Thursday, 2 July 2020

Scary Creepy Conkwell Woods

Heading south from Bath on the Kennet and Avon Canal, you pass down the narrowing wooded valley of the Avon towards Bradford on Avon; and crossing the Dundas Aqueduct at Monkton Combe you enter the dark and overhanging trees of Conkwell Woods, or Scary Creepy Conkwell Woods as I like to call them.

On a winter's night, returning late to your boat in the freezing mist, your torch beam will light up the eyes of creatures in the woods looking back at you. They will almost always be deer and foxes, and they're almost certainly thinking "Will you turn OFF that ruddy torch? You've RUINED my night vision!"

Folk who like that sort of thing find even more spookiness than that around here, by talking about Sally in the Woods as a ghost wandering the hills, and going on paranormal hunting expeditions dressed in pith helmets with goggles on and so on. There are ancient things here in the woods, but the Sally in question was apparently a skirmish during the Civil War. But never mind. Not far away is Dead Maids. Owooooo!

On a sunny spring day the woods are carpeted with wild garlic, and lush with the new leaves of the ash and beech. And still you always you feel that something is watching you. And you'll be right.

So that's my new picture.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Three Hares Map of Devon 2020

Seven years after drawing my first Three Hares map, I thought it was time to have another go at it. So I have. Just like the previous one, it shows all the locations where the three hares can be found in Devon; the seventeen churches where they can be found in the roof bosses, and the pub in Lydford where they're in a stained glass window in the door. 

There's the mermaid from Cheriton Bishop church, and Peter Randall-Page's Granite Song sculpture sitting on an island in the Teign near Chagford.

And here's the Belstone Fox, and the circle cross in the church there. We walked across this bit last year while researching for the Archangel's Way, a new thing put together by Exeter Diocese; we also met Paul and Adrian, vicars of Chagford and Sourton respectively, who are part of the team putting it together. It was due to be launched this summer, but obviously things got in the way...

I've got the map in A4 and A3 sizes, and as large and small postcards. Here's a link to the A4 size on in my Etsy shop

Saturday, 20 June 2020

In which I meet the one-eyed dog of Caen Hill

In the pre-dawn half-light I was listening to the rain and looking at an alarming weather forecast.

I've been cruising up from Bradford on Avon towards Devizes, in company with Sebastiene and Louise and their young son Indra. We'd reached Sells Green the day before, which is a good starting point for a day's ascent of the Caen Hill locks, and we had friends on standby to help. It was not looking good; on the Met Office phone app, all day there was a black cloud with two raindrops coming from it, and a yellow warning of thunderstorms. I conferred with Sebastiene, next door, and called off the helpers.

Presently though, Seb suggested that we might just as well go up the first few locks to be ready in Rowde for the main flight today.

So we did.

It was an early start, so early that the fisherman in his little tent by the waterpoint at Sells Green must have been fast asleep, so that he could hear neither my Big Noisy Engine nor my shouts and whistling as I approached. He suddenly leapt out as my bow fouled his lines, and dashed around like a mad thing as I pulled alongside, trying to decide whether he should be righteously indignant (which is, after all, the natural state for anglers). “Looks like you caught the big one!” I said.... I went astern and he finally freed up his line and pulled out a big branch that he'd also managed to catch. Amazing what you can find down there. I gave him a cheery wave and sailed on.

The rain had that unusual quality of being very persistent, but curiously undampening. So after a stop for breakfast, we pushed on, the two boats lashed together and me driving, and Seb dashing to and fro preparing the locks. Louise was down below, looking after young Indra.
Ian Powell took this pic as we passed...
We were the only boats moving, and it was really quite relaxing; not a breath of wind to get the boats crabbing; the clearance between the combined boats and the lock entrances is a matter of inches, and you really don’t want to go pranging the buttresses. Bad for the brickwork, bad for the hull.

Entering the locks, I put a bit of stern way on to slow the boats right down then dashed up the lock ladder to stop them entirely with the centreline belayed to a bollard. Doing it at one lock I leapt up the ladder to be confronted with a large, startled and very shouty dog. “He’s only got one eye” said the woman whose creature it was. Thank you very interesting. Like ITS ALLRIGHT HES ONLY BEING PLAYFUL in terms of usefulness when your dog is attacking someone.

