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!

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The last run of the season

Norbury to Calf Heath
November 2013

The autumn run, lovely as it is, does come with a bit of a sting in its tail. It represents the last trip of the season and much as we always plan to have a cruise or two in the winter the reality is that at best we will have a night or two aboard before the leaves start to emerge next Easter.

But hey, were not finished with this trip yet. The autumn sun is out and the mild weather is holding so we potter along, picking sloes and rosehips and creating a one boat water hazard to all and sundry who happen to come past whilst we are in picking mode.

 Montgomery taking shape

We decided to make Brewood our destination for the night but in the event we never quite made it. We approached Stretton Wharf and slowed to take a further look at Montgomery and just as we were about to carry on, the guys came out and invited us to moor alongside the rebuilt Phyllis May and take a closer look at their work. It was good to be able to examine the new steelwork and so share ideas for the next phase of the project. With the main bulkhead in place with one door handing on its hinge, attention is turning to the front deck and its associated bulkhead. The crucial thing about such a short boat is to make it look right and it would be so easy to make it all look top heavy. I am happy to leave this to Keith who has an expert eye for good proportions and what he is producing is exceeding my expectations.

Steel patchwork

As we were wandering round Montgomery Sara and Jim climbed down out of Bakewell, which is currently out of the water undergoing some repairs and blacking. We were invited in for coffee and one thing led to another and suddenly we found ourselves back at Wheaton Aston enjoying yet another great pub meal. Three nights out in a row - a very sociable return trip.

Drysdale overplating

Whilst we were looking at Bakewell I realised that Drysdale was alongside and had its waterline overplated. It appears that the boat, which has been moored at Calf Heath for years, was bought without survey on e-bay and it was a case of buyer beware when the sides were found to be down to a scary 1mm! Its a small miracle it made it to Stretton for repairs and rather than trip out the interior they opted to fill it with CO2 to prevent internal fires. This is not a technique I have come across before and I am advised that it involved regular tests involving candles in jam jars being lowered into the hull but always being careful not to inhale!

We spent the night next to Phyllis May but heard none of the ghostly goings on which Terry used to remarked on in his book. The signwriting is absolutely great - it made me laugh out loud.

And so it was off to Calf Heath, picking late elderberries as we progressed. Sadly there was a  literal sting in the tail - I hopped off the boat straight onto a wasps nest. One stung my ankle and one got me on the bum, which encouraged me back onto the boat in double quick time. I hope all the elderberry cordial lovers appreciate my suffering for the cause.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Philomena - film review

November 2013

Starring Judy Dench (Philomena Lee) and Steve Coogan (Martin Sixsmith - BBC News at 10) 

A quirky film in the best tradition of British drama which follows Philomena Lee's search for her long lost son. 

Lee gave birth to her son out of wedlock in deeply Catholic Ireland at a time when that sort of thing was a major no no. Her sad tale reflects much of what is bad about the Catholic Church of the day and its fair to say that they dont come out of this very well - another twist of the never ending series of disclosures of child abuse. 

In her case her son is sold to Americans and she gets on with her life, but never quite forgetting her lost son. She tries in vain to track him down but the convent conveniently lost all records on a "big fire" and she hit a dead end. Enter Sixsmith, a world weary journalist and recently "retired" as a government spin doctor in the wake of the "good day to bury bad news" debacle. He picks up the story and used his expertise to take Philomena's search to a new level. 

I am not going to take the plot description any further - go and see the film. 

Within our audience there was physical laughs and tears during the telling of a compelling human interest story. Judy Dench is a bankable star but this is Coogan as an actor with gravitas - a million miles from the Alan Partridge character which irritates the life out of me. 

And that takes me to the cinema we attended. We saw Philomena at Birmingham's Electric Cinema at the back of New St Station (not to be confused with the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, London).  Its the country's oldest working cinema with two small auditoriums showing a mix of contemporary, independent, foreign and classic films in a genuine art deco setting. There is nothing historic about the visual and audio side of the operation - that's all state of the art - but the ambience makes it a cut above the normal. 

