Monday, December 09, 2019

Herbie Awards 2019 - first category prize

Before I announce the winner of Worst Piece of Canal Infrastructure (along the S Oxford), I realise I left another disastrous piece of kit out of the nominees.  Roundham lock bottom gate.  "Ah yes", say all those who have encountered it this year, "The one where the balance beam broke so they pinned it up with a length of arnco rail."  Well despite the (I hope) temporary repair - several months later it was still in that state, it does little to assuage the fears of those who use it, let alone anyone who dares to try and cross it.  Another accident waiting to happen I fear.  How I wish I had taken a photo of this glorious bodge up so you could all see it.

Nevertheless, dreadful though Roundham lock is, users of the S Oxford will I am sure agree that there can be only one winner in this hotly fought contest.  It is the calamitous

Bridge 233, below Wolvercote junction

inoperable by single handers and terrifying to all others.

I take no pleasure in making this award.  Regular readers of this blog (all three or four of them) will know that I am not usually one to grumble, especially at CRT, but this bridge takes the proverbial biscuit.

And so, on to more pleasant and delightful topics, and we start with

Best Boating gadget 2019

For this prize we're looking for something making life better or easier for the skipper or crew whilst cruising, and for our first nomination I'm putting up something we made for ourselves this year.  Quite a lot of other boaters already have something that fulfils this function, but until now Herbie has been lacking.

It's a comfy steerer's seat.
Bolting securely through the steel sheet that goes across the rear corner, it's a piece of plywood (with umpteen coats of varnish) topped by a thick chunk of foam and wrapped in vinyl.  Sitting up there we can see a long way in front and reach the tiller to steer.  My bum is eternally grateful because I used to try and sit on the bare steel which is only half the size it needs to be for comfort.
Some years ago our good friend Rick made us a wooden seat that hung outside the handrail.  That works for a passenger, but is too far over for the helmsman.

I claim no patent on this gubbins because it was flagrantly copied from one on Nb Stronghold and created by the lovely Oakie.

Cost ?- less than a fiver.  Faults?  As a right hander I would prefer it on the port side, but sadly the morse control is in the way. 

Our second nomination cost us considerably more and we had no hand in its development.  It is the Go-Windlass - seen here alongside its more conventional counterparts.

Apparently these were selling like hot cakes at the Crick show this year, which when you consider the eye watering price, must say something.  I think we paid something in the region of £90 for ours.  As you can probably see, it has a ratchet mechanism which is a big help on the very stiff paddles found on a few of the S Oxford locks..  Compared with the other commercial ratchet windlass you sometimes see, it's quite neat and light, hardly any heavier than the one in the middle of the picture. I'm happy to use it all the time, even when I don't need to set the ratchet.  Lastly, an important feature considering the price, is that it is magnetic so there's a chance of retrieving it if you drop it in the water.

Lastly I'd like to nominate something we've had for a very long time, but is always very welcome when we need it.  I deployed it quite recently and reminded myself what a good thing it is. (I may have nominated it in years gone by, but it deserves another mention if so.) It's cheap, easy to use, and it works splendidly.  I can well remember years ago when cruising in very cold weather, the agony of groping round a fouled prop with numb fingers and a forearm blue with cold.  That was before I bought a pair of Pond Gloves.  Aah deep joy - no more rolling up your sleeves or taking off you jumper on a freezing day, no more dread of what you are putting your hand into and no more painful numb fingers.  Just pull on the elbow length (plus) rubber glove - it's not tight and stretchy like a Marigold so goes on and off easily, and dabble away.  We keep ours on top of the weedhatch cover ready for use. So simple, so cheap, so good.

Not sure how to choose a winner here - sophistication at a price, or simplicity at low cost.  Any thoughts?

Decision tomorrow along with nominations for an old favourite - Best Pub Grub.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Most Important Decisions of the Year.

Well folks, here we are in decision week.  Where shall we put that X? I could decide not to decide, but that wouldn't be right, so without further ado I announce the opening of  . . .
The Annual Herbie Awards.  

