Monday, December 31, 2007

Warrior's review of 2007

While some people are out enjoying themselves, shrieking and giggling and no doubt dancing in fountains, I have dashed home in order to bring you Warrior's second review of the year just gone (and, neatly, nb Warrior's 350th post, now I've removed those double posts that inserted themselves while I was away. I'm still swaying, by the way. Who'd have thought the water was moving so much.)

And what an eventful year it's been - lots of excitement, new experiences and adventures and ambitions achieved. And what a long time ago it seems now, that it was January 2007 ...

Well, actually, nothing much happened in January. I tidied up the cabin, and work proceeded on the engine.


As it continued to do in February... while we got on with the engine room, boarding the floor and fitting the batteries and tussling with the electrics, and the first of many electricians.

This is when things start happening: RN in Daventry have finished their work on the engine, and it's brought back to the yard where Warrior has been patiently waiting for nearly a year, and settled into its temporary home in a shipping container where I start painting it. Also in March, Warrior is whipped out of the water and the cabin shotblasted, so we get to paint that too. Craftmaster do quite well out of us in March.

In April, things continue apace. I finish painting and polishing the engine, and mid-April, it finally goes back into the boat. Not (obviously) having enough to worry about, we decide to have a new hole cut in the roof panel so that we can have a Josher-style roof vent like our neighbours on Minnow. Happy New Year, Sparky and Vicky, wherever you are. And we go to Ellesmere Port to look at more nice boats and get frightened by a swan.

We get a keb, some temporary signwriting (still going strong), and lots of extra ballast. Warrior is now starting to look pretty good on the outside too. I start counting down to the date I am determined we will relaunch. We fire the engine up for the first time, and meet Andrew of Granny Buttons fame.

June has to be the most momentous month of 2007 on the Warrior front: on our first trial cruise we stay out very late and get very drunk and have a marvellous time; at our official launch party the following night we attempt to introduce the Midlands to the delights of Harveys Best Bitter, but Compo drinks it all... then on the 3rd we finally, triumphantly but also sadly, say goodbye to Stretton Wharf and all the friends we made there. We make it to Atherstone (which I really like) and tough out the Russell Newbery Rally (which I don't). Meet some lovely people with Nationals though. Continue tweaking the engine.

The French stove finally gets tried out in situ, having been repaired and fitted at great trouble and unknown expense with a new hearth and stovepipe - and it is completely and utterly worth it, because it works brilliantly (and we've really put it to the test this past week, and could not be more pleased).

Also, of course, June means Braunston ... sigh ....

In July, we cruise from Atherstone to Coventry and back, see Charity Dock and drink in the Greyhound. Coventry Basin is almost deserted, and the Cathedral is stunning.

August is a quite extraordinary month, the whole of it spent on board Warrior on our longest ever sustained cruise: from Atherstone to St Ives with detours to Ramsey and Cambridge on the way, the IWA Festival, then back to Ramsey. High spots include our time in Cambridge, where Craig from Pyxis showed us not one but four fantastic pubs; taking the real-life Rosie and Jim and relatives, including a small child, out for a trip in the rain; handing out brochures outside the festival in ankle deep mud and (at last) hot sunshine; the Northampton Arm; and coming back up the Hundred Foot River. Less favourite parts were the Nene locks (especially after the first two dozen). Really, there were too many memorable moments - if I start to enumerate them I shall be here all night.

In September I start writing an article for Canal Boat about our engine. It is a quiet month on the boating front.

As is October. Though I finish the article.

In November we get to do a bit more boating, and my article is published. Very gratifying!

And here we are back in December again. I'm surprised that such an eventful and significant year can be summed up so briefly.

So how did I get on with the resolutions I made this time last year?
Engine finished and reinstalled - yep.
Painted and signwritten - well, strictly speaking, yes, but not quite how I envisaged it.
Go to the RN Rally at Atherstone - yep
And the IWA Festival at St Ives - yes, and that really was quite an achievement.

And personally, did I learn to splice? Well, yes, actually I did, at St Ives. But I'm not sure that I still remember how now. Did I finally get to grips with crocheting? Sadly no, despite continuing efforts, that particular skill still defeats me. Did I become an all round better boatperson? I suppose I must have done, but probably only slightly. Must try harder, be braver and more persistent in 2008.

Which brings us to resolutions for next year:
The final, proper, painting and signwriting WILL be done
We will bring Warrior to London (more of an aspiration than a resolution at this stage) ....

Helyn will be finished, and we will take her up the Sussex Ouse to Barcombe before selling her.

Apart from that I think it's a case of watch this space.

Hope you have a splendid 2008. I wonder what we'll all be thinking and doing when we look back on it this time next year...

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Not more pubs ...

We did stop last night at the George, and had a most interesting evening. It was very quiet when we went in, and we got talking to a man who turned out to be the pub’s owner; born in Ramsey but now living in London, he’d come back to run the place when the last tenants left at short notice. Sebastian and I had a couple of games of pool and darts, and we got chatting to the other people who came in, and had a very nice evening. Sadly there was not food on, as Tim was running the place on his own, but he did do us some very nice potato roasties, and regaled us with marvellous tales of gay pubs he worked in in London.

