Welcome

I love reading about other people’s historic boats, delving into their past histories and following their adventures, trials and tribulations today, so it seemed only fair to reciprocate and offer up some of my burblings for posterity.

I hope you enjoy the site and if you have any information on Enceladus’s history or any questions please do get in touch.

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Vintage vibe

Right, sorry for the slight blog hiatus, blame the day job for sucking dry all my creative juices and leaving me, a spent prune, without wit or wisdom to delight and entertain. I’m still prune-like but my conscience dictates that I pull my finger out and write something for my loyal reader. So pull up a chair and let me tell you about my vintage vibe weekend. Quite a long weekend as it happened but simply stunning in every facet.

No words needed

It started on Thursday afternoon, as all the best weekends do. The first mate and I decided to warm up for the Braunston Historic Boat Rally by…er…driving a steam train. Now those who know my piratical persuasion may be thinking ‘Crikey, she’s upped her game, she’s twocking locos now’ but fear not, this was all legit. We were enjoying one of those Steam Train Driving Experiences offered by so many of our fantastic heritage railways, this particular one the gift of the delightful Mid Norfolk line…but it was no nursery slopes induction on a little tank engine for us, or a low-key outing with a Black Five. Oh no, start at the top, why don’t you? Cue lots of silly grins as we got down on the track and up close and personal with a Gresley A4 Pacific, the iconic streamlined beauty that is, in this particular case, the Union of South Africa, or No 9 as she is affectionately known (Her BR number was 60009). No 9 was the first ever steam train that Andy and I rode behind as a couple (in the cheap seats back then, sharing a bag of crisps on the way to York); so when I heard that a limited number of driver experiences were available during No 9’s visit to the MNR, I was straight in there and we were lucky enough to bag the 3pm Thursday slot.

No steering wheel

It was a steamy love affair, I can tell you. We adored every hot, filthy second. In fact, even adored doesn’t seem a strong enough word to express the very visceral delight and thrill of our time in the buffet…er..I mean on the footplate. By his own admission, the first mate was a better driver than fireman. You’ll likely find quite a bit of coal both sides of the line, his slightly uncoordinated shoveling seeing a lot go out the sides, a lot on the floor, quite a bit on my feet and not very much in the firebox. Once seated in the driver’s seat and after overcoming his rather lusty pull on the regulator which opened things up rather too much and caused a very minor panic, he settled to his task very nicely. Even the coach stuck on the level crossing didn’t worry him particularly…

I found some fluidity when shoveling and also sackfuls of respect for the guys who do this part of the job. There is real skill and technique in building the fire and keeping it just right, not to mention the phenomenal stamina you need to keep shifting coal in that heat. Driving was also a real blast, and I never tired of tooting the whistle in my giddy state. It took me a little while to figure out what was strange about the experience though…you don’t steer. There we were, leaving Dereham station with me at the controls, slightly hysterical (in a good way), and my usual reference points were missing. No wheel, no tiller, nothing to turn at all….not touching or gently nudging and correcting a steering mechanism certainly felt alien to begin with, but I soon became accustomed to it and of course, by the end, I just wanted to do it again, and again, and again. We’ve already eyed up a course on the Great Central Railway that allows you to take out an engine AND coaches, which I suspect will add an extra degree of difficulty.

Hot and filthy, just how I like it

Something I don’t suspect but know for sure is that I’ll never see our steam train day trips in the same light again. The engine crew may enjoy their time on the footplate but it is a very long way from being a jolly. Our top speed on the MNR was 25mph and that felt scary in such a heavy loco, bouncing around as it did. Excursion speeds often hit 70-75mph and they are on a busy mainline and cab visibility is hopeless (no wonder the authorities have kittens about tresspassing)…there’s a lot to get wrong but for the most part they do get it right. A few years back we were lucky enough to ride on the Capital Streak, one of three trips where A4 Bittern had been sanctioned to run at 90mph. It felt smooth and easy in my generously squidgy Pullman seat as I set new records for Elizabeth Shaw mint consumption – in the cab it must have been pure rock ‘n’ roll.

Got a lovely ‘Good morning’ from Tim

It was pretty rock ‘n’ roll on the Saturday night at Braunston too, courtesy of the Shellac Massive’s 78s towpath party. Chertsey Jim and the first mate, aka DJ Fat Boy Fat, have been adding to Jim’s 78s collection ever since they bonded over beer, dogs and discs at Brownhills and had promised themselves a bit of a gramophone session during the rally. Chertsey Sarah had the excellent idea of making it a bit of a party and Renfrew Pete toddled along to join us, confessing on arrival that he too was a bit of a 78s man and having honorary Massive membership instantly conferred upon him. Straddling the towpath as we were, the party saw an enormous number of ‘guests’, some of whom lingered, but the majority obviously unwilling to be deflected from their fish and chip mission by the strains of the Savoy Orpheans and Kurt Weil. Philistines! In the intermission between DJ sets, we were entertained by the Finchers on their melodeons, with Cath somehow squeezing in a bit of tuition for yours truly while cooking up dinner. You can tell Cath was a teacher – patience of a saint!

Saturday evening calm

It was a very pleasant, chilled end to an excellent day. The previous evening had been equally enjoyable, though totally different in tone and tenor. We’d sat outside the beer tent till late, catching up with old friends, making new ones, debating the merits of curry sauce on chips, steadily working our way through the extensive ales list; it was the excitable chat and latent anticipation that characterises the start of an event, whereas Saturday’s easy relaxation reflected an event that was delivering on all its promise. The parades had had just the right amount of chaos without being tedious, and Norman the Mic heralded me in memorable fashion, which I giggled at but will remember when I see him next, cheeky sod: “And here’s Enceladus, a small Northwich, and very nicely preserved…much like its steerer”.

