are waiting for the Thames to deposit the flood waters from Oxfordshire in order to permit access via the Gauging Lock.

Gauging Lock and new flats where warehouses previously served the canal & river freight

Walking around yesterday evening after the rain we viewed Kew Gardens on the opposite bank of the river and Margaret expressed a wish to visit it today. In an uncharacteristic bout of generosity I gave her a shilling for her entrance and some lunch. (What do you mean entrance is no longer one penny?)

With Margaret gone for the day I decided t0 try my luck with the local birds.

This Coot gave me the cold shoulder as she floated past me on her narrow boat.

Whilst the Cormorant was playing hard to get

Thursday, 26 July 2007

All Smoke and Mirrors
A few months ago, Ali and Elaine decided to move their boat Ellie Mae from its berth in Stourport to a marina near Napton. Imagine our surprise this morning, when Ali knocked on our door around breakfast time. He was working in the area and being a true canalaholic could not pass Bull's Bridge without having a look - and lo! there we were.
This site used to house a BW maintenance yard with dry dock and engineering facilities. It has now been recycled (=demolished) for a giant Tesco store. The dry dock remains as a reminder to any customer who can find it behind the shop. On the site also there is an amazing recycling point. It houses a conveyor into which you put your items one at a time. It then sorts them and, presumably, deposits them into the appropriate bin. I hope this is powered by solar energy otherwise its contribution to global warming will be no better than the ludicrous Carbon Trading programme. Who honestly believes that paying someone in Africa to plant a tree every time we fly to New York is going to do more that assuage the guilt of the passengers?
As with most of our politicians' output, it's all smoke and mirrors.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Slough of Despond?
As we were contemplating exploring the Slough Arm it started raining and blowing a gale so we decided to continue to Bull's Bridge where the Paddington Arm leaves the main line. Through this horizontal precipitation we spied a plastic launch in difficulties. On hailing the unfortunate sailors we were informed that their engine had stopped working so we towed them round to their marina mooring.
The almost dead straight five mile arm from Cowley Peachey to Slough was one of the last canals to be built in England . In 1882 the railways were making an impact on transport economics throughout the land. However it did survive for a while, taking bricks into London for the building boom and bringing back domestic waste. This was not, I believe, the reason many locals refer to Slough as The Dump. This is more likely to have originated after WW1 when many of the military vehicles were brought to what is now the Trading Estate for disposal.
The town has been immortalised by John Betjeman (in the 1930s) and, more recently, by Rickey Gervaise. Which will be the more enduring depiction we will have to wait to see.
May I remind you of John Betjeman's contribution?


Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough

It isn't fit for humans now,

There isn't grass to graze a cow

Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens

Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,

Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans

Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town --

A house for ninety-seven down

And once a week for half-a-crown

For twenty years,

And get that man with double chin

Who'll always cheat and always win,

Who washes his repulsive skin

In women's tears,

And smash his desk of polished oak

And smash his hands so used to stroke

And stop his boring dirty joke

And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add

The profits of the stinking cad;

It's not their fault that they are mad,

They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know

The birdsong from the radio,

It's not their fault they often go

To Maidenhead

And talk of sports and makes of cars

In various bogus Tudor bars

And daren't look up and see the stars

But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care

Their wives frizz out peroxide hair

And dry it in synthetic air

And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough

To get it ready for the plough.

The cabbages are coming now;

The earth exhales.

John Betjeman

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Uxbridge English Dictionary
Devotees of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue will probably remember the following definition from the Uxbridge English Dictionary:
Kings Cross Station = Regal Lobster
For those less fortunate - read it aloud, concatenating the last two words and it will come to you.

This came into my mind after walking up Uxbridge High Street and finding the charming Regal Cinema building. No longer a cinema, it has been replaced by a multi-screen box discretely tucked away behind the earlier buildings of the High St.
Uxbridge seems to have come up in the world since our last visit. There are few empty or run-down shops and now boasts two new shopping centres. The architecture is eclectic with a wide variety of modern buildings.

