Monday 30 December 2013

Society Index

BCNS Gauging plate
December 2013

And so we stand on the threshold of a New Year, 2013 and all its interest is now consigned to the history book. We now look forward to 2014 and all it has in store for us.

The future is a strange mix of planning and happenstance. Some events happen by design and others are completely unexpected - good and bad. But I believe that that whilst we can't avoid troubles, we can take steps which improve the chances of positive outcomes.

I therefore like to learn from the past and walk forward with optimism, mixing happenstance with planning and each year indulging my curiosity where possible.

Among the planned activities in 2013 we expanded Helen's Wild Side business - pushing out on a number of fronts including the decision to buy Montgomery - a 2012 dream, a 2013 action and a 2014 execution.

But this policy doesnt stop at boating stuff. I like to sample new cultural experiences too, so 2013 saw us at the opera (Rigeletto) and the ballet (Nutcracker), I am glad I experienced both but whilst the opera will see us again the ballet was a step too far!

So for my final post of 2013 I will leave you with a small gift to myself, bought at the  Black Country Boating Festival in September. It's a limited edition brass BCNS plate in the format of a BCN gauging plate which will grace the front of Wand'ring Bark.  Its as classy as it is heavy with black enamel flooding the recess and making the letters really stand out - worth every penny I paid for it. 

A touch of the past carried forward to the future.

I hope you have enjoyed 2013 and have a great 2014. Maybe we will see you out there on the cut?

Saturday 28 December 2013

Crescent Dawn - book review

Crescent Dawn
by Clive Cussler
December 2013

I picked this book up at the Norbury Book exchange, a free copy from an escapist author which, when the mood is on me, I rather enjoy.

Its one of the Dirk Pitt novels, this time set between Israel and Turkey where Pitt and his son and daughter become embroiled in a plot to de-stabilise the whole area and we end up with a high octane race against time and the odds.

Of course, as in all such novels, good triumphs over evil and the goodies thwart the baddies on the last turn of the page.

Predicable, yes, but if its imaginative action you want Cussler is a bankable author. You get what you expect but a word of caution - a little goes a long way. One Cussler in six months is plenty!

Wednesday 25 December 2013

A perfect pair

A new acquisition for Montgomery
December 2013

I paid a visit to Montgomery last weekend, viewing its gradual transformation from two big chunks of scrap to a quirky and eye catching butty. Progress has been slow in recent weeks but there has been activity with the lamination beneath the rubbing strakes cleaned out, new steel blocks added and the strakes all fixed up.

All this progress its leading inexorably towards an ultimate launch and with it the plans for the interior are starting to emerge.

Fortunately, the core of the back cabin is already in place and its restoration will involve more a clean up and titivate than major reconstruction, but we are still going to have to fit a new boatman's stove and kit it out with period nick knacks. Which brings me to Christmas.

Back in the summer we bought a little authentic Buckby can from Todmordon and its need for a companion led me to e-bay, a treasure trove of obscurity. After some searching I came across a small milk pail, genuinely old but clearly repainted very recently - the perfect gift for Helen.

In the flesh is is a good counterpoint to the Buckby can in both size and age, both bearing the dents of age and the rust holes of use. Neither will ever see active service again but between them they will make an interesting feature in the back cabin.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Hatching up a plot

New Hatch Installation
December 2013

Every winter Wand'ring Bark is treated to a significant enhancement / improvement. One year it is a new cooker, another a new toilet or a major bit of  carpentry - you get the idea.

Well, this winter the "improvement" has to some extent been forced upon is - as it was last year when the holding tank perforated. The windows on the right hand side (starboard if you have a salty disposition) have always struggled to keep the water out and in spite of refitting them about four years ago, both of the larger front windows started to leak in the autumn.

 The hatch arrives

As ever, the immediate solution was a strip of duck tape along the top which was 100% effective, but it was neither beautiful nor enduring. So a longer term solution is needed and we started to consider the replacement window options. They come in all formats but whichever way you go there never seems to be enough ventilation on hot days, and more importantly, no way of trading off the boat if the weather is windy or a bit wet. What we need is a hatch....

