Category Archives: Blogging

Apsley to Droitwich: Day 5 & 6

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On our way Day 5

This was to be the last day of our trip from Apsley to Droitwich, but a body found in the canal ahead delayed the arrival at Droitwich Spa Marina. No one was sure where the incident occurred. There were varying accounts. And no one was sure if the canal was open yet. When our friends Tony and Deb showed up late the next morning, we decided to push on anyway. It was another great weather day. We were under way by 11am, not our usual 5:30am start, which meant when we did 10 hours on Day 5, we only would have 4 hours left the following day, adding up to the normal 14 hour day we had done up until now. You do the math.

Tony headed back home. He would meet us later at the next flight of locks….The Tardebigge locks, 30 in all, 2.25 miles long and descending 220 feet. The only reason The Hatton Flight is more famous is because more people use it. The Tardebigge Flight is on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, while the Hatton Flight is on the Grand Union Canal. The latter also has double locks while the former is all single locks.

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Solihull

The Tardebigge flight was designed by one man. The Lapworth Flight that we had just completed were all independent designs. The designers put out a tender to many companies to construct one lock on the flight, hence the different shaped locks (all still single) and a mix of lock gates and paddle lifts. One was eventually chosen and so there is a semblance of cohesion along the way. At the time of day we had completed the Lapworth Flight, I was so tired they all looked the same to me. Stone, wood and water. Start low, end high.

And now another new day. On to the Tardebigge flight, through Solihull, a southern district of Birmingham, along the North Stratford Canal, through the Brandwood Tunnel (352 yards long, 0.2 miles….not very long), up to a left turn at King’s Norton Junction on to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, through 2 more tunnels and down to the Tardebigge Flight. From the top of the Lapworth Flight to Tardebigge, we had to travel north, then west and finally south. Nothing on the Cut is straight forward. You go where the canals were cut to get to your destination. Sometimes you even loop back on yourself. We have those farmers and landowners from the 1700s and 1800s to thank for the shape of the Cut.

This day’s trip was going to take us 10 hours. Ought to have been 13 and a half, but we did Tardebigge in 1/3 the time (a record time apparently…ought to be 6 and a half hours and we did it in 2hrs 15 mins) required because it was late, just after 6:30pm when we arrived at the first lock and nearly 9pm when we got to the bottom. It was another hot day and there were 21 miles to cover and those 30 locks at the end of the journey. Would we just moor up before tackling the Tardebigge Flight or go for it? Tony made up our minds. He’d be there waiting. We were going for it.

Clear cruising on Day 5. We passed the place where the body had been found. We learned later that it had been a young woman with epilepsy who must have had a seizure and fallen in the canal off a bridge. Very sad. It took place in Solihull, the south end of Birmingham. Lots of hired boats on the Cut this day, some seasoned and more than a few who had no idea how to handle a boat.

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Approaching the Guillotine lock.

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Leaving the Guillotine Lock

We were following one hire boat for a while. It would slow to a crawl then suddenly accelerate and take off like a bat-out-of-hell (as much as a boat could fly), slowing to a crawl again and so on. Very frustrating. Playing silly buggers. We came to a sharp bend that turned right, into a narrow because trees hung out over the canal on the left. Then the canal cut to the left just as sharply on a bend past the hanging trees.

There was a pub on the right, on the bend. It looked for a moment like the hired boat was going to moor alongside the pub. I thought, great, I’ll just slip by him. He changed his mind and started pulling out, forcing me to veer left, just as a boat rounded the bend coming toward us. Don’t ask me how I threaded the needle, but with help from navigator Deb and best friend support, we avoided disaster. When the water cleared, we were back behind the hire boat that decided to moor up on the next stretch. We were glad to be on our own again.

Lots of pubs along this route. But the one we were interested in was waiting at the bottom of the Tardebigge Flight. We passed through the Brandwood Tunnel, all the while remaining on the North Stratford canal. Eventually, we arrived at the King’s Norton Junction where the North Stratford meets the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. We were finally heading south. Little did I know that there were still 2 tunnels before the Tardebigge locks.

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Entering the Brandwood Tunnel

The first one, well let’s just say it was like walking under a waterfall. A cold shower like none of the other tunnels we encountered. I was soaked at the end of it. And this, the Shortwood Tunnel, was 610 yards long. That’s over a 3rd of a mile of water pouring down on me. And no soap. The second tunnel was the Tardebigge, because it comes just before the locks. It is 580 yards long and is relatively dry….relatively.

The big test came at the end of the day. So many locks and daylight waned. Tony was there and organised the ladies, the three working as a well-oiled machine, lock after lock. We sneaked by one chap who we thought might hold us up, but for some reason, between locks, he had tied up his boat and gone off somewhere. We dodged ahead of him and never looked back, except to take photos. We reached the bottom lock, moored for the night, exhausted after the hot and long day, even though it was only 10 hours….only?

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One of the Tardebigge locks

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On our way down the Tardebigge locks

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Tony and Bestie operate one of the Tardebigge locks.