I also had the chance at last to see the Alarum Theatre Company’s Idle Women production. Now let me tell you, there’s someone I could take a serious dislike to: Kate Saffin. Having spent the day with her crewing Tench a while back, I was already in awe of her ability to steer, lockwheel, make soup, bake bread, serve lunch, make biscuits and serve tea, all seemingly at the same time and without breaking a sweat. And now what do I find? She is also a quite brilliant writer and performer. The show was outstanding: no set, just Kate and a tea chest of props, but boy did she make it live. She is one uber-talented lady. Doesn’t it make you sick? Good job she’s so lovely otherwise one could really take against her…Only sorry that dog duty took me away from seeing Heather Wastie, who I understand was also rather fantastic.

Splendid isolation on Sunday’s parade

All in all, it was a truly vintage vintage weekend. Still got the same dilemma as last year though…how do I wangle an extra bit of vintage in the shape of a full length unconverted motor? Promise Andy a hold full of 78s?

P.S While Emu deservedly won Best in Show (Andy has been given strict instructions to achieve the ‘Pinnock brass standard’ in future) special mention here for Lancing, newly and meticulously restored and having your correspondent drooling in a rather unseemly fashion.

 

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What happened next

Before I begin, I just want to say ‘Pah!’ to those wretched blog rolls that remind me every time I look at them how remiss I have been in posting. Lower and lower I fall, and longer and longer the time since my last post gets. Accusatory and reproachful, that’s what they are. Gets results though, as I’ve actually written something.

There are quite a few times in life when a couple of extra inches is all you need…well, I don’t know where your mind went but mine went to being able to successfully retrieve that very last packet of Marmite crisps lurking right at the back of the top shelf. Or keeping your nose above the foetid miasma of a greyhound collective hell bent on sensory annihilation. Or when all that stands between you and gastronomic satisfaction is five centimetres of luscious French garlic sausage. Or, as in this case, when there’s a bit more water in a canal.

Now you see him…

When blogging about our trip up to Brum at Easter, I think I chronicled my ‘never been in love with it, not seen nothin’ to change my opinion’ experience of the North Stratford. Various things conspired to ensure that I remained singularly unenamoured of the stretch from Lapworth to King’s Norton, but the most persistently grievous of these was the distinct lack of depth. Levels were definitely down, I was assured by the locals, but funnily enough this was no real consolation as I dragged our recalcitrant big arse through the mud. When we finally turned onto the Worcester & Birmingham what felt like about eight weeks later, I made a quiet promise to myself that we would eventually return Warwick-wards via the GU.

…now you don’t

A few weeks later, the morning after the BCN Challenge before, and on the point of departure to Warwick and beyond, I was in two minds as to whether to honour that promise or give the Stratford another go. Break the former and we would have a light locking day, which I thought might lessen the pain for the first mate who was facing another 50 locks in two days. Stick with it and he might jump ship half way down Ashted and head to New Street for a train home. While I was weighing up the odds, it started to rain, which obviously saw the scales crash down on the side of Stratford – I may be a bossy captain but I’m not a martinet and seeing as the idiot child had lost the brolly on Saturday, I was resigned to getting wet. No need for him to get soaked too. You see, I’m all heart.

So a day of cruising in the rain lay ahead, with just a quick flit down the Crow and the Smethwick three before we got out on the (hurrah, now well up) level and the first mate disappeared to cosy up to his iPad. With so many Challengers needing to reposition, we weren’t alone in our travels and we soon got into a little flotilla with Red Wharf and Tawny Owl, plugging on and on and eventually passing a few other competitors who had had the good sense to moor up. A small amount of drama at Brandwood Tunnel. I was tail end Charlie and had wound it on a bit in a pathetic attempt to keep up with Tawny and its six inch draft (well, I think it’s about 18 inches but she skims along like it’s 6) and as I belted around the corner I saw Tawny reversing out of the tunnel. Cue a hard astern and an ungainly slewing across the canal and then the textbook look of raised eyebrow puzzlement you give fellow boaters when seeking an explanation. Apparently there were two boats coming through the tunnel and they had started shrieking and shouting hysterically when they’d clocked Tawny’s headlight. Not being sure exactly what was going on, Tawny did the sensible ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ thing and did a cautionary reverse, despite Brandwood being two-way working. Anyway, eventually two hire boats popped out the western portal with big apologies; we assume they had just got a bit confused as to whether two boats could actually pass and after assuring them they could, we all went on our way, with us back to eating Tawny’s (diesel) dust.

Normal service resumed on Tuesday

I think it had actually stopped raining by the time we caught up with the now moored Tawny Owl and Red Wharf across from the Blue Bell Cider House, and we were just about to leapfrog them in a bid to be in pole position for the Lapworth dash in the morn, when we were flagged down by Mrs Tawny Owl, the lovely Sue. Worried that something was amiss, I duly slowed down, but all was well, it was just that our services were needed for carrying. Well, who’d have thunk it, an ex-working boat needed for carrying? It appeared that some of Tawny’s crew and kit needed a lift from the boat to the bridge hole and waiting car, but a very rutted, swimming pool-esque towpath was making a swift, tidy leave rather difficult. So we levied a toll of two flapjacks for the use of our tug deck and then the stevedores set to in loading us up and forcing the plimsoll line under, begging the question just how much gear does anyone need for a long week in Birmingham? We were still afloat, just, and got the fifty yards to the bridge, with the bonus of having Mr Tawny Owl and marine engineer par excellence, the equally lovely Richard, travel with me on the stern where he noted that my gearbox sounded like every other PRM he knew, including his own, and I shouldn’t worry about the fact that it sounds like it’s knackered because actually it’s perfectly fine. It was welcome reassurance after 18 months of wondering…

A prompt start the next morning saw us down Lapworth early doors, despite the first lift bridge of the day playing hard to get. There I was, pootling onwards to the airgap that was sure to emerge as Andy wound and wound, and suddenly I noticed that the bridge deck wasn’t actually getting any higher. In fact, I was heading for a complete pinball ‘strike’ – stack, chimney, and cans – so promptly reversed (good job I’d practiced yesterday!), tied up, hopped off and went to see what was amiss. Well, there was a sweary first mate for a start, and an unwilling hydraulic unit to follow. He was all for calling out CRT but I was all kick-ass so I made him hang on the beam while I shoved the deck from underneath, and then he wound again, gaining us another couple of inches (see, there they are again). We repeated this a few times until I reckoned we had enough clearance and slowly, carefully slunk our way through. It wound down fine and I did wonder later whether if we’d wound it down and tried again it would have just come up without a problem – but at the time, there was a bit of a ‘bird in the hand’ thing going on as we were very close, so we didn’t risk it. I did call it in though.

