Sunday 23 April 2017

Stationary in Stourport

Stationary in Stourport
April 2017

As you will have gathered - we are going nowhere fast.

One bonus of our predicament is that we have had an enforced stop in Stourport, and I have to say there are many worse places to be. I spent Saturday morning preparing the product list boards whilst Helen paid the local launderette a visit. As a result word got around that we were moored up and we had a steady trickle of boaters popping by to pick up a bag of preserves.

I also took the enforced stop as an opportunity to make a start on a host of outstanding repair jobs, including touching up the paint around the port side windows where, after nine years, the green paint was flaking off the silicone and revealing the old maroon paint underneath. Fortunately the base layer is intact and there is no rust.

Meanwhile Helen was having a cookathon inside and giving the fridge and freezer a baptism of fire.

For Sunday we decided to seek out a local church and decided on All Saints, Wilden, about two miles away which involved a walk back along the towpath to The Bird in the Hand pub and then off across the Stour valley. All in all it was about 30 minutes at a brisk pace.

Fortitude and Triumph

Wilden parish church was selected on account of its collection of Burne Jones stained glass windows. Burne Jones was a core part of the Arts and Crafts movement alongside William Morris, whose company supplied the designs based on Burne Jones cartoons.


The seemingly bland church is transformed from the inside and is well worth a visit. Our visit was on low Sunday (the week after Easter) and to our surprise we found the place packed on account of a big christening party. The big congregation made for a celebratory service which was very pleasant.

One further claim to distinction is that Stanley Baldwin, three times prime minister, came form this little church!

During the afternoon we had a surprise visit by our daughter, son in law and grand daughter who came to inspect the boat and take a stroll around Stourport. The funfair was a bit big and loud for such a small person but the ice cream at The Windlass Café went down a treat.

The  family come to town

Boy racers aside, it has been a lovely lazy weekend here at the head of navigation on the River Severn. Hopefully tomorrow will see the return of the engineer and the installation of a new PRM gearbox and we will be on our way. Hurray - Droitwich here we come.

Saturday 22 April 2017

The right gear

Stourbridge to Stourport
April 2017

I have said all along that as we travel more we will actually travel less on a daily basis. Little did I envisage pulling three 12 hour days on the first three days of our journey to Droitwich - after all, we have loads of time and were expecting to squander a few days just " messing about on the river".

Ornamental side pound at Stourton

But fate decided to throw a spanner in the proverbial works. As I greased the stern gland at Primrose Hill I noticed oil in the bilge and a spray of oil radiating from the Centraflex Coupling. As the coupling isn't lubricated it meant the oil was coming from further up the transmission system and the gearbox was the obvious culprit.

I topped the box up but a peep into the engine room at Kinver revealed yet more oil in the bilge and it became clear the something was seriously amiss. We pressed on to Kidderminster where Dan was leaving to get back to Birmingham and Helen was to restock at Sainsburys. It seemed a logical place to seek help so RCR was called. The engineer from Stourport arrived about an hour later and after some probing concluded that the gearbox was kaput. The box had been getting sloppy and clunky in recent years and having given 6000 hours of reliable service so a replacement was duly ordered for fitting on Monday.

Bluebells at Awbridge

The snag was our location - Kidderminster at a weekend. The engineer was not happy and we decided to add some more oil and we would press on to Stourport which was deemed to be "more boater friendly". I had a further very helpful call so say that there were three moorings free on the lock side of the bridge so on we travelled, into the gathering gloom.
Stourport Moorings and very convenient for the town centre, Limekiln Chandlery, elsan and waste so its not a bad place to be held up.

Saturday was spent fettling the boats and making food for the freezer - giving the solar panels a workout as the end results were cooled. We even sold some jam to passing boaters!

I even indulged in a spot of magnet fishing but alas I found nothing of interest near our mooring - but I did rescue a floating straw hat!

So here we sit for a few days, enjoying the warm weather and waiting for mobility to be restored. Tomorrow we explore a local church sporting a clutch of Burne - Jones stained glass windows and later we will be visited by our daughter, her husband and our ever delightful grand daughter Alice.

An escape from the BCN

A bid for freedom
April 2017

The title would suggest that the BCN is some sort of prison, and that's far from the truth. However, its been 18 long months since we have managed to venture beyond the 100 miles of the BCN canal system.

Longwood Top Lock

They say every journey starts with a first step and for us this was the descent of Rushall Top Lock (or the Moshies), a lock which ranks in the bottom ten in terms of usage! Progress was not rapid because no sooner were we into the "Mile Pound" than we discovered it was four bricks down. Then worse was to follow when we arrived at a completely empty pound below lock three. Needless to say the Mile Pound was down another half brick by the time we had flushed water through.

