Saturday, March 31, 2018

How not to build a narrowboat roof box – part one

Way back in the last century when mars bars were fourpence,  I was a pupil at Prince Henry’s Grammar School, Evesham.  It was a very good school and quite academic, so although I was fairly bright  I spend most years in the middle  B stream.  The kids in the A stream were all bound for Oxbridge and the like.  I ended up scraping my degree at the less distinguished  Portsmouth Polytechnic.  Nevertheless in that grammar school B stream I held my own pretty well and kept clear of the bottom of the class in all subjects bar one – woodwork.  (Aah, now you see where this is going.)  At woodwork (and football now I come to think of it) I was exceptionally un-gifted.  My teapot stand, perhaps the only thing I ever finished, didn’t get a lot of use at home as the tea poured out of the teapot spout all by itself  because of the slope of the stand. My annual place at the bottom of the carpentry class was, i suspect, regarded as a given by my unfortunate teacher. Nevertheless, in my old age I have managed to cobble together a few wooden structures which have found their place aboard Herbie.  While none bear close scrutiny, they function in an endearingly crude fashion.

So now as I embark upon my mark II roof box, I thought it might be useful to reveal my construction techniques and their shortcomings in order that others may avoid them.  Here are the findings thus far.

The roof box is a simple rectangular frame consisting of four planks arranged in a rectangle and screwed and glued to square section corner posts which also act as legs to lift the box clear of the roof.  The floor of the box I will come on to in a later episode.

So to these planks.  Roof box mark one which did a reasonable 7 years service was made with plywood which eventually began to delaminate, so this time I’m having a go with tongue and groove floorboard which will probably rot but not delaminate.   In order to get the correct box height (low enough to get under bridges but high enough to store stuff), the planks have to be one and two thirds floorboard width.  So half the planks have to have their width reduced by a third. Sawing across the ends of the board by hand to get the right length I don’t mind, but for ripping along the length I resorted to my terrifying electric circular saw.  Here’s where i come to my first bit of ‘how not to’ advice.

Tip 1:

When working indoors with a circular saw, you can achieve pleasant decorative effects in your workshop by failing to connect any sort of sawdust gathering device to your saw.  As well as revealing any cobwebs there might be, your workbench and surroundings will take on a charming snow scene type effect and you will be surprised at how cleverly the dust finds its way into he smallest nooks and crannies.  Should you wish to find any tools later on, please allow approximately twenty times the amount of time actually spend sawing, to hoovering up afterwards.

Tip 2:

Once your planks are sawn to size,  on the ‘inside’ faces of the box, carefully mark out the fixing point for the corner legs and drill pilot holes for the screws then paint primer over that side, leaving a gap where the legs will be so that the glue will work directly on the wood.  After you have done this you can check whether you have the plank the right way up so that the T&G groove is at the lower edge ( so as not to collect rain) – the same as the box feet. I found it prolongs the fun of marking out as you turn the plank the proper way up and do the marking all over again. Only then can you turn over the plank to check if there are any large knot holes or other disfigurements  on the other face which would marr the appearance of the outside of the box.  The advantage of this method is that you have yet another go at everything as you re-measure and re-mark the face you should have used in the first place.  By now you should be good at marking up.

Tip 3:

Applying primer paint.  I like to paint fast (keep a wet edge and all that.) Load the brush generously and splish splosh vigorously on the wood.  Work fast – dip, splish splosh, dip, splish splosh. It soon becomes automatic, and if you have carefully placed your cup of tea next to the paint tin, you may find some dips come out an interesting brownish colour.  Drinking the tea afterwards is optional.

Well that’s as far as I have got.  Stay tuned for more handy hints on how not to make a roof box.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Deep joy! On Saturday night we decided to disconnect ourselves ( well Herbie really) from the marina's shore power and test out what our the new solar panel arrangement could do for us.

In the dark overnight, the batteries fell from 100% full to 89% in the morning. That's rather less fall than usual with the fridge running and our use of lights, radio etc. Also the Eberspacher ran for an hour in that time. So the early morning light must have done its bit before we rose and checked the readings. That's when we started to get excited. The fridge was running, we were charging various ipads and phones and the inverter was on running my electric sander and the battery levels were rising! Never done that before.

By the end of the day the batteries were back at 99%. So in spite of our use of various electrical bits we had charged the batteries back up. Profit! With our original panel the best we were able to do was hold the batteries steady during daylight. It looks like in the summer months we ought to be able to dispense with engine running altogether given fair weather and an open location. It's safe to say we are delighted.

The old roof box has been duly demolished and the wood for the new one bought and cut to length at home, so tomorrow I hope to start building it. I've got a new plan for construction this time and I'll try to remember to do some pictures so you can see. Then when it all falls to bits you'll know how not to do it.