Except for Shrewley as it was a bit wet

Thankfully this was the only issue of the day. Lapworth was knocked off quickly, despite the first mate having a complete sense of humour failure about three locks from the bottom, the reason why eludes me. But if anyone saw a grown bloke having a sulky hissy fit near Kingswood on the Tuesday, apologies. A good chug along the embankment in the sunshine towards Hatton seemed to restore crew equilibrium, and lots of helpful, interested gongoozlers made the passage down very pleasant indeed. Curious how everyone here is very engaged by the flight here whereas at Lapworth at Easter, when we came up on a busy Sunday, people couldn’t have been less interested in us or the environs. Maybe it’s just the size and scale that gets people excited…We met a fair few boats coming up, mostly hirers and all with large enthusiastic crews which was a bonus. The first mate was slightly taken aback by one set though, travelling under a Swedish flag; when politely pointing out that they would have better luck winding the paddle up if they removed the ‘C’ clamp from the spindle first, he got a very Elle Sommer ‘Ve know what we are doink’ rebuttal for his troubles. Obviously you do, love, pardon us for trying to help. It wasn’t nasty or anything but little episodes like this do bug the first mate quite a lot. I know this because he was still banging on about it a week later and as soon as we’re back on the Ham Baker gear I swear he’s going to bring it up again. Mind you, I will also restart my mithering about those bloody chains in the GU locks all the way back to Wigrams. I so want to cut them off…

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BCN Challenge bulletin #2

The story of our BCN Challenge.

Locked all day. Cruised all night. Ate cake. Slept.

The End.

Oh, you want detail do you? Right, well let me share the edited highlights with you. First off was the rather frenzied start on Saturday morning as Andy and I were still abed when WhatsApp pinged me a message showing the rest of the crew – Amanda and Lesley – were about to descend on us as they’d been up with the lark and were now legging it down the M6. There was no way I wanted to discombobulate them with the sight of Andy in his very generous birthday suit so I quickly brewed a coffee and chivvied him into respectability.

Just so he knew which team he was on

None too soon as the ‘am’ in Team Enceladus hoved into view at 8 sharp just as I fired up the Lister. But what’s this, only one trusty Brompton steed? Why was Amanda steedless and demonstrating her prowess at the 400m? Well it would appear that someone who shall remain nameless (good job, as you should have heard the names she was calling him on Saturday!) had packed the bike as requested but omitted to pack the correct seat post. Now, this was just a minor reverse but Amanda was not best pleased. Seriously not best pleased. I could tell because…there are people in life whose expressions are sour and dour, like vinegar and unable to be sweetened by anything at all, not even cake. It is therefore hard to tell when they are particularly disgruntled because they’re just in a permanent state of grumpitude. This is not Amanda. Amanda is milk and honey, Prosecco and Hobnobs. If Amanda comes in the room, you don’t want to leave. She’s lovely and warm and happy and you wish you could bottle her. I’d respectfully suggest though that if Amanda had come into the room where her husband was at that moment, David (let’s name and shame!) would have been wise to exist stage left and sharpish. Milk and honey it was not – the mien was black, the countenance severe, the language industrial. It took tea and a pain aux raisins to restore her equilibrium, that and a brisk charge up the Cannock Extension Arm. Yes, mustn’t forget the reason we’re here…

The only person for whom 62 locks was not enough

In planning our Challenge route, I was working with three edicts. Mine, to compete well and post a respectable score. Lesley’s, see bits of the BCN she hadn’t seen before. Amanda’s, locks, lots of locks, and then some more locks. So I had a rough plan in my head and it all started well enough, heading on from Pelsall up to Anglesey Basin before moseying on round to the top of the Rushall flight. I’ve never seen anyone do a jig of delight lockside before but that’s what Amanda treated us to as she wielded her windlass and waggled her handcuff key. To be honest, I was just glad she was still with us as we’d had a heart-stopping moment as we chugged round Daw End.

Blog readers will be aware that the first mate, Andy, was already on a charge for being idiotic enough to lose the tiller on Friday. The fact that another husband was now temporarily wearing the mantle of ‘idiot boy’ must have distracted him from the important job of keeping me sweet because, on one of his forays below decks, he left his brains in his backside and our new golfing umbrella on the cabin roof, loosely furled, but already puffing in the wind. Lo and behold, a big old gust blew, caught and unfurled the expansive canvas, transforming it into a lethal weapon as it hurtled pointy bit first down the handrail straight for Amanda. I mean, how would you explain that in the cruise log? Started with four, ended up with three, due to one crew member being skewered to death by a runaway brolly? Thankfully, the partially open engine room hatch acted as a diversionary channel, the brolly flying off the side into the cut. Sadly, by the time we could put a recovery party ashore, it was too late, it had gone to Davy Jones’s Locker where it’s apparently having a party with NB What a Lark’s ladder. It too suffered an early watery demise, on the Wash a couple of years back, and was much lamented, as was that bloody brolly, especially on the Monday when it lashed it down and made the colour in my knickers run.

Passing Challenge veterans Team Tawny Owl – purveyors of excellent cake

The little jig that celebrated our arrival at Rushall Top was repeated throughout the day, and the night for that matter. I’m amazed no-one filed a report with the police about some strange goings-on at Smethwick Locks, as Lesley and Amanda appeared to be doing some sort of dance that owed a lot to St Vitus and very little to Pans’ People. I was also put in mind of Macbeth’s blasted heath…

When shall we three meet again..

