Monday, 25 August 2014

A Surprise Visit to Jim Sparkes at Alexander's

Monday 25th August, 2014 in Stourport.
Our trip out with Charles and family yesterday had left MM pointing in the wrong direction so, after breakfast, we went down through the lock back into the Upper Basin to turn around. The visitors' mooring on the wharf was free, so we moored up there again and filled MM with water (always a comforting feeling to have a full water tank).
Today, we had an unexpected and very enjoyable trip out. Our friends and fellow narrowboaters Jackie and Mick had been in touch to say that Jackie's cousin Sue and husband Andrew were having a narrow boat built at Alexander's in Stourport by Jim Sparkes (who also built the shell for MM) and they were going to visit Alexander's today.  They had also asked to look round MM to get some ideas. We arranged to meet and they very kindly agreed that they would first pick us up and take us with them to see their boat shell at Alexander's.
It was lovely to meet them and their gorgeous golden retriever "Wilbur". We drove to Alexander's about midday and Jim's face was a picture when he saw us! The last time that we had seen him was at Crick Boat Show last year; M gave him a BIG hug.
Sue and Andrew's shell was more advanced that they'd been expecting; it was a delight to see how excited they were and it brought back many happy memories of our own build. Their boat is a bit special as Andrew is six foot ten inches and their narrowboat will have extra headroom so that he can stand up in it; Jim has very cleverly factored in the extra height in the structure of the hull.
They already have a name for her, "La Tortuga" and Jim estimates that the shell will be completed before the end of September, at which time it will be loaded on to a flat-bed and driven to Fernwood in Leicestershire for the fit-out. Fernwood has an excellent reputation (on a par with Kingsground) and we are sure that they will have a very special narrowboat in the spring. Fernwood is talking about showing "La Tortuga" at the Crick Show next year as it will be quite unusual with its extra headroom and can be promoted as "a boat for a tall person".
Afterwards we returned to MM and spent a happy hour or so showing them round and discussing some of the ideas we incorporated in her. We are sure that they went away with lots to think about for their own build.
It was lovely to meet them and to share their enthusiasm and excitement. We hope very much that we can stay in touch with them and we look forward to seeing "La Tortuga" when she is finished.
As they day progressed, the rain got steadily harder and harder - so when they left, we decided not to move today but to stay where we were.
It proved to be a good decision because the rain was unrelenting. It rained all the rest of the day and all through the night - well, it WAS a Bank Holiday, after all!
Today: 0 miles, 1 lock and 2.2 hours.
Trip: 245 miles, 151 locks and 180.5 hours.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Charles, Emma, Penny and Minnie Visit.

Sunday 24th August, 2014 in Stourport.
This is a Bank Holiday weekend and we had arranged for Charles, Emma, Penny and Minnie to come and visit us on MM. In the morning, we moved MM from her overnight mooring, which had limited access (especially for children) to a visitors' mooring beside the wharf which had just been vacated.
Charles and family arrived around midday and were able to park right next to MM. It was so nice to see them.
After a reviving cup of tea, we went for a walk around the canal basin, which is full of interest, and down to see the River Severn.
We had booked lunch at the nearby, and very attractive looking, cafeteria called, appropriately, "The Windlass". A good job that we had booked as they were really busy. Stourport attracts many weekend visitors from "Brum", they like to come for a day out by "the seaside".
There was time for a short cruise after lunch, so we set off up through the lock on to the Staffs & Worcs Canal, watched by a small crowd of onlookers. Penny helped Charles with the lock gate while M explained to the onlookers how the locks worked.
Charels took the tiller and did very well. Even Penny had a go at steering, although she needs to grow a bit before she can reach the tiller properly.  After a couple of miles, there was a winding hole. So we turned and sailed back towards the town and moored up above the lock. Minnie seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself.
We had supper together before C and E put the children into their pyjamas (in the hopes that they would sleep on the way home) and set off for the long drive back to London.
It was so nice to see them and especially to spend time with Penny and Minnie. Minnie has grown up so much since we saw her last and has certainly mastered "Hello", "No" and, when presented with ducks, "Quack"!
Today: 4 miles, 1 lock and 2.8 hours.
Trip: 245 miles, 150 locks and 178.3 hours.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Stourport-on-Severn Paradox.

