Thursday, 10 August 2017

Multitudinous Locks Equals a Mutinous Crew

Tolson's Mill, Fazeley
We have just tied up in a sun streaked Fazeley and it feels much closer to home. Just a few lock free hours tomorrow and we can be back in Kings Orchard Marina. We will drive back to the Peak District and by this time tomorrow, we should be home with our dishwasher, washing machine, constant hot water and Wi-fi. So this is officially the last evening of this epic sojourn. As we are notoriously bad at writing anything by this stage, this brief blog must break the pattern and mark its closure.

Careful calculations suggest that in the last 23 days we have negotiated the passage of 143 locks. Our previous holiday record was 118 locks - but that time we had an extra week to do it. We feel each one of these 143 in our bruised, cut, scarred and aching bodies. We are not quite broken but there has been an indecent amount of swearing (at each other and the inanimate lock gates that is). Everyone is a twat sometimes. Everyone is a hero sometimes.

The galley staff are on the point of mutiny. A skivvy that must cook, clean, steer, tie up, and wind locks is notoriously volatile after such a stint. Toughened and roughened by the experience too. So wisely, the Captain has decided to take advantage of fish and chips from across the road.

All in all, we have learned a lot from this trip and will take time to reflect on its highs and lows - none of which we would have missed. It's all part of the rich tapestry of life on the cut. The demands of locks have certain advantages. No expensive gym membership is required with all the weight bearing and balance exercises you can manage as part of a daily routine. On the plus side, we must be fitter and stronger but on the minus side, we have drank a cargo ship of wine and eaten a hell of a lot of crisps.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Starless Night

Yesterday was grim for several reasons. We made our way towards Camp Hill water stop and tackled the first of eleven locks in pouring rain. And it was cold. When we saw another boater pass in a winter coat and gloves, we knew it wasn't just us feeling the chill. The locks were on sharp bends. We swerved to avoid the railings which barely separated us from lorries roaring towards us on a dual carriageway.

Bordesley Junction is designed to catch you out. It is an abrupt turn which gives you the slip as you steer out of the lock trying to miss the mountain of rubbish just waiting to grab the tiller.  We thought we couldn't be any wetter or more miserable as we tried negotiate the slippery double lock beams of the Garrision flight. Jones was barking the whole time to be let out but he didn't realise that he was safe, warm and dry whilst we were far from it. In the midst of all this struggle, we mulled over horror stories about cruising through this part of Birmingham and being stoned or worse. There are warnings to press on without stopping. After 11 locks in the rain, there was no way that were going to heed that one.

So, what about the promised hooligans and scalliwags? We met none. Everyone spoke to us politely, asked about the boat and in spite of the horrible weather even managed a smile. The kids larking about under graffiti covered bridges were only sheltering from the rain and were bettered humoured than we were.
Star City

As we reached our mooring at Star City, we were determined not to be further demoralised by stories about its dangers. As usual, we resolved to make up our own minds about people and places until experience persuades us otherwise. Keeping an open mind may seem naive but it works out more often than not. As it happens, Star City was tidy and civilised. It must of been part of the deal with the planners that it was tastefully landscaped,  with floating pontoons to attract passing boaters to use its considerable facilities. As you need a BW key to access the jetty, it is only available to boaters and there was a security guard on or near this gate.  It's a wide canal and we were opposite the near deserted tow path.  It felt quite safe especially as two other groups of exhausted and soaked boaters joined us so we weren't alone.

Star City itself is an impressive entertainment centre which seems to attract families with small children looking for fun out of the rain. It has a multiplex cinema, a climbing wall, bowling alley, gaming centre and Nandos, KFC, Macdonalds, a Diner, Pizza Hut, a Turkish restaurant, Indian street food. In short, something for everyone. We explored on Jones' evening walk whilst we fathomed how to get onto the tow path opposite. We walked the canal towards the next junction (Salford Junction) which lies below the thundering Aston Express Way, We have driven on it into Birmingham and cruised past it but we have never actually stood under the beast. The heavens opened again and we were soaked yet again. It was one of those days when boating looks about as much fun as fishing out all the crap that gets dumped into the cut. We cheered ourselves with a log fire and good dinner. The rain thrashed down all night.

