November 21, 2013

Burning bright

Filed under: Canal,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 9:33 pm

This time of year boater small talk is invariably about the fire. In September and early October, not long after hello, and how are you? we invariably ask, lit your fire yet?

Boaty Brits are not so different from other sorts, and moderation is still where virtue lies. Eyebrows are raised at news of fires before the second half of September, and the unreasonable abstinence of those who wait until November is likewise quietly despised.

But now, without controversy, the morning and evening mist above the canal is thickened with smoke, and the distinctive smell of burning coal drifts along the whole length of the city towpath moorings. Even the hardiest among us have long since lit their fires, and almost to a one we have the same goal: to keep it going continuously until sometime in March or April, when the boater greeting will change again: Still keeping your fire in? (with, perhaps, another raised eyebrow at any unusual indulgence.)

Each year, though this is my fifth winter aboard, it takes me a few weeks to get the hang of keeping the fire in. In October I often let it go out, because the discipline is new each autumn, and because warm Indian summer afternoons lure me to forget how grumpy and cold I will be in the evening, kneeling before the stove and blowing on tiny, reluctant sparks. If embers only understood cussing, they would certainly glow red.

The colder days and long nights of November bring more focus, and though I no longer forget to stoke the fire, a strong desire to stay in bed – it’s too dark and too cold to get up – means I risk the night before’s pile of coal turning to ashes long before I’ve dragged myself from under the covers. More tiny, reluctant sparks, and more bad language.

But all has been well, and the fire continuously lit, for 10 days or so, and I am congratulating myself that I have got the hang of it for another winter on board.

I thought I might try to keep a diary of this winter on Pangolin, and this is my first entry. Perhaps when I am really cold and lonely and tired of the dark, and have nothing interesting to say, I will post about the opposite – the warmth and companionship and light of the summer just gone.

February 8, 2013

Earth, wind, fire — and flood

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:30 am

I thought I’d posted the following way back in January, but since I wasn’t expecting any comments, I never checked…  I find some internet inattention means it never appeared….

Never mind!  Life has barely changed.  I was away in February, but the wind was, I am told, unremittently in the east.  I returned this week to a promise of spring, but the weatherpeople assure us that it is back to winter next week.

Below, for what it’s worth, is my January post:

The wettest English summer on record gave way to an autumn with rain still failing. For weeks every lock on the Thames sported red boards — forbidding navigation to all but the foolhardy — and scuppered my plans for river cruising.

Some boats who ventured out despite the warnings sank. Others who stayed obediently at home were ripped from their moorings, swept into open weirs, and also sank. The canal was mostly safe, but the southernmost end of the South Oxford, where I moor, is fed by the River Cherwell, the smaller of the two rivers that flow through the city. The water here can also rise and fall quickly: leave your ropes too tight as the levels change, and your boat may list, fill with water, sink. The internet was full of sad tales and dire warnings.

Returning home from my autumn canal cruises, I tied Pangolin to her moorings in late October and stayed put. I missed the boaters’ Christmas dinner at my old mooring. Last year I brought her singlehanded through the four lift bridges, four locks and seven miles between me and the Rock of Gibraltar, and tied up in the pub garden for the Christmas fun, but the last part of that journey crosses the River Cherwell, and this year I didn’t dare risk the floods. I made a tentative plan to take the journey for New Year instead, but once again I googled the Environment Agency’s account of the swollen river, and cancelled my trip.

In the late afternoon of the 31st of December, in the last hours of 2012, it finally stopped raining. We partied on the towpath around a fire built in an old washing machine drum, and celebrated not being wet.

The legacy of 2012, continuing well into the New Year, is the mud, treacherously slippery along the towpath. Even the shortest walk brings it home, caked to my boots and splattered to my knees. Every visitor tramped in more, however much I policed indoor and outdoor shoes.

Finally, the wind changed direction, the mud froze, the temperature plummeted, and we were twice threatened with what the tabloid press likes to call the “Beast from the East”. An east wind doesn’t sound so bad until you look at a map and work out that if you go far enough east of here, you hit Siberia.

The first Beast from the East brought only a few flurries, but the second dumped snow over much of the country. Then it snowed some more. We aren’t used to it, and it doesn’t take much for all transport to fail.

Snow or not, in winter, as no other season, the weather dominates life on the boat. The strict regimen of the fire demands order the way no other task has since my children were small. Like a baby it must be coddled every few hours, and put to bed at night well stoked, hoping it will last until morning (I won’t push the simile any farther).

Three times a week I heave of a 25kg bag of coal from the roof of my boat to the covered space on the bow. From there I shovel coal into the scuttle and stoke the fire. I save each empty coal bag to take away the cooled ashes. Only once all winter (so far!) have I accidentally let it go out.

There are worse punishments for getting your fire regimen wrong than waking up freezing cold. Whether through careless attention to the rigours of the coal stove, or unprotected candles, or some other cause, fire has destroyed two boats near me and cost one life.

At my new mooring, just around the corner on the cut that links the canal with the river Thames, a boat burned so fiercely that the bones on board could not be identified for weeks. At my old mooring, my old next door neighbour leapt naked in the early hours one Saturday morning, sans teeth and spectacles, to watch blurry-eyed as his boat blazed.

