Monday 30 April 2018

Down to Worcester

Down to Worcester
April 2018

Boaters have a rather intimate relationship with the weather and it therefore comes as no surprise that many blog posts start with a reference to the prevailing meteorological situation.

Well, that hot spring weather has well and truly passed and we woke at Hanbury Junction to a very chilly and wet scene. Not a sight which inspired us to proceed with plan a and descent down to Worcester via the canal. Instead, we hatched a plan b and made the relatively short hop down to Droitwich. 

The Penguin get it!

Before we turned off the Worcester Birmingham we tied the butty to come work boats at the junction and motored around to the boat yard where filled with fuel and picked up some more logs to stave off the forecast cold.

We arrived at the top locks just as the lock keepers arrived on duty and had a long chat with a new volunteer who was plodding around in a comedic manner. He must have selected some old shoes and both soles were flapping around. I do hope he enjoyed the experience and found some safer (and more comfortable) footwear before the day was out.

The rain had raised the level of the Salwarp and this in turn reduced the headroom under the motorway to little more than 180cm, enough for us to pass but much less clearance than we are used to. Few boats were moving on such a damp day and we cut a lonely passage through Vines Park to adjoining bays in the Netherwich Basin. Carole and Adrian (Harbourmasters) returned to their boat during the afternoon and it took surprisingly little persuasion to entice them into the warm of our boat and ply them with a tipple or two of Gin.

Thinking of Tipples, we met Towpath Tipples at Hanbury Junction who will be one of three trade boats at this years festival. This was a great bonus because I had only just been having a look at their web page and selecting which Perrys I wanted to try. It looks like the trade boat line up will be a select one comprising the Glass Barge, ourselves with the Jam Butty and Towpath Tipples occupying what has been the Homebrew's spot.

The forecast for the event is looking up with temperatures nearing 20, no rain and light southerly breezes so, if you have time, do drop down and take in what should be a great weekend.

Safely off the Severn

After a night in Droitwich we travelled down the Barge Canal, entering the Severn via a very muddy lock. The water levels have only recently dropped and even after a period of drier weather it was still hovering between green and amber. As usual, we breasted the boats up with the butty on the right and idled along with a strong current sweeping is down at about 4.5mph. With this amount of fresh on we were glad not to be pressing upstream against the flow. Fingers crossed that it has slackened a bit more before we go upstream to Stourport after the festival in 10 days time.

Foden Steam Tractor in Worcester

We made use of the services in Diglis Basin and moored just before the first lock, all set for a spot of laundry and shopping in Worcester.

Saturday 28 April 2018

To Tardebigge

To Tardebigge
April 2018

After our late night escapade we spent a few days in central Birmingham, socialising and attending to some housekeeping chores in equal measure.

Holiday let cottage at the bottom of the Tardebigge flight.

These chores took me around the centre of Birmingham and what a change is being made. The old Paradise Circus buildings are gone and the whole area is being opened up with great views left right and centre. I guess it will all be finished in time for the Commonwealth Games in four years, but I hole the Council House gets a lick of paint because, as a centrepiece building, its looking a bit shabby.

Our route out of town is on the Worcester Birmingham Canal, a waterway which is notable for its lack of services as it falls away to the Severn at Worcester.   We therefore took advantage of Sainsbury's delivery service and also paid a visit to Pablo's Laundry on King Edgwards Road. 

Sainsburys were punctual but otherwise unremarkable whereas Pablo's is worth commenting on. Its owner goes to great length to make his customers feel welcome, even supplying cake free of charge! Helen returned with a bag of clean laundry and explained that the laundry is used by many visiting artists, whose photo's adorn the walls. I was informed, on good authority, that my smalls have now been washed in the same machine as Beyonce's! The mind boggles.

Then it was on to meet some long established friends at the Gin Vault, which is in a subterranean room beneath Broad Street and next to the Tap and Spile. On Tuesdays they serve double measures for the price of singles and have an extensive range of over 200 gins. We samples a couple of Gins which went down well and in no time it was 9.30pm and time to head off for the boat.

Museum piece hydraulic paddle gear - not long for this world.

Wednesday took us out of Birmingham, past the University and Queen Elizabeth Hospital and finally out to the top of the Tardebigge flight. It drizzled all the way and we were very pleased to drop through the top lock and settle in for the night.

Thursday was forecast clear and dry so we decided to tackle the Tardebigge flight of locks, the longest continuous flight in the country. We didnt set off very early and we heard Hadar thump past us at about 8.30am. Nothing else came past for an hour or so and by the time we made a start a boat emerged from the first lock - and we then had two thirds of the flight in our favour. 

