Sunday, 22 December 2013

Boats, Beers, Buses and Yuletime Cheer

I am assured, by those in the know, that forgetting the odd thing as you get older is not unusual. So I was rather taken back when, after forgetting a simple task that Pat had asked me to complete the other day, she cried “If it’s not beer, boats or ukuleles, you just switch off”. I thought at the time that was a bit rich, but having just read through the rest of this blog, it does appear she has it spot on.
It’s been a little over two weeks since I last blogged. My birthday was round about then and we were joined by our boating pals Ian and Irene and Jan, who we hadn’t seen for over a year, and had a Christmas lunch in one of the local pubs in the village. The picture is courtesy of Irene. Thanks for all the cards folks.

My birthday lunch with Ian and Irene and Jan in The Dragon, Willington
Christmas preparations dominate everything at this time of the year and we have not forgotten the boat. She now looks very smart with the new blue Tonneau cover we had fitted last Sunday by Stafforshire Canopies. It fits very snugly over her rear end and will offer the back of the boat some protection from the elements and also a level of security when we are away from the boat for any time.

Tim from Stafforshire Canopies fits the new Tonneau cover on to The Cat's Whiskers
We seem to spend a great deal of time either travelling or waiting for buses, or one in particular. For Adolph Hitler may have had his V1 and V2 rockets, but in this part of South Derbyshire, it’s the bright yellow V3 that rockets us between the towns of Burton-On-Trent six miles one way and the city of Derby a similar distance the other. We are not quite on first-name term with the drivers yet, but they know where to drop us off and it’s a terrific service we get, considering our rural location.
The V3 thunders over the canal at Willington Bridge
I have tended to favour Burton as the destination of choice, probably due to sheer number of decent pubs, especially the Burton Bridge Inn, which I mentioned in my blog before last. I have started Aqua Aerobics on Wednesday lunchtimes at the Leisure Centre: me and 20 ladies! and there is just enough time, after a quick shower, to grab a pint and a locally-made pork pie, before catching the bus back.
My regular "after exercise" lunch at Burton Bridge Brewery
I think that neither of us were that impressed with the town when we first arrived and the area that the canal goes through is not typical of the area where the Trent runs in the south of the town. Burton seems to have everything we need, including an Aldi (loving their supreme mince pies) and on Fridays there is a free bus that stops outside the marina and goes to Tesco in Burton. I have my bus pass, which irks Pat, but that trip is free for her.
As much as I like Burton, I am beginning to be drawn more to Derby city centre, helped by members of the Derby Ukulele Club, who I have re-joined, and have made me very welcome. They meet in an excellent pub for real ale in the city centre, and I was introduced to two others fine drinking emporiums, which were equally good.
Yesterday (Saturday) we appeared in The Market Hall, in the city centre, for an hour of ukulele-lead Christmas songs, which seemed to go very well. They are a nice bunch, and unusually for a ukulele club, they have a very wide age-range with some good singers and players.
The Derby Ukulele Club perform in the Market Hall, Derby City Centre.
Pat bought me the red music stand as a birthday present.
There is a lot of activity in the marina at the moment. A long-awaited project to develop a finger of land jutting into the lake has started and the trucks and diggers are making excellent progress in developing this into a bar/restaurant and shops that will open next August. I am glad we are on the other side of the marina, especially when they were pile-driving last week, but most of the boaters immediately in front, do not seem that bothered about it. Most are pretty laid-back, which seems a feature of the place.

Taken from outside the Marina shop, the new "Boardwalk" development, in the distance, begins to take shape.
Our fire is now on 24 hours a day, and we are burning both wood and coal. We can get this from the marina shop, and they sell several varieties, which we are experimenting with. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Pat is Chief Fire Officer. We have experienced a lot of wind, in common with the rest of the country, but not too many frosts as yet.
On Saturday night the marina threw a “Huddle”. This is an East Midlands term for a get-together where everybody brings along some food. It was fairly well attended and we got to know a new couple, who arrived here at Mercia, the same time as us, Brian and Charlie. This afternoon there is a carol concert outside the marina office, so more mince pies, sausage rolls and mulled wine, I guess.
Our turkey has been ordered from Betty’s Farm in the village. Pat is walking up there tomorrow morning and I will be boarding the V3 to do the remainder of our Christmas food shopping in Burton. We have had to be quite prudent, as our fridge and freezer are quite small, and hope it’s nice and cold over the next few days so we can put some stuff under our new cover, where it’s nice and dry. It will be a bit strange, just Pat and me, especially compared to some of the crazy Christmases we have had of late, but I am sure it will be very pleasant.
Hope you all have a peaceful and joyous Christmas
Toodaloo chums.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Moored in Mill Hill

