23 December 2010

The blogging ghost of Christmas past

Ooh, look what I found covered in dust…my blog…horribly forsaken because real life (don't you mean laziness? - Ed) got in the way! Well, I shall be a real cheapskate (consistent as ever) and send all my friends (3 in total) the gift of a Greygal post in lieu of a decent present.

So, I hear you ask, what have you been doing with yourself? Did your summer trips on the tideway aboard the Indigo Dream go astray and are you now clinging to the wreckage somewhere out by Dogger Bank? Did you foolishly attach your dogs to a sled and let them pull you at speed into the path of a speeding milk float? Have you given it all up, packed your belongings into a shoebox and fired up the motorhome and pointed it to the Promised Land (a large Tesco or similar)? Sadly, no, none of those. Work has been largely responsible for keeping me quiet although we have had one or two diversions.

Our good friends Sue and Richard offered us sanctuary when we needed a narrowboating fix, our own good ship being stuck on the waterless L&L. I’ve lost track of all the good stuff we did with them, but have very happy memories of being stuck in a lock on the Bow Back Rivers for several days and boring everyone stupid with our plane spotting iPhone app. And of course there was the magical trip down to Brentford and back, including the moment when one’s life flashed before one’s eyes as you realized the Thames Clipper bearing down on you was not going to stop or turn. Good job Indie’s captain had a cool head – thanks Richard!

At the end of the summer, we accidentally acquired another greyhound. Now we were only meant to be fostering him but that lasted all of three days. The thought of his little face disappearing in the back of someone’s car totally undid me so we rang up Kerry Greyhounds and said we would adopt Sidney. I reckon that this was their cunning plan all along. So now we are six, and up on Marton Pool earlier this year, we had the wonderful sight of all six dogs careering along the towpath (don’t worry, there was no one else around!), including Monty, who somehow learnt the art of coming back (though not before running off to inspect someone’s BBQ a mile away).

We thought Sidney, being only five, might liven up the pensioners but it has transpired that he is the laziest organism on this planet – he can hardly keep his eyes open most of the time. But he is a big lovely boy, big being the operative word – when he stands next to Miffy, Miffy turns into a whippet.

Now if it had only stopped with an extra greyhound…the thing is, somehow or other, and we’re not quite sure how, we found ourselves the owners of a second boat. Think of President or Vulcan, chop out the middle 30 feet, and you have Henry H – looks like he shrunk in the wash, to be honest. In a wide lock, think toy boat in the bath… Long story short – saw it on the web, screamed at me ‘you must have me’ and I dutifully complied. Well, my savings were doing flap all in the bank and as we’d always intended to have a butty built in a few years time to house A’s workshop, we thought well, it’s a butty with an engine, and getting it now means we can have more fun. That’s why every Saturday in Sep/Oct/Nov we hauled ourselves out of bed at some ungodly hour, leaving the dogs in the tender care of my mum, and went to retrieve Henry for the next stage of his onward journey to Stenson (where he’ll be fiddled with a bit – well, a lot actually, as the shell and engine are great but the interior is, mmm, well, let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. So acquired in fact that we couldn’t resist ripping half of it out…).

So if you see someone waving at you madly on a Saturday, but see no giveaway dogs, then it’s me. If you see someone careering into a lock wall, then that'll be me too (it takes time to get used to a speedwheel and a boat that's built like a brick privy - in the nicest possible sense). I daresay our Midlands narrowboat (oh yes, we're still maintaining our southern narrowboat aka Indigo Dream - they don't get rid of us that easily) will take up a lot of next year’s spare time but we’re also looking forward to going up to our northern narrowboat. Hopefully we'll be returning to Sowerby Bridge via the Rochdale on a boat that will no doubt seem enormous by comparison. Seriously, we’re setting world records for the tiny-ness of Henry’s bathroom. A has to lose weight just to fit…we're thinking of pioneering a new bathroom cum galley combo...

One thing that has not been diverting us is our motorhome, sadly. In the summer, on a rainy day, we discovered that it was raining inside as well. And there I was blaming Miffy for our wet bedclothes…It transpires that our roof (bloody GRP, doesn’t happen with steel!) had developed stress cracks. Answer? Cue sucking in of teeth by dealer and then ‘ you’ll need a new roof – that’ll be 6 grand please’. Cue me fainting. Then cue me recovering and telling them to think again. Think very carefully in fact about what you say next, given that the van is only three years old and cost a pretty penny in the first place, and that I can get au fait with the Sale of Goods act in about three minutes…’Ah, put like that, we’ll do it FOC. Not till May sadly, but think how many lattes I can buy with the money I save?

I don’t even have as much time as I used to to dip into the old blogs. I still follow Indigo Dream obviously although Sue and I are invariably on the email exchanging dog ailment stories, and good chums Joe and Lesley (Caxton) and Jill and Graham (Contended Souls) are always on the radar. I have a weekly dip into Sanity Again with Bruce and Sheila and marvel at the intelligence of Sally in writing such good blog posts. If I could get my lot to do that, I’d only have to write one post in seven.

A is busy with his sideline, fixing up old vintage synthesizers. I’m helping him by seeking out broken old tat on Ebay that he says he can mend. This is the potential ‘business afloat’ idea that could see us sailing off into the sunset with two boats, six dogs and a soldering iron. However, one look at the dining room table – covered in electronic bits and tools and fascias and screws – and I’m thinking that we might go for his n hers boats in future. Where the Xmas dinner is going to go, I have no idea. Ooh, isn’t this stuffing crunchy…ahh, no, that’s a bit of lead solder and a tiny transisitor…yum.

On the dog front, aside from Sidney’s arrival, Arthur has been under the vet for most of the year. He’s hanging on in there, despite our local vet having a Shipman-esque way about her…’ooh, he’s very thin, there’s something nasty going on, I don’t think he’s got too long, you should prepare yourself…’ as she waves a big needle around. The only thing I need to prepare myself for is Arthur hurtling into the kitchen when he hears his dinner being made! Yes, he may be very thin (either meds related or there is something horrible going on), and he may have a very stiff gait (rare condition called myositis) and he may have mouth cancer (too may cigarettes) and he may have Cushings disease…and high blood pressure…and a thyroid problem, but he is still here and enjoying life, especially if it’s chicken-flavoured. Or luncheon meat… I daren’t think of him leaving us yet.

At least he has the good grace to wait until his dinner is served in his bowl….as we have discovered to our cost, Sidney, being so big, is not averse to putting his paws up onto the kitchen counter and nomming everything in sight. ‘Ooh, lovely liver in a pan..’ nom-nom…’ooh, half a baguette’ nom-nom..’ooh, a pack of butter’ nom-nom…’ooh a packet of biscuits’ nom-nom. And he steals Arthur’s donuts…the poor old boy is a very slow chewer and so Sid mugs him. We’ve taken to letting Arthur eat outside unmolested….trouble is, we keep forgetting he’s out there…we find him 30 minutes later with an icicle on his nose.

Anyway, another year done with, almost. 2011 promises much – expense mainly.

Merry Christmas!

05 June 2010

Great greyhound extravaganza

Just a quick post to report on our day out at the Great Greyhound Extravaganza at Newmarket. The good news is that we didn't get thrown out, although Susie was doing her level best to excel in the grumpy/bossy stakes (shame there wasn't a class for that as she would have romped home). The even better news is that lovely old Ranger claimed 3rd place in the 10 years + greyhound boys class - nothing more than he deserves and his yellow rosette is already decorating the fridge. Cue much huffing and 'I'm bored with this now' antics from the shortlisted-but-not-placed Susie, the piece de resistance being a serious amount of nose digging that left a big hole in the gardens and madam with a brown grimy conk..

However, the best was saved for last as Richard and Sue (and Lou and Blue dogs) from Indigo Dream pitched up mid pm - I hadn't even known they were coming until yesterday evening and having had to turn down their kind offer of a cruise on Sunday, it was a real bonus to get some of their company after all. Only sorry it couldn't have been for longer. As they'd actually been cruising that morning in readiness for their charity trip tomorrow, and then had to endure a very tedious drive cross-country, their dedication to the greyhound cause was all the more impressive. And impressive too was the much vaunted meeting of the two ladies...no, not me and Sue, but Susie and Lou - two growl-alikes who after an initial rumble or two (mainly on Susie's side I'm ashamed to say) seemed to settle down okay, even deigning to walk next to one another as we left. The fact that no blood was spilt or fur removed was a great result - I wonder whether they knew they'd met their match?

So this was a real step forward in my 'one day we'll do this' convoy cruise with seven greyhounds in tow...because for once, it would be lovely not to have to call premature time on our get-togethers with Richard and Sue but to have a fab day's cruising in company, have a drink or five, enjoy a relaxed dinner and then retire to our respective boats for more of the same the next day. And they'd probably not mind if we slipped a farting dog or two into their cabin....

