Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Week by the water

This time tomorrow and all next week I'll be by the water. Not the canal, not a river, but the tiny Ashes Water that tumbles over a hundred waterfalls down the Long Mynd in Shropshire. It gurgles over the stones past our tent, over the ford and down the lane where you can see the odd trout, and on to the George and Dragon where landlord Gary will pull us pints of Butty Bach bitter.

This is an annual pilgrimage for us and one of which I never tire. Look at these pictures all taken within a short walk from the campsite and you'll see why.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dreamboats and variable costs

Sitting in the cratch last Sunday evening enjoying the evening air and the sunset over the canal we were chatting to Glyn, the owner of our neighbour boat Humbug. The conversation turned not to toilets strangely, but to what kind of boat we would get if we won the lottery, or even a small share of it.

Looking through the canal magazines, it's clear that a lot of people's idea of a dream boats are a long way from mine. Typically they seem to be getting more and more like floating homes and less and less like boats. All the photos in Canal Boat magazine of the top boats at the Crick show displayed the interiors, never the outside, the hull lines, the paintwork, the engine etc. The going rate for these floating palaces seems to be about £130k.

Why does a (to me) fabulous boat like a Steve Hudson tug cost considerably less than some bland looking boat from other top makers? I don't know about his show model, but you can get a really nice new 58ft tug from him for less than £95k, complete with boatman's cabin, engine room, lovely steelwork and traditional decoration and a smart interior. The difference seems to be that Hudsons build you a great boat and a lot of the others build you a luxury floating home. It has a lot to do I think with whether it has a washing machine, granite worktops, a built in microwave, and all the 21st century trappings of a house. Plus of course all the huge inverters and what not to provide all the electricity needed.

As for engines. Would I pay £130k for a boat with a modern diesel engine? Would I 'eck! For that money I'd be looking for a Gardner or a Russel Newbury. My dream boat would go chug chug not brrm brrm.

Well I'll never own either I suppose, but I can dream. Incidentally, Glyn, whose boat Humbug is an ageing Springer that she has lovingly restored and fitted out says she doesn't think she could bear to part with it now, even though it's well down the pecking order of desirable boats. I agree completely. Springers might be seen by some as the Ladas of the canal but Humbug is a true delight.

While I'm on the topic of inexplicable price differences, I'll tell you about marinas. I've recently been doing a bit of research to see what it would cost to keep Herbie in a marina further north, say within 15 miles of Braunston. The variation in quoted prices is startling really. Anything between £1650 and £2300+ a year. Now it would be explained if the dearer ones offered a lot more, but in reality they don't. The cheapest ones still offer all the security and the facilities you need and are in pleasant locations.

It does seem that prices fall pretty sharply once you leave the main line of the GU, not that being off the main drag bothers me in the slightest as long as I've got plenty of cruising route options. The dearer ones do tend to have more workshops and chandleries etc, but that's just their way of getting more money from you especially as they usually prevent you from bringing competing service technicians on site if your boat needs fixing.

Even more strange. Some of the dearer ones are full. There's nowt so queer as folk.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Judging a boat and its owner by the roof

Can you tell a boater by his roof, or the inside of his boat from the outside.? I reckon you often can. Let's look at some types - well outrageous stereotypes really.

1. The working boat roof.

It will of course have a short roof, behind a large hold, and the roof layout is non negotiable . Stern rope coiled on the rear hatch cover, mop stick raised (I estimate at 27 degrees) at the handle end to rest on the decorated water can (don't call it a Buckby can because it might not be and you will risk looking foolish), then just a pigeon box and of course a tall narrow engine exhaust chimney with brass rings and a chain. Nothing else.

We all know what's inside this boat. A traditional boatman's cabin with roses and castles and crochet and all that, and a big (sometimes huge) engine in the engine 'ole (note no H's allowed here.) If the engine does more than 200 rpm it can't be right. As for the boater, we can even have a good guess at his attire. Corduroy trousers, collarless shirt, maybe a red neckerchief and a trilby or a cap. Strangely this is the only type of boater that may not want to talk about toilets or batteries much.

