Sunday, 23 September 2018

Blisworth Canal Festival 2018

Blisworth Canal Festival 2018
August 2018

By our reckoning this will be our sixth Blisworth Festival, and our second with the boats.

In the early days of Wildside we decided that canal based events would be our core market but with work getting in the way of extended boating, we were obliged to load everything into the car and be land based. Blisworth was that little bit too far to travel there and back each day, so we found a nice B&B which was a self contained apartment and made a weekend of it.

 Bliswoth festival field

The problem with our migration to water was the popularity of the event. Far more traders wanted to come than there were spaces between the two bridges, so I devised a cunning plan. We had always had our stall of the triangle of land by Candle Bridge and it struck me that there was good 35ft of grassy bank immediately to the north of the weir. This was just perfect for the butty and the motor could be strung out over the weir itself. The idea was presented to the harbour master who jumped at the creation of an extra mooring where one had not existed previously.

Mugs Afloat trading at The Wharf

The location also meant that we would be in our "usual" location and be easy to find for our regular customers. As a bonus the wide bit of grass allowed us to put the gazebo legs out onto land, which would be an issue further down the narrow towpath. This therefore became "our" spot.

This year the organisers had changed but to our relief the weir spot remained ours, but to our surprise the trade stalls on the triangle were no more. In their place there was a sizeable CRT tent, with the ice cream  van on the road. Initially this looked like bad news as the CRT stand had their back screen facing us but it actually all turned out rather well. The new open space was popular with visitors who came off the bridge and chilled out on the sunny bank whilst eating ice creams. This was good news for CRT who had lots of people to talk to, and excellent news for us as they all seemed to wander over to taste our wares.

The new chill out zone at Candle Bridge

Another nice twist of the event is the fact that two of my previous London bosses live nearby and look in on us each year to see how we are doing. 

The altered footfall dynamics assisted by mild, dry but not hot weather made for a great combination and our sales surged by about 40%. This was quite a result because over the last few years the sales had declined year on year to the point that we were considering alternative venues in mid August. In the event it was Blisworth back at its best.

Helen is interviewed live on local radio

Radio Northamptonshire were broadcasting live on Sunday morning and we were asked to participate. Helen is far better at radio interviews than I am so she spoke to John Griff and enthused about jams, life afloat and life after cancer. He seemed well impressed and quietly confided in me that "she comes across really well on radio". Thats my girl!

The rest of the event was maybe a little smaller than in recent years, but none the worse for it. About 15,000 people attended on Saturday and a few less on Sunday. The new organisers were very attentive and actively seeking feedback so hopefully next year will see a few of the wrinkles ironed out and this popular Northamptonshire event go from strength to strength.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Back to Blisworth

Back to Blisworth
August 2018

Its hard to believe that my last blog on our travels way way back at Soulbury, south of Milton Keynes. This absence has been due to a mix of familiarity with the route, a busy time making new stock and most significantly the woeful sate of our battery bank, The batteries were new about two years ago but they were cheap and the mix of failed alternator last year and the prolonged heat this summer has caused them to to be over taxed. I suspect that they are coated in sulphate and a new set is beckoning this winter. The snag is that in hot weather the batteries are barely able to supple the fridge and freezer overnight and sucking a few amps to power the laptop has been a luxury we couldn't afford.

A return to Cosgrove

From Soulbury we paused in Fenny Stratford for a couple of days, making lots of Blackberry Wine Jam and catching a bus into Milton Keynes where we picked up a copy of Land Love magazine in which we feature. The nice thing about Fenny is chewing the cud with the skipper of Wol, who is temporarily moored on the 48 hour mooring whilst the residential spots opposite are upgraded.

Spare lining ring left over from the 1980's repair

From Fenny it was back to the embankment moorings at Cosgrove where we rode out some poor weather and, you guessed it, made more jam. This time it was Mirabelle Plum made from the few mirabelles we found along the route plus some more marmalade as stocks are running low.

A wire sculpture of a pony and wagon on the Tunnel Trail at Stoke Bruene

In reality we were dawdling, killing time before the Blisworth Festival but eventually we headed north again mooring up for a couple of days in Stoke Bruerne, seeing Kathryn Doddington who armed us with masses of New Zealand books. I also took the opportunity to have a good look at the southern portal of the tunnel, watching the boats come out like a real gongoozler.

Blisworth Tunnel - southern portal

Finally, on the Thursday we made our way through the long Blisworth Tunnel and were not overhauled by anyone, which was good. We continues to Gayton Junction where we watered, dumped rubbish and crucially used the elsan before winding and returning to our usual spot beside Candle Bridge.

