Monday 27 June 2016

Bostin in Brownhills

Bostin in Brownhills
June 2016

I spent last weekend on the waterfront in Brownhills, taking nearly three hours to get there along the shallow and narrow Daw End Branch of the Wyrley and Essington canal on Saturday. I arrived in time to set the butty up ready for the Brownhills Canalside Festival and to go and chat the a couple of the other boaters for an hour or so, putting the issues of the EU to rights in the process.

Brownhills Canalside Festival 2016

This event is really a canal side fete put on by the local residents (The Brownhills Peoples Association to be accurate) and whilst a smattering of boats was needed to bring the water to life, it is not a boating festival by any stretch of the imagination. There was the Ikon art boat, the BCNS workboat Phoenix offering trips, two local boats in for the day, two permanent moorers who simply sat it out and then there was me, the first trading boat to appear at the event and a novel addition which went down well with the attendees.

The Jam Butty in action

The organisation is a bit hit and miss with limited direction and supervision, but there is a team spirit about the while thing and everyone just seems to muck in an it all comes together. There was no booking system for boats and no harbour master, so we all discussed the options and then made it happen. The limited number of boats should not come as a surprise when you remember that  Brownhills is at least a full days cruising on remaindered canals from any main waterways.

Lots of canoeing

There is something rather special about these small local events, organised by local community activists for the local community. From a trading perspective I never have high expectations but am so often pleasantly surprised, and Brownhills was no exception. I was trading solo with Helen staying at home with a friend so I scaled back the operations a bit, dropping the cordials and offering a more limited range which I can manage on my own.

Local musical acts

I woke to the sound of rain hammering down in the night but it had moved on my the morning and instead we had an unseasonal northerly breeze with a forecast of rail for late afternoon. These conditions called for the gazebo plus a couple of sides but come 10.00 am I was set up and by 10.10 I had covered my stall fee - not a bad start! The day continued in a steady fashion, never overrun but rarely quiet. I had some company over the lunch period but in the main I served alone and it surprised my just how many people I know, both locals and visitors. And so the day passed in a very sociable manner and by the time the rail arrived at 3.30 the table was looking a bit light on stock. In the end we have a good day with takings which would not have disgraced a big event like Droitwich.

But, as we have seen before, a late rain shower is the final curtain for outside events and the crowds just melted away and the stallholders trying to set gazebo dismantling records. I plodded on steadily and just after 5.00pm all was packed away and the Jam Butty was both weatherproof and ready to move.

And then a dilemma - do I stay or do I go? Well, I was already more than a bit damp so I pulled on my waterproofs and made a start on the return journey. The temperature plummeted and as I passed through Walsall Wood my breath was coming out as steam - great for the end of June! My destination was to stop at the offside mooring next to Aldridge Marina, only half a mile from home but a full two hours cruising from or mooring so with no plans for Monday morning I stopped for the night and was rewarded with a bright and dry end to my short trip out.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Brownhills Becons

Brownhills Canal Festival
June 2016

Brownhills, or Brownshill as one of my dear friends calls it, plays host to an annual canal festival but as you can imagine, its not high on most boaters itineraries. As a result its a one day event which is more to celebrate the Wyrley and Essington Canal which runs through it than about the boats.

There will be some boats in attendance, including a historic and the BCNS workboat Phoenix to offer boat trips, plus the IKON boat for an artistic dimension, as well a full compliment of land based stalls (the pitched sold out weeks ago) plus canoe displays and live music near the canoe club. All in all a nice little community event.

I passed through the Brownhills waterfront today and the area was alive with bunting and a big banner had been erected on the roundabout. However, the advertising alteration squad is active in the area, subtly changing the message which has triggered masses of interest on social media - a bit of a bummer!

If all had gone according to plan we would have been somewhere around Tamworth and making for the Grand Union when the festival is on. Given our limitations of movement at present and the fact that Brownhills is just 2.5 hours cruising away, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I contacted the organisers and asked for a trade boat slot, but we seem to be the first trade boat to make such an approach and we therefore made up policy on the fly. I guess I could have just arrived and set up the Jam Butty, but that seems wrong so we decided that paying the standard stallholder rate would be fair and I was delegated trade boat harbour master duty (for myself).

And so The Jam Butty will attend its very first Canal Festival this coming Sunday managed by just yours truly and any other friends who show up. 

If you are in the area its opposite the Brownhills Tesco's front door, and will run from 10.00am till 4.00pm on Sunday 26th June.

See you there!

