101 ways to die on the cut

101 ways to die on the cut

(or near misses that could have been tragic)

Steve Burt at the helm of narrowboat Lutra LutraWhen we bought our narrow boat, Lutra Lutra, last year, we were awash with happy memories of carefree cruising holidays. We spent a full fortnight congratulating ourselves on breaking free from the tedium of suburban life and embracing the freedom of live-aboard continuous cruising. And then reality set in...

Winter was approaching, the batteries were draining every night, the engine developed a terrible rattle and we couldn't find the spanner for the gas bottle. This article was born from that creeping realisation that life on the cut can be uncomfortable and, at times, downright dangerous. Thankfully, we've yet to suffer a fatality, but then there's always next year...

Freezing to death

Let's start with the winter. Whoever thought that spending January in a metal box floating on icy water with a few millimetres insulation and single-glazed windows was a good idea? Turns out over 50,000 live-aboards do. We originally thought that Webasto programmable central heating would keep us toastie warm, but were then informed that it should not run continuously. Besides which, it was noisy and ate up diesel. So, after a few nights wearing woolly hats in bed, we were told that we needed to keep the wood burner alight from November to March. Cue carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide kills 30 people each year in the UK, which is why you need to get your boat safety certificate and make sure your CO alarm is tested regularly. Our boat had a Morso Squirrel stove fitted at the bow. Burning huge quantities of kiln dried wood resulted in peak temperatures that would have been credible in the Sahara desert. However, they lasted only long enough to play one round of strip poker before plummeting back down to arctic temperatures. We eventually discovered that 6-8 large lumps of coal held closely together in a coal cage would stay alight all night and keep off the worst of the chill. There's nothing more satisfying in the morning than riddling the fire, placing a few sticks of kindling and a heat log on, opening the vents and watching it roar into life a few minutes later to boil your kettle and cook the porridge for breakfast.

However, whilst we were now cosy and warm, the CO detector was less happy. No matter how hard I tried, we consistently reached 50ppm. Now this is the limit for 8hr exposure according to OSHA. Turns out, we had one of the Morso Squirrels produced for the Norwegian market with a smoke hood above the baffle. Once removed, along with the stop that prevented us leaving the ash pan door open, the fire performed much better. But we were still cold!

Condensation

So, OK, condensation isn't fatal. But ask any boater and they'll tell you that water is public enemy no1 on board, and that includes condensation. Which is ironic, given that we need the stuff to float our boat.

Anyway, it turns out that not only does condensation ruin the woodwork, bringing nasty dark stains to the surface which are difficult to bleach out (second hand oxalic acid going cheap on eBay), but when you try to heat a damp boat all the energy gets absorbed by the water molecules. All very 'exciting' for them, but not helpful for raising the temperature inside.

And we had rivers of condensation down the windows every morning and bands across the ceiling where the insulation was thin on colder days! Everyone has their own theories on how to reduce condensation, from bags of rice to carpet up the walls. Plastic film secondary glazing was £10 well spent to preserve the window frames.

However, in our experience, ventilation is the most effective weapon against condensation. Unfortunately, we think that when they painted the roof of the boat pre-sale they screwed down all the mushroom vents and it didn't occur to us to check until February. It took a good month before the humidity sensors started recording the 40-60%, which is the ideal range. And a litre of white vinegar to neutralise the calcium chloride that had turned our entire bed into one big damp trap (but that's another story).

Food poisoning

Successes included potatoes wrapped in tin foil and baked next to the coals as we cruised and rice pudding simmered slowly on the top.

But, given the erratic nature of our fire lighting ability there were also some spectacular failures. These were compounded by the fact that we discovered that the compressant had leaked from the 12v fridge. So, our foredeck became our fridge (and sometimes freezer) for the winter. All well and good, but you definitely don't want food poisoning when your bathroom doesn't have a flushing loo!

Electrocution

fan fitted behind fridgeArmed with a GCSE in physics, I was ill equipped to conduct forensics on our dead fridge. But when the new one arrived it had no plug! So I bought crimping tool and set to work.

Since then, I have added a computer fan to circulate air behind it and increase its efficiency and am contemplating some other wiring at the stern, so death by electrocution is a distinct possibility for the future!

Fire and Explosion

The closest we have come to explosion was when I filled the expansion tank on the central heating with antifreeze purchased from the local garage. Thankfully the 1litre bottle only just took it above the red line as I later discovered that this was a MAX line, not a MIN, with the result being a potential fountain of antifreeze in my airing cupboard through the pressure release pin holes in the lid.

Others, however, have not been so fortunate and I have heard horrendous stories of hot water boilers exploding or of diesel fuel sprayed around the engine rooms. Similarly, whilst our stove problems revolved around a refusal to stay lit, I have heard stories of chimney fires and glowing fireboxes; blocks of wet wipe are not a safe fuel!

Sinking

Every so often along the canal you see a boat that is full of water. Mostly, this appears to be the result of long-term neglect, with absent owners, but occasionally it is due to a leak. Bow thruster tubes can be a problem in this way. We have been warned about the step that is welded into the stern of Lutra Lutra. Very handy if you happen to fall in, but a weak spot for rust the rest of the time. So blacking is a regular diary appointment and the bilge pump gets regular use.

Drowning and Weil's disease

On the subject of falling in, you might think that canals are shallow and safe, but it can be surprisingly difficult to get out if you are wearing sodden clothing and Wellington boots. We recently fished a man out of the cut on his way back from the pub. He wasn't wearing wellies, but had suffered a head injury on the way down. Alcohol and water can be a lethal combination (other than in a whisky glass). My homemade elderflower champagne is proving to be quite lethal on its own!

Dangers lurk beneath the surface. We have been exploring the Birmingham Canal Network (BCN) and can tell you how many shopping trolleys there are underneath the water. And then there's always the danger of catching Weil's Disease - it's rarely fatal, but you might die of horror when you realise that its source is rat urine!

Locks

lutra lutra in a canal lockFinally, if you really want to go out in style then hang out round the locks. We undertook a day's lock training recently. It should have been entitled 101 ways to die at a lock. We are super-careful around locks, but a friend was nearly sunk by helpful hire-boaters on the Oxford canal. From catching fenders to getting caught up on the sill, you need to keep your wits about you. And, should you happen to fall in at a lock, just remember that the human body is not buoyant in turbulent water. It might just be the last thought that you have.

Which brings my catalogue of catastrophe to a close. I hope that you have enjoyed hearing of our mishaps and calamities. If you have any to add, feel free to get in touch; schadenfreude is most certainly alive and kicking on the cut.

three rivers race

the three rivers race

horning sailing club's 61st race

The Three Rivers Race, organised by Horning Sailing Club and now sponsored by Yachtmaster Insurance Services, was first run in 1961, making this year's race the 61st.

Run over 24 hours, it is recognised as one of the toughest endurance races in Europe, with over 100 sailors from all over world travelling to Horning to take part. In 2014 The Three Rivers Race was nominated the third toughest mass-participation event in the UK in recognition of the many obstacles faced by competitors including three bridges to be negotiated involving lowering the mast and sails for each, frequent lack of wind during the night, and hire cruisers during the day!

The course is 50 miles long, and some 15 different classes are eligible to take part with competitors making their own individual decisions as to which order to round the four turning points and all are given a maximum of 24 hours to complete the course. Competitors’ decisions involve a lot of tactical planning to work out the best way to take advantage of the tides in order to get around all the turning points as quickly as possible.

three rivers map guard ship and rescue dory

Each turning point is allocated a “Guard ship” and crew who monitor and record the progress of each individual competitor when they round the turning point (marked with a large buoy including a flashing light during the hours of darkness). Each Guard ship crew is also provided with a “rescue boat” (in the shape of a Dory or RIB which can quickly be deployed should the a competitor get into trouble.

