Friday, 22 September 2017

CRT Meetings - a double dose

CRT Annual Public Meeting and National Council Meeting
September 2017

Yesterday was a day of CRT meetings starting with the fifth Annual Public Meeting, this time held in The Gatehouse at The Bond and then after lunch the half yearly meeting of the National Council, also held at The Bond but this time in the smaller conference room overlooking the end of the Grand Union canal.

Alan Leighton closes the 5th Annual Public Meeting of CRT.

The Annual Public Meeting is a regulatory requirement for a charity and is an opportunity for the Executive team to present a "state of the nation" address, which shares progress and issues with anyone with an interest to listen. On this occasion the Trust has moved into the digital age and broadcast the event live via Facebook. 

The National Council is a collection of all interested parties, some elected and others co-opted plus the 10 Trustees who are the legal guardians of CRT. The underlying role of the Council is to appoint the Trustees and, in the event of something going wrong, to un-appoint them. However but the main day to day role is to see what is going on across the Trust and therefore offer insight and input from the various user groups perpective. Essentially, as an elected member of the National Council representing canal related businesses I have a seat at the table and the opportunity to engage with the powers that be to define the direction the organisation is going and ensure that matters of concern are at least considered.

As ever with my "CRT jottings" these are the things which struck me during the meetings, but they are in no way comprehensive minutes.

The Public Meeting was opened by Alan Leighton, Chair of the Trustees who is a pragmatic, no nonsense sort of guy who is good at cutting through the crap and getting things done. His summary was that CRT has had a successful year but there is still much to be done. His particular focus was on improving the relevance of the Trust in a future environment, broadening its appeal and acting as a catalyst for change, particularly in urban environments where we are able to make a positive impact outside the waterways community.

The Trust said goodbye to three trustees who had served their maximum periods in office and welcomed two new faces - Sue Wilkinson and Sir Chris Kelly. Don't be put off by the "Sir" - he was a senior civil servant and getting a title seems to often be part of the end of career package and whats more he was, for many years, a boater himself. The new appointees offer particular skills the trust will need in the coming years, including experience to help to renegotiate the government grant - discussions which will start in just 4.5 years time.

Richard Parry walked us through the income and expenditure of CRT which has broken the £200m threshold for the first time. Essentially 25% comes form the Govt grant, 25% from boating, 25% from property investment income, 13% from utility transfer contracts (water, gas and telecomms) and the rest is from charitable donations from one source or another.

There was also a fair bit of information about the now closed final salary pension scheme defecit which has grown due to actuarial recalculations and lower interest rates. The Trust has recently added £5m to the scheme and we were advised that relative to many other UK pension schemes it is in good shape. The Trustees are maintaining a close watch on this potential liability.

Given the dependence on the Grant and a natural government desire to cut such payments, getting the Trust in a strong place to renegotiate it is of paramount importance. We can therefore expect to see an increased focus on the non boating partners in the coming years to ensure that any suggestion that the grant will be cut is resisted in as many quarters as possible. The focus of the presentations therefore tended to be outside the boating community. This outward looking approach was apparent in the choice of Heather Clarke as presenter, specialising in measurement the link between waterways and well being. 

Specific boating issues were covered in the question and answer session including:

  • The benefits of local Engagement Officers 
  • Offside vegetation issues 
  • Canal bed profiling - no policy to exclude wide beams
  • EA transfer to CRT - on going but less appetite from government at present
  • Fishing - a key user group which brings many young people to the waterways
  • Towpath space - on going education issue. 
I appreciate that this may suggest that CRT is more interested in the general community benefits of the waterways rather than as a navigation authority, but this is probably a correct focus if we want to retain that £50m grant from the Government. At an operational level CRT is navigation organisation through and through and its our job to ensure that this core priority is not lost.

The National Council meeting continued from the Annual Public Meeting. An explanation about how the Trustee selection took place was offered, focussing on what the individuals will bring to the board and why the number of trustees has been reduced from 11 to 10 (charity best practice). The Council elected the new and continuing Trustees by a show of hands.

There was than a short presentation about an ongoing governance review which is taking a critical look at how CRT is governed. 

This started with the Waterways Partnerships with the review completed in July and is now being considered by the Trustees. Outcomes not yet shared.