The next morning we were awoken by the gentle babble of traditional country fisherpersons: ‘There’s a fucking boat there’, ‘Fucking wankers’, ‘Fucking sink it’ etc. as they went about their time honoured task of extracting their carbon fibre poles from their traditional white vans. We let them settle to their noble calling before starting the engine and continuing on our way with a cheery wave.

So before we knew it, we were back at Bill Fen, Sebastian feeling slightly delicate (no doubt due to falling asleep in a draft with his neck at a funny angle and not the five pints of Greene King IPA he’d drunk), Jim got us onto Warrior’s berth single handed (where was I? Keeping out of the way, of course), and then went over the Rainbow while I (and Baz, who’d perked up a bit by now) removed the previous night’s mud deposits from the boat.

Tonight we finally made it to Holme – albeit by car rather than boat – to visit the Admiral Wells pub. This was recommended to us as ‘not a typical Fenland pub’ which |I have to say, was quite a refreshing prospect, and it was OK. Good selection of beer (I tried the Tydd Steam Brewery’s Piston) and nice food. This time we got chatting to a guy from Indiana, who lives in Ramsey and is seriously into real ale. Another nice evening.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

That's enough wind now, thank you

Well here we are back at the George, at Ramsey Forty Foot. Couldn’t post last night as we were in the absolute middle of nowhere with but the feeblest signal.

Yesterday morning saw us initiated into the mysteries of the Bill Fen pumpout, which is pretty much like a normal pumpout, once you’ve started the petrol engine that drives the pump. You can then watch it labouring away. It was lucky that we did come back into the marina on Thursday night as this procedure was not a moment too soon. Whilst making a cup of tea for the man who showed us how the pumpout worked, the gas ran out, so that was handy too. And we bought some more coal too before we set off again.

We headed for March next, which has resumed its previous depressing aspect (or that might just have been due to getting a paper and finding out about Benazir Bhutto about twenty four hours later than the rest of the world). Anyway, not wishing to stay there we pressed on into the dusk and finally tied up at the junction of the Nene Old Course and Popham’s Eau. It was, and is, still very windy. I don’t mind the wind provided it’s not blowing us off course; in fact I like feeling warm and cosy inside while it buffets the boat, but this has been so relentless as to be quite oppressive, particularly last night. It also makes the water slap and splosh against the sides of the boat when we’re in bed, which I like but which annoys Jim no end. We really notice this, sleeping under the tug deck, as we’re actually below the waterline. I love thinking of that while I’m lying there. What I also like is lying under the enormously heavy duvet (this is the only time of year one can fully appreciate it; it’s a pain the rest of the time) all snug with the foredeck hatch propped slightly open and a cool breeze playing across my face. I even quite like a light spray of rain when it blows in; sadly last night it rained so much and the wind blew it so horizontal that we had to shut the hatch.

This morning dawned much brighter, although windier than ever as we set off down Popham’s Eau and onto the Sixteen Foot (remembering to remove everything from the roof this time). The wind was whipping up some lovely waves and we were steering straight into it. I stood at the front behind the closed hatches watching the spray fly over the foredeck, occasionally applying copious quantities of Norwegian trawlermen’s handcream to my face. All it needed was a few bars of Khatachurian and the scene would have been complete.

We got to the hamlet of Stonea at midday, where John had recommended the Golden Lion. Having achieved great feats of tying up (there is nothing here to tie up to, and the banks are very steep. And at this time of year, muddy) we made our way over to discover that the Golden Lion doesn’t open Saturday lunchtimes. So we had our lunch and were on our ay again. At one point we had a fantastic vanguard of seventeen swans, and when they all started taking off at once into the low afternoon sun it looked amazing. That was when I found I’d finished the film in my camera trying to capture the spray.

So here we are at the George. It’s not a pub I like very much and the food wasn’t great before, I seem to recall, but we didn’t feel much like pressing on the further half hour or so back to the marina again, so we’re tied to the same old tree back where we were at our journey’s end last August.

Maybe, just maybe, the wind has started to drop.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Latest adventures

When we stopped last night, it was really because we had to. Not only was it rapidly getting dark, but we were getting hardly any power through the prop. We hoped that this was just a build up of the notorious weed, and not some more serious damage caused by reversing for an hour and three quarters with a piece of tree on the prop. We did quite a good job of putting it out of our minds for the evening. In any case, a far more dire emergency asserted itself: we had run out of tea. We couldn’t even have a soothing, calming, warming cuppa.

A quick inventory of the hot beverage cupboard revealed a dozen teabags of spiced black tea (left over from my vegan days; it’s very nice but does have a tendency to provoke hiccups); one blackcurrant and three lemon and grapefruit teabags (left over from god knows what); a small jar of Nescafe which I think came with Andante; closer investigation revealed traces in the bottom from the carboniferous era which, after soaking in a little hot water for a few minutes provided enough for two weak cups of something that could just about pass as coffee amongst people who ere not used to drinking coffee; and about an equal amount of instant hot chocolate. It was with great joy this morning that I recalled the warming beverage potential of the unopened jar of Marmite in the back of the food cupboard. Sadly, I was unable to persuade any of the other members of the crew of its benefits.

