30 June 2008

Homage to the Black Prince

In a recent post I mentioned that there was an old Harborough Marine boat round the corner from us that was doing a very fine homage to the old Black Prince boats of the 70s. Here it is resplendent in blue and yellow although those bridge bars need sorting – were they yellow or blue on the originals?
And tell me something - whatever happened to the style icon that was the louvred window? Presumably removed at some point due to its unrivalled capacity to cause hurt and injury...

Day three

I’ve always believed it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind – which is why on day three we headed off to Ellesmere Port rather than hang around in the environs of Chester. Someone back at Hurleston had told us not to bother going past the city, but I think he was a muppet. It was hugely satisfying to see and touch the end of the Shroppie...well, not touch it literally as there was a slick of oil all across the basin, but we were still able to take in the sweep of the Manchester Ship Canal and the Mersey beyond, not to mention the immediate interest of the Waterways Museum. And then, to cap it all, we were buzzed by the City of Lancaster, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster bomber. Bit of a show-stopper that....

The reasonably pleasant road of this morning was enjoyed, thankfully, in the dry, a sharp contrast to the downpour of last night. We were all hunkered down, debating how many dogs would actually dare to venture out for a pre-bed wee, when we heard what sounded like a motor. Being nosy, I stuck my face against the porthole, thinking Noah was on his way, and saw...mmm, I’m not sure how to describe it really...er...how about a green soap dish, powered by an egg whisk with a tarpaulin as a makeshift cabin? Curious but get this: he actually slowed down past us! I couldn’t believe it! He couldn’t have displaced anything if he’d tried, but it was a polite and thoughtful gesture and we’ll take those where we can get them. Some questions remain: what was he doing out there? Who takes a soap dish out in the pissing rain? And was it his egg whisk or was someone denied their meringues last night?

29 June 2008

Day two

Well it’s just one excitement after another on this trip...the Northgate staircase with none too surreptitious drug dealing on the side was today’s highlight. Let’s deal with the staircase first – what a simply magnificent structure! It looked as though it had been roughly hewn out of the very city walls such was its rugged intensity. The cavernous chambers echoed about you before starting to press in as you dropped ever lower, eventually escaping back into the light, like a diver coming up for air. Actually I just wanted to get away from the drug peddling local youth who were so stoned that they risked falling into the lock and making a mess of my boat. As soon as I was tapped up for change, I felt a little frisson of uncertainty that had me reaching for the garden implement that is actually a small scythe (for trimming back vegetation) and doesn’t really look like a machete. No, honestly, officer, it doesn’t. Anyway, at that point A and A came back up from setting the staircase and with their windlasses in hand and in my A’s case, a generous girth, they didn’t look as though they should be tangled with. As it happened, the two lads were quite disinterested, merely waiting for a ‘customer’ and they went off with him but not before merrily getting their drugs out of their pockets for everyone to see. It wasn’t exactly covert.... I think Her Majesty may have the pleasure of those two before too long.

But that was about the only excitement we had today. The run up to Chester was very smooth, sharing the locks with a couple on Helena Jean. We got a good locking rhythm going, with one of us walking ahead to set the next look and at just after midday we were both tying up on the moorings before bridge 123E. There’s a Tesco just a one minute walk away and the town centre is about a two minute walk away so it’s the height of convenience. None of us had been to Chester before but A attested to its similarity to Canterbury, so I’ll take his word for it. Feeling a bit hungry after the morning’s run, we looked out for somewhere to eat and settled on Fiesta Havana. Mountainous plates of tortillas and fajitas rendered us somewhat somnolent, a state not helped by the beers and smoothies that were also consumed. Thus the afternoon’s chug round to the visitor moorings at bridge 134 was a bit of a struggle, with personal pleas for a belly hoist going unanswered. It’s quite possible that we will never eat again...Sadly the weather deteriorated and the louring skies finally dumped their load all over us. Or should I say, on those who remained stoically on deck despite the downpour and despite a gastric distension that ill became a trad stern. To think I married a wimp who has to go and have a lie down after too much guacamole...

28 June 2008

Stepping out

I was flicking through this month’s Waterways World the other day and ogling the boat porn that was to be found in the Crick Show report. Lots of very nice looking boats, which appeared remarkably spacious. Now I’m sure some of that was down to the wide angle lens trickery of the camera but equally things were not touching other things, you could see the floor, every interior had a light and airy feel to it. Put another way, you’d feel confident swinging a few cats around whereas with mine, I’d hesitate to risk a gerbil. Perhaps it might also have something to do with the inevitable minimalism of today’s show boat contrasting with the triumphal ‘maximalism’ of dog bed central here.

One other thing caught my eye and that was the phenomenon of the ‘side hatch as glorified window’. Where were the steps? The word hatch would seem to intimate that it’s something you go through and both of ours encourage entry and egress with nice, chunky steps beneath. Extremely handy when you want to leave and simply don’t fancy vaulting five dogs to get out the front or back – and even better when you want to come back in and you catch them unawares because they’re expecting you to come through the front like normal people. The one slight problem is that we put things on the steps, so they technically become shelves. Every time we go out, we tend to stand on the Soreen so that by the end of the week, we have a malt loaf that’s 1mm thick and 2 feet wide. No good for buttering but quite good as a Frisbee...

Day one

It’s not every day you do a three boat shuffle in a staircase...and it’s not every day you do it with Mr Canal Planner himself, Nick Atty. But on day one of the mini cruise, that’s exactly what happened at Bunbury and we lived to tell the tale. It was quite funny actually as I was steering and so well out of earshot and Nick approached Dumb and Dumber to tell them that he was coming into the bottom lock – at the same time as we entered the top lock. Of course, they looked at him as though he was a madman, slightly disbelieving of the whole notion, so they did the sensible thing and referred to me. Now a shuffle is something I’ve never done myself but I knew it was perfectly possible so I was eager to add another experience to my repertoire –and my fellow Stenson boat Jolene alongside was also willing to give it a go. I duly thanked Nick for giving me the chance and he was only too happy to oblige – on a very brief acquaintance he seemed a thoroughly decent sort who absolutely relished his boating.

That was really the highlight of a very pleasant day’s cruising and we pushed on past the Shady Oak pub, eventually mooring up in the middle of nowhere near bridge 111 to demolish some pizza and watch the footie. I’m interested as to why people don’t rave a bit more about the Shroppie above Barbridge? In the sunshine and with the wind ruffling the fields, it really did look quite stunning and that was before Beeston Castle hoved into view. There were plenty of hire boats around which initially I found quite surprising – given the wide locks and the proximity of the Llangollen – but having had a thoroughly enjoyable day myself, I think they’ve made a very sensible decision. Chester awaits..and Starbucks...and Costa...will I ever leave?

27 June 2008

The manacled cow

One curiosity from our Wrenbury trip that I omitted to relate first time round. I know that Conan Doyle didn’t write a book called Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Manacled Cow but he damn well should have. Then I might know why we espied two cows en route clad in very fetching leg irons. We collectively wondered why they might be wearing them and came up with the following:

a) They are escape artists and possibly convicts
b) They are buckers. With a B.
c) They like to run fast which causes the milk to turn to cheese, which causes all sorts of problems when it comes to teat-touching time.

Now this would be like Call My Bluff if I knew one of the above was correct but I don’t. So could anyone enlighten me? Is there an udder explanation?

26 June 2008

Wrenbury run

Do you remember those old posers they used to ask you at school? If it takes two men five days to dig a ditch ten feet long, how long will it take three men? I only ask because I was never any good at them and I’m currently struggling with ‘If two people fill the poo tank in 17 days, how quickly will three people fill it?’

You see, we have a guest and he’s throwing my calculations out. I can’t even ask him how often he’s going or what he’s doing as it’s not really polite is it? So I think I might just chicken out and get a pumpout before we leave for Chester. Oh yes, readers, we’re going on a trip if all goes to plan. In fact, I cannot tell a lie...we have already been on a trip. After ten days as a floating office, the boat finally moved on Friday, the excuse of a guest and the siren call of the pub proving too much. The weekend started here! In fact, the original plan was that it was just going to be a day-trip, as we needed our car to go to a birthday party the next day. But as so often happens when boating, Miss Serendipity took over!

The trip up to Wrenbury was just how boating should be. Calm and sunny conditions, mirrored in the cheery disposition of all the boaters we met coming down. There was one exception, obviously members of the Intense Narrowboating Brigade...you know the sort, always looking straight ahead, refusing even to make eye contact, let alone say hello, carrying on as though boating was some form of extreme sport that requires a level of concentration that precludes all social niceties. And while I’m having a pop, to the Challenger couple heading to Baddiley at about 1pm on Sunday lunchtime, do cheer up, it may never happen. I’m sorry, but miserable faces put me right off my coffee and Kitkat...