Friday 22nd and Saturday 23rd August, 2014 from Worcester to Stourport.
We had planned to leave Worcester today but R needed a memory stick from Peter and we had to wait for the courier to deliver it from Liphook. So we had a very enjoyable and relaxing day wandering around the city - with trips to Costa for R and M&S for M where she bought as many large bags of fresh peas as she could carry, on the grounds that the season will soon come to an end! The courier arrived in the early evening at the pre-agreed point of the local tearoom and R was able to download the data on to the computer on MM.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear but as we had breakfast it became clear that we were not alone. The river outside the window began to fill up with literally hundreds of canoes.
At first we thought that it was just a local event but we soon found out that it was the British National Open Marathon Racing Individual and Team Championships hosted by the Worcester Canoe Club.
There were 60 different races, starting at 10:00am and setting off in waves every five minutes, according to class. This made departing on MM a bit tricky!
However, we eventually managed to get off without colliding with any of the little craft and then started off up the Severn.
The canoes, of course, go a great deal faster than us so we were soon overtaken by the next race to leave and had to keep well out of their way.
Soon after, we passed the lock up to the Droitwich Barge Canal that we had come down through on Wednesday afternoon.
Three big river locks took us up to Stourport. M declared that she was not sorry to see the last of these massive locks particularly as, while we were in the last one holding on to the ropes to keep MM still, a hailstorm came out of nowhere and thoroughly soaked us in freezing little pellets of ice!
So we finally turned off the mighty Severn into the rather bizarre paradox that is the town of Stourport-on-Severn. There are two sets of locks side by side - two very deep wide locks and, next to them, a flight of four narrow locks in two staircases of two locks each. We turned into the narrow locks.
The narrow staircase locks are quite intimidating but, with the help of two Canal & River Trust volunteers, we were soon through them and up to the Upper Basin.
In 1771, the Staffs & Worcs canal opened, connecting to the River Severn at a small hamlet called Lower Mitton. James Brindley designed a series of basins at the junction to allow goods to be trans-shipped from the narrowboats used on the canal to wide Severn River trows. The town of Stourport grew up around the basins over the years. In the 19th century, the canal company promoted Stourport as an "inland seaside resort", building a splendid hotel, called the "Tontine".
Hard to believe but they also opened a funfair! The funfair is still there after over 100 years although the "Tontine" has now been converted to private homes.
So the town is a strange mixture with the historic canal basins alongside the "kiss-me-quick" funfair and (numerous) fish and chip shops!
There are many permanent moorings in the basin but strangely very few visitors' moorings. At first, we couldn't see a space for us at all but another boater kindly pointed out a space in the corner that could just about accomodate MM. We were a little concerned, as we appeared to be blocking a channel through to another basin but, on examination, we found that the channel was permanently blocked off. We discovered that the developers had included a beautiful marina in the centre of their new development there - but the new residents' association refused to have "boating riff-raff" mooring outside their nice new houses so the place is sadly empty and devoid of life or colour.
What a contrast to the main basin that is full of life and colour (see below). Such a waste of what could have been a wonderful amenity and centre of regeneration.
We wandered round the town, which is a strange mix of old buildings and rather tacky shops - including three fish and chip shops in a row! However, we did find a very good Tea Room called "Blossoms" just next to the lock out of the Upper Basin and retired there for afternoon tea and an excellent slice of cake.
If you look very carefully, you can just see MM at her mooring through the window.
Today: 12 miles, 7 locks and 5.0 hours.
Trip: 241 miles, 149 locks and 175.5 hours.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

A Cunard Style Cruise!

Monday 18th to Thursday 21st August, 2014 on the Droitwich Ring.
Three years ago, even before MM was launched, we rather rashly offered a four-day, three-night "Cunard Style" cruise at a promise auction to raise funds for M's choir. Two friends (and fellow choir members), Debbie and Adrian, paid a very handsome sum into choir funds to purchase the offer. Due to diary problems, work committments, etc., it has taken three years to find a suitable date - but today is the day! Their bed was made up, the fridge was stocked, the champagne was on ice and M suitably attired to welcome them in style.
It was lovely to see how excited they were and, after guzzling the champagne, we set off up the first of the locks.
The plan is to do the new Droitwich Ring, starting with nine miles and twelve locks on the Worcester & Birrmingham canal, then turning on to the new Droitwich Junction Canal, which only opened in 2011, and down the Droitwich Barge Canal back to the River Severn - another seven miles and sixteen locks, before going back to Worcester down the River Severn. Total distance nineteen miles and 29 locks - but including four canals, two rivers, one tunnel and one very tight eight foot by six foot culvert - just six inches larger all round than MM!  A route which is small but beautifully formed, one might say!
As we went through the first few locks, our new "crew" quickly got the hang of it. Even on a "Cunard Style" cruise, the guests need to earn their keep!

