Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Well, strike a light Guv!

As can be seen from the syntax  above, I have been brushing up on my “Estuary English” over the last few days, in readiness for our imminent arrival into London. True, we haven’t been for a “Ruby” yet, but we have already “clocked” some tasty “gaffs”, and as we approach Little Venice and Regents Park  I am sure we will see a lot more. I am, for the record, a certified “City of London Apprentice”, so if you hear that Tower Bridge has been closed due to some loony herding sheep across it, that’ll probably be me.
Our neighbour last Thursday night

But first, the weekly rant. We are known, in boating circles, as “Continuous Cruisers” – we stay a day or two on visitor moorings before moving on. However there is another group of waterways dwellers (I would not call them boaters) known as “Continuous Moorers” who clog up visitor moorings, not moving for weeks at a time, if at all. Many of the boats just lie there with nobody on board. This is making finding a mooring a bit of an issue for boaters such as us, and I know that it’s only going to get worse as we move on to the Lee & Stort, a hotbed of dissention, of court cases and counter court cases, petitions and a general refusal to follow the guidelines laid down to protect all those who use and enjoy the waterways. The cause is the Lee’s proximity to the many railways stations which feed through to London’s Liverpool Street, thus making living on a boat very attractive in an area where property prices are crazy.  As Nat King Cole sang in “Let’s Face The Music and Dance”, “There may be trouble ahead!”. Next week: Speeding cyclists. Should they be castrated!

Our mooring at Cowley Lock. You wouldn't think you were in Greater London

Last weekend was spent in Cowley. No, not the one in Oxford, where they still make cars (I think). This one is just south of Uxbridge and is a very pleasant spot – a lock, a pub by the lock, a tea room, that did a great Sunday lunch for £5.99, and a park, plus seven-day mooring, not clogged up by CM’s. The other very unusual thing about this spot is that the canal water is crystal clear. True, it’s not that deep, but I could clearly see the stones on the floor of the canal, bits of old hose, house bricks and various other detritus , from the side of the boat.
Not much water around, but it certainly is clear at Cowley

Trying out our new Wallace & Grommit "Washamatic" clothes line in Uxbridge

Last Sunday was also decision making day. We have been ummming and aaarhing about where to moor TCW this winter since we came back from our travels in March. Sunday morning, we bit the buller, and booked TCW into Mercia Marina for six months. Mercia is on the Trent & Mersey canal, in Willington, close to Derby and Burton-On-Trent.  We will now leave Hertford after the August Bank Holiday and spend two months getting back there.
The other big spend was to book our tickets to New Zealand. We aim to go out towards the end of January and come back mid-April. It’s a bit more expensive than last time, but my accountant says “all is well”.
On Monday we cruised into “Coconut Country”: an area of London dominated by the capital’s Asian community, who throw coconuts into the nearest watercourse when a loved one dies, in the hope that it will find its way back to the holy Ganges.  I think there is more chance of them turning up round my propeller. Through most of our journey, into central London from the west, it has been very noticeable that English is not the main language spoken, as can be seen by this notice, outside Sainsbury’s in Alperton.

And guess what. The towpath was strewn with breadcrumbs

Approaching the aquaduct over the North Circular Road

The view of the North Circular from the boat. I wonder how many times I have driven under this not knowing what it was.

What has also been very noticeable is the reluctance of passing boats and passers-by on the towpath to say hello, or even look you in the eye. We have got so used to passing the time with everyone we meet, it’s a bit disconcerting. It’s not everybody, but it is noticeable
We turned into Little Venice earlier today and passed by a trip boat, about the set off down to Camden. I waved and nobody on the boat responded. Perhaps I come across as a bit strange. Could it be the “Jim Fixed It For Me” tee-shirt I have had on the last few days!
A hotspot for "gongoozlers"

Our overnight mooring in Paddington Basin. Please note. That sloppy rope is not ours.
So now we are in Paddington Basin. We got the last spot and can now enjoy seven nights here, if we so require. And it’s free. We’ll be off tomorrow, to spend two nights in Battlebridge Basin, close to the new King’s Cross complex.
Toodaloo chums.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Bush Hats, Narrow Dogs and Leaking Trees

