Sunday, August 31, 2008

The end of the line


First thought on getting home and re-entering my kitchen: My word, that sink's a long way away.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Uxbridge: not so bad really

Uxbridge has one of those unfortunate names, like Huddersfield (or Kidderminster, or Scunthorpe) that makes you fear the worst before you even get there. Approaching by canal, it certainly isn't pretty (but then handsome is as handsome does), but I went into the town this morning and it wasn't at all bad. For a start, there weren't loads of boarded up shops, and only a couple of charity shops (to my disappointment, not having been in one for a month). There was a good variety of shops - the place was bigger than I'd expected - and a church, and two (not one but two) covered arcades into which I did not venture. At any rate, it was better than Hertford, and much better than I expected.

There are lots of pubs too. We quite liked the look of the Crown and Treaty, where apparently they have interesting panelling, but as they don't do food at weekends (!?) we ended up in the canalside Swan and Bottle, a Chef and Brewer outfit in honour of which I have coined a new word: ersatzmosphere. Good, huh? I wouldn't have known that all the beams were fake, the carefully aged brickwork new (but Jim pointed out that they were metric bricks. Did you even know there was such a thing?); the real old wood imported and the artfully randomised selection of chairs just that, other than it was an almost identikit copy of the Bridge at Clayhythe on the Cam. San fairy ann, at least the beer was good, if a trifle too cold: just the way I like it - unlike at Clayhythe where it had bits floating in it - and the food was passable, and we had a nice farewell (for me at any rate) drink with Amy and James.

The rest of the day was on the face of it uneventful, except .... the sun shone! Actually shone. Not just and absence of rain and of biting force seven winds, but blue skies and actual hot sun. The sun has not shone like this since day one of the trip, exactly one calendar month ago. Although to be fair, it hasn't actually rained since we got off the Thames; I think there's a meaning in that somewhere. So I just sat in the sun all day, moving my chair around the boat to make the most of it. Conventional holiday behaviour at last, on my very final day.

Bloody hell, I'm going to miss it. Even at our lowest points, I never thought 'I'd rather be at home.'

Friday, August 29, 2008

What did that used to be?

Day 31, Little Venice to Uxbridge

We've just rediscovered our Waterways World guide to the Grand Union, to complement the Nicholsons. And in many ways, it's better. It doesn't have the wealth of (mainly redundant) Ordnance Survey detail that Nicholsons does, but it has far more useful things, like bridge numbers (inexplicably, Nicholsons goes to all the trouble of squeezing in the bridges' names, which is of no use whatsoever, but doesn't give the numbers) and telling you which pub is which when there are six different ones on the page. The mapping is more diagrammatic, and clearer as a result, and it has much more interesting historical snippets.

Today has very much been a day of 'what did that used to be?', starting with the Jason's Trip boat in Little Venice this morning (almost certainly FMC Portugal, according to today's steerer, but still with an outside chance of having been France. Over a hundred years old, it's been a trip bot for more than half its life).

Along the stretch we travelled tday, there were lots of disused, or in some cases tarted up, wharves and basins, all of which at one time must have been bustling with boats being loaded and unloaded. Trusting to Jim's interpretation of the WW guide, this unremarkable stretch of bank was the site of famous 'Jam 'Ole'; the destination of the last regular narrowboat traffic (coal from Atherstone), which ended in 1970. Can there really be no more to show for it than that? Was I looking in the right place?

Tescos at Bulls Bridge, which until the mid-90s was a BW maintenance depot, and before that GUCCCo's main depot, was too depressing even to photograph (although I must confess, far to useful to pass without bestowing our custom). The dry dock, restored at the time of the development - I guess as some kind of placatory gesture on Tescos' part - was looking in a sorry and neglected state.

I just wish I could put on some magic glasses or something and see these places as they were. Obviously it would be hypocritical to want to turn the clock back, because if commercial traffic was still thriving, then we wouldn't be here, and maybe it's true that things are all round better these days. But I would so love to, just temporarily, see, hear and smell it as it used to be. At least it's recent enough that we have film of those days, which moves me in a way that no other historical material does.

On a more cheerful note (though maybe not) this rather splendid heron used to be litter floating in the canal.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Birdwatching

Day 30, Little Venice

I've spent nearly all of today siting on the foredeck, not exactly soaking up the sun, because it was very overcase, but it wasn't raining, and I sat there in my now very grubby hippy jumper soaking up the Little Venice atmosphere and generally getting rather pensive.

I go home on Sunday, you see. I told work I'd be gone a month, and I've promised them that I'll be back on Monday. A brilliant plan has been hatched to allow Jim to continue without me, in the company of Lucky Duck. Thus he gets help with locks and stuff and doesn't have to face the Nene single handed, and they get back-up and towage should it be required, and hopefully peace of mind if it's not. They're here in Little Venice now, and we'll meet up again in Uxbridge on Saturday night. Jim has been reading the Nicholsons and WW guides, and tactlessly wondering about the Blisworth Tunnel and how many locks to Northampton. But never mind; I will do the GU one day, as I always intended, in one fell swoop from Brentford to Birmingham.

I amused myself with a little birdwatching, anthropormorphising the coots (Mum: Here, I've brought you a nice twig. I thought it would look nice on your wall there. Teenage son coot: God mother, you're so lame, what do I want a stupid twig for? Can you get me some food? I'm starving. Later... Mum: Look! I've found a lovely bit of red plastic. I thought it would brighten up that corner over there. TSC: What would I want a crappy old bit of plastic for? It's not even new. Can you get me some food? I'm starving. Mum: Not until you've tidied your room. It looks like the council tip in here. What is that under your bed?). Then some interesting brown ducks came along, and were chased away by the coots, then a pair of swans came swanning up looking for all the world like the Kray twins (Nice little nest you've got there Mrs Coot. Wouldn't want anything nasty happening to it now, would we. Rough area, this... Mrs Coot: Nice? It's a bloody tip. You'd be doing me a favour. I'm surprised Waterways haven't towed it away. Rough? Maida bloody Vale? I should cocoa.)

I also observed a BW litter removal boat. I saw one yesterday, with a big sort of basket on the front that presumably collected the rubbish and precipitated it backwards into a bin, but today's employed the far more effective approach of a man with a big shrimping net.

Off again tomorrow. Uxbridge awaits, and I must finish my packing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Some random recollections


Day 29, Clapton to Little Venice

I like Little Venice. I want to stay here forever. Sadly however the moorings are only fourteen days, so that puts paid to that. We got back here mid afternoon, and found another boat to tie up to. Only two deep this time, not three like on Saturday. We've met up with Megan and Dean from work, and I very daringly mentioned that on my way to ascertain the exact whereabouts of the tube station (it pays to check these things in advance, if you're me) I'd spotted a pub. Could I find it again? Much to everyone's surprise, yes. Was it any good? Again, yes - three real ales, nice stained and etched glass, and not packed. And, did they do food? Amazingly, not only yes, but Wednesday nights are steak nights, with steak and chips (and not at all bad at that) for £6.95. The Warwick Castle, it was, either in or just off Warwick Avenue. (Well, you surely don't expect me to remember exactly where).

So we didn't have a long journey today, but we did get to share a lock with a Town Class boat (Tarporley), which was nice. They were on their way to pick up a party of Brownies at the Canal Museum. We get to see all the trip boats, including the famous Waterbus, Milton, whose new RN and its problems were oft-cited as an alternative call on Compo's attentions when they were tarting on ours. This is always greeted with the cry of 'Waterboos' in a cod-Compo accent.