About half way down we met some volunteer lock keepers who assisted us the rest of the way. These volunteers were very amiable but explained that one of their number had given up before he had even started. Let me explain. They had just unlocked their station and were getting their coats on when two chaps on a boat arrived and harangued them for not working and "hiding away from your jobs", I think was the phrase. This tirade really upset then and one went home. I cant believe the rudeness of of some folk - these are individuals who help out from the goodness of their hearts and need thanks, not grief.

Converted pump house at top of Tardebigge flight.

In the end we made it down the flight to the Queens Head in three hours, which is pretty good going. The top section was aided and assisted by my trusty mountain bike, allowing me to ride two locks ahead and have the top gates open - maintaining movement at all times be it forward or downward. Sadly my museum piece bike (it still has caliper brakes) is getting a bit fragile and the handlebars have taken to rattling and the ball race cover split. However, in good make do and mend tradition I managed to tighten it all up and bodge the housing with gaffer tape! If it breaks loose I will have to resort to cable ties and a squirt of WD40!

Friday 27 April 2018

Making a start

Making a start
April 2018

We have been out for a week now and the only blog posts I have published are out of sequence! Time to put that right.

We set off last Thursday in the midst of a mini heat wave, our arms and necks going a sensitive red under wall to wall sunshine. Whilst Longwood Boat Club offers a number of more direct cruising options, we elected to take the long way round via the Wyrley and Essington Canal.

Govenor on the Daw End Canal

As normal, we had the 25 miles of BCN backwater to ourselves, only encountering Govenor, a converted BCN icebreaker, as we left the moorings and were making very slow progress along the shallow Daw End Canal to Aldridge. After Govenor we were left to our own devices, mooring at Pelsall Common, a regular stopping place where the echoes of long dead industry mingle with wildlife and the distant A5.

Litter covering the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Harden

The Wyrley and Essington enters its "bad patch" through Bloxwich, Harden and Leamore. The housing crowds in on the canal which becomes strewn with litter, blown into huge rafts of floating debris which block bridge holes for up to one hundred yards. You try all the tricks in the book but inevitably you end up with a blade full from time to time. With all the floating debris you just know you will pick up something nasty, and this was no exception. You will remember that a month ago we had to cut a duvet off in freezing temperatures? Well this time it was a small tent, complete with poles. To be fair, the "dodgey" area around Coalpool is much improved with extensive new housing being built on brownfield sites and shiny new cars outside pristine townhouses replacing burnt out shells and boarded slums.

 Birchills Junction

I have a theory that nearly everything can be removed from  the prop fairly quickly if you select the right tools and use them effectively. In this instance the tools of choice were bolt cutters (small) for the poles and a serrated knife to slice the covering.This obstruction involved a 30 minute session in the weed hatch but the water was altogether more comfortable. 

Then we were on past Walsall and using the facilities at Sneyd Junction. I am pretty chilled about most things but I tend to take the view that if you get stuff on the prop it becomes yours to dispose of responsibly. However, not everyone thinks along the same lines because alongside the waterpoint was a big pile of prop debris, just dumped for "someone else to sort out". I therefore made two trips to the skip at the back of the building blessing the last water point user.

Firing up at Black Country Living Museum, Tipton

Then is was on through Wednesbury, site of the recent BCN clean up a couple of weeks ago. The surface rubbish was far better but it was annoying to find shiny new shopping trolleys in each bridge hole. 

Dudley Tunnel, Tipton end.

We spent the night at the BCLM creating a mooring for ourselves using the handily placed ring on the bridge wall to secure the butty. The BCLM mooring was as lovely as ever, and we woke late to the smell of the coal fires being lit ready for a new day at this popular attraction.

First lock of the trip at Brades.

With Factory Locks unusable due to ongoing channel work we dropped to the New Main Line via Brades, discovering that the addition of a new fender at the back of the butty and a new uncompacted front fender on the motor make us a tiny bit too long. With a bit of shoving and twisting we extracted the boats and made steady progress into the moorings at Symphony Court, ready for the wedding taxi service I have already reported on.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

CRT Jottings - National Users Forum

CRT Jottings - National Users Forum
April 2018

Whilst its not exactly a CRT National Council meeting, or indeed a sub committee, I am also invited to attend the annual National Users Forum. The last gathering at The Bond in Birmingham took place on Wednesday 18th April and the following are the key points which caught my interest, outside those already reported in my last National Council notes.

On the subject of these notes, I see that my last set reached nearly 800 readers, not counting the various cut and paste versions I know are shared around. I find this really encouraging as I feel I am reaching a fairly wide interested audience, including some of the business licence holders who voted me into office in the first place!

