Friday, 30 July 2010

Brian's News

I'm told we're leaving Stourport tomorrow. Well actually I wasn't told - they never tell me anything - I just guessed because we've moved down into the Basin.
A shame because I've enjoyed my few days patrolling the towpath by the lock. I've seen off some bigger dogs who strayed on my turf and I made a couple of chums too. My best pal was a little terrier called Foxy - we had a good sniffing session and run about every day. And even though he's another chap, we hit it off rather well. (I heard the humans making a few sarcastic comments about that - typical! They don't realise that you can be nothing more than friends, do they.)
I had my own fan club here too. A family on holiday with three sweet little children who rushed up and stroked me every time I was outside. And even when I was in my bed I'd hear them say "that's where Brian lives." It's a shame but we were out on a walk when they left so I never got a chance to lick them goodbye.
So another day, another town. I'd better store up some wee overnight so I can get my territory marked out as soon as we moor up.
Oh, and I hear we're going on a river too - I bet that means that ruddy life jacket thing again.

Charity begins on the bookshelves

Like most itinerant boaters the first stop in a new town is its shopping centre - not to trudge round Primark or M&S but hit the charity shops. And Mission One in these is the bookshelves.
If you're a bloke, that is, since we take it as a given that virtually any men's clothing will be either worn out or well out of fashion before we're prepared to give it away. Mrs B, on the other hand, almost invariably manages to find some clothing bargain, as women seem so much more profligate at chucking stuff out. (Or maybe they just buy so much more and, in the words of the marketing men, the 'churn' is greater.)
But back to the books. Sometimes there are dozens and dozens of 'em. How do you pick a winner? It can be as tricky as picking a winner in a horse race. Here's the way I do it. I skim rapidly across the shelves. My eyes pass over anything with pale blues or pink covers and swirling tyography - definitely romances or light comedies - I stop at those with bold, chunky typography - men's stuff; crime and thrillers - but don't linger too long on those with embossed silver or gold - usually the sign of a poorly written 'train ride' read.
A few things will jump out. Then it's the back cover synopsis. Detectives with drink problems or broken marriages go back on the shelf. (I know the best of these - Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke - and I don't want to waste time on copycat others.) So too do those with any of the other cliched issues - tragic secrets, lost loves, SAS plots, terrorism etc etc.
All too often my browse leaves me with nothing new and it's time to go back and look for the regular favourites - Patrick O'Brien, James Lee Burke, James Ellroy and various others. A couple of pacey thrillers if I've just ploughed my way through a heavyweight maybe. Or vice versa.
Or maybe I pick a classic - Hemmingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls was a tough rad but worth it, Wilkie Colins' The Moonstone an entertaining Victorian melodrama. And Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) was a stunner. Written over 50 years ago its tale of a society that burns books foresaw a future where everyone walks around wearing earpiece radios playing music, where entertainment is quiz shows with easy answers, where communication has been so condensed and condensed it now rarely takes more than a minute or a paragraph to put something across and where mass media has become bland because of a need not to offend any of a multiplicity of minority groups. Scary, prescient stuff!
Anyway, my point is, I'd really like to find a way to break some new ground in my charity shop reading; to discover some new authors that suit my taste. Maybe I just need to go armed with a blindfold and pin and hope I don't come back with a John Grisham or a Dan Brown.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Another walk - another survey

Stourport is survey central. This evening we took the dog for a walk along the towpath and were accosted by another pleasant women carrying out another survey for BW, this time on what we thought of the condit0n of the towpath, why we were using it and how often we used it.
Interestingly, she was part of the Stourport regeneration team; BW has put money into the regeneration of the town (chiefly via its canal basin improvements) and part of the quid pro quo was to do this towpath survey.
What we also learned was that the basins have a new Heritage Room in the Windlass Restaurant building. Now we know it's there we'll take a look but, as I politely pointed out, a couple of signs advertising its presence wouldn't go amiss.
Why do we keep selling these wonderful places short? Nothing about the canals in Birmingham. Kinver hiding its light under a bushel and Stourport, a uniquely preserved nub of the canal system and barely a word anywhere to explain it. Fortunately I'd found a very good BW leaflet in the facilities block at the top of the Wolverhampton 21 some days earlier - the only source of canal leaflets and booklets I've come across in weeks.

Right survey - wrong place

We've just been for a walk along the Severn to Bewdley (pretty Georgian town but crushed by traffic volume and noise).
Passing the Stourport funfair we were accosted, politely, by a very pleasant lady doing a survey on behalf of British Waterways about our reactions to the waterways becoming a charity "like the National Trust".
It was pretty clear from the questions this was a survey aimed at non-boaters but nevertheless the questions were pretty decent; rate various waterway elements such as wildlife, heritage etc etc in importance, how valuable were the waterways, how often did we use the towpaths and the nitty-gritty: what would we be prepared to contribute to become a member of it as a charity, what benefits would attract us (a magazine, free entry to special events and such like) and might we consider volunteering.
Sound questions, I think - or as sound as any market research survey can be - but two questions come to mind.
Firstly, why do the survey on a riverside path that's actually nothing to do with BW (it's above the town bridge and beyond the official end of navigation) and a path at that which is more part of a town park than the waterway and as much used by trippers visiting the funfair as anyone.
Would anyone bar a tiny minority seriously offer to pay to use it?
But the second question is wider. Who, other than boaters - who already pay heavily - and anglers - who pay too - would cough up cash to use the canals and towpaths? And what could possibly persuade them? All the cyclists, runners and walkers who enjoy the canalsides - what could a charity membership possibly offer them that they'd think worth £50 a year. And what is the sanction if they don't want to join?
As far as I can see there's only one: let rural towpaths become overgrown except where maintained by local volunteer groups and lock off the urban ones to all but members with their BW Oyster cards. Hardly inclusive but in no other way can I see this waterway charity notion raising money except by taking it from those who already pay. Us.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Sorry, no room inside