Overnight it got really windy, and it was blowing us straight onto the bank. With a lot of effort we managed to turn round so that we were finally facing the right way, but we couldn’t get the fore end out far enough for long enough to make any headway, and despite having cleared a lot of weed off the prop, still seemed to be short of power. After struggling with the shafts for ages, we finally admitted defeat – or rather made a strategic withdrawal to regroup ready for the next assault.

One idea was to wait until the wind dropped, but a quick consultation with the BBC Weather Centre via my super internet enabled phone revealed that this was due to occur on Sunday. So we rang John Shotbolt for local advice. He suggested clearing the prop again, as it had probably picked up more crap, including the old weed, during the morning’s exertions, then poling it forward ten feet or so to get clear. We did this, and it didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference (though we did get a lot more weed off), with the wind still being a major obstacle. However, eventually, through a combination of luck and lots of grunting, especially from heroic poler Baz, we did manage to get into the middle of the channel and under way.

We had initially planned to head for March this morning, but it was two o’clock by the time we got away, and not much chance of getting there before the shops shut. So we went back to Ramsey. We saw John at Lodes End Lock, and he asked if we were coming for a beer tonight. Erm, well, what do you think? Then we went right into the town, and tied up across the winding hole waiting for fishermen various to vacate the staithe. I introduced Baz to the mysteries of the Rainbow (vs) where we stocked up on Co-op 99 tea. When we got back we tried to tie up to the quay, but there was even less water than before and we couldn’t get within four feet of it, so we’ve come back to Bill Fen. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? In the mean time, at least we’ve had a nice cup of tea.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Onwards and backwards

After some hemming and hawing, we decided this morning that we would make the assault on Holme Fen, that tiny outpost of the Middle Level that has defeated better boaters than us (but that was in the summer when it was weedy). There’s a plaque you can get, you see, for reaching four obscure corners of the Middle Level. We’ve already – all unknowing – done two of them (but sadly neglected to get our card stamped, or whatever form of proof the plaque distributors require).

I was dispatched to Ramsey for provisions (milk and a toothbrush for Baz) while he got his first lessons in starting, running and generally caring for the engine, as he hopes to come up later in the year with some friends … The Co-op, as befits a sound socialist outfit, of course wasn’t open on Boxing Day, so I went up to Somerfield. Ditto, the Guardian wasn’t published, so I bought the Telegraph. Jim has a bit of a soft spot for it as it was the family paper he read as a boy; as a fully paid up Guardianista I find it rather amusing, if occasionally disturbing. Well, there were two (sympathetic, natch) articles about private schooling, and a big feature about how hunting is making a comeback. The thing is, every time I buy the Telegraph, there are two sympathetic articles about private schools and a big piece about hunting. Does this mean that it’s like it every day?

So, we left the marina at half past twelve, about half an hour after leaving the berth … it is quite tight – and we were on our way, through Lodes End Lock (level, gates open but loosely chained together, and all contained within a locked compound with spikes and everything – now what’s that all about?) for the first time, up the Nene Old Course, headed for Holme Fen. There was mulled wine mulling away on the back cabin stove, gradually transmuting into mulled ale, as the day wore on and the wine ran out, and the greatest success of the day (that tells you something of what’s to come) was our dinner: all yesterday’s leftovers mixed up in a tin and stuck in the oven of the back cabin stove, and eaten on the move. (Only recommended for vegetarian leftovers, I think, perhaps, although it was so hot even turkey would probably have been OK.)

At about two o’clock we turned onto the New Dyke, which is marked on the map as having a turning place at the end, which is (as far as I know) at Holme Fen. Trouble is, we never got as far as the end. After an hour during which the channel got satisfying narrower and shallower, making us feel really intrepid, we encountered a tree across the channel. It was, to be honest, only a little tree, but it was getting very shallow there too, and after two attempts we decided that we weren’t going to get through. So of course we had to reverse back to the junction, which is every bit as much fun as it sounds. Including an unsuccessful attempt to wind in a little (too little, as it turned out) branch channel, it took us an hour and three quarters to get back to the junction of the New Dyke and Monks Lode, where we have stopped for the night, as it was getting dark.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A long Christmas day

Well, here we are at the end of a long day. New thing to add to the list of things to do before leaving the boat: number 13 - remove cucumber from fridge. Just wait until you see that photo!

I’m sitting writing this in Warrior’s back cabin, fairly cosy, with the stove going strong. Not very cosy, though, owing to all the doors being open – not because of smoke this time, but acrid steam, issuing from the disconnected back boiler pipes somewhere in the bed cupboard. Life would have been so much simpler if we’d never disconnected that damn thing, and the stove is going so well too. The other stove, I can never tire of saying, is still working fantastically well, and the saloon is looking rather lovely, what with that and my few but select Christmas decorations.

Dinner was very nice, the only hitch being that the potatoes were slightly mistimed, but the rest of the meal didn’t seem to mind waiting a bit for them. We brought a Christmas pudding (a bought one, Somerfield, very nice) but rather than trying to steam the whole thing for two hours, I dished it up into individual foil parcels, making sure they were watertight, and sort of poached them in a shallow pan – on the back cabin stove. What a sense of achievement!

