Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Coventry Canal. Ashby Canal. Huddlesford to Snarestone

There will be photos as soon as we get some wifi.

At Huddlesford, just before August Bank Holiday and in order to position Legend closer to the car park, there was a very short move from one end of the moorings to the other. This meant that when the Keys turned up - that’s Andrew, Karen, James and Emily - getting them aboard was simplicity itself. In our little boat, accommodating six people, while possible, is pushing it a bit. Accommodating six people and a beagle is clearly impossible so, after a perfect evening with a towpath barbecue, music and lots of laughter,
and with our visitors tucked up snuggly on board, we spent the night just as snuggly in our little tent beside our boat.
In the morning we pulled the pins and set forth up the Coventry canal towards Polesworth.
The first thing we passed was Whittington Wharf where, the day before, the Lichfield Canal Society had held an open day and had various baked goods and cake left over. In true boater style, we pulled alongside their vessel and there followed a spot of banter, after which we came to an accord and took on provisions. In discussions later it turned out that with one of us at either end of our boat, we’d managed to hand over the agreed price twice, which negated the pirate simile we had going there but it was all in a good cause.

Over the previous couple of weeks we’d been aware of a fair number of historic boats going past us in the same direction. We eventually heard that their destination was Alvecote Marina where, it just so happened, we were heading. We got there right in the middle of the boat handling competition and spent a memorable hour and a half surrounded by the sight and sound of some of the most beautiful boats on the waterways as they queued up. It was fabulous. When we finally got out of the other side we had to run the gauntlet of the commentator taking the micky out of our roof garden and hanging basket and asking if Andrew was ballast! How rude.

At Polesworth we moored up on the 48s, put the tent up again and then Andrew and Karen treated us to a meal in the Indian next door. The perfect end to a perfect boating day.

The following day, before the Keys left for home, Chloe came to see us so there were seven people and a dog on board for a while, and it was raining. In the afternoon Chloe chose to tip a bucket of cold water over herself in the name of charity. She did it in the pouring rain which somewhat defeated the object, but it was funny enough. If you were on Facebook in 2014 you’ll understand. It was lovely to see her and it won’t be long before she’s living and working permanently in Ireland so every moment we get to spend with her is precious.

Our ascent of Atherstone locks was not done in our usual solitary slick style; instead we found ourselves queueing up with lots of other boats and subject to the varying abilities and questionable techniques of lots of other people. And of course, as is usually the case, after helping several of the crews ahead of us up the locks, Ann-Marie found herself on her own, while the people behind us stood around their boats yacking to each other. Smile and wave guys, smile and wave.

Turning onto the Ashby canal was like entering a different world. A shallower world with frillier edges, but lovely all the same and a lot quieter than the Coventry. After Hinkley it got quieter still and by the time we got to Stoke Golding, where we stopped for the night, boat spotting had become a rare and exciting event. The next day we carried on to Shackerstone. We wouldn’t normally make progress in such a speedy way but events had conspired against us. We’d volunteered to help with the set up for the Shackerstone Festival, and booked Legend in for the duration. While we were at Polesworth we got a phone call from the organisers advising us to get up there as soon as possible in order to get moored near the site. This was because there were a lot of rumours circulating on the towpath telegraph resulting from an agreement between Nature England and CRT to restrict double mooring durthe festival to try to limit damage to plant life.  After a nasty case of Chinese whispers with, we suspect, a fair smattering of personal axe-grinding thrown in, this was turned into local fishermen trying to ban boats from the canal. Numerous flyers, demanding a call to arms were posted on lock gates and bridges pleading for as many boats as possible to join the cause and come along to “Save the Ashby Canal from Closure”. The last thing the event organisers wanted was their volunteer workforce turning up to find nowhere to put their boat, hence the phone call, hence the rush. When we arrived the moorings alongside the festival field were all full and we tied up two bridges away, but that turned out to be a better place to be anyway. The protest, for what it was worth, amounted to a lot of tutting and muttering, a few floating sheds moored in the reeds and not much else really.

For three days before kick-off, as part of Cath & Glyn’s festival set up team, we were employed shifting chairs, tables, traffic cones and gazebos wherever they required, and during the event we manned one of the main gates each day for two hours. It was good to feel useful and we felt we’d earned our free tickets.

