Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Invisible Ibis

So there's a glossy ibis on the reserve. Maybe even two. Been there for over a week. It's even on the new office window-list.

But have I seen it? Have I heck!

I've seen the endless reports come in, responded to emails about 'what's this odd bird', listened to colleagues come in from various places on the site saying 'Just seen it'... but no. Nada. Rien. Zilch. It was in a filed near the hotel in the village at the north end of the reserve yesterday, seen by one of our wardens at about 4.00 pm - he even rang to let me know it was there...but when I got there - nothing.

OK, I'm limited as to where I can go - walking over rough ground or any distance from the car is a problem, but it was (estimated) only about 50 yards from the fence. I even hauled myself up onto the doorframe of the car to make myself taller - still nowt. (Hope that didn't cause the broken spring which caused my car's MOT failure today... oops)

It's not a MAJOR thing - I mean, I've seen them before - look like a very dark, depressed, curlew unless the sun is really shining on them, when the plumage takes on an oily sheen, like you get on puddles with petrol.

But it's bloody irritating!

Friday, 20 May 2016

Where does the time go?

Just realised I wrote the last blog entry around three years ago...

No. This is not good enough! Time to get my arse back in gear and do something more regular. Not sure what you're going to get; there will be cute pony pictures and canal boats, but there may be more on the problems facing our wildlife, observations on getting older and infirmity, the occasional rant about things I can't rant about in my professional life/web-presence, or things that get my goat generally... I'm likely to avoid the political, because I think everyone should make up their own damn minds and finding unbiassed commentary on the interwebs is almost impossible!! I don't promise NOT to write crud poetry - that goes with the territory. There are likely to be bad jokes. I can't guarantee not to cause offence.

So. Here goes 2016.

Resume in brief, so we don't have to do this again: I got taken on at the reserve as established staff, not contract - now 2 days/15 hours a week. I spread this over 4 days to try to keep some form of continuity! After some ups and downs, we've gone from 2.5 staff to 5.5 plus new volunteer interns (the 0.5 is me, part-time) ..we've finally got a new office! (Moved in last week and are still in a frenzy of building bookcases and shelves and stacking things on them). The volunteer accommodation is now getting an overhaul, although everything is around 5 months behind plan... with all the frustrations that causes!
Since 2013 we've gained a number of new Koniks - our own foals and a couple of new colts who will be the future for the breeding stock (otherwise everything gets too in-bred) - we're up to 33 horses now! The Meadow project is in its last year, but showing real progress - the but we're restoring is increasing biodiversity every year as the ponies eat the rough grasses and rushes and allow the 'pretty stuff' to grow through.
Family-wise - we've continued to narrowboat our way around Britain; 2014 was up in Yorkshire, amidst the furore of the Tour de France: 2015 trip was on the Kennet and Avon, down to Bath:  this year we're going back to the Llangollen. Mum and I have been back to the cabin at Loch Awe each year, and have come to an agreement that the best thing for her birthday is a trip  over to Applecross, to stay a couple of nights at the Applecross Inn, which is just bloody brilliant!! My brother has finally taken the plunge and moved from a one-room bedsit to a whole house, with all the domesticity that goes along with that - I never expected to get FB messages about mowing the lawn!
Healthwise... well, we're hanging in there. Mum has T2 diabetes and Parkinsons, which is - to quote a hero of of mine - an embuggerance. My knee and hip joints are crap - can't walk any distance - and arthritis is creeping into my hands, which as someone who likes painting etc is a bit of a worry. But it will not keep us down. There is fun stuff out there we can do, places to go and things to see, and a hell of a lot of fun to be had.

Let's go for it.

Meanwhile, here's a unicorn I drew for my friend's grand-daughter. Enjoy!


Friday, 28 June 2013

Playing Catch-Up: Sunshine on a Rainy Day

It's not all doom and gloom.

For one thing, not working means you have a great deal of freedom to do other stuff! And get paid for it! Small artwork commissions, the odd science workshop, a bit of admin and co-ord for other events...it all adds up. I branched out into cards and postcards for sale (admittedly nothing much has come of this yet, but then I was always lousy at marketing!). Mum and I went back to Loch Awe. There was the long Xmas break - no need to rush back north despite the weather. The only problem is knowing what day of the week it is when you don't have some sort of structure to your life. I drift into a nocturnal kind of schedule if left to my own devices (definitely a night owl rather than a lark!) ...which isn't so bad in the depths of winter when you don't see much sun anyway, but I do have to keep an eye on my tendency to suffer from SAD.
And - to put it bluntly - I was bored!

So when Richard the Reserve Manager asked if I'd be interested in a part-time job as administrator for the local reserves, I nearly bit his hand off.

So it's official. I'm back at Strathbeg in a paid capacity for the third time in my (post-RAF) life, dealing with the bits of paperwork that otherwise would keep the rest of the staff from doing what they should be doing out in the field. Which suits me fine! The view from the office is better, for one thing - my 'birds seen from my window' list stands at 16, (it's a small window at the back of the building) including great spotted woodpecker and sparrowhawk. There is always something going on, and for the first time in ages, I'm not working on my own. At the end of the day, I can wander over to the Visitor Centre, do a bit of bird watching and admire the work the Konik ponies are doing controlling the rough grass (and watch the first of the foals galloping about).

It's pretty good, really.

Playing Catch-Up: The Times They Are A'Changing

Well, I've gone and done it again. Neglected the blog, I mean. So where were we?

