Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The deflowering of three BCN Challenge virgins

BCN Challenge 2011 - we made it!
31 May 2011

Links to the BCN Challenge 2011 posts:

Post 1 - This post
Post 2 - Wolverhampton
Post 3 - Tipton to Smethwick
Post 4 - Birmingham
Post 5 - Salford Junction (Spaghetti Junction)
Post 6 - Walsall
Post 7 - Getting out again

We entered this madcap canal boat race with some trepidation.

Whilst its all terribly friendly and good natured, its also rather competitive and we weren't quite sure what to expect. We had 24 cruising hours available within a 30 hour window, which started at 8.00am on Saturday. Cruise wherever you like withing the boundaries of the old BCN and accrue points for miles travelled and locks worked and then overlay bonuses for certain starting points, weightings for the number of the crew, a factor for the depth and length of the craft, then there are bonus factors for tricky bits and still more for answering questions right, mix it all together and you have a scoring matrix which is more labyrinthine than the northern BCN itself!

As Steve Haywood observed - it takes several weeks for the winners to be named, by which time no one really cares! As I said, its a madcap boat-race and an unforgettable way to spend a bank holiday weekend.

Is hard to work out a "best" route so most competitors seem to work form the premise that they have a known starting point and have a particular bit that they want to do - and work all the rest from there. In this respect Wand'ring Bark was no different and our home base on the Staffs and Worcs dictated the bottom of the Wolverhampton 21 as a start point. With just the Perry Barr flight needed to complete our exploration the whole BCN, the rest of the route just fitted in, for better or worse.

I will do a proper set of posts on the ups and downs of this trip in the days to come. However, just for the record, the 2011 BCN Marathon Challenge threw up tree landmark for Wand'ring Barks crew:

1. We finally completed our exploration of the whole currently navigable BCN system - all 100 spectacular miles of it.
2. We beat our previous single day lock record by 34 locks by cramming in a probably never to be beaten total of 86! (Oh how I hated the Aston Flight at half past midnight after 16 hours of cruising)
3. The enthusiastic crew of three BCN Challenge newbies finshed the course and whilst we may not win, made a valiant 1st attempt.

Its an amazing experience and one that every boater should try at least once.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Too Narrow to Swing a Cat - book review

Too Narrow to Swing a Cat
by Steve Haywood
May 2011

First up a big thanks to the Book Barge for the gift of this book. Sarah, the Boat Barge's owner and skipper, is on a six month trip round the canals bartering books for services and in return for some meals she gave me a copy of Steve Haywood's latest canal book.

Now I made a bit of a mistake with this publication, diving into the middle instead of starting at the beginning, which is the customary place to start reading books! The reason for my unorthodox approach was because I could see that this section covers his experiences of the 2009 BCN Marathon Challenge. With the 2011 Challenge upon us I couldn't resist diving straight into his account, and then sharing it with Sarah who promptly scrapped her timetable and sent off for an entry pack herself!

Not that starting this book in the middle really matters a lot. If you have read either of Steve's previous boaty books you will know what to expect. Wry humour about life on and around his beloved cut, on which he has been travelling whenever the opportunity has presented itself for over 30 years - most recently on narrowboat Justice.

Simon and Garfunkel sang a song called "Old Friends" reflecting how they reflected back over the same years, memories covering the same ground. Steve's account of the canals he used to know echo's this song, with his reminisces going back to the 1970's and the age when the Captain Snr used to take me boating - canals which were an essential part of my youth. In fact, having read all three of Steve's books, and his regular article in Canal Boat he has started to feel like a slightly curmudgeonly old friend.

As for the book, it is an account of his six month wander around the Canals of the Midlands / London, visiting a number of canal festivals in the company of Kit the cat and a succession of guests and helpers, including his long suffering wife Em. His travels are entirely on waters which are familiar to me, but it is no less interesting for that. The book is packed with historical snippets and personal observations, sometimes unorthodox, sometimes controversial, but always interesting.

Like canal journeys themselves, its the journey that counts and the read was in no way diminished by my unusual approach to it. Canal trips don't really go anywhere and nor does this book. However, both meander along leaving you refreshed, wherever you decide to start or finish.