The first night we moored at Tibberton, which the guide books said had an excellent pub called "Speed the Plough". We went there for a drink and (to be charitable) let's just say that it appears to have changed hands, sadly all too often the case with canal pubs these days.
At Hanbury Junction, we turned on to the new section of canal and were helped down through the first three (original) locks by a Canal & River Trust volunteer. These locks are the only ones on the whole English waterway system where the "side ponds" are in operation. When emptying the lock, the water is first emptied into the side pond, then when filling the lock the side pond is emptied back into the lock - so only half a lock-full of water is used for each cycle thus saving a lot of water.
The two locks that followed are in the form of a "staircase" where the bottom gate of the top lock is the top gate of the bottom lock, with no distance or "pound" in between the two locks. These locks were brand new and very nicely made with attractive brickwork and coping stones.
When you are in the bottom lock of the pair, the gate from the lock above is quite intimidating when you look back, as it is double the normal height.
Soon after came the passage beneath the M5 motorway. Luckily, a culvert had been created to carry a small river called Brody Brook under the motorway. The culvert was just eight feet wide and there is six feet of headroom - just enough to fit a "normal" narrowboat through. MM had less than six inches clearance over her roof.
If the culvert had not been there it is unlikely that the new ring could ever have been opened as it would have been too expensive to dig a new tunnel under the motorway.
M's day was made when, as we approached the culvert, she spotted an "Eddie Stobart" lorry on the motorway above.  It was named "Juliana" - one more to tick off the list!
We moored in Droitwich for the second night and went for a walk around the town. The town was literally built on salt - wells provided sources of brine containing two and a half pounds of salt per gallon (more than ten times the concentration of seawater). The trade made the town rich, but also led to problems with subsidence and therefore many of the houses sit at crazy angles. In the centre of town is a beautiful park on the canal including a replica of the salt barges that used to bring in coal and take out the salt.
While many of the building were quite attractive, it seemed a bit run-down and not very well looked after.
The next morning, we set off down the Droitwich Barge Canal with its wide-beam locks. This part of the canal has been navigable for some years but the reeds have encroached on both sides making it very narrow in places. Memories of the film "The African Queen"!
Finally, we came to the last lock on the canal and the junction with the River Severn. On the river, we had to go through only one lock. All the River Severn locks are manned and the lock-keepers insist on someone holding on to a rope at both the bow and the stern - so as we approached the lock, M walked along the gunwhale to the front and took this picture of the other three of us up the back.
Back at Worcester, we moored up on the river bank and decided to go out for dinner in the city as a special treat on the last night of the cruise.  As we were walking along the river towpath, we passed a trip boat full of people in fancy dress. One gentleman was dressed as Captain Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and at first, we thought that it was Johnny Depp because the costume, likeness and mannerisms were remarkable.
It turned out to be a professional "look-alike"; clearly he was very good at his job!  But it was easy to assume it was Mr Depp, as he is in the area at present, making the new "Alice in Wonderland" film.
We walked along the river towards the Cathedral, pausing for a group photo for the album with the Cathedral in the background.
We had dinner at a splendid restaurant on the riverfront called "The Quay", where we all had their "special of the day" - a selection of fish for four, including two bottles of wine, all at a very reasonable price.
On Thursday morning, Adrian was joined by a friend, who clearly thought that breakfast was meant to be shared.
Later, we walked into the city, pausing to pay homage to the local hero Edward Elgar, who was born and grew up in the city. M was incensed to see that a disrespectful pigeon had "pooped" on his head!
Finally, we walked round the Cathedral, which is magnificent and probably survived Henry VIII's Reformation purely because it contains the tombs of King John and also Henry's elder brother, Prince Arthur.
In the early afternoon our guests, Debbie and Adrian, left to return to Surrey. It was a lovely four days and we thoroughly enjoyed their company.  They said they had a super time, which made us very happy.
For four days: 19 miles, 29 locks and 16.1 hours. 
Trip: 229 miles, 142 locks and 167.2 hours.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Poor Prince Charles and the Battle of Worcester.

