Wednesday 7 December 2011


It seemed a strange word when we first came across it. Now it's an essential part of the vocabulary. Get ready for the freeze. As Steve in the marina office put it – what you've got is a floating garden shed. Do something about anything you don't want damaged by ice and frost.

We were caught out last year – still in the process of buying Erin Mae when winter struck at the start of December. Even if we'd known what to do, we didn't have the authority. A new calorifier was part of the cost. So I've been up to Engineering to arrange things and learn what I can along the way. Year-round liveaboards may face challenges in the ice, but at least they're keeping the boat warm by living in it.

Getting ready for winter – sounds like a metaphor. Maffi complained at being 61, in spite of the birthday greetings. There's a few on the cut can give him a year or two! But winter doesn't just strike those who've stopped having birthdays. The days can close in on people much younger – I'm thinking of the sad passing of Gary Speed, and Ronnie O'Sullivan's renewed career comments. Even Bones can muse on the darkness (or otherwise) of the soul.

Some have written about "the dark night of the soul" as being something through which you can come to know God more profoundly. It never sounds a particularly attractive way to get better acquainted with the Almighty. But, whatever, learning how to face winter seems a part of wisdom we can't afford to ditch.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Christmas tree

Last Sunday week I held hands with a stranger about my own age and hirsuteness as we sang Christmas songs and walked clockwise and, on the next verse, anti-clockwise, round the newly-lit Christmas tree in front of Oslo university. He said he'd been doing this for forty years. On the steps of the university a fine Salvation Army band played the carols for everyone to join in, a civic representative read the story of Jesus' birth from Luke's gospel, a local primary school choir sang their part, and my youngest grandchild got perilously close to the tuba. The whole of Oslo (it seemed) had gathered to celebrate the official start of the Christmas season and walk back and forth round the tree.

It was the sort of occasion which is becoming much rarer in Britain, I think, where people can be seriously and happily celebratory, without the need to be raucous or cynical or to turn everything into a joke. We had just one joke – from the mayor who, when the lights failed to come on at the right moment, commented that they were of a much greener variety this year!

At the end of a year in which Norway had to cope with the horrific, tragic events of 22nd July, it was good to see something profound surfacing, and people coming together to sing the older story.

Monday 5 December 2011


Yesterday, in the morning service at a nearby church, two friends of ours renewed their marriage vows. We'd been at this sort of thing before, where after 25/30/40 years of life together, a couple wanted to re-affirm what they had said at the start. But this was different. The last four years have been difficult. Various issues surfaced and led to a separation. The house was sold, finances were difficult, times were tough. But, crucially, both of them had the right sort of support from people who walked with them through the difficulties, without taking sides, being honest without being judgmental.

At first there seemed little hope of a reconciliation. Where trust had been challenged, time for reflection was needed. For them to come to yesterday required courage. Courage to admit wrongdoing, faith to build again. But they got there. For those of us who had been close, it was very moving to listen to the promises they made to each other, before God. These were not standard promises from a prayer book, wonderful as those are. They had written them specially for the occasion, in the light of the past and looking with renewed joy and hope to the future.

Most marriages face challenges at some point and so many, sadly, succumb. To see our friends rebuilding was a thrilling experience of the preciousness of contrition, forgiveness and restoration.

Friday 11 November 2011

Night visitation

Up on the embankment in the dark it looked like something from Close Encounters. Great Haywood marina, by and large, is very peaceful. A railway runs along one side and, every hour or so, a Virgin train tears past. Apart from that it's pretty quiet. Last night the idyll was shattered in the middle of the night, for the second time in a fortnight, by a Network Rail maintenance team. The loco, its accompanying wagons and their floodlights created a strange amalgam of shapes and silhouettes criss-crossed by figures in working gear. Just far away for them not to keep their voices down, just near enough for us to hear everything, and for the regularly sounded horn to keep us from sleep. My best beloved gave up, went off to read in front of the fire. I'd just be drifting off, when the horn would jolt me awake again. There must be something singularly wrong with the track by the marina – they stayed there for ages. "Beep-beep, beep-beep" it went. Bye-bye to an early morning rise for a productive day.

We're obviously out of condition. In Brazil we slept through all-night parties next door. Today we're having a quiet day recovering with the help of home-made soup, home-made bread and home-made Dutch apple cake!

Thursday 10 November 2011

Underneath the mattress

What's under yours? All those savings you can't entrust to the bank? It was never very likely that we ourselves would have much to stash away – serving with a mission agency in Brazil for the central part of your working life is not exactly a smart career move if your principal aim is to accumulate a decent pension. But perhaps there's more to life than that...

Erin Mae came with a very nice 8" mattress, interior sprung, 4' wide (this paragraph apologises to those unfamiliar with imperial measurement abbreviations). There was also a further 6" wide, custom made piece, interior sprung and carefully crafted, together with some plywood panels underneath, that slide out to make a 4' 6" bed. Trouble was that when you took into account the depth of those panels and added a 2" memory foam topper, our heads were getting perilously close to the overhead cupboards. Makes it hard to relax in the night in case you get up without thinking and bash your bonce, crash your cranium, knacker your noddle – you get the idea. Also, because the 6" bit was made by a different person to the main mattress and, being mostly under the gunwale, less lain upon, it stuck up and created a ridge. In the end we bought a 6" deep, 4' wide memory foam mattress (3" of that wonderful foam) and persuaded the company to sell us a 6" wide piece of the same stuff to go down the side at night. Works a treat. We're 4" further removed vertically from the risk to life and looks, and the comfort is unsurpassed. The old memory foam topper now lies folded underneath the dinette seating, waiting to provide superior luxury for our first overnight guests (or us, if those guests merit the bedroom).

Problem – the slide-out panels were getting harder to slide out. Today I tried silicone lubricant, to no effect. So out came the new cordless drill and off came parts of the construction under the mattress, to be shaved down to give an extra mm or so of clearance at the side (see, I can do metric). While down there we had a look below. As with many narrowboats, what sits under the bed is the poo tank. Its proper name is "black tank", but ours is a nice sort of polypropylene, and if the contents are actually black then we're in trouble! Everything looked in order and sealed tight. The only issue is that, being over to one side of the boat, when it gets full it has the same effect as a couple of front-row prop forwards standing on the gunwale. I'm thinking of patenting a device to tell you how near you are to needing a pump-out by the amount of left-list on the boat.

Meanwhile, it just doesn't do to think too much, as you drift away with the sandman, about what lies just beneath the mattress. Even if it's all those savings, worrying about them could keep you awake at night.

Wednesday 9 November 2011


We met Gareth and Ruth 36 years ago, the four of us starting at theological college together. Our Iain, at 10 months, was one day older than their Katherine, and the two sat side by side in their high chairs at coffee-time, holding hands before going back to play in the creche. Over two years of study our friendship grew. Then they went off to Japan and we went to Brazil, involved in our different ways with Christian groups in those countries. We didn't see them again until about five years ago, though we swapped news letters and Christmas greetings.

Meanwhile Ruth had developed breast cancer. It seemed to have been caught in time, but during this last year it re-emerged, and they finally had to return to the UK. Treatment was ongoing, and everyone was hopeful. Then, in the middle of October, various complications unexpectedly set in and on the afternoon of the 19th she suddenly took a turn for the worse and passed away.

Gareth's email likens the experience to a tsunami – a powerful image for one as committed to Japan as he. But, typically and in the context of his faith, he also notes the hope and everything else he and his family have, and asks friends to continue to be mindful of the thousands of Japanese who lost so much in March.

We remember Ruth with great affection, as will those among whom she worked selflessly for years. She was cheerful and fun, warm-hearted and dependable. She gave herself to service a long way from home, and made a home there for many others.

Tuesday 8 November 2011


If you needed 2 screws to mount a smoke alarm, and B&Q would sell you 20 for £1.90 while a local hardware trading company would sell you a complete box of 200 for the same price, which would you buy? Do you think value-for-money or storage space? Do you like to have them all, just in case, or are you a waste-of-the-earth's-resources person? Minimalist, or cover-the-angles?

I bought the box. But then I've a garage shelf at home to store the bulk of them until they go rusty. I think if Erin Mae were our only home, I might have done differently. Mind you, some of the boating bloggers report constant purchases of DIY-related goodies, by themselves or their other halves. I turned to my Google Reader page for a suitable example, and this immediately leapt out at me. Case in point!