Another week of comings and goings on TCW and an especially busy, but productive weekend.
But firstly, in a homage to the TV series “The Fast Show”, I would like to say that “This week we will mainly be publishing photos” as we have a number of good ‘uns of guests and a couple that I have taken as we have passed by moored boats, which have tickled me. This for example.
Do you reckon it took the wrong turning?
We arrived in Hemel Hempstead on Friday lunchtime after the Ukulele thrash the night before, which, although I enjoyed it, left my finger tips quite sore. It was another sunny, hot day and we drifted through the town intent on mooring in Apsley, preferably above the locks, which was where we stopped last summer. We feared there would be no spaces: well I did anyway. With the annual national Waterways Festival taking place a few miles away on the canal in Watford, I feared that mooring spots would be sparce, and they were. We eventually moored under some trees below the bottom lock . The boat got covered in sticky sap that fell from the trees and the local pigeons did their best to cover the bits the sap didn’t reach. And worse, we couldn’t use our solar panels. It was the sort of mooring that actually appeals to a lot of boaters, who want a rest from the sun. I want free power, so want the sun beating down on our solar panels.  What’s that about Mad Dogs and Englishmen.. How dare you call me a Mad Dog!
We stayed on this mooring all weekend and entertained my old disco partner Alex, who visited Saturday afternoon and in the evening Claire and Phill who live in Apsley popped by. Claire was a colleague of mine. She mirrored my role at John Lewis Watford. We also had a yummy Sunday lunch with them.
Claire models the hat I bought at the Waterways Festival, alongside Phill and Pat's brolly bracket. The leaves look menacing, don't you think.
Then, at seven on Monday morning! (don’t ask) we welcomed two of our oldest pals, Penny and Bob, who joined us for a four-day cruise, down through Hunton Bridge, Cassiobury Park, Watford, Croxley Green, Rickmansworth and on to Uxbridge, where they left us.
Under the M25, near King's Langley, at a stunning 3mph
But I am getting ahead of myself. While moored under the trees in Apsley, we caught a bus into Watford on Saturday morning to the IWA Waterways Festival. I managed to find myself a replacement hat for the one at the bottom of Gloucester & Sharpness Canal – Pat got her “Brolly-Mate” and a washing line to hang in it, and I was able to get author Terry Darlington to sign his latest “Narrow Dog” canal book and meet the dogs in question 
Entrance to the show. Not another punter (or boater) in sight

Top: Terry and Monica Darlington, authors of the "Narrowdog" boating series.
Below: Jess and Jim, the narrowdogs in question who don't like boats!
In fact the Darlington’s moored in front of us at Hunton Bridge on Monday night  Monica told me they have now sold over 25,000 copies of the “Narrow Dog” series. These books tell the tale of how this elderly couple, along with their whippet, took their boat across the Channel and down to the South of France, and in their second book, how they travelled from Chesapeake Bay to Florida in their narrowboat Phyllis May.  They are a good read, whether or not you are a boater, and it was good to be able to pat whippets Jess and Jim, the narrowdogs  in question, at the show, and later on the towpath. Terry has suffered a stroke recently so it looks likely this will be his last travel book.
I must say we couldn’t get that excited with the Festival. We got round it in about an hour – there were no Chandlers and not that many visitors. The volunteers in their blue shirts seemed to outnumber the guests as far as we could see. There were lots of stalls selling batteries though.
Bob and Penny have cruised with us before, so they knew what to expect. Bob is a “Gadget Man”, which suits me just fine, and this week the boat has been full of Kindles, Tablets, Hard Drives, and power leads. He brought me a hard drive full of films and TV (I didn’t ask where he got them from) so when we have trouble getting a TV signal, we can dip into the comprehensive catalogue he has left us.