Hello folks
A number of fellow bloggers, boaters, pals and family have been in touch recently, fearful that we had drifted off the radar, as all has been quite from the world of the Cat’s Whiskers, which is not typical, as I like to blog around once a week.
It would be good to report that we have been living a quiet life here at Mercia Marina, but the last two weeks have been anything but, as we have been down south, staying in a friend’s home in Mill Hill, which is near Finchley, in North London. Our pals Penny and Bob are swanning around the world at present and asked if we fancied a couple of weeks of super-fast internet and wall to wall running water at their place. With careful planning we managed to visit 16 different addresses during the 12 days we were there, with a day off to do our washing, and even got to see our son and heir, Kevin, on Saturday morning, who was in good spirits. He even bought me a drink in The Chieftain. Now there is progress.
But more of that later. We have quickly settled into life here in Willington and my bus pass is still warm from all the activity it’s been receiving as we whizz around the county. We are also slowly getting to know odd people around the marina. Not “odd people”, you understand, but odd people!
Most are very friendly and there are a number of musicians around, so there might be some scope for some impromptu playing  on the run-up to the festive season.  Merica is not a residential marina, but there are a large number of winter moorers here, some who come back year after year, and there is a residential feel to the place. We are very happy here, and I am glad I put my foot down and insisted we came here, rather than a marina down south. I don’t get my way that often.
 At the monthly quiz a couple of weeks back the marina announced they are erecting a large marquee in the grounds on the run-up to Christmas and hope to  have a party for all the resident boaters there, the Saturday before Christmas, as well as a carol concert of the Sunday.  Evidently the last couple of years has seen a poor response to any mention of a party, but we are hopeful that that might change this year.
We have had our first visitors. Dave and Caroline came on board around three weekends ago, all the way from Gloucester, with two of their dogs, including Twix the puppy, and we took TCW out on the Sunday, for its last cruise of 2013. It was good to see them, though they have got me into “Monopoly Hotels” on my tablet now, which is becoming a bit of an obsession.
The Saturday before we travelled down south, we caught the train into Central Birmingham to see the German Market and meet up with Fred and Lisa, another “Kingfisher Couple”, who were moored close by. We hadn’t seen them for months and it was good to catch up. Fred is very practical, and I am clearly not, so it was good to ask all sorts of technical questions, while we enjoyed lunch and a couple of pints in the Wetherspoons in Broad Street.
Pat outside the new Birmingham Library and German Market in Broad Street
Our time in Mill Hill is the first time we have been away from the boat this year, and as Pat said, it was a bit like going on holiday. We rented a car from Enterprise, but they messed up our booking,  and we had a car not much bigger than a Smart Car that I had to shoehorn myself into. It was OK, but we needed to bring back stuff, especially wood, so it was a very cramped journey back.
I shudder to think how much weight I must have put on with all the meals out, and the big spreads we enjoyed. I just counted up and we visited 16 different addresses and met up with over 40 old pals and family. I also managed to squeeze in the John Lewis Retired Partners Christmas Lunch, at the hotel where I used to be resident DJ up to three years ago, so it was a double reunion.
We certainly found it a bit strange swapping our very limited living conditions with the facilities of a large, modern home, and like all good boaters we were very economical with running taps, diligently turned off all unnecessary lights and found the facility of a central heating system a bit of a novelty. In case some of you think we live in the dark ages on the boat, we do have a central heating system, as do a lot of boats, but not many of us use them as our wood or coal burning stove gives us more than enough heat throughout the boat.

Our new low-power heating solution when off the boat
And speaking of heat, we went out and purchased a couple of low-power heaters from Argos, before we set off. These were recommended to us by our neighbour Kev across the pontoon, who had used them successfully on a number of occasions. They are like greenhouse heaters and cut-in when the temperature dips under five degrees. I think we used around £7.50 in electricity running them over the period we were away and it was quite pleasantly warm when we arrived back on Saturday evening, so that’s a success and a load off our mind for when we go away to New Zealand at the end of January.
Our neighbours get into the Festive spirit
During our absence several neighbouring boats have been getting into the Christmas spirit. The two beside us, are the stars of the marina at the moment, and I have tried to get a decent photo of what they have done to get them into the festive spirit. I expect we will make a token effort, even if it’s just a mini Christmas tree.
We visited out tenants a couple of times while we away and I was glad, and somewhat relieved, to find all was well, though there are still on-going shower issues, which we are working on together. They asked if they could get an estate agent in to value the property, as they may be in a position to get a mortgage if the price is right, and are interested in buying the place. I think both Pat and I are curious to see what the property is worth so we told them to go ahead. I think of the two of them Simon is quite keen, but Liz seemed a bit reluctant. Time will tell. We are in no hurry to dispose of the property and it will only increase in value. It’s clear that prices in and around London are climbing steadily again, so we are in a strong position.
Sue & Geoff's Pod in their front garden
Lunch in "The Pod"

Malc looks somewhat surprised as the Duck is carved.
The Big Chins Xmas Reunion

So thanks to all of you who welcomed us into your homes over the last two weeks. Memorable was the “Pod” we had lunch in last Sunday in a pal’s front garden, and on Friday night all the old narrowboating team (The Big Chins) met up for a Chinese meal for the first time in ages. The ladies (The Chinettes) had a rival event at a restaurant close by. The Cat’s Whiskers is heading north next year and I think it will be difficult to sort out a long weekend away for us all, with the distances involved, but I expect we will see a few of them for a weekend or two during the season. In the photos we took last night we look like extras from “The Last Of The Summer Wine”.

