Sunday, December 31, 2006

Farewell 2006

I suspect many bloggers are journalists or columnists manques; I certainly am, so in best newspaper tradition, here is my review of 2006 and the (mainly) boat-related highlights of my year. It is also nbWarrior's 100th post! Hooray!

January and February
Seems so long ago! Huddersfield. Cold. Dark. Andante's trusty Paloma succumbs to the cold and develops a water leak, so no hot running water. Morning routine: 6.00 listen to the news. Put on socks (which have been tucked up next to hot water bottle all night), warm trousers and fleece, over pyjamas. Then, and only then, get out of bed. Make sandwiches. Collect bag containing civilised clothes. Put on coat, hat and boots. Five minute walk along the towpath and across the canal to university building containing shower, kept spotless by marvellous woman called Irene, always immaculately dressed, coiffed and made up at 6.30 in the morning. Transform self from grubby crusty into respectable academic. Further five minute walk to my office in glorious Victorian gothic former technical college, as the sun comes up over its turrets. Have two cups of tea and a bowl of muesli. Start work.

Start thinking about moving Warrior to somewhere where the engine can be taken out. I send off my 127th job application. The previous 126 have yielded 16 interviews and two fixed term contracts, which is not a bad rate of return for academia.

I start blogging.

Andante gets broken into (not good) although as I am not there at the time, there's nothing on board to steal, and little gratuitous damage, it could be worse. Straight after repairing her window, we're on our way to Hargrave to bring Warrior down to Stretton. This is where it starts to get exciting. With little experience of canal work, no reverse gear, and a dodgy governor, we blunder our way down the Shroppie, leaving miraculously little carnage in our wake. Later, we drive up to Ellesmere Port to see the working boats we ploughed through on the way down. 127th job application yields 17th interview.

I somehow seem to stop blogging.

Warrior is out of the water, engineless, and with hull shotblasted. A big highlight I missed was the engine coming out. Nothing will keep me from seeing it go back in.

Worst eating out experience of the year: The Vaughan Arms at Lapley. Enormous pub, Saturday night; empty but for one rather odd family, who didn't stay long anyway. Quietly sinister barman; hopeless if endearing waitress (let's just say we weren't surprised when she told us it was her first day); football on the telly nicely complemented by the 80s pop blasting out of the speakers; lasagne with bits of packaging still in it, and a very old cat who, although commendably friendly, was rather too smelly to make good mealtime company.

Go to Crick, which is OK, then on to Barry Hawkins' open day, which is one of the true highlights of the year. Ian is there, and we meet the Redshaws, who are wonderful, and drink cans of Strongbow and eat all the veggie cheeseburgers. And Jim befriends a (quite possibly the) floating blacksmith, whose description of his response to customer criticism of his work - 'so I chucked it in the cut' - in the most glorious Black Country accent, should be recorded for posterity.

Seventeenth interview results in offer of permanant, London-based, job. To celebrate, Baz and I watch Curse of the Were-Rabbit on DVD.

Weather starts getting hot.

I start blogging again, and this time I keep it up (so far).

Get get back from Huddersfield one Friday, ready to start a week's leave, to learn that Jim has located a source of wood for Warrior's floor. In Leeds. So off we go; load the car up to the roof with our floorboards newly sawn from 200 year-old beams, and take the scenic route down to Stretton through the Pennines and the Peak District. It is very hot, the car barely has any brakes, and for some reason I have volunteered to drive.* It's fantastic.

Also, of course, Braunston, where my previous interest in working boats threatens to become an obsession.

*This is unusual, as I have garnered a reputation for myself as a Very Good Passenger, which means that I don't shreik too much. Jim on the other hand, although undeniably a good driver, is the World's Worst Passenger, and many's the journey that's ended with me swearing that I will NEVER drive him ANYWHERE, EVER again. This has happened many times on boats, too.

Blacking Warrior in the baking heat. The smell of Comastic. The mindlessness of Radio One (Monster, by The Automatic, according to my Young People's Music Advisor). The most abiding memories of last summer.

Moving Andante from Huddersfield down to Stretton means loads of excitement and new experiences. What stands out? The people we met, especially the ones we drank with: Clive and Christine in Kidsgrove and Tony and Sheila in Stone. The sun coming out as we crossed Tixall Wide. Number One Son Aaron coming boating for the first time and really taking to it. Harecastle Tunnel, which I found a lot more interesting than Standedge, to be honest. The rain. Visiting the National Engine Works. Finally getting some practice at steering (see above).

And being shown how to tie a boatman's hitch.

Starting new job. Nosing about bits of the Regents Canal for the first time.