 Entering Blisworth Tunnel

Passing another boat at the Blisworth end

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Surfing into Tipton

Surfing into Tipton
September 2018

The first named storm of the season hit the Midlands yesterday messing up our plans to get back to Tipton for this weekend's festival.

A windswept Mainline outside Birmingham

We were moored in the Oozells St Loop and with the wind gusting at between 40 and 50 mph is was far from ideal conditions to travel out to the Black Country, but it was either that or make the journey today (Thursday) is incessant rain. The wind was gusting badly but we decided that the rain would be worse, and set off at about noon.

The Cape Arm entrance.

In some ways the first section was the worst. The wind was being channeled down the cut but we were moored facing Sheepcote Bridge  so we had little option but to pass through the moored boats of Sherborne Wharf. Given the unpredictable gusts I was very cautious, hooting repeatedly as I neared and passed through the bridge - to meet another boat here would not be great. Of course, a boat did indeed come the other way, only spotting me as I nosed round the corner, balancing on the wind. He was going far to fast and careered into the boats on the offside.

The Avery Loop entrances

The wind blew this way and that but fortunately if the deep drafted butty is moving is resists side winds better than the motor and it is possible to use it to stabilise our direction of travel. The one thing I must never do is stop!  There were no boats moving on the NML so we left the flats and entered the main canal, crabbing here and there as blasts from the side arms pushed us about.

Echoes of Blondie in this striking bit of Grafitti

My plan had been to follow the Old Main Line from Smethwick, a route I have never undertaken with the butty in tow. However, by the time we reached the Cape Arm it was clear that I would have my hands full using the full width of the lower channel. Most of the route is either in the trees or within the confines of the Galton Valley cutting, and this offered a significant amount of protection from the gale which howled overhead. 

Bridges of Smethwick Junction

The wind was intense as we passed Chance's glassworks, with both boats veering probably 20 degrees out of true, only coming straight at the last minute as we entered narrows or bridges. All the wind was tearing leaves off the tree and we had our first taste of autumn, the prop continually clogging up  with light detritus.

The Horseley Company's work is everywhere!

The cross winds were at their worst as we passed Pudding Green Junction and entered the Island Line, which is much more exposed and the channel a bit narrower. There was no stopping for apples on this occasion and it was all I could do to avoid being blown onto the railway bank. 

The wind never abated and at Factory Locks I was driven onto the shallows on the offside below the locks. This is a foul smelling trap for the unwary and one which took a while to free ourselves from. The turn at Factory Junction was no better and we had to pause on the lock moorings for a few minutes in the hope of a slight lull, before powering round the turn and gaining some momentum. Once moving all was OK again and having phoned ahead discovered that a suitable mooring was vacant in Coronation Park, with the butty on the short kinked bit and the motor balanced out on the turn behind the railings.

BCLM staff out of character for a minute or so

Barry kindly sorted out the butty whilst we nipped off to the BCLM to use the facilites.

The day concluded in the company of Sandra and Barry (Homebrew Boat) and I regained my mojo for Six Handed Rummy winning (with great skill) for the first time in months.  So here we sit under a leaden sky with wind and rain buffeting us around waiting for better things which may or may not arrive this weekend.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Tojo the dwarf

Tojo the dwarf
September 2018

Well, this is a title which will confuse readers who are not familiar with the BCN.

Union Furnace Bridge

Out on the New Main Line Canal to the east of the Gower Branch there lies the Union Furnace Bridge, which used to stand at the end of the now lost Union Branch Canal. In all ways it is an unremarkable and dilapidated structure with wooden side panels gradually succumbing to the pull of gravity. But it does have one remarkable attribute - it's graffiti.

Now don't get me wrong, few bridges on the BCN are without the touch of the illicit paint brush, but this one bears the simple legend "Tojo the dwarf" in crude grey lead paint. 

Plodding up and down the interminable straights of the New Main Line at 2.3mph give a man time to think and reflect. And so, on my way to Bumblehole I passed the reference to Tojo the Dwarf for the umpteenth time and wondered who or what was Tojo.... And then John Jackson (Coal Boat Roach) posted a picture of said bridge and I asked the question. The hive mind of the BCN enthusiasts sprang to work and offered a number of suggestions. The one I really liked was that Tojo was a railway track worker who was a bit on the short side. It appears that he had a habit of saying " I told you", which lead to the nickname. If that leaves you scratching your head try saying "I to jo" in as good a Black Country accent as you can muster, and you will get there. 

As for the age of this scribble - it certainly dates back to the early 70's and may even be of a late 60" vintage. Photographic evidence is being sought by the hive.