Penny & Bob. This week's crew

It was fun cruising with them. When Penny was not doing puzzles under the cratch cover, she helped Pat through the 22 locks we encountered. Bob and I shared helm duty and we had a real good scoff at the Harvester in Croxley Green last night.
First one I've seen
We are currently moored in Uxbridge, near the town centre, and we will be moving down to Cowley Lock tomorrow and probably turn on to the Paddington arm and then on to the Regents Canal over the weekend sometime. No guests now for a bit, but if you fancy a cruise, dodging coconuts on the Paddington arm of the Grand Union, give us a call.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Baked in Berkhamsted

It’s been seven days of “firsts” on the Cat’s Whiskers this week. Our thermometer in the saloon topped 30 degrees for the first time on Saturday – it actually hit 32: we moored with pins for the first time this season (in fact I had a job finding them), and I was assailed by our first female topless boater on Sunday (topless male boaters are 10-a-penny, I should add).
A sunny day approaching Marsworth

The weather continues to dominate what we do and the speed we do it and the incessant heat has slowed us down considerably, both lethargically (is that a real word?) and in our progress in nautical miles, but we are enjoying this prolonged period of hot weather and the comings and goings of our pals keeps us very much on our toes, now we are less than an hour from our spiritual home in Herts.
It must be said though, a steel tube is not the most eco-friendly material around to live in. It retains the cold in the winter and absorbs the heat in the summer. Fried eggs cooked on the roof anybody?
While moored in Leighton Buzzard last Tuesday and Wednesday we entertained an old work pal, Sue, her husband Geoff, and her brother David, over from Oz. They have just bought a water-side property on the Ouse near St Neots, complete with a small cruiser on their own finger pontoon mooring. Great to see them and it looks like they will be in New Zealand when we are there next March, so we plan to meet up, if at all possible.
The following day, another work pal, Colin, my mentor and collaborator in all sorts of mischief in John Lewis, joined us for an overnight stay and was delivered and collected by his Partner Stuart.  I think Colin really enjoyed himself. He thought he would be claustrophobic in the boat but was fine. He spent a lot of the time sketching. He is a very good artist (Member of the Royal Academy) and we hope that eventually we will be able to put something on the wall of TCW with his name on it.
Colin looks for inspiration on a sunny evening (or is that perspiration!

Waiting for the potatoes to boil. Stuart and Colin with the First Mate

We’ve done a fair few miles since we left Trent Lock in March and the old gal was due for an oil change. That’s  the boat by the way! I was very reluctant to tackle this on my own. Last summer, while in Banbury, I had all sorts of problems unscrewing the oil filter which is in a difficult spot on the engine block. I am not at home around engines, but a know a man who is, and he is a keen boater as well, cruising a number of times on TCW, so we invited my pal Paul and his lovely wife Sharon up for the day on Sunday, and dangled the carrot of a Sunday roast, if he would help with the oil change.
It’s a good job he did. I would never have managed to twist myself into a position to turn the filter, which had to be done with a belt strap attached to a torque wrench. Poor old Paul. He was bent double and baking hot.  What a job. Thanks “Thomson”. We later had a “spiffing” lunch in the “chocolate box” village of Aldbury in The Greyhound. The engine sounds just that bit sweeter now.
In the queue to fill up with water near Marsworth.

For the next three days we  moored in Berkhamsted, so we are now firmly back in Hertfordshire. We were here last autumn and I know the town fairly well: well, I know the pubs pretty well. The Rising Sun, right on the lock, featured on last year’s cover of the” Good Beer Guide”, and there are several others I felt were worthy of my patronage. Berkhamsted also has its own totem pole, a throwback when the block of flats surrounding the statue, were once a wood yard and the owners commissioned the pole from British Columbia.
The "famous" Berkhamsted Totem Pole

We spent the best part of three days moored in the town, opposite a park with weeping willows brushing the water with ducks and swans swimming around. It was quiet (apart from the trains) and 100 metres away was a Waitrose, so it couldn’t be a better position.
This weekend is the big Inland Waterways Festival , being held this year in Cassiobury Park in Watford. We plan to go (I hope to get a replacement hat) so the plan is to go halfway to Watford, and moor at Apsley, just past Hemel Hempstead, and stay there for the weekend, if we can. From there we can get to Watford by bus or train, and another old Leisure pal from John Lewis, Claire, who works out of John Lewis in Watford lives close to the canal, so we hope to see her and her fella over the weekend as well.
But tonight I am off to a classic waterside pub, The Three Horseshoes at Winkwell, about 50 metres from where we are moored, where the local ukulele group are having a “thrash” tonight.
Roger prepares himself mentally for the Ukulele Thrash and the average Charles Wells beers

Toodaloo chums. Until next time.....