On Thursday week my old tutor group are coming round to say farewell properly, since it somehow didn't happen in the summer. Unfortunately, the dining room is still full of the stuff removed from the loft. And the garage will need a good clear out before there's room for it in there. Minimalism has a lot going for it. But you never know when you might need it...

Monday 7 November 2011

Nasty niffs nailed

We were warned – most English people talk about the weather, boaters talk about electrics and toilets. We resolved to break the stereotype and resist. Some hope! Ever since we returned to the Erin Mae once to find the toilet bowl full of – well, let's just say it wasn't clear water – we've been trying to identify the cause. Marina engineers pressure-flushed it (for a price) but that did little to prevent the ... seepage. So, following up on a tip from Caldon Canal Society members we'd met in September, we went to see Keith at the Anglo Welsh yard round the corner. Together we pored over the diagrams in the user guide and identified a one-way (or possibly not!) valve which looked as though it could be the culprit. I ordered one from the supplier (for a price), and today we went back round and they fixed it.

And once again, as with the question of our slightly over-heating engine, Keith proved himself knowledgeable, helpful, extremely fair with a price, and an all-round good bloke.

So far, so good. The loo is now fit for her majesty (anyone remember that episode of Steptoe and Son?). I doubt whether I'll report back on the long-term success of this operation. That would be to start talking about toilets again. Anyone who's interested can pay us a visit and see for themselves!

Saturday 5 November 2011

Sing those blues

Picked up my guitar today for the first time since early summer. It quickly became apparent (a) that the strings needed to be replaced, and (b) that finger-picking was going to be painful. A nice new set of Elixir Nanowebs already sitting in the case quickly resolved the first issue. The second is going to take some working on. Strumming was fine, but the third finger wasn’t picking as it should. And when I lifted my arm away after going through a song sitting down, all the wrist tendons screamed at me for a while, till I got them interested in some more music. Standing up with a strap was easier, so it must have something to do with arm position.

I could hear Tom the physio telling me this was all very good for my wrist. Stretching and strengthening in equal measure. Do the exercises. Why do you think you’re still taking those pain-killers? Well, as to that, it was interesting that the finger-tips on the left hand gave me no trouble at all – unusual after a long lay-off.

So, I’ve got that promised jamming session with Mike on nb The Great Escape to motivate me. I can feel a blues number coming on, all about irretrievable loss and great inner pain. Can a white man sing the blues? Don’t know about the singing, though the voice is suitably gravelly these day, but the wrist and fingers could write a new little number out of personal experience. Just that we'd have to get away from the marina to jam it, to avoid thoroughly depressing all the other boaters!

Thursday 3 November 2011

Autumn Encounters

Only a little cruising on the Staffs and Worcs in October, but some good encounters. Just a selection:

Evening mooring near Wildwood

Autumn shades at Tixall

Balloon over the Haywoods

Music at the Spittal Brook, Stafford

Tixall swan: see Bruce's take on them!

Grey-t Haywood heron

October was good.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Finally, retirement

Yesterday was the final first day of my retirement, if you see what I mean.  No? Well, the college released me from active service at the end of July, except for some some IT stuff that could be done at a distance (retirement 1). Unfortunately that was when I broke my wrist. Then half way through October came that momentous 65th, the official retirement date according to my pension provider (retirement 2). Happily, however, the college were paying me up until the end of the month. 1st November, then – retirement 3. The day I woke up uncontracted (if you see what I mean). How did we celebrate? In exactly the same way we did on my birthday. By cleaning out Erin Mae and driving three and a half hours from Great Haywood to Christchurch. Needs must. My best beloved had her final knee replacement physio appointment early this morning.

So what happened today? Went into the college to discuss the IT work they're contracting me to do over the next few months! Workaholic? Not this lazybones. It's mostly about unfinished business – necessary developmental stuff there simply wasn't time to do while I was still running the academic programme. That I shall throughly enjoy it is entirely incidental. As are our plans for the extra income. As is being able to do some of it from Erin Mae via a good mobile broadband connection.

I can get used to retirement.

Church, Cathedral or Museum: a response to Bones

This started out as a comment on Bones' most recent blog post, but it grew in the writing, and eventually I thought it bad manners to use her comment space for, effectively, a whole post of my own. Check out her blog to see the background.

Sacred spaces are special to lots of people, I think. When out walking, we love to drop in on country churches, large or small, and are disappointed if they're locked. For me it's very different to simply enjoying and responding to creation itself – I like being in an enclosed, quiet space, taking time to be still and to talk with God about important things. With very old buildings it's also awesome to think of people coming here to worship together for so many centuries. All this affects me more than a huge and busy cathedral, much as I might appreciate the architecture, the grand design, the concern to do something great for God and the beauty of sung evensong.

I think the tensions Bones writes of are the tip of the iceberg, especially for parts of the Church of England. Here is the established church, with a very broad brief, a strong sense of its traditions and frequently, the strong association of those with its buildings, trying to relate to the whole community. Meanwhile that community seems less sure about the detail or relevance of what the church stands for, may well be more interested than it used to be in cultural and antiquarian things, but doesn't know how to relate that to activities and buildings needing to be maintained and financed. The church / museum dichotomy is the elephant in the nave. What is the church, anyway? Does the question "Who is it for?" actually make any sense, as though the church were a social services department? Is it "for" its members, or committed Christians, or people seeking reality / truth, or those in need, or the public at large? In what sense is it "for" them? Is it for God?

A new breed of independent "community churches" faces similar questions – they are not confined to an established, national church. As soon as you define yourself, in some sense, in relation to the surrounding community, you get these same tensions about role, even when they are not building-centred. Much easier to be a cosy, inward-looking club than work with the messiness of reaching out to others! How do you reach out to a society that has grown tolerant of almost anything, when the convictions that lead you to reach out include some about absolutes, bottom-line realities? Bones' cup-cake refuser clearly had some convictions, but lacked the ease with which to communicate them with love. For me, this was the saddest part of her whole post, as the moment hardened the caricature.

I thought back to moments of my own when I hadn't the skill to keep integrity and graciousness together. Here's to the wisdom that entwines them.

Monday 31 October 2011

Meeting up with Mike and Mo

We've been talking to Mo since February via comments on this blog – she and Mike keep nb The Great Escape at Great Haywood, but we've never been at the marina at the same time. Today we finally got to drop in on them, and found a warm welcome over a cuppa. Good to meet you guys – look forward to jamming with Mike sometime.

Today also saw our shower back in action after the tiling repairs. Pity about the dinge in the shower tray from when one of the tiles slipped. A quick google led me to Milliput, invented for mending models but with a useful sideline in repairing household bits and pieces. First I'd heard of it, but Mike knew it. I can see that maintaining and using Erin Mae is going to a source of endless education!

Thursday 27 October 2011

One thing leads to another

A section of grout in Erin Mae's shower looked loose – not good news. Let's play safe and assume that tiles and grout on a narrowboat are subject to unusual stresses and need special attention. A quick google led me to Norcross 4-in-1. Never heard of Norcross, but the technical director has a narrowboat based at Aston, in which she'd used this grout herself. Where can you get it? Nowhere round us, it seemed, but the Staffordshire Tile & Stone Company had some, and they were at Milford, just down the road from Great Haywood. Nice bloke – doesn't normally serve retail, but he made an exception and we came away with a bag of the stuff.

The damaged section grew as I extracted it with a combination of a Wickes patent grout extractor, a paint scraper and an ancent Stanley knife. It was then I realised that two large tiles, 50 x 33 give or take a smidgen, were no longer quite as attached to the wall as they presumably had been. So off they came, and that led to a lot more energetic scraping of old adhesive from wooden partition and tile-back. Not to mention another trip into Stafford to locate some decent adhesive.

Then I sized up these tiles in the space on the wall, and realized they're a rather tight fit vertically. One or two of the mosaic-sized midgets below them seem to be bit too high. Do I try to remove one, and risk it's being part of an linked group? Do I try to file down the top edges and risk breaking one? Do I just ignore them? No, that's probably what led to the problem in the first place. Anyway, what's tile and what hardened grout?

Decisions! It all seems a bit more drastic than a house. Guarantee that, whatever I do, it will lead on to something else unexpected. Like, getting what I need in Stafford today, being parked in just the place and at just the time for this nice lady to turn her Mazda into the next space and scrape the paint on my driver's door!

Happy days. What a good life it is!

