Friday 19 October 2012

As you have never seen her…

Jo, my "niece-in-law" and mother to Lewis and Charis who so enjoyed their day on Erin Mae in June, is a potter. Even so, we could never have guessed what awaited us in the Royal Mail depot when we returned from Great Haywood last weekend.

<–––––––––––––––––––– 35 cm ––––––––––––––––––––>

Isn't that staggering! It's a delightfully affectionate representation. If it had been me, I think I would have been too bothered by scale and exact proportions, and ended up with something awful. Jo has captured the spirit of the boat and created something wonderful. We love it. Thanks, Jo.

Thursday 18 October 2012

The Heart of Things

For this ex-Londoner, most trips to the capital are a sore trial. For my best beloved, raised in Co Donegal, they are full of delight and excitement. Yesterday we had a special reason to go up – an exhibition of paintings by a former student of mine. But first we went to the Science Museum. That's the stuff of half-term memories from my childhood, with buttons to push and levers to pull and all sorts of exciting consequences. More than 50 years on, Stevenson's Rocket is still in pride of place, to remind us now of how quickly the economic viability of the canals was threatened by the railways. However, we found ourselves spending most time in the sections on the history of medicine and space travel. In both cases, it was intriguing to note that exhibits which must feel like ancient history to visiting schoolchildren had been part of our own experience.

The capsule from the Apollo 10 mission round the moon was there. I still remember sitting in Heathrow a few months later, listening to the moon landing happening. The second exhibit to strike us was a mock-up of a 1980 open-heart operation. My best beloved had been specially trained to scrub for these as theatre nurse when they first started doing them on children in Edinburgh.

From the museum, we caught the tube to the Monument. My mum used to talk about it, but I can't remember us visiting as a child. I only realised today that it is Wren's monument to the Great Fire of London, with long inscriptions in Latin to describe both the fire and the reconstruction. It has recently been restored, and it's an extraordinary sight, soaring up into the sky between far more modern edifices.

So finally we walked from there to the Menier Gallery on Southwark Street for a private evening viewing of "The Heart of Things". It was a great joy to see Sarah Kelly-Paine again. Her website describes some of the inspiration she gets from her life in France, and it was fascinating to compare her current work with the painting that has hung on our lounge wall since she was a student of mine in the mid-90s.

(Pictures courtesy of Sarah's website)

Another wonderful day, well worth the penalty of getting home half an hour after midnight.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Birthday belt

A wonderful autumn day.

Bacon and eggs and mushrooms for breakfast, followed by coffee, and then lunch, at the Lockside Restaurant in Great Haywood. Must be my birthday again!

A saunter down the canal to capture some of the scenery.

But I just missed the Carling Black Label squirrel that scampered across the bridge rail!

Phone calls from the family, and a new belt, courtesy of my best beloved, cunningly crafted by Dave.

Did you notice it was upside down?

A happy, right-side-up day.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Second undercoat

Well, it stayed dry enough to get the second undercoat on the hatch patch. No picture – it looks just the same as on yesterday's post. Instead, a response to Mo's comment.

On Rich's recommendation we bought a Brush Mate from Amazon. You store your brushes in a plastic box with a vapour pad, and you don't have to clean them, until you want to use them for a different paint. It stores four brushes, so I reckon that's two different sizes for two paints – green undercoat and green overcoat for me. I don't yet know whether you could squeeze in another small brush for varnish. However, when the Brush Mate came through the post, we found that the vapour pad lasts about six months, so it seemed rather foolish to start using it just as we go home for the winter. White spirit it is! Plus some magic brush cleaner from B&Q. All in small glass bottles, to be disposed of – somehow.

Tomorrow looks wet, so the undercoat will have to survive and we'll see what Friday brings.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Primer and undercoat

The main thing, said Rich, was not to leave primer overnight once the evenings were getting damp. It allows the dew to get through to the steel, which is not a Good Thing. However, you can apparently paint over it earlier than it says on the tin, so the plan was to get primer and first undercoat on in one day.

According to Steve the marina manager, there was a coat of ice over everything at 7 this morning. I confess I didn't see it – nor much else until considerably later. By the time I'd breakfasted, the sun had warmed up everything sufficiently to tackle the primer, but it was still early enough to get an undercoat on in the afternoon.

It's amazing what questions arise as soon as you actually start doing the job. Things I hadn't thought to ask Rich during our session last week. Do you rub down the bit you treated with Rust Exit? Do you thin primer or not? How much stirring is enough? If the undercoat tin says you can thin it with CraftMaster's PPA, are you sure you can use white spirit? How do you get a small amount of undercoat out of its tin and into the baked beans can (previously emptied!) ready for adding some white spirit, without spilling it everywhere? One you've finished the job is it OK to put the surplus thinned paint back into its tin? How does a boater dispose of white spirit? When you come to do the next undercoat should you use new masking tape?

No doubt all this will become second nature. At the moment I'm more concerned about the second undercoat. Hopefully tomorrow's weather will be favourable.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Shugborough in the sun

On this fine, sunny day we explored the parts of the Shugborough estate that NT membership gets you a concession on. We'll come back and do the free bits another day.

Interesting it certainly was – not so much the follies, but the representation of a 19th century working estate, with labourers and servants in costume, and mindset to suit. A museum of how they actually did it in Times Past. Lots of Objects to delight and amaze.

The question for Shugborough visitors is whether to see Downton Abbey (ITV) or Servants: the true story of life below stairs (BBC2/Open University). Is this romantic or despicable? Or simply how it was? The world today got to be what it is by the specific route it followed. It's very easy, from a contemporary perspective, to criticise the abuses of power that now seem all too obvious. It is surely far harder to offer an accurate, lasting critique of your own times. And, after all, it was through the particular course we took, including the social inequalities, that the innovations came into being from which we now benefit and which we take for granted.

The word "traditional" appeared a lot today – it's on the packet of stoneground flour we brought home from the mill. But what does it conjure up – cosy, stable, wholesome, folk wisdom, things as they ought to be? Or stuck-in-the-mud, unwilling to flex or change, how we did it before we knew better? No one would want to be using the laundry methods we saw today. Not many would argue for the social stratification. So there's a tension here. We enjoyed a thoroughly enlightening talk with "Isaac" the miller, who taught us all sorts of stuff about how flour works, understanding that balances modern knowledge of nutrition.

Traditions often exist because no-one thought of doing it any different. But some are there simply because they are right.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Peanuts and pistachios

Comfort nibbles. Pre-prandial snacks. Roasted and salted – just enough to tempt you not to stop. Looking at them on the shelves in Sainsbury's, the peanuts are cheaper so, although you really prefer the pistachios, peanuts it is.

But things aren't always what they seem. The contents of that huge bag of dry-roasted peanuts are already shelled. There's no grace about eating them – tip out a large quantity and munch your way through them. And then some more. Pistachios, on the other hand, are designed to tease. The green kernel pokes invitingly through the tear in its wrapping. You extract and savour the succulent centre before turning to the next. This one reveals rather less of its inner goodness, and requires the dextrous use of a knife to prise it out of the casing. The result is just as tasty. Requires just a tiny sip of wine before continuing.

And there's another thing. Pistachio-eating produces a lot of shell, which (in my case) goes back into the bowl with the original handful. After consuming about half, finding the next nut becomes quite a search among the debris. But – and here is the amazing thing – the nuts take an awful long time to run out. It's a bit like the loaves and fishes, or the widow's jar of oil. Just when you think you've come to the end, there's another lurking beneath a half-husk. By the time you really have finished, you've eaten far fewer pistachios than if it had been peanuts, but the enjoyment has been prolonged and much greater. In the end, I reckon, pistachios are cheaper than peanuts, not by the kilo but by the month. Things aren't always what they seem. Good thing to remember during political party convention season.