02 June 2010

Abroad thoughts from home

Okay, so Skipton isn't strictly abroad but it's very much in my mind as the town - and especially its environs - made such a lasting impression on us. Now we're home, back at work, slaving over a hot Mac and wishing that we weren't. Actually, I'm slaving over a hot calendar trying to work out when we can get back there, even if it's just for a work cruise. I'm eyeing up the first two weeks of July as a possibility but unless the Pennines get some rain, we won't be going anywhere particularly quickly as the L&L is a tad on the empty side at the mo. Obviously the snow and rain that fell in Yorks/Lancs over the winter is very inaccurate stuff - it somehow missed the reservoirs. Or have they all been sold off? I guess I could always ask Arthur to whiz in the cut - with his prodigious bladder, he'd have those levels up in no time.

In the meantime, I'll remind myself of some of our holiday pleasures with a few piccies...(well, pics from the first half of the hols 'cos the rest are stuck on my camera going nowhere until I can find the bloody stupid cable misplaced by a bloody stupid idiot, namely me)

26 May 2010

It pays to advertise

So there we were, pootling along minding our own business, bemoaning the amount of traffic on the adjacent Keighley – Skipton road when what should we see but an A-board stood proudly on the towpath. ‘Bustys Baps’ it proclaimed. Now, while, yes, it could conceivably have been a mobile knocking shop, our money was on a snacks wagon so we chucked the boat in reverse, got about six feet away from the bank before we went aground and then leapt for it. It takes more than a bit of water-filled ditch to keep us away from a well-filled buttie. And we were rewarded for our athleticism/desperation as Bustys Baps was not your average layby snackateria. The proprietor proudly announced that all his fresh food was sourced from local farmers and he even had a bit of roast beef on the go with which he tried to tempt us. I’m afraid A failed completely to get into the spirit by ordering a spam sandwich so it was left to me to keep our end up (a bigger end each day) with a delicate sausage, egg and bacon breakfast bap. Well, I take my hat off to you Yorkshire farmers – it was as fine an assemblage of fried goodies as I’ve had in a very long while. So another happy, serendipitous moment in a cruise that seems to have been full of them.

I left you on Monday evening about to go for a pint and a packet of crisps. Well, that turned into two pints and a fearsome attack of the munchies so we walked into Bingley for an Indian. And yes, before you say it, we are having rather a lot of Indians this trip, but our route has been like one long curry alley and it would be foolish not to take the opportunity to sample the spicy wares on offer. The Shama was excellent, although I’m not sure about my peshwari naan featuring a liberal sprinkling of pineapple. I’m a conventional sultanas and coconut girl, and I wasn’t overly taken with the Hawaiian pizza approach. But friendly staff, sound cooking and great value means it gets a tick in our book - plus they gave us a doggy bag of uneaten naans, so extra points. (We sold them a sob story of five little mouths to feed at home...bet that had them looking up Childline's number). Oh, and I forgot to say the other day....if you've moored up in Clarence Dock and spotted lots of coconut on the jetty, I do offer a heartfelt apology. Five dogs and one peshwari leads to inevitable spillage...

As we left the Shama, we detoured onto the towpath to sneak a look at the three rise. To be honest, coming from Leeds means that you’re quite geared up for it as you’ve already done a fair few risers and got used to the cavernous proportions of the chambers. Even the five rise was not quite as forbidding as I expected and we popped up it the following day very sedately. Barry was keeping a paternalistic eye on things but letting his colleagues and A do the work – the pace is very measured and controlled, they rush nothing and keep a very close eye on how you’re doing. There are a few sticky outy bits in the odd chamber that can catch a gunwale sometimes and a few studs on the gates that you have to watch for, but the feeling is of a very thorough, professional operation that’s leaving nothing to chance from a boater’s safety perspective. That suited me fine and we waved our thanks to everyone as we set off for that evening’s objective, Riddlesden.

And now tonight, we’re in the Yorkshire Dales proper, having passed through the self-proclaimed Gateway to the Dales, Skipton. We’re moored a couple of miles past the town as it was a little incompatible with our doggy needs – instead we’re in the middle of nowhere looking out onto sheep dappled hillsides. Doesn’t get much better than that, does it? Actually, it started to look a bit dales-y as soon as we rounded the first corner this morning. We’d found ourselves a lovely little out of the way spot just past Riddlesden and as soon as set off, we could see the countryside start to swell and roll for miles, blighted only by the sound and sight of traffic carving through the middle of the greenery. The road noise is a fairly constant companion for this section but the knock-out views and the clusters of bluebell flooded woodland more than make up for it. Ever since we got on the L&L, low water levels/dredging issues aside, we’ve thought this a simply stunning canal and one that we are already committed to return to – but why is it so underused? If we were down at Great Haywood or Fradley at the moment, I’m sure we’d easily be seeing four boats an hour – not a day. Where’s the problem? Okay, it is perhaps not the easiest road as the locks are big and heavy and the swing bridges are so many and so frequent that you need to ease up on the coffee or have a big bladder to be comfortable. But like so much on the cut, if you take it steadily and slowly, you can achieve anything – and it would be a terrible shame to miss out as it is truly god’s own country up here. And you can get a mouthful of Bustys Baps too – that’s worth the trip alone.

23 May 2010

Toilet humour

I am writing this blog in the Ladies at Mumtaz. Yes, do read that again as it still won't make any sense. Let me explain. Mumtaz is a rather fab Indian (Kashmiri) restaurant in Clarence Dock. We went for dinner on Thursday night to celebrate our arrival in Leeds and the loos are so amazing that I've moved in. Never seen conveniences like them...there's even a bidet in here. I understand it's been blistering all weekend - wouldn't know, I've been chilling out surrounded by the finest porcelain and chowing down on a dustbin-sized peshwari naan I sneaked off a table. I wonder where A is? Are the dogs missing me? I wonder if I could nab some poppadums and a pickle tray?

Okay, okay, that's wishful thinking on my part. I've actually been melting all weekend at Apperley Bridge, where we stopped, hot, bothered and very tired on Friday evening. Mind, we had done our good deed for the day - cake rescue. Don't ask, because you'll only say I made it up. But where else other than the British canals could you be approached by a man on bike saying that he'd lobbed a bag of cream cakes at his friend's boat (moored on offside), they'd missed, landed in the cut and could we now please rescue them for him? Why would anyone want to throw cream cakes anywhere - they're quite delicate things aren't they? Now not only had they endured a lobbing, but they'd also had an unexpected immersion which probably wouldn't have done much good for them either, and now they were going to get speared by A as he hung off the side of the boat with the boat hook primed and ready. But by jove, he did it first go, and the cake bag was duly returned to its owner with his grateful thanks. Apparently, there was an apple inside the bag too. Don't you just love it? Cream cakes and an apple. That's like ordering half a dozen doughnuts and a diet Coke.

Now today, Monday, has been one of those little gems in the old cruising diary where everything has just plopped into place. After a weekend of total indolence and over patronisation of the wonderful Bridge Street CafĂ© (a classic Greek-run greasy spoon with a great line in lattes and bacon sandwiches), we finally set off this morning, still in bright sunshine, getting up the Dobson riser before stopping at the Apperley Bridge services for the always satisfying ‘empty, empty, full’ routine. I was even able to swap a duff BW credits card for a working one, and buy a spare – not sure the pump out machine there had the best suck as it was still going when we ran out of time but I think we’ve hoovered out enough to get us through the rest of the week. Then it was onward, ever onward, through the Field riser where a blueshirt helped us through, and then to Shipley. There we were helped out at swing bridge 209 by a lady from an adjacent snack wagon who was obviously used to lending a hand judging by the way she took charge – A just looked on like a spare part, eyeing up her menu (she was a pretty blond so it says a lot about A that he was fixed on the eats rather than the cook!) Whether it was a clever promotional gambit I don’t know as we’d been eyeing up her wares before she stepped in but her kindness sealed the deal, and we traded helping hands for bacon and sausage sandwiches. Then in Saltaire, we came upon the ice cream boat – ah, pudding! So another quick stop as I ordered two 99 cones and the race was on to eat them before a) they melted and b) we got to the next lock as there’s no windlass belt I know that can take a handle, a handcuff key and a cornet.

We decided to call it a day early and the final part of the jigsaw fell into place with some handy bollards and a decent depth under us for once just outside the Fisherman pub at Darley Gap. There’s no food on Monday evenings but a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor’s and a bag of crisps should hit the spot right enough. We’re pleased to get moored in a reasonably semi-rural spot to be honest – the VMs seem to be mostly in towns and the depth at the sides make casual mooring out in the country almost impossible. Despite some appealingly piled lengths and mown banks, there’s no way anything except the lightest plastic cruiser could get in – I’m assuming dredging has just been a casualty of the cash crisis but it makes you wonder what happens in busier times as there’s only so many VMs to go round and not everyone wants to be in a town. But that’s my only whinge about the L&L so far – everything else has been great. Plenty of facilities, plenty of blueshirts on the ground, fab scenery, hugely entertaining locks and swing bridges (entertaining for me watching A work up a sweat and humphing about this and that), it's been just swell.

