Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Due South

After the relative peace and quiet of the Coventry and the Oxford canals, where you passed two boats a day if you were lucky, we now find ourselves back on the “expressway” that is the Grand Union Canal, with its wide locks, marinas round every bend, and hordes of boats of every conceivable type, as we head south.
The North Oxford canal was charming, and afforded every conceivable landscape. Wooded cuttings, pastoral farms, rolling hills and a bending watercourse floated by, with the occasional “fast straight”,  occasionally interrupted by the M6 motorway roaring above us, and the ubiquitous railway line that parallels so much of the canal network.
Hillmorton Wharf

We really liked Hillmorton, which is right on the edge of Rugby. It has a little wharf, a small flight of locks, and commanded a very picturesque location, that we both really liked. Unfortunately it rained for much of our stay, but we got a good TV picture at last, and then found there was bugger-all on worth watching.
There followed a three-hour chug into Braunston - very much the “Crewe Junction” of the waterways. A very busy place, with a huge boating heritage. Anything you want done, or for your boat, you will find here. Or so I thought.  I was hoping to get some anti-tamper screws for the rear door, that was damaged the previous week in an attempted break-in. Tried three places, to no avail.
Braunston Marina

It was not a wasted stop though. When I retired my pals brought me “Waterways”, a very detailed canal mapping system, which is installed our this-here laptop, and which we use a lot. It’s great for working out mileage and times, and finding where the local launderette, butchers or leisure centre is. The business is run out for Braunston Marina by a gent called Mike Kelly and we have been communicating over the last few months as a cut-down version was available on Android, for my phone, but not for our trusty Kindle Fire.
We met while there and he, rather magically, sorted it all out for me. I think Mike was more surprised than me, as there were issues over coding.  So we have the system on all our devices. I just love technology!
And then it was tunnel time again. Braunston, this time - about a 35 minute journey under Daventry. We met five boats going through!

Yet another boat in Braunston tunnel

I have now worked out approximately where we will be most days, right up to our arrival in Hertford on the Lea and Stort on 18 August, so if anybody our there is thinking of paying us a visit, we can give you a fairly good idea of where we will be at any time.
Wide locks can be a real pain if you go through them on your own, unless you are very careful lifting the paddles, and we generally hang around and wait for a “lock buddy”. You don’t have to wait very long on the Grand Union, especially at the weekend, and we descended the Braunston and Buckby flights of locks with various crews. Within two minutes Pat seems capable of getting a life story and all sorts of personal information out of her locking partners. I normally sit at the back of the boat, listening to Joni Mitchell or some country album, watching them go at it, hammer and tongs, as the water gushes in, or out, as may be, and they lean on their windlasses.
We are now in Northampton, all on our own, beside the lock that leads on to the River Nene. This is where we will stay until tomorrow evening when our Kiwi pals Helen and Kevin arrive by train from Cornwall. They will then be on the Cat until Sunday.
It’s a quiet mooring, just us, the swans and a couple of fishermen, and we are overlooked by the giant Carlsberg brewery.
Earlier today a patrolling police officer approached me and asked if he could borrow our boat hook. It transpired he had lost his hat in the canal. On his triumphant return we got to talking about security and I told him I was having problems finding anti-tamper screws. “Oh, like these you mean,” he said, and pulled out a small packet with four screws exactly the right length from his uniform. “I’ve had them in my pocket for weeks, and wondered when they would come in handy. You’ve done me a favour - now I can return it.”. Luvverly jubberly!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Sent to Coventry

Since our last blog, it’s all been happening aboard the good ship “Cat’s Whiskers”. We’ve been dodging submerged craft, had an attempted break-in, and survived the beast that is “Coventry City Centre”. We’ve had sun, driving rain, thunder, and I expect a plague of locusts at any minute!

One of the locks coming out of Atherstone

For much of the time, on board we had an additional pair of hands, namely our pal Paul, whose photo we published in last week’s blockbusting issue. He was a boon in easing the pressure off Pat at locks, and enjoyed taking the tiller, becoming quite proficient as the week commenced.
We remained on the Coventry Canal all week and decided that a journey right into the city centre at Coventry was worth the risk. The guide books, and several boating forum members, had questioned the safety of mooring there. But what a find; an attractive basin, with excellent facilities, good security lighting and only three boats there. The police patrol the basin several times a day and it’s only a short walk to the centre of things. There are a number of “yoofs” about, but none that seem threatening.
Sharing a joke with James Brindley, Father of the Waterways at our mooring in Coventry City Centre
TCW is moored just behind the crane

Pat got quite animated when she discovered an Ikea in the city centre, and the Transport Museum, free by the way, was all it was cracked up to be. They even had our old Triumph Herald displayed there, and it was the same two-tone as the one we had in 1970. Shame it was sawn in half to reveal the innovative chassis.

Blimey. Is that my old car?