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Meandering through Milton Keynes

A lot of people are very dismissive about Milton Keynes, the huge, sprawling new town 45 miles north of London in the Bucks countryside.
I can understand why. Most of the “villages” that go to make up the city, are hidden behind tree-lined dual-carriageways and boulevards, and all these roads look the same, resulting is a fairly bland landscape. Designed, very much with the motorist in mind, and constantly expanding, it is now boasts nearly a quarter of a million inhabitants and I see no sign of it not getting bigger.
But come through the city by boat, especially on a sunny weekend, as we have just enjoyed, and it looks and feels completely different. In fact you would be hard pressed to know you were cutting though a major city. You see very little housing and it’s a very tranquil passage. The towpaths are clean and tidy and there is little graffiti.
We moored at Cosgrove, a small village to the north of the city on Wednesday evening and caught a bus in the following day to do some shopping in John Lewis and Waitrose, which we had delivered later that evening and which worked very well.
We moored, almost opposite the village pub, but to get to it you had to walk through “the horse tunnel”, pictured here.
The Horse Tunnel at Cosgrove

Built in the shape of a horses backside, this is where the tow path changed sides, and the horses that pulled the boats 200 years ago would have to walk through here. It was a bit low for me (especially after a few pints).
The following day we did the short cruise through Wolverton to the Black Horse. Wolverton was the home of the “Royal Train” and had a locomotive works. It’s history is recorded on the wall mural, which is a bit of a landmark.
Part of the huge "Railway" wall approaching Wolverton

The weather was great throughout the weekend into Monday and Tuesday and we have had a lot of fun. We met up with one of our oldest chums, Laura, on Friday night, but what we didn’t know, until quite late, was that two of our other oldest pals Fern and Martin were coming to visit and staying for the weekend. We had so much fun. I rarely stopped laughing all weekend. I’ve known Martin since junior school days, and our paths don’t cross that often these days, but it was wonderful to see them again.
Martin’s a bit like me - he can pick up most instruments and get a tune out of it, so it wasn’t surprising that he joined Laura and me at a ukulele workshop on Saturday morning and picked it up very quickly.

With my pals Laura and Martin. Could this be the genesis of
The Friern Barnet Ukulele Society?

It’s a good eight-miles through Milton Keynes on the Grand Union as the watercourse circles the northern part of the city before turning south and cutting through its centre before it emerges at Bletchley and Fenny Stratford, and leaves the city behind.
By Saturday night we had arrived at The Plough at Simpson (didn’t go in - not that keen on Charles Wells beers) and it’s where we stayed the rest of the weekend. Martin had proved to be a first-class helmsman, so I sat beside him and watched the world go past and the girls did similarly on comfy chairs in the cratch cover.
Sunday was spent getting ready and then experiencing Mr Murray’s performance at Wimbledon. I am not much of a tennis fan, unlike the other three on the boat. We had a big picnic tea to celebrate, with lots of shellfish, smoked salmon, and the like. It was yummy.
Martin at the helm somewhere in Milton Keynes. (Not a concrete cow in sight!)

But our trip down memory lane was not quite complete. We reprised it on Monday evening in London’s Park Lane, where we met our Canadian friends, Vaughn and Lori, who were in London on a “Land Rover” trip, and also, to attend a garden party at Buckingham Palace on Thursday with a concert afterwards. Jammy, or what.
Vaughn assures me he has his curtsey all sorted. We met them at the Four Seasons opposite the Hilton. Martin and Fern came to and Vaughn’s cousin Roger, and we went into Shepherds Market for a meal in a French restaurant. Beats Wetherspoons!
Shepherd's Market pub, Mayfair
Roger, Vaughn, Lori, Fern, Pat and me

So now its just Pat and me, and we meandered south and into Leighton Buzzard today - around a seven-mile journey. Might not sound much to any landlubbers reading this, but that’s a fair old cruise in a boat. And boy was it hot. Though I am not complaining and am not going to go on about the heat. I like it, but it was intense.
And finally, we were sad to hear that one of our cats passed away a few days ago. Ernie had been with us around five years before we moved onto the boat. He was already in late middle-age when we gave him a home, and he was a particular favourite of our tenants Liz and Simon. He was very much “The Cat’s Whiskers” as far as they were concerned.
One of Ernie's favourite sun spots

