Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Yearning for Yerevan

A few images from Armenia
April 2014

Another month another country... 

I hate to think what my carbon footprint looks like at the moment, I fear I am doomed to a lifetime of tree planting to atone for the miles I have spent in the skies in recent months.

Central Yerevan, Armenia

This month's trip was to far flung Armenia, a destination which will probably have you reaching for your school atlas or if your are more technically minded clicking onto Google Maps. But for the rest of you Armenia is the next county beyond Turkey, just above Iran, next to Azerbaijan and just below Georgia - does that help?

As you would expect, its an ex Soviet country but one which has picked itself up, dusted itself down and with the aid of its massive diaspora (population which live abroad) it is in the process of rebuilding itself into a great little nation.  Its small - just 3m people and similar in size to Belgium and landlocked with pretty unsettled relations with three of its four neighbours.

Armeina has suffered more than its share of trials and tribulations over the centuries but even recently it suffered a Genocide at the hands of Turkey in 1905 with a million inhabitants killed and many more fleeing to safety elsewhere and so forming the hugely loyal Diaspora which now number more than the current population, and who faithfully plough huge amounts of cash back to the homeland (shades of the Jewish community). Even more recently they were at war with Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union and today the country plays host to refugees from the troubles in the neighbouring middle eastern countries like Syria, whose number plates are a common sight among hoards of ageing Lada's which rattle over the rutted roads.

As you can imagine, its reconstruction is a work in progress, with its capital Yerevan leading the way. Half the population live in Yerevan and its centre has been developed very tastefully, although the state of the roads is a shock absorber manufacturers wet dream! Beyond the central zone the picture is more varied with the brutal ex Soviet remains all around. A bit of a post industrial nightmare in places, but Rome wasn't built in a day and they are getting there with real gems emerging form the industrial ashes.

And then there is the culture. It was the first nation to adopt Christianity as their religion and there are many churches dating back to the third century - an orthodox strand of mainstream Christianity with subtle differences from Catholicism (but dont ask me to define them!).

Above and beyond that there is the underlying geography of the place. Yerevan sits next to a huge fertile plain in the shadow of Mount Ararat, a snow capped dormant volcano and source of potential seismic unrest. To the north there is a magnificent high altitude lake which forms a gateway to a spectacular area of tree clad mountains as you approach the Georgian border. This area is a popular holiday destination in the summer and not dissimilar to the Lake District.

Of all the "exotic" places I have visited on business Armenia is perhaps the one I would most like to revisit for a holiday. Certainly not a laze by the pool sort of destination, but a country with immense variety, culture, interest and perhaps most importantly, a welcoming population who embrace visitors and are wildly enthusiastic to share their passion for their country.

Oh, and before you ask - yes I did do some work whilst was there, but I took every opportunity I could to sample the country, and its most excellent Ararat Brandy!

Monday, 14 April 2014

Spring Market at The Bond, Digbeth

Spring Market at The Bond, Digbeth, Birmingham
April 2014

Last weekend saw the first Wild Side event of the 2014 trading season. This year we dusted down the show kit to attend the inaugural Spring Market at The Bond in Digbeth, Birmingham - the old canal warehouse which sits beside the northern end of the Grand Union, next to the old FMC warehouse and and Typhoo Basin.

Cafe culture at The Bond

Its a sympathetically redeveloped venue which includes a two berth loading bay for boats and whilst the event was not canal focused, it was fashionably "retro" and the Homebrew Boat and the Book Barge were invited to attend and offer some waterborne trading atmosphere. To give the event a heart the central courtyard was devoted to consumable foods (you know - foods you eat then and there!) with Waffles sold from a period caravan, coffee sold from the back of a Morris Minor and beer and cider sold from a lovingly restored 1966 Routemaster Bus, plus a range of more contemporary vendors under the glass canopy. 

How do I know it was a 1966 model? - well I used to drive one which was used as a mobile youth club in Lincolnshire many years ago so I know my classic buses.... Jim please correct me if I am wrong here.

Wild Side in set up mode (thanks for the photo Sandra)

The venue includes a good sized indoor exhibition space which was given over to artisan food and hand made crafts in equal measure. Whilst indoor events are a huge blessing this early in the season, they can also be a bit of a nightmare with too many stalls squashed in leaving too little space to display the goods, too little room for the stallholders to move and most crucially for not enough space for the public to circulate in comfort.

Not so with this event. The heated and well lit venue was generous in dimensions and the organisers delivered a good 10ft of sales space and comfortably wide aisles. All in all a pleasant trading environment which is crucial if we are to return another time.

A good vibe in the central courtyard

But the BIG question is attendance numbers and this is where the organisers seem to have struck gold. Why a mixture of media word had spread and thousands of people made their way to this obscure location. Perhaps the most refreshing dimension was the age profile - probably a good 20 years younger than at normal canal side events. The good humoured crowd milled around in the spring sunshine, eating freshly made food and supping unusual drinks. 