Friday 21 October 2011


The TV pictures of Libyans exulting in the death of Col Gaddafi stand in stark contrast, in my mind, with events 26 years ago in Brazil. There, too, a president had died, untimely, but inconsolable grief was the national mood.

Tancredo Neves had been associated, for many years, with the movement that stood out against the military regime, and which eventually led to the return to democracy. Although the campaign for direct elections for the presidency failed, the tide had changed, powerful people changed sides and Tancredo himself, amazingly, was elected president by the electoral college in January 1985. He seemed to embody the renewal of hope for Brazil. But on the eve of his inauguration in March he was taken seriously ill, was unable to take the oath of office, and died a month later. Some saw conspiracy, some saw simply wear and tear in the body of a man who had worked tirelessly for his vision and his principles.

Brazil was distraught. For days there was nothing on the television except gentle, sombre music and graphics. The weeping indicated just how much the nation’s hope had been invested in this one man who stood head and shoulders above the rest.

The irony was that the Vice-Presidential candidate, José Sarney, had until recently been associated with the ruling military group, before changing sides, and was one of the reasons that Tancredo was elected. However, in spite of suspicions about his real loyalties and motives, on taking over the presidency he followed on through much of the programme of national reforms that Tancredo had envisaged.

Living in Rio at the time, we shared the grief of Brazil. Today, from a distance, we understand the jubilation of the Libyans, though it seems misplaced to me to take such joy in such a sordid death, no matter what Gaddafi may have done. What stands out is the difference in legacy. Tancredo, though he never actually took office, started Brazil on the path that brought it to today. Gaddafi’s legacy, in the end, was to unite a people against him. I hope that, now he is gone, they will find something more solid on which to construct their future.

Thursday 6 October 2011


Yesterday, two men died who changed the way I did certain things. The first was Steve Jobs. In 1988 I needed to word-process in New Testament Greek, and the college was needing to move on from electric typewriters. The local IT firm said Macs were the only thing that could do the Greek, and they would also be the easiest computers for office staff to use. True. I found the Mac bringing together many things that interested me – patterns, logic, maths, graphics, electronics, music, in addition to its abilities with Greek fonts. Networking was a breeze. I became the de facto head of IT (small college!) and went on to develop all the database and other stuff, alongside my day job. Although Steve Jobs wasn't at Apple by this time, the Macs still bore the imprint of his vision of how a PC ought to work. When he returned and OS X came along, using them got increasingly interesting. No one asks any more why on earth we use Macs throughout the college.

The second person was Bert Jansch. I remember his gig at Birmingham uni (?1968) when I was learning to play fingerstyle folk guitar. The sounds and the effects were magic. It was his version of Davey Graham's "Angi" that I learned, along with other songs that matched the mood of the times. The folk blues collaborations with John Renbourn and others fired the musical imagination and made me and others look for new techniques to express what we wanted our music to say.

Steve Jobs made all the headlines. Bert Jansch got a mention on Radio 2. I'm grateful for both of them.

Monday 3 October 2011

In reverse

Gang of boys on their way to school, drinking cans of fizzy sugar and talking loudly. I said "Morning, lads" as I wound my windlass. Suddenly, they were all polite and respectful with "Good morning!" chorused in return. I wonder if they would be as proud of what they accomplished that day as I already was. We'd followed advice about where to moor overnight, and only on checking the guide later did we realise it would take us four hours to get to the next winding hole and back – we have to be in Great Haywood by Tuesday evening. So a plan was hatched – start early, reverse into the lock behind us and go down it backwards, reverse through a curved couple of hundred yards of cut, reverse through the bridge and between the moored boats to Penkridge winding hole, execute an exact x-point manoeuvre to end up facing the right way. Boats are not renowned for being steerable in reverse, but it was all accomplished perfectly, without so much as a single contact with the bridge or another boat. We were well chuffed! Thought we'd earned our breakfast.

That was when we found we'd committed one of the cardinal sins of boating, and run out of water. Pride dashed in an instant! No way were we reversing to the water point – where's the next one? Several hours. Not sure whether humility was banished or increased when we eventually found the reason for the lack of water – one of us had accidentally flicked the water pump switch when coming down the steps into the boat. Doh! Normal cuppa service resumed.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Single traders

Even on a Sunday evening, Penkridge does not seem a particularly peaceful place, bisected as it is by the A449, and with the M6 just off to one side. But it is called a village, and most of the shops are single traders – of national chains we noticed just a Co-op and three banks. Only the pubs were open as we strolled around, but we saw lots of fascinating emporia should we have time tomorrow – craft and knitting shops, a pottery outlet, a hardware shop advertising "Jampot covers are now in stock", and Jaspers the bakers which we know will have a queue of customers out of the door around lunch time. My best beloved comes on both sides from shop-keeping blood, in places where certain types of shop-keeper are "highly respected pillars of the community" (certainly true of her mum and dad).

On our way to Penkridge we encountered in quick succession five traditional narrowboat barges – long beasts with a small cabin for accommodation at the stern, and the rest given over to space for whatever is being carried. We had opportunity for only the briefest of conversations, but it seemed the first was still trading on the canals, operated by a single-hander, while the others certainly could have been. We don't really know whether these last were liveaboards, or simply people who love their boats but melt into the rest of society Monday to Friday. We got to thinking later that both the single trader in Penkridge and the person who makes his living on the cut share a particular sort of individuality – going their own way, distinct from how most people do things. So it was also nice, as we wandered back to the boat, to bump into a Christian group for young people in the church hall. Here were some others differently marked, finding something special to live out, to take joy in and to share.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Wind and Worcs

Warm it was, but breezy with it. With a start delayed by the England / Scotland rugby match and a visit to Great Haywood to collect a package from the Post Office, we filled up with diesel and set out for a four day cruise down the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, generally abbreviated to the Staffs and Worcs. Now "Staffs" is obvious, but how on earth do you say "Worcs"? Works? Wawks? Wuss? I can see  moment coming when, in conversation with another boater, I'll want to refer to this canal by its abbreviation. Does anyone know what the favoured pronunciation is?

Anyway, we got down from the marina to the junction, preparing to turn right under the bridge into the Staffs and Wuss, only to find an Anglo Welsh boat backing out – Anglo Welsh have a boatyard and hire centre right on the junction. They wanted to turn away from us and head off down the Trent & Mersey, but couldn't work out how to get their nose in the right direction and clear the other moored boats. The wind wasn't helping. It was about 20 minutes later that they found themselves facing the wrong way, on our side of the junction, and decided just to wave us past.

We got down to Tixall Wide – the furthest we'd been so far on the Staffs and Wawks – and decided to tie up for lunch in a space we were passing. I stopped in a hurry, and tried my own bit of reversing towards the bank. That was when the wind took over, and blew the front of the boat right across the cut. It didn't seem particularly strong, but a boat has a large side surface area and no keel. So it was our turn to block all traffic, while tug-of-war technique with the centre line and some help from some nearby boaters eventually got us out of everyone's way.

It's no wonder wind becomes a metaphor for fashionable ideas that power through a nation or group, exercising control for good or ill. For me, the point is to recognise it so as to make a proper judgment and not just be swept along with the debris. The old boaters used the wind to help them turn in the winding holes. Harnessing the wind for good – that's a skill worth having, wherever you may be on the Staffs and Works. All is quiet this evening at Bridge 96 by Wildwood.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Read the map!

You don't need the Nicholson's guide to come down the four locks in Stone, which we did first thing yesterday. So we continued on our way with it still on the shelf, and got to Aston lock rather quicker than expected. Coming round the corner at a gentle pace appropriate for passing the moored boats that occupied our interest, I suddenly found myself also passing Bruce holding Sanity Again on the centre line while Sheila was with the other windlass-workers around the lock – they were themselves second in line to go down. So with hurried apologies for what may have seemed like a lack of manners, but was really a lack of attention, I stopped (glad I was going so slow) and got a bit of practice in going in reverse in the right direction without damaging anyone's paintwork.

While we awaited our turns I was able to ask Bruce about Erin Mae's own paintwork. I don't think she's had any polish or other attention for quite a while, and steel body and paintwork (car or boat) has never been in my comfort range of "things I can do". So, as with everything, it was good to get some advice. One thing to get it, of course, another to follow the instructions.

