Monday, 2 May 2016


May Day dawned with something new in the sky. The high cirrus cloud had a rainbow in it. I tried to share my excitement with a passing jogger, who shrugged and returned to his Jogperson. Chris emerged from the neighbouring boat, and declared it auspicious. This sort of cloudy rainbow thing has a name, but I'm not quite sure what. Cloudy rainbow thing.

It was the day for Ted and Jassy's handfasting. The day before, the towpath had been a ferment of activity as they and their helpers scurried about making preparations for the civil ceremony. Ted tried and failed to get his Landrover running, so we drove to Trowbridge registry office in the Traveller. It turns out they know lots of those 1930s novelty songs that I'm so fond of too, and the journey was a bit of a singalong.

The hand fasting was a much more upbeat thing, in a field above the Avon valley. It was the first time I've been to a hippy boaty wedding, as it were, and it was terrific and moving. And I feel very lucky to be mixed up in such a fine community.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

bloody funny otter

It was time to move on from Bathampton. We set off in a loose convoy, Netty and me; they preferred a more relaxed pace, and my boat has a big prop so even when idling it draws ahead. So they fell astern, and saw the muntjac that I missed. But they saw the fox at Limpley Stoke that I too saw, prowling around this warren. It was only a field away from where, two years ago, I saw a fox take a rabbit and go off perkily trotting up the steep road with dinner clamped in its jaws.

Approaching Diggers, an unusual animal swam down the side of the boat. I wondered if it might possibly be an otter- it was too big for a mink, and very grey. Most odd. It looked to be in trouble- had it been injured by someone's prop? -I went hard astern and secured the boat. The creature was by now floating still in the middle of the canal. I threw a bight of rope round it and hauled it to the side, then hoiked it out by the ears.

 It was a rabbit. I was too late to save it, but by the gunk in its eyes and the blood in its ears, I guess it had myxamotosis anyway.

There were other adventures on the way to Avoncliff, but they were too exciting for me to have time to take photos. Helpful pedestrians, don't put your thumbs up as I approach an aqueduct, apparently indicating that the way ahead is clear, so that I turn the blind corner to see a hireboat bearing down on me. Thank you.

Early next morning I cycled back to pick up the car, setting off just as the sun was casting long low beams down the trees' tunnel.

The crows had found a nest...

Spencer and Victoria on the coal boat had tied up at Dundas Basin, on their delivery run down to Bath (I'd already had my gas and diesel from them the evening before).

The dead rabbit had disappeared; presumably scavenged. Better than floating in the canal anyway; sometimes in the summer you will pass long-dead things bloated with corruption and stinking.

And it was the sort of morning when it seemed wrong to be indoors. Unless you were the lads on the hireboat whom I passed, stumbling frowstily onto the towpath clutching breakfast cans of Stella. Maybe they should have stayed indoors. "When every prospect pleases, and only man is vile..."

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

never mind then, willow warbler


In the dawn stillness the mist hung heavy in the valley, beading the spiders' webs that loop between all the brambles and bracken of the towpath hedge. I took my big mug of tea with condensed milk in, and walked towards the song of the willow warbler that only began singing properly yesterday.

There it was, in its favourite tree. I slowly brought the camera up; it would have been such a good picture with the rising sun right behind it.

It bounced away. Willow warblers are like that; flighty, uncooperative, ever so slightly passive aggressive- that song of theirs, beautifully melancholy though in an "I'm all right really, don't worry about me, no, no, I'll just sit here then" sort of way.

A little further on, the song thrush was greeting the sun, which perhaps makes it a brightling thrush. I managed to get a photo...


..before it dived out of sight.

Yesterday I talked to Roger McGough on the phone. As you do. I'd put in a request to Poetry Please.... four years ago.... it was for Deborah Harvey's poem about starlings (and families) that I really rather like. Well, obviously, or I wouldn't have requested it. Judge for yourself, gentle reader.

Monday, 11 April 2016

dodgems on the canal

Hireboat antics at Digger's, between Dundas aqueduct and Claverton on Saturday.

There have been a few instances of hireboats colliding with moored boats, already this year; and boats going far too fast, so that mooring pins are pulled out as they pass. It is true that not all who hire boats are bad, and that not all who are bad are hirers; but there is a definite problem with antisocial behaviour by hireboaters on the canal system.


Sunday, 10 April 2016

birdwatching without the beard

what does bear garlic do in the woods?

