Thursday, 29 September 2016

Musical Chairs

The ongoing redevelopment of Wand'ring Bark
September 2016

When I rebuilt the galley and saloon on Wand'ring Bark last winter there was one corner I left untouched due to a lack of time and also a lack of inspiration about what to do with it.

The area I am referring to the the front left corner opposite the stove, which is currently a cupboard with an unused CD / radio inside plus various electrical sockets and a draw underneath. With the advent of the i-pod and digital radio the stereo is now redundant.

The elongated bench seat

When I made the new L shaped sofa to replace the two parallel benches I kind of promised Helen something comfortable but our short time aboard this year highlighted a design flaw. We both like to sit with our legs up and when Helen has bagged the length of the settee there is nowhere for me to sit!  

With the DVD player now being sited opposite the settee (not on the stereo cupboard) I came to realise that I could remove the cupboard and replace it with a table / seat base in effect making a 9ft bench seat on which Helen can sit and one end and I can sit at the other with out toes getting intimate in the middle.

And so three planks of oak were purchased, joined, moulded and varnished to make the table top / seat base and the old unit reworked to support it. Of course, reworking is never that simple and it took a good two hours of persistent unscrewing to get the unit free and then to trim it down to size. 

Patience paid off and eventually the base was prepared for the new top which, after a bit of fettling, will be glued into position and the trimmings made good. Then there is the small matter of a new cushion form Elite Furnishings and we will both be sitting pretty!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A pressing issue

The Cider Press in action
September 2016

Over the years I have used my old trolley jack to press surplus apples into cider, but I was never really satisfied with my Heath Robinson contraption. Not only was it ungainly, it was also inefficient.

Jon with the new cider press

With a bit more time on my hands I invested the princely sum of £4 in some oak battens and recycled lots of bits and bobs from around the shed, including two donated sash cramps, into what appeared to be a workable apple press.

To accompany this bit of the cider making process I also prepared cheap and effective "scratter" to smash the apples into squeezable lumps, but stops short of liquidising them, which is also ineffective. There are many very dangerous looking DIY scratters on the YouTube, so I opted for a safer plasterers whisk with a sharpened blade which was about 80% as effective as a commercial unit and a fraction of the cost.

Scratting the apples with a plasterers whisk

With autumn upon us and windfall apples being offered in abundance it seemed a good opportunity to christen the kit, so my friend and fellow home brew enthusiast Jon came round for a couple of hours and we set to work on the bags of over ripe apples in the shed.

Apple ready for pressing

I should hasten to add that the lovely cider apples provided by Sue and Richard (Indigo Dreamers) and featured in this post were not used in this pressing. They are ripening up and will be processed in a few weeks when they have softened up a  bit more. For this pressing the apples we a mix of Emery and Wolferson Bramleys plus some softening cookers scrumped from Pelsall Common and some from my brother's orchard.

Apples awaiting the next pressing

The scratting in a beer vat half filled with apples was remarkably successful. We used the plasterers whisk attachment through a hole in the lid to minimise the splatter and after five minutes of churning up and down the apples had been reduced to smallish chunks.

The next stage was to load the pulp into the new press. Each pressing comprised four layers of apple, each wrapped in muslin and separated by wooden slats to let the juice escape. We found that half a vat of scratted apples fitted nicely into the press.

It works!

Then the press was engaged by screwing down both sash cramps and the juice poured out in a torrent. The pressure was enough to force juice through the side slats to it appeared to "cry", but the basket held as the top was screwed down. When the cramps were fully extended we added a wooden block to let us press further and by the time the pulp had compressed to about 40% of its original volume the flow slowed and the nearly dry apple crumb was removed.

Bleeding wood slats

This pressing process was repeated four times and we produced about 13 litres of apple juice. This was decanted into demijohns and left to ferment with an airlock inserted.

In the past I have had to use brewers yeast to start off apples picked straight from the tree but have found that if windfall apples are used the natural wild yeasts are introduced on their skins and it should ferment all by itself. 

13 litres of apple juice

We were delighted with the effectiveness of the kit, messing around like a pair of schoolboys as the amber nectar flowed from the press. Time will tell if the fermentation kicks by itself, or if the resulting cider is any good. Past results were very positive so we are hopeful. Not that we will be drinking it anytime soon - the juice needs to ferment out, be bottled with a teaspoon on sugar (to make it sparkling) and then left to mature over the winter. Then, in the spring the temperature will rise and as it reaches 15C a secondary fermentation will take place altering the acids. 

So we wont taste the results of our labours till next summer - time for a party!

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Back to Bumblehole

Black Country Boating Festival 2016
Sept 2016

The Black Country seems to specialise in great place names : Lower Gornal, New Invention or Black Delph. But there is one which is especially lovely: Bumblehole.