Weirdest coincidences of the year - possibly of the decade: the amazing Pendorric saga unfolds. (Hopefully I'll be meeting up with Jacquie tonight to chew over that one).

Visiting Hampstead in Battlebridge Basin. Having watched work progress at Stretton over the summer, and having last left as the boat was being painted, but before it was signwritten, I rather cheekily invited myself over when Keith brought Hampstead down to London, to see the (almost) final result. A lovely morning on a beautiful boat, and the first time, I think, that I've set foot on a proper former working boat.
[oh, except for in a museum, she remembers a week later.]

Accept an offer on Andante (still too soon to count chickens, so will say no more at this stage).

Start to sort out Warrior's back cabin - now I no longer have a boat of my very own, I guess I'm carving out a bit of territory in the shared one. Make very pleasing rag rug, but efforts at crochet continue to fail dismally.

Funding cuts protest in Little Venice: having been in two minds about going, I was really glad I did. Met some more lovely and interesting people, and got signed up to the Historic Narrow Boat Owners' Club. More grist to the mill!

Finally taking delivery of Phil Speight can and handbowl ordered for Jim's Xmas present. Gorgeous. Handing them over on Christmas morning.

So, what does 2007 hold?
Well, hopefully:
The engine will be finished and reinstalled
Warrior will be painted and signwritten
We will go to the RN rally at Atherstone in June, and the IWA in St Ives in August ...

And as for me personally ... I will hopefully:
Learn to splice
Finally get to grips with crocheting
Become an all round better boatperson

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This time last year ...

... we were on Warrior at Hargrave and it was very cold. We travelled up on Christmas day, after opening our presents but before lunch. We took all our edible presents with us - a selection of chocolates and cheesy biscuits - and cooked Christmas dinner when we got there. One of the things that pushed us into going was the prospect of a fantastic temporary ice rink which was promised at Chester. This in fact never materialised. However we did spend this day last year at Chester Zoo, and had a lovely time.

The following day, I think it was, that the canal froze. We couldn't have gone anywhere in the boat anyway as the engine still wasn't starting. Amazingly, Ian came up (over? down?) that week too and spent a day coaxing and diagnosing it. We are of course now well into its course of treatment and it is essentially the Six Million Dollar Engine, in that it has been rebuilt at great expense, but hopefully will now have superpowers.

We spent the latter part of the week coughing like miners, and, with hindsight, probably nearly dead, owing to the sorry (far sorrier than we knew) state of the Squirrel, but it didn't half throw out some heat. Ditto the cabin stove, and at least Baz kept his hatches open in there. We even had hot water coming out of the taps - ah, heady days. As long as you remembered to run some hot water over the bath before sitting on it.

We came back on New Year's day, in the lightest traffic I have ever seen. At times on the M6 Toll we couldn't see another car in either direction; very spooky. Naturally we made excellent time ... After we got back I felt that I'd missed out a bit on gazing at the Christmas tree and decided that we should stay at home this year - and do you know what? Yep. This year I miss being on the boat. So maybe a Christmas cruise next year - who knows where?

Technical note: when we got back from Stretton last time we discovered that the cat had knocked the router on the floor and finally broken it beyond repair. So all my posts since then have been done on the laptop via the T-Mobile gizmo. When I look at the photos, the resolution looks very poor. If it looks bad to you too, that may be the reason. Hopefully we will get sorted out with a new router soon.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Thank you Santa (and Phil Speight)

So Christmas Day is over for another year and I've spent Boxing Day in the traditional manner, tidying up and putting all our new goodies away. Boat related presents numbered as follows: for Baz, one model narrowboat kit in preparation for when he gets his 00 guage railway set up again (the poor boy's only been waiting ten years); for me, a part share in a book of Cruising Rings and Things (thank you Sophie); for Jim, four videos - a bit of a swiz really as we heve neither a video nor a TV, but they were selling them off cheap at the London Canal Museum (beacuse nobody has a video any more) and we will find some way around it. And also for Jim, these:

The best present I have ever bought. And a large part of it by accident. Around October time I thought it would be good to get a painted handbowl for Warrior. Then I thought it would be nice to make it a commemorative Christmas present. So I looked at the website of the Waterways Craft Guild and, not wishing to be presumptious, emailed a few painters whom I hadn't heard of. None replied. So, deciding there was no option but to be presumptious, I emailed Phil Speight. He replied straight away, very helpful, with prices. Then one of the others finally got round to replying - and was more expensive! So I placed my order with Phil and congratulated myself on a present well-chosen.
A few weeks ago I got an email to say my can was ready. Oh good, I replied, but don't you mean handbowl? Er, no; he'd done a can. And it was, he said, a particularly nice one, but not to worry, he'd paint the name out and finish it for someone else. I couldn't bear the thought of that, so I rather rashly (without even asking the price of the can) said that if he could still do a bowl by Xmas, I'd take both. And I'm so glad I did, because the handbowl is excellent, and exactly what Warrior needs; but the can is absolutely breathtaking. I've been dying to write about this, but of course I couldn't before because it was a surprise.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Best wishes for a splendid festive season and a happy and successful 2007 to all Warrior's loyal readers.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sold down the river