Yes folks, it's time for the decisions that really matter - forget the B word, never mind the TV debates, let's get on to the serious stuff.  I mean what can be more important than the Best Cheap Pub Meal, or the Most Useful Boater's Gadget? Well we need something to cheer us up don't we? So tart up your tuxedo, slip into your slinky silk, break open the Bollinger, and we'll make a start.

This year, I thought we ought to get our grumbles out of the way first, so I'm introducing a new category -

the award for the Worst Piece of Canal Infrastructure.

Sadly, this year we have a number to choose from (bear in mind that to qualify for these awards, it has to be something seen or experienced on Herbie's travels this year.)

I don't know whether it's just the South Oxford that is falling to bits lately, but the list of things that need fixing down there seems to grow and grow.  However two particular objects are way out in front when it comes to sheer awfulness.

1. The top paddles at Somerton Deep Lock

These must be the stiffest ground paddles on the system - any stiffer and they would be impossible to shift.  I genuinely fear for my windlass handle on this lock, in fact one of them now looks decidedly bent.  One of these days these paddles are going to defeat me, and I wouldn't mind betting lots of other people feel the same.

2. Lift Bridge 233 Oxford Canal

This bridge (the one under the bypass flyover) did well to earn its nomination because the ones either side of it are bloody awful as well.  This bridge is a serious accident waiting to happen. It's surely only a matter of time before some poor boater does himself or herself an injury here.  The lock that should hold it down is bust so the balance weights have been taken off and it requires a superhuman effort to lift it, then of course it wont stay up.  Some boater has left a wooden post there to use as a prop, but since you require both hands to lift the bridge, you can't grab the post, and anyway it's too short. What really beggars belief is the little sign on it that says it's safe to use.  I think we should get Richard Parry to come and demonstrate. Or maybe we should invite Andrew Neil to interview him.

Well it's a tough choice and I'll sleep on it.  In Strictly fashion we'll announce the result tomorrow , no dance -off needed.  If you'd like to cast a vote for either -feel free to add a comment.

Plus tomorrow on a more cheerful note well take a look at nominations for Best Boating Gadget 2019.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Black Friday /Cyber Monday outshone by special offer from Herbie Neil

Looking for that elusive Christmas present for someone you love?
Need something to inflict on someone you hate?
Want to cheer yourself up by reading of someone else's misfortune?
Can you really get something for nothing these days?

Yes folks all these problems and more can be solved this week without paying a penny, because it's time for another Herbie Neil freebie.  I can't go on forever feeling guilty about the riches I have acquired from my book royalties (over £30 and counting in four years), so for one week only (Mon to Fri)  you can follow this link get ebook copies* of my blockbuster novels "Jobs for the Boys" and "A Good Hiding", both starring the loveable Eric the Unfortunate  (bearing a strange resemblance to the author as a young man).   Try untangling the truth from the fiction  (did he really spend time as a spy in prison?)  as you follow Eric stumbling through his young adulthood in pursuit of justice and a girl friend  and wallow in affectionate  nostalgia for the 1970s.


Absolutely no charge now or ever if you download a copy this week.  Your kindle, tablet, whatever will be delighted.  It's even readable on a phone.  What's more if you are not thrilled and delighted by your cost-free purchase you can get your money back - all £0.00 of it.  Not sure if the books  are any good?  Follow the link anyway and read the reviews.

Will there be a third novel?  Who knows?  I don't.  Anybody seen a muse?

* Proper paperback copies  are available, but sadly are not free (but still cheap).

End of advertising feature.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Herbie goes luxury

I'm thinking of inviting Rob Bryden for a cruise on Herbie, then he can go on telly to advertise  the pleasures of our our new luxury on board swimming pool like he does for P&O.  Here I am emptying it out for the end of season clear up.

If you look closely, you can see the high watermark from before I started baling (or baleing?).  I calculated that the tonneau cover (which suffered a split seam and some broken bungees) was holding over a hundredweight of rain water when we visited last week.  Herbie's private flood in sympathy with the poor folk in Yorkshire I suppose.  The ageing tonneau was already in a somewhat delapidated state but I fear it'll now need replacing, being stretched out of shape and saggy - just waiting to catch more rain.  Next time I'll build in a ridge pole.