Before we left of course we all opened our presents. We got a waterways calendar from my sister (and recognised many of the locations!); a book about the Leeds and Liverpool from Carl next door (who’s from up that way, but is currently caravanning in Cornwall – thank you Carl.) And I got, from Jim, a very big present. Some of it was in a very heavy box under the tree, and I thought it was mudweights or something, but the rest of it was out in the outbuilding, hidden under a blanket: a COMPLETE set of back issues of Waterways World; 1972-2003. Wow.

Hope Santa bought you exactly what you wanted too.

Monday, December 24, 2007


Unbelievably, it's that time of year again. Once again, I've had to recycle an old photo from 2005 for my blog-o-card to wish you all very merry festivities and happiness and success in - crikey - 2008.

My thermals are packed; the nut roast is made; crates full of wine and spices, puddings and other seasonal goodies await by the door, for tomorrow, after a light lunch and a quick raid on the presents under the tree, we shall be making our way to Ramsey, the better to enjoy the biting easterly winds , frost, ice, snow etc. The first thing we shall do when we get there will be to cook the Christmas dinner. No, OK, maybe after lighting the fires. Plural! We have got a new chimney, in the nick of time. Tell you all about it later.

This morning I have set the new phone up as a modem for the laptop, so I should be able to post from our winter holiday destination, although I might save pictures for when we get back as I think I have to be a bit more careful with the up/download limit than was the case with T-Mobile.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Another book review

A novel this time: Leo McNeir's Getaway with Murder. Now, I would not have bought this book under normal circumstances - well, not at full price, anyway. But I encountered the author on the Canals and Rivers stand at St Ives while I was having a general moan to someone (who turned out to be the editor, oops) about the magazine's abysmal proofreading standards. I have mentioned this before.

Anyhow, Mr McNeir was very sympathetic, and shared my distress at slapdashness in the application of good grammar (by the way, if you spot any grammatical solecisms in this or any other post, I shall not hesitate to excuse them on the grounds that it's only a blog. Although, apart from the odd non-sentence for effect, anything else is likely to be a slapdash error.)

So what could I do but buy one of his books? Lucky to get away (getaway?) with one, maybe. And it is sweetly dedicated to me in the author's rather nice handwriting.

Does this compromise me as an honest and fearless reviewer? I think maybe it does, a little. Truth to tell, as a novel it's not great. The characterisation is laboured and the characters quite shallowly drawn, and there's too much dialogue, which thus has to do too much exposition of the plot.

It's a whodunnit with various romantic subplots, with a boat on the Grand Union making a peripheral appearance; it's not really a boating or canal book. I have to say that the twist of who actually did dunnit is ingenious and convincing, and the plotting leading up to it is (on one reading at least) faultless; you don't feel that the author has cheated by pulling a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute; the clues are, with hindsight, all there, but not too obvious. This is a very important virtue in books of this type, and often lacking in the work of much better known writers.

But the clever plotting is all but thrown away by the complete lack of suspense that comes, I think, from the reader knowing too much of the thoughts and quotidian actions of too many of the characters. Ironically, through being given too much detail, about too many characters, the reader identifies with them less. The relationship becomes superficial and it is difficult to care very much about what happens to them. A philosopher friend of mine (the one with the odd shoes) once dismissed the entire oeuvre of Kant with the words 'Old Manny: unpickupable'. This book is not unpickupable, certainly, but neither is it by any means unputdownable.

I think, perhaps, though that I am a very picky reader of novels, and there is much to enjoy in Getaway with Murder. It is largely undemanding in terms of reader engagement, and thus makes a perfect (boating) holiday read, but it is well researched and accurate on the Civil War (as far as I could tell from my limited knowledge of the period - perhaps I will lend it to Political Philosophy Pete and see what he thinks). It's good value in terms of length, it raises some interesting issues, and the characters are sympathetic and consistent, if not fully engaging. The plot hangs together well and, as I said, there is an effective surprise ending.

So all in all, it doesn't sound so bad, does it? Even though I didn't much enjoy reading it, having read this unbiased and objective review, I probably wouldn't say no to picking up another of his, for passing a few empty hours.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Flexible seating solutions

Well, flexible solutions are all the rage these days, aren't they.

You may recall the saga of Warrior's seating arrangements - horrid freestanding chairs - complete with footstools - which were mind-numbingly, spirit-sappingly ugly, took up an inordinate amount of space, and were very heavy and awkward to move. Once we got rid of the bigger, cheaper, uglier one of the two sets, the other one didn't look so bad. This became Jim's chair (and footstool).

Jim then made two boxes out of cherry faced plywood with oak trim, and these, along with the cushions from an Ikea sofa, comprise our new flexible seating system. In position along the side wall opposite the stove, they look just like a fitted settee, and they (helped by some big fat feather cushions) make a lovely chaise longue, thank you very much, just right for stretching out by the fire.

But they are, more, so much more! Look! A dinette:

Slide the boxes apart (using the lovely old brass handle) and insert the table top - a bed for a reasonably, although not necessarily excessively, thin person (it's 2'4" wide):

And loads of lovely, and fairly accessible, storage space.

