Friday, August 30, 2013

Hide and seek

I’ve been sitting in a hide and seeking good photos of birds (how do I think ‘em up?).  My recently acquired telephoto lens has inspired me to have a crack at bird photography, which is something there is a lot of opportunity for along the canal.  However this time, I opted for one of our local nature reserves.

I read somewhere that fancy equipment is not necessary if you want to take good photos and that most equipment is better that most photographers.  How true that is!  Looking at the results of today’s efforts, and recalling some of the brill pictures presented by a number of other bloggers, I have a lot still to learn.  Mind, you it’s not all my fault, I blame the birds as well. The little buggers won’t sit still when I’m taking their picture, and the one’s that do stay tantalisingly out of range as if to mock me. Well, I’m going to persevere and learn from my mistakes.

Here’s one of the better pictures


The composition is fine, but the paler area at the bottom spoils it and the focus isn’t sharp enough.  That could be from camera shake or more likely from not being careful enough to get it spot on. One of the problems I’m finding with the long lens is that depth of field is very small indeed when you are taking from a few feet away as I did here. I should have used a tripod and set up the focus more carefully.

Here is a young greenfinch, again not sharp enough.


Out on the lake I had a go at this grebe from about 25 yards


I suppose that’s where the shallow depth of field paid off, in that it blurred the intervening reeds.

When you take pictures of distant birds, even with a long lens, you may well need to blow them up to show the bird properly and that’s where imperfections show up. In particular because I want to use a high shutter speed to freeze the bird’s action, and the lens being long and not costing a thousand pounds, doesn’t let that much light in at the long end (F5.6 at 300mm), I get tempted to up the ISO which then can make the images ‘noisy’.

You might say that perhaps the lens is not as good as it ought to be, but I’m sure it’s better than me, which is to say it can take better pictures than I am getting. It’s just that I’m photographing hard stuff and you need to be good at it.  I’m enjoying it though and can’t wait to go back and have another crack at it.

For the equipment anoraks out there, the camera is a Canon 40D and the lens is a Tamron 70-300 with  ‘Vibration Control’ i.e. image stabilization.  The vibration control is amazing and really does lock the image steady, better I think than the Canon lenses do.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Slough Arm Navigable!

Today we drove over to our old moorings at High Line Yachting on the dear old Slough Arm. We'll be returning there to moor Herbie over winter from the beginning of November, hopefully allowing us sorties into London providing the visitor moorings in Paddington have space.

In recent years the Slough Arm has been un-navigable at this time of year because it gets choked with weed and a number of other bloggers have reported this summer that that has indeed been the case. However I'm pleased to pass on the news that CRT have finally pulled their fingers out and sent weed cutters down there. Not just the superficial weed cut they have done in recent years, but a proper job taking a couple of weeks or so we're told. So now you can get down the arm in your boat, which is good news for the Slough Canal Festival in a couple of weeks time, although I fear the weed cutting may have come too late for them. So many boats have said 'never again' after attempting the trip in the past that I wouldn't bet on more than two or three boats turning up. A pity because its a nice little show and popular with local residents.

The arm was due to be dredged this year, but that has not happened, perhaps because they had to spend all their money on repairing a busted bridge - now fixed.

Should you be passing the end of the arm, don't look the other way, go on down. At least as far as the second winding hole about four miles down, it's a lovely stretch of canal as my banner photo at the top of this blog shows. I think it's true to say that we have seen more kingfishers down there than on any other stretch of canal.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Occam's razor and hedgerow fruit

I'm a bit of a fan of the philosophical idea of Occam's razor (sometimes spelled Ockham's). What this old idea says in a nutshell is don't look for complicated explanations for anything (especially when it can't be backed up by observation) when a simpler logical alternative that can be backed by observation is available.

Having worked for many years alongside politicians I can safely say that cock up wins over conspiracy every time.

