A tale of filth and gluttony

Bath time in Gloucester docks

Gloucester docks is
interesting for completely contrasting reasons but mostly, in my
opinion for the seagulls. The many imposing warehouses have been
tastefully preserved and turned into apartments with bars and
restaurants overlooking the water and on a warm summer’s evening it’s
a pleasant place to eat and drink or just to stroll around enjoying
the atmosphere. It’s popular amongst young and old alike but it’s
most popular amongst the many varieties of squawking, squabbling
gulls that have made it their playground. I have been told that there
is a landfill site nearby and after a good rummage around amongst the
garbage the birds seem to like nothing more than to use the main
basin that we were moored in as a kind of communal bathing facility.
It’s fun to watch them having a good old scrub up, dipping and diving
repeatedly to wash away the dust and grime of a hard day’s
scavenging. Unfortunately, whilst they may be fastidious about their
cleanliness they are a little less fussy about their toileting habits
and the entire dock area is liberally splattered on a daily basis.
Combine this behaviour with fastidious boat owners, alfresco diners
and summer evening strollers and you get a wonderful people watching
opportunity that is endlessly entertaining and really quite exciting.

He didn’t even know he was being watched

We spent a rare
balmy evening sat on the back of the boat drinking wine with Gill’s
two sisters and like the diners outside the adjacent Greek
restaurant, we were nervous. At one point a couple vacated their
table and a beady eyed herring gull was quick to spot that they
hadn’t completely cleared their plates. With a loud shout of the
seagull equivalent of “grubs up” the entire colony rose as one to
investigate the opportunity of a spot of calamari and maybe a chip or
two. The other diners soon revealed their priorities as some took
cover under paper napkins, or hastily covered their plates whilst
the remainder focussed on protecting precious wine or beer lest it
should become diluted. To his credit a waiter was swiftly on the
scene to clear the table and disaster was averted. It might have been
more entertaining though had the restaurant been short staffed.

Play time

The narrow boat moored next to us was owned by a particularly proud skipper who spent most of the two days we were there, painting, cleaning and polishing his precious home. He had obviously been to Gloucester before because he had devised a cunning method of deterring the gulls from landing on the roof of his boat. Or so he thought. An elaborate arrangement of strings ran the length of his roof which would, in theory, make it tricky for the birds to alight. What he didn’t know was that while he and his partner were off somewhere enjoying an evening in town, the local gulls were having great fun playing French skipping, limbo dancing and learning to tight rope walk. I looked around the marina and his was the only boat with seagulls on the roof and when he returned he looked completely perplexed by the tangled disarray of string and generous calling cards the birds had left behind. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what we had witnessed and watched him patiently rearranging his macramé deterrent and reaching for his bucket and mop once more while all around him sea birds sniggered and laughed. I’m sure if he had stayed another day they would have set up a zip line.

Raise that bridge and let us out of here!

We enjoyed our stay
in Gloucester and it was lovely to catch up with family and friends.
Admittedly the gulls were noisy and washing the boat so much was a
real pain but for sheer entertainment they took some beating. Next
stop Sharpness to see if big ships and racing tides can compete.




When amber means go

All photos by Gill Pearson

Rivers aren’t ideal places for narrow boats because they move about too much and mooring opportunities are scarce. When I say they move about, I don’t mean that they may not be where they were yesterday, I mean that the water in them is always moving and when it’s flowing quickly handling a narrow boat can get a bit tricky. The river authorities have a traffic light system to guide would be adventurers along the lines of: Green; everything is tickety boo and you can go and have a nice time messing about on the river. Amber means, if you are experienced and confident or stupid and foolhardy go ahead and don’t blame us if you drown. Red means, have you written a will and if not can I have your boat when you do drown? We had spent eight days repeatedly checking the river Severn condition during our enforced stay in Stourport and it was always red. Red for stop, red for danger, red for death.

Level checking in Stourport basin

We had all agreed that we were definitely not going to go on the river until conditions were green because there was little point in taking risks and Gill and I had no experience of moving waters so it would be stupid to take the chance. Patience was the key to survival we all said, so why we left Stourport on Saturday with the river condition on amber I will never know. It certainly wasn’t the ‘experienced and confident’ factor.

Taking advice from Greg, the man who knows.

We talked at length
to Greg the lock keeper who said we could proceed with caution but we
wouldn’t be allowed to go past Worcester bridge because of a massive
build up of debris against two of the arches. I am a little bit
ashamed to say that we ignored his advice and moored up later that
day, just beyond Worcester bridge, a little frazzled but very much
not drowned.