The festival was, as usual, fabulous. Each year it gets bigger with more exhibits and traders and covers more fields. The weather on the Sunday was amazing and there were record crowds. When we weren’t trying to stop people wandering in without paying we had a wonderful time. Kim and Luke joined us for the day on the Saturday afternoon, which was lovely. Ann-Marie got lots of George cuddles and Dave got a buddy to go round the junk stalls with.

In an amazing set of coincidences, the chap on the boat moored next to us looked familiar and it turned out he used to be our local coal merchant when we lived in a house. Over a period of three years, while we were still trying to figure out how we could get out of the rat race, we jealously watched as he built a narrowboat in a big shed in the coal yard. One day it disappeared, then low and behold, five years later it was moored next to us. Alan and Joy were the nicest neighbours we could have hoped for; they have a permanent mooring at Bill Fen marina on the Middle Level and made us promise to get in touch when we’re over there. Which we will. In a final twist it turned out that Ann-Marie used to work with Allan’s brother. This boating world is positively tiny at times.

After the festival was over we had one day helping with the clear up, then waited a couple more while everyone else left before moving the boat on to the head of navigation just beyond Snarestone tunnel. The Ashby Canal used to go on for another eight miles to a terminus above Moira, the top mile and a half have been restored and re-watered and it is possible to follow some of the original line between the two parts. Of course there is an ambitious plan for the missing five miles, some of it along the original line, some new cut, and a bit through Measham that follows a disused railway line and goes through the station. Using a map provided by the very friendly Ashby Canal Association, we had a lovely day walking as close to the original line as possible up to the restored blast furnace at Moira, then on to Conkers, the National Forest activity centre, where eventually the restored canal will terminate.

While we were moored at the present navigation limit the contractors were re-watering the next quarter of a mile or so and there was a lot of activity beyond there. They’re not standing still, that’s for sure. After visiting the basic but very clean sanitary station we winded and weaved our way back under the tunnel to moor up just beyond the pub. Lovely spot; lots of solar and a short walk to the car. With everything we’ve got going on in the next month that’s going to be quite important.  

Friday, 29 August 2014

Trent & Mersey Canal. Coventry Canal. Fradley to Huddlesford.

Well, Dear Reader, over the last month or so a lot of plans have been laid and a lot of important things have happened, and despite the inherent unreliability of both the British weather and the British themselves, everything has gone like clockwork. We think this is something to be celebrated.

First there was Chloe and Shandy’s wedding in Antrim.

We’d decided to make a holiday of it and have a few days either side, so we sailed from Holyhead overnight on the Monday before the do. Before that, however, we drove over to Chloe’s Grandparents’ house near Stowmarket to pick up the wedding cake that Granny had made, using Granny’s delicious fruit cake recipe, and that Granny’s friend had beautifully decorated with a garland of sugar flowers cascading gracefully down the three tiers.
We placed the boxes containing the cakes and the flowers, along with a big gold cake plinth, very carefully on top of all the camping gear in the back of the car and waved goodbye. Our mission was simple, but involved driving almost the entire length of both the notorious A14 and the equally horrible A55 whilst trying very hard not to think about the responsibility of it all or, indeed the consequences of failure. (Images of a stand-in cake in the form of Sponge-bob Square Pants, because that’s all that Antrim Morrison’s had on the shelf, were shoved firmly to the back of our minds.) As our route took us within spitting distance of the boat we’d factored in a rest stop to say goodbye to Legend and to our friend John who was looking after it for us. We gave him a comprehensive rundown regarding on-board systems operation, or to put it more simply, showed him how to change the loo and start the genny.

We managed to get a couple of hours kip on the ferry, and the drive from Dublin up to Belfast was a breeze, but it was a weary pair of travellers who turned up on Kevin and Pauline’s doorstep 24 hours after leaving the boat the day before. The cake, happily, was perfect.
No Sponge-bob for this wedding!

The rest of the wedding was perfect as well; the ceremony was in Antrim Castle Gardens
and the reception was at Ballymena Rugby Club in an amazing triple tipi.
Dave looked very smart and very proud walking his daughter down the aisle.
And Ann-Marie looked gorgeous as well.
In the days afterwards we had a very small tour of the top right hand corner of Ireland, and if that’s anything to go by, (and everyone assures us that it is) we’re going to love the rest of it. Now our daughter and new son-in-law live there we’ll be regular visitors and intend to make the most of every trip.

After such a hectic time away it was lovely to get back to our calm little boat.  John had watered all the plants and left the place spotless so we were able to chill and do nothing for a whole day. Bliss.

