Tuesday 30 May 2017

And so to Oxford

Thrupp to Oxford
30 May 2017

In the end we stayed in Thrupp for five nights, and four very productive days.

Elderflower coming into bloom

Thrupp is a sleepy little place consisting of a small hamlet, two pubs and a vibrant cruising club who work very hard to maintain the canal environment as a clean pleasant place. The only interruption to this idyll is the railway track which carries a seemingly endless procession of freightliner trains dragging of scores of container waggons. That said, the occasional groan and rumble never seems intrusive in the way a busy road does.

Shipton on Cherwell Chruch

We figured we would undertake a spot of passive towpath trading from the seven day moorings and use the time to do the first real making session of the trip. We were given the use of a vehicle whilst in Thrupp, so on Friday we set off to reccie the Kidlington market. It turned out that it included a huge fruit and veg stall and, as it was late in the afternoon, there were bargains to be had. Whilst we hadn't planned to buy, the opportunity was there so we bought strawberries, raspberries and cooking apples - which then needed processing before they went off.

Elderflower harvest

Hmm, we nearly bit off more than we could chew and, of course, decided to do this on the hottest day of the year so far! Anyway, Elderflower cordial was started and five batches of Strawberry & Raspberry Jam with Raspeberry Gin were prepared and simmered down that day. Saturday was then a day of feverish activity as the five batches were converted to 50 jars of preserve and the cordial made into 50 bottles. But we had miscounted our raspberries so it was back to the market for more strawberries!

Muleless (Della and Gary) riding to the rescue

We did have a bit of a glitch with pasturisng the cordials as the 2kw generator wasnt up to the task, but thankfully Gary and Della from Muleless cane to the rescue and let us tap into their extensive battery bank. This not only got the job done but probably saved us from a lynching from the Thrupp residents association!

That said, the good people of Thurpp did take us to their hearts and during this making marathon, with jammy smalls wafting down the towpath, we did a brisk trade and probably sold as much as we made!

 Improvised printing shop

With the weather on the change we decided to move on to Oxford, stopping after Kidlington Lock to set up the Genny to run the printer and prepare the labels for all the new preserves. No sooner had we set up, with Helen casting her spell over the technology, than the rain started and the sign board was pressed into service as a make shift tent. 

Maffi going the second mile

The rain kept stepping up a gear and by the time we met Maffi at the lift bridge above Dukes Lock it was more than persistent. Then it just got worse and worse till it was coming down in theatrical style and we were both soaked through. We squelched on till we reached The Plough where Maffi and Bones were moored and gave up, driving pins into very soggy ground - and retiring to the pub as soon as the lagoon in front of it has subsided.

Saturday 27 May 2017

A change of plans

A change of plans
Thrupp May 2017

Having made it to the southern end on the Oxford Canal we sat down and had a look at the maps to plan out our route for the next month till we get to the Ware festival on 1st and 2nd July.

The dreamy South Oxford Canal

Our plan had been to travel the Kennet and Avon, maybe taking in the Wey on the way (no pun intended) but whilst the itinerary was achievable, it was demanding and left little time to dawdle, visit Birmingham or indeed make preserves. We have therefore decided that the K&A can wait another year and instead we will take a month ticket for the Thames and spend more time on what is our favourite river. This way we will have plenty of time to explore the River Wey and maybe even the Basingstoke Canal.

Somerton Deep

For the time being we have decided to take advantage of a 7 day mooring in Thrupp and get in some towpath trading over the bank holiday weekend. Thrupp is, of course, a lovely little village and is endowed with good boaters facilities and a couple of decent pubs. However, it does lack a boatyard for diesel, but as luck would have it Dusty came past on his fuel boat and allowed us to refill the tank which will cover us till we are on the Grand Union in July. 

Dusty refuelling Muleless

But perhaps the best thing about the place is the boaters community and the slower pace lets us spend some quality time with Bones, Maffi plus Della and Gary from Muleless who are moored just in front of if. In fact, the weekend is almost a replay of our last visit to Thrupp three years ago when the sun shone and towpath BBQ's took place, but this time minus Doug and James who are up in Manchester.

The Thrupp gang on the towpath (photo from Della)

The plan is to be in the Thrupp / Oxford / Abingdon area for the next couple of weeks and move down the Thames when Helen has attended a hospital appointment back in Brum, just before the election.