On the other side of the towpath was the sister pub to the one we had gone to the night before. This one was the Queen’s Head pub.The problem? We were too late for food. It was Sunday and they stopped serving food at 7:30. What did that matter really? The beer was flowing and the crisps and peanuts were plentiful. And guess who we ran into? The guys who had turned back at the Lapworth Flight to take the Birmingham route. They had arrived only and hour before us. It was much further the route they had taken. We all laughed. And we drank. Only 4 hours to Droitwich, so we relaxed and staggered back to the boat.

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Moored beside The Queen’s Head at the bottom of the Tardebigge locks

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Moored at the bottom of the Tardebigge locks.

The next morning we set off, but a little later than usual. We had to cover 4 miles and negotiate 15 more locks, turning off the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to the rather short Droitwich spur which had 3 of the strangest locks we had encountered. After all those very long days, this one seemed like a doddle. So much so that we had 2 chaps work those last 3 locks for us. They had to fill some pound off to the right of the lock, then empty it so the next lock would have plenty of water. 2 volunteers are here every day in the summer from 11am to 4pm, helping boaters through these locks.

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Deb and Bestie working one of the last few locks.

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Going down in one of the locks just before the marina with help from 2 chaps.

It was the only time my best friend allowed me to get off the boat, to watch the proceedings. Quite an impressive way to save water. It takes longer to get through a lock, but we didn’t mind. The marina was in sight and our journey to an end. Out of the last lock, ahead a short distance, turn right through a narrow gap and into our new marina.

I moored alongside a cement dock to fill the thirsty boat with diesel and we went into the marina office to sign in and get our place. I went back to the boat, untied and headed to our new berth, on the north side of the marina. Back in, tie up, engine off. Home.

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Our new home at Droitwich Spa Marina in Worcestershire (like the sauce).

 

Apsley to Droitwich: Day 4

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Heading out at last on Day 4.

You know the routine by now….all the engine checks etc., and off we go. Except this morning, in the mist when we went to push-off, we were going nowhere. Stuck in the reeds on a shallow bank. Didn’t matter how much power I gave to the prop, forwards or reverse, we didn’t move.

The Cut is just that, land cut into a trough a few centuries ago with a deeper middle and shallower sides. Like a giant, wide V shape. The bottom is mostly very soft silt, dredged infrequently and sporadically, building up at the sides as props churn up the silt, pushing it outwards. Eventually, even the middle silt builds until you have a quagmire of thick, silt soup. Very often, the bottom of my boat drags along silt, pushed through by the prop. If you look behind as you go, clouds of silt bubble up to the surface as you go.

Stuck, but drifting ever closer to that big patch of reeds behind us, Deb has the solution. She’s the old salt on this voyage. “Right,” she announces when all other methods have failed to release us, ” Everyone to the Port side.” Deb and Bestie move along the Port (left) side gunwales and I helm, standing as far left as possible. Deb orders, “Right, now rock the boat and ease the engine forward.” I start singing (quietly) the tune ‘Rock the Boat’ by the Hues Corporation as the craft gently eases out to the middle and off we go….5:40am. Must make up some time.

First stop, a rubbish bin just past one of the Fosse locks, first of the day. Just off to the left is a mysterious looking boat that looks rather sinister. Pirates? Then, just before the bridge, two figures that aren’t exactly pirates loom ominously by the way. On we go. Through Royal Leamington Spa.

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First locks of the day – the Fosse Locks. Candle-shaped lock releases.

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My best friend disposing of the rubbish.

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The mysterious boat

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Strange creatures by the bridge. What did he say?

The city of Leamington Spa was given its Royal status by Queen Victoria for the popularity of the salt spa which is no longer there. The baths are now an art gallery and museum. Leamington became a retirement location. The canal runs through the south of the town and on to next door Warwick. I was disappointed in the lack of development along the canal. So much more could be done. It’s as if there were no canal at all, just a rubbish pit. That part has been cleaned up, but the potential for canalside recreation and business does not seem to have been a priority. It doesn’t appear to be visible at all.

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Royal Leamington Spa

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More Royal Leamington Spa. Garden by the Canal.

Moving on along the canal, we finally reach the Hatton flight of locks, a challenge and a wonder to behold. Fortunately, Deb’s husband Tony joined us to help get us through these 2 miles of 21 locks in a row, which rise (we were going up) 148 feet (45 metres). The locks were widened in the 1930s to accommodate wide working boats or 2 narrowboats. The locks were dubbed ‘The Stairway to Heaven’ by those who worked on the them because by the time they got to the top, their pay awaited just a little further along the canal.

So….up we went, one lock at a time. It was a hot day by now. Half way up the locks we were joined by a family on their boat who had moored along one of the water compounds between the locks. It had been late in the day when they began up the flight and they decided to moor and finish the next day. Lots to see and do on the way up and down….pubs, parks, children’s’ playgrounds, picnic areas, tourist information, cafes and a CRT (Canal and River Trust) hut where Tony stopped on his bike to give the volunteer workers a piece of his mind.

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Beginning of the Hatton Flight of Locks. 21 locks rising 148 feet.

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Moving up the Hatton Flight.

