Tuesday 29 August 2017

Escape from Stratford

August 2017

I left you with scenes from a succession of Ganesh ceremonies and by the end of the afternoon the crowds had drifted away and everything seemed to have come to a conclusion.

Just as the light was failing I decided to walk into town to post a letter, and much to my amazement I emerged from the back hatch into a multitude of sari bedecked ladies, mostly young. The throng was so great I had to ask them to move to let me off. It turned out that there was one last party which offered their statue into the River Avon beside the boat as I crossed the tramway bridge. 

Bank Holiday Monday was forecast as a real scorcher and we had little appetite for another dose of Stratford mayhem, so come 9.30 we were off the river and making our way back into the narrow Stratford Canal. But disaster was to strike. Before we had even reached the first narrow lock Helen fell crossing the road, grazing hands and knees and more painfully, she fell flat on her chest which was the subject of recent surgery. 

That put her out of action for a few days as she was in no condition to wind paddles or push locks. I therefore reverted to my slow but sure solo lock routine which is fine in all ways except shutting gates after me. This is one aspect of single handing a pair which is infinitely more difficult than a single boat. I have to pull 30ft of butty butty out of the jaws of the lock before I can steer, and there is no scope for hovering above the lock whilst the top gate is shut. Fortunately the tow path was busy and the passers bye were all happy to close the gates when asked.

We paused at Valley Cruises to attend to a very full set of cassettes and then it was on to the water point below the Wilmcote flight. Five days without a refill plus making jam had left the tank very empty and a high pressure tap took over 40 mins to fill us up again.

The heat just kept building and building and the prospect of ascending the Wilmcote flight was very unappealing, so we found some shade just short of the bottom lock and stopped for the day.

Tuesday dawned misty and cool, a much better scenario for a solo ascent to Wilmcote. I was a bit concerned that my solo endeavours would hold everyone up but I soon fell in behind a family of two adults and three children out for their first day on a boat. Progress was therefore slow and even single handed I managed to keep up, assisted by a steady succession of boats descending. By the mid point a volunteer lock keeper found me and helped set all the locks in my favour and the boat behind kindly agreed to close the top gates - all in all the assistance was something of a godsend and by 2.00pm we were moored in Wilmcote and selling jam to the boaters moored there.

In spite of intermittent drizzle I went back to the top lock and foraged a pail of Pershore Yellow Egg plums plus a few kilo's of Blackberries - raw material for a jam making session tomorrow as a band of rain passes over.

Monday 28 August 2017

Bancroft on a Bank Holiday

Bancroft on a Bank Holiday
August 2017

Well, I guess we did ask for it.....

Bancroft Basin in Stratford upon Avon is something of a goldfish bowl at the best of times and a hot and sunny August Bank Holiday was only ever going to be heaving.

Stratford's wheel

We arrived on Friday afternoon and settled into the linear spot just by the entrance. We set out the menu board and and the bell was soon ringing with locals keen to buy our wares. But then Saturday dawned with thousands of tourists milling round and no sales - not a single solitary jar was sold. Not that we minded too much because we had two batches of Yellow Plum and Orange Jam to make and three batches of Chocolate Pear Jam to be prepared. 

We have never really enjoyed Bancroft moorings and on Friday night a drunken couple decided to have a domestic at top volume right round the basin. This led to a rubbish night and with the Sunday market being set up in the early hours of the next night we decided to can the trading and move out onto the river for a couple of nights - so what if it costs £20. We consoled ourselves with a nice meal in the Dirty Duck opposite the theatre.

This proved a good decision as the riverfront offered some shade and a bit more privacy. We paid the parish church a visit in the morning and heard about Lydia's conversion, the first in Europe. Its a big and traditional church (which contains Shakespeare's Tomb) and we were made very welcome - but I did regret my rather informal Weird Fish tee shirt.

We spent the afternoon making the 40 jars of Pear and Chocolate Jam, a product we last made with pears from the same tree when we visited in August 2015.

As the afternoon drew to a close and the crowds thinned we were treated to religeous spectacle of a very different hue - A Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, the elephant headed deity. A procession of trip boats arrived, stopped beside our boat and a series of flower covered statues were dropped into the river to the accompaniment of much cheering and chanting. The boats were crowded and so was the bank, with dozens of ladies on the most beautiful saris cheering the event on. The riot of colour was a photographers paradise.