Julie Sharman (COO)

Health and Safety reportable issues have remained at nil YTD, which is great, but there has been a small increase in asset related incidents such as slips and falls on the towpaths. This isnt so great and is being assessed to see if there are any themes which can be addressed.

  • The reservoirs have all been fully recharged during the wet winter and with high ground water levels things look good for this season.
  • The knock on issues following the tragic death of Charlie Pope, a student in Manchester are current with appeals being made to fence off the entire city centre section of the Rochdale Canal. This risk has parallels in other major cities like Leeds and Birmingham and attendees are asked to counter what is seen as a potential over reaction.
  • An explanation of the new 6 region structure was offered.
Re- branding
  • A longish section was devoted to the forthcoming rebranding and the Trusts reasoning was offered. My apologies if some of my observations creep in here - there have been so many on going discussion on the topic its hard to remember who said what, when.
  • First and foremost the Trust is a navigation body and without a functioning navigation there can be no spin off benefit for other users. Navigation therefore remains core to CRT and is reflected in the ongoing spending plans.
  • However, a very sizeable portion of income comes from the Government Grant and there is an existential threat to the function of the navigation network if it is discontinued when the current guaranteed term comes to an end. The Govt discussions start in just 4 years time and we are talking £53m pa, which is more than the license fees we currently pay.
  • Securing future Govt funding is therefore very high on the CRT to do list.
  • The key to securing future funding is for the Trust to have broad public recognition and currently this recognition is growing far too slowly among the non boater users.
  • The Trust therefore seeks to reposition itself as a "Waterways and Wellbeing" charity and drive up the awareness among the 50% of the population who have a CRT waterway nearby. For the non boaters we offer beauty, a Natural Health Service plus safe, healthy and sustainable travel routes.
  • The current branding is well recognised within the boater community, but isn't cutting it in the wider social media environment. The most successful logos are circular and work much better so a change is needed as one small part of this process.
Matthew Symonds
  • The London Mooring Strategy  has been generally positively received
  • There will be some guidance issued on which waterways are considered unsuitable for  unrestricted wide beam movement
  • Any individual issues will be addressed by communications with boaters concerned.
  • Enforcement seen as a last resort
  • License evasion is at an all time low of 3.1% (3.8%) - London was higher at 5.1%
  • Growth in boats in London Area grew by 150, but this is a much smaller rate than previously (over 400pa)
  • Evidence seen of boats moving further out of London.
  • There were 400 more CC licenses issued last year nationwide.
  • License review starts April 2019 with prompt payment discount reduced.
  • April 2020 sees the width criteria start to be applied
  • Electric and Historic Boat discount criteria still to be reviewed.
  • Business boat owners to be engaged.
  • Licensing link to home mooring ruled out
  • Approaches to busy areas to be researched.
  • Medical adjustment requests received at rate of 20 to 30 per month - a standard questionnaire has been trialed. Volume figures are published annually.
  • Business licenses now on line saving time and cost. It is expected that satisfaction levels will rise as seen following the introduction of the on line leisure renewal.
  • The online mooring strategy is being worked on and is expected in the summer of 2018.
Peter Walker - Technical Support
  • Technical Support is very outwardly facing dealing with things like major infrastructure projects, Acquisitions and Hydrology.
  • Currently busy with HS2 which will reach Curzon St Birmingham in 2026 and Phase 2a in 2027.
  • 2a construction will be active 2020 to 2026 and has 50 points of impact on CRT either live waterways or potential restoration sites.
  • We are asked to be eyes and ears for the Trust to ensure that nothing unexpected is implemented in the construction phase. Please be alert to anything untoward and report it in immediately.
  • The various phases will have a significant impact but CRT is doing what it can to lessen impacts such as sound deadening fences.
  • We are assured that the various CRT impacts will not result in multi month route closures with most being overnight or 24 hour stoppages as beams are swung into place.
Stuart Mills - Chief Investment Officer