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Looking back at the Hatton Flight. Still some to go.

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Tied to another boat half way up the Hatton Flight.

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Tony giving CRT crew a grilling at the Hatton Flight.

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Nearing the top of the Hatton Flight with a park on the left. Plenty of Gongoozlers (narrowboat watchers).

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One last look back from the top of the Hatton Flight. 21 locks and 148 feet later.

The CRT run the canals, or are supposed to, and have failed to look after the system to make it better for boaters. They have left maintenance of old locks too late, not dredged nearly enough to make the Cut passable, failed to cut foliage and growth along the banks of the Cut, allowing overgrowth to virtually cut the Cut in two in many places. And…the whole organisation is basically mismanaged. They have tried to rebrand themselves and change personnel, but nothing changes. There are lots more gripes, but I have bored you enough.

Tony says if they spent more of their time and our money on the system, rather than on, as he says, voles, moles, water fowl and fish, leaving them to interest groups (there are many), we might have a viable network of usable canals after all. The CRT workers listened politely and even agreed with Tony on many points (Tony does his homework), but said they were powerless to effect change. The 2 bullies at the top of the chain see to that. Their solution? Raise our license fees x4 (already nearly £1000 annually) to get the work done.

OK, now that’s enough of that. Back to the Hatton Flight. The family who joined us half way up the flight, consisted of a man, a woman and their daughter, a precocious 10-year-old who loved to jump all over the place. The husband worked the locks (thus freeing Tony to pontificate) and the wife steered the boat. I tried to get her to follow me closely into the next lock, but she she was too busy trying to control her craft and keep her daughter in check.

We did the next best thing. We tied the front and back of the boats together and I drove both of us from lock to lock. Hard on my engine, but better than the alternative. Up we went until finally we reached heaven. And lovely it was too, to be free again. The engine thanked me for cutting us loose and off we went.

Tony went home. We left him still having his say. More beautiful countryside and then another 90 degree turn on to the Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal. But it was tricky because there was another boat in front of us, taking its time on the turn and then mooring up just under the bridge at the entrance to this arm of the canal.

By now we were extremely tired but decided to push on and do the Lapworth Flight of locks….all single locks and my first. Another climb to the top, 16 locks and then we would push on for another hour. We had earlier decided to moor up before the Lapworth Flight, but Tony called and said we had better continue. He joined us again and off we went, a climb of over 100 feet. Because of the time of day, we were nearly the only boat on the system, everyone else having the good sense to moor up for the night.

We were nearly to the top when another boat approached, coming down the flight. Four men were on board, apparently on their annual boys trip they had been taking for years together. They seemed to be in a bit of a flap. Tony asks, “You’re late coming on the this flight. Where’re you off to?” “We were at the top and heard they found a body in the canal ahead and the police shut down the system” said one of the crew, “so we’re going back down and taking the canal through Birmingham. We have to get this rental boat back.”

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The narrow single locks on the Lapworth Flight of Locks on the Stratford Canal.

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Looking up the Lapworth Flight.

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Looking back on the Lapworth Flight.

Shock. A dead body in the canal? It could take days for the police to sort it out. What to do? Go back too? What if it was open tomorrow? We decided to moor up after the top lock and wait the night. Lovely spot that was known as the Lily Pad. Tony took Deb home for the night so she could have a proper shower and see her children (3 Springer Spaniels). They would return late morning the next day after assessing the situation ahead.

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Another look back on the Lapworth Flight. Nearly at the top.

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Last lock of the day on Lapworth Flight Locks.

Reprieve! We could sleep in. Tony and Deb headed off. Me and my best friend walked back down the lock flight on the towpath to a pub we had heard about to have a meal. It was Saturday evening and a big screen TV in the alfresco setting was showing the FA Cup football (soccer) match between Manchester United and Chelsea FC. It had also been the day Prince Harry and Meghan were married. Big day and all we could think of was food (not really that unusual for me).

Back to the boat after the meal and 2 pints, some down-time and sleep, a nice long one. It was nearly 11am when Tony brought Deb back. No info on whether the canal ahead was open and what had actually happened, except that it was a woman’s body they found. Poor thing. We decided to go ahead. This was supposed to be the last day push to Droitwich Spa Marina. Day 5. The delay was unavoidable. We only hoped the way ahead was clear.

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Moored for the night above the Lapworth Flight.

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Why it’s called the Lily Pad Pond.

 

 

 

 

Game On!

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Thom (left) and yours truly.

I am, from time to time, a sports buff. Depends who is playing, what sport and if it’s on in one pub or the other. In most cases, I can take it or leave it. If it’s a team I have followed since I was knee-high-to-a-grasshopper, I don’t watch because I get drawn in and become a nervous wreck and a complete twat (French for idiot).

I am loyal to my teams, following them on the internet. Most of those teams come from Toronto, Canada. Hockey (ice), Football (not soccer) and baseball are my sports of choice. I watch football (soccer) over here in England, but usually when we visit my best friend’s parents. Her dad is an Arsenal fan, but we watch other teams play as well.

