Thursday, August 30, 2007


While we were visiting the IWA festival last weekend we cadged a free bed with our son Peter at Cambridge. Apart from our ritual meal at the Castle pub in Castle Street (for my money the best pub in Cambridge) we took a stroll around Jesus lock, which is the limit of navigation for narrowboats on the Cam. I particularly like the way the balance beams curve up and over from the top of the gates. I haven't seen any others like it as far as I recall.

Also interesting was the windlass padlocked to the paddle gear. All you need is the combination number to free it for use.

Last year there was a lot of hoohaa about a threat to do away with the visitor moorings, but eventually the Council came to their senses and now there is a nice space for half a dozrn boats just below the lock.

The same rain that caused all the mud at the IWA festival had also raised the level of the Cam and the footpath was flooded here and there. This enterprising young couple found a way to keep their feet dry, but their dogs weren't so lucky!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Sunshine and mud at the IWA festival

We had a great couple of days at the IWA festival at St Ives (the Cambridgeshire one) this weekend. However, despite the best two days of weather this year, the festival site was a quagmire. On top of the wet summer, St Ives had had a week of heavy rain before the sun came out, and with all the vehicles delivering stands and equipment on site, this was the result on Saturday morning.
However it did dry up a bit and they did their best to lay down paths of wood chip etc and everyone had a great time. Stallholders I spoke to seemed to be pleased with the trade they were getting. We spent a fair bit, and came away with ideas to spend a whole lot more, although no doubt a cooling off period may bring us to our senses!

The riverside was busy with people viewing new boats as well as with visitors and passers by.

Perhaps the most unusual thing we saw was this mobile belfry! I suppose all festival like to ring the changes from time to time:-). ( Sorry.)

Kath and I each attended a workshop. She did cabin crochet (results in a later blog I hope), and I made a rope side fender. Far from perfect but OK for starters. I'm going to make some more - practice makes perfect.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A good read

A kind neighbour has given me a small collection of waterways related books which she found when clearing out the flat of a deceased friend. Among them was The Water Road by Paul Gogarty (ISBN 1-86105-655-9, Robson Books). Paul is a travel writer for a number of national newspapers. The book is an account of a narrowboat journey in 2001 starting from London and making a figure of eight journey taking in Birmingham, the Potteries, Manchester, Leeds, Goole, Lincoln, Leicester, Oxford, Lechlade and Windsor. It took him four months, mostly single handed. I must say I admire his bravery because he was an inexperienced boater and some of the waterways he travelled were not for the faint hearted. Anyone who starts off from Limehouse onto the Thames has my respect!

Anyway, I enjoyed the book a lot and frequently found myself agreeing with his observations about the pleasures of slow travel on water, the incredible mix of people one meets, and the occasional depressing attitude of the less tolerant in our society. Paul is a good writer and has an amazing ability to search out and engage interesting people. The trip is quite an adventure and the book is a good primer for anyone wanting to know what travelling on canals and rivers is like.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

One of these days I'm going to compile a table of the relative ease of lock gates and paddle mechanisms on the Grand Union. There seems to be no correlation between size of balance beam or depth of gate and how heavy they are to push. They vary from dead easy to almost unmovable. If I had them recorded I would know which ones I could send a youngster forward to set up.

Mind you, some gates swing too easily so that they swing open by themselves when you want them shut. You could be running round a lock all day shutting first one side only to find that the opposite one has swung open. In the end you have to open a sluice at the other end to let the water slam it for you.

Uxbridge lock is a prime example. Only about four feet drop but the bottom gates are really hard and yet the top gates drift open at the slightest whiff when the lock is full.

Old but well greased paddle mechanisms can be a lot easier than new ones. Worst of all are the dreaded hydraulic mechanisms. Never too stiff but they take too many turns to wind up and are just as many, and as hard work, to drop. I like the old exposed mechanisms like this one we saw in Brum recently. Plenty of places to trap your fingers in the exposed cogs, and the main gear shaft is obviously loose in its bearing but I bet it rattles up dead easily. I also like the grooves cut in the post by the horse ropes in the old days. Despite modern safety standards it would be a crime to replace this paddle mechnism while it still works.

Mind you its fun when you come across the odd super duper electric stuff like this one on the Lea navigation. Not that I'd want to see them everywhere. How would we keep fit?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Not inclined

B*gg*r! I just discovered that we missed an opportunity when we went to the Blists Hill museum in Ironbridge recently. We saw the Shropshire canal, (not to be confused with the Shropshire Union canal) but failed to walk round the bend to see the inclined plane. I wrongly assumed it would now be no more than a grassy bank, but now find out that it still has the rails and various other bits intact, having been part restored in the 1980s. The inclined plane, opened in 1792 allowed 5 ton tub boats to be hauled up 207 feet from Coalport to Blists Hill. Oh well, we'll see it next time.

The bit of the canal in the museum lies alongside a short bit of railway track where a working replica of Trevithick's steam locomotive (the world's first) can be seen in steam. At least I got a picture of that.

