trust me, we have the answer

trust me, we have the answer

by CEO, Banal and Dither Trust

south shield mottow by devid scowcrovitch

We at the Banal and Dither Trust (Life is Better by South Shields) are exasperated, sad and fed up. We are not appreciated by boat owners. We have prevented dams from bursting, stopped countless breaches with temporary clay dumps and managed to have all four paddles working on a lock on the Trent and Mersey Canal (Sub – check I have the right name). Our Trust has spent millions of other people’s money on levelling the towpath laying a smooth surface in order that cyclists, motorbike owners and those new electric scooters are able to whiz along at great speed. Has any boater showed their appreciation, written to the newspapers in delight at our success? No. Has any narrowboat owner appeared on television praising the modern state of the towpaths? Negative. Has any River Cruiser owner recommended to the Honours Committee a gong or two to be bestowed on yours truly for ‘Services to the Towpath’? I think not.

During the pandemic we saved thousands of lives – boaters - by banning boating on our waters. We did, of course, keep the towpath open and admittedly some walkers did get in the way of cyclists and possibly gained the virus in the press for space. This was easily counteracted by the number of helmspersons saved from virus infection as they cruised along the narrow canal waters. I think it has now been proved that the virus targets anyone steering a boat; something to do with 5G masts and the steel hulls of narrowboats. Nowhere in the national press have I seen a reference to the sterling job we did in keeping the towpaths open and the navigation closed. Some boaters have stated that it should have been the other way round, which would have been silly. As silly as Birmingham City Council generating smoke from their two hundred-million-pound library to celebrate the city centre new ‘Clean Air’ regulations. (Sub note: I try to write satire, but I could never produce anything as silly as Birmingham City Council, they go beyond satire. Where was I?)

close up of swans headThe campaign for people to become a ‘Comrade of the Banal & Dither Trust, today’ has not been a great success despite media advertisements, Chuggers at every working lock and the employment of Press Gangs. The only Comrade is Mrs Agnes Figgins of Bolton, and she intends not to renew ‘because of all the germs out there’. Hundreds of executive hours on development wasted, years of PR work by expensively-tailored boys and girls out the window (or has the expression ‘boys and girls’ gone for a burton – Burton wasn’t involved in the slave trade, was he? (Sub check and delete if he was.) Our advertising slogan (Life is Better by South Shields) has been scorned by boaters and our new, almost unique logo made fun of, despite us being the only organisation to use a floating tyre to represent them.

Minutes were spent on designing a special Trust clothing range sweatily produced by female orphans in Spain. We had great hopes for the Trust’s truss but no sales, not a single truss is being worn by a boater on the waterways, a complete betrayal of the Trust’s trust.

Our campaign, involving your father, entitled "Does your dad love canals? Show him how much he means to you with the gift of ‘Comrade of the Trust’ on Father’s Day" has hit the buffers with complaints of sexism and ageism and some other ‘isms’. Boaters are asking what about ‘Mum’ - is she only allowed a mention on Mother’s Day? What about single-parent and same-sex families? Why are they not included? Can two-dad families both be run over by speeding cyclists or can only one father risk death on the towpath; boaters cry, what about two-mother families; all stay at home? I don’t know why boaters are concerned that the advertisement does not mention them: walkers, runners, anglers we would not dig low enough to include ‘boaters’ what have they got to do with canals, is my response – blooming cheek of them.

Our ‘clear the pontoons’ policy on the Trust’s moorings has not gone down well. All we demanded, insisted, and commanded was that every item be removed from the pontoons. Coal: put on another sweater, save the planet don’t light a fire. Wood: where did you make that kindling from, you stole pallets from pavements didn’t you, get rid of it now. Storage boxes for boaters – ridiculous. It is well-known boaters do not have property, the odd wacky backy tin yes, but hardly requiring a storage box. And would you believe one man even made a garden full of pretty flowers, he had such fun building and maintaining his garden. Has he not heard the latest trend is ‘Wilding’ leaving nature to flourish? That is what we are doing with our mooring pontoons letting the weeds run wild. Let the gardeners have as much fun destroying their deforming of nature as they had creating a blooming paradise.

We have continually moved offices, re-mapped regions and still boat owners have managed to find us – moaning about facilities not working. The towpath works, so what is the problem? So, we have decided that our efforts are not appreciated and therefore, from now on, we will not be licensing any new boats or even renewing old licences. All those boats without a licence will have to be removed from the trust’s waters – sorry but it’s in the small print on the back of your licence form – no licence, no boat. Think of the savings - no departments dealing with boaters or their needs for facilities. No more early morning cries of ‘the pounds dry’ - save me - it happens every day, it is the vandals, why ring us? No locks, no lock gates, no sanitary stations just offices - by Little Venice, I think - deep armchairs, potted plants, subdued lighting. Away from the railway station at South Shields to a plush office by the empty waters - what bliss.

close up of swan's head

adult swan with cygnets

the voice of reason

the voice of reason

Winter. I hate it - tons of free time on your hands with dark winter evenings for boat projects, but as always the weather / life stops everything. (I am writing this with storm Eunice howling around.) I was supposed to be making a new canopy but the supplier sent the wrong stuff (working from home and Covid - delete where applicable). I also wanted to finish and improve the idea of using vinyl wrap, but the three days I took off work were swallowed up by storm damaged tractor shelters / life in general and anytime I set aside for the boat was usually trumped by some other domestic event. To the point that I have developed a ground-breaking archaeological theory on King Raedwald – he of Sutton Hoo fame. The only reason he is buried in that boat with all his worldly goods is he NEVER got the chance to enjoy the damn thing whilst he was alive! I bet his weekends were also spent trying to fix his house, get a better deal on his horse insurance and declaring war on his neighbours when all he all he really wanted to do was have an hour or so to himself and apply Stockholm tar to his garboard plank. God, I know how he felt, if the only chance I am ever going to get to use this boat is bobbing about in Valhalla in the afterlife with my socket set and Leatherman knife laid out by my side then forgive me if I skimp this article short and re write my last will and testimony. Sorry no one gets anything. I spent it all on a digger!!!

dawncraft cruiser with canopyOh well, I suppose I had better regain some grasp on reality, and even your average Viking didn’t use the boat during the winter, much preferring to hole up somewhere, pull the boats out of the water, stock up on booze and food and wait for spring. Indeed, I remember a time when all boating roughly followed suit from October, to re start again at Easter. Indeed, many vessels buried under a heavy-duty tarpaulin (not the flappy things you buy now that rip in a force 3) away from the damaging weather, all items removed for storage to the garden shed at home standing a better chance to be eaten by mice, which amuses me seeing as we don’t get many on the Kennet and Avon so its better off on the boat.

Anyway, the Vikings had one major advantage over modern man, they couldn’t read and write (ok runes but hardly Wordsworth) so they weren’t subjected to / inspired by a plethora of glossy boating magazines and their ten best winter projects - suitable only for a central heated shed. Followed closely by 10 best buy items of clothing to ward of hypothermia whilst you try. Though an article about winter pillaging in the warmer climate of the Med might have grabbed their attention, as the thought has crossed my mind. Certainly, more appealing than ten best winter cruises to Bath in sub zero temperatures inspired by Shackleton’s voyage. Somewhere or somehow over the last twenty years we have lost our grip on the reality of winter and expect it to be an extension of Autumn as the mainstream media photograph a daffodil in February (usually a variety that flowers in February) to underline the fact that its warm and pleasant and we should be out there.

The Vikings had a point, maybe they knew that even the so-called rapid set, stick anything “large hairy primate glue” only works rapidly in the warmer climate of tropical Africa where they come from. As for water-based paints, seeing as I have just bought a litre of coloured water, one would have thought that it would have found a little bit of morning dew a doddle to stick to, but it doesn’t. Everything needs at least 12 hours of sunshine / warmth, and we only have eight. As for flexible sealant – it isn’t when cold, it won’t even come out of the tube without breaking your wrists desperately trying to squeeze a plastic trigger that snaps, and even when it does finally emerge it needs a clean dry surface. All this and burning a bottle of gas through the Propex to keep warm whilst trying to work and draining the batteries by having every light on so you can see what you are doing, and taking the solar power 4 weeks to top them back up.