The run out of Leeds city centre which we did on Friday was very surprising – attractively sylvan, the towpath well used by walkers, joggers and cyclists and no obvious reason why BW have an advisory on this stretch, to clear Leeds to Newlay in one go and not to moor overnight. I couldn’t resist asking and it seems that it’s no different to many urban stretches, so I’m curious as to why it’s picked out for special measures – apparently at weekends you get large congregations of youngsters and too often they cross the line, moving from plain old high spirits to something a little less savoury like harassing passing boaters. But during the week, especially in the morning, you shouldn’t have any problem at all so don’t let the rather dramatic BW advice put you off. There’s loads of BW help on the ground too – they’re in constant touch with one another, managing boats and water levels, and most of the risers will have seasonal blokes on to help you through so you won’t be wanting for assistance.

Right, I’m off for a pint and a packet of cheese & onion – Bingley tomorrow and A gets to be bossed around by Barry. Can’t wait.

19 May 2010

Don't mention the C word

My life flashed in front of my eyes this evening: we had a C-A-T incident. At this point Sue and Richard of Indigo Dream are doing that ‘sharp intake of breath’ thing, knowing exactly what we’ve experienced and now wondering whether the C-A-T in question made it. Well, I’m pleased to see that my lot, who are increasingly like the cast of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, couldn’t catch a bloody cold let alone a cat and all they got for their troubles was a load of scratches in intimate places as they ran around like lunatics in search of some feline fun. Serves them right, picking on a one-eyed moggy. But as I saw what was unfolding my heart missed several beats as it jumped into my mouth – I had stupidly (yes, this was my fault undoubtedly) let the dogs off once we’d moored up and I honestly thought that they’d be dying for a wee and I could just do my usual and clip their leads on as they cocked or crouched. Oh no. Tiddles decided to show himself and all hell broke loose but as I said, my lot are getting a bit past it now and simply couldn’t cope with the superior intelligence and agility of puss. The cat went to ground in some very thick bushes and my lot gave up the hunt as we all grabbed for their collars, me profusely apologizing to the cat owner (from the boat next door) who was, thankfully, pretty relaxed about the whole thing. It took a while for her to tempt the cat out again with some food, but we stayed as we were anxious to know whether the dogs had inflicted any damage; during this time, the husband appeared and rather than the 6’ 6” Graeco-Roman wrestler I was fearing (because that’s the sort of luck we have normally) he turned out to be a dead ringer for Ashley out of Coronation Street. Was our luck turning? A totally intact cat that was brought out of its hiding place minutes later would seem to suggest so. More than can be said for poor Arthur…somehow, despite the fact that he was last to the cat hunting party due to a five minute whizathon, he was the only one who sustained an injury with a little cut to his head. Bless.

Anyway, a quick glass of red soon steadied the nerves and I berated myself for being so foolish as not to have had them on their leads from the off. I can’t blame the dogs for following their instincts so it really is a case of bad mummy. We’ve had quite a day of it really…no-one stirred till 9am this morning, and when we finally decided to set off, we hit mechanical trouble. Something to do with the battery isolator switch which went on the wonk and isolated everything whether we wanted it to or not. A soon settled its hash by bypassing it and we’ll aim to fit a replacement as soon as we get to a decent chandlery. However, this unexpected delay in setting off meant we avoided bumping into the massive Fusedale H on a bend; we were still safely tied up on our mooring as it nosed its way out of the lock and carefully past us. We’d been passed earlier by Ferndale H loaded for Whitwood and so it seemed that meeting a really big bugger in a really awkward location wasn’t written in the stars for us. No….instead, I got to play chicken with the returning Ferndale H as it came down to Bulholme Lock unloaded. I was leaving the lock, he was coming towards it and I took the decision to keep left and head for the protection of the visitor moorings. Now we don’t have VHF radio (that’s the first purchase when we get back) and the BW man wasn’t there to tell so he could pass it on, so we had me giving it full wellie and heading left, trying to be as clear in my intentions as possible, and Ferndale H lining up for the lock and not really seeming to care if I was in the way. He kept coming, I gave it more throttle, the lee of the visitor moorings was getting closer, so was his huge bow, I was now at full chat and just in time slipped into the space behind a wide beam….before having to hit full reverse lest I bump him right up the bum. Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that but it had you going didn’t it? Seriously, there was never a moment’s concern, these barge guys really are the pros out there and very friendly with it. But I did have to move my ass out of that lock though…

The day had one last challenge for us – Lemonroyd Lock. I’m not sure why I found it so much more disconcerting than the others but…oh hang on, maybe it’s because it’s 10 miles long and 100 feet deep and has all the appeal of a wet crypt. I think it’s 13’ 6” if truth be told but it still makes for a really cavernous chamber and the modern brick construction makes it feel very clinical and oppressive. I stuck the centre line round one of the poles that run the length of the lock and clung on for grim death as A pressed his button but I needn’t have worried. BW have set these locks up perfectly for boater operation, the paddles going up very slowly to ensure you don’t get tossed about. In several we haven’t even bothered with any ropes going up, and we’ve been fine – can’t believe that I was a bit anxious about all these mechanized locks at the beginning of the hols.

The run up to Lemonroyd was interesting – it felt less like the environs of Leeds and more like the Mekong Delta with the river stretching smoothly and silently ahead, trees kissing the water and a preternatural quietness that had me looking out for the Viet Cong on one side and Rambo on the other. In the event, it was not Mr Stallone but Mr Swan who got me, hissing at my heels as he chased me off his territory. I was relieved to get moored up just past Woodlesford Lock…and then wished we hadn’t as the C-A-T incident kicked off. Tomorrow it’s Leeds – and leads.

18 May 2010

The dog and tanker

Picture the scene. You’re having a nice chat with your boating neighbours, the dogs are off-lead having a quiet mooch about, the sun is just nudging the yard-arm, all is right with the world. Then suddenly, one of your dogs decides he’s bored with all this and by way of a star turn falls head first between the wharf and your neighbour’s boat. Cue International Dog Rescue with Thunderbird 1 (bearing a striking resemblance to A) swinging into action FAB style…well, actually more dragging him out by the collar style really. No surprises that the dog in question was Arthur – he was okay, just four wet paws and the odd graze as thanks to the small ledge at the bottom of the wharf wall and the position of the boat, he saved himself from full immersion and just got wedged instead. Not very dignified though…I think all the excitement of the past couple of days must have finally caught up with him. I have never been able to let all five dogs off together for such extended periods of time but as there was nothing and no-one around, I took full advantage. It was useful to see how their recall is these days – Miffy, excellent. Arthur, excellent. Susie, pretty good. Monty, improving but still poor. Ranger, absolutely rubbish…well, it is until you wave food at him when his hearing miraculously returns.

So what have we been up to then? Well, yesterday we went down to Barnby Dun on the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigations to drop off some rubbish at the sani station. Oh, and to see what the New Junction canal was like…very straight is the answer. But for my power-mad man, it was also nirvana. Mechanised lift bridges, mechanised swing bridges, traffic lights, sirens, automatic barriers and even a mechanised lock with a swing bridge in the middle of it – top that! It meant that the 5.5 mile run to the junction with the S&SY and Stainforth & Keadby canals was a lot more exciting that it first looked…especially for me as I headed underneath these massive lift bridges with the demon keyholder in possession of the pedestal, getting a bit previous with the close button. We turned at Barnby Dun and came back to our mooring of the previous night, delighted that we’d made the effort and that we have kept some new territory in reserve for next time. Everything we have seen and everything we have heard has made us more determined to revisit this area and give some serious cruising time to both the S&SY and S&K canals.

And then just when we thought we’d had enough excitement for one day, at 10pm last night comes the unmistakeable sound of a big screw in the water and lo and behold, the loaded Humber Princess glides by en route to Rotherham. We could just about make out the tanker outline in the water but it was tricky gauging exactly how big she was. No such problem this afternoon when we encountered sister ship Humber Pride at Whitley Lock! She’d been following Princess last night but had carried on up the A&C to unload at Fleet – now she was running back empty to Immingham and we got a proper sense of scale as she squeezed into the upper lock and then went past us on the mooring. You know those little plastic boats in children’s baths? That was us, bobbing up and down in our insignificance. A wonderful sight, those Whittaker’s tankers, So much more edifying than a tubby trapped dog with his bum in the air ..

Aside from that, we’ve done flap all. We stopped at midday today, having taken the executive decision to have a lazy afternoon in the sun. As a result, we’ve eaten too much, drunk too much and absorbed too many rays, leaving us a tad queasy. Suspect it will be an early night, preferably without Ranger on the bed as it was all through last night. Not usual practice for him, but once he was on there, he wouldn’t be shifted. My legs lost feeling for about seven hours and A kept wondering why I was touching his bum all night. It worries me that my husband thinks I have furry hands with long sharp claws….