Classic Haywood. Till next time Steve.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Leicester Ring - Rugeley to Calf Heath

Leicester Ring 2011
Rugeley to Calf Heath
May 2011

18 miles - 14 locks - 9 hours

I have mixed feelings about last days of trips, especially when approaching base from Great Haywood. The eastern end of the Staffs and Worcester is pleasant enough in its own right, but it is very familiar ground and I sometimes get impatient to get to the end.

Great Haywood

But this time it was different. The sun continued to shine on us as it has for the last ten days and I would dearly liked to have carried on north from Gt Haywood Junction to who knows where. That's the thing about boating - everyone is moving somewhere and no two trips are ever the same. That glittering strand of water casts its spell upon me, leaving me thirsting for more even before I finish the current trip.

We came up behind nb Willow at Colwych, another boat built by Floating Homes, not that the owner noticed the similarity of Wand'ring Bark such are the changes I have wreaked upon it! The first thing he said is "oh, but the welding is deplorable" and poured all over WB trying to work out how our welds were nearly invisible (lots of angle grinding and filler before the repaint). He also showed me his engine - a Barrus Shire unit which ran very fast and smoked a lot more than our faithful Beta 38.

We expected massive congestion at Tixall but all the boats had evaporated and we entered a steady procession of craft, but no more than a typical weekend. No incident, no issues, just mile after mile of rippling waters punctuated by the occasional lock.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was at Acton Trussell.  There I was, pottering along nice and slow past a moored boat which I hadn't noticed before when I saw its owner standing in his garden watching me intently. I glanced up to offer a cheery "Hi" when I realised that it was none other than Phil Jones, my trusty boat engineer who has undertaken all the tasks on WB which are beyond me - most recently the new cooker. A personal welcome back is service over and above the call of duty Mr Jones!

A welcome from Mr Jones

It was also a day of ducklings - they were everywhere. The record was a clutch of 15 to a single mum!

So, a moment of reflection. What of the trip?

Well, to be absolutely honest it was a bit of a stretch. I had slightly over egged Nicks Canalplanner and we ran for nearly 10 hours per day, which was tolerable only because of the amazing weather. In fact, most days we just wanted to cruise right into the sunset, which is always the most exciting time of day for a photographer. Jeff's tireless work on the locks also helped a lot but overall I would have to say that the Leicester Ring proper should be given 10 days - with an extra 4 days to get us to and from Fradley Junction. 10 days overall was too fast, and our itinerary approached that set by the Captain Snr all those years ago - something I try to avoid.

So I bid the Leicester Ring goodbye, till next time. It has much going for it and is well worth the effort. As for us? Belle and I will be put out again at the End of May - destination Stratford, and then there is the BCN Marathon Challenge to look forward to, supported by Jeff and Mr Truth. Lots to anticipate to and lots of trip reports to write.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Room - book review

by Emma Donoghue

You get two reviews for the price of one today. I am taking a look at Emma Donoghue's popular Room, and Belle's Kindle on which I read it.

(Because I read this on a Kindle this is the first time I have seen the cover!)

Room put me in mind of the 2008 Josef Fritzl case in Austria, but I am sure there are other similar tragedies the world over.

Like my recent review of The Book Thief, this story is told from an unusual perspective. This time its spoken with the voice of a 5 year old boy, born and raised in captivity by his mother who was abducted at the age 19. I particularly liked the use of a very limited vocabulary and perspective in the opening chapters to set the scene, a style which then broadened and deepened, becoming more eloquent as the book progressed, but still retaining the essence of the 5 year old.

The first half of the book focuses on life in captivity. The routines, the restrictions and the absence of control. You sense the desperation of Jack's mother as she recognises the peril of her son growing older and the pressing need to escape. When this happens so soon in the book you thing "so what is the second half of the book about?".

Well, the second half deals with coming to terms with life "outside". Life where  reality beyond a 12 ft box it isn't just TV images. Where things hurt and are scary. The joint perspectives of both a young mother who has been locked away for several years and a boy who has known nothing different offer an interesting contrast. Both have struggles to overcome, as do the extended family who have to come to terms with their daughters sudden reappearance and the presence of a son fathered by the captor.