Sunday 17th August, 2014 in Worcester.
We awoke to a sunny morning (and yet again to the raucous chorus of gulls at 5:00am!). After breakfast, we moved MM up through the next two (narrow) locks. M was dismayed to see a lot of detritus in the water, all too reminiscent of Camp Hill in Birmingham - but the reason is that the water which goes through the locks is pumped back up to the top of the locks, so there is no flow to remove the debris that floats on the surface. Fortunately, it was only a problem on these two locks.
Beside one of the locks is "The "Commandery", which was the headquarters for Prince Charles (who became Charles II) during the Battle of Worcester, the final and decisive battle in the Civil War.
Over the years, the buildings have also been a hospital, print works, college for the blind and a private house, but now it is a museum.
After the second lock, we moored up and walked in to the town. On the way we passed the site of the old city walls.
We also passed the house from which Prince Charles fled after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester as he set out for temporary exile in France.
In the gargantuan branch of M&S we went shopping and even M admitted that it amounted to more than a "few bits". Quite a lot of bits actually! The reason for this is that tomorrow we have our choir friends Debbie and Adrian coming for four days. Three years ago, M's choir held a "promise auction" to raise funds for the choir and we rather rashly offered a four-day, three-night "Cunard Style Cruise" on the yet-to-be-launched MM.  Debbie and Adrian were determined to win the cruise and ended up paying a small fortune for it (much to the benefit of choir funds!). So three years later, we have finally managed to agree a suitable date and they are coming tomorrow, therefore considerable restocking of the fridge is necessary!
Of course, R had to have his Costa, watched rather disapprovingly by Queen Anne from the magnificent facade of the Town Hall, not to mention Kings Charles I and Charles II on either side of the door. Quite a line up!!!
Back on board, we unpacked the groceries and set off for the marina where we filled up with diesel and water. The very friendly and helpful staff kindly said that Debbie and Adrian can leave their car here for the four days that we will be away.
One of the staff used to keep her boat at Enslow Marina, so we had a long chat about Kingsground and Enslow.
Today: 1 mile, 2 locks and 1.2 hours.
Trip: 210 miles, 113 locks and 151.1 hours.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Two Rare Birds: a Kingfisher and a Working Barge.

Thursday 14th August to Saturday 16th August, 2014 in Worcester.
A cooler, showery morning. We went through the Town Lock early and out on to the Severn, where we turned north towards Worcester. For some miles, the views were restricted just as they had been between Gloucester and Tewkesbury but after a couple of hours there were fewer trees and lower banks so we were able to see the views. And we saw two kingfishers!
We also saw another very rare sight these days - proper working barges loading gravel and carrying it up-river.
The loaded barge started off behind us up-river and soon afterwards an empty barge came past us going down-river. The difference in their height above the water was amazing. The loaded one looked as if it was going to sink at any moment! The difference is apparent in the photo below:
Before we got to Worcester, we passed the unloading dock, where another barge was being unloaded with a digger and grab bucket.
We passed the junction with the Worcester & Birmingham Canal; we shall be going up there next week and doing the new "Droitwich Ring". For the next two nights we will moor on the river and we found a nice spot next to the race course.
The river, as it enters Worcester, is amazing. One of those views that you never forget with the Cathedral almost right on the river bank.
R walked to the railway station with M, who is going home to Reigate for a couple of nights. The station had two tracks but the trains appeared to be driving on the right! The mystery was solved when we realised that it was actually two "single" tracks side by side. Unique on the English rail system, according to the staff.
On Friday, R walked into the town and visited the Cathedral, which seems to have survived the Reformation because not only is (Bad) King John burried there but also Prince Arthur, Henry VIII's elder brother. R climbed the 225 steps to the top of the Cathedral tower. MM is moored on the river just beyond the second bridge.
Back on the ground, there were large crowds gathering. It was "Artillery Day" and the local Artillery Regiments paraded through the town down to the race course.

At the race course, there was a huge gathering of artillery equipment and they were demonstrating much of it, including firing a First World War 18 pounder and two Second World War 25 pounders capable of firing a shell 8 miles. They said that it takes 36 seconds to reach its target and had the whole crowd counting out the seconds after it fired.
Then it was back to MM for supper.
On Saturday, R took MM through the two broad locks up to Diglis Basin on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and went to see the people at Worcester Marina to book a mooring for Sunday night ready for our visit from Debbie and Adrian on Monday.
In the evening, M returned and we went to Pizza Express for a meal as it was getting late.
Three Days: 1 mile, 2 locks and 6.8 hours.
Trip: 209 miles, 111 locks and 149.9 hours.