2. The Feng Shui roof

This long minimalist roof will have merely it's fixed furniture of mushroom vents, a neat rack bearing poles and gangplank and perhaps a pigeon box and then just two rather expensive ropes trailing from the centre stud to the rear.

Inside, all will be spacious and calm. Either light oak or ash. Gentle curves will describe outlines of the granite worktops and sage green dralon will cover the comfortable seating. There will be a wine rack. Miscellaneous belongings of any type will not be seen. Near the rear entrance will be a large instrument panel with LED displays and winking lights. Below this will be a cupboard with lots of bottles of brasso, boat shampoo and all types of polish. The boat will probably have gas central heating, but if there is a stove, it will be diesel fired, for there is nowhere to keep firewood.

The owners, a recently retired couple will almost certainly wear smart fleeces, or if wet, Berghaus waterproofs. They will be pleasant but reserved. On muddy days they may choose not to cruise. A gambler might do well to bet on the boat being built by Braidbar boats.

3. The Garden roof

This has two sub groups

a) the Britain in Bloom roof - a long row of large pots of petunias.
b) the Bob Flowerdew roof - miscellaneous tubs, boxes and growbags festooned with tomatoes, courgettes, and the like. ( I was going to call this the Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall roof, but to be fair, that would have to have pigs and chickens).

Inside the boat will be homely and probably cottagey and in the case of b) probably a bit untidy. The owners of a) and b) are likely to be quite different from each other. a) being fairly conventional folk of at least middle age, and b) in their thirties and much more Bohemian and very possibly vegetarian. They will be happy. At locks and landing places they will get their ropes tangled.

4. The Eco warrior roof

This roof functions primarily as a power station. Older installations will be crowned by a wind generator on a pole. The guy ropes for the pole will prevent any sensible use of centre ropes for boat handling, but this is not important for owner of the boat will almost certainly live aboard and not move much. He or she will not have a television because the noise caused by vibrations of the pole will render the TV inaudible. He or she will either be young and go out a lot, or old and deaf.

Later Eco installations will of course have solar panels on the roof. The more the merrier. The annual mileage travelled by the boat will be inversely proportional to the square footage of solar panel. The owner will have no fear of electrical gubbins and will spend all of his spare time on the internet or in attempting failed DIY projects.

Both types will of course have a roof area dedicated to stacks of logs for firewood.

Eco warriors are , or like to think they are, good at DIY. The inside of their boat will have lots of wire and pliers and a stack of bits of plywood.

5. The Steptoe roof

This is very common on the Southern Grand Union. This roof looks like a local waste amenity only not so tidy. The majority of the objects placed there are either broken or rotten and are piled so deep that there is not the remotest chance that those on the bottom can be retrieved. There will be many spent leisure batteries. Interesting gems of bric a brac, a marble statue or a rare item of militaria nestle among the rubbish, waiting for Antiques Roadshow the make the owner rich.

Rich is the last thing this boater will be. Little does he know he is sitting on a fortune in scrap lead from all the old batteries. Any money he does have is spent on feeding his six Staffordshire Bull Terriers. As the boat will not have a functioning engine, it will never move from its towpath position, so the owner will have claimed a nice piece of ground alongside the towpath where he will light fires and sit through the long evenings with his fellow moorers. He will be friendly to all who pass and call out merrily to passing boats in language that no one can understand. The inside of the boat will be exactly like the roof, only damper.

6. The family roof

This roof will have separate areas. One for sunbathing, one for bicycles and wheelbarrows, one for vegetables (see Garden roof) and one for firewood. Inside the boat will be homely and a touch spartan but will have books and jigsaws. The crew will be large and they will travel the waterways like romanies of old. The children will be home educated and fit, able and intelligent but have no GCSE's. They will posses the rare attribute of being able to entertain themselves without electronic aids. When they grow up they will be entrepreneurs.

As for Herbie's roof, like most others it is a mixture of the above. A compromise between the needs of rope handling and storage, and soon I hope, solar panel. That's what started all this roof stuff off. How can I fit in a solar panel, a roof box (for coal, camping chairs etc), a gangplank and boat poles, Buckby cans and a flower pot in a tidy enough way to allow for good rope handling?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Other people's blogs

Some good stuff out there at the moment, the best being Saltysplash's part 1 account of his Ostende trip. On the canal we don't usually get to shout "We're going under!" Follow the link on my favourite blogs list to the right. You won't regret it.

