The story of our BCN Challenge.
Locked all day. Cruised all night. Ate cake. Slept.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.