The Guard ship at the turning point in South Walsham Broad, “Elsa II” was provided by myself as Commodore of the Merchant Navy Association Boat Club and crewed by me and Paul Battagliola the Club’s vice-commodore and Lois Edwards, another MNA Boat Club member. Plus Alix an elderly Westie and Fudge an 8 month old Cockerpoo puppy…

We got to our location in South Walsham Broad on the Saturday morning about an hour before the start of the race. We laid our turning point buoy about 200m inside South Walsham Broad and moored ourselves, and our rescue Dory, about 100m away at the head of the Fleet Dyke leading from the River Bure into the Broad. This meant competitors had to pass with about 50m of us so we could readily read their sail numbers, get their race number and record the exact time they rounded the turning point. We would then communicate this information by VHF radio to Race Control at Horning on a regular basis every half a dozen or so boats.

three rivers race - underway

With a fresh breeze from the north-west, the first competitors rounded our mark at around 11.45 and from that time on we were kept busy with a steady stream of boats throughout the day and evening until darkness fell around 22.00 hours. After that only a dozen or so more boats were logged before everything went strangely quiet. Just before 05.00 more boats started to arrive at intervals of about five minutes, until 07.30 when there were less than a dozen boats left to visit us. By 09.00 that number had dwindled to just two. One of which subsequently retired, leaving us waiting for what seemed like ages but was actually only about 40 minutes for the very last boat!

By about 09.30 we were able to use the Dory to recover our marker buoy and head back to Horning Sailing Club but just as we turned into the River Bure we came across a competitor’s large sailing cruiser with her sails set and her bow buried firmly in the reeds along the river bank! There appeared to be no-one on board but we agreed with Race Control at Horning that the situation warranted investigation so we duly got as near to the yacht as we could without running aground and by means of our horn and quite a lot of shouting we eventually got a very sleepy response from a member of the yacht's crew, as following their earlier retirement they decided to run into the reeds and catch up on some sleep!

three rivers race

So all was well but ours was not the only Guard ship to have ended up investigating this boat and we suggested to Race Control that competitors ought to be required to carry an “OK Board” to display if they have dropped out or stopped for any reason NOT requiring assistance as this would leave the guard ships and their rescue Dory free of distractions and thus able to concentrate their resources on potentially more serious incidents; in fact competitors are advised in the regulations to inform Race Control if they drop out, but not everyone carries a radio - so an OK Board would probably be just as appropriate and more likely to be used.

We were hugely impressed by the organisation and the welcome provided for support crews such as ourselves by the whole of the Horning Sailing Club 3RR team – and by members of the Club not directly involved with the race at all - to such an extent that since my wife and I now confine our boating almost exclusively to the Broads we are very seriously thinking of joining the Club ourselves!

three rivers race

some guy named pete

some guy named pete

a surprise guest at king's cross open mic

I didn’t recognise the guy strumming guitar atop my boat, but my more worldly brother certainly did.

“You punk rock ignoramus,” he texted in disbelief. “Tell him ‘Up the Bracket’ is my #1 Spotify track of the year.”

Almost Christmas, at the tail end of a 3-year visa and a questionably timed effort to demonstrate that London's canals were a natural home for live performance, I was moored at Kings Cross. My savings were spent. My house in Texas was sold. I had nothing left but the Molly Anna, a wide beam canal boat equipped with a full length stage and a license from the Canal and River Trust to amplify music for passers-by.

Unable to pay performers, I turned to open mics to keep going. If musicians would play for free, I figured, audiences would brave the elements. And if the setting wasn’t conducive to ticket sales, the circumstances of Covid and the need to keep music alive and people safely gathering could unlock grants to fund my proposition: that the city’s watery matrix hid dozens of Covid-secure places for performance.

If you moor there, will they come? Between London’s status as a global nexus for aspiring artists, its shortage of live venues and the sturdy constitution of a populace tempered by the weather — I bet they would.

Confirmation was swift. A cyclist with a guitar on his back turned out to be a doctor from Galway in love with Woody Guthrie more than his job with the NHS. He climbed down and a crooner who’d just arrived from Bahrain climbed up. Followed by a Japanese keyboardist who sang like Elton John, but whose English revealed he’d just arrived too. Your standard ridiculously varied London open mic.

Serving mulled wine through a porthole, my friend Martyn, a professional roadie on break from tour, thought he recognised Pete Doherty in the audience.

“Pete who?” I demonstrated my ignorance of ‘90s-era punk idols.

Everyone craned to look. Was the grown man with Siberian husky and satchel full of books just purchased from the Book Barge the same baby-faced fashion plate they remembered from newspaper headlines fifteen years ago?

Could be they agreed. His band was in town for a concert. Go speak with him, they told me. Fearless with celebrities unknown to me, I approached.

"Is your name Peter?" I asked. Just to make sure. “Because you’re causing a bit of a commotion inside my boat.”

He confirmed it was him, and asked if he could play. He’d return Sunday morning he said. Fat chance said my crew back in the boat. “Not if he’s got a concert.” He’d be up late partying they assumed. Nice try though.

Come morning my team wasn’t there, but Pete Doherty was. Along with a retinue including his keyboard playing wife, Katja, from the Puta Madres, and his sled dog — which settled down to study the swans from the roof of a narrowboat double-moored next to me.

A mate tuned Pete’s guitar while I fumbled with the sound system. He was about to start when I remembered he’d neither signed in, nor recorded the statement I wanted every artist to make. Who were they? And why were they playing for free in the cold? Useful for future grant applications, I hoped. Would he mind?

“My name is Pete Doherty,” he spoke into the mic. “I’m an artist and a dreamer…. and it may sound corny as hell, but to be here on someone’s canal boat playing music... it’s just that kind of Arcadian vision that in the midst of everything…. the pandemic and all the evils in the world, we can still have these moments of joy.”

And then he created one. Roaming my stage with an acoustic guitar, a teddy bear of a man, playing for the sheer pleasure of it. Upbeat tunes with a lilting refrain:

“In Arcady life trips along. It’s pure and simple as the shepherd’s song.”

Christmas shoppers stopped to shoot video. My angry boater neighbour, who’d quarrelled with me the day prior, now flashed a huge thumbs up. I introduced the next performer, a slightly star-struck 21 year old rapper. When I couldn’t get Gabriel’s backing tracks to play, Pete plopped into a chair and improvised acoustic beats.

They jammed for half an hour and then it was over. Before his manager hustled him off, Peter arranged free recording time in his London studio for Gabriel. Katja invited me and my absent crew to see the band that night.

Watch Pete Doherty perform on You Tube (King's Cross Open Mic Montage SD 480p) with pictures of some of the other performers.

In the interim I Googled “Pete Doherty” to fill in the gaps of my musical education. There was a lot there. Between scrapes with the law, episodes of rehab and celebrity girlfriends, he’d made easy work for the tabloids. Hijinks they could sensationalise, but which obscured the man’s message of bucolic life in a pre-industrial landscape he calls Arcady. Thirty years since he first put that utopian vision into lyrical form, older and wiser, the drugs behind him, it remains his muse, evidenced by his song choice that morning, inspired by the opportunity to play in a canal side setting that preserves simpler times.

Looking down on an audience of thousands from our reserved seats above the Kentish Town Arena’s stage that night, I thought “what a great show”. It was easily the second best I’d seen that day.

