Saturday, 17 May 2014

Earith's own genius!

Sorry about the lack of blog posts over the last couple of days folks. I didn't fancy having to do the update while standing in the middle of a field which was the only way I could get a connection. Anyway, the glorious sunshine got us energised and we've fairly zoomed down river from Great Barford to last night's mooring at Earith.
(Before going on, a quick thank you to Nb Teal which appeared heading upstream as we were preparing to turn to moor at the last space on the EA moorings here. I thought he was going to nap 'our' spot but he politely let us in – and called out how much he liked the blog, too. For which another thank-you Mr Teal!)
Les and Elaine of Westview
At Earith we finally caught up with Les and Elaine Fiddler who own Westview Marina there which is where we kept our old wooden Broads cruiser, Venus.
Les is one of the cleverest people I know. And somebody else who's been energised by the sun.
When we first met he had recently bought the run-down Westview and was busy turning its fortunes around. Now it's a thriving marina and a busy boatyard. But that was just the day job. He also became a real enthusiast for electric boating and his solar and electric powered launch Annie is regularly seen on the Great Ouse.
Their solar and electric powered launch Annie
When we arrived back after seven years away we found that his enthusiasm for all things solar had considerably increased. Plugged in on the driveway is an electric powered Nissan Leaf car – "perfect for all the short journeys we do" - and the boatyard buildings sport sizeable photo-voltaic solar panels but pride of place is Les and Elaine's new house.
Les is a builder by background and built this himself. He insists that it is not an eco-house but a conventionally built home which maximises energy efficiency. The heart of it is a combined solar water heating system and ground source heat pump system of Les's own design.
On the large south face roof he has installed a grid of water piping laid into an insulated sub-surface. The pipes and insulation are painted black and then roofed over with tile-sized sheets of glass so the whole effect is visually very unobstrusive.
This is the house that Les built with its solar heating panels
Solar warmed water is then pumped from here down to three feet below ground under the house which Les built on an extra thick concrete pad. Ground temperatures at this depth are very stable and the concrete has a high thermal mass which means it heats slowly but, equally, loses heat slowly too.
The solar heated water warms the underground mass to a temperature of 20dec C plus and stores that warmth very efficiently. In winter, when the house needs heating internally the warmed water is pumped back up into a ground source heat pump (basically that's a 'reverse fridge') which multiplies that warmth to provide warm water for the underfloor heating system.
Because the ground has been pre-warmed by the solar heating, the heat pump can produce more heat for the house - around six times the heat put into it rather than the four-fold increase in normal heat pump systems. It goes without saying that the whole house has high levels of insulation and a heat recovery system too.
Apologies to Les if I haven't got any details right. Sometimes it's difficult to keep up with the flow of ideas and information that this self-taught genius comes up with. What about heat pump heating for a narrowboat he suggests, using the stable temperature of canal water as a basis? Or an electric narrowboat powered by one of the new electric pod motors which have prop and motor in a swivelling pod and enable drive to be directed to any angle?
Today we are heading off to Ely – I wonder what the remarkable Les will have got up to by the time we pay our next visit back to Westview?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Summer has arrived - hopefully

