Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Wales, Ales and Olympic Flames

Our progress over the last seven days has seen us in Wales and then out of it, and then in again, such are the vagaries of the border round here. After spending a couple of days layed up in Whitchurch, we moved on again to Ellesmere, a little town of around 3,000 on the North Shropshire border.  We found a great spot on the little arm off the main canal and decided to spend a couple of days there. Why not. We aren’t in a race and there was a Tesco at the bottom of the arm - a huge plus for visiting boaters.
Last Friday evening I was taking it easy, replying to an E Mail from Suzie in Southampton, who is having a boat built by Kingfisher next year and she mentioned that Fred and Lisa were on the Llangollen. They are also having a boat built at Trent Lock, which will be finished in the autumn. I look out of the window, and there they were. How crazy is that. They had moored up by chance, gone to Tesco and walked past TCW. It was good to see them. They were hiring on the Llangollen and had stumbled upon us
But to backtrack, while we were in Whitchurch we went into Argos and purchased a shopping trolley, such the same as my mum and gran used to use, so we are now serious senior shoppers. I’m trying to persuade Pat to have a blue rinse! While in Argos we also got a couple of two-way radios. There are those on the canal system who frown at such technology, preferring a pre-arranged set of hand signals to stop, call you on and tell you a boat is coming up, but my eyesight is just not up to it anymore and I like a bit of technology, especially when I can say to Pat, “Roger, Roger”.
By the way, if you want to look at any of the pix below, just double click on them.
Searching for what was causing the tiller to wobble.
A pair of pyjama bottoms wrapped around the prop.

Pat models our new Shopping Trolley

From Ellesmere we meandered down to Chirk and then early Sunday morning we went over the Chirk aquaduct, through the tunnel and then over the famous Pontcysylte Aqueduct. I don’t know how many articles I have read about this wonder of the waterways, but to me it was quite a surreal experience , floating in a long bath tub up in the clouds. I kept very much over to the towpath side though. I had no desire or inclination to look over the edge at the sheer drop of 200 feet into the Dee Valley. Pat walked across and took a few pictures of me emerging on the other side at Trevor basin.
The Cat's Whiskers makes it across. Phewwww.

Floating 200ft above the Dee Valley

Then we had the crawl through the narrows to Llangollen and the crazies were out in droves. Most of the day boats coming out of Llangollen were laden down with alcohol and revellers taking advantage of the fantastic weather, but they treated the event more like being at a fair, using these craft as bumper cars rather than boats, and thought nothing about careering into anything moored or moving and laughing it off. One chap went between me and a moored boat and got himself jammed in and then threw his hands up as if it wasn’t his fault. I wonder if they had just spent nearly £90,000 on a new car whether they would be so cavalier.

We had received a lot of advice about Llangollen and we found the radios very useful in the narrow sections as Pat raced ahead on the towpath and kept me up to date with the hire boats heading my way and which ones had Lewis Hamilton at the tiller. We eventually moored in the basin above the town in a very attractive location.
On Monday we caught the bus into Wrexham, about 30 minutes away. I bought some new sandals and as we keep breaking wine glasses and tumblers we topped them up as well. Interesting pint of some local Dragon beer at 6 per cent in the Wetherspoons there. Must say I have been a bit disappointed in the beer in the pubs around here though the Slaters was OK last night in the “Corn Mill”, down on the River Dee below us. The beer in The Telford Arms at Trevor, “Waggledance”, was very average.
Narrowboat Saturn arrives with the torch
We are supposed to be taking it easy, but yesterday morning we were up at 6am and away from the marina at 6.30am. The aqueduct shuts on Wednesday morning for the Olympic torch to make its way over and it seemed sensible to be on the other side before that, hence the leaving time  to get a decent mooring. We have moored up just 200 metres from the aqueduct, but within an hour it had filled up and now there is a long line of boats moored in the sunshine, while locals are cutting grass and putting up hundreds of Welsh flags. I think the plan is to walk over to the other side early tomorrow morning before they shut the aqueduct at 8am. An old historic boat “Saturn” is being used as the torch bearer. We saw it moored in Llangollen.
The flame arrives on the opposite towpath