In the end it isn't a "they all lived happily ever after" tale. They struggle, they despair, they progress and they leave us with hope but without certainty - they rejoin society.

Its a compelling but slightly harrowing read. The subject matter is in no way pleasant but in the end it is more a story about overcoming the obstacles than the horrors of abduction and incarceration.

As for the Kindle? I would give it a guarded thumbs up. The technology didn't offer the sort of barrier I feared, but on the other had it wasn't exactly a step forward in enhancing the reading experience.

Reading from a tablet was ok, and turning the "pages" by was intuitive. However, it was odd not to be able to gauge ones progress by the number of pages read and the % completed function wasn't quite the same. The things I really missed were the ability to jump to the synopsis at any point and get the big picture part way through. I also missed the ability to skip back pages to clarify who did what at will. I am sure that there are technical methods for overcoming these drawbacks, but they were not obvious.

But, and as they say, its  big but, there is one overriding benefit. The Kindle is nearly to books what the i-pod is to music. The huge benefit is the ability to hold hundreds of books on the unit and access many more via the internet at a very reasonable price. Take a Kindle on holiday with you and you will never have to resort to that tatty pile of Danielle Steele left behind by previous holiday makers. Its this versatility which makes the Kindle a winner, especially for boaters for whom space is at a premium.

I would describe myself as a cautious convert.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Leicester Ring - Poleworth to Rugely

Leicester Ring 2011
Polesworth to Rugely
24 April 2011

25 miles - 5 locks - 10 hours

Its just another manic (bankholiday) Sunday. Well, thats nearly what the Bangles sang all those years ago. Why do I go boating on bank holidays? Cos I have to till I retire and can pick and choose my cruising itinary I guess!

Above Woodend Lock

Last night wasn't the most peaceful on record, buy not on account of my Boaters Christian Fellowship neighbours - you couldn't ever describe them as riotous bedfellows! No, the local pub has a band on and they kicked off just as I went to bed. No matter, I was knackered an fell asleep to a mutilated cover version of some blues number which was indistinguishable just by the pounding bass line.

I tightened the packing on the stern gland today. After several weeks of near dryness the dripping has resumed with a vengance, but my concerns about worn stern gear proved to be foundless - one side of the adjustment nuts had come lose and a few turns with a spanner brought the weeping to a sudden halt.

Polesworth Heritage Centre

We had got back on  schedule so there was no need to get cracking at the break on dawn on a fair and sunny Easter morning. This may not be the nost spectacular bit of canal, but there is plenty to look at, be it the slow filling Glascote locks or the interesting array of working boats at the Samuel Barlow.

This was the day of the blog boats, starting with Sanity Again which we saw at Willington. Bruce was aboard and waved, but didn't recognise Wand'ring Bark.Then it was into Seethay on the hunt for the clutch of famous craft believed to be loitering within its environs. First up it was Star, home to Starman and Starwoman. I didnt exactly have to find Star - she found me. Her nose was peeping out from behind the railway bridge just as we entered and I was so surprised I forgot to take a picture.

Flaming Reckless

Another famous resident is Reckless of the TV show fame. She has returned and is up for sale, but only her distinctive "flames" bows were visible.  

I understood that Granny Buttons has also taken up residence whilst her marine intestines are being attended to, but my search for her and her notorious crew was in vain. That said, my stay at Seethay was just long enough to refill with diesel and get a pump out. Wow, isn't diesel expensive even on a 60:40 split!

Amazingly, there were no crowds at Fradley and we strolled through the usually crowded locks to the north of the junction. Traffic thinned even further by 5.00pm and we picked up the pace through Armitage and Rugely, eventually stopping among the meadows just beyond the Tent Aqueduct at 7.00pm. Belle had produced a particularly fine roast to celebrate Easter and to give the new cooker a really good workout. 