Vikings knew all too well, winter at 52 degrees north basically starts at the end of November and ends in April, it's cold, dark, wet and windy and anything you try to achieve will just mock your efforts until finally you break your mental mooring tether and drift further away from all sense of reality.

standedge tunnel

a canal wanderer

returning to the standedge tunnel

Sorry for my long hiatus but it’s good to be back writing again.  Last autumn I made a couple of return visits to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal where I did some short walks to and from Standedge Tunnel from both the Eastern and Western portals.  Autumn is one of my favourite seasons and I always feel the autumn colours are special on this canal particularly around Lock 21W in Uppermill, Saddleworth.

Standedge Tunnel painting by Dawn Smallwood

One of the highlights was stopping at the Watersedge Café by the tunnel (Eastern portal) for its wonderful pumpkin soup and homemade bread, a perfect antidote, and a lovely place to reflect and relax.

I did a through trip of the tunnel a few years ago and it was a unique experience.  I travelled from the Diggle portal to the Marsden one.  It’s a long ride, approximately two hours, but certainly an experience one needs to do to experience the tunnel’s superlatives – longest, deepest, and highest tunnel in Britain.

standedge tunnel painting by Dawn Smallwood

Boats trips are now up and running so I took a shorter boat trip (the through trips aren’t currently available) from Marsden.  I had Stuart, an interesting and informative volunteer guide, who gave me a lot of facts and information about the tunnel and its related history and legends.  I feel I’ve got a lot from this trip especially learning about the facts and stories.

I’m an artist, my Instagram page is below, and I painted the pictures below depicting what is inside the tunnel with its waterfall feel and geological colours.  I also painted a picture on the Eastern side of the canal.

standedge tunnel painting by Dawn Smallwood

Huddersfield Narrow Canal is one of my favourite waterways.  It is known as the “Everest” of the canals and one of the seven wonders of the waterways. Now travel is opening up again, I look forward to exploring the waterways whether they are new ones or revisiting my favourite ones.  I can’t wait to post my explorations here.

Instagram page: @artwithdawns

Useful websites:
Canal River Trust places to visit
Canal River Trust canal history

webbs of the wharf

tales of the old cut

webbs of the wharf

Our story starts with the birth of a baby boy on the outskirts of Norton Estate before the Bridgewater canal was even built. The year was 1759, and Samuel Webb would grow up to become a farmer in his own right, moving only a mile or so from his birthplace to the little township of Acton Grange. While he was still a young man, he witnessed the clash of wills, infamously described as “The battle of Norton”, between Richard Brook, owner of the Norton estate where he was born, and the formidable Duke of Bridgewater over the route of the canal. Perhaps, as his father appears to be a worker for Sir Richard, he was even roped in to the various prevention schemes Sir Richard put forward.

Baptismal record of William Webb in 1796Samuel married a Runcorn girl and the first of at least 8 children arrived in 1786. By now the canal was open from Manchester to Liverpool, and on through to the Midlands via the Trent and Mersey. This was a time of huge changes across the country. As the industrial revolution kicked off thanks to the canals, the agricultural revolution gained speed as well, but the technological advances meant less manpower was needed to work the land. Samuel must have realised quite quickly that there simply wasn’t going to be enough farm to share among his 4 sons.

One son, also called Samuel, was not ‘normal’, most likely having what we would understand as Autism, but then being described as “inferior”.

It seems as though at least 2 of the sons, and possibly one of the daughters, move a few miles up the road to Great Budworth in search of work. Here we find the young men getting married, and a single woman matching the ‘description’ of a sister falling pregnant out of wedlock.

William Webb was only 21 years old when he married Sarah, who was about 30, and what seems to happen next is the couple head to Sarah’s family in Lach Dennis and William takes up work as a canal labourer over at Middlewich. They may have 2 short-lived children during this time, but we can’t track the couple for certain until 1820, when they come onto the Preston Brook radar.

marriage record of Peter James Webb to Emily in 1826At this time, the wharf was thriving. It was the only true through-route to the Midlands and would remain so until the opening of the Macclesfield canal in 1831. It was shipping hundreds of thousands of tonnes of goods every year, and its warehousing was gradually spreading across the site.

William spends the next decade as a wharf labourer, until in 1830 he appears in the records as a “porter” on the baptism of his youngest son. We lose sight of the Webb family now until the first census of 1841, where William is still a porter and his sons are starting to be absorbed into the hustle and bustle too; eldest boy Peter has become a boatman.

By 1841, William is caring for his older brother Samuel. Samuel is noted as being a labourer, and it wouldn’t be particularly unusual to find handicapped persons employed in simple jobs.

Birth of Peter Webb in 1822In 1851 we see William at the head of a family well acquainted to the wharf. He is a warehouse porter, along with son Thomas. Youngest son William is now a boatman, and the eldest son, Peter, is “porter for canal carrier.” Peter and his wife Ann have just welcomed their third child to the world and the two older children are staying with their grandfather to give mum a chance to recover. Also in the house is Samuel. Now 62, he is given the description of “inferior from youth,” so it would be reasonable to assume that he is now unable to work. Perhaps the increase in machinery, for the wharf now has a mighty steam engine powering it’s hoists and cranes, has made it too dangerous.

Jumping another ten years to 1861 forward and the family is now firmly entrenched at the wharf. William and his wife live alone with older brother Samuel now, and interestingly William is noted as “Methodist Local Preacher”, as well as a canal carrier’s porter. Next door is his middle son, Thomas, who’s moved off the warehouse floor and into an office; he’s a “canal carrier’s book keeper.” Eldest son Peter is a few doors down and he too has made it into office as a “canal carriers shipping clerk,” while the youngest son, William, is following his father’s footsteps, employed as canal porter and having married a boatwoman some 14 years his senior.

1871 sees William, now 75 but still working as a porter, living with his spinster daughter Mary. Sarah, his wife of 47 years, has died, as has his brother Samuel.

His son Thomas is still a book-keeper and William Jr is now a canal labourer; we could conjecture that his choice of spouse may well have set him apart from his up-and-coming brothers. The eldest son, Peter, is described as a porter but we know it is around this date that he becomes the foreman for the Bridgewater Canal Company at the wharf.

William Webb died in February 1880, aged 84. He had lived to see all three of his sons, and at least 5 of his 7 grandsons join the wharf workforce.

Newspaper cutting on the death of Peter Webb in 1920

His eldest boy, Peter, perhaps rose the highest. Deeply involved in the Methodist Church like his father, he appears to be pretty much the head-honcho of wharf, the company representative. When he died in 1888 the role was passed to his son, Peter James, who held the role until his sudden death in 1920.

Peter James Webb was, according the Runcorn Weekly News, “…quite well at dinner time… was shaking hands in the office of the wharf with Mr Rawlinson, when he suddenly collapsed into Mr Rawlinson’s arms..” and his death produced a wave of grief, with flowers being sent from the porters and warehousemen, boatmen, office staff, banksmen and even “Runcorn and Preston Brook Spoon Boat no4.”

By 1920 the wharf was winding down, though Webbs still worked at the wharf until the bitter end. By the time the engine was ripped from the site, at least 20 men from 4 generations of that family had worked there, and research is slowly revealing the extended family too.

finding the right balance

narrowboat nomads

finding the balance

I’ve never been daunted by change; indeed, I undeniably relish it, but Donna is generally more grounded and sedate with her decision making. It usually goes something like; I throw up a fantastical idea verging on lunacy, then Donna has a meltdown and spends the next few days percolating and figuring out the feasibility and possible pitfalls, so that we end up with a refined plausible plan that might even work.

Narrowboat Nomads home marina Diglis Basin, WorcesterBuying a narrowboat is a consideration not to be taken lightly. We bought our boat to cruise the cut and experience the nature and the seasons at close hand, to visit all the places that the canal system granted us access to and spend time in the company of kindred spirits. The quintessential English idyl that many dream of, however, as in life, things conspire, plans change and sometimes matters can unravel very quickly.

Once we had got aboard, we realised that immediate repairs and some long-term refitting needed to be completed before we could start exploring.  We had an idea of what was involved, as I had already created a spreadsheet with all the things we would like on our hypothetical boat, and I had costed it within an inch of its life. Of course, this turned out to be a total work of fiction and had very little relevance with the Jeremiah Lee. We had only recently dusted ourselves down after a 2-year renovation of a 1900’s cottage but a narrowboat is an entirely different prospect and when reality struck, we didn’t know whether to make a bowline or a beeline.

She had been built as a holiday, getaway, weekend boat by some very capable and experienced boaters who knew exactly what they needed twenty years ago, in effect she was an out of date leisure boat. Her second owner had also fallen in love with her because she will charm anyone who boards her. He wanted to live on her on a permanent mooring, with electric hook up, piped water and all that one requires close by, the well-used phrase and crudely put “floater not a boater” springs to mind.