The wonderfully remote mooring at Barford Mills
We spent last night moored in Priory Marina, Bedford, taking advantage of our GOBA membership for a free night's stay. It was a chance to get the washing done in the laundry there and - for the cost of one whole British pound's worth of electricity – to charge the batteries, heat the water with the immersion and for Mrs B to do the hoovering before we left this morning.
Yesterday closed with thunderstorms and torrential rain showers so I left the marina expecting the river to be running fast and high. No, it was slower and lower than when we came up - I can't really think why.
Ozzie the owl enjoying his boat trip
We retraced the route we'd covered a few days back in high winds, wearing winter clothes, this time in tee-shirts and glorious sunshine. It was like a different river. Apart from the locks, of course. We almost got ourselves stuck in the first, Cardington, because of the low river level, but squeezed out to find the trip boat from the nearby Danish Camp waiting with Ozzie the European Eagle Owl riding on the roof.
Down in the depths of Castle Mill Lock
It's nice to try and find new mooring spots on an out-and-back trip so with some energetic reversing I got us backed up into the remote EA mooring at Old Barford Mills. It's an old lock cut and a gloriously picturesque spot. The old and new channels have created a mid-stream island on which is a cottage, accessed only by footbridge and with electricity by diesel generator. It's a remarkably remote spot to find so close to towns and traffic. Unfortunately the mooring was just too shallow for us to get at all near the edge so after a cup of tea and a relax in the sun we moved on, left the cottage to its fortunate inhabitant and moored once more at Great Barford Bridge.
Secluded hideaway on the island at Old Barford Mills
Not quite so isolated, for sure, but still a lovely spot where we spent the evening sitting on the deck and watching sand martins and great tits going back and forth to nests they'd made in tiny gaps in the stonework. And marvelling at the diving skills of a kingfisher as it plunged off the bridge into the river after fish. Who needs to go abroad when you've got weather and wildlife watching like this.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

In the beginning was Bedford

End of terrace in quiet side street, suit Messiah?
Bedford, as you are doubtless aware, is the Garden of Eden. You didn't know that? Neither did I to be honest but according to The Panacea Society it is and the end of terrace house, No18 Albany Road known as 'The Ark' was maintained by them as a residence for The Messiah after the second coming.
We've spent a couple of days wandering around Bedford and found this and more than a few other interesting things out about a town that I can't recall ever having visited or, more to the point, even wanting to visit. Yet it's home to more than 100,000 people.
The old park boat ramp is now a hydro-electric plant
It is, in footballing parlance, a town of two halves. Broadly speaking, east of the town bridge is a delight. The tree lined riverside embankment with its ample Edwardian houses is one of the nicest city riversides I've visited and the long park between the upper and lower rivers are wonderful – particularly at night when the yellow street lamps and green illuminations under the bridges give it an almost Riviera like elegance. Incidentally these lights are powered by a hydro-electric plant in what used to be a Victorian boat slide that moved small craft on rollers between the upper and lower rivers. The plant uses an Archimedian screw principle to drive an electric generating system that produces 160,000kwH a year.
Glenn Miller was a wartime regular here
Sadly, west of Bedford bridge things go downhill fast. The town's genteel old stone buildings were surrounded by 1960s concrete blockhouse architecture and the main shopping centre slides away into side streets of fast food outlets and nail bars quite quickly. Away from the river, it doesn't seem to be a wealthy town – another tale of traditional industries like engineering, brickmaking and brewing that have fallen away and not been adequately replaced.
The independent school buildings are now entrance to a mall
On the positive side, the council does seem to have got a grip on the problem. Some of the '60s horrors are being demolished and there is an ultra-modern new arts quarter that embraces the recently rebuilt Higgins Gallery and Museum – a mix of old Victorian home and modern extension. A shame that it has such a haphazard layout and a collection of exhibits that leave one coming away with more questions than answers about Bedford.
Victorian house and brewery with modern addition form town museum
 Another and particularly ingenious marriage of old and new is that the handsome classical facade of the old Bedford Modern School now opens into a covered shopping mall.
Sadly we couldn't visit the Panacea Society's museum as it only opens on Thursdays and Saturday mornings but Wikipedia as ever comes to the rescue. It all begins with the 18th century 'prophet' Joanna Southcott who left a mysterious box with instructions that it should only be opened in times of national crisis and in the presence of all 24 bishops. Needless to say, the bishops have never felt the need to get together for this purpose.
Home of Mabel Barltrop and her apostles
At one time Southcott had over 100,000 followers but gradually faded out until The Panacea Society founded by one Mabel Barltrop and her twelve apostles at 12 Albany Road Bedford was all that was left. For some reason - and I had hoped the museum would tell me - they believed Bedford was both the Garden of Eden and the site of the Second Coming.
Bonkers as all this might seem to you and me, the Society had some wealthy supporters and by 2001 was worth a reported £14million. Yes that's £14m! The last member died in 2012 and the Society has now become a charitable trust supporting various religious and anti-poverty projects in the area.
I reckon that  museum could well be worth a return trip to Bedford!
And finally...what would the town's famous son John Bunyan, firebrand preacher and author of 'Pilgrim's Progress' make of this....

