Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Locked into Birmingham

After “whooshing” into Worcester on a swollen Severn, we are now back in the relative peace and calm of the canal system. That was far from the case last Friday though, when we ascended the Tardebigge flight of 30 locks, in 40mph gusts, driving rain and a temperature that hovered around 3-5 degrees most of the day. You know I’ll be glad when summer arrives. It’s my favourite day of the year!
Vic takes it easy before the big ascent. Pat's the "blob" over the next lock

The Tardebigge flight is one the “must dos” on the canal network, alongside the Caen Hill flight in Devices, the Hatton Flight into Warwick, the Pontcysllte Aquaduct over the River Dee and the Anderton Boat Lift (that one still needs ticking off) on the Weaver. I think the strangely-named flight is regarded as the longest flight of locks in the country and it has historical boating significance as the meeting place of Messrs Rolt and Aickman, who masterminded the Inland Waterways Association while moored at Tardebigge, a meeting that kick-started the post-war canal revival.
TCW about half way up the flight at Tardebigge. You wouldn't think it was pouring with rain and gale-force conditions from this snap.

We had anticipated that a: Tardebigge was going to be a bit of a slog with just the two of us and b: the weather was likely to be less than favourable. We were wrong about A but right about B, so we were glad we enlisted the help of our old pal, Vic, who came on board for a night and a day and helped Pat lock us up. It took around 3 1/2 hours, which is around 8 minutes a lock, so we didn’t hang about.
Pat and Vic at the top of the flight

We are quite enjoying the Worcester & Birmingham canal, which is a new waterway to us. It’s about 30 miles long, pastoral for the most part and almost lassoes Worcester before it turns north into the Worcestershire countryside, where we saw far more sheep than people, apart from the odd long-distance jogger. The W&B has all the essential boating ingredients: a smattering of half-decent pubs, locks in both urban and rural locations, meandering watercourses overlooking rolling countryside, and five tunnels of increasing length. It also has a high proportion of boating hire fleets, which brings an added dynamic to ones progress!
Last weekend was the Whitsun Bank Holiday. (Is it still called that?).
Bank holidays mean precious little to us now but we knew we were going to be pretty busy (for us). We had quite fancied returning to Gloucester. It was the tall ships weekend but I was more interested in the opportunity to take part in the ukulele flash mob, at the docks on Sunday afternoon. It was also the weekend of the annual Crick boat show, which we also quite fancied attending.
Norm takes the tiller. Do I look worried! 

But we knew we had some Canadian guests arriving sometime over the weekend, which turned out to be on the Saturday, which stretched into Sunday. Norm and Sue come over every two or three years from Vancouver and made a concerted effort to join us, flying from Spain into Birmingham airport. The weather picked up, at last, and we were able to cruise for a couple of hours, and return to Alvechurch, which was our base for the weekend.
Sue & Pat enjoy the sunshine. Make the most of it gals!

We had a good mooring, close to the Marina in Alvechurch, just by the very good “Weighbridge” pub, with the town centre being only a 10-minute walk away.
We left on Tuesday morning, on a very slow approach through the outer suburbs of Birmingham.
We have now done several of longer tunnels in the system now, and the Wast Hill tunnel coming into Birmingham is one of the longest at over a mile. I don’t mind tunnels but I like to be able to see the end if possible, and Wast Hill obviously has a slight kink in it. We followed another boat in and then, not one, but three boats came in from the other direction. This was a first for us, passing boats in a tunnel, and it was a bit of a squeeze, but it passed the time. I think it took us around 35 minutes from one end to the other.
Get over!!. You're supposed to pass on the right. 

We are now in King’s Norton at the junction of the Stratford canal. It is bucketing down outside, (so no change there). We’ll stay here until Friday and then float on down to Bournville and the Cadbury factory which is only a mile or two away. We have both been to “Cadbury World” a couple of times, but have never explored the town, so that is a must. I expect we will be in the centre of the city for this weekend. One thing we must do is go hat hunting. I am getting fed up with water running down the back of my neck!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Rolling in the Deep