The only excitement of note was when A and his friend, another A, were called into action to rescue a spaniel puppy that had decided to indulge his predilection for water. Not a problem usually but the pup wouldn’t come to his name and he was proving a one dog obstacle course for all the boats going by. Eventually A and A swooped down and hoiked him out by the scruff of the neck before he got a prop up his bottom, much to the relief of his exasperated owner. Incidentally, my A was teaching friend A all about locks as it was his first time. For some reason, as I looked at them flailing round the lockside, that film ‘Dumb and Dumber’ kept coming to mind....

We moored up before the first lift bridge and repaired to the pub for a pie and a pint. I decided to be ironic and ordered a Dissy Blonde shandy, which promptly befuddled my senses and caused me to think that sticky toffee pudding AND custard had a place on my calorie controlled diet. I did leave a bit, so maybe it doesn’t count...We were so stuffed by the time we got back to the boat, and the weather was so nice, that we declined to move, opting to take a taxi on the morrow. That all worked fine (A1 Taxis of Nantwich, very good) and we were even able to do a good turn, offering a lovely Black Country couple off NB Bakers Dozen a lift into town. They were hoping for a bus, where they probably needed a miracle so we encouraged them to jump in. They were extraordinarily grateful and we now have a standing invitation to tea and whiskey in Brewood. Best offer I’ve had in ages...

Things only started to go a bit pear-shaped come Sunday when we awoke to a Force 10 raging down the cut. We really needed to be back at the marina in time for work on Monday so had little choice but to sacrifice our hairstyles in the gales. Actually things weren’t as tricky as I’d surmised, the only real difficulty being as I navigated the lift bridge next to the pub. At the critical moment, a big gust whistled up my T-Shirt, ballooned it over my head and revealed my bra to the excited throng watching my passage. It was a miracle that a) I didn’t hit the sides and b) no-one fainted but my discombobulation obviously stayed with me until we got back as I made a complete and total bollocks up of getting into the mooring. Well, I just don’t do breasts in public...not any more.

25 June 2008

An all dog post

My dogs are very excited. Forget the excessively cute pics from Marmaduke (near left) and Caxton, we’ve had a real challenge. Blue of Indigo Dream has had his mummy read the latest blog entry to him and he has decided to take on all five of mine in the "who can make the biggest smell" competition. His mum Sue says ‘We've told him he doesn't have to and we'll still love him even if he doesn't win but he's giving it his all!’ We’re lobbying for this to become a sideshow attraction at the Black Country National...

Actually, this is not just a fart post. I meant to say much earlier on that I happen to know someone who outdoes me in the dogs on board department. There’s a 70 footer called Knot Mushroom (it took me ages to get the joke and there's me with a Classical edukashun) that is a waterborne kennel for seven miniature dachshunds. They used to have a 57 footer but upgraded for the sake of their pooches. I think the first boat was called Really Knot Mushroom...

P.S. All these lucky dogs remind me of all the unlucky ones still out there. One of the saddest aspects of grey ownership in particular is the crushing realisation that you can't save them all. At the moment, these two oldies - Briddy and Shamlas - are looking for a home in which to wile away their days in comfort and safety after having been rescued by the RSPCA from a cruel owner. We would if we could but I can't afford to rename the boat You Must Be Joking. If anyone can help, please get in touch with RGT Croftview

24 June 2008

Grey Granny

Granny has gone a bit greyhound today, with YouTube videos to enjoy at your leisure. I’m delighted because Andrew’s post will be seen by his convocation of bloggers and there’ll be a lot more people in the know about them. I guess between us, with the help of Indigo Dream, we’re doing quite a decent PR job for them, but with 10,00 greys retiring every year and less than 50% of them safely rehomed each year, it still has the feel of a Sisyphean task.

Andrew also asks:

I wonder what it's really like sharing your home with five greyhounds (to say nothing of the husband)? Do they get on each others' nerves at night and keep you awake?

The main thing to say about greys is that they are not ‘in your face’ dogs. They do not constantly seek attention and demand to be played with. If they are not having a walk or eating, they are sleeping or cadging a quick cuddle. They are most alert when a) you pick up their leads signalling walkies and b) you go into the kitchen to make their dinner. Other than that, they just lie in any number of ridiculous positions, including in one’s lap. At home at night, we don’t hear a peep out of them. We have three one side of the bed, one the other and one on the bed, and they wake up when I wake up. Occasionally Arthur ‘s hot breath in my face lets me know that he’s an old man now and can’t quite get through the night without going. I know the feeling...

On the boat, most nights are calm although Ranger has a tendency to whine from about 6am until I get up, allowing him to get into bed in my place. That’s the reason A goes to bed next to a brunette and wakes up with a blonde...and that’s the only way that’s going to happen! There may also be some early morning squeaking from Miffy but if you just roundly abuse her, she shuts up...

Once we’ve had a cuppa, the dogs are walked for half an hour and then they’ll be walked again at lunchtime and around 6ish. Dinner is served at 7, they go out for a post-prandial piddle and then settle down for a snooze while we watch the evening’s telly. Then it’s one last chuck out prior to bedtime. They are quite happy to be left if we nip out and have absolutely no problem when we cruise, enjoying especially their ‘out time’, when they can burst out onto the front deck and have a good old look-see. From experience, one of us now sits with them, as bridge holes are far too tempting for some of them.

And has our cruising life changed much since we got the dogs? Obviously you are mindful of their need for comfort breaks so you don’t tend to cruise for ten hours straight any more. And you also try to seek out more rural moorings – although having said that, they absolutely loved Manchester! But other than that, nothing has really changed except you have to guard your dinner with your life. Oh and you get hijacked on your walks all the time as people are seemingly fascinated by greyhounds...and that includes the three very likely looking lads we met once in Stoke, who seemed up for a fight but then clocked the mutts and immediately went all soft and gooey over them. So that’s a new one on the bandit deterrent list then - camera, catapult, AK47, Monty...

Bad day at the office

Bruce of Sanity had a bit of a crap day recently. You know the sort, when nothing goes right from start to finish. I daresay we’ve all had them. Rare indeed though are the days when everything is so pants that you start to seriously wonder why on earth you waste your money on boats and wouldn’t we have been better off buying a villa in Tuscany, dear? I can only recall one such time in the last six years, one moment when I really questioned what I was doing. It was at the end of a long, frustrating afternoon, which succeeded a long, frustrating morning and an even longer, more frustrating yesterday. I was just waiting for something, some final catalyst that would light the blue touch paper and send A into orbit. I don’t do orbit, far too lackadaisical... But I’m running ahead with my story.

We were enjoying a holiday cruise from Streethay to the Bridgewater and back. Nothing too untoward at the beginning unless you count Susie falling in and a big black lab making himself at home in our rubbish bag. It was the morning after a night at Wheelock where things started to go tits up – the loo wouldn’t flush and it took an awful lot of disassembling of the bed, waving a torch around its rear parts and swearing and banging before A could get it working again. Seemed like a sticky ball valve which he eventually got moving by fiddling with the lever at the side. This was not how it was meant to be....just push gently down on the diddy chrome flush handle and keep your buttocks away from the suck, that’s what we were told. Or something like that. Anyway, a bit of WD40 later and she seemed to be behaving herself. We went on our way and were sur le point de turning around a couple of days later when then was a rather ominous clang from beneath my feet. It sounded like I’d run over something but we seemed to be going as well as ever so it didn’t unduly concern me. Until it began - it being a persistent whine that drove me bonkers in about 15 seconds. The more revs I gave it, the louder, nastier the noise so I slowed down, although even tickover didn’t kill it completely. That night, I was so relieved to switch the engine off that I carelessly tossed the mallet into the cut while swinging at the pin. No spare, no joy with the Sea Searcher, no harmonious relationship on the towpath....

I decided next day to seek out help to solve the problem – the engineering, not the marital one. I kid you not, I called into every yard on the way from Preston Brook to Middlewich and they couldn’t given a damn, not one of them. The consensus was that it was a singing prop, because that’s a lovely get out, isn’t it? Well, you patronising bunch of blokes, you can shove your singing prop up your arse. I was SO ANGRY!!!!!!!!!!! They were all wrong. I’m pleased to say that it was Middlewich Narrowboats who came to my rescue, instantly diagnosing a broken coupling before they even took it apart and showed me the iron filings as evidence. No problem, they said, they’d order up a new one and it would be fitted as soon as it arrived – and it was, you can’t beat that for service. But I digress a little...