It's amazing what you think about when you're not going out.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Not going out

What we had in mind was a quick painting lesson from Rich, followed by three weeks to gently traverse the Llangollen canal, as the sun shone gently through russet trees, with time to apply new skill and paint to the most needy cases of bodywork decay. The autumn has always been my favourite time of year, partly because of the start of the hockey season, and partly because of the symbolism of fruitfulness in dying.

What we got, of course, was day upon day of lashing wind and rain, delays while we acquired the necessary painting goodies, a complete lack anyway of conditions for painting, and a cold that sent me to bed and left the inside of my head feeling rather like a tacky rag (that's one of the aforementioned painting accessories). Looking at the forecast for the next week or so, we've just about given up on any idea of an autumn cruise.

What's been interesting is to see how we've survived staying put, not going out, not doing very much at all. It's somehow been easier than the times when we were stopped because there was some database work I had to do, but not much for my best beloved. More than a day of that was hard – this has been about OK. On a walk two days ago we came across a couple in the 35 foot NB Lilliput. He said it was a week-boat, because with a boat that size you need a marriage counsellor after 7 days, but there isn't room for one on board! All-in-all, so far, we've done pretty well.

Monday 1 October 2012


The new colour in Erin Mae's cheeks is a sight for sore eyes. Any other lady with this amount of glow might use some powder to ameliorate the effect, but we applied polish!

Restoring the slightly corroded paintwork under the leaky window was always going to leave a sharp contrast between old and new paint, and reds are worst of all. So we resorted to cutting back all the paint down both sides, and the result has been great. The enthusiasm for a good polish might even last. If only the scratched green bits didn't stand out so much now…

I spent a morning with Rich while he was applying black gloss, and discovered that once you start asking an expert to show you how to paint a boat, there's no end to the bits and pieces and products you suddenly find it necessary to acquire. Mr Amazon and associates are becoming increasingly aware of Great Haywood.

Lots of boaters don't value shine. Prefer a more matt approach. Some boats probably look better that way. But Erin Mae's looking a treat – apart from the scratched hatch, and the scrapes down the side, and  the creeping corrosion along the handrails, and the cruiser rail needing some more varnish, and…

Sunday 30 September 2012


When I was 5 or thereabouts we moved down the road to a house that had one of John Laing's experimental heating systems. The compact, open fire in the lounge heated the wall of the small dining-room behind. It had a back boiler linked to the hot water tank upstairs, together with a mechanism for directing the heat preferentially round the boiler or further forward towards the room. And it had a system of air vents that drew in cold air from the hall and convected it to two of the three bedrooms (I, alas, slept with brother number 3 in a bunk in the third). Proper Brits at the time despised central heating as producing pasty-faced Yanks, but this didn't really count. The cast-iron frame also had a plate that drew down across the front so you could keep it in overnight. Some of my childhood memories centre round this fire – my dad getting it going again in the morning, my mum with a large sheet of newspaper held at the top and against the wall on either side, to encourage it to "draw", the coal-dusted men carrying huge canvas bags of coal round the side of the house to empty into the bunker in the back garden, and my paternal grandfather sitting in front of it on a visit, talking to me about the logs in the hearth. He'd been a cabinet-maker, he lived 100 miles away in Birmingham, and that is the only memory I have of him.

My parents always had an open fire in the other houses they moved on to, and family gatherings at Christmas naturally centred round it when we were inside but not at the table. It's part of our own children's memory bank. We, on the other hand, have only ever had electric or gas varieties. Efficient, clean and relatively trouble-free, but definitely not the same thing. Erin Mae, however, came with a solid-fuel burner already in place, the ubiquitous Morsø Squirrel. Not sure how it gets to have a name like this, especially being of Swedish origin. I was more concerned about children's safety, my best beloved said not to worry, and she was right. It's been great to have it glowing away in the corner on a cold evening.

But I could do with more of my dad's expertise. I find that if I've let it die down a bit too much, even though it may be smouldering bright red, adding more smokeless fuel on top seldom gets it going again. There seems to be a point beyond which it doesn't recover. Opening the door to stir things up a bit usually results in little excpet smoke coming out all over the room. Perhaps the chimney has got too cold to create the updraft needed for an effective burn. If anyone knows what this is all about, I'd be glad of a comment.

Meanwhile, I'm thoroughly enjoying having two living flames aboard.

Saturday 29 September 2012


When I searched for a leather hat I couldn't find one tight enough to stay on in a breeze without being so tight as to give me a headache. But I really like leather as a material. Stranded or interestingly tooled leather belts can thumb the nose ever so elegantly at accompanying attire that is necessarily formal, without seeming out of place.

I nearly replaced my belt two weeks ago in a leather shop in Camden market, but nothing was quite right. Today, strolling back from the tea rooms by Haywood Lock on our first exercise since a nasty cold put me in bed this week, we passed NB Anon, with its racks of leatherwork on display on the towpath. We had a good look at the belts, and enjoyed Dave's simple take on the cost – the buckle sets the price. Then we found his range of windlass holsters, and were hooked. We'd talked on and off about something like this for a while. So we bought a holster and belt that my best beloved could wear with joy, and got the belt cut to a size we both could use.

Nice result. I also saw a design that would do me well for my next everyday belt, though he didn't have it in the shade I wanted. However, he's probably back in Great Haywood next weekend and that, I think, will be that.

Sunday 9 September 2012


So the show's nearly over – this summer SportsFest. Erin Mae's reception was mostly good enough, and we were at home for a part. Some don't like competitive sport and some are just cynical, but we've been blown along with the majority, in the enthusiasm of a festival successfully implemented, and in admiration for the achievements and the athleticism.

There's one bit about the paralymics, however, that puzzles me – some of the event classifications related to the degree of disability. Various sports have divisions for people of different characteristics – distinct competitions for men and women is the obvious one. Boxing and judo have their weights, and even rowing has events for lighter oarsmen / oarswomen. But basketball doesn't have separate competitions for players under 6 feet, or fencing for people with shorter arms. So I'm puzzled that you can have a sporting classification for disabled people that distinguishes between the relative power loss from a muscle wasting condition, for example. Loss of a limb (or the loss of its use) is easy to differentiate from loss of two. But I can't easily get my mind around having separate races for people because their condition means their legs are less powerful than others. In the Olympics, if your legs are not so good at speed but are better at endurance, you might enter the 5000 rather than the 100 metres. Most of us, however hard we tried, would never get there at all. I thoroughly enjoyed all my years of playing hockey, but I doubt whether the most dedicated ambition and training regime would have made me able to compete in the Olympics with others of my general physical characteristics. I don't lose any sleep over not having a competition specifically tuned to my condition.

The athleticism of those we've watched has been truly amazing, and it's great that a country and its sporting organisations offer opportunities for people of all abilities, whatever their origin, to participate appropriately. To enjoy and to celebrate achievement, especially achievement against the odds. So I may eventually be convinced that these Olympic classifications are a good thing, in spite of the difficulty, for the outsider, of understanding all their detail. For the moment, it's good to see sporting accomplishment provide a focus for anyone, and especially for people whom others might consider "least-likely-to". It was only when one of my sons got into athletics for a while that I began to appreciate the significance of a PB – a Personal Best. Taking on the challenge of doing better than ever before is something I hope I don't lose as I get older, even if what it relates to changes.

Friday 31 August 2012

Masking tape

Most of my students over the years realised that to be able to work successfully with people they needed to know and come to terms with themselves and their own inner dynamics. Their life history inevitably created sticky patches underneath. The surprise with which they discovered such areas was matched by the amazement at how resistant such things can be when you try to do something about them. Many of my best memories relate to students who, against all the odds, dealt with themselves successfully and went on to make significant contributions in the lives of others.

