Monday, 30 October 2017

Coming apart

We managed to pack up Erin Mae on Saturday and head off south in the car mid-afternoon-ish. For some time the car's warning system has been subjecting me to occasional fake news – saying that I need to check the tyre pressures. When the problem started I did. Then I realised it was a faulty sensor system, and I didn't bother any more. So when the warning came on as we approached the big roundabout where the A446 joins the M42, I paid little attention. Half way round, however, the wheels felt rather rumbly, and as we joined the slip road down on to the motorway it was bad enough for me to stop and check. Sure enough, the left rear tyre was in the last phase of going flat.

If you've ever transferred the moveable contents of a narrowboat to a car, to transport them home for the winter, you'll have an idea of how much gear was stowed in the rear of our Focus estate. And where do they keep the spare tyre? Underneath the floor of that compartment! So it all came out on the hard shoulder. Fortunately the lights on the roundabout release the traffic down the slip road in batches that are not going too fast, so there wasn't too much danger as I changed the wheel. Of course, the wheel was one of these slim-profile jobbies that have a maximum speed of 50 mph, so that was the speed at which we completed the remaining 150 miles of the journey, with hazard warning lights flashing for those sections where we thought other drivers might be surprised by a vehicle going so slowly. It was frustrating to find that the service station at half-way where we were hoping for a restorative coffee had a fire alert, and no-one was allowed inside. All the way home without a coffee was something of a first. And the stuff on the radio (all channels) was mostly rubbish (IMHO).

Well, we made it safely without any further alarums, and the weekend was going well. We met up with our friends at church for worship on Sunday, went down to the Toby carvery for lunch, and then Son and Daughter-in-law Nº 3 arrived on their way back from Weymouth, along with Bram.

"Your cupboards need re-arranging, Gran. Don’t worry - I’m on it!"

That was very pleasant and, when they left, we settled down to a light supper – those Toby carveries are very filling. That was the point at which my best beloved felt the tooth/bridge to which the dentist had paid attention a fortnight ago become rather mobile again. These things are not meant to come loose, and this is the second time. But when we rang this morning, they said to come along this afternoon and she would be fitted in somehow. That's what we did, and now the object in question is cemented back in place for the third (and hopefully the last) time of asking.

Which just leaves the tyre to be sorted. They couldn't do that today – short of staff for some reason. But we confidently expect to be capable of more than 50 mph at some time tomorrow. Hopefully that will be the last thing to come apart unexpectedly for a good, long while.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Home again

We had one further call to make before returning to the marina. NB Dexta at the Taft wharf sells diesel a great deal cheaper than anywhere else around here, and since we needed a fair amount it was worthwhile coming on past the entrance to our marina yesterday, mooring up in the lower reaches of Great Haywood last night, and going down to pick up diesel this morning. It was a great decision for another reason as well – today was a great day for cruising.

My best beloved also enjoyed time at the tiller.

Anxious not to get home to quickly, we stopped for lunch, virtually in the place we'd moored up last night.

But we couldn't delay for ever, and eventually were snug back on our berth. It's been a really enjoyable few weeks of autumn travel. We'll head off south tomorrow and return to winterise Erin Mae at some point over the next month.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Too much excitement

Coming down the top lock in Stoke on Tuesday, we had somehow omitted to close one of the top paddles. At the same time, having opened one of the bottom paddles, I got back on board, made sure Erin Mae was tucked up snug at the front of the lock and went below to attend to something (I won't go into detail!). The next thing I know, I see through a window that we are moving backwards and there are various bangs and thuds.

Rushing up onto the cruiser stern, I found that we were right at the back of the lock, and I couldn't tell whether we were getting caught on the cill. I engaged forward gear and Erin Mae didn't move. I pumped up the revs and still no movement. We were stuck, with water streaming down from leaks around the gate, currents swirling all around, and I yelled to my best beloved, at the top of my voice, to drop the bottom paddles quickly. Of course, this would be the one lock which uses a special gear mechanism, meant to make operating the paddles easier. In this case, it meant it was really hard to drop them swiftly. I climbed as fast as I could up the lock ladder to open the top paddles, in order to get Erin Mae off the cill. It was at that point that I found one of them open already, and realised what had happened.