Here we go. Be gentle with us river.

Stourport basin is
about fifty feet higher than the river so you have to descend through
two pairs of staircase locks to get down and I got more apprehensive
with each successive lock. When the gates of the final one opened and
I saw the river speeding past it felt as if I was about to launch the
boat, Gill, myself and pretty much everything we own into to the
hands of a wild and irresponsible parent. I edged cautiously out into
the flow and to my surprise and relief I was gently picked up and
taken along on the current and it was actually rather nice. We were
speeding along at about six miles an hour which is fast for a narrow
boat, certainly faster than we had ever been before, but the width of
the river masked any sense of speed and I found myself quite enjoying
the sensation. Then I thought, what if I want to stop? The banks are
all lined with trees and bushes and I knew that it was necessary to
make a U turn before trying to bring the boat to a halt and suddenly
I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. Then we saw a kingfisher and the sun
was shining and it was all lovely again and so it went on. The
constant to and fro of serenity and fear gradually settled on the
side of calm, enabling us to take in the beauty of the river and our
surroundings and to respectfully enjoy the power of the water.

First big lock on the Severn

We moored up before
the forbidden bridge at Worcester and debated our options. Gill and I
went to take a closer look at the debris and it was obvious that the
sixty foot tree spanning the left arch was why the trouble had
started. There was an interesting collection of natural and man made
artefacts wedged firmly against the tree and there were going to be
quite a few people upstream wondering where their ladders or garden
shed had gone. We overheard a couple of locals point out that at
least there wasn’t a dead cow amongst it like the last time. Yuk. We
watched with our hearts in our mouths as a couple of boats appeared
and approached the bridge at speed, one went through the middle arch
and the other through the one to the right and that was all we needed
to make up our minds. We untied the boats and after a quick U turn I
approached the bridge feeling very much like a naughty schoolboy who
had been told very clearly where the boundaries were but I was going
outside them anyway. It was less than a mile to the place we wanted
to moor for the night and I was feeling pretty chuffed with my first
day on the river. We had to moor three abreast because of the limited
spaces but it made for a very sociable evening and a rather
remarkable coincidence.

Going for it at Worcester Bridge

The boat immediately behind us looked kind of familiar but it was only when we got chatting with Phillip and Pamela, the owners, that I put two and two together and realised it was Grace from Kinver. Grace had featured in the blog! She was the internationally recognised narrow boat, star of the Steak pies and Aston Martins post from a couple of weeks ago no less. We have since met Phillip and Pamela again and over a glass or two of wine I confessed to having sneakily photographed their boat to feature it in a blog.

The next day I fell
foul of over confidence and nearly lost the boat to a fast flowing
weir as we approached a lock. There was a lot of panicked over
revving of the engine and extreme tiller action before I wrestled it
back on course and safely into the lock and it was a short sharp
lesson in becoming complacent and loosing respect for the power of
the water. We moored for the second night at Upton upon Severn on a
floating pontoon, so called because it can rise and fall with the
water levels and we could clearly see that it had been ten feet
higher just a few days ago. The status of the river was still amber
but things were clearly settling down and we went to sleep without at
care in the world and feeling quite at home in our new environment.
That was, until about 4.30am.

Steering well clear of the weir

I’m used to the
sound of birds running about on the roof of the boat so when I first
woke up that’s what I assumed I could hear but then I thought; hang
on, birds don’t wear clogs and I’m pretty sure they don’t dance and
make the boat rock. Bleary eyed I peeped out of the window half
expecting to see that we were being swept to our death by the
currents but what I saw was what appeared to be the remains of a
thousand beaver’s dams floating by, interspersed with the occasional
tree or piece of riverside infrastructure. In front of the boats
debris was rapidly building up to form a new dam whilst behind us was
the source of the terrible racket we had heard. A full set of landing
steps complete with accessories had come under the boat and lodged
behind us. The whole scene was quite surreal but I realised what had
happened. The Environment Agency had been scheduled to clear the
debris at Worcester bridge overnight and twelve hours later we were
directly in the path of everything that had been released as it made
it’s way down the river. At least we weren’t going with it.

