Sunday 27 February 2011


27th Feb 2011

What does one do when a rampaging mob congregates outside your bedroom window at 2.00am on a Friday night?

Last week was a tough one for me. I was pressing on with a streaming cold and had been suffering from a string of interrupted nights, so I was really looking forward to a weekend at home and some serious sleep - but it wasn't to be.

All was quiet at 10.00pm but as the hours passed the volume from a small private party next door slowly grew louder. No real problem till 1.00pm, well within the bounds of neighborly give and take. Then suddenly things exploded, cars coming and going, raised voices bottles rattling down the gutters and fistfights on the driveway.

The final straw was the sight of the next door neighbour in tears with her friends vainly trying to restore order amidst a drunken mele of 30 or more young people. Action was needed - and fast.

I could have just called the police, but that didn't seem quite the Capt Ahab way to do things. Instead I shrugged on my clothes and stormed out into the midst of them, roaring for attention, demanding silence and pointing out that unless they "dispersed" immediately (a bit of French went in there) the police would be called. Amazingly, the hubub faded and half the mob evaporated instantly. The chief protagonist decided to offer some challenge but, having eyeballed the little git, I could see that whilst he wouldn't try and take me he wasn't about to run either.

So I made good my promise, called the police and lo and behold the cavalry arrived five minutes later causing the hard core remnant to vanish.

It really want the fault of my neighbour. A little argument is broadcast on Facebook and next thing you know battle lines are drawn between two tribes who assembled in minutes. Scary stuff.

Maybe I was a fool to take direct action but it seemed the right thing to do at the time.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Hold on a Minute - book review

Hold on a Minute
by Tim Wilkinson

I am sure that most us have wondered what it would have been like to live a life on the cut, back when the working boats ruled the waterways. I certainly have, particularly when I have messed about on old 70 footers.

Hold on a Minute is an account of a husband and wife team that  took to the cut shortly after the war in the late 1940's. Tim Wilkinson was an injured veteran who grew weary of the rat race and along with Gay, his model girl wife, took possession of a Grand Union pair and set about becoming boaters.

These tales are usually a retrospective description of life offered by a retired captain / steerer, but in this case the book records the challenges faced by novice trainees as they sought to master the etiquette and working practices of the working boatmen. As such this is a very readable account of life on the Grand Union, as trade fell off but was still very vital and alive.

The style mirrors Rolt's writings in some ways - but they are of a period so I suppose that should come as no surprise. The prose is clipped in a Pathe News style and at times the observations seem a bit bombastic, but the insight offered is excellent.

Tim and Gay win over the other boating families by sheer dedication to the task and a willingness to learn their ways. After a hesitant beginning they are welcomed in and in due course they employ a 17 year old crew who, on one hand, they taught to read and write but on the other he taught them the ways of the canal.A sort of symbiotic learning experience.

The trips up over the Tring Summit come alive as do their movements as far as Birmingham and Nottingham, real people living ordinary yet in some ways extraordinary lives for very low rewards. Incomes were modest, conditions crowded and at times the task was downright dangerous.

I was curious as to how the book would end. There they were going great guns after about nine months afloat, but there was only one chapter left. What happened? Well, in the end their crew had to return to the boat of his fiancĂ©e following the dramatic death of her father (fell into a lock and was crushed by the boat), Gay fell off the bottom of a lock and damaged her coxix and Tim aggraved a war wound when he jumped onto their boat - all in the space of a couple of weeks. The combination forced them off the cut but also highlighted the precarious nature of this career.

All in all this book is something of a literary time capsule up there with Tom Rolt's Narrow Boat. Whilst Rolt provides an insight into the big picture, Wilkinson offers an insight into the people who made the canals their home. The book was compulsive reading and I completed it in 48 hours flat.

I have no idea where you can find a copy of this book - first published in 1965. This copy was lent to me by Chris and Maralyn from nb Nebulae who have taken it on themselves to keep me well stocked with old waterways books from their extensive collection. Guys - thanks for another gem - I loved it. It will be back aboard Nebulae in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Wand'ring Bark moves!