However, the ambiguity of constant cruising means that your floating home requires a level of self-reliance, the vessel needs to be capable of sustaining you for a duration of time between facilities; you might say her off grid capabilities.

Our narrowboat was indeed somebody else’s baby, and a refit requires one to work within someone else’s original plan. For every action we would take there would be a reaction, that’s to say that the impact of doing one thing will affect another thing that you will have to live with. The boats’ depth and attitude in the water, her ballast, air draught, keeping us warm and a healthy engine are of course crucial, but changes needed to be made regardless.

Narrowboat Nomads narrowboat interiorPrimarily the lack of space, the required tools and building materials along with clothes, food and all the essentials needed for cooking and eating, washing and dressing, somewhere to sit, somewhere to sleep, it may sound odd but with so little room, we must move things about just to be able to work.

Secondly, besides the carpentry and decoration, there’s a whole load of other skills required; electrics for both direct current and alternating current, solar systems, security systems, comms systems, gas and water plumbing, engineering and an understanding of engines and mechanics.

Then there are the chores; walking Dylan and trying to keep our place and things clean, shopping, topping up the water, the diesel, the gas and coal, foraging wood, buying food and sorting our waste requires a chunk of time. All of this whilst not owning a car could make matters even more difficult but luckily for us, we could rely on the benevolence of our friends’ network.

One also needs appropriate work arounds to live long term on the cut and this is another quagmire that needs thought and ingenuity; financial arrangements, an income and banking, medical arrangements, any conditions, requirements and prescriptions, mail and parcels, groceries, all need sorting out. There’s the general maintenance of your boat, an appreciation of the weather, understanding navigation, being able to handle the boat and know how to manage locks, bridges and tunnels. In short, becoming competent helmspersons.

narrowboat nomads finding the right balance

Whilst working on the boat has and can be an arduous undertaking, sometimes stressful, always testing but essentially rewarding. We have flagged a few times, run out of steam, lost the will, taken time out, whatever excuse we’ve used them all. But generally, Donna remains more sanguine and hey if you’re going to get knocked down, fall forward rather than backward as its easier to get up again, so we muddle on and through the tricky stuff.

We knew that making time for ourselves would be crucial for the pleasure of the experience, so our desire hasn’t diminished, and our aspirations grow with the completion of each task. Whilst we are still a few months from being able to go cruising, we are a long way from where we started and have learnt much, how much is to be discovered but that is at the core of our endeavours.

narrowboat nomads finding the right balanceIt’s not just the geography, the landscapes and the flora and fauna that requires our further investigation and quiet contemplation, it’s the journey of self-exploration and expression. Getting off the hamster wheel is a life choice and trade off; we have given up comfort and security to slow right down. We may not have an alarm, but the clock is relentless and being able to enjoy our fitness and good health to pursue ones’ aspirations is our reward.

Living in a small space with a bookshelf is all we need to have a light touch in our world. We both have interests and creative pastimes that will occupy our days and quench our ambitions and we have taken this holistic approach to experience life within the briefness of the time that we have.

narrowboat nomads - finding the right balanceA major contributing factor for our mental wellbeing is being able to live within this close-knit community of persons who are alternative thinkers, decision makers and risk takers. The achievers that choose their destiny and find their own and unique pathways, gives us a sense of belonging and helps us feel comfortable as our adventure unfolds. It’s also a very social environment that requires our engagement and attendance of events and some considerable quaffing.  After all, your vibe is our tribe eh!

You can follow us on Instagram; @narrowboat_nomads, watch us on YouTube; Narrowboat Nomads and find out more at; www.nomadplan.co.uk

ever since I was a young boy

ever since I was a young boy

pinball machine history

At a recent editorial meeting, our illustrious editor, Lin, showed us the following piece which had been sent in for consideration.  Having doubts about publishing the story because of its content having nil to do with waterways, I interjected with a resounding reply to her question of to publish, or not to publish, "No! Let's publish!"

My reasoning was this. Being an old age boater, and also a member of the hippy elite, I well remember the heady days of pinball machines.  So many bars of ill repute in the 50's and 60's boasted amazing machines providing many a happy hour of balls and flippers. Badges of honour were verbally and mentally given to leather clad bikers, mods et al, and pinball machines were a part of everyday life.

One particular establishment I remember was The Olde Silk Mill in Derby, which became a mecca for the unwashed and black clad biking community. Happy days, happy memories!

So, go ahead and publish, because I am sure there are many in the boating community and readers of MY GENERATION for whom this article will bring back resounding memories and give a little insight into what used to be, for many of us, a daily part of life. Enjoy, and let's have some feedback.

Gerry.

From Soho down to Brighton, there must have been one in every single dance hall, club, pub, or arcade centre.

The pinball machine is looked upon today as a piece of 1950`s, 60`s, 70`s and 80`s youth culture, but how many early black and white films, that were connected with teenagers or gangs, would show a pinball machine in a coffee shop or candy store?

How many images stir up the imagination of the mods and rockers of the sixties all standing together in a coffee bar playing a pinball whilst listening to the jukebox?

How we see the machines today though is totally different to how they were first seen in the early 1930`s.

Inventor Steve Kordek who is recognised as the creator of the first machine designed the first models without the use of flippers, which later propelled the ball up the table hitting the number markers on the way, but more importantly kept the ball in play.

Kordek got the idea from the French game bagatelle, the game where you manoeuvred a metal ball around a board with pins and holes, the idea was to get the ball into the holes avoiding the pins which would redirect the ball, players would also bump and tilt the tables, making the ball sink into better scoring holes.

In his early machines, once the ball had been sent from the plunger arm, it travelled down the table hitting various buffers and stops which created a score that nobody could predict, making it an ideal machine for betting and gambling syndicates to bet on, without the flippers it became a game of chance rather than skill.

Once the underworld gambling gangs got to hear of this machine, they used it to their advantage by running gambling dens which installed the pinball machines alongside the usual card schools, one armed bandit slot machines and dice tables.

On hearing this the authorities were keen to put a stop to the illegal gambling culture that had gripped most cities in America, but could not pinpoint the culprits in action, until a plain clothes police officer entered a cigar shop, after a tip off, in East Harlem in March 1948.

He approached the pinball machine and dropped a coin into the slot and began to play, he pulled back the plunger arm and propelled the silver ball into action.

La Guardia smashing pinballs

The ball danced around the table, with the officer desperately trying to keep it in play, his first 5 attempts were unsuccessful and frustrating, but the 6th try proved to be better as the ball landed in a hole that triggered a free play mode, which signalled a gambling concern, something the officer had been looking for.

Once the game had ended, the officer arrested the shop owner and charged him with illegal gambling and possession of an unlawful gambling instrument. The arrest was earmarked as one of the first concerning a pinball machine, and was the latest in a crackdown on the perceived scourges that were running rife across the USA in the 1940`s.

Pinball Museum, Washington

Elton John vs the Pinball Wizard in Tommy

During the great depression, gambling was seen by many people as a menace to society, something that had to be controlled or stopped altogether, the pinball was seen as another form of illegal gambling to hit the streets and towns, increasing criminality.

Whilst the law enforcers and civic groups looked at pinball for its gambling culture, churches and schools condemned it for its corrupting influence that it had on the youth, stating that many children had skipped school and stolen coins in order to play the machines, some were spending their dinner monies playing, therefore going hungry in the process.

Chicago was seen as the pinballs main manufacturing city, already seen as a hotbed of criminal activity including illegal alcohol selling, drugs, prostitution, protection rackets and many other crimes were associated with notorious gangs and mobs who ruled the city including the infamous “Murder Inc Gang”. Pinball just added another string to their ever-growing list of illicit activities.

The Mayor of New York at the time was Fiorello La Guardia, who decided that enough was enough, and made pinballs illegal and began cracking down on owners, sellers and end users.

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, La Guardia and other officials declared that pinballs were apart from being illegal, were a waste of valuable materials that could be put to better use elsewhere.

Once the city councils decided to back La Guardia, there was a nationwide ban on pinballs in all public places.

The police began raids on bowling alleys, candy stores, bars, coffee shops and amusement arcades in an attempt to either catch the players and better still, the owners or suppliers.

Like their predecessors during prohibition, the officers who were named the G men, were seen smashing barrels of alcohol with hatchets in front of the waiting press photographers, who captured the event on film.