Ever the optimists that we are, we plan to take Warrior to the IWA National Festival at St Ives next year. Part of the motivation is to fit in a visit to the boat's builder, John Shotbolt, at Ramsey. Part of it is a desire to show off (so I hope we get a good inside mooring), and part of it is to have somewhere to aim for on our travels. Also, it will, hopefully, be nice to feel more immersed and involved in the festival.

Booking in the boat and three people for the duration of the festival cost, if I remember rightly, £63. The temporary Environment Agency licence that we need to navigate the Nene and the Great Ouse to get there costs £149. And that's with a special IWA deal. This is why, when we had Helyn on the Middle Level, we never quite got around to 'doing' the rivers, much as we would have liked to. (A fellow moorer at Floods Ferry made his plans for a Nene trip and bought his licence for the fortnight in question, only to find the navigation closed for flood control; no refund; no change of date; no nothing.) An annual EA licence is relatively reasonable, but the short term ones are outrageously dear (imho).

What really tickles me is the form that I've filled in to apply for it. It's something like a tenth generation photocopy, for a start, with the text all wavy and blurred. It wants to know everything about the boat, even when this is meaningless. For example, it lists a lot of facilities we might have on board, like fridge, cooker, central heating, 'other'. For each of them we have to tick a box to say whether they are gas, electric or 'other'. So, fridge: electric; cooker: gas; other: other. Well, I wish we did have an other other, but I couldn't think of anything they hadn't already covered, so I had to leave the other other box blank in the end.

Also, strangely for such an apparently old fashioned outfit, they demand to know your dimensions in metric, and metric only. Now, I have nothing in principle against the metric system. Indeed, where it's easier, I use it (but imperial weights CANNOT be bettered for cooking. Please note, Guardian and Observer recipe editors). In this case however, it caused me a seriously furrowed brow working it out. Having finally done so, of course I didn't think of making a note of it for next time I need to know.

So, a fair bit of money and effort has been wagered on this St Ives trip coming off; an act of faith, it was to start with. The logistical details of who's going to crew and how it's going to fit around work, and how we'll manage the shift changes are still largely a case of 'we'll sort that out nearer the time'. But if you worried about planning everything down to the finest detail before starting, you'd never do anything, would you?

Friday, December 22, 2006


Back to the saga of the cabin floor. The story so far: the floor had vinyl stuck to it, with a layer of wood-effect plastic tiles on top. I wanted either black and white checked vinyl (to imitate traditional lino) or plain red oxide or floor paint. This latter, apparently simplest, option was ruled out by the type of boarding used for Warrior's floors throughout: not ply, but that rather bitty composite stuff. I wasn't mad about using vinyl, partly because of its environmental impact and also because to be able to get the checks to run on the diagonal we'd need to buy about three times as much as we would actually use, as none of the patterns we could find (and we really did look) were printed diagonally. We had a piece of real lino (not checked, but a nicely old fashioned marbled pattern) that would have been good, but it turned out to be too small.

But, you will see from the photo, I have achieved the desired effect - and at minimal cost, so if it proves not to be durable not too much has been lost (about twelve quid and a day's effort). I stumbled upon the answer by chance in Homebase - they are tiles, a foot square (i.e. four squares each), thin plastic with a self-adhesive backing, at £2.49 for a pack of six (I think). The main reason I have doubts about their durability is the state of the floor they were layed on. I had hoped to remove only the top layer of wood effect tiles and lay the new ones on top of the old vinyl, but the two previous layers refused to part company with each other, and the whole lot had to be unstuck from the board, bringing bits of the board with it and leaving a not terribly flat surface. But I pressed ahead - perhaps foolhardily - because I wanted to get it done and see what it looked like. The adhesive seems to be very effective and the tiles have butted up to each other well, so I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Curtains (part two)

Next job: putting up the lovingly crafted curtains in Warrior's back cabin. You might recall that I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to fix the bed curtain and pelmet; I bought a selection of brass rods, various sized hooks, and eyelets, and in the end used nothing but the hooks. The right hand side of the pelmet is pinned to a wooden thing I don't know the name of (I know I can be a bit obsessive about getting the right names for things, but it's very difficult when you don't have anything to call something) and the rest is hung off very small (1/4" or so) brass hooks screwed into the ceiling. For the pelmet these are about six inches apart. I just hung it using the curtain tape that was already attached, straight onto the hooks. This seemed to work, so I abandoned the rods and attached the curtain in the same way. It was always going to be purely decorative, so it doesn't matter for practical purposes that it can't be pulled. The hooks for that are about four inches apart. It's pretty inauthentic, and utterly impractical, but it does look nice ...