The lids rest on the top of the box inside the trim, and drop down over the back, where they overlap to take account of the angle of the cabin side, without needing to move the boxes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

And they were...

Yes, I know you knew anyway, or more likely just didn't care, but this way I get to just post a couple more photos and I don't actually have to think of writing anything tonight.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The other one

Remember the other 3 cylinder National that was on ebay? I managed to get in touch with Steve who bought it, and now he has a blog to record its rebuild. Good luck with the engine Steve - but whatever happens, don't stop the blog! There are already some lovely photos linked from Steve's blog, and we've enjoyed poring over them spotting the similarities and differences.

Steve's is a D3, whereas Warrior's is a DM3, the difference being the M for marine. Basically, it looks very similar, but it's the peripherals that make the difference. I've seen one other like it (in a shed), as well as a few D2s and DM2s in boats.

The other 3 cylinder National that we'd heard of already installed in a boat turns out to be a DA3, similar to Hadar's DA2. This is quite a different looking engine, from the photos I've seen, although I've yet to see one in the flesh.

I've added Steve's blog to the blogroll, along with Diamond Geezer (highly recommended) and Newhaven Town (so called because that is the name of one of its three railway stations).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Kit's boats

Two boats with Kit Gayford connections which I had the pleasure of encountering over the course of last year.

Too easy, I know, but what are they?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Book review: The Amateur Boatwomen

Susan Woolfitt's Idle Women is the best known, and without much doubt, the best written, of the books describing the experiences of the wartime 'trainee' female boat crews. But reading other accounts - notable those of Kit Gayford and Margaret Cornish (I haven't got hold of Emma Smith yet) does at least make you realise that there are other sides to the story that Woolfitt tells so well.

In The Amateur Boatwomen, published in 1973, Eily (she only became known as Kit once on the boats) Gayford provides possibly the more readable alternative account. This book can be read in a day; it is relatively brief. And it is brief largely because of its brisk and efficient style, rather, one imagines, like its author. It is not badly written, but the prose is very sparse (a welcome contrast, certainly, to the likes of my bete noire Gogarty); also there is not much sense of narrative. Perhaps because it was written some thirty years after the events it describes; perhaps just because it is Gayford's way, but it is almost as if someone said to her 'you should write a book about that', and she said 'All right then' and just got down to putting her most memorable experiences on paper, sometimes rather isolated from both historical and social context.

It probably helps to have read Woolfitt first to get some grounding in the world that is being described, although Gayford's matter-of-fact explanations usually do the trick. I actually like the unadorned style, but I would also have liked to read Gayford's take on the relationships that grew up between the women (and of which rather different accounts are given by Woolfitt and Cornish). Gayford is silent on this; her fellow female trainees (and later, of course, her own trainees, although this later period gets less coverage) are ciphers, while the 'real' boatmen and women are described with as much warmth as anything in the book.

To read Idle Women you would think that Kit Gayford was some sort of superwoman; Woolfitt clearly worships her; her confidence, her competance, her experience. So it is interesting to read in Gayford's own book of her insecurities; her self deprecating accounts of her own (at least early) incompetance, which she lists cheerfully and unabashedly:

I could not do anything to the engine, which used to need constant attention; I was always letting out the fire; I fell in (admittedly only up to the knees ... ) but one of them had to help pull me out; I put Molly's shoes in the oven to dry and forgot about them, and I never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

Add to that her tales of messing up locks and draining pounds and forgetting windlasses - the very things that the likes of Woolfitt lived in terror of her wrath for - and Gayford comes across as rather more human, although the photos of her (and there are some nice photos in the book) show someone who certainly looks to be the no nonsense type.

There are no poetic passages to quote, but no excruciatingly bad ones either. The Amateur Boatwomen is a brisk and informative account of events, with little time for feelings and musings, and to be honest, it is none the worse for that. Another one for the Christmas list.

(Three here, and another three here, so plenty to go round again)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Under the counter

Minnow at Stretton last summer. See the rivets reflected in the water.

Just done a big post about the Late Night Shopping over at the other place, so that's all you're getting tonight. I have some more books to read ...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More books

Went into Lewes today to finish off my Christmas shopping (well, pretty much). Obviously left my brain behind, because we got there, bought a few little things, and then went to get some more money out of the bank - oh no, I've left my card at home. I thought it was in my pocket but it's not, and it's not in my bag either... so back to the car park we go (having just paid £1.50 to the much-hated (it's a very long story) District Council to park there for two hours) and drive home again (it's about a fifteen minute drive). Dash up and look in my work bag - no, not there either; brief moment of panic, have I left it on the train? (My little Harveys wallet contains not only my bank card, but also my (£3,700) season ticket and my get-in-the-office-front-door card so this would have been a bit of a disaster). When did I last have it? Oh, hang on ... this morning, when I carefully put it in the zipped pocket of the bag that I just took to Lewes and brought back again. Oh dear. That's the sort of thing that gets academics a bad name. (Although I philosopher I know, I swear, came to work one day in odd shoes. I'm not that bad. Yet.)

