Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Drowning in birdsong

Three times now, on a certain part of the towpath on my way back from the village, I have heard a woodpecker. As I have never seen one, every time I stop, and try to locate where the intermittent sound is coming from - so far without any success, inasmuch as I have still not seen a woodpecker. But when I stopped today, and was looking and listening, I realised just how much birdsong was going on that I simply hadn't noticed. Not just the crows and the pigeons, that could be heard above the throng; not just the songs and chirpings of myriad birds I can't identify, but a veritable wall of sound; a sea of thousands of tiny tweets in which I was completely submerged. And a phrase from James's Boring Things blog post of yesterday came back to me - 'the transformative power of attention' - which to me means the way in which we can change our world just by noticing things.

I never did see the woodpecker though.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Knitting, not nothing

Round about November 2010, I offered to knit No. 2 son an Aran jumper. I started, made a bit of a mess of it, decided it was probably going to be too small, got discouraged and put it to one side. As it was meant to be finished in time for his birthday the next February, this was not a good outcome.

Some time later in 2011 I got it out again, measured it, measured him, looked again at the messy bit, and made the radical decision to unravel it all and start again. After that there was (well, nearly) no stopping me. It was definitely going to be ready for his birthday this year. And then I ran out of wool. I'd ordered what I thought I needed from a wonderful woman in Derbyshire who spins it from her own rare breed sheep (sickeningly trendy I know, but it's lovely wool). So when I needed to make a bigger jumper than I'd initially bargained for, I couldn't just go down the nearest shop with a dye lot number.

Instead I emailed Elaine, and sent her a little sample of what I had left, and there followed a nerveracking week waiting to discover whether she could find any. And, hooray, she did; just about enough, that someone else had put aside and not bought. What a relief! So now I am frantically trying to finish this massive and heavy jumper before both sons visit next week.

Which is why I haven't got time to blog.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Should look nice on the mantelpiece

Yes, the answer was that all those boats have been recipients of the Hemelryk Award, presented each year by HNBOC to the 'most improved' iron or steel narrowboat - in practice, the best restoration. The reason I can reel off all the previous winners is because the trophy is currently sitting on Bakewell's sideboard. Not that Chertsey has won it, you understand - it wasn't even nominated (sob) - albeit largely because I didn't nominate it. No, we are merely looking after it temporarily while it is in transit between last year's winner, Swan, who handed it over at the Walton launch on Saturday, and this year's... You didn't think I was going to give it away did you? No, you'll have to come along to the AGM on March 3rd to find that out.

To be honest, this is rather nicer than the Keay award, which is a rather battered rosebowl which has seen better days, but then wooden boat restorers are so unworldly they probably don't notice.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Quiz time

What links these boats?

Seaford, Apple, Antlia, Venice, Clypeus, Bellatrix, Jubilee, Leo, Ditton, Banstead, Dragon, Dover, Buckden, FMC 138, Dove, Sickle, Whitby and Swan?

Answer later.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Nice notice

After the launch of Walton we repaired to the Commercial Hotel, Wheelock, where this notice could be seen in both ladies' and gents' toilets.

I wonder whether a polite and positive request like this gets a better response than the peremptory orders and threats we are more used to seeing.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Someone replace the blogroll

I've just had a bit of an overhaul here on the blog. The biggest difference is that I've added a blogroll of the blogs I like to read, so that I can see when they've updated (RSS? Nah.) I held off doing this before for the most venal of reasons - I didn't want to encourage you to click on someone else's blog and push it up the charts past Chertsey. But of course I'm not that petty...

Most of them are boat blogs, with a few additions, some of which were previously on the links list. Diamond Geezer will stay sitting on the bottom I fear, as he doesn't have the right sort of feed to show when it's been updated, but he posts every morning and you should read him. I have also added James Ward's 'I like boring things' because there is something wonderful about finding interest in apparently mundane things like modular buildings.