We've been dealing again with stuff underneath that has been left too long to harden. But this time it's the glue from the masking tape around Erin Mae's leaky window! I had to do something to prevent water ingress over last winter, and I had this roll of masking tape that I thought would do the job. It did – but I didn't know then what I know now about what happens when you leave it in place for long periods. So in preparation for the painting repairs and maintenance that are about to follow the sorting of the window, I set to with a range of solutions to deal with the unsightly mess. Hot water with car shampoo, white spirit, paintbrush cleaner, surgical spirit. All had some effect but not the result I was looking for.

We googled it – what a range of suggestions, including WD40 and peanut butter! We already knew about "Sticky Stuff Remover", and that seemed to fit the bill, so off I went to Stafford B&Q. Was a bit longer than intended because of some additional shopping, and when I got back my best beloved said "Have a look at the window." While I'd been out she'd done most of the job with nail varnish remover! I'd been worried about that removing the paint as well as the goo, but it generally seems to be OK. So in a minute I'll go out with my newly acquired magic stuff to tidy up the remaining little bits.

Not sure about simplest solutions being the best. For me it's the solution that matches the problem that wins, every time. And that's for people, as well as masking tape.

Wednesday 29 August 2012


There are a few scary things on the cut. Stag parties already half-cut by 11 a.m. The combination of strong wind and shallow water. For the claustrophobic newbie, the first time you negotiate a lock with a 10 foot drop. Up there with the best is coming out of a bridge on a narrow left-hand bend with a boat tied up on the right hand side 20 yards on, and Chertsey coming at you round the corner.

Chertsey is no mean boat – one of the darlings of traditional boat devotees, since her purchase and transformation by Sarah Hale, chronicled on her blog.

What strikes you under the conditions described above, however, is not the wonderful restoration job, or how good the paintwork is looking, or the potted history that flips through your mind, but how incredibly big the front end is – looked as tall as Erin Mae's roof. I've been reading a new set of novels about Roman times and warfare – for a moment I felt like one of those boats that was destined to be rammed and cut in half.

No hassle. Sarah, of course, was in perfect control, and I played my own part in avoiding any unwelcome scenario. We passed with a cheery wave, though she was left a little too near the moored boat, and having to operate the tiller with some force to squeeze round the corner without contact.

In the morning we got soaked. After lunch the sun came out and we made it back to Great Haywood, as intended. All very satisfactory. Sarah, I hope your day was as good as ours.

Photographs from Sarah's blog, and from Halfie, if they'll forgive me.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Two days in the life

It's not only the weekends you miss when you're retired – yesterday's Bank Holiday came and went fairly unremarked. I played around with blog post titles such as "Battened down at Brewood's Bridge 8", but it was basically a day to forget (if its Creator will forgive me). The most exciting thing was running the engine for a couple of hours to charge the batteries. The steerers of the few boats that went by were huddled in their oilskins, looking as though they thoroughly regretted the decision to take on the Four Counties. Mind you, it was quite a productive day, as I got my mind on writing database scripts for some sensible stretches of time.

What a contrast today! We were up, showered, breakfasted and on the cut before 8 a.m., with the sun shining gloriously, and some wonderful reflections in the water. Down to Autherley Junction and up to Penkridge. That was when I paid the penalty for the database work, as I collected the emails telling me which bit wasn't working and could I please do something about it.

So instead of pushing on, we tied up, had a relaxed lunch, some more internet work to sort out the issues, and then walked into the village to get some exercise and a few provisions. But we avoided the temptation to visit Jaspers. It's a beautiful calm evening. Since tomorrow's weather forecast, althought pretty dire, is not as bad as Thursday's, we'll probably join the oilskin crowd and try to make it back to Great Haywood in one hit.

But where did the Bank Holiday go?

Sunday 26 August 2012

t = s/v

There's a boat coming the other way.

Thing is, which of us is going get to the bridge first? The farther away you both are, the harder it is to tell. Who's nearest? How fast are they going? Are they passing moored boats? Am I passing moored boats? Is that sparkle on the water 400 yards ahead a bow wave, or propellor turbulence, or a flotilla of ducklings?

You take these decisions all the time at 70 mph on the motorway. The brain is fantastic at making almost unconscious judgements about the relative motion of vehicles. At 3 mph on the cut you'd think everything would be even easier, but I've found it more tricky. Distances are deceptive through a bridge, but there's a lot hanging on it. Your nautical elegance is partly a function of how you manage such meetings!

I can see some other decisions coming up. Will Rich be able to do the paintwork? How long will it take? If he can, should we stay on board to learn, or go home and let him get on with it? What if it's raining…  Decisions! It's crunch-time. No – unfortunate expression, especially if the boat coming the other way is a GRP.

The equation in the title is: time = distance / velocity. It's the particular variation of this equation that applies here (who's going to get there first?). I don't remember why "s" stands for distance, but I'm sure it used to when I was at school. And I think velocity is a better concept here than speed because it involves direction as well as speed, and direction sure is important when you're heading for a bridge.

Meanwhile, the heron just got on with applying the physics of motion to the art of fishing for dinner, without even thinking about it.

Saturday 25 August 2012


Fishermen, it seems, are like the rest of us after all. Smilers and snarlers, grinners and grouchers, half-full, half-empty. Bank holiday Saturday apparently meant competition fishing at Gnosall, and we lost count after about 30, including a fair number along the visitor moorings. I can't imagine why fishing in the canal should have different leagues for men and women, like most other sports except equestrianism, yet there wasn't a woman among them.

I don't really get fishing, except for food. However, each to his own, and I'm quite happy to exchange courtesies with members of homo anglens. I understand it's the polite thing to cruise slowly, but not too slowly, down the middle of the cut, though I've little idea why. Not too far to the right, not too far to the left. But there's no pleasing some, especially those who thought the competition organisers should have got a court order banning boating for the day on this stretch of the Shroppie. Smiles and greetings were generally the order of the day, but some were distinctly unimpressed by the sight of Erin Mae. Particularly the one who sent a shower of something after me. Gravel? Bait? Not quite sure. And I may be mistaken.

So we pulled up at Gnosall, and chatted about fishermen and other pleasant topics with David, a continual cruiser on NB Tom Bombadil. He's on his way from exciting times on the River Nene to tranquility on the Llangollen, and had some good stories to tell – as well as a sad one about a GRP owner who lost the top of his cabin from being too bold under a bridge when the river was running. Perhaps we'll see David again later as we've tied up in Gnosall for the night. But I shan't be fishing. The only lines I've got on board are bow lines, stern lines and centre lines.

Friday 24 August 2012

Loynton Moss

My best beloved spotted something in Nicholson's guide. Loynton Moss is a floating bog, it said. Conjured up the last scenes of Lorna Doone, but it seemed worth a visit. Fortified by the price of diesel at Norbury Junction, but needing a restorative after discovering just how big Erin Mae's diesel tank actually is, we set out to discover this wildlife wonder.

First attempts were discouraging. The path turned out to be just after Bridge 40, not Bridge 39 (the one with the telegraph pole), as stated in the guide. Having walked almost all the way to Bridge 40 and turned back, we eventually found an entrance to the reserve on the road above 39, which took us on a walk through the woods to 40, and thence down the track to the bog.

It was a fascinating place – a carefully managed project building on a natural resource to create a fabulous wildlife haven. Circular walks and educational boards make it accessible for all sorts of people. Only two things interfered with our enjoyment of the experience. The first was the general gloom of the day – it would have looked stunning in the sunshine. The second was the lack of insect repellent, combined with our habit of wearing shorts. The local mosquito army thought they'd gone to heaven. In the end we decided the long walk all the way round the perimeter could wait for another day while we went back to Erin Mae and warmed ourselves with some Staffordshire oatcakes.