Toodaloo chums

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Where's the Hawaiian Ballroom


Pat says it’s like being in a floating Holiday Camp. I can’t say I can quite agree with her. It’s certainly not like any holiday camp I’ve experienced. Nobody shouts out “Good Morning Boaters” for a start. And where’s the “Hawaiian Ballroom”?

Yes, welcome my friends, to life pottering around the pontoon. The brakes have been applied (if you can do that on a narrowboat) and we lie serenely on Jay 22 here at the very picturesque Mercia Marina. They advertise the Marina as being in the Peak District, which is a bit short of the mark if you look at a map of the area, but it is very pleasant and pastoral round here, with Burton-On-Trent a few miles to the south west and Derby lying to the north.
Jay Pontoon. We are about half way up, on the right
We have spent the week experimenting with the buses, free and otherwise, trains, paths and roads to get acclimatised to the area. They even through a firework party for us... well, they said it was for the Marina, but we know better!

Firework Night at Mercia Marina

Our next door neighbours, Ian and Sarah, on NB Thomas, have made us welcome. Ian is the Marina Rep for our pontoon, so is a handy bloke to know and last Wednesday night we invited them on to TCW for a drink and what must have seen by Ian as a bit of a “grilling” as I asked question after question about the place and its facilities. They have an elderly cat on board: in fact their boat is named after the cat – “Thomas”, who is very friendly, and we hope to welcome him on board as well as time goes on.

We haven’t adopted a routine yet, but I have no doubt that will evolve after another week or so. It’s very quiet, which is quite unusual for the canal, as the railway line is not far from us, and the A38, which is a busy road, runs just to the north, and though you can hear both from time to time, neither is obtrusive.

Pat has spent much of her time on her latest creation. She bought the wool in the Rag Market in Birmingham and launched it to the unsuspecting public this morning.

Pat's latest Arran creation
As far as our two closest conurbations are concerned, Pat prefers Derby to Burton, but I favour Burton. That might have something to do with the fact that I can catch a bus from outside the marina,  that takes me directly outside the door of the Wetherspoons in the town centre. Just around the corner are the library, leisure centre and The Burton Bridge Brewery. Its Brewery Tap, has crashed into my top ten pubs and may well climb further, If their locally-produced pork pies continue to delight.

I want to investigate the leisure centre further this week. Our days on the move were quite physical, and now we are sitting around a lot, watching the rain beating on the surface of the water, we need to get some exercise, so when we visit this week we will check out what’s on offer. I used to do Water Aerobics when I was recovering from my broken back, and I noticed they do that there, though I don’t think Pat is too keen. I was always the only man in the class.

The weather has been very changeable – very autumnal in fact, so it’s been a real mix of everything over the last week, but we have found opportunities to clean out the engine bay and do some essential painting. Willington village is about a 20-minute walk, or a five-minute ride on my bike, so we are able to get any supplies that the marina shop cannot supply.

Meeting people in and around the marina has not been a problem. Everyone seems to have at least one dog, though it’s generally just a few minutes small talk. I have registered on the Marina Forum, and will start posting this week, to see if there is a ukulele underground cell here, which I hear might exist. It seems though that the forum is not used much these days, but it’s worth a punt.

I know there is definitely a Uke club in Derby that meets twice a month. There are a lot of winter moorers who came in on 1 November, and some are probably in exactly in the same boat as us – “know nobody but want to”. Then there is Christmas to consider. Ian tells me that there is a bit of battle around the marina for the best show of Christmas lights. Evidently our neighbour on the other side sports a huge reindeer on the roof of his boat, so we need to plan a strategy. We intend to stay on the boat over Christmas and hope there are opportunities for a party or two.
One aggravation is our mobile phone signal. Both of us are having making and receiving calls on the boat, so if you are trying to contact us, leave a voice mail, and we will get back to you ASAP. Alternatively send us an e mail. Evidently the only provider with a decent signal around here is Vodaphone.

Finally, we were watching the regional East Midlands news last week and the programme featured Google who are extending their “Street View” mapping option, to include tow paths and Google employees have been traipsing around the country with a special camera array on a backpack taking the snaps required. They were filming at Trent Lock, our old stamping ground, where TCW was built, and blow me down, they interviewed our pal Irene, off “Free Spirit” who was moored up there. You just can’t keep that gal out of the media.

Toodaloo chums.


