Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Unknown known and off to another unknown?

I could try to quote Donald Rumsfeld here about known unknowns and all that, but I'd only get confused.  Anyway thanks to those who let me know the name (previously unknown by me) of the very nice man we gave the Herbie Special Award to.  It's Frank Jordan - volunteer lockie at Abindgon and as cheery and helpful old feller as you'd wish to meet. So now the unknown is known.

So there's another decade gone, and we're still here, but in all likelihood we'll be somewhere else next summer because we've decided we need a change of scene for Herbie and enquiries are being made at far off marinas to see if they'll put up with us at a price we're prepared to afford.  I won't say where just yet in case it doesn't work out but let's just say that we're hoping to head further north where the beer is cheaper and where the canals offer us fresh experiences.  Our main regret, and it is not a small one,  will be moving away from good friends down the Oxford and missing one or two of our favourite  places like these. 

We must be mad to move away from these places, but there'll be new ones we hope. We'll try and fit some of them in one last time before we go.  Aah well, you can't have everything.  Maybe we'll come back in a year or two.

Talking of beer, as I write I'm only hours away from Dry January (with a one day exception for my birthday).  I have been known to go for Dry February - a smart move as it has less days,  - but after a less than abstemious Christmas I need to get some weight off pronto and give the old liver a rest, so January it is.  I suppose I might have the odd alcohol free beer or cider if I get desperate.

Anyhow, while I still have a glass in my hand, I'll raise it to my lovely readers and wish you all a very Happy and preposterous New Year.


Friday, December 27, 2019

Herbie Special Award to "unknown" gent

Three things to talk about today -well four if you count apologising for not posting on Boxing Day as promised - too busy entertaining the family . Actually I just thought of another thing - this is getting like the Spanish Inquisition.

First thanks for Christmas wishes received from loyal readers.

Secondly I'm feeling really chuffed to discover that two readers have used my Best Gadget Award winner ( the pond gloves) as presents for their loved ones.  Does that make me an influencer? I guess it does.

Thirdly I thought I'd share this picture of a family member staying with us over Christmas for the first time.

It's our Peter's rescue cat Bella, who despite having been oiked out of home and driven 90 miles to a strange house for Christmas has been a model guest.  Those presents aren't all hers.

Oh you'll never guess what Peter gave me for Christmas - a ZX Spectrum.  Deep nostalgic joy.  Not only was it fun all those years ago, learning coding on it had a genuine influence on my subsequent 10 or more years working in IT albeit in project management and strategy roles.

Finally that Award.  Well we were having a hard time picking a deserving person this year then we remembered a delightful elderly gentleman who volunteers at Abingdon Lock.  He has a twinkle in his eye and manages to say something nice to everyone who passes through, as well as being full of advice on the town.  I would think he brightens many a person's day on a regular basis.  Sadly I don't know his name, but I'm pretty sure George and Carol on Still Rockin' do , because they are fans of him too so maybe they'll help us out.


  The Herbie Special Award 2019
goes to 
the cheery volunteer lockie at Abingdon 
for Brightening Boater's Days.

If we get his name I'll publish it, and if any readers pass through his lock then please let him know of his new found fame and our gratitude.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Herbie Awards resume - nervous moments

Well that was a longer than planned intermission.  Now you're probably all drunk from spending too long in the bar.  I console myself with the thought that while I've been too busy rounding up the family, like sheep from the hills, for the festivities, you've probably been to busy to read blogs like mine, so we're all square.

Now, last time I promised to look at an award for Most Nervous Boating Moment of 2019.  To be frank, you don't get a lot of nervous moments on the canal, such is the gentle pace of life and the relatively shallow and narrow waters.  Sometimes the most nerve wracking moments are to do with getting to the next pub before it closes, or "will there be room to moor at Aynho?" - stuff like that.  On the river of course it's a different matter.  Take, for instance our arrival at the meadows above Eynsham in October.