I can handle watching some golf. I played a lot in the 1990s but I think I had about a million handicap when I stopped. I’ve given up watching most of the Olympics. Too much going on and I’m never sure which country I ought to be loyal to. Tennis is OK. I love watching Roger Federer play. I’m not a great basketball fan even though I want the Toronto team to win.

A jack-of-all-sports and master of none. That’s me. Rugby, you ask? I’ve watched it. I can’t say I follow it or get excited about it. It ranks up there with the most violent sport on the planet. Next to Lacrosse I think. Just my opinion. I used to avoid those sports growing up. Not one for breaking bones and losing teeth.

But, here I was on a very cool and damp April Saturday on my way to see a rugby match. Rugby League to be precise. Not Rugby Union. For those of you who don’t know the difference, never fear. Neither do I. Well, I didn’t until Thom, a good mate of mine and with whom I attended the match, explained it all to me. I still don’t get it, except the part where there are fewer scrums in League and they aren’t as volatile. Thom once played for Haringey, where this match was taking place.

Thom had once lived and played in Haringey….years ago….and this was his first visit back to the old stomping grounds. Much had changed. Where once was a bastion of white Anglo-Saxon multitudes, now every cultural group under the sun walked the streets. Street signs were in Greek and Turkish, Arabic and Farsi, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and Chinese. Colourful, the smells of a thousand ethnic dishes and an array of garments from various countries and religions were being worn.

Thom and I felt positively out-of-place at first until we noticed everyone just going about the daily business as if we weren’t there or were just another part of the scenery. Even a street fight broke out between two, maybe three, rival gangs of females. Pushing, shoving, punching, hair pulling and lots of colourful terminology. The boys from each group stood around either encouraging one cluster of females or the other or laughing at their antics. No one else seemed to pay any attention to the fracas. Just another Saturday afternoon in Haringey.

We headed toward the stadium where the game was to be played. The environment around us changed considerably. The streets here, just past Wood Green, seemed quieter. Eventually, we reached the New River Stadium. Not wanting to hang around Haringey too long, we were very early for the match.

The New River Stadium is part of a sports complex that includes everything from track and field to boxing and all kinds of other sport related programs in a rambling concoction of buildings and outdoor pitches. One part of the sprawl is a sheltered stand on one side of a field and an open, tiered seat section opposite. No seating at both ends, except when they set up for special sports events like the one I attended with Thom.

Special. Define special. Well, I would think it was somehow different from the normal event. Lots of pyrotechnics and free stuff and pizzaz. You know what I mean. After all, this was a foreign team visiting British shores trying to impress Brits. This team was from Canada, my old stomping grounds. Even better, it was from Toronto, my old hometown. The Toronto Wolfpack.

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The Toronto Wolfpack (white jerseys) in action.

It was the only reason I went out of my way to watch a sport I don’t even like in a part of London I would not choose to visit. Plus the promise of all this pizzaz. Talk of Canadian music and food and who knows what else Canadian. My mind boggled. They were playing a team from Halifax….not the one in Nova Scotia, Canada, but at least it was a familiar name. Not like Over Wallop or Middle Wallop in Hampshire, England.

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Those very hard seats.

Nope. It all went south from the moment we arrived. The seats were hard. It drizzled rain and the air-cooled as the hours went by. The spectator/supporters clubhouse was small and crowded with people from Halifax who spoke a barely discernible english. The Canadiana was a Canadian airline advertising low price fares to Canada. There was a VIP tent at one of the ends, but I guess we didn’t rate. Some large, unsmiling English woman turned us away.

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The VIP tent. Big Whoop!

No Tim Horton’s coffee and donuts, no beaver tails, no poutine, not even Canadian beer. We had to sit through the end of a football (soccer) match between 2 teams with no talent and players that could barely run. One chap was so rotund, he just stood in the middle of the pitch until the ball came to him. At least he knew which goal to kick it toward.

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The football (soccer) game before the ruby match.

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Airline advertising and very expensive team gear.

When the rugby match was ready to go, the Halifax supporters (who outnumbered the Toronto contingent by a margin of 100-1 it seemed) who took their rugby very seriously, were chanting away….HallyHallyHallyFax….drowning out the poor singer of the National Anthems who tried her best to be heard through a pathetically small speaker where the VIP tent stood. To make matters worse, she sang in an operatic voice that every so often came through as the sound of a high-speed train going by.

When it came time for ‘God save The Queen’, some drunk right behind me decided to start without her and we were long finished by the time the opera singer ended. Everyone laughed and then….disaster. The flags were marched from the VIP tent to the grandstand by members of the Canadian and British Armed Forces, except that they must march differently over here, because nothing was in time and it ended in a state of chaos before us. More raucous laughter. Oh those wild rugby fans. Take no prisoners.

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A confused Colour Guard.

The game began and it was clear that Halifax was heavily outmatched. Brits swear a lot when frustrated. No exception here. A nice family next to Thom and I were, I learned, from Ottawa in Canada. The two young daughters were treated to the best of the English language. Most of the vitriol was toward the referee who, apparently, wouldn’t know an offside from a particularly vulnerable male appendage.

