Friday, 12 July 2019

dry docking a narrowboat in Bradford on Avon

Back in March, my boat insurance renewal letter duly arrived; we have pleasure in offering, etc  etc...  and please send us the hull survey as mentioned last year.

As mentioned last year? I checked through the correspondence. Yup. No marks for observation there, Dru.

Canal boats more than 20 years old need a periodic survey of the hull to ensure that they're not just about to sink. They also need to come out of the water every now and then to renew the hull blacking,  either a bituminous paint or the more expensive and durable twin-pack epoxy, Mine was last done five years ago, when I first got the boat; and I've been not-quite-getting-round-to-it ever since.

This time though, it was essential. I phoned the insurers, who were willing to extend cover until I could get the survey done. Dry dock facilities on the Kennet and Avon Canal are all constantly busy and with long waiting lists. I was fortunate to get a cancellation slot at Bradford Wharf, a very congenial outfit run and administered by Ted, Iolo and Jassy. 

I went into the dock on Monday morning, the water gurgled away and there was Eve sitting on the blocks. Ted set to work with the pressure washer, removing the weed and mussels that had been hitching a ride for so long. Much trepidation on my part. What state would the sides be in? There's a fair amount of pitting, caused by galvanic action; a lot of this happened before I got the boat and it was in a marina, where this is always a problem, when boats are moored close to each other and plugged into shoreline mains electricity.

Lee Cudmore-Ray, the surveyor, arrived and set to work with his ultrasound tester. In time, the entire boat was adorned with chalky hieroglyphs. The verdict appeared to be that the hull's pretty sound, but there were a couple of spots where the pitting was quite deep, and Iolo duly filled them in with the welder.

Then Ted put on the first of three layers of blacking.

...and welded on two extra anodes on each side, equidistant between the ones fore and aft. Sacrificial anodes absorb the mischief that stray electricity wreaks on hulls, and die so that the boat might live. They are unsung heroes, out of sight below the waterline and so often out of mind.

After three coats of blacking and an overnight rest, the boat was ready for the water again.

...and we were back to that happy feeling of water under the hull. 

Monday, 1 July 2019

a recipe for making and cooking seitan

Seitan is a good protein food, similar to tofu and tempeh in its use as a meat alternative. Its main (and sometimes only) ingredient is wheat gluten, sold as 'vital wheat gluten'. It has a chewy texture similar to chicken. And it has little to no flavour of its own, so you need to add that, either as an ingredient or by marinading, or by both.

I added some gram (chickpea) flour. You don't have to; you can always try alternatives. But this is the recipe for what I did.


3 parts vital wheat gluten
1 part gram flour
heaped teaspoon of onion powder
small dash olive oil

marinade (in this case, a bottle of jerk seasoning because that's what they had in Sainsburys)


Mix the dry ingredients together, then add the dash of oil and stir in water to make a slightly sticky dough. Knead it; it very quickly becomes quite resilient and bouncy, in a way that you'll recognise if you're a bread maker.

Wrap the dough in foil, and steam it. I used a pressure cooker and steamed it under pressure for about 15 minutes. If you don't have a pressure cooker, maybe steam for an hour.

Take the steamed seitan out of the foil, and slice it

Marinade it. As I'm frugal, I pour the marinade on each slice then stack the next slice on top, and then wrap them all back into the foil to seal in the flavour (and keep the flies off, because I'm on a boat and there's lots of flies and no fridge)

Marinade for as long as you like; maybe overnight if you thought that far ahead. In this case, I left it for an hour.

Fry in oil over a fairly high heat. The seitan readily takes on a brown and crispy coat.

Serve. This was the first slice from the pan, and the first time I'd cooked seitan. It was good; a very nice chewy texture. The seasoning was OK, but I'm going to try to create a fuller flavour using tamari, tomato paste, maybe liquid smoke.