The Trustee Board review is on going and will be complete by the next council meeting in March 18 (I think).

There was also small group discussion about the possibility of a review of how the National Council operates. Various ideas and observations emerged, including starting with a questionnaire. These ideas will be collated and considered by the Trustees.

There was a presentation about Digital Marketing including its origins and how it is being embraced by CRT. My take is that CRT isn't exactly at the bleeding edge (beyond the cutting edge) in this area, but it is moving forward particularly in its attempts to engage people outside its traditional boating circles.

There was also a presentation about Hydrology which was a great interest to the nerdy part of me. They explained how CRT manages 74 reservoirs which represent some of CRT's highest risk assets (and also represent a large proportion of this winters asset repair spend).
They revealed how models are being run for various climate change scenarios and reflect the CRT interpretation of the UK water risk audit. 

Drought and Flood represent the Trust's highest risks. This led to the production of the October 2015 strategy paper. The current focus is flood risk management and it was pointed out that lowering water levels, and emptying reservoirs to potentially accommodate flood water is a trade off against drought resilience in the drier summer months.

This led to a presentation on Water Transfer opportunities which are currently being tendered for. This would involve government capital spend (not CRT money) and an annual revenue stream for channeling water supplies from wet areas to the drier south east via the canal network. A good example is the existing transfer of water down the Llangollen to Hurleston or the movement of water from the River Severn to Bristol vial the Gloucester and Sharpness.The outcome of these 19 tenders will be known in 2018.

There is also ongoing work on the use of canal water for heating / cooling via heat pumps.

As you can see, over time the various specialist presentations give the National Council a broad view of the operations of the Trust and help them make informed contributions where appropriate.

Whilst matters can and are raised in this forum, most if the nitty gritty issues are thrashed out in the smaller working groups, like the Elected Boaters meetings and the National Advisory Groups (NAG's). The Licensing consultation is the current focus of attention and phase three is about to start.

Please share this as widely as possible.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Journey's End

Arrival at Huddlesford
September 2017

For those of you who have been following our progress over the last five months (and I know that there are a lot of you) I am sad to have to say that this post marks the end of the journey.

Huddlesford at last

Today we did our final day's travel together, moving the boats about 12 miles from Rugeley to Lichfield, ready for the Huddlesford Gathering this weekend. On Sunday Helen will be leaving the boat to look after her mother who will be having surgery, leaving Martin and myself to get the boats back to Aldridge via the Birmingham and Fazeley and the Tame Valley / Rushall canals.

Autumn colours

Autumn is pressing in and cold claggy mornings are becoming the norm, which means setting a fire as part of the wake up routine. It was still cold and damp as we left the boat to deliver a supply of Elderberry Vinegar to Mike and Kit as Mike is still suffering from the lurgy. Then it was into town to say hello to Mark and Justina in their new shop, The Sewing Shack, and much to my surprise I found they sell parrafin wax, a key ingredient for some home made fire lighters we want to experiment with.

Approaching Fradley

By the time we set off at 10.30 the sun was out and, for the first time in weeks, we were obliged to don sunglasses and hats. The Trent and Mersey was busy today and I think I had to let at least four boats past, but somewhat irritatingly we passed three of them later on as they had tied up early. I can now see how we manage to keep up with the pack - it's a case of the tortoise and the hare. They may all zip along leaving us to plod at a steady 2.3 mph (so the Waterways Routes App tells me) but we are relentless. We just keep going and always eat lunch on the move - which means we seem to cover the same number of miles as everyone else over the course of a day.

Near Wood End Lock

We had lock keeper assistance at Fradley where we did pause for water, rubbish, and elsan and, just as we set off again, we stumbled across Martin and Margaret of nb Erin Mae. Martin and I are longtime friends and followers of each others blogs. I somehow managed to beach the boats around a small sea otter and had to offer apologies as I sorted out the mess, whilst at the same time digging a few jars of preserves for Martin and Margaret. Strangely the boat was firmly aground when I was on it but floated free of its own accord when I jumped off - I just can't figure out why that may be!

Dave Baynham

The weather stayed warm and dry as we passed under the busy A38, a sure sign we are nearing home. The stretch into Seethay was deafening but the noise dropped away dramatically as we reached Kings Orchard Marina and saw the familiar face of Dave Baynham (nb The Robber Button) leaning against the fence waiting for us.