It's a bit like my wrist, which is still pretty painful. Taking the pills at the right time to dull the pain enough so you can do what the physio tells you – all a bit of a challenge. Working around 60 locks over the last 11 days doesn't seem to have substituted properly for those exercises where you allow the weight of a hammer to turn your wrist over – ouch! Today, back in Christchurch, Tom the physio told me I should expect it to be taking this time (thanks, Tom!). So I'll go see what the doctor says about the pills. In regard to the body, as to life in general, it seems that following the maker's instructions is no bad thing. Then maybe we can do some more boating in this Indian summer the gurus are prophesying.

Sunday 25 September 2011


Yesterday we met a singlehanded boater and went through a lift bridge with him. He showed us the answer to last Monday's question. You leave your boat untied, take the centre rope with you, and draw the boat towards the bridge. Once it's open, you can either pull the boat through from the bank, or climb back on board, drive through and climb back onto the bridge from the other side, in order to lower it again. We were well impressed – though we had to imagine the last part of the operation as we were following through and closed the bridge ourselves.

Today we've done a long run as I want to keep my physio appointment in Bournemouth on Tuesday. Some of it in the rain, some of it back through the depressing first couple of miles of the Caldon, some of it pleasant in the sun later on. At the top lock of the Meaford flight above Stone, we met a guy selling some of his art work to supplement his disability allowance. He'd sold one piece today, which had made it worthwhile. He helped with the lock, and then volunteered to go on down and set the second one for us – said he was getting bored waiting for a sale, and that the exercise would also be good for his disability, but it was also typical of the general attitude we've encountered on the cut. When I thanked him, his response was that I would do the same for him some time. True enough. Another singlehander we met today told us of a long cruise (I forget the details) when he'd had to do only three locks himself.

Most singlehanders I've known seem to flourish best when the right company is just around the corner. Some of them have been the most helpful people you could wish to meet.

Saturday 24 September 2011

And another…

Popped into the Hollybush last night for pudding, and found ourselves sitting next to several members of the Stoke-on-Trent Boat Club, including a number involved in the Caldon and Uttoxeter Canal Societies, the local IWA rep, and a trustee of the Beatrice charity we blogged about a couple of days ago. Ken, Jane, John, Neil, Kath, Jim whose mate designed the floating windlass and Tony, who's building his own boat from scratch. More than 200 years of boating between them, they reckoned – and their boats go through the Froghall tunnel! We listened to some great stories, had a lot of questions answered, got some good tips and a contact or two.

Great crack! Thanks, guys. And the apple pie and the frangipan tart were pretty good as well.

Friday 23 September 2011

Chance encounters

The Churnet is Staffordshire's "hidden" valley. So hidden, said an elderly man we met today, that "when Jerry wanted to bomb the copper factory in Froghall, he couldn't find it." Bolton's made the first transatlantic cable (said our informant), and that was a nice link to Valencia on the coast of Kerry, which was our holiday spot three years ago. We walked down to the tea rooms at the railway station in Froghall only to find that, like the flint mill yesterday, opening is restricted to weekends once the school holidays end. But the walk took us through Froghall wharf and basin, at the junction with the old Uttoxeter canal, brilliantly restored and a treat in the morning sun. There, among the ubiquitous ducks (and occasional goose or swan) was a shag. Our bird book says they can occasionally be found on inland water, and here was the evidence.

Froghall is the end of the line. On the way back, we chatted to three walkers clambering on to the towpath after something of a diversion, we gathered. They watched as we came up the next lock, and then joined us on board for the next part of the journey. A cruiser stern is not everyone's cup of tea, but for this it was ideal. One after another, Rebecca, Pete and Viv tried their hand at the tiller, with no great calamities, and we suddenly spotted the Consall Forge Pottery. By mutual consent we stopped (mooring up a communal affair and no mean feat) and, as chance would have it, Nigel Williams (the potter) arrived at just that moment and opened up. He took time to talk about his approach to his craft and the glazes he uses. We bought a couple of mugs for the Erin Mae, and a new salt pig for home – all very satisfying.

Pete, Viv and Rebecca got off at Consall Forge, though we ran into them again returning from a late lunch at a pub in Cheddleton. Really good to meet you, guys – hope you got home all right! Meanwhile we've moored up outside the Hollybush at Denford. Pudding calls again!

Thursday 22 September 2011


There's a flint mill at Cheddleton. The book said it opened from 1 to 4, so in the morning we climbed the hill into the village, went in the church, looked at the war memorial and found our way to the tea rooms / art and gift gallery. The girl behind the counter told us the coffee machine was broken so it would have to be instant. She had a very nice filter gizmo but didn't know how to use it. A crash course ensued, followed by some excellent coffee – and a cheese-filled Staffordshire oatcake (they are yummy!).

Meanwhile, two police officers followed us in, and ordered extremely large breakfasts. They were doing an advanced motorcycle course – Steve the instructor and Mark the trainee. Steve regaled us with stories of his parents' fifteen years living on a narrowboat, while Mark talked of his motorhome travels to France and Sweden and the outdoor things he had done with his girls as they grew up. We never did work out how breakfast fitted into their day – whether it was to combat the rigours of riding, to adjust the centre of gravity on the bikes, or just a bit of male bonding.

At 1 p.m. we went down to the flint mill, only to find that it was open mostly just at weekends, so we wandered around the buildings reading the plaques, and then set out for Consall Forge. More industrial heritage there in the shape of a lime kiln built into the hillside alongside the canal. The courses of its buttressed stone wall rise up about 40 feet, with four bricked-up arches at the base. Made a lot of money for its owners in the early 1800s.

The Black Lion at Consall Forge featured in CountryFile last Sunday. It has a wonderful location and a lot of character, but has to make enough during the summer season to last through the winter in this now isolated spot. Since the Churnet Valley Railway runs between the pub and the canal and during the season delivers 100 visitors every half hour, the numbers add up so far. It had a few locals in when we went there for our second course tonight – bread and butter pudding for my best beloved since my aversion to this delicacy means she never gets to make it at home. Crumble for me, freshly made with appples and pears from the trees at the bottom of the garden. More yummy!
The Black Lion

Erin Mae at Consall Forge

Wednesday 21 September 2011


Went to put the kettle on this morning, but the ignition on the gas hob wouldn't work. Erin Mae's batteries were a bit low, so we got under way to charge them. That got us to the Leek tunnel entrance earlier than we would have done otherwise, and there was a kingfisher on his perch, also looking for breakfast. Champagne moment! 10 minutes later we had scrambled eggs on toast. The Caldon in the morning sun is a real treat.

Back at the junction with the main line and turning right down the Churnet valley, we waited our turn while NB Beatrice came up the locks. This boat is run by a charity "for children who need to get afloat". There were some inner city lads on board, working the locks and having a very good time under excellent supervision. It was great to see the work being done to build positive attitudes into their lives. All too short a day for them. They turned round and followed us back down the flight, and tonight we are tied up at Cheddleton, just back from Beatrice's mooring.

On the way we stopped at the Hollybush Inn in Denford for lunch, and had a good natter with Graham and Pauline (NB Shy Girl) about all manner of things, boating-related and not. Turned out that Pauline had had both hips and both knees replaced, not entirely successfully. She was a reminder of how much you can do when you just get on with it. Don't know if you'll ever read this, G & P, but we really enjoyed meeting you.

Tuesday 20 September 2011


My best beloved was practising her tiller skills. Morning rain meant there was little traffic and a large margin for the occasional error as she taught her brain and arm to respond correctly to a required change of direction. We were coming sweetly round a corner between bridges 1 and 2 on the Leek branch of the Caldon when there was a lurch and a crunch and the boat tilted over to the right as it ground to a halt. The water level was fine, especially with the rain – it was the bottom that was the problem, and the boat seemed to be caught half way along its length, responding to our initial attempts for freedom by simply pivoting about that point. So we rocked and thrashed the engine in reverse and got out the long pole to push away from the bank. Eventually we floated free and continued on our way.

We're steadily getting used to not being grounded at all. We don't have to be anywhere in particular until my next physio appointment a week today, and that can be postponed if we feel like it. Yet my retirement is not yet complete – I'm in daily contact with the IT department at the college to help with all the database work that has to be done at the start of the academic year. Retired or not? It's a bit like those sub-atomic particles which don't decide where they are or what they're doing until you look at them and ask.

So here we are, moored at Leek, enjoying a coffee after lunch. In a minute we'll wander along the towpath into town. The rain has stopped and it's warming up. We're well chilled.

