Saturday 31 December 2016

Making Plans for 2017

Making Plans for 2017
December 2016 (with  less then 2 hours to go till its 2017)

With 2016 a near wash out from a boating perspective it has been a huge relief to start to plan out our 2017 route.

For years there has been an irritating and time consuming  fly in the ointment of my life - the job!  It has has had to stand front and square in my plans and everything else had to work around it.

Of course, 2016 included a six month sabbatical and that gave me a tantalising taste of things to come, but then reality returned with a vengence as I managed the transition back to the weekly grind in November. Having reflected on our priorities we have decided that there is enough in the pension pot to support us so, from mid April, I will say goodbye to my employer of 37 years.

But let me be clear - I AM NOT RETIRING!  I cant even guess how many people have said I am too young to retire, and in a way they are right. I cant sit around all day reading the modern equivalent of the paper, I need to be active. So, after my non retirement I will be busy all summer trading The Jam Butty with Helen, this year making a slow circuit from Birmingham to Bristol and then down to London before returning for the bulk of our Canal Festivals in July to Sept.

The planned route is as follows:

29th April to Mon 1st May - St Richards Festival, Vines Park, Droitwich, WR9 8LB

13th and 14th May - Coombswood Trust Open Weekend, Hawne Basin, Hereward Rise, Halesowen, B62 8AW

1st and 2nd July - Ware Boat Festival, Lee Navigation, Ware, Hertfordshire

22nd and 23rd July - Cosgrove Canal FestivalCosgrove Lock, Lock Lane, Cosgrove, MK19 7JR

29th July - Linslade Canal Festival, Tiddenfoot Water Park, Linslade, Leighton Buzzard, Buckinghamshire

12th and 13th August - Blisworth Canal Festival, Blisworth, Northamptonshire, NN7 3BU

9th and 10th September - Black Country Boating Festival, Bumble Hole nature Reserve, Windmill End, Netherton, DY2 9HU

16th and 17th September - Tipton Canal FestivalOwen St, Tipton DY4 8HE

23rd and 24th September - Huddlesford Boat GatheringHuddlesford Ln, Huddlesford, Whittington, Lichfield WS13 8PX

If you want to follow our progress we will be updating our location pave on the Wild Side website.

As well as the cruising and trading I will no doubt be doing some more writing for Waterways World, representing the Boating Businesses at CRT meetings and developing the Handyman business in the winter. 

Taken with the chutney making in the autumn and the marmalade making in the winter and a long trip to New Zealand I cant see my pace of life slowing down anytime soon.

Here is to 2017 for all of you. May it be healthy and fun. See you out there!

Saturday 24 December 2016

Tanked up for Christmas

Tanked up for Christmas
December 2016

The Jam Butty has been receiving some attention over recent weeks as we turn our thoughts to the 2017 trading season.

My time sleeping on the butty identified a deficiency, apart from a lack of internal height which is inescapable! Whilst the cross bed is very comfortable, there is no way to secure the back doors and hatch from the inside. I discovered this in Walsall Town Basin and I spent a night wondering which would open them first - a gust of find or a curious local. In the event the doors stayed shut but some catches were needed and this has been addressed.

Tearing a new hole "where the sun dont shine".

The next change was to maximise the storage space for jam at floor level. Last season I took the side panel off the locker under the long seat and exposed a space to store nearly 400 jars. To extend this even further I converted the drawer front under the "bed ole" into another side opening locker and made space for an extra 200 jars - all nice and cool below the waterline.

The latest development has been the creation of a locker in the stern triangle off the stern deck. In its previous incarnation the butty contained a raw water cooled diesel generator fed from a diesel tank in the stern. The generator is long gone and our needs are met by a 2kw petrol unit purchased from Aldi. The problem this brings is the storage of petrol - the boaters nemesis.

There is no way I am keeping any petrol in the body of the butty so I decided to convert the old diesel tank into a ventilated locker which will be perfect for a small can of petrol.

Good idea in theory but achieving the end proved a bit of a challenge. First I marked it out and then drilled each corner - so far so good. Then I attemped to cut it out with a metal jigsaw blade but after a difficult six inches it was clear the tool wasnt up to the job. Time to wield the angle grinder. I came armed with a set of 1mm discs and set to - soon discovering that rather then the 3mm steel I expected it was 5 or 6mm, and soon wore out the cutter discs. Another trip to screwfix and I set to with some 3mm cutters which although slower, did manage to achieve the desired cuts.