So, nothing daunted, we headed back to Lewes again, and did manage to secure suitable gifts for my mother and my sister, and also went and had a look in a second hand book shop where Sebastian had told me he'd seen some canal-y books. More of an antiquarian bookshop really, very very nice, even had carpet, and lots of leather bound tomes. I wouldn't have dared set foot in a place like that when I was Baz's age. Sure enough, there were quite a few books, some of which I would have liked to buy but were a bit too dear. But I did come away with three (the videos will have to be moved to another shelf now in order to accommodate them). One is a slim 1945 volume in the Collins Britain in Pictures series (no. 84, so that must have been quite some series), English Rivers and Canals by Frank Eyre and Charles Hadfield, which I got because - surprise surprise - it has some nice pictures in. The other two are by a Dr David Owen - no, surely not THAT one! I think not, because he pointedly called himself David E Owen on one of them. They are Water Byways (1973), one of a series of three, and Exploring England by Canal (1986). These both look to be books about cruising, which I tend to prefer to books about canal building, mainly because I find them easier to relate to. I shall report in due course.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rocket Ron

Braunston flashback number 3: Ron Withy, steering Plover, towing ... oh god, I knew this at the time, I must be getting old ... go on, some one must remember. Very unusually, pictured without his trademark roll-up.

My most abiding memory of Ron however is not of his steering skill, but from last spring. I was just setting about painting Warrior's engine in the shipping container next to the water, one Sunday, I think it was, while Ron was working on Minnow's Bolinder a few yards away and it reverberated beautifully through my workshop all day, while the warmth of spring finally made its first appearance.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Book review: Voyage into England

After excoriating The Water Road, I rather rashly, on the basis on one reading, said that you should read John Seymour's Voyage into England instead. Well, I've just read it again, and I hold to that.

You know how some people have good points and bad points, and you just take agin them; and some other people have good points and bad points and you just like them? (Oh, perhaps that's just me then). Well, he has his minor bad points, but I just like Seymour. (And the comparison I'm thinking of here is not Gogarty, who has no good points, but Rolt, whom I feel I may have taken a rather unfair, but nonetheless intractable, disliking to.)

Voyage into England recounts a four month trip taken by Seymour, his wife, three daughters (all with fine monosyllabic names) and a lurcher called Esau in 1963, on a 40' British Waterways hireboat called Water Willow. Seymour describes the boat as 'the forward end of an old Grand Union steel narrowboat, which has been divorced from the after end, and both ends subsequently made into pleasure-boats. Hence Water Willow has a good-looking bow, with the efficient lines of the working narrow boat...' This pleased me immensely when I read it, and I looked forward to drawing a contrast (still not entirely undeserved) with Gogarty's tin eye, but I have subsequently discovered from extensive researches (i.e. asking on Canalworld) that the front of Water Willow was in fact the back end of a Small Woolwich butty, so must sadly concede that Seymour does not, in fact, know one end of a boat from another, but understandably so perhaps. (I'm obviously no expert, and there's only one relevant photo in the book, but looking at that and at photos of Grand Union butties' back ends, of which I have rather more than might be considered healthy, seems to confirm this.)

There are so many good, nice, things about this book. Seymour has a sense of humour, and frequently gently pokes fun at himself, although rarely at others. His enthusiasm for and enjoyment of boating shines through, despite hardly ever being explicitly stated. His affection for his family is understated, but clear, and we're left wanting to know more (rather than wishing to hear less) about them.

He doesn't patronise the reader with heavy-handed exposition, but throws us in at the deep end; we may not know the meanings of words like yawl, lee, ebb, aegre, but that doesn't matter; more important is their inherent poetry. Seymour's use of language is lovely, and effortless, so even when there is nothing particularly interesting to relate it is still a pleasure to read.

This is the secret water road through the heart of England which winds way back into England's past and will wind forward into her future, for, try as we will, we can't get rid of it. It is the road that supplanted the pack routes, and the road that made possible the Industrial Revolution. The Battle of Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton? It would be truer to say that it was won by an endless caravan of narrow boats, towed behind their horses, carrying coal to where iron was, limestone to both, and cannon and shot and shell and every manufactured thing to where they were required.

He does, occasionally, labour a point; the desirability of returning transport from road to water (preferably horse drawn), being one, and the wanton destruction of lock cottages another - but who could disagree? (Given that at the time he was writing commercial carrying was still, just about hanging onto life.) He can be ever so slightly precious; 'as part-owner of power station, canals and coalmines* I should like to know more about it.'; 'If the 'No Mooring [sign] was put there by the National Trust I, as a citizen of England, would like to know why,' etc - but there is always the redeeming possibility that these are being said tongue in cheek.

(*Note to younger readers: in 1963 all these resources were, as it was quaintly known, in public ownership.)

The account, in chapter 16, of how he goes to talk to David Hutchings and finds himself waist deep in mud, spending the entire day digging rubble out of a flooded lock alongside a gang of prisoners from Birmingham while his wife is press ganged into operating the crane, probably conveys more about Hutchings than any description could, and there is also, in the next chapter, an interview with Leslie Morton which is detailed and informative, and still entertaining and readable.