Conspiracy theorists for example seem never to take the straightforward option which makes sense and is backed up by evidence, but to look for complicated sub plots which are inevitably attributed to unknown powerful people who rule the world, although it seems to me that if such people exist, they are not making a very good job of it. One good one we heard last year was that the triangular design of the lighting pods on the Olympic Stadium was symbolic of the mysterious Illuminati, that group of unknown controllers of the world who would surely therefore cause a disaster to happen at the stadium to further their evil ends. Well, they must be right. I mean a triangle is not anything anyone might use in a design unless they had evil intent is it? Actually, I thought the link between lights and illuminati was rather apt etymologically speaking.

"What has all this to do with hedgerow fruit?" you may ask. Well I admit to not knowing of any conspiracy theories regarding blackberries and sloes. But is does bring me back to Occam and his razor. We look set to have a bumper hedgerow harvest this year. The blackberries look big and juicy and we've seen tons of sloes ripening in the towpath hedges. Cap'n Ahab and his first mate had better order some more jam jars. And the birds this winter may get fat on all the haws and rowan berries. (At last a chance to show a pic taken with my new lens. Conspiracy theorists might suspect that this whole post was created in order for me to use this photo, and they might be right)


When I mentioned this to a friend the other day, the immediate reaction was that perhaps we should therefore expect a hard winter. It is a well known belief that plants and animals can foretell a hard winter and so they stock up in advance. Well, I don't know what they were doing last autumn when the hedgerow crop, particularly of blackberries, was the poorest for a long time, because if you recall, we had a pretty nasty cold winter afterwards.

Now Occam would say isn't there a simpler explanation. Well of course there is. All the experts tell us that a cold wet spring followed by a hot dry summer is perfect for growing fruit. I read on the BBC news site that we are expecting the best apple crop in years for precisely these reasons.

Nice though it is to observe old folk tales, I find it easier to believe that fruit grows well because of the growing conditions than that plants can foretell future weather patterns.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Growing up

Who knows what my grandchildren will turn out to be when they grow up. I don't, but one thing I am sure of is they'll be competent boaters. For some years now, when they have borrowed the boat with their mum and dad , it is Jacob (now15) that I put in charge of looking after the boat with the authority to tell the adults what to do. Grace is only five, well nearly six I suppose, but already she makes a fair job of steering Herbie down the canal. I get used to it, but even I was surprised that when I was chatting to the volunteer lock keeper at the Watford staircase the other day, Grace calmly got on with opening the lock paddles, red before white, and opening the gates when ready.


I expect someone will question the wisdom of me letting her do this, so I should say that I was only a few feet away and had my eye on her all the time, and she was wearing a life jacket. I should also add that I only let her wind paddles up, and not down, so the ratchet keeps her safe. The point is though that she knew precisely what had to be done without any instruction from me. Quite a lot of adults don't know how to do staircase locks. Of course she can only manage it when the paddles and gates are light, which most at Watford are.

Is she growing up too quickly? Nah. She's still a cheeky little kid who likes her bed time stories.


Maybe when Kath and I are too old to manage the boat and the locks, the grandchildren will take us out boating. Wouldn't that be nice?


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Want to buy a very nice boat?

If you wanted to write the formula for the most popular type of narrowboat, you could do a lot worse than specifying a 58ft Jonathan Wilson shell with a Beta engine. Add all the bells and whistles of Led lights and solar panels and all that guff, and a Pullman dinette and a decent paint job all at a very fair price and you have what a lot of people are looking for.

Well that's just the description of the boat that Terry, the well known lock keeper at the Watford flight is selling. We happened to mention to him today that we noticed that he had it up for sale and he gave us a guided tour. We loved it. I suppose it's a bit of a marmite boat in that the interior decor is very trad with lots of brass lamps and traditional decoration and lace and all that. it wouldn't suit the feng shui brigade, but for anyone that cosy traditional interior it would be extremely appealing. Had it had an 'old' engine we would have bitten his hand off. Terry has got his eyes on a smart tug which is why he is selling.

Take a look at the details on Apollo Duck, there are good photos of the interior and you'll see what I mean about the decor.