A celebratory bottle of fizz to mark our journey's end

And then it was the final mile into Huddlesford Junction, site of the forthcoming Huddlesford Gathering, a bi annual event hosted by the Lichfield and Hartherton Canal Restoration Trust and the Lichfield Cruising Club. All the moorings are marked out but for the first time ever, we are the first to arrive. I know from Facebook that a gaggle of traders are pounding their way down here from Tipton, so I don't suppose we will have the place to ourselves very long. Its an odd location, one minute gloriously quiet and the next the actual canal is shaking as Pendelino's scream past at over 100mph.

A final joint selfie in the sun

As this was the last day of movement for the pair of us, the day was rounded off with a bottle of bubbly, celebrating the end of a remarkable and hugely enjoyable five months afloat. 

Monday, 18 September 2017


September 2017

After yesterday's rains the ground was awash and the Trent had risen and was flowing fast at Great Haywood.  

Misty morning in Great Haywood

I sloshed my way back to the Elsan point at Anglo Welsh and was dismayed to discover a huge pool of non or ultra slow draining slurry in the ground level pit. It was unclear if this was due to misuse or, more likely, the holding tank had filled with storm water. I didn't envy the Anglo Welsh employee who would be charged with solving the problem.

We were off and away by 9.00am, dropping through two locks on our short hop to Rugeley, our destination for the day. The run was pleasant and the warm sun in my face made me realise just how long it was been since we cruised beneath anything but leaden skies.

Autumn colours

In all out years of boating we have passed through Rugeley many times but we have never actually stopped on the visitor moorings. But today all that was to change as we had several bits of business to conduct, the most important being to meet a writer for Camping and Caravan Club magazine. 

They have got a bigger butty than us!

We arrived in time to do a shop at the adjacent Tesco store, have lunch and then I took the washing across town to the launderette. You seem to meet the whole world in launderettes which is one of life's great levellers, as we gather to watch out smalls dance their merry way to cleanliness. On this occasion I was joined by a gentleman who emanated a steady whistle and duly introduced himself as "whistler". It turned out he was also a boater and in our ten minutes together provided a potted life history of his years on nb Sawdust.

Haberdashery and Haddock!

I returned to find Helen in deep conversation with the writer, Ali Ray and we spent a pleasant couple of hours exchanging foodie related stories, as well as discussing the important matter of Artisan Gin manufacture. I think she said that we would feature in their October or November edition, so hopefully we will get to see a copy in the near future. 

By the time I got back to the boat Facebook announced that I had been spotted in Rugeley High Street, following my phone on the way back to the boat. These Google Maps on phones are great, just as long as you can keep a signal. Mark and Justina (Grand Rosettes) had spotted me passing their new haberdashery shop which, by co-incidence, is almost next to the Albion Chippy who produce very nice and reasonably priced fish and chips.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Staffs and Worcester revisited

Staffs and Worcester revisited
September 2017

Travelling the Staffs and Worcester has had something of a homecoming feel about it. For many years the route from Gailey to Great Haywood was something we did several times each year, and often as part of a weekend break which took us to Tixall Wide and back.

Would you believe it, but its at least five years since we covered the eastern half of the canal and its certainly the  first time we have towed The Jam Butty along its winding route. It was therefore very familiar but at the same time I have had very little idea of the time it would take to travel. In the event what used to take us one long day was covered in two modest days, a slowing down which has more to do with our appetite for hours at the tiller than slowness through the water.

We were relying on Gailey having a working elsan point and were more than a bit miffed when we discovered it closed for refurb work. I do wish CRT would provide a holding tank as a temporary stop gap for these repair works. The run into Penkridge was to the usual accompaniment of the M6 and all along the route we were being tailed by nb Helen, but who were never quite fast enough to catch us in the pounds. 

We paused in Penkridge and, for the first time, walked into town. And what a lovely little centre it is. We restocked on provisions as a good sized Co Op, bought some great bacon, sausages and pork pies in a real local butchers and, on the suggestion of the crew of nb Helen, visited the agricultural supply company on the far side of the main road. This place does a great line in work wear suitable for boating and two pairs of trousers were purchased as well as a warm top for Helen. 