Friday, 1 November 2013

Storm!.. Call that a Storm

Hello pals and bloggers. As some of you will know both of our families have lived in the south of England for many, many years. My descendants have lived in and around Hertfordshire for at least 300 years, and while Pat can’t quite match that, having Irish and Italian roots, both her parents and grandparents came from the south. I guess we are then, pretty died-in-the-wool “Southern Softies”, and no doubt display all the traits of an upbringing in and around the metropolis.
I mention this at the start of this blog, as here we are, back in the East Midlands, and we both feel very much at home here. True, we can’t navigate our way around the area like we can back in Hertfordshire, but neither of us misses our life-style on the fringes of London, and although it may be 2-3 degrees cooler up here, it is more than made up for with the general warmth of welcome you get wherever you go. We are rapidly regarding this area as our home turf.
A wet Tuesday evening at Brindley Place, Central Birmingham

The last few days have been pretty quiet. No comings or goings on board and we have made steady progress north from Birmingham, and arrived at our winter moorings this morning, in Mercia Marina, Willington, Derbyshire, between Derby and Burton-On-Trent, which will be our home now until next spring.

Tackling The Farmers Bridge flight "By Any Means"

We finally left Birmingham last Wednesday after nearly a week in the city and dropped down the long Farmers Bridge flight during the morning in glorious sunshine. Half way down you encounter the sight above and if you have been watching the TV series “By Any Means” on a Sunday evening, you might recognise it as the team’s lair in the series. It’s supposed to be in London!
Wednesday was quite a day 21 locks but only around 9 miles. It doesn’t sound that much but we set off just after nine in the morning and moored at 5.15pm, without a stop. Towards the end of the journey I snagged, what I believe is my first shopping trolley on the way out of a lock. I dragged it out and then had no control over the boat at all. Luckily a boat was coming the other way, and dragged me off it. We tried to locate it with boat hooks but it’s still at the top of the Minworth flight, so beware if you in that part of the West Midlands.
Just some of the rubbish being retrieved from the Birmingham & Fazeley. Shame they missed my shopping trolley!

From there to Fazely Junction and on to the Coventry I was constantly having to clear my prop of leaves. The boat just did not feel right though I must admit that seems  to have sorted itself out once we were on the Trent & Mersey again.
Hearing that a big storm was brewing over the weekend lead to us to make the dash north, getting on the Trent & Mersey at Fradley, and mooring for the weekend in Alrewas. This village is a hot bed of ukulele action, and on Sunday afternoon over 50 uke players descended on the village hall for a “Strumathon”. Great noise!  Some came from as far as Stoke. We preceded the playing with a very good Sunday lunch in one of the village pubs, which also offered some sensibly-priced beer for a change. Once back we cleared the roof of all the paraphernalia we have collected, doubled up the ropes and sat tight. We thought we were in for a battering, which never came. Lots of rain bashing on the roof, but no wind.
We stayed in Alrewas until Tuesday morning, after filling our freezer up from the excellent village butcher and our next overnight stop was in Burton-On-Trent, the centre of British brewing, in case you didn’t know. We have travelled this stretch a few times now, and I have visited the National Brewing Museum on a previous visit, but not Marston’s Brewery, which is about 100 metres from  the cut and has its own moorings. I pitched up for the 11am visit, which was cancelled, and later that day, a very nice sounding lady called Meryl left a message to say I was welcome the next day, but we had to move on. There will be other opportunities I am sure.

Marston's Brewery moorings in Burton-On-Trent

Last night we moored in Willington and this morning made the short journey into the marina here. I think we feared that we would get a poor position, coming into the marina so late in the season, but we have a great spot, close to everything we need.
It’s a real novelty to have shore line power again. The last time we had that luxury was in Gloucester Docks back in May. The previous moorer here has also left a fiver credit on the meter, so that should keep this laptop going for a good while.
The Cat's Whiskers approaches the end of it's 2013 adventures
Our mooring is next to the grey boat on the left
Easing her onto her pontoon at Mercia
We have not been idle since arriving a few hours ago. We are now registered at the local GP’s, I have joined the local library, we have booked in for the marina quiz on 20 November and are looking forward to the Marina Firework Party on Sunday night. Sorted out the buses and trains and booked our daily paper at the marina shop. By the way, If anybody fancies a visit we will be pleased to see you.
I guess now the blogs will slow down a bit, but keep popping by.
I have just done some calculations and we have travelled 1035 miles this season and Pat has opened and closed 975 locks. Here’s to next year when we head north.