The porthole curtain went up easily enough (must polish that rail) but the others, to cover the storage spaces at floor level, were more of a challenge; owing to some kind of measuring error on my part they won't fit within the spaces but will need to be hung above them. We can't really have a protruding rail. I was all set to pin them up, but I thought they will get dirty down there and need frequent washing. So I think it will be the dreaded velcro. Unless and until we make some doors or drawers for those spaces.

The photo, which you probably can't see, is a copy of a recently discovered bit of family history. My father never mentioned that his mother had a shop in Swindon - it was only last year that one of his sisters sent my sister this picture of the three of them standing outside it in the mid/late 20s. And it has my name over the door! (Said aunties have never quite come to terms with the fact that although legally married to him I don't actually share Jim's surname. This means we can have more interesting signwriting on Warrior.)

Shortest day today - so in theory it gets better from here, but it never feels like that in January and February. Given the choice I think I'd quite like to hibernate from Christmas to Easter.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Turning the tables

Well, its legs at any rate. Look at our lovely new saloon table, hand crafted, like the kitchen and the saloon cabinet, by Derek (of, I guess, Industry Narrowboats. About time I gave a plug to Keith and his merry gang) from the stock of English oak built up by his uncle over twenty years ago.

We were agonising for ages over what we were going to do for a table, assuming that it would be going on the port side between the chairs and opposite the stove; the breakthrough came just as we were leaving last time, when I realised that it might work better opposite the chairs, supported on top of the cabinet with its weight cantilevered off (against?) a batten attached to the wall, with detachable legs to share the weight and give it stability. A brief chat with Derek before we left, and on our return, as if by magic, the table had appeared.

As always, Derek's work has exceeded our wildest dreams. Rather than separate detachable legs (which I always suspected would be a bit fiddly) it has turned legs attached to a hinged section which folds back when the table top is stowed against the wall. A brass pin drops in to prevent the table top from sliding forward out of its retaining slot, which is rather more than a batten, being beautifully shaped and crafted to match the moulding on the cabinet.

Even with the rather unwieldy chairs, when the table is set up it doesn't prevent passage through the boat, although it is a good size: about 38" by 30" (I'm guessing the width and trying to remember the length!). Best of all, it looks like a 'real' table, not a 'boat' table. We've treated the top with a couple of coats (so far) of the Liberon tung oil which we bought for the iroko kitchen worktops, where it has done a terrific job of sealing the wood.

Talking of oil, we also bought some specialised Liberon stuff for the floor, although we haven't got our act together sufficiently to apply it yet. Sad as it will be to leave the little community at Stretton when we finally get our engine back, I yearn for the day when we have to worry about mud being trailed through the boat, rather than the ubiquitous fine grit which is the bane of my current floor-cleaning existence.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The writing on the ... er... cabinside

Just spent a very productive weekend up on Warrior. The first thing we did was meet signwriter Dave Moore, with a view to his signwriting Warrior next year. It won't be until late spring/early summer, but I thought we'd better plan ahead as we don't want to be held up at the final stage. We liked the cut of his jib - very conservative and traditional - and he's happy to do it, so if all goes to plan that will be the icing on the cake.

Jim and I have been debating the design, layout, lettering, colour scheme and content ever since we got the boat - probably earlier! The main points of contention were whether it should be ornate or austere; whether we should have our names on it; whether the boat's name should go in a panel, or tug-style along the side (or even, and I have been soundly put in my place over this, on the fore-end). Guided by Dave's advice we have settled (famous last words) on, respectively, relatively ornate within panels on the back cabin and engine room, with the rest of the cabinsides totally plain; no coach lining, nothing (except a red handrail); yes, we will have our names on it as if we were really in the tug business; boat name to go in a panel. We haven't talked about colours or lettering styles yet, although the panels will probably be black or very dark blue, on the Fergusson grey ground.

Very early days yet, but it was exciting to watch Dave roughly chalking out the layout to see how it would fit around Warrior's hatches etc. and to start thinking about the possibility that it will, one day, be finished ...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Plus ca change ...

