Thursday 26 May 2016


One day, you hear a few errant notes of birdsong and think "surely that was a reed bunting?" -and then it shuts up and you tell yourself that it was only warming up, and maybe tomorrow it will be singing lustily and with good cheer. 

And so it comes to pass. And all along the towpath at Sells Green, that next May morning, the reed buntings were singing their slightly ragged but melodious monotones, obligingly perched in the tops of bushes, the better for us to admire their black balaclavas and white silk scarves.

It was time to be moving on, though. We moved down to the water point to refill our tanks. As I faffed around with the ropes, a vaguely familiar boat glad slowly under the bridge. It was Henry, who I'd last seen last summer, when he was heading up to a marina beyond Devizes. He has sufficient health problems to make getting on and off the boat difficult, which is why he took up a place in a marina. But, as he said at this reunion, "I tunnelled out. Bloody water kept getting into the tunnel, mind...". Some folk like living in marinas. Electricity, facilities, not having to move around all the time, knowing that if you look out of your window you'll see someone else's window looking back at you.... Henry mentioned a visit from a mutual acquaintance, an outreach worker for the traveller community, who came to see him at the marina. She was refused access by the manager, because he didn't like the look of her... other friends were ejected from a marina because they were expecting a child, and the marina didn't want kids around the place... it is not a lifestyle I would choose either. 

As I waited for the tank to fill and chatted with Henry, I saw a water beetle grazing the weed on the hull of my boat, like one of those cows you see in steep Devon fields that look like cow wallpaper. I'd not seen this sort of beetle before, so got a jam jar and looped it in, but messed up the sloping and squashed the beetle slightly, enough at least to kill it. Whoops. I felt bad about it, though not as bad as the beetle felt, presumably.

We went up through the locks from Foxhangers to the base of the Caen Flight; we lashed the two boats together and I drove while Chris and Jinny operated the locks. It's fun to do when it goes right, but it's a worry when someone entrusts their home to your tender mercies... We were back in kingfisher country, and one would zip by every now and then: further down the canal from Foxhangers onwards, they seem to desert the canal in the summer, preferring the nearby Avon, which parts company with the canal as we ascend.

In the basin at the foot of the lock flight a couple of boats were already moored; a hireboat stopping for the night before descending, and a tiny aluminium Sea Otter that was inconveniently moored slap bang in the middle of the moorings. There was enough room for Netty there, so they went alongside as I tied up against the much higher wall immediately before the lock. I wandered down to Netty. Chris was talking with the bloke off the Otter. I asked how long his boat was- "twenty feet" - and considered whether it might fit in a lock with our two boats. He was very strongly of the opinion that it wouldn't. "It's the sill, you see..." he explained, because obviously I needed locks explaining, silly giddy me. He went inside and closed the curtains. The tall pole on the foredeck with the television ariel on top told us that he had important things to do.

Chris said she'd asked him if he'd move his boat to allow me to come alongside and he'd told her that he was quite happy where he was. We agreed that we'd far rather not share the flight experience with him...

I was up with the dawn, drinking tea on the back deck, doing a roll call of the birds and catching up on my Facebook status - tightening the coupling

...and tidying up the ropes and poles on the upper deck. Shortly after, a man with salt and pepper hair and chingrowth marched by with a purposeful gait. He wore a lifejacket and carried a boathook.

It was our neighbour, fearful lest I was preparing for the flight.

He swung open the bottom lock gate, and his wife chugged their little boat in, fouling the fenders so that he had to faff around with the boathook to get it through. Then he closed the gate. And they waited for the lock keeper to arrive to unlock the paddles so they could fill the lock.

"He really didn't want to share that lock!", we agreed...

Just as well. Come eight o'clock, they were off and away, Sea Otter man marching in the arms-akimbo way of the consciously important. And our friends were arriving to help us up the locks.

It was a good ascent. "Lock story" said Jinny. 

"What's that?" I asked.

"Every time up the flight has a story to it," she explained. "Today it was Otter man".

And so it was.

Saturday 21 May 2016

lots of locks


Now that Seend Bridge is repaired and the way to Devizes is clear, and now that the hireboats are busy on the lower West End of the Kennet and Avon canal, the heights of the Vale of Pewsey are looking jolly attractive as a destination or a waypoint, to those boaters who've been cooped up by closures over the winter.

So yesterday a bunch of us turned out to help some friends up the locks to Devizes. There's twenty-seven in total, which makes for an energetic day, and they include the spectacular Caen Flight, a staircase of sixteen locks one immediately after the other.

we have tea and cake before the Big Push
...and by the top, we were all weary, achy and hungry. Fortunately, the chip shop was open. Fish and chips is always a good way to end that sort of day.

nearly there! Nipper'll be getting the ukulele out in a minute, mark my words

Tuesday 17 May 2016

at Giles Wood


It was time to move on from Horse Field- we'd been there nearly two weeks, and a continuous cruiser- for that is what I am, dear reader- must stay no longer than a fortnight in any place. It's no hardship, especially on a bright May morning. At eight o'clock sharp, the crew of Netty and I fired up our engines, cast off, and passed up through the Bradford Flight. Bradford Wharf gave us the opportunity to empty our toilet cassettes and fill the water tanks, which is always a relief after a couple of weeks, when you've been playing shower roulette (will the water run out before you've finished? Hurry! Hurry!).