Oh yes, just back from holiday last year.... which was a funny time all round. My job was all up in the air - managed to find a big chunk of the funding to keep it going until 2015, but was having problems finding the 'match-funding'. And if you don't get the match-funding, you don't get ANY funding. As a result, from the end of June, I wasn't getting paid. I reckoned we'd be ok, though, for a few months, just so we could find that elusive match-funding.

How wrong can you be?

No match-funding.

Add to that, our office was up for sale following the death of our landlady, so we really didn't know what was happening or where we were going to go...I have to admit, I was the least happy I have been for a long time.  The crunch finally came when the office was sold, and we were required to give up our lease. Short notice to move and thirteen years (and more) of stuff to get moved or disposed of. Books, games, equipment, furniture... there was only one thing to do - call in the Rangers!  With the knowledgeable eyes of the experienced packrats we all are, the environmental education community swept through the place like a swarm of...no, not locusts.
Wombles.
Who else do you know gets excited about a dustbin liner full of yoghurt pots? Or a full-scale cardboard albatross?
Just about anything that could be salvaged for re-use was, and temporary storage was found for the stuff that was actually mine that I have no space for at home. Things that really were junk were taken away by the removal men to the tip. Freecycle took care of most of the furniture, and as the new owners moved in, we swept up the last of the dust and moved out.

So. No office. Vastly reduced income. There comes a point where you have to draw a line under it and say 'It can't go on like this', and move on. I haven't exactly parted company with my old job - there are bits of it I still do as a volunteer - but the days of school talks and outings are past. 

What now?

Monday, 20 August 2012

Slow Boat Under the Hill

(Stourport Ring - Week Two - 7th to 14th July 2012)
And the rain stopped, and the sun shone, and we had to wear sunscreen, which made us all sparkly – oh, the indignity! My birthday, so cards and pressies with breakfast, and away to the south, heading for Stourport Junction and the lock-mountain we have to climb to get to Birmingham.
Today I mostly did steering, and not just through locks, which was fun, and rather exciting, because somewhere between last year's debacle and this year – and with the absence of too much breeze – it seems to have gelled in my brain and I was mostly getting it right! Sunshine brings out boats and joggers and cyclists and dogwalkers, and the towpath was a busy place. Went back down through Bratch, where the lock-keeper said that yesterday was probably the worst weather he'd seen bar once, and the Severn is shut once again. I think we were lucky.
Fields full of black-and-white horses, (they were even sorted into spotted and patchy) squirrels chasing up trees, a pheasant in a cornfield, and we glittered on....

There has been something odd happening along the Staffs & Worcs – someone unknown has been leaving 'faces' ….on the ends of tree stumps, on trees and on posts along the banks, two eyes, a nose and a mouth have been nailed. It's not always on the towpath side either, so there is a rumour it's a boater or even a BW man....
We water up at Greens' Forge, get rid of some rubbish, and moor for the night below the lock, conveniently close to the pub.
It wasn't an early night, and we are pleased to manage an 0930 start, heading to the junction with the Stourbridge Canal, where I hand over to Drew for the turn (there are too many gongoozalers!). Stourton Locks are really pretty, the side pounds lie to the left as you ascend, giving some lucky homeowners a lovely water feature at the bottom of their gardens, complete with water lilies and reeds and fish. The water's reasonably clear, and we can see lots of different sorts of fish from small fry to larger ones that I think are dace. Drew hangs over the side with his underwater camera, but only succeeds in recording blurry weeds and water. 

A couple of kayakers tell us that the Stourbridge arm is closed, because there is a police incident. A narrowboater a bit further on says it's closed for a couple of hours, so we moor up at Wordsley Junction (which is the last place before we'd have to start up another lock flight) and Drew goes to find out what's happening.

He returned with the news that it was open again, so we headed for Stourbridge, along a more cluttered canal with lots of white waterlilies (and the inevitable clogging of the propeller), running beside the old glass-making works and old warehouses, past small boys fishing, and the police incident tent (there had been a body in the canal apparently) which was just packing up. The Town Wharf was crammed, boats moored two and three deep, and no free spaces.

With the help of a bearded and bay-windowed gent from the Canal Trust, we turned in the winding hole and moored beyond the bridge not far from the water point. Had a reasonably early night so that the shore party could go to the gift shop in the morning, and I did some necessary washing of clothes.

Again, there are not many boats moving on the canal – of the 4 we saw all day, naturally 2 were in the locks! The Stourbridge Flight (16 locks) has a 'mini-Bratch' partway up, and a very convenient off-licence at lock 9-10. Industrial elements creep into the scenery as we skirt round the edges of Dudley; a bottle kiln at the Redhouse Glassworks, boatbuilder's sheds, and Unknown Obstacles under the water. Now on the Dudley No 1 Canal, we start up Delph Locks, which are interesting- the run-off goes down a sort of sluice beside the lock, pounds full of ducks and moorhens.
We clatter against something submerged halfway up – a fisherman say helpfully 'that'll be a trolley'. The last lock is under a road, and reminds us that we are getting closer to Birmingham. We moor up at the Waterfront, a large and rather flash development near the Merryhill shopping mall, and check the weed hatch – plastic bags, weeds and a piece of old climbing rope....


The cafes and restaurants seem rather subdued even after dark, and we have a peaceful night, with pretty (although pretty wasteful) colour-changing lights.

Morning brings the inevitable fact that we need a pump-out of the waste tanks. We check the guide books to see where we might get one – not a lot of choice.

