Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Warning for arachnophobes - and everyone else

They seem to have thing about spiders at Legoland. If I'd known that, I wouldn't have hankered after going there all these years. I especially wouldn't have hankered after going there if I'd known how lame it was. Don't get me wrong: I'm a Lego fan from way back, I've done my time with the bricks, I've knelt on my share of their sharp corners. I still think they're a wonderful toy and will conscientiously move our boxes of bricks to our new house, unable to get rid of them.
When I heard about the original Legoland's construction in Denmark, I really wanted to go there then, and even wondered how I could manage it when I was in Copenhagen not long ago. By then the one here in England had been built near Windsor, but still I never managed to get there. Until today, when we had some stray time to fill in the vicinity of Heathrow. And what a let-down it turned out to be!
Tame, tired, unimaginative, it's a low-key theme park for little kids that no way, no how measures up to expectations refined by Disneyland. It's faded, weathered, a bit battered, and very ordinary. And also, quite astonishingly expensive. Don't go. Instead, buy yourself a new set and stay at home to play with the real thing. So disappointing. I could hardly bear it.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Farewell to Florence Edith

It’s only the stinky toilet that made me pleased that today was our last day on the canal. It’s really become quite breath-taking. But otherwise, it’s been such fun. So much busier than I expected, and challenging, and a bit fraught now and then – but there’s been achievement too, and satisfaction, and pride.

Also, simple enjoyment at this leisurely way to traverse the pretty English countryside, up close with the birds and the trees and the farmland, all under a big, big sky. And the pubs! With the towns and villages, though, not so much: as with trains, canal boats use the tradesmen’s entrance, and not only have we seen the back sides and industrial bits, there’s been a dismaying amount of litter on the water. While I’m at it, I am also disappointed that the system isn’t greener: having diligently sorted our rubbish during the week, we then had no choice but to dump all the bags into the same bin. No recycling at all! Poor.
But that’s the only complaint. Everything else was brilliant, and it was quite sad to get to our last lock, and then to the Kate boatyard, where James showed masterful control in making a tight 90-degree turn into the mooring. It was a shame, then, that the Kate man tutted and came on board to reposition the boat further along, with insouciant ease.


He couldn’t fault my tidy rope, though.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Winding up

Today I took my turn on the end of the windlass, after spending most of the trip so far at the tiller, concentrating hard but not exerting myself much (though you do get a sore right shoulder, and tired feet). The locks came evenly-spaced so the work was steady and there wasn't much time in between for relaxing. We started with the staircase lock, where this time a boat was coming up, and there was some confusion amongst the chief-less Indians about how to handle it, with an alarmingly-exposed cill at one point. The unusually tall gates on this one weigh 3330kg each (the others are mostly around 1500kg).

We're going down the canal now, which makes things easier, and despite feeling unhurried and chatting with the boaters going up, we were finished with the day's quota of locks by lunchtime. It was lovely to be surrounded by fields and trees and flowers; but some of us were feeling pressured to secure a mooring by the pub chosen for our last night's dinner, and we pressed on again, into the messy suburbs, under bridges busy with noisy traffic.

All was well: we moored right outside the pub - The Moorings - well within staggering distance of the boat, and enjoyed a well-earned Scrumpy Jack or Erdinger outside on the terrace in the long, warm evening. The food there, by the way, is terrific, the best of the trip - a great way to end our last full day on the Grand Union.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Get knotted, mate

Pretty much everyone on the canal has been friendly. Cows watch us pass, dog-walkers and strollers on the towpath pass the time of day, joggers and cyclists give a cheery nod, and other boaters exchange greetings and comments about the weather or the cricket. There’s a feeling of camaraderie especially at the locks, where we’re all sweating over our windlasses to raise the paddles, or heaving on the gates, or fidgeting with the gears to keep the boat straight in the pen.