A had been fuming gently over the noise, the lost mallet, the stinking attitudes of boatyards various; then the loo, which had misbehaved once or twice but had been working well enough recently for us to think we had cured it of its shyness in opening, that wretched loo failed again. Well, that was the blue touch paper lit. Up he went, threatening to tear it from its mountings, chuck it in the cut and then commit ritual seppuku with the toilet brush. I was quite worried at the time that this could have been the end of a beautiful friendship so I threw myself upon the mercy of another of the Middlwich Samaritans. This chap had also been very helpful throughout our stay and was just clocking off for the night when this rabid female came up to him begging for him to help her with her lavatorial issues. Obviously, he tried making a run for it but I rugby tackled him....no, actually, he couldn’t do enough to help and between them, the Good Samaritan and A had the loo deconstructed, greased up and screwed back together before you could say ‘Are we there yet?’. From that day to this, the loo has never experienced that same problem, though we do have fun and games keeping the seal 100% and preventing a 3am ‘hunka hunka hunka’ as the bloody vacu-system cycles round. That’s why there’s Vaseline in the bathroom. And that's the only reason....

23 June 2008

Two's a crowd

Question: Is there anything more annoying than trying to work in a fairly small well deck with Ranger dog determined not only to join you but to squeak in your face all day long?

No, didn’t think so. And that was before he knocked my coffee over....

Mind you, kicking me out of bed at 6am comes close...

Crying into his beer

John of Alacrity tickled me with his recent post when a trip to the boat revealed that he was about four years too late for some things.

“Next was a shopping trip to Tesco Daventry to stock up on staples as some of the tinned food was showing a sell by date of 2004”

I reckon that some of it would still have been edible. I once found a jar of Marmite at my mum’s and it was about six years out of date – still tasted okay though although how you could detect anything through that deep yeasty gunge I do not know. We share John’s problems on board but they are all of our own making, I must confess. We have what we term ‘the captain’s cabin’, an extra food and beverage repository under the dinette. Initially it was used for naughty stuff like chocs and crisps, as if secreting it away under the seat would somehow deter us from ripping open the packets and stuffing our faces. Didn’t work....But over time, it started to receive all sorts of goods inwards and as it became less interesting so our keenness to ferret around in it waned. And that led to a certain ignorance about what lay within, which in turn caused us, well, me, to buy more of what we already had – and which we threw in to join the rest. You can see where this is going can’t you?

Well, it reached a point where we had Frosties pouring out the end door, rice cakes trying to make a run for it and 168 bottles of beer pushing upwards in search of light and a bottle opener. So we decided to have a bit of a sort out and A said that he would manfully attempt to lower the beer mountain. So I opened a bottle and it fizzed up like Old Faithful, a hoppy geyser that proceeded to foam all over the floor. I checked the sell by date – April 2004 – and without ceremony emptied the remaining contents into the sink and put the bottle in the bin. A raised his eyebrows – he’s very sensitive to waste and would have had a fit if he’d known how long we’d been sitting on this beer – so I merely said that it was a tad out of date and didn’t beer keep badly these days, blah, blah blah. Cheerfully I grabbed another bottle and tried to keep smiling as I clocked a 2005 sell by date. This routine continued for about half an hour and at the end of it A was still thirsty (and crying), the bin was full of a score of empty bottles and the ducks outside the sink outlet were completely paralytic. Lucky ducks...

22 June 2008

Greys, guffs and gatherings

Sue of Indigo Dream thinks she has problems? She describes her sleeping arrangements thus:

"In this cosy cabin sleep me, Richard and Blue (in a nest of duvets, blankets and cushions at the end of our bed). Blue had always slept here as he likes to be close to the pack. Terry Pratchett describes a barn as being ‘cosy, warm and slightly flatulent’ place - that’s our boat bedroom with two humans and a dog!"

Well, in our back cabin you have five dogs fighting for three dog beds and then the three winners trying it on vis a vis grabbing a cosier billet on mum and dad’s bed. When all has settled down, you’re slowly drifting off when a noxious vapour tickles your nostrils and wakes you up gagging and coughing. Each morning you’re awoken by the sound of trumpets voluntary, followed by avid slurping and licking sounds as personal parts are washed. You’re afraid to light the gas lest a methane pocket explode and once you’ve brought tea back to bed, some mutt’s trying to mug you for it.

NB Elsewhere probably knows what I’m talking about. Indigo Dream (two greys) recently met Elsewhere at Calcutt Locks and promptly discovered that they had three greys aboard. If we had by some chance also been coming up, there would have been a greyhound ‘meet and greet’ of ten hounds, although with Susie around it would have turned into a ‘meet and sneer’ or a ‘meet and boss everyone around’. She’s such a charmer.

However, that’s not much of a grey gathering when you compare it to the ‘Greyhounds Reach The Beach’ annual event at Dewey Beach, Delaware. Thousands of hounds and their owners get together to promote and celebrate greyhound adoption as only Americans can – this short video clip should tell you all you need to know. I like the ‘bones pyjamas’ myself....could look quite good on the dogs too.

21 June 2008

Hire love

As I’ve reported elsewhere in this blog, much of my early boating was done courtesy of Weltonfield Narrowboats. I can still remember that back in those quondam days, Weltonfield was a member of the Blue Riband Club, a loose consortium of independent hire companies drawn together by shared standards of boating and service excellence. I looked them up today to see if the Club is still going and was a little saddened by the fact that, yes, it still exists, but that now there are only two member companies – I seem to remember eight or ten members in my youth, but for the life of me can’t remember the others. Could anyone without an addled brain perhaps remember and let me know?

However, it was nice to reacquaint myself, albeit virtually, with the Wyvern Shipping Company and Countrywide Cruisers, who have an aggregate 80 years’ hiring experience between them. They should really write a book, they must have seen it all by now. Even nicer to see that at least one has maintained its original livery, with Wyvern’s nostalgic blue and red giving me a touch of the old ‘recherche de temps perdu’. Where did it all go? I see that CC have moved on from their rather tasty banoffee number and are now decked out in a fetching shade of aquamarine and cream. Of course, one thing led to another and I spent this morning wracking my brains as to who else was about when I was a lass and is still plying their trade to this day, and who has gone to that great hireboat graveyard in the sky (I thought that was Charity Dock. Ed).

In some ways, little has changed. The hire fleets are still dominated by Alvechurch, Anglo-Welsh and Black Prince. Alvechurch has stayed true to its very rakish green, yellow and burnt umber paint scheme with the characteristic Cyclops window always casting its beady eye at you as you approach. Anglo-Welsh seems to be having a BW-inspired ID crisis, switching from blue to green and back to blue, having given up completely on 70s beige and mud (that was a good move) although not forgetting their brief ‘red period’. Black Prince, of course, have never been black. Today they are cherry red, blue and cream while in the earlier Rimmer era, they were a rather startling blue and yellow, with a black prince logo chappie on the side. Weren’t they known as the ‘yellow peril’ back then? Or the ‘blue peril’? Or maybe ‘the yellowey blue or bluey yellow peril?’ All I know is you tended to get out of the way when one of those high beaky Harborough Marine prows came whistling round the corner.

Personally, I found the only peril really lay with those black and burgundy Bugattis of the Grand Union, the Weed boats. The Weeds were from Concoform Marine and I’ve never seen hire boats shift that fast. We were once hit by one on a bend and it left a three inch deep dent in the bow, such was the momentum-driven impact. One also zoomed past us moored up at Braunston and it ripped both pins clean out of the bank and drew us into the middle of the cut. I was too absorbed with my SuperNoodles at the time and didn’t notice until I came to step outside and found water either side.

It’s good to see people like Rose Narrowboats, Clifton Cruisers, Canal Cruising Company, College Cruisers, Clubline, Middlewich Narrowboats, Shire Cruisers and Chas Hardern still around – and still proving that smaller specialists can succeed. But I wonder whatever happened to the likes of Gordons Pleasure Cruisers who worked out of Napton? They seemed to be everywhere at one time, their distinctive white and blue boats having an almost Canaltime ubiquity. And English County Cruises? Dartline? Brummagem Boats? Braunston Boats? And goodness knows how many more I’ve forgotten. Time for someone to write the definitive history of the hire trade, don’t you think?

I’m reminded of past times every so often when I see the unmistakeable lines of a Harborough Marine boat that’s now in private hands. There’s one just round the corner from us that’s been done up in ‘peril paint’ – maybe as an homage to the old BP? - and it looks cracking. In fact, every one I’ve seen is immaculate and lovingly tended, and I reckon that they have a bit of retro style these days. They do say, if you wait long enough, everything becomes fashionable again...although maybe not my purple corduroy dungarees with patches on the bum.