Our last blog concluded with me ranting that I had just received a text alert from our Lord and Masters, the Canal & River Trust, saying we could not proceed to head north upstream on the Severn as it was in full flood. Of course, that text came precisely after I had just taken down the chimney, the TV ariel, taken off the fenders, checked the weed hatch, attached the tiller bar and was about to flick the ignition key.
Evidently it’s all the fault of the Welsh. Half the rain that falls there, ends up in the Severn, three days later, and they had been experiencing a wet patch. Sounds a bit unsavoury to me!
So we had to sit tight, and too be perfectly truthful, there are a lot worse places to be stuck in. As it looked like it was going to take a few days for the river to subside, we decided to enter the main basin on the docks and hook up to one of the four power points they have there for visitors.
In our experience, this arrangement is quite rare, so we had to go and buy a pre-paid card to make it work. Blow me down, as we opened the box the previous person using it had left us a card with 18 units on it. We only used three units all weekend, so we left it for the next boater.
Our view, at night, of the restored warehouses in Gloucester Docks

We had one of the best views of the basin from our mooring, especially at night when all the restored warehouses are lit. The downside was a bit of jump up onto the quay, we had to run the gauntlet of the hundreds of gongoozlers that visit the docks every day, and we were slap, bang, outside a very popular cafĂ© called “On Toast”. You can get every conceivable combination of toasted sandwich here, and we have it on good authority that Gloucester’s Lady Mayoress’s favourite is the Moroccon  with cream and minted lamb. We know this as she gave us a lift back to the docks last week, when we were visiting our pals who are big dog agility fans.
Our mooring in the basin, opposite "On Toast"

So is Gemma, the Mayoress, and she thoroughly recommended we try one of their specialty toasties at this very popular stop on the quay. We did, I had the Canadian, with brie, bacon and cranberries and Pat had a boring Ham and Cheese. Very good they were too, and great value.
Right, that’s this week’s restaurant review done and dusted.

So we had a sleepy weekend in Gloucester and the weather was rather good, especially Sunday, so I set about the boat with a paintbrush and tidied up a few areas that needed attention. The docks have loads of visitor moorings, which is certainly not typical of other marinas and basins we have been in, where residential moorings rule and you’re lucky if there are one or two spots for visitors. We were invited over the Yacht Club for drinks on Saturday night by “Jude”, who is a live aboard on narrowboat “Rambling Rose” in one of the adjoining basins. I wondered if I should break out the Blazer and cravat, but it was all very low key and guess what: they have their own ukulele group there as well. I don’t know what it is with this part of the world but they are uke crazy in the South West.
Having shoreline power changes a lot of things on board, especially, if you are stationary for a long period. We don’t have to run the engine and annoy the neighbours in the flats close by. It means we can run our washing machine for a change, and I can use my laptop whenever I fancy, rather than charge up its battery when we are moving and then hurry to use it before it runs out.
Several times a day I have been monitoring the EA website showing river levels which are updated three-hourly, and by Sunday morning the Severn had started to drop and looked OK all the way up to Shrewsbury, but Steve, the lock keeper at Gloucester, was adamant that it was not low enough and we would have to sign a disclaimer if we insisted on going through, negating our insurance.
Roger is pleased to see the river levels decreasing over the length of the Severn

The keepers at either end of the docks seem to work seven days a week -they were always on duty when we passed by and after nearly a week in the docks we got on first-name terms with them both. Each has a large loudspeaker above their cabin and I have heard one of them shouting a tirade of instructions at one boat when they did not follow the rules of engagement.
So Monday morning saw six of us waiting for 8am when the lock opened and for a sign from Steve the lockie that we could proceed upstream. It was a big lock and took all of us. If I had been him I would have made the announcement “Gentlemen, start your engines”, but it was the jungle telegraph of diesel engines bursting into life that indicated it was showtime.
Shoehorning all the waiting boats into Gloucester Lock

I reckon the closure of the river is partly “Health & Safety” driven. We had this discussion in the Yacht Club and the Rear Commodore (tee shirt and cargo pants - what would the commodore say?) made the point that we could turn the boat around, cruise down the ship canal and out into the treacherous Bristol Channel and no-one would stop us. We’d be pretty stupid to do it, but you see the reasoning. I am sure if this scenario had happened 15 years ago, we would have been back in Worcester by last weekend. However, I would not have fancied battling upstream against a roaring current, turning a bend to find a Welsh tree trunk hurtling toward us at 10mph, which can clearly happen if the river is running very fast.
It was extremely slow progress pushing through the fast current and we only averaged 3mph, even with a lot of revs. It took us six and a half hours to get to Upton, where we moored overnight next to a very amiable couple from the North-East on NB Minna, who we had several pints of Hobgoblin with (£2 a pint - absolute bargain) in The Plough in Upton. We followed them up to Worcester and went through the two locks and I breathed a sigh of relief to be back in familiar territory. We were joined at the locks by a school party who insisted on helping us through. See pictures.
Pat lets the school party open this one