But everyone loves preserves and we were able to introduce Wild Side to a whole new audience, who were eager to sample our foraged flavours. As a result we returned home with a much lightened car and a correspondingly expanded wallet. But most importantly the event was fun - and it needed to be. You see it was my birthday so the day concluded with the crews of Wild Side, the Home Brew Boat and the Book Barge walking into town and enjoying a shared Indian meal at Nations on Bennett's Hill. 

I use the word "enjoyed" guardedly because whilst the company was exemplary, the service at Isaacs was atrocious - slow, inaccurate and at times downright offensive. A shame because the decor and ambiance is spot on but my advice would have to be: don't go there!

Nations in Bennetts Hill

Hopefully this Bond based event will become a regular feature of the Birmingham foodie scene. If it does we would love to participate. See you there in the summer (I hope) - maybe we could even get the Jam Butty into the basin.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Bookshop that Floated Away - book review

The Bookshop that Floated Away
by Sarah Henshaw
April 2014

I trailed this book a few days ago and a subsequent long haul business trip provided ample opportunity to read it. In fact I started it in Birmingham Airport and finished it about 10 mins before touchdown in Yerevan, Armenia.

Now before I start, how about a little competition? The above photo shows a well thumbed copy of the book against a night time back ground of central Yerevan, taken from my hotel balcony. Can anyone post a picture of this book in a more remote or obscure location - lets call the competition "The book that floated away"!

And so what about the book? Well, like its author I can, without fear of offence, safely describe it as quirky. It is a canal book like no other that I have read, not least because I discovered that the Ahabs / Tidys feature no less than four times as the Book Barge makes its slow way round the Inland Waterways.  But the main distinguishing feature of the book is that it is as much a literary voyage as it is a travelogue. Sarah Henshaw not only sells / barters books, but like a bad publican she has in insatiable urge to consume her product. However, unlike a publican, the consumption of literature has a mainly positive effect on the consumer and of course, a bookseller can always sell on what she has already read.

Its easy to imagine the author spending long solitary hours at the tiller, pondering the things she has read and people she has met over the years - and all the resulting connections come pouring out of the pages.

As an ex bank manager I particularly loved her unorthodox (and unsuccessful) way of trying to raise finance and for the die hard boaters you will be profoundly interested in discovering how she attended to her "natural needs" on a boat with no loo. I am not going to tell you - for that you will have to read the book and have a good titter!

Sarah's love of literature shines through on every page, drawing parallels and insights of a myriad of authors - some well known and some less so. All in all its a literary smorgasbord set against the backdrop of a somewhat haphazard six month canal journey where the escapades and scrapes are faithfully portrayed - I know - I was there for some of them,  not least the surge up the Severn Estuary on the top of one of the years biggest spring tides.

Its very hard to be objective about Sarah's first book because I so want it to be a success. For my money it is a canal travel book with a distinctive USP. If you like canals and literature all recounted in a slightly tongue in cheek self deprecating way  it's one for you. 

There are not many Sarah Henshaws around in the world, they are as much an endangered species as the independent bookshop she campaigns to save. So get a copy, give a copy to your literary / boaty friends, support the Bookshop that floated away.

Copies are available from the Book Barge website and at the Birmingham Spring Market in Digbeth tomorrow, Sat 12th April.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

North Walsham and Dilham Canal

North Walsham and Dilham Canal update
April 2014

My regular trips to North Walsham often include a trip to the North Walsham and Dilham.

Canal at Ebridge

For decades it was a gradual decline into weed clogged obscurity but now a small band og enthusiastic restorers are bringing it back to life.  The pound above Ebridge has been full for a couple of years and is a fantastic amenity enjoyed by many who can stroll along the well tended towpath and watch the swans glide up and down against the backdrop of the empty watermill.

Further up a lock has been restored and stands complete save for bottom gates. Wood for the gates stands ready on a nearby yard - old railway sleepers and coastal sea defence groynes.

Home made lock gates

The original cast iron balance beams - reused.

Beyond the lock work is progressing in the channel with lots of big boys toys being used to build up the banks, dredge the channel and generally make ready for re watering which will see water return to the Swafield Watermill, and the lock brought fully back into service.

The next section to be watered - by the end of 2014?

All this progress is very exciting as there will soon be a couple of miles of navigable canal, a working lock and a working watermill to experience - scope for a trip boat I would say.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A glimpse of the Tyne

Newcastle in the mist
April 2014

Whilst London basked under the spring sun we headed north to Northumberland, visiting friends in Morpeth.

Our trip took in the rather marvelous Barter Books in Alnwick, one of the largest in the UK. Its proprietor in a Railway buff and this is reflected in the vast selection of railway books. Sadly Alnwick is far from the inland waterways and by contrast there was was 18 inches of canal books - and I had read most before. 

Before we left we had a final look on their in line catalogue and turned up a brochure on the Foxton Inclined plane, published by its engineers in 1906 to publicise their achievements. We had bartered a huge box of our old books and used some of the credit to pay for this unusual canal artifact - more of that another day.

Marks and Spencer

We also took a stroll around a misty and cold Newcastle but not withstanding the weather there were a few good images to be had before we headed home for a warming Thai take away. I was particularly taken with the Grainger indoor market which includes the very first Marks and Spencer outlet - fascinating stuff.