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.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Flower Walls

Ashted Tunnel
Yesterday we left Aston Science Park. The first (of the 6) Ashted locks lead straight down and down into the spooky Ashted tunnel with its spider web curtains which waft menacingly past as you scrape though. Although the tunnel is short and reasonably high, it  is arched and has a reputation for catching boats on their offside handrails.

First Mate did her impression of a horse (easy) and held the bow of the boat hard against the towpath. We made it with no scratches, but it was a close shave.

The weather was good in the morning and, it being Saturday, everything was very quiet. There are so few boats on this part of the canal system that it adds to the general air of sad neglect.

But the few people we met were friendly and courteous, asking us all about the boat and our destination. However, the stories that abound about the outskirts of Birmingham scare many boaters off completely.The Ashted locks were easy and they led to another 6 locks: the much deeper locks of the Camp Hill flight. The last boat through had, conveniently for us, left all the bottom gates open, so we could just go straight in and Captain could whizz up the ladders and do the rest.

A Flower Wall on the sides of one of the Camp Hill locks
This is a quite interesting post industrial cityscape. There are ghosts of important loading points, like the Typhoo Wharf, that has been replaced by Birmingham City University buildings. What is also alarming is that around Aston and beyond, the access points onto the canal have been fenced off. Why? It is nearly impossible to get on or off the tow paths. Are they afraid of vandals or drug dealers or what? It seems wrong to deny the citizens of Birmingham access to an ancient system of walks and cycle routes that are such a part of their trade and commercial history. It just doesn't make sense when so many places in the rest of the country are making a feature of their canal side and opening trendy bars in former warehouses. We saw a few homeless people sleeping rough under the arches but probably because they would be left alone there. And they amounted to nothing compared to the ever increasing homeless population of Sheffield. Mysteriously, there is an abundance of graffiti to demonstrate not only the endless creativity of the artists who have chosen this as their outlet but also their determination and resourcefulness. You have to stand in awe at the graffiti artists that have clambered into some of the treacherous places they choose to exhibit their work.

This trip, our journeys have been taking much longer than our route planner (CanalPlan) suggested. I realised that there are many lock flights on this trip, and their decreased times for locks in a flight (8 minutes is their default) is not really going to give any advantage when there are two of you (and no cycle). So I have changed this figure to the same as a single lock (12 minutes).

Catherine de Barnes was our stop for the night. Another rainy evening though, and we ventured out for a walk round the village and saw the local pub which trades on its canal connections. However, it does not allow dogs inside and so we stayed aboard and ate Spanish tortilla and giant couscous.

The next three nights we have doggy pubs planned.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Some days just go right and some don't.

Some days just go right. Take Thursday when we were blessed with help in every lock, sunshine for all our walks and even a safe field for lots of ball play. Cruising past fields of rolling corn, it felt good. Then there was the unexpected delight of finding that The White Horse was dog friendly. It's a very smart, trendy, candle-lit place (a Vintage Inn) and we had walked past it last year without dreaming that they would allow dogs in. Not only that but the staff positively get down on the floor, and give them a really special welcome (ignore the last blog. The Captain is suffering from delusions). We had planned to eat on board but this is now one of my new favourite dog friendly non scuzzy places to eat. No chance here of having to humour the 'cream faced loon' (Shakespeare knew how to describe people alright) in the last pub that remonstrated with us for messing up the order of sauce sachets.

Yesterday (Friday), not so yin and yang. We were promised very heavy rain and with 14 locks to do, this made us anxious to get off early - or early for us which is ten o'clock. However the rain didn't really materialise whilst we were doing the locks but we had a quite unexpected battle with the wind that sent the boat crashing a couple of times. We made very poor time due to happening upon a boat that was towing another little boat which had to be hauled into every lock by hand. This was frustrating and made our day drag on.

We are now tied up in Aston and arrived to the most almighty din from heavy construction traffic: cranes, diggers, tarmac machines and every one of them had some sort of screeching alarm. They seem to have packed up for the night but it is now raining quite hard and is gloomy. We are tied up early enough but knackered and there is no where really to venture out to. So it's a shower, followed by a nice dinner on board, a glass of wine and a few candles might banish the drear.

Today we face the Dickensian Ashted tunnel which begins our descent into a satanic lock flight and out of Birmingham.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Lovely Claire

Yesterday was tricky. The rain didn't stop until almost noon. But we were ready. We set off immediately after that - at two, and were tied up, 7 locks later, in Curdworth by four thirty.

For dinner, it was The White Lion. The board outside said that "Claire welcomed all" and she did.

As we were settling down with our bottle of wine, Claire walked past.
     "What a lovely coat," she said.
     "Thanks," I said and I smiled at First Mate. A strange comment, I thought, as it was just a well used waterproof I threw on in case the weather forecasters were right, (they were not).
A little later, a waitress came by and spoke to First Mate.
     "Oh hasn't he got gorgeous eyes."
I blushed a little and uttered "You're welcome."
The same waitress returned a little later, and addressed First Mate.
     "Is it alright if I sit on the floor and play with him?" she asked.

Jonesy off lead
Now, even for me, this seemed to be getting a bit weird.

First Mate later proposed that all of the conversations with the pub staff had been about Jonesy.

Well, she is entitled to her opinion, and I am entitled to mine. And I know the truth.

The food, service and compliments were all superb. Dogs are allowed in most of the pub and Jonesy was given his own water bowl. We plan to visit again on our return.

I imagine that next time there will be a phone number scribbled on the back of my receipt.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Off to Stratford on Avon

Yesterday we set off on our summer trip to Stratford Upon Avon. At our usual daily average of 3 hours a day, it will take about 8 days.

However, them canal people have gone and dug up part of our route: The Garrison lock flight is closed on the Birmingham and Warwick and so we now have an alternative, but longer route – going up through the Aston flight and then through the Ashted locks (and tunnel).

To keep to our schedule we planned to catch up some time on our first day, and planned a mammoth 4 and a half hours. But then at the end of the cruise, there was a moment of confusion and indecision, and we went a lock further than planned. This extended the time to 4 hours 45 minutes and by that time we were exhausted. Hopefully these rough notes will tell the tale. 

But we had reached the Dog and Doublet at Bodymoor Heath. We were a little late for our table and as we dragged ourselves up the steps into the bar (on our hands and knees) I think they took pity on us. 

And it was wonderful to be there, but given the circumstances, I imagine the food and beer tasted better than it was.

Today is more sensible 2 hours to Curdworth.