Talking of police, sadly there were a few incidents of stone throwing which were phoned in. We came under one aerial bombardment if you can call a few rocks chucked from behind a wall by a bunch of teenagers who threw like absolute girls a bombardment. There was no harm done and while I did video some of it, the language coming from the fore-end of the boat is far more offensive than the actual stone throwing, so I won’t share.

After ten hours at the helm, I decided Star City would be a good spot to tie up, put our feet up for an hour, and eat Lesley’s rather magnificent chilli. Lesley was born to provide and nourish and support – she didn’t seem to stop, brewing, serving, peddling and a-winding; she’s a force of nature who could carry an army, the very hub of the team. As for the spokes…well, Amanda joined Lesley in being Andy’s responsible adults, and joined me in demolishing cake and biscuits with a glee I’ve only ever seen in a mirror. I helmed magnificently, touching nothing at all and if I did, it was nothing to do with me, no water, deep draught, too much mud, too dark…blah, excuse, mutter, bang, crash…And Andy was… Andy. As you can imagine, our little break-ette had its downside: being warm inside with full bellies did make us slightly reluctant to move on, besides which, I’d ripped up the plan. We were somehow well ahead of where I’d imagined we’d be and so from here on in, it was make-it-up-as-you-go-along time.

Birmingham – even better by night

So, in a nutshell for those of you interested in this sort of thing: up Garrison, up Ashted, up Farmers, round the Icknield Port Loop, round the Soho Loop, onto the old main line via Smethwick locks, past Oldbury junction (but not before getting badly distracted by the nocturnal goings-on in the DPD parcels depot then blinded by the huge M5 LED advertising billboard that loomed over me – wow, my weekends are so rock and roll), on, ever onwards, to Factory junction, hot footing it into the locks just as James on Willow rode up on his bike, five seconds too late; my sense of smugness lasted only to the point where the cheeky young pup flushed me out of Factory bottom (as in ‘get a move on, you old timers’), although rather grateful in the end as the tail of Factory bottom is a silty turgid splodgefest and the flush got us through. I did think I was accelerating rather impressively until I looked behind me…

Quite a large iPad

While the youth-fuelled Willow was threatening a diversionary up-and-down of Ryders to accumulate more points (very strong contenders for the win, I think!), we’d all had a complete gutful by now, it was way past our bedtime and we were interested only in getting to the finish and closing our eyes, even if it meant that we’d end up cruising just 22 hours out of a possible 24. A final charge up Spon Lane, round to Oldbury junction again – and DPD-edly distracted again – and then a sharp left up the six locks of the Crow, followed by an encore of a single lutz on the large Titford Pool, and that was it, done.

Our last hurrah on Titford Pool

To be honest, with my eyes feeling like someone had stuck hot pokers in them and my knees at risk of never flexing again, I felt like I’d subjected myself to some bizarre form of aversion therapy…22 hours at the tiller, to cover 44 miles and 62 locks. And yet, just 24 hours later, I was back at it, 33 miles and 50 locks clocked up on Monday and Tuesday as we beat a hasty retreat from Brum, brolly-less and therefore abundantly, persistently, pissed on, and not a little pissed off. The first mate has at least had the good grace to purchase a replacement and it arrived today, in blazing sunshine. Oh the irony.

Absolutely thrilled to be here

One final footnote, and returning to one of my favourite themes. Spending offline time with two ladies I became friends with initially online was one of the highlights of the weekend. As was the banter we enjoyed with our fellow competitors at the finish, some of whom were ‘known’ to me but only as virtual personas on a forum. How much better it was to meet the real persons, and while I know that the Challenge’s raison d’etre is to encourage usage of the lesser parts of the BCN, it also does a very fine job in encouraging us to enjoy old-fashioned chat and laughs, camaraderie and friendship. And to scoff cake.

Zzzzzzzz

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BCN Challenge bulletin #1

So just to bring you up to speed….we’re now back on Enceladus in preparation for the 50th Anniversary BCN Challenge. We’re moored at Pelsall, having achieved a mammoth positioning cruise of half a mile yesterday. So far, so normal. We’re down at the nose a bit, though unsure whether this is due to the weight of beer or cake. But otherwise, we’re good to go. She thought.

The locals tell me this is really Staffs, not Brum

As it looks like I’ll be at the tiller for a good 24 hours straight over the weekend, don’t ask me when I’ll be doing bulletin #2, just be grateful I’m doing this one. At one point yesterday it looked like I wouldn’t be at the tiller at all because the first mate got all vigorous with the Brasso, removed the tiller pin, and promptly swooshed the tiller arm with a resounding ploppity splash into the cut. I wasn’t present at the time, probably a good thing as we need to preserve not diminish crew numbers at this stage of proceedings. Instead, I was at the station mid car-shuffle when I received a call with this plaintive little voice at the other end saying he’d done a terrible thing. My mind did somersaults…surely he hadn’t eaten all the cake?

When he explained, I was very good and remained calm, issuing some instructions for retrieval. He’d seen where it had gone in, how hard could it be? Well, if you’ve ever tried to find anything lost in the cut that’s gone in with that definitive ‘it went in there, just there, I saw it, there, no, there!’ location service, you’ll know that his desultory poking about with the long shaft proved fruitless. So fruitless apparently that his pitiful wails and distressed demeanour attracted the attention of a family having a barbecue on Pelsall Common who invited him to join them – the kindness of strangers eh? Andy promptly consoled himself with a burger, a hotdog, a kebab and a can of Carlsberg, while I contended with the hottest day of the year schlepping through Birmingham and Walsall. I had had no answers to my querying ‘Any luck?’ texts (no wonder, he was scoffing his face) and my hope that he just wanted to surprise me and that I would see a nice shiny tiller back in its rightful place sustained me right up to about twenty feet from the boat where I saw the naked truth.

