Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral: demonstrable proof that not all modern architecture is rubbish.
The rest of Coventry: overwhelming evidence that 97.62% of it is.
Everyone knows that Coventry was horribly bombed, and subsequently - defiantly and/or hopefully - rebuilt for a brave new world. I had previously only visited the city centre, and found it depressing beyond measure; not only did it seem to represent the worst of sixties (or, I suppose, fifties) architecture, with its low underpasses and masses of damp grey concrete, but this was given added poignancy by the evidence that they were so proud of it at the time. On that visit, I hopefully followed the signs to the canal basin, but they petered out, and I had to retrace my steps back to the station and get my train back to Huddersfield without seeing the water.

This time, on the advice of my colleague Rosie, who used to work in Coventry, I was determined to visit the cathedral. There's a bit about its history here. It was magnificent.

You don't have to believe in god to be moved by this. In fact, knowing it to be the work and inspiration of humanity makes it all the more awesome.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Lewes - Newhaven raft race

The annual raft race from Lewes to Newhaven took place today. The competitors left Lewes at mid day, and started to arrive in Newhaven at around quarter past two, having paddled about seven miles downriver. After passing the finishing line at Denton Island, they continue under the swing bridge, where they are traditionally pelted with flour and water bombs by wellwishers - and they retaliate, so Baz and I made sure to stand to one side, especially as some of the rafts equip themselves with hoses and pumps. We couldn't stay to see all the stragglers arrive, so only saw the more professional efforts. This year's theme was 'The Magic of the Musicals' and we saw a couple of Spamalots (including the winner), two South Pacifics and a Wizard of Ouse.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Journey to the end of the world, sorry, Coventry

We left Sutton Stop on Sunday morning, and didn't see another moving boat (and few stationary ones) until we were well into Coventry. To make the wait worthwhile, it was Snipe and Taurus. In a bridgehole. After that there were a couple of hireboats leaving Coventry, crews already well into the lager at 10 o'clock in the morning, but that was it. The approach to the city took us past vast semi derelict (but apparently still operating) chemical works; buildings reminiscent of the heyday of East German architecture, graffitied walls and overgrown towpaths. The nearer we got to Coventry, the more it felt like approaching the end of the world. It was great; a little taste, I fancy, of what canal cruising was like a decade or two (or perhaps three) ago, when it was the preserve of the hardy and the genuinely committed and required a real effort.

Also, mysteriously, there were lots of coconuts floating in the water. Even with global warming, I didn't see any palm trees overhanging the water, so our best guess is that they were unwanted (or unopenable) fairground prizes. But maybe this is a longstanding local phenomenon of which I am ignorant?

Coventry basin was almost devoid of boats, and, when we arrived, of people too. We went off for a wander round the city, which was on the whole very depressing (except for the cathedral, which will get a separate post). On the way back I was steering so it was left to Jim to grab some photos of Charity Dock, which I found very impressive.

No boatyard worthy of the name is complete without a few of these, I reckon (they still count if they're on the bank).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sutton Stop

A.K.A. Hawkesbury Junction, where the Coventry joins the Oxford Canal, but called Sutton Stop by boatmen after the family that used to run it. One of those evocative place names where you hope you might find a bit of a connection with the past ... well, no such luck really last Saturday night when we tied up there; as cleansed and soulless as the rest of today's cut (well, there were a few joyful exceptions which we came across a little later on the trip). TheGreyhound pub even had a no smoking area outside. (The smoking ban has created a whole new dilemma: as a non-smoker, I now feel guilty when sitting outside in case I'm depriving a smoker of a seat.)

With a spanking new housing development opposite (where Seftons yard used to be?) it was all but impossible to imagine how it might have looked in the past, or to relate it to old photos, and as it grew chillier we withdrew inside the pub (which was packed and quite nice; we heard good reports of the food and will try to time things so we can try it next time). We sat ourselves at a table with a pleasant if vague chap with a very sweet brown puppy and a tendency to repeat himself (I never met so many people like that until I started boating). Then an older couple, also with a puppy, came and sat down next to us, and the woman, who must have been in her sixties, I suppose, struck up a conversation with me (while Jim was hearing for the seventh time how the floodwater was fifteen feet from the vague man's mate's back door).

And she was from a boating family; lived on working boats until the age of eight, when she was sent to live with an aunt ('They made me go to school; I thought I'd been sent to prison', she said). She told me how the children would build a bonfire, there at Sutton Stop, and play round it while her mother was doing the washing and her father was in the pub; the same pub where we were sitting.

