September 18, 2010

Captain’s Log day 16: Victoria Park to Limehouse, up the tidal Thames to Teddington, and back to Hampton Court

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:00 pm

Apologies for leaving my readers stranded by Victoria Park just above Mile End Lock 9 for so long…

I woke feeling both anxious and excited, and for the first time I was eager to set off before the crew were ready; they took a leisurely morning walk while I paced and fretted. Though we had only just over a mile to go, there were three locks to negotiate in quick succession before we reached the end of the Regent’s Canal at Limehouse Basin. We had been warned to be there on time to catch low tide; if we missed it we would have to wait until the next morning to rejoin the river.

I needn’t have worried – even with a delay while we lost steering just after the second lock and had to stop to open the weed hatch and remove half a dozen or more plastic bags wrapped around the propeller, we still arrived an hour or so before low tide, moored temporarily in the marina, and reported to the Limehouse lock keepers.

They casually asked if we were carrying a radio (though they didn’t ask to see it) and disappointed me further by taking no interest in whether I had a license to operate it. I comforted myself by being quite sure that if I hadn’t bothered getting the required certificate, they would have surely demanded to inspect all my paperwork.

It was then almost low tide, but the lock keepers explained we still had several more hours to wait: the water in the lock would need to rise again before any boat, even mine with only a 22 inch draft, could get over the cill.

You’ll go out a little before 4, they said. Watch for the light to turn green just before the lock doors open.

I took a short walk to examine the lock from above, but I spent most of the intervening time studying the navigational notes provided by the London Port Authority, with instructions for negotiating each bridge. There were 29 bridges to pass under before Pangolin would be back on the non tidal river.

I tried to memorize the most important instructions: we would enter the river on a blind bend and I should beware of boats suddenly coming upon us from behind; a flashing white light at Tower Bridge would mean “large vessels in the vicinity” and then I mustn’t go under the central arch. I must steer clear of sloping sides in the arches of Westminster Bridge, and at the Houses of Parliament I should keep to the centre of the river to be outside the exclusion zone on the right, while at Vauxhall Bridge I must on no account stray to the left, near the MI6 (spy) headquarters. Islands should be passed on the left and I must sound my horn again at Kew Bridge. Sixteen pages of instructions.

I studied especially the key to “Signs Displayed at Bridges” and “Sound Signals Specified in Collision Regulations”. Five short blasts on the horn seemed useful to master: “I DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOUR INTENTIONS. Keep clear! I doubt whether you are taking sufficient action to avoid a collision.” That would tell them.

At quarter to four, the light turned green, the wide lock doors opened and we followed one other narrowboat in. Just then, the wind began to gust and rain threatened. The crew and I quickly threw on rain jackets under life jackets as we held our ropes and waited for the lock to empty.

I let the other boat leave the lock first, and then, sounding one long blast of my horn (“I AM ABOUT TO ENTER THE FAIRWAY”), I looked left behind me and turned right onto the river. The instructions had warned me to be ready for the strong up-stream current as soon as we left the shelter of the lock cut. We were immediately rocked by waves washing over the bow, and, in another moment the wake of large ships tossed us even higher. It was immediately clear that I had wasted my time learning the horn signal for: “I AGREE TO BE OVERTAKEN.”

I was glad of Mr Crew at the stern next to me as I drove, and Mrs Crew keeping watch up front.

Double click for larger versions of any image (opens in new window).

Limehouse Lock from above

Limehouse Lock from above


Entering Limehouse Lock

Entering Limehouse Lock


I drove out of the lock while Mr Crew listened for hazards on the VHF radio

I drove out of the lock while Mr Crew listened for hazards on the VHF radio


On the river again.

On the river again.


Almost immediately Tower Bridge was in sight.

Almost immediately Tower Bridge was in sight.


Tower Bridge is very close now.

Tower Bridge is very close now.


Pangolin going under Southwark Bridge*

Pangolin going under Southwark Bridge*


Little boat, big river.* That&#39s Pangolin in the circle.