Monday 19 September 2011


Boating can be a bit minimalist, but we decided that certain kitchen gadgets would fit well on the Erin Mae. So far they've been a great success. The breadmaker produces magnificent wholemeal, while the Morphy Richards Intellichef does slow cooking (last night's stew), frying, home-made soup (today's lunch), steaming, boiling and even cakes. And then my best beloved has this hob-top cooking-tin thing that she acquired in Brazil, with a hole up the middle for the hot gases and a lid to direct them over the top of whatever it is you're cooking. This week it's delivered a great chocolate cake, but in the past it's done baked potatoes and lasagne.

It occurs to me that few of the delicious goodies served up by this trio of gadgets could be classified as low-carb, which is the approach we've been using successfully for the last six years to control weight and waistline. Judging by today's six locks, however, cruising might just involve sufficient extra exercise to counteract the effect. One gadget that stayed at home was the bathroom scales.

Another enabled me to capture the spot we had breakfast today on the Caldon Canal, shortly before Long Butts lift bridge (just visible). What I can't work out is how a single-handed boater does a lift-bridge when the mechanism is on the other side from the towpath, and the opposite bank doesn't permit access. Answers in the comments box, please. It might be important some day!

Sunday 18 September 2011

Life support

Today we lost our chimney to Bridge 9 on the Caldon Canal. That crucial lack of an inch or two that I didn't recognise until too late made it an expensive day – I dropped a windlass just below the bottom gates of our first lock, and no amount of fishing with our magnet-on-a-string could retrieve it.

Carrying around all you need makes you vulnerable in particular and different ways. We were "on the cut" by 7 this morning, because the poo-tank (excuse my French!) was completely full. We had to get to a pump-out station at Stoke-on-Trent, and hope they would be open. All was well and for a brief while we were the happiest of boaters – full water-tank and empty poo-tank! Didn't last, of course.

There's a certain mind-set that all this develops – have we got what we need for the next 24/48 hours? Can't work out whether this is more or less materialistic than normal. But after 10 miles and 9 locks I'm too tired to worry. And Spooks has just started.

Saturday 17 September 2011


Today we made a fairly early start, caught the best of the weather, came up the 4 locks of the Meaford flight and eventually moored at the northern limit of Burlaston, next to the Wedgwood pottery establishment. So we decided to pop over to the visitor centre. Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) seems to have been a genius, combining his potter family heritage with a keen scientific mind, and developing new technologies that completely changed the face of European ceramics. He also helped devise and promote the Trent and Mersey canal (on which we are currently travelling) which had the immediate effect of cutting drastically the cost of transporting his fragile wares out of Staffordshire.

He comes across as an artist, a scientist and a businessman, but he also found time and energy for social issues, arguing against the slave trade, and adopting some really progressive approaches to the care of his workforce. I enjoyed the exhibition, the demonstrations and the museum (and the lunch!). But I mostly enjoyed seeing again someone bringing together success in various professional arenas while not ditching their humanity along the way.

Friday 16 September 2011

Real Boaters (Stage 2)

It's been a while coming, but last night was our first away from the security (aka mains lead and jetty tap) of the marina. The sun shone as we made our way to Sandon Lock – the furthest we'd come on our previous days out. This was decision point, as our canal guide doesn't show Aston Marina. We thought that, once past the winding hole at Sandon, there'd be no opportunity to turn until Stone, and by then it would be too late to get back to Great Haywood. So up we came to Stone, and found the last mooring in the town centre just above the bottom lock.

Why was this such a big deal? Because when I'd tried to start to start the engine in the morning, there was nary a peep from the starter motor, and it tripped one of the circuit breakers. Engineering Jon came over to see, and nonchalantly said it had done this on and off for the last three years. That sounded like trouble, but Jon thought it was probably just a dud battery. He put in another he happened to have, and suggested we go and try it. Then he said he'd come and fetch us if we got stranded!

So far, so good. We met some more helpful people along the way, including Gina and Andrew on Braidbar boat La Suvera, who shared a bit of their own experience of extended cruising. The locks are getting less claustrophobic. We've had a very peaceful night at Stone. And the engine started every time it needed to.

Wednesday 14 September 2011


The stookie came off last week and an X-ray confirmed the bone had healed up, albeit slightly resetting the angle between arm and hand. What I hadn't expected was the stiffness, soreness and weakness in my wrist and forearm, from five weeks of inactivity. Exercises will sort all this out in time, but for the moment the locker covers for the Erin Mae have to wait – marine ply and power tools are not yet a safe combination.

Still, we decided to come up to the boat today, and after a delayed start found ourselves passing Oxford around 4. "What about a cuppa at Annie's tea rooms?" met with my best beloved's approval. You can't read boating blogs for long without getting to know about Annie's, and we had a vague idea how to find it, though Thrupp doesn't actually show up on the map we keep in the car. Followed our noses, asked an estate agent, and there it was, looking its best in the afternoon sun. Suitably refreshed, we got up to go, and thought we recognised the dog sitting by the bench outside. Boots the dog, and Bones the owner, also recognisable from the general self-description on her blog, the caricature that heads her column in Canal Boat, and the serious piece of two-wheeled machinery 10 yards away. So we hesitatingly introduced ourselves, and had a good natter for 10 minutes or so. Her blog was one of the first we began to read when first we found the on-line boaters, and it was great to say hello. Thanks, Bones!

Friday 26 August 2011

Staffordshire oatcakes

We first saw them on top of the deli counter at the Spar in Great Haywood. This week we decided to give them a go. The woman behind the counter told us how to do it – a bit of ham and cheese inside, roll them up and pop them in the microwave for a couple of minutes. They were fabulous, reminiscent of the savoury buckwheat crêpes you get in France. Quite different to what I'd thought of up to now as an oatcake.

In the shop down the road we came across a packet of oatcakes that looked similar but which were labelled as Derbyshire oatcakes. Wikipedia says these are a similar recipe but usually a bit larger and thicker. Perhaps those Dales walkers need greater sustenance.

Monday 22 August 2011

Salt and Sandon

The Hollybush at Salt does a wonderful venison casserole, but they'd run out by 1 p.m., so we both had guinea fowl for Sunday lunch. Yummy! Then we set out to walk it off. I've been experimenting with the Garmin Dakota 20 given to me at retirement – plotting a route on the computer, and then using the Garmin to follow it. Having the OS map on the device is great, and it's interesting to work with the differences from using a paper version.

The route we'd planned took us from Salt, over the Trent and Mersey and the A51 and through the Sandon estate. Woodland, grassland, the odd monument, a 12th century church and a long stretch of towpath before we got back to the pub. My best beloved's knee reports feeling ready for a 24 hour rest, but OK apart from that.

The Hollybush Inn, Salt

The helmsman and the fishermen seemed to be playing chicken. We stayed to watch – and they did get their rods up just in time.

This entrance to the Sandon estate looks more inviting than the main one down the road.

Pisa it is not, but Pitt's column really does seem to be off the vertical.

Trentham Tower. Folly it may be, but it must have offered some fabulous views when new. Now it is a bit of an eyesore, with broken stone and plasterwork.

All Saints, Sandon, unfortunately locked.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Tixall Wide again

Saturday morning we moved Erin Mae to the service jetty for a pump-out, and decided on the spur of the moment to see how my wrist would respond to slightly longer on the tiller. So off we went on our favourite day-trip, a gentle half-hour down to Tixall Wide. The wrist was mostly OK, the day was mostly fine, and we had a great chill-out. Is this retirement, holiday or convalescence? Not sure, but it's what the doctor ordered!

Cannock Chase

With hospital appointments done and dusted, we came up to the Erin Mae just in time to miss the appalling storm that soaked the Bournemouth area. Can't do the jobs I had planned, because it's amazing how the simplest of pactical tasks seems to put stress on a wrist fracture. But it's good to be here in our normal holiday month.

So we went for a walk on Friday, giving my best beloved's knee its first real work out in the wild. It did very well – three and a half miles of heathland with a few mild ups and downs. Cannock Chase seemed pretty empty at first, though some walkers and cyclists appeared later on. We had a brilliant time.

Fields of heather across the Chase

Not much water in the Sherbrook valley, apart from this puddle where we had lunch. The construction looks like a piece of aqueduct made from concrete blocks, but what it was doing here was not at all clear.