Lady of the lake

I’d had time enough on the trains to think about a Plan B but Plan A was an awful lot less aggro. A quick poke just further confirmed the pointlessness of poking so I removed certain items of clothing before slipping in between the boat and the bank. Thank heaven this had not happened at the bottom of Ryder’s, that putrid chemical gunk fest; indeed this almost had a river like quality to it and after the stinking hot day was rather pleasant! While standing on one trainer-ed foot, I removed the other shoe so I could prospect with my toes and, bingo, I found it, hoiked it up and saved the day. I made him polish the bloody thing though.

This does bode well for the weekend ahead.

Thank heaven that today has been selected as the UK summer

 

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How it all began…the second time

The happy couple

There is a gentle irony about the fact that it was Andy, the non-boater in our partnership, who was responsible for getting me back into boating after an absence of more than a decade. For reasons that are lost to me now, but I guess can be put at the door of first university and then the world of work, my dad and I never recreated those epic voyages that had so cemented my love of canals and boating. Sure, I went and visited the canal while I was a student and made the odd pilgrimage to Braunston when I could afford the petrol in my early days of wage slavery but, a bit like those couples you thought would be forever, the cut and I drifted apart.

But when singledom ended and doubledom came along in the shape of Andy – and what a shape, boat ballast in human form – I had a thought: maybe we could go boating together? I thought it would be just his bag…slow, peaceful, pretty, crowd-free…and beer…and pies. But there was a snag and that was my own reticence borne of anxiety. Because this time I would be in charge, Andy would be looking to me to have all the answers, Andy would have me down as the responsible adult. And that wasn’t something I was used to as I’d always had dad…and even though he was the most irresponsible bloke ever, he was good in a crisis. Not good in an ‘ actually getting it sorted’ way but in a ‘making me feel better about things and that it would be sorted, trust me’ way. So I didn’t worry while I was in his care as he was ultimately responsible for all those things that now, with hiring on the agenda, I would need to take charge of…and I became somewhat paralysed with fear about the what ifs.

I don’t think I ever felt the same calm about cruising since dad and I had come across a Stenson hire boat sunk mid channel, with the hirers having skedaddled after failing to secure the weedhatch. What if I failed to secure the weedhatch? What if I couldn’t get the pilot light working and somehow blew up the boat? And might I get hung up in the lock and sink us? Basically, if there was a nightmare scenario, I was thinking of it and knowing that it would be all my fault just put the mockers on the whole idea really. And this despite the fact that I’d managed the boat quite happily on our extended voyages, often being far more serious and attentive than my easily distracted father, and I was always meticulous about checking and double-checking the weedhatch. It’s the one thing that it’s good to have OCD about.

Weedhatch OCD

Thankfully, with happy holidays with Andy and renewing my love affair with canals in jeopardy, I ‘recalibrated’ my brain with its runaway dramas, instead viewing all potential incidents as stories to dine out on, as colourful stitches on the tapestry of life. It was a prescient move, as stories there were…like when we discovered that a narrowboat is a very poor getaway vehicle when you’ve just been given five minutes to quit town by the local gypsies. Or the time when we had to explain why five greyhounds had bust through a hole in the hedge to go racing around a marina’s frightfully elegant lawns. Or the occasion when Andy nearly got lamped by a puce-faced boater having an apoplectic fit at him turning the lock…which he didn’t. Or when I nearly lost everything in Northgate staircase…urgh, I still shudder with the memory of that one! Anyway, I digress…

The upshot was that we booked a long weekend as a taster, hiring the cute Little Gem from Rose Narrowboats. Any concern that Andy wouldn’t like what I was offering up soon dissipated as he did a little jig of delight on the stern and the trip was a triumph, so much so that we booked another short trip straightaway; we returned to my boaty alma mater Weltonfield Narrowboats later that year and then booked for a full fortnight the following year. I knew Andy was totally hooked when, as we cruised down the Leicester Arm back to base in the early morning sunshine (Note to self: why is the weather always so good on boat return day? It’s such a bloomin’ tease), he mooted the idea that I suspect we’ve all had at one time or other of just cruising on past and keeping on going. I shared the sentiment but being the responsible one reined in his larcenous tendencies…and instead gave rein to my radical ones. “What about buying a boat?” I said, and waited, breath held, bank accounts trembling.

The boat where it all began – again

Andy will be the first to admit that he is not a risk-taker, not given to grand schemes requiring even grander spending; it’s not that he’s tight, he’s just one of life’s worriers. And I’m just schizophrenic – dithering over some decisions, weighing up pros and cons, going round in ever more fretful circles of uncertainty; yet shooting for the stars on other occasions, making a call without a second or a third thought, done, dusted, I’ll decide what to tell him on the way home, those sort of decisions. I think greyhound number eight was one of those…

No going back now

So, BIG surprise then when we actually agreed, immediately, to buy a boat, or to be precise, to have a boat built. An even bigger surprise when the next morning neither of us reneged on the previous day’s agreement, and neither of us indulged in any desperate justification for the project or indeed self-immolation over the decision we’d just taken on the back of a mere twenty days spent as a boating couple.

Looking to save on signwriting costs

That summer, 2001, the search for a builder began. The following summer, at the Huddersfield National, we showed off our new boat, Arcadia Carrying Co (later Greyhound), so named in homage to one of our family hire boats from Weltonfield. A few years back we actually cruised past the show site (she’d come on the back of a truck in 2002) and it was a very special moment, like the closing of a circle…until we ran into a catchweight fight with a deadly mattress, and wondered why we did this bloody stupid boating lark.