Monday, 12 May 2014

Not so much pasta as pasty

Left over bolognese meat sauce from last night's dinner plus homemade pastry plus the back cabin stove plus the skills of Canal Boat mag's cookery writer (and author of The Canal Boat Cookbook) equals Pasty Bolognese - and a tasty change from a lunchtime sandwich.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Journey's end

Moored on the official moorings - at the wrong end of town
We are finally here in Bedford, moored up on the official town moorings. Journey's end. Well, strictly, not quite journey's end as the river is navigable for another mile or so but I'm not sure I'm enough of a canal collector to go up and back just for the hell of it. We'd probably get stuck anyway.
We actually did get stuck once on our way to Bedford. I've come across red buoys and green buoys but on the bend before Cardington Lock were some orange buoys. I decided to treat them as if they were red. Wrong! we got stuck - fortunately only slightly and a bit of poling and reversing soon saw us away.
It's been another windswept day on the water, though thankfully a dry one. After leaving Great Barford we found ourselves on a largely narrow and winding stretch, lined with huge willows waving ominously in the wind.  After Willington the rural up-river feel gradually disappears and the river starts to open out, with noisy main roads forewarning the imminent appearance of a town.
Winding tree lined stretches on the final run in to Bedford
But first we had the biggest lock on the river - the 14ft deep Castle Mill Lock. As well as being imposingly deep (though by no means as deep as several canal locks) this has a peculiar mode of operation. It empties and fills from sluices at the centre. The trick when filling we were told by another boater is to put your boat at the same side as the sluices: water then enters the lock, goes under the boat, bounces off the other wall and presses you in place. It worked - well, more or less.
The striking pyramid on the edge of town houses a swimming pool
Cardington, though home of the giant R100 and 101 airship hangars which you sadly can't see from the river is a tiny lock by contrast but has a sting in the tail. You need to turn 90 degrees right on the exit, which wasn't easy with wind and flow pushing the other way. But a full power, tiller hard over exit got us round.
After all these sizeable locks, it came as something of a surprise to find that the entry to the final one is via two extremely low bridges. We slid under them - just - but how frustrating it would be to arrive at Bedford and find yourself failing at the final hurdle before the town riverfront.
In the final lock - note the summer attire
Not that it would be a serious issue; the run in to the lock is along a fine riverside park, effectively an island bisected by the navigation channel and main stream of the river with elegant footbridges linking across the two to the main town. In some ways it's the nicest spot to moor – a fair walk from the centre of town but along a fine, elegant and wide tree-lined promenade of a road.
The handsome riverside promenade along the river at Bedford
We, though, went through the lock, turned left onto the main river and headed upriver past a very handsome length of stone balustraded wall, the rowing club and under the main town bridge. All very handsome, but things peter out after this and the official town moorings a half mile on, though close to the shopping centre, are in a rather shabby part of town.
Tomorrow we will explore what already seems a much more interesting town than I'd expected and maybe move back to the park mooring for the night.
(No pictures tonight - the internet connection is too slow.)
Pictures now added!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Blowing in the wind