17 May 2010

Gooley hooley

A hundred years ago, when I was a teenager doing mad double ring holiday hell cruises with my dad, I had one main responsibility – plotting our course so meticulously that we’d always end up outside a pub for the night. My dad had no problem with the 6am starts and the 40 lock mile days as long as he had a pint or five to ease his aches and pains each evening. And I wasn’t complaining either as I would quite happily wile away the hours playing the fruit machines or the trivia machines, and surreptitiously pocketing the winnings as I went….I do, however, seem to remember paying the price for these intense stand-up sessions with regular bouts of the most agonising cramp you can imagine , so it wasn’t all beer and skittles. Anyway, the point of all this wittering is that I’m pleased to say that nowadays it’s all very different. A and I rarely set ourselves a specific daily timetable, instead choosing to call it a day either when we’ve simply had enough or when we see a seductive looking mooring spot giving us its siren call. And sometimes other delights are dangled in front of us that get reverse gear selected and centre lines chucked before you can say ‘big bollards’ – and among the dangliest delights are those signs that have the words Indian and restaurant in close proximity. And this, dear reader, is a very convoluted way of explaining how we came to be moored above Pollington Lock on a Saturday evening. To be fair, we’d been thinking of stopping there anyway but any doubts were immediately swept aside by the canalside notice informing us that ‘Simply Indian’ was 400 yards to the west. Well, we weren’t going to make the same dallying mistake twice and while it may not have been two steaks and a Vienetta for a tenner, a takeaway seemed like a pretty good substitute. Now in my experience, this serendipitous sort of event ends in one of two ways – on a ‘it keeps getting better and better’ high or on a ‘well that was a bit crap’ low. Sadly, this was very much the latter as the Indian, which promised so much, delivered little more than an oily gloop that had all the spicy sophistication of a cricket bat. It delivered a bit more the next morning but thankfully it was blowing a hooley so the effects were mitigated…

And talking of the hooley, wow….when I was making coffee down below, I was worried that A had ploughed on through Goole Docks and was heading out to sea…there was a fair old bit of pitch and toss, I can tell you, but it’s simply because the A&C is so damn wide and straight that the wind blows right up your bum and whips up the white horses….not to mention green dogs, poor things. Anyway, to paraphrase Caesar, we came, we saw, we turned around again – there wasn’t really anywhere very hospitable to stop so we hovered for a bit just by the Goole sani station, having a good look at all the boats, ships and tankers, and then headed back towards the junction with the New Junction canal. Coming down we’d espied a likely mooring just ahead of the aqueduct and we eventually tied up just after five. Now in the dog rummaging stakes, this has to take the gold medal – even Monty was allowed off! We’re effectively on the offside in the middle of nowhere, with hedges and dykes separating us from fields, so that’s about as secure as it gets for us. I did think there was no way round the aqueduct either – so my heart skipped a beat when I saw a big brindle greyhound sprinting along what was obviously a low level footpath along its length! However, as he has done a couple of times now, he came back to me before too long – now Monty’s never really done this before, always having to be chased and caught. So is he a reformed character? Or is age curbing his spirits at long last? I’m not convinced to be honest and will still be very choosy about where I let him off the lead.

Today’s plan is to go down the New Junction canal and back again to this same spot – no real reason, it’s that Mallory thing, ‘just because it’s there’. The power-crazed one will get to play with swing and lift bridges today – and god help us if there are traffic lights too. They send him into a frenzy.

14 May 2010

All quiet on the northern front

I think the Ouse should be rechristened the Ooze. I took one look at it today, a brown muddy torrent with slimy banks looking about as inviting as a French pissoir. Okay, I probably wasn’t seeing it at its best but I was so pleased that we were already facing the other way, back down the Selby Canal. Ah, the Selby canal, a surprising little number, fresh on the nose, long on the finish, a miniature Northern Ashby with the benefit of water. But this has been just one surprise of many, as the Yorkshire navigations continue to delight in all their languid splendour, their separateness and solitariness and…something else which I just can’t put my finger on….oh, and no boats, that’s it. In fact, at one point, as we sauntered down and around the River Aire en route to Selby, we did wonder whether we’d inadvertently taken a wrong turn – it wasn’t that there were no other boats around but more the fact that there was no hint whatsoever of any life on earth at all. Had Bank Dole lock actually thrown us into some bizarre parallel universe where my only other human contact for all time would be A?

It was looking like that until I saw a dog walker just as we made the turn at Haddlesey – he probably went home to his wife with tales of a mad old bat at the tiller smiling and waving at him like some maniacal witch on a day trip from Pendle. That was the measure of my relief, reader. Think, stuck with A forever, on my own and with no prospect of remission. It’s bad enough after six hours at the tiller. So, reassured that we were not alone, we pootled onto a mooring that a chap at Castleford had told us about. He was a lovely guy, put me in mind of Les Dawson with a beard. He’d bigged up this mooring, saying how nice it was to lay over there for a bit and how we wouldn’t be disturbed. Well, he must be deaf as he omitted to tell us the bit about the adjacent A19 and the artics that rattle the Perspex inserts every time they go over the bridge. Mind, this was the same guy who said Castleford town centre was a nice place. I’ve been to Castleford town centre – just the once, but that was enough. Nice isn’t the word I would use. I can think of another four letter word to describe it though…

So any plans for sitting out and enjoying the peace and quiet over the weekend have been scrubbed and instead we’re going to head back through the ‘land that time forgot’ and rejoin the Aire and Calder. We’ll take up where we left off and head Goole-wards, seeing what else this remarkable navigation has to offer us. Unusually for him, A is rather holding out for a pub. And so am I actually. It’s all the pub at Stanley Ferry’s fault. They were advertising two rump steaks and a Walls Vianetta for a tenner when we passed by earlier in the week. Sadly, we dallied and dithered too long about deciding to stop and we were across the aqueduct before you could say ‘hydrogenated fats’. Trouble is, it’s a prospect that’s lingered and we’ve really got the taste for a big old steak. And yes, I know I could griddle a couple up myself and they’d probably be a whole lot better than anything we’d get for a tenner, but it’s just the idea of toddling off to the pub and having it all served up on a plate, with a nice pint and pud to follow, that’s got us going. So the search is on. As I’m down to my last jar of pasta sauce (of dubious provenance) and last packet of penne (of uncertain age), I’m really hoping that we turn up trumps. Otherwise, the emergency Frosties may have to be opened…

11 May 2010

Hebble heaven

We have something severely hampering our choice of moorings. It’s called Arthur. I’m afraid the old boy is so aged and wonky these days that we’re having to find spots that have ‘doggy disabled access’ ie where the bank is preferably level with the gunwale of the boat. Like tonight. He’s in his element, just stepping on and off. Not like Wakefield, where he faffed about putting his paw up and down, up and down, deciding whether the leap up was manageable or presented a high risk of a ‘missed footing, wet bum’ incident. At one point we did consider putting the life jacket on him so we could lift him in by the handle – this extra disabled facility has been noted for future reference, mind.

So where are we then? Not sure, don’t care. Well, okay then, King’s Road Lock on the Aire & Calder, a nice open spot marred only by the thrum of the traffic on the M62.But I don’t care because it’s all so fab – more new territory, more new experiences, like exposing myself to the demon lock-keeper of old London town. As soon as we were in the first mechanized lock on the A&C, Birkwoods, I saw that glint in A’s eye. Then there was no mistaking his malevolent grin as he slipped the BW key into the control box….and bugger me if he didn’t try and close the gates before I’d even got through them. I was right, give him electricity and the boy becomes power mad! I suppose I should be thankful that I’m not still in there, going down for the 83rd time.

We bade a tearful farewell to the C&H at lunchtime, giving our trusty handspike one last loving caress before we tossed it carelessly in the back of the Narnia wardrobe aka the bedroom cupboard that swallows up seemingly endless tat. It certainly saved the best till last, the morning’s run from Dewsbury down to Wakefield most definitely ranking as one of our most pleasant pootles in a long, long time. Think Middlewich arm on a slightly larger scale and you’ll get the idea – amazing really when you think that we’re more or less skirting urban sprawl the whole time. But you’d never know and don't go telling everyone as it's secret....

Some idiot had set the alarm for six (oh, hang on, that would be me…) in a concerted effort to get some early morning cruising in. This is such a rare occurrence for us as a) we are genetically programmed to ignore all annoying beeping sounds and b) there’s too much of a to-do what with tea, ablutions, dogs and coffee to be away anytime before ten most days. But thanks to Miffy and her squeaky dance (her equivalent of the 4 minute warning and something that is simply too infuriating to ignore) I had to get up just ahead of the alarm unless I wanted the new sheepskin rugs baptized. And by the time she’d finished her crucial daily business and had a quick scamper back and forth, I was well awake and putting the kettle on. I took a cuppa to the creature from 50,000 fathoms who bore a passing resemblance to my husband and then managed to get everything squared away in time for a 7.30am departure. Now forget feeding the 5000, this was a genuine miracle. But we were rewarded for our superhuman efforts by one of those mornings that you just fantasize about when you’re stuck back at home – clear blue skies, sunshine, lush countryside, just you and your boat chugging quietly along in total solitude. Bliss, absolute perfect bliss.