The Rushall Canal after Moses

The Tame Valley was clear of obstructions thanks to the efforts of the winter clean up squad but it was a return to filth as usual on the Walsall. We were travelling at Easter so I guess its no surprise that we encountered the yoof in Great Bridge, with about 20 of them milling around Ryders Green Bottom Lock. In spite of the motorbikes roaring up and down the towpath they were no trouble, beyond some rather aggressive questioning about the possible value of our boats. I was really grateful to have Dan's considerable presence on the towpath.

The area around the supermarket is atrocious, with shopping trolly reefs emerging from the surface all around. We probed our way into these obstructions and managed to find a passage with metal scraping both sides of the hull.

Our planned destination was the Tividale side of the Netherton Tunnel but as we made good progress we pressed on heading for Windmill End where we found four other boats and moored for a peaceful night overlooking the site of the Black Country Boating Festival.

The abandoned Two Lock Line - Dudley No2 Canal

Day two dawned clear and bright so we were off by 8.00am and took advantage of the services at Blowers Green. As it turned out there was quite a mele of boats coming and going from both directions, and one which pulled in behind us had the unique privilege of being our first customer of the journey. I loved the patriotic brolley hats!

First customers of the trip at Blowers Green

Just as we came into Merry Hill I was informed that a water pipe was leaking inder the sink - great! It was a dodgey joint which was quickly fixed with no damage incurred.

Red House Cone - Stourbridge

The Delph came and went, as did the Stourbridge 16 and we moored for the night at the site of the breach at Primrose Hill, just short of Stourton Junction.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

A sudden chill in the air

A sudden chill in the air
April 2017

Last minute setback are not what one wants at this stage in the game.

Life sometimes feels a bit like a game of snakes and ladders. One moment you are sipping up when good fortune shows you its smiling face and then, as sure as eggs is eggs, a nasty snake comes along and down you go!

In the lead in to our departure we have encountered a couple of snakes:

1. I was investigating a strange mechanical noise when in forward gear and discovered that one of the studs in the flexible coupling had worked itself loose and was trying to cut its way into the back of our gearbox. I had noticed that the stud protruded a bit more than the rest ever since it was fitted 18 months ago, but assumed that the engineers knew what they were doing and left well alone. Big mistake - doubt everything.... 
The good news it that I caught it immediately and before the thread on the stud or the alloy casting was mashed, so I was able to wind it back in and get a good grip with all four nuts.
I guess that's a snake and a ladder really.

2. Our final task was to load the food aboard and part of this process was to fill the fridge. In went the food and I turned it on. But nothing happened, no rumble from the compressor, no gurgle of fluids. This isnt good. I checked that we had power and I wiggled all the connections but like Monty Python's parrot - it was dead, it was no more, its was an ex fridge.
It was 4.30 but a quick call to Midland Chandlers confirmed a 5.30 closing time so off we went. We walked in at 5.01 and walked out at 5.04 with a new Shoreline fridge and £560 less in the account.  Now to my way of thinking that was a snake. Not a humongous one but quite significant. But thats not how Mrs T saw things. She has been chuntering about a new fridge for over three years and with a separate freezer installed we were able to get a unit without an ice box and therefore more room for fridgey stuff.

Well thats it I think - all is set and we set off down the Ganzies tomorrow morning making for an overnight stop at Tividale. 

Hopefully thats all the snakes we will see for a while.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Weighing heavy

Loading up The Jam Butty
April 2017

Well, after a delay of exactly one year we are nearly ready for the off.

In some ways 2016 seems like the year that never happened but Helen is now well on the road to a full recovery and our delayed plans are swinging into action.

As prelude to our departure there was the small matter of my job but finally, after 38 years, I have parted company with my illustrious employer. Yes, I have joined the ranks of the pension receivers (I am far too young and vain to be described as retired) So, this now frees us up to go travelling.

During the winter months I have, under the critical eye of Mrs "quality control" been busy emptying the freezers and transforming their contents into a range of mouth watering preserves. To be honest I did add up how much we had in stock about six weeks ago, but since then Sticky Toffee Pudding jam and a huge batch of Wild Garlic Vinegar have rolled of the Wild Side production line and I sort of lost count at 2,000 jars.

Now all that stock is heavy, really heavy. I have loaded the Zafira to the gills three times with finished product and again with new glassware and it all had to be loaded into the butty. No problem I hear you say, butties are made to carry loads - its the whole purpose of their existence. Well, yes - and no. The Jam Butty is not exactly a normal butty as it is essentially all front and back with only about six feet of straight plate in the middle. As a result the buoyancy of the stern is limited and made worse by the presence of a heavy steel cabin. 