It works!

I remembered Bones having a hatch retro fitted and her blog contains the number for Martin Kedian who specialises in this the fabrication of hatches, doors, even hand made stoves. So I gave Martin a call, discussed the size of the window opening and the available open to us.

I was thinking of solid doors and a chunk of perspex inserted when its wet, but then he suggested glazed doors which let in the light when closed, and the air when open. Great idea and no more insecure than the existing window.

Undercoat applied

And so Martin arrived yesterday with a freshly painted hatch frame in the back of his van. The original plan was to go and measure up first but because the window it will replace is a standard size he had made it straight away and we went to the boat just to check the fit. No problem - it will fit like a glove.

So now its time to do the preparation at home before canalside fitting. First task is to get it undercoated, and then glossed up in Union Green to ensure its all protected from rust. Then it will involve sticking in battens to carry the glass and finally I will have to carefully open out the curved bottom corners of the old window hole to accept the rectangular frame, which is simply tapped to the steel sides and bedded onto two silicone beads.

It costs twice as much as a new window, but we gain a fully functioning hatch - great!

I will let you know how I get on.

The final snag is that the other window in the saloon is also leaking so I can see the I will still be on the lookout for a new window before the winter is over. In the meantime thank goodness for duck tape!

Monday 16 December 2013


Chester with Areandare
December 2013

If I have a fault, and I very much doubt that I do, it is that I suffer partial blindness. But not blindness in the usual optical context but rather bus blindness.

I have suffered this affliction all my adult life and whilst I can see them to step out of their way as they rumble their smoky way down the road, I have always been blind to their use as a credible means of human conveyance.

But Sandra and Barry rely on the vagaries of public transport and we were duly inducted into the dark ways of the omnibus to journey into Chester, suffering rain and chill to add to the heady mix of life's rich pageant. As you can tell - I am a convert, I love buss's (not)!

Chester's Jubilee Clock

But the redeeming feature of the bus journey was that it followed the canal route into town and we crossed the ribbon of silver repeatedly. We immediately scaled the wall at the second most photographed clock in the UK and found ourselves looking down on the canal as it runs beneath the walls, under the bridge of sighs and down past the Northgate Locks.

 Chester's Bridge of Sighs

Below Northgate Locks, Chester

I have never completed the full circuit of Chester's walls during my earlier visits but this time we remedied the omission,  completing all 360 degrees in a couple of hours. A two hours I hear you ask.... why so slow? 

 Walls of Chester

The answer lies in Albion Street in the shape of the amazing Albion Inn - a pub decked out in the style of the First World War. We crept in 10 mins after the notional 3.00pm closing time but negotiated out way into four delicious pints which we consumed in the company of the bar staff and two pub cats who had a taste for discarded crisps.

Chester was looking fine decked out inits Christmas lights, a stunning town and well worth another visit on the boat.

 Illuminated Chester at Christmas

The weekend held one final novelty - Helen on the radio. Saturday morning found her sharing the delights of WildSide on air - a novel experience which she entered into with great enthusiasm and no little skill.

Saturday 14 December 2013

A little rest and relaxation

R&R in Chester
December 2013

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. The sad fact is that I have had no boating in recent weeks, and no meaningful waterways related activity - and therefore nothing to blog about!

But all that changed this weekend when we finally got a boaty fix courtesy of Barry and Sandra aboard Areandare at their winter moorings near Chester. We may not have moved the boat but we did get to spend two nights afloat tucked up snug in their front cabin, rocking with the wind and listening to the trains sighing their way past the marina.

We spent the day in Chester which offered lots of scope for photography and beer - lots of beer come to think of it. Barry's home brew, my home brew, sampling the selection of Woodfordes  bottled ales and then there was the real ale served in the Albion Inn - but more of that another day. Then there were the chocolate girls, handing out Galaxy bars to all who passed by. These chocolate girls may be generous but they had lousy memories - we were handed a bar every time we passed and we found reason to go through the cross roads no less than three times!

