31 May 2008

Susie dog

As this blog is entitled DogsonTour, it is perhaps time to tell you a little more about the eponymous heroes of this online world.

So let me introduce dog no. 1, Susie. We rescued Susie when she was three and a half, retired for failing to regain her speed after injury. She was our first dog and will therefore always have a special place in our hearts, even though she can be a right stroppy mare at times. She didn’t get a companion for another year but that didn’t bother her as she immediately adopted us as her pack, with her at the top. We used the linear confines of the towpath to train her and she was sufficiently obedient to be able to accompany A up the full extent of Heartbreak Hill without putting a foot wrong. In that first year, her two ‘pieces de resistance’ were thus.

First, she did a disappearing act from the towpath when A and I were engaged in conversation with Mike and Liz off Snecklifter. This occurred at Hopwas, just outside the Tame Otter pub. On asking the patrons whether they had seen a black greyhound, they smiled and pointed to the open dining room door. Our hearts sank and we approached, fearing the sight of eight chicken in a baskets now eight chicken in a Susie tummy. We were spared any further mortification by a kind waiter leading the shameless madam out by her collar. But this dog’s an arch recidivist so she goes and does exactly the same thing at Wheelock, this time hunting down hams in the nice Italian there. We set off to retrieve her when she came bounding out of her own volition, which might have had something to do with a guy charging after her with a cleaver. Actually, I think I made the cleaver bit up but it adds a certain piquancy, don’t you think?

She’s got four new pals now and she bosses them frightfully. Put a foot wrong and you get growled up the bum. But she is a musketeer at heart so she will protect the pack fiercely even though she is fairly beastly to them. Perhaps the most remarkable thing she ever did was come and find us one night. We had hopped onto the boat behind for dinner, leaving our front doors slightly open (it was a fearfully hot night) but guarded by a chair. At 11 o’clock, I heard an unmistakeable tinkling of a dog’s collar and there was Susie, hanging her elegant nose over the bow and giving us her best ‘dirty stop-outs return home immediately’ look. Who needs your mum when she’s around?

30 May 2008

Maiden voyage

Kev’s account of his maiden voyage on 4Evermoore rolled back the years to the day when we had our first trip on the old girl. She’d been fetched back from Huddersfield on the back of a lorry and we were going to trundle down to Burton and back for a snagging cruise. I remember thinking that the boat was too long and the tiller too short (we changed it shortly afterwards) and swearing like a navvie when some bushes decided to attack and put a scratch on her nice new paintwork. I recall ringing up MCC because our macerator WC had gummed up and we were peeing into a bucket. I certainly have clear memories of the doughty Paul putting my porcelain bog on the towpath and fixing it, poor bloke. And who can forget the relief when the Little Chef at Barton opened its doors allowing a lady a little privacy for a certain undertaking.

But what I really remember is the two days moored up in Horninglow. First, there was the explosion. Only a tiny one but some idiot, not me, had put the batteries in our DAB/CD player thingy the wrong way round and they blew up, spurting acid everywhere. The machine was totally kaput so we cleaned up the mess in the battery compartment, took it back to Currys and with a straight face said it didn’t work. They believed us and gave us a new one. Aren’t we bad...

And then there were our visitors. Don’t ask me why, because it’s lost in the mists of time, but A had asked a fairly newish friend, Andy, and his wife to come over to the boat, have the tour and then join us for a curry. They lived locally and duly turned up in the evening. Now it had been intimated that Andy’s wife liked a drink and we were to be very careful about how much vino we gave her. Well, like a drink might have been putting it mildly because it was quite clear that she was pretty pickled when she arrived. After the usual meet and greet, and a large glass of Chardonnay (what the hell was I thinking of? Automatic hospitality mode, I guess) the first thing she said was, ‘That’s a nice bed, can I lie down on it?’Mmm, that was a tricky one but Andy the husband intervened and counselled her to use one of the recliners instead.

We then had a sotte voce discussion about whether we could still go off to the gloriously named Balti Towers curry house with her in this condition. She made up our minds for us by falling asleep, and Andy said she’d be fine for an hour or two. So another delicate situation...how do you say that you’re not too enamoured of the prospect of leaving a drunken stranger on your precious new boat when there is a) gas and b) water handy with which to play merry hell with? In the end, I went but it took the edge off my biryani, I can tell you. And then, what’s with A’s new friend Andy ordering hot mince? What the hell is that? Puts me in mind of the lovely Chinese in Market Drayton where the couple behind us ordered prawn cocktail and steak and chips....

Not surprisingly the evening was not a great success but thankfully everything was as we had left it when we finally regained the towpath. They left, never to be seen again and we settled down to a quiet night. Only for a domestic to kick off on the other side of the hedge...serious decibels, choice language, welcome to the peace and quiet of the waterways.

29 May 2008

My other boat's a motorhome

Even before the moment of madness that saw us go out for an innocent recce and come back with a mobile behemoth, I was aware of a strong correlation between narrowboating and motorhoming. I had heard of lots of people who had left motorhoming to go boating and just as many who had made the trip the other way. Some of the ambivalent amongst us can’t decide what to do so do both. I’m not really surprised by it all..the nomadic gypsy in me can be satisfied by either, and my bank account emptied by both.

Motorhome ownership came as a result of our dog/holiday dilemma. We wanted to be able to see other parts of the UK and Europe than those accessible by water but hotels, B&Bs and self catering cottages that accept five dogs are about as rare as eunuchs in a brothel. Anyway, I believe I mooted the idea on a Tuesday and A was very enthusiastic, and we agreed to take a trip up to the vast Brownhills dealership at Newark for a look-see. Sensing no time like the present, I suggested we pop up the coming Saturday, all the time counselling A that we would not do anything rash or hasty, that we would get the magazines, visit the shows, check out dealers, do our research, make a truly informed decision. Well as planned, we pootled up on Saturday and introduced ourselves to a diminutive but charming salesman called...wait for it...Philip Little. Great name, great guy. So there we were, walking around the site which was jam packed full of motorhomes of all shapes and sizes. We were trying to play it cool but the fact that our eyes were out on sticks was a bit of a giveaway. When we got to the £150,000 Clou Liner, I nearly wet myself but I was dragged away to the second-hand vans before I disgraced myself. Once here we started to look in earnest, with ‘look’ being the operative word. This was the first sortie, this was fact-finding, under no circumstances whatsoever were we to get the cheque book out. Before we knew it we were sitting in an office committing to yet another HP agreement...I’m not sure how it happened even now. We were only on our fifth van when Philip started whispering sweet nothings about integrated awnings, colour reversing cameras, bike racks and Freeview before coming in for the kill with the rear U lounge that had ‘dog bed’ written all over it. As we went home, I asked A how come, despite all our adjuring of one another to take our time, we had ended up with a 23ft van when a) we had nowhere to park it and b) we knew nothing about motorhoming. I asked him the same thing when 18 months later we went for another look-see and came back with a new 26ft van....

P.S. For those of you who are interested in the detail, our first van was an Autotrail Apache 700SE. We decided after a year that we actually needed more space (Autotrail didn’t really optimise the layout) so we moved on to a magnificent Bessacarr 765P. It really is the dog’s do-dahs. Sod the credit crunch!

P.P.S. Note to self: do not go to Brownhills, do not pass go, do not buy a 28ft tag axle motorhome.

Hail to thee, blythe mobile

I am frequently to be found making obeisance to those great gods of the mobile telecom pantheon, Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile. Without them and their phones, data cards and dongles, it would be doubtful whether the two of us could enjoy as much time as we do on board the old girl. Well, we could but we wouldn’t remain gainfully contracted for long..

Now it is unusual for us not to have at least a good GPRS signal and more often than not we get 3G, with an increasing occurrence of the super fast HSDPA to speed things up even further. If someone a year ago had said I’d be downloading 450MB of Dr Who from BBC iPlayer with no hiccups, then I’d have impolitely laughed in their face. But it’s true and it has revolutionised our on board working capabilities. It has also made my life so much more bearable because up to now, I’ve had to endure, ‘I can’t work like this, I need to go home’, ‘What’s happening to this beeping, effing connection’ and ‘I’ll just give up work now, shall I? See how you like it then!’ and various other protestations about the inadvisability of trying to work on a narrowboat. Cue wi-fi in the marina, HSDPA dongles and we have a new contentment and harmony flowing from stem to stern. In fact, it’s now ‘Wow, this is quicker than the broadband at home’ and ‘I can really concentrate here – I get loads of work done, let’s not go home any time soon.’