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Passport to Pelsall

Passport to Pelsall
June 2016

Right now the stars seem to be in alignment. Its the day after the summer solstice, the sun is out and most crucially, Helen is feeling well - so we seized the day and grabbed a night afloat.

The Fingerpost on Pelsall Common

There is an ill founded misconception that its all a bit grim on the northern BCN but nothing could be further from the truth. Tucked out in the far reaches of the remaindered section lies the village of Pelsall and with it a rather wonderful canal side common. This semi rural location has to be one of the gems of the BCN which, if it was anywhere else, would be rammed with boats moored bumper to bumper (think Tixall Wide).

Cannock Extension Canal

But because its in one of the remotest sections of the BCN - a full days cruising from the Main Line - it attracts few visitors. And so here we sit, moored next to the rather good Fingerpost pub in glorious isolation having had the ten miles of cruising without meeting a single moving boat.

Not that it has always been this way. The common used to be home to a enormous ironworks with blast furnaces blazing away 24 hours a day, fed by dozens of Joey or Day Boats bringing coal, ironstone and limestone and taking finished product out. But those days of industry are long gone and the sounds of birdsong seem to have eradicated even the echoes.

Of course, others do know of this spot and periodically the common is the venue for canal festivals. BCNS tend to hold biannual events here but this year its the turn of the IWA's big festival which will attract over 150 boats over the August bank holiday weekend. Given our change of plan this summer it seemed daft not to take advantage of the IWA gathering so Wand'ring Bark and The Jam Butty will be attending and offering as fine a selection of preserves as you are likely to find.

As this spot is three hours cruising from Longwood (not towing the butty) it is a regular destination and one which photographs well through the season. I attach a selection of tonight's images to let you see what you are missing. 

Thursday 16 June 2016

Rain does not stop play

Paying CRT's Bradley lock gate factory a visit
June 2016

When I spent time with Outward Bound there was a saying that "its not the wrong sort of weather, its the wrong sort of clothes".

Well, yesterday was a time when the maxim rang very true. Yesterday was the second of three BCNS Explorer Cruises of 2016, chaperoned tours of the lesser cruised parts of the BCN canal system hosted by Stuart and Marie Sherratt, who also happen to moor next to us.

The dreary Moorcroft moorings (opposite the site of the Monway Arm)

Each day the cruise moves on for four hours or so, and the organisers try to include a visit or activity relevant to the place. One very popular activity is a visit to CRT's Bradley lock gate factory, which fits very nicely with a guided walk along the lost Bradley Locks and Gospel Oak branches - which is where I come in.

There is nowhere else in the country where there is such a concentration of lost canals, with no less than six almost parallel routes in just a couple of miles (Bentley, Bradley, Gospel Oak, Ocker Hill, Toll End Communication and Haines). This is therefore fertile canal huynting territory and the Bradley Locks Branch offers a bit of everything, which makes for an interesting 45 minute ramble.

The land drain with more water than usual

I don't claim to be a great historian as my passion is to pull my boots on and get out into the field and see things first hand, so I am indebted to the research undertaken by Ray Shill and the cartography of Richard Dean which together form the basis of my interpretations. I must have done this walk seven or eight times and long suffering Stuart has patiently listened to them all. I did ask if he got bored and was told that they were different each time, but its unclear if this is due to me playing fast and loose with history or having a bad memory for my script!

On this occasion the morning was both misty and raining. It was so bad I even packed my waterproof trousers. I hate walking in waterproof trousers but on this occasion I gave in and pulled them on arriving at the Moorcroft moorings at 8.30am, and wondered just how many people would attend from the 19 boats. In the event about 80% ventured out, all adopting a different strategy to combat the rain - some in full waterproofs and some under umbrellas, others opted for the "skin dries" approach and sported shorts and sandals.

I usually start my talk with an assurance that the path is well made and dry but luckily I omitted the dry bit - the paths were awash and we spent more time on the grass than the cinders. We also adapted the stopping points to take advantage of the shelter offered by the bridges on the route, and the occasional breaks when the rain slowed to a hard drizzle.

In the event we had good walk up to Bradley and on this occasion the land drain, which runs through the old locks, was in full spate. It was quite impressive given the tiny catchment area it is drawing on. Also, I hadn't realised the concrete wall at the bottom of the lock chambers was shaped to replicate a wooden gate. How could I miss that during my previous visits?

The Gospel Oak Branch from the Walsall Canal

The Bradley works have just installed a new gantry crane and cross cut saw which meant that all the finished gates had been moved outside and there wasn't a lot of work in progress to see. What I did see were the gates ready for filling to Ryders Green and Smethwick during the July stoppage plus a large set destines for the Staffs and Worcester this winter. Usually they are busy spraying the gates with water to prevent shrinkage, but at present nature is addressing this issue admirably.

