Friday, 22 June 2012

Flat battery

Late Thursday afternoon I thought: "Going home tomorrow, better check the car." Button on the key did nothing, so I unlocked it manually. Inside, no lights, no nothing. Turned the key in the ignition. Not even that annoying click – the one which is the starter motor asking if you really think it's going to turn over with the battery in that condition. Oops! I thought 5 summer weeks wouldn't be over-long for a car that's under three years old. But maybe it's jealous of Erin Mae, who got a nice new starter battery last autumn.

Too late to do anything Thursday night except watch the Czech Republic set off for home and wonder if I'd be able to do the same. Friday morning it's wet and windy, horrible conditions for peering under the bonnet of a car. Can't even open the boot or any of the other doors – they all depend on the electrics. So I go over to see those nice people in the marina workshop. Little Jon says he'll be over in an hour, which he is, with his van and some jump leads. Nothing. So he goes back and gets an enormous charger which has a "Start" setting. Still just a bit of clicking and moaning, but he's willing to leave it with me and after a couple of hours, with a certain amount of complaining, the engine finally starts. I didn't turn it off until we arrived back on the South Coast around 7.30.

Tomorrow we shall see whether it holds its charge overnight. And I shall have to consider whether I take out that membership the AA have been trying to sell me. In a week I shall leave the car at Manchester airport while I go to pick up the kids from Oslo, and I certainly don't want to get back after three days with a 7 and 8 year old in tow to find the car won't start.

But meanwhile, thanks to Jon and John in the workshop – very helpful guys.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Harin' home

New boater's initiation part 2 on Tuesday: through the Harecastle tunnel. This is just under 3000 yards – do whatever conversions you like, that's a pretty long tunnel. I can't get nonchalant about being that far under a hill, in a passage that size, for 40 minutes. They do convoys, and it's moderately comforting to be able to see the lights of the boat in front, but you daren't check the one behind because you don't want to take your eye off your steering. The first and the later sections have reasonable width and head room, but the middle part has bits that close in on you, with a rocky ceiling where someone my height has to shrink or regret it. All rather intense – conversation gets stuttery.

But we're still here to tell the tale, and the tunnel is followed by a long lock-free section where you can drink coffee as you go. Then through Stoke-on-Trent. The website that does trip calculations suggested stopping overnight at the Dolphin boatyard – but that looks one scary place and everyone I've ever asked agrees, so we pushed on to Barlaston. Main priority – a good TV signal for the England game! This coincided with an extremely fragmentary mobile broadband signal, so once again the blog post was delayed.

We started a bit later yesterday, but in the light of the weather forecast for today, decided to see whether we could make it back to Great Haywood. A beautiful sunny afternoon, and we arrived around 6 p.m. That's 3 days on the trot of more than 8 hours travel. By the time I'd washed the tunnel-drip and other accretia from Erin Mae's long-suffering bodywork, the brain had gone to sleep. 5 weeks to the day since we set out. It feels a bit like cheating to be back in the marina.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Reception variable

We tied up last night on the moorings at Wheelock. About the only TV station available was the one that gave us the important bits of Portugal vs Holland. There was no Three reception whatsoever, so no blog post. However we've had some great alternative reception.

First was Lewis and Tre (two 11/12 year old boys) who'd come down from Sandbach on their scooters. We got chatting about the boat and what it was like to live on one, and how fast you went, and the toilet and the engine, etc. They were great fun. Then there were the waiters in the Italian restaurant – a family business, I think. Fantastic smily welcome and the Italian food looked great. Unfortunately we'd chosen the Sunday roast – should have gone for the olives and pasta.

Later I got out my guitar and sat in the cruiser stern of Erin Mae singing folk songs (fairly softly). OK for a while, until I was doing James' Taylor's "Country Road" a bit louder (well, it's that sort of song) at about 9.30. Woman came out of the posh house across the green and told me there were children sleeping in her house. I don't think she meant that I had lulled them into slumber. I agreed to call it a day, but then someone popped down from a boat 30 yards away and said they'd been enjoying it even if she hadn't!

Early start this morning – under way by 7.15. So we were ready for a coffee when we got to the shop / café at Lock 57. Dan in the café was friendly and welcoming and helpful. Eventually found ourselves chatting to him about the relative merits of electric and gas ovens for cooking brownies! And the coffee was very good. Then, a couple of locks later, we passed NB Epitome Two tied up for lunch, so we stopped for a quick chat with Mike and Denise, who we'd last seen in Market Drayton.