By the canal an office block has been built to resemble an ocean liner from some angels. The reason for this is not altogether clear. Perhaps its first tenants were in shipping.It is currently occupied by Parexel, the company responsible for the dreadful tests which went wrong at Northwick Park Hospital a few months ago.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Water, water everywhere...
With a lack of imagination and disregard for context, Fleet Street hacks flooded the front pages with these words this week. If they had read Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner they would have appreciated how inappropriate their 'quote' was:
Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink
Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink.
This reflected the absence of rain - not quite the problem in Glos at present.
Back in June we left the flood-prone River Soar a day before the rains closed it. Since when we have been lucky enough to be unaffected by the navigation restrictions which now seem to apply everywhere except the Grand Union south of Milton Keynes. Every day we are getting messages from fellow boaters who are unable to move. Some have been stuck for six weeks. In Rickmansworth we are surrounded by rivers and lakes but the local water management seems to have been very effective. We are moored opposite Tesco which occupies the site of Walkers boatyard where traditional narrowboats were built for years.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

4000 Bikes in Apsley, Hertfordshire
When Margaret and I first met I was working in Two Waters for a crash repair 'shop, just opposite the confluence of the Rivers Bulborne and Gade. In those days John Dickinson Ltd was still producing Croxley Script, Basildon Bond and other paper products in the numerous mills along the valley. When the afternoon shift changed the roads around Apsley and Hemel Hempstead resembled Beijing with the workforce all cycling home pell-mell. I used to walk along the canal occasionally to Rose's wharf where drums of lime juice were delivered by canal boat from London. This stretch of the Grand Union has changed considerably since that time. Rose's Wharf is now B&Q; the paper mills have all gone apart form Croxley and the Ovaltine farm and factory is now blocks of flats. Such is progress.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

What a Banker!
After retracing our tracks through the mosquito-infested water of the Aylesbury Arm we rejoined the Grand Union main line at Marssworth. Here we resumed our journey south to our next diary date - Lynsey & Dan's wedding in Rickmansorth on July 14.
Fortunately for the trek through these broad locks as far as Berkhamsted we paired up with a Wyvern Cruiser from Leighton Buzzard. which appeared to have a limitless supply of young and active crew. As we chatted in the locks it transpired that there were three such boats travelling in convoy, the crew being RBS bank staff on a team-building exercise. After observing one particular member who obviously saw her contribution to the team as solely decorative I asked the organiser if there was any evidence that these events were any more effective than the Xmas party. This elicited an irate but naive response that "they (RBS) wouldn't pay if it wasn't effective."
Once these bankers had stopped for their lunch we continued our descent from the Tring summit alone and on to Boxmoor to re-acquaint ourselves with the herd of Belted Galloway's grazing there and with Weston's wet fish shop for the best fish and chips in the area.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Oh the Ignominy!
Whilst Gecko languished in Aylesbury basis for two and a half weeks partaking of the local electricity, we sneaked off to see the Ballinger Players production of Educating Rita. This was by way of a bonus as they usually restrict themselves to two productions per year - March and November. We lived locally for almost twenty years and during that time missed very few of these productions. This is dining theatre with a difference. Patrons take their own food and crockery and eat throughout the performance if they so wish. Once again we (8) were treated to Sue A's heavenly quiche accompanied by salads and followed by dessert and coffee. The choice of show was very brave and the performance justified the effort.
The following week we assembled a different team of six to participate in a quiz night at Little Missenden village hall organised by Kate A to raise funds for Breast Cancer support. Our valiant effort resulted in us sharing last place. It will be a long while before we shake off the stigma of sharing last place. From other viewpoints such as fund raising and catering the evening was a great success.

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.

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Meetings and missings
When we stopped for water near Endon on the Caldon Canal a week or so ago we passed a little tug - Ivy - which appeared to be unoccupied. Ivy usually lives at Willington where her owners, Trevor and Marion, live. Today we are in Willington and Trevor and Marion are on the Caldon Canal. We have never met yet, but my mother's cousin, Babs, who lives near here knows them very well and I believe they do exist.
We did manage to meet Babs this afternoon and enjoyed her splendid cooking. Yesterday her younger daughter and two grand-daughters visited us in Burton for something of a reunion.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

We left Gt. Haywood on Sudday afternoon during a break in the rain which proved to be much briefer than we had anticipated. However we enjoyed the fresh air, mooring just short of Rugeley. On the way we passed Me and er another Severn Valley boat in its distinctive turquoise livery. At one of the locks we also met a couple of campanologists moving their mooring to Stourport. As Craig and Janet, who share their interest, will be mooring there this winter with Rainbow Lorikeet they should settle quite quickly into their new berth by the rug shop.
Having lost my sense of smell a few years ago I was unable to appreciate the aroma here by Marston's Brewery in Burton on Trent. However I can remember waiting for a bus outside Young's Wandsworth brewery every morning for three weeks during my first teaching practice in Fulham in 1969 and how it really set me up for the day ahead.