Boaters of the future?
We meet up with some of my pals in Gas Street, Birmingham, the first weekend in June, and before that we have a rendevous with the famous Stoke and Tardebigge flight of 35  locks to negotiate, the longest flight of locks in the country I believe, and one of the longest (and wettest) tunnels follows it. Who said boating is glamorous and relaxing.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Double Gloucester

I never been a particular slave to fashion so seldom have had favourite items of clothing. So it is with some sadness that I have to report the loss of my leather Australian wide-brimmed hat, that has been a constant
friend during countless downpours since we took to the system. It now lies in the depths of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal after a huge gust caught TCW on a bend at the weekend and I foolishly did not have the chin strap fastened. My fault completely, and five days on I am still fuming about it. I loved that hat. This may warrant to trip to the Crick Boat Show at the end of May to get a new one, after all.
After a brief taste of summer last week we are now back in jumpers and hats, and for a change, it seems that most of the country is experiencing the same conditions.
We are still on the Severn/Sharpness and Gloucester Canal, as it’s basically one and the same, in and around the city of Gloucester and we have spent four out of the last six days moored in Gloucester Docks, which in recent years has undergone a major transformation, and is now one of the big tourist attractions in the area. The docks feature the usual mix of retail space and restaurants, but most of the original Victorian warehouses have been preserved, bringing a sense of authentication to the development.
Our mooring at Gloucester Docks. TCW is the top boat on the left
About 100 yards from our mooring is the site of the brand new Gloucester Brewery. I didn’t know this even existed, but I did when I woke up last Friday to the smell of malt. I popped in to say hello, It would have been rude not to. They are a nice bunch, and very enthusiastic. The beer’s OK too.
Next door is the National Waterways Museum, which is OK. I couldn’t get that excited about it, but it was worth a visit.
National Waterways Museum, Gloucester Docks

From the docks, the river becomes the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal. This is a wide ship canal that winds its way, parallel to the main river down to Sharpness and the Bristol Channel. We cruised about half way down to Saul Junction on Monday, where we saw our first baby swans of the season and walked into Frampton-On Severn to check out the UK’s biggest village green  before returning to the city on Tuesday afternoon, getting very wet in the process.
Our first sighting of baby swans at Saul Junction with proud parents

Last weekend we welcomed Des on board for the night. Des is Pat’s Brother-In-Law from Melbourne, down under. It was his first time on a narrow boat. Considering he is taller than me, he coped with the confines of the boat very well and was very confident on the tiller. He didn’t have the best of conditions to cruise in, but he seemed to enjoy the experience.
Des takes control on the Sharpness & Gloucester

One of the main reasons to visit Gloucester was to catch up with our pals David and Caroline, who live just outside the city and have recently moved into a brand new house. Dave was my next-door neighbour in Welwyn Garden City for many years and they are both good friends of TCW.
So after Des left us we spend the rest of the weekend with them and their dogs, and Pat got to have her bath. As much as we enjoy our Sunday roasts in Wetherspooons, it was a real treat for us to have a big home-cooked roast, with all the trimmings. They live in a delightful spot and it was good to catch up and see their new home.
While in the city we also popped into the cathedral. Religious buildings are something I generally steer clear of, but I was interested in seeing their famous cloisters. For these feature prominently in the Harry Potter films, where Harry, Ron and Hermione, discuss tactics on the way to lessons, so I thought we would “Slither In”… get it, and check them out. They are, indeed, very impressive.
Hogwarts? Nuhhh, Gloucester Cathedral

The city of Gloucester and the whole South-West has a thriving ukulele scene, and after a couple of  e mails and texts I was able to get a lift to the “Gloucester Strings” meeting last Thursday night. There were nearly 50 of them - all ages and abilities. Had a great “plonk” and its set me up for the Worcester Club next Monday. That is, if we get there in time.
We were due to leave the docks this morning and I have just had a text alert that the Severn in now on an “Amber” alert following the rain of the last 36 hours, and we can only proceed if we sign a disclaimer. The lock keeper has confirmed the situation. Oh, how I love rivers… To be continued.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The (sort of) Magnificent Seven