We've done 25 locks today, in just 6.7 miles. It was the stretch sometimes known as "Heartbreak Hill", and a necessary part of any boater's initiation. It took us about 9 hours. But now we have chairs out on the towpath on a beautiful, calm, sunny evening in Kidsgrove. It's good! Have to go and see if there's any Three reception to post this tonight.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Middlewich Festival

For us, there were two musical highlights of the festival. The first I mentioned in my last post – the wonderful Shetland sets of Lana Elaine, Calum Morrison and Stephen Henderson, all students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Yesterday we went to their early evening session at The Narrowboat, where they were joined again by (17 year old?) Robbie. It was a significant challenge, because of the competition from a pubful of noisy drinkers interested in jocularity at high volume and not at all in the music. They played through it, and we were just about close enough (3 feet away) to hear the magic.

The second was an afternoon with Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson (Aussie and Irish), with a strong delta blues feel. They were stunning. Cara played flute, whistle and percussion, and has an extraordinary wash-board with some extra bits and pieces that she dons and plays with a couple of bear-claw gloves. She has a great, strong jazz/blues voice, which complements Hat's guitar playing and singing fantastically well. If you get the chance to see them live, take it.

This morning we finished by joining in "Festival Praise" from the live stage – MIddlewich Churches Together and a band called Unite leading it all. Something special for Dad's day, and a special focus on the Middlewich Street Pastors – volunteers out at the weekends, making a significant difference to the town. We've seen the good, the bad and the ugly in Middlewich. I'm glad that our final experience has been a celebration of lots of good things going on in the community – there was a real sense of hope conveyed this morning along with the recognition of the challenges that the days hold.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Too much excitement

Windy, wet but secure night. Got up and started the engine to charge the batteries and get some hot water. It was during breakfast that the fun started. The view through the window had altered. The rear mooring pin had pulled out of the ground, and the strong wind was swinging us right round across the cut. Bashed my head (again!) getting out in a hurry. Fortunately the canal is wide enough here for us to go all the way round. The couple from the boat behind us came out to help, and between us we pulled Erin Mae backwards until she was back in position, but now facing the opposite way.

Had a coffee and listened to Scriabin's Piano concerto to return adrenalin levels to normal, and thought about how I was going to turn the boat again when we leave Middlewich on Sunday. Then I went off to the chandlers to buy another mooring pin – you can put in two together, one through the other, so it's far harder for them to come out, even in soft ground.

We walked into town and had lunch at the White Bear, because the first session of the FAB Festival was due to occur there at 2 p.m. What a time that was! Lana, Callum and Stephen of "Unboxed"  played some Shetland sets, and the whole afternoon turned into an all-comers session as more and more people turned up. Lana's accordion playing reminded me of Phil Cunningham's (for those who know), and Callum has a Bourgeois guitar (like mine). As the session developed I borrowed a guitar and joined in, sitting next to Robbie, a lad who's a genuine genius on the fiddle. Agony for the still-recovering and un-exercised wrist. Pure ecstasy for the musical part of the soul. It took the whole half-mile walk home in the rain to come down off that high.

Tonight it's off to "The Cheshire Cheese". England vs Sweden in most directions, and The Crazy Folk Band in the covered area at the back. This is seriously problematic, and I'm not sure my heart can stand it.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Great crested grebe

What's the plural of grebe? Surely must be grebe! One grebe, two grebe, etc. Be that as it may, we saw 'em again today, at Croxton Flash. I saw one, my best beloved saw a whole troop (a troop of grebe?). My one dived, and I watched, and watched … and watched. Eventually had to turn back to see where I was steering. Thought it had drowned, but a backwards glance some 30 yards further on showed it alive and still kicking. Wikipedia says it chases its prey under water, so I expect that was what it was doing.

We are neither ornithologists nor zoologists (those are the domains of brothers numbers 2 and 1 respectively). But, like many who join the National Trust and go for walks, we have a bird book (more than one, actually). And great crested grebe it was. Crest, you see. Certainly wasn't a skylark.

