Tuesday, October 28, 2008

High tide, low bridge

I noticed yesterday that the tide was particularly high as I walked to the station, but it was still a surprise to see this this morning. I suppose it's quite unusual for a boat like this to want to come so far up the river as most would be based in the marina further down, but there are boatyards and moorings all around Denton Island, so I guess that was where they were heading. They seemed a little put out at not being able to get under the bridge, pacing the deck and talking into a mobile. Normally, I'd imagine, they would have got under without any problem. This was at 10 o'clock, and the bridge was due to open at 10.30, presumably for a ship to come in as I couldn't see one waiting to go out. Perhaps they sneaked through then.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Meet the new...

... Marketing Officer of the Camden Canals and Narrowboat Association. Yep, as of last Tuesday I am officially a committee member with responsibility for marketing Tarporley both in its primary function as a facility for community groups, and also to private hirers to subsidise this core work. On the plus side, I know, from my previous political life, a bit about dealing with the media, writing press releases and so on. I guess I can scrub up and glad hand with the best of them. And I do of course bring terrifying enthusiasm to the job. On the other hand, I shall be on a very steep learning curve when it comes to identifying and working with community groups in London. There's also the rest of the committee and the organisation to get to grips with, and I need to have a few ideas worked out to report to the committee at the next meeting on Tuesday week.

But it will all be worthwhile because this Saturday I get my mitts on Tarporley again, when they are running another training session. Once my CRB check comes through I shall be able to go as crew on hirings and start to tick the things I can do off a list, and when I've ticked them all off (I think this is how it works) I can take a test and get qualified under the auspices of the Community Boating Association. With this qualification you can only skipper a maximim of twelve passengers, but the alternative is the MCA professional qualification which would be over the top, and presumably far too expensive for an organisation like CCNA. And probably not nearly as much fun. I've been very pleasantly surprised so far by how laid back it all is - no lifejackets, for example, thank goodness.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The ruin of many a poor boy

This, apparently, is where it all began, even before I was born; the slow but inexorable process that turned me from a mild mannered mum whose idea of exercise was turning the pages of a book, into the windlass wielding, rivet-counting boat groupie you see before you today.

It's 1960. A ruddy looking but inwardly nervous fourteen year old boy has, because of his father's job, just moved house for the third time in as many years. This time he's many miles away from the corner of Sussex where he grew up, and far from his friends and his newly-married older sister. He has just started his third year at secondary school, in his third new school in as many years: a new-fangled comprehensive, the biggest school in the country. Coming from a small old fashioned grammar school (although he didn't like that either), that's a bit of a shock to the system.

Missing the open Sussex countryside where he grew up, he gravitates towards the canal. He's never seen one before, but he's immediately fascinated. He sits on the bench outside the pub, every day after school, and watches the boats go by. Does he ever speak to them? He can't remember, but he was probably too shy. This is his abiding memory of his time in Berkhamsted; he can't remember where it was he lived, but he can remember watching the boats from the bench outside the Rising Sun.

Then after a year, it's time to move again, back to Sussex. He's pleased to go, but there's one thing he will miss. Maybe he doesn't realise at the time quite how much those boats will haunt him. He might not think about them for years on end, but some time, maybe forty years later, he will not only remember, but he'll do something about realising this dream he's always harboured, to own a boat like that.

And by then of course, he'll be married to me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jam 'Ole fun

Canal transport was a long time a-dying. It might be possible to date the start of its decline to the hubristic expansion of the Grand Union fleet in the 1930s - itself a response to a changing landscape. By the time the war was over, and the major fleets had been nationalised (compulsorily in the case of G.U.; voluntarily for others like FMC) it was clear which way the wind was blowing.

By the sixties there were no more big fleets, just some hardy individuals and a few small companies operating on what we would now call a new business model, picking up mainly short term contracts wherever they could. One of, if not the, last of these contracts was for the delivery of coal from Atherstone to a jam factory at Bull's Bridge - the famous Jam 'Ole. The ending of this contract in 1970 is generally taken to mark the very end of commercial canal carrying in Britain, certainly by narrow boat.