The hardest part for me was sourcing the vital wheat gluten. I tried nearly every wholefood shop in Bradford on Avon, Bath and Bristol and none of them had it. Then I found it in the local Co-Op. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

a surly hireboater

I moved the boat up to Bradford on Avon ready for the launch of Poets Afloat, of which more in the next post. And then I spent the weekend on the wharf, with my pictures and cards books set out, and the weather was hot (and rather uncomfortably humid), and everyone seemed to be out of sorts. So I made a few sales and met some nice people, but not very many. 

And then a hireboat moored next to me came adrift when the pin holding the stern line was tugged out by the pull of a passing boat; so I scrambled onto the bow, made my way aft and prepared to throw the line to Rustic Mark, who was passing. 

And as I swung it, I slipped and fell down the stairwell, and falling forward, narrowly avoided going overboard.

Hey ho. We got the boat secured anyway. 

The bloke who'd hired it returned some while later, and I happened to be out painting my bike. He gave me a very surly hello, so, not to be slighted, I said "Your boat came adrift; we repinned it."

"The ground's really loose here" he said, and that was his sole acknowledgement. 

He then went and pulled out the pin and hammered it in somewhere else. 

The next morning he set off, ordering his partner about in a very surly way indeed. She and I exchanged a few friendly remarks as she untied the bow rope; they're spending over a week more cruising. Sounds like hell for her.

An aching in my side got progressively worse. I guess I've gone and cracked a rib again. Bloody nuisance, because I'm due into dry dock in less than a fortnight, and was intending to do the blacking myself; but going by how I feel now and how I felt for ages last time this cracked rib business happened, I was seriously worried that I'd be able to do it, and it seems unfair to ask others to help when I'm not able to do much myself.

So I went and talked with Ted at the dry dock, and they'll be doing the job for me. 

The pics are from last year, and not my boat, by the way!

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

the Forbury Loop, Reading

I was asked to map the Kennet navigation in Reading, by Graham Puddephatt of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, to coincide with the advent of the KACT's new trip boat Matilda, and the Reading Water Fest. So I did, and here it is. There's a lot of history buried or otherwise hidden away in that bit of Reading. You can get a copy of the map from my Etsy shop here

...mind you, sometimes it seems like a Berkshire or Hampshire town that can't claim a connection with Jane Austen is the unusual one...

the old Simonds Brewery stables are still there, next to the County Lock

Sir John Knill was one of those awkward types who kept the navigation open in the dark days of British Waterways trying to run them down. His son Jenkyn is still highly active on the West End of the canal, here he is on Lady Lena, in Bathampton

...poor old Captain Scott. By the way, Burberry, who also feature on the map because they made trench coats for the British Army during the First World War, supplied Scott's successful rival Roald Amundsen. 

Friday, 14 June 2019

Poets Afloat - book launch

Thursday 20th June
The Lock Inn, Bradford on Avon, BA15 1LE

We'll be launching Poets Afloat, the new collection of canal poetry, on Thursday evening. There'll be readings from the poets (of course) and musical interludes from acclaimed duo Devil's Doorbell. The Lock Inn is a very congenial spot next to the Kennet and Avon Canal, and we'll be out in the garden (or under the pergolas if the weather's iffy). 

Free entry, of course. 

20% of profits from the book go to the Floaty Boat Fund

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

warbling in the night

work in progress

I was cruising up to Semington last month, and as I approached Marsh Farm near Hilperton I heard a sudden burst of birdsong. "A Cetti's warbler?" I wondered, and slipped the engine into neutral and coasted, listening intently. There was no repeat performance though.

Next morning I cycled down to Bradford on Avon to pick up the car, and paused for a while at Marsh Farm, but no Cetti's did I hear. Discussing it on the canal Facebook page, though, a friend moored at Whaddon, half a mile or so on from Marsh Farm, sent me a recording he'd made, and lo! It was a Cetti's warbler. The song is very distinctive; hugely emphatic, with an initial introductory note and a pause, like the HWAET that precedes an Old English poem, then a sudden quickfire burst of notes, repeated a few times.