Passing the brewery last October

Saturday, 26 May 2007

A cordial evening
On our way to Great Haywood Jct we learned that Di & Martin had moored Uisce Beatha there whilst they went off to the Crick show. Margaret spent the day making elderflower cordial from her hedgerow garnering and in the evening we drank a few beers with Di & Martin and put the world to rights. We moored directly behind Uisce Beatha adn shared this view of Shugborough Hall from our porthole

Friday, 25 May 2007

Stoned again!
The owners of Trentham Gardens near Stoke have been spending a lot of money recently and now the visitors are doing the same in the convenient retail park. But there is no need to spend anything. To walk around the lake takes a good hour and a half and can be extended by climbing up to the monument. And to enjoy the gardens is free. We spent a lovely afternoon there yesterday and even spent some money in the shops. The usual culprits are there but one shop in particular took our fancy - it sells predominently local produce which is mostly unpackaged, including frozen fruit, and the shelves are labelled with the food miles involved in bringing the item to sale. We bought some asparagus that had travelled four miles. Some of it travelled a little further before it was consumed.
Thence to Stone where we filled up with diesel at Stone Boat Builders but did not see any stone boats - perhaps they had sunk. We took our first canal holiday in 1976 from Canla Cruising Co here in Stone and they are still going strong.This undoubted event of national interest has been overshadowed recently by the antics of Terry Darlington who hit the headlines with his Narrow Dog to Carcassonne . His boat was prepared for the loopy journey by CCC.
Stone is another interesting canal town which has suffered some redevelopment but managed to stop it before wiping out everything of interest. The Joules Brewery building is still standing and the pedestrianised High Street has much to keep browsers happy.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Catch them unawares
The Etruscan Flint and Bone Mill at Etruria, you may recall, was closed on Bank Holiday Monday a few weeks ago but we have crept back down the Caldon Canal over the past few days in order to arrive here at noon on Wednesday when it opens. And we succeeded! Although Jesse Shirley & Co still grind flint here for the production of pottery and cattle bones for bone china, this is now carried out in vast new premises. The original steam-powered mill has been preserved and for a small fee one can walk around the Kiln, Crusher room, Gear room, Pan room, Boiler House, and Engine House. Once a month the Princess beam engine built in 1820 is in steam when all the machinery does its thing.
Next weekend the Stoke-on-Trent Boat Club is celebrating its golden anniversary with a boat rally to which they are expecting about 150 boats. We must have met most of them coming the other way!