Little boat, big river.* That's Pangolin inside the circle.


The Millenium Wheel (London Eye) is just ahead, past Hungerford Bridge

The Millenium Wheel (London Eye) is just ahead, past Hungerford Bridge


I loved seeing familiar sights from an unfamiliar place.

I loved seeing familiar sights from an unfamiliar place.


The traffic thinned dramatically after Westminster Bridge.  Mr and Mrs Crew both took pictures, while I remained focussed on driving.

The traffic thinned dramatically after Westminster Bridge. Mr and Mrs Crew both took pictures, while I remained focussed on driving.


Vauxhall Bridge

Vauxhall Bridge


When we passed Battersea Power Station on the south bank we had almost left central London behind.

When we passed Battersea Power Station on the south bank we had almost left central London behind.


It stopped raining and I took off my hat.  Behind us is Battersea Bridge.

It stopped raining and I took off my hat. Behind us is Battersea Bridge.


The bridges are fewer and farther between, but they still mark our progress upstream.  Ahead is Hammersmith Bridge, in west London.

The bridges are fewer and farther between, but they still mark our progress upstream. Ahead is Hammersmith Bridge, in west London.


Just past Kew Bridge is Brentford, where we had left the Thames exactly a week earlier.  We were on our return journey at last.

Just past Kew Bridge is Brentford, where we had left the Thames exactly a week earlier. We were on our return journey at last.

Day 16 statistics: 26.74 miles and 6 locks, made up of 1.13 miles of broad canals, 4 broad locks, 21.11 miles of tidal rivers, 4.5 miles of large rivers and 1 large lock.

(The two photos marked * were taken from the bank.  A couple of days after we made our trip up the tidal Thames we met in Cookham Lock the crew of narrowboat Cassy, who had been doing some sightseeing in London the previous weekend.  If you were the boat going under Tower Bridge last Saturday, they said, we’ve got some pictures for you.)

August 18, 2010

Captain’s log day 11: London at last

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 12:45 pm

The new boaty friends we met on the Grand Union canal were adamant that if we arrived late in the day we would never get a mooring in the city centre.  They advised stopping short (but not too close, they said, because it gets very dodgy); the best plan would be to cruise into London by about 10am.

We ignored the first part of their advice, but luckily awoke none the worse for our dodgy mooring in Alperton.  At least we would follow their counsel and get to the centre bright and early to catch any moorings going, though not so early that no one had yet moved on.

It was only two hours’ cruise, with no locks.  All of England was gripped with World Cup fever.  We had drawn our opening match with the USA a couple of days earlier – but hopes, and flags (not all of them English) still ran high.  I was more excited by this new (to me) approach to London. 

Just before Paddington is an area called “Little Venice”.  Even at 10am there was only one mooring (or perhaps the lazy bones hadn’t yet finished their breakfasts).  I was pretty sure my boat would have slotted into that mooring, but the crew disagreed, so we went on.   I didn’t argue because I always thought Paddington would be a better place to stop – ahead there were seven-day free (of charge) moorings in the middle of the London.

A sharp right turn brought us into Paddington Basin.  The first mooring slot we encountered was tight, but I thought we would fit, and we did, not without a great deal more shouting from Mr Crew; h I thought I had got used to it, the shouting still upset me, thoug, probably because I was more than usually tense: Paddington was where I agreed would leave the crew with the boat.  Before noon I was on the fast train to Oxford.

It had taken us ten days to get from Oxford to London on Pangolin, and I was back in Oxford within the hour.

Day 11 statistics: Alperton to Paddington Basin, 6 miles of broad canals.

Approaching London

Approaching London


Little Venice

Little Venice


The turn into Paddington Basin

The turn into Paddington Basin


Paddington Railway Station

Paddington Railway Station

August 11, 2010

Captain’s log day 10: Brentford to Alperton

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 2:27 am

The moorings at Brentford were not at all scenic, crowded by low rent flats overlooking the canal on one side, and a large office complex on the other. The most charming feature was an untidy coots’ nest floating on some detritus by a boat tied to the opposite bank.