We're heading for the Netherton Tunnel, passing the end of the Dudley Tunnel at Park Head Junction (you can only go through this by being towed by an electric boat) and pootle along quietly. A couple of dredgers are stirring up the canal, creating more mess than they seem to be removing. Somewhere around here the anchors for the Titanic were assembled, and the casings for Barnes-Wallis' bouncing bombs were made. A large sunken rounded casing in the canal makes us think they may have done a preliminary try out of the latter...
Looked to get a pumpout at Withymoor Island, but they were closed (although you couldn't see the sign until you'd practically moored up).
We water up at the Bumblehole Nature Reserve, and head into the dank, dripping depths of the Netherton Tunnel. This is probably the longest one we've done – 3027 yards – but is very straight, so you can always see an exit. I do believe that tunnels are plotting against boaters, trying to turn us into flowstone, drip by soggy, splattery drip....

We emerge, blinking, into the light on the Birmingham side of the hill, and make slow progress through ranks of fishermen lining the banks. 

Hoped to get a pumpout at Caggy's Yard, but had gone past the miniscule jetty before we realised it was there. Hit the canal rush hour at Factory Locks – interesting though, with working boats coming down the locks, with unpowered barge in tow – this had to come down the lock behind its powered unit, so we just sat and waited until it was clear, and then alternated with several other working boats going through the locks, resulting in close negotiations in small pounds! That done successfully, I even navigated my first junction without mishap, before the rain came on again.

 Made it into the Black Country Museum moorings (no space but a water point, and a self-operated pumpout) and Drew went to get a card for the machine.
Lord High Panjandrum, King of the Kharzi officiated, (with any number of bad puns and off-colour song parodies) and then proved he is also the King of Spin by turning our 68-footer in the smallest of spaces. Moored by a small park, ready for a trip to the museum, and a welcome break from travelling.
I'm not going to detail the museum – you can read all about it here on their website. The day was mostly sunny, with only a few showers, and very pleasant!
Thursday saw us back on our way, wending our way through the maze of bridges and underpasses and junctions that form the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
Under the M5, there are odd juxtapositions of structures – footbridges to nowhere, Spon Lane Locks (which are a listed building) the oldest working chambers in the country, roads that run over canals and under railways....
 
 






Summit Tunnel has a tall archway, almost egg-shaped, and leads us to the last three locks of our trip – Smethwick. They only have one gate at each end, which is unusual, and the downstream gates are Very Heavy – around 2080kg. Drew celebrates by breaking into a sprint to reach the last gate.

We weave our way around some of the side-loops of the BCN – the Soho Loop, past the prison at Winson Green and under Asylum Bridge, to good views over the city, and round the Icknield Loop where the BW boats are moored several deep. 

Sliding under Sheepcote Bridge we find ourselves a rare mooring spot opposite the National Indoor Arena – and only a boat's length from where we moored in 2007. The place is FULL of boats - this is obviously where they've all been hiding!
Drew changed from boater into consumer, and headed off for the Bull Ring, and the Apple store, returning triumphant (if footsore) with a new MacBook... and the rain set in overnight.
Shore party paid a visit to the National Sea Life Centre in the morning, before we set off for our last night's mooring somewhere near Alvechurch. 


And in Gas Street basin, disaster struck. We had to pull into the side to let a tourist boat past, and he took so long that we got hard alongside the quay. Drew hopped off to give the nose a push, turned to come back to the stern and slipped. Didn't get up. Made 'painful' noises.
I managed to ge the boat secured with the help of passers-by, and a very helpful lady rang for an ambulance. Drew wasn't sure what he'd done, but he still wasn't getting up. Many thanks to all the helpful people of Birmingham, was were real stars in trying to sort us out. The ambulance came, (gas and air) and diagnosed 'dislocated knee' – oh hell. Needs to go for X-ray. We need to find a temporary mooring, as we can't stay here. One helpful bloke finds another helpful bloke, who goes to find us one. The ambulance crew help Drew up to sit him in the chair to take him to the ambulance and – pop – the kneecap goes back in. It's gone in right, so there's no need for the X-ray or the hospital, which is a relief, so he's signed off and – after profuse thanks to the folks who helped – we can go. 

Driving is its own distraction, and Drew takes the helm again to take us down to Alvechurch, by the Cube and the University, through the Wast Hills Tunnel, past Kings Norton Junction and the reservoirs at Lower Bittell. We meet quite a number of obviously new-to-it boaters, all heading for Birmingham, albeit erratically!
 
Mooring for the night isn't easy, and it's a disturbed night, followed by an early morning of packing up and cleaning out, before we reach the yard at Tardebigge once more. The Anglo-Welsh guys help us moor and assist with hauling our gear to the car, and we make the weird transition from 4 mph back up to motorway speeds. All get safely home, knees nothwithstanding. I guess if it had to happen, it happened at about the 'best' place it could – after all the locks, and where we weren't in the middle of nowhere.
Need to start planning next year. A few changes in the wind...

Just for fun, my journal cover, above, and as usual, a map of our travels can be found here!

Slow Boat Up the Severn

(Stourport Ring - Week One - 30th June to 6th July)

We seem to have got into a habit of getting a bigger boat each year....although nb 'Silver Dove' is supposed to be the same class as last year's nb 'Lady Carol', she's actually three feet longer. No idea why! There is a bit more at the stern for sitting, which pleased Mum, and more at the front too, which was nice.