Of course, you can see the drawback here, can’t you? What happens if we’re unlucky enough to get a duff connection? Well just don’t go there because we got jammed against the bank on the Shroppie in those high winds earlier in the year, completely unable to move for two days, and himself had the grimmest connection ever to go with his equally grim mood. There was all sorts of swearing as emergency after emergency piled in on top of one another - apparently (he’s a bit of a drama queen) - but you know what, the world didn’t end and he didn’t get sacked. But it was a useful reminder that when we go out on one of our work cruises, and there’s one planned shortly, my days will be all the more pleasant if we have decent mobile coverage. So forget the satellite signal, can he get four bars on his Sony Ericcson without having to do the old ‘trapezing yachtsman’ manoeuvre out of the side hatch?

The collective noun challenge

I must add another blog to my personal faves as noted here. I do enjoy my cruise blogs so Geoff and Gill’s Petroc Perambulations is right up my street...or should that be canal? It’s an eloquent and descriptive account of their meanderings and makes for a very pleasant read. Petroc is on the K&A at the moment, which means there’s a rather loose conjunction of bloggers out west with Ten Bob Note and Epiphany also reporting from their respective parts of the cut. And this got me thinking about a suitable collective noun for bloggers....maybe we could have a bit of a competition to find the best one. My efforts thus far include a ‘banter of bloggers’, a ‘blarney of bloggers’, a ‘scribe of bloggers’ and a ‘reportage of bloggers’. Any more for any more?

28 May 2008

Fings ain't wot they used to be

I’m a great planner. Not great as in ‘good at it but great as ‘do a lot of it.’ Choosing where we’re going next is always fascinating although I’m susceptible to the last minute change - a trip to Stoke Bruerne metamorphosed into the Leicester Ring in the time it took me to consume one of the Fradley Cafe’s fine breakfasts.

My slight dilemma at the moment is that A has a pathological aversion to the south. “I was born in the south, I live in the south, I’ve seen enough of the south, I don’t want to cruise in the south” sort of sums up his feelings on the matter although it’s allied to a perception that it is much busier on southern canals. I don’t know about this but you can imagine our last trip across the boat-less prairies of Lancashire, can’t you – ‘Shangri-La is here and it’s called the Leigh Branch’.

I wouldn’t let his feelings influence my choices, mind. So how come we haven’t been south of Braunston, ever, as a couple? Well, it just so happens that I too have wanted to explore the more northerly points of our canal system having given the Midlands a good going over, and so we have been able to reach an agreeable accommodation over our recent cruising itineraries. But the time will come. The Oxford and Grand Union dominated my childhood cruising and I can’t wait to revisit them and see how they have changed. Parts will probably be unrecognisable, like Banbury which has undergone a complete makeover since my last visit (Memorable for my dad having an almighty super-sulk when my mum wouldn’t let him stay in the pub. Mum and I consoled ourselves with Chicken McNuggets which were quite new at the time and whose novelty must have lured us in....can’t think of another reason why I’d have willingly wanted to eat deep fried cardboard.)

In fact, one of the things that startled me most when I returned to the cut after a decade’s absence (as a twenties singleton, canals sort of passed me by....) was how much things had altered, or rather, improved. Fazeley was no longer the dark and satanic place that my dad, brother and I had once ventured into against our better judgement; here were smart new houses, a BW office and trendy new apartments. Braunston and Blisworth tunnels were open, as was every other extant tunnel – no two year closures now to put the kybosh on your cruising. There was only one Pennine crossing back then and we were all applauding the Huddersfield Canal Society for a blind optimism that proved us all wrong. And where once the K&A was a dotted line on my guidebook now it is a solid example of what can be done with a little vision and a lot of perseverance, bringing pleasure to thousands every year.

I applaud the current efforts of organisations such as SOW in fighting again for our waterways but I wonder if we ever stop to appreciate just how much has been achieved across the country in the last three decades. Are things really that bad today? From where I’m sitting, the canals are a better, brighter place than that into which I was inducted as a bouncing, bawling one year old. When a leaking gate has just peed all over me and I’ve got accidentally enmeshed in that ubiquitous orange safety fencing, I'll try to remember that.

Musings of a starving woman

I had chocolate yesterday. A little treat to mark the end of the first week of the dreaded diet. It’s gone okay apart from feeling hungry all day – even in my sleep I’m reaching for the imaginary jam doughnut that, a la Tantalus, is always just out of reach. I was sorely tested last Friday, mind, when a client lunch landed in my diary. Now you know how it is...swish French restaurant and diet don’t go, do they? I mean, I was tempted to order a bowl of mung beans and a glass of tap water but I thought that it would seem a bit rude in company. So I went for the healthy fish option, which was a gorgeous, oh so delicate monkfish...not many calories there. Shame the same can’t be said for the luxuriant champagne and tarragon sabayon that surrounded it. I obviously had to have a taste which somehow led me to demolishing all of it...

At the moment, I would kill to be within a bacon rasher’s distance of the Gongoozler’s Rest. The GR is a floating cafe in Braunston and the purveyor of one of the largest breakfasts known to man. You may get in the side door entrance but squeezing out after one of these very fine gut-busters is quite another matter. One day I must patronise Edwards of Crick. It obviously did a roaring trade at this year’s on-off show and I have rarely had a bad word said about it. Talking of Crick, I read on one of the forums yesterday that someone had got very short shrift at a certain well known brokerage's stand– considering that it is not the easiest of times for anyone at the moment (and that word, especially a bad one, spreads like wildfire in this digital age) I would have thought they would all have been on a charm offensive. However, the kindly folk at the Braidbar stand made up for it, so good for them. Bruce and Sheila Napier of Sanity were two of those kindly folk, no doubt, and Bruce has posted about their whirlwind weekend here. He even got to meet Tom 'NBW' Crossley's newest best mate, Andrew 'GB' Denny (see Granny posts passim). Now the lucky blighters (Bruce and Sheila that is, not Tom and Andrew, please do keep up ) are off to the Saul Festival...could someone please predict the winning Lottery numbers for me? I’m not sure how much more of this work thing I can take, especially on a diet. Where’s that KitKat?

27 May 2008

Jet boats are go

Do you remember SwapShop? The seminal children’s prog that brought us Noel Edmonds’ rather nasty tanktops and Posh Paws? Well, Greygal would like to swap a 57ft narrowboat for a 20ft RIB please. Yes, I’m defecting to jet-boating after yesterday’s incredible 40mph skim across Pentland Firth and circular tour of the Isle of Stroma. You don’t see minkie whales in the Trent do you? Or big fat seals sunbathing amongst the guano? My god, that stank. Twenty thousand birds all doing their doings over the cliffs made for a ripe old niff, I can tell you. Highlights included the sheep ship – yes, the owner of Stroma still grazes sheep there and he is legally obliged to tend them once a week. He comes over in a big boat that can take his herd back to the mainland if required. Don’t know if he needs to provide lifebelts to his passengers...Mind you, he has had to take all the doors off the broken down houses out there because the sheep kept getting locked in and starving to death. Then there were the remains of a Danish ship that had run aground after the crew had got pissed and left it on autopilot...without telling it about the island directly ahead. There was the cove where the water runs uphill in one direction, downhill in another, a marine version of the Electric Brae and just as unsettling. And of course, there’s all the magnificent wildlife, from dolphins and porpoises to puffins and razorbills, not forgetting the rather excellent shags. Stop laughing in the back.

Marvellous Marple

We all have our different tastes and sensibilities, our likes and dislikes. Good job too otherwise there would be 9000 narrowboats trying to go up the Napton flight. This really is the only explanation for some people expressing a lack of fondness for the Marple flight, whereas I think it is magnificent. It wanders through exquisite sylvan surroundings for the most part, it’s beautifully engineered and it has an integrity and solidity about it that’s intensely satisfying.