 Leaving Pelsall Common at first light

Now I do appreciate that there is a Bumblehole on the Staffs and Worcester, but the one I am thinking of is at Windmill End (another place name to savour) which is in a country park near Netherton at the western end of the Netherton Tunnel. Bumblehole inspires images of bees buzzing to and from heads of honeysuckle of a balmy summers day. In truth its a huge local nature reserve which has grown up over an industrial site which was of epic proportions. 

The decades have softened the shattered landscape and even the brutally named Dudley Number Two Canal has mellowed as it weaves its way through the site, along with its numerous canal arms and loading basins. The end result is something a bit special, with the eastern horizon framed by Portway Hill and the gaunt remains of Cobbs Mill, with its leaning chimney.

OK, so that's enough of me going all misty eyed about the site! It also hosts the amazing annual Black Counter Boating Festival on the first weekend in September, this time celebrating 31 consecutive years. We are relative newcomers but this September was our fifth as a trade boat, always occupying the same spot just outside the visitor centre. Over that time our offering has grown from a tentative table on the back of Wand'ring Bark to the more extensive Jam Butty, but this year was a bit different. Whilst the boats and the produce were the same, this year I traded without Helen who was at home cared for by her mother as the comes to an end of a course of chemotherapy. Instead, I was accompanied and supported by my friend Dave, who whilst he has Helen's height, lacks her legs!

The limitations of the Chemo has meant that our travels have been much curtailed and we limited our trading to the few events we could reach from our Aldridge base, and which also fitted in with her relatively "good" weeks in the treatment cycle. This limited schedule has seen the boats limited to the BCN and have been just enough to turn the stock over and replenish it ready for next year when we will have another bash at reaching London.

Attending the festival meant nearly a week out on the boats and the outward journey was achieved in a serene manner, spending the first night at Pelsall Commen which we left at first light on the Thursday. Towing the butty does slow us down a bit but we reached Horsleyfields Junction six hours later and then arrived at the festival site after another four hours cruising, including a detour via The Brades as Factory Locks were being repaired.

The festival saw persistent drizzle on the Saturday which dampened attendance, but such is our loyal clientele our takings were average for a festival day, even if they were only 50% of last years record breaking tally, which was achieved with a full spread of stock in glorious sunshine.

The Reflections

Saturday night is usually spent in the Beer Tent and this year the main band were The Reflections, a hugely engaging cover band which we (the Roving Traders) have met elsewhere and love. They play an up tempo set of material from the 1960's to the 1990's with bags of enthusiasm and great skill. Their material begs to be danced to and it was great to see just about all the traders up and bopping for the second set. 

Sunday was clear and bright, making up for the dull Saturday. The crowds flocked in and trade was brisk, keeping Dave and myself busy replenishing the stall and swapping jars of preserves for tenners! The day was a blur of familiar faces but being without Helen meant I had very little time to chat - sorry if I didn't give you a lot of time!

The Roving Traders strut their stuff

And so dawn broke on Monday morning to see us winding the boats in the Bumblehole Arm and setting out for the Wyrley and Essington Canal, with the Cheese Boat hard on our heels through Netherton Tunnel. Our objective was to reach Pelsall but along the way we paused in Wednesbury where we had seen some Damson trees on the offside which gave us 9 kilos in about 20 minutes - enough for several batches of Damson Chutney and the ever popular Damson, Ginger and Tea Jam.

Dave helps with the foraging

Our only hiccup along the way was the acquisition of a nylon carpet on the prop in Harden. Its a situation we dread but I am glad to say its becoming much rarer. In the event it wasn't too badly wound on and a serrated knife saw it released within 15 minutes. The muddy fabric was hauled onto the bows of the butty and duly deposited in the skip at Sneyd.

As usual, we had the 30 miles of the W&E to ourselves and we navigated that  final fours hours home from Pelsall under a roasting sun, spotting fish flitting in and out of the weeds beneath us. 

I guess my thanks go to my mother in law for looking after Helen and Dave for offering help, support and endless cups of tea. Without the pair of them the trip would never have been possible.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

IWA Festival of Water - Pelsall

IWA Festival of Water - Pelsall Common
August 2016

The IWA's Festival of Water in Pelsall was never in my 2016 plan, not because I had anything against it but had things panned out as expected we would have been in London at the time.

Chilling at the IWA Festival of Water, Pelall 2016

However, 2016 really wasn't to be as far as cruising is concerned. Helen's treatment has kept us close to home which has meant that the preserve business has had to be scaled back - a lot. Our challenge is that whilst preserves by definition will keep - they don't keep indefinitely and certainly not till the 2017 cruising season.

Leaving an unusually busy Longwood Boat Club

We therefore decided to keep Wild Side ticking over but with Helen doing no cooking and no selling - which meant that I was trained in the mysteries of preserve making and every opportunity would be taken to attend local boat gatherings where the chemo impacts allow. These sales opportunities should be enough to turn the stock over and set us up for next year.