There are a few other differences in fit-out; for one, she's the mirror layout, and secondly – she doesn't have a hatch, which is a little bit of a shame! However, given the weather, it would probably have been closed most of the time!
For it has been wet...
Exceedingly wet.
A month or so ago, there were closures of canals to conserve water. When we picked up 'Dove', the man at Tardebigge Wharf said that the Severn had been closed to traffic because of flooding. Several boats that had gone out on week-long trips had gone down to Worcester and had then just come back, unable to complete the Stourport Ring. With a fortnight, we stood a better chance of being able to wait until conditions improved. Well, we hoped so!

Going clockwise, the trip starts with a tunnel, and the Tardebigge Locks – all 29 of them. Not exactly an enticing prospect for the first evening, so with fingers crossed we aimed for a spot just downstream of the Top Lock for an overnight mooring. One soggy tunnel and our first lock later, and we found a spot with no trouble at all. Which struck me as a little odd, unless everyone else had just given up on going up the river...

It took us five hours to get down the Tardebigge, refining our locking technique and making sure my steering was up to scratch (or not-scratch, rather), and a late lunch was followed by the 6 Stoke Locks, and 6 Astwood Locks.

Six miles, 41 locks, and we are 290 feet lower than last night! Fortunately, a lot of the locks were set in our favour, so we didn't have to do a lot of waiting for them to fill. The scenery is rural, fields, trees, sheep and cows, a distant hilltop manor house and regular chiffchaffs calling from the trees. For regular followers of our travels, the first 'tree-I've-been-dragged-through' of the holiday was an oak. There were some rather nice lock-keepers' cottages, including one with the most gloriously scented pale pink roses over the door, which wafted waves of perfume as I descended into the depths of the lock. The towpath was very busy, with dogwalkers, cyclists, hikers singly and in groups, one lady on a mobility scooter carrying a bargepole like a jouster's lance, who was working locks in a most peculiar manner, kids, parents, old folks, a British Waterways man on a quad bike - but on the canal, there were very few boats. The pub at Hanbury Wharf was practically empty, according to Drew. Most odd.
Incidentally – there are, as we know, horse and dog 'whisperers'. We suspect that Mum may secretly be a 'duck mumbler'.... 

The canal south of Hanbury is quite narrow, a result of a profligation of reeds and many overhanging trees, which makes for things getting interesting when passing/meeting the few other boats on the water (one guy said to us, as we moved aside to let him go by, 'looks like you're mowing the lawn!' - he, of course, had the clear water...). The rain came down hard as we headed for Worcester, and despite hats and ponchos sluicing the water off us, it still managed to find its way down necks and sleeves and soaked up trouser legs. Didn't make sense to stop for lunch and dry out between sets of locks only to get soggy again, so we pushed on, to an overnight mooring in the security of Worcester Marina, a shore party expedition to the supermarket, and investigations on the state of the river.
The following morning, with reports that things were OK, we set off through the city. Quite interesting, with Civil War connections.and bridges decorated with pikes and helmets.

Diglis Basin is really rather posh – lots of warehouse conversions and waterfront apartments- and there are two broad beam locks leading to the river, which can take two narrowboats at a time. Naturally, there were two going down ahead of us, so the assistance of a helpful BW man in operating the huge gates was very welcome. The water gauge was at amber, but only just, so it looked reasonable.

 
We took a big sweeping turn out onto the river, and pointed ourselves upstream. The river was quite smooth and reasonably calm, with no signs of debris coming downstream, and the city waterfront past the cathedral was lovely.

Against the current we were making around 3.5 miles an hour, compared to craft coming the other way, which must have been doing around 8 mph! Beyond the edge of Worcester, past the rowing clubs, the banks were thickly wooded, and it took only a small stretch of the imagination to turn them into rainforest sweeping down to the edge of an Amazonian tributary... the weather added some verisimilitude to the fantasy!

There are three locks on this stretch of the Severn; Bevere, Holt and Lincomb; huge caverns of concrete with automatic gates, operated by lock-keepers. The boater is guided in by a series of signal lights; you slip a rope (fore and aft) around a steel cable fixed into the side of the lock, which stops you rattling about like a pea in an oil drum, the gates close and you rise swiftly to the top. The gates open and you head on your way; it's all very efficient.

Huge weirs run beside the locks, protected by floating barriers. I stayed up front to deal with the ropes, and got a whole new perspective on the river, amidst the swallows and sand martins swooping past on either side. We spotted a couple of kingfishers on the way – well, Drew and I did, Mum as usual was looking the other way....
We pulled into the pontoon at Stourport so Drew could check out the entrance to the basin. A very, very narrow set of two staircase locks, with an awkwardly angled pound between them (you can just pass another boat, but I was glad that I didn't have to!) adding weight to my theory that if anyone can put a camel through the eye of a needle, it's a narrowboat wrangler! Handed over control to Drew to pick our way through the marina, all pontoons and moorings and boats, and people trying to be helpful telling us where we needed to go, which distracted us slightly and made it harder to get where we already knew we needed to be!

This was followed by ditherers at the waterpoint (if you pull up alongside a pontoon, and don't say anything, it does look more like mooring-up than 'we're waiting for the water point', you know, folks).
Now on the Staffs & Worcs Canal, we moored up for the night just by the Black Star pub, and were set upon by a swan. Her mate and cygnets took no notice of us, (looked more embarrassed than anything, to tell truth) but she worked her way along the full length of the hull attacking with beak and feet and wings, until Drew finally gave her a gentle shove-off with the blunt end of the boat-hook. She had another go when we left in the morning, and I can only think she could see her reflection in the paint; there was certainly a little less paint when we made our escape!