Movement at last
23rd Feb 2011

After three months of enforced inactivity Wand'ring Bark finally slipped her mooring and went for a trip at the weekend. OK, it was only three miles to the Fox and Anchor at Coven, but it was great to be on the move.

Winter dredging of the Staffs and Worcester

Saturday was spent cleaning the boat out fixing all manner of bits and bobs so she would be fit to host a tip with the in-laws on Sunday. Thankfully, the rain held off and whilst the thermometer stuck resolutely at 3 degrees, it was a lovely trip. 

The engine burst into throaty roar and the refurbished Centreflex coupling spun with its new studs glittering in the bilges. Everything stayed nice and tight so that's one job which is an emphatic success. Whilst reassembling the transmission I must have pulled the prop-shaft inboard by a centimetre or more compared to its old position, and as a result the gained a better fit in the bearing which now doesn't leak a drop.

Casting off for home

The Fox and Anchor at Coven is a great food pub with  at least three guest ales on tap. With a table booked we arrived with a bare 5 mins to spare for our 2.30 reservation, and settled down to a hearty meal by an open fire. Lunch stretched on to include more drinks and a pudding and we finally left at 4.00pm - just enough time to get back in the daylight.

A warm welcome at the Fox and Anchor

With the cooker not plumbed in, a hot drink seemed out of the question till we sat the kettle on the top of the solid fuel stove and hey presto - 15 mins later it was steaming mugs of tea all round.

This may be a very short run out but after all this time ashore it was wonderful. Filled with enthusiasm I have set about planning some trips for 2011, hopefully including the Leicester ring, the Huddersfield Narrow, the Ashby and a return to the depths of the Froghall Tunnel on the Caldon. The cruising season is upon us and I cant wait!

Monday 21 February 2011

BCNS Marathon Challenge 2011

The wackiest boat race in the world
21st February 2011

The race is on - the BCN Challenge is back after skipping a year due to water shortages.

I was planning to enter the BCN Challenge last year, and even booked some time off to allow the Challenge to be incorporated into a longer boat trip with my faithful crew member, Mr Truth. But then the Chasewater Reservoir was drained and all non essential movement on the BCN was suspended.

But now its back on, perhaps the craziest race outside the world of Top Gear. Where else could you contemplate staging a race for canal boats? Not that this will be much of a spectator sport should you visit Birmingham on 28th and 29th May. There will be few head to head drag races down the New Main Line nor do I expect to see fisticuffs at the top of Farmers Bridge Locks as rival crews try to enter first. Oh no, the world of canal boats is far to gentlemanly for that.

The reality is that there are 100 miles of of navigable BCN and if the 2009 event is anything to go by there will be about 50 craft entered, or one every 2 miles. Boats can start anywhere on the BCN at 8.00am on 28th May and have to end at Walsall Town Wharf at 2.00pm of Sunday 29th - which allows 7 hours for sleep (or running repairs). So apart form a slight uplift in traffic you this isn't likely to be much of a spectacle - apart from the finish where everyone converges for the first time.

So Wand'ring Bark will be throwing in her lot crewed by Mr Truth, Jeff who will be home from college and myself. All three of us are Challenge rookies, but very competitive. I am already mulling over the various routes and the merits of the points system, trying to work out the optimum course. Ideally we will try to include the final 5.5% of the system that we still haven't covered which includes the Bumblehole Arm and the Perry Barr Locks from Salford Junction. But given our competitive nature I suspect that these may be forsaken if they fail to offer maximum points.

All in all this is an excellent way of creating movement of the little used remaindered canals of the northern BCN, and creating a little bit of awareness of the system to the local population.

The big question for me is to Wyrley of not to Wyrley. I am so tempted to take in the big northern loop but the passage through Harden is never an exciting prospect!

Mr Truth will call for several planning sessions in the Lazy Hill, so for us the BCNS Marathon Challenge has already started. See you there?