BBC story
interview (original sound)

You can watch Pete Doherty's  performance on YouTube, together with a montage of some of the other performers at King's Cross open mic.

naomhòg, the prayer boat

naomhòg, the prayer boat

My love of narrow-boating started over a decade ago when, in choosing our first canal journey, I thought a circular route sounded more fun than a linear one. Little did I know that this would entail managing the dreaded Tardebigge flight of locks. Richard (my long suffering husband) and I were regularly up at dawn to ensure we’d complete the task and get the hire boat back on time! But I loved it, and remember driving back home thinking 30mph was way too fast. One day I decreed we would return and explore a slower pace of life.

In the intervening years the dream never left me. Gradually I felt God’s guidance drawing me towards a boating ministry, specifically a prayer boat. In October 2020, a six month rental enabled us to experience boating throughout the winter, which did not deter me. Richard, though supportive of my new found passion, does like to return home occasionally. The lawn still needs mowing and it’s not quite so comfortable being 6ft 3” on a narrowboat!

naomhog, the prayer boat

After a further rental in October 2021 went a little pear shaped due to engine trouble, I decided to contact the nearest boat broker to where we were moored up. A 43ft narrowboat had literally just arrived in the marina, with no written particulars, but we were welcome to come and look. They say buying a boat is like buying a house – you just know when you have found the right one. I walked onto Naomhòg and it was love at first sight!

The celtic name means ‘Little Neave/Saint’ or ‘Holy Little One’ and she ticked all the boxes, although I did rather want a bath on board, having enjoyed one on our previous boat. Instead we had a fixed rosehead that Richard could not even fit under. Thankfully that was relatively easy to change. Our sale completed, 1st December saw us in the snow on a six hour journey moving Naomhòg to the stricken boat housing our belongings. By now it was in a boatyard; we could only gain access from the water and with no operable electrics we needed to get there in daylight. As Naomhòg was unfurnished there was not so much as a warming cup of tea or extra layers of clothing to be had. It was a race against time which of course is counter productive to the notion of being on a narrowboat!

Since then we have been predominantly in a marina, living on and off the boat and using shoreline power. 1st April saw us become continuous cruisers and we made the rookie error of leaving the marina without switching the diesel pipe on. We managed to get down a flight of locks before we ran out of fuel but it wasn’t until the Canal Rescue service were in sight that we realised our error. The engineer very kindly spent a couple of hours talking us through the workings of the engine so his time was not wasted and it was very valuable to us.

Then we discovered our two year old leisure batteries were flat, one even bowed out of shape! That resulted in us sitting at Fenny Compton for a week whilst M J Craft, Marine engineer specialists (aka Martin) sorted us out. It was what I call a 'God-instance' that he was working on the boat moored next to ours. Initially we had asked him to look at our engine as it was cutting out whilst idling at locks. Already I sense owning a boat will be full of surprises, not all pleasant and quite a few, expensive!

However, to date, I love it. My mum died a couple of years ago and I have used the money she left me to purchase Naomhòg. I’m looking forward to working out exactly what God’s idea of a ‘Prayer Boat’ means. Already we have had friends on the boat for day trips, for 'rest and recuperation' and a couple of them have borrowed the boat for a week or more whilst we have returned home. I love talking to the people on their boats or those walking along the towpath. Hearing their stories is a privilege.

Mary and Richard Haines in marina

It is not necessarily an easy option living the canal way of life but we have appreciated the wonderful community spirit and there is such a breadth and depth to life on the Cut and surrounding areas.

I am not naive, I realise it won’t all be rosy but it’s an adventure and an opportunity to do something new and see parts of Britain that to date we have never seen. I started a blog previously which I have continued. The husband of the lady who commissioned our boat in 2007 came across it and sent me a picture of Naomhòg whilst under construction, coincidentally with a wooden cross perched on its roof, proof enough for me that God has been involved in our venture from the beginning.

If you see us on the Cut, the kettle is always ready to boil – and there’s usually a secret stash of crisps and crunchies which Richard manages to secrete on board when I’m not looking!
Blessings
Mary

turn up the heat – it’s time to barbecue!

cooking on the cut

with Lisa Munday

"turn up the heat - it's time to barbecue!"

cobb barbeque

Finally, at this time of year the weather outlook is promising without too much rain, and it’s officially barbecue season, although some of us are hardy enough to light the outdoor coals whatever the weather.

There’s nothing finer than sitting out by the water, on our own little patch of paradise for the evening, watching the world and the water go by, feeling the warmth of the barbie and smelling the wonderful aromas, hopefully whilst not getting smoked out waiting for the fire to get going!

The best tip we all know is not to rush it, how many times do we see the barbecue at its best after we have eaten? Next time that happens and if you have any bananas or soft fruit, put them in foil with a dab of butter, a generous pinch of brown sugar, a splash of rum or brandy, pop a few squares of chocolate on top and sprinkle a few nuts if you like, then seal before cooking over the barbeque. It’s the most delicious way to use the last of the heat. Another delicious way to use fruit on the barbeque is melt golden caster sugar with rum and coconut in small saucepan, then brush the mixture all over chunky wedges of fresh pineapple and cook for a few minutes on each side until charred, serve with fresh chopped mint leaves and a dollop of crème fraiche or fresh cream.

If you’ve made flatbreads earlier or have any other type of bread such as pitta they could well be the first thing to go on the barbeque and make a good appetiser with dips etc. while sipping a suitable glass of something nice. I’ll be sharing lots of dips, salsa and salad recipes and ideas later.

Lisa Munday - bbq - flatbreads and pineapple

If anything needs to be marinated, it’s useful to have had it in the fridge all day or night before for the flavours to develop. Most marinades need an acidic base such as a type of vinegar or citrus fruit juice in for it to easily absorb into the meat, the acid acts as the carrier for the flavouring. A useful tip for marinating is to pop the marinated meat, chicken or chunks of vegetables for kebabs in a sealed plastic food bag, then move the contents around in the bag to distribute the marinade around without getting your hands covered, also takes up less room in the fridge when in bags instead of bowls.

Threading peppers and onions with the meat helps with flavour, but they can cook quicker than the meat and char too much so make separate vegetable skewers also using mushrooms, courgettes and aubergines with any chosen marinade.

Cooking them first and then wrapping in foil to keep warm, or far enough away and separate from the meat is a must for vegetarians!

The one thing I couldn’t be without is my temperature probe, for safe food, especially when cooking on the bone. They are available in most big supermarkets and cook shops. I like to be sure meat is cooked to at least 65 degrees Celsius and chicken above 70 at its centre, salmon is safe above 50. Be sure to use separate tongs or utensils for raw and cooked meat.

If using wooden skewers soak them in water for 20 mins before threading the meat etc. this helps to stop the wood burning when cooking. The woody part of a rosemary sprig makes a great skewer to flavour lamb or tie a few pieces together to make a small bunch and use as a brush with seasoned oil and garlic over the meat or chicken.

I love charred whole sweetcorn on the barbeque, doused with herby lemony butter or sweet chilli sauce.

In my bread article I’ve shared a couple of quick pizza base recipes, if nice and thin these should cook successfully over the hot barbeque rack and you’ll get the authentic pizza oven taste.

Halloumi can be quite salty, so soak it in cold water for a few hours, then squeeze the moisture out and flatten it a little to keep it together before putting the skewer through.

My potato wedges recipe although better roasted in the oven works just as well wrapped in foil over the barbeque to save turning the gas on. Use Maris pipers if you can as these hold their shape better. Part-cook in a pan of boiling water then drain and dry with kitchen roll. Toss a bowl together with Malden salt flakes, olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and garlic. Sprinkle with fresh grated parmesan and roast in the oven or over the barbeque until golden and crisp.