La Guardia and other officers assembled members of the press, before hitting the pinball machines with sledge hammers, hence smashing the machines to pieces, once smashed the remains were dumped in Long Island, where the materials used, were enough to build over 2,000 aerial bombs for the air force.

Because of the actions that were happening in New York, other major cities followed suit in the banning of the machines, this forcing the activity underground, at one point they were seen as part of the rebel culture and held in the same disregard as leather jackets, cigarettes, motorbikes and greasy hairstyles which were seen as brainwashing the young.

Pinballs criminal gambling reputation lasted long after the introduction of the flippers which were introduced in 1947, which changed the game from chance to skill, which eventually would stop the gambling element for the machines having had the uncertainty removed.

Even the late President JF Kennedy was entangled in a publicity smear by opposition leaders who tried to damage his reputation by printing photographs of the president playing on a machine, which was seen as a propaganda move on the part of the opposition, and was quickly quashed.

Famous back glass plates - Airport Genco 1939.

Rolling Stones

During the 1970`s the pinball was finally accepted as a game of skill and reflexes rather than chance.

The Californian Supreme Court overturned its prohibition in 1974 which was quickly followed by other major cities across America.

Although the ban was overturned, a Queens spokesman was quoted as saying “that this will bring rampant vice and gambling back into our cities”.

To prove to the sceptical councillors that pinball was definitely a game of skill, the Amusement and Music Operators Association recruited one of the country’s top players, Roger Sharp, to demonstrate on a machine that was set up in the Manhattan Courtroom where the city council met.

Sharp explained during the demonstration, that like baseball player Babe Ruth, who would call out a shot, he could not guarantee exactly where the ball would go, the same applied to the silver ball on the table, you hoped it would go into a certain space, but mostly it went elsewhere.

After the demonstration the council overturned the ban, which was expected to bring in an estimated $1.5 million dollars into the city economy by way of charging owners a $50-dollar licence fee for each machine.

Unbelievably, in some American states, the pinball machine still remains banned and is seen as illegal, but the law is not enforced due to the ridiculous rule.

When at its height in the 1950`s, the best-known manufacturers of pinball machine were Williams, Bally and Gottlieb, who introduced many new innovations to the models, which included multi-player games, score reels and increasingly sophisticated playfield mechanisms and art packages.

However, the games were not computerised, but were electromechanical and ran on a precarious balance of moving parts, something that we at Bearingtech know only too well about.

Indiana Jones

star wars pinball machine

Apart from the minor resurgence in the 1990`s due to the Addams Family movie, the pinball machine of the film, became the best-selling pinball ever in the history of pinball machines, hitting an unbeatable 20,000 units being sold across the world, but during 1995 home game consoles were flooding the markets with tens of thousands of machines hitting the high street shops, which consumers bought at an alarming rate.

This latest battle proved to be the last straw for some pinball manufacturers, so much so that one of the pioneers of the game, Gottlieb, who had been associated with pinballs since 1927, finally stop trading.

Williams, another pioneer of the industry now controlled 80% of the worldwide pinball market, called on their designers to reinvent the gaming tables and came up with the pinball 2000 version, which created some attention at first, but eventually tailed off after the follow up model got less attention.

When you consider that during 1979, the humble pinball had peaked with record sales of 200,000 units, compared to an 85% drop within 3 years, the fall from grace had a devastating effect on the manufacturers who could not compete with the new kids on the block, mostly who were electronic video games such as Space Invaders, Pac Man and Asteroids which were seen as the future.

Apart from the minor resurgence in the 1990`s due to the Addams Family movie, the pinball machine of the film, became the best-selling pinball ever in the history of pinball machines, hitting an unbeatable 20,000 units being sold across the world, but during 1995 home game consoles were flooding the markets with tens of thousands of machines hitting the high street shops, which consumers bought at an alarming rate.

This latest battle proved to be the last straw for some pinball manufacturers, so much so that one of the pioneers of the game, Gottlieb, who had been associated with pinballs since 1927, finally stop trading.

The Addams Family pinball machine

Williams, another pioneer of the industry now controlled 80% of the worldwide pinball market, called on their designers to reinvent the gaming tables and came up with the pinball 2000 version, which created some attention at first, but eventually tailed off after the follow up model got less attention.

Unfortunately, like Gottlieb, Williams decided to close its pinball division and concentrate on its slot machines instead leaving the market wide open for any newcomers to take up the fight.

After Williams left the field, Stern Pinball was the only American manufacturer left standing until Jersey Jack emerged in 2011, other smaller companies such as Spooky and American Pinball have now since joined the market by introducing more complex technology and electronics to their own models.

Because of the new technology that was developed in the early part of the 21st century, Chicago gaming who are a video game manufacturer decided to re-invent some of the classic pinball machines by adding technological advancements to the classic machines by teaming up with Planetary Pinball who together used the vintage Bally and Williams models and brought them back into the gaming mainstream for new players to enjoy, but with better sound and visual effects.

Talking of effects, when pinball first arrived on the gaming circuit back in the 1940`s and 50`s, one of the biggest attractions was the backboard glass plates and the table playfield frame due to the colourful imagery that adorned the machines, often depicting glamourous pictures with wild adventures or movie stars.

This artwork has now become very famous and sought after by collectors across the world, often seeing thousands of pounds changing hands between avid pinball enthusiasts.

Later as the machines became more elaborate and technically advanced, the artwork became more refined and detailed, creating a masterpiece of contemporary art, which in itself became more valuable and sought after, more so than the actual machines. Some dealers actually buy the machine for the artwork alone, especially if it is one of the best-selling machines in the world, such as the already mentioned Addams Family Pinball that came out in 1991 to coincide with the movie of the same name.

Movies and music seem to go hand in hand where pinball is concerned with many of the biggest films and rock stars often being displayed on the back-glass plates and playing frames.

The Addams Family pinball machine

Some of the most famous films have at one point shown a pinball machine on screen, either in movies or television, with some of the biggest stars standing alongside them.

Remember Henry Winkler as the Fonz in Happy Days, which at one time was one of the most watched tv shows in the world, opening scenes as the titles rolled, you guessed it, Fonz playing a pinball machine.

Or how about the disturbing film the Accused starring Jodie Foster, where a young barmaid is viciously raped in the most talked about scene of the film, on a pinball machine.

There are countless other films and stars who have appeared along the iconic machines including Paul Newman in the Verdict, Taron Egerton in Rocket Man, and how about Elton John in the most famous film of them all where pinball is concerned, Pinball Wizard from the film Tommy?

Alongside other films such as Ghostbusters, Goodfellas, Home Alone, Live and Let Die, Love Actually, Quadrophenia, Godspell and even Harry Potter have become platforms to promote pinball machines.

The most famous machines that are on most collectors wish lists are littered with music and film titles, everything from the Twilight Zone to the Rolling Stones are sought after.

The top ten must have machines are listed below.

Medieval Madness ( Williams ) 1997
Attack from Mars ( Bally ) 1995
Jurassic Park ( Stern ) 2019
Monster Bash ( Williams ) 1998
Addams Family ( Bally ) 1991
Iron Maiden ( Stern ) 2018
Elviras House of Horrors ( Stern ) 2019
Twilight Zone ( Bally ) 1993
Deadpool ( Stern ) 2018
Metallica ( Stern ) 2013

Alongside the most sought-after machines, is the artwork that has fast become a collectable item in its own right, so much so that an early William Wiley model sold for an incredible $125,000 and was listed in the catalogue as “a piece of art”, rather than just a pinball machine.

Some of the best artwork that adorned the pinball machines seem to be associated with the 80`s and 90`s.

Although the early artwork on the old machines have a certain charm and appeal to collectors, purely due to the images and topics portrayed at the time.

To grab someone`s attention and stand out from the crowd you needed to create an image or sound to draw the prospective player to your machine, this is where the artwork comes into its own.

Hi Diver Pinball Machine

Basketball Gottlieb Plate 1939

The best artwork is listed below, not necessarily the best selling but influential.

Space Invaders (Bally) 1980
Xenon (Bally) 1980 Creatures of the Black Lagoon (Bally) 1992
Theatre of Magic (Bally) 1995
Scared Stiff (Bally) 1997
Tales of the Arabian knights (Williams) 1996
Circus Voltaire (Bally) 1997
Twilight Zone (Bally) 1993
Medieval Madness (Williams) 1993
Indiana Jones (Williams) 1993

"Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all"
The Who

History has a funny way of putting things into perspective, after all the fuss and bother in trying to get the pinball machine banned all those years ago, along comes the digital age, which in affect killed the pinball stone dead, people saw them as old fashioned and boring, they preferred to play the new electronic games that were being imported from Japan at an incredible rate.