But I have long since learned that charm is not all that this world has to offer. At Brentford moorings there were the most splendid, gloriously hot showers that we had encountered on our wanderings, and nice clean toilets too. All free and available to anyone with a British Waterways key (which comes with my license). There was also a coin operated laundry, and we were in brief, boaty heaven.

Pangolin has its own shower (and even a bath that fits little people), but the crew and I nevertheless took great pleasure in using Her Majesty’s Government’s shower, loo and laundry. We all went to bed feeling clean, and I went to bed embracing Socialism (almost, and since there was no one better).

In the morning we set off up the Grand Union Canal and met our first flight – where locks come in quick succession, one after the other, and the canal begins its rise towards the midlands. Grand Union locks are classed as “broad” with heavy double gates. Unlike on the Oxford, they will take two boats at a time, and after the first couple of locks we met another boat and worked the Hanwell flight together. I drove Pangolin and the other boat was also driven by a woman, while her husband crewed, which is a little unusual. The lock job takes weight and strength, nevertheless the men are mostly at the helm, leaving the women to manage the heavy work as best they can.

We drove in tandem, entering and leaving each lock together, and the conversation was a shouted staccato. With the gates closed behind us we set our engines to tickover, and Carol answered polite, opening questions: I’m a teacher, she said. John is a Civil Servant.

The crew raised first one paddle and then the other and the boats were thrown towards the back gates.

He’s a Physicist! She shouted as we both grabbed our throttles to counter the rush of water, filling the lock. More chat, then a nudge of reverse throttle to give the crew room to open the gates, before we set the gears to forward again; Mrs Crew was left to close the gates behind us, while the others had already set the next lock and opened the gates in front, ready for us to drive on.

With each lock we shared a little more information, our temporary intimacy rising with the canal.  Water, words, throttle, water. I had cancer, she said. I had to give up work.

Seven locks, seven conversations. It might make a good play, except the set would be very silly.

At the top lock we parted company, and at the junction with the Paddington Arm the crew and I turned eastward under the bridge and continued our journey to London.

We stopped at Alperton at an unsavoury moorings by a supermarket. When I demurred, Mr Crew pointed out that two nice boats were also moored there, so I relaxed a bit (why would the baddies rob me when they could rob them?) But I worried a lot more when, before dark, the nice boats moved on and we were settled in for the night. A notice board by the supermarket said that the area was a designated alcohol free zone. What with the beer and gin bottles strewn about, it wasn’t reassuring.

Day 10 statistics: Brentford Gauging Lock to the Sainsbury’s at Alperton, 12 canal miles and 9 broad locks

The Brentford mooring.  The coots' nest is by narrowboat Tapestry.

The Brentford mooring. The coot nest is by narrowboat Tapestry


Untidy coot nest

Untidy coot nest


This photo is a little out of focus, but shows how close together the locks are in the flight

This photo is a little out of focus, but shows how close together the locks are in the flight


Lock chat

Lock chat


Floating houses on the Grand Union

Floating houses on the Grand Union


A right turn under the bridge onto the Paddington Arm

A right turn under the bridge onto the Paddington Arm


London suburbs

London suburbs


Even very close to London, parts of the canal seemed extraordinarily rural.

Even very close to London, parts of the canal felt very rural.


Our dodgy mooring at Alperton

Our dodgy mooring at Alperton


The view out the window

The dodgy view out the window

August 3, 2010

Captain’s log day 9: Hampton Court to Brentford

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:00 pm

We left Hampton Court knowing that there were only a few miles and one lock before the Thames, now almost at its mouth, no longer meanders comfortably downstream, but instead ebbs and flows with the estuary it is about to join.

When in a rash moment down the pub I had first proposed doing this journey there was a good deal of head shaking and teeth sucking:  That’s tidal, you know, everyone warned.  My blog readers might suspect I wear my captain’s hat with irony.  My fellow drinkers were quite sure I was out of my mind.