Choc a bloc at Brownhills

The IWA Festival of Water therefore came as a godsend - a major canal festival a mere eight or nine miles from our home moorings. The cost for a trade boat was a bit steep at £90 including VAT, but it was really too good an opportunity to miss so I signed in and hoped for the best. As it turned out the Cheese Boat (northern) was in attendance as was Paul from Waterways Routes and T&S Boat Handling so there were just the four of us.

The Jam Butty's pitch

I figured it wasn't a huge catchment area and sales would be gentle enough to trade alone, so I set off on Thursday with a good quantity of preserves but more than a little apprehension. Can I pull it off alone? I wasn't too worried about company because I know so many attendees, but I have never tackled even a two day event by myself and to date my limit was the one day even at Brownhills.

Setting up the butty, captured by Margaret Beardsmore.

The weather did its worst on the way over but the Friday dawned clear and bright and made setting up a delight. For the two of us a set up takes a couple of hours but on my own people kept stopping by for a chat and the set up stretched from 10.00am till 4.00pm. On the upside, the visitors kept buying product and by the end of the day my entrance fee has been covered! The evening was rounded off with faggots and chips washed down with real ale - which provided sustenance to enter the Martin Ludgate quiz. We (myself, the Tawny Owlers and a couple of WRGies) emerged equal first before losing the tie break. Our combined encyclopedic knowledge of the BCN came in handy...

 The historic boats

The next three days passed in a blur. Saturday ended early at 4.00pm beneath a downpour of rain but Sunday and Monday were ideal and the crowds flocked into the site and many beat their way to The Jam Butty for a sticky fix..

Sunset over the festival site with the crowds gone home

I was rarely without customers and the preserves flew out at an alarming rate. Fortunately kindly friends kept me supplied with tea and beer and periodically someone would mind the stall whilst I attended to the other end of the process.

I have to admit that I saw virtually nothing of the event beyond the horizon offered from the deck of The Jam Butty, but did manage to attend the 8.30 communion service on Sunday which was held in the main tent and officiated by a couple of the local clergy.

The illuminated boats

I did go exploring on Sunday evening and emerged from Pelsall Common with two huge bags full of cooking apples which stew down very nicely. The evening was rounded on with a very effective illuminated boat display. The only fly in the ointment was that Kew, at 71ft, couldn't wind in the Lord Hays Arm and had to carry on for 2 hours to turn at Berchills Junction in Walsall the next day.

Right on Kew!

And so the weekend concluded with the coffers much improved but most of the reserve stock sold to an eager public.

All in all an excellent August Bank Holiday's trading which was followed by a slow four hour tow back to Longwood. The underwater reeds had been trimmed by the many propellers but the resulting floating clumps had turned some elements of the Daw End into the Sargasso Sea. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Bashing the backwaters

Bashing the backwaters
July 2016

Whilst we may not be able to travel far, our remote location on the northern fringes of the BCN does off scope for a number of rather lovely overnight moorings.

Sunset at Pelsall Common

Helen has just completed her third course of chemo (half way there) and has recovered enough to want to venture outside the house, but needs to remain within striking distance of the hospital should anything go wrong.

And so a three day trip on the boat was prescribed. She has no energy for locking so that rules out the south - so, lets go north!  

Day one (Friday).

We make for Pelsall Common which is on countdown for the IWA Festival of Water  which will occupy the site in four weeks time. There is not a lot to see on the ground but the banners have appeared on the local bridges and the locals seem to have got wind of it.

We ate at the Fingerpost Inn and in spite of being just about the only eating customers at 6.00pm the food was less that inspirational, which was pretty much what we experienced last time. The lime mayo was missing from the starter and the deep fried onion rings were missing from the main - we had apologies and remediation but they weren't exactly rushed off their feet. I think we will pick up a Tesco's Finest for £10 next time and eat on the boat.

Water Lillies in the canal

As ever, the common was deserted and apart from some dog walkers we had the place to ourselves, savouring a lingering sunset after an afternoon downpour.

Day two (Saturday)

A lazy start followed and we puttered the hour back to Brownhills where we paid a visit to Tesco just beside the canal and also picked up 5kg of red peppers at Aldi for another batch of Blow your head off Chilli Jam.

Tranquility on the Anglesey Arm

Then it was for another hour as we wound our way along the weed fringed Anglesey Arm for a mooring in Norton Pool, beneath the high earth ramparts which hold back the Chasewater reservoir. Along the way we passed "Cockfest", Brownhills very own music festival which was in full swing. Now dont get me wrong, its a nice effort but the event isnt about to rival Worthy Farm in Glastonbury. I will bet you are wondering about the rather splendid name Cockfest. No its not a nudist festival for gents with impressive lunchboxes, but rather because it is held on the site of an old chicken farm. Only in Brownhills.......

Cockfest main stage

We have previously moored in the inlet beneath the dam, but the sound of running  water had me up to the loo four times in the night so this time we moored at the site of the old coal gantry, near the remains of the coal chutes. 

 Norton Pool 

Sunset at Chasewater

A lovely secluded mooring in the midst of the old drift mines with only the faintest hum on the M6 Toll to disturb us.