Today, a different story unfolded with a lovely cruise to a Curdworth countryside mooring in bright sunshine. But that's how it goes. Glen Campbell passed away yesterday and we do well to remember the wisdom of his song: 'I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there has to be a little rain sometimes.'

Monday, 7 August 2017

Pointing at Planes

Yesterday saw us leave the very pretty Stratford canal. After smashing our way through the mysterious basins and canals and channels of Lapworth, we tied up opposite the Navigation Inn. It was there that Leigh, Alison and Princess Lucy came to visit us. And not only did they bring our Ocado delivery, but a large tin of cakes, baked by Princess Lucy.

Our '10:30-11:30' Ocado delivery had arrived on time at Leigh's house that morning, and a few minutes later Leigh's own '10:30-11:30' Ocado delivery arrived in a different van! That made me smile. I worked for BT for many years and their electronic work distribution system introduced in the 80s was still hopeless when I left in 2007.

Today was relatively unadventurous. We took on just 5 locks (the broad locks of the Knowle flight). This time we were on our own in the locks and no volunteer lockies were to be seen. After the hen party day boat had finally vacated the bottom lock - slightly assisted by Captain who advised them that having paddles up on top and bottom gates was not the quickest way to drain a lock - we began our ascent. Theses locks are fairly heavy to wind and open, so first mate took to the tiller whilst Captain ran between the locks. We took our time and were soon up.

We are now approaching Birmingham and many of the villages have 'Oak' in their titles. Sadly I remember that the TV series Crossroads was set in the fictional village of Kings Oak, so perhaps we are close by? But what we are getting closer to is Birmingham Airport. Our route takes us right around it and we will be spotting planes for the next few days.

This evening we tied up in the village of Catherine de Barnes (or Catney as the locals have it), with a hefty days cruising planned for tomorrow. Horror stories of where we should or shouldn't tie up in the metropolis are mythering us a little. We thought about moving under the cover of darkness, but decided on a ridiculously early start of 10:00am as a compromise.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Egg or Pineapple?

When your biggest problem in life is whether to have egg or pineapple with your gammon, then it would seem that it is all going OK. The Specials board did say 'gammon or pineapple' but Captain is still smouldering because he distinctly saw someone on another table with both.

Apart from a shortage in chocolate, hopefully rectified when Leigh comes tomorrow with our Ocado order, the journey home goes well so far. Tonight we are moored in Lowsonford by a gorgeous stretch of locks and a canal dotted with the intriguing barrel houses. Why build houses with barrel shaped roofs when pitch roofs normally suffice? This we can't answer but must find out.

Neither do we understand the fierce competitiveness of the village show. When we went for dinner tonight at the The Fleur de Lys, the archetypal flower decked village pub, they were just clearing up after a monumental collection of stalls and marquees. There were people going on their way armed with cakes in boxes, guarded more preciously than their first born. A woman staggered into the pub demanding food and carrying a garland of tomatoes on the vine and a small pepper. Presumably, she dare not put these down anywhere whilst she had dinner. We are sure it all meant something to the people it meant something to, but what?

The strange weather continues with a sun hat and sunscreen one moment followed by storm-wear the next. Tomorrow we continue on our journey home and will tie up at Lapworth where we look forward to a visit from Princess Lucy and her mum and dad - and of course - a chocolate delivery.

[note from Captain: I did get two eggs with the Gammon, so the chef and staff are now safe in their beds.]

Friday, 4 August 2017

Keep Them Doggies Moving.

Boating is all about keeping moving but pausing long enough to find something interesting. We definitely stayed too long in Stratford and the excitement of being in the epicentre of this tourist town soon turned sour.