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Back in the Five (?) Towns
After our trip to Bristol yesterday we drove down to see our friend Ruth in Sturminster Newton. As we did not give her any notice she could not produce the usual gourmet meal for us. However, Sturminster has another culinary secret - the best curry restaurant in Dorset. It is very unassuming and does not have an alcohol licence but the food is exquisite and the menu a delight of unusual dishes. I can only give the name to people who ask very nicely via the comment facility of this blog.
As a youngster I recall listening to the football results being read out on the Home Service every Saturday night. Such wonderful names the teams had! Fifty years later I have just learned where Port Vale is - it's near Stoke-on-Trent. It seemed that the football results were always followed by an urgent message for someone on holiday in Cornwall to contact a hospital in Sunderland where his mother/father/brother/sister was seriously ill.
On our return to SOT I mused on how easily an incorrect 'fact' can become common currency. In 1910 the six towns of Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall were combined to form Stock-on-Trent. But when Arnold Bennett wrote Anna of the Five Towns he changed this for the vast majority of the population.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Ship-Shape and Bristol Fashion
I. K. Brunel was a very busy man: He always had a lot of irons in the fire.
So when the board of the Great Western Railway engaged him to build a railway linking London and Bristol his contract stipulated that he should not be involved in any other railway venture until the GWR (God's Wonderful Railway) was complete.
The businessmen of Bristol insisted on there being a board of directors in Bristol as well as London and so Brunel started at both ends of the route and worked towards the middle. On the way he built such famous structures as Maidenhead Bridge and Box Tunnel, both of which are still in use by a very much heavier railway service than when it commenced.
The wise men at GWR had overlooked one characteristic of Mr. Brunel's to which I alluded above and when the GWR opened in 1841 it was smartly followed by ss Great Britain in 1843. He also completed that year the Thames Tunnel which his father had started. Thus, without breaking the terms of his contract he managed to simultaneously develop and build the world's first underwater tunnel and first iron-hulled ship with a screw propulsion.
We have come to Bristol today to join an excursion by Watford & District Industrial History Society.
After visiting the Empire and Commonwealth Museum at Temple Meads we were given a tour of Brunel's original station buildings which now house the museum. With the demise of the Commonwealth Institute in London this new venture is a much less jingoistic reflection of our imperial past and, I think, does the subject justice.
About 20 years ago we paid for a couple of deck planks during the restoration of ss Great Britain and when we went to see them we were rather disappointed at the poor quality job that was being done. I am pleased to say that visiting the ss Great Britain today is a vastly improved experience. The ship now sits in water which you can walk underneath and their is an interesting exhibition shoreside.
To complete the day we took a boat tour oft he floating dock. And all the while the sun shone.This is the way excursions should be organised.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Beyond the End of the Line
The Churnet Valley Railway terminates at the southern end at Kingsley & Froghall station but the line used to continue well beyond there before Dr Beeching and his axe. One of the stations beyond the end of the current line is Alton. And yet another Landmark Trust property. Today we went to meet some more Landmark Friends there. Two of these friends - Joe and John - picked us up from Froghall and conveyed us by motor car to and from the venue. The Italianate architecture has been carefully restored and the stationmaster's house now sleeps six people on three floors. The waiting room is waiting - for its future to be determined. Will it house more beds or become a games room? As it rained all day we only took a brief look at the platform which was long enough for excursion trains of 21 coaches. Now, however, those headed for Alton Towers do not queue all the way from the station but arrive by road.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

All steamed up
The Caldon Canal no longer goes to Uttoxeter (which you can blame on the railway which arrived 35 years after the canal). The North Staffs Railway no longer goes to Uttoxeter (that was Dr. Beeching in 1963) And I have never been to Uttoxeter.
However, I have travelled along the canal as far as Froghall where lock No 1 of the Uttoxeter extension has been beautifully restored. It is a shame that 90% of the boats which travel this canal do not pass through the 76yd tunnel to reach this point. This is not due to any aversion to Uttoxeter, you understand, the tunnel profile is just not compatible with the modern interpretation of the narrowboat. Whilst I wish all the best to the Caldon & Uttoxeter Canal Trust and their plan to restore the missing link, I feel the canal will remain rather quiet as far as craft go.
The original canal was built to bring limestone down from Cauldon Low. As befits a location so named, it is 200ft above the canal terminus. It is also three miles away as the crow flies. Although 200 ft climb in three miles was not beyond the skill of the canal engineers they had the good sense to build a tramway for this part of the journey. In fact there were four incarnations of the tramway as it was changed to accommodate the rapid expansion in demand for lime. The first three versions all used horse power but the final one used cablesand steam power. As a matter of interest the third one was built by John Rennie, the engineer responsible for the Kennet & Avon Canal.
Yesterday we stopped at Cheddleton by an old mill where they used to grind up flint for the pottery industry. There is a small museum but we moved on before it had chance to spoil our record by opening. The canal follows the River Churnet throughout its route and for a mile or so shares the same bed. Also squeezed into this valley is the old North Staffs Railway, now called the Churnet Valley Railway and operating at weekends with steam and diesel locos. We spent Saturday evening and all day Sunday watching through the rain as these trains chugged past our window (and the river rose)
PS. Whey, when the canal serves Cauldon Low, is it named Caldon without the U?

