Friday, 31 January 2014

Combe Hay Tunnel - Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal
Combe Hay Tunnel
January 2014

When you get to Combe Hay you are starting to hit the motherload on this canal.

For the last few miles the railway track has been tracking the old course of the canal, but here you will find the only tunnel on the canal as it punches through a rib of hard rock. The railway recycled the tunnel, digging out the bed to get more height whilst at the same time widening it out for width.

 Combe Hill Tunnel

You can access the tunnel and you will discover that the local farmer uses at as a handy garage for his equipment.

A close look at the walls reveals the original canal walls in the refuges and the the extra depth can be seen by the line of blue bricks. Beyond the tunnel the canal is so cluttered with debris I didn't event try to push through.

The original canal tunnel wall

But this is only an entre to the Combe Hay extravaganza which lies just a short way ahead when the canal runs out of its high ground and has to make a sudden 135ft descent. But before we get there you can access the line of the canal behind the Wheatsheaf Pub, but again its just the top of the railway bridge.

The map shows another aqueduct which if it still exists is behind an equestrian centre and I couldn't reach it.

There is so much to see at Combe Hay it will take several posts to do it justice. Watch this space....

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Marie's Fish Shack - St Lucia

Marie's Fish Shack
Reduit Beach - Rodney Bay
St Lucia
January 2014

For some the abiding memory of St Lucia will be the Pitons, the warm waters, the sailing, the diving or maybe just the lazy Caribbean vibe and great food. Of course, all these things are there in spades but none will offer that one defining memory of our trip back to the Caribbean islands.

Marie's fish shack - where everyone knows your name

No, for me the whole trip is encapsulated in Marie's Fish Bar. A Caribbean equivalent to Cheers - the bar where everyone knows your name. Its only ten minutes walk from the heaving masses of walruses, oiled and laid wallowing on the narrow beach. But few venture to the southern end frequented by the locals, which makes this one of St Lucia's best kept secrets.

Head this way!

We came with a jump start as we have a friend in common with Marie, the opinionated owner who serves those customers she happens to like (and you really want to be liked - believe me!).


She makes the most divine Caribbean fish food, cooked over open wood fires by herself or one of her sons. There is a menu of sorts but its not really a choice, more what you may like to leave out. The wise guest will simply accept whatever she offers as its all delicious and whatever you do, don't get picky - or you will be shouted at.

The view from the bar comes free

To dine at Marie's is a community activity and the guests are all part of the show. Two by two we all show up, some are regulars but most happen on the shack by chance, and we take our places on the benches. Marie gets about her business while someone, a guest as often as not, sorts out the bar. Piton, the local beer is the staple drink but for those in need of something a little stronger there are the Rum options - A blow your head off Rum Punch which leaves you begging for more ice to dilute it down, or the ultra smooth spiced rum which is reputedly a cure all for everything from diabetes to infertility!

Hmm - I wish that was mine they all think

The bar is run on the loosest of tabs where much relies on honesty and customer come to an agreement on what has been consumed at the end of the session. If you have imbibed the rum this is not as easy as it sounds, but all is sorted out in the end - US or EC Dollars are both fine.

The food may take a while, but that's OK. Like canal time, Caribbean time is stretchy and the longer your food takes to arrive the more time you have to take soak up the vibes. 

So, if you ever visit Redruit Beach take a wander down to the extreme southern end  for about 1.00pm and ask for food. She will prepare food for the first 12 or 15 to ask, and a meal for two plus three beers each will set you back about EC$100 (£25). 

The menu

The food alone justifies a visit but its the welcome which is a bit special. All comers are welcomed in and amazingly the disparate group of customers who arrive unwittingly become a group, sharing, chatting, joking and generally having a good time. 

Before you know it everyone knows your name - Cheers! 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Dunkerton - Somerset Coal Camal

Somerset Coal Canal
January 2014

Having passed through a relatively barren patch, Dunkerton comes as a welcome change.

 Canal bed above Dunkerton Parish Rooms

The village had two aqueducts to carry the canal over roads and streams from valleys which flow into the Cam Brook Valley.

I searched high and low for remains of Dunkerton Little aqueduct but alas my search was in vain. I suspect that it has long since  been raided as a stone quarry and its remnants are probably built into many local houses. 

Dunkerton Big Aqueduct

That said, you can get the levels if you climb up the bank behind the parish hall where you will fine the classic saucer shaped depression, high on the valley side. The canal ran up the side valley for a few hundred yards to a narrow bit, crossed and then came back out on the same contour.

Bridge under A367

Undeterred I drove to a lay by off the busy  A367 and from there gained a good view of the Dunkerton Big Aqueduct. This fine stone edifice runs straight into a bridge of which one portal remains in the garden of a house beside the road. 

Milepost at Dunkerton

Follow the canal line over the busy main road and you find it contouring along, a thin strip of flat land which is occupied by gardens and then a children's nursery. I took a photo but then had to do some quick talking and accept the image of canal nerd rather than pervert!