We had tied up a little way short, just past Hyde and although there were houses and tower blocks in the mid-distance they were fortuitously screened by trees and high hedges. When we arrived at Marple bottom, there was a hire boat ahead so we decided to work with one of us going on to help them through and to set the next lock while the other worked the boat through behind and closed the gate. And it really was an idyllic trip up, as we established a rhythm and lent a hand to the hirers – even the unfortunate gentleman in the boat behind couldn’t spoil the day. I’m not sure I can think of another occasion when someone acted so...incomprehensibly! I wonder now if he had something wrong with him because we bumped into him twice more on the run down the Macc and on both occasions his manner was strange, saying things that he obviously thought were hilarious but were actually poorly veiled insults – and we hadn’t done anything! We think he was the friend of the couple who had the boat and at times you could see that the wife of the couple was horribly embarrassed by his behaviour. He was coming ahead to set the lock for them but rather than helping me close my gate and paddle, he just sat on the bottom balance beam, waggling his windlass on the spindle as if to say ‘get a bloody move on’.
So there I was every time leaving the lock, coming to a stop, going back to close up with him just looking on. I didn’t need the help as I’m far from being weak and feeble but most normal people in that situation would have pitched in or at least asked if I wanted a hand. At one point the wife came up and witnessed his behaviour and immediately came to my assistance, and you could see she was mortified not just by this chap’s lack of lock etiquette but the total absence of any natural courtesy. If we’re going up or down a flight, we always offer to help as it makes things easier all round and we’ll usually lift a paddle for the boat behind if there’s nothing coming the other way. It’s not rocket science, just good manners. If someone prefers to do things on their own, that’s fine too, but this Marple situation was a classic occasion for pitching in and speeding everyone on their way. A is normally quite a reticent chap but the constant rude windlass waggling had him threatening to go over for a bit of windlass waggling of his own, round this chap’s head. I pointed out that this might not be the wisest move though it was very tempting, so we merely pushed on only to have those two later encounters. If he’s still on the water and still behaving like that, then I don’t give him long before someone decides to demonstrate how far one can hammer a mooring pin up someone's backside. With a big mallet.

26 May 2008

I once was an arse

From my own experiences, I would say that the majority of boaters are like me – we just want a peaceable day’s cruising, with the occasional pleasant interchange and absolutely zero aggro. That’s why I avoid conflict like the plague. I’ll hang back at bridgeholes even if I’m nearer; I’ll move up on a mooring if I can make room for another; I’ll check with the other party if we meet a lock that is neither up nor down; I’ll let people go past rather than casting off right in front of them; I’ll move off a water point as soon as I’m done; and I’ll wave people by if they are quicker than me. And no, I’m not a bloody paragon, it’s just my way of keeping things running smoothly, of feeling relaxed about my cruising, of knowing I’m not inconveniencing anyone and of preventing some git coming and ruining my day. Because they are out there, you know. Not in many numbers and not in the polarized ranks much posited by brainless people (all shiny boaters are tossers, all hirers are idiots, all shareboaters are know-it-alls, all ex-working boat boaters are rude and curmudgeonly etc). That’s all patent rubbish but I don’t need to tell you that. No, arses exist in every type of boat and we’ve all met them – rarely, thankfully, but I bet you remember every encounter with an arse, don’t you? In return for them ruining my day, I try to smile sweetly and forget about it as quickly as possible.

But I have a confession to make. Even little old virtuous me (Old, yes. Little? No. Ed) lost it once...and when I blow, I blow to Moby Dick proportions! I can’t remember which lock it was (possibly Tatenhill as it certainly had a bridge in front of it)) but we had it turned against us. And by turned I mean gates shut deliberately in our faces having been clearly clocked and no hint of an apology when they finally emerged. I think I was having a bad day generally so I was already a tad steamed up by the time they opened the gates and edged out very, very slowly. Then I thought I would encourage them to get a move on by steering towards the lock...with them still half in it. Anyway, with me bearing down on them like the Battleship Potemkin, they gave it a bit of yog so that I only just clipped their stern and we moved on to exchange some unpleasantries as we passed. They were American hirers (nothing wrong in that, met loads, all lovely) and I gave them a short lesson on lock etiquette and Anglo-Saxon oaths. The woman was as tough as a pair of old spurs and gave as good as she got; I then just managed to loose off a final salvo before I thonked the side of the bridge. That gave them all a good laugh and I couldn’t wait to be inside the lock with the gates closed to bring a curtain down on this unfortunate episode. I realised, to my eternal chagrin, that my fit of temper had probably made their day memorable for all the wrong reasons and that I had achieved precisely nothing except damage to the bow flare. What a silly moo I was. To those hirers, I apologise unreservedly. That day I was the arse and I’m not proud of what I did. And I guess I also came to understand that sometimes we can be unlucky enough to meet a non-arse having an off day. So let’s smile and not be judgemental if we can help it....unless they’re repeat offenders in which case please feel free to let rip with a few choice words of Anglo Saxon invective!

A find of my own

Oh goodie, goodie, I've made a find. Another excellent cruising blog that could challenge the 2Ds on Gypsy Rover for the Baedecker top slot. Which would be ironic as it was a meeting with Derek and Dot that inspired Iain and Myra to start blogging on Martlet in the first place. It's well written, informative and witty and they're travelling over less blogged-over ground which always piques my interest. They seem to have boundless energy as they're always flourishing their bus passes to go off hither and thither. I'll have whatever they're having as they're obviously thriving on it!

25 May 2008

Northward Ho!

Two days, six hundred miles and fifteen coffee stops later, we finally get to Sutherland. We couldn't get further north if we tried, unless we sprouted water wings and paddled to Orkney... I am writing this with a view over the sea, just a few miles west of John O’Groats. Cripes, we’re a long way from home. But what a journey! It was one of those trips that reminded you just how rich the UK is in staggering, breath-mugging scenery. At times, I almost wanted to cry it was so beautiful. Could someone indulge me and build a Newcastle to Carlisle canal? Or an Edinburgh-Aberdeen-Inverness Ring? Mine is real ‘landscape lust’ and as we clocked up the miles, hauling over the Cheviots and through the Borders, and then cranking the old Bessie on and up over the Grampians, I’ve been filling my boots! It makes me all the more eager to venture a Pennine crossing as soon as practicably possible, because it’s one of the big omissions on my canals list and any one of the routes is Lady Bountiful as far as orgasmic scenery goes.

Our best chance at the moment looks to be the Huddersfield Narrow. Hitherto, we’ve had a slight problem there because of the Standedge limitations – we didn’t fancy our chances of a) finding a taxi that would take five dogs or b) walking over the top, getting lost and ending up in Halifax. But with BW opting for piloting boats through from next year, this clears the way for us to go back to Huddersfield, something we’ve always wanted to do since we had the old girl at the National in 2002. Blogs such as Martlet and Seyella have also given me a taste for what lies beyond so I may have to be whittling up a handspike before too long.

By the way, it’s 10 o’clock in the evening and it’s still light here. We’ve got some ‘mature’ Czech people in tents across the way and I think they must be reliving last night’s execrable Eurovision Song Contest. This political voting just isn’t funny anymore is it? Terry Wogan, on the other hand, is, and was again the only real reason for sitting through the agony. As for the UK, it comes to something when even Malta (always a bankable provider in previous years) gives you nul points and you're hammered into joint last place by Latvian pirates, Bosnian brides and sunlamped transvestites from all countries beginning with A. Okay, that last one might not be correct....it may even be a slur on transvestites....

Good to see the Edwards frères rising to my challenge of trying to outblog one another. Andy is posting from the top of a mountain, Steve from the bottom of the Stratford canal. Respect, chaps!

Breaking the linear habit

When we eventually become liveaboards and continuous cruisers, one of my aims is to put an end to our ‘linear habits.’ By this I mean that we just tend to cruise along the cut, then walk along the towpath with the dogs, maintaining a sort of parallel lines existence. Except for necessities, we rarely strike off on a whim, across country or into a village or town, and I’m sure we are the poorer for it. I think it must be a hangover from our hiring days when it was always ‘go, go, go’, not ‘oi, are we going to stop, ever?’.

I think having lots of time will help. At the moment, we still tend to be on a bit of a schedule because we like to make the most of our holidays. But people like Sue of No Problem show how much you can enjoy the countryside if you eschew the towpath for mysterious tracks and footpaths. Her posts regularly feature her perambulations over hill and dale in company with her two woofs and we all really look forward to following in their foot- and paw- steps. Jo and Keith on Hadar also show a real passion for places old and new, managing to drag themselves away from their magnificent boat to explore their surroundings with energy and enthusiasm. You’re always invited along for the ride and made to feel very welcome, so thanks guys! Mention should also be made of Les on Valerie who is a veritable mine of information, absorbing everything on his adventure to everywhere.

Bu step aside and welcome the non-linear gold medal winners, Derek and Dot of Gypsy Rover. The Ds’ blog is a veritable online Baedecker of the UK waterways thanks to their seemingly limitless interest in the everyday and the esoteric. They generously share all their findings with us but it is they who are enriched by their inquisitive minds and tireless feet!

24 May 2008

Happy together

Geoff and Mags have been very good value of late on their blog Seyella’s Journey. A few weeks back they opted to go from the Midlands to Manchester via the Trent and it’s been fascinating to follow their adventures on the various canal and river navigations they’ve opted to cruise. Fascinating because it’s new ground for me and it’s certainly got me thinking about a similar trip in the future. I like Geoff’s style. He strikes me as a very steady and assured sort of bloke and that comes though in his writing – it’s calm and measured and he’s building up another excellent chronicle of life afloat.