Compared to that, my troubles are small. The taps froze and I eked out the remains of water onboard most unhygienically. Stoking the fire, I counted the hours until the promised thaw.

It came sooner than predicted; I was sorry when the last promised snow fell instead as rain, but the little warmth it brought came, at first, as a relief. Towards dawn, when the wind swung back to the west, and blew in, one after another, a bank of Atlantic storms, I shed one of the two duvets I had been snuggling under.

Now, the canal is again filled with the brown run off from flooded rivers and the towpaths are thick and slippery with mud. If it weren’t so bloody cold getting out of bed in the morning, I’d fill up my water tank and vote for an east wind all winter long.

November 6, 2012

Captain’s Diary, 6 November 2012: Election night

Filed under: A long way from home,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 9:35 pm

It turned frosty last week, just after I got back from my autumn cruises, and just before the country turned back the clocks, that sad Saturday in late October when British Summer Time gives way to Greenwich Mean, and we know winter is really baring down upon us.

This morning was the coldest so far, with a thick frost outside and ice in all the puddles. I huddled under my two duvets until the sun pouring in the back porthole that I always keep uncovered shamed me into finally getting out of bed.

From the back of Pangolin, where my bed is, I can’t tell whether the fire is still lit — all I know is it’s cold. I try to keep the stove going all night, but it is a delicate balance — burning it low enough so it consumes the fewest nuggets of coal, but not so low that it goes out altogether. The plan is, if I keep the ash pan almost full and the air vents barely open, a fire that seems all but dead at dawn will be summoned back to life the moment it’s needed, though I mustn’t push my luck and lay abed too long.

Last night (hurrah!) I husbanded the fire as I ought, and this morning the routine of brisk riddling, pulling out the ash pan and laying it to cool on the hearth, leaving open the bottom door of the stove to give the fire air was all it needed. By the time the kettle was boiled for tea, the coals were glowing bright red.

On the towpath the local excitement — and sadness — is the cutting of the willow trees on the other side of the canal. The sound of chainsaws let me know they were at it again this morning.

I’d chatted with the woodcutters when they first arrived last week. We’ve got to keep the waterways clear, they said, and I reluctantly agreed they did. On my recent cruise I lost my expensive, tall chimney (foolishly left lying on its side on the roof — you can’t cruise under the low bridges with anything but a stub of a chimney, and tall ones have to be taken down, but I should have put mine safely away). A batch of wayward willow branches stretching low across the canal swept it into the water. A pretty pelargonium went overboard with the chimney.

I chatted to our woodcutters again a few days into their pruning fest. They were eyeing the only willow that seemed to me a problem, one that nearly overhangs a neighbouring boat, and they asked if I knew when that boat owner might be back. They wanted to move the boat, in case the tree fell the wrong way.

That boat’s abandoned, I said. The mooring fees and license are paid, but no one comes. The woodcutters and I agreed, looking it over, it must have been a lovely and well-loved boat. On the roof is a row of wooden planters and ceramic pots, now growing only weeds, and a bag of compost, its plastic faded and degrading, still waiting for new season bulbs. The neatly coiled ropes on front and rear decks are covered in algae and green slime. Black mold makes peering into the windows almost unrevealing, but I can see enough to see that the insides were once carefully fitted out for comfortable cruising.

I’d heard from Dusty, the fuel boater who knows everything, why no one ever came to such a fine boat. It belonged to an elderly couple, and the husband died — I think Dusty said he died suddenly, on a cruise on the Thames, only a few miles from here, but I admit I may have embroidered those details, because someone else told me it was cancer, and slow and expected. Anyway, British Waterways sorted the widow out a mooring, here on the edge of Oxford, such moorings being usually rare, and rarely expensive. This seems to me a typically human face of British Waterways, though it is fashionable to grumble about them.

However it happened, once the husband died, his wife never came back, and their boat, moored next to mine, has been empty, and slowly turning from blue to green, since I moved here.

When I’d told the woodcutters this story, and we’d muttered about how sad it was, and I’d said that no one would ever notice if they moved the boat to cut the tree, and gave them permission to move my boat as well, I went out. I mentioned I might go over the canal when they were done and scrounge some wood, if that was okay. We talked a bit about which sorts of wood burned best and longest, and they loyally championed willow.

I came home to find outside my boat a neatly stacked pile of willow logs, trimmed to just the right size for a boat’s fire, left for me by the woodcutters.

Still, I am sorry for the chopping. It is much more extensive than I had imagined. The tree where kingfishers darted amongst the branches is gone, and the views along the canal are much changed. I know the willows will come back; I hope the kingfishers will.

Speaking of Dusty, he’s due. I’m on his border, one of the last customers he visits before he moors up for the night on the outskirts of Oxford, or one of the first he calls on on his way into town — I never know which it is going to be.

Dusty’s first call is early, and since I haven’t seen him tonight I expect to feel his boat banging up beside mine, and hearing him ring his bell, well before 8 tomorrow morning. He’ll fill my tank with diesel, toss half a dozen bags of coal onto my roof, and leave a bottle of propame gas on the bank, taking away the empty I’ve left for him.

For me, it won’t be the best morning to wake early, as I expect I’ll be cuddled up to the radio all night, like the mid twentieth century wayward child I am, once again listening out for the returns in Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, Virginia and the rest.

