Thursday, 22 September 2016

Back to Bumblehole

Black Country Boating Festival 2016
Sept 2016

The Black Country seems to specialise in great place names : Lower Gornal, New Invention or Black Delph. But there is one which is especially lovely: Bumblehole.

 Leaving Pelsall Common at first light

Now I do appreciate that there is a Bumblehole on the Staffs and Worcester, but the one I am thinking of is at Windmill End (another place name to savour) which is in a country park near Netherton at the western end of the Netherton Tunnel. Bumblehole inspires images of bees buzzing to and from heads of honeysuckle of a balmy summers day. In truth its a huge local nature reserve which has grown up over an industrial site which was of epic proportions. 

The decades have softened the shattered landscape and even the brutally named Dudley Number Two Canal has mellowed as it weaves its way through the site, along with its numerous canal arms and loading basins. The end result is something a bit special, with the eastern horizon framed by Portway Hill and the gaunt remains of Cobbs Mill, with its leaning chimney.

OK, so that's enough of me going all misty eyed about the site! It also hosts the amazing annual Black Counter Boating Festival on the first weekend in September, this time celebrating 31 consecutive years. We are relative newcomers but this September was our fifth as a trade boat, always occupying the same spot just outside the visitor centre. Over that time our offering has grown from a tentative table on the back of Wand'ring Bark to the more extensive Jam Butty, but this year was a bit different. Whilst the boats and the produce were the same, this year I traded without Helen who was at home cared for by her mother as the comes to an end of a course of chemotherapy. Instead, I was accompanied and supported by my friend Dave, who whilst he has Helen's height, lacks her legs!

The limitations of the Chemo has meant that our travels have been much curtailed and we limited our trading to the few events we could reach from our Aldridge base, and which also fitted in with her relatively "good" weeks in the treatment cycle. This limited schedule has seen the boats limited to the BCN and have been just enough to turn the stock over and replenish it ready for next year when we will have another bash at reaching London.

Attending the festival meant nearly a week out on the boats and the outward journey was achieved in a serene manner, spending the first night at Pelsall Commen which we left at first light on the Thursday. Towing the butty does slow us down a bit but we reached Horsleyfields Junction six hours later and then arrived at the festival site after another four hours cruising, including a detour via The Brades as Factory Locks were being repaired.

The festival saw persistent drizzle on the Saturday which dampened attendance, but such is our loyal clientele our takings were average for a festival day, even if they were only 50% of last years record breaking tally, which was achieved with a full spread of stock in glorious sunshine.

The Reflections

Saturday night is usually spent in the Beer Tent and this year the main band were The Reflections, a hugely engaging cover band which we (the Roving Traders) have met elsewhere and love. They play an up tempo set of material from the 1960's to the 1990's with bags of enthusiasm and great skill. Their material begs to be danced to and it was great to see just about all the traders up and bopping for the second set. 

Sunday was clear and bright, making up for the dull Saturday. The crowds flocked in and trade was brisk, keeping Dave and myself busy replenishing the stall and swapping jars of preserves for tenners! The day was a blur of familiar faces but being without Helen meant I had very little time to chat - sorry if I didn't give you a lot of time!

The Roving Traders strut their stuff

And so dawn broke on Monday morning to see us winding the boats in the Bumblehole Arm and setting out for the Wyrley and Essington Canal, with the Cheese Boat hard on our heels through Netherton Tunnel. Our objective was to reach Pelsall but along the way we paused in Wednesbury where we had seen some Damson trees on the offside which gave us 9 kilos in about 20 minutes - enough for several batches of Damson Chutney and the ever popular Damson, Ginger and Tea Jam.

Dave helps with the foraging

Our only hiccup along the way was the acquisition of a nylon carpet on the prop in Harden. Its a situation we dread but I am glad to say its becoming much rarer. In the event it wasn't too badly wound on and a serrated knife saw it released within 15 minutes. The muddy fabric was hauled onto the bows of the butty and duly deposited in the skip at Sneyd.

As usual, we had the 30 miles of the W&E to ourselves and we navigated that  final fours hours home from Pelsall under a roasting sun, spotting fish flitting in and out of the weeds beneath us. 

I guess my thanks go to my mother in law for looking after Helen and Dave for offering help, support and endless cups of tea. Without the pair of them the trip would never have been possible.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

IWA Festival of Water - Pelsall

IWA Festival of Water - Pelsall Common
August 2016

The IWA's Festival of Water in Pelsall was never in my 2016 plan, not because I had anything against it but had things panned out as expected we would have been in London at the time.

Chilling at the IWA Festival of Water, Pelall 2016

However, 2016 really wasn't to be as far as cruising is concerned. Helen's treatment has kept us close to home which has meant that the preserve business has had to be scaled back - a lot. Our challenge is that whilst preserves by definition will keep - they don't keep indefinitely and certainly not till the 2017 cruising season.