The rain continued as re walked back to the Gospel Oak pub for a leisurely pint and then back down the Gospel Oak Branch to the mooring from which the flotilla will set out for Walsall. 

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Pop up trading opportunities

Pop up trading opportunities
June 2016

I seem to have stumbled across a new format for impromptu trading opportunities.

We usually have three formats for preserve trading on the boats :

1. The full blown stall trading from the butty under a gazebo as seen at canal festivals

2. Using a hanging rack off the hard section of the cratch on the butty (to be replicated by hanging shelves on the motor when I get round to making them).

3. Ad hoc sales as we mooch along prompted by the display boards having over the sheeting of the butty.

In recent weeks I have met up with the BCNS Explorer Cruises twice and because they have all heard about The Jam Butty and the foraged dimension to our products - they want to try them.

For a small group the full stall would be overkill but the other options dont really hit the spot. So, when we joined the May group for the loop through Walsall I set up the tasting boards on the roof of the butty and offered a dozen flavours for tasting. I was rather bowled over by the enthusiasm for the pop up event and was rushed of my feet satisfying orders from the boxes stored in the cabin.

The June cruise comprising 20 boats called at Longwood Boat Club last night and whilst I cant travel with them on this occasion, I was asked to pull the butty over the canal and set up shop in the jaws of the lock. The butty was duly poled over in the morning as the guests were arriving and I left a sign advertising a tasting session at 4.30. 

I had no idea how this would go but come the hour I put out the tasters and settled on the back cabin roof. Silly move - everyone came along and I didnt sit down again for an hour. As usual, the preserves were a big hit and there was the satisfying sight of lots of "Another jammy treat from Wild Side" bags wandering down the towpath.

I will catch up with the cruise again on Wednesday morning for the now traditional historical walk up the Bradley Locks Branch to the Bradley Works, and hopefully a swift pint in the Gospel Oak on the way back.

Sorry, no photos - I was too busy selling jam!

Monday 13 June 2016

Progress on the Lichfield Canal

Progress on the Lichfield Canal
June 2016

Having been a member of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust for many years its horrifying that I have never actually visited the main base of operations on Tamworth Road where they have been working tirelessly to reinstate the Ogley Sixth Flight including locks 24 - 26 and prepare the ground for the staircase pair in Darnford Park replacing locks 27, 28 and 29 within a new diversion.

Lock 25 

I guess I spend too much time exploring lost canals and the active restorations fall somewhere outside my remit. I have explored the route down from Ogley Junction all the way to Lichfield, but I have never ventured east of Birmingham Road. Of course, I have followed progress with great interest via the internet based monthly update and the quarterly Cut Both Ways magazine - but none of this is good as planting ones size 11's on the ground.

Pound between Locks 25 and 26

Well, today I was passing and I actually needed a photo of the canal so I stopped and spent 15 mins having a look, and very impressed I was too. The chambers of locks 24, 25 and 26 are all restored. The pound between locks 25 and 26 is full of water (and weed) and the long pound below lock 26 is nearly waterproofed in concrete now the "Big Pipe" has finally been removed. This opens the way to some serious slabbing as far as the narrows beyond the new winding hole and then the last of the Big Pipe can be removed, the pound filled and the residue flowing out via an overflow pending the creation of a navigable route under the A51.

 Detail at Lock 25

I guess attention will then revert to the pound between locks 24 and 25 which appears complete save the removal of another section of the Big Pipe.

Downstream from Lock 26 - nearly ready for water

Not content with simple reinstatement, the volunteers have added decorative bridges and by washes, which will ensure the end result has character and retains the feel of a BCN canal. Of course, there is lots of activity elsewhere in the line, particularly overcoming the significant obstacles in its course, but it is so encouraging to see a credible length of canal being brought back into service.

Pound between Locks 24 and 25 waiting for the removal of the Big Pipe

Saturday 11 June 2016

The Captain in deep water

Deep sea fishing
June 2016

As an added bonus our hosts organised a deep sea fishing trip for anyone who wanted to go. Now I have been sea fishing before, off the coast of Wales on a trip which included Tony and Dave, but I have never tried deep sea fishing, so I signed up.

With St Lucia being a volcanic island it isn't far to the deep ocean and maybe 2 miles off Rodney bay we were in 1000 feet of water with scope to catch just about anything. 6 Lines were set with a selection of lures and baits and we moved around following the flying fish which were being driven up by larger predators deeper down.