Sunday 27 August 2017

Blisworth to Bancroft

Blisworth to Bancroft
August 2017

Two weeks without a post, how very remiss of me!

We have been a bit busy one way or another and there just hasn't been time in the evenings to bring the blog up to date.

Blisworth stall

Lets start with the 2017 Blisworth Festival which was played out under under clear blue skies. A larger proportion of the Roving Trader population seemed to have rocked up, filling every available inch of towpath between the main bridge at Blisworth Wharf and Candle Bridge to the north. The event has had some turbulance among the organisers this year and as a result the admin was a bit less slick than usual. Notwithstanding the odd gremlin here and there the crowds flocked in and filled the ever expanding display area. However, from a trade perspective for us the Saturday was good and the Sunday was poor - but others reported the other way round which is confusing! The one dynamic which seems to have changed is that the centre of action seems to have shifted from the towpath to the Festival Field and its quite possible for visitors to miss the boats altogether.

Blisworth Allotment Society stall

That said the three festivals we attended on the GU all delivered results which were within a tolerance of just 10% so we are not grumbling and will certainly be back next year if we are accepted.

Mr Homebrew himself

After Blisworth we met our friends Deb and Mark and we spent three days together as we worked our way through Braunston and on to Calcutt. 

Helen and Deb

Boat traffic on the GU north of Wigrams Turn was busy, as you would expect during the August holiday period. This meant we made good progress through the locks and found ourselves at the Saltesford Arm in Warwick a day ahead of plan. This was in spite of horribly low pounds below Stockton Brook and howling cross winds as we crossed Leamington Spa. 

The weekend marked our grand daughter's second birthday so we offered to host a party at home. This meant leaving the boats for four days and using public transport to get us back. I have to admit that its rather nice to have reached a stage where central Birmingham can be reached by a 20 minute train journey costing about £6.50.

Sunflowers on the South Stratford

With three weeks to spare before our next event in Netherton we decided to drop down the South Stratford after climbing Hatton and spend the bank holiday in the town. 

Edstone Aqueduct

As ever, the canal was shallow and slow but it is always a pleasure and we spent three leisurely days covering the handful of miles, picking plums, apples and black berries along the way.

Bancroft Basin - Stratford

Saturday 12 August 2017

Loitering in Stoke Bruerne

Stoke Bruerne
August 2017

We arrived in Stoke Bruerne on Monday evening with the forecasts suggesting biblical style downpours for Tuesday and Wednesday. In the event we arrived in the Long Pound (below the two locks which read into Stoke Bruerne proper) and found the bank line with moored boats so we pulled in as soon as possible.

Replica Butty cabin

As forecast, it did rain but fortunately it was for 40 hours and not 40 days. We spent the Tuesday making jam using the 5kg of Mirabelle Plums we picked in Milton Keynes and transformed them into the most gorgeous translucent yellow jam. 

In between preserve making we decided to pay the CRT museum a visit, something we had never done before. Well, I say never but that's not strictly true. I did visit the museum when I was eight (1969) on board Nomos and we undertook the Thames Ring. This would usually be followed up with a comment about not remembering a thing but I do have vivid memories of the replica back cabin of a butty, and I was delighted to discover that nearly 50 years later it is still there and in immaculate condition. In fact, I am told that due to its age it is included on the Historic Boat Register!.

Full moon without a tripod

Whilst I am not majorly into "historics" I have acquired more than a passing interest particularly since we acquired Montgomery. I dont plan to go to town on dressing the back cabin, but given the accuracy of its construction I am minded to start to make a few additions here and there and maybe make a bit more of a show of it, at least on the outside. We therefore look lots of photos and you may see some elements appear on the Jam Butty next year - starting with the elum and maybe the brass portholes which could be brought back to a highly polished state to match the one mushroom went. In fact, a CRT employee took a long and loving look at the butty yesterday and sadly observed that I have "a lovely shiny knob, but my portholes let me down...").