After we restarted we were surprised to see nb Helen again on our heels - they must be gluttons for slow travel! No sooner had I left the town than I thought that the engine was misfiring with erratic lumping and bumping. This got worse and worse till a moored boat told me that a rock concert was in progress at J13, and the bass lines were the cause of my mechanical concerns.

Not long after we came to Teddesley Boat Services and I was most surprised to see what appeared to me the bows of Lady Hatherton peeking from the shed she occupied for so long. But as I looked closer it appears that the wooden hull has morphed into steel. I doubt that this is an aquatic case of alchemy so can  someone tell me if this is a reproduction of the venerable inspection launch, and if so what happened to the old one I last saw five years ago.

I was keen to be well away from the M6 as I was from the music festival, so we progressed to beyond Acton Trussell, and just short of Deptmore Lock, sharing a peaceful mooring with nb Helen who finally passed us, by 200 yards!

Sunday dawned clear and bright but we seem to be getting worse and worse at starting out. In fact we were so late breakfast became brunch (bacon and sausages form Penkridge butchers) and we didn't get going till 11.30am. Stafford boat club was surrounded with visiting craft and most bore the insignia of RN, so I guess it was a meet up off the Russell Newbury owners club. I don't know if they have an informal collective name, but "The Old Thumpers" wouldn't be too wide of the mark.

Stafford turned into Baswich and it was great to see some evidence of work on the ground for the Stafford Waterways Link - I am not sure how this is going, but I have always felt it is something of a dark horse restoration project. Then it was Milford and to Helen's huge relief I found a crab apple tree loaded with fruit. For weeks I poo poo'd the idea of picking on the GU where the trees were prolific, but foraging opportunities have been a bit thin on the ground around Birmingham.

Creative play house at Baswich

The good weather left us as we crossed the River Sow and from then on it was brollies and waterproofs with squall after squall hitting us, till it settled to steady rain as we crossed Tixall Wide. The plan was to get to Rugeley for Morrisons and the Launderette, but as the towpath filled with water I took the expedient option and pulled into a convenient 70ft gap just after Great Haywood junction. Rugeley will still be there tomorrow!

Friday, 15 September 2017

Days of industry

Days of industry
September 2017

A trip up the Shroppie wouldn't  be complete without a visit to Industry Narrowboats at Stretton Wharf, birthplace of The Jam Butty. 

Stretton Wharf - Birthplace of The Jam Butty

We have a standing invitation to pop in and our progress northbound the day before had already been noted. On this occasion the visit was with the specific purpose of foraging down their driveway where all sorts of seasonal goodies were promised, and we were not disappointed. We picked a huge bag of cooking apples, a smaller bag of rosy red eaters, sloes for sloe gin, rosehips for rosehip jelly and quite amazingly, three kilos of late red plums which were clinging into the branched by their fingertips.

The fruit foraged at Industry Narrowboats

One snag occurred whilst harvesting - my extendable fruit picker decided to jam in the retracted position and refused to open up. I tried everything but in the end asked to borrow their workshop vice which did the trick. Whilst I was in the workshop I couldn't help but see Canis Major up on the blocks. Canis Major is a shortened GU motor built in the 1930's and is noteworthy as she was the last boat converted by  Peter Keay of Walsall. 

Canis Major stripped to the bare bones

I have to admit that I have a real fascination with historic boats in the "raw", and they don't come much rawer than this one. She has just had her wooden bottom removed and her knees are exposed with great holes cut into her sides where new steel is being welded into areas which must have been paper thin. The is a fine craft, unusual in that she still has a wooden top conversion and her old Lister engine waits patiently for the next phase of her life. 

No bottom but nice lines!

Industry Narrowboats specialise in the old and the unusual and its always a delight to have a look round the yard and see the projects they have on the go. Perhaps the most interesting are the odd "bits" of boats hanging around, a habit which of course led to the birth of The Jam Butty four years ago made from two back ends welded together.

An unexpected encounter with Halsall

Our return through Autherley Junction was delayed as the coal Boat Halsall's bows edged into the junction bridge hole just as I was coming out of the stop lock. Brian McGuigan was at the helm and took the setback in his stride. He backed off a bit and I kind of jack knifed round his stern with both of us busy taking photos of each other! I got the impression he was rather taken with our little butty and credit goes to him for the photo of me getting our pair out of the weeds opposite the junction.