Can you remember the first time that you saw a Space Invaders machine, or a Pac-Man in a pub or arcade? These were the machines that took the mantle from the pinballs and slot machines and ran with it for years, until a new breed of entertainment arrived in the shape of quiz machines, not only could you play the machine, but you could also win money by answering questions, something which has now been taken up by television broadcasters who literally have a quiz show on every channel.

But like most well-loved machines, designs and models that were deemed out of date and dull have suddenly become “vintage” which seems to attract another genre of players and collectors.

People who grew up with the pinball machine, one armed bandit slots, dartboards, jukeboxes and table football know the value and pleasure that these pastimes brought, albeit for a few minutes.

More and more of the old 1960`s and 70`s machines are becoming very much a thing of the future, gaming antiques maybe a strong category to list them under but when an item brings back nostalgia, pleasure and more importantly, value then people start to take notice.

As the lyrics in the famous pinball wizard song read, “I`m not handing my pinball crown to him” not unless you are willing to pay a lot of money for it that is.

celebrations on the wharf

tales of the old cut

celebrations at the wharf

King George V Coronation Cup

With Christmas and New Year celebrations still very much in our recent memories, it seems like no better time to open the wharf's story book and look at another celebration some 100 years ago.

It was 22nd June 1911 and the country was deep in patriotic frenzy for the coronation of King George V. Preston Brook was no exception.

Most unusually, it was even agreed that some funds could come out of the rates, 2d (2 old pence) to every pound, to help fund it, although in the end it wouldn’t be needed because everyone was full of excitement and donating generously.

Who suggested the wharf as the location of the party, we don’t yet know, but the Ship Canal Company was prevailed upon to donate “a spacious shed with field adjoining”, which is likely to have been the Dandy Warehouse.

We can take an educated guess that the building and wharf had been given a suitable sweep-up the day before, and on the morning the local committee swarmed over it putting up decorations and setting up tables.

Coronation Day at Neston

Excitement must have been reaching fever pitch. We know from diaries of other such Coronation celebrations that children, and in some cases husbands, were driven into the bathtub and scrubbed until they glowed, so there is every chance that the occupants of Preston Brook did the same.

Work was not totally knocked on the head for the day, it was only a Thursday after all, and a number of boats arrived and departed. Equally there were a number of boats who laid up for the day, enough to warrant special sports events to be laid on just for the boatpeople and the local Irish labourers.

The sports events kicked off the celebrations at 2pm; with the newspapers describing “sports of a varied character for young and old, also a tug of war and shot putting events…for prizes to the value of £10.”

King George V Coronation medalAt half past 3, the children were rounded up and given medals by two local ladies, and a big procession headed by the Aston and Preston Brook Band went off on a tour around the village while the unsung heroes of the committee were left alone for an hour and half to lay the tables with the celebratory tea for the 500 guests.

On their return, the children, doing well for themselves out of the occasion, were made to line up and pass through the door of the warehouse and be given a commemorative cup by the wharf foreman, Mr Peter James Webb, and one Mr Yates, who appears to be a company engineer.

Food finished, and everyone went back out for more sports and children’s maypole dancing while the committee whipped all the tables and dirty plates away so everyone could come back inside for “musical entertainment.”

Merry-making carried on for all until past midnight, when the party was wrapped up by singing the national anthem and no doubt a quiet reminder that it was back to work for a lot of the men in just a few hours, not least of all the members of the Preston Brook band who needed to be in Warrington by 0930 the next day.

narrowboat nomads

narrowboat nomads

how we came to the cut

I blame a lot of it on YouTube but in truth, the catalyst was created long before my access to the internet, indeed walking along the Brecon Monmouth canal first engaged me and provoked my earliest thoughts of a narrowboat life. The concept of drifting through the countryside on a boat was so evocative, like a snail with its house on its back, you are free to roam in your floating home.

world heritage site, Hampii, southern IndiaBut the thoughts were buried deep whilst I was seduced by promises and snared by the rat race. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all toil and trouble, I have made the most of meagre opportunities, seen life and straddled continents on a journey of work and play.  The game changer came in the summer of 2017 when Donna and I met in Portishead and within a few weeks we were getting off a plane in Sri Lanka.  We had chatted about the spellbinding wonders that travel affords one and in particular, the crazy, frenetic tropical wonderland that I consider my emotional touchstone, so we spent our first winter together in India.

pembrokeshire coast dog walkingUpon our return to the UK, we bought a run down 1900’s cottage in rural Pembrokeshire and spent the ensuing two years renovating our forever home with sea views, our life had settled into an easy routine with part time jobs and dog walks through the seasons.  But then…  all of a sudden, it started as a sneeze far, far away sending ripples across the oceans to rock the world and the “Vid” had landed on our shores.  This new phenomenon made from unfamiliar words and conspiracy theories made us all think and consider our futures. “Life is short so do we sit here in Gods’ waiting room or is there time to roll the dice and have one more adventure”?

We sold the house bought a motorhome and got through the tunnel heading south west to La Rochelle and a trip along the Atlantiqué Highway, only to be locked down in Portugal at the end of 2020 and then when Brexit came into effect on the 1st of January, we were given 90 days to get out of Europe and our life on the road had hit another road block.

Portuguese sunset, Cabanas de TeveraDuring the first lockdown, like so many other people, we had binge watched stacks on YouTube hence where the motorhome life had materialised but I suppose all along I knew that Donna liked the narrowboat boat lifestyle and its possibilities more. Both options had been discussed when we were in Wales and we were still in Portugal when we decided on a life afloat. We searched the net for our next home, we clearly weren’t the only ones with the same idea because boats were selling like hot cakes and plenty of Brits were fleeing Europe and the Schengen zone.

Millau Viaduct, Massif Central, France

We crossed the newly opened Portuguese/Spanish border with some trepidation and hugged the Mediterranean coast on our way back through Spain avoiding crowds. By the time we had reached Valencia the stakes had been raised again with lateral flow and PCR tests, ferries fully booked and dubious reports of road closures. We had our tests, only to be told afterwards that they were the wrong ones, nevertheless we made a charge north at full throttle to cross the border with France only to be hauled up near Perpignan by the Gendarmerie with machine guns. They read through our passports and test results then whilst holding our papers and looking perplexed wished us “bon voyage” with a cheery wave. We wondered did the Frenchman reading English and Spanish documentation know what he was looking at and we doubted that any of us really knew what to do!

In the space of 24 hours the temperature had effectively dropped by a degree an hour as we went from shorts to bobble hats heading north and high over the Millau viaduct and the Massif Central mountains.

canal near Eppernay in the Champagne region of FranceWaking to frozen puddles and fading sun tans we pushed on, whetting our appetites and dallying up the French canals past the myriad of different styles of craft.

When our ten-day saunter through France came to an end, we had some more tests and doggy tablets then spent the last of our Euros on the finest Bordeaux wines and French delicacies before being rushed back through the all but abandoned tunnel at Calais.

We self-isolated on a campsite in Surrey for the obligatory ten days eating stale bread and cheese and drinking nasty plonk, desperately looking for a boat that we liked. We created a spreadsheet with our requirements and a list of available boats on Apollo Duck. Only to look again the next day and see that anything that caught our eye had sold overnight. On Good Friday we had compiled a list of 15 boats we were interested in and by Saturday afternoon 8 were gone.

Jeremiah Lee lying at Droitwich SpaYou hear people say, “you’ll just know it when you see the boat for you” and that was exactly what happened. Following Donna onto the boat, I felt a smile coming on my face and asked her, if she liked it? she turned around beaming and just nodded vigorously, we followed the owner through the boat and returned to the saloon where I asked Donna “do you want it”? Once again, she nodded vigorously, there was no denying it Donna was moved by the Jeremiah Lee.

We broke the cardinal rule and didn’t get a survey, moved aboard one week later and for the first 24 hours we basked in triumph. It wasn’t until day two that we started to note things that were wrong with her. Our pump out tank was full and in our first flight of locks, we lost propulsion and we were lucky to have Vince a fellow Taffy and resident at Hanbury to pull us out of the lock on the centre line, the problem was quickly identified and shortly after we limped into Droitwich Spa Marina where we were able to make some remedial repairs.

narrowboat fitted kitchenWe got going again but by the time we had got to Worcester, our new batteries were near to flat and we limped into Diglis Marina where we were able to get a residential mooring and make a proper start on her refit. Now the inside is mostly complete and due to come out of the water for blacking, painting and some new solar.