Toodaloo chums

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Back In Birmingham For a Naughty Balti

You’ve probably heard of the “Bermuda Triangle”: you may have even heard of the “Golden Triangle”, but how about the “Balti Triangle”?
Yes, folks, we are back in Brum, the epi-centre of Britain’s canal network. The claim that Birmingham has more miles of canal that Venice is not an empty one either, Waterways seem  to go off in all directions – they snake around in loops, there are numerous crossroads, and just as many dead ends. You seldom have to walk very far in this city to encounter water running below you or past you.
We snuck into the city from the south, via the North Stratford canal and on Tuesday night moored  about half way between Warwick and Birmingham at Hockley Heath, where our pal and trusty “lockmaster” Vic left us. I do like having Vic on board. We always have such a laugh and, to be fair, he has had some rubbish weather to deal with the last few times he has joined us. I suspect the next time we will see him will be in New Zealand after Christmas. His daughter lives about five miles from ours, on the outskirts of Wellington.
The autumnal weather has thrown up some very balmy days and quite a few wet ones, and we now check the BBC local forecast daily for windows of opportunity to cruise. We are well ahead of ourselves at the moment and do not need to arrive at our marina for another two weeks, so we’ll pootle along and stop if it gets too wet or windy.
Passing Bournville Station on the way into the city. Note the Cadbury purple colour scheme

A good example of this was last Wednesday. It looked like it was going to be wet all day, so we locked up the boat, and caught a bus into Stratford-Upon-Avon for the day. Pat finally found the mini vacumn cleaner she had been searching for all season in Robert Dyas, so it was far from a wasted journey. The Wetherspoon’s was not bad either.

Pat's new toy. And it works!
We pitched up in Birmingham city centre the following day, and chose to endure a couple of heavy showers on the way that had been forecast, but apart from the rain it was a very pleasant cruise, and lock-free.
Our pals on “Free Spirit” had arrived a couple of days ahead of us, and after an overnight on a short-term mooring, we were able to move up in front of them on where we can stay for 14 days. I was surprised at how few boats there are moored in and around the city centre here. None of the “Gypo-type” craft, that clog up many of our cities and sport a mini “breakers yard” on their roofs! Oh, and the obligatory wheelbarrow, lest I forget as well. Not sure the Canal & River Trust have had a sort out here, but it’s very pleasant at the moment, and those boats that are out and about, seem come and go on a daily basis, leaving lots of room for new ones.
Ian and Irene, on “Free Spirit”, lucked out when they discovered a team of tree fellers working just down the cut, removing a tree by the tow path. They didn’t want the wood, so Ian took what looks like a whole tree, judging by the amount he has on the roof of the boat. They kindly let us take what we wanted, so we are now getting nicely tucked up with our stack of next year’s winter wood supply which we will transfer to our garage in Welwyn Garden, the next time we travel down.

Ian helps in my selection of wood from his extensive rooftop collection

 One of the things I really wanted to see, on this trip to the city, was the newly finished 170-million pound City of Birmingham Library, that opened a few weeks back. Its right by the canal, and you can’t really miss it. A huge square box with a hat on, covered in a lattice-like pattern, you either love it or hate it. We didn’t like the exterior that much, but inside was another matter all together.  But before that there was lunch to consider and out of the blue one of Ian and Irene’s boating pals turned up. Allen was working in the city, and joined us for lunch. His interests (apart from boating) are ukuleles and motorbikes.... Alan is my new best friend!

Now here's a common picture. Roger and Pat in a Wetherspoons.
Looks like Allen and myself are comparing the size of our ukuleles. Ohhh ahhh misses!
Then it was a short hop, across the road, to the new library. This is very much a living cathedral to the media and popular culture. Huge swathes of the building are given over to lecture theatres, “contemplation rooms”, rehearsal space for budding musicians, and it has a lending DVD collection that I can only surmise came from Blockbusters when it went bust. Behind the scenes are huge collections of social, railway and canal archives and to top it off on the roof is a Shakespeare room, imported lock, stock, with ornate ceiling and wooded panels from its home in the old library. Chuck in a couple of roof gardens overlooking the city, and you can see why it is rapidly becoming a major tourist destination. I have been back three times now, especially to the music library in the basement – I’m like a pig in... well I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks. There are books, of course, thousands of them, but the building is so big and open, you really don’t get the impression of being hemmed in by them.
The new City Of Birmingham Library

The escalators up to the rotunda

The view from the roof of the library. We are moored just after the bridge. That's the National Indoor Arena on the left.
While in the city we looked up Brendan and Sophie, a couple of boaters we first encountered on their very first boating day, back in April, on the Trent & Mersey, when we helped them through their first few locks, and got them sorted out with essential equipment. We have kept in touch and Pat stayed in their flat in the city’s Jewellery Quarter when I had a boatful of blokes on board, the last time we were here in June.
Sophie is now pregnant so I can’t see them doing much boating next year, though they have been talking about it.  They took us for a superb steak in a restaurant close to their home on Friday night and on Saturday we went out again into the Balti Triangle around Sparkhill, an area just to the south-east of the city centre. There are now 50 restaurants in the triangle and they compete each year for the title of “Balti Restaurant of the Year”

Pat & I tackle the table-sized Naan in the original Balti House in Sparkhill
After cruising  the area in the rain we plumped for “Avil’s”. I found out later that this was the restaurant where the Balti-style started in the early 1970s, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience, especially the giant-sized naans, the size of a pop-up tent, which are a feature of these restaurants. Good value too.
Looking at the weather forecast I think we are staying in the city until Wednesday, when we head out north on the Birmingham & Fazely canal. I have a day away from the boat on Tuesday meeting some old JL Oxford Street buddies in Leighton Buzzard, so the train will take the strain, and the journey from there that has taken us three weeks, will take around an hour.
Toodaloo chums

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Roger & Pat take a a car.