Stourport is a wonderful place to visit; its basins are one of the great cornerstone's of the canal system.
In commercial carrying days they were teeming with boats loading, unloading or shipping between the canal and the River Severn below. Stourport only exists because James Brindley chose it as the spot for the inland port where his canal vision would come to fruition - where inland waterway transport would link to the river and ultimately the sea.
Go and pay homage. Just don't expect to moor in the uniquely preserved basins. British Waterways has, once more, sold its birthright, and the place is full of long term moorings leaving just a smattering around the edges for visitors. Ok, it needs the money and, yes, there are moorings outside but I couldn't help feeling frustrated that at 3pm the only way to moor was to pay an exorbitant tenner a night (electric extra) at the marina. We turned round and found a slot outside.
I felt especially sorry for hire boaters who saw Stourport with its basins, its funfair, its cafes and shops as the perfect family stop-off. We watched several of them innocently work down the lock into the basin, only to find it full and then work down onto the Severn - only to find the small landing stages there full too.
What to do now with tired and hungry children and increasingly irritated parents? I really don't know - I wish them luck.
Maybe a bit less of the 'plentiful morings' the guides witter about, a bit more sound advice from the hire companies, maybe even a large BW sign at the edge of Stourport warning of limited moorings in or near the basins. Or even, a few less long term moorings and a few more visitor ones. Oh I know, I'm only joking. That'll never happen.
PS A whole complex of Barratt 'luxury' apartments and houses is being built around a cul-de-sac basin to one side of the main ones. It's closed off, presumably for Health & Safety reasons, but I wonder who'll be able to moor there? Visitors? Ha, ha, ha.

Carpet City

Kidderminster once was England's carpet city; today it just has a Carpet City retail shed. It's a familiar story and we, like most boaters, transited through the town with just one intention - to stock up at the canalside Tesco at 'Weaver's Wharf'.
Kidderminster does seem to have suffered less badly than some in the transition from manufacturing to shopping as its raison d'etre. There's less decay to be seen though its replacement can make you grind your teeth in frustration at lost opportunities. The mass of new housing on the approach is the ubiquitous Tesco school of architecture, crammed together and surely destined to be the slums of the 22nd century if they last that long.
Then come the retail sheds and fast food outlets - all the usual suspects - before the canal ducks under the rting road at Kidderminster Lock and emerges at Weaver's Wharf where a huge carpet warehouse has, I have to concede, been given a decent make-over to become a giant Debenhams.
Shopping done and the town left behind unvisited, we headed on to our destination at Stourport, the great inland port created by Brindley to link his new canal to the Severn and ultimately the sea.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The worst hotel in the world

A slight exaggeration perhaps but the Formule 1 hotel in Liverpool is certainly the worst chain hotel I've ever stayed at. And I've stayed at them all: Ibis, Campanile, Travelodge, Premier Inn etc etc. Compared with them the Formule 1 doesn't even get out of the pit lane.
We were in Liverpool for daughter Olivia's graduation (she got a First by the way - that's positively the last time I'll boast about it, honest) but being the usual cash-strapped boaters we booked a cheap and - we presumed cheerful - hotel.
When we arrived the receptionist at the adjacent Ibis (they're in the same chain) pointed out that F1 rooms are not en-suite - toilets and showers are shared. That was news to me: I've re-read their website and nowhere can I find this important fact mentioned.
We should have cancelled on the spot but the Ibis rooms were twice the price so we braved it. The rooms are the size of a cell and furnished like one with a metal-framed double bed and a single above it so they can sleep three. Our room stank - stank - of fags even though the hotel has a no-smoking policy. We were changed to another room - fag free but, we noticed, the smoke detector had been covered with a plastic bag presumably so someone could smoke without being detected. Wonder why cleaning staff or management hadn't spotted that one?
All the rooms we saw had holes gouged in the walls, as if their inmates had been trying to escape, then crudely plastered over. One electric socket per room and towels the size of underpants but there was a tv (with no remote).
The toilet - a sort of one-piece moulded plastic affair - apparently featured a 'self-cleaning' mode though this wasn't apparent from the state of it. And the shower (again in moulded plastic) switched itself off every ten seconds unless you kept a hand on the button.
The idea of a simple, cheap and functional modern hotel might have been a good one once but no-one seemed to have noticed or cared that this one had grown old and tired. Everything was worn, damaged, grubby and down at heel.
Even at £35 a night, I'd never stay in one again. Frankly I'd rather sleep in the car. We stayed one night instead of two and came back to the comfort of our boat and its new bed.
Apologies for a blog post that's nothing to do with canals but I had to get that lot off my chest.

A sad loss

We have had a sad loss in the family today. Our favourite windlass was swept overboard just north of Wolverley Bridge and drowned. As we went to lower our hinged chimney for the bridge the windlass snagged in the rope and was flicked off the boat.
I moored immediately after the bridge and hurried back to try and effect a rescue with my Seasearcher magnet but despite plunging it in repeatedly the windlass never re-surfaced and had to be presumed lost.
We miss it greatly. It was the first choice windlass at every lock; a short-throw, double-headed affair whose handle had been modified by a previous owner with a piece of tube held in place by a welded on washer at each end to create a free-spinning anti-blister grip.
I'd worked up the Hatton Flight, the Northampton Arm, the Wolverhampton 21 and the Wigan Flight with it without raising a weal.
So farewell faithful windlass. Now I'm off with the magnet to try and find another one in the nearest lock.

Gently does it

We've had a gentle potter down towards Stourport today - we're not rushing as we don't want to get there too soon (I have a boat test to do there for Canal Boat on Friday).
The canal down from Kinver oozes even more of the rural charms we've enjoyed so far, alternately narrowing and twisting between red sandstone bluffs, then opening into tree lined countryside. Debdale Lock appears hewn out of the rock, and the lock-keeper once had his own cave which is still there even though he is not. Along the route we stopped for tea - Vicky in Staffordshire, me in Worcestershire, either side of the county boundary marker.
Just before Wolverley we also passed the famous Rome - the narrowboat whose fitting out formed the basis for The Narrowboat Builder's Book and now moored at the bottom of author Graham Booth's canalside garden. A lovely spot but I very much doubt the royalties contributed much to the purchase price. I think a decent Iain Banks or William Boyd might have been needed.
This evening we're moored up by Wolverley, a village once dedicated to the nail-making industry according to the guide but now a bijou hamlet home to those from the money making industries. Tucked away down a sandstone flanked quiet hill west of the canal it is picture-postcard pretty but the signs of wealth - '10' and '09' registered Range Rovers and Jags (and even a Bentley) tell me it's not a place I would feel comfortable living in. Even in one of the 'luxury' apartments being advertised for sale. Why are apartments always 'luxury' and houses always 'executive'? I can't help but be irritated by such meaningless and superfluous adjectives!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Towpath talk

Sunday is a busy time on the towpath - it's been alive with runners and cyclists. Virtually every runner has had a grim, agonised expression. Virtually every cyclist has looked happy, eager, enthusiastic.
MORAL: If you must exercise, get a bike and at least you'll enjoy it.

