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…

14 April 2010

Down memory lane

Going off air last Easter meant that I was unable to share with you the highlights of our three week relocation from Nantwich to Sowerby Bridge. Of course, the original plan had never been to stop at SB, merely to linger, but as stated previously, life got in the way, followed by the weather, and hey ho, it’s Easter 2010 before we’re getting high on diesel fumes again.

But the great memories of June’s trip still linger…the failed starter battery on Monday morning and the kindness of the gang at King’s Lock chandlery in getting us going again…the slow, steady climb up a mysteriously quiet Heartbreak Hill…Monty escaping at Bosley Top and yours truly putting in a stunning 800m to trap him in a garage..a long blissful weekend secreted in Bugsworth Basin with the added bonus of a visit from the Snecklifter Holloways…a magnificent march down Marple in the sunshine…

our first taste of the magnificent Huddersfield Narrow in the pouring rain (A says it’s a fine 20 mile walk – don’t think he actually bothered getting back on the boat at all)…A’s teensy weensy temper tantrum with the paddles on the Diggle flight (calm down, dear, kicking and swearing won’t get you anywhere except A&E)…a truly awesome passage through Standedge tunnel in the company of Fred the oracle, with no bits missing at the end…oh, and a busted bog at Huddersfield.

Sadly A has not learnt the truth of the adage ‘Be sure your sins will find you out’. I asked him whether he may have casually chucked a Flash Strongweave wipe down the bowl (he has previous with a square of Bounty) and he had the brass neck to deny it. So what’s this I see as pipes and valves are taken apart? Oh look, it’s a Flash Strongweave, I wonder how that got there. Cue my exit stage right to Costa Coffee in high dudgeon while he got on with fixing the ruddy thing. As it happened, the fixing took four days as we had to wait for parts so I was immensely grateful to J Sainsbury for thoughtfully providing a loo adjacent to the canal. Okay, the loo was in the superstore and after about my 6th visit, I did take to switching bandanas in a bid to change my identity and avoid suspicion – ‘Look, it’s that serial loo user who doesn’t make any guilt purchases’. But I can tell you that Huddersfield is a great place to get stuck – the guys at Aspley Marina were helpful and chatty, the neighbours were cheery and welcoming, the natives friendly and very interested in our dogs, and the town itself, with its wide streets and imposing architecture still shows off its mantle of old mill town glory.

But hospitable as it was, after a while we were keen to get going so it was a huge relief when Thunderbirds were go ie the vacuum came up to pressure and gave a fine ripsnorter of a suck to clear the contents of the bowl. There has never been a sound as sweet…especially as I didn’t fancy my chances of making it across the bridge with my legs crossed…

So onwards to Sowerby Bridge and more memories…where were you when you heard Michael Jackson was dead? Er, on the Huddersfield Broad fiddling with my fenders…then the world of the handspike (it’s official – there is something A knows how to do that I don’t! An unhealthy precedent…)…the discovery of possibly the world’s, well, Yorkshire’s best coffee shop in Brighouse (I was tempted to stuff another Strongweave down the loo so we could stay longer and keep sampling the wares…and that obliging chap Mr Sainsbury had put another loo next to the cut, so it was a feasible plan)…the ceremonial moment when we passed the site of the 2002 National recalling our promise to ourselves back then - you will go the ball, Cinders, but under your own steam next time and not on the back of a lorry...and our final triumphant arrival in Sowerby Bridge, where we celebrated by visiting the Mongolian Barbecue restaurant and eating everything on the menu (well, I’d been on very short commons so you can hardly blame me. Didn’t know Mongolians liked sticky toffee pudding though…

And it was with heavy hearts – and heavy stomachs – that we beat a retreat the next morning. One day our journey won’t have an end as we’ll be cruising continuously but on this occasion, as on all the others, we headed for home with happy memories, dirty socks and a leaky pint of milk.

13 April 2010

Is there anyone there?

Okay, okay, so 11 months between entries is a bit poor I’ll admit…and worse, I don’t even have a very good excuse. Or any excuse for that matter, save laziness. If I were to scratch about for a possible get-out, I could proffer the fact that – not by design, just because of life getting in the way – we left the good ship unloved and untended for NINE WHOLE MONTHS, and thus had little to report. (No, actually, it was laziness as we did do a fair bit in my 'off season', including getting stuck up an Alp, discovering pain au chocolats the size of bolsters - the so called Maxi-Pain, maxi pain being what you suffered after scoffing the bloody thing - and pushing the boundaries of cheese fondue consumption).

When we finally drove up to be reunited, we discovered where all the snow that had fallen in Yorkshire had gone – inside the flippin’ boat, along with most of the Pennine rain that had been doing a double St Swithins by my reckoning. However, one week in residence with the Squirrel peaking at 90 degrees and she soon sloughed off her winter blues. And maybe unloved and untended is a bit harsh…she was under the watchful eye of Shire Cruisers the whole time, who also administered to her various needs and wants like bum blacking….oh, and a rather spanking new prop that has turned us from egg whisk to Moulinex in one fell swoop. It’s only taken seven years for someone to take me seriously about our pisspoor performance…thank you Nigel and team!