Thankfully, it seems the currents from the top paddle had dragged us backwards after we had already dropped below the main part of the cill, so we weren't hung up on it and no damage was done. It had been the strength of those currents that held Erin Mae back, even with so many revs engaged. Once we'd dropped the top paddle and I was back on board, everything proceeded as it should have done – except for one of the bottom gates being extremely hard to open. But we could have done without the drama – a salutary reminder always to keep your wits about you.

Today, the excitement was of quite a different sort. It's obviously half-term for some of the schools, and we've met many boaters out with groups of children, all of them having a ball. One woman, who sounded a New Zealander, had her daughter and seven other 9/10 year olds out for a birthday jaunt. The kids were loving it and helping, responsibly, in every way imaginable, even when they were stuck across the cut trying to wind above Sandon Lock (this was a 60/70 footer, not a day-boat). We had a great chat when I walked back to help. They pointed out I had a very large spider hiding under the lapel of my fleece – and I got a very nice piece of flapjack for my trouble.

Now that's the sort of excitement I can cope with!

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Pure gold

Our trip up the Caldon canal this October had a secret purpose! Brother and Sister-in-law Nº 1 were celebrating their golden anniversary with a weekend in a large, quirky "cottage" in Waterhouses, near Ashbourne, about seven miles from end of the canal's Leek branch. Two further generations of their family were joining them. Unbeknown to them, their oldest daughter had arranged for my brother's three brothers and our wives to turn up, unannounced, on the Sunday morning – and arranged for him to open the door. The surprise was complete! Lots of conversation ensued, while the children wisely played games in another room.

We had a wonderful day. After a somewhat extended brunch most of us went for a walk along the Tissington Trail.

That was followed by another surprise – afternoon tea at Callow Hall, with lots of yummy goodies.

The oldest was 76, and the youngest was just 3 months.

When we got back to base, the instruments came out and children and adults devoted considerable energy to making all sorts of music. Two accordions, piano, guitar, swanee whistle, mouth organ, two recorders, and a selection of penny whistles provided the context for singing folk songs, seafaring songs, Flanders and Swann and so on. It was a blast! More food before we said our farewells at about 9.30.

So, thanks to Brother and Sister-in-law Nº 2 for picking us up from Erin Mae and returning us in the evening. And thanks to Becky and Jo for doing most of the organising. It was a fabulous, golden day.

Saturday, 21 October 2017


As planned, Brother Nº 3 and Wife met us at the Holly Bush Inn for a day's excitement. As hoped, the overnight rain died away at more or less the same time and, after introductions were made with Erin Mae and we'd all had a nice cup of coffee, it was time to go boating.

I think the last time we'd shared a tiller was in the summer of 1968, when we went sailing and camping along the south coast with our friend Barry, who owned a catamaran that was just big enough for three. Now that was an interesting trip – but I will not digress. Just a point of note – a razor has not touched my face since. And my best beloved has never seen it shaven (but she's seen pictures of it without the beard, from the time before this holiday, and she's quite happy for me to keep it!).

The Caldon Canal is a great deal shallower than the waters we navigated on that occasion, and our pace was positively snail-like. Brother tackled tiller duty with appropriate accuracy, especially the bits that didn't involve serried ranks of moored boats around bends on the off-side and unseeable underwater obstructions on the on-side. Sister-in-law declined the opportunity to ground Erin Mae, and instead wielded her camera with great skill.

Meanwhile my best beloved offered instruction in all aspects of managing locks and other hazards. She also offered delicious portions of coconut crunch and gingerbread.

All proceeded well until we got down to Oak Meadow Ford lock, which is where the canal joins the River Churnet for a while.