So even though our route here has been somewhat circuitous, we know it to be; no more remarkable than plenty of others who have chosen life afloat. Since joining with kindred spirits and the boating community we have forged friendships that will endure.  We are almost set to continuous cruise the cut and start again on our peripatetic life. You can follow our journey on our YouTube channel: Narrowboat Nomads

the joy of instagram

the joy of instagram

a gourmet guide for the eyes

Love it or hate it, there can be no denying that Instagram is a potentially fascinating platform, filled with zillions of little windows into the lives of those who tell their stories in pictures.

For canal-loving Insta fans, there are some bright shiny gems to be unearthed within this vast mountain of imagery - photographers who have that jaw-dropping and unfathomable ability to captivate, pull you in and take you on a spectacular journey along our waterways as seen through their eyes. Whether amateur or professional, they all have that ‘special something’ which makes their images an absolute delight and a privilege to stumble upon.

Stumble no further! Below are some leads to a few such accounts - guaranteed to sprinkle a little magic on your Insta feed and leave you wanting more.

Enjoy!

account name: mrscloudinspector

If nature and serenity float your boat (and whose boat don’t they float?), then come on over - you won’t be disappointed. This is a lady who understands good composition and how to capture and balance beautiful content. Weave in her appreciation of light and shape and the result is a smorgasbord of wonderfully dreamy ‘other-worldly’ images; delicate yet striking at the same time.

“Hi, I’m Megan and, along with my husband, I’ve been a narrowboat dweller for almost a decade, which is slightly less time than I’ve been on Instagram! I’ve always loved to take photos: years ago I would make holiday scrapbooks with printed photos and mementos, collages of trips and adventures, montages in frames and albums.

"The thing I love most about boat life is being so connected to nature. You can step off the boat and instantly be surrounded by nature. But not only that, you are immersed in it. When the wind blows, you feel the sway of the boat, hear the lash of rain on the windows, see the sun reflecting off the water and watch shining ripples of dancing light on the ceiling. An electric blue kingfisher darts past the side hatch; you watch a heron catch and eat a fish; the coots build a nest in the reeds opposite and raise three hungry chicks.

"There is something soothing about being on the water. It is no surprise that there is an upsurge in studies into what has been dubbed the ‘blue gym’. The fact that a pioneering doctor has prescribed walks along the canal in addition to medication in the treatment of mental illnesses and that the relationship between aquatic environments and health is now being researched, is testament to the healing power of nature. It certainly works for me.”  Megan (@mrscloudinspector)

instagram mrscloudinspector

instagram mrscloudinspector

Instagram mrscloudinspector

instagram mrscloudinspector

Instagram mrscloudinspector

instagram mrscloudinspector

account name: anuneasyparadise

Atmospheric, poignant, haunting. The imagery and stories to be found here touch something in the soul. Looking for a unique Christmas gift for a special someone - or maybe a little gift for your special self? Check out the book behind the account here

“We moved onto our narrowboat in 2012 after a decade of travel in Asia, and as much as we wanted a home we also wanted a way to explore this country that had become so unfamiliar to us. Which we did indeed do. We never imagined that nine years later we’d still be living on the boat as a family of four.

"Photography has always been part of our lives, chronicling the everyday and simplicity of life around us. Out of this a story evolved, captured on countless rolls of film, of the community on the Kennet and Avon Canal. But it was always intended to be more than just fragments of an unusual lifestyle, We hoped that it could be a voice for a group of people, of whom we are a part, whose place on the waterways is becoming more uncertain as the rules by which they are governed evolve.” Sebastien and Louise (@anuneasyparadise)

instagram anuneasyparadise

instagram anuneasyparadise

instagram anuneasyparadise

instagram anuneasyparadise

instagram anuneasyparadise

instagram - anuneasyparadise

account name: shinnysin

An enchanting and delightful romp of an account, documenting life on the canals as and when it happens. Be warned: the interior shots are likely to provoke a severe case of boat envy deep in the hearts of the romantically-inclined. Where are you taking us next in your beautiful boat, Sinead? We’re loving finding out! Sinead also has an Etsy shop, where she sells crochet patterns, notions and finished items. Check it out here

“I am now in my 7th year as a continuous cruiser and I can honestly say it's the most magical life I could have ever dreamed of. I could focus on the hard parts, and there are many! But the precious moments far outweigh the bad. Falling asleep listening to the owls, misty mornings, coffee by the wood burner and a new adventure every move-day with new places to explore, is my idea of heaven. I love that narrowboat life brings you closer to nature with everything revolving around the seasons, Even rainy days are a pleasure when you're cosy inside.

"My wooden home is constructed mainly from pallet wood, scaffolding planks and a lot of recycled stuff! Originally a Barney boat built at Braunston, we had to rebuild the whole top wooden cabin and replace absolutely everything apart from the hull and engine. It still has the original 47 year old Sabb twin pot diesel engine which runs like a dream. It has a beautiful sound, chugging along. After a lockdown winter in snowy Llangollen and this coming winter on the beautiful sandstone Staffs and Worcester, I think a summer on the Thames is the next plan.” Sinead (@shinnysin)

instagram shinnysin

instagram shinnysin

instagram shinnysin

instagram shinnysin

instagram shinnysin

instagram shinnysin

account name: srcnikon

Photography to really make you gasp in wonder. Steve Cole's subject matter goes way beyond our waterways, but we can forgive him because every shot is just so stunning. His  astonishing image of Sawley Cut, titled 'Cool Power' (first image below left) was commended in the UK Landscape Photographer of the Year 2020 competition and has been viewed a staggering 13million times on social media sites.

You can also find Steve’s photographs on Flickr  or follow him on Facebook.

“I have been enjoying photography as a keen amateur for around 10yrs now and will often be out very early in the morning or out late in the evening capturing the wonderful colours and light of both sunrise and sunset.

"I live in Long Eaton, Derbyshire and I am literally spoilt for choice when it comes to waterways; the river Trent and Soar, Trent and Mersey canal and Erewash canal, plus other river diversion cuts are within a short walk and give me endless potential throughout the year. A big percentage of my landscape images will include these stretches of water.” Steve Cole (@srcnikon)

instagram srcnikon

instagram srcnikon

instagram srcnikon

instagram srcnikon

instagram srcnikon

instagram srcnikon

Copyright Notice: All images shown here are the property of the Instagram account holders who kindly granted consent for their inclusion within this article. They are strictly not to be reproduced elsewhere without the relevant account holder's prior written permission. All rights reserved.

boat internet

boat internet

an introduction for the non technical

This article contains links to other websites - canalsonline.uk takes no responsibility for this external content or use of these sites. This article also lists a number of specific products; the author has no connection to these companies and there has been no endorsement or payment for the selection - other products are available. All information in this article is from experience and public sources but no liability is taken for your decisions! One last note; this article is intended as an introduction for a non-technical audience so please don’t email me commenting on lack of information about Signal-to-Interference-plus-Noise-Ratio or automatic LTE frequency selection. Do however get in touch if you think I’ve got something very wrong 🙂

Whether you use your boat on high days and holidays, spend only the summer months aboard or live on board all year round, a common requirement of the 21st century, along with a working engine, a hull that isn’t leaking and a loo of some variety, is access to the Internet.

I work in IT or Information Technology - a term which covers a multitude of sins - and in 2018 started working and living full time afloat. So long as I could access the Internet then I could work on the machines located anywhere in the world so why work in an office? And more importantly - why not on a boat?

“Using an LTE capable endpoint device, connected to a mobile network providers national infrastructure over the 800Mhz radio frequency range, it is possible to create an 802.11n local area network to access a shared local resource to multiple devices…”

…and in that one sentence you may see one of the problems! Being charitable you could say that IT people have been forced by the complexities of the technologies available to us to create a lexicon to effectively communicate together. Those less charitable say we’re no better than quack doctors in using jargon to deliberately obscure and baffle those “not in the know”! The truth is I suspect somewhere in between. Add a marketing department into the mix and we’re all in trouble!

So the following is an attempt to provide a few unbiased recommendations based on personal experience of what you can use to access the Internet from a boat, tips on getting better speeds whilst hopefully explaining some of the jargon we use.

