Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The State of Things...

The Captain and Boatwif had travelled to Macclesfield on Saturday afternoon. "Play with me, Granny," the Cheshire One had pleaded. Into the dining room we went, music playing as background to a card game. Later Boatwif was honoured to be chosen for bedtime story-reading too.

Sunday dawned grey but dry. Techno Son-in-law set off at 0815 (wasn't that 0715 GMT?) for Wilmslow to take part in a Half Marathon, he and 3,999 others... He advised us not to spectate as parking was impossible, although Techno's dad did the honours.

 Meanwhile Chatsworth House (or more exactly Chatsworth grounds) was to be our destination, with picnic. Up the steep hillside via zigzag path we slogged, safe in the care of our "star soldier", who, equipped with two large sticks, lead the way and protected the Queen (Boatwif), the King (the Captain) and the Princess (Mummy)... Past the vast aqueduct carrying water to the garden's many water features we climbed.  Then, high up above Chatsworth House we came upon a hunting lodge, a convenient seat in front of it.  Lunch was eaten, before an alternative route back to car park level down hundreds of slippery steps was taken. Next onwards to the farmyard and adventure playground. Cows, calves, sheep, lambs, goats, pigs, piglets, hens, chicks, donkeys, Shetland ponies, Shire horses: a fairly fast observation of the aforementioned was made before a race up to the adventure playground level, where the Cheshire One bounced and bounced for much of the next hour on a very orange trampoline. The playground, built "for children of all ages",  is pure temptation for climbers and sliders, for music makers, for sand and water engineers, and yes, a slide or two had to be tested by this water-thrill deprived would-be boater...

And so to the would-be boating: out to the boatyard on Monday morn we bowled. Bright daffodils jostled for space in front of the grey stone walls. The workforce were hard at their coffee break in deckchair seats as we rounded the dry dock. Over to the boat they scuttled.  Swiftly one dived under the cratch cover to start the show.  We boarded Cleddau.  Lights, music, action. Ceiling lights, wall lights, radio, TV, gas hob, tiles... such progress. On to the bathroom: here were tiles behind the basin, a shower fitted with hose and taps, a working shower pump!  

But tools are still scattered about the boat so what remains to be done?


·         the blacking of the hull (but Andy Russell is painting a boat in the dock...)

·         the laying of the floor (but the floor layer didn't turn up as promised...)

·         the fitting of the diesel heater (only Expert Engineer is deeply involved with another boat...)

Photos were taken; discussions were had; fire extinguishers were counted (the boat safety examiner obviously had problems!); battery terminals were examined. Then Boatwif and the Captain left, pleased at progress but frustrated by delays.

Later another thought occurred: weren't brushed stainless steel electric fittings, not shiny chrome, specified? And then, while doing chef duty Boatwif reached for the extractor fan above the hob: had the galley fan been retrieved and replaced? After a Tuesday visit another thought: had the 12 volt sockets been installed?

Sawdust blankets the boat, inches deep. It is Spring, the sun is shining and the Cleddau crew so want to be spring-cleaning and arranging cupboards and trying out the new installations - and floating on water, however brown, however shallow…


Friday, 25 March 2011

Boatwif turns detective...

Friday 25th March, 2011

Disguised as local land-based residents Boatwif and the Captain took a morning stroll to the village post office, there to dispatch a parcel to California. Back out in the warm sunshine a left turn was made, as opposed to a right. On we ambled, past roofing workers, past a Dynarod van, past yellow forsythias and emerging magnolias. A left turn at the junction, down past the (fairly) new Health Centre towards the (very) new latest housing development.  Ahead of us the road arched over the three month old fast dual carriageway, the construction of which had perplexed and amazed locals in equal measure. "But where will be the canal?"* had been the anguished cry from so many.

We crossed the road and entered a green area, part ploughed field, part planted crops, part young trees.  Berry Wood is a recent plantation, created as part of the Forest of Marston Vale. After the recent dry spell the farm vehicle tracks are dry and deeply rutted, not the claggy-clay lead-weight boot experience that prevails during wetter times. Buds were sprouting on branches, birds were singing, a tractor purred in the distance and we wound our way along field edge, through grassy clearings, past clumps of upright saplings, squeezing single file in one place along an enclosed path but heading generally south and west. Then we came to it – the southern edge of Berry Wood.

Through a large gap in the hedge there was a clear view of the new road, traffic smoothly spinning along towards Bedford.  But here the roadway, invisibly from the carriageway, stretches on a bridge over an underpass. A wide channel has been created under the bridge; several serious water drainage covers are embedded along one side and a purpose built concrete edging and wall provides separation along the channel. Could this be it? Could this be an intended access from the non-existent, as yet, canal link into a non-existent marina? A channel cut and an unmade towpath? The sturdy metal gate was not secured so closer investigation was possible. Under the roadway we sailed (if only), rather sallied, to discover no further channelling the other side. Such deliberate infrastructure must be for a purpose – would that it heralds the near construction of our very own local canal.

