Sunday, 10 September 2017

Swans at Swanley Bridge Marina

On Wednesday (6th September) we turned the corner straight into the first of four locks which begin the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. We pootled into our new marina at Swanley Bridge wondering if it was it named after the numerous swans and signets that greeted us.  Despite a reasonable breeze Captain managed to reverse with first mate doing her well worn impression of a towing shire horse hauling all fifteen tons onto its new mooring by a combination of skill and brute force. After oiling the squeeky jetty shackles (with spray olive oil) we were all tied up nice and quiet.

And quiet it is after Kings Orchard. It seems so much more open. We attribute this feeling to there being just one point of security in the shape of an electronically activated vehicle barrier into the marina and other than that we are free to roam. There are no locked jetties or locked toilet blocks and our boat (3rd in from the left of the row) is along side and tucked behind a hedge so it feels private. It's all very well kempt. There were a few people about but there was none of the Brummie yauping we have become accustomed to mooring up to. Perhaps we will miss it. Come to think of it, there was usually someone around to catch a rope or hurl an insult about the Captain's steering. Not so at Swanley.

Captain then decided to fetch the car from Kings Orchard Marina. So a delayed taxi got him to Nantwich railway station for a delayed train and after a change at Crewe he arrived at Lichfield, where with no waiting taxis, he legged at across fields for half an hour to the marina and the car. The dark, busy and fast M6 was a bit of a shock after a fortnight of canal speeds, but he survived and arrived back in time for a late and slightly singed dinner at 9.15pm. It had been a long day and the giant couscous turned out to be a mistake. Any foodstuff with 'giant' in the title is probably a mistake.

We spent the next couple of days getting to know the immediate area. This was especially important for Jonesy who needed to check out the sniffs and walks, and for First Mate who needed to check out the shops in Nantwich. This historic town is full of lovely shops, cafes and timbered buildings. It has something of the feel of Chester.

Our next serious jaunt will be to Chester on the run up to Christmas with maybe a cheeky couple of nights up the Llangollen before that.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Tidy Toy Town

Our boat outside The Shroppie Fly
We spent yesterday afternoon and evening in the picturesque town of Audlem. We had heard about the famous Shroppie Fly pub from Chertsey's crew as this used to be very much their neck of the cut. We were keen to check it out and arrived by early afternoon in bright sunshine. It is such a pretty town and very very tidy. Much more affluent than Market Drayton and Penkridge, it seems to nestle around the lock flight which adds to its charm. It was busy with boats which, unusally, are allowed to moor both sides of the canal.

We had the choice of three pubs that would allow us to take Jonesy and took advice on which to favour. This was, of course, a matter of taste and all three got recommendations from passing boaters. In the end, we had an afternoon walk and a lovely run round the playing field for Mr Jones and popped into the The Lord Combermere on the way. We decided to go back there for dinner and it was a good choice. The staff are attentive, the menu is imaginative and there is a nice atmosphere about the place. Some of you may remember the gammon and egg vs pineapple trauma of our  recent Stratford trip, No such issue here. Captain was served a wopping thick gammon steak with runny egg, just as he likes them, and fresh, yes fresh, pineapple and monster chips.

Audlem seems to have everything a passing boater could want for - a chip shop, pizza takeaway, pubs and a fully stocked Co-op. We liked it a lot. This morning we left, completing its pretty lock flight and made for Nantwich. But we only just managed to get tied up here. It is a very busy place for boats - where do they all come from? Tonight, we will venture into town for a mooch about and find some dinner.

Tomorrow is an auspicious day as we leave the Shropshire Union for the Llangollen canal and cruise into our new marina.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Pot Noodles

It's a mellow Sunday morning aboard PL 2. A bit rainy, but with the heating on and Cerys on Radio 6, a late breakfast of yoghurt and fruit, it's cosy. I am making up for the fact that I have so far failed to write a single blog this trip. Captain is elsewhere and I have stolen his laptop. Here is my chance to beat the early bird who has usually posted before I wake. So nothing here about flanges or smashed dollys or replacing the batteries or the fact that he nearly cried when, naked as the day he was born, and about to step into the shower, the whale gulper failed. I sprang into action and found a chandler's just up the cut, but moments later, he discovered it was just a wire that had come loose and was easily fixable. So for the moment, everything seems to be working as it should.

I have come over a bit Gerard Manly Hopkins over the last few days especially as I watched a massive bird of prey circling the canal. It made me think of his poem celebrating the power of 'The Windhover' written in May 1877.

       'As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
           Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
       Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!'