Tonight I am mostly listening to a CD by Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman, rather easier to listen to than pronounce. It used to be fun seeing them in folk clubs and hearing the compere's attempts at introducing Maire. Anyway, they are blisteringly good. I'm a bit shocked to see the CD dates from 1995. Where did all those years go?

Monday, March 26, 2018

In with the new and out with the old.

Wahoo! Mid morning, low-ish March sun and were still making nearly seven amps thanks to Herbie's newly augmented solar array. At one time yesterday afternoon we were making 11 amps. I'm very pleased with the new all black Midsummer Energy 120w panel which is very compact.

Here we see the new and the old panels together on the roof. They're connected in parallel.

My newly made stands appear to do the job too.

This is the first time I have had to use MC4 connectors for the cabling and I am already a fan of them. They're very easy to attach and look as though they'll make a good waterproof connection. If you're contemplating a solar job using them do get the little plastic tightening spanners, only a pound or so and really effective.

I have yet to fix the frame feet in their permanent position. I'm going to glue them down with Sikaflex which people seem to recommend.

Later today comes a rather more poignant task, dismantling the roof box, which has come to the end of its days. It looks OK but the wood is rotting through, so I'll have to make another one.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Canal pub landlord foils Russian spy ring

With all the hoo hah going on about Russian spies, it was purely by coincidence that yesterday I came across this story whilst idly skimming through stuff at The National Archives.  Kath sits there digging up old ancestors and I potter about amongst old previously secret cabinet papers for a laugh.  The story concerns a one time landlord of the Dolphin pub that many of you will know sits by the canal in Uxbridge (although if you are a watcher of "Lewis" on telly, you could be forgiven for thinking the pub was in Oxford, because they use it in their Oxford canal scenes.)

In 1927 the new Dolphin landlord was Edward Langston, a disgruntled ex employee of ARCOS the All-Russian Co-operative Society Ltd, ostensibly a trading organisation operating in Moorgate, London.  Edward had been recently sacked from his photostat operator job at ARCOS in one of the organisation's periodic "Loyalty Test" purges despite his good employment record there.  That turned out to be a big mistake on ARCOS's part because while he was there, a senior staff member had asked Edward to make a copy of a British Army training manual.  Thinking it improper that the Russians should have stuff like this, Edward had kept a second copy for himself as evidence and after he was sacked he took his revenge by reporting the incident to British intelligence. This was just the sort of evidence Special Branch needed to get the Home Secretary to authorise a raid on ARCOS (about which they had deep suspicions) and in May of that year, 200 police officers together with teams of civil servants and intelligent agents broke into the building and spent five days turning the place over for further evidence, removing several lorry loads of papers and setting about several heavily defended safes and rooms with pneumatic drills.

The eventual upshot was not ideal.  Despite not much of import being found, the UK severed all diplomatic relations with Russia and expelled 400  Soviet citizens. The whole episode became a major topic of debate and set the frosty tone of Anglo Russian relations for many years.  The Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in justifying the actions to parliament foolishly read out Russian communications that had been intercepted and decoded by our boys, thus causing the Russians to adopt a much more indecipherable code which were subsequently unable to crack.  Doh!

As to Edward Langston, he spent his life in fear of Russian reprisal and wrote to MI5 asking them for a pistol to defend himself.  one source says that the Russians did track him down, but I don't know if they ever did anything to him.  Mr Google has some links to all this stuff if you want to read more.  I leave you to decide if this story has a moral or not, but you have to admit that it is sort of topical.

Interestingly, the Dolphin's website makes no mention of this claim to fame, preferring to mention its four plasma TV screens although it does say "All parties catered for".  UKIP?  Monster Raving Looney?

Saturday, March 17, 2018


What a difference a day makes.  Yesterday we were cruising back up form Banbury to Cropredy with the warm sun on our backs and then as we settled in for the evening we switched on the wireless to hear the 5 to 6 weather forecast on the Home Service.  It didn’t sound good for our necessary journey home next day – snow over the Chilterns, so we hastily changed plans and within an hour had re-winterised the boat, packed our bags and hit the road. Still we’ve had a lovely few days afloat to break our 2018 duck and Herbie seems in fine fettle so that’s good.

Since we’ve been stationed on the Oxford canal, I seem to have been more aware of the subtle changes in season, particularly as regards wild flowers and blossoms.  Maybe it’s because the canal largely keeps away from houses and gardens and the wildlife is allowed to do it’s own thing.  The majority of the canal passes through very old pasture land, unchanged for centuries probably like this meadow with it’s wonderful saw tooth edge where the rise and fall of ancient strip farming ridges and furrows meet the level water.


Emerging in the towpath grass yesterday we saw celandines, coltsfoot, speedwell, and by a lock paddle post a patch of teeny tiny white flowers which we later identified as probably shadflower or common whitlow grass, so small as to be easy to miss, but very pretty.  In a couple of weeks time, we’ll be seeing the blackthorn blossom I expect, and then the hawthorne and then . . and so on.

