Sunday, 31 March 2013

Lonely locks on the Stoke flight

We are now just a couple of miles shy of the Harecastle Tunnel, and slightly ahead of schedule (well, one of our schedules as there have been so many).
The most surprising thing about this voyage, continued to surprise us today: and that is how few moving boats there are on the system. On the first day, between Loughborough and Shardlow, we saw NONE. Today it is Easter Sunday, and even though it is dry and sunny, like most days this Easter holiday, we have probably seen less than 12. One hire company we passed, have only 2 boats out - of the 10 that could be. This means that for so much of this journey we have had the waterways to ourselves. 

Stoke was grim, of course. We knew this was going to be an ever worsening industrial wasteland.  First mate worked at the university for 6 years. It's an area where the main employers were finished by cheap imports and inspite of serial redundancies, the people continue to be sound.

The final lock in the Stoke flight caused us a flutter. It was a beast, 13 feet deep and Lucy Belle just could not keep off the front gates as the water came in. First mate had steered into this bastard, but kept her nerve.

I'm not sure exactly where we are moored, but we are about half a mile south of Middleport Pottery, on a strangely beautiful length of canal. And we are, once again, alone.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Salt, Stone, Pies.

We left Salt, a pretty little village,in full sunshine and climbed up  6  locks to Stone. We had a stop at Aston Marina where Jemma jumped ship and tried to make a run for it. She just doesn't seem to be able to take the rough with the smooth.

We had some deep and difficult locks and, at the end of the day, they came thick and fast. First mate managed a couple of near perfect trajectories into said locks, and was rewarded with excellent pie and mash at The Blue Rooms, Stone.

It's only 8.30 but we are both falling asleep so an early night is on the cards. Stoke tomorrow.

Either we are very lazy bastards or this is exhausting.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Flipping Fender Found Fast on Fropellor

You have no idea how long we have spent shivering on the deck of Lucy Belle trying to think if some vaguely humerous and alliterative title. It will have to do.

Also, you cannot imagine our delight in entering a lock this afternoon, when a terrible shuddering of  both the propellor and rudder occured. we muddled through the lock and pulled over on the lock moorings (which caused more chaos and queues) to retrieve a yard of rope, a huge rubber fender, and a big piece of red plastic. If anyone wants these back, please contact me.

Tonight we are moored at Salt, and are just back from the Holly Bush, which was excellent. So confident in their business that they dont take bookings but then they did win pub of the year. It was heaving and we were told to get a drink and wait at the bar. It wasn't long before we were found a table and  served mushrooms with stilton and big fat chips. The captain had chicken.

Very weary now so, we barely have the strenght to demolish a giant bag of M&M s but we will try.

Earlier, Jem was riding on top, in the spell of glorious sunshine we were treated to through Rugely this morning. First mate seemed to go backwards in the steering department today and we had a couple of spectacular collisions with bridges and lock entrances. Tempers were frayed as were the fenders on Lucy Belle. Just hope they don't end up round some other boat's propellor.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Gay or European?

Alrewas village looked very pretty today in the sunshine as we left for our 8 lock climb through Fradley to Handsacre. In complete contrast to the past few days, there were other boats and people, men actually, generally hanging round offering to help out at locks. Second mate even steered in and out of a couple. But then bottled it given the presence of an audience and reverted to lock duties.

All was going well until the sheer welter of conflicting advice became all too much. It seems that everyone has a vital tip to pass on.  The best thing she learned was from watching an experienced woman boater (and a loner too) who just breezed through the last lock at Fradley hopping on and off and nudging the gate open with the front fender. She didnt feel the need to tell us how to do it but showed us the way.

Later we met Jim and Sarah on the tow path and they brought fantastic buns, considerably bigger than any we'd seen for a while. We had a drink in the Crown and an enjoyable dinner wirh them in The Old Peculiar They brought Jem a gift which establishes her narrowboat dog status. She is very proud.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Ducks have got the Guns!