Laden and unladen sand barges

Floating pontoon mooring

We took a day off in
Upton upon Severn to catch up on chores and sleep and to take a
closer look at the small town and it’s interesting buildings and
history. Further entertainment was provided by a procession of sand
barges that use this section of the Severn to move thousands of tons
of material about two miles down stream one boatload at a time. They
passed us by empty and towering above us and then, half an hour later
they returned fully laden and looking like they were about to sink
under their load. We bobbed about in their wake but were otherwise
undisturbed by them. The barges and a huge passenger trip boat both
contributed to the new and fascinating experience of being on ‘big’
water, quite a contrast to the sleepy canals we were used to. The
final leg to Gloucester was uneventful with all the manned locks
opening as we approached like the magical doors to a new enchanted
world and the exceptionally friendly lock keepers handing out much
appreciated tips and advice as Bob handed them equally appreciated
bottles of beer. There were multiple sightings of kingfishers,
cormorants and many other birds along the way and the occasional
tempting riverside pub which were all duly noted for further
exploration. The last lock just before the docks is approached along
a channel parallel to the river and where the river re-joins it there
is a strong eddy that we had been warned about. After the earlier
experience at the weir I gave it my full concentration and we passed
into the giant lock without a problem and from there into the docks
themselves and a relative haven of calm.

Cormorant

My first river
experience had a bit of everything but mostly I would describe it as
amber.

Entering Gloucester docks




Not on the river Severn

If you have ever sat in your car at the junction between a quiet side road and busy thundering A road watching a never ending flow of speeding cars and racing juggernauts going by, and wondered if you were ever going to get out into the traffic, you will have a pretty good image of where we are right now. Having drifted at a ridiculously leisurely pace down the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal (side road) we have now been sitting patiently watching the millions of gallons of water and thousands of tons of debris speeding past us on the river Severn (A road) with no possibility of us joining the fray.

Tree on its way to Bristol

We have been informed by the Canal and River Trust volunteers that they don’t actually have the authority to prevent us from going on the river when it is in flood but then again we don’t have the desire to drown in the Bristol Channel having broken the narrow boat equivalent of the sound barrier to get there, so here we remain, in Stourport.

That’s a lot of water

We arrived here on Friday after spending the previous week sitting out ominous rain storms in between making delightful progress south through some very pretty countryside. There was an abundance of wildlife, historic churches and tempting pubs to occupy us during the wet spells and when the sun did come out we made short relaxed journeys south.

St. John the Baptist, Wolverley

I wonder what is around that corner?

This particular stretch of canal is made more interesting by the sandstone outcrop that frequently tries to bully the water aside, creating narrow gorges and torturous blind bends to navigate. There is nothing more exciting than rounding one of these bends, even at two miles per hour and finding two double width canoes full of terror stricken children in your path. Once the screaming had subsided, some from the children but more from a Beta Marine 3.8 engine at 2000 revs in reverse, the instructor, yes I did say INSTRUCTOR, asked us which side of an oncoming craft they were supposed to pass on! Having avoided featuring in all the national newspapers for accidentally killing twenty small children and intentionally murdering their instructor we plodded on via a surfeit of locks to reach Stourport.

Stourport is a bit like a bacon and Marmite sandwich, some bits are lovely and I can’t get enough of them and other bits are best left untouched. The town consists largely of a rather tired main shopping street culminating by the river in a loud, brash, gaudy fun fair in contrast to the beautifully maintained area containing the historic basins and buildings that were constructed to link the canal to the river Severn.

Stourport funfair

It also has great pubs with a thriving live music scene so perhaps I’m being hard on it because overall it’s not a bad place to be marooned. We arrived on Friday knowing that the river was high and we might not be able to go on it straight away but what we hadn’t anticipated was the delight with which the many helpful locals informed us that they had lived here for “ten years, twenty years” or “all my life” and “this is the highest the river has ever been”. (It isn’t, as any brief search of the internet will confirm) They went on to speculate as to whether we might be stuck for three, four, five days, or maybe even a week and that the best pub was The Black Star, The Swan, The Bridge etc. etc. The people of Stourport are unquestionably friendly but there isn’t much they agree on. Fishermen and lock keepers informed us that the river was still rising, had peaked or was falling all on the same afternoon and mentioned a couple more pubs we might like to try.

That James Brindley bloke that I have mentioned before built the Stourport Basins when he began the construction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal. Before he came along there was just one pub by the mouth of the river Stour but like all developers he saw an opportunity and as a Worcestershire historian named Nash put it in the late eighteenth century, “Near this Brindley has caused a town to be erected, made a port and dockyards, built a new and elegant bridge, established markets and made it a wonder not only of this county but of the nation at large.” Oh well, it doesn’t look like we can blame him for the fun fair then.