Their journey ends via a detour to the Middle Level, and it is salutary to be reminded that only forty-odd years ago many of these waterways were virtually impassable: 'The network of waterways ... was weeded up and silted, and there had been talk of closing it completely to navigation.' There is a marvellous description of the operation of Fen lighters, and this was nice, as I could actually picture the scene:

We took a slightly different route back through the Middle Level; we went to Ramsey, or as near as we could get to it, and I do not think a boat has got as near to Ramsey as that for many a long day. There is a mill at the head of the river, and a turning basin, now all silted-up. You can see where the river used to continue right along the main street, but the people of Ramsey have filled it up and made a car park of it. How foolish can you get! You only have to look at Ramsey to see that it was born to stand along two banks of a lovely river, like a little Dutch town.

Also familiar was the description of the flour mill at Wellingborough, although the 'large municipal garden on the north bank' appears to have lost its 'flowerbeds, a paddling pond, and every delight', now being a rather scrubby patch of grass and concrete separating the canal from Tescos.

Seymour, who died in 2004 aged ninety, (Guardian obit. here) went on to become better known as an environmentalist and campaigner for self sufficiency and low impact living. The attitudes and knowledge that led him to this position are clearly already in place in Voyage into England, but the book is not at all po-faced or hectoring; rather, it is, like Seymour finds boating itself, a great pleasure. It's out of print, of course, but there seem to be plenty of copies to go round on Abebooks and Amazon Marketplace. Go on, put it on your Christmas list.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Tiny town

I'm just off out, but here's a thought to ponder while I'm off learning about what it's like to be on a local authority scrutiny committee.

Jim was perusing the HNBOC membership lists earlier and said (amongst other, similar, expostulations) 'Greenlaw? What's Greenlaw?' ... Town Class, I muttered, without looking up from my Christmas wrapping (although to be honest I had thought it was a butty until I checked). 'Town?' he said (hmph hmph). 'Where is it then?' Scotland, I think, I said. 'Didn't think they had Scottish ones' said he. Good point, I thought, we'll look it up in your 1922 Lippincott's Gazetteer of the World.

And there it was, on page 729, Greenlaw, the county town of Berwick, Scotland, 18 miles WSW of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Population (albeit in 1920) about 650.

So the thought I now leave you with is this: was there a boat in the GU fleet named after a smaller town than that?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

That's a strange towel rail

Indeed it is. At the Ellesmere Port Boat Jumble last Easter we spent a long time contentedly browsing the table manned by Malcolm Braine, and came away with (among other things) some lengths of brass step edging (some of which now graces our engine room hatches); two lovely mysterious bits of brass, probably from fire irons, one of which became Warrior's tiller pin (and the other a spare), some lovely brass screw-in eyelets in various sizes (not yet allocated a task) and four beautiful, heavy, shaped brass handrails, long since removed from a boat.

Three of the handrails ware complete with brackets (well, that's the nearest term I can think of to describe them but they're not exactly brackets really). These had one screwhole in the back of them, so would have needed to be bolted through from behind. However, Jim attached them to some drilled steel plates so they can be screwed to surfaces more conventionally. One of these has become the rail above the stove in the back cabin, where it looks brilliant, and the dog-leg kicks perfectly around the table cupboard. The other two will probably be fixed to the ceiling beneath the engine room roof hatch - partly for a bit of security, but also because it should look really nice, and will be useful for hanging things from to dry.

The fourth rail had one of its ends broken, so we gritted our teeth and broke the other one off too, just leaving the end cap, and fixed it up using big brass pipe clips. Voila, one fantastic, and distinctively curvy, brass towel rail. I love finding new uses for old objects like this.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

So close

But not close enough. Braunston flashback no. 2. This was a fantastic scene - a (very) little boy steering the boat while his dad did the washing up. I was just in the wrong place to get a decent shot at it. Very disappointing.

Put the two together and you get an idea of the scene - but textbook examples of awful photos. And these were the best of an even worse lot. But I can't resist posting them all the same. He's so sweet! So cool and confident, and really steering, in a very tight situation. And see how his dad trusts him - or at least gives a very good impression of doing so - calmly getting on with his domestic task.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Book review: The Water Road

It's ages since I've done a book review, and they're queuing up to be skewered. Paul Gogarty's 2002 tome The Water Road: A Narrowboat Odyssey Through England is still available if you want to spend twice the cover price. My advice, despite seven out of eight Amazon reviewers giving it five stars (thank god for Granny Buttons, the two-star voice of sanity) is don't, don't, don't. Don't waste money buying this book. Maybe, just maybe, if you have plenty to spare, waste a little time reading it. But you may never be quite the same afterwards, and not in a good way.

Every generation has had its waterways inspiration, from Temple Thurston, through Rolt, and now, I suspect, Waterworld. Gogarty, I think, casts himself in this mould, almost to the point of pastiche, introducing the delights of the 'water road' as he finally plumps upon calling it, to his readers almost as he discovers them himself. But he just isn't in their league. More mawkish than Rolt, but lacking any hint of his redeeming passion; more flowery than Temple Thurston, but without the dry wit, Gogarty achieves the impossible in this book: he makes a narrowboat journey around England boring and pedestrian.