Between Tamworth and Alverstone somebody tried to break into the boat. Luckily they didn’t succeed and got no further than trying to gemmy one of the rear metal doors. The machine screws in the top hinge got yanked out and there is the mark where they inserted a screwdriver. So, that’s something that has to be sorted PDQ. I can get the screws back in, but can’t tighten them right up, but we can secure the door OK.
Then there were the submerged boats. One encounters these from time to time, but there were three in a ten-mile stretch of the canal as we approached Coventry and on the one in the photo, the owner was trying to salvage what he could. Kids again! At least he smiled when we took his photo.

That sinking feeling!

After a night moored at Hawkesbury Junction (The Greyhound - very good) we took the five-mile stretch into the city and the basin. Judging by the scraping noises half of the areas shopping trolleys must be parked there. The canal is very shallow and much more rural than I thought. But once in the basin I donned my gauntlets and had a feel around down the weed hatch and all was fine. Just the usual plastic bag or two. Ahh, nothing like living the dream, I say.
We stayed in Coventry all weekend, and really liked the place. Not sure if that is allowed, but it looked OK to us - a mix of mostly post-war architecture, thanks to the Luftwaffe in 1940, but the old medieval section has been lovingly restored and they have made an excellent job of it. They wanted to charge Pat £8 to get into the cathedral though. She refused and quite right too. What a rip off. Paul took us out for a Chinese on Friday night by way of a thank you and we waved him off on Saturday afternoon.
We then back-tracked to Hawkesbury Junction and got on to the Northern Arm of the Oxford Canal. We haven’t cruised this section and it is, in part, very rural, with just the trains whizzing by, to keep us company. Quite shallow though.
And the sun is shining as I finish this blog off. We are in central Rugby, but looking around at the greenery both sides of the canal, you wouldn’t know it.
There’s a Wickes and a Homebase around the corner, so I am off to try and buy some tamper-proof screws this afternoon.


Thursday, 13 June 2013

Queues At The Loos

Get two or three boaters together and it won’t be long until they are talking about toilets. The argument between what is better - having a cassette arrangement or a large holding  tank, that can be pumped out at regular intervals, always creates a huge partisan response whenever one or other is championed on any of the on-line boaters’ forums.
We went for the cassette option and are very happy with the arrangement. These cassettes are not small, having a capacity of 20 litres, so we only have to empty them every few days.
But get five gentlemen on your boat, hit the pub most lunchtimes and evenings and top up with high calorific food, and they fill up alarmingly quickly.
So it was, that last weekend, when four my old boating mates joined TCW for the weekend, our cruising schedule became based around how quickly we could get between various sanitary stations, before they filled both of the on-board cassettes up.
Filling up with water at the top of the Farmers Bridge Flight in central Birmingham

Luckily we had some pretty good weather to complete our journey from Cambrian Wharf in central Birmingham to Tamworth, and the drop down the 14 locks at Farmers Bridge and the subsequent Aston flight to Spaghetti Junction on the Birmingham and Fazeley, went very well. What was noticeable, and is something we have commented on over the last week or so, is how few boats there seem to be out on the cut. We met just one boat as we left Birmingham and could have counted the boats we passed on one hand. You would have thought that the sun would have brought a load of boats out.
Breakfast time on TCW. Malc, Roy, Paul & Paul

Come on Birmingham. Get your act together.

I had been expecting to have all manner of things wrapped around the propeller, but when I checked the weed hatch that night, there was only a couple of plastic bags, and, for a change, no underwear, which is our speciality! Where the canal looked particularly bad, we dis-engaged the propeller between locks and pulled the boat through. The rubbish, as shown in the photos, was everywhere in the lower locks. They’re a messy lot round Birmingham. The one hire boat we had passed had reported they’d had to clear their weed hatch three times that day.

A very rare shot of Roger on lock duty

Just add a scythe and you have Old Father Time

I had been given advanced warnings of where not to moor as we trundled through the outer suburbs of Birmingham, so we cruised down to Minworth and stopped there for the night. While we checked out the local hostelries, our neighbours, in two plastic cruisers, amused themselves with lengths of string and magnets, fishing for anything metal they could retrieve and sell. They were very proud of their haul. It was a bit strange.
Crusing under Spaghetti Junction

And so we proceeded, via rubbish and sanitary points, to Tamworth, and moved back into Staffordshire again. The gentlemen departed early Monday morning and I saw them off at the railway station, and 15 minutes later, welcomed back Pat, who had been staying in a friend’s flat in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham for the weekend.
We had been to Tamworth before a few times. Latterly to visit Elite Furnishings, who specialise in narrow boat furniture and supplied our couch, cum sofa bed. The canal skirts the outskirts of Tamworth, and our mooring was just a bit too far out to comfortably walk in, so our journeys back and forth were done by bus or by cab.
Monday afternoon Pat and I backtracked to empty the last cassette they had left, and take on water at Fazeley, cruising up to 7pm, which is quite unusual for us.
Paul with his "everlasting" tea mug

Another guest joined us Tuesday. Paul is my best pal’s  brother, who we have known for donkeys years and joined us last summer for a few days. This time he is on board until we get to Coventry this weekend.