Stourport basin

I have studiously been watching the river levels via an excellent web site that actually uses science to measure the rise and fall and reports it to the millimetre once every hour. So far it has proven to be totally reliable and agrees with the old fisherman who pulled a small perch from the river, waved it around his head three times whilst walking in an anti-clockwise circle, looked to the sky and declared: “Yow should be all royt by Fridoy”. We’ll see, there are plenty more pubs we haven’t tried yet.

Science in action

Photos mostly by Gill Pearson




Steak pies and Aston Martins

The little story I posted on Facebook about the expensive steak pies and the Aston Martin DB9 has had quite a response and has left me pondering that age old question of what makes us rich. I know it’s been done to death in books, films, songs and even, I’m fairly sure, by me in previous blogs, but I was never one for turning away the opportunity to flog a dead horse.

The story, for the
benefit of anybody who is sensible enough not to go anywhere near
Facebook, was about us declining to buy steak pies from a local
butchers because they were ridiculously expensive but then seeing a
man emerge from the same shop and drive away in an Aston Martin DB9
thus confirming our station in life. Of course it was a joke and we
could have bought the pies, but maybe not the car, but being rich
isn’t about money is it? Or is it?

If Aston Martin made pies….

I know there is a
point at which lack of money will make you miserable in a world where
money is king and nothing for free comes easy so I am assuming that
what I am considering here is wealth beyond the basic needs of food,
shelter etc. So the question is; if we have enough money not to have
to worry about the basics what does more money add to our lives? Gill
and I are not poor by any means but I wouldn’t like to have less
surplus income than we have now and I’m pretty sure that applies to
most people irrespective of how much they have. Isn’t that the
conundrum? What is it about money and possessions that fools almost
everybody into thinking that they need more than they already have?
Or than somebody else has for that matter.

I think money is
like an empty garage or loft. Indeed just about any empty space in a
house that just gathers more and more stuff until it’s full, we just
expand to fill the void. In a similar way we adapt to make use of
whatever spare cash we have and convince ourselves that we couldn’t
really do with any less and a little bit more would be lovely. I am
always amazed to read stories of people who have won fortunes by some
means or other and managed to change their lifestyles so dramatically
that they have been able to spend the lot and become poor again.
Dedication to the cause indeed.

Home sweet home

‘Grace’ – Somebody’s pride and joy

Travelling on the canals is like viewing a microcosm of society. There are people on boats worth far more than ours but for them it’s just a play thing for weekends or maybe a two week trip twice a year if the sun comes out. They are always friendly and cheerful and happy to chat with us when we come across them. Then there are what look like derelict craft covered in debris and green algae, roofs piled high with old wood and all manner of worn out possessions. The windows in their crumbling rusty frames are well beyond being see-through, grubby tatters of curtains hang listlessly and it’s obvious that the boat hasn’t moved in months or even years. It’s hard to imagine that anybody could be living in such conditions but the wisp of smoke curling from the chimney says there are. Occasionally a scruffy, grubby individual will emerge from one of these wrecks as we pass by and invariably they are smiling and friendly and, as far as we can tell, happy. I’m pretty sure that the people with the fancy boat wouldn’t want to swap places with them. But what about the unshaven, dishevelled old man on the tatty boat, would he want to swap places with them? I’m not so confident of the answer to that question. What makes him happy, if he is? Certainly not money.

It sure is a tricky business finding that happy compromise of enough but no more. We are all chasing happy, but happy can rarely be purchased and I think we all know this deep down but it’s so hard to believe it. Money pulls and pushes us, it lures and beguiles us and constantly whispers in our ears, “just a little bit more”. I don’t crave an Aston Martin but flipping heck, those steak pies did look good.




On the ‘Shroppie’

After the trauma of contemplating nuclear devastation and the drug infused, drunken debauchery of Audlem music festival we finally cast off our bow line on Tuesday morning and continued our progress south. The most pressing thing on our mind was water, which we were running short of and something less pleasant that we had an over abundance of after five days in the same spot. The weather Gods thought it would be highly amusing to try and drown us as we pulled into the service point where other boaters were already filling up and emptying out. Standing by the boat holding a rope in torrential rain whilst queuing for water holds a certain irony I suppose but it’s not amusing.