Lisa Munday BBQ recipes - potato wedges and coleslaw

Coleslaw is the perfect accompaniment with a barbeque. Simply grate any type of cabbage (I like to use red and white) with onion and carrot, add a little finely grated fennel or celery if you have it and mix together with mayonnaise (or crème fraiche if you prefer), a dash of cider vinegar, a glug of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, add a pinch of salt and white pepper to season and a tsp of wholegrain mustard. Add a few raisins or sultanas for sweetness with the zing.

Here are a few marinade ideas for the main event

A dry spice mix can be sprinkled over the hot coals and the smoke will add a subtle flavouring to food while cooking.

If your marinade or spice mix isn’t going far enough for whatever is going on the barbeque it’s a good idea to loosen it up with a glug of oil.

BASIC BARBEQUE GLAZE Is universal for use with most meat, fish, tofu or halloumi.
Use a base of 3 parts tomato puree and add 1 part sweet and one part citrus.
The sweet is either honey, maple syrup or brown sugar and the citrus either vinegar or fruit.
To give heat add mustard, smoked paprika and chilli powder or paste.

TIKKA TANDOORI For chicken and vegetable skewers, my favourite with mint yoghurt dips, warm breads and crisp salads:
2 tbsp paprika, 1 tbsp turmeric, crushed garlic clove or 1 tsp powder or granules, 1 tsp allspice, 1 tsp cayenne or chilli powder, 1 tsp ground cumin and 1 tsp ground coriander.
Combine all the spices with oil, natural yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon juice to make the marinade. The longer the better, preferably overnight for the marinade to work.
Alternatively, you can by a good ready make tandoori masala mix in some supermarkets to use with yoghurt, oil and lemon.

HARISSA PASTE, shop bought, is perfect when used with oil for lamb or vegetable kebabs, as is CHIPOTLE PASTE, with oil and honey for chicken and beef

FOR PORK Use Chinese five spice mix with oil, honey and soy sauce

SWEET SATAY Great with chicken on skewers or tofu:
Combine 1 tsp clear honey with 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp mild curry powder, 3 tbsp smooth peanut butter and the thick part of the top of a tin of coconut milk

spicy jerk rub lamb kebabs (left) and vegetables cooked separately (right)

JERK RUB Is ideal for giving heat and spice to chicken, lamb or pork:
1 tsp each of allspice, smoked paprika, black pepper, salt
½ tsp each of chilli flakes, cinnamon, nutmeg
2 tsp dried herbs such as thyme, rosemary or parsley
2 tsp salt
Combine all the spices and seasoning to store in a jar until needed. Use as a dry rub or add dark brown sugar and oil to make a marinade.

STICKY PORK RIBS
Combine 50g dark brown sugar with 1 tbsp wholegrain mustard, 2 tbsp tomato puree, 5 tbsp orange marmalade and 2 tsp orange juice. Simmer in a pan until smooth and then smother over the ribs and leave to marinade for a few hours, cook slowly for best results.

FOR HALLOUMI, PRAWNS OR SALMON
Sweet chilli sauce with oil and honey

SMOKEY CAJUN RUB
1 tsp each of smoked paprika, cayenne, garlic, thyme and oregano, pinch of salt and black pepper. Add oil for a marinade and red peppers and onions for skewers.

Lisa's previously featured recipes

Lisa Munday flatbread recipe

Lisa Munday - Cooking on the Cut - flatbread (brushed with butter and wild garlic)

salmon and wild garlic potato rosti cakes

salmon and wild garlic potato rosti cakes

Lisa Munday - cooking on the cut - pancakes

Lisa Munday - cooking on the cut - pancakes

a trip down the staffs and worcs

tales of the old cut

a trip down the staffs and worcs

I have just had a very enjoyable little jaunt down to Gloucester and back collecting a dear little boat named Spindrift for Heatherfield Heritage. The journey sent me travelling down my favourite canal, the Staffs and Worcester, and I thought for this piece I would take you on a little tour of the cut.

This canal is old. Despite being started slightly after its sister, the Trent and Mersey, it was actually completed first and was open through its length in 1772.

At one end Stourport hunkers down like a grumpy toad. The town basically owes its existence to the canal and was described in glowing terms by Nash in the 18th century "...stood a little alehouse called Stourmouth. Near this Brindley has caused a town to be erected, made a port and dockyards, built a new and elegant bridge, established markets and made it a wonder not only of this county but of the nation at large.." but truthfully it was much like any other town with fighting, drinking and ladies of negotiable affection.

A case in 1832 gives us a little from each category. Charles Hodgkiss, a man of 44 described as “a tall stout built man, of a altogether most repulsive aspect, and having a broken nose” fell out of the pub and started bellowing for “the best man on the severn'' to come and fight him. What transpired after that is open to conjecture, but he found himself on trial for the murder of another boatman, Francis ‘Old Frank’ Wassall. He was accused along with 19 year old William Cooke, who tried to turn King's Evidence and put all the blame on him, but luckily for Hodgkiss, Cooke was useless; at the initial inquest he claimed to be in the arms of one “Mrs Green, who is known as 'the thick legged one'", and then at the trial changed his mind and said he’d seen Hodgkiss beat Wassall and then push him into the water. The judge, quite rightly, dismissed his evidence.

Leaving the basins of Stourport, the canal winds around Mitton under the curious little bridge that gives access to the remains of Mitton chapel and the sprawling cemetery. The site is on its 4th church in the 800 or so years, with the construction of the canal being no small part responsible for the turnover.

You pass next the mighty walls of the railway and the remains of the canal basin that served it. Somewhat innocuously stuffed onto a modern wooden post is a small iron roller, apparently original to the site and used to assist in getting boats out of the basin.

The canal stays within sight of the Stour as it progresses, and in the quiet green surrounds the towpath suddenly rises up on a bridge over a small gap. This is the remains of the somewhat unfortunately named “Pratts Wharf '' and the lock that dropped boats onto the river so they could scoot a mile or so along to Wilden. Wilden had an ironworks from about 1670 and had relied almost solely on the river until the advent of the canals. There was a wharf there almost as soon as the navvies had packed up their bags but the site faded into obscurity until the canal link was built in 1835. Once it was a hive of activity with a lock keeper's house, workshops, and even a boat dock.

Falling Sands Lock, Staffs and Worcester Canal

We now reach Falling Sands lock. Much like Pratts Wharf, this location too is a quiet shadow of its former self. Up until the 60s, when it was finally knocked down, a 3 bedroomed cottage and appropriate outbuildings stood over the weir (including the lavatory. I trust the reader can work that innovation out without illustrations!), and knowing there is now a building missing makes it far easier to understand how one Charles Wyer made the mistake of getting caught leaving a paddle up in 1869, meaning the water "ran unchecked for 8 minutes." It was the second time he'd done it and he found himself spending fortnight in jail with hard labour. The Staffs and Worcester company were very very keen when it came to taking boatmen to court for wasting water or damaging locks, and lock keepers were their eyes and ears when looking for miscreants. For example, further up the line at Whittington, 2 young men turned a lock despite the keeper telling them they needed to wait until another boat came the other way and were fined 2 shillings, while another man who turned Hyde lock "for spite" was fined 5. You can feel the frustration of the boatmen, who were losing precious time, and the despair of the company, who were fighting a losing battle trying to ignore the railways. (The Staffs and Worcester company were infamous in their abject refusal to deal with railways, even at the cost of profit to their shareholders. They were still trying to pretend railways didn’t exist when they were finally nationalised in 1947)

We now reach Kidderminster, a town of course much famous for its carpets. Today, the canal passes by long bricked-up arms that hint at bustle the waterways of Kidderminster once saw, but really it’s quite difficult to see the past here. Kidderminster was close enough to Birmingham that it dealt with a high proportion of day boats trundling back and forth. Although they’re often dismissed today in favour of the more ‘romantic’ long-distance boat, day boats could earn a lot of money. In 1861 one boat was hired by the New British Iron Company to move timber from Kidderminster to Corngrave, a day's journey of about 20 miles and 30 odd locks, at the agreed price of 7s per tonne, roughly £40 in today's money. She was gauged at Kidderminster as carrying 20 tonnes, but then gauged at the BCN as carrying 13. The boatman wanted 20 tonnes worth of payment, (£7 old money), but the company would only pay for 13 (£4 10s). The boatman took the company to court for the difference, and the poor judge had to sit through a variety of witnesses from each side until eventually someone had the bright idea of actually calculating the weight and realised the boat must have been carrying 14 &½ tonnes. He ordered the company pay the appropriate money to the boatman and suggested the company “do their own mathematics in future.” In today's money, that's about £580 for a long day's work. Obviously there were overheads (tolls, horse care, boat maintenance) but that’s a healthy wage.