Also I'm inspired by Amy's signwriting effort on Lucky Duck. Simple, but done without all the trickery I use. Now I'm up for doing my GRAND ONION CANAL strapline on Herbie in similar fashion. Painting is fun once you get to the decorative bits. I might do a traditional heart design on the rear hatch cover and something on the gas locker lid at the front. I'm also thinking about a design to paint on the white flashes on the sides of Herbie's bow. I think they're more properly called fore top bends, or they wood be if Herbie was made of would. (Just did that to catch you out).

I'm worried about Simon (Tortoise). When you wind him up he can be pretty garrulous, but his latest blog posting is unbelievably terse. I think he has started talking to himself!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Choosing a solar panel

What's the best solar panel? OK, daft question. The ideal one would be powerful, cheap, and compact, but of course these requirements are incompatible. As ever I like to read and read and think and plan before making the wrong choice. Here are my deliberations. Feel free to put me right if you know better. In my experience, people usually do:-)

Why get a solar panel at all?

1. To save running the engine on non cruising days, cutting diesel costs and saving on engine wear and tear.

2. To keep the batteries charged up more which prolongs their life and frees us up to use more power if we need it.

3. To save having to charge the batteries up to protect them when we return to our berth to leave the boat. We can just let the panel get on with it over the next day or two and keep them topped up indefinitely.

4. To reduce our carbon footprint

Wouldn't it be nice to just go out and pick a panel off a shop shelf and be happy ever after. Pigs might fly! The ideal one doesn't exist and as ever there are awkward compromises to be made. Power is what you want, but more power is more money of course and anyway who wants their boat roof covered in black glass panels? We don't. They just don't come small, cheap and powerful.

I decided I would like a minimum of 80 watts peak which equates to about a couple of hours engine running on a sunny day. In winter an 80 watt panel would generate much less, and we do like to spend time on the boat in winter, often without moving. Ideally I'd like rather more than 80 watts. This rules out most of the thin or flexible panels which stick to the roof use amorphous technology and are generally of a lower wattage. Anyway they tend to have about twice the surface area of the crystalline ones for the same power and need space.

So you decide what is the biggest panel you can bear to see (and afford) and get that one. No you don't. A boat roof is not a blank canvass. It has mushroom vents and chimneys, gangplanks and poles, and you need working space to handle ropes without catching on fixtures at critical times. You need to fit the panel in amongst all this, and on Herbie, that's quite limiting.

I'm drawn towards a 95 watt panel by Kyocera which is not too huge and should fit just in front of the aft mushroom vent and won't tangle with the chimney if I mount it a little off centre. It's about four feet by two feet three inches in old money. First I have to remeasure the roof to check I'm right and present my findings to the board (Kath) for approval.

One thing I will spend extra on is the regulator by getting an MPPT one. They cost more, but put about 20% more power into the batteries so worth it.

Will we ever get our money back in savings? You're kidding. No, we will save a bit on diesel and wear and tear on engine and batteries, but that isn't what it's about. Mostly its about not having to run the engine for so long when we're stationary. It's noisy, it makes the boat vibrate and uses diesel. Although running the engine makes hot water, it does that in far less time than it takes to charge the batteries.

One more thing will help. I'm also planning to move to LED lighting. In winter, four lights on for four hours might equate to about an hour of engine running. LED lights would save over 80% of that.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The odd boat

When it comes to boats, man's ingenuity seems to hold no bounds. We see some really weird concoctions on our travels, and our recent trip added a few to our list.

First a boat we had seen before, both canalside and on TV, but this time it was moving at Cowley lock. The rather wonderful Savernake paddle powered narrowboat. From what I could see it went quite well.

Then up at Cassiobury this very special old boat Elizabeth. I believe it has a bit of history to it, but I don't know why it has this strange two tier roof.

And how about this, moored at Uxbridge -a DIY marvel
Believe it or not there is a narrow boat hull under there. What the carpentry lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in panache don't you think.

