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.