Excited as we were to drop down onto the A&C, it was not without regret that we took our leave of a canal that should surely be better known and used – and invested in. A little TLC and a pot of money wouldn’t go amiss here, that’s for sure. The locks have got more holes in than my socks, which is saying something. You know the state of my pants, so the parlous state of my socks can easily be guessed at. Let’s hope there’s a decent programme of winter works coming its way…it may not be a fashionable canal, but it’s a pretty fantastic one in my book and we will certainly be back. And did I learn to use a handspike before we left? Yes, indeedy. I know exactly where to stick it now.

10 May 2010

And we're off!

Well, I’m amazed that we’ve got anywhere to be honest. I’m tapping this post out moored just below the Double Locks by the entrance to the Dewsbury Town Arm so the Great Trip has begun – but the number of lovely people we’ve met who’ve either a) wanted to regale us with their complete life story b) impersonate a complete set of Baedecker Guides or c) demonstrate their quite remarkable encyclopaedic knowledge of the world (a single conversation contained the words ‘ dumper truck’, ‘Sebastopol’ and ‘Smith & Wesson’) has meant that progress has been a tad steadier than anticipated. A good job there’s never a queue for any of the locks on the Calder & Hebble – we were stuck in one for 40 minutes yesterday. Or rather, I was stuck at the bottom of the lock trying to lip-read while A was nodding politely while trying to think up some excuse to get away. Dusk was coming on…

But to be fair, a big contented sigh went up last night as we tied up. It was a great weekend all round – good cruising, good weather, good banter, the only downer being a rather excessive intake of double gloucester on my part which led to some rather vivid and unnerving dreams. Oh, and one of our new Thermos mugs fell in the river. That must be some sort of record as it had only been on board for a day and a half. I was in the bow with the dogs at the time so only have A’s word that it decided to throw itself lemming-like into the water…personally I think he knocked it in and is not fessin’ up. And I particularly liked the way he said ‘your mug fell in’ when they were identical and neither of us had yet carved our initials proprietorially into the soft touch casing.

Technically speaking, this is a working cruise week ahead of the fortnight’s holiday – a working cruise week is where we’re supposed to give priority to work, and cruise if time permits, but to be honest we are more influenced by the weather. If it’s stinky grey and wet, we hunker down and crash out the emails; if it’s sunny and blue, we stick our iPhones in our pockets and remember to put the boat in neutral before we answer them. Either way, it’s fab to be back on board. I’ve just rustled up an improvised fire as we didn’t have any coal on board, opting instead to maraud along the towpath, Spear & Jackson Predator saw in hand, leaping upon anything that looked remotely combustible. It’s now the wrong side of 90 degrees in the boat and Miffy is once again trying to get intimate with the Squirrel. But it is so nice to have that chilly edge taken off…bugger the dirt.

At some point this week we’ll take our leave of the C&H, dropping down onto the Aire & Calder. It’ll be a teary goodbye as this canal has really grown on me. Okay, it can be a tight squeeze in places (notably Salterhebble middle and top) but once you have an effective strategy for getting yourself into and out of the shorter locks, it’s just a case of keeping your eyes open and your shoes dry (oh yes, those top gates do spurt rather….) And whatever you do, don’t be influenced too much by the Pearsons guide – he likes the C&H in parts but his praise is quite grudging…and his damning of the stretch between Mirfield and Dewsbury is totally uncalled for. Maybe things have changed a lot in the last 10 years or maybe he was just having a bad hair day but there’s no way that I’d put these few miles in my Top 5 Worst Stretches of Cut list as he effectively does. The constant interchange of river and canal and the totally inoffensive environs make this as enjoyable a semi-urban route as any other…or was it because the sun was shining and I had a bottle of vintage cider inside me?

06 May 2010

Mafeking is relieved

Hurrah! Panic over. A stash of old abandoned pants has been recovered from the back of the chest of drawers. Okay, so they are emblazoned with various legends (I suspect 'I'm luscious' contravenes some sort of Trades Description Act) but what the heck? They are whole, they are clean and they are in my case. I also found A some ancient boxers...trouble is, they're more like trunks now as he's gained a few pounds over the years and everything is a tad... 'snug'. Is that a handspike in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Pants update

You couldn't make this up...the washing machine has malfunctioned and shredded my pants. There is total devastation in the drum. Gussets have become wedged in the workings. I am reduced to wearing bits of string. This does not augur well.

Total pants

It’s a disaster. We’re into the early hours of Thursday morning and my ‘washed knickers’ count is at zero. Ditto washed boxers. In fact, the only things that are washed are the dogs, as they all had a shower on Sunday. Which has left A with a dodgy back, incidentally….not good with locks coming up and me not knowing where to shove my handspike. And please, no suggestions…Seems like he tweaked it (his back, not the handspike) when he was lifting Monty into the bath. And of course, it’s man’s backache…which is akin to man flu, so I’ve had to put up with all these amazingly dramatic oohs and ahhs and sharp intakes of breath. Funny how he sits up in bed of a morning, slurps down his tea and only puts on his ‘agony face’ when I politely ask him how his back is feeling…And just when I should be getting a grip on our smalls, I’ve been tempted into a little bit of plan tweaking and map studying instead…the result of which could well be a little foray onto the Selby Canal. A ‘going commando’ sort of foray if I don’t have any pants available. Now I know how Flash Gordon felt when he only had 24 hours to save the universe...Can I rescue this holiday? Can I find the little string bag to put the Persil tablets in? Can I launder 24 pairs of underwear - 21 for me, 3 for him? Oh and there's my poor blessed mother! What about her knickers? She can't go commando, there's the postman to consider. I think I may have to be sneaky and break the apartheid system just this once - whites and colours in together and then run to the hills! Sowerby Bridge, here we come...trailing our damp grey smalls behind us...

04 May 2010

A mother's pride

I am composing this post with a tear in my eye, reader. No, my mother has not confirmed a six month booking at the Daughter Hotel (5*, dinner, bed and breakfast, pants washed for a small consideration). No, mine are not tears of mortification but of joy, of pride, of joyful pride, of joyful mother’s pride in fact. My baby boy is a star!! I’m so happy….

You’ll recall that I was off to Baldock Services to join the Greyhound Rescue West of England fundraisers in their quest to relieve Bank Holiday motorists of their change. Now I had elected Miffy to be my representative, as she met the essential ‘bombproof’ criterion, but this morning I changed my mind. I was concerned that she might be a little timid or even diffident in the circs – lots of people, hustle and bustle, children poking her in the ear, that sort of thing – and thought that a more confident, demonstrative sort might be a better ‘advert’ for the breed. So I looked around the subs’ bench and decided to give Ranger his first team debut. He’s not ‘gone solo’ before and not done a lot of dog socialization either, if I’m honest, but thought he was worth taking a punt on. He’s incredibly patient with his pack mates, despite amazing provocation, especially from Arthur who incessantly seeks ‘licky winkle’ favours from him, so I thought he’d bear up pretty well. But I couldn’t be sure so I was a little nervous as I approached my fellow volunteers and their dogs….here was the first test…would Ranger be the perfect gent and go ‘round the back’ to make his introductions in the proper way? Well, blow me, he did! I was half expecting a couple of air snaps or even a growl (I’m not pessimistic by nature, I think it’s just the destabilizing effect of motorway service stations) but he sniffed up the collective rears with delicacy and respect – and there’s a delicate balance between a gently nudged hello and rampant rectal ‘WOTCHA COCK’.

And he just went from strength to strength. There was a human tide ebbing and flowing through the quite constricted foyer (constricted because Ranger thought standing in the middle of the doorway was strategically sound – clever boy) and he just soaked up the fuss, the pats, the strokes, the baby kisses and the prepubescent pokes (Is it legal to poke the prepubescents back?) Now he may have been loving all this attention….but I suspect he was actually focused on something else...like the 24 piece KFC bargain buckets….or the Pepperoni Pizza Hut pizza, large, with cheese crust…or the quarter pounder deluxe meal with bacon….of course, if he had a bit more class, he would have been eyeing up the beef stifado from M&S, but you can’t have everything….at least he had manners, and didn’t whiz up the ‘Greyhounds Make Great Pets’ poster. We raised nearly £400 on the day and just as importantly raised a lot of very positive awareness about the breed amongst the Great British public. And they lived up to their name today, thank you everyone. Some might question your fashion sense, others your choice of nutrition, but there’s no faulting your generosity.