Four years ago I sat up all night with my two younger, almost grown, children at their father’s house in Oxford and drove home alone at six in the morning listening to the words of a victory speech that filled me with extraordinary hope and joy.

This year, a more sensible woman would just go quietly to bed. Whatever, first I’ll drag another 25kg bag of coal from the roof, fill the coal scuttle, stoke the fire, riddle the grail and twiddle the knobs; that way, there probably won’t be a disaster in the morning — at least not with the fire.

July 25, 2012

Safely home

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 10:41 pm

The jetstream shifted north, the rain stopped, and the red, no navigation signs on the upper Thames gave way to yellow, caution boards.

I drove the car up to the boat yard, admired Pangolin’s splendid, new, black hull and paid the bill without fainting. As I was wondering whether she would start without a jump (a real issue if the engine hasn’t been fired up for more than a week), I spotted a stack of lovely new batteries.

In a few minutes I’d bought a new starter battery and sweet-talked the yard into hooking it up at no extra charge. (They got the scrap value of the old battery, and I didn’t have to do the heavy lifting.)

At the same time we agreed that I would head home on their Trade Plates, meaning I did not have to spend an extra almost £40 buying a full day’s license for the Thames, just to go through the one lock that separates me from my usual canal home. The deal involved air quotes (an international symbol, though as it still unknown to the QWERTY keyboard, I must simply say that the lock keeper was informed that I had the plates “on board”).

As the new starter battery also needed — without irony — to get on board, I agreed to come back the next day to pick up the boat.

The engine fired first time. Pangolin was tied to another boat out of the yard, on the river and pointing upstream, so my first job was to turn around, not so easy in the still strong current, but finally I was off.

I got around the bends, under toll the bridge, past the moored boats, and into the lock with no real trouble. The lock keeper knew I was on my way, and working the boat solo, and he was very nice and helpful — checking that I was okay holding only the centre line as the water level dropped. (I shared the lock with a big, wide, fibre glass cruiser whose crew eyed my nineteen tons of steel with anxiety. I tossed them a look of consumate confidence, and held the line tight.)

As I pulled out of the lock the keeper advised me to give the engine some revs past the weir stream. After a hundred yards or so, he said I would be fine.

The journey back, downstream, was much faster than going against the strong current two weeks earlier, and I soon saw those pesky DANGER signs at King’s lock weir.

(Here I meant to supply a photo, but decided I had probably better pay attention to driving the boat instead…)

In another few moments I was in Duke’s Cut, leaving the danger behind.

The Thames locks are manned, but on the canal it is do-it-yourself, so I was glad to see a group of kayakers at the lock at the end of Duke’s Cut. The kids were very keen to close the lock gate behind me. I slipped out of the cut, and turned a sharp right towards Oxford.

Three dry days meant the lift bridge had lost some of its water weight, and I just managed to close it behind me, passing my last obstacle. In a few minutes I was manoevering the boat back into her mooring.

I had been gone almost two weeks. The nettles and brambles were out of control and the birds were starving.

I was home.

July 18, 2012

In which Pangolin goes to the boatyard to get her bottom blacked

Filed under: Canal — Duchess @ 10:36 pm

I fired up the engine, attached the tiller arm, and untied the bow rope at six o’clock, then, with my British Waterways key in hand, I strolled the few hundred yards up the tow path to the first obstacle: one of the manual lift bridges that make solo boating on the South Oxford Canal a challenge.

BW has recently altered most of these bridges so that they can only be opened with a key — and you can’t get your key back until you pull the bridge closed.

I put my key in the lock and lifted the bridge without much difficulty. After a few bounces it sat up reassuringly (the one on the other side of me has an alarming tendancy to drift back down), and I jogged back to Pangolin. The bow had drifted gently out; I untied the stern line, hopped on board, and set off.

Lift Bridge open and ready

As the boat reached the bridge it began to rain heavily, again. I tied up on the other side of the bridge and went back to retrieve my key. I managed this bridge several times on my own last year, but this summer’s extreme wet has left the bridge so heavy that it was impossible for me to lower it. I hung from chain with no effect and had to wait until a passing bicyclist came to my rescue and closed it for me — and even he found it difficult.

Just after the lift bridge a sharp left leads to a lock and Duke’s Cut — a channel about half a mile long constructed by the Duke of Marlborough, and opened in 1789 linking, for the first time, the Oxford Canal with the River Thames. The Duke owned a paper mill by the river, and I suppose his cut meant the paper could be more easily transported to its main customer, Oxford University Press. Later, when the mill was no longer water-powered narrowboats brought coal along the Cut to run the mill.

At the lock I saw red boards were up, meaning the river authority advises “users of all boats not to navigate because the strong flows make it difficult and dangerous”.

Too late! I was already committed. I had booked my slot at the boat yard for bottom blacking and new anodes months ago and Pangolin was due to come vout of the water first thing in the morning.

The rain was coming down in torrents as I worked the lock and entered Duke’s Cut.  I rounded the first few bends when a passing boat, headed in the opposite direction, shouted that the river was rising and I shouldn’t try to navigate the Thames.

“Just as far as the boat yard,” I called cheerfully, and carried on.