Then a more normal boat, but far from its proper place. This punt wove its way through the rally at Braunston whilst en route from Cambridge to Oxford, all in the cause of the Help the Heroes charity. Believe you me this is no easy trip, although I have it on good authority that they weren't required to punt the dangerous tidal stretch from Denver to Salters Lode in order to reach the Middle Levels.

Lastly, I couldn't leave this one out. Not odd, but special

One of only three existing steel narrowbaits called Herbie, and now I've seen 'em all. Jim Shead also lists a couple of plastic cruisers and a wide beam boat with the name.

P.S. re the ducks on the last post. As Carrie rightly guessed, they are female (or perhaps juvenile) mandarins

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Favourite photos from our trip

Home again, and I've been looking through all the photos I took on our cruise up and down the GU. They remind me what a great trip we had despite the cancelled plans to get further afield.

Here are just a few favourites showing:

The work we got done on the boat
The wildlife

The glorious still evenings
Some superb boats to drool over
The flowers everywhere

and of course the lovely old Grand Union Canal looking its very best

As ever the pictures look best if you click to see them full size.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday morning at Rickmansworth (Ricky to us boaters), and we wait just up from Tesco for them to open so we can buy something for dinner tonight. Church bells are iniging and there is a cool breeze in th morning sunshine. The usual stream of joggers pass by the boat, and all is well in the world.

Yesterday was an easier day. Although we did 15 locks like the day before, the fates were kinder to us. To start off with, we had staff. David came to join us for the day. Should we dispense with his former toitle of "rainman", as we had such a sunny day? Or is this just the exception that proves the rule? We are considering calling him Bipolar Man as things seem to come in extremes when he joins us. Anyway it was a great help. The other bit of luck was that about 14 of the 15 locks were set in our favour - a rare treat.

We journeyed from Apsley to Ricky in a time well under our previous day's hours and met some nice people along the way including a German gentleman on a reclining tricycle towing a kiddy trailer. he helpd us with the locks whilst giving a detailed explanation to his wee child of how it all worked. I doubt the child took much in as it only looked about two years old, and anyway it was all in German.

At Ironbridge lock we had the usual gaggle of gongoozlers and despite us only needing one lock gate open, we agreed to use both as so many kids wanted to have a push.

David's house is yards from the canal at Ricky, so we were invited for dinner with him and Heather. A real dinner in a real house -quite strange after being on the boat so long. Thanks D&H.

We could get home today if we worked hard but we have decided to go steady and enjoy our last few miles, so we cab stop at Denham tonight and then tootle home the last couple of hours tomorrow. Tonight at Denham I hope to take the photo which will replace the one at the top of our blog. Same place, new paint colours.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Hot stuff and a little gem at Berko

Flippin' eck it's hot. Today we progressed from last night's mooring in Berkhamsted to here at Apsley where we await the arrival of extra staff (David) in the morning. Such was the heat today that we were forced to take extra breaks, the first being after only three locks when we passed the diminutive but wonderful Rising Sun pub.

What a little gem this pub has become since the present owners took over a year or two back. Concentrating on providing an ever changing selection of real ales and real ciders in a civilised atmosphere they have hit the spot precisely. Today was the start of their summer beer festival weekend, offering a stack of ales from local ish breweries, an equal amount of ciders and about 80 Belgian bottled beers. They are right by the bottom lock in the town - do give them a try when you pass. Today we contented ourselves with a couple of halves each of beer and a very good ploughmans lunch with three outstanding British cheeses, the best being a superb exmoor blue. All this in a lovely little bar with a selection of daily papers to read. To cap it all we took away a four pint carry out of some exquisite apple and pear cider which we are sampling as I write. Ten out of ten, Rising Sun.

15 locks we did today - a lot in this heat, especially as the lock gates hereabouts tend to be quite heavy. Strange, as the top gates always swing open as you enter so one open gate beacomes two that you have to close. We didn't finish until about 8pm, and now we sit in the cool of the evening, in the dark on the towpath verge with me typing this by the light of the netbook screen.
Claire and Joe send their thanks to those who left good wishes for his recovery, and I do too.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

An egg cup full of paint and a mile of masking tape

Yes I've been cheating at signwriting again. Now the HERBIE sign is complete on both sides of the boat and I'm fairly pleased with it. No artistry involved and not much brush skill, just a lot of planning and thought and a great deal of masking tape.