  • in 2012 CRT inhereited a £615m endowment of assets to provide income.
  • Since then the aim has been to grow capital and enhance investment income.
  • The aim is to generate an 8% return with modest amounts of income volatility.
  • The portfolio has changed over time to improve returns and simplify management.
  • In 2011/12 investment income was £21.7m and this has risen to £30.4m in 2017/18
  • Assets have grown in value to £850m
  • The investment portfolio has grown well and is delivering increasing amounts of income which are available to be spent on operational improvement projects.
Simon Bamford - Asset Improvement Director
  • £60m was spent last winter plus between £10m to £15m of third party money (mainly on towpaths)
  • In house staff undertook 1000 work packages spending £17m including 257 emergency projects and 180 gates made / fitted.
  • A further £30m was spent on contractors at 160 larger projects.
  • £7.8m was spent on dredging in 38 sites.
  • £1m spent grouting locks
  • Repairs to lock 15 at Marple became a wider "Marple Makeover" where £2.5m was spent including aqueduct safety railings.
  • £1.4m spent on offside vegetation control
  • 40,000 dog and litter bins emptied
  • 27,000 customer service visits made
  • Middlewich overtopping - was attributed to paddles being left open (not asset failure).
  • 3000 cubic feet of material was washed away
  • Solution agreed with contractor and access agreed along canal bed.
  • Active Badger set in south bank will be accommodated.
  • The narrowing of Filance Lock on the Staffs and Worcester was addressed last winter.
  • £500k will be spent addressing the bottom lock at Hurleston next winter.
  • A priority list is bisng worked through to tackle the known pinch point locks.

Monday 23 April 2018

Weddings and all that Gas

Weddings and all that Gas
April 2018

Its not every day you get an invitation to play water taxi to a bride and groom!

A few weeks ago the Boaters Christian Fellowship website received an unusual request which went along the lines of "will any of your members be in central Birmingham on Saturday 21st April, and be willing to pick a bride and groom from their reception at Gas Street and take them away to the Cube?"

Now that's what I call.... a happy couple!

I was thinking about who might be in the area and up for such a challenge, when I realised that with a little bit of rescheduling we could be in town that night - and promptly volunteered. We were put in touch with Manda and Paul, the bride and groom, and a plan was hatched.

The wedding entourage arrive

And so we rocked up into town on Saturday afternoon, with a private mooring generously provided by our friends Nick and Victoria and set to preparing the boat. We rigged up some lights and created a just married board before donning our best (relatively speaking) clothes and wandered up to the reception, which was taking place at St Lukes, Gas St. At this point the timings were finalised, drinks were drunk, bride and groom met and we scurried back to collect the boat.

Dont fall in.....

Now its worth mentioning at this point that the bride is Amanda Howett (Manda) and is priest in charge of St Lukes, Great Colmore Street and this church is the other part of the newly established Gas St Church - where the reception was being held.

At 9.30pm prompt we rocked up at Worcester Bar and tied onto the working boats opposite the trip boat pick up spot, just outside the Tap and Spile pub and waited. Of course, when did a wedding ever run to time? It was therefore no surprise to find ourselves waiting till 9.45 before the wedding entourage, probably 150 strong, came storming up the towpath led by a radiant bride and beaming groom. 

Causing mayhem at Worcester Bar

We slotted into the narrows and picked up the happy couple who, from the vantage of the boat, were able to say fleeting goodbyes to all the guests who lined the handrail. It was an amazingly balmy night for April but all the un-seasonal weather had set off some monster thunder storms, and our trip to the Cube was back lit with flashes of lightening. Fortunately the rain held off just long enough to see the newly weds get off at the far end and be whisked away by their best man.

One of the more unusual ways to leave a wedding reception?

I have to say that this was probably as memorable for us as it was Manda and Paul, and represented a hugely enjoyable way to start our 2018 adventure.

To round the weekend off we decided to visit St Lukes, Gas Street on Sunday and get a feel for this innovative church. This £2m project is set in a refurbished industrial building, which was originally used to manufacture gas and so illuminate the early city of Birmingham, before electricity was available. In fact, the building sits next to an oblong pond which is itself a lost arm of canal which led off Gas Street Basin. It therefore ticked my lost canal box for starters.

If you have any curiosity about things spiritual I would recommend that you add St Lukes, Gas St to your Birmingham Bucket List. It is a church but neither the building nor the style of worship are anything close to what you would expect. Maybe it is the Church of England dyed peroxide blond, where the only Anglican roots on show were the formal Banns of Marriage, which slotted slightly uneasily into a very contemporary style of worship. 

Its loud, its lively, its dynamic and its youthful. Possibly not for everyone, but if you like to sample the innovative and unusual you should get down there and try it it for yourself.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Pretty as a picture

Pretty as a picture
April 2018

Helen has been keeping secrets from me and, as we all know, "suspicion tears you apart". Not good news on the run up to our 30th wedding anniversary (23rd July).

She has been nurturing this secret from months, coyly alluding to "something special" every now and then, but never letting on what she was keeping from me. Whats more,I knew there was money involved, which disturbs an ex banker to his roots. 