Cycling through Conkwell woods on my way home, I passed Kevin walking his dog. So I stopped, and noticed that the ramsons had begun to flower. The woods and the steep bank down to the Avon are carpeted with wild garlic. I dropped down towards the flowers, and slipped on the mixture of mud and shiny leaves. There'd been a lot of rain earlier. So I aimed at a tree and did a sort of controlled fall at it, which saved me from ending up who knows where.

Scrambling laboriously back up, I passed through great wafts of garlicky pong. "It's not real garlic, though," said Kevin.

"Isn't it?" I wondered; "There's all sorts of garlics and onions." I thought of the round headed leeks and keeled garlic we used to find on the Bristol Downs, and one whose sole habitat is apparently St Vincent's Rock by the Clifton suspension bridge (though I've found it elsewhere...)

With a smartphone, the internet is seldom very far away, and of course you can trust the internet.
So I looked it up. "Gosh, bear garlic" I said- its latin name is Allium Ursinium. "I suppose it's very handy for them, given what they famously do in the woods."

I love this time of year when everything is speeding up towards summer; it's getting hard to keep up with all the new things, though. Last week I heard a few tantalising notes suggestive of a blackcap; two days of that, and it had warmed up its vocal chords enough to go for a full song. It's been the same with the chiffchaffs a few weeks ago, and as I write this a chiffchaff is in the hazel tree right opposite my window, alternating its song with little fluttering flights. And yesterday I was sure I'd heard a whitethroat, though again only briefly and tentatively.

the first cuckoo pint

I stoked up the fire, because the day had never quite got warm. Presently the sun came out, and in the brief lull before the evening chill set in, I set to making a tortilla for dinner with my nice neighbours. Taking the potato peelings out, I noticed a white bird on the hill across the valley. The binoculars told me nothing much more than that it was a big white bird. But it didn't look very seagully. I set up the camera and watched.
After a while it flew across the field, and landed in a conifer. Its flight revealed decided bird of prey wings, with black bars on them. An osprey? I wondered. A passer-by wondered what I was looking at. When I told him, he explained to me that it couldn't possibly be an osprey, and looked at me as though I were simple.

Reader, he had a beard.

in the trees at the top of that far hill...
the mystery bird
Mind you, when I finally found my big book of birds, a hen harrier seems the likeliest contender.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

not being touristy

You can't keep a good goat down. After their escapade on the aqueduct, they'd been rounded up by their nominal owner. And on Sunday morning they were outside the boat, delicately nibbling brambles, breakfast of champion goats.

I moved the boat down to moor alongside the Dawdling Dairy, and put out my pictures. So visitors could go for ice cream, storytelling, coffee, bike repairs and art, either separately or all at once.

It was a good day, notwithstanding a small group of the cravat-wearing classes sneering their way by, remarking 'It's very touristy round here' as they glanced dismissively at my pictures. I reminded myself that the english middle class is essentially both philistine and anti-life, and was cheered immensely by a chap from California who enthused over my canal pictures, and bought two prints! 

On board Nettie

He'd recently bought some prints by Eric Gaskell, so my pictures will be hanging in distinguished company.... 

As the sun set, Sarah splashed along in her new rowing boat and we went adventuring in Conkwell woods, collecting kindling for her stove. On a rotten stump, the leaves of bluebells had been nibbled right down by the deer, whose dietary preferences are evidently rather more gentle than those of the goats.

Sarah dropped me home and rowed away as the first owl began hooting. 

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Cynddylan revisited


The weather's making up for the long dry spell; the towpath is quagged and trench foot is never too far away. Coming over from Bristol yesterday afternoon (I'd taken Boat Teenager out to see an exhibition, but she was too ill for galleries so we ate pasties and went to charity shops instead. For that is how we roll) -a sudden hailstorm engulfed us, and overwhelmed the windscreen wipers. Admittedly the windscreen wipers are very easily overwhelmed, and often need encouragement to get going; I lean out and coax them. But that isn't practicable on the Kenysham bypass, and neither is pulling over. 

I made it to the Waitrose car park, though. And presently when I set off again, I passed three different car prangs, one involving three cars. Would you describe them as accidents, or just the result of people driving like idiots when the weather demands care?

Presently I was back on the boat and the sun came out, and the nuthatches were piping away in the woods. 

There was a strange noise outside. I looked out. It was Jim in his new boat. He'd approached in silence, with an electric outboard motor. He glid around in odd circles, looking as pleased as anything. He reminded me of Cynddylan on his tractor, and it was RS Thomas' birthday too.

As the sun dropped to the hills across the valley, the tide of shadow rose through the woods above me, and the woodsmoke rose placidly.