The old boat blog list remains the same, and the non-blog links. Meanwhile, Zulu Warrior will now slip down the charts as I will no longer be checking its extensive blogroll each day...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Slip sliding


Or rather, side slipping...

Today was my first proper assignment in my new guise as HNBOC Press Officer and, by default, official photographer. The event was the launch of Walton - a wooden boat built in 1939 at FMC's Uxbridge yard, and subsequently purchased by the Mersey, Weaver and Ship Canal Carrying Company. Walton is now owned by Ade, who has been working on its restoration for many years. The latest, just completed phase, has been the replacement of the fore end bottoms.

The launch was to be by the traditional side slipping method, whereby the boat is released to slide down greased timber runners (what is their proper name?), er, sideways. This morning I was suddenly struck by the responsibility I'd taken on - supposing my photos of this seldom seen and dramatic event weren't any good? I ferretted out the instruction book for my new camera and checked up on shooting fast sequences of photos - up to 3.4 per second. Once sure I could remember how to set that up, we set off for Malkins bank, somewhere I'd never been before.

A warm, muddy welcome awaited us, and we were offered soup while a small band played. A small crowd of children got very muddy, whilst nearly every boat restorer you've ever heard of joined the throng. I was given privileged access to the far bank of the dock - which wasn't very wide - and found myself what I hoped was a suitable position. At one o'clock on the dock, Walton was released, and I reckon my camera earned its keep pretty well:







Well, I have picked the best one (wonder if you'll agree which that is), cropped it a bit and sent it off with a press release to the canal mags, and also to the gentleman from the Stoke Sentinel who was there with his lovely lady assistant trying to get various boat people to pose in increasingly foolish ways on Walton - so look out for that on Monday if you're in the Stoke area; and if you're not, hopefully there should be something in Canal Boat and/or Waterways World next month.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Back in the old country

I been down that London. And thence further south still to check whether Newhaven is still there. It is, although Jim, though grateful for the Argus I brought back, says it's nothing like as good as the Express and Star.

My two day break started with lunch and a pint (Titanic Anchor) with a former colleague at the Bree Louise. If you are venturing into London from the Midlands, this is an excellent place to start. It's a couple of minutes walk from Euston, and has a really outstanding selection of real ales. You can also get a (admittedly average) pie and rather good chips (or mash if you prefer) from £6, and there's a discount on beer and pie if you show a CAMRA membership card. According to Mike, who accompanied me there once, it also has the most appalling gents he has ever visited in a British pub. But I will have to take his word for that, and suspect he may have caught them on a bad night.

Then after a trawl of Waterstones it was time to go and meet up with some more friends from Birkbeck for a drink (London Pride), and then, most excitingly, to go on with one of them to the highlight of the evening, dinner at the legendary Gay Hussar. Founded over fifty years ago, this Hungarian restaurant is famous as the haunt of politicians, cartoonists, and the staff of Private Eye. We didn't see anyone famous last night, but evidence of their presence was all over the walls in the form of cartoons and photographs. The food was enjoyable, and my smoked sausage starter was excellent, and very similar to the ones sold by Porters in Newark. We selected from a special offer limited menu which meant getting 50% off - three courses each, a half bottle of wine and two coffees for £48, including service - not to be sneezed at in a canalside pub, let alone in Soho. The portions were not too big, and my goulash (well, what else could have on my first visit) was very good too.

After a wonderful evening I got the train back to Newhaven to spend the night on Sebastian's sofa. No. 2 son proved a great host, and I had a pleasant morning chatting to family and neighbours before it was time to set out again on the long (but cheap! And comfortable) London Midland journey back home to the boats.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

No sooner said...

than done!
There's something not quite right though....

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

New image...


As you will know if you've read Alan's blog, or his thread on CanalWorld, we spent the weekend entertaining Alan and Cath Fincher. Indeed, I was so exhausted by all the fun we had, that I haven't posted for three days.

I wasn't sure whether taking Alan away from the internet for a whole weekend would help or hinder his election campaign, though I must say he certainly listened to us! As we chugged up the Shroppie Jim did his best impression of an election day tannoy car (he's had lots of experience) going 'Vote Alan Fincher' to no one on particular.

