Thursday, April 30, 2015

How John Rennie got the sack

What do you do while you are watching paint dry? Well, as the colours harden on my roof box, we've had a day off to pay one of our occasional visits to the National Archives at Kew. While Kath has been digging ever deeper into the dubious past of her dastardly ancestors, I have been wandering round the rather quirky TNA library and came upon a book about the Royal Military Canal.

Aah, a chance to get the story straight about this peculiar waterway isolating the Dungeness peninsula from the rest of our fair land. You won't find another canal like it, what with it having a sharp bend every 500 yards. On the map it looks like someone tried to draw a straight diagonal line on a low resolution screen creating mini zig zags. Take a look on Google maps to see it. Not very good for boating of course but ideal for firing a gun at anyone trying to cross the canal.

The "anyone" in question of course was old Boney himself, itching to complete his domination of Europe by crushing us Brits. It was 1804 and young Willie Pitt was having kittens at the idea of the 160,000 or more men standing on the beaches at Boulogne and polishing their muskets or whatever it was they had. A sizeable fleet of boats lay ready to carry them on the short trip over to Dungeness where a nice expanse of flat sands and shingle would make an easy peasy landing over a thirty mile front.

Over here, bricklayers were hastily building a series of defensive Martello towers along the shore but in reality they wouldn't do much to stop an army that size. One idea was to flood Romney Marsh by letting the sea in through the sea wall, but that had problems. Either you couldn't do it fast enough once the French left port and headed over here, or you did it beforehand "just in case" and ruined a lot of perfectly good farm land with salt and then stumped up a fortune in settling compensation claims from dispossessed farmers. Worse still, imagine a false alarm!

So some bright spark thought of the canal idea. Dig a trench sixty feet wide and nine feet deep and fill it with fresh water. Build a parapet on the inland side of the canal from the earth dug out on the canal and then put a military supply road behind that and you had a pretty good defensive line. Not only that, the canal would collect water running off the hills in wet weather and save the marshes from getting so wet, and in dry weather it would provide a fresh water source for agricultural use. And of course with some boats, it would provide a transport route for moving men and military gear and farm produce about. Simples. It would need a few bridges of course like any canal does, but these would have to be dismantled pretty dam quick if the Frenchies turned up so they opted for easily destroyable wooden jobbies.

Pitt was persuaded and got personally involved in persuading the local farmers and the idea was given the go ahead. Next, they looked around for somebody who knew a bit about building canals and hired in John Rennie who as we all know had a bit of form in that department having done stuff on the Kennet and Avon and the Rochdale canal and in Ireland. I think he might have been inventing indigestion remedies too, but I'd have to check on that.

Anyhow, old John rolled up and quickly found all sorts of problems they hadn't thought of including the issue of ground water filling the trench while they were trying to dig it because of the sandy soil and the fact that it was below sea level. He persuaded the powers that be to put in an order for a Boulton and Watt steam pump at great expense and recommended a maximum depth of seven feet for the canal. They could compensate by having it wider if they liked. Such was the panic over old Boney at this time that Pitt would agree to practically anything in spite of several critics claiiming that the whole idea was daft.

Well, things proceeded just like every other civil (or private) building contract. The steam engine was months late, the builders kept getting called off to other jobs, there was a shortage of bricks etc. Money was thrown at it. 1500 navvies were drafted in at a few pence a day to do the digging while the army built the rampart and the road. Compare that with the Wey and Arun canal not far away which at a similar length needed a mere 200 navvies. The place was swarming with soldiers and rough manual labour without enough local accommodation. It was like Millwall on a Saturday night. According to the local paper, one navvy decided to sell his wife in Hythe market because he couldn't afford to keep her on his pay. He yoked her to a post and got sixpence for her from a delighted squaddie. The lady herself wasn't so pleased and was said to have two black eyes and a nasty temper.

Progress was slow and everyone was blaming everyone else just like they still do today. Rennie was especially fed up. He was even more fed up though when they gave him the sack, not least because they thought his fee, at seven guineas a day, was extortionate.

Meanwhile over in Boulogne, Boney was itching to pull the trigger on the starter pistol. Our spies reported they were practically ready to invade, but then came the news that the cavalry, in the shape of Nelson and his ships were coming back to our waters after a foreign excursion. Boney didn't fancy his fleet's chances of getting across with our Horatio in the way so be decided to bugger off for a bit and beat up the Austrians instead at Austerlitz.

Still the canal work struggled on under new management based on the theory that the French would be back sooner or later and to cut a long story short, they got the job done, eventually reaching the sea at both ends, thus making it possible to flood the marshes twice as fast should they ever need to.

Boney did come back and have another look, but what with his battle fleet having been crippled by Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805 and his allies the Danes having their fleet nobbled by an English bombardment of Copenhagen harbour he went off in a sulk and ended up dying of wallpaper poisoning.

Back on Romney Marsh, the canal was actually proving useful, even to the military who were using it to move boats and troops about. Then in 1807 and act was passed allowing the possibility of boats being licenced for pleasure purposes. Is this the first mention of pleasure boating on our canals? It took a while to get going though. The first recorded pleasure excursion on the Royal Military Canal actually took place in 1841. Hoseasons I expect.