Kidderminster is rather bland; all the old carpet factories have been replaced by the boring boxes of modern industrial estates. The lock rises from an underpass below a roundabout into the environs of the town church, which is rather nice, and there are handy supermarkets beside the canal,which we availed ourselves of. Naturally, when a shore party is sent out, it rains heavily!

North of the town, the rural creeps back in, lush and green with some huge trees, and much of the canal is cut through the native sandstone, which appears here and there in waterscarred outcrops.

The weather improved the following day, which helped with the 18 locks we went through. We decided that, having got up river without losing any time, we had leeway to take a side-diversion up towards Aldersley, which lies at the bottom of the Wolverhampton Flight; we passed through these on our Birmingham trip in 2007, and it's always nice to complete a circuit!

The sandstone outcrops grew larger, miniature cliffs overhung with ivy and ferns, and the land remains green and lush and – generally – empty. We did see herds of black and white horses, though, which is always nice, and a canal trip requirement, and the locks, although spread out, remained individual and interesting. Botterham is a small staircase of 2, Bumblehole is below a small slanted bridge and is itself slightly on the squint, so is interesting to get into, and then comes Bratch!
 




It's 3 locks, and fascinating. It looks like a staircase, but it isn't; each chamber has gates top and bottom, with a pound between the locks. But the pounds are tiny – or appear so – only the width of the overhead footbridge, and not long enough for a boat! Apparently the magic happens behind the hedge, where there are side pounds and culverts which feed the water through.

The lock keeper (who has a rather attractive octagonal office) keeps you right about which paddles to raise/lower and which gates to open – from a driving point of view, it IS like a staircase, as you go directly from one lock into the next. Ended the day at a rather soggy mooring near Wightwick, and first use of the mooring-spikes, which put into action my patent mooring-spike markers/buffers – tennis balls cut to fit over the top of the spike and fixed on with cable ties. Works well, but I don't think it's had the 'passing dog' test yet.

Today we discovered 'Ground Whales' - they lie in wait below the ground paddles of a lock and blow out – 'whoosh' - to soak the unsuspecting lock-wrangler....
The seventh day of the trip saw the heavens open, and so much water fell that I'm surprised we didn't see a passing Ark. Serious rain. We did 3 miles, and 3 locks, turned round at Aldersley junction, went back through the last lock, and decided we'd had enough. Moored on a muddy bank beside a growing puddle, and spent an afternoon drying out and generally loafing. We're halfway through the holiday, and although there has been some decent weather, the general trend is sogginess.

Let there be Light...

Having been away from home for quite a while over the middle of summer, I was fully expecting handwritten notes all over my post when I got home, requesting that I do some urgent pruning if I wanted to keep getting letters delivered; oddly, this hadn't happened - I think we may have a different postman - but a combination of a lot of rain followed by sunshine had resulted in the garden  looking more like a jungle, and the honeysuckle rampaging wildly all over the window.

Inside, it was like the Twilight Zone. The living room was more a living gloom, with nary a ray of sunlight penetrating the foliage. Think 'Sleeping Beauty's castle'....

After a week in the dark - I mean, is it normal to need to put the light on at nine in the morning in summer? - I decided that the time had come to do some chopping back, bees and scented flowers notwithstanding. Of course, as soon as I made the decision, it rained, and the entire thing became a dripping, sodden mass.
Job postponed.

This morning, with the sun shining and having made an early start anyway to take the car in to the garage for much-needed attention, the task of  'hunt the window' could be put off no longer. Secateurs in hand, I made a start, and was soon covered in twiggy bits, leaves and the occasional snail. The more I chopped into the overgrowth, the more snails I found, clinging to the undersides of leaves or swarming up tendrils. When I reached the window at last, I discovered that I had been demolishing a veritable snail hotel, as small reproachful eyestalks peered at me from the corners of the frame. Several of them slithered off into darker corners, in an obvious huff.
Standing in a mound of chopped-off foliage, I figured I'd upset them enough for now, and started to gather it up to put it in the bin. A snail waved at me from the bundle in my hands... so now I had to go through the whole pile and extract the residents.

Now, the bin is full, and there is light in the living room again.
But the snails are not happy with me.

Friday, 17 August 2012

SUTS Wars

At first, I thought it was something to do with the hall floor being a hard surface. Whenever Mum went out of the living room, there was a louder step, almost as if she was stamping on the floor. Then I became aware that there was also a pause associated with it, something deliberate. I didn't say anything...
'I suppose you're wondering why I stamp on the floor when I go into the hall,' she said one night.
'It had occurred to me.'
'It's the spider.'
'Spider.'
'Under the stairs.'
'There's a Spider Under The Stairs.'
'Yes, in the hall cupboard. It lurks there, and sneaks out when it thinks I'm not looking. So I stamp at it every time I go out and it goes back under the stairs.'
'Ah. What's the spider done to you?'
'It's lurking. With intent.'
This seemed a little harsh to me.
So I've called it Suts, and speak nicely to it whenever I pass by.
Karmic balance, and all that.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Slow Boat Round Four Counties

2nd to 16th July 2011.

I've left this too long, and I need to catch up, so I don't intend to blether on so much about our more recent canal adventures... you wish!
Summer 2011 started back at Great Haywood, from where we set out on the original 'Slow Boat Under Birmingham' trip; a different boat, though – this year we have 'Lady Carol' (or Elsie, as I generally call her when swearing at her to go round a tight bend), 65 ft long with a hatch in her side through which shopping can be passed and swans can look for food, a freezer and a microwave, and some rather comfortable reclining chairs. Some of this year we'll – almost inevitably when the canal system is involved - be covering old ground (or water), as we follow the Four Counties Ring in a clockwise direction.