There wasn't a lot of space today for noticing much else as we raced (all relative, remember) from Northwich to Middlewich, via the boat lift again, to get through the locks and tied up before all the festival traffic. The wind focussed our minds on direction, the lock gate paddles focussed our muscles on the near-impossible, and a day at the tiller focussed my mind on a very nice meaty, cheesy pasta sort of thing cooked up by my best beloved. I'm ready for bed.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Birthday treat

What did you do on your birthday, mum? Came down the Anderton Boat Lift! We hadn't planned it, but it seemed the right sort of celebration on a wet day. 50 feet from the Trent and Mersey down to the River Weaver.

We were the only boat going up or down the lift that trip, so Neil and David who were supervising it took the time to chat to us – helped to make it really interesting.

Was she nervous? 

Finally, our first experience of cruising a river as we ran up to the centre of Northwich.

The rain was soft (as they say in Donegal where my best beloved grew up) and not even finding that the recommended Italian restaurant in Northwich had recently closed could spoil our day – we bought a couple of properly aged steaks from Mr Sainsbury and I cooked them with a Stilton sauce and roast parsnips. Yummee!

Wych way

Nantwich, Middlewich, now Northwich. "Wich" / "wych" is an ancient label designating a special place – in this case, salt-producing places. They've been centres of the saline industry since Roman times and, in their heyday, the canals shipped an awful lot of salt. For me, it all conjures up images of Mordor, but such devastation as we saw today seemed linked to other chemical industries.

The earlier part of today's journey was through much more pleasant surroundings.

However, the effects of salt extraction were still to be seen where subsidence has broadened out the canal into  "flashes".

Some of them were almost as attractive as Tixall Wide, even though the cause was so different.

There was no signal last night to make this post, so it's being delivered on Wednesday morning. We tied up behind NB Elan Nº 2, and chatted for a while with Paul and Chris and their friends from Australia. Should they read the blog – nice to meet you, guys. Chance encounters like this are part of what makes boating special.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Middlewich bunting

The bunting did its best, but it's hard to make Middlewich centre look anything but a bit drear on an overcast afternoon without much happening. The Jubilee is over, the England game hadn't yet started and the Folk and Boat Festival isn't until the end of the week. I found it rather depressing that the brightest shop fronts belonged to the bookmakers.

Not the best afternoon for photos, but a couple of things caught my eye.

At one time, presumably, the Alhambra represented the ultimate night out.

Not only the identity, but also the prosperity of the town butcher was indicated by the tiles.

The new library was probably built by the council. While 100 yards up the road…

The inscription carved above the doorway reads "Victoria technical schools and free library",  and the institution owed its existence, perhaps, to a different benefactor, in a different age that did things differently.

So far so good, so we dropped in on the 14th century church, expecting to find a place of even greater quiet. Instead we found the place alive and buzzing with preparations for the FAB Festival at the end of the week, and got the warmest of welcomes from Jeremy the family worker, who was involved with the scaffolding and the special children's Walk through the Bible experience and I don't know what else. Almost as warm as that of the duck family that came calling this evening to nibble the weed from Erin Mae's hull.

Tomorrow we'll probably head north for a couple of days before returning for the festival. There are clearly brighter things in Middlewich than met the eye this afternoon.

Sunday, 10 June 2012


The swifts have been out, and have got me thinking. How much energy does a swift get from eating one gnat? Presumably enough to cover flying and general maintenance until it catches another. The liveliness of their flying makes that equation hard to visualise, unless there are some special high-energy gnats out there. Since swifts live on the wing they must need a steady stream of such edibles, except for those times when a gnat-storm means they can bank some calories.

Amazing what you think about when cruising gently up the Middlewich branch of the Shroppie! It wasn't just the efficiency of swifts – I was also reflecting on the efficiency of Erin Mae's engine. We were doing as good a distance per rev as I've ever known. I'd throttled right back because we weren't in a hurry, but the Garmin told me we were still beetling along (it's all relative, of course – I mean 2.5 mph). Perhaps the engine is more efficient at lower revs – I don't imagine the biodiesel suddenly got more dynamic.

I'm gad I'm not on gnats or diesel. We had a nice chicken curry tonight.

Saturday, 9 June 2012


Got away mid-afternoon, with a farewell to Will next door and the marina staff. Hardly any traffic, so we were managing the locks on our own. My best beloved has decided she's more comfortable flexing her muscles at paddles and gates, rather than steering in with never a scrape. But the locks between Tattenhall and Bunbury are not easy. Everything is seriously stiff, and they are wide locks. Two boats side by side is fine, but one on its own bumps round a lot. Ah well, all negotiated safely, including the staircase double that requires concentration to ensure you don't end up joining the floods in Wales.