And sometimes, some people with old boats like to get together and re-enact this last journey, trying to preserve the techniques that would have been used for the efficient, and above all, quick, passage of locks and the handling of pairs of boats. Sometimes in the past they have annoyed people, for example, by not slowing down for moored boats, shock horror. This I wanted to see.

But then last year the organiser announced that he wasn't going to organise it any more. One of the reasons was that the former boatmen and women who had previously participated were becoming too old. I was very sad to hear this. And then earlier this year I read in the Historic Narrowboat Owners Club newsletter that someone else had taken on the mantle of organising the event, and that it would take place this year.

And so it came to be. In fact, this year's Jam 'Ole Run has been very small and low key, with only about eight boats taking part and, sadly for me, no pairs. However, Tom (for that is his name) is hoping to have a much bigger one in 2010, for the 40th anniversary.

Undaunted, we set off yesterday to try to catch up with the boats in a convenient spot and watch and drool from the towpath. It was of course quite hard to get up to date information about how far they had got, but we were confident of catching them if we got to Berkhamsted at lunchtime. This we duly did, and began to walk up the towpath. After three quarters of an hour, almost magically, a lock gate opened in front of us and we saw this:

Warbler and Stanton. It turned out that we had in fact missed all the other boats, and these two were behind having been delayed by engine problems. But what a stroke of luck for us! Ros and Phil and Laura and Peter accepted offers of assistance from two total strangers, lent us their windlasses and let us ride on their boats all afternoon. Ros even let me steer Warbler for a bit and I think Jim got a go on Stanton. The weather (unlike the previous day) was perfect. The only other boats we saw moving, both coming the other way, were also old boats, which made it almost perfect: Bletchley and Argus, the coal boats; and Hesperus towing Bude.

We jumped ship at Apsley at six o'clock, because I had to be back in London. Ros and co thanked us for our assistance, but I have to say that the pleasure was entirely ours.

There are some more photos here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How long has that been like that?

When we visited Warrior the other week we discovered a second thing that needed repairing following our grand tour. In order to paint the back cabin ceiling (the dark graining being such a hit that we decided to redo the lot), Jim disconnected the gear linkage. At which point he discovered that where the vertical lever connects to the gearbox itself, the rod was actually broken, and had just been sitting in the casting. To be honest, we have no idea how long it had been broken, but it might account for why we felt there was a bit of play in it, and I wasn't always definitely sure whether or not it was in gear (e.g. reverse when trying to stop).

There is a cast connection on the gearbox which is a cup, into which the vertical rod fits. This in turn is linked to the horizontal rod that runs along the cabin ceiling and terminates in the handle which we push and pull. The vertical rod is made of brass, and is threaded at its lower end; it screwed into the casting. It's broken at the top the thread.

The threaded part is pretty near impossible to remove, so the most likely solution will be to splint it with a smaller rod on the inside. Hopefully this will make the gear change more positive and definite.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Then two come along at once...

I went to a reception last night. It was for the relaunch of the Raphael Samuel History Centre. I'm not a historian, and I'm not really sure why I went, except that I thought there might be decent grub (there wasn't, although the wine was about two grades above the usual paintstripper).

But as the various speakers introduced the centre and what it does, and the archive and what it covers - among other things, East End history - light bulbs started to come on in my head. My first thought was, maybe they have some canal-related stuff. My second, when they started talking about their work with 10-14 year-olds, trying to get them interested in history, was could this be my first marketing success for the Camden Canals and Narrowboat Association. After the speeches I made a beeline for the education person and pitched her the idea of taking their schoolkids on a historic boat through historic east London. My geography, hazy at the best of times, was already sufferering the effects of the wine, but I managed to throw in casual mentions of Hackney and Limehouse and she seemed to think it was a great idea.

Then I was looking at the display boards about the historian's life and another woman engaged me in conversation about who I was and why I was there, so I mentioned my interest in that side of things, and she said, oh, you must meet my mother, her partner has a share in an ex-working boat. It turned out that her mother was there too! So I had a lovely chat with her (as far as it was possible to chat given the dreadful acoustic in the room; I was quite hoarse by the end). The boat in question was Fulbourne, which has long been a favourite of mine; I like its unshininess. Anna seemed quite keen for me to come along as a bit of female company next time she was out with the boat, which is a rather exciting prospect, if it comes off.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


In order to be let loose on the Brownies of Camden, I've had to apply for a CRB check. No, I never thought I'd see the day either. The things we do for love. So far it has turned out to be relatively painless - although, as far as I can see, not particularly criminal-proof. I am also not inspired with confidence by the experience of a colleague who in response to his application was sent the details of someone with the same first name and surname, but different middle name, date of birth and address, and a record as long as his arm.