Having Vicky and Craig with us on Saturday obscured how downright impossible some of these bottom gates are, so I have developed a new talent, of shamelessly asking passers by for assistance. E.g. Me: You couldn't give me a hand with this gate could you? Innocent passer by: What do I have to do? Me: Er, push it...

And I fished a very nice and almost brand new broom out of the disused side of Old Ford Lock. Jim was rather disgusted, until I pointed out that it was only the aquatic equivalent of getting things out of skips. And it does scrub awfully well.

From this mooring we have a grandstand view of a coots' nest, built in a tyre which is being used as a fender by the houseboat opposite. The nest is mainly built out of rubbish, with the occasional leaf, but they don't seem to know when to stop. Whatever one of the pair finds, it insists that the other add it to the pile. Even the baby has joined in, dragging bits of plastic bag over. I don't think there'll be room for them in it soon. But isn't that just like us and our houses?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Role reversal

Day 28, Broxbourne to Clapton

True to my word of yesterday, I did all the steering today, eight hours' worth, and have a whole new set of aching muscles to show for it (my locking muscles now apparently being in peak condition). I negotiated eleven locks, including setting down and picking up Jim at many of them, and nothing terrible happened. I have a new bete noire: people with narrow boats who open both gates and then leave them both open for me. If I can get a boat through one gate, then surely anyone can, and these Lee gates are absolute bastards; big, badly balanced and with relatively short beams. I think Jim was a trifle taken aback at what being not-steerer involves; not only locks locks locks but also in between making tea, making lunch, washing up... I did make dinner though (lentils again).

Stonebridge Lock, as we discovered on the way up, is semi out of comission while BW investigate water loss issues. It's one of three or four paired locks, of which one of each pair is electric. At Stonebridge, the electric one isn't working, but the manual one is. But it's not ordinary manual, it's all windlass-operated hydraulics, including the gates. Each paddle was eighty-five turns in each direction, and I never even counted the gates. At least on the way back it started in our favour - albeit with both gates open - unlike when I did it on the way up. The next one, Ponders End (Yes! It's a real place and it has a lock), is a similar set up. When we got there, trying to remember which side to use, a broad beam was just going in on the manual side. They told us that they had been in the electric one but had to reverse out again because it wasn't working. I didn't like to go and check straight away in front of them, but we knew it was working the day before yesterday, and the thought of doing another one, and having to turn it first, was too much to bear so I went and had a quiet poke about. Well, it seemed to me to be working OK, so we bravely sailed in. And it did work. It's just that once you press the button for the paddles, they take their own sweet time. I'm afraid it was a nice feeling sailing out after five minutes past the broadbeam who had been in there half an hour (they weren't particularly pleasant people).

So here we are in deepest Hackney; well, Clapton, we reckon, which I believe is very much on the up and the new Hoxton, so that's OK then, as long as the demolition works don't start up again too early tomorrow morning.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Skills

Day 27, Waltham Town Lock to Hertford, and back to Broxbourne.

Nothing very exciting happened today, so I worked a little on expanding my skillset (that's the latest new buzzword in the world of education, don't you know, although what education (as opposed to training) has to do with skills, I don't know. Ask the government).

Now, locks I can do. After a few years of practice I can do locks upside down and in my sleep, like a well oiled machine. I can climb up and down slimey ladders (very useful on the Nene where the landing stages are the size of matchboxes) and as of today can walk across top gates even without a handrail.
I am also quite good with ropes. I can coil them so they don't tie themselves in knots (whereas Jim, mysteriously, can make them tie themselves in knots very impressively). I can throw them at bollards with a fair degree of success, and I can tie a boatman's hitch, about which I am quite (but generally unsuccessfully) evangelical. Frankly I think that this alone should make up for any shortcomings.

I can steer, going forwards, with some facility now, and I can go backwards in a straight line. What I still cannot do, much to my chagrin, is manouevre with any degree of subtlety. If you are awkward enough to want the boat in a particular place, particularly if this is a place we have already passed, then I am not your woman. I had another go this afternoon. Oh yes, I merrily trilled, I am a little tired after all those dreadfully heavy locks, so on the way back I shall steer and you can have the opportunity to improve your locking skills... Well, after two locks I was practically begging to apply my bruised sacrum to the Lee Navigation's recalcitrant gates again. Once in the lock I was fine - backwards and forwards; no problem. It was the picking up and dropping off, and the stopping and waiting, and the holding off (but there was a weir...) that did for me. I could no longer stand the frustration. Generally I just avoid doing things I'm not good at (swimming, drawing, socialising, singing....) because I hate being bad at things, but this I have to work on. I have laid in a stock of chocolate in anticipation of another attempt tomorrow.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Another quick scene change

Day 26, Limehouse Basin to Waltham Town Lock, River Lee

After nine long days on the Thames, it's amazing the changes of scenery we've seen over the last few days: from Teddington (big) to Little Venice (er, little); to Limehouse (ginormous) to here, about two thirds (at a guess) up the River Lee. Which, thankfully, isn't really a river in the Thamesey sense, but much more canalish, and very enjoyable, with some heavy lock gates providing for a good workout.

I walked a circuit of Limehouse Basin in the rain this morning, taking some pictures of Warrior looking even more insignificant, with Canary Whaf in the background. I also got eight swans in a row - one broke ranks slightly at the last minute, but hopefully this still qualifies for the Granny Buttons Birds in a Row Challenge Cup.

We were in any number of minds about when, where and how to set off this morning, but I CanalPlanned the route to Hertford, as we were thinking of going up the Lee, and CP gives it as twelve hours the whole way, so I reckoned we could get there and back in three days easy - long enough to keep clear of the Notting Hill Carnival (though how much does that actually affect the canal anyway?) and still be back in time to get to Uxbridge for the weekend, to banter with the Moomins and Chris (Baldock) hopefully, before starting to worry about how we're actually going to get back to Ramsey. Apparently it's only about thirty miles north of Hertford ... if only they'd built that canal back in the eighteenth century.

The Limehouse Cut, down which we set off, and the Lee, provide plenty of contrast. Talking yesterday to someone who has a boat here, he said it was industrial to start with, but pretty later. Oho, we said, we like industrial. And it was, and it was great. It was very weedy, and it was the green stuff rather than the litter that did most to chog up the prop, but the occasional blast of reverse got it off. It was still hard to believe that we were in London, as there are still so many derelict buildings. There were also the usual quotient of horrendous new builds, and some nicer ones, and a fantastically sympathetic conversion of the old Spratts factory. Most of the building and conversion was so recent it must be unrecognisable from even ten or fifteen years ago.

We passed the new Bow Locks, and the entrance to the Bow Back Rivers, which are now off limits as part of the Olympic site, and saw first hand some of the famous blue Olympic wall, now covered in expensively reproduced Olympic-themed artwork by local schoolchildren. I'd love to post photos of all this, but be patient, and when I get home it'll all be on Photobucket. I dread to think how many photos I've taken. Friday was the heaviest day - I downloaded 143 then, in my delight at being back on the interesting canal system. The Olympics do not appear to be popular with local graffiti-ists; there were lots of adverse comments, and accusations of corruption to be seen.

Another sad sight was the handsome house at Enfield Lock, built for the Lee Conservancy in 1889, and now boarded up. I wonder what its future is, and in whose (BW?) hands it lies.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

But where are the Chinese opium dens?