Brian McGuigan's shot of me

We pressed on to Coven and a good meal at the Fox and Anchor which used to be our local when we moored at Calf Heath. The food was good quality and washed down with a couple of pints of Proper Job.

Pendeford in the later afternoon sun

Friday was another industrious day after a very late start. The red plums were prepped and turned into a couple of dozen jars of Cinnamon Plum Jam. At the same time the butty had a good sort out, clearing up the mess after the rain impacted shut down ant Netherton.

Those plums in their new format....

The late afternoon was spent making the short hop from Coven to Gailey, passing Hatherton Marina at Calf Heath which was our home mooring for so many years. I certainly don't need a map for this twisting waterway, every curve is indelibly imprinted on my memory.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The curious case of the drip at midnight

The curious case of the drip at midnight
Sept 2017

Have you ever woken in the middle of the night and heard the rythmic tic, tic, tic of a drip? Annoying at the best of times but on a boat the sound of a water drip is never good news and one which cant be ignored.

It all started a few nights ago at the Black Country Boating Festival when I woke sometime after 2.00am to the steady sound of the drip. At first I thought is was the dodgey pipe joint under the sink which has leaked intermittently into an ice cream tub ever since we set out in April. But the resonance was all wrong and whats more, by moving my head I could tell it was coming from the back of the boat, not the galley. 

I tried to get back to sleep but there it was, drip, drip, drip. Unable to sleep I got out and stuck my ear next to the engine cover to see if it was the stern gland. Unlikely I know and no, the noise wasn't coming from the engine bay. Its more like the gas locker - so I lifted the lid and sure enough it was louder. But that's impossible cos there is no water in the gas locker. But, the path outside was wet so maybe, just maybe, the drip was water emerging between the bricks next to the gas locker and echoing through. Not a perfect answer but it was plausible enough to let me go bask to sleep.

There followed a whole string of drip related dreams: Drips from the ceiling soaking the house, drips from the stern gland filling the engine bay - you get the drift....

Imagine my consternation when I woke at 3.00am in the Black Country Museum and there it was again, a steady sequence of dips maybe 30 seconds apart. There is no way its the tow path this time, so I ventured out in my pajamas (again) and opened the lid of the gas locker. 

Yup, there it was again - but louder with the lid off. 

And then a moment of realisation. I keep a trigger operated water spray cannister in there to help then I use cutting compound on the paint. But last time I had moved it was in Birmingham to replace a gas cylinder, and when I put it back it went in upside down. In fact it wasnt a drip at all but instead a bubble, like you get in an airlock with home brew. 

The source of troubled dreams

As the night cooled so did the cannister, The air contracted and sucked in more air from outside which them bubbled up, one bubble at a time.

Turn the cannister over and the problem was solved instantly.

Peaceful sleep has returned to the good ship Wand'ring Bark.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Bye Bye BCN

Escape to the Country
Sept 2017

The back mooring at the Black Country Living Museum is always peaceful and this time was no exception, it even has its own tap for total convenience, which is handy when you are doing the laundry.

We set off at about 9.30am, passing a gathering array of trade boats preparing for this weekend's Tipton Canal Festival, which we have decided to skip favouring a leisurely 10 days to get to Huddlesford and hopefully some autumnal foraging along the way.  The run to Deepfields was uneventful but Deepfields to Bilston was thick with floating weed. 

 Coal Boats Roach and Triumph

Along the way we passed coal boats Roach and Triumph deeply laden and making slow going in tricky conditions. Just getting the butty round them was a challenge as both the coal boats and the butty draw three feet and both hulls naturally searched for the same deep water channel. We kind of swung round each other in a ponderous pirouette and slipped by without so much as a kiss - with enough time for a few shots which captured both craft in action.

I think I have got a bladefull!

Then it was on to Wolverhampton with a hire boat on our tail. They were catching fast but became ensnared in the Bilston weed trap and resorted to the weed hatch, letting Peter Baldwin's Saltaire to pick up the chase. I had a mile or so to go to the top of the "21" and I decided to wind it on a bit and so take the locks first. We held out lead and arrived at the top lock with maybe three boat lengths lead, closely followed by the unfortunate Anglo Welsh craft.