The cut has been dramatically beautiful: we have never been on the Shropshire Union before. It's wide, lush and feels laid back. Chugging along, you feel as if you are miles from anywhere. It's what makes boating occasionally mystical. I am glad that this feeling has been restored because we had a few days on the Staffie when it began to feel a bit stressful, like being stuck in umoving traffic on the M25 (well not really but the analogy will have to do). I guess we have been spoilt in mostly having the canal and locks to ourselves. On this end-of-summer trip to our new marina, we have been at the end of a long queue for locks, failed to find moorings for the first time in our five years of boating. Boaters are usually lovely but people seemed grumpy by canal standards.

We completely missed our stop at Goldstone because there was just nowhere to moor for miles. As it happened I have fresh food on board and a middle-of-nowhere mooring is fine because there is always the fall back of a reasonable dinner if the pub fails to materialise. Unlike the two youngish men who also failed to moor up for The Wharf Tavern for food. They told me the day after that they had feasted on some delicious Pot Noodles. Nothing wrong with Pot Noodles, of course. I've lived on them at a certain time of my life before I had heard of muesli or mange tout.

Last night was much more normal. We tied up nicely on the aqueduct above the river which runs under the canal. We are high over the pretty Georgian town of Market Drayton. For his early evening walk, we took Mr Jones and ambled in for dinner at the comfortable and very dog friendly Joules brewery pub - The Red Lion. We ate excellent burgers, pies and Jones had the pickings of a tin of various dog treats. It was a sunny all day yesterday and the evening was gorgeous. It is noticable that almost exactly on September first, we felt the air cool and the earth slowly tilting away from the sun.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Post Bank Holiday Calm

We have been a rather poor in blogging, but the Bank Holiday Monday plan worked a treat. We stayed put and had an easy morning, a mid afternoon barbeque. This gave us a good vanatge point to quiz the boaters coming down as to the length of the lock queues. We eventually set of a bit after half four.

The queues had gone and we had a very pleasant evening cruise to somewhere near Acton Trussel. (No I had never heard of it either.)

We assumed that at the end of the Bank Holiday all this nonsense would disappear, but the Tuesday morning proved our assumptions wrong and we queued too much, eventually arriving at the somewhat uninspiring Penkridge and the seriously underwhelming Boat Inn.

Yesterday (Wednesday) seemed calmer, and we are now tied up at Coven Heath. Where that is we do not know, and where we are in relation to the real world is a slight mystery. We keep getting a bit (too) close to the M6, the M54 and electrified railway lines.

Today we will leave the Staffs and Worcester Canal and start heading North on the Shropshire Union. Well that's what the spreadsheet says.

Perhaps like the Spall's I should carry a decent road atlas too.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Bank Holiday Congestion

Colwich Lock Bank Holiday Monday
Sunday and bank holiday Monday have been the busiest days we have ever seen on the canals. Busy with boats that is. On Sunday there were rumours of 11, 13, 18 and even 30 boats queuing to go North at Colwich lock. Whatever the number we avoided counting them by slipping through after they had gone - under cover of dusk, and tied up above it just before dark.

On the Monday Captain explained his theory that queues should be a function of the distance between the locks. He argued that in a flight, after the first lock there can be no queue, and the same argument applies when the locks are fairly close together. On Monday we needed to go just 25 minutes between Colwich lock and Great Haywood lock, and so apart from the odd boat setting off from overnight moorings between the locks, he said his theory should apply reasonably well and there would be no queues.

Not so. On Monday morning boats coming down reported boats queuing to go north at Great Haywood. The numbers we heard were 8, 12, 14. Ah well: it was only a theory.

The latest theory is that most boats will be tied up by late afternoon. So we are aiming to leave about 4pm. We need to do 3 hours today, so that might work. Maybe.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Hit up the Bum.... TWICE

On our last jaunt we spent a few days in Bancroft Basin at Stratford. When we came to leave there, we found our rudder had been knocked off and we said that in future, whenever possible, we would park the boat 'pointy end out.'

Fast forward from that conversation two weeks and we arrived back at our home marina: Kings Orchard (no apostrophe), where in the rush and mindful of a neighbour watering our bow positioned plant pots, we went in 'pointy end in.'

Big mistake.

The picture here shows what happened. Presumably a gusty marina day and someone's bow pretty much knocked off one of the rear dollys. Not only that it is the one with the diesel tank breather in it.

The only solution I can see is to run with the remaining dolly and bolt a new breather pipe over this mess. This will still mean drilling and tapping into the top of the diesel tank which I am not too keen on, but probably better than getting the welding kit on it. (any other suggestions gratefully received.)

We have now left Kings Orchard and we are headed to Swanley Bridge where we will spend the next year. Today in the heat, we should end up somewhere north of Rugeley.

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.]