Since 1995 campaigning has been vigorous for the completion of a canal link to the river at Bedford. The route has been secured, and near to home it is to come.  See http://www.b-mkwaterway.org.uk/ for further details.

 Photographs taken we headed back towards the village, green shoots in the field, blossom on the trees, warm sun on our backs a sign that Spring is truly here.  The distant glisten of the Saxon Church served as a beacon back towards the age-old settlement. Across a road, a squeeze through the hedge and then across ridge and furrow: cows slumbered in the sunshine, ewes rose to their feet to protect newborn offspring and ahead the edges of the wood were ablaze with white blossom. Now back in familiar territory we tramped across the small footbridge and continued towards the village, emerging beside the Vicarage and War Memorial.

Starved for so long of our own boat are we fantasising now about a waterway that is still decades away from completion? Hopefully not...

And as for Cleddau: she's looking good, according to word from the boatyard; an inspection is planned for early next week.  Just please let it be a real boat on a real canal!


*The roots of the Bedford & Milton Keynes Waterway go back 200 years to October 1811, when a group of Bedford businessmen met with the Mayor of Bedford to discuss the trade benefits to be gained from a link between the River Great Ouse and the Grand Junction Canal (as the Grand Union was called then). Local roads were poor, and they hoped that the canal would lead to greater prosperity for towns along the route and into the Fens.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Speed Check

Friday, 11th March
    Faster than waddling ducks, slower than spinning cyclists or earnest joggers we walked at an average of 2.7 mph between two particular pubs.   Not that either of us is particularly a pub frequenter but these establishments are landmarks along a once, for us, quite local stretch of the Grand Union. The reason? The Captain had a new toy (correction - gadget) to try out. For the walk Boatwif was equipped with tissues and throat sweets, the Captain with a basic GPS. His efforts to confirm Cleddau's speed (if that be the right word) of travel last season had been thwarted by a car GPS system which loves 70mph but doesn't Do Accuracy at merely 4 or 3 or fewer miles per hour.  So, with the GPS a recent acquisition at a bargain price, we bowled out to Three Locks at Soulbury (average speed 31.4mph) and walked southwards towards Leighton Buzzard. 
    Just as we turned onto the towpath under the bridge by the Top Lock around the corner cruised a boat, a Gayton hire boat. "The locks are all empty, against you," the Captain informed the windlass-bearing crew.  "Doesn't matter, we did them on our way up, we'll manage them on our way down," replied a voice from the front deck.  Disappointment - we were deprived it seemed of opportunity to help with the locks and to get our backs into those huge Grand Union gates.
    Off we set, into bright sunlight, soon passing a fine widebeam boat moored up against the towpath. "3.2mph average," breathed the Captain. We were walking well and soon, at Bridge 108, came across other walkers, heading in the opposite direction. Large rucksacks were on the ground and hands were feeding chocolate bars into the mouths of three strapping young men. 
    "Where are you walking to?" enquired the Captain.
    "To Birmingham," came the heavily accented (French?) reply.  "We started from Hemel Hempstead."
    Relieved to be going nowhere so far we continued our walk. 
    The mobile phone rang; we continued walking, now at 2.5mph. If only another boat were coming our way so that we could match walking and cruising pace...  A couple more boats were moored up beside the towpath and always near bridges.  One, guarded by a couple of swans, flew a fine (and very new) Welsh Dragon from the stern. Occasionally the sweet sounds of birdsong were overwhelmed by a shrieking train. Above the canal, on the offside, runs the West Coast Glasgow - Euston railway line.  Never do I pass along this way without reflecting on that August 1963 night when the Great Train Robbery was carried out a little further south: audacious robbers seized  £2.6 million from a Post Office train. The country was deeply shocked and still to this day media references are made to those infamous and now elderly robbers.
    Then after a few bends and turns the canal arrives at a sort of wharf. Several boats were tied up to metal rings and a bit further along stood our destination, the place our Frequent Relief Captain, one-time navigator (see entry Trains, Gasometers, Boats and Bikes, Tuesday 15th February) firmly claims has an underwater magnet that attracts steel narrow boats and lures boaters inside to drink its excellent ales.  This was the Globe pub, provider of great food and, according to the Captain today, good beer.
     Sustained, we turned to retrace our steps, periodically checking our speed, glad to spot violets beside the path and occasional buds on the hedging. Along the way we passed a fishing party, encamped near a Luton Angling Club sign. They were engrossed, but why on a term-time Friday were there three school-age lads? Then, fifty minutes after leaving the Globe we were back at the Three Locks.  No sign of boats, only empty locks. We walked down to the bottom lock, crossed the gates, holding not windlasses but walking poles. Then a strange reminder: there on the front of the now refurbished Grand Union pub was a sign, and an image of a narrow boat, very similar to the rather unusual boat profile of Cleddau.   And it was right here sometime in the 1990s (the Relief Captain and First Mate were witnesses) that the boat had been photographed by the would-be painter of the pub sign.
        Boatwif drove home, the Captain in the passenger seat clutching his toy. "25mph," he warned as we passed through Stoke Hammond.  If only we could be back on our boat, cruising this way again, a three mile an hour cruise through the Buckinghamshire hills would be fine just now...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Boats built by the mile...