This is why we do this boating lark

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A fishy tale

Mine, all mine…for the day

I don’t have a bucket list. Now I don’t know whether this evidences a chronic lack of ambition or imagination on my part or simply indicates that I am heartily enjoying and greatly appreciative of those things I already do, to the point where I simply don’t crave the ‘big ticket’ items. Or maybe I’m just an old fart who can’t be arsed to make a list. That said, there are things that fall into a slightly lesser category, stuff badged as ‘quite fancy doing that if I had the chance but not going to go to my grave full of regret and remorse if I miss the bus’. So not a bucket list, more a used milk pan with some ideas scratched into the bottom. And would you believe it, two of these ‘nice to dos’ have come up – one is planned for next month and I will keep that under wraps for now. But the other I did last week, and heaven knows what trouble it will land me in…

Heather Boyce – a new poster girl in the making

You see, my chum Heather Boyce (long-term pukka continuous cruiser who we have bumped into so often that she is now considered family and allowed on our boats without a visa) invited me to lend a hand on NB Tench, the FMC motor that has been pressed back into carrying; its cargo, the Alarum Theatre Company. You may have seen that Alarum (aka Kate Saffin and Heather Wastie) is touring the network with its Idle Women production, and the good repertory ship Tench, with Heather B skippering, is plying up and down the cut, stopping only for curtain up and Tescos. And here I was being given a gold-plated opportunity to crew a full length unconverted motor…well, I say, ‘crew’, but to be more accurate it was ‘helm’. No-one stood a chance, once my hand was on the tiller there was no way I was letting go, I superglued myself to the footboard, and that was it really. And by golly it was good. Too good, way too good. I need another boat, I needs me a Josher! (Close your ears, little Enc, I will always love you)

I will admit to nerves ahead of my arrival. Curiously, despite how long I have been boating, I have never helmed a 70 footer. And certainly not a boat like this, with its little peculiarities. Like not stopping. Well, that’s to say, it did stop but it only came up short at Maffers because I’d chucked it in reverse at Berko. So I did take it very carefully. Observers might have described it in other terms…painfully slowly maybe or…are you actually moving… But when under way she did go along beautifully, with a gentle Tigger-ish bouncing motion across well down pounds, whereas I’m more used to my two big bottomed girls dragging their derrieres recalcitrantly through the mud. They give me attitude whereas Tench just gave of herself most willingly. There may have been no official Fish class as such but that’s how she swam for sure. Her HA2 never missed a beat, her throbby pom-pomming actuating the usual ‘head pop out of hatch’ effect on moored boaters; she went where I put her; behaved herself largely in locks, although she had a bit of a moment when after having naturally lain right side, she decided she fancied a bit of the other; and bless her, she didn’t show me up once, making me look half-way competent and, most importantly, ensuring that I might get another go!

Who needs bucket lists?

Other highlights: the hot sunny weather, which made the Chilterns almost painfully pretty; the ceaseless stream of hospitality that came out of Kate’s boat, this despite Kate steering and locking for a lot of the time; chatting to Nick off Barlows’ Hood, well over a decade since he made his appearance on Narrowboat. I can summarise my opening gambit thus: ‘You’re the bloke that was in the Dover programme. You haven’t changed a bit. So pleased to see that you still have Hood.’ Don’t tell me that I don’t have sparkling repartee…he was a rather lovely chap, so chatting while waiting for the lock to be turned was no hardship…and he did tell me that Barlows’ Ian is set for some major work now that it’s under new ownership, which is good news hopefully. I was about to launch into my Fantasy Fleets game with him when the spoilsports opened the gates…

Having set off from Tring that morning, we finally stopped just short of Grove lock, a little earlier than planned on account of the unexpected stoppage there. It wasn’t quite plan A (which had been the Globe) but it was an acceptable plan B, accompanied in true Brit style by tea and cake. Homemade, again. I must say, Kate may be performing Idle Women but she does a rubbish impression of one.

 

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Here endeth the trip – but not the fun

Nothing like a good decoke

I am about to contradict myself. Yes, I know in the last blog I said I looked forward to heading home after time aboard but this time I was a tad reluctant. We’d had a super splendid week in unexpectedly good weather, culminating in a pulsating thrash down the Severn in company with NB Harry and Kevin and Vicky Blick – another lovely couple to add to the tally of boaters we really hope we do see again some time. I thought timing a breezy run down river for the morning after a trip to the Namaste curry house in Stourport was strategic planning of the highest order, and we motored on at about 6mph with occasional ‘wind assistance’.

The very lovely Harry, and equally lovely Kevin, Vicky and sea dog Brian

Come home time morning though, and the weather had turned; always easier to lock up and leave when it’s dour and miserable, so we set off with all reluctant tads dismissed. Besides, we were easing our transition back to normality mode by inserting some more fun diversions; first, cadging coffee and cake with lovely couple number two – David and Lisa on What a Lark who were happily (for us, cake consumers extraordinaire) moored within striking distance; and then the next day, upgrading to a rather magnificent Sunday lunch with lovely couple number three – David and Amanda, sometime boat sharers of What a Lark – in the company of lovely couple number four, Joe and Lesley, of NB Yarwood. Are you keeping up at the back there?

After tiny Henry, WaL was the equivalent of a floating mansion!

Now I’m still in raptures about the apple crumble cheesecake that was served for pud, and the Victoria sponge for tea, and so I’m a bit hazy about the bits in between – but I seem to recall very large bovine testicles featured. Ah, that’s it, we had a tour of the estate David looks after and there were big horned cattle, big bulls, and big pendulous gourd-like bollocks that I have no doubt will seed the next generation with some to spare. There was also apparently a big rat that ran right in front of me but I somehow missed it…what a shame.

She wears them well

The pretext for the get-together and cake fest was planning for the forthcoming BCN Challenge. Lesley, Joe and locking queen Amanda will be joining the good ship Enceladus as we hoof it round the further reaches of Brum and the Black Country. I mapped out my rough plan and then the conversation got onto the really critical issues, like who’s bringing the milk and would chilli be a good option for food on the go. Depends whether ‘wind assistance’ is allowed in the rules I guess.

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Home thoughts from on board

With apologies to Clifford T Ward for the punning title  – anyone else consider him one of our most grossly under-rated songwriters?