This has been my first outfit with my new camera lens. I'm not sure how well the pictures will come if I post them via my iPad as here but I think they'll come up great once I get them on a "proper" screen at home. Let's see how this one comes out

Here's one of Kath chatting up Terry.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Splooshing in the middle of the night

Tonight we're out in the sticks somewhere near Yelvertoft. Just a short break to take out Grace, who has been nagging us to take her out on the boat during the school holidays. Last time we were here a strange thing happened. Sometime in the middle of the night we heard a mighty sloshing and splooshing outside the boat. In my half awake state I at first thought it was a passing canoeist, but even canoeists aren't mad enough to be out at that time. Whatever it was, it was large and aquatic. Our thoughts turned to a large pike, or maybe a carp or two.


It was only some months later that we learned that there was a resident family of otters around Yelvertoft. Apparently they have been seen on a number of occasions. I suppose in the circumstances that might be the best explanation for the nocturnal splooshing. Anyway as we are in virtually the same spot tonight, I shall be sleeping with one ear open and a camera to hand, although I dare say that by the time I have stumbled out of bed, stubbed my toe in the dark and clambered outside fumbling with the camera dials and rocking the boat, any self respecting otter would be long gone.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Corn laws, ashes and the London poor.

In 1846 prime minister Robert Peel announced the repeal of the Corn Laws which for over 40 years had protected English landowners from competition from imported foreign grain by means of high import tarrifs.  The consequences were felt far and wide. Before long the price of wheat fell from 50s a ton to 30s a ton. A million acres of arable farmland was lost and the great migration from country farms to city factories was helped on its way. City employers were able to reduce wages because their workers needed less money to buy bread and because of the flood of people abandoning agriculture to look for work in the cities.

“What has all this to do with Herbie?”, you might say. Well not too much but bear with me because it’s interesting.

On Herbie, like the majority of narrowboats, we have a solid fuel stove which makes two things, heat and ash.  Disposing of our ash is a minor problem. Some people tip it under the towpath hedgerow which is probably fine for the hedgerow but looks messy. Some people chuck it in the canal, which they probably shouldn’t do as the canals are silted up enough already, and some people put it in their rubbish sacks from where it probably ends up as harmless landfill but at some cost to society as landfill taxes are high.  Of course we don’t make a lot of ash.  But what if we made nearly a million tons a year of the stuff?  That’s about what London produced in the mid nineteenth century mostly collected from houses. So what did they do with it?

A lot of it was shipped down river in barges to brickfields like tte ones in near Faversham in Kent.  The fine dust known as soil was mixed in with clay slurry which when dried is baked as bricks.  The more gritty stuff, known as brieze was also used in the brick making process but more for burning in the kilns.  They used it to fill up all the little air spaces in between the brick stacks to give a better heat distribution. I suppose the name has to do with our modern breeze blocks.  Bits of tin found in the ashes were recycled and interestingly, old its of burnt shoes and the like were sold for the making of Prussian blue.

Why all the stuff about the Corn Laws?  Ah well, now we’re back to narrowboats. Until the Corn Laws were repealed, huge quantities of the fine ash were loaded into canal barges and shipped all over the country, where they were used as a soil dressing by grain farmers.  It was a very profitable trade. Many of the major dust yards in London were situated along side the canal, at Paddington, Limehouse, and the like. After the repeal of the laws, the price of ash collapsed and the trade to farmers virtually died out.  The large number of poor who were employed in the trade had their wages cut and no doubt the canal carriers had to look for new sources of custom.

If you found that as interesting as I did, then you might like to know about the book from which most of it came.  London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew.  Written in the 1850s this book is a quite brilliant record of the lives of poor people in London giving fascinating details of their occupations and their lives. much of it is given over to interviews with such people, and they are often extremely revealing, sometimes sad, often shocking and sometimes funny.  It makes you realise that many of Dickens’s characters are pretty true to life.  Interestingly the book is divided into three main sections, Those that will work, those that can’t work, and those that won’t work.  All manner of characters are there, from organ grinders to petty thieves.  I’m useless at reading books from end to end, but this one I can just open at any page and get involved.  Being long out of copyright, it is available from a range of sources, including as a free ebook.  If I were you I would get it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Spontaneous cruise

I'm not good at sudden decisions and I'm even worse at changing plans. Before we go anywhere I like to enjoy anticipating it, reading the books etc.