Part of the trouble is that he is too honest - or possibly self absorbed. So we (and many of his interlocuters along the way) get the details of how he got the commission to write the book, and how he was paid an advance; we get his family worries (what the hell does his father in law's illness have to do with the canals of England?), and we get him baring his soul to us about his relationship with his son in a way that had me reaching for the metaphorical bucket. I suppose we should be warned by the jacket blurb, which tells us that this is 'both a celebration of a secret England and a powerful personal odyssey, in which the author marks his own rite of passage.' Well, if I wanted to read about someone's personal odyssey, I'd be looking on the misery-lit shelves, not the travel ones.

His potentially interesting, and obviously set-up, encounters with the diverse and sometimes historically significant characters he meets en route are by and large a wasted opportunity. We hear as much of what he says to them as what they have to tell him (and through him, us). His attempts to render dialect really don't come off either, and his supposed direct quoting of conversation sounds terribly stilted and really doesn't ring true. His breathless present tense (as noted by Andrew in his Amazon review) also very quickly becomes wearing, and he does not wear his newly-acquired knowledge lightly, but rather hammers it home in a way that could be patronising to a reader with even a modicum of interest in the subject.

Another minor, and personal, annoyance is his extreme tendency to anthropomorphise his hired boat, which isn't even a particularly nice one. He has no eye for boats (I said this was a personal gripe) and not much of one for architecture or even scenery. (I've said this before, but I would pay good money to read an account of a comparable journey by Bill Bryson, a writer who has both the eye and the ear, not to mention the sense of humour, that Gogarty so painfully lacks.)

What has this book got going for it? I grudgingly concede that it does contain some information, both geographical and historical, albeit conveyed in a consistently heavy-handed manner. If you're into soul baring personal odysseys (complete with sanctimonious pontificating on crime, racism, etc etc) by obscure travel journalists, with a bit of waterways action thrown in, then this is just the book for you.

If not, then read Narrow Boat; for all its faults worth a thousand of The Water Road; if you want a warm and humorous (IIRC) odyssey through the waterways of England, read John Seymour's Voyage into England. The trouble with Gogarty, at the end of the day, is that he's too absorbed in himself to really be enjoying it - and if he isn't, how can we?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Another blog on the side

Yes, I admit it. I've finally given in to temptation... and ... I've (this isn't easy for me, but I must be strong) ... I've...

I've started another blog.

There. Now I've said it. Well, you know it had been coming for a long time. Those odd little posts about Newhaven that I hoped no one would notice .. I can't keep it secret any longer. Better to get it out in the open. I'm a two-blog blogger.

I'd been thinking for ages about having a Newhaven blog, especially on the occasions when I've been wandering around town. There are so many things I'd like to speculate on, shout about, and just generally tell the world about, and I finally decided to do it on Friday, when I went to the tenth anniversary celebration of the local community development association, of which I was a founder member. Mainly it was because no one else seemed particularly interested in doing it. It would be nice for there to be more than one, of course (and there may be others, but if there are I haven't found them yet), and have parallel running commentaries on what's happening around the place.

But rest assured, Warrior will always come first. I'm not even sure myself how long it will last with the new one. If no one reads it, I may not bother (whereas nb Warrior has always had a function - now probably secondary - of being a record of progress with the boat, and it has proven to be a very valuable one, and easy to maintain to boot).

Oh, you want to have a look at it? Oh, all right then. Here it is.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


I may be a cheerful old atheist, but I do like Christmas. Hell, I don't even mind calling it Christmas (after all we get to use a version of the pagan term for Easter); in fact, anything else just wouldn't be Christmassy enough. At work this year we are having a Winter Solstice party. Good idea. After all, every culture contrives to have a festival around this time of year on some pretext or another; you just need one when the days are cold and the nights are long. If it was down to me though I'd make it a little bit later... the rest of the winter after Christmas does drag the worst.

I do like choosing presents for people (and OK, I admit it, I like opening presents other people have given me too), and writing my IWA cards. I like putting the decorations up (a pre-Christian tradition, of course) and having a lovely pine scented real tree. It was even better when we used to get the tree from Jack's in Brighton, as he transformed his forestry business into a magical Christmassy world... sadly no more, and we now have to get the tree wherever we can.
And I love my advent calendar. I can't remember when I first had this, so it must be about forty years old. It comes out every year, held together with ancient flaking old sellotape and more recently blu-tack. I've never seen another one like it, and I can't imagine why. It would be such a lovely gift for a child. It's a pop-up stable, with a sort of primary school play Mary and Joseph and a rag doll Jesus already in situ. The doors are all cut outs in the straw-strewn stable floor, and each day you open one of them to stand upright (nowadays with the aid of a discreet blob of blu-tack) and another character joins the happy throng. They're mostly animals, with a smattering of cherubs and shepherd boys, all drawn in that recognisably sixties style. Then after Christmas you just close them all down again, fold it away, and it's ready for another year. No chocolates, nothing to throw away.

I know without looking now what each day's arrival is. Today it's a little blonde cherub. At least, I always assumed it was female, like you do - although of course actual biblical angels are all male, aren't they? But it may well actually be a little blond cherub. Like this one.