The thing that particular interests me though is that in this journey they have been accompanied by their friend Carol on NB Corbiere. I’ve often wondered about the wisdom or otherwise of cruising together as it seems to be quite a popular thing to do. Sue and Vic on No Problem spend a fair bit of time with their pals Anne and Chas on Moore2Life, while the 2 Ds on Gypsy Rover hook up regularly with Derek and Christina on NB Kalimera. I just don’t think it’s for me. I guess I like to go at my own pace and not be beholden to anyone or risk upsetting their plans. I’d like to think I was a considerate person (I’ll move up on a mooring to make space!) and worrying about what other people wanted would be my constant concern, potentially to the detriment of my own enjoyment. My one caveat would be when it’s for a short time only – because I’ve done that and really loved it, although part of me was relieved to be back to our own ‘do as we please’ days.

There was a wonderful synchronicity to our pairing up with Jill and Gordon. It was back in 2005 in the blazing hot July and we encountered one another at Kilby Bridge. We’d nabbed the last spot on a Sunday evening and got talking as you do. J & G had never come this far before, always turning at Foxton and I could sense an slight unease about their commitment to the Leicester Ring and Leicester in particular. As I’d done it before some years previously and had had an excellent time, I suggested that we go through together. This wasn’t a wholly altruistic offer on my part, mind. Company through the wide locks and through a city centre is always handy, although little did we know how useful it was going to prove.

It appeared that J&G’s holiday has already been delayed by Gordon having an accident at home in which he’d hurt his leg quite badly. He’d made sufficient recovery for them to at last get away although he was restricted to steering and hovering around the stern while Jill did the locks. Then, mid morning of our first day together and we’re approaching, I think, Aylestone Mill Lock, coming up alongside the lock mooring. Before we know what’s happened, Gordon is flat on his face on the concrete, his horribly gashed leg bleeding all over his mooring rope. Well cue lots of first aid and medicinal brandy and shall we call an ambulance deliberations before Gordon declares himself fit enough to carry on. Whether they would have carried on alone is questionable but as we were together we were able to rally round and lend moral and physical support over the next couple of days. At one point they urged us to go on alone as they were worried that they would slow us up but we wouldn’t have dreamt of it.

Travelling together lent a whole different dynamic to our cruising. Yes, we were noting the places we were passing through and admiring the stunning scenery along the Soar but what I remember is the interaction between the couples, the sharing of life stories and canal tales, the fun and laughter, not to mention the the regular Pimms o’clocks! I guess what I’m trying to say was that companionship added a richness to this cruise, a new dimension that elevated the Leicester Ring beyond just another Ring done and ticked off. We celebrated our last night together with a stonking Chinese from the take away in Willington – there wasn’t a space to be had in the village (what a surprise) so in the end we just stuck both boats into the bank and left our rear ends hanging out (gosh, that brought back memories of childhood when without the convenience of neat piling or handy rings we invariably ‘moored ugly’). That night we toasted a wonderful three days of cruising and something even more precious – the friendship and fellowship of boaters. Shame that the vintage bottle of Champagne that J&G had been saving for a special occasion had gone off and smelt like old socks. What’s worse, A swore it smelt fine to him....Heathen.

NB. Travel tips. We went anti-clockwise around the Ring and had a completely trouble-free passage. Kilby Bridge is recommended as a good starting point for the Leicester section although there seemed to be a number of decent moorings a bit further on too. Considering how full Kilby Bridge gets, that could be useful to know. Mo of Balmaha has an excellent knowledge of this section so it might be worth checking his blog for mooring recommendations. Next overnight stop was Thurmaston next to the parks and water parks and the day after that we tied early in the Zouch Cut. It was a stunning trip made all the more perfect by the brilliant weather – and the excellent company.

23 May 2008

Gone but not forgotten

One of the endless fascinations of the canal system in the UK is the ever changing landscape. A landscape that even has the courtesy to look different when you come back the other way. A landscape too that presents a different face according to which season we’re in. This last trip up to Burscough Bridge on the L&L presented us with some of the most unnaturally natural – or should that be most naturally unnatural scenery we’ve seen in a long time.

From Leigh to Wigan you are accompanied by acres of nature reserve, open space, meres and reservoirs, all haunted by the preserved pit head at Astley Green (now a museum) that is the one clue to a darker, dirtier, grittier past. The coal mines have long gone, the land subsiding in sympathy at the loss of another industrial heartland. But their loss is very much the boaters’ gain, with a deep, lock-free cut speeding you on your way to Wigan. You’re conscious though that this is not really how it should be. Today’s ‘leisure amenity’ sits unconvincingly atop the land’s original purpose, still raw, still echoing; the bird calls compete with the hum of the colliery winding gear, the twitchers and dog walkers stroll with proud men dressed in coal dust, glistening eyes staring out of blackened faces. No, the new doesn’t quite exorcise the ghosts of the past but that surely is a good thing.

P.S. On a travel note, if you stop at Worsley at the facilities moorings, then you’ll find the water tap inside the loos, which can be opened with your BW key. Not that obvious so worth passing on. And just across the road, near to the pedestrian crossing, is an excellent coffee and sandwich bar – very friendly service and decent value too.

P.P.S I've been stupid enough to lose all my photos of this part of the trip but there are a few shots on Google Earth that will give you a taste of this unique area

Canal Planner Diet

I tend to eat when I'm bored so with this new diet thing now casting its shadow, I'm trying to find new ways of amusing myself that are a) cheap and b) waistline-friendly. Playing with Nick Atty's Canal Planner is free and has no calories in it. I like to put in hypotehtical-at-this-stage-but-could-be-done-if-we-got-our-arses-in-gear journeys, with about 62 waypoints. When I look down at the summary calculations, the Planner dutifully tells me that my cruise will take 72 days and 2 minutes...not sure 72 really goes into my 14 available holiday days, so it's back to the drawing board. I am a terrible one for being over ambitious and these days I need to remember that the Planner's metric - the 9 hour cruise day - is not something I'm familiar with. Six hours is pushing it now but how I yearn for my youth when my dear old dad and I could get up at six sharp, cruise for twelve hours and still give the Trivia Machine a beating in the pub. Gawd, the hours we spent stood at those machines, me on the buttons, dad waggling his specs so that he could read the questions properly. Was it any wonder that I woke up with cramp in the dead of night, trying to stifle my cries of agony? I mean to say, we are not built to be on our feet for 16 hours a day...well, I'm not. My bottom was built to be sat on for about 51 weeks of the year and you can't have everything in life.

22 May 2008

Copycat but I like it

Sarah on her excellent blog Warrior has come up with a brilliant idea that I want to blatantly plagiarize. Sarah, full credit to you for a cracking post and apologies for being so unimaginative as to copy it. If you haven’t seen it, Sarah has done her own version of Canal Boat’s Twenty Questions, prompted by this month’s featuring of blogger supreme Andrew Denny of Granny Buttons. I think that this is a great little exercise for giving you an instant picture of someone – short answers they may be but I think they are very revealing of the personality behind them.

So here are mine and I’ve added the questions for clarity, hoping for the forbearance of a magazine which I’ve subscribed to for years when it comes to any copyright sensitivities. It’s an excellent mag and one that I’m sure will welcome all these blog plugs – it’s got a smart new website too so check that out when you get a sec.

What’s your favourite waterway?
This is a toughie. I have my favourite stretches like everyone – the T&M above Middlewich, the Caldon down to Leek, the Leicester Arm of the GU – but an actual whole canal....well, I think I’m with Andrew on this. The Staffs & Worcs has a little bit of everything and around Kinver there is some devastatingly pretty countryside to enjoy. If I was stuck going up and down it for the rest of my cruising life, I wouldn’t complain.

And your least favourite?
I love them all.

Who would be your ideal cruising companion?
I’m lucky enough to have him already. If my husband couldn’t be with me, I’d take Tom Rolt for a) his knowledge of canals and railways and b) his superlative ghost stories

What was the last book you read?
Girl at the Tiller

What’s the best time of day to be on the canals?
Very early in late summer, early autumn when everything is still and overpoweringly beautiful

What most irritates you on the waterway?
The growing intolerance shown by boaters to boaters

When would you have most liked to live?
Even since I read about their lives in the Working Waterways series, I’ve wanted to be an Idle Woman running the boats through the Second World War.

When was the last time you fell in?
It’s only happened the once thankfully, when I was just sweet sixteen at Diglis Basin. I was sitting reading on the back of our hire boat, swivelled my legs round to get off and my feet slipped off the coping stones sending me into the water up to my waist. No damage done except to my dignity.

What did you want to be when you were 12?
Haven’t the foggiest. My mother was always urging me to be a brain surgeon but I spared the world of medicine that particular trauma.