The first mate and myself are by no stretch  of the imagination fans of river cruising. True, our experiences in the past have been clouded by driving rain, crazy currents, flood conditions, few mooring opportunities, and in the case of our safari down the Zambezi a few years back, herds of marauding hippos.
But here we are, at it again, this time on the Severn, the longest river in England, with not  a hippo in sight. This part of our journey has seen  us travelling some 60 miles between Stourport and Gloucester and then returning to Worcester to get back on the canal system.
After five days on the river we are both agreed that it’s both very beautiful and pretty boring. The river can rise up to 20 metres in flood conditions so the banks on either side are high, meaning there is little to see apart from greenery. When you look at the long poles that sit holding the floating pontoons on the riverside, it is hard to think that the river could ever reach the top, but I took the following picture at Upton-on-Severn on Bank Holiday Monday and it clearly shows the water doing exactly that in July 2007.

The same mooring pole as above.

But whatever the river lacks in its topographical character it can boast some pretty interesting towns and cities along the way.
Our journey down the Staffs and Worcester canal (now one of our favourites) finished at Stourport-On-Severn. I liked Stourport - it had an interesting basin but a garish permanent fun fair sat right beside it. One of the adjacent wharves has just been re-developed by Barratt’s, complete with moorings and electrical hook up, so we had a good nose around the show flat, and got some details. It’s the sort of development we eventually hope to be moving into, when our waterway wanderlust is satisfied.
After dropping down the locks on to the river we set off on Saturday morning south for Worcester. And hurrah, as if on cue, the sun came out, and its been more or less out since. Worcester offers good facilities - but mooring is not one of them, and our mooring on a floating pontoon, close to the racetrack, cost us £4 a night - unthinkable on the canal network. “Welcome to Worcester” it said on the back of the receipt the river warden handed us, within 10 minutes of our arrival on Saturday afternoon. Ummmm.
The drop down through the locks at Stourport-On-Avon on to the River Severn

The following morning we woke up to a lot of splashing around, laughing and shouting. An annual canoe race was taking place, which attracts some 400 competitors and we were moored almost on the start line. Evidently, some of those racing, are in the GB team. It was quite a sight.

It was a good job we didn't want to leave Worcester Sunday morning. It would have been carnage.

We return to Worcester next week. It’s where we leave the river behind and head back into the Midlands on the Birmingham and Worcester Canal. We will moor up, once through the locks there and spend a couple of days exploring the city further, and it won’t cost us a bean.

The approach to Worcester Cathedral under the city bridge

The Severn is pretty wide here and no doubt will get wider as we head south. Pat feels safe steering the boat in these condition, so we have been sharing tiller duty and is, at present, in charge of the boat as I write this blog.

One of our overnight stops. This one at Haw Bridge is typical of the floating pontoons that offer mooring, normally at a fee, usually attached to a pub. 

Later today (Wednesday) we be in Gloucester, where we are staying for four days. That depends on whether we manage to find a secure mooring in Gloucester Docks, otherwise we will be nipping down the Gloucester and Sharpness and mooring there. It’s a tricky approach to Gloucester docks and needs to be handled with some respect. We have done our homework and are prepared.
While in Gloucester we entertain Des, Pat’s brother-in-law, who is visiting from Australia. Then on Saturday evening we are meeting up with my old next-door neighbour Dave and his Partner Caroline, and their hounds. They live just outside the city.
Keep in touch folks. Toodaloo

Thursday, 2 May 2013

"Talk" about boating

I opened our daily paper yesterday (the i - a fabulous buy for 20p). Anyway, I was flicking through it and came to a retirement and savings section, and bless my soul, there was an advert for one of those financial institutions we all know and love. The quarter page ad showed a dapper, silver-haired gent and his good lady, both holding a glass of bubbly, no doubt toasting the acquisition of the new narrow boat which sat slightly out of focus in the background. Above the picture the catch line said “Aspire and Realise Your Dreams”. The man was wearing beige linen chinos,  and a dark blazer over a roll top sweater. He looked like Patrick McGoohan in that 60’s series “The Prisoner”.
The woman wore jaunty, flowery trousers, a stripy top and a huge grin, through whitened teeth. I tell you what: if this is what narrow boating is all about, we have been seriously misinformed.