Day 25, Little Venice to Limehouse Basin

I can hardly believe it. We're actually here in Limehouse Basin; Regents Canal Docks as was. The place that looked so enormous, so overwhelmingly full of yachts, and posh flats, when I saw it from the train. And here is Warrior, looking tiny, tucked away in a corner. Just one last ordinary lock, and here we were. Oh, if only I could see it as it was fifty; seventy-five years ago.

We were joined today by Vicky and Craig, from Eastbourne. They found us at Little Venice his morning, took a crash course in lock operation, and have just departed (ah, the wonders of the Tube) after a splendid few pints of Landlord and dinner at The Grapes, a pub with a balcony overlooking the Thames. The lumpy bit. There is a swing bridge here just like the Newhaven one, only bigger, and we saw it open to let a yacht in as we were on the way to the pub. OK, it had come from the sea end, but it still looked pretty hairy.

It was a brilliant day, coming through places I've walked, and past places I vaguely know, and seeing them from this new perspective. To look up from below a graffiti-ed bridge and see the Canary Wharf Tower.
To go through Camden Lock, and be part of the tourist attraction (but not get a photo of yourself), and not cock it up.

The weather was lovely too.

Also, we saw The Honourable Lady, one of the boats we went through Standedge with the year before last. At the time we first met, at the marina at Ashton under Lyne, the woman on it was upset because she'd just lost a kingfisher tiller pin given to her by a friend who had subsequently died. When we bought Warrior, it came with a kingfisher tiller pin, albeit one with rather a bent beak. So we had the sudden idea that (there being no one on board) we could leave it for her. So while Jim manoeuvred (leaving poor Vicky on the bank with no idea what was going on) I wrote a quick note and we were all set to leave it... only when we got close we saw that they had already found another one, so our good deed went undone. I like to think we still got the karma points though.

Friday, August 22, 2008

If I want pretty, I'll buy a Cath Kidson tablecloth


Day 24, Teddington Lock to Little Venice

Oh frabjous day, calloo callay, she chortled in her joy, as she sat three deep amongst the narrowboats and houseboats, just outside the pool at Little Venice, as the traffic whistled by, what a long way we have come today.

We woke up just before the alarm went off at six this morning, ready for our passage through Teddington at seven, to more miserable wet rain. Lots of the cruisers had already gone off earlier, and the Dutch barges were going through the barge lock. We'd thought the launch lock was out of action as there were divers working in it yesterday, but this morning it was all systems go, and through we went, the Duck inseperably at our side. The short tidal stretch was no harder than the rest of the Thames had been, although there were some interesting sights.

The most exciting thing was the wash from other boats, hitting the hull of Lucky Duck and rebounding over our fore end, insinuating its way under the hatch and dampening the bedclothes. One boat this morning created such waves that I could see myself becoming sea sick, and these didn't abate, so maybe it was the sea after all. After a bit of this we saw a big sign saying Grand Union Canal and there was much rejoicing among the ranks. We made the hairpin turn up the channel to be faced with a pair of locks. When the gates of one began to open at our approach, I nearly cried. It felt like being welcomed home after a long absence.
On the advice of the lock keeper, we took the Ducks through to the 14 day morings in what I subsequently realised with some dismay was the former Brentford Docks, and there we left them, with hot showers at their disposal and a fortnight to cure what ails them. We then teamed up with Sarah and Peter on Colleen Bawn to tackle Hanwell Locks. What joy to be doing some physical work again instead of just wearing my nerves out. The sun came out - I kid you not - almost the moment we were through Brentford Lock and it was a lovely afternoon. We had one slightly hairy moment, when confronted with a bloody great, heavily (and somewhat precariously) laden, barge closely pursued by a pusher tug. The conversation went like this:
Jim: What the fuck is that?
Me: I don't know but I think it has precedence in the bridge hole...

Sadly, I only managed to photograph it after we had effected our passing manoeuvre, which doesn't quite capture its impressiveness. Little Venice of course is chocca, but I was surprised at how many 14 day moorings slightly further out had no boats on them at all. One thing we were very grateful to Sarah and Peter for was reminding us that this Sunday and Monday sees the Notting Hill Carnival, which I think we would probably quite like to avoid. So the plan we made on the hoof is to play host to Vicky and Craig tomorrow, and trundle up the Regents Canal, and then hot-foot it up the Lee for a copule of days until things quieten down, before proceeding north. Another river, so soon....

I was pondering earlier, why is it that I love this muddy ditch, this man-made linear lake, so much better than the noble, natural, roaring river? Why does it grab at my vitals and make me smile with joy in a way that even the prettiest river can't? It's not because it's safer, or easier. Easier for the steerer, maybe, but usually that's not me. Going up Hanwell this afternoon after doing nothing but sit on my arse and hold a rope for more than a week, has left me aching, but alive again. And even if it is safer, objectively, I never felt in danger on the river (although I did sometimes fear for other people's plastic boats).

I love its hiddenness, its foreignness; its very un-naturalness. I love the humanity of its history and the clues to that which remain. I love the fact that human ingenuity and human determination created it, and in many cases restored it, in both cases often against enormous odds. I love canals because they shouldn't exist, by the laws of nature and of economics, just as by the laws of physics the bumble bee shouldn't fly. But they do.

The buildings - the factories, the derelict warehouses, the grimly functional hives of industry - may be ugly, but at least they were built for a practical purpose, not just because someone (a great many people, it would seem) had infinitely more money than taste. They are surroundings you can interact with, within sight and touching distance; ours, not the noli me tangeri of the riverbank. The canal is not an adversary, to be fought and subdued, like the river. Not a natural feature tamed by man, but a man made one tamed and softened by nature.

I boated first on the Broads, then rivers, then the Fens. Last of all came canals. But when I first landed on the Huddersfield Broad with Andante, it was the same feeling as when (at the age of 29) I first went to university. It felt like coming home.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Remember folks, it's your votes that count


Day 23, Laleham to Teddington Lock

Nicholson's says something sniffy to the effect that Laleham doesn't embrace the river; doesn't have the waterfront presence of other Thames side towns and villages. Maybe it is bacause I too have not embraced the river, but I thought that it was no bad thing. A brief foray into Laleham for the last Guardian in the local shop left me with the impression of a rather lovely place which reminded me a little of Wivenhoe (I had a job interview at Essex once).

Approaching Kingston Bridge

We set off this morning with the Lucky Ducks still in tow, with the sun shining on us for a change. Realising that we had left it too late, as usual, to give the technically requisite 24 hours' notice to go through Brentford, but hoping nonetheless to get through tonight, I spent the day on the phone trying to get through to them. It was only this evening, long after the tide had passed, and we were tearing our hair out, that I realised that I had been dialling the wrong number all day, having managed to transpose two of the digits. (Apparently the number given in Nicholson's is also wrong).
Having got he right number, thanks to a kind fellow narrow boater, I got through straight away and we should be leaving Teddington at seven tomorrow morning. There is apparently a convocation of Dutch barges (we think Luxemotors) taking place at (we think) St Catherines Dock, and they are all waiting as well - at least, fourteen are, to go out earlier tomorrow. The lock keeper says that all the others have to wait at Kingston tonight. They do make an impressive sight.