Vic and I try out my new "Sooper-Dooper" umbrella bracket, somewhere in Warwickshire
It’s been very much a week of “firsts” on The Cat’s Whiskers. Our first major breakdown; Pat’s first stint of helming and attempting a flight of locks for over 12 months, and the first time we have needed to light our fire this season.
The last time we blogged we were on the Grand Union, chugging towards Braunston. We knew some pals of ours, Ian and Irene, on “Free Spirit” were somewhere behind us and as we were taking on water in that delightful canal village, they chugged around the corner, basically going the same way as us. So the next couple of days we cruised with them and Irene and I got pretty good at leaving and entering locks side by side. We said goodbye just before Leamington Spa, and, I expect we will meet up with them in Central Birmingham later this week, as they are heading up to the Trent & Mersey, much as we are.
Almost "super-glued" together. Some "Boating Ballet" from TCW and Irene on "Free Spirit"
The weather throughout last week turned colder and on a few occasions, considerably wetter, than we had experienced for many months. Pat has adopted the role of “Chief Fire Officer”, and I know better to suggest how to light the fire, when she is coaxing it into life. We spent last Friday night in Leamington Spa, and on Saturday morning welcomed a couple of old boating chums, we knew from cruising the Kennet & Avon, last summer Barry & Helen. And they had their car with them! What excitement followed.  A ride in a car is a real treat for us, and they took us down to the brand new, and barely-opened, Cropredy Marina, on the South Oxford Canal. They have reserved a mooring for their boat “Midnight”, from next spring. We last saw the marina when it was barely a hole in the ground in July, and it is amazing what has been achieved in that short space of time. Pat was impressed and it would not surprise me if that is where TCW rests the winter after next. Watch this space.
Pat & Helen by the large basin at the new Cropredy Marina

The large basin at Cropredy Marina. We liked it.
We were back in time for the short cruise into the outskirts of Warwick, by the “Cape” pub, one of my favourites. Barry & Helen re-joined us the following morning when it was tipping down, and after a walk up the Hatton Flight to see if “Free Spirit” had started its ascent, we went shopping instead, to one of those huge Tesco’s that seem to sell everything under one roof.
Our next guest, our old pal, Vic, arrived by bus mid-afternoon, and after lunch in the local Wetherspoons, we sat out in the rain Monday morning.
The climb out of Warwick, is via the Hatton Flight of locks, some 21 of them, and they have hydraulic paddles and need a lot of winding. We teamed up with another boat, whose crew were moving a hire company boat, and half way up, I pushed the Morse control forward and nothing happened. I had tickover, but nothing else, forwards or backwards. There was clearly something wrong with the throttle cable mechanism so we tied the two boats together, and completed the rest of the flight breasted up. The breakdown was accompanied by driving rain, so it was an eventful ascent.
A call to the “Canal & River Rescue” team, saw a marine engineer arrive within the hour, and 30 minutes later he had fitted a new throttle cable (it had snapped) and we were on our way. It was the first time we had used this service, (a kind of AA of the waterways) and we were both very impressed with the service and their attitude on the phone. I know a number of boaters have had negative experiences with them, but ours was very good.

The RCR engineer fixes a new throttle cable for us at the top of the Hatton Flight
Today we turned on to the Stratford-on-Avon canal, and headed north. This is the first time we have been on a narrow canal since June, and Pat had said she would have a go at helming once we made the turn.
She was as good as her word, and made a faultless climb up  the Lapworth flight. I think she found it a bit boring. She likes to influence the lock opening operation and interact with other boaters, but she stuck at it, and both Vic and I were very impressed with her helming skills.

Come on Pat, cheer up. Only another eight more locks to do.
Vic returned home this afternoon, so we are now on our own again, beside the village of Hockley Heath. It’s a good mooring and we know most of the boats around us. Birmingham beckons in a couple of days, but we might sit it out tomorrow (Wednesday), as the forecast is more rain but a brighter few days to follow.

Back on narrow canals again. One of the top locks on the Lapworth flight on the North Stratford

Toodaloo chums.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Pigeons Pals and Train Robbers

Pat and I subscribe to several other blogs and we try to keep up with them all, at least once a week. But  I have been somewhat deflated recently, after reading in more than one blog, that kingfishers had been sighted in various parts of the country as a matter of course.
After nearly 1,000 miles this year, and despite a collective heightened gaze, we had not seen one, and then bugger me, in the space of three days, we saw two, albeit though the second one was more of a blue flash, than a major sighting.