One thing that I’m pleased to say doesn’t seem to change so much is the old part of Banbury.  Yesterday as a rare treat, we strolled up to Wetherspoons for a cooked breakfast (probably the best thing ‘spoons does and it makes a change from my normal muesli and prunes – vegetarians look away now)


anyhow, next to us I noticed this photo from 1907 of Parsons Street in the town ( please excuse the reflections from the cover glass)


on the way back to the boat I took this next photo from the same spot.


Not much has changed in 110 years. Then on the other end of the old market square they’ve recently repainted this old building, faithfully reproducing the old advertising on the upper walls.  I fear there might have been an outcry had they not.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

This and that

Well we didn't come last in the Reindeer quiz last night, for the simple reason that when we got there we learned that the quiz is on Thursday, not Wednesday. Doh! Now we have to go to the Reindeer two nights running. Somehow I don't anticipate your pity.

My new MPPT solar panel controller seems to be working and I have a suspicion that it is tracking max power better than the old one, judging by the amp readings this morning. This new one is a Victron in case anyone is wondering.

A while ago we bought this nice flat bottomed enamel coffee pot with the idea of heating water on the top of the wood burner.

We've only just got round to trying it out, and while the water doesn't reach boiling point, it gets plenty hot enough for washing or washing up or filling hot water bottles. I like it a lot. Yes I know we have a calorifier and a Morco, but that's not the point. It's much more satisfying heated in this jug, a bit like making toast in front of the fire when i was a nipper. Aah those were the days.

I've been plugging on with my second blockbuster novel and we're up to 62098 words, probably including about 61000 typos. Predictive text is driving me mad because it keeps changing what I mean to say into entirely different words. I'll probably re read it and find I have written Gormenghast. Artificial intelligence has some way to go in my opinion. I have to start thinking about how the mess our hero Eric is in gets resolved. At present I don't have a clue. I hope the world is ready to tackle it when I've finished, it does have several hares running at once.

Soon I'll have to start thinking about how to spend all the money I will make from the book. With a bit of luck it might be enough to buy a new set of guitar strings although that might be a tad optimistic as the good ones (Elixir Nanos) are about £14 a set these days.( I only paid £4 for my first guitar as I recall). Well I can dream.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A soaking indoors

You know those farcical scenes where the man does something to the plumbing and a powerful jet of water shoots him in the eye, and he tries to hold his thumb over the leak and it sprays everywhere? Well that's me that is.

The little drain plug screw in our Morco water heater sheared off as I tried to remove it when we winterised the boat in November. Doing something about it has had to wait until we were back on board, ie. now. The plug has been dripping since we turned on the water and we've had to put a jug under it to catch the drips. So this afternoon, I attempted to fix it. I won't bore you with the details except to say that only a fool would remove that plug while the system was under pressure. The box of matches in the cutlery drawer will no doubt dry out eventually. Of course I didn't have the proper replacement screw to plug the hole again, but a 5mm stainless screw wrapped in PTFE tape seems to have done the trick.

I don't manage to cock up all of my diy jobs. In the last 24hrs I've installed my smart new solar panel tilting stand and replaced our old 100watt solar controller with an uprated one ready for the new second panel which lies waiting at home. It all seems to be working ok.

Tonight we renew our attempts not to come last in the Reindeer pub quiz in Banbury. The cruise down here from Cropredy was fine despite the canal being alarmingly high. At least the strong current of a couple of days ago has stopped. I guess CRT had all sorts of sluices open to dump the excess water, hence the current.

Unsurprisingly the canal is closed at Nell Bridge above Aynho because of the height of the Cherwell there. Boaters coming up from that direction have told us of ferocious currents through the narrow lift bridge holes. Luckily we don't plan to go that far.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Happy New Year

I don't think we've ever left Herbie alone for so long, but today we managed to sneak away from home while no-one was looking and come aboard for a few days. Other folk have recently posted about how scary it is to come back to your boat after all that freezing weather. Thoughts of burst pipes, broken water pumps, split calorifiers, have haunted our dreams, but as far as we can tell Herbie seems to have survived intact. I did do a perfunctory drain of the plumbing system before Christmas but unlike other years I didn't remove the water pump and the shower mixer, because we've had such mild winters recently. Doh!

Anyway here we are, starting our boating year at last. The Ecofan is spinning and we're warm and dry and enjoying our first cup of tea.

Outside it is raining tortoiseshells and whippets. I 've already stepped in a couple of poodles whilst loading the boat. The marina entrance was awash and the canal looks alarmingly high. We're hoping to tootle down to Banbury for a day or two, but like last year I'm sure that some of the top gates will be under water so I might get wet feet. We haven't seen any boats moving yet. Are we being foolhardy we wonder?