Epitaph for an estate agent

We came upon this curious gravestone in the hilltop cemetery. Ninety years old and all anyone could think of writing was to tell the world he'd been an estate agent!

Ray Mears was here...

Well, if he wasn't, one of his fan club had spent an uncomfortable night on Kinver Edge recently.

Kinver's stunning secret

Kinver Edge is stunning. Once you've found it. It might be mentioned in the guide books but the Kinver-ites make you work damned hard to find it.
A couple of road signs in the village point you in the approximate direction, the guide book gives you the clue that it is "beyond Kinver Church" - itself visible high on the hill above the village, but after that, you're on your own.
We walked up the long, steep twisting climb to the church. After that, there were no more signs. We walked on, and on. Wondering just where this glorious tract of open space was. It belongs to the National Trust and usually their brown fingerposts can be found everywhere but not here.The far reaching views were already pretty amazing, reaching out into the far distance, when we reached the hilltop Comber Ridge cemetery. What a beautiful spot for Kinver folk to spend eternity with this glorious distant scenery all around.
But still no signs to Kinver Edge itself. We plodded on and suddenly there we. It had been well worth the effort. The Edge is a large, steep sided promontory that provides a quite stupefying panorama all around - the Cotswolds, Malverns, Welsh hills; they are all in view. It is fabulous.
An Ordnance Survey map would have made he experience even better but, of course, there are none to be found in any of the village shops.Kinver's other claim to fame are its rock houses, hewn into the sandstone and the last of them occupied until the 1960s. We made our way down the NT trail from the hilltop to view them. (If we'd come up from the village we'd probably still be searching as there doesn't appear to be a signpost anywhere!).
Apparently, these are some of the best rock houses in Europe. If they were in France, there'd be car parks, cafes, street vendors and a whole industry around them. Here there's not even a signpost and the only refreshments are in a tiny NT tearoom.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

KInver is shut

We arrived in Kinver at 4.00 pm today. It was shut. How quaintly old fashionedly English to find a village whose shops (barring the Co-op) were shut or being closed up by Saturday teatime. Quite a contrast to the Liverpool of almost 24 hours a day seven days a week activity which we had just come back from.
And odd really since Kinver is the 'jewel in the crown' of the area, a pretty village nestling at the edge of the Staffs & Worcs, famous for its houses carved into the sandstone cliffs and with the celebrated 'Kinver Edge' hill rising up behind.
It attracts tourists from all over but they won't find a map or a guidebook, just a few leaflets about local walks obtainable from certain shops. When they're open.
It's rather like the pretty Essex village of Finchingfield near where we used to live. It attracted visitors on a sunny Sunday like wasps to a jam pot. But the shops remained resolutely shut.
The truth is, these places don't actually like tourists. They tolerate them - just - but welcoming them would be quite out of the question.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Foam a friend

Oh the puns. Foam a friend, ET foam home, your foam's ringing. The blokes at Foam Wizards must be fed up with hearing them.
But for us there was certainly no place like foam. Right across the road from the Basin was this little company that cuts and supplies foam for everything from upholstery to caravans to scooter seats and boats.
We've been suffering sleepless nights on a foam mattress from Ikea that might have been cheap but certainly wasn't cheerful. The foam wizard took one look, pronounced it of a quality only suitable for packaging and steered me through the world of foam until my spongy brain could absorb no more.
I liked him. Anyone who spends as much time telling me how I can save money as spend it gets my vote for someone to do business with. In the end, under his guidance, I spent 45 minutes carefully teasing off our layer of memory foam which was perfectly re-usable and saved myself quite a few quid in the process. After cutting out my foam, he then sweated and strained for 20 minutes to get it back in its cover - at no extra charge.
Tonight I know I'm going to enjoy a great night's sleep.

High Street blues

You can take the economic temperature of a town by walking down its High Street.
In Stourbridge, like elsewhere, where once there were butchers and grocers, then estate agents and building societies, charity shops now dominate. But rarely have I seen so many in so small a town centre as here.
There was a Cat protection charity, a Dog protection charity, another one especially for 'Staffies' (Staffordshire Bull Terriers), one for the old, one for the young (Barnardos), one for those with cancer (Marie Curie), another for the local hospice and the familiar fare of Scope, British Heart Foundation and Oxfam. That's ten - and I might have missed one or two as I kept stumbling on more in every street.
Then there were the usual cheap 'n cheerful stores - Wilkinsons, a latterday Woolworths in its variety and value, a local version of the pound store theme, an indoor market mainly selling dubious end-of-line sportswear as favoured by those who practise sports unlikely to feature in the Olympics, Somerfield, that rather depressing supermarket that seems no less drear since being taken over by the Co-op, Iceland - home of 'value' frozen goods and another frozen goods store promising even more 'value'.
Plus Cash Converters, the 21st century pawn shop, a gambling arcade and a large betting shop. All topped off with a big Wetherspoons pub, already holding a moderate crowd of drinkers at 10.30 am.
Reading this economic thermometer I think that, sadly, I would pronounce Stourbridge as in the grip of an almost irreversible decline.

A walk up the locks

We aren't going to be doing the Stourbridge Sixteen locks - and I can't say I'm sorry. The plan was to do them, then the eight Delph locks, then turn round, do them all again, the four that took us onto the Stourbridge and head back to a nearby marina to leave the boat for a few days while we headed off to watch daughter Olivia graduate (with a FIRST!).Instead, we've found the mightily convenient Stourbridge Basin and saved ourselves 52 locks!
So I took a walk up this fascinating flight instead.