Before we started the ambient trim of the butty was about 14" at the bow and about 2' 10" at the stern with a propensity to list to the left (port for you salty types) and getting the trim right when loading has always been a challenge. If it was a challenge when carrying stock for 3 or 4 days trading imagine the issues when loading enough stock for 14 or 15 days - enough to last us right through to the Black Boating Festival in September. 

I tend to use the back cabin for storage, locating boxes of preserves under and on the benches, but for this voyage I have added a large watertight hold box capable of carrying an additional 700 jars. This box (it looks a bit like Hagrid's coffin) can me moved from side to side to balance out any listing. This aspect of the plan worked pretty well and by moving the heavy gazebo from side to side managed to achieve a very level boat, and with all that weight below the waterline its also very stable for such a short craft. 

However, and isnt there always a however, I did have a problem with the pitch. As I mentioned the boat sits naturally bows high which allows the bulk of the prop wash to pass under the butty and the deep stern acts like a drogue keeping it straight. The additional weight at the back of the cabin caused it to sink even deeper to the point that when I stood on the back water started to come into the well deck through the drain holes rather than the other way around! Whilst there is no danger of the boat sinking, this isn't good.....

To counter this tendency I had to reconfigure the loading to bring the weight forward wherever possible, thereby taking greater advantage of the additional buoyancy in the hold section. With much re ordering I have managed to get the whole thing balanced and its now sitting about an inch and a half down to the left and two inched to the right, evenly spread along the whole length of the boat. But thats it - as Jim McCoy said in Star Trek - "she canna take no more, Capn". 

Note for future - pack a bit less jam!

Saturday 8 April 2017

CRT National Council jottings

CRT National Council meeting
22nd March 2017 - Bath

Following my recent notes on the National Users Forum here are the notebook jottings from the National Council meeting in March:

Richard Parry's update

The Trusts income rose to £203m last year, breaking the £200m barrier for the first time - up from a £190m plan. This was mainly attributable to the income obtained for repairs to the Rochdale Canal.

Costs were also £203m and the books balanced exactly.

The capital assets of the Trust increased by £23m - mainly from the commercial property portfolio. Since 2012 £100m of property has been sold and £41m bought - mainly in Manchester (£14m) and Bristol (£15m)

Significant areas of expense outside routine maintenance were £1.5m for and extra mile and a half on the Montgomery, £300k of historic boat restoration and £2.5m on the Monmouth and Brecon.

Infrastructure condition has trended towards improvement whilst staff injuries have increased.

Serious incidents have occurred including a death at Trevor (individual outside railings) and the release of sediment on the Monmouth and Brecon.

DEFRA performance targets are all being met.

Licensing - Phase three ready in Autumn.
London Moorings - engagement phase has ended.
Winter Moorings - demand up 40%
1250 boats in enforcement process - down 25%
600 CC'ers subject to active monitoring - down 15% (2/3 on K&A / London)
116 Cases with solicitors - 37 resolved before court  action, 32 Court Order Outstanding, 38 and ongoing. Still no landmark test case to provide clarity.

The DB Pension Scheme is now closed with a defecit which is currently covered by a portion of the Property estate. There is a small net defecit which is being monitored / addressed.

Other issues and updates were offered - most of which have been  covered in the User Forum notes.

Thursday 6 April 2017

CRT National User's Forum - Jottings

CRT National Users' Forum
The Captain's Jottings
5th April - The Bond, Birmingham

OK, a break with convention.

Till now I have tended to keep business and pleasure separate, which meant not using the Capt Ahab Blog to document my observations from the various CRT meetings I attend ,either as an elected Council Representative or in the various sub groups which seem to follow on its coat tails.

The problem is that its really difficult to reach all the Boating Businesses I have been elected to represent, so rather that restrict my feedback to the Roving Canal Traders via Facebook, I have decided to post them on my main Blog. That way anyone interested can read them, follow them or forward them on.

Before I provide my observations from yesterday's meeting you may find it helpful to know what CRT forums I find myself on. 

1. The main National Council which comprises a mix of elected and co-opted representatives of the main users of the canal network. This group meets twice a year, once tacked on to the end of the AGM (usually Birmingham in September) and then again in March at different places around the  country. 2016 was Liverpool and 2017 was Bath.

2. The Elected Boater representative forum which meets three times a year and serves as a sounding board to CRT on all their plans which impact us boaters. As you can imagine, there is currently a lot of focus on the Licensing Consultation, The Stoppages process and the underlying asset management issues and also the thorny problem of London Moorings.