Friday 26 May 2017

Of all the Gin joints....

May 2017

Helen has had a long held desire to visit The Feathers Gin Bar in Woodstock, famed for its record breaking selection of over 400 Gins gleaned from around the world.

Decisions decisions at The Feathers, Woodstock

Whats more Bones, one of our friends from Thrupp, also shares her interest in quality gins so a plan was hatched to pay the said hostelry (if a 4 star hotel at the gates of Blenheim Palace can be called a mere hostelry) on Wednesday evening. Close inspection of the map revealed that Thrupp is the closest point on the Oxford Canal to Woodstock, a mere three miles distant. Close, but not really close enough to walk, especially after a few gins! Happily Alex came to the rescue and offered us a taxi service there and back.

The Feathers, Woodstock

The girls made an effort on the clothes front as befits a temple to the mighty Juniper Berry, but given a sudden heatwave I simply donned a fresh polo shirt and hoped they didn't look too closely as the well worn shorts...

Woodstock - the English version

The trouble with such an extensive selection is where to start. I mean, at best we will have a couple of drinks each which will mean we cover a mere six of the beverages on offer which represents a paltry 3.5% of the range on offer. We made a tentative request for the Gin list but the bartender helpfully suggested that better results would be obtained based on his recommendation. I suspect he doubted our provenance at the outset but when we started to discard some of the more unusual gins like Blackwoods 2012 vintage and Tarquins as we were familiar with them, and then started discussing the merits of Fever Tree versus 1724 Tonic Water I think he realised we did know what we were talking about and made some really good suggestions.

Somerton Deep Lock

For my part I started with a Cotswold gin and moved on to Blackwoods 60%. Helen selected Porthe Cary then a Malawi (from Malawi!) and Bones imbibed Tarquins Sea Dog and Doctor J's (which if I remember correctly was distilled in someone's bedroom!) All were top of the line gins and again I marveled how different they can taste. As for the cost? best not ask really..... but cheaper than a meal for six (just).

Bottoms up gin lovers and here is to World Gin Day on the 10th June.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Onwards to Aynho

Onwards to Aynho
May 2017

You  will be wondering what happened to us..... Well, we have been making rapid southerly progress and I have had had little time to record events.  

 Butty polishing

Lapworth and Hatton all happened in a bit of a blur, with our passage assisted by Dan, who broke the back of the locking as far as Warwick where he departed and returned to Birmingham by train. 

Napton Sunset

With friends due to meet us on Saturday morning at the Blue Lias in Long Itchington we pressed on through Leamington Spa, doing our best to avoid the periodic downpours. We shared locks with a lovely couple from Droitwich who, after three years afloat, were taking their boat on a final cruise to Rugby where it had been sold. As the clock passed 6.00pm our enthusiasm ebbed and we moored just above the staircase pair.

We picked up Fi and Andy at the Blue Lias and gave them a crash course in lock operation as we entered the Stockton Brook flight. They were quick learners and were wielding windlasses like pro's by the time we reached Club Toplockicana! (you will know what I mean if you have been there). 

As an added bonus we stopped for tea with James and Amy "Willow" just below the Calcutt locks as they honeymooned their was to a new life at Bollington. Its ages singe we last met so this was a really special time.

Then it was on to Napton where full visitor moorings drove us up beyond lock four. The Folley was rammed on account of Mike's extensive birthday celebrations. Luckily we had booked a table and enjoyed a good meal in great company. Following our sales at Hawne there was enough room for the butty to be converted into sleeping accommodation. Dan had used it during his stay and with Fi and Andy occupying the motor we made use of its snug environs to have a passable nights sleep.

Fi and Andy stayed with us as we crossed the Wormleighton summit and amazingly enough, no other boat caught us or wanted to pass. After a lovely summers day they left us at The Wharf Inn in Fenny Compton and we made full use of the pub's launderette. Thats another weeks washing completed.

Monday saw us start our long descent to the Thames, making slow progress through the string of boats heading to Cropredy. We elected to press on and reached Banbury after a scorcher of a day, and as a bonus was flagged down for preserves as we entered the town and then sold more before we had even tied up opposite Castle Quays.

