Friday 29 August 2014

A quick cruise to Calcutt

A bank holiday bonus
August 2014

There has been more than a touch of Groundhog Day about our boating just recently.

There we were idly planning a trip on the Shroppie over the bank holiday weekend when out plans took a dramatic turn to the south. Instead of a leisurely cruise on the flat we did a tough 3.5 days over the Birmingham Plateau and on to Calcutt via the North Stratford. At the end of this trip the boats have been left in the unfamiliar surroundings of Calcutt Marina for a couple of weeks. There is method to this madness - but I would have to kill you if I told you why - so I wont! All will be revealed.

Friday was a 7.30 start from Coven, passing The Jamiesons and Free Spirit by the pub and then making a rather slow ascent up the Wolverhampton 21 which offered some great blackberries. We seem to have made this trip a lot this year and once again we were to be found towing down the New Main Line and arriving at the back of Symphony Court at 6.30pm. We were fortunate to fine a freshly vacated mooring but maneuvering into the gap with the butty attached attracted lots of attention.

The Jam Butty is becoming a well known sight in the area - having been in several Waterways World event reports recently. Thats about to get a whole lot worse with a three page spread in the October edition (out 1st week of Sept).

Then it was another early start down the North Stratford where we met out friends Dave and Pat who helped us down the Lapworth Flight along which we picked several kilos of Damsons. The night was spent in the short arm connecting the Stratford with the Grand Union. Which canal is this?

Sunday was the trip to Hatton and along the way we stopped for water, making a fresh acquaintance with Tyseley / The Mikron who were resting after an evening performance. Hatton was busy at the top and in spite of 6 volunteers being on duty none seemed inclined to offer any assistance! The butty causes some confusion in these locks. Oncoming boats cant see the butty behind us and are confused when I don't indicate which way I will be maneuvering round them. The fact is that I need to keep moving in a more or less straight line and have to wait for someone to move out of the next lock and make a space I can aim for. An odd stalemate can ensue as we both wait for someone to make the first move... I never blink first!

A bonus of travelling this way in late August is the supply of plums - red ones, Pershore Yellow Egg and Damsons - kilos and kilos of them.

With the Sunday forecast predicting heavy rain we pressed on till dark, reaching the foot of the staircase in last light.

Sunday was a run up Stockton Locks - wet all the way but only soaking for the last two. Eventually Calcutt was reached at 2.00pm and our temporary home found in the driving rain.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Blisworth Festival filled to overflowing

Blisworth Canal Festival
August 2014

We have been attending Blisworth Festival for three of the four years it has been running, watching it grow from a large village fete to the monster it became this year. Sadly Blisworth is too far to reach by boat so we fall back on the good old gazebo and a night in a bed and breakfast.

A busy Blisworth waterfront

Exhibitors have been quick to spot the free festival and this year there were over eighty stall holders and the number of trade boats doubled as well. But all this extra size puts a strain on the village infrastructure with last years nearly empty Festival Field becoming a sea of tents. This year every nook and cranny of the village was occupied and with the best of the weekend forecast for Saturday over 20,000 visitors flocked in.

The ever popular face painter

But all this growth isn't entirely good news. Not only do a lot of stall holders and trade boats find themselves in less than great positions, the event is in danger of losing the "villagey" aspect which has made it all so special in the past. That said, the people of Blisworth have come to know and appreciate our preserves, coming back to buy more year after year. As a result we had a near record day with preserves flying off our stall all afternoon.

Our long association with Blisworth has also provided a great source of ingredients. One customer bought two jars of Meadowsweet with Mirabelle Plum jam and told us that she had a tree laden with these yellow plums in her front garden, and we were welcome to pick them. Half an hour up a ladder resulted in 14kg's of fruit ready for more jam and chutney. And then there is the allotment society who had some surplus fruit so we returned home with raw ingredients for our next few batches.

An night in Stoke Bruene

It would have been nice to follow this up with a second day of busy trading but the remnants of hurricane Bertha had other ideas. For once the forecasters had it right - rain, serious rain all morning followed with storm force wind. We returned to a dripping gazebo at 9.00 am and it was clear that even if we did set the stall up there would be few customers wading along the towpath which had more than a passing resemblance to the canal it tracks. 

So along with most of the other stall holders we threw in the towel, folded up the dripping canvas and headed back to Birmingham. 