So today, what with the boaty adventures ahead and making phone calls every half hour to get any updates on my younger daughter (safe but not talking to either of her parents; suddenly her boyfriend was my new best friend),  I was a little tense.

We pulled into the lock moorings at Teddington, and Mr Crew and I strolled up to the lock keeper’s office.  I said, I’m on a narrow boat, and we are heading downstream to London.

The lock keeper rolled his eyes.

But only as far as Brentford today, I said, and he cheered up, just a little, before delivering a physics lesson, pretty much repeating what I had already been told: since the tide on the Thames comes in faster than the comfortable speed of most narrow boats, we wouldn’t get very far unless we waited until just before high water.  By the time we locked through, the tide would almost be slack, and then, as we travelled down river it would turn, and we could ride the flow as the Thames rushed past the outer suburbs and hurried towards London.

We had a couple of hours to wait, and then the crew and I donned life jackets for the first time. Mr Crew was eager for us to set off, but because I was just as eager not to commit the faux pas of passing boats moored ahead of us in the lock queue, I got lots of good driving practice, hovering mid river while other captains mustered their crew and pushed off.   There was a general air of excitement as finally the lock keeper signalled it was time.

When the downstream gates of Teddington Lock opened and we spilled out, I felt as if we had crossed into some new, dangerous territory.  As I had got closer and closer to this five mile journey, everyone had confirmed my unease by being impressed with the very idea:  That’s tidal, you know.

But all was well.  We flowed the four and a half miles with the ebbing river, past Twickenham on the left, and Richmond on the right and on by Kew Observatory.  Just beyond the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, I turned the boat sharply to the left.   In the late afternoon sunshine we went through Thames Locks and left the river.  The crew, Pangolin and I were on new water:  the Grand Union Canal.

Day 9 statistics: 5 miles of large rivers, 5 miles of tidal rivers, 2 large locks and 1 broad lock.

Waiting for Teddington Lock

Waiting for Teddington Lock

The tidal Thames looked a lot like the non-tidal Thames, really.

The tidal Thames looked a lot like the non-tidal Thames, really.

Ham House (17th century)

Ham House (17th century)

Richmond on Thames

Richmond on Thames

Richmond Lock is only needed at low tide.

Richmond Lock is only needed at low tide.

Leaving the Thames

Leaving the Thames

I worked Brentford Gauging Locks (hard work pushing those buttons) while Mr Crew drove.  It was the last lock of the day, and the first on the Grand Union.

I worked Brentford Gauging Locks (hard work pushing those buttons) while Mr Crew drove. It was the last lock of the day, and the first on the Grand Union.

And here’s a map, so you can see where we are.  The yellow highlight is the route we have already taken.  The orange highlight is what is coming next.  (As with the other pictures you can click for a better view; I’ve made the map one quite big…)

The trip so far: Baker’s Lock to Brentford Gauging Lock, via Oxford: 108 miles and 41 locks

July 26, 2010

Captain’s Log day 8: Lost and found

Filed under: Canal,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 12:28 pm

The crew and I meant to spend the day at Hampton Court Palace, but as we were waiting for the ticket office to open I took a phone call that changed my plans.

My younger daughter, ever the Baby of the family, though she is 18, has given me some of the worst moments of my life (lovely creature though she is), and she started very early.  When she was less than a year old she took up that toddler trick I had heard about but never before seen – holding her breath until she went rigid, turned blue and shook as if convulsing, and then holding her breath some more, until her eyes rolled back in her head, and she passed out.

By the time she was two or three I was in danger of being reported to the Social Services for gross neglect.  Onlookers who witnessed this performance (I am telling you, it is scary) shouted Do something!  Call an ambulance!  How can you just sit there?  And I would answer casually, Oh don’t worry, she’ll come round in a minute or two.

The first time she did it, however, I thought she was dead.   I thought something like that today.