Tuesday was a gentle start, but not quite as gentle as we had planned. Helen wanted to do some shopping so we lingered in bed for a while but this reverie was brought to an abrupt end by a knock on the roof and someone asking for three jars of jam. She was duly served barefoot and in pajamas! Helen departed for the shops so I indulged in a spot of gentle polishing, only to lay down my polish time and again as boaters came seeking preserves! Cant complain about the level of ambient sales hereabouts.....

Tuesday was only ever going to be a half day travelling so we set off after lunch and worked our way down to Aynho, following most of the traffic and only one boat caught us up on his way to this home mooring at Aynho after a three week cruise round the Thames Ring.

Friday 19 May 2017

CRT Elected Boaters meeting jottings

CRT Elected Boaters Meeting notes
May 2017

I attended a CRT Elected Boaters Representatives meeting last Wednesday at their new Aqua House offices in Lionel St, Birmingham, almost immediately below the BT Tower.

The following is a very brief summary of the key take away's I noted down:

Welfare activity
Sean Williams offered an insight into his work managing the Welfare side of the Trust. His department mainly offers a signposting service, putting boaters experiencing difficulties in touch with appropriate agencies. The main populations he helps are those with licensing issues, age related issued, mental health issues and money issues.
He explained how the Trust approached Equality adjustments and highlighted their close working relationship with the network of Waterways Chaplains, who they clearly value a lot. 

Their main aim to empower those with problems to continue to boat and they focus on the high risk cases where there is a real risk of a boat / home being taken out of the water.

To put this little known aspect of the Trusts work in context, Sean accepts about 20 direct referrals per month and they handle about 170 vulnerable cases pa.

One of their greatest challenges is to identify those in need of support, apart from the obvious licensing issues.

Vegetation and Dredging management
This is part of asset management and works closely with two NAG's.
A particular focus is offside vegetation management which is suffering from a historic backlog and whilst more money is being spent, it will take some time to get to a satisfactory situation.  The thought is that if contractors can break the back of it the volunteers can help keep on top of things.
Dredging prioritisation was discussed and the Peak Forest used as an example where 90% of the profiles were sub standard but due to low boat numbers it is not a priority waterway. Overall £8m of the Trusts £200m budget is being spent of dredging.
The lengthening of boats was highlighted as an issue as it is causing the deep water channel to meander and shoaling can become an issue.

Weed is now being tackled on a national basis and greater consistency is expected.

Air Quality government consultation
CRT are responding to a government request by 15th June.
Inland craft are not directly impacted in the review, but CRT wish to make sure our interests are represents to avoid and scope creep which would disadvantage boaters.
Whilst there was a lot of discussion about making boat propulsion "greener" there were few answers and we stressed that there would be almost nil interest in engine scrappage scheme, assuming a compliant marine diesel exists.
Discussion then moved to stove emissions and the problems this causes with land based neighbours, particularly in urban areas like Islington cutting. 
There is concern that new Mayors may try to anact local rules and CRT are keen to take action on a pre emptive basis to show we are doing what we can and are acting responsibly.

Stoppage Review

No Update - to be addressed at the next meeting.

License Review
Stage one telephone interviews complete covering a representative from all the major user groups. Results are available on line.
Stage two will examine the themes in more detail. 988 people responded and offered to participate - but only 135 places available over 9 days in various locations. Successful applicants have been notified.
Stage three will be an open invitation to comment following stage 2.
Clarification about the aim of the review was requested and we were advised:

  • There is a perception that the current system is overly complex and not particularly fair.
  • An opportunity exists to take a look at the issue and review it.

The revenue dimension was discussed and broadly the aim seems to be to keep it income neutral. The first stage will to be to agree a fair and logical structure and then to calibrate it to deliver the same (ish) income as at present.

The revised approach is slated to be presented to the Trustees in November and will be run past the Elected Boaters Representatives at an extra meeting in late summer.

London Mooring Strategy
Five focus groups have been held covering a range of stakeholders.
Will revert to the NAG and Elected Members.
The current limited changes to London Moorings have been in train for some years and are not part of this review.
An update will be released for comment in late May / June.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

What a wet one!

Hockley Heath
May 2017

I don't think I have ever seen the Birmingham Level fill so quickly.