We were following another boat which we had met in the lock and were both looking to tie up as close to the village as we could without needing to pay for the privilege. "Just after the picket fence" the lock keeper had advised, so as soon as we saw a gap for two boats we went for it.  Stopping was easy because the river had a decent flow on it and we were facing upstream.  Sadly we found the reason why the gap was vacant - it was too shallow to get in properly, but we could get close enough for a gangplank, so,  centre rope in hand, I did my impression of Greg Rutherford on a short run up and leapt safely ashore and started to pull us in as close as possible.  That was when I realised that the river current was rather stronger than it looked as it caught Herbie's bow and tried to turn her downstream.  I deployed the old, but probably foolhardy, trick of passing the rope round my back and attempting to walk backwards.  As it turned out Old Father Thames was a bit stronger than I was and instead of walking backwards I was being dragged towards the river..My choices, as I saw them were towfold, either let go of the boat and let it sail off down stream on its own or get dragged in and sail off with it.  Nervous moment?  Just a bit.  Not wishing to adopt either choice I somehow found an extra ounce of strength as Kath threw a mooring stake and a lump hammer at me and by some miracle I managed to nail us to the bank.  Here we are once moored up and looking deceptively safe.

Now I hesitate to mention our other nervous moments because they concern being stranded by rising waters on the Thames, and seeing how some boaters like the lovely Sue  at the moment are surrounded by floods, our experience was of a much lower order.

Nevertheless the fact remains that on our last morning on the Thames we could sense that the river was rising fast as we made the very short dash from East Street to the Sheepwash channel in Oxford.  The river squeezes between narrow banks just there and forward progress was hard to make. Minutes after we got back to the safety of the canal, we checked the Thames website to see that red boards were going up all round. It's entirely possible that if we had left an hour or two later we might have been unable to move upstream and been stranded for days or even weeks.  As it was we were still held up by rising waters on the Cherwell, but only for 24 hours.

So I guess the Award should really go to Old Father Thames for staying so powerful in his old age.  respect to you sir.

As all both my regular readers know it is customary at Christmas to present the Herbie Special Award to a person or persons who have done something admirable over the year.  This year we have a mind to give it to someone we only met very briefly, but later discovered the joy he brings to other boaters as he did to us in our brief encounter.  Maybe it should be a Brief Encounter Award.

I'll spill the beans on Boxing day - you can put them in the bubble and squeak.

In the meantime Kath and I wish you a very happy Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Herbie Awards gaffes -- plus two winners

I'm losing the plot.  All this getting ready for Christmas stuff must be getting to me.  In my last post I appear to have given fake news or 'alternative facts' as they call them in the White House.  Yesterday in Waitrose (there's posh) I surveyed the low alcohol beers and realised that my mention of Clausthaler last time was not the beer I was thinking of. It should have been Franziskaner Weissbier shown here on our camping table one dark canalside evening. See how cloudy the (0.5%) beer is compared with Kath's Ghost Ship in the other glass.

So I expect to be impeached any time.  Anyhow I'm giving it a strong second place against the remarkable Low Alcohol Beer winner which is:

Shipyard Low Tide.

And so to my other cock-up of the week.  I belatedly remembered something I could have included in the Best Boating Gadget category, so because it was a quick impromptu lash up in the rain, but it did a great job. I'm calling it Best Bodge Up.

We all have times when normal pipe fenders or rope fenders aren't fat enough to protect the boat against an awkwardly shaped bank.  On this occasion it was at Wallingford against very high steel piling where the deep indentations in the piling profile made a normal fender useless.  In the string current the boat was banging about alarmingly.  I had one go -kart tyre which I used at the bow end, but nothing for the back end , so in a rare fit of presence of mind I quickly knocked up this:

I hardly need to give assembly instructions do I?  A picture is worth a thousand words.  And did it work?  Yes it did the job brilliantly so earning it it's own special Herbie Award.

Next time we'll have nominations for Most Nervous Boating Moments of 2019.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Herbie Awards continue - Country moorings and low alcohol beer.