And what did the boy get for his fundraising achievements? Well, virtue should be its own reward but this is Ranger we’re talking about so I’ve negotiated a contract with his agent - one Polish kabanos per appearance, rising to a Cumberland sausage if the takings top £500. Not surprisingly, they’ve accepted – well, they know and I know that Arthur is just waiting to step up to the (dinner) plate and take over: he’s a complete tart and will do anything for a chipolata.

30 April 2010

Seven days and counting

Well, the first big cruise of the year kicks off next weekend and I have been busy prioritising my preparations:
  • Buy new Nespresso machine to replace the one that gave up in a funk over winter
  • Buy a small mountain of Nespresso capsules to keep body and soul together over three weeks (suspect the trim could be affected as the stocks run down)
  • Wash knickers

Thus far (cross fingers as there’s still next week) our holiday plans have not been derailed by work butting in. Indeed, I have had a bit of a Mrs Slocombe moment recently – ‘we are going whatever, and I am unanimous in that’. Too often in the past we’ve put our wishes second and you never really get any thanks for it, so sod it, we’re going and that’s that. So it’s goodbye Sowerby Bridge, hello Skipton. Our little recce of last week was very successful, with the chaps at Lower Park Marina doing the usual ‘Oh yes, come along, I’m sure we can find you a space’ thing, that makes you feel welcome but a little uneasy at the same time – visions of being moored on the outside of a three abreast gang, with five dogs to unload. Mmmm…well, I’m sure it will be fine and they seemed very accommodating and relaxed about the whole thing. And the L&L looked absolutely stunning, can’t wait to get there and fulfil a twenty year dream of actually taking my own boat under the double arched bridge at East Marton. I lost count of the number of times I walked under that bridge exploring while dad boosted the profits of the Cross Keys next door…..and as for going up Bingley…well, the first time I visited there I met a young chap who had just started in his new job as lock-keeper...I wonder how many boats Barry has seen through in the intervening years? And hopefully he’ll see us safely through too as big staircases give me the willies….

What’s really exciting about this trip is that so much of it is new ground for both of us. Most of our previous cruises have always involved a fair few familiar canals for me but this time, as soon as we’re past Cooper Bridge, it’s virgin territory. That always gives a little extra ‘frisson’ of excitement to each day…as long as the excitement is not of the ‘missed turn and huge weir’ variety, we should be fine. My main concern is A having to work the automated locks on the Aire & Calder. Give him a control panel and push buttons and he’s like a man possessed…I could be going up and down all day. If blog posts stop mid-May, could someone come and rescue me? A hot pie is probably the best bait to lure him away…

P.S. We’re collecting money for greyhound rescue on Bank Holiday Monday (I didn’t need much persuading but the fact that there’s a Starbucks nearby didn’t hurt…). Miffy has the honour of representing us so she’s going to get a spruce up shower on Sunday.

23 April 2010

And mother makes eight...

Okay, people, you know that very excellent bumper sticker ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’? Well, I’ve got my own variation ‘A mother is just for Christmas, not for life’. So why is she still here? Hasn’t she read my bumper? How come she arrived in December for a couple of weeks and is still here five months later? She’s citing infirmity and memory problems but judging from her hearty demolition of Tesco’s Finest (for two) each night, she’s as frail as a navvie and certainly hasn’t forgotten where her mouth is…Considering this ‘stork-in-reverse’ episode was quite unplanned, we’ve all done pretty well in accommodating one another. Okay, we’ve had to drop our rather liberal washing machine approach – you know the one, the ‘let’s shove everything in and pick a programme that sounds right’ – and accept the more regimented ‘do not on pain of death stick anything remotely coloured in with my white pants’ routine. And we’re not too enamoured of the false teeth leering at us in the early morn…but, looking on the bright side, I haven’t had to empty the dishwasher once since the New Year. I may not be able to train my dogs, but mothers….

Anyway, mum is with us for the foreseeable so we thought that a nice little charabanc trip up to the Yorkshire Dales might be fun. So we’re firing up the mobile dog kennel-cum-granny wagon and heading to a place called Crakehall.

Crakehall has the very great virtue of having a small, 5-van only campsite PLUS a B&B on-site. So while mum disports herself in her en suite hoovering up the complimentary tea and cakes, A and I will enjoy a little respite from the pressures of caring for a septuagenarian eating machine and laundry fascist. And I don’t wish to be unkind but when I appear in the morning (she’s always been up for at least an hour before I surface so she can scoff half a pack of Fox’s Crinkle Crunch while ogling Bill Turnbull), yes, when I appear there is, how can I put it…..a certain whiff in the air…and when challenged, she’s uncharitable enough to try and palm it off on the dogs. Trouble is, as all dog owners will attest, every doggie guff has its own peculiar DNA so I’ve got her bang to rights there.

Of course, in the van, without ma, we will surface to the unalloyed pleasures of a five dog farting symposium, which necessitates the opening of a window or three before one ventures to light the gas. But it will be nice to have our own space and for A not to have to run the naked gauntlet to the bathroom each morning, iPhone poised to cover his modesty should mother suddenly appear from nowhere (curiously, mother makes absolutely no sound when moving around which is amazingly unnerving. I’m thinking of getting her a cat bell). I’ve told A on several occasions that he only really needs an iPod Nano to be decent whereas he maintains that he needs to buy an iPad to ensure an appropriate level of concealment. He wishes…

But I digress. The main purpose of the trip is to lose mother…oops, sorry, that’s another plan….hang on….oh yes, the main purpose is to go and have a look see at Lower Park Marina in Barnoldswick. I’ve identified it as a possible staging post on our leisurely meander through the northern waterways so thought it best to go and have a dekko. It would be the end-point of our May cruise from SB, a place to take a breath and plan what to do next – and as that might involve an extended stay exploring the area both by boat and car, it seems only sensible to go and see if it suits us – and more importantly, if we suit them! Now I did do a bit of Google Earthing the other day and was slightly alarmed by the sight of a humungous factory lying pretty much adjacent to the marina. Now I have no objections to factories per se but knowing the area, I was wondering if this was in fact the famous Rolls-Royce aero engine facility. ‘Cos that would be quiet…Just as A was reassuring me that any noise would surely have to be suppressed to acceptable limits, I discovered that actually the RR factory was in another part of town and what I was looking at was actually the Silentnight bed factory! Result! Unfortunately I now have visions of A toddling off there and trying to inveigle himself in as a bed tester…like the hippo but not so cute. Imagine that…sleeping on the job and getting paid for it…he’ll think he’s died and gone to heaven.

20 April 2010

French fancy part 3

We were a little apprehensive as we approached Annecy as we’d never actually used a French campsite before. And being very British we were a bit worried about..er, you know…the ‘facilities’….I’ve simply never got to grips with the stand-up hole in the floor variety (scarred by my first encounter where I faced the wrong way and flushed while still standing in the pan) and while much less common than they used to be, I didn’t fancy a week of hovering . Yes, yes, I know we have a Thetford in the van but sometimes a girl likes to take her ease in more refined surroundings…But we needn’t have worried, there were Brit bogs aplenty. Indeed, the site in Sevrier couldn’t have been more perfect – it was like a smaller, more relaxed, slightly scruffier version of a club site here but with the added advantage of gorgeous weather and a lakeside position. And Lake Annecy is something to behold really….preternaturally blue, amazingly clean (like it was sacrilege to throw anything into it) and just incredibly enchanting. Every morning and evening I’d walk down onto the jetty simply to drink in the view – not a bad way to bookend the working day, I can tell you.

On arrival, we got the warmest of welcomes from madame and found that there was plenty of availability. Through a combination of my halting French and her hesitant English, we sorted out everything we needed to – our booking, our wi-fi connection, the location of a vet who could sort out our pet passport requirements and a recommendation on where we could get a good meal – well, we felt like celebrating our safe arrival after a somewhat taxing weekend…

It had all started off promisingly enough. A dealt with our minor exhaust issue and we pointed the mobile dog kennel in a rough east-by-south-east direction with the intention of going into the mountains and stopping short of the French/Italian border. Then on Sunday we’d have a little taradiddle into Italy, go up the side of Lake Maggiore and into Switzerland. The original plan had then been to cut across Switzerland back into France but I’m afraid that it all went a bit tits up. Which was a shame as we were on a real high on Saturday – probably something to do with the fact that the air throughout the Rhone valley was about 40% proof. But it was a lovely trip, in glorious weather and as evening drew in, we successfully negotiated our way up the mountain bends, only worrying when the oxygen masks dropped down from the ceiling.

I’d identified a huge aire de services in Montgenevre as our overnight stop, and because it wasn’t the ski season, the whole place was a ghost town – which suited us just fine. The aire, which can take about 280 vans, had precisely 8 in residence so we weren’t exactly struggling for a spot. Why A had to park under a cable car I don’t know but he’d driven so well that I didn’t want to question his choice of parking spot…We were tired but mildly euphoric too (or possibly just pissed as those vinous Rhone vapours were heady stuff). Today’s jaunt had been everything we love about motorhoming – being together and seeing new places, going at your own pace, stopping for a coffee and sandwich whenever you fancy and the sense of satisfaction and contentment you get when you arrive safely, pull up the handbrake and kick back and relax. So we were on a literal and metaphorical high and so looking forward to Sunday and even more new adventures….