I leave it to others to make political comments about this picture...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Castles in Bloomsbury

I was wondering round Gordon Square last week, looking for the venue of a meeting I was supposed to be at, when something grabbed my attention; I didn't know what it was, I just knew that I had seen something incongruous out of the corner of my eye. It took me a few seconds to track down what it was.

These stained glass windows flank the front door of number 48 Gordon Square. None of the other houses has them; in some cases they've been replaced with plain glass, in most with plywood panels bearing rows of bells. But I should think that these are original. The whole square was built between 1820 and 1850.

They do have a familiar look about them, don't they? Those stylised castles, the water and the sails behind them. It doesn't take us any closer to understanding whare the inspiration came from in the first place, but it's an interesting twist nonetheless.

I found the right building eventually - in Gordon Street, not Square - where I spent a happy afternoon second-marking piles of essays and exam scripts. But I was very glad to have had the accidental diversion.

P.S. Unless you've got a pop-up blocker installed, you can click on the photos and they'll come up much bigger - worth the effort in this case.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More rain. Boring.

I know you don't want to hear about rain. You're sick and tired of hearing/seeing/reading about rain, and probably of sitting under it too, and wading through mud and generally being wet - and that's assuming you haven't been flooded out or swept away. But honestly compels me to report that on Friday, when we had intended to set off for Coventry, it rained; and it rained sufficiently for us to think, no, we won't actually start out today.

Instead, Jim turned his attention to the remaining electrics to be sorted out. In particular, we wanted to get the tunnel light working. He connected up some likely looking wires, and lo, the bilge pump worked, so that's one thing done. The light at this stage refused to co-operate though. Jumping ahead, on Monday an electrician at Valley Cruisers (very good pumpout/shop/nice people) tested the socket and that's working fine, as are the nav lights (well, the one we've got left) so the fault clearly lay with the lamp itself, which was disappointing, as it had been tested and worked previously. However, it seems to be a fuse in the light itself, so we're hoping that it will be relatively easily sorted out. Just the horn left to connect up then ... when we get one.

Back to wet, miserable Friday, and some more good news. Because it was so damp and horrid, I lit the French stove again and gave it a proper workout this time. It worked brilliantly, all afternoon and evening, and looked lovely too.

Mystery solved?

Remember the mystery object spotted at the Newhaven Fish Festival? Well, I've finally got a bit more information about it. It is, as was widely mooted, an aeroplane propellor, and it was netted by a local fishing boat off Peacehaven. The chap who found it put it on ebay as having come from a Spitfire, which drew forth a great deal of interest and expert opinion, and the general consensus now seems to be that it is actually from a Hawker Tempest. All this information cames from Len the welder, next to whose workshop on the quayside the object currently resides. So now you know as much as I do - quite possibly more, in fact.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sent to Coventry

By T-Mobile. Off I went to Warrior this weekend, looking forward to blogging our trip into Coventry (well, having got as far as Atherstone, we thought we should see it through to the bitter end), only to find that T-Mobile, in its infinite wisdom, had added Blogger to its list of sites that in its opinion shouldn't be accessed by anyone under the age of 18. (Previously this had only been a problem when wanting to link to Harveys. Dangerous stuff, real ale).

Now, as you might have guessed, I am over eighteen, by quite a margin.* But prove it! said T-Mobile. How should I prove my venerability? By giving them details of my credit card (cos you have to be eighteen to get credit; you can have a debit card at sixteen). Only problem is, I haven't got, and never have had, a credit card. So I couldn't post while we were away. However, looking on the bright side, I've got lots saved up for this coming week, and I will get on the phone to T-Mobile tomorrow to be sure of being able to post from the Big One when we go to St Ives (if??)...

*OK, by a margin of 24 years, come Wednesday.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Square eyes

The other week I finally weakened and bought another DVD - this widely advertised collection of British Waterways Archive film. And I've finally finished watching it. The collection comprises nine short films, some not very memorable, and some memorable for, perhaps, not the right reasons. Some of them reminded me very much of the programmes we used to get shown at school, although that might just be my memory playing tricks.