Derelict glassworks by Lock 4

Red House Cone by Lock 5 - once the area was crowded with these huge glass furnaces
Dadford Shed, home of painter Phil Speight and boat builder and restorer, Ian Kemp

The view from higher up - see how the huge cone dominates the skyline

Drama in Stourbridge - many casualties (not)

The clack clack of helicopter blades made me look up. The noise grew louder and harsher as an air ambulance circled and descended. Clearly it was planning to land nearby.
Then a paramedic unit arrived outside the basin - and another - and another - and another - and an ambulance - and an Incident Support Vehicle - and another paramedic unit. Meanwhile the chopper had landed in the wasteland that was the ironworks.
Onlookers stood around, curious to know what was going on. Some sort of major drama, no doubt. People dead, trapped, injured. A plane crash? What?
Then the truth came out - a girl had fallen off a rope swing in the waste ground and broken her leg.
"Bloody typical, shame it wasn't her neck," muttered a sympathetic passer-by.
The helicopter took off with its casualty (hopefully still able to enjoy the novelty of the ride, despite the pain) and slowly the ambulance crews drifted away.
"Last time we had this much drama was when a dog fell in the canal," said a fellow boater. "Six fire engines turned up. They never found the dog though."
Moral: if you must have an accident, have it in Stourbridge.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Big Society - I've Joined

Today I joined David Cameron's 'Big Society'. I spent 15 minutes clearing litter from the canal bank outside the Basin here.
Yesterday a bunch of teenagers (presumably finished with school after their exams) spent the sunny afternoon and evening picnicking and chatting at the canalside. This morning when I went out to walk Brian I found they'd left behind their empties – crisp wrappers, plastic bottles, yoghurt pots and bags strewn around the grass.
"Lazy, idle, ignorant bunch," I fumed. Then I thought, rather than sit and fume, why don't I just clear it up so I went back with a plastic bag and a pair of working gloves and picked it all up.
If they come back today I wonder if they'll notice?
So it's official; I've done some volunteering and now I'm in the Big Society. Big Deal.

The Life of Brian

My 'Brian's Eye' view of the world
Now it has come to my attention that the crew has been writing an account of this trip without consulting me or asking for my input. And me - a Seadog of the Month at that. What a cheek.
So while the self-styled captain is off shopping I've decided to put my best paw forward and get on the computer while I've got the chance. (As soon as he gets back he'll be on it again - it's all he seems to do when we're not going along.)
I must say I do find this boating a strange game. We start off in the morning with a lot of noise from that engine - which won't keep quiet however much I yap at it - and sometimes a bit of shouting from my master and mistress too. Then we go along for the day and moor up somewhere that generally looks exactly like the place we were in before.
They keep putting me up on the roof to stop me getting on and off. It's alright for them; when they need a pee they just go to the toilet on the boat. I have to hold it in until one of them realises I'm desperate. Then my mistress jumps off with me at a bridge and we walk along the towpath. What am I supposed to do now? Half my pack is on the boat and sailing away; the other half with me. How can I keep control? I have to rush backwards and forwards.
I always seem to get in trouble when we stop, too. People and dogs keep coming onto my territory, even though I've marked out the towpath as our patch. Then I get shouted at and told I'm a "bad dog" when I jump out and try to scare them off with barking.
It's a worry too when I'm on the roof and one of the crew disappears inside. How do I know they're still on board? When it comes to philosophy I'm a follower of George Berkeley – "Any knowledge of the world is to be obtained only through direct perception" – so if I can't see them or hear them or smell them, they don't exist. It's an awful worry, y'know.
I must say, though, that I do enjoy getting the attention of the ladies. I'm a bit of a looker, though I say it myself, and ladies always give me a stroke and fuss. It was wonderful being moored up in the middle of 'Birmingham' as there were lots of pretty young girls to wag my tail at. (We're talking human ladies here, not dogs - though I find myself drawn to them too despite being the victim of an unfortunate accident in the nether regions on which I don't care to dwell.)
I suppose I'm getting a bit more laid back in my old age when it comes to other dogs. I still like to show them who's boss - especially those big things like alsatians and rotweillers that think they own the place. A quick nip round the back legs usually sorts them out. Get your retaliation in first is my motto. I did get a particular telling off from my master when I had a go at a vicar's dog "that wasn't very Christian" he said. Well how was I to know; I thought a man wearing a dog collar was just some sort of special dog-lover.
The thing is, though, that we never stay in one place long enough for me to make proper friends with other dogs. We were in this nice little mooring for a few days and I made a pal with a young alsatian. We were having great games. Then next thing I know we were off again. Now we're in another mooring for a couple of days; there's a couple of friendly dogs here and we've just got past that old, you know, first sniffing session, but I'll bet we'll be moving soon.
You'll notice I haven't said anything about swimming yet. I just don't understand why some dogs seem to enjoy swimming in that filthy canal water. I must admit I've fallen in a couple of times (once I was pushed in by a very nasty spaniel) and I can tell you it's horrible. But at least my owners have stopped putting me in that nasty lifejacket thing - so cumbersome, uncomfortable and unflattering to my figure. Quite embarrassing.
Oh, I can hear the boss returning. Time to press 'save' and nip back to my bed. Cheerio for now.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Natural History of the Scrote

Advanced scrote territorial markings - some of
the hieroglyphs have been translated, others