If I didn’t have narrowboating I’d...
...be doing more motorhoming and getting broker in the process. Have you seen the price of diesel these days?

Narrowboaters are...
..a decent friendly lot with the occasional plank that can spoil your day

After a day cruising I most look forward to...
...plonking down in the recliner chair. The days – and endless evenings – of uncomfortable dinette seating on hire boats have left their mark.

The waterways need...
...vision, sympathy and long-term thinking

If you met Jonathan Shaw (Waterways Minister) on the towpath what would you say to him?

Enjoy it while it lasts because you’re going to be bounced at the next election.

Windows or portholes?
Portholes for sheer aesthetics

Pump out or cassette?
Pump out. Ever since I experienced a severe blow back in a hire boat loo, I’ve never wanted to have close contact with my bodily output

Rivers or canals?
Canals, with the exception of the Weaver

Where will you be when you are 70?
Standing on the bank still trying to work out which brass cleaning product is best

What do you think is your greatest achievement in life?
Being a good mum to the mutts

What would your superpower be?
Having the ability to rescue every single greyhound that is dumped on the scrapheap. And being invisible would be quite a lark too.

The great depression

This blog is depressed, it’s official. As of yesterday, we’re on a diet. That’s not the royal ‘we’ but the both of us. Owners are supposed to look like their dogs right? We’d need to wheel in a St Bernard to make that work. Collectively we need to lose about 78 stone which is a bit of a distressing prospect. I just wish I had the willpower of Sue of No Problem, who at the beginning of the year set herself the target of losing two stone by the summer. Well she did it, ahead of schedule, and she’s looking even more fantastic now – dontcha just hate her? No, only joking. Sue’s an inspiration – she did a nine mile walk earlier in the week! But what really impresses me is that she did it while living on a narrowboat. When I get back on board, it’s like I’ve given myself permission to do what the hell I like. I’m so happy, I don’t care what I eat and in fact, eating is one of the great pleasures of any trip afloat. Maybe I think all the lungfuls of fresh air will miraculously burn off all the calories? If you were to put a time lapse camera on the stern hatch, you would see a bewildering array of tasty treats come out – tea, coffee, biscuits, bacon sarnies, Kit Kats, Nik Naks, beer, wine, and that’s just for breakfast.

But I think I know where I’m going wrong – apart from being a greedy porker, that is. Sue is very canny in that she orders most of her groceries online from Mr Tesco. That means she can sit at her computer and fill up a virtual, virtuous trolley. There’s no temptation is there...just pick and click on the carrots because you can’t smell the cookies. Whereas I like to go to the shop and, seduced by the bakery pheromones wafting through, zoom up and down the aisles chucking in sausage rolls and donuts with gay abandon. The only modicum of self-control I have is the knowledge that I have to carry all my shopping back. And even then things can go tits-up. Cue story of shopping in Leek last year.

We had moored up just before the tunnel in the pool (an idyllic mooring), which meant that we were a bit further away from the supermarket than we could have been. But I had the bike anyway so I headed off by road, rather than by towpath. Once in the store, some terrible mental aberration afflicted me which meant that I totally forgot about my limited mode of transport. I came out with a towering rucksack and two bulging plastic bags but undeterred, I placed a bag on each handlebar and headed for the towpath as the safer route home. Safer but for whom? There were walkers diving for the safety of the hedge as this wobbling lunatic cycled towards them, boaters hastily unmooring lest I crash into their pride and joy, even the ducks were covering their eyes. With the bags furiously oscillating like some wild shillelaghs, it was only pure luck that stopped me braining someone and riding straight into the cut. I settled instead for a minor coronary after pushing half a hundred weight of shopping up to the top of the hill above the tunnel. (Hillock surely? Ed.) I thought about rolling the bike down the other side in the general direction of the side hatch but rang A on his mobile instead to come and lend a hand. I think a cream bun was more than adequate recompense for all that exercise...

21 May 2008

Dogs, not blogs

Our dog walks always take double the time that they ought because we get stopped a lot. Not in a police sense, but in a general-public-ooh-are-they-rescue-dogs sense. And I never mind chatting away because I believe all greyhound owners have an on-going responsibility to be an advert for the breed. I hope that directly or indirectly we have been the reason for others getting their own grey and for the most part, mine do play the game and stand nicely for cuddles and fuss. We’ve had the odd moment, which invariably involves the boss lady having someone sniffing up her back passage – and really, I can’t blame her for being a bit antsy about a strange wet nose up her bum. I would be.

What these chats are very good for is dispelling the myths that still exist about greyhounds, despite the excellent educational efforts of the Retired Greyhound Trust over the years. So in no particular order:

No, they don’t need loads of exercise – 2 to 3 20 minute walks a day and a scoot round the garden are more than enough

Yes, they can adapt to living in a house – mine were housetrained within a week, think the sofa and the bed are theirs and like a cup of tea to get them going in the morning

No, they won’t drag you through a hedge if they see a rabbit – most walk beautifully on a lead and if they do something small with ‘chase me’ written on its backside, they will probably just bounce up and down on their toes

Yes, they can live with small furries – take the advice of your rehoming centre as to which dogs are cat-friendly. Some are not and will never be but that can be said for a lot of dogs.

Yes, they are gentle and affectionate – despite their careers as racing machines, they crave human company and love, and cuddles and hugs. I have one permanently attached to me, which is tricky when typing, ironing or having a bath.

You live and learn

You are never too old to learn. And that’s especially true for boating. I’ve been around canals and narrowboats since I was a tot but I don’t think there’s been a trip in all that time where I haven’t learnt something new. A bit of humility is helpful here – ‘I am always right’ is not the most endearing, or indeed useful of qualities.

So there’s omniscient me going up the Baddiley 3. At the top of No 2, A goes on ahead to set the top lock and I stop the boat in the jaws and go and shut the gate. When I come back, some stupid gene – despite a small voice saying ‘this is a dumb-ass thing to do – leaps into action and tells me to go and sort out the weedhatch as I’ve got the old tiller shakes. I’m just refitting the hatch when I hear a dull thud. I stand up and look to see the boat firmly pinned against the wall of the spill wear. I say firmly – it was as if a huge magnet had drawn me on and clunked me against it and was never going to let me go from its vice-like death-suck. No tooing or froing, heaving and hoeing had any effect. A came back and no tooing or froing, heaving and hoeing by two people had any effect either. I think the Olympic tug of war gold medallists would have struggled, to be honest. There was no-one else around and A’s idea to hotwire the BW workboat moored further on was a non-starter from the off. So while we could have stayed there and worked it out and emptied the pound while doing so, we did the sensible thing and rang BW.

From the tone of the jovial Welsh chap we eventually spoke to, ours was not an uncommon occurrence. I was mortified that we should have made a common or garden mistake! Anyway, his advice to whip up all the paddles, top and bottom, to draw the water – and the boat – off the weir soon had us on our way and A and I agreed that that had been a very useful lesson indeed. It was a bonus that no-one had witnessed our discomfiture...shame the same can’t be said for my next little episode, which involved public shame and ridicule. Well not really but I did go a bit red....

We were going up Hurleston locks and waiting for a boat to exit the lock ahead – number three for us. The pound between two and three is quite short and for some unknown reason, instead of waiting in the lock, I decided to be a bit cheeky and leave the lock, holding the boat on the left hand bank. I expected the boat coming down to then do-si-do around me, a manoeuvre I’m sure I have done in the past. Anyway, when he finally nosed out of the lock, he was a long old boy and it was clear that he was going to struggle to get around. Before an impasse could develop, Linda the lockie rushed down to me and gently admonished me for being on the left. Apparently I should have kept right, as with the rest of the cut. Now I honestly didn’t know this – not the right on the cut bit, obviously, but that it applied to these squeaky bum tight pound situations. I just thought whoever got in there first could have first dibs and as it was a bit blowy, I’d taken the precaution of getting in to the left side so that I could hold the boat in. Well, that all backfired big time didn’t it? I was the one who ended up having to do-si-do and it really had ‘this is a big fat cock-up waiting to happen’ written all over it. Amazingly I didn’t find myself thrashing around on the far side of the pound but, with an expectant, chuckle-suppressing audience looking on, managed to dink past him very nicely, and straight into the lock without touching the sides. So yah-boo to you! Of course, Linda was quite right, I had got it wrong and I apologised to everyone for mucking them about. It would all have ended there if A hadn’t spent the next couple of hours saying – with heavy sarcasm – how desperately disappointed he was in me as he thought I knew everything. Well, I don’t and I now know two more things than I did this time last year. I’ve always known how to pay back a husband for taking the pee though...