Saturday 19 February 2011

Back Afloat

Back Afloat
19 February 2011

At last, some boaty news.

I have been shorebound for weeks but today I finally managed to get down to Wand'ring Bark  and attend to a plethora of little jobs which need doing before its ready for a run out tomorrow.

Sure the new cooker still needs attaching to the gas supply but I managed to resurrect the water supply system, refit numerous knobs and generally screw  down and fix a host of things which came loose last season. All this endeavour was topped of with a 30 minute blast with the vacuum cleaner - so the boat is now spic and span and the lure of the cut is tugging at me.

One little bonus from today's trip was a waterproof package under the cover containing a copy of Hold on a Minute, a waterways publication from the early 60's. The loan of this book by Chris and Maralyn of nb Nebulae will offer a timely canal fix for the next week or so and you can expect a review in the near future.

The list of jobs to be done remains depressingly long but tomorrows shakedown should reveal any serious issues. Hopefully the propshaft coupling will hold - if it doesn't I will let you know.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Inca Gold - book review

Inca Gold
By Clive Cussler

With my viral lurgey still laying me low I reached for the second Clive Cussler novel - Inca Gold published on 1994.

Another Dirk Pitt adventure this time following the trail of a gold shipment being sent back to England 500 hundred years ago. Drakes Golden Hind may have been successful in its homeward journey, but the Spanish bullion carrier wasn't so lucky. It was caught up in a tidal wave which washed it five miles inshore, leaving just one survivor.

Fragmented accounts of the shipwreck survived, which included directions to a massive hoard on Inca gold. The goodies and the baddies both got wind of the hoard and the race was on.

As in all Cussler's books, adventures abound with Pitt beating impossible odds only to seemingly lose out of the prize at the very last moment. Of  course, there are 'good triumphs over evil' tales and in the conclusion the baddies are undone and the goodies emerge triumphant.

Maybe its reading two Dirk Pitt stories back to back but suddenly I found a feeling of deja vu. In the dying episodes of the tale Pitt is to be found being washed into an underground river 100kn from its entrance at the  coast - a seemingly impossible journey. But  this is Dirk Pitt we are talking about and the hero never dies.

Pitt emerged from a subterranean river two days later, bruised and battered, sucking the last mouthful from his oxygen cylinder and making it to the surface by the thinnest of margins. He saves the day, gets the girl and lives on to plunge headlong into Cusslers next money spinning book.

Do I sound jealous? Of course I am. Oh to have such a enduring hero, one which the boy scout in us longs to emulate and one which pulls a faithful readership back time and time again.

In some ways its a remake of Dragon with different locations - but so what! Another good tale which kept the pages turning for at least three days of ill health.

Monday 14 February 2011

Dragon - book review

By Clive Cussler

I was browsing the bargain section of The Works recently and spotted a three for £5 table, which included a selection of "Dirk Pitt" novels by Clive Cussler.

Now I know that Clive Cussler isn't everyone's cup of tea and would never be seen as high literature, but he certainly has cracking good yarns down to a fine art. And so he should - he has been churning out three or four 500 page books for the last two decades, with many hitting the top of the fiction chart.

Clive Cussler's mastermind was the creation of Dirk Pitt, a swashbuckling adventurer, amateur counter terrorist agent and generally all round good guy without a dishonest bone in his body. In many ways he is a latter day Indiana Jones, tracking down antiquities and in so doing encountering all sorts spills and scrapes, many indulging in Cussler's passion for scuba diving.

This "Dragon" (1990) tale starts with a downed WW2 bomber, a sister plane to Anola Gay, which crashed en route to its destination in Japan. Fifty years later a resurgent Japan is sweeping the economic world and one rogue industrialist launches an audacious bid to take complete control using a network of atomic bombs to apply a bit of leverage.  From the start we know that Dirk Pitt will triumph, its just a matter of how.