Duke’s Cut joins the Thames just above King’s Lock, and straight ahead is the large DANGER sign of the weir. As I turned the boat upstream I immediately felt the current hurtling me towards the weir. Pushing the throttle down hard, I swung the tiller around and felt the boat pull slowly away from the weir.  My instinct around trouble is to slow down; I have had to learn that on a boat it is sometimes better to speed up.

The strong current meant that even at nearly full throttle the journey to the next lock (just before the boatyard) took an hour. When I was safely tied up in the lock moorings I called Ratty who was waiting at the local pub to help lock me through. Unlike on the canal, Thames locks are manned during the day, but by the time I arrived, the lock keeper had long since finished his shift.

In a few moments Ratty and Bones (a blog friend I have oftened waved to but never actually met before) appeared. Ratty assured Bones I wouldn’t need both gates; he opened a single gate, and I drove in, Bones admiring the power of my engine to keep the boat straight in the strong current (while I was mightily relieved not to mess up in front of an audience).

Ratty rode with me as Bones closed the lock. I negotiated the arches of Swinford Bridge without mishap, but watching the current swirl around the bridge, I was already worrying about getting my boat back. Going upstream under the arches was one thing — hurtling down through the arches and round a bend towards a row of moored fibreglass boats looked like quite another — and Ratty agreed that he had had about the scariest narrowboat ride in his life going downstream through the same bridge the week before.

I said I was also worried about the weir at King’s Lock and Ratty replied that that was why Bones was still on the Thames — she wanted to be back on the canal but doesn’t dare make the turn.

Meanwhile, my plan was, once the boat was tied up at the boatyard, and the keys dropped off, to bicycle back along the towpath the five or so miles to Oxford, but I had badly mistimed my arrival, and it was nearly dark when I set off on the bike, and both Bones and Ratty looked sceptical, warning me how waterlogged the path was.

My wheels sank so far into the mud that I kept having to get off and drag the bike, while water poured over the tops of my trainers. I made it as far as the lock, more walking than riding, where I abandoned the towpath for the road. It was the long way round, but once I reached the A road into Oxford I knew there was a bicycle path all the way.

The road route took me over the bridge I had boated under. Though it is a public road,a private owner was by a 1767 Act of Parliament given the right to collect tolls (now 5p for cars; more for lorries and buses). The bridge causes huge traffic jams and, though it sounds like it would hardly be worth collecting the toll, apparently it brings in (income tax free, also by that old Act of Parliament) revenues of a couple of hundred thousand pounds a year. The bridge was sold a few years ago for more than £1.5 million.

Bikes are exempt from the toll, and I sped though, along the dark road and around several roundabouts until I reached the main road that comes into Oxford from the west and joined the bike path.

By then it was pitch dark, and as the bike path into Oxford faces oncoming traffic, I was blinded by headlights for much of the ride. Nevertheless, I almost made it unscathed, but only a quarter of a mile or so out of the city I was blinded where the path had an abrupt edge, and hitting the edge I was thrown off. I suffered nothing worse than torn rain trousers and a skinned knee so, glad that I had left my little dog in Oxford instead of carrying her in the bike basket as I sometimes do, I brushed myself off and continued my ride.

At nearly eleven o’clock I wheeled my bike into my ex-husband’s house in Summertown, Oxford. He was away, but had kindly offered me a place to stay while the boat was in the yard.

And there I am now stranded, as the wet weather continues relentlessly.

April 19, 2012

Drought Orders

Filed under: BBC radio addiction,Canal,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 10:38 pm

It’s raining hard. In fact, it has rained for some part of almost every day since a drought was officially declared last week in most of southern England and Wales. (Scotland is, as usual, drenched.)

The Orders are typically British: complicated, detailed and humane. For example, under Drought Orders you are not allowed to use a hosepipe to fill a garden pond or water feature, unless your water feature features fish.

Do not go out and buy goldfish just to beat the ban! pleaded the water company spokesman, interviewed days before the Orders came into force. The BBC journalist asked more probing questions, and we learned that any living creature you introduce into your pond triggers an exemption, while one that wanders in accidentally — a frog, say — does not.

Everyone knows the Brits are obsessed with weather. Never mind however many words Eskimos have for snow, I reckon Brits could give them a run for their money with rain. An early favourite of mine was “merged showers” but I have more recently been won over by “wetting rain”.

They teach this weather obsession in school, and they start early. When he was two and a bit, I enrolled my first born son in a playgroup run by one of the Oxford colleges. For most of the three hours, five mornings the kids raced around on tricycles. There were a few puzzles and the odd doll, but preschool was mostly about wheels; there was no structure, or even a nod at educational content, except at mid-morning juice and biscuits. Then everyone sat in a circle, and, raising her Dixie cup, the teacher solemnly asked, Now children, what is the weather like?

Later in the curriculum, I guess, the kids learn to be judgmental about weather. The “wrong kind of snow” is a well-rehearsed British Rail excuse for late trains, recently revived to explain water shortages: though apparently any kind of snow is the wrong kind of stuff to prevent a drought. What we want is the right kind of rain.

Rain is divided into “useful” rain and “not useful” rain and the weather forecasters always tell us which we are getting: very heavy rain is not useful (because it runs away too quickly); very light rain (though it might be “wetting”) is also not useful.  Basically, to prevent a drought, it needs to rain three times a fortnight, all year round, not too hard and not too soft.

Otherwise it is every frog for himself.

