Sunday 30 June 2013


Came up the Lapworth flight today. That's 19 locks from where we started, mostly pretty much on top of each other.

The short pounds between them extend out on the side opposite the tow path, to provide reservoirs of water to ease the filling of the locks.

Also easing the filling of the locks were one or two C&RT volunteers helping the boaters, especially the single-handed ones or those less familiar with what they were doing.

Jeremy is one of the less usual volunteers. He's from Massachusetts, but has been over here working with boats for many years, especially in the floating hotel trade. If I'm right, he's the author of Innocents Afloat, a description of which you can find here. Sounds a fascinating read from a fascinating man, who's now helping others enjoy the environment he came to appreciate.

As we chatted, Jeremy told me a little of the American canals, many of which followed the British pattern of being created to exploit trading opportunities, only to find themselves made obsolete by the railways. There's an American Canal Society, whose website has links to all sorts of resources.

After the locks, two lift bridges, and the first one was almost impossible to lift. A young man on his bike stopped to give my best beloved a hand, and even between them it took an age to get it high enough for Erin Mae to pass. Then it wouldn't drop again until I added my weight on the edge to assist the hydraulics.

James was wearing a T-shirt saying "Just do it". And that is exactly what he did. So – many thanks, James. Your help was much appreciated.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Shawm, cittern and vihuela

Well, we had a fine walk from Kingswood Bridge across to Baddesley Clinton. And we didn't get lost once (well, not really). We found the start of this section of the Heart of England Way…

We admired the host of golden, er, buttercups…

And we eventually came to the boundary of the formal grounds.

The house itself is an excellent piece of Tudorabilia, updated from time to time by the resident family, especially in the late 18th century and Victorian times.

As usual, the local National Trust staff were helpful, knowledgeable, and very proud of what has been entrusted to them. One particular feature of this house is that it was owned by a Catholic family in Elizabethan times, and used as a base by Jesuit priests. If caught, a painful end ensued for both priests and those sheltering them. There are two priest holes on view, and a good story of their use. One looks quite cosy.

The one you can view from the kitchen, but almost impossible to photograph, consisted of a cramped section of the sewer, at the bottom of the long drop below a 1st floor garderobe (toilet), accessed via a rope. 8 priests apparently hid down there for 4 hours while one search was conducted.

Other delights awaited us. A scribe was making ink out of oak-apples, and sharpening quills…

For me, however, the highlight was once again a musical one and, strictly speaking, nothing to do with the house as such, just something they were putting on as part of their Saturday. It was Chris and Sophie from Blast from the Past – they call themselves "Historical Musicians".

Not only did they play some wonderful early music extremely well, they also introduced and described their instruments. Among Sophie's was a shawm, with an oboe-type double reed that allowed for considerably more volume than her recorders – and variation of it. Chris started out with a vihuela, with gut strings and gut frets, which could be moved to allow for nuancing the tuning. Then, to accompany Sophie's shawm, he switched to a cittern, with metal strings. It was all great fun, and made my day. Chris, Sophie – thank you.

Friday 28 June 2013


It's interesting to come to a motorway bridge you've been over a hundred times without realising there's a canal underneath.

This is the M40, just southeast of junction 16, when you're beginning to think about which lane you're in for the M42 (or relaxing after leaving the M42 behind and beginning to think about a Starbucks at Warwick services). It's just at the join of four pages in our road map, which doesn't make much of canals anyway, so that's perhaps another reason why we've never noticed it before.

Nicholson's raison d'etre, on the other hand, is the canals, to the extent that the guide has a blown-up bubble for a complex junction. We're leaving the Lapworth flight for another day, so decided to move over to the Grand Union for the night, tie up at Kingswood, and walk across to a nearby National Trust property tomorrow. Following the map, we turned very sharp right at the junction – you can hardly see the cut until you're on top of it. Then we expected to find the other branch to the Stratford through lock 20 joining us from the left.

Didn't see any sign of it immediately, but put that down to Nicholson's occasionally relaxed approach to scale. So, when we did reach a junction, we turned right, expecting to find the main junction with the Grand Union a bit further on. After two hundred yards we realised we were already on the big one, and heading rapidly for Warwick. Not at all where we wanted to be going.