As an addendum to the above it has been brought to my attention that Tojo was previously used in WW2 as a racist reference to the Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbour. It was widely used in US propaganda but died out after the war.

Smethwick Toll Island - the clear side

Anyway, I seem to be doing a lot of trecking up and down the New main Line at present and used the canal to get us back to Birmingham from Netherton. This time I achieved an almost unprecedented clean pass through the tunnel, touching the side only when passing oncoming boats. Netherton is a bit of a nemesis tunnel for me, but this time instead of having companions behind me (Barry and Sandra followed us in the east west leg) I had companions in front. The work boat Phoenix had been brought round boaded with logs and bound for Alvechurch, and popped into the tunnel about 15 minutes ahead of us. By the time I had winded (turned round) and followed them in they were about 1/3 of the way through and had wound its engine of to its high whine maximum. Phoenix is a bit under powered and howls its way through the tunnel - you could be forgiven for thinking an aircraft was flying through. Even as they reached the far end and I was a mile behind them, I could hear nothing of the engine under my feet. And then silence, but they leave behind a legacy of fumes which fill the bore turning the ever expanding arc of light into a blood red semi circle. Apocalypse ahead, paradise behind.

Bittell loads up

Before we left Bumblehole we had the unexpected delight of watching Bittell being used to move chairs to Parkhead, steered by Steve Bingham. Bittell belongs to the Dudley Canal Trust and starred in the Peaky Blinders series covered in sacks. This is one of the Stewart and Lloyds tugs and had been the recent focus of a lot of restoration effort, having sunk due to a rusty bottom. 

A bit of smoke always looks good

One feature of the New Main Line is its series of toll islands with narrow navigation channels on both sides. Both channels should be navigable, but the offside vegitation sometimes prevents access. Being a bit gung-ho I decided to have a go at the offside channels on the way back to Birmingham and all were still deep enough, although the one at Smethwick was very overgrown and I churned up a lot of silt as I crept through. I am coming back each week for the next two weeks so I will persevere and see if my passages makes things easier.

The last mile into Birmingham

And so we find ourselves back in Birmingham where I refilled with Diesel at Sherborne Wharf (80p). We are moored just inside the Oozells Street Loop by the fitness center, a secluded little spot covered by the local CCTV system and patrolled by security guards. It was here I was reunited with Phoenix which I moved along a bot to give us a 70ft mooring. I have to admit that I coveted the log pile in the hold - but I resisted temptation!

Our mooring for the next couple of days

Monday, 17 September 2018

Black Country Boating Festival (BCBF) 2018

Black Country Boating Festival 2018
September 2018

The BCBF represents a fixture in our boating calendar, and is one of the busiest two day events of our season.

The main canal (Dudley No2) through Bumblehole

For those new to the blog, the Black Country Boating Festival is held at the Bumblehole Local Nature Reserve which is located at the western end of the Netherton Tunnel and consists of a tangle of canal arms and basins surrounded by the greened over traces of the heavy industry which used to occupy the site.

The Arm to Hawne Basin

Bumblehole has hosted a big canal festival here for the last 33 years and we have been attending for the last eight. As its out local festival it offers an opportunity to catch up with our boating friends but as it is such a busy weekend trade wise, we tend to have to wait for them to find us. 

 Buckets and brasses

One feature of the event is it's inclusion of a set of unique tugs, which were used to tow trains of open day boats between the local factories, collieries and railway interchange basins. I have to admit that I do have a bit of a passion for these little tugs, and this year we had Bittell, Governor, Tardebigge and Caggy in attendance, parading up and down. One benefit of being stuck on the stall is the fact that I get a great location to take photos of the tugs and their skippers. One particular moment this year was when Governor came past steered by her new owner and at the same time her last owner was at our stall tasting jam! a rather special moment as the baton of ownership of this classic craft passed from one generation of enthusiast to another.

The new skipper greets the old

The show itself was a little more contained than the last few with the second  stage brought into the main arena area, but the diversity of acts was remarkable. I particularly liked the Indian drum players on Sunday who's unique performance had the crowd up and clapping. Even the lady Mayoress seemed to get caught up in the moment.

 Bernard watches Caggy

BCBF is immensely popular with the local population who flocked to the site in their thousands. The weather stayed dry to the very end and from an attendance perspective I suspect it was up these with the best of them. The good people of Netherton certainly like their jam.....
 Ivor Chambers and Kev Maslin - BCNS stalwarts

The closing of this event brings us to the inevitable conclusion that the season is coming to an end. There are just two more events in Tipton and Parkhead on successive weekends and then its back home for the winter - where has the year gone?

Tug Caggy and Wayne Attwood get to have the last word!