Nursery on canal course

Hey ho - the canal then sweeps majestically from view and its gone as fast as it appeared.

Map of the Dunkerton section as found on the SCC Society website

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - book review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
January 2014

Another book read from end to end in little more than 24 hours and what a contrast to Never Coming Back, my last review.

I was attracted to the quirky title and dust cover synopsis:

A newly retired man of 65 receives a letter from a colleague he lost track of 20 years ago telling him that she is dying of cancer.

His response? To walk from his Devon home to Berwick on Tweed with no preparation or hiking kit, leaving behind his bemused wife Maureen and her relationship with their son David.

To Harold it wasa man on a mission - he believed that if he could each her on foot she would live, but it was so much more than that. It was a journey of discovery about Harold, Maureen, their lives together and all the baggage they carried. But it was even more than that. It was a journey which touched the lives of all those around them and far from being a pointless pilgrimage it highlighted the only thing that really matters - the impact we have on one another.

There were large chunks of Forrest Gump on his cross country run, but its all very quirky and English. 

In the end the further he and Maureen are from each other in the physical sense the closer they become emotionally. I guess its a love story with a couple of twists at the end. but on both counts I have to admit to having my suspicions all along.

If I have whetted your appetite, go get a copy. It will make you laugh and make you cry but it will never leave you short changed.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Camerton to Dunkerton - Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal
Camerton to Dunkerton
January 2014

This was where I went seriously astray, fooled by the seeming accuracy of the Somerset Canal Society's website. 

Their map suggests that the canal crossed the Can Brook (a raging torrent at the time of my visit) and followed Wick Lane round to re cross the river just above the mill.

Low embankment with Camerton colliery beyond

I could find no evidence of such a crossing and it two aqueducts were built plus the levels on the south bank were all wrong. How could a canal which was climbing the valley side, drop to the flood plain and then get back up without locks when there was an obvious and direct route across the meadows complete with a canal sized embankment, which had been reused by the railway in the 20th century?

Canal terrace approaching Stonedge Lane

It turns out that there never was a river crossing and the canal stuck to the northern side of the valley all the way to the Avon.

And so I followed the canal / railway course to Stonedge Lane where it struck off beyond my reach, only to make a fleeting appearance as a railway bridge parapet on Palmers Lane.

Standing on bridge parapet at Palmers Lane

My now the canal is high above the valley floor and the sound of the foaming brook has receded into the background and the combined canal and railway push cross country towards Dunkerton. Not a lot to see hereabouts with the railway overlaying the canal and obliterating any remains.

 Masonry artefacts at Palmers Lane bridge

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The secret of eternal youth

How to feel 18 again
January 2014

I have to admit that at times I start to feel that I have sailed a bit north of "youth" and I am probably charting a course deep in the middle fifties, but at times inside I am still 18.

With so many maritime metaphors you may guess that I am talking about sailing.

I have sailed pretty much all my life starting with a Laser type boat I built myself when I was 18, and in which I figured out how to go about this sailing malarkey. In fact, Helen with her two evening sessions at the local sailing club has more formal sail training than I have to my name. Like most things in my life, I picked it up as I went along and I thoroughly enjoy getting out on the water with a tiller in one hand and a main sheet in the other, the boat heeling over in a stiff breeze and spray blasting me from the bows dug deep in a wave.

But the flip site is that I am not a fan of getting cold and wet so, for much of the year, sailing in the UK holds little appeal and I am much happier bashing along on a nice warm narrowboat.

But get me abroad, especially in the Caribbean and its another matter altogether. The trade winds offer strong but predictable sailing conditions and the water is so warm is almost a pleasure to get soaked. Its therefore my practice to get my watery and physical fix by sailing for a couple of hours each morning.You can stick your daily aquarobics lessons!

At Windjammer the watersports are complimentary (I mean $ free rather than the staff extolling the quality of my seamanship!) and their boats are Hobie Cats - small twin hulled cats from Florida which are both fast and inherently stable. All in all they are a whole lot of fun as I race to and fro across the bay, but absolute swines to come about into the wind unless you have one with a gib.

As the days have gone bye the guys at the Watersports Centre have become very relaxed about my daily sails, merely asking me to stay in sight but with no restriction to distance out I go. I tend to favour a zone about a mile offshore where the trade winds blow unchecked around the headland and out there the little boat hums and vibrates as it launches itself from one crest to another. At these speeds its upper hull rears clear of the water and keeping it all in balance calls for much juggling of weight, position, sail tension and angle of attack.

All in all its fair to say that from the moment I push off from the beach the rest of the world almost ceases to exist and there I am 18 again, sailing my home made dingy on the Norfolk Broads, or 30 and sailing monohulls in Tobago. Its like riding a bike and as natural a part of my being as breathing.