Leaving an unusually busy Longwood Boat Club

We therefore decided to keep Wild Side ticking over but with Helen doing no cooking and no selling - which meant that I was trained in the mysteries of preserve making and every opportunity would be taken to attend local boat gatherings where the chemo impacts allow. These sales opportunities should be enough to turn the stock over and set us up for next year.

Choc a bloc at Brownhills

The IWA Festival of Water therefore came as a godsend - a major canal festival a mere eight or nine miles from our home moorings. The cost for a trade boat was a bit steep at £90 including VAT, but it was really too good an opportunity to miss so I signed in and hoped for the best. As it turned out the Cheese Boat (northern) was in attendance as was Paul from Waterways Routes and T&S Boat Handling so there were just the four of us.

The Jam Butty's pitch

I figured it wasn't a huge catchment area and sales would be gentle enough to trade alone, so I set off on Thursday with a good quantity of preserves but more than a little apprehension. Can I pull it off alone? I wasn't too worried about company because I know so many attendees, but I have never tackled even a two day event by myself and to date my limit was the one day even at Brownhills.

Setting up the butty, captured by Margaret Beardsmore.

The weather did its worst on the way over but the Friday dawned clear and bright and made setting up a delight. For the two of us a set up takes a couple of hours but on my own people kept stopping by for a chat and the set up stretched from 10.00am till 4.00pm. On the upside, the visitors kept buying product and by the end of the day my entrance fee has been covered! The evening was rounded off with faggots and chips washed down with real ale - which provided sustenance to enter the Martin Ludgate quiz. We (myself, the Tawny Owlers and a couple of WRGies) emerged equal first before losing the tie break. Our combined encyclopedic knowledge of the BCN came in handy...

 The historic boats

The next three days passed in a blur. Saturday ended early at 4.00pm beneath a downpour of rain but Sunday and Monday were ideal and the crowds flocked into the site and many beat their way to The Jam Butty for a sticky fix..

Sunset over the festival site with the crowds gone home

I was rarely without customers and the preserves flew out at an alarming rate. Fortunately kindly friends kept me supplied with tea and beer and periodically someone would mind the stall whilst I attended to the other end of the process.

I have to admit that I saw virtually nothing of the event beyond the horizon offered from the deck of The Jam Butty, but did manage to attend the 8.30 communion service on Sunday which was held in the main tent and officiated by a couple of the local clergy.

The illuminated boats

I did go exploring on Sunday evening and emerged from Pelsall Common with two huge bags full of cooking apples which stew down very nicely. The evening was rounded on with a very effective illuminated boat display. The only fly in the ointment was that Kew, at 71ft, couldn't wind in the Lord Hays Arm and had to carry on for 2 hours to turn at Berchills Junction in Walsall the next day.

Right on Kew!

And so the weekend concluded with the coffers much improved but most of the reserve stock sold to an eager public.

All in all an excellent August Bank Holiday's trading which was followed by a slow four hour tow back to Longwood. The underwater reeds had been trimmed by the many propellers but the resulting floating clumps had turned some elements of the Daw End into the Sargasso Sea. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Bashing the backwaters

Bashing the backwaters
July 2016

Whilst we may not be able to travel far, our remote location on the northern fringes of the BCN does off scope for a number of rather lovely overnight moorings.

Sunset at Pelsall Common

Helen has just completed her third course of chemo (half way there) and has recovered enough to want to venture outside the house, but needs to remain within striking distance of the hospital should anything go wrong.

And so a three day trip on the boat was prescribed. She has no energy for locking so that rules out the south - so, lets go north!  

Day one (Friday).

We make for Pelsall Common which is on countdown for the IWA Festival of Water  which will occupy the site in four weeks time. There is not a lot to see on the ground but the banners have appeared on the local bridges and the locals seem to have got wind of it.

We ate at the Fingerpost Inn and in spite of being just about the only eating customers at 6.00pm the food was less that inspirational, which was pretty much what we experienced last time. The lime mayo was missing from the starter and the deep fried onion rings were missing from the main - we had apologies and remediation but they weren't exactly rushed off their feet. I think we will pick up a Tesco's Finest for £10 next time and eat on the boat.

Water Lillies in the canal

As ever, the common was deserted and apart from some dog walkers we had the place to ourselves, savouring a lingering sunset after an afternoon downpour.

Day two (Saturday)

A lazy start followed and we puttered the hour back to Brownhills where we paid a visit to Tesco just beside the canal and also picked up 5kg of red peppers at Aldi for another batch of Blow your head off Chilli Jam.

Tranquility on the Anglesey Arm

Then it was for another hour as we wound our way along the weed fringed Anglesey Arm for a mooring in Norton Pool, beneath the high earth ramparts which hold back the Chasewater reservoir. Along the way we passed "Cockfest", Brownhills very own music festival which was in full swing. Now dont get me wrong, its a nice effort but the event isnt about to rival Worthy Farm in Glastonbury. I will bet you are wondering about the rather splendid name Cockfest. No its not a nudist festival for gents with impressive lunchboxes, but rather because it is held on the site of an old chicken farm. Only in Brownhills.......