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Family from Ottawa….the dad anyway….and one lone Canadian flag.

There was a female body part used as well, but that shall never be repeated on these pages. Those poor Ottawatonians. At the half, the score was 32-4 for Toronto and became 36-4 right after the half. By the way, at the half we were treated to kids playing flag rugby. One zealous kid thought he was playing against Halifax and hogged the ball.

Some wiseacre from the crowd ran out on the track leading to the field and rearranged the scoreboard to read Toronto 36, Halifax 85. No security anywhere that day to be seen….except at the VIP tent. Our bags were never checked, but everyone again had a good laugh. The game ended, Toronto 42, Halifax 10. We left before Halifax scored its last try (score) and long after the family from Ottawa had gone.

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Cheeky scoreboard change and a young lad ready to fix it.

The game was televised on Sky Sports. I can only imagine what viewers must have thought. My best friend’s dad watched from home. I asked him later what he thought. “Of what?” he asked. “Of the game” I answered. “What game?” was the comeback. Indeed.

 

Science and Reason

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Two words put together to convince us that the universe and all it contains relies on observable data. Through analysis of this information, we are supposed to come to a reasoned understanding of how things work and what they mean. Sounds reasonable and logical. Take raw data and arrive at unbiased conclusions based purely on what we see.

Problem is, at this juncture in human history, we have become so steeped in our cultures’ myths and legends that it is nearly impossible to come to a consensus that is reasonable. Add to that the general mental health of any population, various psychoses and just plain ignorance and you have the making of a hodge-podge lodge. We all live in a stew of our own making, a stew made up of every ingredient we find around the place from potatoes and carrots to licorice and peanut butter.

I say this because I am concerned. In an age when we have advanced scientifically and technologically, building on gathered information over the ages, we still act like superstitious ancients trying to appease whatever force may be out there that might harm us, while forcing others to join our cults of superstition and therefore, ignorance.

Fear breeds all kinds of phobias. I have battled mine my whole life long. When I left my corner of what we have come to know as organised religion, the powers-that-be sent me away to be psychologically analysed. I was diagnosed as having a rapid cycling bipolar condition after a week of 7 different experts evaluating me separately then together.

My superiors took the results and decided that my condition was not psychological but due to sin. My aim here is not to explain myself or gain sympathy and outrage. I have lived with the condition all my life as far as I know. It was good to put a name to what was happening to me. When I share this aspect of my life with people….not everyone, but you’re in….I get 2 reactions. The 1st is from those who don’t believe there is any such disease. The 2nd believe everyone has some form of depression or other mental illness and so I am just one of the broken mob.

If we all suffer, that means everyone from world leaders, politicians, doctors, preachers, CEOs and teachers to Sam the rubbish man is broken in some way or another and this brokenness runs the world, as far as human involvement is concerned. Scary eh?

Along with all the conspiracy theories, flat earth believers, corporations, moon landing deniers, religious fanatics and assorted psychopaths we are left with the rest of us. I try to remain optimistic about the rest of us, the few. But I may have to leave it to you because I can’t trust me not to absent myself from those who would dare to make things right in a world of unscientific pronouncements and unreasonable propositions.

Flat earth theorists are as adamant about being right as someone who says the universe is some 13 billion years old. We can believe what we want you see. Some just to be different. Some for 15 minutes of fame. Some not to give in to reasonable thinking. And some because they believe their deity has decreed it. A common bumper sticker in North America reads, ‘God said it, I believe it, That settles it.’ There is no arguing with that. Remember the poster in America during the War in Vietnam (yes, I’m showing my age)? ‘My country right or wrong.’

Once loyalties have been struck, not even evidence that refutes such bold statements means anything to the holders of beliefs of their own making. The world is what we make it, not what it is. We all do it because in the end, nobody has a clue what is really going on. We just make stuff up to suit our conditions, even the ones who consider themselves to be reasonable, scientifically minded people.

For millennia we have implanted our own morals and ethics into each other until most of what we come up with is conjecture at best, silly at worst. Quantum physics has given us a look into a universe we hardly recognise….if Quantum theories can be believed. What holds everything together? Is there a purpose to the universe? Is there any true meaning to it? Some keep looking for a Superstring theory that will knit it all together. Some give up or don’t bother with all that because they know the answer. ‘God said it, I believe it, that settles it.’

To question that would unravel the God theory piece by piece as it has over the last centuries. The defenders of faith are no different to the defenders of the flag, except at least you can see a flag. No one has ever seen this being that is supposed to rule the universe. But such belief in the human context is much stronger than doubt. And since we really can’t prove anything definitively, God lives on in the hearts and minds of avid believers just as there was once an idea called Rome.

I tend to live, as much as possible, like this is my last day on earth. As I write this, 3 lovely Springer Spaniels are sitting around me. They rely on us to look after them. They aren’t mine, they belong to good friends. Buster, the eldest of the Springers, was abused as a young dog. My friends rescued him and have given him a good home. Buster doesn’t trust males as a rule because one treated him so badly. But we have built a rapport over time. He trusts me. He is curled up beside me now. He is content. Doesn’t believe anything. Just wants to be treated with kindness. The other 2 are rescue dogs too. As long as they are fed, walked and have a safe place to rest, they are content. Good word that. Content. Happy is overused. Content is where it’s at.