Nonetheless, I have found one cause for complaint in the guidance notes:

[Section C, Item 20, 'Surname at birth (if different)']
'If you have entered "Mrs" or "Ms" in Section A, Item 1 [i.e. 'title', in main name and address section], please enter your surname at birth, even if it is the same as provided at Section A, Item 2 [i.e. 'surname', in main name and address section]

The reasoning is presumably that people with the title Mrs or Ms are likely to have at some point been married, and most women, unnaccountably, still change their name upon marrying. So these are people who are likely to have changed their name at some point in their life. But the form allows for that by the wording 'name at birth (if different)'; there is also a section that asks for any other names you might have had over the course of your life. You'd think it was all covered. Secondly, there are lots of other people who might have changed their names, for all sorts of reasons, but they're not required to do this.

I can only conclude that the rationale is this: married women are not the only people who might have changed their name, but they are they only ones who are likely to have forgotten that they were once called something different and thus need to be required to write it down anyway.

There may be another reason, to do with the technicalities of the recording of a person changing their name on marriage, but in that case, why not say 'if you are a woman who is or has been married'? Or better still, why not just ask everyone for their 'surname at birth' and scrap the 'if different'. Then they would get the information they wanted about everyone without making married women a special case.

Making it dependent on the title they've entered in Section 1 is hardly foolproof anyway; these titles don't carry strict definitions. Married or not, I was always Ms (when someone demanded a title to fill in their box), whereas I know a divorced woman who calls herself Miss.

I know it's trivial, but these little things are symptomatic of an attitude that still needs challenging.

As it does say 'if different' and I have not entered either 'Mrs' or 'Ms' in Section A, Item 1, I have rather cheekily left Section C, Item 20 blank. I shall stick to the letter of the law, if they want to write the law so badly.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The other Warrior returns

It turns out that my friend Andante Mike is a bit of a dark horse - ever since April he's been blogging Zulu Warrior and I only found out this morning from Granny Buttons. If Andrew adds it to the boatroll, it can snatch from Zindagi the prized place at the bottom of the alphabetical list, a position once held by Warrior, before another six boats (and four non-boat sites with 'water' in their names) intervened.

Mike only links to two other blogs at the moment and one of then is this one! In another little twist, having arrived at his new mooring at Middlewich, he finds Andante - once owned by him, and then by me, which is how we met; sold by me to one Captain Haddock (not, ahem, his real name), who changed her name to Saxon and sold her again - moored two miles away.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Such things as dreams are made of

For most boat bloggers, the dream come true is when they finally get the boat of their own. To be honest, that wasn't something I ever got much time to dream about; it just sort of crept up on me. Certainly, I've whiled away many happy hours thinking about how I would alter a boat, or wondering what it would be like to own this one, or that one. Certainly I dream of living on a boat again (for real this time), but that - at least for now - really is more of an idle dream than a realisable ambition type one.

But one desire that has long burned within me was, suddenly and unexpectedly, fulfilled yesterday. I GOT TO STEER A TOWN CLASS BOAT! OK, it wasn't a Big Woolwich (yes, totally irrational preference, I know), but it was the very next best thing. (Oh, it wasn't unconverted either, but at least I still have something to look forward to.)

This is how it happened.

Last Monday, less than a week ago, my friend and colleague Clementina was telling me about going to the opening of Kings Place, the (actually rather nice) new development at Kings Cross, which backs onto the canal and Battlebridge Basin; in particular about the trips they were running on, and the possibility of hiring, the Camden Community Narrowboat. Oh yes, I said; Tarporley, and reeled off a few of its vital statistics. I later sent her the photos of Warrior and Tarporley in the lock together last August. But I didn't know you could hire it privately, so I had a quick Google to check their website.