I have a wardrobe full of light-coloured clothes which never see the light of day. I tend to wear the same blue or black jumper and jeans for as long as I can get away with it, and change my underwear when there is an “R” in the month. That’s a joke by the way.  I know it’s a bit slobby but so what. We have a perfectly good shower to soak in and keep clean, but when you are poking a wood fire one minute and the next got your head down the weed hatch, I don’t think the blazer and slacks look really cuts it, do you? I have to say that Pat is a little more disciplined than me, but only just.

Well, that’s my rant for the week over with. We have both been feeling our age this week and both of us are getting over back issues. Mine rarely goes away, since I crashed through our conservatory roof four years ago. I just have to get on with it, and it’s been playing me up all week, but seems better now. As I said in our last blog, Pat slipped down our stern steps the day before her birthday and has had trouble sitting down for the last week, but she is at present, laid out on the settee, drinking tea, and looks quite comfortable.
Pat gives the chrome on TCW some attention while in Compton

We are making good progress as we head south and are exactly where I planned we would be when we left Trent Lock a little over three weeks ago. We are currently moored in the middle of Kidderminster, outside one of those huge 24-hour Tescos, and guess what, the local ukulele club meets in a pub just the road tonight. It’s either perfect planning or a stroke of good luck. I’ll leave you to decide which dear reader.

The Staffs and Worcester has been a lovely canal to cruise, through very bendy, a bit like the South Oxford in that respect. This is because when the canal was being planned a few land owners did not want the waterway coming across their land and James Brindley (God bless him) had to make several detours, hence the bends And that’s this week’s history lesson.
Capt. Roger completes  his daily log of miles, hours, weather and solar input

We really liked Stafford. There are some great buildings in the town centre that span the centuries and the Wetherspoons, in the old Picture Palace, was a great find. More of that later, and Penkridge did not disappoint either.  In fact all the little towns have been close to the cut and easy to get provisions. This end the sandstone cliffs pile up on one side, and several of the small towns have cliff houses or have let their homes into the cliffs.
Inside of Wetherspoon's Picture Palace pub in Stafford

I must say though, that the waterside pubs on this canal, are not in the “A” list and are a bit thin on the ground.

The weather still can’t make its mind up. I started writing this blog on Sunday morning. The sun was belting down and the solar panels on the roof were greedily gobbling it up. But the day before I had five layers on, plus gloves and hat, and it was cold and wet. I am getting a little tired of my soft southern pals telling me how warm it is in London and the Home Counties.  However, the last two days have been glorious and sunny, so perhaps we have finally turned a corner now that May has arrived.

Arctic conditions one day - shorts the next. What is going on?

Despite the vagaries of the weather we have cruised most days and normally average 5-6 miles, seldom more, though Saturday we did 10 miles on a lock-free section from Gailey to Autherley Junction, where this canal meets the Shopshire Union and Tuesday was a 15-lock day - around six hours cruising from Wombourne to Kinver.

Our attitude to this boating lark is somewhat different this year to last and being more confident has meant we are more relaxed. Unwittingly we have adopted our own daily rituals and routines, on and off the boat. We both know what needs doing, and it just happens. I still can’t get Pat on the tiller though and it’s not for the want of trying.

At the weekend we had Sunday off, and stayed in Compton, which was a village, but is now a suburb of Wolverhampton, but retains a village feel. There was everything there we needed. Two pubs, a launderette, a supermarket, an off licence, a pizza place and a Chinese takeaway. Ohh, and a decent chandlers as well, so definitively a find, with good moorings.

They do find our “Estuary English” a bit hard to understand in the Black Country and I often to have to ask for things twice. It’s great though, to hear the subtle shifts in accents as you move around the country and this is slowly softening as we approach Kidderninster and Stourport - more Birmingham than Black Country.
One thing we have introduced is, whenever possible, we do not cook on a Sunday, especially if we can get to a Wetherspoons. The Sunday lunches are great value and I get a load of 50p off a pint vouchers with my CAMRA membership. We also do not travel much on Sundays. We leave that to others.
Nosey lambs watch us drift by

There has been a lot of awful pictures on the news over the last few weeks of dead lambs and ewes, dying in the snow, but around these parts there are lambs gamboling everywhere. Some of them are quite big now. We still haven’t seen any baby swans yet, but there have been a couple of families of tiny ducklings keeping close to their mum as we bounce past them.
 Next week we will be on the River Seven. We would prefer to be on the canal system and
we are hoping there is not a lot of rain coming to raise the river levels. We will let you know next time when we will be in Worcester. Toodaloo.