still baffle linguistic experts
The scrote is a creature increasingly to be found in our urban environment. His natural habitats are our semi-derelict industrial areas, back alleys and overgrown wasteland where he can scavenge largely undisturbed.
For the scrote watcher there are few more rewarding ways to observe this fascinating creature in the wild than to take a boat through some of the scruffier areas of the midlands where such urban habitats abound.
From painstaking observations we have observed that there are in fact several sub species of the basic scrotus scrotus. Until recently the most prolific was the capped scrote - so called because of the patterned cap than adorns an otherwise nearly hairless head and which extends in a peak down the neck. However this variant has now been overtaken by the hooded scrote, with less colourful plumage that extends up over his head and gives the creature a menacing air.
The raucous scrote can be found in some environments; he is known for his colourful plumage in many variations - red, red and white stripes, all blue, black and white and so on. Rival gangs of raucous scrotes often have vicious territorial fights.
The spotted or pustuled scrote was until recently believed to be a separate species but is now understood to merely be a juvenile version of the common scrote.
Watching them at play (they rarely work) the common scrote can be seen to be a social creature. He likes to mingle noisily with fellow scrotes, posturing, displaying and sometimes fighting viciously with other males. He is a semi-nocturnal creature, rarely seen or heard before noon but his shrieks and shouts often go onto into the night accompanied by the sound of breaking glass or cans being thrown about.
Interestingly these scrote gatherings are almost entirely male - the female of the species is rarely seen at them but can instead be observed in city centres often shouting noisily at baby scrotes outside Somerfields. Indeed, the scrote is a prolific breeder - there's no actual breeding season and female scrotes are often pregnant more or less continuously from the age of 14. (And unlike some creatures the scrote does not mate for life - indeed the dominant scrote male appears determined to mount as many females as possible.)
Scrotes also mark their own bodies in coloured patterns and pierce holes in parts of their anatomy (though other, non scrotes have performed similar rituals for thousands of years of course.)
We observed, fascinated, while scrotes engaged in their various activities - drinking, dope smoking, fishing, bmx riding and the like but, though he is a noisy and very public creature, much of the scrote's world remains still a secret one.
The scrote generally looks thin, pale and under-nourished so what does he feed on? His diet can best be observed by analysing scrote droppings - in fact these droppings are often the first tell-tale signs of fresh scrote activity in an area. Beer and coke cans, Macdonalds wrappers and crisps appear to be common scrote-food in most areas. (See photo)
But even more secretive than the droppings are the spray markings that scrotes leave to identify their territory. Most male animals leave a tell-tale spray of urine. Though the scrote does often urinate in public places his spray markings are in colourful aerosol paints. Some are intricate signatures; others mere daubs by juvenile scrotes (photo below).
By and large the scrote remains remote from his fellow humans - apart from grunts, curses and threatening noises there is little communication between them. Indeed our efforts to communicate with them suggest that some have virtually lost the power of speech altogether. Attempts to photograph them proved impossible - at the sight of a camera they either advanced aggressively or retreated beneath their raised hoods into the shadows.
But don't totally write the scrote off - there is evidence that some can be domesticated with the help of dedicated assistance and much expensive support. Unlike some animals which respond well to training, the scrote rebels against routine and discipline - though curiously some can sit quietly for hours fishing. But, in time, the maturing scrote can be persuaded to perform simple tasks which non-scrotes feel beneath them and can even, in some instances, become a valued member of the community. Which is probably just as well as scrote numbers do appear to be increasing rapidly in our urban areas.

Desolation Row

We're moored in Stourbridge Town basin alongside the elegant Georgian brickwork of The Bonded Warehouse, an oasis of Grade II listed charm and history amid a desert of desolation and destruction.
All around us, and rapidly being hidden in the fast encroaching undergrowth, are the flattened remains of the town's once famous ironworks, notable for its railway locomotives but all gone now.
On the way into the town we passed the decaying remains of the town's other claim to fame - as a centre for glass making - firms like Stuart Crystal and Tudor Crystal once owned the huge bottle kilns that dotted the canal. Only one survives - as a visitor centre.
It's yet another tale of loss - Stourbridge High Street, with its charity shops, take-aways and Cash Converter tells its own story. There's no affluence here. Instead of the industry will - one day perhaps - come 'executive homes'. The jobs have gone to India and China but what has happened to all that Victorian energy, inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit that created them? Have we lost that too?

Out in the sticks

We've spent a couple of days meandering through the beautiful tree-lined tranquility of the Staffs & Worcs canal. What a contrast to the urban grit of Birmingham – so much so, it's hard to remember we're just a handful of miles away from the Black Country conurbations.
Big drop - going down Bratch locks

We went down the curious set of three locks at The Bratch - an ingenious piece of 18th century canal engineering designed to save water and speed traffic by storing the water used to raise and lower boats in side ponds. Today it's a tourist attraction, beautifully turned out and manicured - a far cry from some of those Birmingham backwaters.
We turned off for a bit more off-the-beaten-track exploration on the Stourbridge Canal 9Above) and more mouthwatering scenery before we returned to that grit and grime.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

A world class learning community but what about the rubbish?

Tipton Shopping Centre - virtually every shop boarded up. Even the charity shop has closed down. Just the butcher, chippie and 'sports bar' where various sporting types could be seen exercising their lungs with cigarette smoke in the approximate vicinity of the doorway, survive.

But in a place that badly needs a greengrocer, a little street market, a fishing tackle shop - just about any proper shop really - this was the local council's efforts. "A Professional Learning Centre" to "Develop Sandwell As A World Class Learning Community".

If it wasn't so bloody half baked and stupid it would be funny. After only a couple of days in the place it was pretty damn obvious that what Tipton needed from the council was a street sweeper to clear up the litter, someone to cut back the overgrown verges and a youth worker to help support the basically decent kids who spent their days fishing and biking up and down the canalside.

No wonder people don't bother to vote any more when instead of jobs and shops their councillors offer them a world class learning community. Well actually they did vote - with their feet. The place has closed down.

Friday, 16 July 2010

We're on the move again

I crossed my fingers, touched wood, twisted the ignition key and fired the engine for the first time in five days.It burst instantly into life, settled down and thumped away steadily. After a few minutes running, the water level was still the same, the oil was correct and so we decided to venture gingerly out of Caggy's Yard and be on our way.
We said a slightly sad cheerio to Ralph (right) and 'Mrs Ralph' – the proprietors of this loveably ramshackle boatyard and two of the most friendly and helpful people we've met on our travels -- and promptly got weeded up in the mouth of the yard.

It was the first of a few trips down the weedhatch as we headed away from Tipton towards the Wolverhampton 21 lock flight that would take us down onto the Staffs & Worcs Canal.
Wolverhampton is like so many Midland towns we've canalled through - a mix of scruffy industry scratching a living amid miles of dereliction while trying to fend off the encroaching warehouse sheds in their bland ubiquity.
We hit the top of the 21 locks at 3 pm and they closed at 6pm so there was no time for hanging around – interesting urban architecture it may be but it's no place to spend the night.
Derelict steelworks in Wolverhampton

All the locks have what used to be called 'handcuff' or 'anti-vandal'locks. They've now been euphemistically re-christened 'water conservation locks'. We prefer to call them 'scrote locks'.
At 5.55pm we exited the flight and turned south on the S&W towards Stourport. Tonight we're moored on a peaceful towpath in a quiet village. In a curious way we rather miss the homely scruffiness of Tipton; the lads fishing on the canal; the pub; the shopping parade with its lines of boarded up frontages. It wasn't much but it had been home for nearly a week - and a friendly home at that. Staffs & Worcs Canal - suddenly we're in rural tranquility

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The real Birmingham at last

The old and the new shafts

We saw the new Birmingham in the shopping crazy Bullring and the old B'rum in the Black Country Museum but where I still wondered was what I'd always thought was the real Birmingham - the engineering centre of Britain. The home of car factories, motorcycle factories, gunsmiths. Were they all gone, sold to the Chinese, and quietly forgotten.
Well here in Tipton I found the real Birmingham - a small, highly skilled machine toolmakers shop, Aquatools, that could machine me a new water pump shaft quicker than the GPO could deliver a first class letter. Ordered at 4p.m. and done by noon next day.
Tipton, too, boasted a great local, The Fountain, home of the town's folk hero, the Tipton Slasher, the legendary 19th bare knuckle fighter William Perry.
And on "two meals for the price of one" night we had two of the best steak and Guinness pies I've had in a long time and three pints of beer for just over a tenner. Bloody brilliant!