3. Finally there is the National Users Forum, takes place (I think) every six months or so, usually at The Bond next to the Grand Union in Digbeth, Birmingham. This has some overlap with the Boaters Forum in terms of input but includes a broad range of users and interested parties from the Horse Society, through the Ramblers Accociation, the RYA, Waterways Press, Marine Federation, The National Bargees and Travellers Association to the Steam Boat Association. A very broad spectrum of about 30 interest groups plus elected Council members and CRT staff.

So, against that background I found myself at my third National Users' Forum. There are official minutes but here are the things which caught my attention, and made it into my note book:

Asset Management

2016 retrospective
910 planned jobs and 260 unplanned ones - which include 160 new lock gates
Contracted works cost £26m and involved 144 projects
£11m was spent on vegetation management including 68 miles of offside trimming
There are 500,000 trees on the CRT estate (someone must have counted them and there are more than the holes in Blackburn, Lancashire - you need to know your Beatles)
200 trees came down in storm Doris.

Looking  forward: 
The CRT defects log extends to 60,000 tasks, but many are grouting / pointing which are low priority, unless the Pi**er is landing on your head.....
CRT own 74 reservoirs and some of these need urgent work. Has anyone listed them so we can "bag them" like Munro's in Scotland. A big spend will be on upper Bittel.
£4.3m on Reservoirs
£8.2m on Dredging
£3.3m on Bridges
£4.0m on Embankments and Culverts.

Lock gate replacement will accelerate from 160 in 2016 to 180 in 2017 with 42 in the West Mids, where some will be undertaken in the summer where alternate routes exist. This spreads the time available for repairs and increases the amount which can be achieved each year.

There are 1000 automated assets which require 6,000 visits pa. There are 10,500 miles of towpath cutting needed and they expect to attend to 2,000 windblown tree incidents.

These numbers are a bit boggling but they do offer an insight into the complexity of managing our antiquated network.

The Licensing review is progressing with the initial round of telephone interviews by an outside party complete. There is no agenda in terms of a preferred go to position for CRT - they are waiting for the findings to come in from the calls, after which they will convene focus groups as phase 2 and then present a plan as phase 3 in the summer - ready for implementation for the 2018 season.
CRT are very clear that the mandate for this project is simply to create a fairer system and the revenue generated is to be neutral.

The Enforcement team is now the License Support to reflect their aim of helping people stay on the water - not driving them off. This is a sensitive area and is consuming a lot of time.

Business Boating generates £6 to £7m of revenue and the license renewal process is being automated like the private boat process, which has to be good news  for those of us who are mostly away from our base for long periods.
Licence renewals and Lease Reviews have been a focus of attention and resulted in an additional £500k of income pa so far.

The results of the London Boaters Survey were shared and the following highlights emerged:

58% were primary homes
69%  were lived on 
50% chose to live afloat due to affordability
33% reported mechanical issues (echoes the RCR's observations on breakdown cover in London)
45% would like to have a permanent mooring.
Top of the concerms list was security.

The pre bookable visitor moorings in Rembrant Gardens are now effectively full till the Autumn. This process has proved popular and successful and there are plans to expand it next year.

Boats in Bloom is about to be launched with all sorts of categories and ways it can be accessed. This struck me as a nice feel good initiative which will bring some extra colour and cheer to the system, as well as some positive PR. Before you raise your hands in horror there is very little cost to this exercise! This is all about recognition for effort rather than winners and losers.

On a similar "green" theme, we were introduced to the Green Flag programme which has been awarded to two canals in the north - Macclesfiled was one but I cant remember the other. This was a great way to engage with volunteers and gain support from local councils hungry for green good news stories. There is a plan to roll this out more  widely and ultimately have 10% of the network covered. Interestingly, I cant see the BCN in any of these plans - apparently shopping trollies and car tyres do not offer points!

Brand and Fundraising
The Friends programme is growing but there is a long way to go to reach the 200,000 Friends by 2024. Chuggers have thankfully been abandoned (50% drop out in a year) and replaced by Direct Towpath Rangers who engage on a  1:1 basis. This form of recruitment has a drop out rate of only 15%.
Discussions took place to glean observations and opinion about how the Friends programme can be developed.

The towpath sharing agenda remains topical and research suggests that 50% of those surveyed think that the answer lies in signage and education. The rest cover a massive range of ideas from speed humps to the Spanish Inquisition.

The towpath campaign has evolved from "share the space" in 2015 to "manners" in 2016 (remember the antique bikes?) and moves to "kill your speed this year".

I think that's about it.

My apologies for what I have missed or misrepresented.