Don’t get me wrong. Let’s keep searching to unlock the secrets of the universe, just not in an arrogant way where we have to be right and someone else wrong. Try to be content with what we have as long as there is food, shelter, places to walk safely and good companionship. Sound reasonable? I’m sure the universe can accommodate that. If it can’t, what’s the point? I know….kindness. I’m certain of it.

 

 

 

Lock Lore

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A lock near us.

One thing I know for sure about living on a narrowboat in England. A lot of work is involved in maintaining it and cruising on it. If we could simply cruise along the canals, unimpeded by obstacles that get in the way, things would be jolly. Some of those obstacles are natural, while others come in the form of locks and swing bridges.

If all this sounds like boat-speak, you’re right. When I first got into this lifestyle, I knew nothing. And I’m still learning. What is a windlass, you ask? What are gate paddles? What is a pound (not money)? What is a cill? All questions I know you’ve been asking yourself. Expat Larry is here to answer all your queries about narrowboating. If only he had all the answers.

Be that as it may, he knows about locks. Last summer, a few of us spent our days moving other people’s boats from here to there to get work done. Every so many years, the bottoms of our boats need to be blacked. This is a process that uses some form of bitumen that is applied with brushes and rollers to the hull that first has to be blasted clean of the old black. The blacking protects the bottom of the narrowboat’s hull. Most people pay to have it done. Our boat is due this year and we’ve decided to do it ourselves.

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One of the boats we moved in a lock.

You can’t just do it any old place. Some marinas have facilities for maintenance. Ours doesn’t, so it’s off to places north or south to do the work. In our case, last summer, a few people needed work done and some of us provided the crew to get them there and back. We became the lock crew. And we were good. 2 of us got the lock ready for the boat to go in, then walked to the next lock to get it ready. The other 2 crew waited until the boat left the lock and closed it up for the next boat that would eventually come along. We had our system.

But, if you can share the lock with another boat, all the better. Locks on the Grand Union Canal (where we live) are double locks….2 narrowboats or 1 widebeam. If you can travel in 2s, you save water, a vanishing commodity in the canals these days. You’d never think that living in a country known for its abundance of rainy days. Apparently, it’s the wrong type of ground in this country to retain all that rain water. Don’t worry about it or try to figure it out. I never do.

Approaching the low side of a lock. Two of the intrepeid crew wait to open the gates to let us in.

Approaching the low end of a lock. Two of the intrepid crew ready to open the gates to let the boat in.

So, here we are, a couple of locks down the way on one of the trips, when we meet up with a couple on one of those what we call plastic boats, the kind you find on lakes. Anyway, the folks navigating this craft were, well, not quite entirely with us if you know what I mean. They were away with the fairies, on some kind of mind expanding substance, not a care in the world. “Where you heading to my friend?” I asked after about the 3rd lock. “Huh? Heading to? Uh….not sure. What direction is this?” “South” I said. “South? What direction to Birmingham?” he asked. “North” I said. “Oh yeah? I guess we’re going the wrong way. ” “I guess. What’re you going to do?”

He just shrugged his shoulders. He insisted on pulling his boat into the lock rather than cruising in. It took a lot longer. He said he was afraid the boat we were moving would crush his if he drove in. No logic there, especially since he had fenders the size of a pilates ball. But he kept up this odd behaviour, heading in the wrong direction with no plan. He decided to moor up after the next lock anyway. Thank da Lawd.

By the end of the summer, we became the best lock crew anyone could hope to acquire. We decided not to get back on the boat between locks as we can walk faster than the boats are allowed to go on the canals. In total, we walked about 50 miles that summer, rain or shine. Many locks and many good laughs. And quite a feat considering every one of the lock crew have bad knees and bad backs. Brave bunch….but no medals.

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Lock gates open, ready for the boat to enter.

We got to know each lock very well along this stretch of the canal. Some of the paddles are buggers to open and the gates are heavier than hell to open and close. Some leak badly while others are just plain old and falling apart. This is why we have the CRC, the Canal and River Trust. They are the organisation that looks after the canals, most of them anyway. And the locks.

The locks are getting older too. Some of the gates are from the later part of the 19th century and early 20th. They have been serviced here and there, but there are a lot of them and budgets don’t allow for a complete overhaul of the system. Well, budgets and money wasted on ridiculous salaries for the top dogs and some frivolous projects. It seems the only time locks get serviced is when they completely fail, through age, overuse and vandalism….mostly age.

It was a relief when news came that a lock near us, that has been leaking badly, was going to be fixed. The notices went up and then the materials needed began appearing. Barges with water pumps and cranes then appeared and finally the steel fencing to keep us out and the workers in went up. The work began. The top gates were replaced and the bottom gates repaired. What fascinated me was the junk on the bottom of the lock once the water had been drained away. Treasures galore, mostly of metal that had fallen off boats over the years and tossed in by locals….like car hub caps and road signs of one type or other.