Now – can anyone tell me? I register miles, locks and engine time (and other housekeeping stuff) on the Erin Mae Log. How should I count a staircase lock? Is it just a lock, no matter how many stages, or does each stage count as a lock? Hardly the most important question in the world at this time of international calamities, but it would be nice to follow the accepted norm.

On the move

Overcast and gray. But not raining, and the wind has dropped. It's time to bid a fond farewell to Chester. Some day we might go on through the city and up to Ellesmere Port, but not now. We'll saunter down to Middlewich for the Folk and Boat Festival at the end of next week. If we get there too early we'll see if there's time for a brief trip north to see the Anderton Boat Lift.

Chester has been a good experience, from the initial tourist-type exploration, through the excitement of the Olympic torch, the soaking days that followed and the fun of a day out with family. We'll remember the friendliness of staff at cathedral and marina (including the one called "Marina"!). We'll certainly remember the 41A bus service.

While we've been parked we've slipped into one or two unboatmanlike habits, so it's a good clear-out and tidy-up while we've still got a mains hook-up. Not to mention serious use of the launderette. Then it's off and away. The road leads ever, ever on…

Joel and poverty

Just came across this via a Twitter link. 6 year old Joel Saunders wanting to make an impact on poverty. Nothing to do with Erin Mae, but thought it worth an extra post.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Dongly things

Three's mobile broadband coverage, while a bit patchy, has generally served us well. Until yesterday. Ran out of Gb on the current SIM, so put in the new one I'd purchased before Christmas (such foresight!). Zilch. Nada. Not a dingle from my dongle. All it did was allow me to access Three's website which informed me I had no allowance left. Sounded a bit like the pocket money officer at the camp I'd attended as an 11 year old. No amount of fiddling made any difference, so today it was yet another trip into Chester (that bus pass is really earning its keep).

Two teenagers on the bus told us where to find the local Three store (which the website had been unable to do). With no receipt, and having bought the SIM card from Amazon in the first place, I rehearsed again in my mind all the arguments I was going to use to persuade them to help me out. "Hi" he said. "How can I help you?" I told him. And he got straight on the phone to customer services. I was extremely happy about this, as my own experience of talking to them is that it's quite an exercise in incomprehensibility.

Customer services um'd and ah'd and wouldn't believe it wasn't a different type of SIM that had been topped up at some point last month. Eventually our friend and his boss simply gave up, said thank you very much, put down the phone, and got me a replacement from out the back. I was well impressed. There seems to be a world of difference between the systems they employ on their help lines, and the people they emply in the stores. Long live the personal touch, common sense and trust in individual judgement!

And here's the blog post to prove it.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fire and Water

Mesmerising, both the bright and the ripply. Today there was a lot of water and wind. Without the sun the surface of the marina was ripply but dull. Definitely a day for retreating inside, and we lit the fire (yes, even on June 7th). It glows comfortingly in the corner.

My parents had a proper fire – it was something we all looked forward to when visiting at Christmas and so on. Messy, of course. Wood and coal to bring in, ashes to clean up. But definitely worth it – letting the mind lose itself in the flicker of an evening.

Before we bought Erin Mae, my best beloved was convinced we should have a wood-burner. I wasn't so sure – a bit concerned about safety when the children came to stay. I'm very glad she won.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A little piece of Cornwall

Today, the bus arrived and carried us, yet again, into Chester. We wanted some good coffee, a proper Wi-Fi connection and a modicum of peace, and it was the West Cornwall Pasty Company that came up trumps. Just wish I'd had a camera for the surfboards, fast tide warnings and ancient photographs that bedecked the walls of the upstairs accommodation. My best beloved went off to M&S and Waterstone's while I did some college work via the internet. Then we had pasties (handcrafted in Cornwall, all the potatoes grown in Falmouth, only Davidstow cheese, etc, etc – even the lad who took our cash came from beyond Penzance). Our oldest, who lives in Falmouth, would no doubt argue that anything but a Philps is a deception and why would you want a fast food Cornish Pasty in Chester anyway? But we didn't need anything else to eat until we got back to the boat well after 5, courteously dropped off by the driver right outside the gate.