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Hunt the library
The Caldon Canal has two branches which divide at Hazelhurst Locks. We have taken the lock-free and shorter arm (and more attractive in my view) to Leek. James Brindley of whom you have heard earlier, started his commercial career at a watermill in Leek (see photo, left). This is still standing and open to the public at odd times, but not whilst we are here of course. We have known for some time that towns love to hide their libraries away but only recently have we encountered so many shy museums. This one, however, is run be volunteers so we should feel lucky that it exists at all. After looking at the mill from outside we wandered around the town and indulged in Hunt the Library. Like many towns we visit, there are no signs anywhere to assist in the game. But Leek has invented a few new rules. After our tireless, and ultimately successful, efforts in Daventry last year we have to award the prize now to Leek (or Staffordshire Moorland Council as it likes to be known). Their first ploy is to house the library in an old college building but to make the main entrance through a bridge from the new council building. In order to throw you off the scent, however there is no mention of the library on the outside of this building and furthermore THEY HAVE NOT TOLD ANY OF THE LOCAL POPULATION. Thus, when I tracked down the council building and asked a gentleman standing outside where the library was he directed me back down the street to an old college entrance where, in large letters I found I could enrol NOW for all sorts of subjects. But even this did not throw this intrepid library hunter and I ventured inside to find myself in the middle of a children's resource centre. Feeling bold, and a little worried about being of a certain age and alone in a children's area, I entered the cunning maze they have created with bookshelves. Following my ears towards the sound of human (adult) voices I burst into a clearing where a librarian was sheltering behind a desk. My sense of success soon waned when I tried to find a book. Having been brought up on the Dewey Decimal system I went in search of the 900's, But each corner I turned was headed with a large brightly coloured sign with such useful classifications as READ, LISTEN, ENJOY. Perhaps I should go back to the computer where I know where to find things.
Back in the town (avoid the chippy in the market square at all costs) I was surprised to find a shop which still bears the original signboard of Home & Colonial Stores. Some will remember this splendid chain of grocers whose success was founded on their fine selection of teas. For a few weeks in my very dim and distant past I actually worked on the deli counter of Maypole Dairies branch in Amersham (built on the site of the old Regent cinema) who bought H & C from their founder Julius Drewe. This gentleman, you will recall employed Sir Edwin Lutyens to build Castle Drogo in Devon which the National Trust claims to be the last castle built in England (1911-31). I have a feeling Drewe added an s to the end of his name at some point and was a tea taster before he established H & C. Anyway this store is an Aladin's cave of distressed stock - Dali-esque chocolate bars, breakfast cereals in Arabic packaging and esoteric and obviously unpopular flavours of well known products. It is worth visiting Leek for this experience if no other.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Sofa so good

Bank Holiday Monday and we are at Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent. Just in time for the museum. Except it opens Wed-Sun afternoons only! Regardless of demand!
Never mind, we have moored opposite a statue of James Brindley, the father of British canals. He was the engineer for the Staffs & Worcs, Trent & Mersey amongst others which he hoped would eventually create a Silver Cross of canals linking the four corners of the country. When we were here in the 1970's there was no statue but the Wedgewood pottery factory and one had to be wary of the trimarans flying up and down the Caldon Canal laden with pottery. They must have had outboard motors as they moved very fast without creating a noticeable wash. Back then we wsaw no other pleasure boats on this very pretty canal. This evening six hire boats have come passed us dashing back to their hire bases after a weekend break.

Things have certainly changed over the past 30 years. Now the only bottle kilns we pass are redundant but look lost divorced from their original surroundings.

Are all aspects of our life becoming just spectator activities?

Saturday, 5 May 2007

One you see; One you don't

Today we left the Staffs and Worcs Canal, turning left at Great Haywood to head up the Trent & Mersey. No time today to visit Shugbrough Hall. It's Saturday - not a day we normally travel - and we want to keep out of the way of the hire boats.
On the last stretch of the S&W we crossed Tixall Wide - a stretch of canal which was widened to present a satisfying vista for the owners of Tixall House. The original house was built in 1580 by Sir Walter Aston, and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here for tow weeks in 1586. Sadly this house and a its successor built in 1780 are no more. However, the Gatehouse remains - and so does the view. Although we did not see any of the kingfishers for which this area is noted, there were plenty of ducks and geese around with their young.

Often as we pass these little families one baby will get separated from the rest by our passage. The stranded chick then tries to get round in front of us to be reunited with its siblings and mother and it is amazing to see the effort expended in this impossible endeavour. At times they appear to stand up and run on the water before sinking down into a more traditional stance. Usually fatigue is their saviour and as they give up the unequal race, we move forward from them to reveal the remaining family still squeaking vociferously.
Soon after joining the T&M we pass Ingestre. Like Tixall Gatehouse, Ingestre Pavillion is a Landmark Trust property but whilst the Gatehouse sits in spleandour, the Pavillion is not visible form the canal.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Snowstorms in May
When we were young there always seemed to be one of those snowstorm toys around at Christmas. Where they came from and where they went to I never knew, but every year one would appear, we would play with it and then it would disappear. I guess it was one of the many mysteries which abound at that time of year.
Yesterday we came down the Wolverhampton 21 and joined the wonderful Staffs & Worcs at Aldersley where we headed north to Gailey. It was sunny but very windy: some seed heads from one of the trees were constantly swirling around and I suddenly felt I was inside one of those snowstorm toys.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Going Loopy
When James Brindley built the BCN main line from Birmingham to Wolverhampton around 1769 it illustrated his established style of following contours wherever possible. It was an instant success and remained very profitable for decades. However sixty years later Thomas Telford was employed to straighten out the route. He accomplished this by making deep cuttings and reduced the distance by seven miles in the process. Brindley's route remained in use (as it does today) so that the capacity of the canal was doubled.