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Stuff at the bottom of our local lock.

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Preparing the lock for work.

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The new gates at the top of the lock.

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Finishing things off in the repaired lock.

This work went on for a few days. On one of those days, I was walking along the towpath to shop at the local Sainsbury’s (Supermarket) and noticed a narrowboat inching up to the barrier put up to shut off the lock. An older gentleman, who had the demeanor of an original boater, complete with old, unattended boat, stood at the tiller, grumbling to himself.

I stopped and stated the bleeding obvious. “The lock is closed for repair” I said. “I can see that” said he of the Cut. “Did you check the online lock closure reports?” I asked. “Don’t have a computer” he said. “Did you see any of the signs as you were coming along?” I inquired. “There’s always signs for this and that” he said, “But I didn’t see any of them.” I asked the next obvious question, “Did anyone along the way warn you this lock was closed?” “Yeah” he said, “A few people did, but I didn’t believe them.”

He did now.

 

 

Camden Greed

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I don’t usually get caught up in what might be construed as political rhetoric, and I don’t think what I am about to say is as political as it is about greed. Ever since money became the way we do business, it has become the prize many have gone for no matter what has to happen to get it. We know it as greed, one of the 7 deadly sins offered up by Christendom, especially the Roman Catholic branch. The problem is, the more money a person or organisation accumulates, the more greed rears its ugly head. This includes the Church.

Well now, call it what you will, you can see evidence of it everywhere in today’s world. More and more. There are those who want nothing more than to get as much cash as possible to support a lavish lifestyle that is thought to be deserved. Maybe it is. But more often than not, it is to the expense of so many others’ wellbeing and involves some degree of chicanery and larceny on the part of the takers of this world to afford the kind of exclusivity they crave. Those and no conscience.

There is something to the old bartering system that remains essentially honest….for the most part. I’m sure some of those guys (and they were guys way back when) cheated the people they traded with. Greed is as old as time. Seems humanity has a touch of magpie or raccoon in it. Of course we would say that in the animal world this is instinct. For humans there is an element of this that has passed down through eons of evolution, but, in the end, we ought to know better. The old ‘do unto others’ golden rule you find in the good books of every culture was not written there by chance.

Lots of folk have forgotten that rule. The implementing of it shall save the human race. The abuse of it shall be our ruin. At the moment, all signs would lead you to believe we are heading for ruin. I could cite many recent cases where the abuse of riches and the instances of greed are pervasive in today’s society. Cite the recent demise of BHS (British Home Stores) run into the ground by high-flying ‘Sir’ Philip Green. I’m sure you have stories chez vous. There are simply too many to tell.

But the one I want to talk about involves a favourite place of mine, the Camden Locks Market and the attached Horse Hospital market, a meandering mishmash of bohemian boutiques and now you see ’em, now you don’t market stalls. That was the charm of the place in recent years. Folks who made jewellery of all sorts as you wait, beer bottles made into clocks, leather-bound journals with weird covers, any vintage vinyl album you could want (at a reasonable price), crafts of all descriptions and Indian goods that were cheap and cheerful. Lots of vintage clothing, posters from every era and anything bohemian you can imagine.

Then a billionaire started grabbing up parts of the market and now has it all. He has grandiose plans for the market, which might be a good thing except that it involves dismantling the unique character of the place, turning it into a high-end, expensive shopping mall for the rich Euro trash to have as their London playground. Like they need another part of London for that. They already have Knightsbridge, the South Bank and St. Katherines Dock etc., etc., etc.

But my concern is with Camden Town, home of Bob Cratchit. He could never afford to live there now, especially if he was a real person. And it’s getting worse. Local vendors and developers try to get every penny out of the rest of us. They are also eroding the traditional fabric of the area. Leather shops, vintage clothing, tattoo parlors, souvenirs and probably the myriad music venues are sought by greedy land-grabbing developers. They can’t wait to get their greedy mitts on this choice land and turn it into a playground for rich, high-flying foreign oligarchs.

And now this billionaire has most of the Camden covered markets. What was once a hospital and service stalls for horses that pulled canal barges and a gin factory became a market. But it had kept its history alive with bronze statues of horses and men shoeing them and the rest dotted all over the market grounds. They’re gone. Much of what has made the market a bohemian treat is gone. That’s the problem with billionaires. They never think what is good for the area and for ordinary people. They have in mind upscale shopping for the rich.

Rent has gone through the roof, shutting out the average artisan. I spoke to one chap who operated a gin distillery, something new in the market. He said rents had gone up drastically and many vendors lost out. I won’t get into the nationality of many of the business people moving to the market. Everything British is being sold off to foreign investors because the Brits don’t want to own anything. They just want cash so they can buy big homes outside of London and go on cruises and such. Unless something changes, Brexit is going to be a joke, if it isn’t already.