So here we are, at Teddington Lock. Famous for being the setting of the legendary Monty Python Fish Slapping Dance, but for me forever associated with Hughie Green and Opportunity Knocks. Every week I wanted to send in our vote on a postcard to Thames Television, Teddington Lock, Middlesex, but for parents who thought that watching ITV at all was a bit infra dig, such participation would have been a vulgarity too far. Not to mention the cost of the stamp. I wonder if today's young Big Brother voters can conceive of postcard-based interactivity.

And so to bed, remembering first to work out how to set the alarm....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lame Duck

So sorry - but that was just irresistable.

Day 22, Dorney Lake to Laleham

Today has been a lot more interesting. We have got to feel useful, and had company on the journey. And, the sun came out. Briefly.

We set off this morning in convoy again, and after Boveney lock, James and I swapped places so that he could have a go at steering Warrior, while I joined Amy on Lucky Duck, from which vantage point I could photograph our boat in the vastness of the Thames.


Just as we were about to go into Romney Lock, however, Lucky Duck lost power. The lock keeper was great (couldn't have happened at a better lock), as we sprung into action and breasted up to go into the lock. Luckily I was wearing my Keep Calm and Carry On T-shirt. Once through the lock, we tied up on the layby while James and Jim addressed the problem. I passed the time taking arty self-portraits.

It turned out that a grubscrew had come out on the propshaft - a similar problem to my shearing bolts on Andante. Attempts to fix it were unsuccessful, so we held a council of war and decided that while we needed to get on, having now arranged to meet some friends in London on Saturday, we couldn't abandon the Ducks - and nor did we want to - and that we would welcome the challenge of taking them along with us - all the way if necessary (well, as far as London, if not actually all the way to Cambridge). This is what happens if you have 'towage' written on the side of your boat. Going along breasted up was great, and the Duck's presence certainly made stopping easier. Half a dozen plastic boats raced by us, and were first into the next lock, no doubt heaving collective sighs of relief. As we were slowly pootling along the layby to make room for the big Dutch barge behind us, the lock keeper called out to ask if we were 60'. Fifty four, I rather rashly replied. Come in then, he said. So we edged our way in oh-so-slowly and snuggled up to the tupperware. I couldn't keep a wicked little smile from crossing my features, and was rather relieved that the lock keeper (or his assistant) kept hold of my front rope. He later explained that with the Dutch barge after us, and a trip boat coming up, he really needed to get us all through together to save keeping them waiting.

They had the next lock, Bell Weir, to themselves though, and we got to share with the Dutch barge, which was some sort of trip boat. Stopped us getting too big for our boots at any rate. We have seen some lovely barges along this stretch (as well as some not so nice ones of course) but I still love narrow boats the best for their neatness and efficiency. If only everyone could be content to live in such a small space, and not need vast houses for storing all their vast amounts of stuff, then there wouldn't be a housing crisis.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Feeding the Ducks

Day 21, Reading to Eton Rowing Club

Having started to display the symptoms of scurvy, beri-beri, and incipient rickets, I waved Jim off to Tescos this morning with a list saying things like Fruit! Vegetables! Orange juice! Lentils!!!!! The time has come to cook proper food again. After all, it's not as if the boat doesn't have a kitchen... So he returned with this:

I stowed the vegetables most attractively in the big brass cooking pot, and the fruit in the fruitbowl, before we set off. One of the things I like about boat living, although it also took a bit of geting used to, is how everything earns its place with multiple uses, and how few things have one home, but have to move about as space is required.

Today we had hoped to catch up with Magnet Man and purchase... a magnet. Very excitedly, we saw his boat at Cookham, but sadly he didn't seem to be there. On the other hand, we did catch up with Amy and James, the Lucky Ducks, again, and knowing how I always cook too much, invited them to join in our repast. I felt very smug chopping onions and garlic (and tomatoes and peppers and spinach) to make my favourite lentil curry (at times like this, you need to feel a bit worthy. Eventually the guilty pleasure of living on beer and chocolate (and toffee pecan meringue roulade) wears a little thin, and only pulses will satisfy the soul).

I also felt singularly fortunate, as around that time there was a sudden and torrential downpour; I mean incredibly heavy. Poor Jim was stuck with the steering, so I did my bit by moving the coal box so that the water could run off him (and run it did) straight into the bilge. Nifty. Glad we didn't get the coal wet, as there was just enough for a couple more fires.

Shortly after that we started looking for a mooring. There were some marked on the map but I'm never sure if we're looking in the right place and there's usually some humming and hawing about where we should go. In the distance, there was a piled section of bank, but it was suspiciously empty. I looked through the binoculars and after a while could make out a two-tone blue sign. Joy abounded when I could read the words 'Environment Agency' and '24 hours'. Once we were both tied up, we realised that this was the very place, by Eton Rowing Club's boat house, that we had stopped with Helyn on one of our very earliest outings. On that occasion, it marked the very extent of our journey before we turned back for Penton Hook.

After dinner, James showed us Dorney Lake, purpose built by the club and apparently the best rowing lake in the country, where the rowing events of the 2012 Olympics (does such a thing bear thinking about?) will be held.

Holiday watch

Having finally got a 3G signal last night I ventured a look at Grany Buttons, who weeks ago responded to my Napton celeb-sighting:

If he's 'not in Heat magazine', he probably wasn't hugely famous - certainly not an A-lister.
Perhaps he has a blog and was famous to Sarah and me and thirteen others.

Well, Andrew, he was a bit more famous than that. Not being in Heat (not that I have ever opened its pages) was a reference to the quality rather than the quantity of his celebrity. I may have a funny idea, of course, of what constitutes mentionworthiness, but this was someone whom I was surprised to see without an armed bodyguard, which is why I didn't like to mention it straight away.... It was David Trimble. There now, that is pretty impressive, isn't it. Real ale adviser to one of the brokers of peace in Northern Ireland. (I don't think he had any though.)

I was idly musing earlier whilst chucking bread to a female widgeon (I looked her up in my Observers Book of Birds) on the nature of this holiday qua holiday. Holidays are meant to be relaxing, healthy, restorative.... My idea of a holiday is something more stressful than anything I do the rest of the year; long stretches of boredom punctuated with moments of sheer terror; confined in a space that if the CIA were doing it would probably breach the Geneva Convention, with husband who with the best will in the world can be trying, and teenage son; subsisting on tins and packets and chips and too much meat, fresh vegetables but a distant memory; too much alcohol (mind you, that is a positive); breathing diesel fumes all day long, constantly cold and wet, and with the every present opportunity of sustaining a really serious physical injury - no wonder we love it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Gatecrashing a Tupperware party

Day 20, Abingdon to Reading

Dear lord, can this river go on much longer? It almost makes one yearn for the Nene - at least that's out of the way in three days and the sun occasionally shines on it. Nothing bad has happened today - indeed a few good things, small crumbs of comfort, have occurred - but it has been dull and drizzly, with occasional rain, cold wind (particularly enervating) and nary a sight of the sun since first thing. A minor bad thing happened, in that I left a full glass of sticky fruit juice on the table and by the time I came back from my lookout duties it had vibrated itself over the edge and distributed its contents over the sofa cushions, floor, rug and much of the furniture. But as no one else saw, it doesn't really count.