Heading south to, errr, the toilet

What we really
needed after several days of over indulgence and late nights was a
nice gentle plod along an uncomplicated stretch of peaceful water but
Audlum isn’t like that. From our mooring we had two locks to
negotiate to the water point followed by a third one before the
toilet facilities and then twelve more in quick succession. Five
bright and breezy hours later we closed the last lock gate with a
weary sigh and pulled into a beautiful spot surrounded by trees and
heralded by glorious bird song. The peace and solitude were in stark
contrast to all the frantic activity and noise of the festival but it
was just the antidote we needed and much more typical of what we
expect when travelling this stretch of water.

It was a short easy
hop to Market Drayton the next day and a two night stop to catch up
on shopping and a few chores and to rendezvous with friends that we
met when we were travelling last summer. It just so happened that
Alan and Jacky were heading north and expected to be in Market
Drayton the next day so the six of us arranged to meet up and have a
catch up over dinner in the Red Lion. Good food and beer shared with
great company is an evening well spent in my book and another
cherished memory to deposit in the bank. Like all members of a
similar tribe we love swapping stories and the more outrageous the
better. Canal life is a rich seam to be tapped and the evening passed
with an endless stream of laughter as the bonds of friendship were
gently tightened before warm goodbyes in anticipation of future
encounters.

Random strange sight

The Shropshire Union canal in this part of the county comprises sets of locks separated by long stretches of peaceful flat water passing through a succession of cuttings and embankments. The cuttings are sometimes deep and dark, almost jungle like with a cacophony of bird song and rich earthy smells. The tree tops often meet over the water forming a leafy emerald tunnel and where it was necessary to cut through tough unforgiving rock the channel narrows to little more than one boat’s width. Some of these narrow channels are straight whilst others meander left and right providing a little exciting anticipation at the prospect of meeting a boat coming the other way. Then suddenly the land and foliage fall away to each side as the cutting transforms to high embankment and darkness is replaced with brilliant light and expansive views in all directions. This landscape was typical of the next day’s travel as we left Market Drayton with Bob and Marie in our wake and entered the first narrows. Once clear of the challenging set of five Tyrley locks we were back in open countryside and The Longmynd and Stretton hills were clearly visible in the distance to the west. Gill and I remembered that there were good moorings not far ahead and as luck would have it we managed to grab the two best spots with panoramic views and good solid rings to tie up to.

Fingers crossed

Ten minutes later we
have claimed our patch on the tow path and with chairs set out and
mugs of tea in hand we can relax and admire the scenery whilst
reflecting on the day’s sights and sounds. Later it’s Bob and Marie’s
turn to meet up with their boating friends Paul and Jackie and whilst
there is no pub involved this time it makes little difference and
soon their friends are our friends and so it continues. Despite our
widely differing backgrounds and experience there is common ground in
abundance and a whole morning is lost to yet more stories and belly
aching laughter amongst the inevitable discussion of the less
glamorous, more basic side of narrow boat living. You know what I
mean.

It feels as if we
are gradually being absorbed into a lovely welcoming community of
water travellers that come together and drift apart but always with
an assumption that paths will cross again and friendships will be
rekindled.




This blog post will self destruct in fifteen seconds

Nice try but we spotted it

I love the quirkyness of travelling on the canals. You never know what you might come across around the next bend, or if you will be allowed to tell anybody about it. In this particular case we did know what to expect because we had passed the signs for it last year but like the dutiful upstanding citizen that I am I hadn’t blogged about it. I am, of course, talking about the well publicised and clearly sign posted “Secret Bunker”. This time we decided to pay this oxymoron of a museum a visit and I thought that if you promise not to tell anybody I could tell you all about it.

Secret signage

Back in the days when the Americans and the Russians were standing on alternative sides of the playground hurling abuse at each other, you know, calling out things like “We’ve got more missiles than you” and “My Dad’s bigger than yours” our government of the time thought it might be a good idea to dig a big hole in the ground and hide in it. They realised the importance of being able to continue running the country even though the country might only consist of flattened towns and cities and a few million charred corpses.

Try switching if off and back on again.