The evening was calm and warm, ideal weather for ballooning. In fact, three of these huge balloons landed nearby offering a great end of day spectacle.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Market Harborough

Market Harborough
20th April 2011

You may have thought that my post which ended in Market Harborough didn't really do Union Wharf justice. Market Harborough is an interesting destination and I felt it justified a post of its own.

Union Wharf - Market Harborough

I have to admit this I arrived with high expectations. After all, this was the site of the inaugural IWA festival back in the 1950's and all those grainy black and white photos suggested a location redolent with atmosphere.

The mere existence of the canal to Market Harborough is a story in itself. The original plan had been to build a wide beam canal to connect the Erewash canal system to Northampton and then on to London but as was so often the case the project ran out of dosh at what is now Debdale Wharf. After a number of years more money was raise and work progressed as far as Market Harborough but there it stalled again, this time for good.

In the end the Grand Union Canal Company despaired and built an alternative route from Foxton to Crick, leaving the five lockless miles to Market Harborough as an arm.

Early morning tranquility of the Market Harborough Arm

As for Union Wharf - it spectacularly fails to deliver on its promise. Sure it is all spick and span as you would expect from one of Leicester's up market dormitory towns, and unquestionably safe but it is sanitised to the point of tedium.

Little of the old remains, with the basin surrounded by flats and housing. This residential bias means that quiet is valued over all and that in turn means that what should be a honey pot location dosnt even have a pub - just a restaurant which only sells bottled beer.

OK, the BW facilities are all there but the basin set up means that visitors have nowhere to stop and have to skulk away beyond the entrance to fine one of the scarce moorings. There are a few long term moorings but most of the space is taken up by a huge fleet of "hire a canal boat" craft (Canaltime was so much more catchy, don't you think?).

Smelly Fish, Blood and Bone meal factory

So, I guess I could best describe Union Wharf as over restored and devoid of character. A regeneration architect's dream but a history buffs nightmare. As for visiting boaters, is OK. Bland, safe but ultimately unmemorable.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Leicester Ring - Rugby to Polesworth

Leicester Ring 2011
Rugby to Polesworth
23 April 2011

25 miles - 12 locks - 11 hours

Two words describe today, sociable and scorching.

We like to meet up with friends on our travels and today's visitors will be using Wand'ring Bark later in the season. The day was therefore to spend some time with them and also to familiarise them with the boat.


We planned Polesworth as a destination so they left one car there and drove back to meet us. We knew we had a lot of miles to cover so I was up and off by 7.00am, breaking he back of the first 10 miles before meeting then at Ansty. It was one of those perfectly timed meetings when we came in to land beside the bridge just as they drove over it!  

The trouble with sociable days is that I tend to forget all about photography and suddenly I find myself at journeys end and few frames on the memory card.

Patriotism at Sutton Stop

The day blossomed into another scorcher - the hottest of the year so far. The sun blasted down and we struggled to find any shade under the leafless trees. In fact, the deck got so hot that it was impossible to stand on it with bare feet. It was all so incongruous - the only footwear I had was a pair of steel toe'd workboots whereas flip flops or sandals should have been the order of the day.

This take out beer concept is becoming habit forming. With the temperature in the mid 20's we stopped at the Grayhound at Sutton Stop, four pints in new take out glasses - nectar. Its good to replenish the supply of take out glasses, after I trod on one at Stenson wasting nearly a third of a pint. I am not sure which troubled me more, the beer or the loss of a perfectly serviceable receptical.

I saw the above graffiti on a bridge near Rugby. I had an image of a bunch of anarchic octogenarians hanging off the parapet by their Zimmer Frames, spray painting a message of defiance to all who care to read it. The reality is probably less prosaic!

All this heat at Easter is confusing. We passed the endless allotments of Nuneaton but the strange thing was that the plots were bare, seed potatoes planted beneath heaped tilth, tiny seedlings struggling to get a root hold and runner bean canes standing stark and bare with only the smallest plants brushing against their bases. I don't know about the plants, but all this early season has got me all confused.

We feasted on goodies brought by our guests - pickled onions from their allotments, cakes and coleslaw. A veritable feast for a hungry crew.