Getting to the Internet

If you’re just interested in the bits and bobs you might need to get Internet access then jump to the next section… otherwise read on!

The first thing we need to do is define the word “Internet”... which is quite tricky without falling down the jargon rabbit hole! The Internet isn’t one “thing” (as joked about here ) but instead a collection of services provided by multiple interconnected networks operated by different people, organisations and countries and states.

We use an “Internet Service Provider” (or ISP) or Mobile Provider to give us a gateway into these inter-connected networks we call the Internet.

The most obvious difference between getting “Internet” from a boat compared to a house is that, with a few notable exceptions, BT, Virgin Media and the like will refuse to install broadband using a cable onto a boat. This forces us to use radio waves rather than a physical cable to carry requests to and from the Internet so we will get access from a mobile provider - think Three, EE, O2, Vodafone and co.

Radio waves are split into frequency bands - which I find easiest to think of as the different colour bands of a rainbow - with different services being provided in the different bands [1]. There are frequency bands used by the emergency services’ radio system, frequency bands used for satellite TV and another for digital TV and some that are used for “Wi-Fi” (more on that later). But the most relevant frequency bands for “getting Internet from a boat” are 3G and 4G (and maybe if you’re in the right area 5G) which are most commonly associated with mobile phones.

You’ve probably heard of 3G and 4G because your phone uses them to get access to the Internet. 3G (the G stands for Generation so it is 3rd Generation) was the first widespread technology to provide sufficient speeds to make mobile Internet worth having. This has been widely replaced or augmented with the LTE service (Long Term Evolution) or as it’s more commonly known thanks to the marketing people - 4G - which was designed to be faster and more flexible and resilient than 3G.

mobile internet Your phone (which I’ll also refer to as the “customer endpoint”) connects to your mobile provider's nearest operational mast which in turn (eventually) connects through to the “Internet”. This miracle of modern telecommunication engineering is possible because the frequency bands are spread out for the different services (TV, Radio, Mobile Internet, etc) and within the allocated frequency band for 3G and 4G there are further divisions allocated to the different mobile providers [2]. This limitation on the frequency bands available to 3G and 4G means that mobile providers paid a lot for their allocated slot - in 2012 the Government was hoping to get £3.5 billion from the 4G frequencies auction! [3]. Fact of the day - the auction of the 4G frequency band (800Mhz) was only possible because the old analogue TV service, which was previously using it, was turned off [3]. 5G is the next faster, and better mobile service (depending on your viewpoint on its safety!) although the rollout of the service is taking some time.

So… your phone is connected to your mobile providers nearest mast using 3G or 4G and from there off to the Internet - all is good with the world! Right? Well… no...

The mast that you’re connected to has limited and finite bandwidth (think of it as a pipe that can only transport so much water at one time) to provide access to the Internet, so as the number of customer endpoints (e.g. mobile devices) connected to mast increases the amount of bandwidth available to you decreases because it is divided between the endpoints connected to the mast. This is why you can be at a festival and your phone can show full signal but you can’t access the Internet - all of the bandwidth available to your connected mast is used up!

And if you happen to be really far away from the nearest mast then the signal - which is measured in decibels like sound - will be reduced, meaning a further drop in speed.

To add to this tale of woe there are things which can interrupt, degrade and block your signal to the mobile provider's mast, such as buildings, hills, other electrical devices broadcasting on nearby or overlapping frequencies (including as I once found, an airport’s landing radar system!) and this is before we get to one of the most limiting factors for many of us - the metal hull of the boat itself which has similar properties to a faraday cage! It’s a miracle it works at all!

So how do we counter these problems to get the best signal possible which in turns gives us nice speedy Internet access?

The first way is to use an antenna fitted to the outside of the boat on a retractable mast - the higher up the better - to give you a more direct connection to the mobile providers mast.

my three dongle

As an Antenna can’t be connected to a mobile phone we’ll swap the phone for an “LTE/4G router” which is a box into which you insert a SIM card (just as you do with your phone) which takes the mobile signal to and from the mobile providers nearest mast and gives you Wi-Fi inside of the boat. Which then begs the question.. what is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi (or the IEEE 802.11 protocol if you’re feeling technical) is another way to transmit computer data without a physical cable and instead using radio waves. Unlike 3G and 4G it is used to connect local devices - that is to say your phone, computer, printer, TV, etc to a router which then sends the data off to the Internet using the 3G/4G radio signal. Like 3G and 4G it has dedicated frequency bands - 2.5Ghz and 5Ghz - but it runs at lower power because it doesn’t have to go over the same distances.

So with all this information we could now summarise your best chance of getting Internet access from a boat as:

    • Your laptop/printer/TV connects using Wi-Fi to your LTE/4G router
    • Your LTE/4G router uses an inserted SIM Card and transmits radio waves through the external antenna using 3G or 4G frequencies to connect and send data to your selected mobile providers nearest mast.
    • So long as there is enough bandwidth available to the mast, your data is sent on to the Internet.

Changing frequencies

The second way to get faster Internet access is to change the frequency you’re using - this isn't as bad as it sounds so read on!

By default phones and routers are configured to automatically use the best signal they can find. In practice this means, if it’s available, devices will select the 4G service if it’s available which is considered “faster” than 3G, even if the 3G service in that particular location is better! This automatic selection doesn’t take into account how contended (how many people/devices are on) that frequency/service and other things that effect one frequency band over another as mentioned above. Because of this I’ve often found that the 3G service can provide a faster service to the Internet than the 4G service!

To test the “speed” you’re getting to your device you can use one of the many free services such as https://broadbandtest.which.co.uk. Websites like this will return an indication of the “speed” you can download (how quickly you’re getting data from the Internet), and upload (how quickly you’re able to send data to the Internet). The figure to look for is Mbps (Megabits per second) - the higher the number the quicker your connection. I would recommend using the same website to test your speed each time so you’ve get a consistent baseline to test against - different “broadband speed testers” will have different responses based on their own Internet access and a hundred other mitigating factors.

This change, from using 4G (or auto) to 3G, would be done on the settings page of the LTE/4G router. Because of the many different models available it’s impossible here to give instructions on how you would change this setting but the manual should tell you how to get onto the settings page and from there it’s a case of searching until you find a drop-down box that says Auto, 4G only, 3G only, etc (or similar) then saving the setting. There are often YouTube clips for the most popular models so that’s another good source of information on how to do this.

I can give you an example of the difference in speed you can get between 3G and 4G where the 4G service is seemingly highly contested or less available. In Armitage on the Trent and Mersey Canal the 4G service returned around 0.6Mbps - which is virtually unusable for most modern Internet requirements such as watching TV or videos online or working. The same test done using the 3G returned 21Mbps which is one of the best speeds I’ve found outside of a city or very large town! That said, these services along with the contention is constantly changing so just because it was better on 3G one week doesn’t mean that 4G won’t be the better service the next week - when you moor up do a quick test on both using the online test website to check.

Finding good signal by map...

The third way to improve your Internet speed is to use your mobile provider’s website to check what the signal is like in an area and moor up where the signal is reported to be strongest.

All of the major mobile providers (e.g. Three, EE, O2, Vodafone, etc) have maps like this - website/Discover/Network/Coverage - which display what the signal in a specific area is expected to be. It’s not always accurate but if there is a “dead” area of no signal on their map and you need to do some work then it’s probably not a good place to moor up!

Mast hunting...

The last resource, although it’s debatable exactly how useful it is, is to use a website like https://www.cellmapper.net/map# which displays the exact location of mobile masts. A word of warning though - the information on sites like this isn’t always up to date as the data is not provided by the mobile providers themselves.

Internet TV

For many years the only option for getting a TV signal on a boat was to use an antenna which had to aligned to the nearest TV mast when you moored up. Internet TV has really taken off in the last few years, especially with the investment the big channels have put into their streaming services (such as BBC iPlayer) and it’s now a viable option to only use the Internet rather than a TV aerial (we do!).

cello tvThe options here are either to use a “smart” TV such as a Cello Android TV which runs on 12v and directly connects to your boats Wi-Fi, or use a “non-smart” 12v TV and plug in a “streaming player” such as a Roku dongle  which connects to your Wi-Fi for the Internet and a HDMI port on the TV.

Yes… but what do I actually need to get???

The simplest way of getting Internet on your boat is obviously to just use your mobile phone which has 3G/4G (and maybe 5G) capabilities. Where the signal is weak though, due to the many reasons listed above, you can find yourself hugging the window, cursing and adding to life's frustrations - not what you want when you should be chilling out (you’re on a boat after all!).