P.S. Gosh, this took me back! I'm indebted to http://www.asmith.org.uk/ for the following:

20 June 2008

The kayaking comeback kid

It’s very easy to lose all sense of time once you’re cocooned on your boat. For example, the other day, I only found out it was Friday 13th at 6pm that evening. How useful would it have been if I’d known at 6am. For if I had, I would not have gone and bought a kayak (not to be confused with a canoe. You sit in a kayak and use a two-bladed paddle, you kneel in a canoe and use a single-bladed paddle). And I certainly would not have gone out in it. I mean, I’m not superstitious but there’s no point tempting fate is there? But because I didn’t know, the following happened. At 5.15, I got into my new kayak. It’s a fluorescent orangey red, so you won’t miss me. At 5.24, I got out of my new kayak. The problem was, I didn’t want to get out. Well, I did, but I wanted to get out onto the bank. Not out of the kayak and into the rather bracing Llangollen canal. There is a difference.

It all happened so quickly that I’m not sure what exactly happened...I suspect this novitiate rather screwed things up, to be blunt. One second I was sitting upright inside the kayak, the next I was standing chest high next to an upside down kayak. But there wasn’t time to dwell on the cause as I was much more concerned with the effect – me in the water with no obvious way of getting out. Of course, if I’d been a lithe, athletic fifteen year old, I would just have sprung forth from the waters like a terpsichorean naiad but it’s been a long time since I was fifteen and the years haven’t been kind. My first attempts at levering myself out failed miserably so I hunted out a large rock with my feet to supply the necessary elevation to make a second assault on the towpath. I sprang up, scrabbling at the grass for a handhold, heedless of my shorts lowering themselves to half mast, and, with all the grace and elegance of a beached whale, I succeeded in regaining dry land and readjusting my knickers. The Llangollen can rarely have witnessed such a lack of decorum but by some blessed chance, my only witnesses were the lower lock gates that stood sentinel over the unfolding farce.

And yet the day had started off so well. I arrived at Brookbank Canoes, explained that I was a complete beginner and could they show me something that was big and stable, something with pootle-ability rather than go faster stripes. A coracle perhaps? The first one we looked at had a cockpit obviously designed for one of those emaciated size zero people. The nearest thing to size zero on me is my wrist. I looked at the sales assistant, she looked at me, properly this time, and wordlessly we both moved on. The next one she showed me was much more like it. The cockpit looked huge, although when I got into it, I could feel my hips brushing the sides. So, either the cockpit size was deceptive or early onset middle age spread has got a sudden move on. But it was extremely comfortable, with a high seat that supported my back, lots of legroom and it seemed to have a welcome degree of stability. I said to the assistant, ‘I bet it takes a lot to turn this over’ and she just smiled knowingly, obviously completely aware that it wouldn’t take a lot at all and that I’d probably find out for myself within the day, so why spoil my fun? How right she was. The good news is that I got straight back on the horse. I went out in it the day after and stayed dry, sensibly using the marina slipway to get out. However, if anyone could give me any tips on how to get out alongside a canal bank, I’d be very grateful. I tried to get out next to the pontoon on my return and I just knew that I’d take another ducking if I persisted. Remember that old children’s skipping song – wibble, wobble, wibble, wobble, jelly on the plate? Well, it was jelly in the kayak and very nearly out of it and in the drink again. What larks, Pip! Maybe I should’ve gone for a canoe instead? A hovercraft would be good...

19 June 2008

Cute dog alert

Sorry, just had to squeeze in this post. Nev of Waterlily asks:

"Does Leia get me enrolled into the dog bloggers roll call them??"

She certainly does, and she gets her own post because I'm a sucker for a cutie. How could anyone resist this?

She's so dinky and hardly takes up any room, whereas I'm trapped in my recliner by a sea of snozzing dog bodies. Shame, can't do the washing up...
P.S. You may have got the impression that we have to endure a Fartathon on board, but I'd like to make it clear, in the interests of fairness and veracity, that eruptions are characterized more by their potency than by their regularity. Toxicity levels remain within acceptable limits - the canary ain't pegged it yet.

Criminal canine

Re: DogsonBlogs, my thanks to Richard for letting me know about Muriel and for bringing to my attention the criminal record of Jack the retriever. I think I feel a competition coming on for the best tale of wanton doggie yobbery or canine larceny. All contributions welcome. Out of my lot, Susie should probably be in the Scrubs by now. ‘Yes, m’lud, I confess to one count of hot-cross bun stealing and one count of rolling a puppy over and I’d like 3000 other offences to be taken into consideration.’ And Ranger's not much better. Just recently, about twenty five slices of luncheon meat fell out of a packet I was about to put back in the fridge, only for them to somehow land in his mouth. He wasn’t overly impressed when A tried to retrieve them and I believe one of A’s fingers is not as long as it used to be. But on balance, considering the potential for trouble with five independently minded mutts, I think I’m fairly lucky – they don’t destroy things, they don’t tend to roll in muck, they are fairly peaceable most of the time and the only thing that’s truly criminal about them is their farts. If I could somehow harness their methane and use it as a biofuel, I’d even forgive them that. What a great way to get rid of the tailgaters...

Brotherly bogging blogging

Those Edwards boys are at it again (Khayamanzi Andy and K2 Steve). After the ‘breaking K2’s gear linkage’ competition, they’ve now moved onto ‘who is the best bogologist’. No sooner had Andy eyed up his brother Steve’s loo than brother Steve’s loo went on the blink. Meanwhile, Andy’s own convenience was being inconvenient and playing hard to flush. With the help of an exploded diagram, Steve got to the bottom of his problems, throwing down the (presumably long rubber) gauntlet to Andy. Top that, bruv. Well, he only went and did it – and then some. It was like the Bionic Man reincarnated as the Bionic Bog – we have the technology, we can rebuild it.....everything (and I mean everything) came out, everything was cleaned up, everything was put back together again and even better it actually worked. Apparently, Andy was to be heard walking up K2’s pontoon humming ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’. These brotherly adventures will run and run...

Dog rolls on

With the help of Adam of Debdale, I have now got my DogRoll up to 17, wth recent additions including Caxton, The Maisibert, Muriel, Enigma and Moore2life. I hope that this is hot enough for Granny. Actually, this post is just an excuse to include a cute dog pic.

P.S. Make that 18. Welcome, NB Kestrel
P.P.S. And Beau makes 19

18 June 2008

Lethal Weapon V

Granny Buttons does a good line in gadget posts. Being a rabid coffee addict, his latest certainly caught my eye as it offered the promise of espresso without the need for electric. The kettle-assisted AeroPress...

"...is a really clever pressure device that extracts the quintessence of coffee from the bean, much better than a cafetiere, and I think better than an espresso machine."

I have to confess to a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy’ here. You see, there’s been an earlier attempt at getting round that fact that someone who shall remain nameless still hasn’t got me a whopping great inverter (that’ll support my delightful Kenwood Retro coffee machine). Instead, I used a classic aluminium stovetop espresso machine like this Bialetti. I filled the bottom pot with water before carefully packing the central disc with ground espresso; I placed it on the gas and to my delight it was soon spitting, burping and gurgling away. The aroma was saying all the right things to me – you'll like this, this is coffee as it should be, you'll never go back, viva Italia - although I sensed there may have been some bull-shitting going on when I saw the hot black treacle that had percolated through to the top pot. I poured the coffee-cum-molasses out more in hope than expectation and took a tiny sip from a tiny cup that had a tiny bit of milk in it. Such caution was well-founded, because I suspect that if I’d slurped in anything bigger, my heart may well have stopped, maybe for a few minutes, possibly even permanently. Dear reader, this devil’s brew nearly went and blew my bloody socks off! No wonder the Italians drive so badly if this is what they drink all day. This was beyond, way beyond ristretto...I know that because ristretto puts you on the ceiling for five minutes and I was definitely up there longer than that. This was not intense, this was explosive, a gelignite-filled amuse gueule masquerading as an innocent elevenses. Amused girl? I don't think so.

Loo lines: The sequel

John on Alacrity left a great comment on the blog the other day following my Loo Lines posting:

"On Alacrity there is a rule that whoever blocks the loo unblocks it.I have to say that in 19 years it has only been blocked once when a little girl used Kleenex high strength tissues instead of loo roll and stalled the macerator.It took three hours to take it apart and unwind the tissue.I did the repair on the towpath much to the disgust of passers by."

Well, you know, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. And what a gent – I’d have given the girl a spanner and told her to get on with it....