Barry and Sandra have made themselves very much at home in the marina, adopting a pair of persistent ducks who were as fat as they were skilled at blagging bread. But perhaps the most notable adoption is an abandoned swan whose father died and whose mother's new mate took against him. But undaunted the swan has found himself a new dad in the shape of Barry who has developed a trusting route to satisfying a swan sized hunger:

Then there was the six handed rummy which extended through the evening, northern hemisphere facing south and after three long hours we came to an emphatic stalemate - with  a drawn score and honours even. Its a shame the English cricket team cant aspire to such mediocrity!

Barry and Sandra - thanks for such a lovely weekend.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Narrowboat - book review

by LTC Rolt
November 2013

Its not every day that I review a book which I am reading for the third time - but that fact alone has to say something about it.

Narrowboat is a standing classic item of waterways literature, unique in its style, period and approach. It was written by Tom Rolt in 1939 / 40 as he and his new bride undertook a slow 400 mile figure of eight journey through England aboard Cressey, their home for several years.

The ground covered is very familiar to me, but it was a different age when some commercial traffic remained but many canals were falling into disrepair. His experience led directly to his pivotal contribution in the founding of the IWA and everything which has followed in the restoration movement.

Tom wasnt so much a leader as a man with a way with words. Sure, the writing has more than a little clipped "pathe news" about it but his writing is both evocative and insightful. This book, more than anything else raised the public awareness about the plight of the canal network and proved once again that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Every time I read it (about once every three years) I find something new. This time is was his his account of travelling the Shropshire Union and Staffs and Worcester (the Stour Cut) which took them past Norbury Junction. At that time he debated on a trip to Wappenshall, the then assumed head of navigation, but he passed it by hoping to return another time. That time never happened and the canal became derelict soon after - what a shame.

Then he was consudering his route to Braunston and rejected a trip up the Hatherton Branch Canal and out via Huddlesford. In the event he took the easier route via Gt Haywood on account of the high lockage and industry in the norther reaches of the BCN. ITS such a shame that we were not left with a Rolt description of these two canals which have been largely obliterated from the map.

Its an evocative and sometimes wistful look at the country, hankering back to the agricultural way of life. But for all the changes his description of mooring under the lee of a hedge whilst a storm rages overhead, snug and safe beside the cabin fire is as true today as it was 70 years ago. The essential appeal of the canals remains unchanged to the enthusiasts among us.

If you havn't read the book for a while and fancy some canal escapism of the highest order over the dark winter nights take another look at it.

It was and remains the finest book of its genre.

Sunday 24 November 2013

The DIY Cider Press

Home Made Cider
November 2013

Sometime, just sometimes, I do a little foraging for my own pleasure and not for the benefit of WildSide.

The foraging I have in mind is the conversion of spare apples into cider, or possibly more accurately into scrumpy which seems to describe cider not made by mass production methods and often a bit pulpy and cloudy.

We have a tree in the garden which yields odd apples. They are either very sour or suddenly they turn sweet but in the same instant their texture goes "fluffy" and in both conditions they are just about inedible. My answer over the last couple of years has been to crush them into cider and the results have been a pleasing clear and dry drink which is incredibly potent. Half a pint and we are giggling like girls!

This year we pressed the apples yet again, but my brother added to our supply with a couple of compost bags full of eaters from his orchard. The diy press was assembled a second time and we produced another 11 litres of scrumpy.

My approach is very Heath Robinson and my tools are limited in the extreme, but in the interests of posterity here is my method:


Take a big sack of apples and quarter them

If you cant process them at once leave them submerged in water overnight

Two sacks of apples quartered

Pulp them to a mash in a food processor

Pulping the quartered appled

Put the mash onto knotted muslins (baby dept of Tesco)

Preparing the muslins for pressing

Press the muslins between two boards using a car jack to exert pressure

The DIY apple press!

Collect the juice (the amount of juice released varies according to the type of apple)

Basic apple juice

If possible leave the juice to settle and syphon the fluid from the sediment. This may be easier said than done and some apples have so much natural yeast on the skins that they spontaneously start to ferment.