Occasionally there’s a boat-owner, as opposed to a hirer like us (identified by the company name on the side of the boat), who watches with suspicion as we skim past their precious vessel, or who sails past without even acknowledging our presence – but today’s old codger took the biscuit. As we passed him, moored but perched on the railing at the back of his boat, he looked critically at poor old Florence Edith and delivered one scathing comment: “Your rope’s untidy!”
So it was, our stern mooring rope, in a heap under the tiller – just as it’s been all week, causing no problems at all. We didn’t acknowledge him, of course, or even look at the rope till we were round the bend; but after that we did a survey of everyone else’s and, true, most of them were tidied in some way.
We made a token effort to be a bit more shipshape thereafter – but it was a busy day today, lock-wise, and there were more important things to think about. There were three on our own, then a series of eight where we had a lock buddy and, despite steady traffic coming the other way, everyone worked so efficiently as a team that we cleared them all in 90 minutes – very satisfying.

Less pleasing was the country mile, and more, we had to walk into and especially back from the pretty village of Long Itchington. The fundraiser afternoon tea inside the old church was good, and the plaque on the wall of a cottage was funny, but we missed the track back to the canal and if it hadn’t been for a helpful cyclist carrying messages between us as we strung out along the road, there might have been a moment of ill temper. But an excellent dinner at the Cuttle Inn put everything right again.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Canal algebra

Miss Cree would be so disappointed in me. She was such an enthusiastic maths teacher, and today's problem wouldn't have given her a moment's hesitation, but I gave up on it, eventually. Here it is: if miles + locks ÷3 = hours, and you took 7 hours to do 13 locks, then how many miles did you cover?

Not many, is the innumerate answer. You’re lucky on a busy canal to hit 4mph – when passing other boats, either moored or travelling, you have to knock the throttle back to tick-over speed, which is much less – and even luckier to sustain that for any distance, so the miles you cover in a day, even one that that begins at 7.55am,  and especially if it includes locks and a tunnel, add up to very few.
But it was a good day: there was some dramatic weather that timed itself perfectly for lunchtime, and for the rest we had pleasant sunshine, cows, ducks, ducklings, a blue flash of kingfisher, woods, fields and pretty lock cottages. There were also, I have to say, the M1 where for some distance it felt as though we were on the hard shoulder; and the railway line the other side with the frequent silver scream of a Virgin train flashing past.
But then we were back to more bucolic scenery where, on return trip now, we recognised cottages and moored boats. There was a pretty shop selling ‘Canalia’ which is much less raunchy than it sounds – tea towels with a pattern of narrowboats, brass canal plaques, model boats, and metal jugs painted with the traditional Roses and Castle motifs.

Our lock buddy today was a cheerful, friendly, scruffy guy with few teeth and a pretty girlfriend, very proud of his Lister engine and who shared some non-judgemental helpful tips on steering. They were no help to me, sadly, when I entered the tunnel and got hung up in the dark on its kink soon after. We lost a fender to the struggle, but the day ended well anyway, back at Braunston’s peaceful mooring with a colourful sunset and sleeping ducks after salmon and spinach tart (with free Wifi) at The Boathouse.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Turnabout