We attended screen two which contains about 70 seats,  of which 60 are "normal" and the rest are sofas at the front and the back. Some of these roomy leather sofas come complete with waiter service summoned by text (another concession to the modern era) and the cinema is happy to run a tab which covers the pre screening cocktails, mid film coffee / chocolate all fortified with a pot of chocolate buttons and ice cream. All very personal and a bit special - you are made to feel like a guest rather than a punter. 

And the cost? Well - quality never comes cheap. The premium sofas are £13.50 a seat and the collection of refreshments listed above set me back another £20. And then there is the parking - a discounted £3 in the adjacent NCP. So just a place for a birthday treat I hear you say. Not necessarily. Strip away the comfy sofa and all the peripheral consumables and you are left with a little cinema of great character - and the standard seats are just £7.40 which is only a small premium over the bulk standard multiplex price. 

I think we have just found our new "regular" cinema! 

Friday 8 November 2013

Shroppie foraging trip 2013 - Norbury

Back to Norbury
November 2013

The Shroppie ma be very tranquil but you have to admit that it a bit short on shops. We had just about cleaned Brewood out of supplies for jam making and I had been holding Market Drayon out as a promised land for shopping. The reality is of course that Mkt Drayton is a town which has had its centre wrecked by out of town supermarkets but it does have a good Asda (I think) which is about 10 mins walk from the canal.

Tyrely Locks - Shropshire Union Canal

I was weighed down with 10kg of sugar (the max load I will carry without complaint) and it was back to the boat for a late season engine service and then a lazy start through the locks in a lovely still autumn morning with hardly a cloud in the sky. It wasn't a day to hurry so we pottered along picking sloes as we found them.

Misty Woodseaves Cutting

Last night my brother had been in touch and we agreed to meet up for a meal at Gnosall but all our messing around coupled with over an hour on the Norbury water tap caused us to run out of time and daylight so they diverted to Norbury and drove us the three miles to Gnosall. Two nights an two meals out - things are looking up.

Herbs at Tyrely Locks

Knowing my interest in DIY cider, my brother arrives with a couple of sacks full of eaters destined for the press. If you saw any other boat with sacks on the rook you would assume coal. Not with us - foraged fruit more like! 

Anyway, it was one of those great days which slide by like a good pint, satisfying and leaving you wanting more.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Autumn Forage on the Shroppie

Foraging on the Shropshire Union Canal
November 2013

For several years I have clung to the misguided notion that my solo autumn trip along the Shropshire Union Canal is just that - a solo trip.

Shebdon Ebankment

But lately I have come to realise that it is a long time since I did my solo trip alone, and have had the pleasure of a number of companions over the years. Most recently it has morphed into a late autumn foraging trip, stocking up on sloes, rose hips, and even damsons and elderberries all in the company of Mrs Ahab.

Just half our haul of sloes - for sloe jelly and sloe cordial (cheats Sloe Gin)

The solo trips were the product of a particularly difficult time in my life when I needed some solitude, but this is a time which which has passed for which I am very grateful.

But there is something else about boating which has slowly started to dawn on us - boating is no longer a holiday. Sure, it happens when I am on holiday from work, but its not a holiday as such. That's not to say we are unhappy with boating, far from it. No, what has become apparent this year is that boating is our "other" way of life. We slip from one life to another and being absolutely honest, its the simpler one afloat we want more of. Just as well given the plans afoot!

Anyway, after visiting Stretton Wharf we pressed in through very indifferent weather to a blustery Norbury, picking another five kilos of late damsons, about 8 kg of sloes plus we spied out some late elderberries for picking on the way back (hot elderberry cordial is a standing favourite product at Christmas fairs). 

 Weed clogged prop on a Trust workboat - had been pressure washing the edging stones.

The following day took us on through Grub St Cutting and then later the even more spectacular Woodseaves cutting - impossibly narrow, deep and unstable. This deep tree lined slot in the land opens out into the pleasing flight of five locks at Tyrely, which in turn lead into Market Drayton - our destination. 

The dying embers of an autumn day were spent sitting on the stern forking off the elderberries, another load destined for the elderberry vinegar.

Bridge over Woodseaves Cutting

We ate at the Talbot who served good food and were getting rid of their old glasswear, so we left with full stomachs clutching half a dozen Pedigree glasses - bought for the princely sum of £5. Mkt Drayton was something of a BCNS rallying point with no less than three local boats moored next to us and we all ended up in the same pub for the evening.