Saturday, 29 September 2012

Avon Trip 2012 - Stourport

Avon Trip 2012
Gothersley to Stourport
19 August 2012

11 Miles - 10 locks - 4.5 hours

A bit of a contrast to yesterday with a mere 4.5 hours of cruising achieved.

Stourton Junction

We started with  mid season oil change with the meter showing 3,400 hours. This delayed our start till 10.30 and then Belle disappeared off up the locks at Stourton on a moderately successful foraging expedition. This area id being overrun by Himalayan Balsam, its purple flowers carpeting the margins of canal and river in the Stour Valley. The problem is that the stuffs suppresses all before it and is almost impossible to stamp out. A rampant invader but not without beauty.

The forecast was for rain in the afternoon, but this never materialised and instead we were treated to a day as hot and sultry as a latino actress. 

The forager queen

Foraging proceeded apace, with three kg of blackberries collected from a wall just south of Cookley Tunnel. Passing boaters never quite get used to seeing us beached on the mud on the offside collecting fruit. Not that the canal was as busy as the towpath. The towpath hereabouts must be a part of a very popular cycleway as the place is crawling with cyclists on their shiny new lycra outfits. 

The blackberrying delayed us a bit but we still found ourselves at Kidderminster Sainsburys at 3.30pm - with 30 mins before they closed. They have at least taken steps to migate the risk of trolleys being chucked into the cut. Not only do you have to lodge £1 to use one. if you stray as far as the towpath the wheels lock up. I have pulled so many trolleys out of the BCN I was sorely tempted to lose my £1 and chuck it in just for the hell of it (not really!).

Target blackberries

We finally came across trees wit ripe plums at Falling Sands Lock, with 2.5kg collected in about 15 mins using our long handled picker. They were very tasty on their own but they are destined to be mixed with Meadowsweet as part of one of Belle's unusual preserves. Our progress towards Stourport was then accompanied by the heady smell of cooking blackberries wafting up from below - natures perfect perfume.

We called it a day by Wildend Pool (Bridge 8) just short of Stourport, a lovely rural mooring with vies across the Stour Valley. The evening stayed warm and the into track to Annie Nightingale's radio one show "Lazing on a Sunday afternoon" spun round and round my head,. I finished the day out on the back deck with the sun setting casting a golden glow onto the big bowl of plums I was stoning, lubricated with a pint of Hobgoblin.

I like this holiday malarkey!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Avon Trip 2012 - Gothersley

Avon Trip 2012
Calf Heath to Gothersley
18 August 2012

At last, the start of my account of our 2012 summer trip! The last few weeks have been frenetic squeezing out all spare time, but now I have started on this series I will ensure I finish!

Cetus at Aldersley Junction

This trip was an ever changing feast. 1st it was to be a run around the Thames Ring, ending in Oxford, but the prospect of the Olympics and a severe drought put paid to that. Then it became a run down the Trent and over the Leeds Liverpool to Wigan, but a surfeit of water put dashed that plan from my dripping fingers.

Finally, an unexpected twist happened when Jeff made an unexpected departure from the family nest - and then there were two. We were free to go where we wanted and so, after a bit of thought, we went in search of of the huge plum crops which were said to exist on the Gloucester Sharpness (or should that be Berkley) Canal and up the River Avon. 

We decamped to Calf Heath on Friday night, Belle, myself and about half a ton of jam making kit which we stored away on every conceivable nook and cranny.  


We awoke with the dawn, probably about 6.30am and set off at 8.30 under a grey and spitting sky with strict instructions to look for jamming fruit. No sooner had we started than we were finding foraging material - loads of blackberries near the M54, but the wild raspberries at Pendeford were finished, just a handful of squashy ones which were no use to man nor beast. 

The canal was quiet, with nothing moving at The Bratch. The lock keeper said that a few boats had passed in the morning but ours, at 3.30pm was the first of the afternoon. Where is everyone? As we proceeded south the Damsons came into evidence, but they were hard and unripe. Maybe we will have more luck further south.