So how come I woke up yesterday morning planning to pootle around at home and ended up a few hours later tootling down the GU Leicester arm aboard Herbie? It's all the fault of our old friends Phil and Janet who we haven't seen for quite a while. They rang up saying they were at a loose end for a couple of days and could we meet up for a meal.

They live at the west end of the M4 and we live at the east end of it, so at thirty minutes notice, we ignored the obvious geographical solution and we each ended up driving a hundred miles north of the M4 to meet at Crick for an overnight cruise. I'm in shock.

Now 24 hours later, we're back at home as if nothing happened. Was it all a dream? No, I've got the photos to prove it.

A little quiz questionfor you. So the meal we had was in the . . Can you guess? The photo shows us heading back this morning.


Monday, August 12, 2013

A Dandy time in the hills with swallows and a castle

Aaah, I was so humbled to find that while the Herbie blog has been in it’s summer recess, 40 or more people had been visiting the site every day only to find that I had written zilch.  Sorry folks but we’ve been on hols, temporarily exchanging dear old Herbie, for dear even older Dandy our trusty camping trailer.  Here we are at our favourite camp site at Little Stretton in the Shropshire hills.




We’ve been here so many times, it’s like home from home.  The countryside is some of the best in England and much quieter than better known places, and the walking is fab.


I managed to get one or two interesting photos including these of swallows feeding their young in the rafters of nearby Stokesay castle




and I had a go at stitching together a panoramic shot (all the rage these days) of the castle itself , although the main building has got a bit bent in the process!


Anyhow after a very refreshing break, we’re back, and if things go according to plan we may get out for a short trip on Herbie next week.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Handover with fireworks

Like eastern and western agents arranging a reciprocal handover of spies on a bridge, we took Grace out to Crick yesterday and exchanged her for Jacob. So now we are back at the camp site in Shropshire looking after a fifteen year old boy instead of a five year old girl. Which one will prove to be the most difficult we will have to wait and see.

The reason we chose Crick for the handover is that it is roughly half way between home and Shropshire for Claire the kids' mum and us to drive from opposite ends, AND because it allowed us all to go to the Fireworks Champions competition at Stanford Hall which is a short drive from Crick. Then we could all kip on Herbie overnight before going our separate ways this morning.

Many thousands of people gather for the event, all bringing picnics. The lakeside of the stately home gets choc a bloc with tables covered in quiches, sandwiches, cold chicken wine, beer, and all the things that people bring to a picnic. You have to get there early to get a good spot, but it is worth it, because just after dark descends three separate professional fireworks display teams each put on a display timed to music. They are each allowed to bring a maximum weight of explosive and each has a ten minute slot to impress the crowd who then vote by text for the favourite.

Finally, the organising company puts on their own display free from limitation while the votes are being counted.

Yes, I did take some photos, but stupidly I have not brought with me the lead which gets them out of the camera and into my iPad. Doh! So you'll have to imagine how good it was when I tell you that our daughter Claire said she may never go to another firework display because one of the competitors put on a display that she cannot imagine ever being equalled.

It was truly brilliant, starting off with fireworks timed to Queen's Flash Gordon. If you know the track you might imagine how well it would go with fireworks. These days, these big fireworks are fired by computer exactly timed to the music, although they do have to allow for the height some of the big shells have to reach before they explode.

This event takes place every August and there are others up and down the country. I can't recommend them highly enough.

And now we are back in sleepy Little Stretton while the drizzle feeds the little streams of the Long Mynd. Ashlet, the 1500ft hill that overlooks the campsite is covered in low cloud. Are we downhearted? Not while the Green Dragon down the road has any home made pie left we're not.




Thursday, August 01, 2013

Postcard from Shropshire

Dear Herbie

Having a lovely time camping here in the Stretton Hills. I don't think you would like it here, the water is too shallow


Although grace and the other kids at the campsite are catching plenty of fish with their bare hands


We hope you are OK waiting for us at Crick with your new bits of paintwork baking on in all this hot weather.

See you soon. Don't go anywhere without us.




Neil &Kath