The gyrations of the boat made for some extreme pitching and rolling which delivered a nausea inducing punch for some, particularly as we circled for three hours or so, never getting into any sort of rhythm. However, please note all the level horizon lines - Photoshop is a wonderful tool!

Captain Ahab's Great White Whale

Whilst the bites didn't come fast, they were steady and in the end we landed 8 fish ranging from 4 lbs to 14lbs giving us all an opportunity to take to "the chair". I am struggling to remember all the species but I know there were two sorts of Tuna and Dorado.

As with any fishing, there is quite a lot of sitting around but my role of official photographer kept me busy.

 Team Bateman

Another day draws to a close

Thursday 9 June 2016

Life on the ocean wave

All at sea
June 2016

The last time we sailed down the coast of St Lucia it was aboard Endless Summer, a passenger carrying sailing boat based in Rodney Bay capable of carrying 60.

The Captain all at sea

This time it was aboard a similarly sized boat but it had been chartered exclusively for our party, so it was just the ten of us plus a crew of three. There was a well stocked bar and the captain had a good compilation of Reggie on his laptop, so the trip was bound to go with a swing.

Dancing the macarena

Ideally we would have liked to do the trip exclusively under sail but there was a timetable to keep so it was a motor sail trip south, with the trade winds helping us on our way and motoring back.

St Lucia coastline

With such a very small party the service offered was personal, including dancing lessons on the front deck and much "ass in the air" being acted out.


Whilst you wont know many of the people in this photo stream, they do convey the light hearted nature of our time afloat.

 Windjammer Landing - our last hotel on the island

Birthday girl with the inflatable zimmer

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Sailing to Soufriere

Sailing to Soufriere
May 2016

My one regret from our 2014 visit to St Lucia was my failure to explore Soufriere, an omission I determined to put right this time around.

The Pitons from Soufriere

Today was THE day - the actual day of Marian's "Hrrumph" birthday and to celebrate it a catamaran was chartered from Rodney Bay which would carry our party south along the coast of St Lucia to the formidable Pitons, the twin volcanic plugs which rise sheer from the sea at Soufriere and represent the iconic image in any tourist brochure for the island.

Yes, this is lived in!

.....but these two arn't

Soufriere was founded by the French when they colonised the island and was for a time its capital, but was taken by the British in 1803 who made Castries the new main town. Soufriere has had a troubled past, enduring repeated hurricanes, earthquakes and fires but through all this it has managed to retain a certain Frenchness in its vernacular architecture. And it was the houses I came to see.

This one was for sale 

Strangely, the town does not seem to get many visitors - although several hundred come on on a daily basis via a fleet of tourist boats. However, they land on a guarded jetty, jump straight into a mini bus and are whisked  away to see the local waterfalls, botanical gardens, the drive through volcano and possibly one of the working plantations. The one thing they don't do is to pause in the town itself, and that's a bit of a shame.

One of the colourful main streets

With the rest of the part off on the official tour and Helen having a snooze on the boat I grabbed my camera and set off to see that I could find in the old section which carries echoes of a tumbledown New Orleans. This the the section to the south of the harbour.

The buildings are mostly humble wooden structures, clad in corrugated iron but its like they have a DNA in their design and probably the most charming are the ones in various states of dilapidation. Live run down boats, it can be very difficult to identify which ones are lived in and which have been abandoned. You find yourself examining a complete wreck and suddenly realise that someone is hanging out of the upstairs window. In the UK all these gaps in the walls would be a big problem but in Soufriere you have to remember that the temperature rarely drops below 30C so the holes are a positive advantage!

In some ways the images don't do justice to the place. I visited at the hottest part of the day on a Sunday so its residents were all chilling out in the shade trying to escape the relentless heat and humidity and the vibe was laid back in the extreme. But it was by no means quiet - the whole area throbbed to a Reggie beat which the rhythms competing for attention through the flimsy walls. You have got to love Reggie and be hyper tolerant  neighbours to survive here. And then there is the sanitation - basically the municipal signs say it all when residents are instructed not to put solids into the open roadside drains, everything else seems to be fair game but with such a high rainfall anything foul soon finds its way down to the sea.

Electioneering St Lucia style

The island elections are next week and everywhere people are having animated discussions all denoted by the colour of their flags. This discussion was very lively at times but I never felt threatened - but It was clearly abnormal to see a tourist wandering the streets alone.

Fishermen repairing their nets in the shade

The ramshackle area around the harbour is a hidden gem and well worth a visit.