One of the consequences of Telford's short cut is that some of Brindley's canal remains as loops - Oozells Street, Icknield Port and Soho are three examples. We decided this morning to follow Brindley's route all the way to Wolverhampton, negotiating each of these loops in the process.
Oozells Street has been comprehensively redeveloped because of its proximity to Gas Street and is full of moored boats.
However Icknield Port Loop is a peaceful haven (there is no towpath) but may not avoid the developers for much longer.

Icknield Port Loop provides a feed for water from the reservoir

When we last visited the Soho Loop during a BCN Marathon in the 1990's (more of that another time) amongst the obstacles we had to negotiate was a partly submerged Mini in the middle of the canal. Happily the canal is much less congested now and even Winson Green prison seems to have had a facelift.
Mid afternoon we arrived at the entrance to Dudley tunnel which is unnavigable by powered craft but which provides the back door to the Black Country Museum. In the whole journey we met not a single boat.
Winson Green Prison

Friday, 27 April 2007

Back to Back Rock
We awoke this morning around 0700hours (7am in English time) and were surprised to hear teenage voices not far away. Lots of them. And obviously awake. Such a rare occurrence should be brought to the attention of the University sociology department, we thought. Over the next few hours the noise increased until around 10am when it was replaced by a muffled but substantial rhythmic rumbling. Having deciphered the appropriate question from our Brummie phrase book and put it to a local, we learned that the NIA was hosting an all-day rock concert to which we were not invited.
Feeling very offended we sought solace through a dose of NT culture. In the 1970's, the National Trust acquired the last remaining group of back to back houses in the centre of Birmingham and have carefully restored them to the decorative and furnishing conditions for certain points in their existence - 1840, 1870, 1930 and 1970. We were pleased that they had not re-created the smells of the times. Otherwise the guided tour and exhibition were interesting and educational.
Our plans for dinner were upset by the generator deciding not to behave and so we went to the Handmade Hamburger Restaurant. We discovered this place right next to our boat lest time we came to Birmingham and were impressed by being able to taste the meat in their hamburgers rather than a bagload of seasoning.
And as we lay in bed later, ten million teenagers spewed out of the NIA and, after milling around like the bath water trying to get down the plughole, they disappeared in much the same way, viz: with a vague gurgling sound and leaving a faint tide mark.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

The centre of the universe
To some this may be considered a bold claim but to those who have grown up with the various campaigns to retain our canal heritage Gas Street Basin in Birmingham is a strong contender for this title.
On the run in to Birmingham we were accompanied by Virgin trains from Bristol racing us and narrowly beating us. As Margaret drove us through the 2726 yard long Wast Hill Tunnel I comforted her with tales of previous passages. Around 1980, I recalled, Dave Franklin was driving a hire boat from Stratford-upon-Avon through this tunnel whilst Dirk and I sheltered from the dripping roof and ignored his complaints about the engine losing power. Until, that is, we emerged from the north portal in an all- enveloping cloud of steam and smoke. Somewhere under the deck where things technical reside a gasket had blown. The resulting visual and aural emissions matched the environmental pollution of the Torey Canyon. When the hire company asked us if we would be prepared to nurse the boa talong on until they could meet us with a replacement we did not realise that the deck would get so hot that our shoes stuck to it and that the management of local industrial plants would complain about the noise.

Margaret has long craved a visit to Cadbury World at Bournville. However when we parked Gecko alongside the factory and discovered the entry fee was £13 she decided there were better things to spend that sort of money on - chocolate, for instance. Further on we drove through the University of Birmingham where Marcus studied and we waved to Big Tom or whatever the tower is called. It did not acknowledge us despite having paid for a large slice of its upkeep through the tuition fees.