When you're not on the tiller, steering and constantly reminded that getting distracted for just a few seconds will always result in an embarrassingly noticeable zig or zag; and there aren't any locks with gates to heave open and closed, with paddles to wind up and let down again - when none of that applies, cruising the canals is a peaceful and relaxing business. There's hardly any engine noise, you can hear the birds singing, ducks quacking, the water rippling through the rushes, and smell the leaves as the boat glides under bridges and overhanging trees. It's totally relaxing. It's the sort of boating holiday you expected, before you discovered the reality of the effort and concentration required to control the boat.
By you, I mean me. I had a shift just sitting at the bow today, and the biggest stress was waking up the ducks fast asleep on the water right in front of us. There were other boats to inspect (one of them with my name), boaters and fishermen to exchange greetings with, and sweeping generalisations to make. Like, there are four sorts of boaters: novice hirers like us, experienced owners, hippy liveaboards (that's the official term) and house-proud liveaboards. Some of the last group, far from getting away from it all, have beside their mooring little lawns that need mowing, you know. Also, we passed the six-mile post from Braunston, which we left one and a half days ago. Speedy!
We've done 36 locks since starting, and today was our turn-around, so we're halfway through our journey. First, though, there was a cream tea in the shop at Whitton Marina with the cherry trees outside, where the plump, friendly lady who served us insisted that she wasn't the model for the painting in the loo there.
After Weedon Bec, we got to Bugbrooke Wharf, and this brought the day's only real stress. We had to turn around, you see, and when your boat is 16m long, which is about the width of the canal, what you need is a winding hole. That's winding as in the thing that blows, and that was a problem today, a chilly Icelandic breeze pushing us in the wrong direction when James tried to get the bow poked into the specially-dug big notch in the bank. Of course, that was the very moment another boat came along, adding to the stress of trying to work out what combination of throttle, gear and tiller direction we needed.

But boaters are, generally, a friendly and helpful bunch, and the kind man on this one gave unhurried advice, hauled on our stern rope, and helped to turn us around. The reward for all this effort and anxiety was a mooring right outside The Wharf pub, where we drank several soothing ciders and enjoyed our dinner.



Monday, July 6, 2015

Despairing Matilda

The thing about narrowboats - or one of them - is that you're very close to the water. When you're feeding the ducks, that's just fine, even if I'm always getting caught out by their sharp eyes: feed the four by the boat and within seconds there's an entire flotilla of them skidding alongside, coming from all directions. Swans, though, they're a different story. Much bigger than you think (like pigs, in real life) it's no problem for them to reach inside and deliver a demanding nip to the arm when the bread is finished.
After six locks to get our eye in, today's challenge was the Braunston Tunnel, 1843m long with a sneaky kink at the far end. It was built in 1796 and is, as you see, two-way, although that's hard to believe when you first enter it. The technique is to stick to the middle until you need to pass, but that's actually quite tricky to judge in the dark, especially when the oncoming boat has a dazzling, straight-ahead light like this one. There was much complaining about it afterwards, once the 20-minute journey was over and we were back out in the bright sunshine and surrounded by greenery again.
After cruising along, disconcertingly, above the surrounding fields, we arrived at Long Buckby Wharf where the New Inn sits beside the lock, as it has for most of the Grand Union Canal's life. It was too pretty to leave behind so, despite intensive research, googling and discussion, we ended up having both lunch and dinner there, surrounded by traditional Roses and Castles decorative touches, which are common on narrowboats. The sad background to all of these hand-painted water jugs and buckets was that they were done by Matilda, who was kept a virtual prisoner by her publican uncle to paint them all, forbidden to have contact with anyone at the pub, even the man she fell in love with. She committed suicide and is said to haunt Table 11, which was conspicuously empty during our visits.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dogs and ducks

It was another busy day today, powering through the locks and meeting plenty of other boats in both directions. I liked the camaraderie with, especially, the other hirers like us, who blundered about and laughed off each others' bumps. Not so much the boat owners, who were understandably more precious about such things and inclined to pass the odd passive-aggressive comment. The old guy in a tshirt reading 'Old guys rule' said that he'd been at it for 40 years, and advised "If you're finding it hard work, you're doing it wrong." True, no doubt, but a bit irritating to hear.
There were also lots of dogs today, all sorts, and we shared a flight of locks with greyhound Sybil and Scottish terrier Poppy (both of them more interested in the goings-on than the child on board, intent on her iPad game). We discovered ourselves using lots of previously-unnoticed boating terminology: knowing the ropes, barging through, plain sailing, light at the end of the tunnel.
Some dramatic weather swept by, briefly, after a lunch which saw off the last of the Pont l'Évêque that I bought two weeks ago in Normandy - still good! - as well as some Colton Bassett Stilton for national balance. 
Passing boaters declared gloomily, "Well, that was summer, then" - but at Braunston the sun came out again and we could appreciate the cleverness of the packhorse bridge that allowed horses to change sides back in the day, where the Oxford Canal joined the Grand Union. Two wrought iron bridges take the human traffic across the canals, and nearby is The Boathouse with an irresistible 2-for-1 menu offer.
Afterwards, having had coffee in the superbly comfortable and ship-shape Moonpenny belonging to long-time boaters Val and Dave, we padded back along the tow path in the long dusk, past a mother duck with both wings protectively spread over her brood on the bank.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Grand!