After fermentation with solids settling out

If they don't ferment naturally, add yeast and maybe some sugar and leave in a demijohn till the bubbling stops.

Leave the end result to settle and draw off the clear (or cloudy) scrumpy putting it into sterilised bottles.

Store in a cool place for six months before drinking.

I have to admit that I have come to enjoy my autumnal cider making routine, which takes about three hours and results in about 17 litres of very tasty scrumpy.

Friday 22 November 2013

Aldborough Mill in its heyday

Aldborough Mill 
November 2013

My recollection of Aldborough Mill were ones of faded neglect, when the needs of the business had outgrown its archaic confines and it sat there in the boggy valley bottom all clad in asbestos and looking very sorry for itself. This was after the activity had been transferred to the larger premises in Coltishall which offered better space and enhanced communications.

I heard stories of boats on the stream and beautiful snowdrops carpeting the mill island, but all this had long since been swept away by progress and it was very hard to reconcile this with the wet marshland and driveways i saw before me. I guess this was all good training for the canal hunting later in life!

I was therefore a pleasant surprise to read about how the grounds were much prized and visited by all and sundry, come to see the rare plants, the pretty pools or just to mess about in boats on the mill pool. Accounts describe them as "flocks of human starlings" including hungry temperance ministers attending the May meetings, political orators, fishermen, botanists and ornathologists - all were welcome at the Cooke family table.

The calm of the mill, its pretty water and lagoons crossed by a network of bridges designed and built by Henry Cooke which drew admiration from near and far - all in sharp contrast to the changes wrought in the first two decades of the 20th century. Not that Tom Cooke was blind to gardens - he maintained a huge one acre plot at his home in central North Walsham and this was so successfully husbanded that commercial crop pickers were employed in season.

I attach a collection of photos taken when the beauty of the mill pool as at its height.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Exploring the family tree

The history of the Cookes of Aldborough
November 2013

That post initiated correspondence with a number of people in the area with either an interest in the mill or the Cooke family and I have have made a few abortive attempts to work out the genealogy of the place, but to no real avail. It was a big family and they had a habit of using the christian names Thomas and William in successive generations, which is confusing to say the least.

So, in the great tradition of Capt Ahab seeking out the easy path and liking his history light I have decided to "stand on the shoulders of giants" and simply observe and recount the extensive research which has been undertaken in this field before - especially that undertaken by the Craske family and that of my cousin Steven.

I visited the Cooke family in Aldborough last week and they kindly walked me through their records, letting me make copies as I desired.

So, before I lose the order in my head, here are the generations from William Cooke who operated Glandford Mill on the River Glaven near Holt through to the present day:

William Cooke 1789 to 1883 (Glandford Mill)
married Anna Carter (1814) 1788 to 1835

William Cooke 1818 to 1899 (Aldborough Mill)
married Elizabeth Lee 1820 to 1891

William Cooke C1898

Robins ? to 1901
William  1848 to 1895
Henry Carter 1845 to 1911
Thomas Carter ? to 1917
Emily 1881 to 1931
Jane ? to 1917

William Carter Cooke presided over his large non conformist family in a seemingly patriarchal manner administered from the Mill House. There is a lovely account of life in the mill written by Clifford Craske based on his childhood memories. But more of that another time.

Thomas Carter ? to 1917
Married Ann Tidy (the first connection with the Tidy's from Croydon)

Thomas Carter Cooke

Thomas William
Kathleen (married John Grey)
Oliver Henry (married Anne Bray)
Enid (married Fred Morgan)

Thomas and Annie lived in a small cottage at the bottom of Thwaite Hill, with Thomas working long hours in the family Mill and Annie far from her more cosmopolitan roots in South London. She later moved to Wisteria Cottage near the Temperance hall but I don't think she ever moved into the relative luxury of the old mill house, which was pressed into business service soon after her son Tom took over during the First World War.  