Hey ho.

Three locks short of the top, the rain changed its mind and became the extremely wet sort. 

Gongoozlers sheltered under the trees entertaining themselves with our antics. "How long would it take you to get from Bristol to Reading?" asked one of them, as I finished winding up one of the paddles. This is a dangerous sort of question, because it distracts me from the not-so-obvious but vitally important task of keeping an eye on the boats in the lock as they rise; any snag and you've got to shut off the water rushing in, as quickly as possible. Boats can sink in locks, and regularly do. 

"About a week to ten days" I said. It's probably completely wide of the mark, but at least it weas an answer. It then got me estimating it in my head; Bristol to Bath one day; Bath to Semington one day; Semington to Devizes if you're really keen, one day... 

Here’s a pyramidal orchid. Never seen one before but I saw the shape and thought Aha a pyramidal orchid. I must go back down and get a better picture. When I'm recovered.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

in praise of the house martin


The may’s in blossom and at last the summer’s starting;
we watch for the first swallow to confirm to us it’s made,
but fail entirely to remark the sober, modest martin.

The screaming swifts put all their soul and heart in
to devil-take-the-hindmost zooming high-speed escapades
that graze the blossoms of the the summer’s starting;

while fluttering swallows twitter over linhays, byres and bartons,
their long forked tails that trail behind so gracefully displayed;
a panache absent from our dumpy chum the martin,

whose burbling call sounds vaguely like some woodland creature farting,
or a creaky hinge that cries for WD40 to be sprayed
while swinging wildly open to let in the summer’s starting.

They gather on the river bank, collecting mud and carting
it up to the eaves of houses where their nests are all arrayed,
like little muddy beehives, bustling colonies of martins

And it’s cheerful as all heck until the time comes for departing,
and the eaves return to silence where the absent broods were laid.
Frost blossoms on the windows and we yearn for summer’s starting,
returning us the swallow; and, of course, the humble martin.

A friend was asking after poems about swallows, swifts and martins, and remarked that there weren't that many about martins. 

So I said I'd write one.

By the way, the picture of Crofton that illustrates this is now available in my Etsy shop, as is this one about canal cuisine...

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

when you wish upon a bug

my new picture; a red kite over Crofton pumping station
I was worried that I'd been oversensitive about the Mansplainer yesterday; maybe I'd imagined it?

He and his partner had popped round for a bike. They're stuck on the canal because of the lockdown and I'm lending them one, that I rescued from the bins. It's basically sound but with a couple of things need sorting. And I'd been told he's practical.

I'm showing them the bits of the bike that need a bit of fettling and he starts explaining it to me. I'd had one of Those Days and thought O just SHUT UP.

Maybe I'd imagined it...

Fortunately he came back to set my mind at rest.

Fair play, he's happy to have a go at the mechanical side of things; they'd got hold of a second bike and set off for Bath; but a perished tyre burst, so they returned, holding the hole in the tyre together with gaffer tape.

So I dug out a tyre.

He said in passing; "I moved the brake lever on the folding bike over to the back brake, cos it's safer" (one of the brake levers was broken, you see)

"Oh!" said I; "I was always told with motorbikes that you should use 70% front brake and 30% rear, unless it's wet in which case 50/50"

He paused. "...yeah,'s different on motorbikes. They've suspension ...on the front?"

I may have raised an eyebrow just a little.

Never mind, it was worth it for the entertainment value.

Up on the Wharf, I finished installing the bilge pump in someone's cruiser stern engine bay. It needed a fuse in the circuit, and I'd not plumbed in the overboard discharge because I wanted to get the water out safely; to do that you pump it into a 25L drum, let it settle, then syphon off the water *if* there's any oil on the top. I'd got about 125L of water out, and thought that would do for the moment; the council dump is closed, and there's nowhere to dispose of dirty oil at the moment.

But you need an operational bilge pump, especially on a cruiser stern, in case there's a flooding in the engine bay.