I’m going to continue with the bog theme for this post as I am on a bit of a loo roll at the moment. Loo roll, geddit? I know, I won’t be giving up the day job anytime soon....Right, now those of you who have been paying attention will know that I have been in touch with Lee Sanitation recently. And as well as the base assembly for my Magnum Opus vacuflush WC, I’ve also ordered a new tank probe and gauge that will offer up more useful information than simply ‘Green and you’re good to go’ and ‘Red and you’re screwed’. A is completely happy with the switch, largely because he doesn’t know what can happen once the four legged bog beastie is in the tank. Let’s hope he never reads Bruce’s Sanity blog or the sh*t will be hitting the fan as well as the probe.

To help fit the new unit, I’ve also ordered a universal flange. Don’t you just love the word ‘flange’? It has an almost onomatopoeic quality about it, which I bet is the most poetic thing anyone had said about a plastic bog bit. I was also tempted to buy a self pump-out kit but just had visions of losing control and standing helplessly by as the hose serpentined rather too vigorously and manured everything in sight. I’ll stick with the industrial suckers I think – they’re more than a match for our own Magna Opera.

17 June 2008

Plus ca change...

A few months back, one of the canal mags gave us its top 50 waterways-related books. It’ll be far too tedious to check and see if it’s online anywhere, which it probably isn’t, but I do recall that it included just about every essential ‘must read’ if you’re a narroboaty sort. Jim Shead does have a decent list on Amazon which will get you started, and I’d draw your attention particularly to the Working Waterways series. If you see any of the WW titles in a chandlery or canalside gift shop, knock your granny over to get your hands on one.

Canal carrying is the common thread that binds the titles together, whether it’s the Idle Women of the 2nd World War or the free spirits of the 50s and 60s. One of the things that struck me as I read them was ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. Contained in their pages you can find tales of poor depth, minimal maintenance, speeding boaters, rudeness and yobbery; but next to them you can also savour memoirs of friendship, generosity, kindness, selflessness and an abiding love of the cut. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Titles to look out for include:

  • Idle Women
  • Troubled Waters
  • The Amateur Boatwomen
  • Maidens’ Trip
  • Anderton for Orders
  • Hold on a Minute
  • Bread upon the Waters
  • The Quiet Waters By

The books all have a distinctive jacket style which makes them easy to spot on the shelf. I adore the front cover illustrations, very spare pen and ink drawings that perfectly capture the essence of the title.

I think I’ll use the pen and ink medium for my own book , ‘Happiness is a tiny flush’ and its sequel ‘Contentment is a bigger tank.’ In the shops soon...

Rather him than me

I’m a keen swimmer but have a preference for safe, quiet waters...the local baths for instance. I’ve done a fair bit of swimming in the sea but having once had a close encounter with a floater and having been caught in a riptide that nearly swept me to Papua New Guinea, I’m more likely to be found these days struggling to keep up with the grannies in the fast lane. What I would never do is swim the Manchester Ship Canal but that’s exactly what James Whittaker, development director of MSC owner Peel Holdings, is going to do. Now I know that you should have belief in your brand but isn’t this going a bit far? Actually, 36 miles too far because that’s how long the thing is. Good man, though, because he’s also raising money for charity as well as launching the company’s £50bn Ocean Gateway scheme. I advise two or three wetsuits at least and maybe a nice mac...

Crain’s Manchester Business reports:

James Whittaker, development director at Peel Holdings, will swim 36 miles of the Manchester Ship Canal on September 5 and 6 to launch the company’s £50bn Ocean Gateway scheme. Proposals to the scheme will also be revealed to specially invited guests during the two-day event.The swim will also raise money for Manchester’s New Children's Hospital Appeal.

P.S. I did a bit of digging and it seems James is a glutton for punishment - and quite possibly a candidate for sainthood. This from the Peel Holdings news pages:

James Whittaker and Richard Mawdsley have agreed to push their bodies to the limits with a 2.5 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bicycle ride and topped off with a full 26.2 mile marathon for The Message Trust, a Christian charity that helps disadvantaged children in the Manchester region.

Both competitors have been training hard for the Ironman European Championships 2007, an endurance race which will take place in Frankfurt, Germany, on 1st July 2007.

Since training began last October the duo have run 1,750 miles (the equivalent of 68 marathons), swam 320 miles (14.5 times across the English Channel) and have cycled the distance of the Tour du France two and a half times covering 5,400 miles. The total hours trained equates to more than 360 hours.

James Whittaker, property director at Peel Holdings, said: “This will be the biggest challenge of my life as the Ironman race is one of the most extreme endurance races in the world. It’s not only going to be physically demanding but also psychologically tough.I agreed to take part to raise much needed funds for The Message Trust – an amazing charity which is committed to creating opportunities for young people in the region. If all goes well on the day we’re aiming to finish the challenge in less than 12 hours - that would place us in the top half of the 2,000 competitor field.”

Sadly there's no report of how well they did but you have to take your hat off to them. I myself am training for the 'Chalkman Championships', a tough tripartite challenge comprising: running a bath, followed by unfolding one's fold-up bicycle and stumbling to the nearest chair for a sit-down and cup of tea.

Eye in the sky

Adam of NB Debdale liked the Camserv webcam and I can say with complete authority that it is a genuine camera and not some film on a loop designed to give you the impression that Nantwich is always sunny and never busy. And how do I know this? Well, A and I can be highly immature at times so we thought we’d go and wave at it and see if it picked us up. Unfortunately a boat was using the facilities so we curtailed the waving lest the people on board became concerned that we’d escaped from somewhere. But I can definitely see a hint of A’s stripey top so I can confirm that the camera is a trustworthy source of weather info, boat movements and whether any sod's just nicked your place on the water point....

16 June 2008

Evidence in camera

When the weather is glorious, when the sun shines nose to tail of the dog day and when I’m stuck at home, then you’ll often hear me throwing up the lament ‘How I wish I was on the boat’. I’m sure you’ve all done it...But being a sanguine sort, A will then rain on my parade by telling me that it’s probably pants on the Cheshire plain and we’re better off where we are. Having seen the tenacity of depressions up there (meteorological leading to mental), I can only nod in acquiescence and return deflated to my keyboard. I’d love to be able to refute him with hard evidence just once...a forecast is not hard evidence, of course, so what can I do? How can I prove that the sun does shine north of Watford and earn more exeats to the cut? Well, folks, I think I may have the solution thanks to Camserv. Oh yes, this little beauty is a webcam parked outside the Empress Holidays yard at Nantwich, giving us a view north (of the facilities block) and south (towards the aqueduct). You can easily see the sun reflected off the cut, definitely prima facie evidence that my facie and body should be heading up the M6 confestim.

Is there a finer recliner?

The other day I said that I was very easily pleased by retailers, service providers etc. Well today I am enjoying a super abundance of pleasure, a cornucopia of joy and happy feelings – and it’s all thanks to Leather Seats Online. We’ve been looking for two replacement recliners for the saloon and having clocked an ad in Canal Boat the other month, I toddled off to the LSO website. What they lack in choice of styles and colours, they more than make up for in quality and value, so I settled for a couple of Cassini chairs in chestnut. (Web pics don't really do the chair justice)

We wanted them delivered directly to the marina as there was no way I was going to get the dogs to sit on swivel chairs if we put them in the car, so I rang up and spoke to the very charming Jonathan. Not only was delivery to the boat absolutely fine, he even arranged for the courier’s arrival to coincide with our own, as we didn’t really want to impose on the office with the storage of two boxes the size of a small elephant. Of course, promising is one thing, following through is quite another but Jonathan was as good as his word. As we approached the office, we could see the boxes causing a partial eclipse of the sun and it was with some excitement that we climbed inside with a ladder to inspect them. Well, what can I say? They are quite magnificent, and once we wrestled them inside the boat, we also realised they are quite huge. But they are gorgeous, sumptuous and perfectly proportioned for my backside. I’m a very happy bunny so Leather Seats Online gets the big Greygal seal of approval.

15 June 2008


Oh flippin’ ‘eck. According to Granny Buttons, my Dog Roll post will soon go cold as it needs constant updating.

“What's needed is a quick and simple list of links of dog-friendly blogs in a sidebar. I wonder who'll be the first to set one up?”

Of course, that's Andrew's little joke as he's already done it but I feel as I set this particular hare running, and that I lead the way in canine passengers, I do have a certain duty to maintain the non plus ultra of Dog Rolls. Thus I too have added a new bit to my blog and will endeavour to keep it hot. If you have a dog on a blog and I haven’t discovered you yet, then please woof me out of my ignorance by leaving a comment on this post.