The plot rattles along at a rapid pace and after a few moments when credibility has to be suspended, Pitt single handedly delivers the recovered WW2 nuclear bomb to a spot on the sea bed where it explodes. This causing a huge earthquake and the baddies secret lair sinks beneath the ocean waves. Ok - I did say there were a few leaps of faith in the storyline!

Pitt appears to be lost in a nuclear powered seabed tractor but you cant keep a good man down. He never dies and as if by a miracle he rolls up onto an island beach a month and 1500 miles later. 

For all its predictability, Cussler's Dirk Pitt delivers high octane adventure and several hours of gripping entertainment. And when entertainment was what is was looking for whilst getting over a viral illness, that counts as a good result.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Mapledurham Sunset

Mapledurham Sunset
River Thames

February 2011

What with all the cold weather and issues at home there has been little time for boating this winter, not even a day trip since we tied up in mid November.

Sure I have been down to Wand'ring Bark every few weeks to progress the new cooker project but my time afloat has been nil, zilch, nada. And this makes me sad.

So as a substitute I have been looking back over some of last years photo's, picking up on some of those I skipped as a wrote up my trip reports.

One particular moment sprung out at me - the evening spent at Mapledurham. Mooring are few and far between hereabouts and in the end we cobbled together a mooring above the hall at Mapledurham, with the stern tied to a tree  and the bows attached to the shore by a long line with the boat pole driven onto the river bed to keep us off the shallows and afloat. 

The sunset was as magnificent as it was brief, just 10 mins of glorious orange and red before darkness stole over us. A magic location and worth every penny of the £5 mooring fee.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Double triumph at Shiplake Lock

Shiplake lock has been voted the best kept lock on the Thames
and... Howard Maitt is voted best keeper

10th Feb 2011

An article in the March edition of Canal Boat caught my eye, announcing Shiplake Lock as the winner of the best kept lock in 2011 and its assistant lock keeper winning the Say it with a Smile award.

I was unaware of the awards but I am not surprised at Shiplake's success. The staff were hugely friendly during our passage and welcomed my mad dash round the lock to grab some photos of the amazing flower displays.

The one which really grabbed my attention was the floral boat at the foot of the lock, where a sail had been made out of netting through which grew sweet peas.

It's great to see people take such a pride in their work and the awards are fully justified.

Congratulations Shiplake.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Gullivers Travels - film review

Gullivers Travels
Film Review
Feb 2011

We had a request from Tilly to go and see Gullivers Travels whilst visiting her in Derbyshire, and why not?

I read Gullivers Travels as a teenager and kind of enjoyed it, but on reflection I missed the satire which is an essential part of Jonathan Swift's 1726 original.

But its not just the satire that's missing from this film, its large swathes of part one and all of parts two, three and four. Put simply, its relationship to the original text is tenuous at best. But then, this is a kids film starring Jack Black of School of Rock fame, and what's more its in 3D so I guess we shouldn't expect anything more than the lightest nod towards the original.

Jack Black cavorts his way through the film, inserting more dimension than the 3D specs. In fact this is the first 3D film I have seen outside Disney and I was left  bit underwhelmed. Maybe I expected too much of this amazing new technology, but whilst it added a certain something it failed to live up to its promise.

As for the film? It was as two dimensional are the graphics were three. Jack Black is Jack Black in the same way that Hugh Grant is always a British toff. He bounced around but kept returning to his trademark rock act.

The book may contain a depth which has resulted in it being in print for nearly 300 years but there is no way this film will go down as anything more than short lived lightweight froth.

Its been out a month and will probably soon disappear from cinemas - and you won't have missed anything.

Sunday 6 February 2011

The Pillars of the Earth - book review

The Pillars of the Earth
Ken Follett

I really, really enjoyed this book, devouring its contents in preference to TV or anything also on offer.

Ken Follett has created something of a historical masterpiece, cleverly weaving a tale around the building of the nations finest Cathedrals. In so doing he both educates and entertains which is a neat trick if you can pull it off.