Journey's end for today at Great Barford
Today we are moored up for the day by 1.30 p.m. Only four hours of cruising done but the nine miles and three locks felt easily twice that much in the blustery conditions with 20-25 mph crosswinds most of the way.
Like yesterday, it was a day to stare nervously at all those tall waving willows – and at the ones that had already fallen or lost branches along the riverside!
No, you're not seeing things. This is a garden on a widebeam's roof
Once you've left the attractive riverside parkland of St Neots the river is back into open floodplain but this is soon bisected by an sspectacular new footbridge, nearly 400 metres long that provides a walking and cycle route between Eaton Socon and Eynesbury/St Neots on the two sides of the river and its floodplain.
The 400m 'Willow Bridge' runs right across the Ouse and floodplain
After the millside setting of Eaton Socon Lock the river enters a wide, straightish and somewhat charmless stretch - I think the change from 4mph to 7mph speed limit is a clue - passing the large Little Barford power station to one side and large golf course and old gravel pits on the other.
A big tight S-bend comes as a surprising and welcoming challenge then it's more of the same straight running to Tempsford where 19th century and 20th century bridges carry the A1 cariageways over the water.
Passing under the A1 bridges at Tempsford
After this the river reverts back to its twisty, willow lined style, passing a large 'private, no mooring' landing stage which once served the A1-side Anchor Hotel. The might of Google later revealed that this is now 'The Vanilla Alternative' swingers club - a hotel, bar and 'play areas' for members. If you know what a swingers club is, fine; if you don't, well I'm not telling you here!
Shortly after this we reached our own play area, Roxton Lock. Here the river weir runs straight at you across the full width of the river as you approach the lock which is to the side of it. Coming upriver after two or three days of wet weather, the weir stream was pushing us hard towards the river edge and the landing stage. If we had needed to moor to open the lock, it would have been a fight back off against the force of it. But the lock was open we went straight in under a lot of power with the tiller hard over to keep the boat squared up...and hoping I'd got the right line and could stop quickly when in the lock. Fun.
Heading for the lock with the weirstream at Roxton coming at us
It's a nice twisty stretch after Roxton - or would have been if I wasn't constantly looking at those trees – and up to Great Barford Lock, which is a carbon copy of Roxton. Again the gates were open and we could go straight in. I'm already looking forward to having fun with these on the way back down river.
Just after the lock are attractive EA moorings on a village green, by a pub and overlooking the handsome, multiple stone arches of Barford Bridge. A lunch stop was soon agreed among the crew to become an end-of-play stop too.
Seven miles and four more locks tomorrow should see us in Bedford. Then we turn round and head back!

Beyond the call of duty - brass polishing the exhaust on the move

Friday, 9 May 2014

Slowly up river

Gulliver in Lilliput: in among the plastics at St Ives
A meandering few days have seen us move slowly to tonight's mooring at St Neots. We left Westview Marina on Monday, having contrived to miss the owners, Les and Elaine, who'd set off an hour earlier to St Ives in their electric launch.
We set off in pursuit, glimpsed them moored in St Ives but by the time we'd found a mooring and walked back, they had gone! We'll have to make sure not to miss them on the way back.
It was Bank Holiday Monday and the river was alive with boats of every shape and size – most of them plastic, though. Being in a 24 ton steel narrowboat I felt a bit like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, trying to be very careful not to squash them.
Waits Quay water point nicely disguised as bollard
I don't knock plastic boats: we started boating in a little Freeman and boats like these are affordable family fun, unlike most narrowboats. But, boy, some of the bigger, flash looking plastics make one hell of a wake and do go absurdly fast.
I spent most of the day sneezing with what I thought was hay fever but which by Monday night was clearly the start of man-flu so on Tuesday I moaned, groaned and snuffled and we stayed in St Ives. I did test my reversing skills though, getting us stern first up the backwater leading to Waits Quay in the town itself.
On a cloudy, grey and blustery Wednesday we headed off. The river is at its most picturesque here as it winds past the pretty Hemingfords -  Grey and Abbots and then Houghton with its National Trust Mill. Pretty places to stop when the sun's out but not on a chilly inhospitable day.
Passing the pretty riverside village of Hemingford Grey
Huntingdon bridges, old and new
On through Huntingdon, whose old arched river bridge is dwarfed by the huge A14 bridge piers beyond. After this, the river makes a couple of tight turns and the navigation channel runs through a myriad of intriguing backwaters, the other side of which is the quiet and handsome old town of Godmanchester.
These narrow lock channels are something of a feature of the Great Ouse but none is stranger than the one at our next lock, Brampton. Here the lock is clearly in sight across the other side of a wide straight stream but the channel marker insists we turn left and go round a long narrow and shallow semi circle that brings us out at right angles to the lock landing. Apparently, as we later learned, the weir can run very hard across the straight entry route, hence the safety first alternative.
Spot the channel marker: I nearly didn't
I had marked Buckden Marina, a couple of miles on, as a likely source for diesel (it wasn't - it costs a crazy 129p a litre!) and as we edged to the jetty a figure came running from one of the waterside lodges shouting "what are you lot doing here!".
It was Nick, an old mate of ours from Streethay days who now lives there with his partner Pauline. And it turns out, he now owns a tug with a Lister JSM (the slightly newer version of our JP) engine. Cue mooring outside their home, a few hours reminiscing and talking about engines.
Yesterday's weather was dire so we took a day off boating and nipped to London on the train for a flying grandparently visit. Today has been much brighter, though with the sort of ferocious wind that has you looking nervously at every waving willow tree.
We haven't come far; through the small and narrow Offord Lock that's a historical bottleneck in busy times and then the much bigger St Neots lock where swathes of modern waterside houses and flats have replaced the old paper mills and industry of our last trip up here.
From here it's a mile or so through water meadows on one side and the sweeping gardens of large houses on the other and into the town. We are moored on a floating pontoon right by the town bridge, a few minutes from the shops, and with the pretty riverside park across the water. From the road, the town is a mass of rather bland housing development but the old centre still has a certain charm.
Tonight as we ate dinner we heard loud splashing outside - it was swimmers from the local Nice Tri triathleton club practising for an event this weekend. Think I'll stick with boating, thank you.
Triathletes practising on the river at St Neots