Anyway, I finished the job, and he was v cheerful about it in a slightly-three-sheets-to-the-wind sort of way. I cautioned against using the pump other than in an emergency.

As I left he was clicking it on and off, happy as Larry and for all the word like Eeyore with his toy balloon.

The gnats are getting very bad. At bedtime I found them swarming into the cabin out of the engine room through the gap in the door, like bats out of a cave in an Indiana Jones movie. There are bats coming out of caves in an Indiana Jones movie, aren't there? If not, I'm sure there ought to be. Anyway, I defended myself stoutly with the electric tennis racquet, and in consequence must have looked like Gandalf or possibly Hermione, waving their wand furiously with sparks erupting like fireworks all over the place as each gnat exploded, little shooting stars with an aftersmell of roast bug. As Neil Young said, it's better to burn out than to fade away, especially if you're fading away on the fly paper in the galley.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

playing with nightingales

Listening to Sam Lee duetting with a nightingale on Radio 3 yesterday, I was inspired to join in the fun. So here is my own delightfully tasteful hommage to Beatrice Harrison, whose cello playing in the Sussex woods for the BBC in the 1920s started this whole thing off. It became something of a tradition, and when a recording was begun one night in 1942, a formation of RAF bombers on their way out to Germany flew over to add to the mix, a poignant sound you can hear here.

Maybe I'll duet with the nightingale again this evening, playing my bugle; or at least, blowing it. I can't really play it. Tan-ta-rah!
There’s something about the nightingale’s song
that makes folk determined to play along;
like, say, Beatrice Harrison’s cello on the BBC
and then those RAF bombers on their way to Germany;
or that piano orchestration from Olivier Messiaen
Which was musically interesting but a rotten impressiaen.
Still, good, bad or indifferent, they all fail
to make an impression on the nightingale,
who sings for ears that are not human at all;
if there’s no-one in the forest where its song falls
does it make a sound? Oh, bless;
the answer's an enormous yes.

(from Drawn Chorus, my alphabet of birds)

Sunday, 26 April 2020

stop all the dandelion clocks

Spencer and Victoria came by again on the coal boat, though their biggest sales on this run were charcoal and potting compost. Boat people are digging vegetable gardens and potting up tomato plants with the sole purpose of convincing Respectable Walkers that we’re all growing dope. There are plans to have a sunflower growing competition too.

I look across the water to the Horse Field in hopes of seeing deer or foxes, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but these are on and off things, and it’s harder to note the smaller changes; the cowslips which proliferate across the top of the field and are a yellow constellation from where I sit, though I know they’re now starting to run to seed. The trees are still getting leafed up; the ash came before the oak, but the oak trees have filled out far more over the last fortnight, fresh bright leaves that you can make a surprisingly nice wine with. Who on earth thought of that?

All along the edge of the towpath the dandelion heads are stopped clocks waiting for the wind. The air is stillas anything, and when a jogger or cyclist pass at speed, grunting and panting, a second or two passes and then you feel the wake of them hitting you and you hold your breath for a little while to keep the germs out.

But this morning there’s nobody about but me

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

cockle bread

Halcyon days, now wars are ending
You shall find where'er you sail
Tritons all the while attending
With a kind and gentle Kale.

A bit of Purcell there, from the Tempest, lightly adapted to suit the leaf of Cavolo Nero that went by in the morning. I always found the idea of a kind and gentl gale amusing, especially when listening to this tune as we butted through just such a gale in the Western Approaches or indeed Biscay.

Over on the canal facebook group there was alarm and consternation from one poster who saw some cauliflower leaves float by. Fair play, who likes cauliflower at the best of times?

Down here on the West End we get a better class of vegetable in the rich Minestrone of the canal. It turned out that a neighbour was shaking a slug off this particular stalk and inadvertently dropped the whole thing into the canal.

Breadmaking is of course de rigeur in these lockdown days, and today I divided the dough into two and added mixed fruit into one half. I dusted them with rice flour to stop them sticking too much. The result was really rather good, even if it did look a bit like an arse.

Out and about with the volunteers, delivering food parcels and stuff. 