A quick check of my reliable Nicholson's said there wasn't a winding hole for several miles, so there was nothing for it but to reverse back round this gentle bend, with two moored boats waiting for a collision, and the canal so shallow it would insist on pointing Erin Mae in the wrong direction. We eventually made it without mishap, but at the expense of I don't know how much extra diesel!

Ah well! I thought of walking back to find the invisible junction, since we want to go up there on Sunday anyway. But it's raining again. However, there's some wonderful food in the pot, a good enough TV signal to follow Andy Murray's progress or lack of it this evening, enough juice in the batteries to allow us to do so, and a good enough Three signal for this blog post. And tomorrow we are promised sunshine for our walk.

Hope we don't get lost.

Thursday 27 June 2013


The bridges on this part of the Stratford canal continue to be a challenge because of their width, especially when you have to do a sharp turn to get into them. I've learned to take them very slowly – they're more of a threat to Erin Mae's sides than the locks.

The locks themselves typically have barrel-roofed cottages, given creative names such as "Lock Cottage".

They were generally very nicely kept. Clearly the owner of this one had a thing about being treated as a curiosity, and had glazed his window with mirror glass so you couldn't see in!

Above Bucket Lock we crossed Yarningdale Aqueduct, which must surely be the shortest on the system.

Tonight we've tied up at Lowsonford, opposite the Fleur de Lys pub, which apparently dates as such from the 15th century. They have a reputation for pies of various sorts, though these are no longer cooked on the premises. The sign says "Home of the Pies"!

Tonight the onset of the rain and the lack of an internet signal means the combination of comforting food and free WiFi feels very attractive. Steak & kidney, venison, matador (!), …  Hm.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Balancing act

We got up early enough this morning to be up the 11 locks of the Wilmcote flight by 10 a.m.

Some of the issues we had with the gates reminded us of just how skilful a task is that of constructing and hanging them. This one would not open completely – not so much a problem for us coming in, but a potential hazard for a boat trying to exit the lock.

A number of the top gates would not stay closed, so it was a bit ironic to see notices stuck to them asking all boaters to ensure the gates were shut as you left, to avoid water wastage.

A well hung and balanced gate opens and closes easily, and doesn't need superman to shift it. It's very noticeable when whoever set it in place didn't get it quite right. The mechanics are very different from most of the pieces we saw in the MAD museum yesterday, but the same attention is needed to getting everything perfectly balanced.

The Stratford is a delightful canal in many other ways. It has a number of these bridges, which appear to have been constructed in two halves. Since there was no indication that they were required to lift, it is probably to allow a towing line to be passed through without needing to detach it from the horse going around rather than under the bridge. Most of the bridges have been a much tighter fit than usual, no wider than the locks. Just as well that Erin Mae is herself freshly balanced, after emptying the poo tank yesterday – no left list to cope with.

Occasionally you end up on rather than under the bridge. Then it's an aqueduct! But it's just as narrow.

The quintessential example of balancing a water-filled metal trough on stone supports is the Pontcysyllte that we crossed several times in May. But the Edstone is also a fine specimen, taking you over meadows, a road and some railway tracks. The towpath still accompanies you, but several feet lower. How the horses balanced, I'm not quite sure.

A mile further on is a second aqueduct over the A34, and the village of Wootton Wawen, where we've tied up for the night. Its parish church, St Peter's, is the oldest Saxon church in Warwickshire (with lots of additions, of course, Norman and otherwise), and traces its roots to a monastic community founded in the 8th century.

Reading the excellent panels in the display inside reminded me of the balancing acts that have always been required of Christian communities in their communities. It's often difficult to balance declaration and compassion, truth and love. But then it struck me that there is a similar challenge, at the individual level, for my best beloved and myself – with the very close companionship that boating brings.

Now there's a thought – love is like a well-hung lock gate!

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Sayonara Stratford

So off we went to the MAD (Mechanical Art and Design) museum this morning. It was a wonder of intricate mechanical pieces.

including some Steampunk style models.

Some were small, and some were big. They all did something.

Many were clear overall, but extremely puzzling in the detail.

There were numerous wonderful examples of the succession-of-balls-on-a-big-dipper-type-construction sort, including this relatively simple one made from Meccano rather than stainless steel track (which tended to be massively more complex and eye-engaging).

Some took clockwork or other mechanical systems to a different level.