Well, what a load of old stinky pants. I’m not going to bore you with the detail but just let me say this – don’t ever go to Italy with just a European atlas, make sure you have a detailed Italian specific one. Why? Well, they have the most fatuous road signs in the whole of Christendom, the worst being on the motorways. We spent most of the morning on the autostrada from Milan to Turin…and then back the other way…and back again in the original direction in desperate search of a sign that either tallied with something in our atlas or better, actually pointed to somewhere we recognized. I mean, is it that unreasonable to expect a motorway to have signs for, say, the airport or the lakes? I mean, the lakes are one of northern Italy’s leading features….not something you’d ever know if you were relying purely on the motorway signs. So up and down we went, in search of the required but elusive turn-off and you could feel yesterday’s euphoria being inexorably replaced by pursed-lip frustration. After about six weeks, we finally managed to identify an appropriate turn-off and, much later in the day than we had anticipated, drove on up the side of Lake Maggiore.

Now I can hear some of you…don’t you know the lake roads are notorious for their narrowness and sharp bends? No-one in their right mind would take a 4 tonne motorhome on them. Well I didn’t know and in fact I’d reasoned that if buses and coaches could get along, so could we. And I was right…but you were right too, as the fact is, you can drive a motorhome alongside the lake but would anyone sane really want to? This was an hour of unmitigated, bum-wiggly purgatory as walls loomed near and lorries came the other way and gaps narrowed in front of our very eyes….heaven knows what my blood pressure was like that afternoon but I had renewed – in fact, total and utter – respect for A’s driving skills. If I’d been at the wheel, I would have wet myself.

It was therefore a huge relief to reach the Italian/Swiss border and to know that normal roads were just a few miles away. And in fact, we were just recovering our spirits when two things happened to dampen them down again. The first was discovering that the Swiss border office, where we needed to get a toll tag for our van, was shut on Sunday. So all criminals looking to get into Switzerland, you know when to go. Now the Swiss are a bit hot on these toll thingies and we didn’t fancy being slapped with a big fine so we were keen to get one and get ourselves legit. So we parked up outside this restaurant and I did a quick ask at the garage opposite who said that they didn’t have any, but we might be able to get one further up the road. Now I was just about to open the van door to relay this message to A when some German harpy appeared from inside the restaurant shrieking ‘Privaat’, ‘Privaat’ at me. When I looked blank, she just repeated it but in an octave higher. I mean, picture the scene. You’re tired, you’ve had an absolutely gutful of Italian motorways and teeny tiny roads, you’ve had to endure miniscule sized cappuccinos from the services, the Swiss border office you need to get into is shut, and you are then faced with this voluble harridan speaking in tongues. Obviously she was indicating that we were on private land but as we were moving off imminently I wasn’t going to upbraid her for her very unique take on tourism relations. ‘Welcome to Switzerland’ ? Bollocks to you.

And then to make things worse, just as we’d set off north, rather aimlessly really but with an idea of finding a toll tag further up the road, A got a call that one of the systems he looks after had gone bandy and could he fix it. Now. So we pull over again, having first scouted around for any old crones, and I take advantage of the time-out to walk the dogs. Now it was only because I was in such a foul mood by that point that I took inexpressible delight in the boys whizzing up the walls and gates of all the millionaires’ lakeside palazzos that we trotted past. You might have your marble pools and your Corinthian columns but you’ve still got dog wee on your drive….pathetic really.

We thought before the collective mood deteriorated any further that we should make some positive decisions. It seems ridiculous now but back then we couldn’t wait to get out of Switzerland fast enough. We spent the night at an aire in Locarno and had a bit of a walk around as you do, and we just found the whole atmosphere….soulless. The people were cheerless and humourless – if this is what chocolate does for you, I’d better give it up quick. The best thing I say about them? They do a nice line in free pink poo bags. Obviously looking back, we weren’t in the mood to find any good in anything so it’s not like we’ve struck Switzerland off our touring list- but back then, on Monday as we sailed back through the border into Italy, we couldn’t have been happier with our new plan. Order four cappuccinos at the first services, put the pedal to the metal for the Mont Blanc tunnel, and then onwards, onwards to Annecy!

That plan, I'm happy to report, actually came together perfectly and we were back on a high that evening as we headed out to madame’s recommended resto. The high went higher when we realized it was an ‘all you could eat’ establishment…but treachery lay inside…The basic concept was…well…perhaps a ‘Swiss/French medieval melange’ would be a good way of describing it. Cheeses and meats that you put on a skewer or on the end of a fork to cook yourself…either over the huge open range barbecue fire or on the charcoal grill pans. So not so much an ‘all you can eat’ but more of an ‘all you can successfully cook’ sort of thing. So we both through ourselves into it – the concept, not the barbecue, but I soon became aware that all was not well in A land. I could feel bad harrumphing vibes emanating from him…oh not, please not a hissy fit in here, not when he's got a huge 3 pronged fork in his hand…on asking him what was wrong, it transpired that ‘I don’t know how long to cook this for…if you don’t get chicken right, you know, you can get food-poisoning….it’s very irresponsible to let people do their own cooking, Health and Safety would never allow this back home..’ ‘It’s not difficult really’ said I. ‘No, I’m just not sure, I’ve never really done this, I don’t want to eat undercooked food’, said he. ‘Do you want me to do it for you?’ I offered. ‘Yes please’ he said, and off he went merrily to drink his pression leaving me as cook/waitress feeling as though I’d been had... I lost count of how many plates I cooked up but by the end I was sorely tempted to take a skewer, stick it in the barbie and shove it where Health & Safety would never find it… Mind you, three trips to the puds section ensured that my equilibrium was duly restored and the evening ended back on a Mont Blanc sized high. Much like my calorie intake...

18 April 2010

The doughnut connection

It’s amazing the old cack we keep in our brains isn’t it? And the odd way synapses fire to link the preposterous? I mean, how else do you explain me sitting in Salterhebble bottom lock and thinking ‘cream doughnuts’? There I was, minding my own business going up the lock, when I casually turned around to have a dekko at the guillotine gate. There in the middle was a little plaque denoting the mechanism’s manufacturers, Ransomes and Rapier. Wow, bang, crash, wallop, I was instantly transported back to my midteens and the school run. Every weekday we’d drive past the R&R manufacturing plant in Ipswich and on Fridays, as a special end of week treat, mum used to stop off after school at the Newsteads Bakery which was more or less adjacent to the factory.

So for a few minutes I was able to marvel at what looked like supersized red meccano pieces strewn all over the place but were in fact crane parts…that is until the cream doughnuts were thrust into my hand and I became weirdly fixated on the squidgy synthetic cream. So I’d always imagined R&R as big in cranes – big in big cranes, in fact. What I didn’t know until I read it in Pearson’s was that R&R were actually also very well known for their railway turntables…and seemingly not known at all for their guillotine gates. I wonder how many they made? Sadly, the R&R factory has long since been demolished but the gate keeps the name alive and triggers, for me at least, happy memories. Actually, now I come to think about it, maybe not all happy…my haircut was abysmal…and the uniform sucked…and Friday always meant loads of homework, most of it biology, which always involved far too much embarrassing drawing and annotating of various anatomical features that I'd much rather have remained unacquainted with…Mmmm, think I’ll unscrew the plaque next time I’m there…

17 April 2010

French fancy part 2

So where were we? Oh yes, tired, a little tetchy and the Thetford cassette giving us its ‘Closed for business’ orange light. Nothing for it but to venture out into the penumbral gloom and use the aire’s service point. Actually, service point makes it sound a very grand affair but the reality was that it was a tiny drain hole set into a concrete surround, not some capacious square sluice like we get over here. Now I’d read about these in a guide somewhere, and basically the advice was to be very, very careful in positioning the cassette and to take things very slowly, as otherwise you just end up with a ploptastic flood and unsavoury shoes – and it is so not the done thing to make a mess with your mess. So I was just about to open my mouth and offer some sage counsel to He Who Has To Obey when he slung the cassette in the general direction of the drain and hit the trigger. Despite the dark, my sixth sense told me I was right in the firing line so I jumped off the concrete base PDQ and started to proffer my advice…yes, yes, a bit late I know but…anyway, that merely elicited a reaction of ‘well if you know so much about it, you do it then’ before himself stomped off in a queeny strop.