January 20, 2012


Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:13 pm

Long delayed winter has finally come, and the fire is the one chore I cannot neglect. Every few days I heave a 25 kg bag of coal from the roof, carry it the 62 ft length of the boat and drag it onto the covered section of the bow. From there I shovel up several scuttlefuls of coal a day, and, kneeling in front of the stove, pull the riddling arm, fast in and out, in and out. When the grate is clear I swap new black nuggets for the dusty, grey ash.

It is my third winter on the boat and the bags feel heavier than they used to. I’m older than most of the people I know living on board, and much older than any solo woman. I hug the coal bags close to my chest, puff out, and count the steps until I drop my load. One day I will remember to ask Dusty to deliver the bags nearer to the front.

Last thing before bed I bank the fire and turn the vents until they are almost closed. The trick is to keep the fire only just alive through the night, so as neither to waste fuel nor to start again from a stony cold stove and a frigid shell. Pangolin, like most narrowboats, is made of steel. The winter is a fight against the frost, and the summer would be intolerable if it ever really arrived.

I was very cold in the night and slept badly. Last winter I piled the bed with two duvets; it’s time to get the second one out.

In the morning the temperature inside, near the fire, is 5 degrees celsius (41 fahrenheit). At the back, where I sleep and dress, it is much, much colder. Outside there is a thin layer of ice on the canal, and the grass and hedges that line the towpath are white with a frost as thick as snow.

While the kettle boils I am back to riddling, now with the stove air vents wide open. By the time my tea brews the indoor temperature has risen to 8.

The forecast is for a few more days of very cold nights, and while it lasts I am rationing water even more closely than coal. At my old mooring I had to move my boat to fill the tanks, but here in Wolvercote we each have our own water tap, and all I need to do is run a hose from the tap to the bow. Lured into carelessness by such ease and the long, warm autumn, I let the tank run low. Now the tap is frozen and I must wait for a thaw. Usually I am an ant sort of person, but this time I was a grasshopper.

A worse grasshopper than I, paddling a canoe from a narrowboat above the lock crunched through the ice. It looked, and sounded, like hard work. From the half dozen empty plastic water butts he carried I knew where he was headed.

The canoe returned not long after with the water bottles full, so I know that the communal tap below the lift bridge is still running. Meanwhile I am not yet desperate, and I excuse the dishes piling up in my sink.

Far away, the English cricket team falters, and a letter is leaked to a newspaper: the Secretary of State for Education thinks the nation should buy Her Majesty a new yacht to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

The sun shines. It’s our north Atlantic tradeoff — we can have it wet and mild or dry and cold.

I run the engine most nights, but because the domestic battery monitor shows good charge, forgetting that the dodgy starter battery will hate the deep freeze, I decide to save on diesel.

I should have known that in the morning the engine wouldn’t turn over.

I am impressed by how calm I am, since if the engine won’t start I will soon have no electricity at all. I decide to rest the battery for a few hours and then try again, making sure to give it plenty of glow plug (I guess it warms the diesel, but I think of it like the choke we used to give cars).

The barometer is falling and the wind is changing direction.

The outside water tap was still frozen in the morning, but by afternoon I get a dribble from it. I unroll the hose and chunks of ice fall off the coils. An hour later the drip becomes full flow.

As the tank fills, I fetch my jumper cables from the car; I watched the young archaeologist connect the domestic batteries to the starter and jump the engine after new year, and I am ready to manage it myself, without help, but when I try the starter battery one last time it reluctantly springs to life.

I leave the jumper cable stored in the engine room. The battery won’t hold out much longer.

Meanwhile, I notice that the elsan — the toilet emptying point just past the lift bridge to the south — is looking sluggish again (I think it cannot be the frost, because it is already noticeably warmer), so I race to empty my shit suitcase before the elsan is totally blocked.

Now, besides rationing diesel, electricity, water, and coal, I consider my bodily motions. Toilet paper, I decide, is strictly two squares per visit, until the elsan flows freely.

The Prime Minister announces that in these days of austerity it would be inappropriate for the nation to buy the queen a yacht.

In the night I threw off the second duvet, and by morning I hear the soft tap of rain on the roof. The west wind is back, and we have exchanged our sunny, continental frost for the more usual Atlantic, temperate gloom.

I eke the coal out one more day and night. In the morning it will be time to drag another bag from the roof.

January 16, 2012

That powerless feeling

Filed under: Canal,family,misc — Duchess @ 11:53 pm

I arrived back on Pangolin on New Year’s Eve. I had only intended to be away for two or three days, but in the end I was gone a full week. Whenever I started to say it was time for me to go home, someone asked what was for dinner, and all eyes turned to me.

It was alarmingly easy to slide back into jobs I thought I had long ago shed, and once again I found myself in charge of the total nutrition for three overgrown children and an ex husband, along with his mother and uncle, who at the last minute made the almost unheard of announcement that they were joining us for the holidays.

The rules of engagement were particularly complex with the latter two, because they have officially not spoken to me for more than ten years (since I divorced son and nephew) and we exchanged neither gifts nor cards.

Nevertheless, when Uncle Bob stumbled and tore his nonogenarian skin I was elected (by acclaim) to clean and dress the wound.