The canal is still very much there today and used for boating, fishing, and picnics and for all I know, farm water supply. I must go and have a proper look next time I go down that way.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

What has run more than Paula Radcliffe?

Flippin’ Dulux Weathershield paint – that’s what!

According to my blog archives, it was May 2011 when I made and painted Herbie’s current roof box.  At that time I posted an article comparing the performance of the five different paints I used.  You can read it here if you’re interested – if you are doing any of this type of painting you might well find it useful.  Here’s one of the pictures so you get the , er, picture.


The cream colour is the Dulux Weathershield and it easily came out bottom in my comparative paint test at that time.  I found that it didn’t cover well, and being so thin (yes I did give it a good stir) it ran all over the place.

Now four years later the old box needs a bit of a refurb, so I have it at home for repainting.    Here is the work in progress


It’s a slow process using all those colours bordering each other.  Lots of masking up and having to wait before one colour is dry before you can put masking tape on it to do the next colour.   At two coats per colour, that’s ten days in theory but the pesky Weathershield is adding to that. Read on.

The first thing I noticed was that in spite of being called Weathershield, the Dulux had worn the least well of the five paints and had flaked off or worn away in several places.  “Well you won’t be using that again” I hear you say.  Sadly, being a miserly old git, I couldn’t bring myself to waste nearly a tin full of the stuff I had left over from last time, so foolishly I had another go with it.  I have to tell you, it is even worse than I remember.  Especially bad was the propensity to bleed under the (best quality) masking tape. Not only does it retain all its faults from last time, but now I notice it takes ages to harden off too, so I have to wait an extra day before I can put masking tape on it so do the next colour.  Grrrr!

Maybe if Dulux stood over me they might point out that I wasn’t using it right.  Well all I can say is the other paints get the same treatment and do a lot better.  Maybe if that sheepdog of theirs hadn’t got his hair all over his eyes he could see properly to make some better paint.

Interestingly the paints which had survived the best over the four years were the proper coach paints i.e. the dark grey Craftmaster and the red Hempel, so as well as being the easiest to paint with, they last longer too.  Well you get what you pay for I guess – they are considerably more expensive.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Driving a CRT Engineer into the bushes

Today was my first “proper job” driving boats for CRT and now I know a tiny bit about how canals are inspected.  The (volunteer) job was to drive the little CRT boat “Griffin”  - here she is -


griffinfrom Packet Boat Marina to Slough Basin and back stopping hither and thither while Chief Engineer for London Region Mikk Bradley and his trusty mate Steve the local lengthsman hopped on and off to poke at bridges and embankments.  It was the annual engineer’s inspection of the Slough Arm.

To be frank, it didn’t start too well, that is to say the boat didn’t. This was the third CRT workboat I have operated and they are all completely different from one another.   How was I supposed to know you had to press a button that looks just like a horn button while you turn the ignition key?  In the end we had to use the last resort – read the manual.  Griffin has a little Lister engine that produces a satisfying “pop pop pop” once you get going.  Inside the boat it is best described as cramped.

griffin below

Next job was to get out of the marina.  The cunning(?) previous user had parked it in a corner, requiring me to back out in a confined space.  This wasn’t all that tested my boating skills. A lot of what Mikk and Steve needed to look at was on the canal’s off side, requiring me to manoeuvre into the Arm’s notorious shallow and overgrown margins so they could hop off and disappear into the bushes hunting for this and that.  It was fun.  At every winding hole I was required to do a loop the loop to check it was deep enough and free from obstacles.  Miraculously they all were.  Another time I had to hover the boat one foot from the offside of a bridge hole while Mikk poked a long stick into the water to feel the submerged brickwork.

Mikk is a nice chap and allowed me to gently harangue him about GU locks that have to be left empty (you know the ones) and the fact that I think they dredged the wrong end of the Slough Arm.

What did I learn? That the cutting embankment on the towpath side is too steep in places and tending to move.  The worst bit is just by where the bridge had to be taken down a couple of years back. Although serious if it collapsed, any repair would cost megabucks, so they are just keeping an eye on it for now.  A lot of trees and undergrowth have been felled to give a better view of the problem.  I think the roots have been left in place to help hold the bank up.

After an eight o’clock start, we got back at about one o’clock, so that’s five hours on my pilot’s licence I suppose.

griffin at hly

PS (for Simon)  I passed Nb Tortoise looking very smart with it’s nice shiny blacking.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Another reason dredging is expensive

We arrived by car at Crick late last night only to find the access road to our part of the marina closed.  We found out why when we awoke this morning.

Had we driven in, we certainly wouldn’t have got back out until this little lot had moved away.



They were craning out the boats used by Land and Water for the dredging operations recently carried out down our stretch of the Leicester Arm.  They have been entertaining us with their dredging and bank reinforcing operations for a while now and of course these big flat barges and the dredger itself were widebeam boats- too wide to get through the locks at either end of the arm.  I don’t fancy meeting one in Crick tunnel either come to think of it.  Notice that on the lower photo, they have two boats stacked on one lorry!