We needed water but  the area didn't oblige. The Ansty tap had no fitting, Hartshill was occupied by a boater washing his boat down, both taps at the top of the Atherstone flight were out of action but we finally found the tap half way down to be working, which gave the boat we were following a chance to pull ahead.

Our descent was slow and we emerged from the bottom lock at 7.00pm passing a group from the Lichfield Cruising Club having a bar-b-que on the towpath, and drew into Polesworth an hour or so later. We moored behind a contingent from Boaters Christian Fellowship, but they were all out an about elsewhere. I have much in common with BCF but have never joined. I think the trouble is that whilst I love friends and sociability, it tends to be one on one and I avoid organised groups of all types.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Leicester Ring - Crick to Rugby

Leicester Ring 2011
Crick to Rugby
22 April 2011

19 miles - 16 locks - 9 hours (plus four stopped)

This was the day the plan went to Hell in a handcart.

As you will have gathered, this trip has been slightly marred by an excessive amount of clock watching. We have had to maintain our schedule if we are to make it back to base in the days available, allowing me to return to work. My employers are happy to let me juggle my diary but the do draw the line at failing to show up!

Hillmorton sunset

We started our day on the "wrong" side of Crick tunnel so set off at 7.45 am to be sure we didn't have any problems at Watford Locks. Faint hope. At 7.30 an ABC hire boat came past triggering our departure but by the time we reached the top lock they were third from first but we drew up in 12th place. Suddenly I came to appreciate the frustrations these narrow staircases placed on working boats. We were on holiday but still we had time pressures and the minutes waiting soon accumulated and turned into hours. The lock keepers allow six boats up and six down and our turn came after 3.5 hours meaning we didn't exit the flight till 1.30pm.

Watford Jam

Our delay did offer scope for a variety of boating hobbies. One of the rising boats knew the crew of the boat behind us and thet paused for a cup of tea and a quick folk jam session. Others polished their boats and as for me? I fired up the laptop and edited a few days photos. It's amazing how time passes on the water. Oh the joys of bank holiday boating.

Descending Watford locks

The Grand Union came as a relief, broad and deep. By now it was sweltering hot and I had donned my sunglasses, striking a vary cool dude image, but then came my undoing. We were following a boat with a very smoke vintage engine and as we entered Braunston tunnel we discovered just how bad the fumes were. The tunnel was full of smoke reducing visibility to that of a pea soup fog. Sunglasses were just too much and I was marginally better off with no glasses, but also no clear vision beyond 12 inches! It was all very disorientating till Jeff saved the day by finding my regular specs, after which we shivered our way through in very inappropriate shorts and tee shirts.

Take out pints at Braunston

We were pleased to find no queues at the Braunston locks, slaking our thirsts with a couple of pints at the Admiral Nelson half way down. With provisions low I had promised Belle a visit to Tesco's at Rugby, still three hours away. But as it was already 5.00pm when we exited the flight  a late finish was inevitable. To compound the issue I noticed a familiar boat as we approached the twin roving bridges at the junction. We had planed to meet Bones at Braunston but in the end she wasn't expecting to arrive till Saturday whilst we expected to pass through on Friday morning. Bones got ahead of plan just as we fell behind so, by a fortunate set of circumstances, we finally met up. We breasted up, creating an interesting navigation hazard and spent a very pleasant hour enjoying a "gin o clock" moment, catching up on the gossip before taking our leave and setting off into the sunset.


The seven miles to Hillmorton dragged by interminably. Literally hundreds of boats were moored up on this remote stretch, slowing progress to a crawl. Of course, we found ourselves behind a rookie Black Prince boat who persisted in cutting corners with predictable groundings. Fortunately for us, they performed this manouver one time too ofter when we were close behind and then we were past - destination Rugby.


I have never seen Hillmorton looking better. The sun was setting beneath a hot and hazy horizon and we found every lock set for us and every top gate open. The sun offered a fine spectacle, with its last orange rays reflecting back up off the water and lighting each chamber with a fiery hue.