With the early locks in our favour we set off,  me resorting to running back and forth to pre fill the lock ahead, where the gaps were small enough. With a bit of effort we managed to stay a clear lock ahead of Saltaire till the locks space out near the race course. At this point we realised that they were operating with a crew of three with our friend Richard Alford, a Waterways Chaplain, undertaking lock wheeling duties. When the finally caught us at lock 20 the considered opinion of Saltaire was that we had put in an impressive show, especially with only two on board. Our time was just under three hours with about 14 locks set against.

One of the nice things about boating is the ability to change plans as we go. As we came down the "21" we debated our schedule to Huddlesford and in the spur of the moment decided to spend a couple of days on the Shroppie. Having just completed the 21 we were weary and moored up north of the M54 bridge, sheltered by a thick hedge from the high winds which were forecast. And did it blow! The wind raged all night and was so hard the boat shook and shuddered.

The morning dawned clear but there was still a very strong cross wind which caught several hire boats out as they emerged from the cuttings and banged down our side. Towing in high winds can be a tricky exercise, but when moving the butty is pretty steady and no mishaps ensued. We paused at Wheaton Aston services and then moved on to Turners where we refilled with Diesel at 57p per litre. We have used about 80 litres since Stratford three weeks ago, which isn't bad.

Foraging Quince

One snag about Turners when approached from the north is the absence of a winding hole, and reversing with a butty to the one the other side of the bridge is a non starter. We therefore pressed on north to the winding hole at High Onn, Along the way we remembered an open offer to harvest a boaters quince crop. We had seen an unharvested canal side tree for several years before we met the owner and sadly we have never been in the area at the right time since. However, this year the tree was heavily laden with fruit and a swap of fruit for jam was conducted - a good swap which will supply us with Quince Jelly for next season.

 Quince, glorious quince

All that wind played havoc with the trees and we encountered a very early case of "Shoppie leaf soup"  where all the cuttings are full of floating sycamore leaves. Individually they are not a problem but en mass they clog up the blades and you have to reverse every half a mile or so. Oh the joys of those wooded cuttings.

Black Country Floating Festival

Black Country Boating Festival 2017
Sept 2017

I don't think 2017 will go down as a vintage Black Country Boating Festival in anyone's book. Most years the weather is good and sometimes we get one wet day, but this year we had two wet ones which both dampened the spirits and halved the crowd numbers.

Stylishly ready for rain

Normally the central area is littered with attendees lounging around in the autumn sun drinking ale and listening to the bands. This year the grass was closer to a Glastonbury mud bath and entertainment was enjoyed inside.

Winding the butty

For the traders a post event wash up (an apt description if ever there was one) in Ma Pardoes concluded that for everyone sales were about 50% of usual, and us regular attenders were busy explaining to the first timers what its like when its really on song. But we can take cheer that it could have been worse. Most traders managed to continue between the frequent showers and Adrian (the nearly harbour master) assured me that he had seen worse when the level rose and water started to seep into the main tent.

Traders in the rain

The event offered in interesting new twist in the shape of the plaque. Usually they are heavy cast items which I seem to collect as ballast and end up in a drawer in my shed at home. This year a local woodworker offered to make them out of eco friendly ply and the end result was rather lovely - almost justifying a place on the Christmas tree.

That said, the Black Country Boating Festival is more that a trading opportunity and it represents the last "big bash" of the season, one where loads of traders gather and who tend to see the Saturday night in the beer tent as the end of year party. They certainly seem to form the core of the dancers in front of the stage. From our perspective this was more than a bit frustrating because Helen's slowly mending knee wasn't up to the walk to the tent, let alone a knees up if we got there. So for us it was an evening in with a DVD and listening to the music from a distance. We did, however make it onto Ma Pardoes courtesy of Sandra and her borrowed set of wheels.