Olympic flame-resistant sunglasses at the ready

And it was worth hanging around for. We were up at 7am and walked over the aqueduct and joined a couple of thousand boaters, locals, school children and guests and got a really good view of the flame aboard the boat – see pix. I am not a huge fan of the Olympics, but as everybody says, it is a once in a lifetime memory, and I am glad we made the effort to embrace it.  We set off and a couple of miles down the cut we passed “The Poachers Pocket” and the girl who ran that leg, was standing by the towpath, posing for pix. Pat took a quick pic but cut her head off so I have not included it. Then it was a record day’s mileage so far, 14 1/2 miles back to Ellesmere for the night, arriving around 6pm and eagerly tuning in to BBC Wales to see if we made it on TV.
Now we backtrack to the Shropshire Union and pop up to Chester for a couple of days.  Then we start our descent to the south of the network through June and July.
Keep in touch.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Westward Ho!

Westward Ho
At long last the weather has picked up a bit and we have had a few days of rain-free cruising. What a difference. I even had my jacket off yesterday and was cruising with only three layers on, so summer is definitely here at last.
Last weekend we had our first overnight guests stay. An old school pal of mine, Vic and his first mate Liz, live a few miles from the canal, and were keen to be our guinea pigs for the weekend. I am not sure who enjoyed the experience more, them or us. We met them in Middlewich and trundled down that part of the Shropshire Union before joining the main line and turning right on the Llangollen. Having two pairs of extra hands meant we made good progress, though this is not an area that is as heavily locked as that from Kidsgrove to Wheelock  - “Heartbreak Hill” – the 26 locks that we did on Thursday and Friday. Pat slept well on those nights.

Traffic jam at the Swanley flight on the Llangollen
Anyway we completed nearly 20 miles over the weekend, at a fairly leisurely pace. I knew the Llangollen would be busy, but on Sunday morning we experienced our first traffic jam when we got in line behind four boats all waiting to go up the Swanley flight. My pal Jan from narrowboat Jandai told me to watch out for the bywash on entering the locks on the Llangollen and she was not joking. It took me three locks to get the hang of it, and a couple of bumps, but I’m cool with it now. Not much phases me now. I am feeling a lot more confident with my boat handling in general, which is just as well as I am finding this is a very busy waterway.
The Cat's Whiskers first overnight guests, Vic & Liz

We moored up Sunday lunchtime in bright Shropshire sunshine in Wrenbury and had lunch in “The Dusty Miller” -  another Jan recommendation, that a pub  that Vic and Liz also knew well, and they treated us to a very substantial roast. They then packed up their stuff and walked down to the railway station for a train and bus ride home, but we will see them again on the way back, I am sure. Vic is now talking about getting a small boat, so it looks like he has got the bug as well.  Wrenbury is not much more than a village, and it is the first place we have found ourselves with no phone signal , no internet signal and no TV signal.

Pat stops the rush-hour traffic at Wrenbury. A bike, a tractor and two dogs
The day after we crept further towards the Welsh Border on to Whitchurch in Shropshire where we are having two days off from cruising to enjoy the sunshine and take it easy for a bit. Huge queues on the staircase flight at Grindley (three hours hanging around) but so what – we have nothing else to do. We are currently moored in a little cut that originally went into Whitchurch, but which now ends a mile from the town centre. Whitchurch is an attractive little town, with a lot of good pubs. Still having a few problems with our washing machine so doing our towels and bedlinen at local launderettes as we move around so this afternoon in between polishing the boat, we visited said establishment and also Tesco.