Thomas William Cooke
Married Hilda Theresa Balls

Thomas William Cooke and Hilda Theresa Balls

Christine Priscilla (1929 - 2 days)
Margaret Arleen
Tom Margaret Arleen Cooke
married Charles Stuart Tidy (second connection with the Tidy's)

Andrew John Cooke

Andrew John CookeTidy
married Helen Wendy Singleton

Suzanne Elizabeth Joy 
Daniel Craig Anthony

In the absence of a son my grandfather prevailed on my parents to add Cooke into my name but there the Cooke strand comes to an end!

Now here is the curious twist. There has been a longstanding rumour that our family is linked to the Coke family of Holkham Hall, but all attempts to trace a firm link from both sides have so far proved to be unsuccessful. The family story is that a member of the Coke family broke away and changed their name to Cooke either as a result of some infidelity or religious reason (the Cookes of Aldborough are a long line of very strict non conformists)

If a link were to exist it must be at or before William Cooke of Glandford (1789 - 1883) when an "o" was possibly added to the Coke.

A look at the family tree of the Coke's is interesting:

It reveals that a Wenman Roberts assumed the name of Coke in 1750 as he inherited the estate. His male heir was Thomas William Coke (1754 to 1842) - 1st Earl of Leicester. His descendant was a further Thomas William Coke - 2nd Earl of Leicester (1822 to 1909) followed up by Thomas William Coke 3rd Earl of Leicester (1848 to 1941). There seems to be a bit of a Thomas / William pattern over successive generations in both families at the time.

So, if there were to be a link the likely touch point would have to be between Willam Cooke of Glandford (born 1789) and Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of of Holkham, politician and agricultural reformer who had his estate 14 miles away. If you remember your history lessons, he was the Coke of Holkham who is credited as the pioneer of the agricultural revolution via the Four Crop Rotation and the use of fertilisers, alongside Turnip Townsend.

Coke's first marriage yielded three daughters but no son and heir, and his first wife died in 1801. After 21 years alone, and at the age of 68, he married Anne Keppel in 1822, his 18 year old god child. She had been brought to Holkham to partner Thomas William Coke's nephew and then heir William, but they didn't get on and so Thomas married her himself to the astonishment of all around, and she soon gave birth to young Thomas later that year removing William from the line of succession.

Could the nephew William Coke who didn't marry Anne Keppel have been related to William Cooke of Glandford - the ages of Anne Keppel and William Cooke would place them firmly into the same generation, but clearly they are not one and the same.

So, the story has persisted through the generations of the Cookes, the geography is right, the names are strangely similar and the dates could tally, but who know? Its an interesting thought.

Apologies for the long and rather convoluted post.

Monday 18 November 2013

Race Against Time - book review

Race Against Time
by David Bolton
November 2013

The sub title to this book is "How Britain's Waterways Were Saved" but perhaps more accurately it should be called "IWA - the early years" or "Robert Aickman - a biography of the IWA years".

This book was given to me by my brother with the comment - you may find this interesting. And he was right. The formative and pioneering days of the IWA were played out before I was born and this book traces the key events of those years.

My take away is that we owe a greater debt of gratitude to Robert Aickman than I had realised. Tom Rolt tends to get all the plaudits as the founder of the IWA and the movement to save the canals due to the widespread appreciation of his beautifully written books, but Robert Aickman was certainly the dynamic powerhouse who made the campaign his own and never gave up the fight over a period spanning a crucial two decades. 

All this and he wasn't a died in the wool boater! He was certainly a complex man who found in the canals a cause which was big enough to consume him but not so big it overwhelmed him The book only lifts a small corner to provide an insight into the man himself, but his passion and sometimes abrasive personality shines through.

One of the more interesting observations made is the time it takes to change a public perception. His view was a generation, or 20 years, and as he managed turn the tide public opinion about the canals in 15 he was well pleased.

All in all its an excellent account of those early days when the agenda slowly moved from a restoration of commercial carrying to the creation of an embryonic tourist led strategy. I don't believe that even in his wildest dreams he could have foreseen the way the network would develop, and for that we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

Its well written and fairly pacy and fills in many blanks. If you like to put things into historical context this really is a must read book. 