The book spans a period of about 70 years from 1120 and focuses in on the construction of a fictional monastic cathedral to the east of Gloucester, following the lives of Prior Philip, a family of builders and the baddie Lords and Bishops. Its a tale of good against evil and the dogged perseverance of a pioneering monk, overcoming obstacles and seeing his cathedral built against all the odds.

I think you need to like buildings to really get into this book. As you can tell from my blog, I get off on the built world and this book has given me a new appreciation of the cathedrals I have tended to take for granted. Its amazing to think that these soaring structures were built entirely by hand, rising from hovels and shelters like the Patronas Towers emerging from a modern day shanty town. Breathtaking, daring and hugely impressive. The builders were literally the rock stars of their day.

To put the book in an architectural context, it is set at the point that the blocky Norman constructions with their thick walls and rounded windows gave way to tall lightweight and airy style seen in places like Sailsbury and Norwich - huge pointed windows and graceful flying buttresses.

At 1000 pages this is no light read, but when a book is compelling you don't want it to end so the length is no hardship. The only pain was carrying such a doorstop round with me!

A great book which provides an added appreciation of what went into the building of the cathedrals - and its amazing that after the thick end of a millennium they are still standing tall and proud.

Friday 4 February 2011

Fame at last - Belle has become a centrefold!

Belle reveals all to Canal Boat
4th Feb 2011

The March edition of Carnal Boat arrived through the post today and there I was, flipping through its glossy pages when my eyes alighted on the "Me and My Boats" section - always a favourite of mine.

I was brought up short. Wow, that boat's colour scheme is almost exactly the same as Wand'ring Bark. Hang on a minute - it is Wand'ring Bark!

Then I remembered. A few months ago Belle submitted an article about her ensnarement into the world of canal boats and I was asked to provide a selection of photos. I thought no more about it and assumed that it was of no interest to them. Obviously I was wrong.

Now she is famous, a legend in he own lunch box, a published author with he face in a glossy magazine. Maybe they should start a new column called "boaters wives" - that might increase circulation a bit....

So now I can keep a copy of a "glossy magazine" in my bedside table without fear of being misunderstood. Belle a centrefold, who would believe it!

Wednesday 2 February 2011

World Trade Centre - film review

World Trade Centre
Film Review
February 2011

I don't usually post reviews of DVD's, it somehow feels like cheating and I should really reserve my writing for films I have seen "live" at the cinema. But rules are there to be broken so here goes.

When Belle first fell and smashed her cheek Bones very kindly sent us (Belle really) a supply of DVD's - and a very good selection they were. 

Last night I was in with Jeff (Belle was out at her book group doing intellectual stuff) and we alighted on the 2006 World Trade Centre by Oliver Stone. I remember this film coming out and deciding to give it a miss because it seemed to be rather insensitive to release anything on the subject so soon after all those lives were lost.

I therefore approached it with some trepidation. In the event it turned out to be yet another film in a long line we have watched recently which have been based on the rescue of the trapped. In this case it was Nicholas Cage and fellow NYPD officers trapped under the concourse between the two towers. 

It's interesting to consider how this film handled what was an open sore in the US's, if not the World's, psyche. Far from focusing on the big picture, the fall of the twin towers was almost a backdrop to the personal struggle of two real policemen buried beneath twenty feet of rubble. I was impressed that the writers managed to find a story of hope and triumph from such a scene of utter devastation and loss - no matter how small.

For me it was a reminder if that fateful day, which is possibly the closest thing to a JFK moment in my life. For Jeff it was an eye opener about something which happened before he really became aware of world events.

Perhaps the greatest miracle of all was the number who did escape. 90% of the 40,000 souls in the buildings made it out, but given the size of the buildings the number of escapees from the rubble was minuscule - just 20, with the two hero's being numbers 18 and 19.

The towers are gone but the memory lingers on. The rubble has been cleared but still the War on Terrorism rages on.

Will there ever be "peace on earth and good will to all men?" I fear not. We seem to be a warlike race since time immemorial and beneath the surface of even the most peaceful of us there seems to lie the potential for anger, rage and destruction.