Most of the day boats were worked by grown men but occasionally children would be put at the tiller. At the next lock of our trip, Wolverley Court, a dreadful example of this was enacted in 1869 when 11 year old Frederick Millington and his 13 year old brother William brought an empty boat from Stourport on the instruction of their father. Frederick slipped at the head of the lock, was sucked into the paddle-hole he had just opened and killed.

Their father was berated by a disgusted coroner who couldn’t understand why 2 children were sent out with a boat, but a look at the records show that their father, another Frederick, was a boater-cum-coal-merchant with a growing family to support; he needed the help of his two sons to keep food on the table.

Next on the line is Wolverley Lock. Supposedly, the ghost of a man has been seen by the canal bridge, which could perhaps be attributed to when an 83 year old man named Henry Gillet had sat on the bridge and for whatever reason fell backwards, rolled down the bank and straight into the water. On being rescued he allegedly said “I thank you all. The Lord have mercy on my soul and my poor cat.” He was taken home and put to bed, where he drifted into unconsciousness after saying “It is all a dream, but it has come for my end” and never woke up.
Like most canal locks, Wolverley has seen its share of accidents, but one in particular was “noteworthy”. In 1856, a boy sent ahead to get the lock ready and slipped with predictable results. What made it juicy for the newspapers was that, having drained the lock and got the appropriate ropes and ladders (for this is long before the advent of sturdy metal ladders bolted securely into the brickwork), no one would go down to try and find the boy despite there being “several strong men on the the spot.” At length, one Mrs Hancock was passing in her carriage, stopped on the bridge to find out what the commotion was and commanded her butler into the lock to retrieve the corpse.

The lock is kept company by the imaginatively named “Lock inn”, which actually predates the canal by a considerable age, originally being a selection of cottages. Like most canal side pubs, the landlords weren’t averse to trading beer for cargo and so there are numerous stories of boats coming away lighter than they ought and their crews drunker than they should.
Boaters were often quite free with the cargos they were carrying; in 1848 at this lock, a young man recorded only as Boden heaved 1 &½ hundredweight (75kg) of coal off the boat and brazenly asked the lock keeper if he had a wheelbarrow he could borrow. When he and his young companion were arrested, their defence was that there was extra coal on board for their use and it was their right to take it away. The company employing them denied it strenuously and both boatmen were put in jail for a week.

Debdale Lock

Leaving Wolverley the canal starts to take on a craggy, rocky aspect. At Debdale lock, cut deep into the rock beside it, is a strange little doorway into a hill. Entering it does not take you into Narnia, but into a single room with what appear to be benches cut into the stone on one side and what could be taken as a bed hole the other. Bizarrely, and despite the obvious flaws with the theory, it has gained the legend that it was used as a canal stable. My research, and practical experience, can find no evidence to support the idea of it being used as a stable. I have found evidence of it being used as a shop though, and a brief mention of it being used as accommodation for a lock keeper before the actual lock keepers’ house was complete.

You next pass the former entrance to the Cookley Ironworks. Today the site makes steel wheels, and the story goes that one in eight wheels used in WW2 war effort were made there.
Just 100 yards from the old arm you enter into the tiny tunnel. It’s a grand total of 65 yards long and has its own towpath, which the local boys would dare each to stay on when the boat horses would pass through. This challenge was made all the more risky by the very real possibility of an angry boatman leaping out of the darkness and giving the boys a tanning.

You come back into the sunshine and into leafy spaces as the canal comes through to Whittington. Boatmen were not above a spot of poaching to supplement their diets, and had you stood on Whittington Horse Bridge in 1851, you’d have witnessed what was a surprisingly common accident. 22 year old Isaac Starling was at the tiller of his boat when he spotted a suitably juicy looking morsel, reached down into the cabin, grabbed the barrel of the gun propped up against the side bed and whipped it up, catching the trigger in his haste and, basically, blowing half his face off. At the inquest, his companion and another boatman who appears to have been travelling butty with them, resolutely stuck to the story that Isaac was shooting at rooks and the coroner accepted it, despite knowing what was really going on. There was, after all, no benefit to bringing up poaching when only a boatman was dead instead of a pheasant.

The river Stour winds peacefully beside the canal as we arrive at Kinver, once powering mills for cloth and metal working. The canal's arrival gave Kinver  the trade routes to prosper into the charming village it is today, with an excellent chippy that is as good a reason to stop as any. There are also the infamous rock houses, now cared for by the national trust.

The canal here has been stocked for fishing for many years, and suffered quite badly with people poaching Lord Stamford’s fish whenever they could get away with it. In 1904 the Staffs and Worcester company took a number of men to court for having actively drained the canal down to a foot depth so they could spear fish for eels.

Appropriately for our purpose in collecting Spindrift, a former steam launch, in 1913 the lock witnessed “ A Kinver Recontre. We do not know if the following incident has any connection with the desire on the Part of certain authorities to make more use of the canals and waterscape of England, but on Tuesday the somewhat unusual sight of a fairly large but shallow draught steam launch passing through the Kinver lock was seen. The launch was the "Dora," of Liverpool, and in the course of an interview her engineer said that the boat had started from Liverpool some five weeks ago, and had proceeded across England by canal and river..

Leaving Kinver we come up to Hyde, once the site of a fat works. In the 1860s fat was quite a valuable commodity, which is why James Dobbin finally snapped and stole a sack with some 23kg of fat in it and sold it on. His customer, a rag and bone man named Thomas Ogan, bartered a lift from a boat passing through Hyde Lock (who wants to walk carrying a sack of fat after all.) Unfortunately for both men, the company quickly noticed the fat was gone and they were arrested and sentenced to jail.

Next up we come to Dunsley Tunnel. It is perhaps a misnomer to call it a tunnel as it’s only 25 yards long, but it has still managed to attract a ghostly reputation of a shadowy woman who vanishes if you get too close. Perhaps she is something to do with 18 year old Ellen Waldron who allegedly went mad and jumped in the canal. She was a “rather stout” young woman standing at a miniscule 4’2", with dark hair and grey eyes. She was described as having “weak intellect” and being “a simple body” and for some reason the newspaper seemed really quite taken with the fact she wore rubber galoshes.

Stewponey is our next stop. A name that has never been satisfactorily explained, although it was drily noted in a diary as being appropriate following an animal cruelty case in 1873 concerning a boathorse that ultimately had to be put down. The wharf here was a busy little transhipment point, and in 1871 you would have seen 18 year old Charles Moss and his little brother Francis, aged only 9, regularly bringing their mother's boat here with day cargo, such as the intriguingly described “artificial manure”.