The cooking, cleaning and nursing fest were over just before the old year was out. My Ex drove his mother and uncle back north. My younger son drove himself south. Five thousand miles away his brother (my eldest) was holding a new baby daughter, born two weeks early, trailing extra festive, tax deductible cheer. My own Baby, still a teenager (just), had already gone back to work in London, which left only my elder daughter.

My car complained of neglect, and barely started, but it cheered up, even if I did not, on the run to Cowley, on the dodgy side of Oxford, where I dropped her for a New Year’s Eve party. Then, all alone for the first time in days, I drove back to Wolvercote, the northest of north Oxford, where my boat is now moored.

It was a remarkably warm night for the dead of winter, and I slid on mud, not ice, along the dark bridleway, over the lift bridge, and past the line of deserted boats to Pangolin. I ducked inside the engine room (too low to stand up with the hatch closed) and stooped to try the ignition key. The engine coughed weakly but refused to turn over. After two or three more tries, I resigned myself to darkness.

Without an engine to recharge the domestic battery bank I couldn’t afford to waste any power. I had already turned off the fridge some weeks before (I keep the milk on the gunnels outside the kitchen window and other chilled provisions in a cool box on the front deck), but no power also meant no indoor water:  drawing water from the tanks requires electricity.

With enough charge left in the domestics I might be able to jump start the engine in the morning. Otherwise, only a borrowed generator or the charge from a passing boat could do the job.

Attentive readers might remember the Young Archaeologists from my old mooring. I had always thought of archaeology as a rather exotic, academic, and mostly foreign profession. Years ago I knew a pushy mother who demanded that her daughter become an archaeologist. At the time I thought the mother was simply insane, but I now know that in the UK planning regulations require that archaeologists give the all-clear to every major building project and many minor ones. It turns out archaeology is a pretty secure job prospect.

Nevertheless, the Young Lady Archaeologist of my boaty acquaintance decided she had quite enough of not finding Roman remains under potential multi-storey carparks and is re-training as a publican. To that end she has a barmaid job about a fifteen minute walk from my new moorings, and she and the Young Gentleman Archaeologist brought the boat south to Oxford, convenient for her holiday hours. I happened to see them as they cruised by. They’re nice kids, young enough to be my children, and he is very handy with electrics.

After I lit the fire and found my head torch, I scrambled in the dark for some more festive clothing, shut up the dog, and strode off down the towpath toward the centre of Wolvercote to a pub I had never visited.

The Young Lady Archaeologist Barmaid was very busy serving drinks and only just had time to promise, while she poured me a glass of wine, to let her boyfriend know my engine wouldn’t start.

It was nearly midnight, and the bar was getting louder. I took my glass and found myself next to the only other person I recognised, a woman who twice each day walked her large German Shepherd dogs along the towpath. At first she had seemed unfriendly: she scowled, and I scowled back, daring her to let her dogs take a shit in front of my boat.

After a month or two, when they didn’t shit and I didn’t shout, we moved on to nodding. Because once or twice recently we had even managed a smile with the nod, I pulled up a chair next to her and her fellow in the pub on New Year’s Eve.

We shook hands and introduced ourselves.

“How are you enjoying Wolvercote?” Jan asked. “Wolvercote is certainly enjoying you,” she added generously. “We love your towpath garden!”

A few minutes later midnight sounded, and I was kissing these people I had only just met.

On New Year’s Day the Young Archaeologist came and and jump-started my boat, and the Scary Dog People waved and grinned extravagantly as they went by.  All is well.

Since it is only just past the first half of January, I hope it is not too late to wish you a happy new year. Apparently we need good wishes, this day of all days. According to the BBC, the middle Monday in January is officially the most depressing day of the year. Apparently we are sorry that Christmas is over (hands up anyone?) while all but winter seems a distant prospect.

Like Shelley, I choose to be more sanguine:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

November 21, 2011

My new urban life

Filed under: Canal,Oxford,Politics and history — Duchess @ 10:17 pm

Agenda 21 mooring sign

Way back last summer I started to blog about how I had a new mooring.

“These days,” I wrote, “when the British Waterways inspector strides down the towpath in formal dark trousers and white short-sleeved shirt with navy epaulettes (which I guess someone in HR thought made their employees look proper nautical), I neither duck out of sight nor race out to offer him coffee and biscuits, my former alternating strategies for dealing with Pangolin’s semi-legal mooring status.  Now I don’t care when I see him tapping my license number into his hand-held electronic thingy.  He can whistle for a biscuit.”

It seemed a promising enough start, though a little unkind, and not, in fact, even true, strictly speaking.  I wouldn’t have denied the BW guy a biscuit, if I had expected him.

I’ve seen Richard (we are on a first name basis now I know how many sugars he takes) only once since I moved the boat nine miles south to just inside the Oxford city limits.  It was one of the few hot days of the summer, and I was trying to turn the clumps of nettles, brambles and ivy that line the towpath into a garden.  Every time I stuck my spade in the ground it hit rubble.

I was resting on my shovel and surveying the mound of rocks I had uncovered when Richard appeared with his epaulettes and electronics.  I glanced nervously at the rocks.  The BW rules say that I am not to alter the mooring in any way, and my biscuit tin was empty.

