Wednesday 19 July 2017

Pressing on with a few hiccups along the way

Kings Langley to Fenny Stratford
July 2017

Just a brief catch up post.

We have spent a challenging three days working our way northwards along the Grand Union Canal to attend the Cosgrove Festival this weekend. This was always going to be a stretch as we have just six days to get from Little Venice to Cosgrove, which is just north of Milton Keynes.

The Grand Union is a long hard slog up to the Tring Summit which sits nearly 400 ft above sea level. Most of the locks were set against us and after a good start progress slowed. Yesterday we managed just 8 mile of progress on account of the 23 locks which stood in our way. I have to admit that I have a new found admiration for the old boaters who did the London to Birmingham run week in, week out. That long hard slog up the hill to Tring, and then most of the way back down again before attacking the next summit before Braunston. This wasn't a route for wimps.

And its not just the locks which have been against us.

Last night the long hot spell of weather ended with a spectacular thunderstorm which rolled on for hours. Buoyed by the cooler temperatures we were up and away before nine am and made it through just two locks when an alarm sounded. I turned off the engine and lifted the deck board, only to be greeted by a waft of very plastic smoke. Hmm, drat and double drat. The RCR were called and they confirmed my suspicion - a fried domestic alternator. The bearings are shot and had we continued it would have caught fire - so we are thankful we got to it in time.

This means the engine wont recharge the battery bank, but we have turned off all the non essential kit and will now have to rely on the solar panels and a trickle charger powered by a generator when the sun hides away. The new unit is on order, but it will take several days to arrive.

Just to add insult to injury we managed to have the edge of the butty and the edge of the motor hook in the sides of two successive locks, tilting the boats alarmingly till they slid free. I really hate this happening. Then, I experienced the icing on the cake. I was looking at the map under a tree in Leighton Buzzard when a bird decided to poo all over me. I am not in the same league as Job, but I did feel just a little but aggrieved!

So here we are, a couple of miles south of Fenny Stratford, as far from any other boats as possible to let us run the genny late and give the battery bank a boost before the night. During the day we started to pass the trade boats gathering for the festivals in the area and tomorrow we will join the mail flotilla heading for Cosgrove. 

Sunday 16 July 2017

Escaping London

Little Venice to Kings Langley
July 2017

No posts for two days because we have been too busy moving.

 Floating Garden on the Paddington Arm

Of all our 2017 trip, this week is the most pressurised in terms of moving to a deadline. We have to move from Islington in London to Cosgrove and have just six days to achieve it. 

Pulling the butty is not the fastest way to travel and if we cant go fast to have to compensate by putting in the hours. Rather than fall behind I decided to get up early on Saturday morning and  get a few miles behind us before breakfast so we were on the move by 7.15am. 

Water tower house in Kensall

The Paddington arm is lock free so it was just a matter of standing on the back of the boat and grinding it out. We paused at Northolt to refuel and emerged at Bulls Bridge at about 2.00pm. We took advantage of the supermarket, resupplying with the essentials and then turned north which will be our unwavering direction of travel for the next five days.

We pushed on into the evening, finally mooring surrounded by lakes just above Denham Deep Lock. That's 23 miles, no mean feat with 8 tons hanging on the stern.

On starting on Sunday morning we realised that our tranquil offside mooring will soon be no more as it is the exact point where the HS2 will pass.

The day was one of an endless succession of locks, mostly spaced a mile or so apart. We paused at Rickmansworth and emptied the elsan, only to discover that the contents were bubbling up out of the adjacent manhole cover. We looked in vain for a rubbish point - an essential service we had failed to find yesterday. CRT seem to have removed most of the rubbish bins and this is making responsible refuse disposal difficult to say the least.

The GU in this area is generally well supplied with water, with rivers flowing in and our all over the place. However, we were brought up short at the two Cassiobury park Locks. The middle pound was way down and in the middle sat a widebeam, firmly aground. The butty draws three feet and my attempt to pass was doomed so there we both sat till some water was fed down to ease our predicament.