I've been well impressed with what we've seen of the work of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. And I suppose the mosquitoes are glad of somewhere to live.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Stuck on the Shroppie

They warned us about the Shroppie. The beautiful, idyllic, captivating, treacherous Shroppie. Roger in particular said get a couple of beer crates as fenders to stop Erin Mae banging against the underwater ledge all night. But nobody told us what would happen if you tried to moor up between Gnosall and Norbury junction. We didn't fancy the dark forest that overhangs the Gnosall visitor moorings, and wanted to ensure we tied up south of Norbury, so that we could easily pull in for diesel in the morning. So we picked a spot with a wonderful view and edged in, only to discover that we couldn't quite get close enough. So we tried again a bit further on, and found ourselves well and truly stuck on the bottom. Concrete shelf we had anticipated, underwater superglue we had not.

I used the long pole to free the front, which then hung out in the most ungainly fashion across the cut. Nothing would budge the back. We tried rocking and revving and transferring weight (now I know why so many boaters find it valuable to have a BMI in excess of 25). Stuck – even though it seemed to be only the last couple of feet of the left-hand side (apologies to my sea-faring relatives for the use of inland terms). I put down the plank to get ashore with the pole, and get my weight off the boat. Still nothing.

Fortunately Tim and Chris on NB Dudley Nº 3, with about 100 years of boating experience between them, came up from Gnosall. Chris got on the gunwale on the off-side while I shoved from the bank. Slowly Erin Mae swung round and freed herself. I was able to come back across the plank, bring it on board, and reverse away from the peril.

Great to have a helping hand when you need it. We came up to Norbury Junction and found plenty of room on the visitor moorings. So the whole thing had been completely unnecessary! Except that in the great scheme of things, an event today provides invaluable experiene for tomorrow.

Wednesday 22 August 2012


Lovely sunny evening – we moored up short of Brewood. Opposite us a tractor came down the field, hedging. That is to say, it had a huge flat blade it ran vertically along the hedge, cutting off all the bits that stuck out.

A friend and colleague once commented on the difference between this and the older art of hedging, in which you take the bits that stick out and bind them back in, constructing something strong and beautiful. He likened it to two types of theology. If something in life doesn't fit your system, you can cut it off, ignore it. Or you can take it, think it through, incorporate it, work out how it fits into the whole.

Today I read a student's dissertation about the persecution suffered by Christians in Bulgaria during the Communist period, and how they responded to it. That they survived was because they had a faith that could incorporate severe suffering without creating an untenable dichotomy. They wove their experience into their belief system, in a way that was beautiful and strong.

Hedging is a dying art.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Penkridge pastries – again

This is the third time we've come through Penkridge. We really only needed to go to the Co-op for some lacto-free milk. But Jaspers was just a few yards down the hill … well, such a good local emporium deserves your custom. So – some proper nourishment for lunch, and a couple of decidedly unbalanced items (hardly a smidgen of protein and distinctly lacking in vitamins) to go with our coffee  – though we did split them in half so there was some left to have tonight.

Some of the boating blogs I read record journeys that the blogger has undertaken previously – sometimes often. These few days will take us through places we've been before, and it will be interesting to see how we respond to the experience. Today we met a couple on a hire boat from Middlewich doing the Four Counties ring, in a week. They've done quite a bit of boating, but had some friends along for whom it is all new. I asked about the pressures and the long days, and she said it was about recognising the limits of a week's hire, and setting yourself a challenge. But she was also relishing the thought of eventually retiring to live on a boat and having the time to stop and explore the places they currently hurry through.

Although part of the joy with Erin Mae is doing the unexpected, I think we may also want to plan our stops a bit differently second time around, making sure we give some attention to spots we simply passed through last time.

Monday 20 August 2012

The moment's spur

Woke up this morning with two things on my mind. First was to see our friend Rich about repairing the paintwork under the (now fixed) leaky window. Second was to work out what on earth is happening with our TV reception. There's an omnidirectional aerial on Erin Mae's roof. Very cool-looking, and very convenient because you don't have to re-set it whenever you moor up, even if it is less efficient than normal aerials. Following a wet spell on Friday, partly due to a downpour and partly to me washing tons of avian poo off the roof, we noticed that (a) the indicator light on the aerial had gone out and (b) we weren't getting any TV. I did lots of diagnostics and came up with nothing. I refashioned the aerial end of the cable, just to be sure, and on Saturday evening the indicator light was on again, though we still had no TV. Sunday we got some TV, though very few of the regulation (if largely useless) 110 channels. The signal amplifier in the boat was the chief suspect, but appeared to be working.

I rang the manufacturer and they said the best thing was to send them the aerial and the amplifier for testing. That's great, except for having to rig something to cover the hole in the roof. But at least I could see a possible Next Step. Meanwhile, it appeared that Rich was off on holiday, boating somewhere, and would be back at the end of the month. So the window will have to wait.

That left us, at about 4 p.m. this afternoon, wondering what to do. Drive home and do some database work on site, where it's much easier. Or go boating. Quick check of the weather forecast settled it – we go boating. There's time for us to get to Norbury junction before any real rain, where we can fill up the diesel tank and still be in pocket. So, replenishing the larder from the farm shop, we set off about 5.30.

Tranquil it was. Any sensible person had already moored up for the night. Lots of reflections in the water as we drifted through Tixall Wide, past our friends Dave and Jenny on NB Misty, and Paul and Lynne on NB Piston Broke. Down to Bridge 101 on the Staffs and Worcs (still haven't worked out how to say it) where the canal bends sufficiently away from the railway for us to have a wonderfully peaceful evening.

Does anyone know what the "spur" in "spur of the moment" actually is?

Sunday 19 August 2012


One of the things we've appreciated about boating is the chance encounter. You come across an extraordinary range of people, in the marina, at the locks, where you moor up for the night. They are normally uncomplicated meetings, with little hanging on them, but they often have more substance than a friendly chat with the supermarket till-operator. Time is the significant factor. Usually nobody's in a particular hurry, and you can't do much about the rate at which a lock fills.

Either side of Erin Mae's berth at Great Haywood are a couple of spaces they use for visiting boats. So we got to know Steve and Sue on NB Pitch while they were here from Ripon for a while. This weekend, after our dash back from Alrewas, we found Ray and Val in NB Holly's Wander, down from the Leeds and Liverpool. Ray came out while I was gently playing my guitar as evening fell, and we talked first about music and then about scouting, which has clearly been a life-long enthusiasm of his. Guitars around a camp-fire evoke particular memories for him, and for me, though I was never a scout.

They've gone away and left their boat here for a week, and then their son and family will be taking her out for a while – all in all it's unlikely we'll see them again. But it's been good to meet and to share more than just the fleeting moment which is all that busy lives so often allow. One thing I shan't forget in a hurry is that they grow lettuce on the roof of the boat and had some, freshly cut, for tea last night!

Saturday 18 August 2012

Elephant's ears

That's what I call them, anyway. They come in large clumps along the bank, but they're nowhere as invasive (or attractive, depending on your taste) as the Himalayan balsam.

My best beloved thinks that the name I've chosen belongs to something different. She has several books that identify fauna and flora along the cut, but unfortunately they have neither this particular plant, nor anything else that owns the name. So for the moment, "elephant's ears" they are.

Does anyone know what they actually are?

Friday 17 August 2012

Fresh at Fradley

The Brazilians must be the cleanest nation on earth. When we went to work there I wasn't looking forward to all the B.O. in the crowded buses, given the heat. It was a non-issue. I soon learned that even the poorest rural Brazilian, with no access to running water, will rig up a perforated can so he can have a shower at the end of the day. After we'd been there six months, the 12 year-old daughter of our neighbours plucked up the courage to ask me: "Martin, is it true that in England  people don't shower every day?" (remember – this was 1980). Somewhat embarrassed, I  talked about the difference in climate and this and that, and probably left her very confused. But, in Brazil, my ablutions became Brazilian – at the end of the day, when you come home, shower and change your clothes before you do anything else. Eating your evening meal before you shower is anathema! Showering again in the morning is optional, but preferred. Any time you get too hot, have a shower! When we returned to the UK, the principle was ingrained, though the pattern changed a bit. No day had really started until I'd had my shower. As for putting on again any garment I'd worn the previous day – ugh! And so it remained for 25 years.