And more history I'm afraid

Next door to the Museum is the Dudley Canal Tunnel – or more correctly tunnels, for there are many more than merely one of them.
Here another soul gripping grim tale of 18th and 19th century poverty is played out for the tunnels are what remains of Lord Dudley's limestone mines. In the late 18th century the first tunnel was built to give access to the canal network from the mine workings.
The miners worked in atrocious conditions - there were numerous accidents and life expectancy was no more than 30 years.
Over the course of the next hundred years a whole maze of tunnels and caverns was opened up. Eventually an unbelievable 40,000 boats a year were using the main tunnel – all of them 'legged' through by the crew walking the boats along the tunnel walls.
As mining faded, the tunnels and huge caverns became a Victorian tourist attraction and thousand of visitors came through them, listening to talks and concerts underground.
But by the 1950s the whole lot was pretty much in disrepair with closures and collapses. British Waterways planned its closure - but in stepped the Dudley Canal Trust (more here) to fight the closures and bring the tunnels back to life.
It's been a huge success - two new tunnels have been built into old caverns (the first canal tunnels in a hundred years) and the Trust's trip boats ply a terrific 45 minute circular trip through them throughout every day.
And there are more caverns and more underground wharves still to be exlored and opened up again.
But, yet again, one is forced to remember that the appalling conditions we wince at while listening to the commentary are still endured by miners elsewhere in the developing world.

Photo: tunnels lead off from what was once an underground cavern with mining wharves, later opened up to make mining easier

History lessons

I've been too busy talking about breakdowns to talk about the reason for our being stranded at this particular spot – a visit to the Black Country Living Museum.
What an extraordinary step back through time it is. On the huge 26 acre site shops, houses, blacksmiths, a funfair, a spit 'n sawdust pub and even a coal mine take you back to a world of valve radios, gobstoppers, chain-makers, trams and, more poignantly, sweat shops and starvation wages.
Every building has been carefully dismantled from its original home somewhere in the Black Country and restored and re-assembled on the site. But what makes it a 'living'museum is the cast of period characters who sell sweets, chips - cooked in dripping of course - demonstrate chain making or sit by the fireside in old cottages telling the tales of life in those times with a vigour that takes you right there.
Standing in the Cradley Workers' Institute and hearing the story of the strike a hundred years ago by the women chain-makers brought a tear to my eye. A strike by women who called themselves the white slaves of England who earned a penny an hour working in appalling conditions. It was a milestone strike for the union movement and women's rights.
The whole museum was fascinating on several levels. I could feel myself sliding inexorably into 'old codger' mode as I exchanged anecdotes about ancient radios, bought old fashioned chips at sadly new fashioned prices and browsed among the nick nacks in the ironmongers.
No such connection would have been possible for the dozens of school kids on trips - for them it must have seemed as ancient as ancient Rome.
But my overwhelming thought was that we may have got rid of penny an hour sweat shops, terrible mining conditions and grinding poverty - but only because we have exported it elsewhere in the world. There are no white slaves of England but there are virtual slaves in Africa, Asia and China working in the same atrocious conditions for the same pitiful pay to keep the western world wealthy.

Pics: Cradley Workers Institute (originally paid for out of the surplus from thechain makers' strike support fund.)
Street scene of period shops.
Starman patiently queueing for his portion of beef dripping cooked chips

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Fingers crossed, I think we're sorted!

The folk at the Museum finally got fed up with us over-staying on their moorings so we got ourselves towed round the corner to "Caggy's Boatyard". Ralph who runs the yard then pointed me in the direction of a local machine shop - so local that we've virtually walked past it en route to the shops for the last few days.
And what a great place it is: Aquatools of Tipton is a proper high quality toolmaker. Our little machining job sits beside a new press tool being engineered for the recently announced new Land Rover.But Peter the boss was incredibly helpful, happy to spend 20 minutes talking through the job and - best of all - will do it tomorrow morning! For what I think's a very reasonable price - under a hundred quid.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Just a few minor mods -- who are they kidding?

The new pump arrived today. And proved to be totally and completely wrong! The man I originally called at Sleeman & Hawken said my pump had been superceded by another which would fit "with just a few minor modifications". What arrived was a pump with a completely different part number.
I called them up and a different voice on the phone told me that - according to the computer - the second pump was also now obsolete and had been superceded by the one I got. "But the computer says it will fit with a few minor modifications."
Just who is this computer trying to kid? This pump has a completely different size shaft and no way to mount to the engine. I'd need access to a machine shop to make it fit!
RANT ALERT: That's the trouble with parts suppliers these days. All parts store men do is tap numbers in computers. In the 'good old days' a parts man was a fount of knowledge. He really knew his parts - he knew that a 51513 was completely different from a 24910 because he handled them; he looked at what was in the boxes and not just at some numbers on the screen.
So we're still searching for the elusive pump, or someone who can machine a new shaft. The batteries are steadily running down and the BW man wants us off the mooring asap.
All part of the fun of owning an old boat I guess.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Canal clearing

They've been out clearing rubbish from the local canals. But the 'they' is not British Waterways. It's lads with a truck salvaging scrap. We watched as a couple of them hauled a massive flat bed pull-along trolley from the cut.
The price of scrap has clearly gone up.
If BW caught them at it they'd chase them off -- but maybe instead they should organise a 'keep what you catch' BCN clean-up for, shall we call them, "interested parties". Anything with scrap value they keep, everything else could go in a BW rubbish boat

Broken Down!