Today, it was also as wet as any Cornishman could wish for. The heavens opened regularly and threatened to flood the pavements as we waited for the bus home. The appalling forecast affects our discussions about when to leave Tattenhall. We want to get to Middlewich for the Folk and Boat Festival at the end of next week. It will take us only two or three days of leisurely travel, and we don't want to do it 'midst storm and alarm, but we're getting itchy feet. Perhaps it will come down to when the electric runs out!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Old Ma's Café

With the sky as bleak as ever, we went and waited for the bus into Chester. And waited … and … and eventually decided it wasn't coming. So we walked to the Manor Farm Shop instead – a nice mile to work off yesterday's stiffness. And that, of course, required some caffeine and carbs to set us up for the return journey, in the attached "Old Ma's Café". Definitely a Ma, but not a very old one, who came through from the shop to serve us. So we got chatting about the name, and eventually a slightly more senior Ma came through to join us. She blamed the name on her son-in-law, but didn't seem too upset by it.

Suitably fortified, we extended our walk into Tattenhall village to see the sights. A nice NISA supermarket provided some sun-dried-tomato baguettes, creamy Stilton, a wonderfully mature Camembert and some locally roasted ham, and we walked home via another local landmark, the Ice Cream Farm, which was packed out with families enjoying the animals and activities (and the ice cream). By the time we got back to Erin Mae it was almost as late for lunch as yesterday. But the food was fabulous. There's not much can match this Ma's café.

Monday, 4 June 2012

One fine day

… in the merrie month of May a woefully wet June Jubilee weekend. After a suitably somnolent Sunday to recover from Saturday's exertions, with our attention divided between tennis from Paris, the pageant from the Thames and the rain on the windows, today beckoned bright and clear. Beeston castle was the target. We're getting to know this landmark, having passed it once on the way to Chester, and twice on Saturday's day trip. It's a constant feature of the view from the marina, sitting on a sandstone bluff that rises sharply from the Cheshire plain, at roughly 11 o'clock from where Erin Mae is pointing at this moment. Looking deceptively close…

Late afternoon sort of walk, we thought, so we set out at about 3.15 with an extremely late sandwich lunch in hand. Down the towpath towards The Shady Oak and Wharton's lock. This was a new test for my best beloved's artificial bit, not helped at all by yours truly picking the wrong route out of the marina, straight over a locked gate. That negotiated, she set a brisk pace – at the end of the day the Garmin told us that Erin Mae probably wouldn't have done it any quicker, in spite of my stopping to take photos of this and that, including…

These tiny field mice were so careless of their own safety, I nearly stepped on them. With no experience of such things, I don't have a clue whether they were relative babies, or if they're always that size – smaller than the top half of my thumb.

Well, we made Beeston Castle after four miles, had an interesting coffee break chatting to Edward III (one of the team putting on a medieval event team this weekend), and then hit the trail again. On the way home we stopped and chatted with Steve and Hazel on NB Lodestone, another Aqualine built around the same time as Erin Mae. It was interesting to see how they'd handled some of the questions we ourselves had had. Nice to meet you, guys!

But when we got back to the field mice, what should we find but one of them lying in the grass squashed flat as a pancake. So easy to do if you don't take quite enough notice of things around you, where you're going, what you're doing. Hm… yet another life lesson in there somewhere.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Day tripper

Grey, overcast sky. Drizzle in the air. Early start, late finish. Didn't matter at all. We had David and Jo, Lewis (13) and Charis (11) coming for the day. How much could we fit in?

We picked them up at Waverton. First thing (after coffee) was for the junior crew members to learn some knots. Then we started down the long pound towards Tattenhall, Lewis and Charis taking to steering like the proverbial. They both seemed to have a really natural touch on the tiller bar, judging some nice lines round corners and through the bridges, though neither had been boating before. They also learned the etiquette of passing moored boats, with a mile or more of them to negotiate on the way. But it was also a great opportunity for narrowboat name spotting.

Knot practice and an introduction to mooring pins as we tied up for pizza, followed by a short stretch to the Shady Oak for ice cream. After that it was on to Wharton's lock and the art of the windlass. The winding hole was half a mile further on, and negotiated successfully with Charis on the tiller and Lewis on the engine control. Then all the way home, with pasta bake at the end of the day.

Wildlife along the route was typical for this time of year, waterfowl broods at various stages. Some miniscule moorhen chicks shepherded by anxious mothers, and cygnets getting a ride on their parents' backs. The balance between providing security and encouraging independence in the young is one faced by all generations. Perhaps what we did on this trip made a contribution. But, mostly, we had a great day together.