For weeks the Birmingham Level has been nearly two bricks down, a reduction which left the tug boats iall sorts of problems and one  crew reported a 22 hour marathon to get from the Black Country Living Museum to Hawne Basin.

I have a soft spot for little buttys, even than they are really push tugs!

What we needed, we all agreed, was a bit of rain to fill the monster pound which extends for over 40 miles. Well today the heavens opened and water was spilling into the canal from every quarter. The forecast was for heavy rain all day and rain it did.

Tuesday saw us holed up in Birmingham doing some shopping, banking and washing before Helen was interviewed and photographed for a magazine article. During the evening she hosted her book group aboard the boat so Dan and I made ourselves scarce and had a delayed birthday meal and trip to see the latest Alien film.

But Dan isnt with us just for a jolly. He is also with us to help us down the locks to Warwick and for that we needed to get to Hockley Heath. The problem was the weather which was forecast to be awful all day - and so it was. Whilst I wouldn't tackle the locks in teeming rain, there is no reason not to travel if wrapped up in the right clothes. So it was waterproofs from the off at 7.30am and I did my best to shelter under my umbrella for the next 10 hours. We made slow but steady progress to Hockley Heath. As we travelled every pipe was gushing storm water and you could almost see the level rising and swamping the grass edges. By the end of the day the water was nearing the overflow weirs so it must have added a good 4 inches.

And so we sit perched and ready to make our descent. I will just have to prise Dan from his sleeping bag in the butty - no mean feat. 

Monday 15 May 2017

Around the Hawne

Around the Hawne
May 2017

Following our weekend in Alvechurch we spent three nights in Birmingham tucked away on a friends mooring at Symphony Court.

 Birmingham's BT Tower

The lay over gave me an opportunity to attend a CRT meeting, catch up on a load of domestic chores, not least visiting home to pick up the post and to undertake a mega wash session.

Trading spot at Hawne Basin

Then it was on to Hawne Basin at the end of the Dudley No2 for the 2017 Coombswood Trust bi annual open day. The trip there last Friday was in terrible weather with rain lashing down all the way to Netherton Tunnel but then, as we emerged at Bumble Hole the sun came out and we were sweltering. 

Boat trips in Hawne

The Dudley No 2 is never exactly fast but the Gosty Hill Tunnel is something else. True its low and narrow now at present its shallow too, particularly at the northern end where the tug used to be kept. There seems to be a scour of silt and we made very slow progress through the tunnel.

Official opening

For the open weekend the motor was moored in the rank of boats end on to the bank with the butty seemingly located in an obscure corner of the basin, a position which at first glance was not very promising. But hey, what do we know!.  It turned out that all the visitors did a lap of the basin and we were the only show in that quadrant, so loads stopped to chat, sample and buy. Whilst the weather was never overly warm, the rain did hold off for both days and we did a very good level of trade, and took the opportunity to fill our tank with diesel at 51p per litre - enough to reach Bath I suspect.

Atlas and Malus on show

The event was opened by Richard Parry and coincided with a celebration of Stewarts and LLoyds which attracted a clutch of BCN, tugs which gathered outside the basin. Notable among the tugs was Bittell, fresh from extensive restoration and resplendent is a new paint job.

A gleaming Bittell

The rain clouds returned for our return to Birmingham, this time accompanied by high winds which made for interesting towing. We left Hawne Basin just before Atlas, Malus and BCNS's workboat Phoenix, but was caught by Phoenix as we plodded through the Netherton Tunnel.  Our progress through tunnels is always a ponderous affair and rather than keep Geoff waiting I suggested they pass us mid way through. This unusual maneuver was completed and then it was suggested that Phoenix latched onto the front of Wand'ring Bark and we double head the towing of The Jam Butty. This speeded progress no end and we soon stretched a lead over the pair following - but whose light was obscured in the pall of diesel and fire smoke pumped out by Phoenix.

Playing tunnel tugs with Phoenix

The idea was to put Phoenix's engine under load for a while and give it a good de-coke, so we stayed in tandem all the way to Brades. Phoenix, Atlas and Malus headed off to Titford and the BCNS rally being staged next weekend and we plodded on through the rain to reach a very damp city centre at about 5.30 pm.

Wild Side duckling rescue service

Monday 8 May 2017

All stop at Alvecurch

Alvechurch weekend
May 2017

I am not used to dawdling along and for the last week we have done little else.