I made a casual check of the engine coolant level last night – and discovered to my shock that the header tank was empty. Which meant something like four pints of water had vanished. Then I checked the oil level, which had shot way up over its usual mark.
You didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the water had found its way into the oil!
This was a potential catastrophe: I feared a blown head gasket or worse and yet another engine rebuild, this time out on location in Birmingham. Not surprisingly I didn't sleep very well.
But at 5 a.m. I woke up thinking about another possibility. I recalled reading that leaking water pump oil seals can let the coolant leak into the engine. Maybe that was the cause? After all, until I checked the levels the engine had been running perfectly showing none of the smokiness or rough running of a head gasket failure.
By 8a.m I had the pump off - and discovered it was in a word knackered. The shaft was worn and badly scored so the seals weren't sealing anything. Perhaps the last burst of heavy load running when we tangled with the rope had been too much for what was left of it.
I siphoned out about four pints of virtually neat anti freeze mix from the sump then removed a side cover on the block and began the filthy and laborious task of spooning out the rest with a cut-down milk bottle. (Boat engines don't have sump plugs unfortunately!).
Out and out it came, a watery black mess that ran everywhere. Eventually I filled a ten litre canister and half a five litre one - the normal oil capacity being just over five litres!!
Remarkably once the mix had settled it proceeded to settle out into its constituent parts and we were able to separate off four litres of pretty pure looking coolant which I'm happy to re-use. The oil I think I'll be wise to ditch.
But the big problem was sorting the pump. Ours has been obsolete since 1973 (!) and there are no spares to be found anywhere. Believe me I tried. Its successor, which should fit with a few minor mods is also now obsolete but I finally found a 'new old stock' one for £150. Ouch.
It should be here tomorrow. Meanwhile we sit in the relative comfort of the Black Country Museum moorings and I keep my fingers crossed that a) it will fit and b) that it will cure the problem.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Wandering round Birmingham

Old Main Line leaves New at Smethwick Locks

They say that Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice. I don't know whether 'they' are right but there are certainly plenty in the Birmingham Canal Navigations and today we've been exploring some of them.
The BCN started when canal building pioneer James Brindley built his Main Line through the city. Brindley always tried keep things simple in his canals, following the natural contours to minimise the need for locks and tunnels. The result was a snake-like waterway whose route was often much longer than any crow would opt to fly.Fifty odd years later along came Thomas Telford, with more engineering expertise at his disposal, and he took a ruler to Brindley's route, straightening it up with cuttings and aqueducts, to make it far shorter and quicker.So today we have Brindley's Old Main Line and Telford's New Main Line, running almost side by side, with the old route weaving backwards and forwards across the new one. Crossing the New Main Line and, below, an
old loop goes back to natureOff these are numerous more little arms and loops, some still navigable, others long gone.
We started out on the shared route from central Birmingham, veered off to explore the Soho Loop, passing decaying industry as well as Winson Green prison, and finally left the New for the Old up Smethwich Locks where the water was an evil, dense black oily liquid as bad as anything BP has created in the Gulf of Mexico. From the top we could look down on the new route below. We even crossed it by a short aqueduct to squeeze through the tiny bridge hole into the short dead end Engine Arm (right) - once a feeder waterway into the system and named after the pumping engine which pumped the water supply in, but now lined with moored boats tucked among industrial buildings, and ending in a smart new block of 'facilities'.
But soon industry gave way to remarkably rural surroundings.
We moored by the huge chimney of Smethwick Pumphouse (below) for lunch and to listen to the start of the British GP.
Then we moved off on a route which now wove for a mile or more in and out of the huge concrete legs of the M5 motorway above.

Another fork now and we were heading left toward Dudley. Soon the canal's character changed again too, opening out into a wide, sun-lit waterway lined with water lily pads and passing housing estates.
Then, just as everything was going so well, we ground to a near halt, inching to the junction with the arm to Dudley where a visit to the weed hatch revealed that I had six feet of hefty half inch thick blue nylon rope round the prop - as well as a miscellany of electrical cable, plastic bag and weed. All of which took half an hour to hack free.
From there it was a short distance to our destination at the visitor moorings by the Black Country Museums. Here there was just one other boat – and amazingly it was from March in the Middle Level, and regular visitors to Bill Fen. Small world.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

The crew at rest

The crew enjoying some down-time in front of The Mailbox. Vicky watches the world go by and the world, in turn, admires Brian.

Good turn for the day

I guess I must be a sucker for a hard luck story. A lad came to the boat selling The Big Issue. He been sleeping rough for a week and he needed to make nine quid to get a hostel bed for the night.
Apparently (he said) you can't get a free bed in B'rum unless you're an alcoholic or a drug addict. He was neither.
What about getting a job? I asked. You can't get a job - or benefits - without an address. And, Catch 22, you can't get an address without money.
I gave him a fiver.
Sucker, I can hear you say. I don't think so. We saw him later - still sober and not stoned. "I've got a bed" he smiled. "Thanks for your help."
And it was a better way to spend a fiver than giving it to Mr Primark.

Where's the history?

Birmingham's might be an impressive combination of Victorian grandeur and modern architecture - as above at the Town Hall - but, as far as I can see, it would much rather think about shopping than history.
The canals and the boats that ply them are an entertaining backdrop for waterside bars and flats but you'll find precious little information for the tourists about why they are there: no statues of Brindley and Telford; few meaningful information boards. Even the official 'Welcome to Birmingham' booklet dismisses them as "said to be the motorways of industry".
The wonderful building that houses Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery turned out actually to be almost entirely an art gallery (and a fine one at that with wonderful pre-Raphaelite paintings). Where was the story of all of Birmingham's great history being told? Not there as far as I could see.
Maybe the answer is that the city isn't proud of its past - it wants to forget it and move forward. Perhaps it's embarrassed by the fact that its wealth came from the smoke and grime and graft of industry. Well if that's so, it's a damned shame.

There's no recession here!