Just above Erin Mae, on the right of this photo, can be seen a notice, whose purpose was to alert us to possible danger ahead. Out of sight (so you'll have to take my word for it), under the bridge at the bottom of the lock, is a depth gauge, to show the level of the river. It was very definitely in the red! It was also plain that the river was running fast. So instead of going down the lock onto the river, we stopped and had a very nice lunch of Staffordshire oatcakes, hoping that no other boats were following us down, since the only sensible mooring place served as both the lock landing and one side of a winding hole.

Lunch eaten, no harm having been done, and the gauge still in the red, we winded and retraced our steps. Down this stretch of the valley you're never far from the Churnet Valley Railway and, to our surprise (since this was a Friday in October) several trains ran up and down, announcing their presence with that characteristic steam train whistle which, for some reason or other, is extraordinarily pleasing.

Sister-in-law asked me if I had a favourite stretch of canal. It's hard to answer – we've been in so many fabulous spots. But the Churnet valley must be one of the best. It would just have been nice to have had the conditions and time to take them down to Consall Forge and on to Froghall.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Second breakfast

The unseen, submerged part of a fallen tree had a nibble at Erin Mae yesterday as we meandered to Leek.

We escaped intact and I was looking out for it making another attempt as we retraced our steps today. It was cool, a day for wrapping up warm at the tiller. And it was a route with regular hazards apart from toppled trees. In particular it has a number of bridges at awkward angles on corners, usually with boats moored up too close for comfort.

One of these corner-bridges is about the worst we've encountered anywhere, though the setting is delightful.

The first time we came through here, both directions, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to get Erin Mae pointed in the right direction while avoiding collisions. Today, with experience, it was less problematic, but we still used up just about all the allotted space in this very shallow basin. So shortly afterwards we decided on a short pause.

In Lord of the Rings, Pippin says: "What about second breakfast?" Aragorn pays no attention and Merry memorably replies: "I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip." Well, by now we were certainly up for second breakfast, what with the ends of both a seeded and a fruit loaf just begging to be toasted. Then it was through the bridge and round the corner to the junction.

I love the optimistic mention of Uttoxeter 20½ miles. The canal currently extends in that direction for one short pound beyond Froghall, and I doubt even the best efforts of the restoration society will see it in water all the way to Uttoxeter while we're still boating. But the branch towards Froghall was to be our immediate route.

The turn is too tight for Erin Mae to negotiate under power without churning up most of the bottom, so I got off the front with the bow-line, and pulled her round into the approach to the three locks.

The expected rain had arrived and we were glad to tie up soon on the moorings just short of the Hollybush Inn. Whether for main meals, puddings, musical evenings or more second breakfasts, I fancy we're going to be seeing quite a lot of the Hollybush over the next few days if this weather persists.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Forks in the road

Continuing up the Caldon canal, we came to another of those landmarks that draw your hand irresistibly towards the camera.

Apparently (according to Waterways World) the island used to be the pivot point of a swing bridge carrying a light railway over the canal. I expect anyone who's ever come this way has gone home with a photo or two. The one above was taken looking back, the one below was what we saw as we approached.

Just through the bridge is a basin which used to serve the lime-barge industry, but which now houses the Stoke-on-Trent Boat Club. To stay on the main line of the canal you have to turn sharp right.

The other place at which this waterway forks is at Denford, where the Froghall branch carries straight on down three locks, while the Leek branch turns right along a lock-free pound, shortly passing over the lower branch, by now far below.

You can't go anywhere fast on the Caldon. In the first place, it's far too shallow and, in the second place, even if it wasn't, the canal deserves a dawdle. So we've come slowly to Leek and visited Morrisons for some Staffordshire oatcakes – possibly the longest journey specifically for such oatcakes ever undertaken by humankind. Well, we did buy one or two other things while we were at it (in fact, quite a lot).

Tonight we stay here. Tomorrow we retrace our steps to the junction and go down the three locks of the Froghall branch. After that it all gets a bit complicated – down that branch a bit and back on Friday with family. Back to Leek on Saturday. More family doings on Sunday. I'm tempted to leave an Ariadne thread as we move about to make sure that we don't lose track of where we are and can finally escape the Caldon labyrinth. Except that I expect it would get wrapped around the prop.