We paused at Swindon and purchased some excellent fish and chips from the award winning chippie before pressing on through Greensforge Lock under the gaze of dozens of gongoozlers at The Navigation. More blackberries were picked from the offside but it means getting stuck on the mud - I am getting rather expert in pulling clear with just the engine!  The weather improved as the day wore on and we were  finally treated to a perfect summer evening, eased along with a Sloe Gin and a take out pint from Wightwick Lock later on.

We ended the day somewhere between Devils Den and Stourton Junction, a bit further than we planned but some kind of bash was on at Ashwood Marina involving a loud band which destroyed the peace for half a mile or so.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Canals Are My Home - book review

Canals Are My Home
by Iris Bryce (1979)
September 2012

You may remember my enthusiastic review of Iris Bryce's third and final "canals are my" book Canals are my World.

We recently took Wild Side Preserves on the road to the Blisworth Canalside Festival and as is my custom, I took a stroll among the exhibits. These wanderings inevitably throw up something life enriching, be it a book, an object or a person. At this festival is was two combined - a copy of Canals are my Home, the first in the series, and a meeting with the author herself, and her lovely husband Owen.

There was no missing Owen. He was standing on the towpath quite literally blowing his own trumpet to a favourite jazz track. That set my little grey cells going. I remembered a story about a jazz trumpeter roaming the canals in the 1970's so I stopped, turned and spied a small table covered in jazz music and a couple of Iris Bryce's books. There is no point being a shrinking violet at times like these, so I asked "are you, by any  chance, Owen Bryce - husband of Iris?" Indeed he was and I was soon chatting to Iris and she was telling me all about her days afloat  and her remarkable journey to the Medway. Her accounts of the canals correspond with my childhood memories, collapsing towpaths, silted channels and rotting gates.

Which takes me to her first book - Canals are my Home. This is the account of their first two years aboard Bix, a 65 foot narrowboat built by Fernie Steel and fitted out by Blisworth Tunnel Narrowboats, a yard she can now see from her kitchen window.

The book chronicles their transformation from Kentish farmers and parents of grown up children to a footloose couple who's home is a long thin metal box which carried them the length and breadth of England. The peculiar thing about this series is that you can hear Iris as you read, you don't even need to have met her! The story unfolds as if it is emerging from a variable speed tape recorder in that the book lingers over treasured memories lasting just a day or two and then catapults you forward three or six month at the turn of a page. This is all part of the book's charm as far as I am concerned.

Unlike most of today's continuous cruisers, they had no pension to sustain them - just a modest repayment of an old business loan which stopped abruptly when the business failed. Rather than being forced off the water they embarked on a series of short term casual jobs, lecturing on canals and jazz plus taking a few paying guests and by writing waterways related articled they managed to get by.

Its easy to imagine them plodding round the country out of season, Owen playing the trumpet and Iris on the piano which was physically built into the boat as the hull was being fabricated. No wonder Bix became such a recognised craft in her day.

Now, 30 years later, Owen and Iris live beside the Grand Union in Blisworth with Bix remembered in a scale model which was proudly on display alongside the books of their travels. 

Its not so much the story which is compelling, but rather the period backdrop she describes. The canals were seemingly in terminal decline and the relative good order of today was unimaginable. If you cant meet Iris and Owen read the book. Better still, visit Blisworth Canalside festival next summer and listen out for a trumpet. Mind you, don't expect to find a copy of the second book in the series - I bought the last one! More of that another time. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

Black Country Boating Festival 2012

Black Country Boating Festival
September 2012

This may be the 27th boating festival held at the atmospheric location of Windmill End on the BCN, but it was our  first experience of the event.

Black Country Boating Festival 2012

I am continually struck by the sheer diversity of the canal festivals. If you look beneath the boats and stalls there is such a range of formats and aspirations. This is one of the longest established festivals but one which is as much for the local community as for the 102 boats which attended.

The sun shone out of a clear blue sky on the Saturday and the crowds flocked in - an estimated 13,000 of them. The organisers suggest 6,500 on the first day and 5,500 on the second but I suspect that this is a bit on the light side for Saturday, when it was hard to move for the press of the thronging hoards. 