But then we started boating. Parked in the marina – fine. The showers are great. Out on the cut – good if you've been boating into the afternoon. There will still be some hot or at least warm water the following morning. But if you've been stationary since lunch-time yesterday, and especially if you want to make a quick and early start, it's a cold shower or nothing. At my time of life, that's a nothing. But it cuts violently across the habits of half a lifetime.

This morning we set out quick and early from Alrewas. I was unwashed and had yesterday's clothes on – it was disgusting! However, by the time we'd made it to Fradley, the water had heated and it was time for a break. My best beloved wandered down to look at the sights. I got in the shower. Wonderful! The relief was almost as great as the cleanliness.

Fradley was fresh in other ways today – wind and rain competing. During a reasonably dry spell we thought we'd make a run for it. The run continued … and continued. Lunch on the hoof. We'll make it to Rugeley, we thought … Wolseley Bridge. In the end we made it all the way to Great Haywood. Some day's boating! It's amazing what a good shower can do for you.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Ambiguity in Alrewas

We left the National Memorial Arboretum in thoughtful mood, like most visitors. For the most part wonderful in both conception and execution, it provokes reflection in the way that, presumably, was intended. But for me, as ever, it was ambiguous. Some might see a monument to valour, others to folly. It's easy, following the success of the Olympics, and the national pride they rightly engendered, to see these commemorated service men and women as having given themselves for the protection of worthwhile values. The elements of truth in that ensure that we shall going on remembering in the ways we do.

But as I looked at the names of those killed while on duty since the Second World War, I calculated there were between 16 and 20 thousand. Looking at the years heading each section I tried to think who they would have been, and the names of some trouble spots that I was aware of since childhood came to mind. Aden, Kenya… Do we feel the same today about the values we were fighting for then? The troubles in Northern Ireland still create their own discussions, let alone the political and economic complexities of the conflicts in the Falklands and Iraq. To get public support for fighting there is often the need to reduce the issues to something very basic, and sound-bites are the enemy of rational consideration.

The Chapel embodied some of these tensions. It is the "Millennium Chapel of Peace and Reconciliation". Not much to look at yet from the outside, but inside it is airy, and I liked the unusual tree pillars. It has two lecterns, and each has an embroidery – one with a quotation from Revelation 22:2 ("The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations") and the other with the BBC motto ("Nation shall speak peace unto nation") which is loosely based on Isaiah 2:4. But the Chapel also has that strange amalgum of Christian and military imagery that often seems to go beyond the rightful provision of pastoral support for those engaged in fighting. I never had much time for flags in churches ("God bless our war"), though this is not a church as such and I didn't actually check out what the flags were. But, in addition, the huge cross on the wall is in fact a sword, and the quotation underneath it is strange: "Raise up a living nation, a single sword to thee". I don't know if that is a quotation from somewhere, but it seems to be rather more militaristic than thousands of last-night Prommers singing "Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."

War is a profoundly sorrowful thing, though I have come to think that sometimes it is probably necessary, and that there are things it is right to fight for physically. It's strange that I can mix all these thoughts and emotions with the enjoyment of books or films based in war-time or on the premise of conflict. But that's ambiguity for you.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Working windows

I take a lot of pleasure in seeing someone at work who knows what they're doing (with the possible exception of synchronised swimming), and especially in learning from it. Yesterday it was Lyndon of Aqua Boats taking out our leaky window, and re-working the way it was secured to the boat. The hull had properly tapped holes for machine screws, but at some point in the past someone had decided it was better to put wood screws through these and secure it straight into the wood of the internal window frame. Not particularly well either – one or two were too near the edge of the wood and made it split. No wonder I got confusticated when trying to look at it myself last autumn.

Don't think the window is completely water-tight yet. There's some light showing through one of the aluminium frame's mitred corners that needs some sealant, and where water had got in before there's a bit of steel that needs to be rubbed down and re-painted. But I do now know a lot more about how to work with windows, and have a much better idea of which bits I could do myself and which I should get someone more skilled to look at. I also discovered that you remove the opening part of the window by just lifting it out! Such a simple ruse had never occurred to this muddled brain – oh the sleepless nights wondering how to clean the bottom quarter inch of glass and the rubber it sits in! Just lift it out!

Lyndon had acquired his traditional engineering expertise the best way – starting with keeping his own motorbike running at age 7. Together we lamented the lack of incentive for young people to gain practical, worthwhile skills. He wondered, as he worked, where the next generation of engineers was going to come from, while I watched, and admired, and learned.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Willington WiFi

Mobile broadband isn't cheap (about £11 for 3 Gb at Amazon prices) and the connection can be a bit variable. So when you stop near a pub offering free WiFi, on a day when you're planning to do some internet work anyway, the eyes light up.

The Dragon at Willington seemed a friendly place, even if their bar food menu was a tad expensive, and they were quite happy to give me the WiFi key. Unpacked the MacBook and worked my way down the available networks to the one that responded. I could immediately see a list of connected devices, but internet connection there was none. The bartender was also trying to get a link on his iPhone. "Needs a re-boot", he said, "It was working this morning – it's a nightmare". With that confidence-booster, it was back to the table to wait, but to no avail. Since I'd yet to purchase any liquid refreshment I was on the moral low ground, so I packed up, went out to the garden and tried to get a mobile broadband signal.

Unfortunately Willington's Three signal was also rather flaky. Managed to get off an email, but there was no chance of doing any database work. Eventually thought I'd see whether the Dragon's link was working by now. Success! For about 10 minutes, and all rather slow. Just enough for me to make a couple of changes before the whole thing packed up again.

Free WiFi is easy to advertise. I doubt if you could get them under the trades description act, but you ought at least to be able to apply the Ronseal test. Perhaps there should be a universal understanding that if the WiFi doesn't work, it's the coffee that's free. Now to send this blog-post. Assuming Willington will let me.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Rocks, blocks and shocks

You can never quite tell what you're going to get between the water and the towpath. Last night, looking for somewhere to tie up for the night, we encountered long stretches (mile after mile would be an exaggeration, but that's what it felt like) of jungle – reeds and nettles and who knows what. Just above Wychnor lock we finally found a suitable place where the canal is edged with the sort of piling you fit a mooring hook behind. But this morning, pushing north-east in as much rural idyll as you can get 30 yards from the A38, it was disconcerting to see that for considerable distances it was lined with random blocks of stone, just below the water. I imagine it was originally above the water-line, forming a proper edge to the canal, and that its position now is due to subsidence. Horrible to run on to with a steel hull – lethal (I suppose) for a GRP cruiser.

Coming to Branston Water Park we pulled up to go for walk. Not so much subsidence here – just a nice example of a gravel pit reclaimed by nature with a bit of help from the Council. There we met Eddy and Jean sailing their boats. But these weren't children – they're 73 year olds, and the boats are radio controlled yachts. It was fun to chat with them about the stuff they and their friends do, though we were amazed that you actually need insurance to sail one of these models. It's apparently all about the possibility that someone keen to see what you're doing might get a bit close and end up with your antenna in his eye.

Bridge 25 on the T&M tonight. Food in the pot, it's stopped raining and we're looking forward to the Olympic closing ceremony. Happiness is…

Saturday 11 August 2012

On the water again

Spent some days commissioning the college database I've been developing. Now we enter the phase reputedly used by Microsoft – let the actual users do the beta-testing! More excuse for me, I think, since this has basically been a one-man project. First indications are that it's going pretty well.

So – back to Erin Mae on Thursday, and then yesterday we started out down the Trent and Mersey for our Tuesday appointment at Mercia Marina to deal with the leaky window. It's been briliant boating weather. Today we got to new territory, running past the winding hole at Rugeley which was the furthest we'd previously been in this direction.