Our boat top right
The nearest example I can find to Stratford's Bancroft Basin, and this is quite a stretch, is Bodrum Harbour in Southern Turkey where we moored on a traditional wooden Gullet holiday once. Bodrum was disco heaven until four in the morning when they closed down the drum and bass just in time for the dawn call for prayers. Intoxicating at first, but impossible to stomach after a few nights of sleep deprivation.  For noise, chaos, tourist traps, loud music, trip boats, giant bubble machines and Shakespeare fakery, Stratford comes close to that experience.

Therefore, what a relief to leave Stratford yesterday (even the manual labour of 16 locks was satisfying) and get back out onto the cut. We have had two nights in gorgeous rural moorings, lovely isolated spaces that feed the soul and make for great cruising and dog walking. We are no longer dodging camera lenses or multipeds. Dinner in a pub has lost its charm and it's a pleasure to cook with splendid views on both sides. Candles are flickering, there is wine on the table and all is good with the world.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Who Pays the Ferry Man

Stratford on Avon
This is our sixth day moored on the pristine park that hugs the River Avon. We are loving the ever changing scene out of all of our windows.  The river view is fascinating and busy with craft of all imaginable types. Hanging out of the side hatch, people pass by and say hello in everything from skulls to kayaks, to stripey jumpered gondoliers (surely they must be misplaced from the Venetian Lagoon). There are trip boats, rowing boats and last but not least, there is always the antics of the historic chain ferry.

Chain Ferry
The regular overseer of this plodding craft is curmudgeonly and seems to spend much of his time shouting at rowing boats or blowing a whistle at the trip boats signalling for them to slow down. First mate has set various visitors, including Chrissie, the challenge of getting a smile out of him. All failed until today. The gradual charm offensive mounted by first mate eventually paid off when he wished her a good day on the way out and waived the 50p crossing fee on the way back. Boom! We are in! Stratford has accepted us as one of its own.

We have had good food out with our lovely visitors eating twice at the excellent Vintners and once at The Pen and Parchment, Keys and Kitchen and the Bear at the Swan. We have done none of the tourist things. No theatre or visits to Shakespeare's this and that. Unlike our cultured neighbours Rod and Sue, Anne Hathaway's cottage failed to lure us in as did Mary Arden's.

Chrissie and Chris's attempts to take the open top bus tour didn't do much to encourage. The tour was aborted because of heavy traffic after they had crawled for thirty minutes down a busy road. The rain poured down and when they peeped out into the open top when the sun appeared, they were almost decapitated by one of the many weeping and romantic willows that fringe the streets of this place.

Even the willows have had a serious hair cut today as the park received its daily make over involving rubbish collection, grass cutting and general prettifying for the hoards of tourists that seem to enjoy its delights. We are getting to know the rhythm of this place in a way that probably can only be done from the river. This is its life blood supporting so many theatrical and non theatrical activities.  We find that we grow to like Stratford very much.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

You Can Keep Your Hat On

Leaving Bancroft Basin assisted by neighbours Rod and Sue
The plan to move the boat onto the Avon began well enough. Mindful of the possibility of hundreds of Gongoozlers watching our manoeuvres on Bancroft Basin, we discussed who would do what in advance. There was to be no embarrassment.

It went well, which was surprising as Captain discovered as soon as he reversed off the jetty that the tiller was very wobbly. We had a shipped rudder (I believe that's what boaty people call the event). Now, there had large number of inexperienced boaters in the basin over the last few days and we had observed some unusual antics, so we figured it was most likely that our stern had been well clobbered by one of them, and this had resulted in the rudder being knocked out of its bottom mounting.

Anyway we made it onto the Avon and on to our new mooring. Captain stripped to his boxers and after a few "dives" managed to fathom and fix the problem.

A shivering Captain returned to the deck wrapped only in a small dog towel. This all seemed to entertain the passengers on the trip boats who were busy snapping at us. But having fixed the rudder problem, Captain was in a slightly euphoric mood, and this may have contributed to him giving the audience his very best Full Monty impression. The towel was flung high above his head, and there was no hat.

Flashes all round.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Watching Them Watching Us

Mr Jones watching them
Bancroft Basin is very pretty, but today we will move onto the River Avon. That was always the plan, but now feels like a very good plan, as we are awash with tourists.

