Monday, 12 March 2018

The Start of a New Adventure

Travelling Around the Edge: West Kirby, Cheshire
Last year I completed my bus trip "Around the Edge of England". A 51-day, 257 bus, 5,000 kilometre odyssey of a bus trip that followed the coast of England and the Welsh and Scottish borders. One of the attractions was that it would be largely cost-free as, after a lifetime spent in public transport, I am now, finally, in possession of a bus pass that gives me free travel throughout England. In practice, of course, I found that the savings to be made by not paying bus fares were far outweighed by the cost of accommodation en-route and of train fares to get me to and from each of the stages into which the trip was broken up. But such costs were easily justified and could be met from the savings I now make after ten years of narrowboat ownership having come to an end: any boat owner will know what I mean!

I enjoyed it so much that I've been looking for a follow-up ever since and now I've found one. The counties of England (and Wales for that matter) have always interested me. Like many people, I identify with the county of my birth (Carmarthenshire) and that of my parents' birth (also Carmarthenshire in the case of my father and Yorkshire in mum's case).  I never really accepted the re-organisation of ,local government in 1974 that made
The historic counties of England
Carmarthenshire part of "Dyfed" and replaced the historic division of Yorkshire into three "ridings" (West, North and East) by one into two metropolitan counties (West and South) and a variety of other entities including "Cleveland", "Humberside" and "North Yorkshire" as well as transferring parts of the county into, god-forbid, Lancashire!  The fact that much of this reorganisation was later undone and Dyfed, Cleveland and Humberside were abolished (and the "East Riding of Yorkshire" reinstated) seems to justify my feelings.  I then discovered, via the Association of British Counties, that the 1974 reorganisation was only ever intended to address the governance of the country on a local basis and not the existence nor the boundaries of the counties themselves.

It was, apparently, always the intention that the existence of the historic counties of Britain should be unaffected by changes to the way they were governed. The use of the term "county councils" for the new bodies tasked with authority over areas such as "Cleveland", Humberside" and the rest served to confuse the issue completely and has led to the situation whereby many people think that the historic counties - such as Westmorland, Huntingdonshire, Herefordshire and the like - have somehow ceased to exist.  I've never thought that, so my new adventure - A bus tour through the historic counties of England and their county towns is my may of reaffirming their existence as well as a good excuse for another bus ride around England and no doubt some beer sampling along the way!

So, on Tuesday 6th March I set out on my quest to visit all thirty-nine English counties and all their county towns (which may, or may not also number 39 as will become clear - or not - as I progress)

To save me writing it all out again, you can read about Day 1, in which I visit Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland, on this link.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Barging in Belgium

I'm just back from a few days in Ghent, Belgium. The main purpose of the visit was to have a look at the bus and tram networks there and in nearby Antwerp, including some of these monsters that can carry 386 passengers (although only 56 get a seat)!

But there was also time to visit the canals, both in Ghent and in Antwerp and catch some of the thriving commercial traffic  - a reminder of what English waterways such as the Thames, Severn and Aire & Calder could be like if this country could develop sensible transport policies.

In Ghent, I took a number 1 tram (like the one in the photo above) out to the village of Evergem to walk along a section of the Ringvaart, which as the name suggests is a sort of waterway ring-road that allows modern commercial traffic to by-pass the older and smaller canals in the city centre, most of which are now used by leisure and residential boaters.  Here are a few images of what I saw:
Most Belgian barges carry a car on board. This captain was unloading his
on to the public highway using a hand-held remote control.

 On the Friday, most of the bus and tram drivers in Ghent went on strike, giving me a crash-course in the local language. . .
so that I now know the Flemish for "No trams today, the lads are on strike!" (vakbondsactie = trade union action). Instead I took myself off to Antwerp on the train. The lads were on strike there too, but it wasn't far to walk out to the Albert Canal, near to where it enters the Port of Antwerp for some more "barge spotting"

Hardly a "barge" - in reality a massive push-tow. And note: this one has two cars aboard (his and hers?).

This one's a bit more traditional, but compare the living accommodation to an English narrowboat's back cabin! (There's more floorspace there than in my house!)

Just like in Ghent, the Albert Canal was very busy with boats passing and re-passing throughout the thirty minutes or so I was there.

Locating the boats was made easy by a new app I bought recently (warning: commercial break follows).

Marine Traffic is intended for keeping track of coastal and deep sea shipping, but having bought it (free advert-infested version also available) I was surprised to see that a lot of European inland shipping was included. (In the UK the occasional movement on the Manchester Ship Canal also shows up). This screenshot shows the situation on the Ringvaart in Ghent this afternoon. The circles represent moored craft and the arrows are moving boats. Clicking on a circle or arrow brings up a picture of the vessel and details of the voyage it is making.  