 Working down Hillmorton Locks

We did indeed make it to Tesco, at nine pm with the shadows rapidly turning to black rendering the Pearson unreadable, which is my rule of thumb for too dark to travel. One very long day but we are on target ready to greet more guests who will accompany us on tomorrows travels to Polesworth.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Leicester Ring - Welford Arm

Leicester Ring 2011
Welford Arm

21 April 2011

What can I say, the Welford Arm is a complete gem. Small in every way but perfectly formed, a great distraction from the main line to Leicester and well worth a visit.

Welford's wharf

Its much more satisfying that the Market Harborough arm for all its diminutive 1.75 miles length. Another curious fact is that the canal has its own little lock which raises the canal about four feet for its final 400 meters to its terminus, making this the highest point on the while of the Grand Union system. It eclipses all the summits between here and London and the final pound from Knowle to the Camp Hill Locks in Birmingham.

Welford's little lock

The end of the canal boasts a pretty little marina containing less than 60 boats, a working boatyard, a dry docs and a traditional warehouse with a bay offering just enough space for two visiting boats to snuggle up withing staggering distance of the adjacent pub.

Welford basin

Whilst the canal terminates at Leicestershire, a short stroll through the lovingly tended "pocket park" takes you over a diminutive River Avon and into Northamptonshire within which the village of Welford sits. Not that there is a lot to Welford's high street, just a pub, a well patronised Post Office / stores and a garage at the far end. Its clearly a community place, with the locals erecting statues, maintaining parks and offering monthly film shows in the village hall.

Postman Pat indicates the way to the village post office.

Not a bad place to live, in my opinion.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Leicester Ring - Market Harborough to Crick

Leicester 2011
Market Harborough to Crick
21 April 2011

28 Miles - 12 Locks - 10 Hours

I am glad that I dedicated a whole post to Foxton, because that leaves more space for today's missive.

Horse sculpture above Foxton locks

The 67ft of ascent at Foxton lifts the Grand Union Leicester Section to the 412ft contour which the canal sticks to all the way to Crick. You get the feeling that when the GUCC built this canal they decided on a roll up the sleeves and no nonsense approach - a big staircase at each end and a very long summit pound with two long tunnels. The only snag was that they built the locks to a narrow gauge, which was undoubtedly a mistake with hindsight.

This summit pound is arguably the canal at its best. Mile after mile of rolling fields, many clothed in a searing carpet of Oil Seed Rape yellow. This area has a remote beauty to it, winding through the wolds of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, skirting low hills with names like Laughton, Hemplow, Downton and Cracks, each rising about 100 ft above this lofty summit of the Grand Union system. 

Downton Hill

The first big structure id the Husband Bosworth tunnel - 1170 yards of dry double width bore which has to be negotiated before the diminutive Welford Arm. I am a total sucker for side arms and this one is a real peach, so I will merely say that we did make our way to the end of this little stub of a canal but such was its attraction that it deserves a post all of its own. More of that next time.

The canal winds its way generally south but such is the terrain that it takes two miles of water to achieve one mile of progress as the crow flies. Frustrating for a commercial boat owner but for me it meant that it was just more miles of rural idyll, more miles to bask in the spring sunshine, and more miles to daydream away before we hit the bustle of the main Grand Union which lies just beyond Crick.

There are no towns and very few villages hereabouts. That means very limited opportunities to restock depleted larders and few pubs to slake the thirsts of enthusiastic boaters. The moral of this tale is to take plenty of supplies, including a few crated of beer for consumption under shady canal side trees.

We  finally rolled into Crick, passing two marina's, the new one at Yelvertoft and the more familiar one in Crick itself before reaching the village and a rendezvous with some old friends over to share the evening with us. In the dying moments of the day the skipper of an IWA boat throttled back, leaned over the taff rail and advised me that he regularly reads about the travels of Wand'ring Bark within the pages of Captain Ahab's Watery Tales!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Marathon marches on

The BCN Marathon Challenge is only two weeks away...
May 2011

Somewhere, deep in the psyche of the middle aged man their lies a fear that life is slipping away.