The first couple of days saw us skirting through suburbia, south of Stafford, where there is a mix of private moorings, back gardens, pubs and hotels and holiday villages, punctuated by ducks and a good number of rather deep locks. We decided to practise the 'stick the nose on the gate' system for going through locks, which keeps the boat reasonably stable with a minimum of engine revving and forward and back motion. In an 'up' lock, it keeps the rudder from getting bashed on the downstream gate, and in a 'down' lock, it makes sure you don't get hung up on the cill. You do have to watch for the fenders getting caught, but a sharp pair of eyes on the forward gate helps.
An overnight stop at Gailey allowed for a shore party trip to the Gailey Round Tower, before meandering through flat and windy land studded with motorways, the summit pound of the Staffs and Worcs Canal. By the outskirts of Wolverhampton, it becomes a bit more interesting, with the narrows of Pendeford Rockin' - only wide enough for one boat, so we went through in convoy – and the tight entrance to the Shropshire Canal at Autherley – narrow, under abridge and straight into a stop lock! Watered up just after the lock, and headed on through a quiet evening to find a mooring for the night, passing over Watling Street by means of the Stretton Aqueduct, through some deep and heavily wooded cuttings, full of bugs and badger diggings, to finally tie up at Wheaton Aston.
The following day was interesting and, on occasion, a wee bit dramatic. The first feature was Cowley Tunnel – only 81 yards, originally longer but it had kept collapsing (reassuring!) - the southern portal has brickwork, but as you go deeper it becomes a cut through the natural sandstone, which results in a rather lumpy and irregular profile (of both tunnel and any careless boater), and there are several places where it looks as if chunks have fallen from the roof....
A series of embankments carries us along, with distant views of the Wrekin, a faint blue rise on the horizon. Infant Yggdrasils tower over us in the deep cuttings, and we try to shed the convoy of boats – we pull ahead when it's clear but they catch us when we slow for moored boats. It rains, just to be helpful. Into the depths of Grub Street Cutting, we slip under Bridge 39 - supposedly haunted by a black, monkey-like creature, though we see nothing odder than ourselves – and head onward to Shebdon Wharf, where milk from the surrounding dairies used to be collected for the Cadbury's works.
The most impressive part of today's journey is through Woodseaves Cutting. It's around 2 miles long, almost sheer-sided with some dramatic evidence of recent rockslides. It feels like a trip through another world, travelling on tick-over so as not to start any more rockslides, and conversation is in hushed tones. Drew and I speculate what may lie beyond the trees, and being us, the speculation is of the ghoulish kind.... It LOOMS.. I can think of no other suitable word. Sheer rockfaces on either side, draped with long, liana-tendrils of ivy. Lush ferns spring from cracks in the rocks, and out of a grey mist a bridge towers overhead, a high arch, mostly concealed by trees, vaulting across the gap. It feels like passing the Argonath to go beneath it. The towpath is narrow, and so wet as to have duckweed.
We emerge at Tyrley Wharf slightly dazed, and decide we may as well go down the locks tonight. As Drew goes to open the Top Lock, the heavens open again. Gongoozaling boaters head for cover, and we send Mother below as we start down. At Lock 4, Drew points to some black and yellow tape on the lower gate – the handrail is damaged. 'Think I'll go round!' he says, rather than do his usual nifty hop between the two gates. Then he looks again.
'The notice says “Wasps' Nest On Gate...”' he says, '...try not to hit it, I think!'
Right.
I steer slowly in, and sit at the top end of the lock, just clear of the cill.
He comes back again.
'Another notice. “because of the rock shelf, don't moor in the bottom pound. Set the lock and drive straight from one into the other.”'
Okay... so we go down Lock 4, and I sit in there, wondering about wasps, and hidden underwater rocky shelves, while he goes to set and open the next lock.
After a while I spot the nest – it's about the size of my fist, and in the hollow centre of the steel beam of the right-hand lock gate – when the gate is closed, it will be nice and snug inside the gate.
Right now, it's just about head height.
Drew starts raising the second paddle on the gate below, so I decide it's time for a cautious exit and cross the pound into the bottom lock. The sides of the pound are shallow and shelving,where the whole thing has been cut from the surrounding rock. He goes back to (carefully) close the wasps in for the night, and then we go through the bottom lock. There's a very strong surge of water just below the lock, which has carved out a hollow in the rock wall opposite – probably by flinging narrowboats at it, if our experience is anything to go by!
We moor up at Market Drayton, and I manage to splash hot oil up my arm while cooking dinner – ouch! The domestic battery is also looking iffy, possibly not charging properly....
After a replenishment run in the morning, we set off to do the Adderley Flight, and then moor up at the top of Audlem, ready to do that tomorrow. The shrieking spectre of Betton Cutting fails to show up, and it's another day of greenery and cows. The 240v circuit trips briefly while cooking supper. I think it's the alternator, linked to the panel light that doesn't come on at start and stop engines (my car did something similar.) Drew thinks that isn't logical. We shall see.
Next morning is Audlem Locks and my birthday. The locks are quite fun, apart from the chance of getting ducklings stuck in the locks with the boat – with no wish to make duckling pate, we have to keep shooing them out. We wanted to stop at the 'Shroppie Fly' pub, but the length of the boat plus others' shabby mooring means it's a no-go; if we have one major gripe (apart from people passing moored boats at too fast a speed), it's poor mooring – we often see gaps of 10 ft here and there between boats who have tied up one bollard apart – if they'd tie up with more thought, more boats could get into the short-term moorings. Ah well.
13 locks later, we tie up for a relaxing evening, with all but one of the flight done, and settle down to watch the first of the last Harry Potter movies, until the 240v circuit trips out completely....
We called the boatyard just before we set out, to let them know about the battery, and organised to meet at Hack Green, where the shore party want to visit the (not so secret) Secret Bunker.While we were waiting for the rain to stop, the engineer turned up, and – YES! – it was the alternator. One small connector rusted through and requiring replacement, and all is back to normal, and off they went to see the bunker. (I think I've seen enough bunkers to last a lifetime!)
Now, I am aware that we do come home with some odd souvenirs from time to time, but I think a training version of a geiger counter may be the weirdest one yet....
From a mooring at Hurleston Junction (by the turn onto the Llangollen Canal) we went through familiar waters along the Middlewich Branch. The chandlers at Venetian Marina has (oddly) turned into an antiques shop, but we could still get ice creams, and continue on our way to Middlewich. The exit onto the Trent and Mersey was congested, and followed by a narrow tunnel under a bridge and gongoozaler scrutiny into Kings Lock.