And David Mack of Fulbourne produced this wonderful illustration on CWF. I love it, because of course wholeheartedly support Alan, but I did feel I should point out that the other side, of course, says
Vote Sue Cawson!!!!

Friday, 10 February 2012

Cabbage colours

Some day I will get around to writing an erudite piece about the vital difference between delegates and representatives in the context of the C&RT elections, but tonight I've been sidetracked again by... ooh, look at the pretty colours...

Tonight I steamed some red cabbage, like you do, and was amazed when I came to do the washing up. The steamer in which the cabbage had been sitting was a glorious deep violet, while the water below had turned bright cyan blue.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

A good brew in Brewood

Last night we ventured out to the Civic Society again, where the speaker this time was from the Bournville Village Trust, and told a slightly smaller audience about the history and values of this still extant housing association, founded by the Cadbury family in 1900 - not just for their workers, contrary to popular belief (and unlike Saltaire and Port Sunlight) but to provide pleasant, healthy housing to a wide variety of people and give them the opportunity to get out of Birmingham's slums. Bournville - and a couple of newer satellite developments - are still run on the same principles today. What I thought was great was that although no members of the Cadbury family have been involved in Cadbury's chocolate business (now owned by Kraft of course) for years, nine out of the twelve Bournville Village trustees have family connections.

Decent, sustainable housing and the lessons it has offered over the years is surely a far greater legacy than the ever shrinking Creme Egg.

Afterwards we repaired to the Swan for a pint of Directors and a packet of pork scratchings. As usual it was very busy, and we sat at a table with a couple of blokes and got talking to them, and one of them, it transpired, was the new(ish) landlord of the Bridge. We promised him that we would take our guests there next weekend rather than to Wheaton Aston for lunch. We know the Bridge's food is good (and very reasonable); it's just that mooring and winding might be a bit trickier, but I'm sure we shall relish the challenge.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Super supper

Yes, I'm afraid it's recipe corner again, but I'm really pleased with this one, as it was my own invention and turned out really well. Lovely comfort food for a cold winter's evening, and a brilliant dish for entertaining vegans (or vegans entertaining).


Butternut squash, roasted garlic and ginger risotto

2 butternut squashes
1 bulb of garlic
1 small onion
A cubic inch or so of fresh ginger
Half a pack (about 250-300g) risotto rice
A generous glass of white wine
Olive oil
Vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

Quarter and seed the squashes. Separate and peel the garlic cloves. Lay both in a roasting tin and slosh olive oil over - use a pastry brush to make sure it's all covered. Put it in the oven at mark 6.

Chop the onion and the ginger very finely. In a heavy pan, gently fry in olive oil until soft. Add the rice and stir to coat in the oil. Then add the wine and stir. Turn it down to a simmer and keep stirring. When the wine is nearly all absorbed, start adding the stock. There's a lot of mythology about making risotto - keeping the stock simmering, adding it a ladle at a time, and stirring constantly. Not necessary, in my experience. This is the cheat's version. Obviously you do have to keep a close eye on it, and you do have to stir it frequently, but it doesn't come to any harm if you leave it for a minute or two or add a bit more stock at a time. Once the rice is done (bite a few grains to check) and the liquid all absorbed, take it off the stove and put a lid on it while you wait for the stuff in the oven to be done. Season with salt and pepper at this stage.

When the squash is soft (after about an hour, possibly longer if the gas runs out half way through), scrape if off the skin with a sharp-edged spoon. Add this to the rice. Squash the roasted garlic cloves, and add them, and the roasting oil, to the rice too. Gently stir until everything is evenly mixed, and serve. Unlike most risottos, this one doesn't even need any parmesan to be sumptuous.