They actually dug quite a lot of holes to fool the Russians but in these relatively less grumpy times the holes have fallen into disuse or been converted to very big wine cellars or secure data storage facilities. Fortunately for us the one at Hack Green near Nantwich has been turned into a fascinating, if macabre record of those dark and dangerous times. We spent a jolly two hours wandering the labyrinth of rooms reading about the effects of multiple nuclear warheads raining down on our green and pleasant land. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me as I had been an ardent CND campaigner at the time so I was reasonably familiar with the government pamphlet “Protect and Survive”. We were reminded in one room that in order to survive several thousand kilo tons of nuclear devastation all we would need were a few internal doors leant against a wall and some suitcases piled against them. There was nothing much to worry about because the politicians and military big wigs would keep everything running along just fine while we spent a couple of months hiding in our temporary wooden shelters eating cold baked beans and listening to the radio for the all clear.

Well done Dad, that looks absolutely bomb proof.

Height of man’s ingenuity?

In another room there was a reconstruction of a Russian facility from which they would be firing their missiles. Alongside the big red buttons, launch keys and important looking telephones there was a table with a bottle of beer and a glass on it. Presumably this was so that when the operator had completed the destruction of civilization as we know it he or she could kick back with a relaxing beer with the satisfying feeling of a job well done.

As you wander from themed room to themed room the exhibits seem to range from chilling realism to ridiculous parody with shop mannequins dressed as nurses complete with vivid blue eye shadow and ruby lips juxtaposed with life sized models of nuclear war heads. It’s really quite bizarre.

A nice cup of tea will have him
back on his feet in no time.

I emerged into the blinding sunshine to be reminded of the warnings against the initial flash of a nuclear detonation and was left wondering just how successful these underground bunkers would have been in the event of a major conflict. Would the communications and emergency infrastructure survive and would there be enough of us left to rebuild? Or, as has been suggested in the past; if a nuclear war ever took place would the next war be fought with bows and arrows?

Hopefully we’ll never have to answer those questions but it doesn’t do any of us any harm to reflect on how close we came to self destruction back then and how easily we could slip back down that slippery slope. If you are in this neck of the woods I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this fascinating museum but please don’t tell anybody where you have been, or where it is. It’s a secret.




A near Glastonbury experience

Don’t you just love
it when all the stars and planets align and everything just falls
perfectly into place at just the right time. We spent a frustrating
five months last year arriving in places on the boat where some
spectacular talent filled entertainment bonanza had either just taken
place or was about to happen in two weeks time. We hadn’t quite got
the idea of just chilling and hanging around back then so we ended up
missing every musical and cultural delight that we nearly came upon
all summer. But not this year!

It might not be Glastonbury but it is buzzing

It’s the 19th Audlem festival and we are here!!

This year it’s different. We have landed in the beautiful little canal village of Audlem in perfect time for their four day extravaganza of poetry, music and beer. Arts, ale and sunshine; what more could a weary traveller ask for? Well how about pizza and a hair cut on the tow path. Yes we finally caught up with ‘Baked on Board’ the wood fire pizza boat that we have been chasing all over the canal network since last summer and as if that wasn’t enough, as I tripped over my untidy locks strolling along the canal I stumbled upon a hair dressing narrow boat. I’m not making this up honestly, and I have a nice smart hair cut to prove it. I can thoroughly recommend sitting in the sunshine on the tow path and having your hair cut by the lovely Ann, whilst bemused dog walkers stroll by. It’s so much more rewarding to discuss life on the water and the various pros and cons of a variety of canal side pubs rather than making small talk about Brylcream with a bored barber from Birmingham.

Haircut sir?

The festival itself is a buzzing cauldron of eclectic talent and friendly crowds. Just think Glastonbury without the mud and queues and about 99,000 less people. We have already sampled cool jazz, folk, poetry about Kermit the frog and head banging rock (for about thirty seconds) and there are still two days to go.

Cool jazz from Kevin Hassett and Redux

Inside the Shroppie Fly pub

The pizzas were divine, as predicted by so many boaters we have talked to along the way and I even managed to buy a length of anchor rope from a dignitary.

Pizza worth travelling for.

Rope boat

There is a lovely laid back atmosphere about this festival as the well heeled locals mingle with the slightly more down to earth boaters in a Blackpool meets Knightsbridge kind of way. It was particularly heart warming to look around the crowd whilst watching the Barsteward Son of Val Doonican (seriously, look him up on YouTube), and seeing immaculately dressed fashionistas wiping away the tears of laughter, in just the same way as the denim clad ageing hippies and would be rockers were. I love the fact that below the surface we are all pretty much the same model.