Its hard to imagine what people of the time made of this amazing contraption which had the power of several horses and had all manner of strange gubbinses attached. Notice the angle iron rails and how the wheels sit outside the upright bit.

While we were there, we were pleased to see references to our namesake.

Perhaps the best bit of the museum for Jacob, was the opportunity to handle and spend pre- decimal money. I'd forgotten how big and heavy the coins were. Old money could be got from the on site bank, although for a new fiver you only got a couple of shillings worth of the old stuff. Still, it went quite a long way as sweets etc were offered at Victorian prices.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Cuddly Dudley

I can hardly believe I'm writing this, but on our hols we spent a fascinating couple of days in Dudley!

Our main objective was the Black Country Living Museum which is rather like the more famous Blist Hill museum at Ironbridge, but in our view a lot better. First it has a proper canal basin with a selection of old boats including the famous president steam narrowboat. Then the central exhibit, a couple of typical Black Country victorian streets, complete with charactor actors with thick local accents having hilarious arguments in the street. The shops were superbly kitted out. I really liked the old ironmongers shop full of tin baths, oil lamps, old tools and the like. The houses and shops have been moved there brick by brick and reconstructed exactly as they were.

We took the guided tour of the coal mine. A good job they gave out helmets as I banged my head every ten yards. Then there were factories and workshops, a cinema showing silent films, all powered by old gas engines, a school where you could join the class and be harangued by a strict schoolma'am and loads more. By signing a gift aid form when you go in, you get free entrance for subsequent visits within a year. A bargain.

Right next to the museum is the Dudley Canal Trust which does boat trips into the amazing Dudley tunnel complex. The tunnels were originally dug for the purpose of extracting limestone, leaving huge caverns underground, some of which how now lost their roofs making erie ivy hung pits into which the boat cruises. I don't think there is anythong like it on the rest of the canal system.

To see some of the more normal local canalscape we took a stroll along the towpath in nearby Tipton where there is a junction and a nice flight of locks. We particularly liked the little cantilevered footbridge at the tail of the lock. Further down we came upon the derelict Beans Foundry which until fairly recently cast engine blocks for the car industry. Now it is derelcit and according to an old chap we met is regularly ransacked by local youths strippiong out the copper wire etc.

Then we needed to eat and drink, and where better than the famous Mad O'Rourkes Pie Factory.

Actually it's a bizzare pub serving huge meals including a Desperate Dan Cow Pie complete with horns and weighing 4 lbs. I thought that was a bit much so I ordered spare ribs, which I think might have weighed the same! Someone up the other end ordered a mixed grill which came to the table on a shovel (really!). Here is their gravy machine.

Give Dudley a try, I recommend it.

We're back

Back home from our camping hols in Shropshire. I know we're boring but we keep returning to the same camp site near Church Stretton because it's such a brilliant spot. Not many people seem to know this area but it's amazingly good for walking. Church Stretton nestles between the Stretton Hills, steep and sharp edged, and the great mound of the Long Mynd deeply cut with narrow valleys or batches with waterfalls and ravines. The top, at about 1700 feet is moorland covered with bilberry, heather and bracken.

Here we see the Stretton hills from the Mynd,

and from virtually the same spot but looking the other way, we see a tiny part of the Mynd with Jacob practicing his golf swing

Our campsite in Little Stretton

is at the foot of Ashes Hollow, one of the prettiest valleys on the Mynd
and quite rocky in places

anyway, enough of this hills mullarkey, in succeeding posts I'll report on how we managed to see some great canal sights while we were there.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Running repairs

Herbie's batteries haven't been charging well for some time. Last year when the charging was particularly bad whilst we were cruising, we called in River Canal Rescue (RCR) with whom we are members, to help. The guy came out and muttered about the Sterling alternator controller. He obviously doesn't like them, so he disconnected it and we did notice an improvement.

However I still haven't been happy with the charging since and suspected that the alternator was really at fault and the demands of the Sterling had been too much for it. Anyway, while we were at Marsworth recently the alternator really packed in. The charge light wouldn't go out and we were getting no amps and hardly any volts. So we called in RCR again.

"Yup, it's the alternator alright. I've got a spare in the van that might fit, but before I swap it out I'll check if I can get the pulley off the old one (to swap onto the new one) because if I can't shift it I can't help you further." Big spanners were produced and there was much cursing and straining but the pulley nut wouldn't budge. "Sorry, nothing I can do here, you'll have to get it to somebody who can get it on a bench to budge the pulley". And off he went :-(

Luckily we were moored only a hundred yards from Ed Boden, professional canal boat engine fixer, so I called on him. "Yeah, I can fix that easy, but not till Monday afternoon" It was Saturday. "OK" I said, there are worse places to be marooned than Marsworth. So I had a nice weekend fishing off the boat and strolling to the pub. Ed turned up on Monday bearing a new alternator. With a battery powered hammer drill he had the pulley nut off in two seconds. Why RCR can't carry such a tool I can't imagine. Within an hour we had a new alternator installed, complete with a field tap wire should I decided to reinstate the Sterling. I commend him to you. My voltmeters are especially happy!