Kit and her crew

When I was banging on about tunnels the other day, I made a mental note to look further into the story of Kit Crewbucket. I’m indebted to an excellent little tome ‘Canal Tunnels of England and Wales’ for this extra bit of ghostly info.

It would appear that the term ‘Kit Crewbucket’ has now become accepted slang for a canal ghost, although her original haunts were north of Harecastle. In Victorian times, Kidsgrove was known to canal folk as ‘Kitcrew’, while a ‘buggut’ was a dialect term for a ghost. According to one story, two local men murdered a woman and threw her corpse in to the T&M, and she now manifests either as a headless body (why are bodies always headless?) or, more curiously, as a white horse.

A headless woman (they’re very careless losing them, aren’t they?) is also said to haunt Saddington tunnel and if you see her, then you’re in trouble because her appearance portends doom and disaster. Further along, a friendly male ghost, and this one would seem to have managed to hold onto his head, wanders the towpath north of Crick tunnel, his strolling spectre recreating his earthly role as a lengthsman.

Near to Pontcysyllte, a fine and beautiful lady in crinolines has appeared on the towpath, and were that to happen when I was on the aqueduct, I might just have to abseil down the offside. But the most noble Kit Crewbucket of all has often been seen riding across his lands near Worsley tunnels. On certain nights, it is said that a coach and horses carry a lordly passenger across the moors. Those brave enough to have taken a look at the face swear that it was none other than the Duke of Bridgewater himself.

I’m so glad I found this out after I went through Worsley because things like this give me the willies. I still watch the Daleks through my fingers...

P.S. Early in the 20th century, a murder victim was dropped down one of the ventilation shafts of the abandoned Berwick tunnel on the derelict Shrewsbury canal. If anyone's planning a 'disposal' anytime soon, could you please take similar precautions and not sling it down Blisworth as the shaft monsoons are bad enough without a body complicating matters. Nor Harecastle, because no-one will come and get it out....

14 June 2008

Ranger dog

Ranger is dog no.5, the last of the bunch but by no means the least. Definitely by no means the least as he is a chunky little herbert who could easily impersonate a Labrador. However, he was very underweight when he arrived at Croftview so they fed him up and he’s now a very cuddly size without being fat. In fact, the starvation he obviously endured is just one part of his sad story. He raced 111 times and then broke his hock, which we doubt was ever attended to properly because it set very awkwardly. He was left for about 2 years, presumably at this trainer’s kennels, pretty much alone and unloved until he got his chance with the RGT.

But once at Croftview, no-one took a blind bit of notice of him – there was no serious interest shown by anyone and he had to watch as month after month other dogs were happily led away to their new homes. Maybe it was his picture on the website (what we call his ‘flying ears’ pose which made him look very naughty) or maybe the fact that he barked ‘take me, take me’ whenever anyone came near him so eager was he to find a sofa of his own. We, of course, had four dogs and that was our limit, there was no more room, we couldn’t walk five, no, no, no, no, no, we’re not having another dog. We were absolutely adamant. Adamant, you hear?

Thus there was no danger in going down to the kennels at Christmas 2006 to hand over our annual donation. No danger....Things started to go wrong as soon as I opened my mouth really. There was one dog standing outside his kennel, only one in the whole of this huge kennel block (It was as if Fate was holding a big neon arrow at his head). Before I knew it, I could hear these words being said by someone who sounded like me. Is that Ranger? Yes. Can we take him for a walk? Yes. Then A chipped in. (Crikey, we’re as bad as each other.) Doesn’t he walk nicely? Yes. We can’t leave him here. No. We should take him. Yes. No. What are we doing? Yes please, we’ll have a lead and a bowl and can you pick him out a nice coat while you’re at it?

As we drove home, we were a bit worried about going through the whole ‘inducting new dog into house’ routine. We were out of practice and, let’s face it, were also slightly insane, but there was no going back. And Ranger, bless him, made it all so easy for us. It was as if he’d been in a house all his life, shooting up and down the stairs, sniffing out the kitchen, jumping onto the sofa and switching on the remote. And he is the most loving and demonstrative of all the dogs, continually trying to prove that greyhounds can be lapdogs and never letting his mistress go to the bathroom unaccompanied. Even his canal initiation topped all the others. Rather than hopping back onto the boat with the others after his first walk round the marina, he padded to the end of the pontoon and jumped in for a swim, complete with winter coat. He looked happy as Larry paddling around while his mum fretted on the sidelines, wondering whether she’d have to go in after him. Thankfully, the cold water cooled his natational ardour and he was pulled out for a good rub down. I think the label said he was drip-dry, no tumbling, so we led him back to the Squirrel for a gentle singe.

Ranger really epitomises what greyhound rescue is all about. A 7 year old dog, abandoned by pretty much everyone, at last finds what he’s always wanted – love, food, a soft bed, walks – and returns what he’s always wanted to give – love, licks and loyalty. It doesn’t get better than that for him – or for us.

Aquatic retrievers a breed apart

The trip up to the marina was not its usual deadly dull self this time. Things were enlivened, first, by a narrowboat on the back of a low loader – if yours was due across the A14 on Thursday, then it was still upright when we saw it. Secondly, by an earth mover on the back of another low loader whose gigantic width meant that it had to have warning chevrons on its tyres, such was its sticky-outiness. I wish some wag had hung a sign on it – ‘does my bum look big in this?’ It made me feel positively petite. And for the hat-trick, folks, we passed a van emblazoned with the legend ‘Aquatic Retrieval Unit’ and next to that ‘In Partnership with Tesco’. What the hell is an Aquatic Retrieval Unit? And why do they work for a supermarket? Bizarre thoughts started going round in my head which, for some reason I can’t explain, centred largely on the concept of crayfish being liberated and Tesco being intent on recapturing them...(Note to self: Too much cheese sends you funny). It was only when I got closer and saw the 8 point lettering beneath that all became clear. Aquatic Retrieval Unit is a euphemism worthy of Private Eye – they’re trolley collectors. Specifically, trolley collectors who collect from watercourses.

What was really worrying was what they were towing behind them – not some titanic trailer able to carry a supermarket carpark’s worth but half a hayrick that would just about carry one basket. Hello? Have you seen the amount of trolleys in the average canal or river? Are you collecting them one at a time? No wonder we keep riding over them if the Aquatic Retrieval Unit’s on the case. My dogs could fetch better than that.

13 June 2008

Bloggers union

Hot on the heels of Petroc and Epiphany coming together, I've had my own bloggers' union. And hey, what a good job I said nice things about Geoff on Seyella because I met him today! And he lived up to his billing, what a lovely chap! In fact, everyone was lovely - Geoff’s wife, Mags, cruising pal Carol, and the two pooches Meg and Sealy. I just happened to look up from my laptop as Seyella disappeared over the horizon so I rushed off to the locks like some demented half-wit to introduce myself. Ten minutes of chat then I let them get on their way, it was too nice an afternoon to ensnare them with my endless burblings. Guys, it was wonderful to meet you all, and hope to see you again some time.

Chocs away

If my mum hadn’t already mentioned her to me the other day, Jo on Hadar’s recommendation of Annie Murray would certainly have seen me beetling up the Amazon to fill my shopping cart.
Jo says:

“So another day moored up and a chance for me to read the rest of my book by Annie Murray, ‘Where Earth Meets Sky’. It’s a brilliant book to read, like all of her books, if you like a bit of romance, mystery and scandal. I have all of Annie Murray’s books and love reading them over and over again.”

A pretty unequivocal thumbs-up from Jo and although this type of novel is not my usual fare, I did enjoy my first taste of Annie’s writing with The Chocolate Girls. This is a tale of intermingled lives in the run up to war, with the Cadbury factory at Bournville the one constant in everyone’s increasingly fractured existence. It was only when I finished the book that I noticed it was sponsored by Cadbury, which immediately threw into doubt the picture of enlightenment and philanthropy that had been painted of the firm and the family. Having said that, they were Quakers and anyone who’s happy to sell chocolate misshapes for cheaps is all right by me. And, in fact, Annie pretty much has it spot on if the Cadbury website is anything to go by:

It was John Cadbury, a young Quaker, who first set things in motion when he opened a shop in Birmingham, UK in 1824. His original focus was the trade of tea and coffee, but he soon spotted a new opportunity in cocoa beverages and laid the foundations for Cadbury's move into chocolate and then confectionery.