Our next move was to Fradley where we stopped for a week above the locks. Fradley is one of the more popular spots on the waterways; not only is it the junction between the T&M and the Coventry canals, but there’s also a CRT office, a caravan site, a famous pub, a cafĂ© and a flight of locks. It’s always busy. It's busy when the rest of the network is deserted and it's positively chaotic when the weather’s good and the kids are off school. This makes it a really great place for boat - or more accurately - boater watching. By the third week Granny and Granddad are questioning their sanity, and the idea of doing the Coventry ring with the grandkids is rapidly losing its appeal. They’re seriously considering sneaking them into a young offender’s institute in the hope that no-one will notice until it’s too late, when they come round a corner and there before them is Fradley junction and a four hour queue. It kept us amused all week. With this in mind we made a seamless departure down the locks and onto the Coventry at about 8am. Even then there were three boats coming up; no doubt all with the same idea as us!

After filling up with water we carried on down the Coventry to Huddlesford Junction where there was a very convenient car park and some very safe looking moorings. As we would be leaving Legend there for a while we tied proper knots in the mooring lines and put the bird table up. Huddlesford Junction hasn’t really been a junction for sixty years or more. It used to be where the Wyrley and Essington Canal departed from the Coventry and wound its way up through more than 30 locks to the BCN and eventually the top of the Wolverhampton flight. Sadly the section between here and Ogley Junction was closed in the 1950s; the remaining quarter of a mile or so still in water is now used for private moorings. Happily, under the more relevant name of the Lichfield Canal, the derelict part is subject of a very energetic and quite well advanced restoration scheme.
There’s a lot to do.

There's a railway line to get under and a several roads to cross.
A new section of canal to cut to avoid a housing estate. 
But there’s a lot already done.

When it’s complete it will make a very useful cruising ring and a short-cut to Wolverhampton and Birmingham. We have every hope that when we come back up this way again (10 years is our estimate for a return trip) if it’s not finished it won’t be far off.

On our trip away from the boat this time we were in Mate Helping Mode. First stop was John’s in Woodlesford for a de-brief on boat sitting. And cake. Very nice cake. After that we went to Kate and David’s in Keighley. They’ve bought a Mercedes Vito van which they’re going to convert to a camper.
Before all the insulating and furniture building that will ensue at a later date, the first job was to fit the pop-up roof which David had bought on-line. Dave had agreed to help him fit it, or to put it another way, cut a large hole in the top of a perfectly serviceable white van, which, unless the fitment of the pop-top was successful, rendered it worthless. No pressure then. Despite it being a quality piece of kit and very well made there was a dire lack of understandable instructions, so there was a good deal of ‘measure twice, cut once’ with extra measuring on the side.
When the boys were absolutely sure it was all in the right place and at the right angle Dave climbed up with a jigsaw. When he’d completed the jigsaw he cut a hole in the roof with an angle grinder. Boom Tish. Sorry.
After that they positioned the supports and tensioned the canvas and fixed it all in position. This is the finished result.
Obviously there’s still a long way to go but it makes the rest of the conversion seem achievable.
From Keighley we drove to Gorefield in Cambridgeshire where Glen, Steve and Holly live, to look after their menagerie while they were on holiday in the Pyrenees. We’ve had plenty of experience with chickens, ducks, cats and dogs so that was no problem; it was the ponies and goats that we were a bit apprehensive about. Glen had left us four pages of very comprehensive and very useful instructions, but it was still a short, steep learning curve. On day one the goats ate the ponies’ tea, on day two we woke up to find a pony in the garden and then the ponies ate the goats' breakfast, but after that we all settled down and had a very amiable week.
Even the goat/rose bush incident did little to spoil the fun. By the end of the week we were well into the routine and Dave and Bart-the-pony had a bit of a thing going on.
When Glen, Steve and Holly came back we gave up our role as staff and stayed for a couple more nights as guests to help celebrate Steve’s birthday along with a few of their other friends. We had a smashing barbeque followed by an evening of classic films. Predictably “Airplane” went down a storm – we all joined in with choruses of “Don’t call me Shirley.” and “It’s a big building where doctors work, but that’s not important right now.” However the mixed family audience concluded that, with hindsight “Midnight Cowboy” was, perhaps, a seedy bus-ride too far.  Never mind, it was an excellent evening.