Fascinating stuff!  If only there was a version for narrowboats on the English canals!

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Those were the days too

As I said in my previous post, you had to be hardy to survive on some of those mid-winter hireboat trips in the 1970s.  

Cooking for twelve

Apart from the relative lack of sanitation, catering facilities were primitive to say the least. Imagine cooking-up a meal for twelve hungry boaters in this kitchen. But we ate well. I recall curries, hearty stews, the oh-so-sophisticated "sausages in cider"  and a cheese-and-potato concoction that went by the name of "Cheese Bleugh"

The guilty steerer with the rudder back at base.
We had to be hardy in other ways too. Before the days of mobile phones contacting the boatyard,
BW or anyone else to report problems wasn't very easy, especially when they occurred in the middle-of-nowhere.  Friday, 3rd January 1975 was one such day for the crew of Elm. An "alarm clock failure" led to a late start and then they damaged the boat's rudder by hitting a cill on Hurlestone Locks. They carried on to Barbridge Junction and rang the boatyard from there, but really there was no option but to carry on back to Middlewich, which they did fighting the steering all the way.

Then they broke a window and lost a mallet in the canal, although I don't know if these two things were related. Perhaps mindful of what was left of their deposit it was successfully retreived from a very cold cut.

The boats weren't fitted with weed-hatches and obstructions on the prop had to be cleared in the

traditional manner (albeit without the traditional skills) using a boathook, or when that failed by getting in the water!  (This wasn't a Willow Wren boat, but you get the idea).

Breaking the ice near Macclesfield
No way ahead at Congleton
The weather on most trips is remembered as wet and gloomy, one reason for the relative lack of photos. The short days meant setting off at - or before - dawn and continuing well after dark. 1975-6 was different however: Clear blue skies but very cold, especially on the Macclesfield Canal. After several days fighting our way through the ice to Marple only to find that our projected route around the rest of the Cheshire Ring was closed we fought our way back as far as Congleton where, for the only time we had to abandon the boats as we could make no further progress.  Mr Kearns at Middlewich wasn't
too bothered but he was very grateful when some of the crew offered to return the following weekend and bring the boats home. This no doubt saved him a great deal of trouble and the crew saw it as a free boat trip, so everyone was happy.

"Good" visibility
1972-3 was noted for another hazard: fog.  On the T&M north from Middlewich  visibility was almost non-existent. The original caption for this photo says "good visibility: bad visibility was half of this" and I remember as a steerer receiving instructions from a spotter on the bow, who I could not see, relayed to me by a second lookout amidships.  It's just as well, perhaps that no one else was on the move although the weather did make some rather eerie photos possible.  
Industry and fog over Northwich

I enjoyed my later boating on Starcross and I still enjoy an occasional trip on other people's boats but somehow nothing will ever recapture the sense of fun and adventure of those early years.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Those were the days.

As  I have mentioned on this blog before, some of my earliest experiences of the canals were in the form of hire boat trips in the 1970s, with fellow students from Salford and Newcastle Universities.

Recently, one of the fellow participants, who I haven't seen for many years, got in touch to share some of his photos from those days.  There have been a lot of changes since those days: to the canals, to hire boats and, dare I say, to the student population.

I thought I'd share some of them with the readers of this blog  starting with a few that show the living conditions aboard the boats.  We always hired from either Willow Wren at Rugby, Willow Wren Kearns (which later became Middlewich Narrowboats) or - for the more hardy amongst us - a camper from Union Canal Carriers at Braunston  (the early trips took place over the Christmas and New Year holidays, when prices were low and the cut was very quiet.)

To start with here is a fairly typical crew: This lot shared two 8 berth boats from Middlewich on a trip up the Llangollen Canal in 1974/5  (I was on a different boat this year, but third from the right is Hilary, who later became my partner - one of a number of matches made on those boats!)

New Year's Eve was always a highlight of the trips and invariably celebrated in a canalside pub (as was every other night). Here is Sycamore's crew warming up in 1975  at Tipton:

Sycamore was also the venue for New Year's Eve in 1977 at Barbridge Junction, before spending the rest of the evening in the Jolly Tar (now demolished).

These boats did not exactly offer luxury accommodation and with a full crew of 12 aboard were rather "cosy". There were no showers, or even any hot water, other than what you could boil in a kettle: the only "facilities" were a couple of toilets, that discharged into the cut!

We were definitiely not the "snowflake" generation and we certainly had to be resilient to survive the hardships of mid-winter on these boats - as I'll show you in my next post.