The first three, older, films were pretty good, while the later ones became a little trying and repetitive after a while. Most memorable of these was World of the Waterways (1969) in which a rather camp young man called Kenneth, whom we are meant to believe is a student, dons an Arran sweater and makes a personal voyage of discovery after following some people with a dinghy across a field ... no, really, you have to see it. He meets a variety of other people enjoying the waterways, many of whom are also wearing spotless Arran jumpers. The penultimate film was narrated by Johnny Morris, so I had to switch it off, and the final one (an American view, c. 1985) wouldn't play properly, but that might have been my machine. The colour films have aged far worse than the earlier black and white ones.

However, one film - the first one of the second DVD - is worth the price of admission on its own. In Inland Waterways (1950) we see Bill and Joe Beresford collect their orders at Bulls Bridge, and take a load of aluminium ingots from Brentford to Birmingham in Pinner and Downham. And that's about it. It's breathtakingly, heartbreakingly, beautiful.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ealing, Southall

Now, which anorak shall I put on tonight ... my GU one, which had such a successful outing last week? Or my older, much loved, British Elections one? (I'll have you know that at the Political Studies Association Annual Quiz this year, I was the only member of my team (which came a very creditable second) to correctly identify the February 1974 General Election from the resultant distribution of seats in the House of Commons).

There is a parliamentary byelection this Thursday - by which time I will hopefully have more interesting (never!) things to write about, so I'm doing this one now. The byelection is in the constituency of Ealing, Southall. Wow! was my first thought. Two Town Class boats for the price of one. So naturally, being the lover of lists that I am, I set about another, possibly more ambitious, mapping exercise.

GU boats* that share their name with a UK Parliamentary Constituency.

I have had to subdivide this into three categories. Firstly, there are the ones that map exactly - a surprising number of them, I thought:
Stratford (upon Avon)

Then there are the ones whose urban namesakes are large enough to be subdivided into two or more constituencies:
Belfast (4 constituencies)
Birmingham (10)
Bournemouth (2)
Brighton (2)
Bristol (4)
Bury (2)
Cardiff (2)
Dudley (2)
Ealing (2: North and Southall)
Reading (2)

And finally the ones whose towns are small enough to be combined with others:
Ayr (Carrick and Cumnock)
Barrow (and Furness)
Beverley (and Holderness)
Bexhill (and Battle)
Bognor (Regis and Littlehampton)
Chesham (and Amersham)
Denton (and Reddish)
Epsom (and Ewell)
Feltham (and Heston)
Hampstead (and Highgate)
Poplar (and Canning Town)
Ruislip (-Northwood)
(Scarborough and) Whitby
Sutton and Cheam (another two-for-one)
Tiverton (and Honiton)

How much more pointless can this get? I don't know, but I'm working on it. Better watch this space.

*I know I could find even more constituencies if I looked at other companies, especially FMC. But that would be a bit obsessive, wouldn't it?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Local interest

Finally got round to going to the local museum today. I have visited it before, but not in its new premises, which it's occupied since ... ahem .... 1996. It was nice, and well worth the one pound admission, and the chap in charge was very friendly and helpful, although sadly he couldn't find any old photos of our house.

Leafing through the other files of photos, of shops and ships and street parties and schools, it was (surprise surprise) this press cutting that got my attention. It was unlabelled, but I surmise that it was from a national newspaper, on the basis of its reference to a 'canal' bridge and its rather melodramatic take on the incident.

Our friendly curator dug out a book (Alan F. Hill, The Lower Ouse Navigation 1934 - 1967) which describes what happened from local press reports and and eye witness account. The barge in question was called Shamrock and was a spritsail barge of 87', with a 21' beam and a loaded draft of 6'6", capable of carrying 155 tons. On this occasion, in March 1937, she was loaded with coal, which would have come by coaster from Tyneside or Wales to Newhaven, to be taken by barge to Lewes for use (in this case) at the Phoenix Ironworks, some eight and a quarter miles upriver, and the most northerly of the five wharves on the lower Ouse. The newspaper report says coal, but pig iron was also brought by barge to the Phoenix Works (currently the subject of a controversial housing development).