The workout

The "Glacier Boulder" apparently consists of a type of rock found in Scotland, and is therefore supposed to have been deposited here during the last Ice Age.

Friday 19 August 2011

Fracture clinic

It seems that fracture clinics, at least on the first visit, are normally for those who need a stookie, rather than those who already have one. So I had to explain more than once how I came to be taking up NHS time when my wrist was already adorned with a plaster wrapping in a fetching shade of blue. But they were very nice, confirmed that I should not be driving, showed us that the fracture was rather more extensive than we had thought at first, and fixed up the next appointment for 6th September. That will be six and a half weeks since I carelessly fell into the water, and five weeks and one day for that part of my anatomy to remain unwashed. I find extremely unconvincing the assurance from my best beloved that I'm the only one likely to be aware of the whiff developing under the plaster.

Since we had to make this trip to Lymington we extended it to Southampton, partly to buy some stuff from Ikea for the Erin Mae, and partly to take my MacBook to the Apple Store's fracture clinic genius bar. The edge of the wrist support had worn to the point of breaking away, and a colleague had suggested that Apple would do something about it. Which they did – a new keyboard and surround for free, even though the laptop was nearly four years old and well out of warranty. "No problem at all, sir, provided I've got one in stock." Service, this time, that smells of roses.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Cocked wrist

Up on Erin Mae the penultimate weekend of July we continued to prepare for cruising – sorting out equipment, measuring up the front locker covers for replacement, etc. Everything was going swimmingly until, for some inexplicable reason, I put a foot in the rightangle gap between pontoon and jetty and ended up in the water. Getting wet wasn’t a problem – but dignity, right wrist and left knee were all feeling distinctly bruised.

With equanimity suitably restored after a shower and a cup of tea, we assessed the damage and began to be a little concerned, both about Sunday’s drive home and the state of the clothes – marina water has some pretty strange components. First things first then – time to test out the new washing machine. Except that it wouldn’t work. Water in, OK. Water out, OK. Turn the drum to actually wash something, nope. And, by this time, arm and knee were really not up to doing much investigation.

In the event, over-use of the arm-rest and under-use of the clutch got us home safely, so my best beloved could get to her Monday physio, and I could start the final week of clearing out my study at the college. Half the books went to the librarian, half came home with me. The arm seemed OK with this provided I didn’t throw things around or twist it too much, and the benefit to my biceps was considerable. I received sympathy for the bruising and mockery at what led to it – just what colleagues are for. Meanwhile Candy turned up trumps and sent a engineer to sort out the washing machine – pulling out the polystyrene packing had apparently disconnected a lead to the motor.

So Thursday came, with its farewells to those who were still around (except that I’ll be back in the autumn to do some IT work). A great weekend at the IWA festival in Burton-on-Trent, and then home for my best beloved’s final physio assessment and discharge. I too had a doctor’s appointment on Monday about something else, but I thought I’d mention the wrist as it was waking me up in the night (that’s quite a feat). Hm, he says, better get it checked out. So we did, and those nice people at Lymington hospital did an X-ray, told me the wrist was broken, and put it in a stookie. You’d think half a ton of books would have told me earlier. Still, it was quite gratifying to have four nurses telling me that I obviously wasn’t the sort of person who did man-flu (they clearly didn’t see the slightly sceptical look on the face of the one who knows me best!).

Erin Mae, we haven’t really abandoned you. We really do want to go cruising. If only it wasn’t so complicated to get to the starting gate.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Retirement stage two

Last night it was my turn for a retirement do, combined with the end-of-year staff social. Not that I retire officially until my milestone birthday in the autumn. And I'm at work again this morning! But the academic world doesn't quite know what to do with people who leave in October. More fish than fowl, and a potential red herring. So the boss said to go in July. With Erin Mae awaiting a first proper cruise, no one's complaining. Colleagues past and present turned up for a meal at Sopley Mill. It was a splendid way of officially winding down.

Equally splendid was what they gave me as a parting gift. There was a Garmin Dakota 20 with an entire UK map. I'd followed up on Bruce's GPS musings, and researched this one carefully, so we knew it was on the cards. Great for tracking our adventure, walking off-piste, going geocaching with the Norwegian kids. But there was an extra, unexpected present, unpretentiously encased in one of those boxes that normally holds several reams of photocopier paper. Neatly decorated with a ribbon for the occasion, it was the oldest Mac owned by the college, finally being retired. An Apple Cube, still going strong after ten years. The machine of which my colleague Mike, a computer engineer and staunch PC man, had said, "I would have been so proud to have designed that." He meant the innards, not the fancy acrylic casing.

The Cube was a brilliant piece of engineering that never quite found its niche. As we move on from where we've been, my best beloved and I are glad that cannot be said about either of us. The niche bit, that is. To complain about the engineering would be unjust both to the original Maker, and to the manufacturer of artifical knee joints.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Joy for two young women

Got home this afternoon just at the start of the second set, and sat through the drama of Petra Kvitova holding her nerve (and her serve) to eventually win her first Wimbledon final. Smiles all round, except for the Sharapova camp, of course. Me, I’d go for the non-grunter most days.

So what's with missing the start of the match? We’d been at the wedding of Ruth, a friend and colleague, to Joe, who I just managed to beat once at skittles. Why do most brides look so stunning? Is it the skill of the hair-dresser, make-up artist, dress-designer? I think it’s got more to do with the joy coming out. Certainly, for these two, that was there in abundance. Not just the happiness of the day, but the result of deep-grown convictions coming to fruition. The church was packed, the singing was enthusiastic, the sun shone, and two people’s lives will never be the same. Joy. Such a little word. Such a lot of meaning.

And as they signed the register at half-time (intriguingly) we all sat and watched this video. Enjoy!

Friday 1 July 2011

Retirement stage one

OK. One of us is now officially retired. Promoted to a life of luxury and being waited on hand and foot, with all necessities provided at the drop of a hat (the one with Captain on the front, naturally). Guess which of us this is. Answer: the one whose surgery in March meant she spent the last three months being waited on hand and foot, with all necessities provided at the mere flicker of an eyelash. Meanwhile, her willing slave (mine’s the First Mate version) continues to bring home the bacon, cook the tea, mow the lawn, exercise by means of a walk round Sainsbury’s, mark assignments, prepare for exam boards and try to hand over the running of this programme in the best possible order, hopefully in time to get afloat by the last week of July.

Won’t be long. And we don’t intend retirement to be very retiring.

Thursday 30 June 2011

Odd maths

We've reached a milestone on this blog – 1000 hits. It's really nice to know that people have enjoyed reading what we've written on this journey – even though we're distinctly short on cruising time as yet.

However, things don't add up. Sitemeter says we average 3 hits a day, but that would mean the blog had been live for 333 days, and it's only been up since December. Anyone know what's going on?

I'm also interested in whether Sitemeter registers those who read the blog via a newsfeed or Google Reader. I can see this could account for the discrepancy if it includes them in the total but not for the average daily count.

Wednesday 29 June 2011


My best beloved's knee is not behaving. It's getting its required mix of exercise and rest, stretching and ice, but is resistant to change. They’ve changed the physio regime from a weekly group to thrice-weekly individual attention. The joint itself is fine, manufactured to perfection. It’s the surrounding tissues that are sulking. I can’t really believe they’re missing that grouchy old neighbour which moaned and groaned and gnashed its teeth whenever required to stir itself. But they’re definitely not happy. Can’t flex.

We’ve been trying to set a good example of how to manage change, of course. These things happen, we tell it. Life moves from one phase to another. No point in hankering after what’s left behind. Rejoice in the new framework. Embrace metamorphosis. Welcome transmogrification. Etc.

Knee’s not listening. Hope we do better!

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Will the NHS survive?

They laid on a retirement party for my best beloved last week, all brilliantly organised by Hazel, one of the secretarial staff. Boy, did they pull out the stops! Patients in the rehab unit where she works could not quite believe their eyes as departmental heads past and present and even part-timers on their day off turned up to share in the fun. Great therapy! Tables laden with sandwiches, cakes, scones and cream and jam. A photo montage of her from age 3 up (graduation pictures in nursing uniform competing with that 1960s bikini!). The dad of one of the staff entertained all afternoon with clarinet and tenor sax to backing tracks. At one point, all the unit staff donned folded newspaper pirate hats and gave a rendering of "Messing about on the river". There was a seriously complimentary speech by one of the departmental heads, who said "Margaret, you are the Day Hospital". Professor this and Doctor that dropped in to add their tributes.