Thankfully, none of this had been witnessed by any of our fellow campers and I set about trying to clean up the deluge. Despite my best efforts and my last 2 Euro piece, I couldn’t get the water dispenser to work so was reduced to using our jerry can water to help sluice things away. A was observing me with what I can only call a ‘poached egg’ expression and then started berating me for using up valuable drinking water. I countered that we could fill up from the dispenser in the morning (not confessing that I hadn’t been able to work it) so that was 1-1. I managed to eradicate most traces of our own ‘dark materials’ before retiring to the van to encourage egg-boy to come out and get a bit of dinner. The prospect of food lightened the mood but unfortunately a succession of ‘no, sorry, we’ve stopped serving’ responses from the town’s restaurants had us both stomping back to the van to cook up an emergency pizza. To be honest, it was just one of those evenings where the best thing is to go to bed and hide – everything will seem much better in the morning. And of course it did – the sun was shining, there was little evidence of our nocturnal spillage and I even worked out how to use the water dispenser. Now all we had to do was rendezvous with our host and make it to his villa…

I use the term ‘make it’ advisedly, readers. Having looked at a detailed Michelin map, we’d discovered that the little hamlet where the villa was located was reached by the dreaded thin, white roads. Now Michelin’s thin, white roads to a motorhomer mean only one thing – ‘you’re having a laugh’. So the first thing we’d done when planning the trip was to check with our host that it was possible to get a 25ft motorhome up to his house and he’d very carefully driven the route and reported back that he could only see one likely ‘pinch point’. Now the prospect of having driven over a 1000 miles only to be thwarted 200 yards from the front door was not exactly thrilling so it was with some trepidation that come Monday lunchtime we rendezvoused first and then set off in convoy. Well, the thin roads were bloody thin and the buildings started to press in from both sides and I found myself unaccountably breathing in as if that would help. And then we arrived at the pinch point – the 7’ 7” pinch point for a 7’6” wide van. Well, credit where credit is due – A manoeuvered with tremendous skill while I stood outside with my eyes ‘can’t bear to look’ shut (bit tricky that as I was supposed to be guiding him through the gap) and he made it without a scratch. Full of beans we set off on the last bit of the journey, turned right into the little track down to the house…and screech, bang, scrape, clang, we’d grounded the exhaust out on a treacherous hump. Well, we weren’t stopping now so A just kept going – bugger the brackets, we could fix those later.

Actually we forgot all about them in the week that followed, only to be reminded of our slight mechanical issue as we clanged around the first roundabout we came to on leaving the villa the following weekend. Oh yes, that was an unexpected bonus…we had a cracking couple of days with our hosts before they calmly announced that they had to leave for a prior engagement and would be away for a few weeks, and rather than moving onto a campsite would we like to stay on for a few days on our own? Now why would we want to do that? Why would anyone want to spend time working on a huge sunny terrace overlooking the forests and gorges of the Ardeche, with a Nespresso machine in the kitchen, a swimming pool in the garden and a wine cellar that had been put at one’s personal disposal? Come on, why would you? We grudgingly said that yes, maybe we could stay for a couple of days….in fact, the plan was to use those days (with wifi on tap) to get on top of our work, allowing us to have some leisurely touring later in the week. But it was such a gorgeous place to hang out that the daily mantra became ‘we’ll leave tomorrow – definitely’, and a whole week passed before we did succeed in tearing ourselves away. The dogs were in their element too snoozing in the sunshine and making free in the terrace garden. The only slight unnerving moment was when the goatherd, his goats and his dogs turned up in the field below the garden…we had been given prior warning but we’d just thought there’d be half a dozen or so. More like ten dozen. Well, you can imagine the scene…a marauding caprine force meets fearsome canine defenders..it put me in mind of Zulu with Monty in the Michael Caine role…Thank heaven for the strong fence.

So onto our departure…you couldn’t make this up, truly. Imagine the scene. A tiny French hamlet that had shown no signs of life all week. Having got the van up to the villa we weren’t too concerned about getting it down again but we both knew our nerves would be better once we were back on proper, yellow roads. However, looking on the bright side, at least we’d have an unimpeded passage back down because simply nothing happens here, does it? So Saturday morning comes, bright and early, and we’re ready to go. And so it seems is the man who lives opposite the track entrance – go as in move house. Move house as in hire a big truck. Move house as in enlist all the friends you can to help. The place was bedlam – cars, vans, trailers, furniture – all of which we somehow negotiated only to meet an old boy in his Twingo coming up the hill with his baguettes sticking through the sun roof – and would he get out of our way? No. We had nowhere to go, he had a large area which he could pull into, but no, he just sat there, gesticulating Gallically. Well, I don’t suppose it did much for the Entente Cordiale but I opted for some Anglo Saxon gestures of my own. Eventually, he realized his baguettes were getting stale so he pulled over and let us pass. Yellow roads, here we come. Oh hang on a sec, just better tighten those exhaust brackets first…A doesn’t need an excuse to whip out his tool…er..a spanner in this case, if memory serves.

15 April 2010

French fancy part 1

Now autumn is usually a time we earmark for a couple of weeks’ cruising so what happened to keep us in absentia last year? Well, we got, not exactly a better offer but certainly an offer we would have been foolish to turn down. It was turning into a very ordinary Thursday afternoon when I got an unexpected call from a business acquaintance that went something like this…’Now you know my parents have a holiday villa down in the south of France that we rent out…well, we need some copy for our website and we were wondering whether you’d like to fly down for a long weekend to see the place for yourself, all expenses paid, in return for writing a few words?’ Now normal people would have proffered one of three answers:

1) Yes

2) The suitcase is packed, when do you want me?

3) You have to ask? Are you mad?

But with five dogs in tow you can’t be normal and you have to answer, ‘That’s really kind but Ryanair don’t allow dogs on board, at least not as passengers, so flying’s out – but we could come by motorhome.’ Now anyone with a basic grasp of French geography will know that the department we were aiming for, the Ardeche, doesn’t make a long weekend particularly feasible, not unless you’d like to be driving for the duration, so I grabbed a pen and paper and set about making one of my PLANS. Readers with long memories will know that I do love a plan – they don’t always come together, indeed change wholesale more often that not, but there is no greater thrill than the prospect of pulling everything together. One look at the calendar and the germ of an idea quickly took root….travel down to the Ardeche over the weekend, stay for a couple of days fulfilling my brief at the villa, move onto a campsite locally for the rest of the week, then use the following weekend to mosey back halfway and find a campsite for the whole week before returning to the UK on the final weekend of the fortnight. We knew the villa had wi-fi and we had sorted out special overseas data rates on our dongles to prevent the heart-attack bills (those ones that look normal on the outside but inside seem to have a printing mistake in that the total’s got four figures instead of two), so we could continue the illusion of work while we took the office on a continental excursion.

For the second week, we rather fancied making a return trip to Annecy with its glorious old town and quite breathtaking lake. We had been there very early on in our relationship but for some reason lost to me now my mother had tagged along too. And you know how Picasso had his Blue period? Well, at the time mother was going through her Foul period, which lasted up until…well, last year probably…so it perhaps wasn’t the most comfortable of experiences all told. But the town and surrounds had left their mark, much as the maternal barbs had all those years ago…It would be good to go back and see it again, just the two of us. I found a likely campsite too, though I opted not to book but to take a chance they’d have space – plans could always change…But they started off okay and that’s how we found ourselves at Maidstone Services at midnight, doing a caffeine raid on Costa to ensure we didn’t get tempted to just close those tiredly eyes for a few minutes…a few minutes can’t hu-…zzzz zzzz…cue some bollocky bollock swearing when we woke up all of a fluster, some more when we realized that we’d let our coffee cups tiddle on us, and even more when we realized the motorhome clock was still on French time from our last trip…panic over, we were still on schedule.

Basically, the rough outline was to travel across via Eurotunnel on Thursday night/ Friday morning, travel down through Normandy on Friday for a quick D-Day beach inspection on Saturday morning before cutting across on the diagonal, pitstopping in the Loire Saturday night (the dogs gave the chateau de Cheverny and its avenues of lime trees ten out of ten - with a tree every ten paces they were in leg-cocking heaven) and finally pitching up at Aubenas (our rendezvous point) on Sunday evening. Now admittedly France is not as bad as Texas (where you drive all morning but the scenery in front of you doesn’t change an inch) but it is still quite a big place and if you use RN and back roads, well, it does take time to get places. Obviously it takes more time if you stop every hour to fire up your Bialetti Moka Express to feed your coffee addiction, but at least by the time we’d percolated, Arthur had peed for England and kept his end up. Good boy.

So it's fair to say that both Saturday and Sunday had their longeur…and perhaps it was not surprising that by the time we nudged ourselves into a busy little aire on Sunday evening, we were a little tired and drained. It hadn’t helped that I had made the executive decision to go through Puy le Valences rather than round it, reasoning that nothing much happens in French towns on a Sunday afternoon…okay, so how was I to know that there was a medieval pageant going on that had brought the whole place to a standstill? It was gridlock and worse, the big streets that we’d banked on using were blocked off and we were diverted down little streets, packed with cars and people and oh god, I just can’t look…Somehow we emerged unscathed but the strain had taken its toll. How else can I explain A’s complete sense of humour failure over the cassette toilet incident? To be continued…