Good progress today, and passing through Wychnor where the T&M and the River Trent  briefly merge, we really did say goodbye (and good riddance) to the Trent. Jemma hates going through locks, all that banging and whooshing disturbs her nap time. She's taken to trashing her bed in protest. We are trying to ignore this bad behaviour.

The day began with a visit from Stu's family from Burton bearing Cava (people have been so very kind) we thought about drinking it but as it was only 10 am, opted for coffee. They steered the boat out of Burton and helped with the first lock of the day. We dropped them at Dallow bridge and we continued on our way. 5 more locks were to follow and more snow. We moored in Alrewas and thought our troubles were over but had no sooner lowered the gang plank than we were being mugged by a vicious gang - of ducks. We've locked the stern doors and are in hiding until it is safe to venture out.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

7 hours in freezing wind

Yesterday we saw the end of the raging rivers on our trip. Today the last of the bastard broad locks.With the wind still making mischief, this time blowing 12 foot lock gates open or closed after we had struggled to achieve the opposite. It also blew little Lucy Belle about in the lock like a cork (Stenson all but finished us see below).

As we cruised into our old home town of Burton on Trent, the captain called for the icicles to be chipped off his beard. There was a faint whiff of anticipation but no brass band on the quay side. We were cheered by a visit from family and our 3rd curry in 4 days. Tomorrow will be easier. I know it will.

We are too weak with hypothermia to write much.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Curry and Wind

The depression of last night's imprisonment was relieved a little by a magnificent curry at the Mugal-e-Shahi. We didn't read any reviews; the place just looked right and it was (and by the time we dragged ourselves out at 9 everywhere else was shut).

This morning began in a series of odd exchanges with the Canal and River Trust about the state of the River Soar. I knew from the environment agencies web pages that the level had been falling for 48 hours. "It's in flood," the lady said, but she could say no more. CRT then tweeted that the River Soar had GONE into flood. At lunchtime I received an email saying "I have just been told the River Soar has now come out of flood." ... Those rivers, they just do as they please!

We left Loughborough Basin with fresh daffodils and made haste to beat the impending thaw.

I have to say the river was lively, as was the wind. Had my concentration not been needed to keep the boat from blowing into the bank, I might have used my new "app" to measure our speed. A kind man and his little terrier saved our bacon by pushing the boat off at Bishops Meadow Lock. We would still be blowing into the bank unable to move without him.

The Soar was scary, the Trent more so. On arriving at the Trent and Mersey Canal (which is straight-ish ahead) there is the Trent coming in from the left, the Derwent from the right, and the wind from goodness knows where.

We moored a mile from Shardlow and practically in the dark. Oh and we had to open and close 9 difficult and deep locks. Dinner on board, a couple of wines and we will face another long day tomorrow.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Not again.

Say goodbye and then hello again.The captain has fallen into a stupor and it falls to me to update the blog. We are back where we started cruising in Loughborough Basin in early December last year. Lets just remind ourselves what Pillings Lock looked like earlier today when we waved bye bye. I have a feelng we will see it again and very soon.

I am not a number ...

Last night, we watched the first episode of "The Prisoner." For those too young to remember, the prisoner (known just as number 6) is trapped in "the village" and whatever he does to escape, by the end of the episode he is always back in the village.

Today we knew how that felt. We seem to be cruising the same few miles and ending up back where we have been before. We appear to be unable to escape from the Loughborough triangle. Our escape has mostly been prevented by bad weather, but today, a break in the snow was not enough, as we were stopped, barely an hour unto our journey by a flooded River Soar. We have seen no other boats out at all this weekend and this makes.our endeavour seem even more ridiculous.

So we are back in Loughborough basin, the only boat moored, and a bit fed up, wondering what will happen next. Leigh phoned from Antigua as we were wrestling with a frozen lock which we had already passed through once going the other way. He said that the Caribbean is too hot...