We were out at Herbie draining her plumbing down for winter in case we get deep frosts before our next cruise.  I can't see us getting any done now until the new year. 

Talking about next year, we're seriously contemplating a move to a different marina, having done the dear old South Oxford to death really.  Top of our list at the moment is Kings Bromley (near Rugeley, Staffs) which although further from home would give us access to waters we haven't cruised much if at all. We'd have Trent & Mersey  (in both directions), Staffs and Worcs, Birmingham, and more all within reasonable reach.  Watch this space.

Looking at the old calendar on the wall I notice it won't be long until the Herbie Awards season.  Time to brush off the old tuxedos and posh frocks folks.  Kath is in her sewing room  applying sequins to her kagoul as I write. Earlier in the year I had some great ideas for new categories of award.  Of course I never wrote them down so now I can't remember what they were but rest assured I'll be working on it.  Any suggestions welcome.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

A good time to go boating?

It doesn't seem five minutes since Claydon locks were on short hours in order to save water and we were worried about running aground down at Twyford wharf.  Well folks those worries are over and we have huge amounts of new waterway available. 

Why stick to the canal when you can pull over onto the fields and even the streets in some places?  You could moor up right outside a corner shop and save all that carrying back to the boat -if it wasn't for the fact that all the goods in the shop are a bit soggy.  Come to think of it, why go under Evesham bridge when you could probably cruise round the side of it and then carry on down the Avon.  You'd be in Tewkesbury in half an hour with your crew enjoying the waterskiing on the end of your mooring rope.   Endless fun.

I think the lovely guys at our marina have been going round lengthening the mooring ropes in case boats are pulled under by the rise in level.  I would think large parts of the S Oxford canal are un-navigable.  Apparently a lot of the towpath is submerged below Banbury and I wouldn't mind betting that  top lock gates are overflowing all over the place down that way.  I've had to paddle across some of them in the past when the canal wasn't nearly so high as it is now.  Here's a link to the Banbury Guardian showing the flood waters pouring over the path and into the canal.  Apparently a few of the villages on the Cherwell flood plain are in trouble. 

Joking apart, is anybody out there actually doing any boating?

Friday, October 18, 2019

Making a dash for it.

8am and the Herbies are still lying in bed wondering if we'd get through Nells Bridge today.  Suddenly we hear the sound of an approaching boat from the direction of Aynho weir.  Kath leapt to her feet and into some clothes (although I fear not the full set) and stuck her head outside.

"Have you just come through Nells Bridge?"
"How much clearance is there?"
"Plenty, you'll get through."

Yippee!  In no time flat we were dressed, mooring ropes untied and on our way, eager to beat any queue.

Arriving at Aynho lock, we were behind just one other boat, another was following behind us.  I went forward to have a look at the river gauge.

Oooh! Half an inch of yellow.  The river must have dropped several inches overnight.  Let's go for it.

Through the lock and on to the offending low bridge into the lock and we were indeed OK.

It was even sunny on the other side.  Forget plans B and C (which included accepting kind  offer from Bones Taxis Inc.) on how we were going to get to Cambridge this weekend (not by boat of course), we were back on Plan A.*

Well to cut a long story short, we're now home and dry. in Cropredy.  Well not exactly dry because it was a wet afternoon, so we're home and er drying.

And so ends the Autumn 2019 cruise of the Herbies.  We didn't quite get to Reading, but Pangbourne was pretty near and we got to meet up with George and Carol, and Bones and Maffi and Alex.  So all in all it was eventful, sociable, and above all lucky in so far as we were stranded for only one and a half days and only got a soaking twice in three weeks.  But for a few hours we could still be stuck on the Thames.

What's next?  Who knows, except some new engine mounts for Herbie as one of 'em has started to delaminate at the rubbery bit.  There's always something.  Stay tuned.