Yesterdays nominations of Away From It All Moorings drew a couple of comments, one in favour of each, so here's our casting vote.  I think it has to go to
Kirtlington Quarry

 for the solitude, the wild flowers, the walks and the views.  You can even find fossils in the quarry walls and stuff like this lump of quartz I picked up.

For those who don't know where this place is, it's on the South Oxford canal about a mile and three quarters north of Enslow, or a few minutes north of Pigeons Lock. If you don't have a boat, it's even worth a visit by road, just outside Kirtlington village plus short walk.

Now onto something possibly hitherto unimaginable.

I'm no Oliver Reed, but I confess I have downed a few pints in my time and in my twenties I must have been drinking at least double what they recommend as a limit these days.  Now in my dotage I find that my digestion can't take that sort of punishment, so although I still like a pint of beer of cider or a glass of wine on the boat or the towpath in the evening, I'm always conscious of alcohol content.  This year I thought I'd try out a few of the growing number of very low alcohol or even alcohol free drinks. Which leads me to today's Herbie Awards category.

For those who have yet to sample some of these drinks, let me start by saying that quite a few of them are deeply disappointing.  Wines are the worst, I only found one that was remotely palatable which was Eisberg Cabernet which you can get from Tesco.  So the old low alcohol vino won't be getting any prizes this year.

Conversely virtually all the low alcohol ciders out there are quite nice, providing you don't mind them a tad on the sweet side.  Sainsburys do a good own label one and the Stowford Press one is fine too.

Beer of course is a much more complex drink and that's where the big disparities are between products.  I started by trying Brewdog Nanny State.  They're a good brewery usually so I was disappointed when I tasted this stuff.  I bought four cans some months ago and two of them are still in the fridge - not many beers survive there for very long I can tell you.  Maybe there is a clue in the name Nanny State which implies that their heart is not in it.

So onto the rather better stuff that I discovered.

Wheat beers seem to do OK without alcohol.  The one I am happy to buy is Clausthaler which most supermarkets sell.  Not everybody likes the slight sourness of wheat beers, but if you do, Clausthaler is quite enjoyable.  There's still a hole where the alcohol should be, but it's a small one.  I continue to buy it.

Beer drinkers probably know Speckled Hen by Morland, and that has a low alcohol version which is tolerable, although far short of the real thing.

A past Herbie Award winner, Adnam's Ghost Ship also has a low alcohol version which is drinkable but not exactly enjoyable.

One of our favourite beers in a bottle is Shipyard brewed by Marstons, and that now has a low alcohol version called Shipyard Low Tide, and that is very hoppy in the new world style and I continue to buy it.

Another good one is Infinite Session Pale.  This comes in cans and is in the same mould as the Shipyard one as regards style.  Sadly it's hard to find.  Supermarkets tend to stock Infinite Session IPA which is ok but I don't think is as good.

So there you are, if you want to join me in cutting down the old Units of Alcohol and telling less porky pies at the doctors, try some of these.  One of them will get a Herbie Award in the next post.  I can't decide right now.  You can send in your vote if you like.

After that we can have a look at Bodge Up of the Year. 

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Herbie Awards - Best pub grub announced

Can a pub survive without doing food these days?  Possibly not, or at least very few do, and many of us boaters head for the pub as much for food as drink, so good tips on where to eat are always welcome but let's face it at the prices they have to charge it's often not cheap.  Yesterdays nominations of The Isis Farmhouse, The Dolphin and the Nag's Head all satisfied us this year, but for a combination of delicious hone made food at at bargain price the winner of

The Herbie Best Pub Grub Award 2019
has to be

The Dolphin in Wallingford

£7.95 for a tasty proper pie and lovely buttery mashed spuds
What's not to like - well done them. (Their beer was good too.)

And now for something completely different.  Nobody but yourself to cook up a meal at the 

Best Away From It All Mooring

There you are, out in the countryside, away from roads and buildings.  With luck it's sunny and you can sit outside the boat , maybe have a barbecue or a picnic then go for a stroll.Why not stay for a couple of days and just unwind.  Lovely.  This year we have two contenders for the prize.