This isn't a book review, but I've just finished reading David Blagrove's Bread Upon the Waters. Silly title, great book. Made me laugh (out loud) and cry (real tears), both while on the train. But what struck me, among other things, is how many of today's concerns are not new at all. I know I noted this with Narrow Boat too, but what about this for the binge drinking menace:

...a huge drinking emporium ... designed to pour alcohol into the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time. ... one after another the patrons left to vomit; sometimes in the lavatories, occasionally across the floor. From time to time arguments would lead to fisticuffs or outbursts of vile language and the bar staff threw the refilled glasses across the bar, serving new customers with indifferent contempt.

And having been walking around London in shirt sleeves today, it's easy to think that such mild weather in December is unprecedendented, but Blagrove 'tied up below the lock in balmy sunshine ... It was the shortest day of the year yet the weather was like early spring'. December 21st 1962. And we know what happened after that ...

We're off up to Warrior again this weekend. We seem to be going regularly about once a month. Can't justify going any more frequently; can't stay away any longer. This time Jim and Aaron (yes! Number One Son will see Warrior at last!) will be working in the engine room, building a cupboard for all the fuses and electrical things, lifting the floor, and moving ballast and batteries around, while I'll be putting my curtains up in the cabin and trying a new idea with the floor. We're also - planning ahead - meeting up with the signwriter whom we hope will be writing Warrior some time in late spring. And this leads me nicely back to Bread Upon the Waters, where Blagrave describes how a young Ron Hough went about his painting and signwriting, concluding that 'It was good to think that at least the pleasure craft renaissance would continue to make it worthwhile for Ron and others to practise the art.' So think of that little bit of optimism before you order those stick-on plastic letters ...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My little town

Today is an anniversary which is either amazing, or horrifying; I'm not sure which. As of today, I have been a resident of Newhaven, East Sussex, for a staggering twenty years. What a long time to stay in one place. Until I started a. looking for jobs all over the country, and b. got into boats, I'd scarcely left the south east of England, and my knowledge of the geography of the rest of the country was shamefully hazy. Born in South London, I was moved by my parents at the age of five into deepest commuterland, where I stayed until relative house prices and the desire for a bigger abode took me, my first husband, and a toddling Number One Son down to the south coast.

At first I didn't like it at all. We had a lovely house, but the town was small, and grubby, and above all - though I didn't give the fact enough weight at the time - strange to me. There's probably not many people would yearn for the bright lights of Haywards Heath, but I did. Until, one night, walking back from the railway station, I was stopped at the swing bridge which takes the A259 across the estuary of the Sussex Ouse, and had to wait for a ship to come through to unload its cargo of aggregate on the town's North Quay (pictured, as they say). It was an Arco ship, the Sand Swan, I still remember. And it was magical, the way it, sorry, she, came almost silently through, lit up in the dark, her crew going about their business on the decks, right into the heart of the town. And I thought that any town that could offer that couldn't be all bad.

Since then Newhaven has really grown on me. It's a fading industrial/ railway/ port town. The Dieppe ferry grimly clings on, but can't really compete with the much shorter Dover-Calais crossing and the Channel Tunnel, let alone the cheap flights from Gatwick. Aggregates are still unloaded, and scrap metal still taken away by sea, but when I first came there were also cargoes of fruit, vegetables, and particularly bananas, and a weekly column in the local paper saying what ships were in port and what their cargoes were; now no more.

A few more random facts about Newhaven. This town, with its population of 10,000, once boasted three railway stations. Newhaven Town, whence I left for London this morning, and Newhaven Harbour, for the ferry, are still operating. The third, Newhaven Marine, on its own branch line, served the boat train which ran from Victoria on the first leg of a journey which continued via Sealink and SNCF to Paris. The last one ran since I've lived here, but I can't remember quite when. The very idea of a boat train makes me come over all peculiar, as I picture the passengers in its heyday, dressed, in my minds eye, to a woman, in eau-de-nil chiffon and smoking cigarettes in long holders. The glamour!

Newhaven's comprehensive school was opened in 1968 in a blaze of radical optimism, with a uniform featuring the liberal use of orange bri-nylon, and a continental day (8 am - 2.15 pm). The former, to the relief of pupils, is long gone; the latter, to the chagrin of local shopkeepers, persists to this day. Its situation on the top of a cliff makes it a rather inhospitable place and the year before last much of it was destroyed in an arson attack. Neither of my children went there.

Newhaven has some lovely Victorian and Edwardian houses (I currently live in one of the former), and one of the few sandy beaches on the south coast (albeit the beach is privately owned and is currently closed and cordoned off because a lump of concrete fell off the sea wall last year and the owners are scared of being sued but too mean to fix it themselves). It has the river, along which there are nice walks.