Some men give up and go to seed, others buy a sports car, ditch their wife and get a newer model to adorn their arm. Me, I figured I would be radical and do neither so I kept the wife and bought a narrowboat instead. I have to say that from a financial perspective, my approach makes a lot of sense - divorce is very expensive and narrowboats depreciate at a snails pace.

One other aspect of male middle age I have noticed is a burning need among my colleagues to achieve heroic feats of physical endurance. Some cycle from one end of the land to the other,  some climb Kilimanjaro, some do the Three Peaks Challenge (Ben Nevis, Sca Fell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours) and then there is the iron man / triathlon / marathon brigade. 

Well, at last  have been able to drop comments about taking part in a Marathon. The problem is that no one has heard of the BCN Marathon and a look of bemused puzzlement crosses their faces as I explain that it is a boat race involving narrowboats in Birmingham. The idea of a narrowboat race is something only Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear gang would dream up, but their approach would be to put a 1000 hp engine in from a Sunseeker, feed it with Nitrous Oxide, add a spoiler or two and undertake a drag race down the New Main Line. Now that would be a spectator sport!

Of course, this vision is all a far cry from reality.  A narrowboat endurance race is a very gentlemanly affair where competitors help each other out. Can you imagine Jensen Button pulling over in the 52nd lap to help Vettell change his spark plugs? But whilst taking part is the whole point, there is most certainly a competitive edge aboard the crew of Wand'ring Bark. A strategy meeting was held recently when the obscure scoring system was assessed and the relative merits of various routes weighed. We would like to think we have a winning plan, but we are speaking from our depth of inexperience.

So M day is almost upon us and we are raring to go. We have enthusiasm, a strategy - we just need a flag and a clear run. I don't know if any of you are taking past this year, but if you are skipping this year's Crick maybe we will see you in Walsall Town Arm on Sunday afternoon?

Now Stig, how fast do you think you need to go to get a narrowboat up on a plane? 

Friday, 13 May 2011

Leicester Ring - Foxton

Leicester Ring 2011
21 April 2011

I can't leave this section without a good look at the Foxton complex.

Foxton staircase locks

We spent several hours on the site as we passed through on our way to Market Harborough and again as we ascended the locks the next day.

Foxton Locks

Foxton is the tourist honeypot that Union Wharf in Market Harborough isn't. Not only are there the unique double five rise narrow staircase locks but also the remains of the incredible Foxton Inclined Plane. 

The foundation of the Inclined Plane

A narrowboat perched, waiting for the next lift down.

I travelled this route when I was a teenager in the company of Matilda and the Captain Snr and remember mooring at the top lock and exploring the site of the plane. That will be back in about 1974 when I was studying the canals in my CSE history - Mr Bacon has a lot to answer for, awakening an interest which has stayed with me all my life. At that time I scrambled over he steep slope, pushing through brambles and undergrowth and unearthing crumbling elements of the old track beds. 

Foxton pumphouse - now a museum

Its all so different today. The site has been meticulously cleared and the entrance channels refilled with water. As a result it is possible to get a good idea of the grandeur of the enterprise, unique in our inland waterways heritage.

A quick history lite about the Foxton Inclined Plane:

The original narrow flight of locks were a perennial bottleneck, as they still are today when the Canaltime boats arrive en mass. This problem was a constant complaint of FMC, who were the main users of the route. In the end a huge pair of counterbalanced cassions were constructed which carried pairs of narrowboats up and down the 90 odd feet in 10 mins, as opposed to the hour or more for the locks. This system was operational for 10 years to 1910, but eventually a reduction in trade coupled with the high cost of keeping the engine in steam made the lift uneconomic. With reduced working hours FMC lobbied for the reinstatement of the locks which they could operate day and night, a position which remains to the present date.

The old cassions and tracks were removed for salvage but the concrete foundations remain, encouraging talk of an ultimate restoration.

Jeff in the Arbour

We arrived at the bottom the the Foxton Locks at 9.30 to find the first boats of the morning making steady progress up the hill. A quick dash up the locks found the lock keeper who agreed to our tacking ourselves on the back - as long as we were quick. Up we went, aided and abetted by a couple of volunteer lock keepers who were being trained up for a summer of support duties.