Stuck in Cassiobury Park

We finally came to a stop in Kings Langley, a mile or so north of the M25, a road we have crossed six times in four places over the last five weeks, and the last time we will venture inside its circle for at least two years.

Which way are we headed tomorrow? Due north, of course - probably stopping at the Tring summit beyond Berkhampstead.

Friday 14 July 2017

Distillation of a day

Distillation of a day
July 2017

Not a run of the mill day at all.

Selfie at BBC's Wogan House

We started the day with a visit to Broadcasting House, courtesy of a guided tour by Adam Porter. The entire experience proved to be fascinating, starting with a look at the TV news set up. This is the bit you see behind the newscaster who operate in a largely robot controlled studio immediately below the entrance. There was also the weather zone with its cameras, charts and trundle cams and it was really interesting to see just how all the elements of the news output fits together.

Adam poised to proadcast

Then, after lunch, we visited Wogan House and specifically the Radio 2 floor. This had a hugely homely feel to it with Jeremy Vine interviewing a butterfly expert whilst fielding calls and messages interspersed with musical items. Funny to listen to and hilarious at close quarters. At the same time Steve Wright was preparing for his afternoon show when Helen wasn't throwing herself at him any plying him with home baked muffins! 

Helen with Steve Wright

Radio two seems to have been a constant part of my adult life, and the Steve Wright Show going right back to its Radio 1 roots. So seeing the man himself and listening to the switch between shows with Adam's news slot acting as the bridge was great. Adam - thanks a million.

Then it was off to visit the Sipsmith Gin Distillery in Chertsey. This was a long awaited trip which had been delayed due to Helen's illness last year. We were part of a group of about 50 who were treated to a history of gin, Sipsmith's 8 years in business and, of course, a comprehensive sampling session of their entire range.

The Sipsmith gins

I didn't know quite what to expect and it was a little surprising to find their boutique distillery tucked away at the back of one of Fullers (London Pride) garages. This is a young but fast expanding craft distilleriey but one which broke new ground by obtaining the first distilling license in London for about 180 years - no mean feat.

The three main production stills

They started with just one small still called Prudence, commissioned just as the financial markets collapsed in 2008, followed by Patience which was converted from a mash boiler. This was most recently joined by the 1500 ltr Constance which was in full production at the time of our visit.

There is one more, small still known as Cygnet tucked away in the R&D area, used to test new product lines which are dispatched to the Sipsmith sipping society - the die hard fan club.


I have more than a passing interest in the distilling process and it was interesting to trace the process and see how it was all working. The process uses bought in grain alcohol fermented and distilled by a major third party alcohol producer. Sipsmith take the industrial alcohol and add their mix of botanicals plus water and, after steeping overnight, heat it up till the alcohols evaporate and condense to form London Dry Gin. The copper container has something to do with altering the taste, but I didn't quite understand how that happens.

London Cup

Constance was producing a strong from of their core product which was being collected in a plastic drum behind. As with smaller stills, they discard the dangerous heads and the poorer quality tails and thus keep and sell just the quality distillates. 

The output from Constance

One fact I hadn't previously realised was that the initials VJOP stands for "Very Junipery, Over Proofed" which essentially means that the juniper taste is extra strong and the alcohol content is extra high and makes is good for mixing and ensuring that the taste and strength still come through.

Every product line was explained in context and generous samples offered. Five was about the maximum you can taste, appreciate and remember but even then you wouldn't want to drive home afterwards.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Pootling in Paddington

Little Venice
July 2017

We are spending a few days in Paddington Basin and Little Venice relaxing and doing a bit of the tourist thing.

Monday was spent behind St Marys Hospital, the morning spent on the weekly chore of washing. Lots of our friends have proper automatic washing machines aboard but our limited power generation capacity and even greater limitations of space mean we have to adopt a more creative approach. We could use launderettes, but they get expensive so most weeks we get a small camping twin tub out of the butty and used the hot water from the engine to fill it up. Its only small, but is surprisingly effective. We do what our mothers used to do and re use the soapy water, starting with the whites, then onto the lightly dirty colourds and ending up with the heavy stuff like jeans or towels. Sure, the process requires a bit of faffing around, but it is all done in about 2.5 hours and then the spun clothes are pegged out in the butty, old fashioned boater style.