That said if you’re not on your boat often and don’t want to invest in more expensive technology then you can use your phone as a hotspot to provide Wi-Fi access to other devices such as computers and a TV. Any devices connected via Wi-Fi to your phone hotspot share the 3G/4G data service that your phone uses. Beware though - this can eat up all of your data allowance on your phone VERY quickly!

The way you’ll enable the hotspot feature on your phone changes according to what type of device you have but these articles will broadly help:

If you’re planning on needing Internet access more frequently - or a more stable connection is required - then the next step is to invest in the following equipment:

    • An external Antenna
    • A “data SIM card” from a mobile provider (possibly even two SIM cards from two different mobile providers to give you the best chance of getting to the Internet)
    • An LTE/4G router (note: some mobile providers sell this device as a bundle with a data SIM contract - see below)

The antenna

As you start looking for advice on the Internet about the “best” antenna to get it quickly becomes a minefield of terms such as MIMO, Directional, Omnidirectional, Antenna gain and radiation patterns!! If you’re interested in all of these terms then I’d recommend taking a look here . If terms like these make you start to go cross eyed (and I really don’t blame you!) then I will say:

Poynting XPOL-1 antenna

Select an outdoor antenna - you need to be outside of the boat to get the best signal.

    • The connector on the end of the antenna you select has to match the input to your router. The most common connector seems to be the SMA type but check the specification of your router before you buy!
    • Check the length of the cable provided with the antenna - it needs to be able to reach back inside the boat to where your router will live!
    • If you’re happy on taking a recommendation then the one I’ve used for three years is the Poynting XPOL-1 which is available from many online UK retailers. I’ve accidently dropped my antenna in various rivers and canals and it’s lived to tell the tale and I’m increasingly seeing this model appear on narrowboat roofs around the country.

The antenna is going to get better reception the higher up it goes but you’ll need to be able to take it down to fit under a lot of tunnels and bridges (I often forget so you’ll see me scurrying down the gunnels to take it down after we’ve set off!). I use the Kuma antenna mount that attaches using a strong magnet to the roof (so no permanent fixing required) with a pole that attaches to the antenna which is secured using a jubilee clip.

The Poynting antenna comes with two 5m cables and one of the challenges is getting the cable back inside the cabin. Some people stick the cables through a handy mushroom vent but I chose to drill two holes in the forward bulkhead to feed the cables through. I’ve used a “solar panel feed gland”  and plenty of Sikaflex to make sure that no water gets in through the holes.

The SIM

All of the major mobile providers have a “data sim package” available and whilst the options are boggling it’s very much a personal choice which you select. I will say that you want to look for a package that is:

    • Affordable - no point in breaking the bank huh?
    • Has the most data allowance for the best price
    • Comes from a mobile provider that gives you the best signal in your area if you stick in one place, or a frequently repeated area.

These packages are normally advertised by the data allowance which is normally described in gigabytes (GB). Basically - the higher the number the more data you get but also the more you’ll pay. It’s difficult to say how much data you’ll use but to give you a (very) rough idea:

We use the boat Internet for:

    • TV (I’d say around 7 hours a week on average at a guess)
    • Work (30-40 hours a week)
    • General browsing and Internet radio (10 hours a week?)

According to my last statement we used 50GB of data last month but sometimes that goes through the roof and we accidentally use over 100GB - some of this depends on the signal quality as bad signal leads to lots of retries which increases the use.

If you’re planning on only cruising in a specific area then check out the mobile providers Network Coverage maps (available on their websites) as you may find one provider has better signal in your area than another.

We selected the Three mobile provider based on price, data allowance (we use the unlimited package after maxing out 100GB a couple of times!) and information from boating forums. I also have a backup SIM from Vodafone from my employer which I use when the Three network infrequently drops out or doesn’t have any signal.

We cruise around a fair bit of the network, the furthest points so far being Gloucester in the south west, Llangollen and Wigan in the north west, Shardlow through Stoke on Trent to the north and east of the midlands, March in Cambridgeshire to the east and Oxford being the most southerly point so far, and I’ve been able to work (and more importantly Em has been able to watch the TV and browse the Internet) in pretty much every mooring - with a few exceptions like Zouch on the River Soar where we had to move to Loughborough so I could start working again!

The LTE/4G router
As mentioned above, the router is the piece of equipment into which you’ll insert the SIM card. This device connects to the mobile network using 3G or 4G (LTE) and provides Wi-Fi inside of the boat to the TV, laptops, etc.

Many mobile provider’s data packages have an option to buy a router bundled in (often for the same or similar price of just the data package). The important things to look out for, whether you select this or get a different router, are:

    • The antenna connection - make sure it a) has an external antenna connector and b) it’s the same connector as the antenna you’ve selected otherwise you won’t be able to connect the two together! Most commonly this is the SMA connector - the antenna will provide a SMA Male Connector (with a pin the in the middle) so you’d need an SMA Female connector (with a hole in the middle) on the router.
    • The power requirements. The type of router that can connect to an antenna requires power (i.e. it doesn’t have it’s own internal battery which the smaller “routers” without antenna connectors sometimes do). As most boaters want to run everything off of 12v to save the overhead of running an inverter you’ll want to check that the router you select has a low power draw (i.e. less than 12v).
    • A lot of LTE/4G routers have a very low power requirement but come with a 240v (UK) plug. Check that you can find a 12v adapter that works with the router you select before you buy! When we bought our router we purchased the 12v adapter that had a “cigarette” type adapter which I then chopped off and soldered to a fused switch on the wall.

Whilst it’s unlikely to be a problem, you may like to check that the Wi-Fi signal the router provides inside of your boat is usable by your laptop/phone/TV. Wi-Fi or 802.11 has a number of variants; b/g/n and frequencies (2.5Ghz and 5Ghz). Some routers for example could feasibly come with only 5Ghz 802.11n which some older Apple devices and laptops are unable to use. It’s unlikely to be a problem but it’s worth mentioning if you decide to select a more obscure router.

If you decide to not get the router from your mobile provider then there are a number of manufacturers that make LTE/4G routers. The one I chose is made by Teltonika Networks who have a single SIM option  and a dual SIM option (this second option allows you to insert SIM cards from two different mobile providers which can then be selected in the configuration page of the router) I purchased mine from Eurodk. The Teltonika Networks LTE routers have a massive number of features but I found them easy to configure and there is a 12v adapter available.

As I’ve mentioned though there are a fair few manufacturers of LTE/4G routers so shop around for one that suits you.

One frequent “gotchya” when setting up a router that hasn’t been provided by the same company that provided the mobile data package (SIM) is the mobile providers APN selection. I’m not going to go into this here but if you insert the SIM and it doesn’t work then it could be the APN. Give their support team a call (yes… I know how painful this can be) and they’ll be able to let you know the values needed for your router.

Conclusion
As with pretty much everything, you can get a cheaper version of the same thing but it’s normally reflected in the quality! There are a bewildering variety of antennas and LTE/4G routers being produced by Chinese manufacturers and some of them are fantastic but there’s a lot that just aren’t worth “saving” money on as you’ll find they don’t live up to expectations or the advertised specifications.

I’ve listed the products above because I’ve been using them for a couple of years so don’t have a problem recommending them (I’m not being paid for listing anything so this is an unbiased view). At the same time I haven’t tested any other products out there apart from the Huawei B310 LTE router which was ok until it unexpectedly stopped working without warning one morning! Hopefully the information I’ve listed above will give you an outline of the questions to ask and what to look out for.

Whilst there are more options available to get Internet access from a boat such as mobile broadband dongles (which can't use an external antenna) and Satellite provided Internet I haven’t gone into them here because they’re either not as effective or have a higher overall cost than a LTE/4G router with an external antenna - but they should be considered for affordability and suitability for your requirements.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can do everything listed above and more and still end up in a spot with no Internet availability - it’s all part of the randomness of boating.

Perhaps the best thing about all of these things though, albeit the one that is most often forgotten about, is the off switch. Having Internet on the boat has given us the freedom to live on the inland waterways and travel (when not in lockdown!) but at the same time it’s great to disconnect and watch the world on the water go by.

[1] smartaerials.co.uk “Broadcasting frequencies used by TV Aerial, Radio and Satellite”

[2] 4g.co.uk 4G Frequency Information

[3] BBC “Will the 4G mobile auction meet the £3.5bn target?” 12-Dec-2012