Really. Try it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Lamplight

Before we left, Jim rang up the lovely people at Tilley International and ordered a couple of refurbishment kits - new plungers and washers - and some new mantles. The relatively new Tilley lamp (1980s vintage and bought boxed and unused at a jumble sale) had been working OK, but had starting losing pressure lately, while the older, brass one, bought in the antique shop here in Brewood (which sadly is no longer there) had never worked. The third lamp here is if I remember rightly, a more modern Bialaddin.


Jim sat in the back cabin and fettled this afternoon, and this was the result - three fully functioning lamps, and some nice photos, which put me in mind of paintings like this one.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Layers

Amy and Willow yesterday

The snow has gone almost as quickly as it came. By half past nine last night rain was falling, and it became much milder. There was still plenty of snow on the towpath as I walked into Brewood this morning. A few people had walked over it but I could still clearly make out the tracks of birds with big feet (coots perhaps), birds with small feet, and a rabbit. Along the side of the road were prints like a dog's, but with no human ones beside them, so I concluded that it might have been a fox. The going along the towpath was fine; it only became difficult once I got into the village, where the snow was trampled into ice on the pavements, and thrown into drifts of brown slush in the gutters. As it was so much milder, by the time I left the Co-op I had divested myself of woollie cardi and scarf. I walked for a while along a very posh lady who had just bought the Sunday Telegraph. She asked, wasn't I cold - as my top layer now consisted of a rather flimsy looking shirt. When I said no, she said, oh, what it is to be young, which was nice, but I thought I couldn't really collude in this untruth, so I said that I used to feel the cold, but had since discovered the miracle of layers. Ah yes, she said, layers. And thermal underwear, I said. Oh yes, she said, thermal underwear is marvellous. And so they are and so it is.


And for a rather dodgy link (recipe alert Nev!), dinner also consisted of layers. We bought some Jerusalem artichokes in Cannock last week, largely because you so rarely see them. The only time I'd had them previously I made a soup, but looking for something a bit different, I consulted the Blessed Delia. She said that they were good as a replacement for potatoes in potatoes boulangeres, and the recipe for that said that you could use leeks instead of onions, so here is what I did: Peel and thinly (1/4 inch) slice some potatoes (because I didn't have enough Jerusalem artichokes for the whole lot and, you will recall, we have a big sack of potatoes). I then parboiled these for five minutes even though the recipe didn't call for it because experience has taught me that potatoes never cook in the oven otherwise). I did the same with the J.A.s, and sliced but didn't pre-cook the leeks. Then layer these in a well oiled or buttered tin, starting and finishing with potatoes/J.A.s. Pour over about half a pint of stock. Lacking foil I then covered the tin with some baking parchment, and put it in the Epping, which was running at about 100 degrees C. After a couple of hours it was cooked and the top nicely browned, but I indulgently sprinkled it with grated cheese and put it back for another 45 minutes or so, uncovered. I have to say that to my mind this is not the most exciting dinner ever, but it was warm and comforting, easily cooked in the Epping, and the potatoes were very nice.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Visitations expected and unexpected

We were looking forward to an an enjoyable day today as Amy and James from Lucky Duck were visiting. Jim set off to meet them at Penkridge station, stopping on the way at Jaspers to stock up on buns, and at Midland Chandlers, strange as it may seem, for coal. The 'Stoveglow' they sell is slightly cheaper than Taybrite, seems to burn just as well, and leaves far less ash. He bought their last six bags, which might turn out to have been prescient.

Amy had made us a fantastic Bakewell tart. She thought we would have been given loads of them (just as they are always being given novelty duck gifts) but I had to say that while I'd had plenty of jokes about me now being the Bakewell tart (to which I invariably reply that I'd rather be a Bakewell tart than a Bakewell pudding, hee hee, so you needn't bother making that joke now), no one had actually presented me with one before. Amy is going to put the recipe on the Lucky Duck blog; I will just say that it was slightly off the traditional and was absolutely wonderful. And I'm not just saying that; I had three slices. And then, as we were drinking tea and eating buns, it started to snow...