To those who remember the warehouses of Gas Street, the new pretty version does not have the same atmosphere. However, it has been revived quite spectacularly and now is awash with people and boats at all hours of the day. We moored directly outside the NIA as we had done in June last year.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

The end of the line
Taking the train in the opposite direction today we arrive at the end of this single-track line - Redditch. On the advice of Alan (he who skins rabbits on the towpath) we have come here to do our shopping. As we leave the station there is a shopping centre directly in front of us which also leads on to the town centre shops. What a find! All the shops we need, including five travel agents to get competitive quotes for our Colombia trip, and three charity shops adjacent to each other. After a very successful morning we decide to splash out on lunch and are delighted with yet another find. The Jade Palace is a Chinese restaurant working on the Eat as much as you like buffet principle. However this is not only superb value at £4.95 but remarkable in that you select the raw ingredients - meat and vegetables, hand them to the chef, choose the sauce and watch him cook it in front of you. The spectacle alone is almost worth them money. With flames three feet high and all the clattering that I associate with the local take-away, my pile of beef and assorted vegetables are transformed into a very creditable Szechuan style dish. After this I can even tackle Oxfam.
Tomorrow I think we will head in to Birmingham city centre.

Monday, 23 April 2007

To London to see the Mayor
Up early this morning to catch the train into Birmingham and thence to London. Whilst Margaret goes to Stanfords to look at maps of Colombia and Panama in preparation for our trip there in December, I pop in to Moorfields as I have some alien body in my eye which seems reluctant to leave me. Nothing remarkable - three hour's wait for a five minute inspection. I understand the principle of prioritizing urgent or critical cases but if they ran a parallel clinic for the non-critical cases they would clear the waiting rooms in no time. Whilst I was there the vast majority of cases were similar to mine but were interspersed with lengthy examinations of more serious conditions.
We met up at Wembley Park station to attend a citizenship ceremony. I think all citizens should be required to take an oath of allegiance (and get a medal) as do those currently who make the momentous step of relinquishing there nationality of birth to become British citizens.
After our friend Linda was confirmed British we went into London and met Marcus who was attending an exhibition at Olympia before his annual check up at Moorfields. Arrived bac at the boat just before ten pm.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Tardebigge or bust
Thirty six locks and two tunnels before lunch! Who needs a gym membership?
When there are so many locks to negotiate it is helpful if there is a constant flow of boats travelling in the opposite direction so that as one boat leaves a lock, the other enters. To take advantage of all the hire boats which start above the Tardebigge flight on a Saturday we chose that day to travel up the flight. Four and three-quarter hours later we reached the top having met only one boat (and not a hire boat!) So much for our smart thinking. It seems than boat hirers are not as stupid as we had thought - they all set off in the other direction which gave them an afternoon of lock-free boating to the centre of Birmingham.
About three locks up from the bottom is a lock cottage which the Landmark Trust has restored and is available for holidays. The view from the rear is very rural and is not interrupted by sweaty boaters trying to get to the pub before closing time.
We arrived at Alvechurch in the afternoon and will stay here for a few days. The railway station is right alongside the canal and we plan to visit London on St. George's Day to attend the citizenship ceremony of a friend.
The boat moored immediately in front of us is called Oh Jerusalem! and has stained glass in the front doors. Further round the corner there is a tiny narrowboat where the owner is skinning four rabbits he shot earlier in the day. That may account for the abundance of flies here.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

To Worcester and beyond
This morning was clear and bright for our departure form the haven of Stourport Basin and adventure on the turbulent River Severn. We cut ourselves loose at 07.45 and descended the two pairs of staircase locks, and entered the river at 08.30. The waster was as calm as the canal which pleased me no end and we opened up the throttle for the first time in five months heading downstream for Worcester. The three locks between Stourport and Worcester are all larger than anything encountered on the canals but are operated by lock keepers. We passed through each one on our own and arrived in Worcester before noon having seen one other narrowboat, a plastic launch (or yoghurt pot) and a man rowing.

Here we climbed the two large locks into Diglis Basin and the start of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.
From here to the centre of Birmingham is only 24 miles.

And 56 locks.
The Tardebigge flight of 36 locks is generally considered to be the longest flight in Britain but we are in no hurry to tackle it yet. So we pottered up through Worcester and moored up for the night opposite a sports centre. Not often do we get a football match to watch from the boat at eventide.

Waiting on the River Severn below Diglis Locks