There were presents. One or two eminently suitable for life afloat, along with a couple of things from the nick-nack table. And finally, the hats. Two of them, baseball cap style with – well, I'll leave you to guess what was printed on the front. If you can't guess, see my post from 13th February.

Thanks, Hazel.

Monday 27 June 2011

The last times

NB Erin Mae is part of a plan which involves retirement for us both. It’s interesting to observe yourself during a period of disengagement, as you do various things for the last time. I have loved what has fallen to me for the last 25 years. Now the time has come to move on, I’m neither longing to leave nor resisting the change.

I've now given my last lecture, had my last tutorial, played my last staff/leavers volleyball match (we won – first time for about five years!), chaired my last course committee. Still to come: a considerable amount of marking (one of the things I shall not miss) and pulling everything together for a final exam board. It's one of the busiest periods of the year (no blogging for the last three weeks).

In the circles where I've worked, "the last times" is a code phrase for that part of Christian theology which looks forward to the future. In that context it's not only about wrapping things up and sorting things out but also about new beginnings. Sounds like a pretty apt tag for what's currently going on with us.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

What a session!

We went to the Spittal Brook in Stafford for a folk session last night – standard Tuesday night fare at this pub. I haven't been at anything like it for ages. About fifteen musicians had brought a range of instruments – several guitars, mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle, mouth organs, and a strange sort of triple pipe thing from which the player produced a great train whistle sound at one point. Our friends Roger and Mirjana took their melodeons. Anyone (or a combination) started up a tune whenever they felt like it, and anyone who felt like it just joined in. I found myself accompanying on the guitar some melodeon tunes I'd never heard before – the challenge was to guess the next chord sequence before it arrived (or adapt pretty quickly and make it look like you were being creative!). The range was traditional English and Irish material to protest songs, with some humorous ditties along the way. Mirjana contributed a fabulous unaccompanied song she'd written about the Welsh village where she grew up.

So, thanks to everyone who made the evening so special. Not just the musicians but everyone else who was listening or joining in the songs. It reminded me again that great music depends on appreciative listeners as much as talented performers.

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Melodeon music

A practical training week in Doncaster finished on Sunday and we were able to come across to Great Haywood for a couple of days on Erin Mae. Monday we'd expected to go to Crick, but the weather changed our minds. All those questions bubbling away can wait till the IWA festival in July.

Our friends Roger and Mirjana arrived at Tixall Wide on Maggie May. No challenges for my best beloved's knee in that trip, so round we went today to catch up. It's the first time they've seen Erin Mae, and they gratifyingly made all the appropriate noises. Coffee, good chat, lunch, more coffee, and then out came their melodeons for an excellent demonstration. My attempt was a reminder of what it would mean to re-train the fingers and think push-pull (like mouth organ blow-suck). Tonight we all go into Stafford for a folk session in one of the pubs. Perhaps my guitar will get an outing alongside their boxes.

These were the friends who lent us their first boat some years ago for an idyllic week from Ellesmere to Llangollen and back. The seed was sown. Good buddies!

Monday 30 May 2011

Clearing the clutter

A couple of Fridays ago Iain and Simon joined us from Cornwall and London to help clear out the loft, in preparation for some extra insulation. "Help" is actually an understatement since, by the time their father got home afer lunch, the job was completed and the dining room had a considerable amount of gear alongside the stuff still waiting to be brought up to the Erin Mae. It's amazing what a couple of healthy lads will do on the mere promise of some good food in the evening. Must have something to do with filial affection, I suppose (hope!). Now the only problem is what to do with the dining room.

I've spent quite a lot of the last 25 years helping students clear out clutter of another sort – patterns of thinking and acting that get in the way of effective working with other people. Same problem – what do you do with it all? Seeing the courage with which some of them face up to the issues has been, for me, both a reward and a challenge to continue the process with myself.

At the pub in the evening (the one with the reputation for the best fish in the area), the food was great. We all had something different, but the satisfied smiles at the end had a lot in common. It had been a good day.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Water, water everywhere!

The new calorifier looks very nice sitting in the cupboard between the kitchen and the cruiser stern. We have water in the taps, water in the shower, automatic water for the toilet. Water for the new washing machine. Water wherever we want it!

And water where we don’t want it. We knew the surveyor in December had reported a drip in the environs of the calorifier. We knew the calorifier had eventually split, so presumably had ejected a certain amount of its contents. We knew the central heating header tank in the same cupboard had also developed a drip, though we were trying to catch most of that, and and the engineering boys sealed it up. So when we looked down and saw water lying in a four-inch space between the floorboards beneath the calorifier we weren’t surprised. We dropped in to B&Q and bought a car sponge. My best beloved has one of these 3-foot contraptions with a handle at one end and a gripping mechanism at the other (good for helping recovering knee patients grab things that are out of reach, from the comfort of THAT chair). So, although it was awkward, I could lean over the edge of the cupboard with the sponge gripped in the gripper, put it down between all the pipes and dip it into the water. A check with the dipstick had shown it was only about a centimetre deep.

It took me an age to get the first bucketful out. Down with the sponge. Up with the sponge. Squeeze into bucket. Down with...  After that the technique improved and the rate of extraction speeded up. But after three bucketsful (what a nice word!) the water in the bilge didn’t seem to have gone down at all. The bilge pump was no good at all, since it’s in the engine compartment, sealed off by a bulkhead, and completely dry.

After six buckets I wondered what was going on. After nine I lost count. It was about then that at last the level seemed to respond to whether the boat was tipped to one side, so my best beloved went and had a nice kip tucked up against the gunwale. After ten (or was it eleven?) I was finally looking at a surface without water. I’d thought it would be the base plate, but boats have ballast, and it looked like some sort of black paving bricks sitting there in the bottom.

What worried me was the calculation that had been fizzing round in my head for the last half-hour of this operation. I reckon 10 buckets means 100 litres. 100 litres, 1 cm deep, covers 10 square metres. Boat is just over two metres wide. That means (all things being even) there was a 5 metre stretch of boat bottom filled with water. Any one care to check my calculation? I just hope those ballast bricks are extremely tightly packed and totally non-porous. I also hope the inside surfaces of base plates are well painted against rust.

When we came away we left the cupboard door open, but it’s a very small gap in the floor boards for evaporation to get through. We’ll check it when we get up to Great Haywood again next weekend. Just hoping the water won’t have reappeared.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Agua viva!

After a couple of abortive attempts, first on Good Friday and again on Wednesday of last week, our washing machine was finally delivered today. Engineering reckon they can install both it and the new calorifier during the coming week and that will mean, at last, the mising element: running water!

When you look at pictures of the old commercial narrowboats, it's clear such a luxury would have been beyond their wildest imaginings. However, a trawl round boating blogs indicates that in the pecking order for modern boaters' priorities and discussion topics, the water supply ties for third place behind toilets and electrics (alongside encounters with ducklings and appreciation of atmospheric sunrises / golden sunsets / picturesque canal bridges).

Me, I'm just glad that frequent trips to the tap with a bucket will be a thing of the past. Could our next two-day visit to the Erin Mae actually see us able to stay away from the marina overnight?

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Street Party and Rolt

At our wonderful street party last Friday, our neighbour Steve, hearing we’d bought a narrowboat, nipped home and came back with a 2004 reprint of the 1994 edition of Tom Rolt’s Narrow Boat for me to borrow. He (Steve, not Tom!) hasn’t done any boating for years, but had really enjoyed the book. I suspect he may now be getting some good ideas for this year’s holiday.

Meanwhile I’ve started on this classic. Traditional boaters we may not be (yet), but this looks a fascinating introduction to, among other things, canal and boating history.

Celebrating royal nuptials

Sunday 24 April 2011

April Roses

This Iceberg climber has flowered until Christmas some years, but I've never known blooms on it in the third week of April. We inherited it from the previous owners in 1986, and it really enjoys the sun-trap created by the extension we built 15 years ago. Perhaps it's coming out in sympathy with my best beloved's knee, but I suspect it's just the exceptionally early warmth.

Now we've cheated because this house is 3 miles from the South Coast on the edge of the New Forest, and most boating bloggers currently seem to be somewhere north of Oxford. But does anyone else have pictures of something surprisingly early?