Stourton junction tempts you to turn right but our journey sent us straight on and to the sharp

left hand bend that puts you onto Devil’s Den.
devil's den on the staffs and worcs canalThe Stour runs under a small aqueduct, and just beyond the aqueduct is a tantalising door into the rockface. Apparently behind that door, erected supposedly to ‘protect the bats’, is a small boathouse that was the bargaining chip the Foley family demanded in return for allowing the canal over their land. With a name like Devils Den, you won't be surprised to read that there are a variety of legends surrounding that woodland, all roughly of the same theme.

Gothersley lock is next. It is pretty enough today, though it too has lost its cottage. It is a sad lock though, where in 1915 Thomas Humfries was clearing ice from the lock with a pole when he slipped and fell in. His wife managed to grab his hand but he slipped from her grasp and drowned. Equally sad, in 1856 the lock keeper's daughter was returning home from an errand when a labourer named James Cox brutally assaulted her. She was just 16 years old.

Rocky Lock on the Staffs and Worcs Canal

Next along is Rocky lock. This one comes with a spooky reputation, where people have reported being pushed and shoved, along with a general feeling of being watched. As locks on the Staffs and Worcester go it’s a fairly shallow one, and that fact makes the following story all the more curious.
In 1836, William Corker, his wife Ann and her two children, Martha and Elizabeth, were bringing a boat from “Etruria to Bilston” when they got to Rocky Lock. William was driving the horse and Ann was at the tiller, and once the boat was in the lock Ann stepped off to work the lock with her husband.
What happened next is something of a puzzle, for a boat going to Bilston would be going downhill, yet the newspapers report that “..the stern of the boat caught in the lower gates and prevented it from rising and the boat was filling with water. At this moment, the husband who was at the top of the lock called out to his wife to pull up the bottom paddles, whilst he let down the paddles at the upper end to prevent any more water from entering the lock. Instead of attending to his instructions she… jumped into the cabin and the boat instantly sunk. Although assistance was promptly obtained.. It was a full 20 minutes before the bodies could be got out of the water..”
Now, it’s plausible that the reports have simply mixed up the locations; a boat going from Biltson to Etruria would be going uphill and it would also tie in with why the inquest, and burial of the woman and children, took place in Penkridge. But there are question marks in the tale that suggest that maybe, just maybe, something more sinister than an accident took place nearly 200 years ago.Ashwood Basin Agenoria

Leaving behind the eerie lock you come past Ashwood basin, a place that could be arguably described as one of the first intermodal freight terminals. Here, the locomotive ‘Agenoria’ held court from 1829 until 1864, when she was basically dismantled and stuffed in a shed. She was rediscovered in 1884 and eventually given to the Science museum. She now lives in York in the National Railway Museum.

Greensforge is our next stop. In 1905, on April Fools day, the canal breached above the lock in a blowout some 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep. A boatman coming down sent his son to set the lock and initially dismissed the boy’s excited report; “Get away wi’ yer. D’ye think I don’t know what day it is?” but found him to be correct. In a feat that I doubt would be matched today despite the technological advances, the Canal Company engineers descended on site and had it open to traffic in a week. Of course there was a small hoard of tetchy boaters either side of the worksite, which may have spurred the work on.

Proportionately speaking, Greensforge Lock it seems to have been one of the most dangerous locks on the canals, with such a cheerful variety of drownings, maimings and general accidents that even the canal company itself was getting puzzled. Some more recent accidents are of course due to active human stupidity; for example in 1970 when a 16 year old boy said to his friends “I bet I can jump the lock” and had to be fished out when he discovered he could not in fact make the distance.

Moving on, the canal takes you up to the little village of Hinksford. There was quite a fuss in 1884 here when a boatman bashed a hare with a cabin shaft and refused to give it to the Earl of Dudley’s gamekeeper, who had witnessed the whole thing. There was apparently a “tussle” over the hare, and presumably the boatman was the winner for he found himself being fined 20 shillings for killing game without a licence.

Botterham - the Boat Inn

Hinksford and its neighbour Swindon appear repeatedly in the archives with young women having “criminal conversation” with men they were not married to and perhaps this is something to do with the ‘The Boat Inn’ just along the line below Botterham Staircase. Legend says that the building was originally constructed as a sort of hostel while the canal was being built, and that it quickly became little more than a brothel. When the canal was completed, they extended the building out to add a 12 horse stable and it was turned into a boaters' pub. How long it kept up its sideline, if the story is even true, is unknown, but one man noted in 1876 that you could get “a good dollying” at the Boat. I wouldn’t like to say whether he was referring to laundry or ladies.

The canal now edges back into urban sprawl with Wombourne and winds along under Giggetty and Houndel before depositing you at Bumblehole Lock. This is not THE bumblehole that everyone thinks of when they’re talking about the Black Country; it appears that this Bumblehole is merely an abbreviation of Bumble Hole Meadows.

Bratch Locks

A few hundred yards down the canal you now reach the bottom of Bratch Locks. (Incidentally, if you are like me and you enjoy taking childish photos with funny street signs, get on the road at Bratch Bridge, turn right and walk down about half a mile. You’ll find the delightful named Billy Bunns Lanes)

The Bratch is a very pretty location but also something of a mystery. It now has 3 locks with a pound about 6ft long between them, and side ponds. It was not originally like this; Brindley set them out as a 3-lock staircase (it has been claimed it was originally a 2-lock) which was open around 1770. Shortly afterwards, perhaps around 1800 when the tollhouse was built, the locks were stripped back and rebuilt into their present form. Allegedly, this involved leaving the top lock alone and moving the middle and bottom locks back about 20ft to allow for the fitting of gates. This theory works quite well when you also look at Bratch lane at the bottom; it has a kink in it that would match the idea of the locks being brought backwards. The remains of the original cills are visible when the ‘new’ locks are drained and as a bonus wave from the past, if you look at the little bridge crossing the stream by the road bridge, you’ll see rope marks - the stone has been reused from copings.

Leaving Bratch you come back into the countryside for a few miles before you reach the urban creep of Wightwick (pronounced Wittick.) Wightwick is home to Wightwick Manor, and if you have any interest in art or gardens, it’s well worth a visit.

Now we arrive at Compton Lock, the first one Brindley built on this canal. It too has lost its keepers’ cottage, from where Mrs Filkin came rushing out in 1865 to yell at Henry Hodson and ended up in what appears to be a slanging match. Hodson, his boat heading downhill, pushed his horse on and forced the gates open when there was apparently nearly 2 feet of water still to go, damaging the gates and quite probably his horse.

To your right you will soon see the junction to the Birmingham Main Line at Aldersley, but we carry on Autherley and the Shropshire Union Canal.

Of all the tales I’ve found around Autherley, my favourite is from 1862 when a boatman named John Vickerstoff was arrested for stealing 5 bushels (somewhere in the region of 135kg) of potatoes from a nearby field. The evidence was imprints of someone kneeling in the soil wearing a pair of corduroy trousers and that the boatman was wearing corduroy trousers, and boot prints that were heading in the direction of the junction. A witness was found who said he’d seen Vickerstoff at the junction and said hello to him, and that he had no potatoes with him. The policeman was absolutely certain that Vickerstoff was guilty but the magistrate was having none of it: “no potatoes, no prosecution.”

to err is human

dawncraft chronicles

to err is human

Bank holiday and not a virus in sight. Finally time to get the boat out and go for a cruise - but first what is known as a shake down voyage, the whole idea being to see what needs doing or break something close to home where it’s easier to fix.

I started the outboard a few weeks ago having left it tilted up and completely drained out of fuel. Originally this was done so the fuel didn’t evaporate and leave a carb full of two stroke oil. Now I would recommend it because the fuel goes off: just disconnect the fuel pipe and let it run out by itself.