Spot the Kingfisher. ..... It's on the end of the green boat's tiller arm
Pat has always been a bit of a bird fancier. Back in the garden in WGC she would spend a fortune on bird food. My contribution to the study of all things “avian” is the observation that wherever you go in the world (and we have been around a bit) pigeons look the same, be it Madrid, Melbourne or Machu Pichu. One almost got me Sunday coming under a railway bridge just north of Milton Keynes. With so many of them living in the rafters under bridges it was inevitable that  one of us would be “dumped on” sooner or later, and that one missed me by about an inch. We have noticed a lot of seagulls about as well over the last few days, and it is glorious to look up and see red kites soaring above the boat these days, a sight which is becoming increasingly familiar. Blimey this blog is turning into “Autumn Watch”. Let’s move on.
The Indian Summer we have been enjoying has meant that we have cruised for much longer each day, than we had planned and we find ourselves a couple of days ahead of our planned schedule. On Sunday  we covered 15 miles, which is quite a journey, at 2.3 mph, which took us from Milton Keynes to Stoke Bruerne. And on Monday we did 11 miles, though admittedly most of it was lock free.
With hundreds of boats travelling around the network it is quite surprising how often you see the same ones. We pass the time with many of them and some have become pals. On Sunday morning we passed “Free Spirit” at Campbell Park in Milton Keynes, home of Ian and Eileen, who we know from our time on the Erewash, while moored at Kingfisher Narrowboats, where our boat was built. Shame they were out. Then a few miles on, NB “Chance” pootled by. The boys follow our blog, and we follow theirs, but that had been our first encounter with them on the system. And then, finally, we were chatting to each other how we had not seen “Jandai” on the system. This had been the boat built before us at Kingfisher, and we had got to know Jan and Dai, the owners well, and were shocked when we got the news while in New Zealand, that Dai had passed away after a tragic heart attack on the tow path. Jan had sold “Jandai”, and blow me down, a couple of hours after talking about it, around the corner it chugged, near Marsworth. If you are reading this Jan, be assured that the boat looks good and the current custodians Roger and Anne, are experienced boaters, who are enjoying her immensely.
"I've got the coke but where's the ship's rum Grandpop?"
The Grand Union is familiar territory for us, but it looks very different since we were here last. The trees are now ablaze in reds, yellows and browns, which makes the landscape look completely different to what this area looked like at the end of June.
We had a couple of nights in Leighton Buzzard last week and caught a train and a bus into London to see our daughter off at Heathrow as she returned with her family to New Zealand after her four-week stay. Just north of LB is Linslade and “The Globe”, which is quite a well-known waterside pub. About 100 metres from the pub (and the canal) is the main railway line into Euston and it was at this very spot in 1963 that the Great Train Robbery took place. I remember it well. It was August and I was camping with the Boy’s Brigade in Wales.
We cruise by the site of 1963's Great Train Robbery site at Linslade in Bedfordshire
There are still a lot of hire boats about round here. We love going through locks with these boats, especially if they have a big crew. Generally they are wildly enthusiastic, so I let them get on with it, and Pat supervises, discretely. I always insist they go into a lock first though. Just in case!
Both of us weighed ourselves at the weekend for the first time in ages. I was rather surprised that the ravages of beer festivals and pub lunches would have sent my weight spiralling but it’s much the same as it was at the beginning of the season in March. I have decided though, to lose at least half a stone, so watch this space. I will not comment on Pat’s weight. It would not be gentlemanly to do so, but she keeps fit on lock duty, so has no weight issues.
So this weekend we will be in Leamington Spa and Warwick. We are hoping to meet up with two pals we cruised the Kennet & Avon with last year while in Leamington. They have a daughter living there and are combining a visit to her with our arrival and it will be great to see them again.
On Sunday we have our old pal Vic joining us to help us up through the marathon Hatton flight and on to the North Stratford canal, which is littered with locks at this end. Vic was last on board when we tackled the Tardebigge flight in driving rain and wind, so the Hatton flight should be a breeze for him. So, I would imagine our next blog will be from Birmingham, where we will take a rest for a few days.
I’ll leave you with this thought. What was the greatest thing before sliced bread? Answers please  in a bottle you can drop in any canal.


Monday, 30 September 2013

Beers, Boris and Brompton Bikes

Hello again and greetings from Roger, Pat and especially Boris, our new permanent ship mate. Boris moved on board  last week and has taken up residence behind the fire in the corner.
Yes, he or she is a spider, and quite a big bugger, if you’ll pardon my French! Every time Pat shows him the door he returns and no matter how many times I have destroyed his web by walking through it, he comes back for more. Other spiders seem to come and go on the boat, but Boris hovers in the middle of the galley, oblivious to our comings and goings.