Having been unloaded, Shamrock was being poled backwards downstream when a pulley block on the bow caught on the north side of the Cliffe Bridge. Before this could be freed, the bow was trapped under the bridge by the rising tide. Soon the stern was three feet out of the water and, according to the eye witness, almost the whole of the rudder was visible. It was feared that not only the boat, but also the bridge would be seriously damaged. The solution was to call in the Lewes Fire Brigade to pump water into the empty hold - not to sink the boat completely, as implied in the press report, but sufficiently to relieve the pressure on the bridge until the tide began to fall again. Once this had happened the water was pumped out again. There was some damage to the barge, but the bridge was unscathed. Nonetheless, this incident seems to have been the final straw contributing to considerable local opposition to the use of the river for transport, and effectively sounded the death knell for the port of Lewes; the last commercial traffic to the town by water was in 1939.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


I live less than a half hour walk away from one of the very few, and probably the nicest, sandy beaches on the south coast, and how often do I visit it? I don't think I'd actually set foot on it for the last two years until last Sunday, when my sister was visiting. To be fair (to me) the beach was closed all of last summer, because of a chunk of concrete having fallen from the sea wall, and the private owners neither wanting to be sued if the next lump fell on someone's head, nor wanting to spend money putting it right. I don't know how they arrived at a solution, but it re-opened earlier this year, although sadly the breakwater remains well and truly closed.

It's a lovely beach because it's enclosed by the breakwater on one side and the harbour arm on the other; it slopes very gradually so the water is nice and shallow (for swimming, the pebble beach on the other side of the breakwater is better), and the tide comes right up the sea wall, so it's all clean and sparkly and new twice a day.

What's more, it has a car park right at the top of the steps (£2 a day), and a cafe (outside seating only) and an amusement arcade nestled at the bottom of the chalk cliffs. The amusement arcade is wonderful in a way that's hard to describe. In fact, objectively, it's awful - curling yellowing postcards, a Mr Blobby ride that would surely terrify any but the most robust child (presumably there are auctions of obsolete amusement equipment where smaller outfits purchase things like this?), giant faded photos of burgers and hot dogs; it's like something out of Scooby Doo ... but I'm not poking fun at it, or saying that it's good in an "ironic" 'so bad it's good' sort of way. It is genuinely wonderful that it's there at all, at this little beach in this little town, and it provides cups of tea and ice creams, and buckets and spades, and, yes, amusement, to a surprising number of visitors. It will be a very sad day when the West Beach amusement arcade closes for the last time.

So there we are, my sister (38) and I (even older), on the beach. No children even as an excuse. Nothing to stop us getting stuck in straight away with our newly purchased buckets and spades. While she went for a traditional fortified castle embellished with sand stalagmites, I crafted the sand narrowboat that I posted about a couple of days ago. And then the sea came in and washed them both away. Fortunately, (or possibly, you may think, not) I photographed my magnum opus at every stage of its development from design to destruction, and you can see it as a work in progress here.

And various other aspects of the West Quay, the beach, and the delightful amusements to be had, here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sainsbury's goods by water?

I heard the briefest little snippet of a story on the wireless this morning (the Today programme, to be precise) to the effect that Sainsbury's have a brave new scheme to move goods from their depot at Charlton to their branch in Wandsworth by water; presumably up the Thames, although this was never mentioned. Their spokeswoman noted that there were potentially another dozen London branches that might be similarly served, saving x amounts of carbon dioxide from road vehicles etc etc. I've seen no mention of this anywhere else, despite a quick Google and scan of the business pages (perhaps Andrew of Granny Buttons, with his ear to the PR grapevine, as it were, has heard more?).

Well, pardon my cynicism, but this doesn't sound very significant to me, especially given the vast distances all the goods will have travelled by road to reach the Charlton depot in the first place. While it might be nice (albeit in many cases not feasible) to see stuff being moved around the country (and not just the capital) by water rather than road, better surely to cut down on moving it at all; particularly in the case of supermarket stock, many of the movements are completely unnecessary, and only the result of increasingly centralised logistics systems.

The programme then went on to talk to Simon Salem of British Waterways, who (perhaps unsurprisingly; black mark to BBC researchers) seemed to know about as much as me about the Sainsbury's scheme, but was sort of semi-keen to press the case for water carrying more generally. I say semi-keen, because he kept stressing the potential benefits of wide waterways, using the expression explicitly two or three times. You'd think that with the job of getting more freight onto BW waterways he'd be a little less half-hearted.

Still, if Sainsbury's are serious about this, even if only as a PR stunt, let's hope that they set themselves up with a couple of nicely liveried boats ... actually, if there were still large scale carrying today, I suppose all the boats would be done out with grainily blown up photographs of bedewed fruit all over them, just like the lorries are. Perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies.