David Litchfield and Barry Teutenberg between the rain showers

Monday didn't dawn clear and bright, and we left with a damp gazebo and we battled the high winds to the Black Country Living Museum in Tipton. The back slot near the museum entrance was free so we winded both boats and moored in the illustrious company of Sagatia and Bittel. We had a late lunch of fish and chips from the museum chippy and restocked with provisions at the Aldi which had been built on the site of a pub just up the road from the main entrance.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Stoned Out

Stoned Out
September 2017

The last time I used the expression stoned was in the pages of Waterways World and on that occasion it elicited letters of complaint about the endorsement of illicit drugs, especially whilst controlling a narrow boat.

The Damson barricade

I was actually referring to the experience of taking incoming fire from the bridges of Darlaston on the Walsall Canal, but on this occasion I am thinking about Damson stones and the removal thereof.

One of the snags of our nomadic existence in the summer months is the collection, processing and storage of fruit used in winter preserve making. Specifically I am thinking about Damsons which need to be picked in September.

Damsons in the natural

To overcome this issue we have made a few trips home in recent weeks and during these visits we have filled the freezers with the raw materials we will need for next year's products. Today it was the turn of the humble Damson, a vital ingredient in Damson Chutney, Damson Vinegar, Damson and Ginger Tea Jam and Damson and Bramble Jam. 

A growing haul

Our seasonal picking programme always includes a trip to a friend near Lichfield who has several Damson Trees in her garden, which even in the lean years provide a good crop. 2017 is, however, a year of bounty and an hour or so picking the low hanging fruit filled two big bags. When I got home they weight in  at a hefty 26 kilos which were duly weighed, washed and then stoned ready for the freezer. Now stoning these diminutive members of the plum family isn't to be underestimated. The fruit is small and the stones hang in for dear life.

Classic "plum stoners staining"

We have tried several methods of extracting the stones but in the end settled on a Lakeland Cherry Stoner which, with a bit of practice, will stone one kilo in less than 10 minutes. Of course, that still means a couple of hours with stoner in hand before the monster pile can be tucked away in the freezer.

All in all not a bad days work with the promise of many jars of tasty preserve in 2018.

Back into Brum

Back to Brum
September 2017

Monday dawned drizzly and damp but progress had to be made so I was up and away by 9.00am.

If I am honest the long drag up the North Stratford from Dickens Heath is a bit of a trudge, with the shallow canal making for slow progress and the narrowness of the navigation channel making passing difficult. It's at times like this I resort to my trusty i-pod supported by the rather amazing Bose earphones which both block out the rumble of the engine and offer a great sound quality. On this occasion it was two Dido albums and no doubt the passers by were startled to experience my unaccompanied rendition of the same!

Delays at Shirley Lift Bridge

I handn't been going for more than an hour when the canal suddenly stank of diesel and then around the corner some CRT contractors were unloading a load of logs into the hedgerow. The work boat clearly has both a leak and a diesel soaked bilge. The guys were cheerful enough and given our relative speeds I let them past twice (the second time when they picked up a small pontoon). I was more than a bit surprised to see them again 30 minutes later with the work boat moored on the jaws of the Shirley lift bridge. It appears that they didn't have a BW key so figured I would be along in a bit and used mine instead. I have to say it made negotiating this particular obstacle a whole lot easier.

Entering your home town is always a pleasure because you start to see familiar faces. As I approached the tap at Warstock I was thinking about the Halfies and their overstaying issues earlier in the year. And so I turned the corner and there was Jubilee moored up inviting another e-mail form CRT! Sadly the boat was empty and John and Jan were no doubt attending to their property in the area. I pulled in for water and was immediately asked for three jars of preserve, which I duly dispensed and then a chad like head and hands appeared over the fence opposite which is home to Angela and Wayne Attwood (Caggy). I received an update on the progress of the Caggy repairs form Angela and promised some of the new Sunshine Plum Jam at BCBF at the weekend. I have been needing a gas cylinder for over a  week but  there were none to be had on the South Stratford. I therefore had high hopes for Lyons Boatyard who did have some in their cage, but they are closed on Mondays. Grr.

Kings Norton Guillotine

I eventually emerged at Kings Norton Junction at about 2.30pm, blasted my horn and nudged round into the Worcester Birmingham, heading for town. I was part way through my manouver when a blast came for the Netherton Tunnel side and there was Harnser, making its way to Bournville for an overnight stop. 