Today a new adventure began. It's something I've fancied since I first read about it as a teenager: cruising in a narrowboat along England's canals. So for the next week, with James and Gill, two (fortunately) experienced friends, we'll be getting a taste of the Grand Union Canal from Warwick eastwards, on a 16-metre boat called the Florence Edith hired from Kate Boats. When we first laid eyes on her, she was hemmed in by three other boats and apparently trapped, but she was freed with ease by the experts, and in no time at all we were on our way.
Quite quickly, there were two viaducts, one over the railway and the other over a river, impressive evidence of the toil, skill and vision of the canal builders back in 1929 when it was opened. It unites London with Birmingham, and is the longest canal by far in the system, at 461km, with 166 locks. Every bridge is numbered, although the one that carries the Fosse Way which I learned about in Latin classes back in school is disappointingly modern and concrete, and nowhere near as picturesque as the many arched brick ones like this.
We were soon out into the countryside, passing through cornfields dotted with poppies, the occasional village church on the horizon beyond, and pasture grazed by sheep and cattle. It was wonderfully peaceful, nothing but ducks, moorhens and geese, all with fluffy chicks, the canal lined by trees, rushes or pretty arrangements of weeds like buddleia, rosebay willow herb, cow parsley, brambles and nettles.
We soon encountered our first locks, which turned out to be less scary than I expected, mainly because there wasn't much other boat traffic today and we were able to blunder through unobserved. The staircase lock was even so quite challenging, though: two locks joined together, the middle gates high and heavy, where the water foamed through very impressively when the paddles were wound up. After 18, though, things got easier, to the point where we - I! - were steering Florence through just one of the gates.
Our journey's first section finished at Itchington Bottom Lock, disappointingly not labelled as such but still a pleasing place to stop for the night near the Two Boats pub, and reflect on new skills learned which include a potentially disastrous disregard for vehicular bumps and scrapes.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Some corner of a foreign field

It’s just an ordinary field. Iron gate, hedges, nettles, knee high grass, a quiet country road running past it. On a Thursday afternoon, you can hear sheep, skylarks, a bee buzzing round the bramble flowers. There’s absolutely nothing remarkable about it at all.

But this is where my Uncle Mike, aged 21, two other Kiwi boys and three English lads, all of them between 19 and 23 years old, died, 70 years ago. It was an icy January night in 1945, they were on a training flight in a Wellington bomber, Mike was at the controls, and something went wrong. No-one knows, or will ever know, what that was, but the result was that the plane banked, lost height, and crashed into this field, bursting into flame and killing all on board instantly – or so we all hope.

The plane is still there, under the soil, and when the lush summer grass is gone, the indentation can still be seen; but the boys are buried at Botley, side by side. In North Marston, though, people still remembered the boys who died in the flames that lit up that dark night; and this year they did a wonderful thing.

On Anzac Day, they arranged for a procession of airmen of the RAF and RNZAF, a Lt-Col, a Wing Commander, the Royal British Legion, the Scouts, and others to the lovely and ancient church on the hill where, after hymns and prayers and poems and readings, a marble plaque was unveiled on the wall, finally remembering the six. Members of five of the boy’s families were present – but, really, as Sue, one of the driving forces behind the project told me today, “They’re all our boys now.”


It’s touching to know that the memory of Mike and his fellow Kiwis, and the English lads, is being kept alive; and it was heartening to meet these good people today, for whom this was so much more than just a History Club project. Well done, them.

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