Right, to business then. Every trip it always happens. That moment. The siren call. When you wonder if you’d not rather do this narrowboating thing all the time…sod the house, we’re off and it’s a non-stopping service! In fact, it’s rarely a single moment, more a regular procession of them: the morning head-out-of-door poke, tentative yet expectant and so often rewarded with the bounties of the early morn; and the post-cruise dog walk, one final effort before you take the weight off, crack open the Tizer and take on the wasabi peas in a kamikaze snack assault. Shambling along with the hounds I’ll be presented, somewhere along the route, with a glorious view unfurled before me, and with it a blissful silence, a bucolic quietude that has me damning my own home village as a Suffolk Babel. It’s balm to the soul and I’d be crazy not to want more of it. Ring the estate agent.

Who wouldn’t want to see this first thing in the morning?

But that’s the thing right there – I’m not crazy, I do want more of it, the canals and all its attendant bits are an absolute privilege and joy to be part of….I just don’t want it all the time. There, I said it. You can use this in evidence against me should I ever throw it all up and become a full-time Ratty. But I doubt I will. “Not what you were saying five years ago, Sarah”, shouts a woman in the front row. Yes, I hear you and I will willingly admit that I did seem to cycle through the life plans with a frightening velocity back then. I think we got to Plan J or maybe it was K, as I came up with a revolving carousel of new schemes, all seismic changes that sent the naturally risk-averse and conservative first mate into catatonic shock. It got so bad that I couldn’t even mention the words ‘hypothetically speaking’ without him locking himself in the loo with his Viz magazine and a packet of Hobnobs.

The best end to the day

Every plan was predicated on becoming either a full-time liveaboard or near as dammit full-time, some kept the house, others sold the house, some featured thin boats, some boasted fat boats, some even had a butty boat, others had French boats, one even had a French house and an English boat, or was it an English house or French boat…all of them involved bizarre, unrealistic work/finance arrangements and all of them left me, quite honestly, exhausted and no further forward than when I started. Which was more than could be said for Andy’s blood sugar, which was rising steadily on account of the therapeutic biscuit intake.

And in the end, it was Andy, on one of his sorties from his safe place, who came out with the sort of prescient observation that unnerves you for being so spot on and yet somewhat uncharacteristic too. This is the man who leaves things on top of the dishwasher, instead of in the dishwasher for heaven’s sake…he’s not qualified to have sensible thoughts. The thing is, as he so annoyingly noted, my planning frenzy had escalated throughout Henry’s refit ie when we weren’t able to boat in our own right (still a one boat family at this stage), and the only fix we could get was a bit of pirate boating with friends for the odd weekend. The less I was able to boat, the more I wanted to boat, and this just became a vortex of unrequited need and desire that saw trains D-J thunder through the planning station before Plan K drew to a halt at the Sensible Husband platform. Over the tannoy came his simple wisdom, which was something along the lines of “just wait to see how you feel when Henry is ready and you are able to do as much boating as you want”.

So Plan K went into the sidings for a bit, and Henry finally set sail, and, much as I hate to admit it, Andy was bang on. We started getting the miles back under our belt and the cakes on the waistline, and the ‘what if’ frenzy duly stilled. Sure, when it’s a sunny day and I’m sequestered away in my work dungeon, I often think about a life afloat , but it’s just a reactionary tick, I know deep down that the current home/boat balance is the way I like it, at least for now. You see inside this head of mine are all sorts of people…there’s the young optimist still hanging on in there but she’s invariably saddled with the old pragmatist, and the latter’s fat arse sat on the rose-tinted specs so I have no illusions about liveaboard life, in the same way I have no illusions that a house is the be all and end all. Good job then that these two are sharing my headspace with another paradoxical couple, the nomad and the nester. Because that’s the cycle – home, boat, home, boat, home, ooh, let’s do a bit more boating, and a bit more, right, that’s enough of that, we’ve run out of clean clothes, time to stop and stick in the house for a while. And repeat.

A bit more boating…and a bit more

When we are about to leave home for the boat, we couldn’t be more excited. Except when we leave the boat to come home, we’re pretty excited then too. Well, maybe excited isn’t the right word. Anticipatory. What can we say, we like our big bed…and our ridiculous corner sofas joined in a huge U, and our Netflix-guzzling broadband, and the two loos, and all our stuff, and Waitrose ten minutes away, and village going-ons, not forgetting being reunited with all eight hounds, even if we do have to fight Wilf and Benny for the prized corner occupancy of the aforementioned sofas. And that you can wear a clean T-shirt all day with a better than evens chance of it staying clean all day. I’d be a hypocrite if I said anything else. Same goes if I said my senses didn’t stir at the thought of our next trip out, and that my planning genie is now more productively engaged in geographical routes and destinations, especially given that we now have two boats to play with. Bizarrely, that particular scenario, with the historic angle, never featured in any plan and when Andy uttered his words of wisdom, I doubt he envisioned ‘as much boating as you want’ playing out quite the way it has with Enceladus entering stage left in a surprise plot twist. It’s worked out very nicely though, for which we are all grateful, particularly Andy’s blood sugar levels

 

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Onward ever onward

Hello world, it’s a beautiful morning

Ah this is the life. Catching up on the blog, with one eye on Masterchef on iPlayer (oh god, Faye, you’ve cocked that right up), a tummy full of curry and a pot of Minstrels on my knee. Actually, I think I may have overdone it on the Minstrels, feel a bit sick now…

What can I say? It’s all going swimmingly well. We arrived in Stourport mid-afternoon, slotting into a Henry sized spot on the York St VMs before I went off with the dogs to recce the river. The level is barely in the green with no discernible flow so tomorrow’s trip down to Worcester should be a fairly sedate affair…continuing the theme of the week, really. Monday saw us sashay from the Shroppie onto the Staffs & Worcs, the actual moment of transition marked by my generous handing over of the tiller to allow Andy to lock Henry through…we managed the six inch rise with no alarms although my technique on the wheels was harshly critiqued – bloody cheek!