Cockfest main stage

We have previously moored in the inlet beneath the dam, but the sound of running  water had me up to the loo four times in the night so this time we moored at the site of the old coal gantry, near the remains of the coal chutes. 

 Norton Pool 

Sunset at Chasewater

A lovely secluded mooring in the midst of the old drift mines with only the faintest hum on the M6 Toll to disturb us.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Rosie's Walk, Aldridge

The Jam Butty at Rosie's Walk, Aldridge
July 2016

The Jam Butty will be making a pop up appearance along the route of what will be the very last Rosie's Walk in Aldridge this coming Sunday (17th July).

Rosie's Walk, or more accurately Rosie's Helping Hands, has been a local charity inspired by the tragic and senseless killing of Rosie Ross in Birmingham on 12th May 2001 when she was just sixteen. Each year a large crowd gather near Longwood Boat club and walk a three mile circuit in her memory, raising about £15,000 pa which is used to benefit local children's works.

As well as a canalside walk, the route takes you through the Hayhead Local Nature Reserve which is itself one of the more fascinating lost sections of the BCN canal network.

This year will be the last and with the blessing of the event organisers (Rosie's mum) The Jam Butty will be open for preserve tastings and sales on the visitor moorings at Longwood Boat Club and Rushall Top Lock.

As an extra bonus the Homebrew Boat will be on the canal at the same time so you can sample locally made preserves and learn more about the subtle art of fermentation, as well as getting some exercise on what promises to be a lovely summer day.

The Jam Butty and The Homebrew Boat will be open from late morning till late afternoon and the walks themselves will start at noon and the last start for both the three and one mile routes will be at 2.30pm (Satnav WS9 0QQ).

See you there.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Bostin in Brownhills

Bostin in Brownhills
June 2016

I spent last weekend on the waterfront in Brownhills, taking nearly three hours to get there along the shallow and narrow Daw End Branch of the Wyrley and Essington canal on Saturday. I arrived in time to set the butty up ready for the Brownhills Canalside Festival and to go and chat the a couple of the other boaters for an hour or so, putting the issues of the EU to rights in the process.

Brownhills Canalside Festival 2016

This event is really a canal side fete put on by the local residents (The Brownhills Peoples Association to be accurate) and whilst a smattering of boats was needed to bring the water to life, it is not a boating festival by any stretch of the imagination. There was the Ikon art boat, the BCNS workboat Phoenix offering trips, two local boats in for the day, two permanent moorers who simply sat it out and then there was me, the first trading boat to appear at the event and a novel addition which went down well with the attendees.

The Jam Butty in action

The organisation is a bit hit and miss with limited direction and supervision, but there is a team spirit about the while thing and everyone just seems to muck in an it all comes together. There was no booking system for boats and no harbour master, so we all discussed the options and then made it happen. The limited number of boats should not come as a surprise when you remember that  Brownhills is at least a full days cruising on remaindered canals from any main waterways.

Lots of canoeing

There is something rather special about these small local events, organised by local community activists for the local community. From a trading perspective I never have high expectations but am so often pleasantly surprised, and Brownhills was no exception. I was trading solo with Helen staying at home with a friend so I scaled back the operations a bit, dropping the cordials and offering a more limited range which I can manage on my own.

Local musical acts

I woke to the sound of rain hammering down in the night but it had moved on my the morning and instead we had an unseasonal northerly breeze with a forecast of rail for late afternoon. These conditions called for the gazebo plus a couple of sides but come 10.00 am I was set up and by 10.10 I had covered my stall fee - not a bad start! The day continued in a steady fashion, never overrun but rarely quiet. I had some company over the lunch period but in the main I served alone and it surprised my just how many people I know, both locals and visitors. And so the day passed in a very sociable manner and by the time the rail arrived at 3.30 the table was looking a bit light on stock. In the end we have a good day with takings which would not have disgraced a big event like Droitwich.

But, as we have seen before, a late rain shower is the final curtain for outside events and the crowds just melted away and the stallholders trying to set gazebo dismantling records. I plodded on steadily and just after 5.00pm all was packed away and the Jam Butty was both weatherproof and ready to move.

And then a dilemma - do I stay or do I go? Well, I was already more than a bit damp so I pulled on my waterproofs and made a start on the return journey. The temperature plummeted and as I passed through Walsall Wood my breath was coming out as steam - great for the end of June! My destination was to stop at the offside mooring next to Aldridge Marina, only half a mile from home but a full two hours cruising from or mooring so with no plans for Monday morning I stopped for the night and was rewarded with a bright and dry end to my short trip out.