Inside a diesel tank

I had drained off the diesel before I started but I was very aware that there was some left sloshing around in the bottom of the tank. I know diesel is pretty inert stuff, but I was not entirely sure what would happen when it was showered in sparks from the cutter. I therefore had an extinguisher and a fire blanket to hand during the process.

As I cut the bottom line I thought I had trouble. Suddenly I was enveloped in foul smelling smoke, but rather than setting fire to the diesel I had burned out the motor on the grinder! It hung in there till I had almost finished and was able to pull the steel panel out, and then died a death.

The old tank was found to contain maybe 12 litres of the most disgusting diesel you ever saw. This was all decanted out and the tank wiped down ready to have a set of doors added. 

All in all a bit of a disgusting job but well worth the effort.

Friday 23 December 2016

All change on The Bark

Renovations continue
December 2016

Whilst there have been no boat movements in recent weeks, there has been no shortage of work on the boats, preparing them for next year which will be on us in no time.

To start with Wand'ring Bark there is a whole pile of work left over from last spring. Our few outings of 2016 revealed a major flaw in the redesign of the saloon. The key issue was the creation of the L shaped settee. This new settee offers loads more space but it became apparent that we both like to sit with our legs up and as it was me who was left uncomfortable, a further refinement was needed. 

The extended settee (awaiting cushion)

After a bit of thought I removed the old stereo cupboard (which was pretty well redundant) and replaced it with an oak table level with the seat. This seems to work well and an additional cushion has been ordered from Elite Furnishing. This configuration has the added benefit of making the settee into a nice long single bed, which increases our hospitality options.

Linked to the new settee I have also made a set of shelves to go on the other side of the cabin, under the gunnel. This proved to be a bit more challenging than I anticipated because it needs to support a laptop without projecting too far into the room. Lots of ideas were considered and in the end a section of the top was made to flip out, extending the flat space to about 32cm.

Shelf with flap

Another new feature of the galley is the inclusion of a 32 litre 12 volt freezer which sits under the settee. This unit has been in place for a year but has never been run due to and absence of wiring and also an insufficient supply of electricity.

Shelves fixed but without power socket

But this is all about to change. Last week I took the plunge and installed the power supply cables which reach back to the bus bar in the electrical cabinet. It just needs wiring in.

This links onto the power supply issue. Whilst  the engine has always provided the power we need whist travelling, our prolonged stops will soon reveal its shortcomings. The only sensible answer is to go solar. After much research two 160 watt panels plus an MTTP controller were purchased from Midsumer. These big boys toys are currently cluttering up our store room, but will soon be fitted and plugged into yet another power cable which I ran alongside the one for the freezer. What the sun giveth, the freezer will certainly take away!

The next project is to create a tiltable cradle for the panels on the roof and the purchase of a new, larger battery bank - but thats for another day!

Friday 9 December 2016

Showroom to scrap yard

A fresh set of wheels
December 2016

Today represented something close to momentous in the Tidy household - we bought a new car!

Our new wheels

What unusual about that I hear you cry! Well, I have long subscribed to the "run them into the ground" school of thought when it comes to cars and I have driven my faithful old Mondeo far beyond anything I have driven before.

This car was my old fleet vehicle which I had from new, and bought from my employer at four years old with nearly 80,000 miles on the clock. My company decided to stop supplying cars and at the time it seemed easiest to simply pay them the £3,700 they were asking and run it for a year or so. I worked out that after a year my car allowance would have paid for the vehicle and then some - after which I would move onto something more interesting.

Well, the years passed and the Mondeo simply refused to die. True it cost me £900 for a new clutch after 6 months, but after that it was just bits and bobs going wrong and so I kept it. I was a bit uncertain as it passed through the 100,000 mile threshold, but then I figured it was worth nothing so lets see how far it goes.

 We swapped this (nearly all the way to the moon)

For this!

And so it ran, and ran, and ran. However, over the last 12 months it has started to carry too many niggles, any one of which could signal the end. There is the odd drone between 60 and 70, the non functioning cooling fan which hasn't worked for over 3 years, the knocking suspension courtesy of Birmingham's many speed humps, the stereo which had a life of its own, the back seat belt which wouldn't undo (sometimes) and of course a multitude of dints from 12 years in the city. The killer was the power steering which had a new motor in the spring but this decided to stop working at far the end of its travel and frankly the car just wasn't worth another £200 bill. 