Lookout duties (Where's the channel? Look out for diesel! Is that a lock? etc) have been greatly enhanced by digging out the binoculars that my father bought from Boots circa 1975. They really work! Today we have obtained water, at last (out of order at Eynsham, and couldn't get on the landing at others); got rid of rubbish, and filled up with another 133 litres of diesel, for £118 this time (Looks through binoculars... 'well, it says 89p so I guess it must be diesel'...). Again, we passed about three boatyards where it would have been just impossible, or too terrifying, to get to their fuel pump. So while we have seen a good few other narrow boats today, we still feel kind of unwelcome; unconsidered, and definitely not at home.
Three cheers then for the very aptly named Better Boating Co. at Reading, which has a decently long and approachable pontoon, a proprieter who stoically bears you approaching the wrong way because you didn't see the sign, and a wonderful shop, which has trendy gifts, old and new, lovely earrings, a book swap for the RNLI, incense sticks, very stout mooring pins and a lovely atmosphere, all at very reasonable prices. And diesel. We've tied up just beyond there, at Kings Meadow. I'm not sure if this is the 'rough' bit ... it's near Tescos - but even if it is we feel pretty safe as we're about four feet from the bank. No doubt why no one else had moored in this spot, but with some clever use of the trees for temporarily tying to, and deployment of the plank, we're in, using our new, stout and very reasonable stakes. We have pulled up the drawbridge just in case. It's nice being under the trees, as it shelters us from the rain.


The day got off to a good start, with the splendid approach of George through Abingdon bridge. Later we encountered, and shared a copule of locks with Hector, a Roger Fuller tug which we coveted when it was for sale a couple of years ago (but it's not nearly as lovely as Gazelle, sigh...). And, just as I was about to sit down for lunch I was called back to the bridge (sorry, don't know what's coming over me terminologically), in a lashing storm in a bit of river so wide and choppy it might have been the sea for all my limited experience of the latter, and there, going the other way, were Kevin (he of Canal Boat fame) and Vicky on Star. Much frantic waving ensued.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On being English


Day 19, Abingdon

Having tied up last night next to an empty field, we were slightly perturbed this morning to hear whinnying and tannoy announcements, and watched over the course of the morning as the field filled up with horse boxes of varying vintage, horses, ponies, and small children in uncomfortable looking clothes - some sort of equestrian event was, it seems, taking place in the adjoining field.
We were unsure whether to stay here all day or make our way onwards, but Bones and Maffi said that if we stayed, we could all have a barbecue, which rather tipped the balance in favour of staying. We had a wander around Abingdon - quite nice; I think I'd be happy to stay here for a few weeks, but not forever. We found a Waitrose, which was a rare cornucopia of delights (even at home we only shop in Somerfield). We wandered around in a daze, bemused by the riches of choice on offer. Buying exciting high quality expensive stuff made such a nice change from buying boring rubbish expensive stuff. In particulr, we secured the toffee pecan meringue roulade that had been recommended for dessert.

After lunch we sat and watched the world go by, saw small children returning to their horse boxes with rosettes or glum expressions, and the field empty again, and then it was time for the barbecue. Maffi and Bones set out a table and benches and laid out a splendid spread, with three sorts of gin and lashings of ginger beer, and the barbecue was lit. And then it started to rain. Were we downhearted? Of course not; how we embraced the challenge. Were we going to let a bit of precipitation drive us under cover? What, when they'd gone to all the trouble to set it out? Indeed not; we are English, and if sitting in the pouring rain eating Waitrose burgers and celeriac coleslaw while wearing a sou'wester is what it takes to prove it, then we were a match for the task. The crisps got a bit soggy though.

Troubles come in threes...

Day 18, Radcot to Abingdon

Most of the day actually went very well. We made an earlyish start for a change, on our first Baz-less day; so early in fact that we arrived at the next lock, Radcot, before the lock keeper and got to work it ourselves. Well, I hogged that particular bit of glory. The instructions were clear and all the gear and the gates worked beautifully and so easily. When the lock keeper arrived, he said to carry on because we looked like we knew what we were doing. How little he knew!

Things started to go wrong a couple of locks down the line when, while trying to steer us in to the landing stage I finally did it; got the rope round the prop. Luckily, it was going very slowly at the time, so wasn’t at all like I’d imagined (my nearest analogous experience being with shoelaces getting caught in the hoover brushes). The rope wasn’t suddenly whipped out of sight, but slithered away at a rather leisurely pace. I banged it into neutral, whilst swearing very loudly (proving that I can still multi-task even at times of stress), and we drifted and then pulled the boat into the lock, which by now was ready for us. Thanks to our magnificently situated weed hatch, Jim was able to untangle the rope and get it off in one piece, without one of us having to get in the water. It was only round about twice though; it would have been a much harder task if we’d been going faster when it happened.

Having got that out of the way, we had some more pleasant hours cruising, passing the point at which we joined the river and thus entering new territory, at three o’clock. Back in Oxford, we saw a slightly nicer aspect than before, but still much prefer Cambridge. Then it all started to go a bit wrong(er). Over most of this I will draw a veil, except to say that if you think it might be a good idea to remove the chimney, then it probably is, and you really shouldn’t dither whilst approaching a low bridge downstream.

The final thing would have been nothing on its own, but definitely counts as the Third Thing – we went too fast into Osney Lock and got the fore end jammed under the bottom gate’s walkway. The lock keeper wasn’t very helpful (and who, perhaps, can blame him), and anyway I was avoiding his eye. Fortunately, there was a very fat bearded man standing by, who stood on the fore end for us and lowered it enough to get it unstuck. In return for his kindness, we gave him a lift to his daughter’s boat a mile or so downstream in the middle of a rowing regatta. By now we thought we’d entered some kind of surrealist nightmare. I have to say, pace Amy and James, that I think Cambridge’s charming, diverse, small and old boathouses are far superior to Oxford’s flash, new, expensive and samey ones.

We had decided to try to make it to Abingdon, where Bones and Maffi were to meet us. I telegrammed ahead (OK, texted) to let Bones know that a stiff drink would be required on arrival, and bless them, they came over later with vast quantities of claret, and I was able to get the wine glasses out, thus justifying carrying them about unused ever since Huddersfield.

This river is bloody hard work. I like the challenge of steering, especially on the bendy bits, but stopping anywhere is a nightmare. It’s not so much the physical or technical effort, but the constant worry. There’s also the added danger – actually my biggest worry – of ramming an expensive bit of tupperware. We have hit a couple of other boats in various tying up attempts; fortunately they were all steel ones, but I dread to think what would happen if we did the same to a plastic one.

Oh well, onwards and upwards. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, etc. Sunday has dawned bright and fair, with dark clouds on the horizon. I wonder what the day will bring.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Today it did not rain


Day 17, Lechlade to, er, Radcot, accompanied by relatives

Part of the grand plan of coming up to Lechlade was to meet up ith some of the Swinon branch of the family; namely my cousin Janice, and my sister who came over from Newport in South Wales. Janice collected Ali from Swindon station and they arived in Lechlade around noon. Following some comedy mobile phone conversations (we were at the Riverside, we're now heading for the town centre... no stay at the Riverside... what do you mean it's muddy, is there a different Riverside? (answer: yes)... we're driving over the bridge now... we can see the boat ... Are you in the silver car behind the transit...etc) they found us. Or we found them. After some deliberation, Auntie Doreen (aged 89 1/2) decided not to come, but we all agreed that was a shame as she would have managed to get 0n the boat OK (not so sure about getting off, but that comes later).