Before I knew it, I was clicking on the 'volunteers' link, and five minutes later, emailing them. Usually, when you email a voluntary organisation to offer your services, you hear nothing for weeks, if at all. I initially offered to help with admin and paperwork; and maybe a bit of cleaning so that I could actually get to touch the boat. I'd kind of thought that steering would be reserved for a time-served elite. Well, I got a reply within the hour, saying firstly, that they were looking for someone to help with marketing, and would I be interested in that - now that was a stroke of luck for a start, because that's something I reckoned I could probably make quite a good fist of. He went on to say that they had been planning a 'hands-on' day for Saturday, but that it had been cancelled owing to gearbox problems.

But then on Friday, an email arrived saying that the gearbox was fixed and the 'training day' was now back on. Such was my excitement I could hardly sleep that night. I turned up at the appointed hour, and made my way through the very swish cafe/box office area of Kings Place (I suppose it's no wonder I feel kindly disposed towards it) and out through another set of doors onto the canalside, where Tarporley has returned to its permanent mooring after an absence of three years. If you look at the aerial photo on their website, this would be on the right hand side. And there it was, large as life and with Dave sitting in the well deck. It turned out that because of the earlier cancellation, only one of the other new volunteers was able to come, and as the second crew member called in sick at the last minute, there was only Dave, Kerryn and me. How enourously fortunate was that, from our point of view? To cap it all, the sun shone all day.

Our training trip took us from Battlebridge to Little Venice, taking in four locks and the Maida Hill tunnel. As Kerryn had very little previous boating experience and none of manual locks, I did the locks on the way out. When we got to Little Venice and were about to tie up in the Pool (in the privileged spot where it says 'No unauthorised mooring'), there was a brief crisis when Dave put it in reverse and the throttle stuck. This was eventually remedied with a sharp kick, but not before I'd seen my chance of steering flash before my eyes.

I got there in the end though, and I was in heaven. I had warned Dave that my steering was generally reckoned to be fairly abysmal, but the practice has obviously done me some good as at least I knew what to do. In fact, it was no more difficult, technically, and possibly even easier, than steering Warrior. Where it was harder was in simple terms of the physical force and strength required. At first Dave was handling the controls and I just the tiller, but I asked if I could have a go of the controls, and once he let me do that, and I could actually stand comfortably on the step instead of behind him, it was a bit easier. I liked the gear wheel a lot once I got the hang of hauling it round; the speedwheel was sort of familiar, but turns the opposite way to Warrior's, and there's a lot more play before it starts to take effect, and rather less after. But I was very pleased by how quickly I made the transition, and it didn't feel at all odd handling this great beast of a boat once I got myself comfortable.

Does life really get much better than steering a Big Northwich through Camden Lock on a sunny Saturday afternoon?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Do I really need a dishwasher?

It has been my wont, in the past, top be sniffy about people who require all mod cons on their boats. My venom has, however, been somewhat muted when it has come to the subject of dishwashers. Not because I would ever have one on a boat, but because I have long had, and sworn by, one at home, and it would be hypocritical to criticise someone who was living on a boat for having one in their home.

Now, however, I am not so sure. Since going off on Warrior in August, I seem to have developed a taste for washing up by hand. I can see many advantages. You don't need so many plates, mugs and glasses if you wash them up three at a time rather than waiting until the dishwasher is full. There is no doubt (and here I am recanting a long-asserted claim) that often, for a range of reasons, the dishwasher doesn't actually get things clean. And after a while it leaves watermarks on glasses. The very filthiest things have to be soaked and scrubbed anyway. As for the environmental impact - I have clung perilously to the argument that used in certain ways, a dishwasher can be more economical in terms of time and energy than hand washing. But the circumstances in which this is true are surely very limited. When you wash up by hand, you alsio have a sinkful of hot soapy water to wash down the worktop and wipe the table, so avoiding running the tap and using sprays. Lastly, I found I actually really didn't like the task of emptying the dishwasher and putting the stuff away. Too much at once. Whereas a few bits on the draining rack can be popped away while waiting for the kettle to boil, efficiently drained and without dribbles of cold rinsing water running down your arm. No filters to clean, no expensive salt/rinse aid/tablets to buy; another 600mm of space in the kitchen. Truly, I am a dishwasher apostate.