Any way, never mind all that.  “Let go forward, let go aft" and we are off! Well at least momentarily, as 30 foot of neatly wound blue flex disappeared out from under the canopy – oops !! Resisting the temptation to hit reverse and wind a live cable around the prop, a gentle pull back on the boat hook making sure that there weren’t too many spectators and off we went again, hard a starboard. Only it didn’t - it just carried straight on. Ahh I forgot to feed the cables back through the bellows when I tilted the outboard to allow some slack .Still no harm done and finally out of the marina and down the canal towards Bath.

Simon Woollen - pulpit on DawntreaderThe thrill and relaxation was short lived as on a more desolate stretch of the canal we stopped moving forward, although oddly I could go back wards 20 foot or so and the same forward. Ten minutes leaning over the side and we still had a prop connected so we must be snagged. If at any time I had looked forward, I would realise we were missing something, The PULPIT !! Having removed this for painting, I had just placed it back on the deck with a length of rope coiled up just to hold it. Amazingly it made one of the best performing anchors I have ever known! Shorts on and in we go to retrieve it from around a sunken tree branch. Luckily nothing more was damaged than my pride.

Time to limp back and carry out a few minor adjustments. The outboard will run happily on 100 :1 that’s 100 gallons of petrol to one gallon of two stroke, hardly noticeable and almost equivalent to what 4 stroke will puff out naturally (if you never have to fill yours with oil it's because petrol seeps down the rings and dilutes it – just take the dip stick out and give it a sniff - trust me it will stink of petrol). Anyway, because it hadn’t been used for a while and it was cold, I increased this to 50:1 as per manual and gave the fuel a liberal dose of Redex; this cleans the carb, and scrounges the old oil and muck out the engine and exhaust system. Now the engine had been run for an hour or so, it did - vast clouds of it.

Not perhaps socially acceptable in today's climate but I have a defence. Make smoke and zig zag was one of the greatest Naval tactics of the battle of Jutland. All I really needed was a full-size white ensign and the sight of Dawn Treader suddenly emerging from her own smoke screen would have been awesome.

However, we have some sense of responsibility, so the last bit was done under electric motor making the purchase of a new battery worth the investment. I connect mine with a parallelogram alongside the petrol engine so as you steer boat it steers the pod. I wanted to extend the control wires to the cockpit but you have to push the handle back for reverse. But it moves the boat happily and the lesson is, it’s a few years old but has always worked in an emergency.

The rest of the afternoon was spent securing the pulpit with brass screws - not DIY store specials that I had to grind off to remove it, draining the carb and adding another gallon of neat fuel to get the 2-stroke mixture back up, greasing the steering, and making sure my cables ran properly before heading out again to complete the voyage with little or no drama.

Ok what did we learn? I have got rusty in lock down and what was second nature a few years ago didn’t flow as routinely as it used to do. Secondly and although I have always kept a log of each of my voyages complete with what went wrong etc., a maintenance logbook is a must. Especially when we all start jobs and forget to finish them! And lastly don’t ever beat yourself up; we live in a society where we are told we are imperfect, damaging everything around us and are generally inadequate. So who am I to rebel and go against the grain?

the hire boats are back

old no 38

the hire boats are back

So here they come.

To be honest they’ve been here since Easter.

But this is different, the floodgates have opened as it were.

Chugging along the Staffs and Worcs here, past old bridge number 38. Like a flotilla of drunken ducks.

Yes, the hire boats are back - just as you thought it was safe to go back on the water, here they are as large as life and twice as annoying. We’ve been spoilt you see, two years of pandemic have shielded us in more ways than one.

holiday and day hire narrowboats

Take this first one for example.

Morning Mist.

That’s sixteen year old Brittany sitting resentfully in ‘the pointy end’ under an umbrella - it is British summertime after all. So convinced was she that this year she’d be able to holiday in Ibiza with her friends, she had streamed and binge watched every episode of ‘Love Island,’ in the hope of picking up a few tips. Instead she’s here with Mum, Dad, brother Mason and Cockerpoo, Rebel floating along wherever on earth this forsaken place is supposed to be. Her smart phone is taking such a battering that twice already it’s threatened to drain the onboard batteries as it recharged.

Ten year old Mason meanwhile is tearing up and down the interior corridor, noisily machine gunning imaginary Somali pirates with Rebel scampering around, tongue lolling, mopping up any survivors.

Dad Brian is stood on the stern lost in thought, still trying - after a week - to get his head around the fact that if you steer right the damn boat goes left. A number of collisions with fellow boaters and incursions into the canal bank had merely proved to highlight this point. He’s been amazed how kind and understanding his fellow hirers have been when he’s ploughed into them at two miles per hour, compared with the totally pissed off attitude of the year round boater. Very strange, you’d have thought that this sort of thing happened a lot.

He also lets his mind drift to Irene. She’d been so enthusiastic when he’d suggested this trip, but seemed to have gone completely off the boil. He wondered where she was?

Irene was three miles further down the towpath, stomping furiously along, lock key in hand. ‘Let’s go on a cruise,’ Brian had suggested and she’d felt that the years of toil and servitude were at last being rewarded. She’d envisaged cocktails on a Caribbean beach, or vino blanco on some Mediterranean coast, with fine dining thrown in, not Batham’s and scratchings on some Black Country backwater.

That she was expected to serve a full English each day to the male contingent (she and Brittany had independently agreed to go on hunger strike) was a very sore subject. Brian had even become overly amorous last night, but she had snuffed that suggestion out as soon as it was mooted by telling him to, ‘tie a knot on it.’ Which was why they were now headed for some remote museum which Brian had discovered had an exhibition of maritime rope tying, once again completely missing the point.

holiday boats

Floundering behind them is another example of expectation over reality.

Sunset Rover

That it is sitting so low in the water should be no surprise. This group of six friends (plus an extra that they’d managed to stowaway) came aboard with two bulging suitcases each. A tad optimistic for what was to be only a long weekend away. Loaded onto the roof, between the solar panels are six mountain bikes and a mobility scooter for Daphne, poor thing. Inside is also a full sized barbecue (with rotisserie and warming cabinet) a 240 volt pillar fan, a desktop computer - in case Jeremy gets an urgent call from the office and needs to access his spreadsheets, Jackie’s make up bag (ginormous, she needs a lot of grouting), three fishing rod kits with all the associated carbon fibre accessories - seats - trollies - keep nets, a karaoke machine for light evening entertainment, enough cans of real ale and bottles of Chardonnay in cool boxes, gin, whiskey and Cointreau (for Quentin) to pacify a ship full of drunken sailors.

The occupants are all huddled on the stern in their cagoules because there is no room inside. If Nigel so much as twitches the tiller then at least one of them is in danger of becoming the subject of the cry ‘man overboard,’ even if she’s a woman.

Here are the lads. They’ve no idea what their boat is called and even less interest. They’re in a hurry. In a nod to self sufficiency they’re off to rendezvous with a delivery driver from Just Eat (other such public servant organisations are available). They would have had them delivered directly to their overnight mooring (alongside the pub) but in his haste to expunge the throbbing in his head by consuming a medicinal sausage and egg McMuffin with hash brown and extra large Pepsi, Little Stevie accidentally put in the wrong postcode on his app. Big Stevie (ironically smaller than little Stevie) is not impressed. He wanted a Balti for breakfast, but has had to make do with a Big Mac and fries, with a side of extra fries, cheesy garlic bites, pancakes with sausage patty and syrup and as a nod to healthy eating, some cucumber sticks which he intends to feed to the ducks.

The rest of the ‘crew’ as they have optimistically named themselves are similarly catered for with the exception of Matt who is feeling decidedly seasick, no doubt due to the impromptu drinking competition he had a hand in organising the previous night (and the night before) when he had to retire after downing a pint of Stella Artois and gin, in one, and lost in the final to Fish, who has never lost a drinking competition in his relatively young life.