“I do 15 miles,” Richard replied, in response to my surprise at seeing him this far south – I thought it would be someone else’s patch — then, nodding at my boat, “I heard you moved down to Agenda 21.”  He glanced at the mound of rocks and added reassuringly, “You’ve got to make the environment friendly, don’t you?  Well, friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.”  Then he looked only half expectant before he said cheerio and headed down the towpath.  Three more miles to Oxford centre and the end of his shift.

That’s a simple enough story to relate, but I got exhausted thinking I had to explain the Byzantine rules of how British Waterways allocates moorings (in theory and in practice), how I went from squatter to semi-legal to legal, and what on earth is Agenda 21.

My exhaustion lasted all summer and well into the fall, but now I think I can explain it just one, two, three:

1. In the Old Days, when we were all Socialists, there were waiting lists.  I came to England in 1979; there were waiting lists for a telephone, for a cooker, for a car.  Thirty-some years later waiting lists were long since abandoned for almost everything, except moorings and medicine.  I think they just forgot about moorings.

2. As soon as Pangolin changed hands, her moorings were forfeit. I went on the waiting list and squatted sanguinely; it probably would have been my turn eventually if some wise guy civil servant hadn’t spent too much time on eBay getting bright ideas: as we are all Capitalists now, why shouldn’t the government throw out the lists and auction moorings on the internet instead?

3.  Meanwhile, I made a deal with Purple-Haired Emma to sublet her mooring while she went off cruising.  Subletting is not allowed, but “berth sitting for short periods” is, which Emma and I decided was much the same thing. I was well into my second year of the “short period” when the Agenda 21 mooring came up for auction. I probably could have carried on for another decade or two plying inspectors with biscuits, but I never knew when Emma would want her spot back, and anyway, I am mostly naturally law-abiding.  After four and a half years, I really wanted my own space. As is the way with auctions, I bid a little more than my absolute top price.

Which just leaves me to explain Agenda 21, an action plan that came out of the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio.  Right around the time of the summit, some developers wanted to buy the Oxford boat yards, throw out all the boaters, fill in the basin and build flats.  There was a great big fight that went on for almost a decade.

In the end the boat yards did close and the flats got built, but the boaters weren’t evicted: a long stretch of residential moorings was allowed along the canal, from the centre of Oxford to the Ring Road on the edge of the city.  The moorings were designated Agenda 21, in honour of the summit’s by then nearly forgotten plan for sustainable living. Ever after, anyone joining these moorings had to agree to “respect and take up” 10 “aspirations” and “abide by” another 6 “guidelines”.  (I’ve copied them below.)

Despite a lamentable failure to embrace the subjunctive, the original drafters of these aspirations and guidelines meant well, though I am not sure they were a lot more careful of their science than they were of their grammar.  Diesel engines and coal fires, almost universal fittings on canal boats, are not environmentally friendly.

Another ten years on, a good crop of nettles growing up the side of the boat and a clandestine electricity feed seem the most obvious mark of an Agenda 21 boater.

Pangolin has neither! (though I plead guilty to the whopping great diesel engine and the coal fire).  Nevertheless, I am willing to do my best toward the aspirations and the guidelines:  I haven’t recently threatened anyone with violence or persecution, or ever thrown ashes in the canal, and I stand ready to respect any vole or Interested Scientist who should happen by.

In the meantime I grow flowers and feed the birds.  As the BW guy said, You’ve got to make the environment friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.
The Aspirations:

Energy and natural resources are used efficiently.
Pollution is limited to levels which a natural system can cope with.
Waste is minimised.
The diversity of nature is valued and protected.
Local distinctiveness and diversity are valued and protected.
Health is promoted by clean, safe and pleasant environments.
People live without fear of personal violence and persecution.
All sections of the community are empowered to participate in decision-making.
A wide range of living styles is accepted.
The existence of environmentally sensitive areas such as vole habitats and the Sites of Special Scientific Interest are respected.

The Guidelines:

There are no site-specific services (e.g. mains electricity, water, phone lines, post boxes
There is no towpath lighting.
Be aware of generator use.  We adhere to the British Waterways regulations and in addition prefer to use solar and wind power where appropriate.
We undertake not to put harmful waste in the canal (i.e. engine oil, ashes).  All waste is disposed of appropriately.
We endeavour to share knowledge and skills for environmentally conscious living (i.e. awareness of waste disposal, biodegradable detergent, etc).
We will continue to meet and discuss relevant issues for our community in an open forum.

March 7, 2011

And after only a summer dies the swan

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:53 pm

Our swan news, three months on, has wrangled its way into the local press (and into that dodgiest of all media, local radio) so, since I promised not to take three months (and did exactly that), I guess I had better, finally, tell the story.

First I should warn you that one of the many things my ex-husband held against me was my discursive story-telling style. He was always looking at his watch, fidgeting, and finally demanding, Get on with it.

You might feel the same, but I’ll just say to you what I told him: I can’t help it; it’s the way I tell stories, even when it’s about swans.

A dead cygnet hangs in the trees sixty feet high on the side of Bunkers Hill, just where the road bends sharply and crosses first the Cherwell River and then the South Oxford Canal. I can just see the cygnet from my boat, though only with my binoculars, and because I know what I am looking for.

What surprised me most from the beginning was how white he looked in death, so close, after all, to growing up. On the water I saw him mostly grey, the ugly duckling from the fairy tale, his swan future barely promised in those new and extravagantly white feathers. I guess human teenagers are the same – you don’t quite notice when they’ve grown up either.