We'd promised them a trip, but weren't sure how it would work. Wechecked with the lock keeper at St Johns where we might wind, but also had the bright idea that if we went on to Radcot, Janice's son, David, who was hoping to join us when he finished work, could meet us there and take Janice and Ali back to Lechlade to collect Janice's car. In the event, that's what we did. I think we had a super day. Ali and Janice liked the boat, as did David and Natalie. We all went for a few pints at the Swan at Radcot - as we had promised the landlady we would on the way up - and then off they went, taking Baz with them, to be dropped off at Swindon and catch a train home (which I note will cost between £51 and £67, making a 15 day Thames licence look like good value). Baz has left all his clothes behind, but taken his accordian, and promises to be able to play us a tune when we return.

It won't be the same without him, but he has been brilliant (including steering us through Radcot Bridge on the way back just now), and I don't blame him for wanting a bit of time and space to himself.

Thames lock keepers are marvellous, cheerful and friendly and helpful, despite the fact that they have a very responsible, and now apparently insecure, job, and have to deal with useless and half witted members of the public every day. Mostly. We had already taken a bit of a dislike on the way down to the keeper at Buscot Lock, as he had officiously insisted that we stop the engine, despite being the only boat in the lock, I know this is officially a requirement, but none of the others so much and mentioned it, and one or two actually showed an interest in the engine. Sure enough, same again today, but that wasn't the best bit. In the lock with us were three chaps in a small rowing boat. Where was their licence, he demanded to know. Very apologetically, one of them explained that they did have a licence, but it was in the pocket of his jeans, which had been left behind in the car following his having to jump in to retrive a rope when launching the boat. The lock keeper replied that yes, indeed they did have a licence; he had the record of it right there. But sadly this was not enough; they had to be carrying the licence. It was - and he really truly said this - more than his job was worth if they got to the next lock without it. I'm not quite sure how the epidode ended, other than that he took down all their details again, but I'm pretty sure that the very reasonable and pleasant keeper at the next lock would have not been bothered one iota. Bring back Richard Stilgoe! (On the other hand, as he was responsible for turning a whole generation of people like me into cynical paranoiacs, perhaps not)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

End of the road


Day 16, Radcot to Lechlade, via Inglesham

This morning found us sitting on the bottom at Radcot Bridge, with it not having rained overnight and levels having abated somewhat. Having sensed this when I first got up (It's always easier to tell that you're listing in the dark), I sneaked outside for a look. The surrounding fields were saturated, but there was definitely less water in the river. It didn't look too insurmountable; we were only sitting on soft mud and the back wasn't on hard, and while we stood and stroked our chins, the boat began to move - the result, I guess, of lock keepers upriver coming on duy and letting some water down.

After a brief chat with the licencees of the Swan, which, unforgiveably, we hadn't visited, we were off through the notorious Radcot Bridge, without touching the sides - quite an achievement I am given to understand. Though the yellow boards were still out, the river was running nothing like as fast as yesterday, and there was much less wind - adding to my sense of achievement for my steering then, if doing little for my still aching shoulders.

A few more locks brought us to Lechlade, but we proceeded the further three quarters of a mile to Inglesham and the junction with the now disused Thames and Severn Canal which, according to Nicholsons, really is as far as you can go. We winded in a willow tree, and were back under Halfpenny Bridge and moored to a field in Lechlade in time for lunch.

The staple product of Lechlade appears to be antiques. We like a nice root around in a tot shop, and at least some of these didn't disappoint; in particular, if you were in the market for old enamel signs I should head this way post haste. We may yet take one home with us. There is also a small Londis supermarket; the extent of its range may be gauged (OK, I can spell it now Moominpapa) by the fact that it includes pickled eggs. There is also a boatyard/marina here, which we visited in pursuit of mooring pins, being down to our last two, but on both occasions there was no one to be seen. I am finding it quite hard to come to terms with the fact that I am in Gloucestershire; to my knowledge, this has never happened before.

While we were washing and polishing the boat in readiness for the visitation of the Swindon branch of the family tomorrow, Steve rang to make a date to hand over the pistons, liners etc. We arranged to meet at the Crown pub, which turned out to be rather nice and had chinchillas (asleep). As luck would have it, it was quiz night, and despite Jim's objections we entered the four of us as a team (The Three-Pot Club; you knowhow hard it is to think of a team name. Steve has just bought himself a boat with a JP3, but he'll always be 3D Steve to us). And guess what, we won. Then we weren't sure what constituted a decent interval after winning the quiz for a bunch of strangers in town to up and leave. Tirteen minutes, I think it turned out to be.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Break out the nylon trousers

that's the landing stage under water; apparently it was even higher earlier in the day

Day 15, Eynsham Lock to Radcot Bridge. In the bloody rain again.

Last night we went to the Talbot at Eynsham. It didn’t look much from the outside, but it was splendid; Arkells beers straight from the barrel, friendly staff and very good food.

It may then have been overindulgence that led to my having a rather restless night, involving dreaming of, inter alia, a particularly annoying cat coming back from the dead; bits of the boat I hadn’t formerly known existed (that happens a lot to me in dreams) filling up with water, and Jim having to go shopping rather than bringing the boat out of a lock because of a toothache which, in the opinion of the lock keeper, made him unfit to drive. On the other hand, it might have been the relentless rain, the rushing of the weir, and the slap of the water against the hull at ear level.

Whatever the cause, I awoke feeling not particularly rested, rather testing my resolve to get to grips with the river and learn to appreciate it by engaging with it rather than just watching it go by. To do a bit of steering, in other words. This resolve, such as it was, was tested further – and ultimately steeled – by the lock keeper coming on duty and immediately putting out yellow boards; hardly surprising in the light of all the rain we’ve (ahem) been having. We toyed with the idea of staying put, but sought, as one always should, the advice of the lock keeper.

He said that on the contrary, we should make a dash for Lechlade before it got any worse, suggesting that red boards might be out within a couple of days. Anyway, with it only on yellow, there was no way he was going to let us overstay on his 24 hour mooring, oh no. Having planned to take two days meandering leisurelyly (?) to Lechlade, we’d been mooching about not very urgently, gathering our strength (me) and going shopping (Jim), and also needed a pumpout, so didn’t leave until quarter to twelve. It’s quite disgraceful; we’re getting later by the day.

I maintained my resolve to steer despite Jim being quite vocally dubious about my abilities in that direction, and got off to a relatively good start, negotiating the weirstream (which had looked terrifying when we watched other boats going through earlier), lining up and stopping in the lock quite nicely. Obviously a fluke! Although there were no disasters, things didn’t go quite so smoothly at the next lock, where I, smoothly and oh-so-gently, parted the boat in front from the landing stage by the simple expedient of remaining in neutral whilst being convinced that I was in reverse. I had a small rope-throwing triumph, lassooing a bollard, ooh, all of eight feet away, further down the line which restored my faith slightly.

Best of all though was the actual steering. You do get a different perspective when you’re part of the action and not just an observer, interacting with the boat and the river. I don’t have much experience to compare it with, but I suppose it was quite challenging conditions: strongish stream and very windy, on a winding river. It was certainly physically hard work, but exhilarating, especially taking the bends; it really felt like working with the boat rather than controlling it.

I enjoyed it most out there on my own – even though this was mostly when it was raining. Today’s rare bouts of sunshine were interspersed with very heavy showers, often accompanied by driving wind, but at least it meant I got to wear my hat. For some reason I haven’t yet fathomed, the hat worked better when steering left handed. I’m working on that. The heavens also opened, I kid you not, every time (bar one) that we got to a lock. Is there something about locks on the Thames that attracts rain clouds to hover over them? And about us that makes them discharge their watery arsenal? Today was notable for the sight of a variety of lock keepers running for their waterproofs. Aching shoulders drove me to hand over the tiller after three hours, but I can feel them getting stronger already.