Tomorrow we're hoping to do 'Heartbreak Hill' (aka the Cheshire Locks) so a mooring near Wheelock is planned. The landscape is an odd mixture of rural and brownfield, where demolition rubble waits something to replace it, and an odd works producing great heaps of white powder – world's most obvious cocaine factory?
Sunday is a day of locks, in sunshine,showers and a downright downpour! Most of the locks are doubles, with a second chamber parallel to the first. This doesn't necessarily mean the second chamber is working, of course – one was full of concrete, several had missing gates, and one was a veritable nature reserve with meadowsweet and moorhens.
We set off early, hoping to get moored somewhere by the Harecastle Tunnel, and actually made quite a decent shot of it, with the help of a very keen bloke who whizzed along on his bike ahead of his boat and wife (and son, who rapidly lost enthusiasm for cycling). He was eager to get into the locks once we cleared, so aided with paddles and gates until the rain set in, where we lost him. Hoped to do some shopping around Lock 41, but it being 1615hrs on a Sunday and this being England, for some obscure reason the shops were shut, so we decided to go up and moor nearer the tunnel. The water is murky here – very orange, with iron particles from the water under the hill. As we ventured into the underworld below the various rail and road and foot bridges, we were met by the tunnel keeper – a very nice bloke – who said that for preference, he wouldn't moor up here, and suggested we went back a wee bit by the private moorings. If we were at the tunnel for 0730, he'd get us through with the first batch in the morning.
So we went backwards.
Sort of.
Narrowboats don't really like going backwards for any distance. Combine this with a strong water flow, and deep silt on the bottom, and you have the recipe for an awful lot of swearing from Drew.
And profligate use of the bargepole.