 Saturday 5th March
  "Here in Dudley wooden boats were built by the mile and cut by the length" - such was the claim of the of the Dudley Canal Trust boat skipper...

    Pressed to join friends on a trip to the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley I had not anticipated a third non-Cleddau boat trip in just three weeks.  First had been the Regent's Canal water bus trip from Camden Lock to Little Venice; next had come the Thames trip from Westminster Pier down river to the Tower of London. Now Boatwif was afloat again...

    The five of us clambered on to the open boat: no protective windows or roof here. Instead protection was afforded by plastic hard hats, for this was a trip in an open boat through tunnels and caverns. Dudley apparently is a magnet for geologists and industrial historians.  Limestone, coal, ironstone and fireclay were crucial components in the  processes that fired the Industrial Revolution and canals had been dug through Dudley Hill to retrieve and transport these important resources.  The Trust's electrically powered boats glide silently through the tunnels; in some places tunnels are brick-lined, the 9 million bricks hand-made by women and children in the early 18th century. Sometimes you pass below an air shaft, sometimes you glide across vast lagoons, created by large rockfalls. If you look closely up at the limestone roof you can see signs of stalactite formation. Audio-visual presentations at various points explain the amazing geological processes that formed this landscape and static displays with amplified voices illustrate the nature of miners' work. You glimpse an underground wharf which provided space for the loading of limestone and ironstone onto up to 30 boats that would then tranship the materials back to Dudley and Tipton.  But these caverns and tunnels are not remarkable just for their industrial importance, they have also been used as venues for lectures and musical concerts. And as the boat creeps back out of the tunnels you realise why else these Dudley Canal Trust boat trips are so special: they provide visitors with sights of ancient fossils embedded in the walls.  Indeed an image of the trilobite features on Dudley's civic crest.

    The boat trip had come about half way through our exploration of the 26 acre Living Museum site. We had already ridden on a tram, skipped with a long rope in the street, nosed into back to back houses, chatted in the 1912 pub, watched red hot iron being rolled into steel bars, eaten delicious fish and chips cooked in beef dripping and peered into shop windows to view wirelesses, brooms, confectionery and even a liberty bodice... There is so much to see at this museum, whether exhibits inside the many buildings, demonstrations of past crafts or vintage vehicles driving through the village streets.

    So after our trip on the boat there was certainly more to see - and do. The school bell was being rung outside St James's Infant School, so in we trooped and sat with Standard 2.  The teacher cajoled us into sitting up straight, and then inspected our nails and boots before the lesson started.  We chanted tables, rehearsed the alphabet from Z to A, tried mental arithmetic with shillings and old pence, then on slates used charcoal to practise copperplate letter formation. Those who hadn't paid their school dues were lined up for caning - and only when we were seated smartly, hands behind backs, chins held high, were we dismissed.

    Next to the 1920 cinema, into a fleapit ("fleas authentic," joked the projectionist.) We sat and watched while Charlie Chaplin charmed and exasperated in equal measure, no dialogue of course, just music as a background sound. We inspected the Workers' Institute and the Methodist Chapel, walked through the travelling fairground and made the Racecourse Colliery our final destination.  Hard hats on again, dimmed torches allocated to a few people and then we trooped down underground. This is a drift mine, so you bend your heads low and walk downhill (no lift cages here). Is it obvious to point out that full concentration is needed to avoid banging your head against the low roof or tripping on the uneven ground surface? Again audi-visual displays heighten your appreciation of what coal mining life was like in the Black Country pits of the 1930s. You see the boy employed to open and shut the passageway door; another scene shows a  pit pony; there are trams loaded with coal, miners hacking at the coalface, the seam held up by pit props.
    In all our trip to Dudley was a great success, much to see, though even so we did not see it all. This was a preliminary visit, a recce ahead of a planned school visit. We'd checked the booking arrangements, the access to toilets, the accommodation for eating packed lunches, the price of chips and fairground rides... all that remained now was a restorative cup of tea in the cafe and about a two hour drive back home!
For further information if you're thinking of boating or visiting the West Midlands see Black Country Living Museum at http://www.bclm.co.uk/
and Dudley Canal Trust: at http://www.dudleycanaltrust.org.uk/pages