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Out on the Old West

The delightful Old West River
We've spent the last 24 hours out along the old west. Not the old west of cowboy fame but something altogether much more tranquil, the Old West river, the oddly named stretch of river that runs between the Ely Ouse and the Bedford Ouse.
Last time we headed upstream from Ely we branched left onto the River Cam. This time we forked right, in front of the recently reburbished Fish & Duck marina, onto the Old West.
Passing the restored steam powered fen pump house at Stretham
The character of the river immediately changes from wide, straight and deep to narrow, winding and in places relatively shallow. A quiet, rural river of great charm and variety compared with the often featureless Ely Ouse. There are less floodbanks so the views are more open, more trees and there's plenty of wild life.
The reason for the change of pace lie in the origins of the river. Originally it was a meandering stream flowing westwards (hence the name) which the Romans linked by canal to the Bedford Ouse at Earith and then in medieval times the river was joined to the Cam to complete the current route.
Lovely narrow tree lined stretch above The Lazy Otter pub
 For boats this is now the accepted inland waterway route from the upstream Ouse through to Ely and Denver though at Earith there is a direct - and tidal - connection to the Ouse just beyond Denver, the New Bedford River, created as part of the fenland drainage network. There's a substantial manned lock at the meeting of the Old West and the Ouse and Bedford waterways, the result of all this is being that the Old West is a very placid and slow flowing river.
Derelict boat slowly being reclaimed by the countryside
A few years ago when we boated in this area, a jaunt from Earith or St Ives to Ely for an overnight stop and an Indian take-away or fish and chips was our regular weekend trip and I suppose familiarity made us a little bored with the route. Returning to it after time away was a chance to see again just how pretty it can be, mixing wide sweeping bends with narrow tree-lined stretches, clear sections where we spotted a grebe swimming underwater and others where the dreaded blanket weed started to roll up round our prop.
We moored for the night at the GOBA moorings near Aldreth, a spot of utter tranquility with not a sound to be heard apart from the occasional bird call. The sun had shone all the way from Ely and it continued to shine today as we continued toward Earith.
Our remote and peaaceful mooring near Aldreth
The lock here is manned by a keeper as it is a tidal one, with the lock chamber being under the main road from Cambridge. We emerged from it into a completely different river, once more wide and deep - wider even than the Ely Ouse and with signs of winter flooding still obvious in the swampy meadows.
And we were greeted by another old friend - the famous Earith seal, swimming happily in the river and a few minutes later munching on a large fish. Because of the open link through to the Wash seals routinely find their way here and bask on the jetties at nearby Westview Marina. Which is where we too basked in the evening sun at the end of a delightful day.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Eel Day in Ely