In an effort to meet the aforementioned delivery bloke before everything goes cold and cardboardy (as opposed to hot and cardboardy) Spanners at the helm is exceeding the speed limit at 4 1/2 mph in an effort to overtake Sunset Rover ahead of them on this narrow bend and to hell with the fishermen. He is totally unaware that shielded by the overhanging trees, Ted and Dorothy on their timeshare cruiser (one week a year, so long as it’s off-peak) are heading on a collision course in the opposite direction.

Further downstream and only visible by the cabin showing above the waterline is the boat formerly hired by Ken and Simone. He’d wondered what the weed hatch was for. Now as he stands dripping on the towpath on the phone to the hire company he understands that it should not be removed under any circumstances whilst the propeller is turning. At least he hadn’t upended it on the lock cill, but there’s enough of British Summertime left for someone to perform that party trick.

So put your tin hats on and take cover folks. Fortunately the season won’t last long, as we all know British summertime is mercifully short.

paradise

paradise

england in the spring

Dear Lord, you promised Paradise
At the measure of our years.
No grief, no crying, no more pain,
You’ll wipe away our tears.
A city built of purest gold
Its walls a jasper ring,
And we shall be your people, Lord,
And you our God and King –

But can it be more beautiful
than England in the Spring?

I drove today along a road
With hedges clipped and neat
Fluorescent green in light and shade
With daisies at their feet.
And trees, sap rising, swayed their heads
Atop their patterned bark
And shelter gave to verge side flowers
Beneath cathedral arc.

There were snowdrops in the churchyard
And bluebells in the wood,
And daffodils were everywhere –
You’re right, it all “was good” –
So who has need of amethyst
When wisteria’s on the wall?
And hyacinth and foxglove
Steal the colour from opal?

Primroses, joy self-seeded, see
the roses, not so prim,
ignore pale onyx, agate, quartz,
And from carnelians skim
bright red and yellow, flame and pink,
as buds uncurl, rain-pearled.
And there are violets underfoot -
jewels hiding from the world.

Seen from the bridge, the water plays
Like crystal, diamond glass,
And there are mallards in the flow
And swans preen on the grass,
And grown-ups sit and children play
And dogs run to and fro.
Don’t you have spaniels up there, Lord?
May I refuse to go?

There’s a hedgehog in the garden
And it’s fallen in a pot,
And we’ve rescued him and popped him safe
Among forget-me-not.
He curled up in protective ball,
Breath prick(er)ly and slow.
If hedgehogs aren’t in Heaven, Lord,
do I really have to go?

And here is blossom, cherry red
And apple, pink and cream,
Forsythia, wood anemone,
Dog roses by the stream,
The dandelion and celandine
glow golden, campion red,
the crocus burgeons, lilac bursts
like stars above my head.

I know you love us, Lord of Life,
Creator God and King,
But it will be so hard to leave
Dear England in the Spring.

(Revelation 21.1-4 and 18-21)
Iris Lloyd

music and the marinated mind

music and the marinated mind

marinated in canal water, that is..

If my interest in canals can be traced back to 1967, then I would have to say that music came first. I well remember hearing Guantanemera (probably sung by Pete Seeger) on my grandmother’s radio when I was of pre school age. From then on, I wanted to play something.

My chance came when I joined the Buckland Infant school band. I was summarily thrown out in the first rehearsal as I was busy looking at how the castanet I had in my hand was held together and missed something the teacher said to me! Harsh but I didn’t really want to be a castanet player anyway. I wanted to be Bert Weedon! Not easy when you’re five years old and have just lost access to a borrowed school castanet.

I’d made my mind up that the guitar was to be my instrument of choice so I used a bit of pester power, eventually being given a ukulele for either birthday or Christmas. It looked like a guitar at least but it was nothing like the thing Bert played! I tried but eventually gave up when the bridge of the thing had come unstuck, assuming I probably had nothing by way of talent anyway.

michael nye - ululele

Sings of the inland waterways by The Boatmen

Album cover for 'Songs of the Inland Waterways - Straight from the tunnel's mouth' by The Boatmen

BBC album - 'narrowboats'

That could have been it but, ten years later I acquired a very cheaply made nylon strung guitar and decided that if I couldn’t be Bert Weedon I’d try being Bob Dylan instead. That was at least something easier to achieve technically as I would not need amplification or orchestral backing. I’d still need to be able to play the thing though. I had no idea how to tune it, play a chord or pretty much anything.

I reasoned that there were plenty of “musicians” at school but soon found their claim to be able to play their electric guitars were mildly exaggerated. This was mostly on account of said guitars not actually existing in the first place and their supposed owners being just a tad economical with the truth. I plugged away though, and it took a month to play a C chord, another to play G7 and then came F in the book. Simple, a four string chord and all you have to do is hold two strings down with one finger. I began to wonder why in the world I couldn’t have been born with an extra digit on my left hand because F was downright impossible.

I’d also decided that I should really be learning on a steel strung guitar so I bought a cheap one for single figure money at a second hand shop. The instrument looked really pretty with multi coloured veneer and a beautiful scrollwork design on the scratch plates. I polished it and then fingered my first C chord. The result was a marked difference to the nylon strung guitar.

It sounded terrible, out of tune buzzes coming from everywhere and it felt like I was attacking my fingers with cheese wire. I figured a bit of perseverance was in order and so I persevered, spending six months with permanently sore and occasionally bleeding left hand fingers. I tried lowering the strings by chopping bits out of the nut, which helped but the soundbox seemed to be moulting internal struts at an alarming rate. I stuck each one back with Araldite and spent the rest of the evening picking the glue off my fingers.

It was around then that I became aware of waterways music thanks to a BBC album simply called “Narrow Boats” that my dad had bought. I had a job too and the combination of that, the album and an advert in “Melody Maker” saying “Why not buy your second guitar first,” I thought “Why not” so I set off to purchase a brand new Italian built Eko Ranger Six, which I still play regularly. That allowed me to learn properly but, by the time I had gone to Sunderland Polytechnic, canal and other folk songs weren’t really the thing to be playing. I tried electric and soon found that amplifying my lack of talent really didn’t help that much, but I kept slogging on. I got my degree in Fine Art and, along with my guitar, second hand electric guitar and very tolerant fiancée, set about the process of getting married.

Some years later I was playing some music to our children when I dug out an album that I bought at an IWA rally in Weybridge when I was still a teenage member of the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society. The album, “The tunnel’s mouth” by a band calling themselves “The boatmen” is a bit on the raw side with songs like “Boaty Boaty spit in the cut” being a little bit ripe even in their cleaned up form. I played a few tracks (the cleaner ones!) to the kids and was surprised that they actually liked the music. I then thought it’d be nice to find some more waterways songs. Using the internet as a resource I have since dug out a number of other canal related music, both traditional and more recent that tell the story and create the atmosphere of the waterways. The tunes for most are relatively easy to work out, giving me a small repertoire to play when required.

Michael Nye and his daughter at Maesbury

Michael Nye with his son, daughter and one other - Supergroup

I’m not sure when the interest in inland navigation, music and writing fused but I do like learning new songs about our canal system and have had the privilege to have been able to play some to a live audience on a number of occasions. I’ve often played a few songs at events where I have my books on sale and enjoy both the process of being a waterways author and occasional singer!

I still have that first ukulele which, after it spending years in various attics, I have restored, and enjoyed playing Maesbury some years back accompanied by my son (also on ukulele), daughter (on vocals) and a guy that made a uke out of a biscuit tin!
©2022 Michael Nye