Our other technical problem was a leak from the freshwater pump, which we first noticed on seeing damp patches in the storage spaces under the front steps. Had I called in a professional, he may well have swapped out the pump which with labour would have cost around £100. I could see the water was dripping out of a joint between two parts of the pump, so I pulled it apart, put some jointing compound on it and screwed it together again and now its as dry as a bone :-). Cost - less than a quid for the tube of compound.

We're off camping now for a couple of weeks. More when I get back. Meanwhile I thought you might like this sign from a bridge by Hanwell top lock.

Must go, I'm off to load up my ponderous carriage.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

GU Pubs

It would be an incomplete picture of our trips up and down the southern GU if I failed to mention the pubs we visited, sometimes for just a drink and sometimes for food as well.

Twice on this trip we visited pubs which advertise real ales but didn't have any available! The first was the Coy Carp at Harefield, who admittedly did rustle up a barrel of London Pride when we complained. Had we not, I don't think they would have bothered putting it on. Sunday lunch there was OK - nothing more.

Then at the Fishery in Hemel Hempstead, which has three labelled real ale pumps, the barmaid said, "sorry, no ales today" and seemed surprised we cared. We didn't eat there as planned, but had the brilliant idea of catching the train back to Apsley to go to the excellent Papermill pub. Stations were only a minutes walk at either end and the train journey just 5 minutes. The Papermill, just opposite the BW Apsley marina is a spacious, comfortable modern Fullers pub in a converted industrial building. They offer very good beer, good service, and excellent food. We like their stilton cheeseburgers which are home made and huge.

Up at the Cowroast Inn (at Cowroast, 50 yards from the lock) the pub is run by a Thai family. You get free prawn crackers with your beer! It's a strange mixture of traditional pub and a very good Thai restaurant. Tasty food and good portions.

Regular readers will know of our liking for the Anglers Retreat at Marsworth. Suffice it to say it is a very modest building with no architectural charm, but the beer (including the wonderful Tring Brewery "Sidepocket") is well kept and the food is distinctly home cooked from fresh ingredients. The menu changes daily according to what produce they can get. We had the steak and mushroom pie - lots of meat, real shortcrust pastry, proper gravy, and no less than eight different vegetables. Lovely.

At the other end of Marsworth is the Red Lion, where we strolled up for a pint and stayed to watch the Grand Prix on the telly. What a gem this pub is. Flagstone floors, comfy seats, interesting beers including from local breweries. A quiet friendly traditional village local. Neat and tidy without being modern or posh.

Next was the Grove Lock at, you've guessed it, Grove Lock, near Leighton Buzzard. Another Fullers pub aimed at the diner, and popular for business lunches. The menu is comparatively pricey. We just had a shared appetiser of chunky bread (I forget what type but it was lovely), with toasted haloumi cheese, which toasts without melting, and peppers. I think it cost about £8, but was enough for a good snack between three of us.

On our final weekend, we met up with Pete and Rob, the other members of our band PRANK, and tootled from Bulls Bridge down to the Fox at Hanwell, near Brentford. What a great pub this is. Lively and friendly and likely winner of the Herbie Pint Of The Year award. Superbly kept Timothy Taylors Landlord. This was the first time we had eaten at the Fox, other times we had been there on non food days. We had bavette steaks (apparently a cut high on the thigh and near the fillet) with tarragon butter and chips and salad. £10.95 if I recall correctly. I fear the chips were probably cooked in beef dripping. Unhealthy but gorgeous. The steaks were perfect and the tarragon butter scrummy. The Fox is a strong contender for Herbie Pub of the Year.

If all this sounds like a pub crawl, don't forget we were out for 16 days, and our son Peter was with us for a holiday.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Watching the birds

We've been lucky with the birds lately. As soon as we started off on the trip we were joined by Langley's resident common tern, who was using the disturbance of the boat in the water to see the fish scattering. He gets so close you could almost touch him. This time I managed to get a reasonable shot of him.

That night we moored at Black Jacks lock where there are peacocks. One part flew, part clambered onto the thatched roof of the cottage and right onto the chimney top. Here he is.

After being on the water so much, I have now reversed my previous dislike of geese, particularly greylags. I used to think they were aggressive, but they don't seem to be now, and they're such smart birds.
At Marsworth Kath had the goslings literally eating out of her hand . We love mooring here, right below the bank of Startops reservoir, and very handy for the Anglers Retreat!

The ducks there were doing a strange skimming movement. Zooming across the water with their bills just scooping the surface. I'm not sure whether they are drinking, or catching some microscopic surface food, or what.

Talking of ducks, near Harefield the canal was covered with duckweed which the swans didn't seem keen to swim through. Herbie left a psychedelic wake as we passed. You can just make out the swans beyond the weed.

Lastly, how about these cormorants perched on a mobile phone mast down towards Hanwell

More highlights later.