As I passed the picturesque Airsprung mattress factory in the suburbs of Trowvewgas, a long straight stretched before me, clear of moored boats. So I opened up the throttle a bit. A pulsing rumble appeared, that I haven't heard before-  rumrumrumrum RUMRUMRUMRUM rumrumrumrum RUMRUMRUMRUM- like that. I throttled back. There was a clattering from somewhere below me. I put the gearbox into neutral, then blipped astern for a short while, as it sounded as though something had fouled the propellor. Going ahead, the noise was gone. But it kept reappearing. I worried. Either there was a lot of debris in the canal, not entirely impossible in Trowvegas, or there was a problem developing. 

Nothing more likely to preoccupy me on a slow voyage, than the slightest changes in engine noise. At Semington I moored up and waited for Netty to catch up; they'd stopped at the boatyard in Hilperton to get some fuel. It gave me a chance to examine the various things between the engine and the propellor that go round and round. Everything seemed in order. I took off the weed hatch, and felt my way around the propellor. Clear.

Journey's end was a little beyond Semington, at Giles Wood, a lovely spot. I deep cleaned the bathroom; at Horse Field I'd been infested with gnats, and they'd died in droves in the bathroom. The flypaper hanging by the window had over 200 gnats stuck to it after a single day. Yes, I counted them.  The floor and the bath were littered deep with the ones who'd perished by the flyspray. I brushed them up, then disinfected everything, then did it all again, to be on the safe side. Then I showered, and did a wash, and finally started to feel clean again.

We were moored by the swingbridge. A row of willows overhangs the canal by the bridge mooring, and a great willow trunk had fallen, blocking off two thirds of the canal's width. It made for entertaining watching as hireboats tried to negotiate the tree and the mooring and the bridge. But something needed doing, and so why not do it? -A post on the canal Facebook group got Rick and Steve on the case, and on Saturday morning they turned up, both armed with a chainsaw to augment the one I've got too. I backed up the boat to the tree, tied it off, and we progressively lopped it and towed it to the landing, where we could hoist it out and cut it up. Great fun, but we were far too occupied to get a picture of the more dramatic moments. Boats, chainsaws, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing, as it turned out.
Rick and Steve cut up the fallen willow

I was still worrying about that bloody rattling in the engine area. A bit of internet research suggested that it may have been the flexible coupling, between the engine and the gearbox, starting to fail. So I downloaded the manual for the gearbox and considered. And worried.

And then I had another look around, and noticed a bolt lying under the prop shaft, in a barely-accessible place under the boatman's cabin between the engine room and the back end. The bolt had fallen off the universal joint that connected the drive shaft to the last bit of shaft that goes out through the stern gland to the propellor. The other bolts were loose. 

I cut an access hole in the floor, and replaced the fallen bolt, and tightened the others. Then I ran the engine on test. It seems to have cured the problem. 

So I was free to enjoy the early morning.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

don't count your ducklings

It's always a mistake to enumerate your ducklings;
So many of their mickles fail to make it to a muckling.
When their mum swims by with a feathery flotilla
Of little bobbing humbugs, remember that they've still a
Sticky time ahead of them as canap├ęs and finger food
For herons, crows, and foxes- indeed, anything that's in the mood.
Could you swear you just saw something where the local pike just made a wave?
Don't think too much about it, now; a duckling simply won't be saved.


Sunday 8 May 2016

that petrichor emotion

why would a bluetit nest be in an abandoned bag? Why not?

We popped out when the first drops
tapped the water’s surface, ever so polite.
A glider’s wings bowed as it took its tight,
curved flight to keep the lift. The rain had stopped. 
Climbing, the glider faded into cloud.
A buzzard mewed. The church bells
pealed, though muted by the trees; the swelling
blackbirds’ song was no less loud, 
though out of time, this afternoon
so long before the dusk; they knew
what we would learn; it’s not too soon
for singing, when a storm is due. 
And then it poured; but as we dashed,
The warm earth's breath said May, at last.
Such a hot day yesterday! Everyone was out doing. A red kite drifted over. Then a thunderstorm hit. After I'd got all my pictures under cover, I tried to write a poem describing the first time this year I'd smelt that smell you get when it rains on warm roads and paths. It's been given the name petrichor, which I suppose is a composite of the greek words for stone and the blood of the gods. But I don't like it.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

corncrakes for breakfast

willow warbler song

Early one morning, just as the sun was ri-i-sing, I finished doing my stretching exercises and walked as quietly as you like along the towpath, to where a willow warbler was singing. I had my binoculars and camera with me, because hey, why not?

I'll tell you why not.

Beardy bloke walking his spaniel stops and booms WHAT'S THE EXCITEMENT?

It's a willow warbler


They may be special to each other...


And on he went, preening as he sauntered.

We made up other unlikely conjunctions of birds later. THE BLUE TIT IS THE POOR MANS CORNCRAKE and so on. 

Poor poor man.

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..."