*Apologies for all the brackets, I seem to be in BODMAS mode.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Topping up the canal

This morning we attempted to walk down to Aynho lock to assess the level situation but we couldn't get there (no wellies) because of this (best seen if you hit the full screen button bottom right)

The fields on the towpath side are flooded to a level higher than the canal, so at this point the floods have broken through.  From reading the river level reports, it looks like the peak levels are moving downstream and that things are slowly getting better up here.  One fellow boater squelched up to Nell Bridge and reported back that the clearance was 1.7 metres.  That's about nine inches too little for us (sorry for mixed units).  Even if we removed the roof box I fear we might get stuck, so we're resigned to another night here at least.  Never mind, the sun is shining and the Great Western Arms is only a ten minute walk away.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


Greetings from Aynho du Lac, or should I call it Aynho sur Mer.  Either way, there's a hell of a lot of water everywhere.  The Cherwell would pass easily for the Thames in some places .

Here's what used to be Somerton meadow.

The lock bypass weirs are running fast too.  We got stuck against the cill of the one at the top of Allen's lock.  No amount of tiller waggling and rope hauling could pull us sideways and off.  In the end we just drove hard forward into the bushes until we were clear.  Our lovely new blacking is really taking a pasting.

It all looks rather pretty though and we could enjoy it a lot if it wasn't for the fact that we are stuck above Aynho lock with food and coal for only two or three days, and that we are supposed to drive to Cambridge on Saturday.   Maybe some of those Chinooks we keep seeing overhead could drop us UN food parcels and the odd bottle of whisky to keep us going.  We might have to resort to the old tin of corned beef that has been at the back of the cupboard since time began.  There are some tasty looking mallards outside if we get really stuck.

Well, we are where we are and it is what it is.  We just have to wait until all this water moves away and Nell bridge becomes passable.  By all accounts we could be here for a few days. We haven't been right down to Aynho weir but we're told the water is right at the top of the 'red' and that nothing can get under Nell Bridge. Tomorrow should tell us if things are getting better or worse.

This morning we paused en route at Heyford to supply Bones and Maffi with tea and bikkies while enjoying watching Bones refitting a boat window to cure a leak.  She has an interesting technique, which seems to be that of supervising Maffi while he does it.

We could all learn something here. 

When it got to the technical bit though, i.e. screwing the retaining nut on the angle grinder, she took charge like the expert she is.  We know our place.

With hindsight we perhaps ought to have stayed with them at Heyford and admired the full process, then we would be now be stranded near  a railway station  and supplies of coal and water instead of here in the fields at Belchers Bridge, and we would have had some jolly fine company too.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

That's better.

Wow! Sitting in the sun!  A bit different from yesterday's soaking.  That's British weather for ya.  Here we are at Kirtlington quarry, enjoying one of the best moorings on the Oxford canal.

Early this evening we climbed up to the top of the old quarry to watch the sunset.

Not bad is it?

Signs of the weekend's rain still abound.

The Cherwell between Shipton and Enslow was very high but  still 'on green lights' so that was OK. 

 Now we only have the other Cherwell bit between Aynho and Nell Bridge to get  past and we'll be home and er, probably not dry, but safe anyway.  What a good job we didn't start a week later, we'd be stuck on the Thames on red boards now.

Tonight we sit by the fire supping Jim Beam and coke and listening to one of my hand picked playlists featuring everything from Fleetwood Mac to Joni Mitchell via lots of other people you probably don't know.  It's an absolute belter.  Life could indeed be worse.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Come Uppance

That'll teach us for being smug about staying dry through all the changeable weather.  Up till now we seem to have managed to cruise when it was dry and finish for the day when the rain started.  No such luck today, we got a proper soaking when we arrived in Thrupp.  As we were roping up to the mooring rings the heavens opened full force and we were instantly drenched.  Once tied up, we squelched up to Annie's Tea Room where we peeled off our soaking clothes and dropped them on the floor (the puddle on carpet will probably dry in due course) and pretended it was high summer by defiantly ordering cream teas.  I think the phrase 'lashings of clotted cream' must have originated here.  They give you loads of the proper stuff, as stiff as clay and at least double the jam you get anywhere else. A heart attack on a plate.  Lovely.  And you get an old fart's discount.  What's not to like?