End of the road for the Mondeo

That said, the engine was still running sweetly at 172,000 miles, the turbo still worked, if a bit noisily and the car still delivered nearly 60 mpg on a run and 48 mpg around town. Lets say it didn't owe me anything with a depreciation rate of £460 per year. Put another way, the car has carried me the equivalent of seven timed round the circumference of the world!

So we need a new car - but what to get?

The problem is the Wild Side business - the jam weighs a ton and the paraphernalia means we really need a van. We could have looked at another estate but Helen's back prefers a higher ride so we were into the S Max sort of territory. In the end we decided to return to a Zafira which manages to offer a huge and very versatile load space in a car which is of quite modest dimensions.

We had a Zafira before which didn't end exactly happily (timing chain failure) but that was a 2.3 petrol so we opted for the 1.7 diesel with the uprated power output. Perhaps more importantly it is bright red which satisfies Helen's main criteria!

I will be finishing work on 12th April after which we will drop to just the one car so hopefully this one with a mere 20,000 miles on the clock will be with us for at least 10 years. 

I have to admit to being a bit sad to see the end of the Mondeo which commanded a trade in value of just £75! Its the first and probably the last time I will ever take a car out of the showroom and drive it all the way to the scrap yard.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Time and Tide

Time and Tide
November 2016

My visit to North Norfolk included a trip to see the sea, and by coincidence our arrival at Walcott coincided with an unusually high tide.

The sea was just a couple of feet beneath the main walkway and for the first time ever there was no sand to be seen.

Instead small sharp waves were smacking up against the sea defences and throwing up sheets of spray, which offered an unusual action photographic opportunity.

Monday 21 November 2016

North Walsham and Dilham Canal update

North Walsham and Dilham Canal Update
November 2016

The diminutive and remote North Walsham and Dilham is one of the unsung hero's of the restoration world. Rarely has so much been achieved by so few and its always interesting to visit the middle pounds where the channel has been extensively dredged and Bacton Wood Lock restored to a near workable condition.

Ebridge millpond

Its a year since I last visited the Ant valley but a sunny if somewhat frosty morning encouraged a visit and the prospect of some good photos.

Boating on the North Walsham and Dilham - starts in a small way!

I started at Ebridge Mill where the mill pool was brimming full, and the shimmering water was playing host to an enthusiastic model boat club. Their remote controlled sailing boats were darting in and out of a buoyed course against a backdrop of the mill building wrapped in polythene as conversion to housing proceeds.

Bacton Wood Lock

Then it was on to Bacton Wood Lock where the channel from Whitehouse Common Bridge has been fully dredged and two huge pontoons sit, waiting for their next job. The last time I saw the lock is was stark and new, but the brickwork has now mellowed and there it sits complete with upper gates waiting to hold back the weight of a top pound in water.

The last stop was at Royston Bridge where a small convoy of diggers sit in between jobs. The main channel has seen no action over the last year and reeds have grown in its bed, but the team appear to have been working on the adjacent river bed which currently carries the waters of the River Ant. The plan appears to be to block the exit from the canal bed to the river and force the water to flow down the canal to Bacton Wood Lock and the adjoining mill, but I suspect that the Environment Agency is involved and setting up obstacles to ensure the water balance of the area is not adversely impacted.

Canal bed above Royston Bridge

And so the track stands ready and waiting to be re-watered, and when it is the team will just need some bottom gates and they will be ready to establish a trip boat which would be a major tourist attraction in what is a popular holiday area.

Keep going guys - its looking good.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Albert's washday blues

Albert's washday blues
November 2016

One of the thing I love about sharing my discoveries on the blog are the responses I get and the fresh insights, which add snippits of information which would otherwise be lost forever.

Riverbank above Horstead Lock

This weekend I am visiting my mother in Norfolk and my journey to her home took me through Coltishall, where I spent my childhood. With the sun setting there was just time to stop at Horstead Mill and grab a photo under the stand of beech trees which grow along he riverbank just above the lock. Its one of my favourite spots and is an area where I spent many happy days during the summer holidays in the 1970's.

As I stood on the lock I looked over the water meadows towards the old Salvation Army building in Coltishall (now a tea room) and saw the huge willow tree which reminded me about some recollections made by a local resident I vaguely knew in my youth.

Way back "in the day" the garage which stood on the island in the middle of the village was very different and consisted of a set of sheds out of which a car and cycle repair business operated. This old Central Garage was run by Mr Albert Deacon, who retired with his wife to a bungalow in Westbourne Road. I dont think I knew Albert but I did know his widow with whom I struck up a real friendship, and most Sunday evenings would see me heading off to her house where we watched programmes like Triangle, The Brothers and, I think, Cilla!. My parents didn't have a TV at the time so this was all heady stuff for a teenage lad, aided and abetted by some rather big slices of cake. 