He passed away in the sunshine in next doors garden. They buried him in the part of the garden where all our vast menagerie over the years, have been laid to rest. So we just have Molly alive now, who just keeps on going. Pat would like to  bring her on to the boat, but I think she is in the best place, where she is comfortable and feels secure.
Anyway, tune in next week for another thrilling instalment.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Cats, Kiwis and Racing Cars

Top lock at Stoke Bruerne. (Pat with Camilla-style haircut)

This time of year we expect to receive lots of visitors on board TCW, especially as we are now heading south into familiar territory, and rather surprisingly, we are generally lucky with the weather when that happens. So we kept our fingers crossed last Thursday when we waited for our New Zealand pals Kevin & Helen to arrive in Northampton, where we had been moored for much of the week.
The forecast was not good. Heavy rain and unsettled conditions (which is Met Office speak for more heavy rain!)
Kev and Helen had been in Cornwall visiting family and were finishing their first trip to the UK in over 40 years by visiting us for three days, before we took them down to North London on Sunday,. Plans were to hire a car for a couple of days to show them the English countryside from the canal and country lanes.
Luckily we had no shortage of wet weather gear on board, and we thought we might need it all. There were 17 locks to negotiate back to Gayton junction and around 12 of them in a flight with nowhere to moor in between.
Can I get any wetter?

Kevin & Helen, our New Zealand guests, celebrate finishing the Northampton Flight of locks

It was pouring down as we left Northampton Friday morning and however attractive the canal network looks at this time of year, a grey day on the canal, is a grey day on the canal.
But I must have lead a blameless life, for no sooner had we got through the locks on the outskirts of the town, than it stopped raining and though dull, we remained dry right into Blisworth for afternoon tea and our overnight mooring.
Just leaving  Blisworth. Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Looking around though, it was obvious that a lot of boats moored there were going through the Blisworth Tunnel the following morning to stay at Stoke Bruerne for the weekend, which was also our intention.
So we got up early on Saturday and were through the tunnel by 9.30am and moored up by 10am.
Stoke Bruerne Museum, houses and shops

Kevin, Helen & Pat at Stoke Bruerne Top Lock

And it was a good job we did. Stoke Bruerne is a very busy spot, with two riverside pubs, beside two locks and the Canal Museum. Add a nice, sunny day, and you get lots of activity, both on and off the water.
A few of our boating pals had told us that if we were going to hire a car, then Enterprise would deliver it to the waterside for us. However, I retain a great deal with Avis, which I had through John Lewis, and thought we might ask them to deliver a car to the car park of the Navigation pub in the village, which they agreed to do.
The Navigation, Stoke Bruerne. Not a bad place to wait for your car to be delivered.

What I failed to realise was that Silverstone is only five miles from Stoke Bruerne and the British Grand Prix was on that weekend, with road closures and all the disruption that goes with it.
The car was late being delivered, which was not really a problem and not a surprise. We then drove cross-country to Cropredy, another canal village, on the South Oxford canal.
Pat fancies putting TCW into the new marina that is being built here, when we go away again this coming winter. The builders and owners are confident the marina will open mid-August. I think they should start praying for a miracle. They made us very welcome though and showed us around the site. I think it will be ideal when finished. We both like the South Oxford Canal, it’s only a mile to the “chocolate box” village of Cropredy (and The Red Lion) and Banbury is only five miles away. We’ll try and get back in August.
This will be a working marina in six weeks time

On our return, Stoke Bruerne was packed with boats. Five of them had met up for a birthday party, and we were surprised to see cats running all over the place. I think there were five of them, and they had a grand old time, running along the roofs, and one, a beautiful ginger Maine Coone, enjoyed walks on a lead! We naturally threw TCW open to any visiting feline and soon had one cuddled up beside us on the settee.
We ran Helen and Kev down to Barnet on Sunday morning and did the trip down “Memory Lane” with Helen, visiting our old school, her old house in Friern Barnet, and its local park, before we dropped them off  and said goodbye, We’ll see them again in NZ next February I expect.
Now we have three days to get into Milton Keynes, where we meeting one of my oldest pals, Laura, on Friday night. I really like cruising through Milton Keynes. I think you see the best of it. We’ll probably moor at Cosgrove for a couple of days so we can go shopping in central Milton Keynes. We haven’t had a John Lewis/Waitrose fix since the end of March. My discount card is getting dusty!