Jan Vallance's painting of our boats under way

Finally. a few days ago Helen started a gradual reveal. The money was for a gift to both of us to celebrate our forthcoming anniversary, but such was its physical size there was no way she could smuggle it onto the boat for the actual day, or even hide it away at home.

Today I was expecting a big pre season glass delivery, but instead the parcel man arrived bearing a big flattish package which was snatched from my grasp by "Mrs Secrets". She returned beaming with a pair of scissors and asked me to open it. 

After a brief tussle with the parcel tape I got in and there was the back of a picture. Oh er - we are not always in agreement when it comes to artwork, so it was more than a bit of nervousness I turned it over. 

It was a specially commissioned Jan Vallance painting and not just of any old canal scene, but instead it was one of our own boats making their way north along the Worcester Birmingham Canal. It is fantastic, lovely, amazing and all so technically accurate! I love it and immediately saw that the chimney breast in our dining room was the ideal place for it. As you can imagine, Helen was there way before me....

Barry's original photograph
But that's not all. The actual image is included in Barry Tutenberg's top fifty photographs from their 2015 travels.

So a vote of thanks, first to Helen, the continuing Mrs Tidy whose secretive behaviour is not only forgiven but forgotten. Secondly to Jan Vallance for creating such a lovely and unique painting which will inspire be during the long winter days at home, and finally to Barry Teutenburg who not only supplied the original image but also suffered my glacially slow progress along the Worcester Birmingham canal for hour after hour!

Saturday 7 April 2018

Cley next the Sea

Cley next the Sea
April 2018

After all the cold followed by the rain I was blessed with wall to wall sunshine during a recent visit to North Norfolk.

I went out with my mother to follow the North Norfolk coast round from Cromer to Hunstanton. Along the was we saw the wave spray splashing over the shingle bar at Cley next the Sea. We drove down to the beach which offered an opportunity to grab some images before my fingers went numb.

Thursday 5 April 2018

North Walsham and Dilham Canal revisited

North Walsham and Dilham Canal
April 2018

I guess I visit the North Walsham and Dilham Canal about once a year, paying a watery pilgrimage when I come to visit my mother who lives in North Walsham, just a mile or so from Swafield where the restored navigation will end.

Ebridge Mill with lock and spillway

A year seems to be a good gap to appreciate progress and a cracking article by Martin Ludate in the July 2017 edition of the Eastern Daily Press's magazine "Norfolk" only served to whet my appetite.

Distinctive ground paddle

I started out at Ebridge Mill with its tranquil pool and well preserved lock chamber. When I was at school this was a sea of reeds with the remains of a steam dredger stranded on the mud in the middle. Today it is a glorious spot and the development for 2017 was the restoration of the spillway by a WRG camp. At the time of my visit the canal / river was brimming full and the spillway was in use, bypassing the old lock chamber.

Bacton Wood Lock

A little to the north west you come to Bacton Wood Bridge which is now the home for a slightly primitive trip boat, or should I say raft. I have long felt that the restored length would benefit from a trip boat and I guess you have to make a start somewhere!

 Trip Boat

Distinctive castings for the North Walsham and Dilham Canal

The restored lock at Bacton Wood stands ready to carry its first boat and it was particularly interested to take a closer look at the "lock furniture" which is all original and recycled. The castings are unique to the North Walsham and Dilham Canal, even bearing the legend G Cubitt, Nth Walsham.

North of Bacton Wood the canal is kind of wet rather than watered but stroll up to the culverted Royston Bridge and you return to a canal full of the wet stuff. The relationship between the restorers and the Environment Agency has been very like the Brexit Negotiations with angst and strong words, but over time they are making progress.

Partially re watered north of Royston Bridge

The Agency were not at all happy about the watering of the section between Bacton Wood and Ebridge and applied a stop order on their work. But over time relations seem to have thawed and there seems to be a cautious acceptance that the watering of the Swafield pound will be a good thing. 

 Dredging progresses

From a flood control perspective the big canal channel has to be a better bet than the narrow ditch which represents the current bed of the River Ant. The restorers have both cleared out the reeds and dredged the section north of Royston Bridge to a depth of about 18 inches. Water marks on the banks bear testimony to a full depth trial re watering in Jan 2018 when their integrity was tested. There is evidence of extra material being added to the top of the south bank in recent weeks and hopefully this is a prelude to full and permanent re watering.

Swafield Bridge reach

I have to admit that the restoration team always seem to be blessed with some seriously good kit which is parked here and there along the canal. All in all the volunteer enthusiasm, heavy duty kit and increasingly supportive authorities should see this top couple of miles in water in the very near future.

I will keep you posted...