Wartime images

The museum is nothing like the size of Ellesmere Port or Gloucester, but in spite of this it contains a good selection of artifacts, models and stories. No matter how many times I visit a canal museum I always seem to find something interesting and new. On this occasion it was a map of central Birmingham showing the location of every bomb which fell in 1940, ordinary, incendiary and unexploded. The density of the distribution is scary and is amazing that anything (or anyone) survived at all. I also spied a copy of this quarters Narrowboat magazine and couldn't resist an impulse purchase to see my latest Canal Finder article in print.

Ovaltine Boat cratch board - the inspiration for our own.

During our visit we took advantage of the adjoining coffee shop and whilst in we met Katherine Dodington, an authority on all things canal. In the event we ended up seeing her several times and even had a guided tour round her cottage which is in the terrace next to the museum, sharing our enthusiasm for canal history. Meeting charming people like this is one of the great benefits of being able to take time out as we travel.

Tiller detailing

Wednesday was another wet day and with all the plums used up our attention turned to the more mundane matter of washing. A bit odd I appreciate on such a wet day, but the forecast was good for Thursday and we needed to get the job done before Blisworth Festival at the weekend.
During the day a steady procession of trade boats arrived, all gathering in preparation for the festival. Most moved to the top pound and we joined them at 7.00pm, after filling with water and taking advantage of the disabled bay which was clearly not going to be used that night.

Thursday did dawn clear and bright and so the gaggle of trade boats moved off through the tunnel and onto the festival site in Blisworth. Its the first time I have been through 3075 yard Blisworth Tunnel in my adult life and I was surprised by the length of the "new" section. The old profile was ok from a towing perspective but when we hit the new bit we flew along and much to my surprise the hire boat which entered just behind us never managed to catch up!

More of the Blisworth Festival another time.

Thursday 10 August 2017

Overcoming Technological Angst

New maps to play with
August 2017

Way back in the day, probably over 20 years ago, I was set a task by my then employer to identify what a commercial bank branch would look like now.  During the research phase I came across a few choice bits of new terminology, which have always stuck with me:

  • Bleeding edge technology (beyond cutting edge)
  • Early / late adopters (technology, not children)
  • Technological Angst
This new found lexicon helped me appreciate that I don't like new fangled technology, I instinctively adopt technology only when it has been well proven and I whilst I quite like using "plug and play" technical solutions, I suffer major traumas if I have to undertake some kind of technical installation myself - technological angst epitomised.

In real life this means that its Helen who becomes surgically joined to her i-phone and for years I loathe and detest the thing. Eventually I accept I need my own phone (they took my bank Blackberry away when I retired) so I have to buy an i-phone, not because I think they are in any way better then Android but because when the stupid thing goes wrong I can throw it at her and she can fix it for me. 

And so this takes me to my new maps.

For a couple of years Paul Balmer has been extolling the virtues of his computer based maps and the benefits of the regular updates, but sad to say it fell on deaf ears due to an acute case of technological angst. I liked the maps and their formats but I just couldn't get on with the way they were delivered. I don't travel with my laptop on the back deck and printing paper pages is worse than a map book because they get mixed up or blown away.

But now (hallelujah) I am converted. I am a soul reborn and have seen the light. Put simply, I have got his maps installed on my i phone and at the click of a single icon I can pull up the Waterways Routes Map for the area, with a little red circle showing exactly where I am, right now.

The benefit of this up to date mapping system has become more and more apparent this year on the Lee Navigation where Elsan points were elusive and my Nicholsons just wasn't up to date enough to help me find them. 

To emphasise the point I have been using my much loved Pearsons for the trip up the Grand Union and whilst it offers a charming commentary, it too is woefully out of date. This point was brought home as we crossed the river Ouse and Pearsons announced that the long awaited Milton Keynes Link is projected to be completed in 2010!

The shortcomings of an out of date map were not lost on Helen and she repeatedly suggested I buy new copies, but the essential canal doesn't change so why splash out?

So this takes me back to Paul's maps. Way back in 2016 I attended the IWA's Festival of Water in Pelsall, and Paul attempted to install his maps software on my i-phone. However, we failed because I didn't know the password to my i tunes account (another thing I have delegated to Helen). Paul is nothing if not persistent. He knew we were at Cosgrove and he was going to be cycling past so he came armed with some instructions and software and for my part I was able to wheel in my technical guru. Between them they got Waterways Routes Maps running on my phone. Wonderful, triffic. the angels in technology heaven are singing praises for another Luddite saved from his own technological ineptitude.