Speaking of models, we are now travelling with friends Bob and Marie on their very recently re-painted boat Rebecca. Rebecca looks stunning, perfect in every detail, while our Golden Girl is starting to show her age a little. She still looks good from a distance but up close she’s ready for a bit of beauty therapy. There is a very definite difference between our two craft on the outside but just like the crowds at the festival it’s only skin deep. Same as people really.

Rebecca, fresh from the beauty parlour




Who would want God’s job

Who would want the
job of being God? I found myself asking that question more than once
as we sat on the tow path being entertained by one of his slightly
more demanding, not to say eccentric disciples. Let me set the scene.

Tow path tales

An old friend of
mine, we’ll call him John, because that’s his name, had phoned out of
the blue and asked where we were and we had made arrangements to meet
him at our next stopping place. Along with Bob and Marie, our
boating, and now travelling companions, we were all enjoying the
sunshine and whiling away a pleasant afternoon sitting on the tow
path, drinking tea and generally getting in the way of the many
locals trying to enjoy a relaxing walk. One such local smiled and
said hello in a pleasant enough way as she strolled past. She cut a
striking figure dressed all in figure hugging black and sporting
white crew cut hair and bright red lipstick. She was easily
recognisable as she returned about ten minutes later and this time
she decided we were beyond a casual greeting, she was ready to talk.
And boy, could she talk.

Delighted to have
found a captive audience of five with no obvious means of escape she
launched into the story of her husband’s lost mobile phone and God’s
part in it’s return without wasting any time on introductions or
small talk. She seemed to possess a rare ability to talk for long
periods without pausing for breath but with the unfortunate side
effect of producing a continuous fine spray of spittle which cascaded
down onto poor Marie who happened to be in the line of fire.
Eventually, after going off on many complex tangential narratives we
arrived at the explanation of how the mobile phone was found and
handed in to a local shop and subsequently returned to her husband.
The kind person that had found it had left a message explaining that
they had no means of contacting it’s owner but sincerely hoped it
would find it’s way back to them via the shop. This, apparently, was
all God’s work and he was rewarded with twenty quid on the following
Sunday for his efforts. She went on to tell us other reasons why she
had had cause to slip God a twenty now and again and of the many,
many times she had called on her long suffering deity for his help.

By now we were all
crying helplessly with laughter and wiping tears from our eyes as
poor Marie mopped herself down and assured our excited story teller
that she was just enjoying being lucky enough to be in the front seat
for the performance. Over the next half hour we learned in some
detail about the domestic disputes that regularly occurred between
our new friend and her husband who was, apparently, waiting for her
back at the car “because his legs weren’t too good and he couldn’t
walk very far”. I am ashamed to say that the thought crossed my
mind that he probably had the legs of a long distance runner but had
carefully cultured the story of his worsening legs over the years as
a means of escape. These disputes, she told us, led to long periods
where she refused to speak to him. It must have been torture for her
and a brief but blissful interlude for him. There were many other
stories involving loss and bribery of the Almighty but she finally
ran out of steam, and bodily fluids, while I was in the boat taking a
much needed natural break. When I came back out she had gone,
returning to her patient husband who was, no doubt, hoping for a
fresh falling out. We never learned about his religious standing but
if he did believe in God I strongly suspect that he may have been
quietly praying, telling God that there was a hundred pounds in it
for him for the unsafe return of his wife.

If, in the extremely
unlikely event that the star of this story should ever read this, I
would like to emphasise that we all thought you were absolutely
wonderful and if there is a God in heaven we have no doubt that he is
keenly anticipating your eventual arrival at his side.




Nantwich news (involving a washing machine)

Well the washing machine drama turned out to be a bit like a BBC news story, all headlines but no substance. WASHING MACHINE REMOVED EASILY FROM BOAT is what it should have said. All the complex engineering issues were based on the unit being too wide to fit easily through the rear doors of the boat but when we pulled it out from under the work surface it turned out to be much smaller from front to back than it was wide. I was a bit disappointed if I’m honest. I’d spent quite some time researching how the pyramids were built and I was confident of my heavy block moving science.

Ramp preparations. (Supervisor on left)

As it turned out, placed on its side the width was actually four centimetres less than the door opening and we just pushed it up the ramp and out onto the back of the boat in about thirty seconds. I seriously regretted inviting the press, they were very disappointed. So, thanks to Bob and Dave for the muscle power, to Pharaoh Kufhu for some neat ramp and friction ideas and to Gill and Marie for your supervisory input. The washing machine has gone now, it was picked up by my sister and brother-in-law and now resides happily in a normal house with normal sized doors and single level ground floors. Sorry it wasn’t more exciting.