 Albert's clothes line

Anyway, I digress. Before they moved to their retirement home they must have lived close to the garage because they had an allotment on what is now a triangle of common land behind the petrol station. The allotments had sheds and washing lines and the story goes that Doris's washing post snapped dropping all the laundry on the ground. Without and delay Albert sought out a suitable branch of a willow tree, cut it down and rammed it into the ground as a replacement post.

Sadly the allotments are long gone, as are the Central Garage workshops and both of the Deacons, but the post lives on. The branch took root  and sprouted into the 80ft tree which dominates the common today. So, next time you refuel your car in in the village, look over towards the water meadows and offer a nod of appreciation to Albert's living memorial.

Richard - thanks for this little nugget.

Thursday 6 October 2016

An appealing prospect

Apples galore
October 2016

My visit to Moseley Old Hall included a wander in the orchard where their collection of historic fruit trees were carefully labelled.

Apples are a more diverse species than dogs, with different types cross pollinated and grafted by generations of gardeners to achieve fruit which are prefect for their uses. This diversity has resulted in literally hundreds of individually recognised species, all lovingly maintained in specialist orchards in the south of England.

Apples themselves come just a handful of strains in Asia, mostly in the Eastern Turkey to Kazakhstan area and than brought back by explorers and crossed with crab apples.

Its therefore impossible to catalogue all the apples we  could encounter but I thought it would be interesting to record the more unusual ones I find and the following are to be found at Moseley Old Hall, near Wolverhampton:

 Autumn Pomain

 Court Pendu Plat

 English Codlin

 Golden Harvey

 London Pippin

 Non Pariel

 Norfolk Biffen


Sunday 2 October 2016

The weird and the wonderful

Moseley Old Hall
October 2016

I received a copy of the regional National Trust briefing recently and noticed that Moseley Old Hall near Wolverhampton was holding an apple pressing open day. Interesting.

Fruit for sale

Now I have to admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed. I was expecting to see big volumes of local apples being processed in an ancient press but in reality it was a puny modern press set up on the lawn and being fed a slice or two of apple and extracting a mere egg cup full of juice. Kids stuff.

That said, Moseley Old Hall is a property with an amazing collection of interesting fruit trees. So, accompanied by a rapidly recovering Mrs T we took a stroll round the gardens under a gorgeous blue autumn sky and this is a sample of what I found:

The magnificent Medlar

At one time you would have found a graceful Medlar tree on most gardens, but these days they are few and far between. Its country name is "Cats Arse" fruit on account of how it looks, and therein lies its problem.

The story goes that the Victorian ladies were offended by its appearance and as a result they either erected screens around the trees, or more usually chopped them down! 

These  are odd fruit to work with as they remain solid and unyielding till November when they start to blet (which is a nice way of saying "goes rotten"). You have to let the fruit go mainly soft before you can use its flesh, normally by cooking it and making Medlar Jelly, but they used to scoop out the soft flesh raw and enjoy the distinctive caramel / apple flavour.

Its also said that the Medlar is like a fallen woman : It reaches perfection at the exact time it succumbs to terminal corruption.... 

And in this comment it highlights another snag with the mighty Medlar. The window of opportunity to use is is ridiculously small - just a few days. little wonder that you don't find Medlar jelly on supermarket shelves! 


Another unusual fruit tree which can be used to make a lovely fragrant jelly. The quince looks like a nobbly hard pear but has a fluffy down on the skin. Its a fruit to be harvested in October and for us it is the core ingredient of Quince-essentially Christmas, a Quince Jelly with added seasonal flavourings like cinnamon.

There is also its smaller domestic cousin Japonica. The hard fruit can be found in many garden hedgerows but in our experience the resulting jelly is not as clear as that made with the larger ones. However, the taste is identical.

If you were a child you would expect to find this soft fruit growing on a bush, but in fact they grow on tall trees. 

This height makes collecting the raspberry like fruit a bit difficult. The berries are here and there all over the tree and ripen at different times so actually getting them when ripe is a challenge. If you can access a tree and afford the time to pick its crop you will be rewarded with some superb soft fruit in August to September.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Musical Chairs

The ongoing redevelopment of Wand'ring Bark
September 2016

When I rebuilt the galley and saloon on Wand'ring Bark last winter there was one corner I left untouched due to a lack of time and also a lack of inspiration about what to do with it.