Wild Side Preserves before the onslaught!

But lets back up a bit. We decided to attend with the Wild Side Preserves band waggon and somehow or other we cocked up the booking. Rather than having a gazebo type pitch we belatedly found out that we were trading off the boat. After a few minutes of consternation we decided to give it a whirl, setting up the sales table across the stern (never have we been more pleased that we have a cruiser stern) and letting the display spread along the cabin roof. The Fudge Boat was in front of us and they assured us that we would have a busy day, and so it turned out.
Sales surpassed all expectations and beat all records. The Blow Your Head Off Chilli Jam was a particular hit and our double sized stock was all sold out by early morning on the Sunday.

But what of the event itself? Well, it had a bit of something for everyone which is probably what lies at the heart of its popularity. There were 102 boats to look at, with the working boats and tugs parading through the site plus the 83 trade stalls selling everything from candy floss to air brush tattoos (and of course, a rather marvelous preserves boat!). Then there was the classic car display and the welcome return of the daytime music showcase in the central arena, with the event lubricated by an extensive real ale bar. Further back on the site there was a large car boot sale and then, just behind a rise, a big funfair blaring out its raucous music to the delight of the Netherton kids.

Tugs in the Boshboil Arm

There is no doubt that this is really a community festival based around the boating fraternity. It felt good to be part of something which puts a lot of pleasure back into what is quite a poor community, as well as raising over £100k for charity over the years. Perhaps the biggest thanks should go to the Army Cadet Force who stewarded tirelessly, receiving the Black Country Boating Festival award for their efforts.

 Scenes form the 2012 festival

I am not sure I would chance a night at Windmill End on my lonesome, but we had no trouble during our stay and were made exceptionally welcome by the organisers and locals alike.

The trip in and out wasn't without incident. For the first time ever we had hassle on the Wolverhampton 21. A couple of kids were out looking for trouble, jumping onto the boat in a lock and ramming the throttle hard ahead. One thought this was hilarious till I decided to give chase and was a bit surprised that the "fat bastard" could outpace him and was totally dismayed when another boater with a windlass approached from the next lock down. The little creep fell to the ground like the coward he really is begging for mercy! Whilst the nearby grass cutters were encouraging a good thrashing I settled for a photo of his ugly mug. And just as well I did too. As I walked up to the next lock a bloke approached dripping water and nearly in tears. The little gits has pushed him into the canal and then when he tried to get out they tried to kick him in the head. I later saw an account in the Express and Star of an identical incident the week before so, if you see this lad with his distinctive eyebrows keep your windlass to hand and dont get between him and the canal. Oh - yes I did report him to the law.

Wolverhampton 21's most wanted

Belle was replaced by Mr Truth for the return journey, who was undertaking light boating duties for the first time since the surgery which took him out of this years BCN Challenge. A glorious morning encouraged a 7.15am departure from Tipton and we had a truly delightful return to base, foraging apples, blackberries, damsons and sloes along the way. Hey, there is a lot of stock to replace!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Flower of Gloster - book review

The Flower of Gloster
by E Temple Thurston
September 2012

Like exploring some of the significant lost canals, there are some books which I delay reading  simply because I know I will be delighted by them and I want to prolong the anticipation.

The Flower of Gloster falls into this category and it didn't let me down.

I have a special appreciation of books about canal journeys and have been overindulging in the wartime era just lately. I saw a copy of The Flower of Gloster in a bookshop in Upton on Severn ,which I snapped up along with another half dozen publications at considerable cost to my bank balance. This book was worth every penny of the £7.50 I paid for it.

Its the account of Temple Thurston's one month trip in 1911, starting in Oxford and going as far north as Solihull where the dead dogs and grime (nothing changes there then) drove him south to Stratford. At this point the Avon was not navigable so he headed south along the Avon on foot, following in the footsteps of Charles Showell and his then new book Shakespeare's Avon. This cross reference to one of my favourite books pleased me no end.