And there you have it. Who to blame? Everyone. The ones who sell, the ones who buy, those who own land and develop it, those who make the rules regarding who owns what, and the mob of complacent folk who say and do nothing. Am I one of them? Well, I hope not since I refuse to go back to shop there. And places like it. I’m tired of ‘upscale’ places charging the moon for not much. And let’s be clear. Greed is rampant and so things cannot end well in a society that cares more about the bottom line than providing good service and good value for money. If you don’t see it, you are part of the problem.

A call to arms? Nah. Just a call to common sense. Without it, you may as well let Kim Jong-un, Trump and Putin nuke the world and let it get back to basics.

 

 

Mad March in the Marina.

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Mad March in the Marina.
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Snow between boats on the first day.

You’d think all my years living in Canada would have prepared me for winter weather in England. Well….it didn’t. My 12 years living over here have turned me into a giant wuss. All I’ve had to do is get used to the wind and rain. I don’t mind rain. The wind I could do without, those 70mph winds that is. Even 50mph winds become tiresome. And I expect some cold weather and maybe a dusting of snow when it’s wintertime. But this? In March?

It all began on a Monday near the end of February, leading into March. Calls for big snow and ice storms for Britain, coming in from Russia. They don’t need nuclear weapons. Just send us your weather. Usually, the media plays up this kind of doomsday weather. Everyone knows that snow, any snow, cripples the infrastructure of Britain, especially the south of England. So when the weather gurus (Met Office) get it right, all hell breaks loose. Mostly, it hits in Scotland. Not this time.

Right about now, all my compatriots in Canada are laughing their collective faces off because of our whining and moaning about a little bit of snow. But this time it was serious. High winds, drifting snow, ice rain and ice pellets, the lot. All for several days. As I write this on the 2nd of March, the snow continues to fall. My best friend and I braved our way to Sainsbury’s this afternoon for a few needed comestibles and returned in a hail of pellet-like snow balls whipping our faces and pummeling our bodies.

It all adds credence to the old saying about March weather, ‘In like a lion and out like a lamb’ and vice versa. In like a rampaging elephant here. For the south of England anyway. Kids love it. Schools are cancelled, snowmen made, sleds and toboggans dusted off and hot chocolate served. Unless you have to drive, it’s very pretty out there.

 

Wildlife seems confused on stormy winter days. Some ducks sit on the frozen surface of the marina or on the cut wondering where the water went. Swans and geese slide around like very bad skaters. Finding shelter isn’t easy for these foul. Good thing they have feathers and all that down. Nature’s way of looking after the defenceless.

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Birds on ice.

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The frozen marina.

Here in the marina for we mammals, things go on as usual except that getting on and off the boat can be tricky. More on that in a moment. But the thing that gets used overtime is the old solid fuel burning stove. Day and night we stoke the fire and keep things positively cosy in this 60 foot long, 6.6 feet wide narrowboat. This week we decided to burn wood. Usually it’s coal, but that blows back when it’s very windy and has a thick choking quality to it. So wood.

We don’t live out on the cut where boaters gather up any wood they can find along the towpath from felled trees and tree branches to broken fence posts. Wooden pallets (skids) are a favourite if they can be obtained. A few people buy peat to burn. Smells terrible. The little shop in the marina sells wood. Not cheap but dry and useable. Wood burns much more quickly than coal. You use a lot more of it. And it smells better. Everyone has a preference.

We had to learn about coal too. Some burns more slowly but produces more ash. The one we use burns more quickly but is cleaner. There are a lot of things to learn when you go from a regular house to a boat. Keeping warm in the winter is a big one. It’s surprising how warm these boats get when the stove is on with the central heating. We have that too. It’s run off the boat’s diesel fuel. Sometimes it gets so warm on the boat, we have to open windows.

No one can figure out who is responsible for spreading salt and grit around the marina when the walkways and jettys become icy. Seems to be up to we boaters. There is a container at one end that contains grit. We help ourselves. Of course you have to get to it first. And therein lies the problem on very slippery days.

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Snow at night. 5 inches this time.

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Car covered in snow in the marina.

 

And so back to that thing I mentioned about it being slippery getting on and off the boat on such days. My best friend had a meeting in London and I was left to do the laundry. She slipped on the jetty as she got off the boat, but walked off to the train station unscathed. I got off the boat to check on the laundry and slipped on the same spot. This time, I was heading into the water….the very cold, icy water.

But I was determined not to fall in all the way. Only one leg went in. On the way down into the abyss, I shot out my arm toward the jetty and threw my other leg back toward the boat. The result? A badly bruised and wrenched right arm and a twisted left leg. I was stuck. I couldn’t move. And I was in pain.

To the rescue, my good neighbour Eddie the Brave. He heard the thud as I collapsed between boat and jetty. Out he came and gingerly lifted me up, battered and bruised and shaken but very much alive. Instead of doing the smart thing, I thanked Eddie and continued on to the laundry room, sloshing along on my soaked and frozen leg. Stupid boy.

When I got back to the boat, I changed into dry jeans. I was still a little bit in shock but surprised I felt as good as I did….that is until the next day. Amazing what stiffens and shows up overnight. Stupid boy. Even after all that, the snow continued. A crazy week in March. Bring on Spring.