We didn’t make it to Lechlade tonight; we’ve stopped at Radcot Bridge. Tomorrow, hopefully, we will proceed as far as Inglesham, before coming back to Lechlade, where we will pitch camp until Saturday. I am hopeful that there will be improving activities to be had in the town, although disappointed that William Morris’s house at Kelmerscote is only open on Wednesdays.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Showers


Dat 14, Shipton on Cherwell to Eynsham Lock, via Isis Lock

The weather really is not being kind to us this trip. I mean, it never is; the last three Augusts I have been boating, and it has rained more than not every year. But lately it has been particularly malevolent, teasing us with a little sunshine, then battering us with hailstorms. It really lashed down last night - I suppose I should be graeteful it saved it until after Cropredy. Then this morning dawned fair and lovely, and after a very brief sightseeing foray into the village we left Shipton at half past ten. We seem to be getting quite bad at getting up in the mornings, but I suppose that's what holidays are about. We got water at Thrupp, where we also collected some new books and left some of our read ones behind, along with a donation to the local hospice.

There must be a reading in the toilet joke here somewhere

It's a brilliant idea to have book-swapping points around the system, and I hope there will be more. There were some at the Brasenose, but I never investigated. We chugged blythely past the Dukes Cut - a short, ahem, cut to the Thames, because I wanted to go further towards Oxford - not all the way in like Amy and James have (although perhaps we should, as we have plenty of time to spare; as long as the Thames behaves, that is). I was glad we did; saw a lovely selection of hippy boats (and I'm not being sarky, I really do like to see them. I wish I could live like that but I have learned to live with my compulsive tidiness); saw some interesting boats, including Banbury and the blue top prototype Beryl. Just before the lock was the endlessly chronicled Castle Mill Boatyard, of which sadly there was very little to see. What was in evidence was a lot of new building, of which we are presumably to expect more of the same, of the grim-as-fuck school of architecture. It might have been horrible, sinister and sordid before (I've read my Morse) but that's no excuse for making it horrible, bland and soulless instead. It was, quite literally, repellent, some of the developments even having tall fences to isolate them from the canal.

Nonetheless, it was with great sadness (well, on my part anyway) that we passed through Isis Lock onto the Sheepwash Channel and thus on to the Thames. What a contrast; as if to shock the unwary newcomer, the river is particularly wide and windswept at this point. It felt like being at sea, so soon after the cosy narrowness of the Oxford.

At Godstow, our first Thames lock since Helyn days, the lock keeper was at lunch, so couldn't sell us a licence (although his colleague locked us through). I'd phoned in advance to check that they took card payment, and he said they did, though not all locks did. However, we were told that they also did at the next lock, Kings. When we got there, the skies opened again, and we all got soaked. As soon as we were through, it stopped. We got our fifteen day licence (£98.50) and made our way to the next lock, Eynsham. We'd been told that this would be the best place to find a shop, and there was a twenty four hour mooring available, so Baz and I set off into the ominous thunderclouds.

It was about a twenty minute walk, to, I think, Swinford rather than Eynsham itself, across a charming toll bridge at which a man sits to collect tolls of 5p from cars, rising to 20p for double decker buses and 10p per axle for lorries. How come there are all these things going on in the country and I've never heard of them? As we walked up the road, the lightening and thunder grew closer and closer together, and soon we were engulfed in the most violent hailstorm, and soaked to the skin once more. This is fun, isn't it, we said to each other. I have a sneaking suspicion that this might be the last time Baz comes on holiday with us. Anyway, wherever it was it had a Co-op, which was a blessed sight as we haven't had any bread for three days and were eating savoury rice for lunch.

Getting back to the boat, we decided to stay here, as we were already tied up, making this our shortest day's travelling yet, at four and a half hours. Still, we don't have to be at Lechlade until Friday, so it will be nice to take it slowly and stop off and explore places a bit more often, rather than just getting from A to B. So we've lit the fire again to get everything dried out, and may eat out tonight.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Five hundred glorious posts

Day 13, Aynho to Shipton-on-Cherwell

Imagine. Five hundred posts since April 2006. Many of them different.

A relatively uneventful day today. We did slightly ram another boat, but only very gently; we visited the unspeakably sweet floating farm shop (the shop was floating, that is, not the farm); we met a little dog called Arthur who could not possibly have been called anything else, and saw probably the most beautiful new boat (as opposed to Old Boat) I have ever seen. I am in love.

What is more, I correctly guessed its builder to be Ian Kemp (Jim checked with the man at the wharf).

We traversed two weir locks (am I right in thinking that their unusual wide shape is to maintain some consistency of water volume with the deeper locks?) and Somerton Deep Lock (which didn’t look very deep compared to some on the Huddersfield, but mercifully didn’t have leaky sides like many of them. I have looked into, although not boated through, Tuell Lane Lock in Sowerby Bridge, which is the deepest lock in the country and has the grumpiest lock keeper. Allegedly). It mostly didn’t rain, but didn’t sun either.

Last night I caught up with reading the doings of Lucky Duck. You must read it. It is so well written and entertaining; puts my recent drunken and exhausted efforts to shame, and I’m not only saying that because they were complimentary about Warrior.

According to Canalplan we are supposed to turn off down the Dukes Cut tomorrow and onto the Thames that way, but I don't want to miss out on going into Oxford, so we might take the longer route.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Back to reality (well, it's all relative)


Day 12, Cropredy to Aynho

We did not wake up very early this morning. Certainly not early enough to accompany the Alnwicks, Bones and Maffi to church, even if we had been so inclined (and they did make it sound like fun, but I have my principles). Baz showed everyone his new acquisition, on which he could already play some scales and a slow version of Kumbaya, and improvise very impressively. The accordion sounds great and seems very versatile. Then we said goodbye to Graham and Jane, our hosts, as it were, and to Maffi and Bones, our newest friends, and untied Warrior and set off after five strange and wonderful days in Cropredy.

I like the Southern Oxford a lot. Except for Banbury. Banbury, where we stopped for water, is horrible. Apparently it’s always had a rough reputation, but has been smoothed off in the most soulless, soul-destroying way, architecturally speaking. The legendary Tooleys yard appears to have been encased in some sort of glass edifice (give me a Charity Dock any day); I admit we didn’t investigate closely, because we wanted to get away as quickly as possible. Our water finally ran out en route – how’s that for timing – so lasted six full days of reasonable, if careful, usage, which is good to know.

The rest of the journey today has been very pleasant, with the sun shining (eventually) and Baz improvising away on the foredeck. Some of the locks are quite hard work, and the towpath is very overgrown, but that all adds to the charm. Rather than going on into Aynho tonight, with its pubs and no doubt exciting nightlife, we felt like a bit of quiet and middle of nowhere for a contrast to the hectic last few days, so are tied up in a jungle below Aynho Weir lock, opposite a field of cows.

One of our piling stakes got dropped in in the process, but was eventually recovered using the keb and the cabin shaft. Jim has asked for a magnet for his birthday, and I can see one would be useful. The other stake got bent (but it still works) when a passing large Woolwich, Chiswick, (another one to tick off my list, though I didn’t atke a photo) nearly pulled it out. It dropped back in again, but was bent in the process. I still think they’re very impressive though, and easy to use.