Now I'm back down below Bradford, at one of my favourite spots; Horse Field, looking up from my desk at the hillside where at this moment two crows are swaggering about like Wild West gunslingers who've just done ridden into town, and the rabbits are keeping a wary eye on them; a few months ago I saw a crow attack and kill a rabbit over there, though the long grass spared me the gory details. Two mornings ago I glanced up to see a roebuck trotting down the hill towards me. 

It stepped into the copse at the bottom of the field and presumably stayed there all day. Unless you see where deer have holed up, you'll almost certainly be entirely unaware of their presence; three roe deer spent the day in the woods opposite the boat a while ago, and it was only because I saw them arrive that I could recognise the white tails and the occasional flicker of movement.

Last time I was here I'd heard a mysterious bird in the middle of the night (or at least it felt like that), and wondered for a while, then forgot about it. But I heard it again a few nights ago, and made a recording of it. It's quite far away, so you'll have to listen carefully. It's a Cetti's warbler. Two things stopped me identifying it the first time round; one was that the song is much shorter than the usual song, and the bigger one was that I had got used to the idea that there are no Cetti's warblers around here. Over the last few summers I'd only ever heard them east of the Bruce Tunnel, between Pewsey and Hungerford. Anyway, have a quick listen.

I do try not to make assumptions, but often fail, and the assumptions can get in the way of learning something new. Hence my failure to recognise this bird the first time I heard it. I did get annoyed when someone else did it to me a while ago on Twitter; when they mentioned the rarity of water voles I remarked on the number of times I've seen them on the canal, and she replied "lots of people think they've seen water voles when they're actually rats." Uh huh.

The brevity of its song here seems to be characteristic of it singing in the dark; it begins between 0230 and 0300, long before any other bird around here (though sedge warblers can and will sing all night). There's a handy site called xeno-canto, where you can hear all sorts of bird sounds, and a night-singing Cetti's in a recording there sounds just like the one I heard. In the daytime, by the way, it goes back to the full song, but it's so far away (down by the river) and so short and episodic, that it tends to get drowned out by the noise and bustle of the daytime canal.

On the mystery bird front, here's something that Liz Williamson heard at Stourhead. Had me flummoxed, but I wondered if it was a jay, because jays often mimic other birds; I've heard them do a convincing buzzard, heron, and even (in Bristol, near the zoo) howler monkeys. Behold, xeno-canto turned up a recording of a jay sounding just like this. What is it mimicking, though? -sounds like a Scops owl?

Monday, 20 May 2019

dropping a key down a grating

From Seend, it's an easy cycle ride into Devizes. And an even easier cycle ride back, as it's a long downhill past the Caen Hill locks. And as long as you can ride your bike back.

I was market day, so I browsed through the bric a brac at the Corn Exchange, then locked the bike outside the Shaw Trust charity shop. Coming back to it, I fumbled with the key, and dropped it down the grating that was in exactly the right place to accept it neatly.

I stared down the hole. There was a cone of nondescript grey stuff reaching nearly the top of a quite small space. I lifted the grating and lowered my foot gingerly, in case the grey stuff turned out to be guano.

It was solid concrete. I guess a builder had emptied their leftovers down there.

So I squeezed down into the hole, and reached around, feeling through the litter that had found its way down there. Couldn't find the key.

Tried getting back out. Couldn't get out.

By now a small but increasing crowd had gathered. A practical and helpful woman took my arm and heaved. She was joined on the other arm by a kindly polish chap. 

Eventually I emerged.

Smiles all round, except for an Elderly and Very Proper Lady who scowled at the inconvenience as she walked by.

Oh dear, how to get the bike and me back to the boat, a couple of miles away?

I'd passed the Wessex Rose hotel boat at the top of the Caen Flight about to descend it, and had an idea that I might be able to hitch a lift for the bike if I asked nicely. So I hitched the bike onto my shoulder and set off.

It got heavier and heavier by the yard, and the stops to change shoulders got more and more frequent.

Reaching the flight, I met an ex-boater I vaguely knew, who kindly offered a lift for me and the bike in his van, which was parked at the bottom of the flight. So we carried it between us. 

And so I got home, thankful for the kindness of strangers.