Our new first mate. Boris the Spider

We are moored at Apsley, which is just south of Hemel Hempstead. It’s a rejuvenated area, being for many years the home of John Dickinson Paper Mill where they made “Basildon Bond” paper. It is now the usual mix of supermarkets, pubs, and very picturesque marina set around a flight of three locks.
We are here for two reasons. The first is it only a short bus ride from Hemel Hempstead to St Albans, where it was beer festival week. The St Albans Beer Festival is the biggest of its kind in the south, outside the annual London bash at Earls Court, featuring over 400 different beers and ciders. All my pals were there, and I volunteered to work on the door Wednesday and Thursday and most of Saturday. Before I found my sea legs I used to be the Festival’s Site Manager.  It was very, very busy and the festival sold out of beer just before closing on the Saturday night. Naturally I helped and consumed a liberal amount of alcohol and a number of brews that were new to me.

At the St Albans Beer Fest with my best chum John

One of the 10,000 guests that came through the door was wearing a Brompton shirt, which is the make of my trusty fold-up bike. I fell into conversation with the gentleman, who just happened to be the factory manager at Brompton’s factory  in London, and he has offered me a conducted tour of the factory when we are down next in November and some assorted goodies.
The second reason we were in Apsley was to accommodate my Leisure pals from John Lewis, who arrived from Brent Cross, John Lewis Watford, Cambridge and Waitrose on Sunday.

Phil, Claire (in my hat), Capt.Tracy, Jim and Sally
I never much think of work these days but for several years we were a very close team working together on a number of projects big and small, so it was good to see them all and find out what they had been up to in my absence. Most of them had never been on a narrowboat before, so it was quite funny, seeing how they responded to life on the canal. We were very lucky with the weather – we did a circular trip - and they all had a great day. We even saw a dinosaur on our travels.
A bit of wildlife I wasn't expecting to see around Kings Langley

My loverly Leisure Ladies from John Lewis

My day off from the beer festival saw another two guests arrive for the day on Friday and Sue and Brenda also enjoyed good weather and really got into it. Brenda was walking across lock gates very comfortably within a very short time, and they both got to grips with working the locks, of which there are no shortage on this section of the Grand Union.

Sue and Brenda get stuck in on lock duty

Tomorrow (Monday) we will overnight in Berkhamstead and I would imagine we will be In Leighton Buzzard a couple of days later.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Back in Herts....again

Our sojourn into our great metropolis has finally come to an end and has been marked by a noticeable change in the weather with a drop in temperatures that most of the country has also experienced. Pat is now lighting our stove most evenings as the nights draw in
So it looks like its goodbye to T-shirts and shorts and hello again to hats, jeans and waterproof jackets. I have not felt the need for gloves yet, but seen a few boaters sporting them. I noticed David Beckham on TV earlier this week modelling black and grey Belstaff motorcycle wear during London Fashion Week, I reckon I could give him a run for his money in my grey autumnal wardrobe, tailored by “George” at Asda.
Just in case I forget my name
After a couple of weeks mooring around Uxbridge and Cowley we have moved back into Hertfordshire again and are currently moored opposite Tesco at Batchworth, which is really Rickmansworth. We have moored here a couple of times and it’s a good, safe mooring, with most of the facilities we need just a few minutes away, so we plan on staying here until after the weekend.
Last week we had a very special visitor on board as our granddaughter joined us, all the way from New Zealand. Livi was joined by her parents Erica and James, who are over to attend James’ sister’s wedding. So last week we hired a car for the week and spent a fair bit of time with them. Our mooring was only 10 minutes from the M40, so their base in Little Marlow was less than A 30 minute drive. 
Grandad entertains Livi. Everyone else looks bemused
Then on Saturday we had Sid and Mave on board for the day. Sid and I were good mates at John Lewis. We both drove the same motorcycle for a while, and he loves engines. By trade he is an electrician, so I was keen to probe him about volts, amps and if the purchase of a battery management system would be a sensible purchase.

Sid & Mave join us for an autumnal day's cruising
Pat and I generally share the cooking, but neither of us likes to cook on a Sunday and we normally find a Wetherspoons for lunch. However, at Cowley Lock there is the Tollhouse Tea Room who were advertising lunch for £5.99. We went several weeks ago when we were going the other way, and it was good value, so we gave it another go last weekend. It was very good, especially if you like your veggies. Good quality and well cooked. If you are cruising in the area, check it out. You will not be disappointed.
After nearly 900 miles and 700 locks this year, The Cat’s Whiskers has picked up a fair bit of battle damage and I have carrying out some remedial painting over the past few days. The rubbing strakes on both sides are now black again and I hope, weather permitting to be to go over the gunnels with a roller with the special Epifanes paint, containing plastic, before Sunday when our next guests arrive.

Is it a waste of time? I don't think so
Then it’s a short hop to Cassiobury Park in Watford for a day or two (one of Pat’s favourite moorings) and then the short hop through Hunton Bridge to Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead, for a few days, to take advantage of the St Albans Beer Fest and to accommodate our last big assembly of guests, next Sunday, before we make the dash north (though not sure you can dash in a narrowboat).

Toodaloo Chums