Rob and Suzie, with their brand new home

And Tuesday night, we met up with Suzie and Rob on “Swamp Frogs”. Boaters who are readers of the magazine “Canal Boat”, will be aware that their boat is featured on this month’s cover and in greater depth inside the magazine. Their brand new boat, was on show at the Crick Boat Show a few weeks back, and features loads of space-saving ideas and innovations, It was really good to see them after so long, and have a good look over the boat. And it seems I might have persuaded them to purchase a ukeulele!
Can I have a tin of sardines please?

Finally, it seems those Midland felines can't keep away from The Cat's Whiskers. Must be the catnip we pump through the engine! No sooner had Ruby departed than a new pussy cat hopped on board to sample the hospitality in Polesworth.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Notes from a Goldfish Bowl

Wallace & Grommit are regular visitors to Gas Street

Think of Birmingham and what springs to mind - Aston Villa FC;  Frank Skinner;  Spaghetti Junction; Crossroads Motel maybe!
What probably doesn’t spring to mind is the city’s comprehensive canal system, courtesy of the Industrial Revolution, that has given our second city more miles of waterways than Venice and spawned Britain’s only canal micro-system, the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigation).
Now you might think that most places would celebrate this fact. Especially when the city’s current campaign, seen on posters all around the city centre, is “Big Up Birmingham”.
But a visit to the Tourist Information Office on New Street saw little literature on this legacy.
A roundabout at a canal junction. What next: speed bumps!
But where Birmingham has spent some money on its canals, the transformation has been phenomenal. The Gas Street Basin, slap, bang, in the centre of things, was once a dark and dingy place you only went too if you were looking for a bit of company for the night, but over the last 10-15 years  it has emerged as a magnet for locals and visitors to Birmingham, and the amount of pubs and restaurants that  sit in, on, and above the water course, is a testament to its success. And as a three-way junction (with its own roundabout) it sees a lots of boats coming and going with trip boats flying all over the place.
Brindley Place. Very much the centre of things at Gas Street

This was not our first time here, and I doubt it will be our last,  but when the sun shines, and the tourists and gongoozlers  are out in droves, if you are not careful where you moor, you and your boat become a tourist attraction within a tourist attraction. I was sitting in the boat last Sunday morning, and passers by were stopping and staring at me through the windows of the boat. A boating neighbour was doing likewise yesterday afternoon and a couple from the Far-East, got on his boat, came down his back stairs, and asked to be shown around. I don’t know what his response was. I didn’t have the nerve to ask.
The entrance to the Stratford canal at King's Norton. Shame about the graffiti

Our route into the city was slow and we stopped at several different locations after leaving Alvechurch. At King’s Norton, where the junction of the Stratford Canal starts, we stayed and sat out the rain and went out for a meal with Brendan and Sophie. We met this couple in Willington, on our first full day out this spring, when they were struggling with a new boat they had just purchased, and were cruising it back to Birmingham.
Brendan owns a successful solicitors practice in the city, and next weekend, when my mates descend on the boat, Pat is staying in their flat in the Jewellery Quarter while they holiday in Turkey. Very nice it is too.
The moorings at Bournville. Handy for the train though. Note the purpleness.

Cruising into Birmingham you can’t avoid the “purpleness” of Bournville and  Cadbury’s. There are moorings there, about two metres from the rail track at  Bournville station, but we had heard it was not a safe mooring. I was more concerned about the tannoy announcing “the next train to Redditch is on platform one” at six in the morning.
We have been to Cadbury’s World before, indeed I organised a trip by narrow boat there, from Gas Street, a few years back, when it looked somewhat different.
We were more interested in this popular  suburb’s architecture and social history.  Cadbury was a Quaker so no pubs in Bournville, but lots of very well-kept terraced houses, many of them having individual names etched above the front door, and the public spaces and buildings, many in a sort of kitsch Tudor-style, were very interesting and well maintained.  We had a good couple of hours there. People talk of Kraft, the new owners, closing the plant down. I hope not. It would be a real tragedy.
Now I normally kick off my blogs by having a rant about the weather, but this week it’s been t-shirt weather and the forecast looks fine for the next few day so yippee!
Ruby, a neighbours cat, liked TCW

"So that's how these things work", says a bewildered Roger

We returned to The Cat’s Whiskers after spot of lunch at Wetherspoons on Sunday afternoon to find we had a visitor. Ruby, the ginger cat from the boat next door, had taken a shine to our roof and soon she was cuddling up with us on the settee and had an afternoon snooze on our bed. It brought back how much we still miss our old cats. Ruby certainly was “The Cat’s Whiskers” for the couple of hours she spent with us.
We have now moved down to Cambrian Wharf, on the edge of the action around here. It’s a 14-day mooring and is gated, so we are fairly secure, but there is a pub 50 metres away. We’ll find out how noisy it is tonight. Two boats away is green 57-footer called “Blackberry Way”. A neighbour here said that an old geezer with a mop of black hair and a beard has been seen on her so I am hoping we get to spot the great Roy Wood, before we leave  on Saturday morning.