A weird and wonderful weekend

Day 11, Cropredy

After falling – well, crawling, given our headroom – utterly exhausted into bed at one this morning, I was awake again at half past five for another, even longer, event-packed day. It started by pouring with rain again, to ensure that the festival had that authentic muddiness without which no British outdoor event is complete. After waving Amy and James on their way, we trekked as far as the Brasenose for bacon rolls for lunch (two apiece).

Then we went back to the field, to visit the Hobgoblin Music stand, where Mike bought his accordian. We left there half an hour later with Baz carrying a rather magnificent two row button accordian (red in colour) and my overdraft lighter (or, rather, heavier) by some three hundred quid. Still, he got a book thrown in and set to mastering the instrument straight away, while we entertained Bones and Maffi to tea on board Warrior. I had intended to go and see Julie Fowlis but at that point it poured with rain more heavily than at any time previously, so I’m afraid I chickened out. tea, we joined and Maffi and Graham and Jane for pre-pub drinks and philosophical discussion on Alnwick, before heading off to meet Keith at the Red Lion. I have experienced an endless social whirl at last.

As we were about to leave the Red Lion (in our limited experience, nothing like as nice a pub as the Brasenose) to witness the festival’s grand finale, an extremely drunk man fell backwards down the steps. To cut a very long story (as it often is with extremely drunk people) short, Baz volunteered to accompany this man’s companion, as he escorted his friend (with great, if exasperated, patience and fondness, it must be said) back to his van, in order to look after the friend’s dog. Apparently it was an eventful trip, involving the divestment of trousers in the churchyard and more, and we then had to set off on a tour of the village looking for Baz.

Eventually our party was reunited, and we made our way onto the field. Fairport Convention were great. Naturally, we felt somewhat nozzers (new bods; parvenus) amongst so many for whom this was a religion, but it was absolutely fantastic nonetheless. The field by now was packed, and we quickly lost sight of Baz and Keith, but found a space with a great view of the stage. Baz found us later, having purchased a further shirt, and we met up with Keith again as we filed out, just in time to say goodbye.

So, exhausted again, but happy this time, we watched the poor huddled masses tramp like refugees to their far-off mud-sodden encampments and peeled off alone down the towpath to Warrior.

A long day's journey into night

Day 10, Cropredy

A long day and a long night, Friday, which is why I didn’t get around to posting this last night. I can hardly remember the beginning of the day, other than that it rained and I lit the fire again, and the surprise appearance of Keith as we huddled around the stove. Lots of people turned up yesterday, of whom more later.

The rain eased off mid morning and Baz and I went over to the festival field to buy a pretty little star-shaped glass lantern (the first small step towards Warrior becoming a hippy boat) and listen to some music – in particular Siobhan Miller and Jeana Leslie, the Scottish duo who won the BBC Young Folk Musician award this year. We listened to the final on Radio 2 because one of the other finalists, Dogan Mehmet, used to be in the same Brighton orchestra as Baz. They were great and so were The Family Mahone. Baz has been buying loads of CDs and queuing up to get them signed – it’s a very efficient operation. Never having been before, and not being an expert in this kind of music, though wanting to know more about it, I’ve found that the earlier, lesser known bands have been much more enjoyable than the evening big names, of which more later. (See how I’m building the suspense?) Baz also tried out an electro-acoustic cello, which he now wants. Mike revealed later that he has purchased an accordion, fulfilling a long-held ambition, so we look forward to hearing him play it next year.

After lunch we had the excitement of the arrival of Lucky Duck, by which time the sun had come out. Baz and I went up to the lock to meet them and rode down with them, and they tied up to Warrior. We decided that we should go and get plotted up on the field relatively early.

We found a fairly good spot, and settled down there with Mike, and had an enormous plate of curry, which was very nice but I couldn’t finish mine. Now, we had heard tell that Bones and Maffi and 3D Steve were on their way, and that Steve had our old pistons and liners to hand back. So I agreed to meet them in the Brasenose at eight. They arrived some time after that, having been setting up camp in some far-off corner of a field… withou the bits; I suppose it would have been unreasonable to have expected Steve to carry them all that way. We had a drink anyway, with Megan and her friends, and I headed back to the field having entirely missed Joe Brown’s set, which apparently wasn’t missing much, as the general agreement was that the sound quality was terrible up the field.

I made sure to be back in time for the Levellers though, who way back when busked for Christmas drinks in the pub where Jim worked. After a while I made my way down to the front, where there was a great atmosphere, and thought you couldn’t hear the words, you could feel the bass, which is much more important.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Fame (local), fortune (spent) and stripey trousers


Day 9, Cropredy

Today marks the official start of the festival, and people have been processing onto the site all day. The village is now heaving with people, and a number of stalls have been set up both there and on the festival site, enabling us to quickly satisfy all our stripey patchwork trouser requirements. Truly, this is a place where stripey trousers, cowrie-embellished hats and a wide range of beards can be worn without fear or irony. I’m amazed there’s anyone left in Lewes.

Baz is loving it and has two new pairs of trousers, a shirt and a splendid hat. My boating hat is very much in the right vein and, I venture to say, outdoes the rest.

The day started with rain, and us sawing off the padlock that was put (I will not say by whom but it wasn’t me or Baz) on the back slide upside down, meaning that the keyhole was underneath and we couldn’t get the key into it. It sawed off with frightening ease and quietness. We had a lovely evening yesterday at the Brasenose Arms with Mike, and did indeed meet Megan; and we were back there at lunchtime in lovely sunshine to listen to a band in their garden, after collecting our wristbands and touring the village. Then onto the field as soon as it opened to spend all our money on sartorial enhancement.

Sebastian and I also got interviewed by a young man called Tim in a rather startling white suit for BBC local TV, on account of having come to the festival by boat. I thought we’d be safe and wouldn’t have to look at it ourselves, but later discovered that Baz will find it on the internet.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The calm before the storm

Day 8, Cropredy

Well, we did get here yesterday at lunchtime, and the rain eased up long enough for us to tie up alongside Alnwick as we’d arranged some time ago at the Napton CWF banter. We’re greatly indebted to Graham and Jane for their very kind offer, as moorings are already in very short supply here. In fact, the boat behind them is moving later and we have been promised his place on the towpath, so that will be even better. We went and socialised on Alnwick last night until mdnight too, so getting into the festival mood already.

We went into the village this morning and it was very, very quiet – almost unnaturally so. But I’m assured that this really is the calm before the storm, and that by tomorrow the towpath will be heaving. Already this afternoon we have seen more festival goers. Something tells me that this will be a good place for stocking up on patchwork trousers and hippy accoutrements various. Particularly useful for Baz, who took the injunction to travel light very seriously and brought only two pairs of shorts and no other trouserings whatsoever. As he had rather rashly washed one pair (not so’s you’d notice) on Monday night, and getting the others soaked yesterday, it was a case of weighing up which were marginally less damp.

I went for a walk down the towpath as far as the next lock earlier, and there are some marvellously hippyish boats here. I also saw Invicta and chatted to its owner, whom I met once in Huddersfield through admiring his Kelvin. Alnwick also has a K3; I think Jim is still a bit jealous…

Mike has visited us this afternoon. Zulu Warrior is moored up beyond the lock. I was mortified that we hadn’t noticed it on our way down, but of course, Baz and I were hiding away inside out od the rain at that point, just squinting through the hinges for the sight of a lock up ahead.

After dinner we are off to the pub(s).