With over a week to get to Birmingham from Droitwich we have been taking things slowly, very slowly. We don't want to be in Birmingham before Tuesday, so our destination for Monday night was Hopwood, the last countryside mooring before Wast Hill Tunnel and the West Midlands conurbation beyond.

With guests on board our schedule is being largely dictated by the availability (or non availability) of sanny stations (Barry dont laugh). There is a distinct absence of this essential facility in the area with the last being at Black Prince in Stoke Prior and the next being in Kings Norton. Luckily, for a small fee, ABC Leisure will let you use their "little room out the back" so we elected to set up camp on the 48 hour mooring opposite. Whilst the mooring may not be the quietest, there is lots to watch in a busy hire base.

I always find myself drawn to boats being craned out or in, with 15 tons dangling below an ancient crane and all depending on the integrity of a single shackle. Of course, these machines are regularly inspected and the operators trained in their use so there were no hitches, but you always wonder "what if ?"

Saturday was cold and windy but not withstanding this we had a steady trickle of customers wanting to buy preserves. Sunday, by contrast, was roasting hot so we sat out the back all afternoon and didn't sell a single  jar - inexplicable! On Sunday morning we decided to visit one of the local churches and initially St Lawrence was the hot favourite, but a closer inspection of their service times swung us in favour of the Baptist Church in Red Lion Street. This traditional Baptist chapel has just been extensively refurbished and the welcome was a good as the ambiance. 

Having used up our allotted 48 hours on the mooring we progressed on to Hopwood, a mere 2.5 miles distant stopping for water at the Lower Bittell Reservoir. The pressure is good but the associated mooring is horribly silted, which explains its lack of use. CRT have just spent a lot of money on the reservoir and its surrounds, dredging and piling the feeder from the canal to the upper reservoir. They have also spent a lot of money on electrically operated hydraulic stop gates in the bridge holes at either end which are needed should the embankment with canal on top breach. The lower reservoir is way down at present to accommodate the trout fishing club who wanted to net the fish, and are now chuntering about the time it is taking to refill.

The old lengthsman's house at the end of the reservoir is still empty and awaits CRT attention to make it let-able. It is quite an attractive three bedroom house but is probably unsaleable given its lack of foundations and its precarious closeness to water on all sides. Still, its a shame to see it empty. It appears that it suffers from damp and the remedy is to apply a waterproof membrane, insulation and rendering.

And so we arrive at Hopwood with a plan to visit the Hopwood House Inn for a meal this evening. And as for trade in this remote location - I had a queue within 15 minutes of our arrival!

Sunday 7 May 2017


May 2017

Having had the new gearbox installed we set off up the Droitwich Narrow Canal, mooring near Hanbury Junction for Wedneday night. Then it was an easy day to the Queens Head where we sampled some rather fine G&T's. The mooring opposite the Queens Head is ok, but as Thursday included live music it was a bit noisy till 11.00pm.

The last boat at the Droitwich Party!

Friday was the big push up the thick of the Tardebigge flight, something we were a bit nervous about given Helen's limited strength and the high easterly wind which made towing very tricky. In the end we swapped back and forth, with me winding the paddles and then steering the more tricky pounds where the cross wind was likely to blow the boats onto the shallow offside.

Starting Tardebigge

The first 10 locks were awash with water and it appears that a boat we passed was leaving the paddles open. From then on the pounds were over two feet down which gave us trouble getting the butty over the cills of some locks. This shortage of water continued till we reached the water take off to the reservoir.

Radio Tardebigge gets ever bigger

We stopped just before the top lock, selling some jam to fellow boaters who came over to see the butty.

Saturday was an easy day, using the Tardebigge facilities before pressing on to Alvechurch. Oddly, by passage through Tardebigge Tunnel was simple but then it all fell apart in Shortwood Tunnel. Firstly Helen decided to light a fire just before we entered and then about a third of the way through the butty decided to have a mind of its own and swung from side to side. Nothing I did could bring it to heel and, of course, that was the time we had to encounter another boat! In the and I found myself glued to the left hand wall and the oncoming boat went past on the "wrong" side.

Hmm - a bit of smoke! sorry......