Cadbury's was a business founded on values and a sense of social responsibility. As a Quakers the Cadbury family believed tea, coffee, cocoa beverages could serve as an alternative to alcohol, seen to be a cause of poverty and deprivation amongst the working classes.
More broadly, they were active across other Quaker campaigns for 'justice, equality and social reform, putting an end to poverty and deprivation.' For example, Cadbury were involved in the early anti-slavery movement, calls for better housing and sanitation, and inner city smoke abatement.

Across UK society Quakers were excluded from universities (which were closely tied to the established church) and therefore entry into the professions. They were also unwilling to enter the military due to their pacifist principles, so turned their energies and talents towards business and social reform. You could say the legal profession's loss was confectionery's gain...

So starting with cocoa hand-ground with a mortar and pestle in the back room of his shop, then renting a former malthouse, John Cadbury became a manufacturer of drinking chocolate and cocoa, laying the foundation of Cadbury's business of creating brands people love."

I would also urge you to look at the History of our Brands page. Some of these things have been around for absolutely yonks and yonks, like Maynards Wine Gums, launched in 1909. So the question is, the old working boats that delivered chocolate crumb etc...were they also taking away 20 tonnes of Bertie Bassetts or butty loads of Baby Bumper Jelly Babies? They kept that quiet didn’t they? This is what I call a load. Forget coal, forget paper, forget aluminium, I’d have been holding out for carrying Crunchies, thank you very much. Or Flakes...or maybe Creme Eggs..

Greyhounds are indi-go!

Wonderful news, folks, the greyhounds afloat movement is growing! This morning I stumbled upon the Indigo Dream blog of Sue and Richard and their faithful hounds, Lou and Blue. I’ve had a quick gorge of the postings thus far, and although it’s early days, the blog certainly ticks all the boxes for me: it’s well-written, witty, erudite, informative, entertaining, nicely illustrated and has a certain panache and joie de vivre about it that perfectly captures the essence of time afloat. The fact that it’s also bursting with grey pics and grey tales is a delightful bonus.

If I ever get my online guide off the ground, Indigo Dream would also be an excellent source of info. Sue is using the blog in place of a ship’s log so is meticulously recording details such as the location of water points and recycling facilities as well as points of interest and general local colour.

This is a typical excerpt:

First stop was Tesco in Bulls Bridge - great 24-hour moorings right by the store - you can bring your trolley to within a couple of feet of the boat - fantastic. So we stocked up for the hols - I went shopping with Richard so there is more in cupboards than just chocolate and beer! There’s also a water point here and good facilities for recycling. Just up the mainline were two BW rubbish barges which are good for getting rid of other domestic waste. On a more interesting front, the Grand Union used to be a major commercial waterway which linked London with the Midlands. Tesco have preserved a bit of this heritage by restoring an old dry dock - it was a great bit of engineering - the ribs which would have supported the boat when the dock was drained were magnificently built of a blue engineering brick with fantastic brick arches all along to allow the water to drain (yes it is Sue writing this - Richard was even more enthusiastic!). What an elegant bit of canal history!

Indigo Dream deserves a wider audience so I hope Granny sees this and gives it a plug.

12 June 2008

The pen is mightier than the magnet

I see the Pen Fishing Rod has tickled Granny Buttons’ fancy. Andrew classes it as one of those things he doesn’t really need, but really, really wants. Hey, welcome to my life! You would think that a telescopic fishing rod that you can put in your pocket, even one with a far from shabby 5lb breaking strain, wouldn’t really be up to much. But as Mac off Skyy reports, it really does work and he has a picture of the fish to prove it! Apparently, it's even been featured on Chris Evans' Drive Time show on Radio 2, taking it to an audience of at least three people...

I think I’ve seen one of these rods advertised in the marine pot-pourri that is the Nauticalia catalogue. Nauticalia are the brains behind the narrowboater’s best friend, the Sea Searcher magnet. But what is it with me and my orange hunk of attraction? Other people score amazing success with theirs, hauling out windlasses, mooring pins, piling hooks, mallets, gold doubloons, mini subs, et al. And me? I just get nails and iron filings. I'd hook more with that titchy rod. Oh hang on, no, actually, I’m wrong, I did once triumphantly recover my trowel. That was an invaluable haul as a girl can’t be without her pooper scooper, you never know when a Granny may be watching...

New pontoon is a bit rummy

The Granny-baiting Narrowboatworld has picked up on a press release for a new modular pontoon system, Simbro, which is going into the revamped Whixall Marina. Apparently, Simbro’s manufactured “with strategically placed holes designed to allow mooring fingers and pontoons to be located in any orientation and layout, plus pile brackets, mooring cleat facilities and service ducts.”

In other words, it’s bringing pontoons into the 21st century. And where is the fun in that? Whatever happened to mooring to three planks of wood lashed together with a bootlace and balanced on an oil drum? It really does wonders for your balance and you can easily pass your ropes all the way round ‘the walkway’ for that snugger fit. No more having to ferret under those pukka pontoons for your whipped end. With this Simbro stuff, even the finger ends glow at night – theirs, not yours – so Whixall will look less like a marina and more like a firefly convention.

11 June 2008

Caxton presses on

Delighted to see that Lesley and Joe on NB Caxton have picked up the blogging pace and are now giving us regular reports on their lives as ‘insania nave angusti’ takes a firm grip (that’s narrowboat mania in new money). Their Reeves hull is now safely installed with Barnowl Narrowboats in the West Midlands and for Lesley and Joe, delivery was definitely a bit of a Rubicon moment.

"Caxton is craned off of A B Tuckey's lorry and safely delivered to his new nursery for the next four months. I guess every single person who has ever commissioned a boat eagerly anticipates this stage; it all seems so real now, so bloody exciting!"

It takes me back to our own build, undoubtedly one of the best times of our life, and sometimes I wonder about commissioning a new boat just so that I can savour all that excitement again. We were annoyingly regular visitors, but it was hugely satisfying to see the progress made each trip and, of course, it enabled us to keep an eye on the whole project and ensure that any issues were dealt with promptly. For example, the letterbox was simply not big enough.....

Eat your heart out, Nicholsons

Following the boaty blogs as I do, I can’t help but notice the huge wealth of cruising intelligence that can be gleaned from postings various. There’s the obvious stuff – where to stop, where to shop, the winding holes that aren’t in Nicholsons, the water points that take half a decade to fill a bucket....and the less obvious stuff like the availability of wi-fi hotspots and the location of recycling facilities. In my more creative, expansive and animated moments, I dream of creating a blog-cum-wiki navigational guide – it would not only allow me to aggregate people’s comments and findings but to encourage direct collaboration, with bloggers annotating maps with cruise notes, photos, pub reviews, specialist shop details, mooring suggestions, useful telephone numbers like taxis, good access bridges for car-borne visitors, etc etc. If maintained with gusto, it would never go out of date and be a striking example of citizen trave(b)loguing.

Our committed cruise bloggers collectively give a great flavour of what’s happening on the cut in their respective areas. Some stuff is really invaluable like Gypsy River’s recent postings on river levels (recalling their brilliant flood updates last summer) while other info just helps to paint the picture, finesse the canvass a little bit, like this post from NB Skyy.

I also love the continuing contrasts in cruising lives and landscapes. Take these excerpts from two of my favourite bloggers, Sanity and Martlet.

Bruce on Sanity says:

“By 9.45 we were off again, heading for Fradley, though in view of the substantial traffic about, we decided to stop a bit short, rather than risk not finding a mooring when we got there.”

Iain on Martlet says:

“On to Castleford, going through the flood lock, tying up on the 48hr moorings east of the BW yard. Apart from commercial traffic, no other boats were moving”

I’d really like to meet Bruce one day and thank him in person for his mellifluous blogging but I don’t do busy, so....Iain, room for one more?

10 June 2008

Loo Lines

As someone who has had to cope while their lavatory has sat on the towpath being fixed, I sympathise with Andy on Khayamanzi who is suffering a little bit of toilet trouble. Despite Lee Sanitation’s advice, Andy is still not flushed with success and has started eyeing up his brother Steve’s vacuum style lav. Isn’t that the 11th Commandment – thou shalt not covet thy brother’s bog?

In terms of cost per square inch, our smallest room is probably the most expensive part of the boat. I can’t remember how we ended up with this particular model – or indeed ended up paying so much money, yikes! - but it’s got a little flush handle and is controlled by a circuit board. Yes, it’s true, folks, we do computerised wees. The brilliant thing about it, though, is that it uses about a thimble of water per flush – useful when you consider our holding tank’s about the size of a Lilliputian milk bottle. And this loo also proves that someone at manufacturer Dometic has a sense of humour: the brand name is ‘Magnum Opus’, which we are reminded – most mornings – translates into Big Job.