Our first nominee is only an hour's cruise from our marina at Cropredy.  We go up four locks, wind round a couple of bends and tie up on the long straight that leads to Claydon Bottom lock.  

Here the towpath is wide and grassy, the hedgerow is full of all sorts of plants and the only sound you hear is maybe a tractor working in the nearby farm.  At the far end away from the lock, the towpath hedgerow has a nice gap to let in the sunlight and gives a view over a farm pond. The occasional walker comes past and stops for a natter, and all is well with the world.  We use this place for a short break.There may well be other boats around, but there is plenty of room for everyone.

Even more remote, but sadly taking a few days to reach from our marina is the wonderful Kirtlington Quarry moorings - this time not on the towpath side.

Here you can tie up to a tree and enjoy a spacious clearing at the edge of the woodland.  After you've relaxed for a while  a flight of steps twenty yards away entices you up the hill

and in barely five minutes you can be here:

overlooking the long abandoned quarry floor, now a grassy clearing beloved by the local rabbits and sprinkled with chalkland plants including some pretty orchids.

Two quite different Away From It All moorings but both fabulous places to unwind.

Winner announce tomorrow together with a new Award category that may well shock some of our regular readers - Best Low Alcohol Beers and Ciders

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Herbie Awards -Best Gadget winner plus pub grub nominations

Oh how to pick a winner from yesterday's Best Gadget nominations?  In the end I asked myself "Which one would you most regret not having when you needed it?"  That settled it.  I've lived without the steerer's seat for years, The Go- windlass is very good and there would be times when I wished I had it, but the Pond Glove makes such a difference to what can be a horrible job that I wouldn't be without it. so
The Herbie Award for Best Boaters Gadget 
goes to 
The Pond Glove.

And now on to our third award for 2019 - Best Pub Grub, something dear to the hearts of many of us.  I don't think we've eaten out quite so much this year, but a few places spring to mind.

1. What would you like to eat on a scorching hot day?  We sat in the garden outside the Isis Farmhouse (near Iffley lock on the Thames) on just such a day and I chose a salad comprising of lettuce, olives, chunks of watermelon and feta cheese.  I can't remember if it came with some chunky bread, but it might have done.  Anyhow it was a prime example of how simple food can be delicious.  Quite a few people have remarked that they don't like this pub a whole lot because it's gloomy inside, but in the garden by the river that day it was just the ticket.  So that's our first nomination.

2. Also on our Thames trip we wandered into Wallingford in search of a meal.  As I recall, there wasn't much open and we were just looking for something cheap and cheerful.  Having looked at Trip Adviser we found a couple of what looked like expensive places, plus good reports of pub grub at low prices at The Dolphin Pub.  The staff in there were very friendly and we soon felt at home.  They do pies for £7.95 with lovely buttery mashed spuds (and peas?).  I always ask about pies because I dislike those bowls of stew with a puff pastry lid masquerading as pies. No, we were assured these were proper home made pies with shortcrust pastry all round, so all three of us went for it, each having a different variety.  Well I'm pleased to report that they were really very good indeed - nice pastry and lots of filling plus that lovely mash and plenty of gravy.  A bargain.  Good pub, good beer, good food.  Highly recommended.

3. Our third nomination is also food at a Thames pub.  I know Still Rockin' George will approve because he rates it highly.  We ate at the splendidly positioned Nag's Head which sits on an island mid river half way across Abingdon Bridge.  George raves about their fish and chips and they are good.  On our second visit I had a tomahawk pork chop which was huge and well dressed.  I can't remember what Kath and Jacob had, but they were impressed.  A meal there is going to cost you at least double what it would at the Dolphin but you wouldn't feel overcharged for the quality and quantity you get.

So three Thames pubs for a change, but all very different.  Results in my next post, plus some nominations for Away from it All moorings.

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.