In a darkened side-room there were mechanically operated laser contraptions.

The enthusiasm of the curator and the receptionist was infectious. Never before has someone followed me round a museum to make sure it was all working. Or opened up a showcase so I could work the piece by hand because the electric drive was a bit sticky! It was all well worth the £5.50 (concession) entrance fee, and we spent an hour and a half happily engrossed in the displays. What was especially intriguing was the artistic element. Many of the pieces were designed not just to be "engines", but to explore ideas – it had a philosophical edge in places.

And then, at last, after six days or so, we bid farewell to Stratford. The way out of Bancroft basin on to the canal suggests they don't want you to leave!

You wind round the back of the houses…

and at last find yourself encountering locks of normal width again.

So it's até logo, au revoir, auf wiedersehen. Until the next time. New batteries, full water tank, empty poo tank, the canal stretching sort-of northwards. What more could you want!

Monday 24 June 2013

Much ado about quite a lot

First it was Mark, from Wilson's, ringing to say he was on his way to do the pattern for the pram cover. Weren't expecting him until tomorrow, when the wind will have dropped further, but it's a good location for doing the business – on the Avon opposite the RSC Theatre.

It was intriguing to see what patterning meant, as he secured the struts with cord in the positions they will have once they're supporting fabric. He then cut and taped sheets of thin material over the frame, to  measure and mark all the relevant points. Then he left us with the frame on Erin Mae, in the position it will have when the whole hood is sitting forward, clear of the cruiser stern space. We now have to devise a method for ensuring that the hatch and the frame stay clear of each other in action, to avoid scratches and damage.

Next Curtis arrived from Evesham marina. I'd finally decided enough was enough with our batteries. As far as I know, they were 6½ years old, so they'd done far longer than most. But the time had come, so on Friday I negotiated with Steve at the marina for Curtis to fit a new set, since he was coming up to Stratford today anyway for work on another boat. Here they are, clean and healthy (like us!).

This afternoon we came up into Bancroft basin again, so that's the end of our river cruising for the time being. Tomorrow we intend to visit the MAD museum, and then it will be time to bid Stratford farewell. It's been an enjoyable few days, but we're getting itchy feet…

Sunday 23 June 2013

Stratford Sunday

Off to find the Baptist church in Stratford this morning. The church's building has an unusual frontage in a simplified classical style, but I didn't take a photo at the time, and as I write it's pouring with rain so I'm not going back! Good to meet and worship with some friendly people. Then it was back via the Sunday market, between Bancroft Basin and the RSC Theatre.

First up was the stall of potter Roy Clarke, with some beautiful designs and glazes.

We've been wanting a bulkhead clock for Erin Mae for some time, and I have most of the wherewithal for making one, but this was very tempting.

In the end, we decided it wasn't quite the thing, and pushed on. Half-way along there was a stall from an owl rescue centre. My best beloved was very taken with this little chappie, but he probably wouldn't fit under the bridges.

Of course, a local owl might be a way of keeping the birds from decorating Erin Mae during the night.

What we did purchase, unexpectedly, was lunch.

A very nice chicken and chorizo paella, followed by a generous cupful of churros to share.

In Brazil, these would have been fatter, hollow, and filled with doce de leite – the sort of soft toffee you get by boiling condensed milk (think banoffee pie). Here they were crisper, showered with sugar and cinnamon, and came with a chocolate dip. All very good, but I'm not sure what happened to the low-carb diet.

On we went, and found ourselves serenaded by the London Youth Gospel Choir, on the steps of the theatre,

and, as we walked back over the bridge and through the recreation ground, not serenaded by the Stratford concert band, who seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

Between the bandstand and the 50p ferry (picture here because I didn't post it before, and because we used it last night) we passed within 2 feet of Brian Blessed taking a stroll with others. Not sure what he was doing here, but I don't think he was looking for Erin Mae, even though his picture adorns the Canal & River Trust website (if you follow the link, scroll down to near the bottom of the page).

Dogs for the Disabled seemed to have a big presence on the river bank today, so perhaps he was supporting them.

Had little idea, at the start of the day, what it would bring, apart from running the engine for too long to keep the charge up in our batteries, which are on their last legs / plates / terminals / whatever. It was good. But more about the batteries tomorrow.