Sibling rivalry goes up a gear

The brothers Edwards are at it again with their sibling rivalry. Once again, consanguinity is not respected as they take each other on in the ‘Breaking K2’s gear linkage’ competition. At the moment, it’s Steve 1, Andy 1 but it's anyone's game.

I also couldn’t help noticing that Steve recently jumped ship and swapped the 20 tonnes of K2 for the 30,000 tonnes of the P&O cruise ship, Arcadia. He may have packed his house into a Merc convertible, but I reckon he should quit while he’s ahead. He’ll never get that into Brinklow Marina. And how would his hosepipe reach?

P.S. Have a taste of cruising without the seasickness courtesy of the P&O webcams. Is it me or does one ocean look very much like another?

09 June 2008

Pastures new

For me, breaking new ground is 95% excitement, 5% trepidation. Gentle trepidation, more nerves really, brought on by a rather natural fear of the unknown. I know, the canals are not exactly the Amazonian hinterland but even so, there’s always a little frisson when you come to the junction that takes you onto virgin territory. And so it was three years back when we cruised from Streethay to Stourport via Great Heywood and decided once there that we would not retrace our steps but return via the BCN – the Stourbridge and Dudley canals, the Birmingham Main Line and the Birmingham & Fazeley, to be precise. Well, the great thing about new ground of course is you often get very pleasant surprises.

Our run up from Stourton junction to Wordsley junction and the bottom of the Stourbridge 16 was on a par with anything I’ve done. It was the British countryside at its best, the autumn mist hanging low over the fields and slowly burning off to eventually reveal the 16 in all their workmanlike glory. We worked methodically up the flight, before turning right at Leys junction where we had our first taste of urban industrial skankiness. But as soon as we hit the Delph Nine – which are only eight these days – the canal once again opened up to reveal its deceptively green and spacious mien. We were given a hand up by a couple of friendly locals who hadn’t a clue what I was talking about when I said that I was heading off to Starbucks. The coffee imperialists haven’t got to everyone then...

But it’s true, dear reader, I was eyeing up a caffeine infusion courtesy of the green coffee goddess. Because once round the corner from the Delph, stretching out before us at the foot of the embankment lay the recumbent retail god they call Merry Hill in all its shining, shopping panoply. As soon as we were moored up, I was down that slope in a trice, my coffee antennae twitching furiously like divining rods until I clocked the reassuringly universal shop front that held my immediate salvation. I was gasping! I couldn’t resist a few sips on my way back, clutching a paper bag bulging with A’s ridiculous confection, some Rocky Road and a pain au raisin. We favour the low calorie option....not. (This little vignette says a lot about me. Afloat for ten days, faced with over 200 shops that would have most normal women reaching for their husband's credit card, and I go and get a coffee.)

That night we also took advantage of the proximity of a Pizza Hut for a good old blow out. Somehow we ended up with a bonus pizza which we couldn’t eat, so, naturally, we took it back for the dogs. I have to say that they were a tad perplexed as to how best to consume this parental offering, tending to just skim off the tasty topping rather than attacking the bland base. Which is just not on really...

The next day we had a very enjoyable meander along to Windmill End before plunging into the big bore of Netherton tunnel. Netherton is another of those ‘transportational’ tunnels – the place you exit into is nothing like the place you entered from. Gone were the green swards and gently rolling hills, a collective carapace nurtured to hide the scars of a mining past; they’d now been replaced by urban grit, railways and bricked up arms, straight as a die cuts and curling loops from another age. We saw one boat on the move all day and we loved every minute of it. Once into the city proper, we moored at the very beginning of the moorings on the main line, on the left, just back a bit from the main throng. This enabled us to give the dogs a walk back out of the city while putting us close enough for handy access to the city centre in the afternoon, the Chinese restaurant in the evening and the Costa Coffee in the morning. Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

So come the next day I was suitably fortified with half a gallon of the hard stuff inside me as we started our descent down Farmer’s Bridge. And what a scintillating flight! It takes you right through the heart and bowels of the city in a closely-packed formation of beautifully engineered and maintained locks. When you get to the bottom, you’ve only got a small respite before the Aston locks are upon you, which while less memorable still offered up a pleasant road. And on and on, under Spaghetti Junction, double-checking which exit to take and then plopping along in a steady rhythm through the rather haunted decay of the Brum suburbs hugging the B&F. It was a dark and dour day and I can’t say the surroundings really improved our mood. The relentless oppression started to lift finally at Minworth and then the countryside came roaring back at Curdworth, silencing even the nearly M6 Toll road. Curdworth is probably one of the finest – but least travelled or appreciated – flights on the whole of the system. It is reminiscent of Atherstone but so much nicer as there is nothing to encroach upon you. When we went through, it was manicured to within an inch of its life and was a great credit to the lockie and local BW team. The mooring at the bottom by the delightful Kingsbury Water Park rounded off an epic day in an epic way, with acres of nature reserve and thousands of birds to enjoy.

I think the B&F is one the cut’s great secrets and lament the fact that we were not more adventurous earlier. For years, when we got to Fazeley and had a look down at the junction, we always thought it looked grotty and dismal and never bothered venturing down there. This trip showed us exactly what we’d been missing, so sod the nerves, if it’s new, I’ll have a go – you never know what you might find. Slough Arm anyone?

Monty dog

Monty is no.4 dog. He was always going to be the last, we were sticking at four, under no circs were we to get another...we lasted an impressive 18 months until another hard luck story tugged at the old heartstrings. It is fair to say that had we not taken Monty, he would have probably found himself taking a last visit to the vet within the year. He just wasn't rehoming material. He was extremely nervous initially and the only reason the rescue centre let us take him on was that we had other greys. That meant he had company, his own pack to give him confidence, and it certainly helped, although he struggles to this day from his contrary desire to protect us all, when his mental make-up just doesn’t allow him to. He’s trying but he’s frightened, which invariably leads to him barking if he gets to a certain fear threshold.

He is also incredibly quick and has a strong prey drive. In Ireland, it’s very common for grey pups to be let loose on the hills to fend for themselves. The classic line is, ‘When did you last see your dogs?’, ‘About a fortnight ago’. That means he is not safe off the lead, unlike the other four. Despite intensive recall training – and he’s brilliant on a long training lead – once he’s running, he won’t come back. As I understand it, when a sight hound runs, with the wind in his ears and a song very probably in his heart, all his senses close down other than the sight. It’s not that he disobeys me, he just can’t hear me. Of course, Monty is the dog that most wants to run free but because he is the way he is, he can’t be allowed to. That’s not to say he doesn’t, as he’s a bit of a Houdini hound.
In the early days, he seemed to be trustworthy in as much as you could let him off with the others once you’d moored up, and they’d all have a pee and a pootle. But then he started to test the boundaries and there were so many occasions that I found myself crawling on my belly through a hedge, Marine-style, to retrieve him from whatever field he’d bust into. So we started keeping him on a lead at all times but even then, he found ways and means – and still does - of getting free (usually either from the boat when a door was left open by mistake or when he somehow ‘magicked’ his way out of his lead).

If he does make a break for it, the critical thing is to try to keep him in sight. If you do, you will always catch him in the end because after about 15 minutes of running, he stops still and lets you put his lead back on. It’s just that I wasn’t built for sprinting after a 40mph greyhound. Hence when he escaped from the boat at the Marple facilities point, I was dependent on the good people of that town – plus two decorators up a ladder – all saying, he went that way! By the time I got eyeball with him, I was into my third coronary but he ended up corned in a garden and I was able to recover him.

He’s also a bit wary of other dogs, which can make towpath encounters strained, particularly if other dog owners don’t have their wits about them ie letting their dogs run up to a pack of unknown dogs. Similarly, he’s bad with strangers, particularly men, and that’s problematic as people naturally like to approach them all and have a pet and a stroke. These days, he tends to stand just away from the others while they get all the fuss and we explain that past abuse has left Monty a little bit scarred. People are very kind and understanding, incredulous at the way he has been treated, and some lucky people even get his favour. Liz of Snecklifter has been sniffed up by him and there’s no greater honour than that, let me tell you!

He’s got a great bark on him too – a definite little scrote scarer – but I suspect he’s all talk and no teeth really. At home, in the boat or in the motorhome, he’ll sleep cuddled up with A or myself and if one of us is feeling off colour for any reason, he’ll be the first to jump up with you to keep you company.

So Monty hasn’t been the easiest, smoothest rescue but one of our most worthwhile. I couldn’t honestly see anyone else taking him because of his behavioural issues but he has found a safe, loving forever home with us. He’s a handsome chap and if you see him running past your boat, please have the oxygen ready as I’ll be coming past shortly about to expire.