We followed NB Barnaby for a considerable part of this morning, and discovered it can be very useful to have another boat 200 yards in front when negotiating a tricky section. Looking at his behaviour indicated potential hazards – not much traffic today but you can guarantee what there is will be coming at you just as you hit a narrow section right before a bridge on a blind corner. It was especially helpful to have him in front as we went through the rocky, single file section that used to be Armitage tunnel, and has a bend just before the far end. He was able to tell the hire boat coming the other way that we were following, so my best beloved was saved the exercise of walking through ahead.

On to Fradley tonight, a famous junction where the Coventry canal meets the Trent and Mersey. What will we do this evening, now that I've already done a blog post for today? Probably iron out a few database glitches via the internet, and then there's the little matter of the Olympic hockey medals matches, if all this boating hasn't got me in a muddle as to which day it is today.

Friday 3 August 2012

Home again

What with all the showers it was touch and go to complete the varnishing of Erin Mae's front doors and frames, but in the end we managed it. That was the main target for the last week, in addition to making arrangements with Mercia. So we're well content.

There was so much sport on the radio on the way home, what with the test match as well as the Olympics. Comes from having DAB. In the end I had to turn it off because of the need to concentrate on the heavy traffic. So we've been catching up tonight. Pendleton, team pursuit, Jessica Ennis, Murray, Rebecca Adlington, and those are the ones I already knew about. How much more can a body take! Stopped for coffee on the M40 and had a good chat with a couple coming home from a holiday in the Dales. Hope you find the blog tonight, folks – enjoyed our natter (and hope the coffee spill dried out!).

IT work over the next few days – getting the database live and sorting out any initial issues. Then hopefully back up on Erin Mae towards the end of the week, and some more cruising.

Thursday 2 August 2012


At Greatwood camp when I was 11 we learnt to tie a round turn and two half-hitches (along with a clove hitch, reef knot, bowline, sheet bend and sheepshank). We were told it was used for mooring boats, because it stayed secure no matter whether the line was tight or slack. I've used it ever since whenever messing around with boats, and taught it to Lewis and Charis when they were on board Erin Mae for a day in June.

Yesterday I noticed Dawn of Great Haywood Marina using a different hitch when we tied up for a pump-out. I'd seen her use it before, but this time I asked her to show me. She said it was used by all the old working boats, so I've been busy rehearsing it (in my mind, at least).

Today I found it on a boating knots website. Unsurprisingly it's called a Lighterman's hitch, though it no doubt has other names as well. Dawn tends to tie it without a complete turn for temporary mooring. Another boater looking on said he always ties it with a complete turn, and that its advantage over the RT2HH is that it doesn't over-tighten under a day of other traffic moving you back and forth.

New skill – good fun. Now to build it into muscle memory.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

Couch potato

Dreary weather, too wet for varnishing, no desire to go for a walk, Olympics on. So no exercise in this part of the UK to match that going on elsewhere. Instead, the day's nourishment has happened in a steady stream of uncomplicated episodes, accompanied by rowing, tennis, diving, hockey, more tennis, and women's football still to come.

The hockey always amazes me now. When I started playing, offside involved goalie plus two defenders. Over time, and even since I stopped playing about six years ago, technical developments and being open to rule changes have changed the sport out of all recognition. Apart from the skills set made possible by astroturf, three things stand out – abolishing the offside rule, allowing shielding of the ball when in possession, and the recent change to allow you to hit the ball to yourself when bringing the ball back into play, taking a corner or a free hit. Whoever thought of that one is a genius, and I wish they'd done it when I was playing. The speed and intricacy of both men's and women's games make it fantastic viewing.

It's been a thoroughly sporting day, in spite of the score: Calories ingested – considerable, Calories expended – 0.

Monday 30 July 2012

Parental pride

One of the more human touches of the presentation of the Olympics is when parents of athletes are shown or interviewed. Rebecca Adlington's come immediately to mind. Of course, it's hard for the TV viewer to distinguish between parents who have sacrificed and encouraged, and those who've been pushy and as ambitious for themselves as for their kids. But with people like Rebecca, you get the impression (only that, no scientific study here) that she's celebrated and valued by her community as much for the person she is as for her medals. That's a parent's dilemma – how to encourage and congratulate a result without sending the message that it's the success you value in your offspring, rather than who they are.

My best beloved and I are very proud parents – our youngest (at 33) has just graduated with a high 1st class degree in Design and Technology from Goldsmith's College (part of London University), which carries a teaching qualification with it. This he achieved while continuing to run his function band full-time, and in spite of a measure of dyslexia. He starts teaching in September at Archbishop Tenison's school near the Oval. But, as with all three of them, in the end it's the person he is that counts. And of all three of them, we are very proud.

Sunday 29 July 2012

Hog roast

It's apparently an annual event, and it seemed half the village and most of the marina were there. Formula is simple: put up a marquee and hire a band; cook a pig; lay on baps, apple sauce, stuffing; get in some kegs of beer and a means of dispensing them (and alternatives for those who prefer something else). Hope for a dry evening.

In the event, even given the size of the crowd, almost all of the boaters we know were elsewhere, and we spent most of the time chatting with Mike and Mo and their friend Jude. Mike and I continued our afternoon conversation about music, teaching, travel, politics, social history, boating, families… As you do. All good fun.

We did get a fine evening. And the varnish on Erin Mae's doors continued to dry.

Saturday 28 July 2012


Mike (NB The Great Escape) and I finally had a bit of a jam session this afternoon, which included getting his Egyptian oud out for a while. We've come to where we are musically by totally different routes, and that always creates interest both in the music and the chat. I'd had to put new strings on my guitar earlier, an Elixir NanoWeb set I bought from Eric at Guitar and Son in Stafford. Cheaper on the internet, but I needed them in a hurry and got a nice warm glow from patronising a local business.

NanoWeb sounds like something Tim Berners-Lee might have invented (intriguing to see him included in the list of Olympic things-to-celebrate last night), or what one of Charlotte's babies might have spun, or the result of my natural networking abilities. Actually it's just a special coating on the string. The guitar sounds re-juvenated. Still a pity about the voice.

Friday 27 July 2012

A good rub down

Started on Erin Mae's front doors today. It's too long since they had any varnish applied, and June's cloudbursts did them no favours whatsoever. All good learning experience – can't remember the last time I applied varnish to anything.

So I tried to do what it said on the tin. My good friends Brian and Jon, (and everyone else for that matter) say it's all in the preparation. I like varnish. None of this primer, undercoat, topcoat, oops I did it wrong, start again, business. Just rub it down, clean it off, on with the varnish. It didn't even try to run. The rubbing down was actually the hardest bit – go with the grain, get sandpaper into the corners, judge when to give up on the bit that's been rain-darkened.

All a bit strenuous, really. Managed to do one coat on just the front of one of the doors before my back said it was cup-of-tea time. Now I could do with a good rub down – wonder if I can persuade my best beloved I'm as worthy a cause as those Olympic athletes.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Mercian mercy

We've had a window sealed up by means of a temporary and unsightly fix for far too long, my own attempts at removing and attending to it having come to nought. This being the season for sorting out windows, we drove over to Mercia marina to see if they could offer some help. They have both one of the main centres for the people who made Erin Mae, and an engineering works involved in making boats as well as looking after them.

Justin in engineering was really helpful and, sure enough, had worked with Aqualine boats before. We were able to talk with him about fixing windows (i.e. what can go wrong) and fix a date in August for having Erin Mae over there. Then we dropped in on the New and Used Boat Company and talked with Ian about various things to do with paint and maintenance. He's been boating since he was the size of a windlass, and it was very useful to tap into his experience about a number of things. Following up on something he said we came home by way of Streethay Wharf to ask Bruce in the workshop about the butyl sealant strip he uses for windows.

The root meaning of "mercy" is apparently about showing kindness to people in need. Today we qualified.

Wednesday 25 July 2012


Driving back up to Great Haywood yesterday, we listened to a report on the national Happiness survey. Seems it's the northern isles at the top of the poll, in spite of their long winter nights.