So I no longer have to text Paul and ask if there are any Elsans at Stoke Bruene (bottom of Stoke locks) or indeed the nearest Elasns to Blisworth (Gayton Junction). At the click of a single icon I can find out for myself, now - instantly.

I am not saying that for me the paper map is dead. I think the use of paper maps is too deeply engrained, but the convenience of a full set of up to date canal maps in my pocket at all times and available without having to wind up my steam punk laptop is liberating to say the least.

Paul (and my technology guru) I offer you my thanks.

Sunday 6 August 2017

The wonders of Wolverton

August 2017

Helen has been complaining about my use excessive of alliteration in my headings and is suggesting I use rhyme instead - so try this for size: Wolverton is great, Wolverton is fun, Its got Tesco, Asda plus trains that pass at the ton. I am thinking that my poetic gifting has yet to arrive? Feedback please.....

Anyway - Wolverton. Since my last post on Milton Keynes I have discovered that Wolverton was one the northernmost existing towns to be subsumed into Milton Keynes in 1967. But there is a lot more to Wolverton than that. It was built as a railway town along the lines of Preston and Crewe. Located mid way between Euston and Birmingham it represented a good location for rolling stock construction and maintenance. It still sits on the West Coast Mainline but these days its railway focus is much reduced. Its claim to fame is that it still looks after the Royal Train.

 Wolverton statues

When it was built it was constructed at a company town in the format of a northern town, and so it sits rather uneasily on the Buckinghamshire landscape. Its red brick buildings belonging 100 miles to the north with the materials ferried in along the Grand Junction Canal ,as it was then known.

The canal margins are now occupied by new blocks of flats adorned with two rather amazing sculptures of men reaching our to each other across the water. The towpath side seems to represent cycling through the ages and the town side harks back to its railway heritage.

Wolverton's other claim to fame its its aqueduct over the River Ouse. This represented a major obstacle to the canal company and initially the crossing was achieved on the river level with four locks stepping down on each side. This was slow and water hungry so they built a aqueduct, which promptly collapsed. The loss of revenue was catastrophic so they spent over £2000 building a makeshift aqueduct out of wood which served its purpose till today's iron "trunk" was built and save a bit of maintenance, has stood firm joining the Wolverton / Cosgrove embankments.

The aqueduct and its area have become a tourist attraction in their own right with lots of foot paths and cycle ways all joining beneath its ancient spans. The line of the old lock can still be traced on both sides of the river and on the Wolverton side a single lock (shortened) has been built complete with redundant lock gates to show how it would have looked 200 years ago.

All in all a wealth of interest after the barren miles of Milton Keynes.

Saturday 5 August 2017

Musings on Milton Keynes

There and back and there again!
August 2017

We have been treking back and forth across Pearson's page entitled Milton Keynes for the last two weeks, firstly to reach the canal festival at Cosgrove, than back to Linslade and then north again to Cosgrove on our way to Blisworth.

I think three crossings justify a comment about the area, although I have to admit that this is another post without photos. And there is a reason for that - there really isnt a lot to photograph.

If you drive through Milton Keynes its impossible not to notice the grid iron road layout with roundabouts cropping up every half mile, making progress a bit of a painful affair. Well, its pretty much the same on the canal with massive concrete bridges every half mile interspersed with two or three old hump backed bridges built to connect farms and hamlets which exist beneath the modern layout of one of our newest towns.

The canal has been used as the basis for a long string of parks which all look more or less the same with the curving canal lines with hedges and trees. Most canals actually visit the towns they pass through, but not Milton Keynes, its just one housing zone after another, most built in the 1980's all sitting back aloof from the canal and even the towpaths are mostly ignored as there are hundreds of alternative paths crossing the parks.

Now this isn't all bad news. Yesterday we were moored near Milton Keynes Marina and decided we needed to visit a Maplins to buy a new electric fly swat, a gizmo which of particular use to preserve makers. A look on Google Maps suggested that there was one about two miles away and the map layout suggested it would be a long slog along concrete roadways but how wrong can you be. Form the outset we were on a well made pathway through trees, housing estates and under several of those all pervading roundabouts. It did occur to me that the place would be a muggers heaven but the layout is so complex I suspect that all the muggers have long since got lost, died and and now fertilizer for the extensive urban planting.