Pat's getting the hang of the tiller
Going to have another day here tomorrow and set off for Ellesmere on Thursday. Want to try to get to Llangollen  by Sunday. Surprisingly we are informed that it’s quiet there over weekends. And next Tuesday the Olympic flame comes that way and is going over the Ponteysylite Aquaduct the wonder of the Waterways, hand-hauled on a heritage boat, so we might hang around to watch it go over,  before we head back and to Chester.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Poodling Through The Potteries

Hello again dear friends. My weekly blog finds us now deep in Staffordshire and we now are heading North-west after travelling due west for most of last week.
The weather has been cold, depressing, wet and windy, with very short windows of sun, though last weekend wasn’t too bad. I don’t mind the cold and wet (I spent long enough experiencing those sort of conditions on a motorbike for years) but the wind is a different matter altogether. We were literally slammed across the cut and on to the opposite bank last Friday when we hit a freak hailstorm near Stone and there was nothing much I could do about it. I guess anything 60ft long that meets a gust sideways on is going to move on its own accord, even if it weighs four tons.
We are now zooming along at an average of 2mph and travelled some 65 miles since we left Trent Lock just over a week ago. I think if we can do around 30-50 miles a week, that will give us a couple of rest days in the week and we will be in Llangollen in around two weeks, at about the same time as the bank holiday which is our aim. We need to be fairly near a railway station over that weekend as we want to spend a day at Crick in Northants at the annual boat show on the holiday Tuesday, so I guess we will have to get a cab to Ruabon or Wrexham.  Then we head south and will take a leisurely cruise south  to the Thames where we hope to be in mid-August.
We arranged to meet an old CAMRA buddy and his wife in Stoke on Sunday where we were planning to moor. Paul and Carolyn are big Stoke City fans and we passed the Britannia Stadium as the fans were coming out at 4.45pm at the last game of this season, but finding a mooring in the city was impossible and a lot of the towpath was, quite frankly, very uninviting, so we pushed on to Festival Park to the north of the city, and had a quiet pastoral mooring there, close to the marina and the essentials, such as B&Q and Halfords! Had a good drink with them both that evening. Good to catch up after a long time.
Earlier in the day, we popped into the Wedgwood Visitor Centre, which is minutes from the canal to the south of the city. Pat was keen to visit as she has three generations of her family who worked at Wedgwood in the late 18th and early nineteenth century. It’s a good tour and I am glad we decided to do it. Paul told us though, that Wedgwood has financial problems with their pension fund so watch this space.

Pat and Josiah Wedgwood. "Hey Jo, know any of my relations?"
Our meanderings also took us through Rugeley, which Pat insists shouldn’t be pronounced with an “oo” in it, as there is no “ou”. She was further non-plussed when she asked for some butter in a grocers and was offered “batter”. Should have asked for “boooter”. We live and learn.
The boat is behaving itself and I have been busy putting additional war wounds on her, mainly, I am glad to say in and around the water line which I am not too bothered about. The locks are quite narrow on this stretch and some of the approaches are at oblique angles, so a few scrapes are to be expected. We had a day in Stone on Saturday. It has always been one of my favourite canal towns and, for a change, we had a warm, sunny day there. After the previous day’s activities, Pat wanted a rest and we took the opportunity of giving the boat its first proper clean outside. I waxed one side and will do the other when we are moored the other way round. It was also a chance to return to The Swan. What a great pub this is, and I could have stayed all evening. Great beers in excellent condition and a very convivial atmosphere.

Pat fills up in Stone
As we left Stone, and were passing the old “Joules” brewery building, I started looking out for a local boatbuilder I had heard of. Evidently this gentleman is masquerading as my stunt double and goes by the name “Roger Fuller”. Damn cheek. As we passed his place I whipped my camera out to find the batteries had gone flat but the picture here is of the boat moored there, with said gentlemen looking suitably snug. If you are reading this Roger, hello.