A sight rarely seen

Yesterday we ran from Wightwick to just above Hyde lock, with an absolutely scintillating mooring for the evening. The drop down to the Severn is very rhythmical…along, along, along and down; along, along, along and down; along, along, along, down, and oops, bumpitty bump, dragging our arse over a shallow, silty bit. Yes, that was a bit of a feature of today…from Wolverley onwards, we were grounding out a fair bit, nothing dramatic, but in stark contrast to the rest of the canal that seems to have been well served by the extensive dredging of the other year. I popped down the weed hatch a couple of times, the neurotic me convinced that I must have something on the prop but I didn’t…I rarely do, in all fairness, and I definitely think the 5p plastic bag tax has had a huge impact on the amount of floaty gubbins lying in wait.

How absolutely horrible, why come here?

But this was just a sideshow to the main event, which is the beautiful Staffs & Worcs canal itself. Why do people bang on about the Llangollen and the Oxford and yet the S&W never gets a look in? I first came this way with dad in the late 80s, and I remember doing the Kinver to Stourport run on the most wowser of an early autumn Sunday morning. Those memories were rekindled today as we awoke to a May day full of promise (the sort you wish you could somehow bottle, either that or press the world’s ‘STOP’ button so you can just enjoy it for a bit longer). We trundled our way through some stunning sylvan stretches, not forgetting to play the ‘will it, won’t it’ game at every bridge. Because Henry sits so low in the water, we can run with a 28″ stack plus a 4″ cutter and not clatter any bridge undersides – usually. But we know from last year’s trip that there are two or three along here that are very tight fits indeed and it only needs me to line up wrong or for the levels to be up on last time for the cutter to be at risk. Well obviously the levels must have been way up as it was bridges 2 – cutter 0 by the time we tied up! One scrape but shape retained, and one completely scrunched and flattened – Andy immediately volunteered to push it back into some semblance of a loop but it looks more like the outline of Australia now.

He’s right on the money there

Talking of Andy, I have to say how very proud of him I was today. We came upon an older couple on a Starline hire boat and they were really struggling with the locks so Andy set to and helped out. He always does so no difference there, it was just that he was so patient and kind to the lady he was assisting, taking care that she didn’t feel awkward or harried about anything as she was really, really struggling with the basics. It got me wondering how they’d made it this far really. Actually Andy is usually a big hit with the ladies he chats to at the lockside – I see them from the lock landing, chatting and laughing over a greasy paddle as he flexes his muscles, gets his tool out and whips it up…who would have thought you could have so much fun with a windlass? So the boy earned his curry and Cobra tonight, but I will no doubt suffer the wrath of his curried meatballs in the morning.

Thirty years ago…

…and yet I don’t look a day over 25. Amazing

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Pleasant pootling

It would have been rude not to

So the end of day two of our relocation mission to the South West and what have I got to report? Well, if truth be told, not a lot. If I tell you that the highlights so far were the snatching and scoffing of tiffin and banana cake at the top of Audlem, to be followed by the abduction of a large homemade pork pie at the top of Adderley, then you may twig it’s been a quiet couple of days. Yes, quiet, not often a word used about the Shroppie, the middle reach or home straight of those drag racers of the cut, the Four Counties ring-ers. I did just have to doublecheck that I hadn’t got my Bank Holidays in a twist as boating volume is certainly not concomitant with a three day weekend. No matter.

Well, actually it does matter because our sedate, relaxed, good-humoured pootling along, while very nice at the time and not to be sniffed at, does mean that I have flap all to talk about in this blog! It comes to something when you’re resting all your blogging reputation on getting a laugh out of a pork product.

Tyrley is ridiculously pretty – I can even forgive today’s storming by-washes

The Shroppie is one of those canals that I don’t have a fixed opinion about –  it is vacillatory, based largely on the last time I travelled along it and what the weather was like. My first time down country via the SUC was with dad and it was one of those days – limpid in its blue brilliance, T-shirt hot, not irradiate-your-face hot, cake for breakfast, Stilton and pickle doorsteps for lunch, more cake for tea, although I think dad eschewed Tetley for the Tempranillo. In those sort of conditions, there is no more perfect canal than the Shroppie – rolling vistas from the embankments, welcome sunshades in the cuttings, painfully pretty lock flights, all three of them, and on and on and on it goes. Which is great, as why would you want heaven to end? I’ve had a couple of sun-blessed trips subsequently, a couple of so-sos, and a couple of complete bumholes of a journey where you curse Telford for his cleverness and swear allegiance to the Trent & Mersey for ever more.

Today was a so-so, wind being the main offender. Thankfully, Henry is so heavy and sits so low in the water that wind doesn’t affect him so much, but it sure gets on my tits (good for the windburn tan though). With so many linear moorings, plus the two lock flights, it meant that we were either in neutral or tick over for a fair bit; while the Gardner runs clean as a whistle with a bit of a load on, she’s not happy idling and puffs out her displeasure, and of course the wind just took her toxic gifts straight back and up my nose and down my throat. Probably not the healthiest day I’ve ever had…

Diddy or what!

But at least it’s been harmonious. The first mate and I are working well, and I think that’s in no small part down to the fact that it is so quiet and that we can adopt our usual cruising and locking style. I like to think of it as calm and measured, predicated on efficiency rather than simply speed; others might see it as plain old fart dawdling. My friend Chertsey Sarah considers a nine-hour day, which we’ve had today, a bit more than a short day, a bit less than a normal day. Well, we consider it two days really, and that’s certainly what my feet are telling me, so to have reached today’s target destination (targets always chosen more in hope than expectation) is gratifying. We’re at Gnosall, pronounced ‘nose-all’ with suitable Bragg-esque adenoidal inflection. Tomorrow, we’ll head onto the Staffs & Worcester aiming for the pylon we moored at last time we were that way. Andy asked me where that was…no idea, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Hopefully there may be more to report next time. Archie has just been sick on my shoes so things are looking up…

Sadly in the wrong boat for a Northwich cosy up

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