Before we’d left Legend, we’d taken measures to stop the plants drying out with, we found on our return, varying degrees of success. After lots of soaking and a good deal of pruning we put our stunted collection of withered foliage back on the roof and hoped that it would get better soon.
What won’t get better soon is the log burner. Sometime between January when we had our Boat Safety Examination and August when Dave deciding to apply some stove blacking, this happened.
We think the sequence of events went something like this; when we had the leak in the back boiler last year, the water got into the rope seals between the cast iron panels. Then when we stopped using it in spring rust developed and swelled the joints resulting, when the pressure got too much, in a crack in the bottom right hand corner.

We’re not sure what to do about it. You can’t have a BSC with a stove that’s been welded up, no matter how well it’s been done, so obviously at some time we’re going to have to have a new one. The questions are when and what. It doesn’t leak (we’ve tested it and the crack is below the firebox meaning that even if wasn’t air-tight it would draw in rather than leak out) so we’ll probably hang on till next year, but do we replace it with another Morso Squirrel or with something cheaper? Unfortunately anything else will require re-aligning both the chimney and the plumbing (that’s if we can find anything that small with a back boiler) so we’re reluctantly coming to the conclusion that we’ll end up biting the bullet and shelling out the fat end of £700 for the genuine article. Hey ho, at least we’ll have a nearly new stainless steel back boiler to fit in it.   

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Caldon Canal. Trent and Mersey Canal. Froghall to Rugeley.

Eventually we had to take our boat away from the beautiful Froghall Basin and back to the real world.
This time we filled the water tank before we went through the tunnel so we could use the motor and avoid any undesirable Ann-Marie/very large spider conflicts. Once on the other side we washed the roof,
then put it all back together,
apart from the big tubs which have broad beans, runner beans, courgettes, tomatoes and lettuce in them and are too big to go under most bridges, never mind tunnels. While we’re boating they get humped into the well deck along with the raspberry canes. Next year we’re going to try and get the raspberries to shrub out sideways.
On our way up to Consell Forge we did our bit for the greater good by pruning back an overhanging branch and cleaning an information sign. It’s not often that we’re in the right place at the right time to join in with volunteer work parties so we’re always on the lookout for an opportunity to contribute something towards the upkeep of the waterways.  We stopped for a couple of nights right outside the Black Lion. It was a lovely mooring, made all the better by the Churnett Valley Railway going right past the pub, and the pub having very nice beer.
Elizabeth brought her daughter Sarah along for the day for some EOTAS which, that day, meant learning about canal locks and water pressure and river flow and invasive plants and cherry buns. The cherry buns lesson will no doubt be remembered long after all thoughts of hydraulic equilibrium and the spread of Himalayan Balsam have faded, and so it should.

We boated with them up to Cheddleton, which has also got a pretty railway station,
then the next day, retraced our steps up to Hazelhurst Junction where we reversed back to the lovely moorings on the Leek Branch.
Dave made good use of the wide towpath and got the new window frames finished off. They’re all done and in now, and very smart they look too. While we were waiting for the last coat of varnish to dry, we thought that as we had all this outside space, it would be a good idea to tidy up the well deck and give the inside walls a lick of paint. As is the way of things, this soon developed into completely emptying the well deck, attacking the floor with the wire brush attachment on the grinder
and repainting the whole thing.
It was hard work and Dave looked a bit like a coal miner at the end of it, but it was all worth it. We celebrated with a towpath barbeque,
finished off with a marshmallow on a stick.
It’s a good life.

Despite it only being hearsay, we took heed of the warnings about the stretch of waterway below Milton, moored up just before engine lock at Stockton Brook and then went straight  back to Etruria in one go. When we got there David and Kate joined us for the weekend. After one night outside the museum which, it has to be said, got a little out of hand,
and didn't finish till about 3am, we said goodbye to the beautiful Caldon Canal and, joining the Trent and Mersey again, set off down the locks and out of the urban sprawl. The boys had a really interesting time leaving Stoke as both of them used to drive trucks through there on a regular basis, in fact David still does, and it was very strange to see familiar landmarks go slowly by from a lot lower down. As you drive through Stoke on the A500 and the A38 you are hardly aware of the canal, but it’s right there next to the road for a lot of the way.