Newhaven has not had the honour of having a Town Class boat named after it, although the next town along the coast to the east, Seaford, has. And you thought I'd gone off topic.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Book review: Narrow Boat

So I take on the prophet and the holy book: L.T.C. (Tom) Rolt's Narrow Boat, first published in 1944 and widely credited with setting off the inland waterways restoration movement. My copy is a 1946 Eyre and Spottiswoode/Readers' Union austerity edition, which somehow seems fitting. It was a Christmas present last year, and I first read it on Warrior up at Hargrave where we spent the week from Christmas to New Year. I really loved it then; I felt that Rolt was articulating much that was not only true when he wrote, but is even truer today, and articluating it eloquently to boot. I went on to read Landscape with Canals, the second part of his autobiography, and got a taste of his amateur philosophising, and began to like him rather less.

Reading Narrow Boat for a second time feels rather like the sort of situation where you meet someone who agrees with your view of the world, and you enjoy talking to them at first, but then they won't shut up. I was struck with how negative the tone of much of the book is, and how relentlessly Rolt harangues the reader. Even though I still sympathise with many (but by no means all) of his views, it's hard to take totally seriously someone who expostulates about 'the evil genius of the can-opener' and its role in undermining traditional - i.e. rural - English cooking (and yet, and yet, the TV dinner and the microwave, he is right really ...). But still you are reminded of a modern day equivalent, ranting spittle-flecked over his copy of the Daily Mail.

Rolt's extreme bucolic conservatism sometimes seems poised to tip over into something a little less savoury. His veneration of traditional rural life, and concomitant excoriation of the drift to the industrial towns, is a little too blood-and-soil for comfort. This is explicitly expressed in his contrasting of two markets: one features 'groups of gaitered farmers and their plump, bustling wives, filling the air with the murmur of their rich country dialect', there to buy 'great baskets of eggs and golden farm butter', while at the other, 'the wives of the men from the factories .... crowd round the Jew vendors of shoddy clothing and gawdy ornaments, clutching their string bags and shrilly admonishing their grubby children.' I don't think you need to be an expert in discourse analysis to get the message there.

There is a nasty streak of smug snobbery running through Rolt's commentary. While Susan Woolfitt is identifiably from a similar class background, and displays her own share of snobbery and class prejudice in Idle Women, she doesn't seem to despise people in the way Rolt does. He also seems to buy into the myth of the 'noble savage', the epitome of man's true nature before its corruption by civilisation, here represented above all by the boatman, in whom 'shines a bright natural intelligence whose great charm lies in the fact that it has not been acquired from Council schools and newspapers'.

So I wouldn't want to be sat next to Rolt at a dinner party; he's smug, snobbish, and arguably naive. But for all that, Narrow Boat is not a bad book; it is not only an important book, but a very readable one too, and it is a book that demands to be read. There are passages of poetic beauty, and of shivering prescience. There are lines that ring so true they could have been written yesterday (the transformation by breweries of the pub into 'a sordid drink-shop as characterless as their liquor', for example, or 'the new spirit of joyless sanctimony which was a product of commercialism').

Rolt's writing is at its most affecting when he isn't laying it on with a trowel, as when he describes the boatman who 'had but lately lost his wife, and now worked his boat with the help of his three small children, the eldest a girl of ten. There had been four, until one was drowned in Tyrley top lock'; or when, towards the end of the book, he describes the effects of the harsh winter of 1940 on the lives and livelihoods still dependent on the canals. Along with this, what makes poignant reading are the losses Rolt himself is unaware of; the things that he didn't know were going to disappear or change beyond recognition over the next sixty years, and so only mentions in passing.

The killer question is whether things have improved since Narrow Boat was written, or whether they have continued to deteriorate, not just on the canals, for Rolt casts his net more widely than that, but in society as a whole. In every age, surely, some things get worse, and some things get better, and people tend on the whole to notice and comment more upon the former. Rolt regrets the passing of so much, and seeks to cling to a past that he has, arguably, romanticised. While we can - indeed, must - learn from the past, and preserve and even recreate what is best from it, the one thing we cannot do is turn the clock back. Rather than wasting time and energy looking over our shoulder and crying after what we've lost, we should embrace the present, appreciate and enjoy what we have, and work to make the future - if we have one - better still.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

From red diesel to Greene King ...