Then, as if by magic, the butty centred up and out we came, shrouded on a huge pall of smoke. My apologies to the boat we passed, who took it all in good part - all in all I made a right mess of it!

So we ended up opposite ABC Leisure's base in Alvechurch where we will spend the weekend. The preserve menu board was put up and as a result we had a steady trickle of customers buying a sample of our wares.

Saturday 6 May 2017

Lowdown on the gearbox

Lowdown on the gearbox
May 2017

Thanks to all of you who expressed such concern about our gearbox.

I am glad to say that our problems have now been resolved with a broken 120 PRM removed and replaced with a shiny silver 125, fresh from Beta.

The plastic bits shouldn't stick out.....

To be honest my biggest fear was that having removed and replaced the gearbox the problem would be diagnosed as a twopenny ha'penny washer, or something like it. As it turned out the contractors had real trouble getting the old one out. Firstly they tried to withdraw the propshaft only to see the driveshaft pulling out of the gearbox, which was unexpected as it is supposed to be held on by a locked nut. This problem resulted in a 24 hour delay whilst a puller was obtained.

On day two we had two engineers turn up at 8.30am and this time progress stalled when they attempted to remove the old drive plate from the flywheel. It appears that when it was first assembled the allen studs were imperial and, of course, the only keys they had were metric!

This is how a drive plate shouldn't look!

With this problem resolved the old driveplate was extracted and whaa sorry state it was in.
For those of you unfamiliar with the inner workings of the bell housing the driveshaft from the engine leads into a flywheel which is then attached to a driveplate which is two steel plates riveted to each other via a PVC buffer made by R&D. The old one had almost completely collapsed and was held together with just one rivet! Bits of the plastic buffer were splayed out all over the place and its a miracle it had held together at all.

Then the driveshaft passes into a gearbox which is a simple forward / backward / neutral mechanical affair bathed in automatic transmission fluid. This then attached to the propshaft which includes a Centaflex coupling which absorbs more of the shocks before it goues out to the propeller via the stern gland, which is lubricated by grease and packed with tarry rope.

With no retaining nut on inside the gearbox I am surprised the propeller hadn't pulled the shaft out when in reverse! From the hacksaw marks and silicon on the retaining nut there appears to have been a bodged repair in the boat's first three years of life, before we bought it 10 years ago.

All in all the system was completely shot, so whilst its a pain to have to spend over £1000 on a new gearbox, its a relief to get is all solidly fixed up. Whats more it is a bit weird to put it into forward gear and find is slipping in so smoothly. For years it has engaged with a clunk as all the slack was taken up.

Anyway, problem fixed and on we go. 

Tuesday 2 May 2017

Geared up for trouble

The Saga of the broken gearbox
May 2017

I left you moored in Stourport Basin eagerly awaiting a new gearbox, the old one having spewed its contents into the bilge as we made our way out of the Black Country.

Droitwich Canal Festival 2017

Well, things have move one, but only a bit and truth be told its all been a bit of a saga.

Our expectations were that we would have a new PRM120 within a few days and we would be on our way, but sadly this proved not to be the case. There were no spares on the shelf so a new one had to be ordered from Beta before the job could be scheduled. Days dragged by with no firm news till eventually at noon on Wednesday it became apparent that there would be no repair till after the Droitwich weekend.

Trading at Droitwich

So a decision had to be made, to set off down the Severn with a very dodgey gearbox of to resign ourselves to another week in Stourport. The options were considered and as the oil was only dribbling out of the gearbox I figured I could keep topping it up and hopefully we could make it to the festival site. If all else failed we could stop on the river and wait for a tow from one of the other boats making for the event.

It was a nervous 2.5 hours but we made it to the Droitwich Barge Canal without incident and refilled the box and saw an alarmingly large pool of oil under the engine. We carried on up the canal and reached Vines Park with no oil showing on the dipstick!

Festival goers enjoying some sun

And so we managed to trade at the 2017 St Richards Festival under a grey and leaden sky. Not ideal weather but our loyal customers came out in force and we ended up with a very satisfactory event from a sales perspective. Of course, there is more to events than sales and it was great to spend time with other traders and the festival organisers.

As for the gearbox - it has arrived. Sadly an essential tool was missing so the engineers will return tomorrow and hopefully we will be off by the afternoon.

Colours from Morgana