I was prepared for the lift bridges out of Oxford to be a pain, but today, one of them, the one near the flyover, nearly defeated me.  The locking mechanism has now been abandoned by CRT as the bridge is balanced shut which makes it almost impossible for a frail old gentleman like me to lift and hold open.  In the end I had to cross over then dangle my overweight frame on the balance beams to get the bridge to open.  A proper twerp I must have looked. Goodness knows how a single hander would manage because they'd be cut off from their boat.  A little blue sign on the bridge tells us that the bridge is perfectly safe to use.  Huh!  Well the bridge might be safe in itself but not for the operator.  It can only be a matter of time before somebody injures themselves in the struggle with the weight of lifting and holding the bridge open.

The word is that the Thames is on red and yellow boards all of a sudden and I'm wondering if we'll be able to get up the short bit of Cherwell below Enslow tomorrow.  I wonder if the water shortage lock restrictions have been lifted at Claydon and Napton.   I wouldn't bet on it.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Busy doing nothing

Busy busy, I've hardly stopped today.  I've de-gunged the u-bend under the sink, drunk lots of tea, watched the Japanese grand prix on Kath's ipad, watched episode 3.5 of the mega on line Guitar course I am following - diminished scales this time, um, drunk some more tea, um did the washing up . . .  anyway you get the idea of our exciting whirlwind of a day here at Jericho.  We're having our first non cruising day of our October trip, resting like an out of work actor.

There was one bit of excitement.  Just across the footpath outside the boat ,  there flows the little backwater leading down to the Sheepwash channel and this afternoon, not eight paces from Herbie, sat this cormorant.

I think he was having a rest day too.  He didn't even bother to move when I crept nearer wielding my phone to take the picture.  He just turned his head to see who it was, then seeing it was only boring old me, resumed his laconic pose.

Tomorrow we resume our odyssey and head on up to Thrupp.  I expect we'll be swearing at recalcitrant lift bridges and getting muddy.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Thames verdict

Cor, the current was strong under Osney bridge this morning.  I'm glad we didn't get more of that on the way up the Thames or we'd still be down at Abingdon thrashing along at one mile an hour.  As it is, we came up Sheepwash channel where the water stands still and here we are back on the canal at Jericho.  I'm glad they've finished the new development with the houses and boatyard at last.

Only joking folks.  Nothing at all has happened of course.  After years of nothing happening, we still await the delivery of the promised land.  Dream on.

After tying up, opposite this hoarding  we strolled into the mighty metrollops of Oxenford. . .

Neil wafts off into a dream.  Do you remember Daphne Oxenford?  When I was a tiny tot, she was the lady on the radio who read the stories on Listen with Mother on the BBC Home Service.  Are you sitting comfortably ?  Then I'll continue. .

 to purchase victuals for our journey back up the canal and staggered back with bags full of healthy sustenance to keep us going where there are no shops.  On the way back though, we diverted through the market and visited our favourite street food stall selling hot Goan food where we bought tonight's dinner which had names I can't recall but were generous and delicious.  Sitting here an hour after dinner I can barely move.

Thinking back over our Thames experience, I can report a number of observations.

1. Birds observed in order of frequency:

  • Red kites - hardly ever out of sight!
  • Mallards - of course
  • Herons - about one per mile
  • Cormorants - several each day
  • Kingfishers - a few each day
  • Buzzards - here an there.
  • Geese - surprisingly few, but always in gangs
  • Egyptian geese - an odd pair here or their

I imagine that ten years ago the list would have been hugely different. Astonishing how many red kites.  I like to see them and I think they like to see us, often flying low over the boat.   Top birds.  Of course there were also probably lots of small brown thingies, but with my eyesight and the distance to the bankside vegetation, they were invisible to me.

2. Conspicuous wealth is impossible to ignore with all the grand houses, stripey lawns and gothic boathouses.  A measure of our unequal society.

3. Boats on the move were conspicuously rare.  It seems that the tupperware cruisers in particular don't venture out in October.  Narrowboats , although few, outnumbered them easily.  We're a hardy lot.

4. Lock gates hardly leak!! The gates work!  These Thames folk don't know they're born.

All in all, we do like the Thames.  Now we're back to canal reality where the locks have broken paddles and leaky gates and the lift bridges are a bugger to unlock.  Deep joy.