But this  bland A - B - C - D dosn't do the book justice at all. Thurston was a journalist and therefore a skilled writer. The book is therefore quality literature, even if the language is rather frlowery and verbose to the contemporary ear. A pleasing counterpoint to the clipped "Pathe News" style found around world war 2.

Temple Thurston has an eye for the detail and a keen appreciation for the world around him, but the real star of the show is the shadowy figure of Eynsham Harry who was hired, with his horse, to provide the motive power for this epic journey. Harry is one of life's uneducated philosophers, always ready with something profound to say and a character as colourful as the country side through which they passed. 

Perhaps the best was left till the last, a passage across what is now known as the Cotswold Canal, offering one of the best and certainly one of the last accounts of this passage. The Golden valley described sounds beautiful and I cant wait for this restoration to be completed.

I will say no more about this book. If you havn't read it yet and have a love for canals, it is a must. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Worst Journey in the Midlands - book review

The Worst Journey in the Midlands
by Sam Llewellyn (1983)
September 2012

Sam Llewellyn, writer and part time explorer stands on Plynlimon and considers the feasibility of an autumnal rowing trip to London.

He would have been about 34 at the time and his previous boating experience was an abortive  camping trip down the River Bure in 1961, the year of my birth.

The book starts with a canoe trip from Llanidloes to Welshpool but the tale really commences when he teams up with Magdalen, an 83 year old rowing skiff with an advance case of rot in her mahogany planking. This fragile craft was to be his constant companion for the next three week, buoyed up by enthusiasm and several large tubes of plastic padding,. The plan was to run down the River Severn to Tewkesbury and then up the Avon to the Grand Union and so to the Thames via the Oxford Canal.

But there was a snag. The Avon was closed and of course, no link exists between Higher Avon and the GU at Warwick. A plan B was adopted which utilised the Worcester Birmingham Canal and the North Stratford Canal to get him back on track.

Unfortunately for the author, his trip coincided with the eruption of a volcano which triggered the wettest autumn on record. In the face of this adversity he pressed on, a solitary figure rowing his way across the Midlands. His contact with the wider world lessens as his journey progresses, lost in a world limited by the veils of rain which surrounded him and lost in a watery misery of self contemplation. 

He comes across as a warm and welcoming chap, someone you would like to meet. He certainly won the hearts of those he encountered, offering food, drink, tows and the occasional bed.

All this was the better part of 30 years ago which makes him 64 and I have to wonder if her ever returned to Norfolk and completed his trip down the Bure, I certainly hope so. All in all this is an absorbing read for boaters with a pioneering streak in them. A bit Boys Own meets Swallows and Amazons, but my guess is that this was staple fare for Sam in his adolescence. Arthur Ransome has a lot to answer for!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Ryders Green and pleasant land

Ryders Green and pleasant land
September 2012

I returned to the Canals of the Black Country on Sunday, on the look out for some photographic opportunities of the lost canals which abound in the area around Ryders Green.

Ryders Green top lock

As a photographic expedition it was quite successful, but it did highlight the disadvantage to doing this sort of thing in the summer when all the undergrowth is fully grown.

That said, I was a bit dismayed at the state of the canal. The Walsall canal looks untravelled for weeks, one of the Ryders Green balance beams is just about hanging off and the entrance to the top lock is so choked with week I could almost walk to the other side as I wormed my way round to the towpath on the Swan Arm.

The overgrown Swan Arm Sept 2012

If the Ryders Green locks were bad the sight on the arm was even worse. Three years ago the navigation channel was just a few feet across at the middle section but now its wall to wall bullrushes for over 200 yards. There is now absolutely no chance of of reaching the winding hole near the the Ridgeacre Pub. I am really glad I made the trip 4 years ago when it was just about passable because, like the Anson Arm, this is a closure which isnt going to be reversed.

Lets hope it stays navigable to the point where I took my photo or the boat on the bank is going to have a bit of trouble making its escape.

Last boat on the Swan Arm owned by a bloke called Noah!

Much as I hate to see a canal lost,  this one died the day they laid a road across the far end and severed the last half mile. There is no real reason to go to the new terminus and to make matters worse, the pollution in the sediment is terrible. I have heard that if a boat disturbs that Caramac coloured stew it poisons all the fish.