Saturday 16 November 2013

North Walsham and Dilham Canal update November 2013

North Walsham and Dilham Canal
November 2013

I paid my annual pilgrimage to the North Walsahm and Dilham Canal, a private restoration which is coming on in leaps and bounds since being bought by the Old Canal Company.

So far the area upstream of Ebridge mill has been restored, its previously harsh new banks have now been softened by nature and the area is clearly a popular spot with walkers and naturalists. The water is clear and deep leading up to Bacton Wood Lock and the earlier leaks into the surrounding meadows appear to have been sealed so its all looking tickety boo.

The work has now moved upstream to Swafield Road Bridge. The channel has been cleared all the way to the sewage works outfall which provides most of the flow into the River Ant. I think the idea was to reach this source but before it can be diverted into the channel the banks need to be sealed so all the dredgings are being moved around and recycled.

I cant believe it will be long before these two pounds are in water and with the new lock operational nearly two miles will be navigable - a great site for a trip boat.
A winding hole is being created above Swafield Road Bridge but this crossing was lowered back in the 1970's to carry north sea gas lorries and a proper reconstruction will be needed - one of the few significant obstacles on this pretty rural route.

Thursday 14 November 2013

A tale of two medlars

A tale of two medlars
November 2013

Medlars - an old English fruit with a venerable heritage and a very limited present, and a firm favourite with Wild Side Customers either as Medlar syrup or a Hot Spicy Medlar Chutney.

Mid November is prime harvest time for the humble Medlar, but the challenge is to find the elusive trees to yield their unique appley, caramely taste. They are rock hard little bullets and completely unusable until they are bletted - that is going rotten and soft, so the window of opportunity for harvest is less than two weeks at the very end of the fruit season.

And therein lies a story. As a child my mother used to take me round to play with a boy who was to become my best friend and in his garden was a fine spreading Medlar tree - not that I appreciated its rarity value at the time. After all - doesn't everyone have a tree like this in their back garden?

The ancient Medlar tree

We used to clamber in its branches, find shade under its dense canopy of leaves and in season stand on each side and lob the squidgy fruit at each other over the tree.

As we were trying to source our supply this season I remembered my back garden antics in the late 1960's and got to wondering. My best friend's family moved away decades ago but a quick look at Google earth revealed the tree standing proud just as I remembered it. So I knocked on the door and explained my quest: Do you still have the Medlar tree in the back garden? Is it still fruiting? Do you use / can I have the fruit?

It turned out that the tree was indeed still in situ, but alas the three years since the Google Earth image was taken have not been kind to it. Sadly one side has died away and tree surgeons have been at work trying to save it. The truth is the that tree was reputedly mature when the house was built in the 1800's, so its is now possibly over 150 years old - and its sagging limbs are gradually giving up the ghost. But not all hope is lost - the centre has been opened up and new branches are growing. It may have lost its fine circular shape but hopefully it will live on for a few decades yet. 

Like historic boats, you never really own them - you just hold them in trust for future generations.

The fruit on this ancient tree were small, like large marbles but it still offered about seven or eight kilos which was well worth collecting.

And so we move on to the second Medlar tree - this time in Cambridgeshire. It's a fine young specimen about 10 years old and in this case the orange Medlars are the size of golf balls, smothering the tree. 

Medlars were popular till the puritanical Victorians came along. They are a kind of cross between a Crab Apple and a Rose Hip, absolutely unique but sadly offensive in their eyes. Their open end looks just like a dogs bottom and for this reason the trees were screened of to avoid upsetting the sensibilities of the ladies - and in many cases they were cut down. All this horticultural cleansing resulting in the scarcity we find today so I am on a one man crusade to promote the planting of new Medlar trees.

I will try and propagate some from seed and see how they go.

This second small tree delivered about 25 kilos and we left staggering with three huge bags filled to the brim. All this means lots of happy customers in 2014!