They have photographed our boat hundreds of times. They have stood in front of our boat and had their photographs taken, Some hold onto the handrail for their snaps, and one or two have jumped onto the boat for their "Titanic" poses.

We are parked "front in" so the view from our sofa is quite entertaining .... or was for a short while.

Captain has therefore decided that sitting in his boxer shorts might not be the outfit for the mornings. He fears he could go viral on the Japanese internet.

Captain also though briefly about offering Mr Jones for photographs in front of thne boat at 50p a go, but then thought better of it.

The weather continues to be "changeable." That is: monster showers and then lovely clear skies. It is also fairly windy, but we will lock down and tie up on the river bank where it might be a little more peaceful.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Body Building

They told us the locks on the Stratford Canal were hard work. They were right. And the last five locks into Stratford were something different again. Reserves had to be called on to shift those bottom gates. First mate had the additional challenge of steering through the lowest bridges on the planet whilst bobbing down to avoid decapitation. The boat just scraped through with every morsel removed from its roof. On the plus side, Captain's Log shows that we have passed through 77 locks and we both feel that we are perhaps a little stronger than when we began the trip. First Mate is especially proud of her biceps shown here. She has now reclaimed her school nick name which went from Weedy to Wiry in the second year when the school bullies had to recognise that skinny didn't mean feeble and timid.

We arrived in Stratford on Thursday evening a day ahead of Schedule to gorgeous sunshine having been soaked through during the Wilmecote flight. How pretty everything looked. We even managed to get a table in The Bear at The Swan with Jones tucked underneath. We had great food which helped replaced some of the thousands of calories burned shifting sixteen locks. It being light until gone nine o'clock, Jones also got a run in the park after dinner and we re-acquainted ourselves with the little chain ferry. Walking back as it was going dark, we realised we could see the actors from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre changing costume on the top level of the terraced back stage building. They were illuminated almost as well as if they were on stage. One of them was stripped to waist briefly.


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Onset of Scurvy

We are now on the very pretty Stratford Canal. It is lush and prosperous compared with the suburban decay of the Grand Union that took us away from Birmingham. No homeless or graffiti here just lots of things with Mary Arden in their title. Last night we ate dinner in the Fleur de Lys.  We were delighted to find a gorgeous canal side pub, festooned with garlands of dried hops and antique rugs, posh cars, rich looking folk and lots of well kept pooches. Jones looked out of place being a mongrel and having come to us with no name, no age and no breed information. He kept a low profile under the table and didn't even cause a rumble with the flat faced pedigrees that kept streaming in the front door. Quite simply, he was heavily out numbered.

In 24 locks and 11 miles we will be in Stratford on Avon. This is just as well as the last fresh groceries we have are almost a week old - and not so fresh. Now we, sort of, expected to pick up the odd cabbage, turnip, or bag of damsons at a village shop along the way, but no such luck.
Barrel Roofed Lock Keeper's Cottage at Lowsonford

Village shops are now, it seems, only allowed to sell lottery tickets, feminine personalia, jammy dodgers and cheap vodka. As a male methodist (lapsed), and a fan of the gin, none of the above are of much interest, and none will prevent scurvy.

Of course the supermarkets are to blame, and as great fan of supermarket home deliveries, I too am to blame. So that's that then. I am hoisted by my own petard.

On previous journeys we have successfully arranged Ocado deliveries to the boat, moored up adjacent to Steam Mill Wharf in Chester and the Kings Lock chip shop at Middlewich. Middle-class solution that it is, it can be precarious. Unless you know the area very well, and can control the uncontrollable forces on the canal, it can easily go awry. When you are not where you need to be,or find that that you cannot  tie up when you get there, and that the delivery van is unable to park somewhere.

So, with developing open sores and a serious alcohol dependency, we may resort to foraging in bushes, stealing from gardens, or even (as we did once before in Scotland) robbing swede from a farmer's field that were destined for his cattle.