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Solace sought and found in the bottom of a bottle

After a grim day, the Captain relaxes at Pillings Lock Boat House for a final dinner....possibly... That is, unless we are snowed in and it's looking likely.

Trains, boats, and Landy

"The train is now cancelled," Peter said. "There is a bus though, a 199 that goes to Stockport." We walked up to the main road to the bus stop,but there would never be a 199. Snow at Buxton had stopped everything.

The plan which was, admittedly, a little complicated, was to leave Jemma and the crew at Pillings Lock, Drive to Furness Vale, drop the Defender off there (so it was there for our arrival in Lucy Belle.) Then catch trains to Stockport, Sheffield, and Loughborough, and finally a short cab ride back to the Marina.

The journey across the Peak District to get to Furness Vale had been interesting. The road between Tideswell and Sparrowpit resembled some sort if post apocalyptic scene, with abandoned cars, cars perched on stone walls, people stuck, and many broken down vehicles (and people). I pressed on, with a single mind, a focus, a goal .... OK, selfishly, and ignoring all the crying and injured families at the side of the road. Not that it was always possible to see the road, or even know where it was.

So on arrival at Furness Vale, I thought the diffiicult part was over.

"We could walk to New Mills Central station," Peter suggested, "It's about a mile and a half. It's the other side of the valley and a completely different line."

I had only just met Peter at the station, but I trusted him. About 4 miles later, with cold and wet feet (the waterproof boots are not) we arrived at the Station, and Peter caught his train to Manchester to connect with the "Dewsbury Ale Train." At least I hope he made it in time.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Every day should be the first day of spring (but not like this one)

Today we reminded ourselves of the reasoning behind abandoning the Christmas plan to move Lucy Belle from Pillings Lock to Furness Vale: We thought it would be better to wait for the much improved weather of the Easter period. I am sure that the decision was made in light of the best possible information available at that time. After all, this time last year we experienced freakishly high temperatures of 24C. Certainly it seemed like the right decision. But looking today at the Met Office forecast for this coming Saturday, the day we were to begin the voyage, the plan perhaps seems less sound. Today's forecast is for much colder temperatures than we had over Christmas, heavy snow, and a wind that will give a wind chill of minus 8C. We do however have longer days, so we can now enjoy the cold for longer!

Sunday morning is the new start date. All will be good then. Really, it will.Honest. And perhaps all the jokes about Shackleton were a bad idea.

Jemma's new wonder drug "Metacam" perked her up to the extent that she "over did it" and we (and her vet, Peter) think she has maybe hurt herself running about too fast. Jemma saw Peter today, having developed a much worse limp in one (or both?) of her back legs. Jemma has seen Peter before, but the last time was in March 2007, and this was a great reunion.

Jemma in 2007
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and Jemma had been chasing a rolling stick, high on a hillside above the river Wye in Monsal Dale, Derbyshire.

When we found her she had been carried across the river by a walker - he was wet through to his waist, and he held Jemma in his arms, her left front leg hanging limp and smashed. Peter operated the following day and after a few week's she was up (and running) again.

Today Peter recommended a week or two on a narrowboat as the best convalescence, with plenty of time sat in front of the stove, frequent but short level walks on towpaths, and occasional visits to pubs.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Wines and Spirit

So we are now ready for the Easter trek from Pillings Lock to Furness Vale.

Lucy Belle is loaded with coal, logs, a full tank of diesel (that hurt!), 20 or so bottles of wine, 18 litres of bottled water, 18 litres of long life milk, a full case of Ceylon tea, and the list goes on.

Talking of lists brings me to the next point: Now, the boat was designed some years ago (not by me) with the storage all on the Port side. In fact the Starboard side is mainly corridor. Now Lucy Belle already had a fair list to Port when we bought her, but then after we had stowed the above fluids (essential fluids for our survival), the situation became much worse. So, I thought it was time to act.

Now, the Starboard side also has no easily accessible places to hide any ballast. But following a tip from a fellow Pillings Lock boater, I managed to get almost 16 stone of bricks under the bed to the side of the water tank. Lucy Belle now looks grand, although the spirit level indicates that I may have gone a bit too far, but that can be sorted.