Observe Blake's Proverb of Hell on the side of the boat there. 

Later, a quick dash to the Wharf to bandage up someone's nasty gash (they slipped on the side of the boat). 

I put my Marigold gloves on, and my Darth Vader respirator. "There's no need for that", said the patient; "I've not got the bug".

"It's to protect you from me" I said; "You don't know where I've been"

Emerging back onto the towpath I see two friends sitting outside their boat enjoying an evening beer. Mr and Mrs Thornproof have paused in their walk to stand looking angry and outraged at this flagrant display of Fun. Unfortunately, the display was only observed by me. Hopefully they will have gone home to spend an agreeable evening write angry letters to the Daily Mail, and best of luck with that.

Monday, 20 April 2020

a jammed propellor

Sharon and Mark's water tank was running low so they set off for the water point, first turning at the winding hole. They'd got the bow into the inlet, when the engine faltered and suddenly stopped. I wandered up to see what was going on.

Something had jammed the prop. Unfortunately, unlike on a narrowboat where there's a weed hatch above the prop to allow you to reach down and examine the prop, this boat, a Broads cruiser, has no hatch and a prop recessed under the hull too far in to reach without diving.

Marc resignedly scrambled down in borrowed waders which had a hole in them, though the hole didnt really matter because the water came over the top anyway. Jim prepared a harpoon in case a great white whale should appear.

The narrative arc ground to a halt at this point, because prodding and probing was to no avail. Jim volunteered to dive down and clear it in exchange for a week's supply of sherry. Sharon did some rapid mental calculations and looked startled.

But they tried easing it into gear a few times and eventually whatever it was down there cleared, and they were on their way victorious.

From George's camp came the melodious bonging of one of those steel drum things.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

lockdown on the canal

The canal, or at least its resident population, is on lockdown, one of the terms that's entered our vocabulary over the last couple of weeks, like 'social distancing', that curious free-form version of country dancing that we practice without music.

So I minimise my trips out, other than the patrols I do as part of a team of volunteers, to keep an eye on vulnerable boaters.

But yesterday I cycled up to Claverton to drop off books, badges and cards, and to do a bit of bicycle fettling. And to say hello to friends along the way.

Sunday, 29 March 2020


With the canal in sort-of-lockdown, the towpath is pretty quiet. The Canal and River Trust has issued a notice asking people not to use it unless absolutely necessary. This request has been unnoticed or ignored by lots of folk, and some local boaters have erected additional signage to draw folk's attention to the official notice. And this in turn has created hostility with some folk from the local town, Bradford on Avon, who resent our apparent freedom and what they see as a careless outdoor life - I see a commentator on a local press article criticises us for 'having barbecues' when the only outdoor cooking that I've seen has been by Sherry Jim, who's run out of gas and hasn't got a proper cooker, so is cooking on a fire at the side of his boat... but there we go, 'the worst are filled with a passionate intensity'. A neighbour reports that a local runner has taken to spitting at her boat as he passes. And on the other hand, some boaters have shouted at passers-by, boaters and non-boater alike. It has created upset.

On a more positive note, welfare systems are being set up in both formal and informal ways. The canal chaplains are busy distributing food and fuel. Julian House's boater outreach workers (who are themselves boaters) have been organising, with the canal divided into zones and coordinators for each of them, and local volunteers doing the footwork. Boats have been provided with coloured cards to put in the window. Green card, everything OK; amber card, please call; red card, assistance needed. 
My new map was done just in time to be useful!

Before the arctic winds blew up, having us run for shelter, we sat outside at a safe distance apart and duetted on our flutes. Helen Jenner is the good one, on the alto flute. My bum notes are due to the cider.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

la vraie liberté c’est le vagabondage

This is my latest painting. It's a view from the boatman's cabin of a narrowboat, looking out to the Vale of Pewsey. You can get a copy of it here in my Etsy shop.

It's inspired by a poster that a friend had on her wall about 40 years ago, with a view of the Pyrenees through a window. I put the poster in the painting, there on the bulkhead on the left. Here it is, look; you can still get a copy from Editions Fricker

...and here's the picture evolving, from the first inking onwards