The plod into Birmingham was entirely predictable with no other traffic on the canal. Peter's mooring at the university was empty as he has already gone to Netherton and so I was left to my thoughts. The elsan point at The Mailbox was visited and a further three jars sold. I am always struck that so often I sell preserved just as I am tying up.... 

And so I slipped into Nick and Victoria's mooring at the rear of Symphony Court, packed up and legged it to the bus for Aldridge and a couple of nights at home. Not that it will be quiet - I have a huge quantity of Damsons to pick, stone and freeze ready for use this autumn.

Sorry for the lack of pics - I left the camera on the boat!

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Onwards and Upwards

Onwards and Upwards
September 2017

We ended up staying in Wilmcote for nearly three days, which was a bit longer than intended. However, there are worse places to be holed up with the village shop able to supply the necessities of life (including some really nice bread) and the Sainsburys delivery service arriving for the rest.

Wilmcote top lock

The main reason for staying was a long delayed meeting with Land Love, a magazine with a focus on the outdoors and foraging sort of themes. They have been wanting to run an article on us for over a year but had to delay due to Helens ill health last year. The interview has yet to take place, but in advance a photographer was commissioned to come and collect the illustrations, and Wilmcote seemed as good a location as any.

The area offers rich foraging opportunities including sloes. damsons, yellow plums, rose hips and of course a plethora of blackberries. In advance of the visit by Sussie we had a day picking blackberries and mixing them with some damsons we had previously picked on the Grand Union. In the best tradition of Blue Peter, we prepared several batches the day before her visit, so we were ready to deliver the jam making element without delay after the foraging shots had been obtained in the early morning sun.

Completing the Land Love photo shoot

In the event Sussie stayed with us for about four hours and left with a clutch of great photos, which will be sent to us when the article has been published. After she had gone we rattled off another couple of batches of Damson and Bramble, one of our favourite jams. Isn't it amazing how plants which fruit at the same time so often go together really well?

Thursday saw us progress up to Lownsford with Helen doing the steering and me working the locks, which come at a rate of about two per mile. We have often moored opposite the Fleur De Lys but had never visited, so we sampled their famed pie menu and I can really vouch for their beef and stilton - fantastic. All this was washed down with some very drinkable IPA and the bill didn't worry the bank manager in me.

Bottom of the Lapworth flight

Friday came with a bit of a problem. One of Helen's knees blew up with a huge swelling, probably a delayed reaction to her fall in Stratford. Far from being on the mend she became pretty well immobile, unable to even stand and steer, which is a bit of a problem when facing the  30 locks which stand between us and the Birmingham Level. There was no real choice so we set off, with Helen doing as much steering as her knee would allow which turned out to be about 5 locks.

And then, hurray for volunteer lock keepers! As if by a miracle a lock keeper appeared as we started the Lapworth flight - would I like assistance to the top? Is the pope Catholic.... yes, yes, yes. Helen was able to retire to the cabin and take the weight off her knee and between the lock keeper and myself we made a very fast ascent to lock six from which point I continued alone. The amazing thing was that we only passed one boat in the entire time we were working our way uphill - what a contrast to last weekend.

Top end of the Lapworth flight

We are aiming for Netherton but we have a few days to spare so were planning to pop home and pick / freeze damsons for use in the winter. The problem is Helen's knee and chest - both are giving her a lot of pain and being cooped up in the boat isn't ideal. With her feeling so uncomfortable a friend offered to come and collect from the Blue Bell at Illshaw Heath which will give her a couple of extra days in the relative comfort of home. The one thing I didn't do was to warn our lovely neighbours of Helen's imminent arrival so my apologies to them for the unexpected bumps and bangs when she returned...

For my part Sunday was cold and wet so I spent the morning making two batches of Sunshine Plum Jam, a new jam comprising yellow plums with orange. This zesty mix makes a perfect breakfast spread. The afternoon was invested in making 15 bottles of sweet Elderberry Vinegar, a modest but useful addition to our range of vinegars. 

The rain eased off at 4.00pm and offered a window of opportunity to do an oil change during which, for the first time, I managed to spin the filter off without resorting to the chain wrench. I also realised that I had never renewed the air filter this season and the engine hesitation was due to a clogged air intake. The engine immediately ran better which was a very rewarding outcome.

The forecast is better tomorrow so my plan is to be off early and get the boats into Birmingham in good time.