And we went into Brewood for lunch at the Bridge, and it continued to snow; we came back for more tea and buns, and it snowed some more. We took photographs of the snow, and it snowed more still, and by the time Jim left to take Amy and James back to the station, traffic on the A5 was barely moving, and he only just managed to get back up the drive on his return. Meanwhile Willow had chosen today of all days to fall in the canal, misjudging his leap in the snow from butty stern to bank. Fortunately it is very shallow and gently shelving there so he got out without trouble but was a most pitiful sight. However, after a good rub down by the fire and a bowl of warm milk he appears to be restored to his fluffy self - just a little wiser we hope. I was unkind enough to take photos of him in his bedraggled state, but I'm not unkind enough to post one, so here he is earlier, trying to camouflage himself in the snow.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Routine

waking up one morning last week

When we first moved onto the boats just before Christmas I still felt as I needed a complete break from routine; a rest from responsibilities. I was reading the other week about 'seasonal affective disorder' - a form of depression that strikes in the winter, and which is often treated with exposure to bright light. The symptoms, officially, include lack of energy, needing to sleep a lot, and craving carbohydrates. This is supposed to be an illness, a pathology, a sign of something wrong! Bollocks, say I, it's our natural need to hibernate, at least partially; a need that we can't fulfil in this age of electric light, 24 hour capitalism, and rule by the clock rather than the sun, so we call it an illness instead and try to 'treat' the individuals who feel it the most strongly so that they can be made to fit back into the artificial rhythms of modern life.

So, for a month I just went with the flow, slept ten or eleven hours a night, and took it easy. I confess that my job was not a particularly onerous or routine bound one, although I didn't realise until after I stopped how stressful it was commuting to and within London for the past five years. In fact, the lack of routine might have been part of the problem. They may change over the course of the year, but life does naturally have rhythms, and a fragmented and unpredictable working day/week/month constantly throws these into disruption. So after a month, I was ready to find a routine again, and last week started putting one into practice. So far I am pleased to say it seems to have worked; I have achieved everything I set out to during this week just passed.

looking back towards the aqueduct (or approaching home)

I start most days by walking into Brewood to buy a paper and see if there's any post. After crossing the A5 and scrambling up the embankment it's a pleasant walk along the towpath, and makes a round trip of just over three miles. Even over the course of the past week I have observed the weather changing, as the mud freezes harder each day, and is also drying too. Yesterday there was a thin skim of ice on the canal; today it was thicker. Today was definitely a two jumper day. (Keep your fancy high tech fleeces; you just can't beat wool.) On Wednesday there was a craft fair in the village hall; and on the way home I bought a pot of hyacinths for a pound from outside someone's house.

At the beginning of the week I set myself a list of goals, realistic ones, and I have achieved them all, so that's a good feeling to go into the weekend with. When I gave up my job, I asked myself how I would describe myself if someone asked what I did for a living; I realised that I would like to be able to say that I was a writer. Thanks to my efforts this week, that seems to have come a step closer. Next week, I may try to start getting up a bit earlier...

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Beast of Bakewell

Photo: Pete Boyce

He so easily could have been the Beast of Bodmin, but I think we're all a lot happier with the way things turned out, buttywise.

Boat - or rather, canalside - life is certainly bringing out other sides of Willow's character. In the absence of the other cats, he's become a lot more affectionate, on the plus side. But on the minus side, since leaving his previous urban environment, he has become an enthusiastic devotee of country sports, otherwise known as chasing and killing defenceless mammals for fun. Only I don't suppose even the Quorn Hunt used to drag half dead foxes in and release them under the bed.

We were planning to get Willow a catflap, but this idea has been put on hold indefinitely pending the requirement that he be thoroughly searched before being readmitted to the boat. This morning Jim slipped up, whilst struggling out of the door with the porta-potti, realising too late that Willow had slipped past him, ominously purposeful, and even more ominously, silently (on account of having his mouth full of vole). This one was wholly dead, but parts of it still had to be removed from under the bed. The idea of him coming and going at will during the hunting season of the night, and delivering his prizes onto the pillow, hardly bears thinking about.