What a change. A sunny morning chugging through Stone

Roger Fuller, Boatbuilder (No Relation)
I finally got Pat on the tiller at the weekend and she steered the boat very well for a mile or so. I would not be at all surprised if, after a while, she became very good at it, then we can share the locking duties.
This morning we experienced the Harecastle Tunnel, which took us around 40 minutes to get through. I think its a mile and a quarter long. I’ve been through a number of tunnels as a passenger, but never steered through a long tunnel such as Harecastle so I was a little nervous and all was well, and we are now moored in Kidsgrove. It is literally lashing it down outside and we have had more hail today to contend with. But we are cosy. Pat has lit the stove so it’s nice and warm. Tonight we are trying out a Balti house, that everyone raves about in these parts called Rozeys. Cheap as chips and bring your own alcohol, but evidently the food is superb. We are not great Indian food lovers but it seems rude not to give it a go.

The southern entrance to Harecastle Tunnel. Nobody here but us, though a boat had just gone in.
One of the best things I did was to bring my fold-up Brompton bike with us. It has been invaluable both to get essentials from the supermarkets, my daily paper and to relieve pressure on my left foot, which is still playing me up. Anyway, I am seeing a Physio on Thursday, here  in Kidsgrove. Then we have to pleasures of “Heartbreak Hill”, a succession of locks as we descend towards Middlewitch and Nantwich, where we hope to meet up with old pal Vic for a few days. The forecast for the next few days is rain, rain and more rain, interspersed with... more rain! Want to see my webbed feet?

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Away......At Last!

It’s taken us three weeks of waiting, but we are now deeply cocooned within the canal system and enjoying every minute of it. The boat is behaving itself, apart from a little leak under the kitchen sink, that I will look at tomorroww, and we have make fairly good progress. We are currently moored in Alrewas, pronounced “Olrewus” in Staffs. I think we have travelled around 25 miles. See picture of our mooring. And I can report that the sun is shining, the birds are singing and I have the side doors wide open. Earlier though it was quite windy and I a few issues with the wind catching the boat sideways on, but a good day’s cruising up from Burton.
Our mooring at Alrewas, TCW is on the right

The First Mate in action
We spend much of Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday by  Horniglow Basin in Burton-On-Trent. My CAMRA buddies will not be surprised to learn that I insisted on stopping there. Burton in the home of British brewing and the Bass Museum, which closed when it was taken over a dozen years ago by Molson/Coors,  re-opened as the National Brewery Centre a couple of years back and was only a short walk away from our mooring. It was a good tour and well worth the £8 entry fee.
But before we left Trent Lock we had some more visitors. Susie and Rob were up from Southampton.  They are the customers after next, who are having their boat built by Kingfisher. I met them the weekend I moved onto TCW, and we had a very pleasant couple of hours this time, as they explained the cutting edge boat they are planning. Another prospective member of the Kingfisher Owners Club methinks.
While we were hanging around we booked our winter round-the-world tickets at TrailFinders in Nottingham. Our adventures take us first to Thailand at the beginning of November, and then on to Brisbane, Melbourne and then a week in Tasmania, before we move on to New Zealand and spend Christmas with our daughter Erica and her family. We have a number of pals and family scattered around Australia and NZ and it’s been 10 years since we saw them all. At the beginning of February we are meeting Pat’s sister Mo and her husband Garry in Maui in Hawaii for a week or so and then we are flying to Los Angles and driving across country through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, flying back mid March. Kingfisher are looking after TCW while we are away and I am pleased about that, even though it means a journey north from the Kennet and Avon where we will be in September.
Another reason to visit Burton was that I was hopeful of a private consultation with a Physio to look at my left foot. It’s been aching on and off for over 6 weeks now and my pal Geraldine in Finchley has recommended me a couple of practitioners on our route westwards that could give me some guidance as to its cause and treatment. Unfortunately the first time the local lady could see me was this Thursday, and we need to be pressing on a bit, so I have made another appointment with another physio who specialises in this sort of injury a few mile north of Stoke On Trent and I have made that for next Thursday, so we have plenty of time to get there.
Our neighbour at Burton was a white goat who sat on a little rocky platform and bleated at boats as they went past.