Heavy horse sculpture at Foxton top lock.

Foxton is rightly regarded as one of the seven wonders of the inland waterways world.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Belle's Foraging Frenzy

Belle is back on the blogging trail
May 2011

I have to admit to a slight fetish about the domestic goddess genre. Nigella Lawson holds a distinct allure, as does Delia Smith (but that may have as much to do with her links to Norwich City Football Club as her much acclaimed culinary expertise). Either way - there is something very appealing about a woman who knows her way around the kitchen.

Belle has clearly taken note of my predilection and thrown herself headlong into the foraging malarkey. Luckily, this new found interest has been combined with boating as it appears that the canal towpaths represent a less contaminated food source than the verges of the nearby M6! The canal margins are also a good deal safer from an access point of view.

So, armed with various River Cottage Handbooks Belle is a gal with a mission, a mission to root out all those edible delicacies which surround us on our watery travels. No sooner had this passion been ignited than we set sail for Leicester with strict instructions to keep a sharp eye out for Beech leaves. Beech leaves? Why Beech leaves I hear you cry.

Well, not only has Belle immersed herself in foraging she has also started a brand new blog which chronicles her successes (and hopefully not too many disasters) along the towpaths.
The official title is "I know a bank where the wild thyme grows" but lets just call it "Belle's Blog", short,  simple and to the point - three attributes which are not shared by its author! If you want to know why I was so distressed by her wish to collect Beech leaves you had better visit her blog over the coming days, where all will be revealed...

Oh dear, one blogger in the house was enough. If she eclipses me in the rankings I can see trouble ahead, and tears before bed time. Mind you, given my peculiar interest in foraging fatale's, bed time could get interesting.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tanking your boat

Boats at Bovington
10th May 2011

I asked Jeff if he fancied a trip to the Tank Museum and he paused, wondering what one could find interesting at a museum of water tanks.

Tank Corps statue - Bovington

Of course, I was thinking of the National Tank Museum at Bovington, near Dorchester which holds a display of over 200 tanks (the sort that go boom, boom) through the ages, from a mock up of a Leonardo da Vinci tank (he invented everything!) through to a modern Challenger.

Now tanks arn't everyone's cup of tea, and not everyone would think this a fun day out.

Tank Barrels - like a pipe organ

I am not sure I found it a barrel of laughs, but it was certainly interesting. These huge lumbering machines designed to carry an crew into harms way, disable an enemy and then escape are as impressive as they are sobering.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer variety, big ones from the 1st world war with tracks which envelope them through light scouting trucks, dads army type lorries with concrete pill boxes on top, bridge laying tanks, flamethrowers and tracked sniper posts. It seems that here is a tank for every occasion.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the classic tank was the German Panzer, huge, heavy and loaded with a monstrous gun - Hitlers darling. In fact it was over engineered, over complicated, over costly and required 10 hours of maintenance for every hour spent operational. But when it worked it was unbeatable.

Sherman propeller propulsion

OK, that's enough about tanks (I am not inclined to make a return visit) what about boats? Well, even in this location a boating element caught my eye in the shape of a 35 ton Sherman tank. Did you know that they made a floating Sherman? It was real Heath Robinson stuff, but they figured that if you gave a tank enough buoyancy it could swim from the landing craft to the beach.

Sherman Tank with skirts up

The answer was to attach a high skirt to the tank, add propellers and then use the tank as 35 tons of ballast! The most amazing thing was that this idea worked and with the tank dangling beneath this flimsy canvas sack they were successfully (well, mostly successfully) deployed as part of the D Day landings. What did the crew do during the passage? Stand with their backs supporting the sides and making ready for an emergency exit if things went wrong!

A final thought about the tank museum. Its a bit of an eerie place, with all that ingenuity committed to building death traps which have the sole purpose of killing other people. Frankly, the idea of going onto battle in a tank scared the daylights out of me and I have to admire the men who did so on our behalf, especially those rickety old WW1versions where the engine fumes killed more crew than the enemy ever did!

It's well worth a look if you like machines and are in the Poole / Dorset area - Cost £12 per adult.