An Epiphany in Devizes

One of the great advantages of having the motorhome is that you can get to canals a hundred miles from where your boat is. Handy if you want to meet new friends moored on the K&A when you’re moored on the Llangollen. So we pressed the wheels into action to go and set up camp in Devizes, enabling us to do dinner, coffee, boat tour and dog photo shoot in the company of Fiona and John Slee. Bloggers will know them as the waterway-campaigning owners of Epiphany, a stunning Bath Narrowboats creation which looked as good inside as it did out. It also gave us the opportunity to go and gulp in front of Caen Hill bottom lock. Come off it, six locks in a row is about my maximum...you really expect me to go up that?

Back to John and Fiona for a sec. They are one of the loveliest couples you could hope to meet (I’d definitely bags them for locking partners on that monster flight for a start) and I reckon they’d be an excellent source of tips and advice for the taller would-be boater. Let’s just say that Big John is not an ironic appellation...As A and I are both average height, we never think about issues facing either the vertically challenged or vertically rampant but they must exist. Now above average width we can do...

20 May 2008

For Crick-goers

I've learnt a brilliant new expression today and just have to blog it somehow. So all you Crick-goers who are trundling off to find the boat of your dreams, be careful you don't happen upon a boatbuilder whose exhibit is a mere 'Potemkin village'. There, isn't it wonderful? I'd never heard of it until I happened upon it as dictionary.com's Word of the Day but it's a gorgeous metaphor.

The official definition is:

"An impressive facade or display that hides an undesirable fact or state; a false front."

It reminds me of all those fancy double page spreads Anthony M used to place in the canal mags before going belly-up. Or more recently, the ramped up advertising undertaken by the sinking - and now sunk - Sea Otter. Or as poor John and Cathy on Marmaduke will attest to, the brass neck of the Severn Valley BC boss who smilingly took thousands of pounds off them the same day that the receiver was due.

The origin of the expression is interesting too:

"A Potemkin village is so called after Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had elaborate fake villages built in order to impress Catherine the Great on her tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea in the 18th century."

That was nice of him.

Oh no, it's the Rochdale Nine

An email to Narrowboatworld struck a chord recently. A couple were planning to cruise through Manchester and were asking for trip advice but were very specific in only wanting to hear from those with real first-hand experience of the journey from Waters Meeting through to Portland Basin. As opposed to the Daily Mail-esque apocalyptic pronouncements of people who merely regurgitate and amplify the terror tales told to them by others – none of whom seem to have ever set foot in the places they so wilfully demonise.

Last year we were about to start off up the Rochdale Nine. As a lurker in forums, a reader of letters and a ready participant in lockside yakking, my perception of the Nine was that it was going to be bloody hard work, compounded by a run to Dukinfield that would make 70s Beirut seem like a walk in the park. Except I tend to take all this stuff with a pinch of salt;no, I’m not cavalier and I do listen to advice but I also filter information and like to find things out for myself. One man’s meat and all that. Someone once told me not to bother with the Caldon. A criminal offence that, and I’m glad I ignored him.

So what a surprise to find that the Rochdale Nine were no harder than any other flight of wide locks that I’ve done. I haven’t done Buckby in yonks but I bet it’s still a right bugger. Then the trip up the Ashton. Lots of regeneration going on, one low pound, kids enjoying a supervised canoeing session, two lovely lads who politely helped with the lift bridge at the turn onto the Peak Forest, some corking graffiti but as interesting and as good a day as I’ve had anywhere. The only alarm was when A disappeared down Canal Street into the Gay Village. He took an age to emerge at the next lock, and I was just about to call out a search party when he appeared, flustered and moaning about the lack of towpath and the bloody big wall he’d had to clamber over. A likely story! But I clearly remember that just as we started off from Castlefield, a couple ambled past who told me they had their boat down at Sale. The chap then went onto opine that ‘these are the worst locks in the country’, at which he paused before hitting me with the punchline, ‘Never done ‘em meself mind.’ QED.

P.S. I'm not so naive as to think that unpleasantness doesn't happen on our canals, in rural areas as well as in towns and cities. Some people have experienced very nasty incidents but I'd like to think that they are rarer than the roaring Narrowboatworld et al would have us think. What really gets my goat is people declaiming about an area or a stretch of a canal when they have no personal experience of it whatsoever. That's why cruising blogs are so helpful and informative...real life tales from our on board reporters. Check out Geoff's account of his trip down the Rochdale on Seyella as an excellent example of eyewitness blogging.

Cleaning insanity

Bruce and Sheila Napier of Sanity fame are generous helper-outers at waterways events through the year. They are currently making ready to lend a hand at the Braidbar stand at Crick and Bruce has been getting the couple's own lovely Braidbar boat ready for the occasion. But he’s not overly happy with the results of his cleaning:

“I've spent the afternoon polishing the starboard cabin side, though I'm not satisfied with it, and I think it'll have to be done again tomorrow.”

Well, I’m glad there’s someone else out there for whom cleaning is not all plain sailing. I like to work to the equation of ‘minimum effort + ? = maximum shine. I have tried every know permutation of wash/wax/polish to ascertain the ‘?’ but I’m still looking. If the old girl’s not looking too shabby, I merely wipe her sides down with one of those kitchen wipes for stainless steel and buff her up with a microfibre cloth. Not too exhausting and with very acceptable results. But every so often she needs the full shampoo and set, which leads me to waxing, which leads me to swearing when I can see the smeary circular marks in the sunshine. So is it me? Am I doing it all wrong? Should I be kept well away from wax and given a tin of Brasso as a comforter instead? Oh my god, don’t get me started on doing the brass. In the early enthusiastic days, A used to be the brass master but he hasn’t had dirty nails in years. The job now falls to me and I have used almost everything in my search for the magic potion that just has to smell a tarnished port to start lifting off the grime, leaving a Colgate ring of confidence. There’s been Brasso, Bar Tender’s Friend, Miracle Leisure Products, Peek, Maas and despite all their claims, not one of them works effectively without a whole wheelbarrow of elbow grease. Well that’s no good to me is it? Minimum effort remember? And yes, we have tried Incralac but it just didn’t seem the real deal...and chrome fittings seem to be plain cheating in my book (You’re just jealous, Ed.), so I think it's back to the land of Brasso wadding and lemming-like cloths that have this suicidal urge to throw themselves into the cut. My mother promised me more than this...

A moving tale

It's a big week for K2 Steve as he slowly moves all his gear on board his new home. In his latest post he succeeds in getting the following into his convertible:

"50Kg coal, large bag of logs, 2 bags of peat, 3 boxes of wine, 2 shepherd hooks, 8 toilet rolls, bag of ropes, Wok, 2 saucepans, clothes airer, TV theatre, 24 T shirts, 18 shirts, DVD's, Dyson, chain saw, box of bits, coffee table and 2 dog beds."

I'm assuming that the two dogs for the two dog beds will be arriving with master at the weekend..but does that mean they are bedless for a couple of nights? There'll be canine mutiny before you know it. Woof, bark, stupid bloody boat lark, when are we going back home....oh yes, take it from one who knows. And eight toilet rolls? Gosh, I do love a man who's well prepared. There's been too much loo roll trauma in my life...

But what I want to know, Steve, is why didn't you go and wangle brother Khayamanzi Andy's super Shogun for the week? You could pack your house and half of next door's in that beast, and isn't that what brothers are for? If there's a convertible in the offing, I could lend you a people carrier...wonderfully capacious but smells of dog a bit. Sorry.

19 May 2008

Coffee break

Now if you’ve been following the Black Bess blog (try saying that with six pints of Scrumpy inside you), you’ll know that they have a predilection for cappuccinos, recording the occasions where they’ve had a good one. At the last count they were up to 10 having hit upon ‘un embarrass de richesses’ in Llangollen with three Costa Coffee outlets. Stand back, I’m coming through, as I am quite possibly the world’s biggest caffeine addict. My favoured tipple is a latte, bucket sized preferably, and if you're wondering about the difference, then let me step into barista mode and illuminate you forthwith.

Cappuccinos are a third espresso, a third steamed milk, and a third froth, while lattes are a third espresso, two thirds steamed milk and a little plop of foam on the top. Ask for a wet latte and you don’t get any foam, ask for a dry latte and you get extra foam but not enough that it qualifies as a cappuccino. I say, if I’m paying £2.00 for a coffee, I want £2.00 worth of liquid, not a quid's worth of liquid and a quid's worth of froth. If I wanted froth, I'd just stick a straw in and blow...

All of which has nearly made me forget the reason for posting....I can’t remember if BB called in here but should anyone find themselves outside the BW facilities at Nantwich, do trundle down to the excellent cafe at the Nantwich Canal Centre. They do take away (coffee, tea, bacon sarnies etc) but I found the big cup coffee servings accompanying my cooked breakfast exceptionally slurp-worthy and worth sitting down for. If you’re looking for number 11, BB, you know where to go.