When we reached the tunnel (in time) there was already a boat ahead of us, and several more behind; nice tunnel keeper gave us a full briefing before setting us off into the darkness of the Harecastle Tunnel. It's 2926 yards long, and takes around 45 minutes to traverse...unless you are behind a boat which is zig-zagging, bouncing off the walls, coming to a virtual halt (looked like a group photo session), letting the children drive, dropping to tick over, hitting the 'bollards' in the tunnel, and causing everyone else to slow-speed-slow-stop as we followed. In some parts of the tunnel there isn't a lot of head room, which made things extra-interesting.
Breakfast and coffee was served at the first opportunity once we were back in the light, and an exceptionally helpful birdwatcher gave us directions to the supermarket, so our supply hunter/gatherer was sent off.
This side of the tunnel, we are in 'The Potteries' (Stoke-on-Trent seems to be an amalgam of towns rather than a place unto itself); sadly, much of the industrial heritage seems to have been lost to demolition – plaques mark the sites of famous potteries, and there are a few bottle kilns but seemingly little else. Got a pump-out at the Black Prince yard near Etruria, before heading up the Caldon Canal, which begins with some interesting wiggles and a sudden 2-chamber staircase lock, with huge gates. Planet Lock, which follows, is a mere baby at 3ft 10ins rise. The canal wends through the tended greenery of Hanley Park, beginning in a very urban setting, becoming quite posh with some nice waterside flats, before turning shabby-industrial and finally rural again, and all very winding and narrow.
After lunch, we dealt with the lift bridge, which like the one on the Llangollen, requires the boater to stop traffic. How a solo boater manages we still cannot figure, as you're on the wrong side with no way down to your boat – so having lifted the bridge, how do you get your boat through? Drew did traffic control, and I made a rather nervous pick-up on the far side once he'd lowered the bridge.
Stopped overnight at Milton, for a visit to the Abacus bookshop in the morning. Which is apparently excellent! While we were tied up, we encountered a passing family with a very enthusiastic small boy, who was getting excited over the boats. On seeing us, we heard 'Ooh! What a big boat!' and then, as he looked through the window at Mum, '..and it's got a GRANNY on it!!'
Cue collapse of crew....
The locks on the Caldon are stone rather than brick-lined, and there are a lot of mason's marks on the stones, which I decided to 'collect' as we went. Some stones are intricately worked, with patterned surfaces, yet the spend most of their time underwater. I can't imagine the same happening today. On advice from the bookshop owner, we took the main branch,encountering some annoyances in the form of a lot of insects (Drew took up 'cleg-dancing') and one Important Individual who stole the bottom lock at Hazelhurst, wasting an entire lock-full, despite shouts from other boats....prat!
Past the Churnet Valley Railway, with one engine in steam as we passed, and a forlorn dredger parked in the river where it met the canal, risking getting overturned if the river rose. A gorgeous, sunny evening, and as we couldn't get a mooring at the Holly Bush, pushed on up to the Black Lion at Consall Forge. We can't go much further, as the boat is too big to go through Froghall Tunnel, so we picked our way carefully past weir bridges, railway lines and under the platform to the winding hole by Flint Mill Lock. Moored below the limekilns at Consall, and Drew went to the pub, returning with a carry-out of 'Black Hole', a rather molasses-y dark brew.
Southwards now, despite a small sandbar, and a kingfisher by the Knypersley feeder, and the efforts of the 'Martha Gingers' who dillied and dallied about in front of us, going Very Slowly, wrapping themselves in the foliage (which cleverly meant that we ended up operating the lift bridge again) and then messing up going through the staircase...this combined with a bloke who drove straight into the bottom of the staircase without checking if anyone was queuing to come down... result was an hour on a boring bank waiting, and staring at the backs of terrace houses.
Left out of the Caldon, into the top of the Stoke Flight (a Very Deep Lock). The canal goes under the main Crewe-Stafford railway line, where the metal siding on the bridge has been shaped to allow lock operations, and alongside the A5007 which leads to the M6. Chugging alongside the rush-hour traffic and backed-up lorries is rather odd. Then we were out again into a more rural setting, and a gorgeous blue-sky-and-sunshiney evening, the sunlight through the leaves and long grass, gleaming off the towers of the incinerator....
Next morning it was off through Trentham Lock to moor up for a visit to the Wedgwood Factory, and a selection of trophies – small black bowls, a Turkish coffee cup, a lovely blue-bead bracelet, and a couple of creations, Drew having made a small blue beaker and decorated a flower pot, both of which will be sent on when fired.
More locks through the afternoon, and a mooring close to the pub.
The plan to moor for the last night at a decent pub, followed by a short hop on the last morning came to naught, a combination of shabby mooring, too many boats, and a long queue at Weston Lock following a technical hitch culminating in a total lack of mooring between our overnight stop and the Great Haywood base. We could have gone through to Tixall Wide, but it seemed that everyone else had the same idea, so Drew went down to the boatyard to see if we could get in there.
Which we could.
So we did.
Easier said than done, admittedly, with a lot of traffic at the junction, but thanks to the 'Ezekiel Dane' we got round and moored up for the final time.
Very odd, being in the yard overnight, but at least there wasn't the need for an early start!

136 miles, 135 locks, 8 lift bridges, 2 tunnels....

As usual, a map of our trip is here!

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Litter and Lobsters

The weather has been - to say the least - changeable recently, with places that ten days ago had four inches of snow now basking in temperatures in the high 20s...yesterday we had the same temperature here in the north-east corner of Scotland as in Darwin, Australia.
Which meant that, for once, our spring beach clean-up wasn't a total washout! Eight valiant volunteers, armed with litter-pickers and rubbish bags, set about doing a wee bit of tidying up at Fraserburgh. I was in charge of refreshments, explaining what we were doing to the bemused general public, and recording all the various items found : in two and a half hours, we got at least 990 individual items, including 13 disposable barbecues. Two-thirds of what was collected was 'visitor related' rubbish (i.e. not thrown-overboard/fishing waste/sewage-related...you get the idea). 
It was also a great opportunity for a spot of people watching... The sudden shock of the sunshine must go straight to the brains of folks up here, immediately disabling all thoughts of sensible clothing and sunscreen - the skimmed-milk skin of the average punter is immediately exposed to the UV rays to the greatest extent possible. Which results in a preponderance of lobster-pinkness as the pallid flesh is rapidly grilled to the broiling-point. I found myself wincing at the thought of how they would feel tomorrow, and slightly self-satisfied that I had blathered on the new Factor 30, half-price and supposedly with a 'golden sheen'.  Being of a pallid persuasion, I need all the help I can get.
Crowds (well, in our terms "crowds" - at least 100 people!) made their way to the beach, with all the accoutremonts of the British holidaymaker - windbreaks, buckets and spades, frisbees and beach games tumbling out of overpacked bags, trolley-loads of beer and barbecue equipment (I feel our clean-up efforts will be un-noticeable by tomorrow morning), and over-excited children.  There was a background soundtrack of screams as said children ran into the sea, to suddenly halt as the water reached a critical level and yelp 'IT'S COLD!!!!' before running back to the beach, where their doting parents pointed them back at the water to repeat the exercise. They breed them tough up here. This is the North Sea, after all, and it's only May.
The cafe did a roaring trade. An idiot on a jet ski roared from one end of the bay to the other. Offshore, the crab boats went about their business, followed by hopeful gulls. Soggy, sandy, barefoot children trailed after harrassed parents back to the car park.
I recorded the next sheet of findings on the laptop, looked at my arms to check I wasn't burning and made a Horrible Discovery.
Far from a 'golden sheen,' the damn sunscreen makes your skin sparkle. I mean, really glitter. Like disco gel. Like a freakin' cut-price vampire.... I retreated into the deep shade of the van, and prayed for clouds....