Birmingham was rammed today; packed with thousands worshipping at the temples of the great god Shopping.
The moorings are just a ten minute stroll from the heart of the city - now largely pedestrianised - and when we headed down Broad Street toward the new Bull Ring at about 10 a.m. it was merely busy. When we ventured back at about 2.30 it was jam packed.
Everyone has money to burn here. If the designer carrier bags weren't evidence enough then you just had to look at all the cafes and restaurants - not a table to spare as women-who-shop sipped chardonnay and pecked at salads.
As a compulsive non shopper it all leaves me pretty cold. Actually I'm not just a non-shopper; I hate shopping. I fear it. A casual contemplation that I might, possibly, remotely need a new pair of summer shoes turns into an increasingly desperate quest. I enter shops I know are too expensive or whose products are too ugly and dread the approach of an assistant who will drag from me the information that I need some shoes and then waste 20 minutes of both our lies showing me ever more horrible pairs until, desperate to end it all, I hastily buy a pair which I know already I will wear twice, hate, and put at the back of the wardrobe never to be seen again until I sneak them off to a charity shop in five years' time.
So Birmingham left me cold as an Arctic winter's day. Until we discovered the Bull Ring markets. Buzzing, vibrant, full of noise, life and stuff you'd never ever find in Selfridges. Stalls selling everything from bales of lace to pigs' heads to dodgy mobiles to flimsy looking tools.
We headed back to the boat with our non-designer bags, full of bananas and nectarines having contributed a princely £1.84 to the shopping God. That was quite enough.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Tottering totty

Is this where the word 'totty' came from? Tonight we're moored close to Gas Street Basin and Brindley Place, once the heart of the canal carrying network but now the heart of Birmingham's club land.All around are restaurants and bars - ritzy nightspots and cheap as chips drink-yourself-stupid-in-record-time outfits. We're moored outside the very salubrious "gentleman's club" 'Legs Eleven'. Hmmm.
Anyway we've got the best vantage spot in town, sitting on the deck drinking beer that's cheaper than any local bar and watching the young girls (and the not so young) go past in a rich variety of Friday night outfits. They totter along on precariously high heels, wearing skirts so short they shock even a child of the mini-skirted sixties era. Some look great; some, well, don't they own a mirror?
But they're all out to have fun...and we oldies are plain jealous.

Heading into Birmingham

Here we are coming through the stop lock that marks the junction of the Stratford and Worcester & Birmingham canals - a set of guillotine gates looking like an ancient version of those we encounter on the River Nene. It was the point at which tolls could be gathered from boats travelling from one canal company's waterway to another.
Today it marked the start of our final five mile run into Birmingham. It started in familiar urban canal fashion, through derelict industrial suburbs and canalsides daubed in the inevitable graffiti.
Things improved though as we passed the university and the canal ran through pleasant greenery and past parkland, with the towpath alive with cyclists. I wonder how they will contribute to its upkeep under the new 'BW charity' funding regime?
On the way we found ourselves in a canal diversion as part of a massive new road construction project which will see the canal return to its original line in a new aqueduct over the road.

Indian Takeaway

Ground to a complete halt this morning just as we were about to moor at Lyons Boat Yard for fuel. Something was irretrievably tangled round the prop.
It was this: a saree.

Canal anecdote has it that at Hindu funerals gifts for the departed are wrapped in a saree and thrown into the river or in this case local canal. Having hacked away at the tangled mess around my prop in the murky canal waters for ten minutes I didn't look too closely but dropped it in the rubbish skip. My apologies for this unceremonious disposal if it was a religious offering.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Keep on running

Despite having finished our locking and despite having promised ourselves an early finish, we still didn't manage to tie up until seven o'clock and then at a place we wouldn't have dreamed of picking at five o'clock.
It always seems to happen this way: for some reason we always hum and haw about mooring spots and think there'll be a better one round the next bend. There rarely is!
Maybe one day the penny will drop – but I doubt it.

At least we beat the Germans at something

Kingswood Junction where the Grand Union and Stratford canals meet is a curious affair - GU arrivals come in at an angle to meet the Stratford half way up a long flight.
As we came in I saw a hire boat crew rising up through the nearest lock on the Stratford. They were Germans (though I didn't know that at the time) but I did see they were a confusion of ropes and paddles. No way I wanted to be behind them up a 19 lock flight!
I strode ahead to the next lock; it was empty and waiting, flung open the gate and in we went. We'd beaten the Germans.

After that the flight was plain sailing - the 19 narrow locks were like a rest cure after the 33 broad locks of yesterday. The canal itself is pretty shallow in places; we've been ploughing father than boating at times.
Still, we're all done locking now until Birmingham.

Goodbye GU

Today we said goodbye to the Grand Union, five days and 77 locks after joining it at Northampton.
I feel a bit guilty about abandoning the main route to Birmingham for an alternative but all the experts say that the Stratford Canal and Worcester & Birmingham Canal route is much the prettier so we turned off.
It's a curious canal, is the Grand Union - more like a waterway version of a 1970s trunk road than a motorway. There are wide, deep 'dual carriageway' sections and twisting, narrow, utterly rural 'country lanes' where the water is barely deep enough for two boats to pass in comfort.
But it's been a largely enjoyable five days; a blend of busy locking and long tree lined pounds in which to recover. A surprisingly empty canal, too - even at busy spots like Braunston or Hatton we virtually had lock flights to ourselves, let alone have to queue.
I guess it will be different once the state school holidays begin. At the moment the only kids on the cut are very politely spoken private school youngsters who've already broken up and whose parents are getting in ahead of the riff-raff!

Record breakers

Yesterday we set a new personal best - thirty three widebeam locks in a day. Including the daunting 23 lock Hatton Flight.
I know canal boating is supposed to be gentle, relaxing, easy paced and, to be honest, we didn't set out to go racing when we set off in the morning. We eased through the mainly single locks that took us to Royal Leamington Spa and then Warwick. (Incidentally, there doesn't seem to be much 'royal' about Leamington these days - what a sorry for itself, down-at-heel place.)
At Warwick the locks stop going downhill and start to climb again. We went through the first couple; the Hatton Flight was round the corner, literally. It was five o'clock; we thought we'd 'just take a look' and maybe do the first few, then moor on the flight.
We'd just come into lock three when another boat appeared at the lock behind so, as you do, we waited to share the locks with them. But they were on a mission; the boat was due in Alvechurch on Friday morning for an engine service and they were going for the summit of the flight that night.Lock, Stock & Barrel's crew of three joined us two and we worked up through the locks like a McLaren pit crew. The two wives drove, the two husbands tried to out-macho each other with fast paddle winding and - the key to our speed - their 22 year old daughter raced ahead setting locks and opening gates with astonishing speed.An hour and a half later we were at the top! In time to hear the second half of Germany v Spain, eat a mega fry up dinner and crash out.
And now only narrow locks lie between us and B'rum - thank gawd.