Update: thanks to Adam, here is a link to the Sainsbury's press release. Wonder what water transport potential there might be for their 'new energy efficient depot in Northampton'

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sun, sea, sand

West Beach, Newhaven, Sunday afternoon

Well, you can't go to the beach and not build a sand boat, can you?

And a canal ... (as the tide comes in)

It's a good few years since I last did this ...

Friday, July 06, 2007

Top publication signs blogger

Not me, sadly. Perhaps I should have been nicer to Kevin Blick when he left a comment here before - but I have always been very complimentary about Canal Boat (ah, but do I like the new design and features? Time will tell).

Anyway, one of their new regular contributors is one Mortimer Bones, already known to us through her eponymous (pseudonymous?) blog and her Canalworld contributions. I read her blog quite often but so far she hasn't mentioned the new job... I wonder how the magazine headhunted her - or whether she approached them.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking of submitting something to the new 'Me and My Boat' feature ... er, me and my engine, Kevin?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tube Class

Legend has it that the Grand Union Town Class fleet acquired their names from perusal of a railway gazetteer or timetable (as an aside, why are there none beginning with M?). This wouldn't explain, however, why a surprising number of them are actually named after stations on the London Underground.

Armed with my trusty tube map and the relevant pages from A M Models website (a splendid resource) I have once more donned my metaphorical anorak and come up with the following:

The Northern Line gives us (from South to North): Balham, Angel, Hampstead, Edg[e]ware and (High) Barnet.

On the District Line we find: Ealing (Broadway/Common/South), Chiswick (Park), Kew (Gardens), Bayswater and Paddington.

The marvellously evocative Metropolitan Line takes us from Aldgate out to Pinner, Chalfont (and Latimer), Chesham and Ruislip.

That's five for each of those. Then there's also Stratford, on the Central Line - although I accept that in that case they might have had the other Stratford in mind; and there is Poplar, but that's on the Docklands Light Railway, which definitely didn't exist in the 1930s.

Some of these also have National Rail stations (Balham, Ealing Broadway, Stratford, Chalfont and Latimer, Paddington); others may have had in the past, but certainly not all. Some (e.g. Angel) are not even towns, but districts or areas at most. Two (Ealing and Barnet) are London boroughs.

(Photo of Barnet on the Staffs and Worcs, 24th August 2006. Taken especially for my Huddersfield colleague John, proud son of Barnet and lifelong supporter of Barnet football club)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Settling down with a DVD

Last week I went to Birkbeck College's open evening (I didn't have much choice: I work there). Birkbeck is a college of the University of London, established to provide part time higher education for working people; it has also incorporated the extra-mural studies department of the University of London which means that it provides a whole range of short, non-degree, courses which although they can lead onto degree courses, people often do just for interest.

As I was wondering around in a free moment (the courses I was plugging are a bit of a niche market and there weren't long queues at my desk) I stopped by the History desk to see if they offered any canal-related learning opportunities. Sadly, no - but as a next best thing I have sent off my enrolment form for a module called The Port of London and Docklands 1700 - 1945. I reckon I can work a bit of narrowboat action onto that one.

On hearing about this, my colleague Simon (surely the only other regular reader of Towpath Talk in the faculty) lent me a couple of DVDs, and tonight we settled down in front of the computer (take note, TV licencing people) to watch Waters of Time (available from the Museum of London's online shop, if you're tempted).

The DVD features four films, all more or less about London's docks. One was made in 1951 for the festival of Britain, one in the mid 1960s, and one in 1921. The fourth ranged a little more widely to take in the role of the City in international trade. The really striking thing was that the only real visible difference between the 1921 film and the 1960s one was the hats worn by the stevedores. The working methods seemed identical; no wonder, perhaps, they only had another twenty years or so to run.

The 1951 film featured one of the Port of London's own extensive police force, who 'stands in the path of swindler and smuggler' (it did tend a bit towards the poetical, that one). That obviously brought to mind how these days it's terrorists that everyone's worrying about, and it gradually dawned on me whilst watching all the films that your terrorist would have had a much harder time of it in the circumstances that pertained then, with so many people around, and (if the PLA promo, for that is what it was, is to be believed) constant checking and sampling of everything going on, in place of today's minimally-manned, just-in-time efficiency.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Mystery object

On display at the Fish Festival - but no information about it. Wonder where it came from, and where it's going. Not to mention what it is... Suggestions on a postcard - or in a comment.