The week aboard just in the run up to Easter was of course all the sweeter for our long absence. Actually, having been thwarted from setting off the previous weekend by an ‘oops, we should have really ensured all the water was out of the system before the harshest winter in years decided to burst our pipes’ incident, it was very sweet. Very, very sweet in fact as the sun was shining (the town had broken out the party streamers to celebrate this rare occurrence) and we set sail with a couple of rather fine lattes fresh from the handily placed Gabriel’s coffee shop. I think cookies were involved too which may explain why my figure, while still very creditable, is more hourglass than pencil…

You won’t be surprised to find that coffee featured prominently on the cruise. I say cruise…a pootle down to Brighouse where we dropped anchor for the next four days hardly constitutes a cruise but at least we had moved off our moorings. It was a working week you see and we weren’t quite at leisure…besides the river was up and down and we couldn’t afford to get stuck the wrong side of Anchor Flood Lock. So the tenor of the week was set by Monday’s excursion into Brighouse to reacquaint ourselves with possibly the best coffee shop this side of Dewsbury – no, make that Milan! I kid you not, the coffee served at Blakeley’s 43 is some of the best I have ever tasted, and as you know, I have been around the coffee block a few times. Every day A and I would install ourselves in the prime window seat with our laptops like a couple of saddos, pushing the limits of latte consumption to the max – and raising the eyebrows of the serving staff into the bargain. Personally, I don’t think three large lattes in the space of a couple of hours is that excessive…indeed, there are certain boaters who I won’t name but who have two greyhounds called Bum Biter 1 and Bum Biter 2 (oops, no, make that Lou and Blue) who would probably agree that that is a fairly moderate intake. And besides, we had the odd scone and teacake and bacon sandwich to mop it all up with so I reckon that dilutes the effect….(says she as she pogos down the towpath).

So an inactive, indulgent, rather excellent week all told. The actual cruising bits were fun too, mainly because the boaters up this way are very content to take things slowly and to let others too go at their own pace. Coming up the locks, for example, we choose to take it quite carefully as there is always the risk of trapping your tiller under the walkways that on the C&H are sited inside the lock. We also tend to only work one side particularly if the other side is handspike operated. And us being 58’, any vigorous gate paddle opening results in the dogs getting an unexpected shower in the saloon. So it’s slowly does it and everyone respects that – there’s no harrumphing, tapping of toes, wiggling of windlasses or swinging of spikes, just a helpful push on the gate there, a handy closing of the paddle there. Very civilized, very friendly and for anyone like me who’s been chastened by a locking incident, very reassuring.

At the moment, the plan is to leave Sowerby Bridge for good in May (well, we will definitely be back at some point but we are moving on for the foreseeable) and head Skipton-wards via Leeds. It looks a great trip, lots of variety and a bit of a challenge. Skipton is an old stomping ground for me and I’ve promised to introduce A to the world famous pie-shop there. I suspect that a few doggy snouts may be interested in any purchases and I lay odds of 2-1 that Monty can demolish his first.

And what of the dogs you ask? All still here, I’m pleased to say. Poor Arthur resembles a patchwork quilt following lots of investigatory work on his excessive drinking and whizzing antics. If any reservoir runs dry this summer, check Arthur hasn’t been helping himself, that’s all I say. Seems the old boy has got dodgy kidneys and despite medication, the drink/wee cycle is unbreakable (I say that but interestingly, while he always wakes me in the middle of the night to go out when at home, he sleeps right through on the boat. Mind you, his first morning wee lasts so long that I can get a cuppa brewed and drunk while I’m waiting….) Apart from broken nights, the only real inconvenience is the odd accident indoors – we’ve become quite adept at finding a ‘potty’ to help stop localized flooding but if you’re with us just don’t go round picking up stray glasses of light ale, okay?

Susie is still Miss Bossy Knickers, Ranger is still Mr Loved Up Pup, Monty is still big, nervous and sticking his nose in my tea cup and Miffy is well…just Miffy really. We found her trying to climb into the Squirrel one night and the relief was palpable when she saw mummy return with some more coal when stocks had run out…mummy being stupid enough to think we couldn’t possibly need more coal in April.

Of course, we could not have survived our accidental sabbatical from our own narrowboat without getting some cruising in elsewhere. And for that we are eternally grateful to our good friends Richard and Sue on the Indigo Dream, who have extended what is basically an open invitation to us to join them whenever we fancy.

As they’ve watched their Nespresso stocks dwindle over the winter they’ve no doubt repented many a time of their generous offer made in haste but we love them all the more for never refusing passage and welcoming us as though they mean it! Seriously, these two have been real crackers and so generous with their time and their hospitality – we’ve had great days out in London and just this weekend, had a diamond day in the company not just of the Indigo Dream but old muckers Caxton and Matilda Rose. And having rather turned my back on blogs for one reason or another, I was given a timely reminder by Lesley that this four way friendship would never have come about without blogs. That the diamond day would never have sparkled in the afternoon sunshine….So this blog rebirth is for Lesley…and for Joe, Jill and Graham, and of course, for my greyhound-loving southern boat caretakers, Sue and Richard. Until the Fens, friends.