Lifting and transporting big boats, as we boaters know, is not a cheap operation.  There’s probably quite a few licence fees spent right there.

We were only at the marina overnight, en route home from a family do in St Neots.  I wanted to collect Herbie’s roof box which is need of a bit of TLC at home.  The odd repair and a lick of paint should restore it to its former glory.  One bit of the plywood edge had started to delaminate, so as I write it is pumped full of waterproof glue and clamped up.  Maybe it’ll work and maybe it won’t.  The repainting wont be quick ‘cos it has a diamond pattern in red, white, cream and blue with a grey border.  I’m a masochist.

The fore and aft decks I painted last week are looking OK now.

cant  bow

At least when you finish a painting job you get some feeling of satisfaction.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Triumph and Glory for Moomins (plus) and 8 Great Truths about boat painting

Not only did we not come last in yesterday’s quiz at the Wheatsheaf in Crick, but we actually got on the podium!!!  Yes, us Herbies joined forces with the Moomins (aka Simon and Ann(e?) of Nb Melaleuca and the redoubtable Rick of Long Buckby and came third in the quiz under the joint team name of Moomins.  Utilising such obscure knowledge as Bugatti being the French motor manufacturer taken over by Volkswagen, and actually recognising a photo of Christopher Trace who did Blue Peter when it was in Black and White we managed to win back our entry fee.  A Triumph,  although Rick is still grumbling about the quiz master’s idea of which of Newton’s laws of motion is which.

During the last few days I have been up to my elbows in paint, restoring Herbie to some semblance of respectability by refreshing the paint on the fore and aft cants and decks, the gas locker lid, the starboard handrail, and the starboard gunnel and then derusting and repainting an area of the roof where the ash pole had been lying and quietly eating into the paint.

There’s always more to do of course, but it was a worthwhile start to the season.  During the process I was reminded of a few Great Truths about boat painting.

1. there are only about two days a year when the weather is suitable for boat painting and the day you choose is never one of them.

2. painting out of doors is a real pain because of all the dust and insects and spats of unexpected rain.

3. a gust of wind can blow paint off the bristles of a brush

4. horizontal surfaces need painting far more often than vertical ones.

5. red paint looks nice but it covers less well than any other colour

6. good masking tape is dear but worth it.

7. Always have a rag and some white spirit handy to clear up accidental smudges in the wrong place.  I used so much I am now classified as Highly Flammable.

8. Brush Mate boxes are the best invention ever. You can keep a brush for every colour you need ready to use and never have to wash them out. Only an idiot wouldn’t use one once they had tried it.

I took advice I remember from Phil Speight which is when painting over a repair (eg a rusty patch, suitably Fertan-ed and primered) mask out a largish neat edged area around the repair and paint that.  I did a six inch wide strip along the edge of the roof capturing all the various rust spot repairs and painted that.  It looks so much better than lots of little paint patches and is quick to do.

Now I’m back at home and marvelling at how much the garden has grown in a week.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Flippin' Met Office!

Ever since they left Bracknell where I could keep an eye on them, and scarpered off down to Exeter, the weather has messed me about. Bracknell isn't too pleased either. Now they have a road called Weather Way and a pub called the Weather a Vane and nobody knows why.

Today I put a lovely coat of gleaming red paint on Herbie's starboard handrail and barely a couple of hours later it rained. Not just nice clean rain, but droplets loaded with fine sand. So now my beautiful paintwork is all spotty. I blame the Daily Express. They promised a heatwave and now I have spotty paint.

Ah well it ought to have another top coat anyway so I'll do that in the morning. But be warned, if it rains sand again I'm going down to Exeter to punch somebody in the nose.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Herbie on Mars?

Herbie is looking a bit like a Mars lander today, which is to say it is covered in red dust. I've been rubbing down the red paint on the starboard handrail.

There are a number of benefits of Herbie's unusual wooden handrails* but paintwork maintenance isn't one of them. They seem to need rubbing down and repainting at least once every two years. I did the port side rail a little while back but the starboard side was worse. Anyway I have now rubbed and scraped off all the flaking areas and refilled the screw holes and tomorrow I can reprime it. Hopefully by the weekend it'll be finished and I can start looking at other areas that need touching up.

This evening we went to the quiz at the Wheatsheaf in Crick. Good quiz, good beer and only a fiver for a decent meal. As there were only the two of us against teams of mostly six, we were pleased not to come last especially as one of the rounds was recognising rock bands from the names of their members. Had they been sixties bands I would have been OK but anything after 1980 I have trouble with. Still we were pleased to spot One Direction due to our little Grace being a fan and all. I got Coldplay too but missed out on U2 as they gave the members' real names rather than their stage names.

Over in the canal just a few yard from Herbie we were surprised to see the dredgers still working there. This time they seem to be scooping up small amounts of mud and depositing them back in the water against the bank. Further along I see a lighter full of those coir matting sausages so I'm guessing it's all part of a bank reinforcement exercise.


* They never get too hot or too cold to handle.