Saturday 23 April 2011


On Friday morning, the washing machine delivery man rang to say he'd be with us in half an hour. Top marks to them for getting it sorted ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, this was Good Friday, and the delivery address was not our home but Marine Services at Great Haywood marina. Not much chance of anyone being there to receive it! His response to being reminded it was a Bank Holiday was surprise that it should matter – they didn't get any days off. "But no hassle", he said, "just ring the company to re-schedule it." Which I did, equally surprised that there would be anyone there to take my call, and respond to my follow-up email. I just hope their enthusiasm for a timely delivery doesn't get them to Great Haywood on Wednesday before the boys start work.

The phone calls meant I missed the central part of an interesting BBC programme on forgiveness. This may be a key theme of the Easter story, but it's been especially emphasised this year in things that I've seen or been a part of. Forgiveness seems to have been a crucial element in Ruanda recovering from the tragedies of the 1994 genocide. Personally, I want to hope that it will also play a significant role in the aftermath of the current troubles in North Africa and the Middle East.

Thursday 14 April 2011

38 and counting

In the style of the boating blogger: 3 nights, 0 miles, 0 locks. We stayed put! The unpredictable wind meant this was not the right time to explore the wonders of single-handed boat control, in spite of some recent encouraging posts from those who do it all the time. So instead we used the excuse of picking up a roll of window sealing stuff from the chandlers at Penkridge to do a gentle exploration of some Staffordshire countryside, by car. When the knee is back to its normal size, with some semblance of strength and flexibility, we'd like to do some further exploration on foot, as well as by water.

Anyway, the weather was going to get wetter, so home we came on Wednesday, well pleased with what we'd achieved. The knee had not complained too much, and my best beloved not at all. Today's our 38th, so we're off out to celebrate in a restaurant overlooking Poole harbour, where the boats cost considerably more than what we forked out for the Erin Mae. We're content.

Monday 11 April 2011


You wouldn't want things to be completely predictable, would you? You plan a week's cruise, and then have to make allowances for a new knee. You ask Engineering to complete the work on Erin Mae's plumbing, and they tell you the calorifier is split. For those who don't know, that's the hot water tank. Probably the aftermath of the November freeze, which happened in the middle of the purchase process. So it has to be replaced, and there's no running water till that's done.

Are we despondent? No! Just a bit further out of pocket. Why sit around doing therapeutic exercises at home when we could be doing them on the Erin Mae! So up we came (without The Chair). Sunday was glorious, and my best beloved sat in state on the cruiser stern enjoying the ducks and the heron and the hot air balloons against the early evening sky, while her devoted slave shifted the luggage, hung the curtains, put away the new kitchen gear, made up the bed, got the food, fell asleep...!  Monday morning, she was up betimes for the sake of the analgesic routine, while her devoted slave...remained in bed asleep. Well, she's on sick leave whie I'm on annual leave. There must be a difference.

Today was a typical April mixture, not exactly good for sitting out. But we were able to arrange with Engineering for the new calorifier, order a washing machine to be installed at the same time, and survive a whole day without running water on board. Filled up the kettle and the bucket from the tap don't know how many times. Used the oven for the first time for a lasagne. Two nights in a row on board! Not quite sure what tomorrow will bring. But that's half the fun.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Antidote to baa-lambs

Several narrowboat bloggers have been busy snapping the new season’s source of thermal underwear thread and Irish stew. There’s a definite “Ah” factor loose in the wild.

So, from the last fortnight's Major Event in our household, here’s something completely different, with a definite “Ugh” factor. All those of a sensitive disposition, please close the blog now, without scrolling down. You have been warned!




This post was primarily for our friend Iain in Oz, who used to shepherd sheep in Scotland before pastoring people down under, who shares the experience of new knee technology, but had only 24 clips, judging from the photo, and who’s about to pay a visit to climb a Munro or two, and perhaps hire a narrowboat alongside us for a week. We’re getting there, Iain. Erin Mae awaits.

Monday 4 April 2011

Pulling the pins

Living in Brazil, we learnt Portuguese. Boating, we learn words and phrases like lockwheeling, skeg and pulling pins. The last of these is a bit like what our friend and practice nurse Shirley did with my best beloved's knee this evening. Snip, snip – out came the staples, all 27.

That pulling pins is usually done in the morning is irrelevant. As half the readers of this blog will know, it means you're leaving your mooring, getting underway on the next stage of your journey. That's what it felt like as we left the surgery. Flexibility and freedom, if still somewhat restrained by the cut.

It's the first visit to the physio tomorrow. Lockwheeling is still some way off!

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Love is...

...letting her borrow your favourite chair.

It's no mean chair. Not a great looker, a bit worn, but comfortable. Great for a cup of tea and a read. Half my students make a beeline for it, half feel that my great age and seniority mean the honour should be mine.

Trouble is, this chair is exactly the right height and shape for those who've just exchanged one knee-joint for another. Easy to get into, easy to get out of, back support without pressure points, allows the operated leg to do what it should. No amount of pleading about the efficacy of our existing Ikea models made any impression whatsoever. So home it came.

The Erin Mae came with a couple of those Captain's chairs you see in narrowboat adverts. They're very nice, good for a snooze when slightly tilted, definitely a grade up from the Ikea's. So I'm just hoping my best beloved doesn't develop the notion that the chair from my study is the only thing that will do should we manage to go boating in a couple of weeks.

Love surely has its limits...?

Sunday 27 March 2011

Scar tissue

One and two and three and ... and ten. This isn't the Oxford boat crew warming down. This is my best beloved counting the seconds for her leg lift. The most bizarre recovery exercise is when, sitting down, she pumps her arms alternately and enthusiastically into the air for a suitable period, apparently to help maximise cardio-vascular function. The most obviously productive exercise is standing up, organising the washing into stuff-to-be-dried-this-way and the rest. She's home!

Much of it seems to be about preventing scar tissue forming. Erin Mae already has a few scars from our boating operations, but nothing that can't be sorted by the subtle use of a paint brush. Surgical operations are a different matter – post-op scar tissue can compromise mobility if it prevents the flexing of the knee. So it's ice and exercises and pain control.

And then there are the other scars. Sometimes, in tutorials, my students explore with me the deeper scars they carry, and that can also be an exercise in pain management. Understanding themselves is a pre-requisite for working with other people. No superficial solutions here. Just hard graft, because old wounds become familiar but false friends, and dealing with them effectively can feel like surgery. Pain to confront pain – this is where the recent film of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader needed to stick more closely to Lewis's text about the healing of Eustace.

But, for my best beloved, Erin Mae beckons. The cost-benefit analysis has been done. Time for more ice!

Friday 25 March 2011

Pain and Privilege

Pain’s a killer. Sorting out my best beloved’s pain control after her knee exchange took a long time – analgesics do funny things to her, and she’s oscillated between agony and nausea. Yesterday she managed some physio exercises – really important for future mobility. Gradually they’re getting on top of the situation.

And then we see what’s going on in Libya, Yemen, Syria, you name it...  People getting shot instead of healed. We think about the dozens of places we know of where minorities are persecuted, imprisoned, murdered, legally or otherwise. So much pain. So little healing.

Bones said “I live in Paradise”, with a sense of wonder and privilege. For us, owning Erin Mae is a privilege. We thought about it long and hard before buying, talked it over with friends. How much we could do for hurting people elsewhere with the thousands to be spent on this boat!

In the end, you make your choices and live with the tensions. We are massively privileged to live in an age of analgesics, within a system where they are available. We are incredibly privileged to own Erin Mae, and want her to be a place of peace and joy and healthy growing. But we won’t forget those in pain around the world, for whose healing we can do so little.

Tuesday 22 March 2011


Today my best beloved exchanged her defunct right knee joint for another, crafted of wondrous modern materials which have no need of synovial fluid for lubrication. We were surprised when the consultant said new for old was the only option, but delighted that the NHS came up trumps so quickly.

So our helmsman’s course and my learning how to manage Erin Mae single-handed will come in the wrong order. At this point, expressions such as “thrown in at the deep end” and “sink or swim” aren’t helpful. But my beloved is very resourceful, and could probably manage two crutches, a tiller, a lifebelt and a boathook in an emergency.

Some, of course, do the single-handed bit all the time, and not just at the helm. Respect! And doubtless double respect in two and a half weeks, when our anniversary break comes around and we find out what it means in practice. Anyone with snippets of advice (apart from “Don’t!”), is welcome to leave a comment.