Our neighbour at Burton-On-Trent
We have booked a temporary mooring at a marina in Newbury in Berks for the first two weeks in September, so if you haven’t been able to join us by then, we would love to see you for a visit.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The importance of being patient

Not being the most patient of people, I have had to re-invent myself over the last week or so. We are moored back at Kingfisher Narrowboats, at Trent Lock, at the same point we were two weeks ago, going nowhere.
And by the looks of things, that is not going to change one iota, over the next few days. For in common with the rest of the country, it has not really stopped raining here for the last week and when we had a small respite yesterday, the river, which is about 50 metres from where we are moored, kept rising. The flood gates in either direction are both closed for navigation until further notice and the only water users benefiting from this situation are the kayakers who are shooting the weir, very spectacularly most evenings. I was told by one of the bystanders that the guy I was photographing was in a “Dagger Super Ego”, which seemed strangely suitable for the sort of stunts he was pulling.

The pound at Trent Lock. All the mooring rings are under sevderal inches of
water on the left of the picture. The river thunders along the other side of the bridge.

A "Dagger Super Ego" shoots the weir at Trent Lock
There was a small window of opportunity the Saturday before last, when it stopped for a few hours and word got round that the flood lock at Cranfleet would be opening for a limited time, so a small flotilla of mainly hire boats and us battled our way against a very fast flowing Trent back up to the junction with the Erewash and the Soar from Beeston where we had been moored for two days. I was very glad of all 43 of my horses under the flooring, and at times it seemed as though we were hardly moving, and we weren’t. Turning into the Erewash against the flow of the raging river was a bit hairy. I took it very wide and tried to get the current to line us up, before giving it everything she had to propel her in, and I got her into the pound no problem. Once in, there was nowhere to tie up to. All the rings in the pound were under water. And they still are.
Since then we have just been mooching about. While we were in Nottingham Jan painted our back doors and I am very pleased with them. See pic.

The back doors are now finished. Don't they look good?

Mick has done our 50-hour service and John has now hopefully sorted out a small leak we were having from the side doors. We now have as many useless TV channels as I will ever want to watch, now we have a booster fitted, and I purchased a digital signal finder from Argos in Long Eaton which gives a signal when the aerial is facing the strongest transmitter. I just love gadgets, and this one seems to work.
We caught a train into Lincoln on Wednesday and spent a day in the rain shopping. Never been there before and would like to go back sometime and see it in the sunshine.
Last Friday morning Fred and Lisa visited from Scotland. They take possession of the next bespoke Kingfisher build in September, and for a week or so we have been breasted up beside the shell. I always get the boat’s name spelt wrongly but I think it is Chyandour. It was really good to have a chat with them over a cuppa and to hear of their boating adventures and plans for the future.
Our boat has developed a bit of tilt to starboard and yesterday John extracted about 100 kilos of bricks from under our bed and put a few in the bow thrusters tubes to bring the nose down a bit. It feels a lot better now. He also put on the top box cover, almost the same shade of blue as the boat, which looks very smart, and where all our spare wood that was cluttering up the cratch now lives.
Very quickly a daily routine is emerging, based around the little fold-up Brompton bike I adore. Being now, our only form of transport, Pat sets off first by foot, and I follow 15 minutes later by bike and we meet at the Co-Op in New Sawley, about a mile or so up the tow path. There is a good bakery there, a newsagents, a launderette, fish and chip shop and a chemist. What more do you need? I carry back the heavy stuff and she brings back the lighter shopping.
So we are very comfortable here but are now keen to get going. All we need to do is get a mile down the river, through Sawley locks and then we will be in the relatively sheltered environment of the Trent & Mersey Canal, but at the moment that looks unlikely for a while yet, and as I write this more rain is lashing down.