This has not really got much to do with boats, but it was sparked off because I was re-reading Narrow Boat (the better to give you the dubious benefit of my opinion of the book in due course), and I noted this passage:

We ate a simple lunch of bread and cheese at the sign of "The Boat" by the canal side, a sign representing a narrow boat on the move which did the brewers concerned, a Leamington firm, much credit. In some quarters there is evidence such as this that the neglected art of the inn sign is being belatedly revived, some more enlightened brewers ... having accomplished much in recent years. Evidently it is dawning upon the brewers' commercial mind that the average countryman goes to the village inn because he is thirsty and because he wishes to gossip with his neighbours, and therefore that to advertise their beer in foot-high letters across the outside walls is not merely unsightly, but expensive and ineffectual.

And then I got home (I was reading the book on the train) and read Private Eye, in which there was this letter:

Greene King must be fast becoming the country's least favourite brewers. Down here in Kent, they have recently replaced traditional pictograph inn signs with just a large depiction of their logo in green on white; thus bring to country lanes the same bland uniformity that bedevils our town centres... [very Roltish, that last bit, I thought]

So, it appears, things come full circle. I have two personal reasons to dislike Greene King. Firstly, since they acquired the Lewes Arms, this fantastically old fashioned and atmospheric pub hidden away in the middle of Lewes (to no inconsiderable, but ultimately ineffectual, local outcry) has stopped selling Harveys (except sometimes, maybe, if they're very good, as a guest beer). It is hard to explain to someone who is not local how outrageous this is; Harveys, winners of CAMRA's Best Best Bitter accolade two years in a row have been brewing in Lewes since 1790, and the pub has been there as long. And Harveys really is very, very nice.

Secondly, the last time (hopefully ever) that I drank so much I was sick I was drinking Greene King Abbott (obviously this was before the Lewes Arms scandal). There is of course a story to this (excuse alert!) and it is a very long one, the key points being that I'd spent the day in Halifax, where I found a cast concrete griffon ridge tile that I decided would make the perfect birthday present for Jim ... I got back to Huddersfield on the train with it in a box, and on leaving the station it dawned on me that it was really very, very heavy ... then I had the luck to run into a chap who was nearly a total stranger, but whom I'd met the previous week in Primark, and he volunteered to carry it to my office for me. This, I think, turned out to be rather further then he thought. I insisted that I must buy him a drink for his trouble; he said he'd already arranged to meet some friends in The County, would I join them there ... so I, along with Pete-from-work, did. The County is quite a nice pub, marred only by a large plasma screen and a youthful clientele, but with a limited range of beers, of which I latched onto the Abbott as being the most Southern. I may have bought Graham (for that was the knight in shining armour's name) a pint; he certainly bought me a lot (four? five? and it's 5% and I'm only little and I hadn't had lunch, let alone dinner). But we did have a nice evening, and his friends were very interesting, and it wasn't until I got back to the boat that it really dawned on me that perhaps I shouldn't've.

But that was the last time I graced Greene King with my custom, and probably the last time I ever will, so in the light of subsequent events I suppose it all ended quite appropriately.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Red diesel: my two penn'orth

And so it has come to pass that the derogation for the use of red diesel in pleasure craft has been withdrawn, and there has been much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth ...

There's no denying that this is Bad News, and particularly irritating as it isn't going to make a blind bit of difference to anyone except boaters; one suspects it to be a bit of bureaucratic obsessive-compulsive tidying up rather than genuine playing field levelling or revenue raising (though I dare say the government won't say no to the extra dosh). Of course there is nothing to be done about it now; if it's hard to reverse a domestic government decision like the DEFRA cuts, then turning around the juggernaut that is the EU is impossible; what's more, there's little sign that the political will is there in the British government.

But is it really the end of the world as we know it? Isn't the cost of fuel actually a fairly small proportion of the cost of running a narrowboat (as opposed to a big yacht or a lairy Thames gin palace, and the thought of them paying more, frankly, warms the cockles of my heart). Or is there an argument to be made that this could be the last straw, coming as it does on top of above-inflation rises in the price of licences, moorings, and peripherals like electricity and pumpouts? And what would the last straw mean? People who have grimly hung on through everything else finally forced into hanging up their windlasses and selling their boats? And would this in turn lead to a drop in the price of second hand, and as a knock-on, new, boats? Conventional market wisdom says that it would, but I wonder whether market forces operate in a conventional way here. Some smokers give up each time there's a hike in tobacco duty. But do alcoholics give up drinking when the Chancellor sticks another 10p on a bottle of White Lightening? Do heroin addicts go cold turkey when the street price goes up? Will I stop boating? Will you?