Of course, pride can come before a fall and today I have a near brush with disaster as a tropical downpour rolled off the hills and I suddenly found myself well offshore tacking back in the teeth of heavy squalls, soaked to the skin with a mix of spray from the speeding hulls and the rain which was as much lateral as it was vertical. Through all this my faithful little Praktica survived repeated immersions wrapped in a laundry bag and secured with a clippit.

Against this backdrop of a youth regained on the waters of St Lucia I am very aware of a watery tragedy with took place just a few miles down the coast to an East Anglian couple on a sailing trip of a lifetime, but who fell foul of thieves and the husband paid with his life. It may be lovely here but its not quite paradise!

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Radford to Camerton - Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal
Radford to Camerton
January 2014

Having jumped a few hundred yards where the canal line runs through some inaccessible private land and burrowed under Weekesley Lane (no sign of the bridge), it emerges from under some back gardens and into a building site, which is currently being excavated.

Canal bed in building site

This excavation has revealed the edge of a wharf wall and a silted black line where the bed of the canal used to run. 

Canal bed beside Durcott Lane

From here the canal runs under or next to Durcott Lane to the cross roads at Camerton Hill. There is little to see but where the canal has been built over they have helpfully called a street Canal View Road.  Then the canal path is fairly obvious, running to the north of Bridge Place Road, its line a clear strip of green meadow which ends with a row of cottages built across it. 

The canal is under the "new" cottage on the left.

And here is one of those little dilemmas. The cottages all look old so where did the canal go? After a bit of thought I realised that the end cottage has concrete lintels and no chimneys so my guess is that the end one is built on the canal line which then kinks into the narrow confines of the valley at Camerton Colliery.

The bed of the canal is probably buried under the tailings of Camerton Colliery to the right

Map of the Radford / Camerton section of the Somerset Canal Canal as found on the SCC Society website.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Never Coming Back - book review

Never Coming Back
by Tim Weaver
January 2014

No, its not a statement of intent, but given our current location is could very well be!

In the final few days before we left the UK I realised that I had no holiday reading material so I piled onto Amazon and to narrow things down a bit I picked five likely looking books from Richard and Judys list from 2013.

Yeh, Yeh - Richard and Judy - all very passe I hear you cry, but how else was I supposed to filter the options?

Never Coming Back sounded like an interesting read, although I didnt realise that it was the third in a series following David Raker, a private investigator with a specialism in finding missing persons. Not that this mattered - the book was stand alone and although you can tell that there was history to the key character, you were given enough to fill the background gaps.

In brief its the story of a damaged individual who is running from his own past and seeks closure by helping others find loved ones. He is hauled out of seclusion by an exgirlfriend and is soon on the trail of a missing family, butting horns with nasty characters who want the past to stay very hidden. In fact, anyone who starts to get close to the truth soon finds themselves very dead and the bodycount rises inexorably.

The book uses flashback for the various characters to weave in all the plotlines and Weaver cleverly brings them all to life is a clear and coherent manner. Sometime I lose the thread of who is who in complex plots, but maybe reading the book in just two days helped here.

The book is a pacy roller coaster of a tale. It grabs your attention and then holds it firmly in its grasp till the tale is told and the endgame is reached. The ends are all tied off and I am left thinking I would  like to read the earlier books in the series.

 I think that classes as a positive review!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Paulton Basin to Radford Mill - Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal
Paulton Basin to Radford Mill
January 2014

Having explored the basins the path of the canal strides off across the meadows and I had an insatiable urge to explore.

Canal bed beneath Paulton

The area has been cleared in recent years and an open saucer shaped depression is clearly visible and the towpath walkable with care. It had rained heavily before my visit so it was more of a controlled slither at times which tested the waterproofing of my summer boots to the limit, and then some.

A muddy route

It must all have looked so different to the summer WRG volunteers who had made their fires in the canal bed, now charred islands surrounded by several inches of water.

The canal was on the "shelf" to the gate.

About half way along to Radford Mill the canal crosses a track and it was here I fell into the canal hunters trap of getting my levels wrong. I was only out by 6ft, but it caused me to wander up to the mill following what I assumed was the canal path by the river but finding no evidence of it. At the mill I poked around a bit, mostly looking at its reconstruction project and the "alternative" community who live in smoking double decker busses and the like, when I came across the end of the canal which has presumably also been cleared recently.

Looking up the canal from Radford Mill

The route then runs off into an inaccessible area towards the Bath Road,  but I would guess that the section to Paulton Basin is over half a mile long and with a bit of effort could be reinstated quite quickly.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Oh island in the sun

Guess where we are?
21 Jan 2014

Whilst my blog may suggest that I am slithering down a muddy valley in Somerset, that was sooo last weekend!

The end of today finds us basking in a balmy 29C - a far cry from the -1C at its start.

We climbed on one of these:

Took a drive along the west coast of this place:

And this is what we found:

Not bad for the Wild Side works outing!