Watching tennis in Merchant Square

The afternoon was altogether more relaxing, watching Andy Murray progress to the quarter finals of Wimbledon on the big outdoor screen in Merchant Square. There were deck chairs on the grass and the proceeding was aided and abetted with several glasses of Pimms.

Paddington Basin

Tuesday morning, by contrast was spent writing (Andy) and baking (Helen). We have four nights on the booked moorings at Rembrant Gardens, Little Venice, so some 2.00pm we motored round accompanied by Helen's friend Mars, only to find two widebeams settled into the booked mooring slots. The widebeams were all shiny so I employed intimidation techniques and swung both boats alongside with a flourish and, as anticipated this brought the owners out in double quick time. They advised that their understanding was that the moorings were rarely used, in spite of being fully booked on line... Anyhow, they moved on in search of another slot suitable to fit two 60ft widebeams - good luck with that! The rest of the day was spent watching the forecast rain fall, lashing the surface of the basin and drumming on the roof of the boat all night.

The ever shy Mars Lord!

Wednesday was spent visiting Camden Lock Market, somewhere neither of us had ever been before. We consulted Google maps and determined that it was a 50 minute walk following the towpath through Regents Park. We arrived before the market had really got going but this meant we could explore without too much bustle. The place is a veritable warren of tiny stalls selling just about everything you would never need, unless you are into Steam Punk, Goth or Mod stuff in which case its heaven. With all the incense and barrel vaulted ceilings it was more than a bit reminiscent of the Grand Bazzar in Istanbul, but without the carpets of course.

Gloriously eclectic Camden Locks Market

So did we buy anything?. Well, among the plethora of seemingly pointless dross Helen found some Stingray Doc Martin boots (no fish were harmed in their manufacture). The place also has a museum of Doc Martens and some fabulous exampled of their distinctive footwear across the decades.

Doc  Martins in all colours and sizes

At a more consumable level we sampled and purchased a bottle of Half Hitch London Gin, which is part produced on the premises. It tasted great so that was another kilo to lug back to the boat! You will remember that the site experienced a significant fire on Sunday night and whilst one building was fenced off and being covered in scaffolding, the other 90% of the market was operational and unaffected. There was, however, a lingering tang of woodsmoke which wafted around, a constant reminder of the stalls which had been destroyed.

 Statues small and large

By then it was lunch time so we worked our way round the eclectic food yard and settled on some chicken Paratha wraps, and Indian dish which were different and delicious. This was finished off with some Churros, Helen's dipped in chocolate sauce and mine embedded in ice cream.

Lunch options in the food square

Come 1.00pm we had seen enough but were reluctant to slog our way back along the canal. Then we had a brainwave, rather than used "normal" public transport, why not use the Waterbus which plies between Camden Lock and Little Venice, a service we had been watching shuttle back and forth for the last few days. And so we had a busmans holiday and viewed the Regents Canal from an old Harland and Woolf craft from the 1930 (Large Woolwich?) and was dropped back immediately opposite our pair.

 Marylebone Wide

Cumberland Basin

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Roasting on the Regents

Limehouse to Paddington
July 2017

Travelling the Regents Canal on a blazing hot Sunday probably isn't the ideal time to traverse the heart of the capital, but what it lacked in comfort it made up for in terms of colour and vibrancy.

Camden colour

We were up and away by 8.30am, rising through the lower locks of the Regents Canal before the worst of the days heat settled in. As with the Limehouse Cut, the pounds were dogged with weed which formed a huge moving sward of green in front of the paired boats. We continued in this formation through Mile End with its floating market in pause mode, waiting for the crowds to return to attend the funfair in the adjacent field.