My long term plan is to have another line beneath, in smaller plain block capitals "GRAND UNION CANAL". I need to do some more planning for that. I'm sometimes tempted to make it "GRAND ONION CANAL" as I sometoimes jest to Jacob that the canal was built to supply onions from the midlands to London. I suspect I could persuade the odd passer by that this was so.

I did do a bit of freehand writing yesterday, putting our registration number on the boat side.

This was extermely hard and I'm not all that pleased with it. Using white spirit I rubbed out and restarted the "Reg" several times. Also my recommendation to anyone buying a boat is to choose one with a registration number containing only numbers like 1, 7 and 4. Painting two supposedly identical 6's side by side proved a trial. While you're at it, choose a name like AXE, then signwriting would be a breeze.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Busy going nowhere

Kath has gone home to support Claire while Joe is back in hospital, having got worse again when he came home last weekend. Further tests have found the cause of his nasty pains and he should be ok in a week or two. I'll spare you the anatomical details, but it is a nasty inflammation in his digestive system and has apparently been building up for a long while. He comes home today and has some special medicine that should do the trick over time.

Meanwhile I wait here at Cowroast, doing DIY jobs aboard. Kath has just rung to say she is returning to Herbie tomorrow.

Internet dongle modem signals have been very poor, hence the lack of posts until now.
Since Milton Keynes we have travelled only a few miles each day, spending two days at Marsworth where I completed the shading on the starboard side signwriting. More on that in a separate post. Until today, the weather has been glorious and the countryside around the canal quite at its best. Here are a few photos to give you a flavour.

First Startops reservoir at Marsworth at sunset

and next morning

Herbie ascends the gently winding Marsworth flight, a favourite of ours

and then some welcome shade in the lush Tring cutting

and because I have a reputation to keep up, a pub. The Globe at Old Linslade, taken from the boat window where we moored overnight a few days ago.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

On Milton Keynes and a very dodgy manoeuvre.

On this trip we've passed a few times throught Milton Keynes. First by bus, which was a bewildering experience. We thought the driver was trying to lose someone tailing us, the route was so contorted. Dozens of roundabouts and dual cariageways that all look the same. And then the city centre boulevards lined by smart buildings, looking just like those city of the future cartoons drawn in the 1950s. All we needed was the monorails.

By canal you can't get lost. You just follow your nose through a long long linear park. Most of the time it looks like this.

with occasional glimpses of routes into town

A look at the city map shows that the canal actually forms the boundary of the city to the east and north, so it's had quite an effect. Of course there are lots of bridges. Little old ones,
wooden footbridges, and big concrete slabs. Bridges have to have numbers of course and you can't go renumbering all the bridges down to Brentford every time you introduce a new one, so the new ones have numbers like 82A or B or C or even D! You can tell the old bridges because they have plain numbers.

Today I pulled in (solo) to Campbell Park moorings to await the arrival of Kath and our new temporary crew member, Grace. There was one mooring spot, just long enough, and there was a stiff breeze blowing offshore. My first attempt failed and I overshot. Then I got blown into a rather smart boat opposite. I backed off and had another go, pointing the bow of the boat at the centre of the gap and in forward gear just ticking over, I ran along the gunwales to the bow and jumped of with a rope just as we were about to crash. Not a textbook manoeuvre but it worked. I pulled the boat parallel with the bank and leapt on to the stern to apply reverse gear to stop us just before we smacked into the boat in front. Don't try this at home folks!

Campbell Park is the place to stop if you want to visit the city centre. Lots of buses heading that way, or you could walk it in half an hour. Prince Charles wouldn't like the centre, but I do, because it works. Clean, quiet, plenty of open space and a relaxed feeling, and a super system of computer screens that show you how to get on foot from where you are to any shop, restaurant, etc in the area. Not that I don't like Salisbury or York, but if a place is not old, then it should make the most of being modern.

News: Joe is still in hospital, better but far from well, hence us taking Grace to give Claire a break. We are now pointing South and beginning the move towards home. I have done a fair bit of the shading on the signwriting but have more to do. Pics in a later post.