The Willows and Moomins

But all was not lost as we discovered that the Willows and Moomins were moored in Cambrian Wharf so we all trouped over to the Piano and Pitcher for a chat and coffee whilst we watched the rain fall one a sodden Brindley Place. Its better when viewed from the warm and dry!

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Tiny Stations by Dixe Wills

Tiny Stations
by Dixe Wills
August 2014

I have a passion for offbeat travel books, books which approach the everyday from a different viewpoint.

Suzie and Jack gave me a Waterstones book token for my birthday and it has been sitting in my wallet waiting for the right book to come along. With our summer trip looming I paid a visit to the bookshop and came upon Dixe Wills Tiny Stations, an idiosyncratic account of his travel around some of the UK's railway request stops.

Request stops, what are they? I hear you ask. Well, just like bus stops there are some stations where trains only stop on request, some with passenger numbers struggling to break into double figures over the course of a whole year. And why keep such under used stations open? Apparently the legal costs of closing them is more than keeping them technically open, hence their other name "Parliamentary stops". In all there are about 150 request stops - representing about 6% of all stations.

Dixe Wills is well travelled and decided to visit about 50 of the most promising locations. In so doing he gained an off beat insight into places so remote most us will never have hear of them.

In his own words:

Who hasn’t felt an agreeable sense of power when holding out a hand to stop a bus? Imagine then how much more pleasing it is to put your hand out and have a whole train stop for you. If you think Britain affords no opportunity for such exploits then think again – the nation sports around 150 railway request stops dotted about from Cornwall to the far north of Scotland. Little used and often shorn of their original purpose by the onward rush of the years, these stations are typically havens of tranquillity where visitors can do a little casual time-travelling to a Britain all but forgotten.

Each station has its own chapter and in some cases the travel between then justifies a chapterette, so its the sort of book you can pick up and read for  a few minutes at a time rather than as a big read in a single sitting. I did wonder if I would engage with the author but his self deprecating humour drew me in and I found myself fascinated as he travelled the length and breadth of Britain.

If you like unusual travel tales, and in particular if you like rail travel this is one for you (Jim, David and John).

Sunday 10 August 2014

Going over the top in Brum

Flying Solo across Birmingham
August 2014

Boaters, more than most, appreciate that Birmingham sits on a whacking great hill.  Whichever way you approach the city you are faced with a long flight of locks and if you want to cross to the other side one follows in the footsteps of the grand old Duke of York who marched up - and then down again.

Digbeth to Calf Heath is peppered with locks, 22 up to the Wolverhampton Level and then 21 down to the Staffs and Worcester summit pound, and they all stood in my path home. Fortunately I had a bit of help!

 Mick - who fabricated the bows of The Jam Butty

We climbed the Ashted six in Saturday evening after The Bond event in the company of Sue and Ade of The Cheese Boat, spending the night in Aston Science Park. I can vouch for the area immediately above the top lock as the area is actively monitored by Science Park security guards / CCTV. In fact Ade and myself spotted what appeared to be some disconnected sensor boxes and so opened one up, only to discover it was live and in no time a guard hove into view to check us out! 

The next morning Charley of Felonious Mongoose and fellow BCNS member came to help us up the Farmers Bridge flight where we encountered Tawny Owl in one of the short pounds. Seeing it was Tawny Owl we were a bit surprised to see them dithering but it transpired that Richard had lent his boat to friends who were new to boating.

Spring Vale - probable operating base for the Day Boat which became Montgomery's bows / hold

Helen, needing to be elsewhere on Monday, got a taxi home leaving me chatting to The Cheese Boat and The Lollipop Boat who were trading opposite The Sea Life Centre. There was a suggestion that I put out a display of jam so we could claim to be a "Mini Market" but with all the preserves carefully boxed for Blisworth I left well alone. This stop did introduce me to Mick on the Lollipop Boat who had done much of the steel fabrication work on Montgomery, Its a small world!.

I was then off on my own to Tipton. It was strange being out there afloat in a big city entirely on my own. My inclination was to follow the New Main Line to Brades and then the Old Main Line to the Black Country Living Museum but I remembered a Mirabelle Plum tree on the NML near Dudley Port so pressed on and picked about 4kg of yellow and red little plums - enough for nine jars of jam and about 15 jars of chutney.

Helen then made an unexpected call at the BCLM whereupon we sampled the board of fayre offered by Mad O'Rourke. Lumphammer Gold is to be recommended.