Maplins was eventually located and was within sight of the railway, so we were probably not far from the main shopping center, but we never actually saw it. And so we retraced our steps and near the canal discovered a path lined with a the most diverse array of cherry plum trees. There were some shocking pink ones which were just about finished, some red ones which were in their prime, some dark purple ones which were well progressed but lots remained on the trees and finally a plethora of the classic yellow mirabelle plums. I returned with bowls and picker and soon gathered as many plums as I could carry. This followed yesterdays blackberrying fest in Fenny Stratford where we picked 9kg and immediately converted them into a big box of Blackberry Wine Jam - not that it will last long. Its one of our fastest selling lines and we will need to repeat the exercise before the end of the season.

We immediately set to and created Rum Punch Plum Jam with the darkest ones and then converted the red ones into Cinnamon Plum Jam, a firm favourite with our customers. Finally there are the three batches of yellow plums which will be processed next week in time for Blisworth. 

Milton Keynes was therefore kind of bland from a boaters perspective, with few landmarks and one is left counting bridges in the same way you count and time progress between kilometer posts on the Trent. Even the bridges are free from graffiti, but a reassuring pile of scrap metal in the shape of bikes and safes sits beside many bearing silent testimony to a less savory side to the town beyond the banks of the Grand Union. As it to emphasise the point only today I saw a Facebook post warning that a stolen car was sitting in the middle of the canal at Simpson. 

Milton Keynes is more an area than a place and most people hurry through from Fenny Stratford to Cosgrove which offer a sense of place. Plenty of people live on boats in these leafy corridors so I would encourage you to pause if you feel the urge, but don't bother with your camera.

Thursday 3 August 2017

Back on line!

Power has been restored
August 2017

Well, that was a long two weeks. 

We have finally had a new main alternator installed, which is delivering full charging capacity to our battery bank and life returns to normal, including the use of my rather power hungry laptop.

Its been an interesting period during which we had to implement some severe power saving measures, but relying on solar power alone certainly put the system to the test and highlighted the benefits and limitations of solar. Put simply, with it we were able to continue whereas without it we would probably have to have left the boat.

The two big energy consumers are the 12v fridge and the 32ltr 12v freezer, and as soon as we lost the alternator we gave up on the fridge and accepted that we would have to live with foods which could exist at ambient temperatures. A little challenging but still possible. However, we did want to keep the freezer running on account of all the food we had stored in it. We managed ok for a week with the solar panels just about keeping up in spite of rather cloudy conditions. The unit only uses about 25 amp hours a day which can be collected in two hours of bright sunshine, but then we need some more to power the lights and pumps so really we are looking for 40 amp hours which is ok on sunny days but not so achievable during day after day of rain with no sunny spells. I know that this all sounds a bit like Apollo 13 but when power is in short supply you start to consider everything in terms of amp hours used.

We managed to trade at Cosgrove two weeks ago, achieving a very good level of sales in between trips back and forth to Aldridge when stock was made, new glass delivered and most importantly, a new grandson born. Then it was back to the boat for a two day journey south to Linslade. During the journey we ran the generator in the butty and, via a trickle charger and a bit of sunlight, managed to get some life into the batteries. But then we stopped, the sun went in and the pumps ground to a stop. 

Sandra and Barry came to the rescue and fired up their unused freezer allowing us to turn ours off. Almost immediately our battery levels started to rise and by the end of the event they were topped up to maximum. And so the story should have have had a happy ending - but alas, no. 

RCR fitted our new alternator on Tuesday morning and as soon as Dan and Becky had joined us we set off to the Globe pub to pick up the frozen food. Barry opened the freezer and discovered that at some point the freezer had stopped and everything had thawed out after all. They have been having trouble with their cooling system and its likely that the battery levels dropped and the freezer cut out, but who knows.No matter, these things happen.

We are now in Fenny Stratford and were planning to trade at their small canal festival at the weekend. However, the long haul up from London and two very busy weekends in a row have taken their toll on Helen, who is still recovering from her treatment. We have therefore decided to skip Fenny Stratford and instead make a slow run to next weekend's festival in Blisworth, making lots of Blackberry Wine and Cherry Plum Jam as we travel.