This would be the latest in a long line of kitchen appliances I have decided I can do without, mostly since taking up boating. First to go was the microwave, when I needed the counter space for an enamel breadbin purchased at my first IWA Festival. Not missed at all. Then the toaster, when it fused the house for the last time. If the grill's good enough to make toast on the boat, it's good enough at home. The TV (not a kitchen appliance, I know, at least not in my house) went four years ago when we concluded that the programmes weren't worth the price of the licence - it was an experiment, but it worked. The tumble drier wasn't replaced when it gave up the ghost - I always felt a bit guilty about that anyway.

Now we are also seriously wondering if we actually need a freezer. Our old fridge freezer is very scabby looking and no doubt highly inefficient, so we are keeping our eyes open for a newer second hand fridge. We were planning to get a separate freezer, but... all there is in there at the moment is half a packet of peas. Would we miss the ice cubes and ice cream in the summer? With a small supermarket five minutes' walk away, could we find a better use for the space and the electricity?

That then led me to think, what else might we do without? A cooker is, I think, pretty vital, and a washing maching would be hard to do without. Ditto a fridge - I didn't have one on Andante and it's the one thing I really did feel the lack of. Our electric kettle is over ten years old and still going strong (Rowenta, if you're interested). I'd like to think I'd have a stove top one when the time came to replace it, but it would probably cost at least six times as much. I bought an electric kettle for the office in Woolworths a while ago for less than a fiver. It's obscene, I know, but it's also a perfectly adequate kettle.

But there's one kitchen appliance I don't think I will ever give up, and it's one many might think would be low down the list of essentials. It's also the one thing where I would never accept an inferior imitation: my Magimix. My first one was bought for 50p at a jumble sale. When the lid (always the weak point) broke, I couldn't replace it because the model was obsolete. I was all set to fork out £200 for a new one, but then I found a second hand one in the local paper and got it for £85 - brand new and with all the peripherals. The thing with Magimixes, that makes them superior to other food processors, is that they not only have very powerful motors (that's why they're so heavy and so expensive) but also that they're direct drive: no gears to wear out. I use mine nearly every day, from making breakfast smoothies through teatime cakes, to chopping onions and pureeing soup. I could live without it, but I'm glad I don't have to. Yet.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


One of the many things in this month's Canal Boat that made me shout, or in this case, emit an agonised yelp. It should have been a helpful article about the BSS - but it's written to be shock horror sensationalist rather than useful, and in the sanctimonious tone that is my especial bugbear.

What the caption should have said, of course, is 'Old stove needs to be thoroughly overhauled and repaired before being refitted correctly at a safe distance from walls protected by heatproof board.' Then I would have just sighed contentedly.

That stove is lovely. The idea that it should be scrapped just because it's 'old' and 'loose fitting' is wicked. Maybe it does have other, irreparable faults - but they're not mentioned. Instead readers are told by implication that 'old' is by definition dangerous and only 'new' is safe - and the majority will believe it, or at least will take the easiest, least thought provoking, route to peace of mind.

Life is so depressing sometimes.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Monday, October 06, 2008

It's Mystery Photo time!

It was Jim's birthday last week. I bought him a magnet. My sister sent him this card, which bears the amusing caption Mind the swans! but no information as to its whereabouts. All I can say is that I don't think it's somewhere we've been; it doesn't look immediately familiar. Over to you.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Through the good offices of CWF (I know, I really should get out more) I learn that my beloved Gazelle is based (very closely, it would appear) on a steam tunnel tug called Buffalo. Someone was so kind as to find me a photo of the original, clearly admiring itself in the mirror. And why not.

Friday, October 03, 2008

My favourite graffiti

On the Regent's Canal, August 2008

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Mists and mellow etc

Taking a wander around the marina on my way to the shops on Saturday morning, I didn't take the camera with me. But I had my phone, which now I'm getting the hang of it, isn't at all bad in that respect. So lots of scenic autumnal pictures in store, if nothing more exciting happens. I'm rationing them to one a day as things are likely to be a bit slow at the moment.