Both the boat list and the job list have diminished, and there is little now to do. The dog has requested a more stable bed which is being sorted. She also demanded a wider gang plank, claiming that the previous one was like a tight rope. She said that she has four legs to get on it. 

I have to agree that it is not the safest way to get off the boat, especially as it is painted in very slippy glossy enamel. Today I made a new wider non-slip gang plank.

But Jemma has her own problems too, and we were quite worried about her on last week's Zouch trip. She has been going off her legs a bit lately and seemed quite weak by then end of that journey. So, partly in preparation for the journey, Jemma has visited her local vet in Buxton. He said she was “distinguished” (she liked that) and he suggested we try her on some “Metacam” a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory which should ease what we believe is arthritis. After a couple of days she is already looking perkier.

By the way, we do not really have a case of tea on board (that was just to keep Sarah's blood pressure down).

And apologies for the "list" puns, but they don't go away. I went into Midland Chandlers at Mercia Marina a few weeks ago, brandishing a piece of paper. "I have a list," I said. I bet you can't imagine what they said!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

First (and last) crew training

The Gang of Five
So, on Saturday (2nd March) the sun shone, and 2 days of crew training began. The aim was to ensure that the crew member understood the engineering principles of lock gates, the fundamentals of fluid dynamics, and that she was equipped not only with a windlass, but also a good range of vocabulary - which would also help to get those heavy gates moving. (The vocabulary would not be a problem.) Having Leigh, an engineer who knows stuff like the names of oily ratchets, helped here. He scampered about from lock to lock shouting 'Mum keep your fingers well out of the way!' Health and safety being to the forefront as usual. As you can see from below, Jemma was called to the muster station for lifeboat training.

The training plan was three locks down to Zouch, an overnight near the Rose and Crown, and through the same locks the next morning.

Now, before we get on to the training, a quick word on the English language. You see, the locals tried to tell us that Zoooch is pronounced "Zotch." Now I know I'm from the North, but I'm not that easily taken in (I once had a bloke try to tell me that Towcester was pronounced "Toaster"), so for me, as in Ashby de la Zoooch: it is Zoooch.

The plan went reasonably well. All the locks (there and back) would be set against us, although I supposed that was good for the training, but there were elements that I had not anticipated. What I failed to account for was the negotiating skills of the crew member. Approaching the first lock in Loughborough, we slowly came upon a gang of five teenagers, who were throwing stones in the canal: some close to our boat, and  I feared briefly for our safety.
Near Zoooch

They followed us along the canal, ridiculing one of the gang who attempted to claim that the canals were "man made." But as soon as the first lock was full, the crew member had enlisted one of the gang to open the gates.

This trend would continue at almost every lock: Walkers, couples, families, children, were all press ganged into lending a hand. One young man picnicking with his girlfriend (or mistress maybe?) near Zoooch lock, jumped up to the crew member's help. We later wondered: was this to impress his girlfriend?

All in all though, the training was a success. The dog was perhaps underwhelmed by the experience  I will not mention her age (which would not be be polite), but were she human, she would have a telegram from the Queen above her basket. She has yet to find her canal legs and we went back inside at one point to find her basket upside down. Whether that was the crashing about of the boat, or the dogs frustration, we do not know.

Finally a mention for the Rose and Crown at Zoooch. We had looked on the web and reviews were a  bit thin on the ground, but it was really very good honest home-cooked food. Landlady Jackie couldn't have been more helpful. We hadn't even booked and they managed to accommodate the full crew, plus our visitors including the 2 year old Lucy Belle who sat in her high chair shouting so that other diners out for a romantic meal had no chance.  We were looked after and cared for very well indeed, including lots of gluten -free options for Lucy's mum.

When the training turns into reality and we leave Pillings Lock for the frozen North, The Rose and Crown is on our itinerary.