After sitting out the rain referred to in the earlier blog we made our way slowly along the Middlewhich branch canal and on to Nantwich. This was where we were meeting our white goods removal assistants (Chris and Bun) and also where we very conveniently bumped into friends Dave and Amanda from Rufford on their boat. (Extra muscle power). Entertainment was provided by a boat that came adrift overnight and was wedged across the canal the next morning. I sat on the front or our boat eagerly anticipating the shenanigans that would surely ensue when the first boat arrived at the blockage.

Sleepy heads

I didn’t have to wait long and soon there were four members of the travelling boat’s crew plus another from a moored boat all pushing and pulling amongst a cacophony of shouted instructions and conflicting ideas of how to retrieve the offending boat. The remarkable thing about the whole operation wasn’t really that they solved the problem whilst make a fair amount of noise, it was the fact that the people on the stuck boat never woke up! Hours later they appeared, bleary eyed and completely unaware of their part in my morning’s entertainment and the “Great Nantwich Canal Blockage Drama”.

Historic fairy lights and open mic night at The Oddfellows

Gill
is away visiting her parents for a few days so I’m left holding the
rather big baby and exploring Nantwich and it’s surroundings. I’m not
complaining, the weather has been sublime and the local pubs are so
full of character and history that I have felt compelled to make a
detailed study of them for academic reasons. I did walk past an old
church as well for the sake of architectural balance.

St. Mary’s Acton (note it’s opening time)

Nantwich sunset

We’ll
be on the move again in a couple of days, back where we came from but
more on that later.




The Middlewich breach

We are moored in a spectacular spot looking down on a body of water called Top Flash some hundred or so feet below us.

Top Flash before the rains came
Top Flash before the rains came

This would be a beautiful spot to laze away a sunny spring day, listening to the bird song and enjoying a rare high vantage point to take in the view. Alas it is not to be. Looking out over the river and the water below us the scenery fades to a misty grey in the distance and the colours of the new leaves on the trees are muted by heavy and persistent rain. The buttercup flowers are refusing to open up to greet the day and most of the dandelion heads have been stripped bare by the wind. No ducks, swans, swallows or songbirds are in evidence and even yesterday’s feverish farming activity in the nearby fields seems to have been suspended for today. As always there are some boaters that will travel in any conditions and I am anxious for all my carefully restored paintwork as they pass by, struggling to maintain a straight line in the squally winds. Staying put and waiting for tomorrow’s promised sunshine seems like the best option to me.

We can’t complain
about the weather, we have been travelling for over three weeks now
and it’s only the second day that we have felt obliged to sit out the
rain and only once have we been caught standing on the back of the
boat looking stoic with grim damp faces. The relentless east and
northerly breezes have pegged the temperatures back well below the
seasonal norm but occasionally in a sheltered spot the sun has hinted
at what it has in store and the pure joy of the progression of Spring
has kept our spirits high.

New ground, narrow bridge!
New ground, narrow bridge!

Yesterday was a bit
of a landmark moment as we joined the Middlewich branch of the
Shropshire Union canal. This section was closed last year due to a
major breach that emptied the canal and washed away thousands of tons
of earth, destroying a large section of the embankment that carries
the route high above the fledgling river Weaver. It took months to
repair it and as we passed over the newly formed embankment we were
acutely aware of how precarious so many stretches of the canals are
where they are raised up above the surrounding land. I love these
high vantage points with extensive views but it only takes a minor
collapse of the bank to start a process that can quickly escalate
into a disaster. Escaping water from a minor weak point can rapidly
erode the soil around it, deepening and widening the breach so that a
trickle becomes a torrent with frightening speed and with devastating
power to destroy everything in it’s path. History is full of records
of such events and knowledge of them lends a frisson of excitement to
the passage of these elevated and spectacular features.

The MIddlewich branch in 2018
The MIddlewich branch in 2018

Repaired Middlewich Branch today
Repaired Middlewich Branch today

Days like this are
an ideal opportunity to reflect and to be grateful to the navvies and
engineers that risked lives and reputations to build this amazing
network of waterways and to appreciate how precious but also how
fragile they have become after hundreds of years of use. It’s always
nice to get going again after a wet day like today but we need to be
grateful for the rain now and then as it forces us to stop and really
get a feel for a location and makes us take the time to absorb the
landscape and the history all around us.