Me and my boat

I don’t do Crick but I know gazillions do and there’ll be plenty of eager beavers looking to book their build slot. I wish them luck and a safe, untroubled build. Unfortunately, there seem to be few guarantees of that lately, with some notable and long-standing firms going to the wall. It seemed very much easier even just six years ago when we had the old girl built. Times were good, sales were strong and failures appeared to be rare. We did the usual research, drove hundreds of miles to see people drawing stuff on the back of a fag packet and eventually chose MCC/Stenson on the grounds that: we liked the look of their trad/tugs - nice lines but not too ‘look at me’ showy; we liked their value pricing; we liked their business professionalism; and we liked them. And we still like them. We were their IWA 2002 show boat and they took us to Huddersfield as their guests, where we had the most fantastic time; we go back to Stenson regularly and are always warmly welcomed; and last year they took the boat in for repairs, modifications and a repaint and got it back to us in time for Christmas, which we didn’t think possible.

The old girl is not the smartest, shiniest or speediest boat on the cut. She cost half of what some of these new generation replicas cost. There’s no marquetry or fancy fiddling or Welsh dresser. But she is as sound as a pound and we love her. We’ve never had a moment’s trouble with any of the main systems and yes, while style and aesthetics are important in a boat, the integrity of the fundamentals is what really matters. I wonder if people will remember that as the shiniest of shiny boats start to cast their hypnotic spell? As for me and her, well I hope we’re never parted and thanks MCC for making a dream come true.

Overdue thanks

This is a quickie because I really should be working but....thanks are overdue to Martin for first alerting Granny Buttons to my existence, which in turn made me feel guilty enough to get my blogging muse out of the drawer of 'unfinished projects' and start again; and secondly (and it must be the same Martin as I don't know any others) for leaving an encouraging comment which stopped me crawling back under my unliterary stone and abandoning the blogging ship after about two posts. I think he may also be my one returning reader (it's sad, isn't it, but actually I've only just switched the old Google Analytics on so only have half a day's visitor data). But if it stays at one, then I'm going to seek out Martin as we are obviously destined to be soul mates if he can enjoy my inane ramblings enough to keep coming back for more. Martin, the boat's paid for, the piggy bank's full but the dogs are non-negotiable. And I hope my husband isn't reading this....

18 May 2008

Bog blog

There is a saying (well, there isn’t but call it artistic licence) that when boaters get together, it only takes two minutes for the conversation to move onto the subject of loos. So we’ve been together for a while now so that’s exactly where I’m heading. Well, in the general vicinity because what I want to vent about today is my WC’s tank gauge - the single most pointless thing on the whole boat. It beams green for go (0-99% full) and red for stop (100% full) with nothing in between. Useful eh? So to ensure we don’t get horribly caught short, we resort to counting days. I know that we can go 17-18 days of reasonable usage before we need to start thinking about pumping out. But it’s a bit tricky to remember over the course of two or three months just how many weekends or long weekends we’ve had and precisely which day we came and left. Was it Thursday or Friday? An extra day could throw our calcs right out and then we’d be in the poo good and proper.

The obvious alternative is a multi-sensor tank gauge but bags not be the one to change it. The other option I read about on Sterling’s website was, I recall, a sensor that didn’t measure the stinky liquid itself but measured the air that remained left in the tank and gave a percentage reading: you have 20% still to fill, go for it. Well, not quite but I think a LCD readout could be a definite future enhancement. You have 2% remaining, do you want to risk it? Anyway, it all seems like a very hi-tech way of measuring that malevolent brew that slops under your bed each night, so I might just stick to counting days. Any thoughts on either of these contrivances, please comment on my bog blog.

17 May 2008

More on Moo

Moo Cards seem to be all the rage. Andy on Khayamanzi ordered both cards and stickers after reading about them on Granny Buttons. I must also thank Andrew for bringing them to my attention as after his first post on the subject, I leapt upon Moo Cards as an imaginative way of solving my business card problem. The problem being that I was too tight or lazy to get any made up....

Anyway, as both gents state, the process is extremely easy and the service excellent, and soon a little plastic box of cards complete with contact details on the front and a greyhound picture on the back plopped through my letter box. And wow what service they have done me! Usually the exchange of business cards is a dull routine exercise that prompts no comment but, hey, hand a Moo Card over and it’s all ‘gosh these are cool, yes, they’re ‘green’ cards (they are about a third of the size of traditional biz cards) and is this your dog, yes it’s Monty, he’s one of five, gosh, how do you look after so many, oh it’s easy, they don’t need much looking after, well that’s a great job you’re doing with these rescues and we’ll definitely be in touch.' So you could say they make a bit of an impression...

I don't have any pics of my Moos but they feature four of the dogs (we've acquired another since the order) and this is the shot I used for Monty's card....

Bruce and bacon

There was I talking about ‘finds’ and right on cue, there’s Bruce Napier sharing his butcher ‘finds’ in the pages of this month’s Waterways World. Bruce is the blogmeister of ‘Living in Sanity’, one of my favourite serial reads. I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is that I like so much about it but I do commend it to the House. There is a clarity and concision to his writing that contributes to a very appealing style, and it wafts you gently along on his and Sheila’s journey. What could so easily be a rather prosaic cruising log is in fact elevated to something far more engaging, an intimate, warm and altogether charming diarising of events and people, family and places. As one who used to fall on a new entry from Snecklifter Mike, I now thank Bruce for stepping manfully up to the plate and filling the gap so many of us mourn now that the Holloways have squirreled themselves away in the Peak District.

But an encomium is not the reason for this blog. No, it was the butcher thing that caught my eye because yesterday, I made a declaration (to no-one in particular so I’ll share it now) that I would never again buy bacon and sausages from a supermarket. I know what they sell is a poor imitation of meat but I didn’t know how poor until I had a Damascene revelation over a bacon sandwich. The circumstances were thus: I had read of a cafe not too far away that was heralded as a beacon of porcine tastiness. A journalist said it so it must be true. Anyway, I finally got a chance to test out this assertion and shock, horror, yum, he was right! This was epic stuff, thick cut Jimmy’s Farm back bacon in a slightly herby triangular wedge, with a dab of brown sauce....unbelievably good! Anyway, I got talking to the owner and we were saying how nice it was to now have more of a choice when it came to humanely reared, locally sourced meat, stuff that really tasted how it should, and she mentioned how she got her stock from the butcher over the road as well as from Jimmy’s Farm (as in the TV Jimmy’s Farm). And as I left, I realised just what I had been missing out on by buying from Sainscos all this time and that I really should start to exercise my right to choose by supporting providers of proper food. So I’m off to the farm shop this weekend to buy half a pig’s worth.

16 May 2008

Camping it up

We’re setting off for a work trip soon. Before you say it, no, this is not a euphemism for a sneaky holiday. This is the motorhome equivalent of a work cruise, which is where we move around very slowly, and sometimes not at all, and maintain the illusion that we are still doing our jobs. To be fair, work is work and holiday is holiday so we do buckle down. We also have the incentive that if we get a wiggle on, we can fit something more leisure-oriented into the day, maybe an hour’s cruising or a walk off the campsite. A few months back, we enjoyed a long weekend at the Caravan Club’s Chirk site. On Friday morning we ploughed through the work so we could spend the latter part of the afternoon having a dawdle down the towpath. We’re happy, the clients are happy, the dogs are ecstatic, so where’s the harm? It is so nice to be able to have a change of scene and still earn a crust – and we are very grateful that we have that capability. Thanks to T-Mobile and Vodafone ( I bow down before your dongles), no-one will ever know that in a few weeks we’ll be emailing them from Sutherland. Bugger, let’s hope they don’t read this. Actually, I’d like to think clients aren’t too bothered where you are as long as the job gets done. But there’s a psychological something there that says if you’re not at your desk you’re not at work, hence not broadcasting the fact that we’ll shortly be sipping lattes in the Costa Coffee at John O’Groats. Oh damn, there I go again....

One thing that I do know is there won’t be any canals where we’re going, just sea lochs – and very beautiful they are too. But sometimes we can pull off a double whammy – camping next to or near to the cut. We’ve enjoyed walking down the Grand Western in Devon, the K&A in Devizes and the Llangollen at Chirk and Trevor, and I now have my eye on a site adjacent to the Mon & Brec. If anyone has any recommendations as to where I can doubly indulge further, then please leave word in the comments box.

The road to Wigan Pee-er

One of the great joys of narrowboating is ‘the find’. The special mooring, the cracking pub, the top notch butcher, that rarity who understands your electrical system, or just that glorious stretch of canal you come upon for the first time....and know you’ll revisit time and again.