The stars of the show - some of Ely's eels
The Isle of Ely owes much of its fortune to eels: before the Fens were drained eel fishing in the marshy waterways was a major activity. The city celebrates its slithery history in the annual Eel Festival which has been running for ten years now.
It's a weekend of family fun and a food and drink festival that has more than just jellied eels on offer.
Moored hard by the Jubilee Park we had a front row seat for the fun and games which started with an Eel Day parade through the city. Let's just say that wasn't quite the Notting Hill Carnival but the rest of the day's events did rather better.
Novinka Folkskaband playing folk and ska and more
A local samba band, clay eel making for the kids, the 'world eel throwing' championships (with toy eels I hasten to add), the very entertaining Novinka Folkskaband and – my favourite – the RATS. That's short for the Re-enacting Ancient Times Society which is basically a gang of blokes who enjoy wearing a variety of costumes from various days-of-yore and bashing seven sorts of sod out of each other with a variety of implements before retiring to the pub and quaffing - to judge by their proportions - numerous pints of days-of-yore ale. Oh, and their girlfriends who stand around looking demure but ever so slightly bored in maiden's outfits.
Today the RATS were 12th century knights doing battle practice and they did genuinely bash each other quite painfully at times.
The RATS do battle before heading for ye ale house
The Ely waterfront moorings were, not surprisingly, full with a variety of boats including a couple of smart Dutch barges and a trio of narrowboats moored up triple-breasted.

Fine collection of boats on the waterfront

Thursday, 1 May 2014

May Day meanderings

It's May Day; arguably the one day of the year outside of Christmas Day and January 1st that carries its own familiar quotations. Before nine a.m. I had heard both of them on the radio:
"Ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out" and "the darling buds of May".
But what exactly do they mean? Time for a bit of Googling and some random fact finding....

Ne'er cast a clout is simple: it means don't put your winter woolies away until May is out,  'clout' being a 15th century word for a garment. But the 'May' in question is not the month but the white blossom of the may tree or hawthorn, which of course typically comes out in May or June.
"The Darling Buds of May" was a tv series derived from an HE Bates novel and starring David Jason and the young and very beautiful Catherine Zeta Jones but it originates with Shakespeare whose Sonnet 18 must be one of the most beautiful poems of all time:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

Reading it, facts drifted back from the dim recesses of my memory of my English Lit GCE  .. a sonnet is 14 lines of iambic pentameter whose lines rhyme ABABCDCDEE. The weird stuff one remembers when you manage to forget why you just walked into the kitchen!

May Day is a spring festival in many northern countries but also the traditional celebratory day for international trade union and socialist movements. Why? I presumed it must have been a starting day for one of the big revolutions in France or Russia but, no it dates from the 'Haymarket Massacre' of1886 in Chicago. Heard of it? I certainly hadn't.
In the rapidly industrialising USA of that time workers were campaigning for an eight hour day. On May 4 in Chicago's Haymarket Square there was a large and peaceful demonstration which turned violent when police tried to break it up and an unknown person threw a bomb into the crowd which killed seven police.
Eight anarchist labour leaders were charged with conspiracy though no evidence linked them to the bomb. After something of a show trial with a hostile judge and biased jury seven were sentenced to hang. One committed suicide and  four others were hanged. The remaining three were later pardoned by a new Illinois governor.
The hanged men became martyrs to labour movements around the world and May 1st was taken up around the world as the day to remember them and continue the campaign for workers' rights.

That is the end of today's lesson in random facts! Normal blogging resumes tomorrow.