Got me thinking about the contrasting effects on my happiness levels of England losing a Test match by an innings, and finishing a really good piece of database construction late on Monday evening. Those northern islanders seemed less dependent on this or that actually happening, and more on the nature of the communities they live in.

We're very happy to be back up on Erin Mae, and shall enjoy various things we've got planned. But that will be a bit different to the joy of having Elissa and Sam with us earlier in the month. In the end it's relationships that contribute most to Happiness, and being over-reliant on the actual state of things is problematic in the end. Old-fashioned contentment – now there's a state of mind to cultivate.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Educating Daddy

Great excitement for Elissa and Sam as their dad arrived from Oslo late on Monday. Like his brothers, he'd never seen Erin Mae, so it's been a time for exploring. The children showed him the boat and then, on Tuesday, the stretch down to Wolseley Bridge and the woods around the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust centre which are brilliant for playing in. Down and back up the two locks, windlassing and pushing beams, and Chris applying his boating skills to this form of craft. All great fun.

On the way we stopped to say hello to Paul and Lynne on NB Piston Broke, still moored up south of Great Haywood. It was good to meet them, since theirs was one of the first boating blogs we came across when we started looking.

Then it was Wednesday and time for the kids to pack up (sob sob). On a windy morning we had one last trip down to Tixall Wide and back, with some interesting rope manouevres to extricate ourselves from the marina as the wind objected. Then off to Manchester for an evening flight. It's been a brilliant week with them – hopefully we'll be able to repeat it in future years.

Today we collapsed.

Saturday 7 July 2012


This morning dawned bright and clear and we were all getting up by 8 o'clock, Iain coming in from his van, and Simon from his tent. Everyone knows uncles are great fun, and Elissa and Sam were as keen to test the theory with Iain as they had been with Simon the night before.

Porridge all round and out as soon as we could – this was Iain and Simon's first sight of Erin Mae, and we wanted to fit in a reasonable cruise. The sun was out at times and hot, but a lot of the surrounding countryside is flooded – the River Trent has spread all over the neighbouring fields and a BW man on duty at Hoo Mill lock told us tales of significant water further up the cut. No alarms, however. We met a working boat pulling a full length butty (with a very traditional wooden tiller / rudder) down Weston lock, and stopped for lunch just before the bridge at Salt. It was as we pushed through to wind just beyond Sandon lock that the heavens opened. Fortunately the rain was coming straight down and, though heavy, it wasn't cold.

Iain is a qualified day skipper and enjoyed trying his hand at the slightly different demands of an inland waterway. Both of them were a big hit with the kids. A great day all round.

Friday 6 July 2012

Rainy day man

Shocker of a day, filled with delights. While the rain came down I walked into the village to see if my mislaid credit card was at the Post Office. It was – "Knew you'd be back for it in a couple of days", he said. He's a star. On the way back I noticed the hairdresser had an old-fashioned barber's pole outside, so I popped in to discover that they would cut my hair for £6. For me, Great Haywood's stock is rocketing skywards.

The rain came down, and the kids played in the boat. Elissa made crowns for us all out of card, and imaginations ran riot on the floor under the table as Luke Skywalker and the fluffy cat competed for attention.

Still the rain came down. Plans to go for a stroll across to Shugborough evaporated. So I googled "Things to do in Stafford" and, thankfully, what came up was Things To Do In Staffordshire. Standing out in flashing lights was "Come Into Play" in Stone. I'm sure this sort of indoor play area exists all over the country, but it's the first time I've been in one. Wooden towers and rope walks and slides and sponge ball cannons and swings, all in a warm warehouse with lots of tables for parents to drink coffee. Even a quiet chill out room for craft and reading (and chilling). As the MasterCard advert might say: As long as the kids want in an energetic and creative play zone – £4.50; 3 hours of carefree relaxation for grandparents – priceless.

The rain was still coming down as we left. But Simon was joining us from London at 6, and Iain from Cornwall, probably nearer midnight. Elissa and Sam haven't seen their uncles for years, and are excited at having them come, even for a short time. So we'll plan a run up to Sandon. It's not going to rain tomorrow.

Thursday 5 July 2012


Thought it would be a straightforward matter, blogging about the Norwegians being here. Thing is – when do you do it? No time during the day – there's far too much going on. After tea (a pretty late affair - see previous sentence), it's time to get them into bed and collapse over a coffee. Before you know it, you can't wait to get the dinette bed made up and tumble into it, so that at least you're ready for the next day by the time they've decided it's started.

I went over to Oslo last Friday, and brought Elissa (8) and Sam (7) back on Monday. The UKBA passport official decided I was sufficiently like them to be their grandfather. The car, parked at Manchester airport over the weekend, started fine and the journey to Great Haywood was smoothed by a cunning battery-operated DVD player. We'd decided to sleep Elissa on our bed and Sam on a "Ready Bed" (lent to us – thanks, Jon, Michelle and Jake) on the floor at the side, and it worked so well that we continued with the arrangement after the first night.

Tuesday morning was reasonably clear so we did our favourite short trip down to Tixall Wide for lunch. They did a bit of steering but there was too much going on around for much concentration on exactly the right direction to go in. Feeding the swans out of the side-hatch had its moment when one of them decided Sam's hand was part of what was being offered!

Wednesday morning we moved the boat across to the service wharf for a pump-out (good education!) and then decided, since we'd left our berth anyway, to go out and moor near where we could get an ice-cream. One thing led to another and we took off down the cut to go through a couple of locks. Tied up at Wolseley bridge in the afternoon, went for a walk in the Wolseley Centre, and then decided to stay the night.

So today (Thursday) we carried on into Rugeley under bright sunshine, bought some supplies from Morrison's, and then came back to the Wolseley centre for a further, more extended visit. Great fun splashing in the stream, swinging on the swing and making friends with the ducks. Back to the marina in time for a (very late) tea. Weather forecast sounds horrendous for tomorrow.

Since they were born, our contact with the grandchildren has been limited to two long weekends a year. It's been a joy to be able to build the relationship during this week – they've adapted brilliantly to being with us, and we're having a lot of fun. But I don't know when the next blog entry will be posted!

Friday 22 June 2012

Flat battery

Late Thursday afternoon I thought: "Going home tomorrow, better check the car." Button on the key did nothing, so I unlocked it manually. Inside, no lights, no nothing. Turned the key in the ignition. Not even that annoying click – the one which is the starter motor asking if you really think it's going to turn over with the battery in that condition. Oops! I thought 5 summer weeks wouldn't be over-long for a car that's under three years old. But maybe it's jealous of Erin Mae, who got a nice new starter battery last autumn.

Too late to do anything Thursday night except watch the Czech Republic set off for home and wonder if I'd be able to do the same. Friday morning it's wet and windy, horrible conditions for peering under the bonnet of a car. Can't even open the boot or any of the other doors – they all depend on the electrics. So I go over to see those nice people in the marina workshop. Little Jon says he'll be over in an hour, which he is, with his van and some jump leads. Nothing. So he goes back and gets an enormous charger which has a "Start" setting. Still just a bit of clicking and moaning, but he's willing to leave it with me and after a couple of hours, with a certain amount of complaining, the engine finally starts. I didn't turn it off until we arrived back on the South Coast around 7.30.

Tomorrow we shall see whether it holds its charge overnight. And I shall have to consider whether I take out that membership the AA have been trying to sell me. In a week I shall leave the car at Manchester airport while I go to pick up the kids from Oslo, and I certainly don't want to get back after three days with a 7 and 8 year old in tow to find the car won't start.