Harking back to the holiday that criminally remained unblogged about, our find was the Leeds and Liverpool as it ran though the Douglas Valley. Don’t tell anyone but we thought it was gorgeous, not just because we had it pretty much to ourselves (“Wow, you’re the first boat we’ve seen all day) but because it was such an unexpected treat, a revelation. We toddled on as far as Lathom junction, where the Rufford Branch heads Douglas and Ribble-wards, and would love to have gone further. One day we surely will, particularly as the Liverpool Link opens next year, offering another incentive with a pioneering cruise under the wing of the Liver Birds. I wonder how much the Link will affect traffic levels? They’ll surely rise, which overall is a great thing, although being a selfish cow for a second, it would be lovely to think that it could remain forever a remote hideaway, spared the old ‘Alrewas throng’. I don’t know whether we just caught it at a good time, which sometime does happen (Fradley moorings empty on a high summer’s evening!!)Maybe it gets busier in July/August but then again, we were up there in half term, and, as soon as we came back through the Narnian wardrobe that is Preston Brook tunnel, we were straight back to three boats an hour, rather than per day.

Some travel tips if you want them. Heading north, Dunham Massey is an excellent place to stop for the night. There’s plenty of good mooring, it’s pretty and quiet and you’re well positioned for the schlep through the Manchester ‘burbs. The next day you can aim for Waters Meeting and either head into the city centre and the safe, plentiful moorings at Castlefield or trek on and out to Worsley (for a shorter day) or on through Leigh to Dover Lock (for a longer day). There’s nothing to worry about particularly. Amongst the urban grot are one or two gems of industrial heritage and the Waterways Wonder that is the Barton Swing Aqueduct. It gave me a small dose of the willies - which doesn’t bode well for the Ponty-wot-not – but the views up and downstream of the MSC were impressive.

At Dover Lock you are then but a short hop to Wigan (stop for a pie and a look around this attractive town). My dogs showed little respect for the iconic Wigan Pier, one cocking his leg with gay abandon, although truth be told, a pair of bent railway sleepers is hardly anything to get excited by. Once past The JJB stadium, it doesn’t take you long at all until you’re into the Douglas Valley proper. With its swaying trees, lush meadows and gently rolling hills, you find yourself in another piece of sylvan heaven. Go, stay, enjoy.

P.S And if you like curry, stop just below Dean Lock and walk back to the M6 bridge. From there, the Baby Elephant Indian is just a couple of minutes’ walk away at the next bridge. Pretty tasty, and once you’re stuffed full of poppadums and pasanda, you can just roll back home along the towpath

15 May 2008

Blogs, not dogs

I’m very grateful for all this canal blogging malarkey. When I’m stuck at home having to do mundane stuff like work, the various blogs give me a good old fix of vicarious cruising. Top marks to all those who stick with it for my and others benefit!

The grand-denny of them all, of course, is Granny Buttons. I don’t always agree with Andrew and not every posting floats my boat but you can’t fault the man for his commitment nor for the quality and consistency of his blog. The time and effort needed to winkle out each story and reframe it for his audience shows true dedication to the cause, and his photographs aren’t half bad either.

By his own admission, Granny doesn’t much like cruising logs but I do, especially when they’re in the hands of a good writer or entertaining host. With the return to land of the Snecklifter duo, my first ports of blog call are usually Bruce’s Living in Sanity, Sue’s No Problem, Derek and Dot’s Gypsy Rover and Geoff’s Seyella’s Journey. They’re all engaged in genuine continuous cruises and are generous in inviting us along for the ride. They post regularly and offer up plenty of useful info for those following in their wake.

I also enjoy the weekly bulletin from Balmaha with Mo’s self-deprecation invariably raising a smile and always try to tune into Jo Lodge’s Hadar blog. Her enthusiasm and zest for her new journey with husband Keith is remarkable and joyous.

And then there’s the incipient sibling rivalry courtesy of the Edwards brothers - Khayamanzi Andy and K2 Steve. Andy is a long-standing liveaboard and blogger who has this boating lark pretty much sussed; Steve is a blogger and not quite yet a liveaboard, although that will change very shortly when he takes possession of a very tasty Mel Davis tug. They’ll be near neighbours in Brinklow Marina and I’m looking forward to the brotherly blogging war.

Finally, there should be a mention in despatches for other personal faves Contented Souls, Ten Bob Note, Black Bess, Marmaduke, Epiphany, Zindagi, Bendigedig, Skyy and last but not least, Derwent6. Those guys' bounce and energy would power a small planet!

14 May 2008

Whither Jim?

We have five fairly narrow dogs but the narrow dog of the moment is Jim. Jim, of course, is the cowardly, pork scratching scrunching but rather fine whippet owned by intrepid (unhinged surely? Ed.) pensioners Terry and Monica Darlington. Jim has been the Darlingtons’ unwilling companion on their two epic, ‘bugger old age’ boating adventures chronicled in the marvellous Narrow Dog to Carcassonne and latterly Narrow Dog to Indian River.

Having finished Indian River recently (and if it’s whippet action you’re after, then start with Carcassonne as he steals the book, lock, stock and boathook), I got to wondering whether the narrow dog would sail again. Then I read an article in Canals & Rivers magazine in which Terry intimated that there may well be another lunatic adventure in the offing, but not for another year. But I’m worried – will the Ds be upping the stakes again in terms of derring-do? The Intracoastal Waterway seemed hairy enough but will they be pushing the narrowboat envelope even further next time?

Half of me is quietly wailing, Cassandra-like, about hubris and nemesis and half of me is selfishly urging Terry to turn his wit, erudition and bonkers punctuation to a British canal travelogue. It’s not the scary adventures that make the Narrow Dog books so enjoyable and memorable, it’s the Ds take on life and their admirable dedication to not going ‘quietly into that dark night’. I think Narrow Dog to Little Venice would be an admirable bookend to Tom Rolt’s Narrowboat, seminal works for their respective centuries.

NB. Strictly speaking, it should be Narrow Dogs from now on, as the lovely Jess has joined Jim in his basket. Still a few to go before they catch up, mind.

13 May 2008

It's a dog's life

Not surprising, really, but we do get asked alot about how we get on with five dogs on board. First, I should say that we don't live on board full time as yet so the cramped canine lunacy only lasts for two to three weeks at a time. To be honest though, we do get used to it quite quickly - the stepping over paws and heads, the holding of breath as they do a London's Burning style round of farts, the repelling of boarders as they try to jump on the bed. But maybe that's because we know normality - big living rooms and king-size mattresses - is just around the corner and we can put up with anything temporarily.

It's a similar story in the motorhome to which they have also adapted incredibly well. They do however have a Pavlovian response to stopping in both van and boat - they go absolutely mental in anticipation of mummy coming along shortly with the leads to take them to a fresh doggy paradise: new smells to sniff and new trees to whiz up. Generally they behave very well and I think they enjoy the stimulus of a trip as much as we do. Admittedly they sleep through most of it but they are always available for a cuddle - that's a great boon in winter when your Mikuni's playing up.


Oops! I never actually thought anyone would find my blog and so when the muse left me, I didn't really think it would matter. But now I have been outed by Granny Buttons and I feel that I must continue....and this despite my track record of being a great starter and a lousy finisher!

It's not an excuse really but the rest of the trip was so good that blogging was all but forgotten. Suffice to say, we uncovered another little gem of an area and, Arnie-like, we'll be back. Our return was marked by a serendipitous conjoining of dogs and blogs when Contended Souls and Bendigedig and we all met at the second lock up on the Middlewich branch - and whose name I can never remember. Thingy lock....It was a case of good dogs, slightly naughty dogs and our dogs kept well locked up to avoid any aggro. Don't get me wrong, they're all lovely but the gang has a ringleader and she's can be a right bossy moo....

Actually, there was a long old thread on one of the canal forums the other day about dogs on the towpath, particularly about keeping them (or not) on leads and/or under control when walking the towpath. Lots of argument and counter argument but I'm not sure how anyone can believe it's acceptable just to let their dog commandeer the towpath when moored (and remain unsupervised) or to run miles on ahead out of sight of the pooper-scooper. You must take responsibility as a dog owner and that means picking up doings and ensuring your dog offers no threat or concern to other dogs, other owners or members of the dogless population.

Andrew, let me assure you I do have an eagle eye and an eager shovel when it comes to my tribe. I live in hope that I may be able to make an alternative bio-fuel out of the daily collections, though it would be inadvisable to stand down wind of my exhaust.

I agree that five dogs could be a bit of a giveaway....mmm, maybe I could fatten a couple up into Labrador lookalikes...