In other news, a couple of days ago I had my haircut. I went from two inches over the collar to a number 6 all over and now my hats fit again. If only I could do the same for my waist.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

An exciting (for me anyway) discovery

Well who’dathunkit!  A few days ago I tumbled across a spiffing App that has helped me to create what I think is my best yet CanalOmeter, which I will demonstrate for you further down the page..  For the non cognoscenti my canalOmeters are devices of my own invention that calculate distances and times from any points A to B along a canal.  The original low tech cardboard ones like this being held by my lovely assistant Simon Tortoise

are still handy , but they are fiddly to make and I’ve had a number of attempts to make a digital one – particularly ones which would work on a phone or a tablet.  First was  a spreadsheet version – a bit cumbersome, then one written in Python which worked very well but was unexciting in appearance and needed the Python language installed on the phone or tablet.  Now I’ve found out a way to create a user friendly Android app that does the job just the way I wanted.  Let me demonstrate with one I’ve done for the Grand Union stretching between Brentford and Braunston.  I call it GUSouth or GUS for short. Let’s imagine I am planning a trip from Fenny Stratford to Cassio Wharf

To the user it’s just an Android App like any other, it sits under an icon on your home screen or wherever and runs on native Android code.  Click the icon to launch it and and up pops this. (This is on my A5ish size Android tablet).  To save space I’ve cropped the screen shots just to show the essentials, just imagine the rest of he tablet /phone screen as blank.


Here I’ve just started typing in Fenny Stratford and got as far as ‘fen’.  That’s enough - I press OK.

Up pops this list of matching places


I choose Fenny Stratford Visitor Moorings by tapping it with my finger.  The next screen then appears


Here I’ve again started typing in the place and after three letters (could be more or less) I hit OK and get another list


I tap Cassio Wharf and up pops my result:


Job’s a goodun.  I can then choose to go round again with other places or just stop.  I timed this whole exercise from clicking the App Icon to getting my result and it took 17 seconds.  There are a couple of other advantages.  For instance if you are passing under a bridge, just tap in it’s number eg. B167 or at a lock,say L75, as your from point.  Or how about this if I just type in Pub


or I could bring up a list of water points or winding holes.

So what are the downsides?

1. It only works on one canal at a time.  It can’t plan routes through junctions like CanalPlan can

2. Accuracy of route timing is necessarily approximate.  I’ve used an average of 3.5 mph and 15 minutes per lock on this canal.  These times are always a rough guide, but experience shows that they’re near enough for journey planning.

3.  It’s still work in progress.  It seems pretty robust but I’m certain a new user could make it fall over easily enough. 

4. I can’t let you have one right now.  I’d have to put it on the Google Play Store first and I haven’t even  looked up how that is done..  Also the source of the base canal data isn’t mine. It’s extracted from CanalPlan whose creator Nick Atty has been very generous in letting me use it in the past but it’s his in essence.  I’ve just added a couple of words here and there such as “Pub” so I can produce lists like the one above.

5. It won’t run on iphone / ipad.  It’s Android only.

5. I could/ would give you my source code and let you install and compile your own, but you’d need a tiny bit of tech savvy. e.g. installing files on your phone or tablet. If you fancy a go, please ask.

So how have I done it?  Well, for me this is the exciting bit because it was remarkably easy, given a bit of coding skill.  I know virtually nothing of Android code development, but I stumbled across two apps that enabled me to put my first App together in a couple of hours. I had to write about 100 lines of   code, which as any programmer knows is not much at all.

The code is written in BASIC!.  Yes, BASIC! That exclamation mark is not for emphasis although it might as well be, as normal Basic is hardly flavour of the month among programmers these days, being thought of as pretty Mickey Mouse.  BASIC! is a version that comes as an Android App available on the Play Store and is more correctly called RFO Basic! developed by the Richard Feynman Observatory and is freely available.  I hadn’t used BASIC for years but this version is pretty damn good and as well as all the usual  number and string stuff it can use all the clever tricks of your Android device such as speech recognition, speech synthesis, camera operation, sensor reading and all that how’s yer father.  BASIC! is free on the Play Store.

Now comes the really clever bit.  There is a companion app called BASIC! Compiler, costing the princely sum of £2.99 if memory serves me right.  This just takes the BASIC! code wot you have writ and compiles it into  Java and on to an APK which is your finished Android App.  Just like that, you just press the button and off it goes.  It takes less than a minute.  Astonishingly for this type of App it seems to work first time every time.  I’m truly amazed at the wonderfulness of it.  My mind is buzzing with possibilities. Watch this space.

PS Just tried installing the finished app on my phone and it works fine. = and eagle eyed spotters will have noticed the typo in the Dolphin Pub – That’s been put right in the App now.  These things happen.