The area I am referring to the the front left corner opposite the stove, which is currently a cupboard with an unused CD / radio inside plus various electrical sockets and a draw underneath. With the advent of the i-pod and digital radio the stereo is now redundant.

The elongated bench seat

When I made the new L shaped sofa to replace the two parallel benches I kind of promised Helen something comfortable but our short time aboard this year highlighted a design flaw. We both like to sit with our legs up and when Helen has bagged the length of the settee there is nowhere for me to sit!  

With the DVD player now being sited opposite the settee (not on the stereo cupboard) I came to realise that I could remove the cupboard and replace it with a table / seat base in effect making a 9ft bench seat on which Helen can sit and one end and I can sit at the other with out toes getting intimate in the middle.

And so three planks of oak were purchased, joined, moulded and varnished to make the table top / seat base and the old unit reworked to support it. Of course, reworking is never that simple and it took a good two hours of persistent unscrewing to get the unit free and then to trim it down to size. 

Patience paid off and eventually the base was prepared for the new top which, after a bit of fettling, will be glued into position and the trimmings made good. Then there is the small matter of a new cushion form Elite Furnishings and we will both be sitting pretty!

Sunday 25 September 2016

A pressing issue

The Cider Press in action
September 2016

Over the years I have used my old trolley jack to press surplus apples into cider, but I was never really satisfied with my Heath Robinson contraption. Not only was it ungainly, it was also inefficient.

Jon with the new cider press

With a bit more time on my hands I invested the princely sum of £4 in some oak battens and recycled lots of bits and bobs from around the shed, including two donated sash cramps, into what appeared to be a workable apple press.

To accompany this bit of the cider making process I also prepared cheap and effective "scratter" to smash the apples into squeezable lumps, but stops short of liquidising them, which is also ineffective. There are many very dangerous looking DIY scratters on the YouTube, so I opted for a safer plasterers whisk with a sharpened blade which was about 80% as effective as a commercial unit and a fraction of the cost.

Scratting the apples with a plasterers whisk

With autumn upon us and windfall apples being offered in abundance it seemed a good opportunity to christen the kit, so my friend and fellow home brew enthusiast Jon came round for a couple of hours and we set to work on the bags of over ripe apples in the shed.

Apple ready for pressing

I should hasten to add that the lovely cider apples provided by Sue and Richard (Indigo Dreamers) and featured in this post were not used in this pressing. They are ripening up and will be processed in a few weeks when they have softened up a  bit more. For this pressing the apples we a mix of Emery and Wolferson Bramleys plus some softening cookers scrumped from Pelsall Common and some from my brother's orchard.

Apples awaiting the next pressing

The scratting in a beer vat half filled with apples was remarkably successful. We used the plasterers whisk attachment through a hole in the lid to minimise the splatter and after five minutes of churning up and down the apples had been reduced to smallish chunks.

The next stage was to load the pulp into the new press. Each pressing comprised four layers of apple, each wrapped in muslin and separated by wooden slats to let the juice escape. We found that half a vat of scratted apples fitted nicely into the press.

It works!

Then the press was engaged by screwing down both sash cramps and the juice poured out in a torrent. The pressure was enough to force juice through the side slats to it appeared to "cry", but the basket held as the top was screwed down. When the cramps were fully extended we added a wooden block to let us press further and by the time the pulp had compressed to about 40% of its original volume the flow slowed and the nearly dry apple crumb was removed.

Bleeding wood slats

This pressing process was repeated four times and we produced about 13 litres of apple juice. This was decanted into demijohns and left to ferment with an airlock inserted.

In the past I have had to use brewers yeast to start off apples picked straight from the tree but have found that if windfall apples are used the natural wild yeasts are introduced on their skins and it should ferment all by itself. 

13 litres of apple juice

We were delighted with the effectiveness of the kit, messing around like a pair of schoolboys as the amber nectar flowed from the press. Time will tell if the fermentation kicks by itself, or if the resulting cider is any good. Past results were very positive so we are hopeful. Not that we will be drinking it anytime soon - the juice needs to ferment out, be bottled with a teaspoon on sugar (to make it sparkling) and then left to mature over the winter. Then, in the spring the temperature will rise and as it reaches 15C a secondary fermentation will take place altering the acids. 

So we wont taste the results of our labours till next summer - time for a party!