Charley lock wheeling me down the 21

Helen departed on Monday morning leaving yours truly to bring both boats back to base. Regrettably No 1 son did a "no show" but the day was saved by Charley who arrived on the train with his bike and windlass, and in no time we were zipping down the 21. Everywhere we go The Jam Butty is recognised and as I pulled into Wolverhampton Basin a delighted cry of "look, its the Jam Butty" went up. It was the crew of Warrior who follow the blog. Sorry I didn't get a photo guys - the two boats are making on the move photography a bit tricky.

We fairly sped down the 21, fortified by sandwiches containing - you guessed it - jam! I had run out of everything else and Charley found it all rather fitting.

The final 2.5 hour blast to Calf Heath was interrupted by one of my occasional jack knife crises. As I was approaching a left hand bend under the railway bridge at Coven another boat was approaching at pace, indicating that they couldn't stop because they had another boat hard on their heels. The looming bows of a working boat appeared over the skippers shoulder emphasising the point. However, an emergency stop when towing and turning left can only end one way - with me jack knifed across the canal! 

Barney Ball and Hampstead

In the end the working boat backed off out of the bridge hole and I pirouetted round the first boat. It was then I recognised the skipper of the working boat - none other than Barney Ball on Hampstead who built Montgomery. He had seen the butty side on through the bridge hole and was delighted to see how it had worked out now the paint job has been applied.

And so ends that particular saga. Montgomery's work done till the Black Country Boating Festival in September.

Friday 8 August 2014

The Bond Summer Fair

The Bond Summer Fair
August 2014

Our relief crew duly arrived at Camp Hill locks as planned on Friday morning and car was exchanged for the boats and we were afloat again - a gap of only five days!

Helen was not feeling too well so went below to have 40 winks and woke as I brought the boat out of the last of the six locks of the Camp Hill flight!

The reason for this switch was out attendance at the Summer Fair at The Bond in Digbeth. The event is street food based and attracts a much younger crowd than we usually see, and one with little or no boating connection. Its therefore time to go all evangelical about the cabals and the buildings we were occupying.

The venue has a small basin big enough for two trade boats - in this case the Cheese Boat (Sue and Ade) and ourselves. We both moored at the junction just below the locks, slipping into the Bond's Basin at about 9.30 leaving plenty of time before the 12.00 start. Regrettably is poured with rain during the set up and we reluctantly reversed the boats to place the butty under the covered section.

The weather reduced the attendance from the spring's 1400 to about 800 but sales remained good and in the end we were only slightly down on last lime.

The event is base round a "street food" theme and was a lot of fun to take part in. The event has a very laid back and mellow "vibe" and whilst numbers were down the attendees clearly had a good time. 

Wednesday 6 August 2014

North from Oxford

North from Oxford 
July 2014

Our return from Oxford was hot and sticky with only the merest hint of a breeze to mitigate the stifling heat.

 Setting sun over the Oxford Arm

It started with an interesting extraction from the Oxford Town Arm which has a maximum winding width of 30ft. We winded the butty but were obliged to reverse the motor all the way. The redeeming facet of the manouver was the butty itself which we tied to the bows of the motor and this served as a great drogue and kept us straight. All we did was leave the engine slowly astern and guide the direction by the use of the boat pole, nudging the stern this way and that.

Reversing out of the Oxford Town Arm

The extraction may be a fiddle but the mooring at the far end is uber close to the city centre.

Our trip north was only as far as Banbury where our relief crew took over for the next five days to Camp Hill in Birmingham.

I think I ought to mention the paint incident. As we were tied in some shade just north of Lower Heyford I thought I would put some final touches to the ellum. Painting over I pressed the lids on the paint pots and stepped into the stern of the butty - or didn't. There was a hole in the canal bank which I stuck my foot in and the result was a nearly full pot of cream bursting open all over the cockpit floor. I desperately stuffed up the drain holes to minimise spillage into the water and scooped as much of the rest back into the tin. If that wasn't bad enough I returned to the floor six hours later when the paint was more or less dry and gave it a coat of red to cover the mess. Job done I twitched and over when the red can! This time I cave the cockpit sides an extra coat and its fair to say that the floor has a very generous layer of Ferrari Red. Twice in one day!

Along the way we hid from the sun where we could, met Nick from Eileen who passed us whilst re-fueling at Aynho. Them we spent time with Gary and Della Mann of Muleless and Maffi too. Whilst in Thrupp we also met up with Paul Balmer of Waterways Routes who was busy filming the Oxford Canal.


And so it was with no small degree of sadness we left the boats behind and returned to the real world ashore.