Mile End Floating Market

London's canals have been suffering in the recent drought and there has been insufficient water coming down the weeded Paddington Arm to keep the levels up. As a result the locks have been locked overnight in an attempt to allow levels to recover and to minimise the loss of water from paddles left open. I have to observe that this overnight water leakage would be minimised if the habit of leaving gates open on leaving locks was not so prevalent 

 Locking up from Limehouse

Old Ford Lock was operational but when we reached Acton's Lock at noon we found the locks and chains still in place, in spite of notices saying they would be unlocked at 9.00am. One poor chap had been waiting since 9.00am and we were the first other boat to arrive. Our arrival was the first of several and within 30 minutes boats were bunched up above and below the lock. Attempts were made to contact CRT but as it was a Sunday no numbers were being answered. Helen persisted and after 20 mins on the phone she reached the emergency number, and pointed out that the locks remained firmly padlocked. The response was unconvincing till we pointed out that if a CRT employee with keys didn't arrive within 15 minutes it looked like the agitated mob would take matters into their own hands, with hacksaws and bolt cutters being dug out.


As if by a miracle, the holder of the keys materialised and the tension was relieved, boats moved and all was well with the world.

As we moved deeper into the city the breasted approach became untenable. With breasted boats lining the towpath and the motor being on the outside, we found the motor outside the navigation channel and way into the weeds. We therefore dropped into our favoured line astern formation and progress became easier, all the time watched with curiosity by the thousands which thronged the towpath and lounged around on their boats trying to stay cool in the heat.

The Islington Tunnel proved to be a bit problematic. Its one way operation for this bore and as we rose through City Road Lock we could see the spotlight of an approaching boat, so we waited patiently. As it cleared the portal we saw no further light so started to enter. Bad move, because a small ourboard powered cruiser was also making a west to east transit without a light - not even a torch! But that wasn't the end of the problems. The two stroke engine has so filled the tunnel with smoke and petrol fumes we couldn't see the other end and it was only as we got into the gloom of the tunnel we realised that a small trip boat had entered the far end, its light completely obscured by murk.


In the end the tunnel did clear and we motored through. Towing the butty through broad tunnels is one of our greatest navigation challenges, because if we don't hold a perfectly centre line the butty will swing to one wall and drag the motor with it. The only reliable way to tackle the tunnels like this is to move slowly but this means other boats come up behind us. And so it happened on this occasion with a trip boat arriving astern at the three quarter point. Not that they seemed to mind and they held back, passing us at the western portal.

Pop up bar

Chill out zone

We dropped our guests off at Battlebridge Basin, conveniently sited for their train at Kings Cross. We pressed on with the towpath crowds getting thicker and thicker at the eating and drinking placed below St Pancras Lock. The area was buzzing with local colour.

Battlebridge Basin

Predictably, all this activity reached a climax at the three Camden Locks. There were no Lock Keepers on duty so we were on our own in front of literally thousands of gongoozlers. The area is hugely popular and on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon every vantage point was occupied. Fortunately the locks are very tame so rising is quite a smooth process. The sad postscript to this paragraph is that less than 12 hours after our passage a major fire broke out in the craft hall, destroying over 10% of the market complex.

Crowds at Camden

For all these crowds it is perhaps surprising that we don't make more sales as we move through. The truth is that there is little familiarity with the concept of trade boats in the area, but the exception was a group of ladies still in Pride mode who flagged us down near Cumberland Basin. Sadly, they thought we were a fuel boat but seemed enthused by the idea of preserves and ran along the towpath to buy half a dozen jars!

The last couple of miles were relatively quiet, aided by the overhanging trees of Regents Park which offers some welcome shade. We emerged into Little Venice and refilled our water tank at the ultra slow tap beside the bridge, passing an hour or so nattering to Lee Wilshire who was killing some time in the area.

We finally entered Paddington Basin at 7.00pm, testing our laid back mooring policy to the limit. As ever, we found a spot just when we needed it, this one at the rear of St Mary's Hospital. The mooring was just long enough for the motor and so, as so often has happened, the butty went on the outside. To tell the truth, I quite like the butty on the outside because it makes it so accessible and also makes it much less prone to tampering.