This cygnet came late and unexpected into the world.

Last year I wrote about our local swan wars – how our long standing resident Bugsy and his Missus had been ousted by Brutus, and how Brutus finally departed, leaving Mrs Bugsy calling mournfully for her mate, night after night, until finally the pair were reunited, amidst much rejoicing down the pub.

If we celebrated with a little too much of the Rock of Gibraltar’s best beer who could blame us? We – and the swans – had lost a whole brood of cygnets to marauding minks the year before.

But it was not long until Bugsy, in his dotage, had a new challenger, and after a while we stopped seeing Bugsy at all, and saw instead, Scar Face, a skittish young swan with a deep wound in his beak. More and more often he arrived with the perfidious Mrs Bugsy by his side.

At first we boycotted Scar Face as we had Brutus, but when he and Mrs Bugsy banged on our windows together, and together begged for bread, we were not sure what to do.

Down the pub it was finally agreed that if Mrs Bugsy accepted him, so should we.

When I saw them necking – that elegant swan intertwining that precedes mating – I meant to write a post about Mrs Bugsy and her new toy boy. I was going to call it, If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

(I am not, by the way, responsible for any of these swan names; and I am not really sure who is — sometimes rival names are used until one comes to be agreed — in an attempt to rehabilitate Scar Face one boat insisted on calling him Beaky, but the rest of us were not fooled.)

For months Scar Face built elaborate nests for Mrs Bugsy. They begged together at boat windows, Mrs Bugsy graciously expecting bounty and throwing back her neck to receive it, Scar Face hissing and darting and gobbling the bread, then lifting his neck to hiss again.

You can’t blame him! said the Grumpy Mechanic, certain that Scar Face’s injuries were sinister. It’s a human who cut his beak. Probably an axe attack! He hates humans! Why wouldn’t he?

April passed and then May. The swans sat for hours on their nests, but we knew the nests were empty, because at night the swans still swam together. A swan pair with eggs never leaves the nest unattended.

At the pub someone said someone else had called the Swan Authorities to ask how come Scar Face and Mrs Bugs kept making nests but never made babies. Given all the hankypanky on the canal, it was not an unreasonable question.

A month or two later all the men in the pub agreed that the Swan Authorities’ assessment was probably right: Scar Face was firing blanks.

“Firing blanks” is the pub report. I don’t have a clear idea about what the Swan Authorities actually said. In fact, I would doubt entirely the existence of Swan Authorities, except that they apparently added that his beak injury was not on their database, and they would need to look into it. And since it really is true that all swans in the UK belong to the queen, no doubt a large number of very deserving young scientists are employed on my taxes to keep track of the Her Majesty’s birds, and perhaps those scientists might be willing, on a casual basis and when more than usually pressed, to cast judgment on the sexual prowess of their charges.

Whatever (as my children, and all of the rest of you, may be inclined to say), Mrs Bugsy and Scar Face were unexpectedly (to us, at least) delivered of a single chick, in July last year, when most swan babies were already if not coming into adolescence, at least pretty big kids.

I was unreasonably delighted, but also unreasonably anxious. Our cygnet was such a late baby, and an only child too. I watched him grow, and worried. If either Scar Face or Mrs Bugsy appeared at my window without their baby I shouted at them. You’ve left him? What are you thinking? I had not forgotten the mink who ate all the babies the year before, even if they had.

Day by day he grew. When he was a big gangly teenager I thought he was safe.

I watched the flying lessons. I always thought the suggestion of flying lessons was anthropomorphic rubbish. Birds fly, right? That’s what they do. What’s to learn? But really, this teenage swan had flying lessons, just the way you might teach your child to drive. The two grown up swans ran along the canal, making a great racket, pumping their feet and flapping their wings and finally rising up into the air.

The cygnet followed behind them, also racing along the canal, pumping his feet and flapping his wings, and then crying, because he didn’t know how to get in the air, and he was left behind. With unflagging patience his mother and father circled back, rejoined him on the canal and showed him once more.

Over and over the cygnet ran and flapped and couldn’t get into the air, and cried, until finally, one day he rose above the canal and flew, just a few feet at first, and then higher and higher.

Was it because he was born so late, and learned so late what could hurt him? By the end of November, when he finally flew, the trees were bare and treacherous with no leaves to wave him away. Didn’t Nature warn him about the change of seasons? Or maybe our sweet cygnet was just stupid. Almost as soon as he was in the air he flew straight into a leafless branch and broke his neck.

And so the cygnet has hung these three months until the Mystery of the Hanging Swan appeared on the news. Radio Oxford despatched its team to the canal and interviewed the Grumpy Mechanic, among others.

Tell us what these swans mean to you, urged Phil, the breakfast radio presenter. They are very much a part of the local community, aren’t they? How does it feel seeing the dead swan hang fron the tree, every day?


The swan family in July.  You can see the slash on Scar Face's beak.

The swan family in July.  Scar Face is on the right, and if you click on the picture for a larger view you can see the slash in his beak.

Our teenage cygnet, a month or two before he learned to fly.

I didn’t take a picture of our cygnet dead in the tree, because it seemed too much like prying, but if you want to see it it is on the BBC website here.

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