An encouraging terminus.

So there we have it. The BCN's latest "lost" canal - another for my list. 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Saturday Sizzler

Drifting along the Coventry
Sept 2012

Sorry for the prolonged radio silence - anyone would think that I had forgotten the "Publish" button on Blogger.

Fradley Junction

The simple fact is that we have been away boating, and I havn't had time to write up the trip report. 

So here is a post completely out of sequence. 

Having cruised to Croperdy, Wand'ring Bark was recovered by Martin, as usual, but due to time constraints he had to pause the return trip leaving the boat in Tamworth. The forecast for the weekend was excellent and with Belle and my mother in law booked in for a double dose of Shakespeare, it left John, my father in law, and myself with a day to kill. How better than spend it out on the water moving the boat back to base?

We made our way to the boat on Friday evening and slept aboard, ready for a prompt getaway with Gt Haywood as a likely destination. The morning was clear and still, with the sun soon burning off that autumnal nip in the air. In no time we were cruising along in our tee shirts. This really is a lovely stretch of canal, not spectacular but in some ways it's the Midlands at its benign best. 

Balloons at Shugborough

First there are the wooded hills of the Canwell Estate before reaching the busy A38 corridor at Seethay Wharf. Along the way others were struggling to wake up - a couple of lads in a RIB who didn't know which side to pass on (didn't even bother looking for a license) and then as I was approaching a long line of moored boats an oncoming boat was hypnotised by the haystacks and again I had to pass to the left to avoid a collision.

But after that initial excitement the miles just rolled under the keel. We moved from village to village with just a smattering of oncoming traffic to keep us on our toes. Fradley was thronging, with the Cheese Boat at the junction making for the Black Country Festival at the weekend and four boats waiting to rise up the Trent and Mersey. No problem on a day like that - we grabbed a couple of take out pints from the Swan and chatted to the folk on the towpath. The incident, if you can call it that, was down to the Trust volunteers. I shouldn't really gripe as their help was appreciated, but as with my father in law being inexperienced I was in single hander mode and stuck the bows against the top gate with the drive in slow forward. "Oh no, can you move to the back of the lock please?" We complied and, of course, as the boat neared the top she surged forward and gave the gates a heart whack. Not sure how best to handle these situations.

Up into the sunset

Then it was on in a dreamy summer afternoon, drifting through Armitage and Rugely. As we enter home waters we encounter  more and more boats that we know - its nice really. The sun started to set as we crossed the River Trent, trailed by a couple of black country guys out in their canoe doing a round trip from Wolsley Bridge.

A bonus emerged as we approached Great Haywood. There in the grounds of Shugborough two balloons were taking off. We stopped and were busy taking some photos when I looked at the boat beside us which seemed more than a little familiar - Starcross, and there was Jim sitting in the bows.


And so ended a particularly beautiful day, good weather and a whole day with my father in law, polished off with a pub meal. It dosn't get a lot better than that.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Watch - film review

The Watch 
Film Review
September 2012

What do I say! Sometimes some of these oddball films come up trumps and sometimes they don't - this one didn't!

Maybe I should have appreciated that comedy and sci fi are uneasy bedfellows but an evening with Jeff presented itself and this seemed the best of the bunch.

Lets be clear, this isnt a story about a timepiece. Its a tale of four socially dysfunctional guys from Smallsville USA who, in response to a murder, set up a neighbourhood watch scheme. After much ridicule from the public and the local police they find themselves caught up in the midst of an alien invasion - and its up to them to save the planet.

There is much madcap chasing around but the outcome was never really in doubt. Hey, how often do the baddies / aliens win in this sort of situation? There are some funny moments and some unexpected twists, but overall the film struggles to lift itself above the mundane.

If you think I am being a bit hard on it, it is probably telling that this new release attracted an audience of less than 25. Mind you, Jeff loved it, especially the innuendo and shoot outs, so I guess that the target market is not the 50 something bank manager brigade....