But meanwhile, thanks to Jon and John in the workshop – very helpful guys.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Harin' home

New boater's initiation part 2 on Tuesday: through the Harecastle tunnel. This is just under 3000 yards – do whatever conversions you like, that's a pretty long tunnel. I can't get nonchalant about being that far under a hill, in a passage that size, for 40 minutes. They do convoys, and it's moderately comforting to be able to see the lights of the boat in front, but you daren't check the one behind because you don't want to take your eye off your steering. The first and the later sections have reasonable width and head room, but the middle part has bits that close in on you, with a rocky ceiling where someone my height has to shrink or regret it. All rather intense – conversation gets stuttery.

But we're still here to tell the tale, and the tunnel is followed by a long lock-free section where you can drink coffee as you go. Then through Stoke-on-Trent. The website that does trip calculations suggested stopping overnight at the Dolphin boatyard – but that looks one scary place and everyone I've ever asked agrees, so we pushed on to Barlaston. Main priority – a good TV signal for the England game! This coincided with an extremely fragmentary mobile broadband signal, so once again the blog post was delayed.

We started a bit later yesterday, but in the light of the weather forecast for today, decided to see whether we could make it back to Great Haywood. A beautiful sunny afternoon, and we arrived around 6 p.m. That's 3 days on the trot of more than 8 hours travel. By the time I'd washed the tunnel-drip and other accretia from Erin Mae's long-suffering bodywork, the brain had gone to sleep. 5 weeks to the day since we set out. It feels a bit like cheating to be back in the marina.

Monday 18 June 2012

Reception variable

We tied up last night on the moorings at Wheelock. About the only TV station available was the one that gave us the important bits of Portugal vs Holland. There was no Three reception whatsoever, so no blog post. However we've had some great alternative reception.

First was Lewis and Tre (two 11/12 year old boys) who'd come down from Sandbach on their scooters. We got chatting about the boat and what it was like to live on one, and how fast you went, and the toilet and the engine, etc. They were great fun. Then there were the waiters in the Italian restaurant – a family business, I think. Fantastic smily welcome and the Italian food looked great. Unfortunately we'd chosen the Sunday roast – should have gone for the olives and pasta.

Later I got out my guitar and sat in the cruiser stern of Erin Mae singing folk songs (fairly softly). OK for a while, until I was doing James' Taylor's "Country Road" a bit louder (well, it's that sort of song) at about 9.30. Woman came out of the posh house across the green and told me there were children sleeping in her house. I don't think she meant that I had lulled them into slumber. I agreed to call it a day, but then someone popped down from a boat 30 yards away and said they'd been enjoying it even if she hadn't!

Early start this morning – under way by 7.15. So we were ready for a coffee when we got to the shop / café at Lock 57. Dan in the café was friendly and welcoming and helpful. Eventually found ourselves chatting to him about the relative merits of electric and gas ovens for cooking brownies! And the coffee was very good. Then, a couple of locks later, we passed NB Epitome Two tied up for lunch, so we stopped for a quick chat with Mike and Denise, who we'd last seen in Market Drayton.

We've done 25 locks today, in just 6.7 miles. It was the stretch sometimes known as "Heartbreak Hill", and a necessary part of any boater's initiation. It took us about 9 hours. But now we have chairs out on the towpath on a beautiful, calm, sunny evening in Kidsgrove. It's good! Have to go and see if there's any Three reception to post this tonight.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Middlewich Festival

For us, there were two musical highlights of the festival. The first I mentioned in my last post – the wonderful Shetland sets of Lana Elaine, Calum Morrison and Stephen Henderson, all students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Yesterday we went to their early evening session at The Narrowboat, where they were joined again by (17 year old?) Robbie. It was a significant challenge, because of the competition from a pubful of noisy drinkers interested in jocularity at high volume and not at all in the music. They played through it, and we were just about close enough (3 feet away) to hear the magic.

The second was an afternoon with Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson (Aussie and Irish), with a strong delta blues feel. They were stunning. Cara played flute, whistle and percussion, and has an extraordinary wash-board with some extra bits and pieces that she dons and plays with a couple of bear-claw gloves. She has a great, strong jazz/blues voice, which complements Hat's guitar playing and singing fantastically well. If you get the chance to see them live, take it.

This morning we finished by joining in "Festival Praise" from the live stage – MIddlewich Churches Together and a band called Unite leading it all. Something special for Dad's day, and a special focus on the Middlewich Street Pastors – volunteers out at the weekends, making a significant difference to the town. We've seen the good, the bad and the ugly in Middlewich. I'm glad that our final experience has been a celebration of lots of good things going on in the community – there was a real sense of hope conveyed this morning along with the recognition of the challenges that the days hold.

Friday 15 June 2012

Too much excitement

Windy, wet but secure night. Got up and started the engine to charge the batteries and get some hot water. It was during breakfast that the fun started. The view through the window had altered. The rear mooring pin had pulled out of the ground, and the strong wind was swinging us right round across the cut. Bashed my head (again!) getting out in a hurry. Fortunately the canal is wide enough here for us to go all the way round. The couple from the boat behind us came out to help, and between us we pulled Erin Mae backwards until she was back in position, but now facing the opposite way.

Had a coffee and listened to Scriabin's Piano concerto to return adrenalin levels to normal, and thought about how I was going to turn the boat again when we leave Middlewich on Sunday. Then I went off to the chandlers to buy another mooring pin – you can put in two together, one through the other, so it's far harder for them to come out, even in soft ground.

We walked into town and had lunch at the White Bear, because the first session of the FAB Festival was due to occur there at 2 p.m. What a time that was! Lana, Callum and Stephen of "Unboxed"  played some Shetland sets, and the whole afternoon turned into an all-comers session as more and more people turned up. Lana's accordion playing reminded me of Phil Cunningham's (for those who know), and Callum has a Bourgeois guitar (like mine). As the session developed I borrowed a guitar and joined in, sitting next to Robbie, a lad who's a genuine genius on the fiddle. Agony for the still-recovering and un-exercised wrist. Pure ecstasy for the musical part of the soul. It took the whole half-mile walk home in the rain to come down off that high.

Tonight it's off to "The Cheshire Cheese". England vs Sweden in most directions, and The Crazy Folk Band in the covered area at the back. This is seriously problematic, and I'm not sure my heart can stand it.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Great crested grebe

What's the plural of grebe? Surely must be grebe! One grebe, two grebe, etc. Be that as it may, we saw 'em again today, at Croxton Flash. I saw one, my best beloved saw a whole troop (a troop of grebe?). My one dived, and I watched, and watched … and watched. Eventually had to turn back to see where I was steering. Thought it had drowned, but a backwards glance some 30 yards further on showed it alive and still kicking. Wikipedia says it chases its prey under water, so I expect that was what it was doing.

We are neither ornithologists nor zoologists (those are the domains of brothers numbers 2 and 1 respectively). But, like many who join the National Trust and go for walks, we have a bird book (more than one, actually). And great crested grebe it was. Crest, you see. Certainly wasn't a skylark.

There wasn't a lot of space today for noticing much else as we raced (all relative, remember) from Northwich to Middlewich, via the boat lift again, to get through the locks and tied up before all the festival traffic. The wind focussed our minds on direction, the lock gate paddles focussed our muscles on the near-impossible, and a day at the tiller focussed my mind on a very nice meaty, cheesy pasta sort of thing cooked up by my best beloved. I'm ready for bed.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Birthday treat

What did you do on your birthday, mum? Came down the Anderton Boat Lift! We hadn't planned it, but it seemed the right sort of celebration on a wet day. 50 feet from the Trent and Mersey down to the River Weaver.

We were the only boat going up or down the lift that trip, so Neil and David who were supervising it took the time to chat to us – helped to make it really interesting.

Was she nervous? 

Finally, our first experience of cruising a river as we ran up to the centre of Northwich.

The rain was soft (as they say in Donegal where my best beloved grew up) and not even finding that the recommended Italian restaurant in Northwich had recently closed could spoil our day – we bought a couple of properly aged steaks from Mr Sainsbury and I cooked them with a Stilton sauce and roast parsnips. Yummee!