One further thought: everyone is assuming that this means that excise duty will have to be levied on marine diesel at the same rate as on road diesel. But is this necessarily the case? When the EU forced the British government to impose VAT on domestic fuel a few years back, the minimum rate they stipulated was 5%, this being the minimum for the EU as a whole. The British government (because there was such an outcry) duly set the VAT rate for domestic fuel at 5% rather than the standard 17.5%. Now, I'm no expert on pan-EU excise duty rates, but I wouldn't mind betting that they're a lot lower than in Britain (they certainly are for drink, witness the phenomenon of the booze cruise). So does the ending of the derogation really mean we'll be forced by the EU to pay the same per litre as road users, or are the government just going to make it the same and conveniently let the EU take the blame? Do they have the leeway to levy a lower rate? Is there perhaps scope here for a(nother) campaign, aimed at Westminster, about just how this will be implemented?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Getting into hot water

Since I unblocked the chimney and got Warrior's back cabin stove working, the back boiler has been gurgling away very efficiently heating water which, unfortunately, we can't use, because we presently have no 12v to power the pump (and until just before we left last time the taps weren't connected up either). Our only current source of hot water is the good old kettle.

I recall a few years back one of those competitive exchanges of correspondence in the Guardian which culminated in a claim from a woman (I think maybe she'd been a Wren or something similar) that she and her colleagues, during the war, had managed to perform their daily ablutions with only a tin mug of hot water, starting with their teeth and finishing with their feet. I'm not quite in that league - I have to wash my hair! - but I can cope with three or four pints. And while they may be environmentally unsound, and, from the experience of a neighbour in Huddersfield, fatal to electric toilets (now there's a concept that fills me with unease), wet wipes are an undeniable boon in the absence of running water.

Still, not long now before it's running round Warrior's pipes and out of the taps again. It still has to be heated up though, and the calorifier - which is heated from the engine or the back boiler - isn't very large. One Baz-size shower and it's gone. Then I really miss Andante's Paloma. I'd love to have one on Warrior, but apart from the small fact that there's nowhere to put one, it's impossible to get one fitted anyway. It's not because of the Boat Safety Scheme, although everyone told us at first that it was. Although the BSS has a blanket edict against non-roomsealed appliances (except, grudgingly, cookers), there is, in the small print, an exception for instantaneous gas water heaters, because of their 'good safety record'. Hooray, we thought, on discovering this. But no go; only a CORGI registered installer can fit one, and they won't because they're forbidden by the CORGI regulations. So I can cook a four course Sunday lunch with my non-roomsealed, un-flued, oven, grill and four burner stove running for three hours, but I can't wash up afterwards with a flued burner running for a few minutes.

We waited with bated breath for the room sealed versions which came into the shops earlier this year, but their big stumbling block is that they need a constant 230v power supply. So forget it. We'll carry on with the solid fuel stove and the kettle on the gas cooker; neither dangerous, but neither safer than a Paloma. Good intentions; perverse consequences.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


I've just finished making a set of curtains for Warrior's back cabin. It took me a long time to find some suitable fabric (without going mad and buying new, like we did for the ones in the saloon). However, a few weeks back I found some old curtains in a charity shop that were perfect; nice heavy linen with an old fashioned floral design, featuring yellow and pink roses and little blue flowers too. I bought both the pairs that were there, and have loads of fabric left over that might make cushion covers (if that isn't floral overkill. Can you have overkill in a back cabin?). Because I bought them all I didn't have to mess about sewing curtain tape on - I just used all the existing tops.

I've made a bed curtain - just the one, and only really for show, and a pelmet to go right across the ceiling, and they're both trimmed with some old crocheted lace that came off a table cloth which I got at a jumble sale many many years ago. I only hope the pelmet fits; I had to work out from memory where to put the gaps for the engine controls to run through, and how big to make them. I think ideally there should be a wooden, er, thing, running across the roof to attach these to, but Warrior hasn't got one, and it would be very hard to fit one now. Plus it would brain anyone taller than me. I can actually stand up straight in the back cabin, which is some compensation for being a shortarse. So I'm looking at finding some way of attaching the pelmet directly to the ceiling, and having a short rail for the curtain, only going part way across.

I also made some little curtains: one for the porthole, and some to cover the storage spaces under the bed cupboard and under the side bed (well, bench really. You'd have to be very small to sleep on it). These I trimmed with some very nice, smaller, cotton lace which I bought in Huddersfield for this very purpose. I made them all using my rather splendid old sewing machine, which was bought at a (different) jumble sale for £2. The make is called 'Novum' - which I've never heard of - and it was made in Ireland. It has a lovely 50s/early 60s look about it and must be terribly trendy in line with the fashion for retro kitchen equipment. It also works really well, and - most importantly - is very simple, unlike modern machines.