We had one night at Trentham near the Wedgewood factory then moved on down the lovely Measham locks to Stone.
Kate got to see a Kingfisher for the first time and it was a really good one; in bright sunshine with its colours all sparkly, it flew ahead of the boat straight down the middle of the cut then perched on a branch till we caught up.  At Stone we dropped through the locks to the water point where David and Kate left us to go home. That included the Stone Bottom Lock which is in the middle of the Star Inn beer garden, and provides passing boat crews with the opportunity to show off their locking technique. Or not, as the case may be. No-one booed or threw rotten fruit at us, so we’ll call that a success.

Just as we’d finished on the water point, and with perfect timing, a boat pulled out of one of the two mooring spots and we were able to nab it.
While we were near a chandlery, Dave got some high temperature stove paint for the Squirrel. We need to get on with that fairly soon, but  It’s tricky; you need to cure the paint after you’ve applied it by lighting small fires just using kindling. Trouble is, at the moment even a small fire is going to be stifling, so timing is everything.
We carried on down the T&M, past the very grand Salt Bridge,
stopping for one night at Burston then mooring up behind the Saracen’s Head in Weston-upon-Trent.

That was where we’d chosen to leave Legend for a long weekend while we went to the Ely Folk Festival. This is the one bash we try to get to every year; it coincides with our wedding anniversary and it’s a fabulous friendly little festival in one of our favorite cities. The organisers have managed to resist the temptation to expand, but they still attract some big names. Steve Knightley was followed by Breabach on Saturday, and Eddi Reader topped the bill on Sunday. Other stuff that made it a terrific weekend were Blackbeard’s Tea Party, Vin Garbutt and our favourite act in the world; The Gerry Colvin Band. For the first time ever, at  1am, we were awake and dancing at the end of the Friday night ceilidh. Loads of our friends were there; all of Bourne Borderers, who were performing around the city and at the festival site, as well as Glen, Holly and Ann from Pig Dyke Molly, who weren’t. Well, no more than usual. We did a Morris workshop with the rather scary Witchmen and almost got it right. It felt good to be bashing sticks with each other again. It had been raining for a few days before the start so we weren’t allowed to take cars onto the camping field and had to put all our stuff into wheelie bins or wheelbarrows, however the weather wasn’t bad on the whole. There was the odd thundery shower, (including one that came bucketing down just when we were all singing along to Steve Knightly’s “Rain”, which was amazing,)  but the field survived and there wasn’t that much mud.  In-between, the sun came out and the arena filled up with happy smiling people.
Perfect Ely.
After we’d barrowed our stuff back to the car and said goodbye to all our mates, we came back to Weston. On the journey home we’d been debating whether or not to move the boat when we got back, and settled on not doing. However karma had different ideas. Just as we were giving the plants a good watering we got a text from Gordon and Helena on Mandakini; another couple we met on our Rippon adventure last year. They were just a bit further down the T&M, moored up at Great Haywood and were going to be turning onto the Staffs and Worcester next. We didn’t want to miss them so we pulled the pins and headed their way. It was really good to catch up; we went to the pub and had a brilliant evening.
If that wasn’t coincidence enough the next day we were walking back to the boat and came across Shirley and Peter who were with us on our return crossing on the Ribble Estuary, and who we’d last seen at Appley Bridge on the L&L. We’ve met some fabulous people since we started this boating malarkey and it’s really cool when your paths cross in unexpected places.

Right next to the canal at Great Haywood Essex Bridge,

It's a packhorse bridge over the River Trent and very well preserved.

From Great Haywood we went to Rugeley, stopping at Wolesley Bridge for a walk around the nature reserve, which was rather lovely.

After one night next to the Aqueduct over the Trent,
(which is getting rather big now; a little bit further on the T&M joins the river for a stretch, but we’re turning off before that onto the Coventry Canal at Fradley Junction) we had a few days on the visitor moorings in Rugeley; not our usual habitat, it must be said, but quite nice all the same. It got a bit hairy the second night we were there, there was a thunderstorm and at around 3am a big branch fell off a chestnut tree right next to us. With the car parked next to the boat it’s very useful for our immediate adventures; very shortly were going away for 10 days to Ireland for Chloe and Shandy’s wedding in Antrim. John is coming to boat-sit for us and we’ve picked out a tranquil little spot where we think he’ll be happy, but at the moment we’re feverishly ticking things off lists. All we have to do before we sail is somehow shoehorn all ours and Anne’s and Anne’s family’s camping gear into the car, along with a load of stuff we’ve got for the wedding.

Oh yes, and the wedding cake. Mustn’t forget that.