I spent much of the day on the telephone.  Everyone agreed there was nothing I could do by returning immediately to Oxford, and in any case the boat would have to be got back to its home mooring somehow.  The crew were very sympathetic, and when they came back from their day at the palace, they urged me to do whatever I thought best, and they would help in any way they could.

By evening the situation was more stable, no one was dead, and it was quite clear that nothing could be gained, for the time being at least, by turning the boat around and heading back.  In fact, after I had discussed the alternatives with the Baby’s father, we agreed that the best plan would be for me to get the boat to London as soon as possible.  There I would be able to catch a fast train to Oxford.

Day 8 statistics: 0 locks and 0 miles, except for the many miles I paced.

June 27, 2010

Captain’s log Day 4 Wallingford to Henley-on-Thames

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 2:38 pm

The crew were up so early that over breakfast I had to make a unilateral declaration that there was to be no talking or any activity of any sort aboard Pangolin before 6 am, except for essential trips to the loo (or, if like my crew, you insist on boaty talk, the “head”). 

Mr Crew said that Mrs Crew had told him he should apologise for the lock incident the day before, and he promised to follow the rules from now on, so we were more or less friendly again. 

Nevertheless, I thought everyone would be happier if I let Mr Crew drive for most of the day.  He and Mrs Crew stood at the stern, while I took my binoculars up front, in pursuit of  ducks. 

It quickly became clear that bird watching was an irritant to Mr Crew.  The binoculars belonged at the helm, and to add insult to injury I took pictures when I ought to have been concentrating on throwing ropes.  My ropes were never tidily coiled as we approached the locks.  Instead I busily photographed dozens of ducks, hundreds of pesky Canada geese, and the occasional, endlessly patient heron.

I admit that Mr Crew had a point about the binoculars, at least, but I didn’t care.  I was being petty: they are my binoculars, and if Mr Crew wanted to see where he was going he should have brought his own.

I don’t think our morning’s truce lasted until lunch time.

Bit by bit the river widened and for much of the day Pangolin seemed to be the only boat on the river, now and again followed by a single narrowboat or cruiser.  Just before five o’clock we slipped into a mooring at Henley on Thames, where the river was suddenly crowded, and we had to dodge crews practising for next month’s Royal Regatta.

The river Thames

The river Thames

Geese and swans

Geese and swans

A heron by the bank

A heron by the bank

A cormorant in the trees

A cormorant in the trees

Okay, I admit it: I took pictures of cows too.

Okay, I admit it: I took pictures of cows too.

I've been to Henley before, but never like this.


Day 4 statistics: 24 large river miles and 7 wide locks.

June 1, 2010

Water, diesel, ballast, wine, and deep vein thrombosis

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 3:38 pm

There’s a proper order to things, especially on boats.

I have been getting ready for a couple of American friends coming to England for the first time. Since I thought I had better offer them an adventure, we’ll be heading down the Thames for London.

But even if I weren’t off for a trip, I would need diesel and water.  Dusty, the fuel boat that cruises up and down the South Oxford, was due any day, and I hadn’t filled up with water since Easter Sunday when I bribed kids and friends with roast lamb afloat in return for helping me cruise a quarter mile up the canal, tap into a nearby hydrant (shhhhh – that’s why we do it evenings and Sundays), and reverse back to my mooring. 

I love living on my boat, but I admit that moving it makes me so anxious that I barely sleep for days before and after the shortest journey.  Steering 62 foot long, 6.5 feet wide Pangolin is a bit like how I imagine driving a tank would feel – except tanks are a lot shorter, and I’m guessing they have brakes. 

Well, anyway, the rule is, water before diesel.  If you do it the other way, the weight of the water (in front) could make the diesel (in back) spill into the canal.

In the meantime, I also ordered half a tonne of ballast (steel bricks), on account of the promised Thames adventure.  Even good drivers have trouble working my boat and anyone who has attempted reverse gear has been muttering about ballast for years.

I negotiated (with promise of the Queen’s head) for my ballast to be delivered to the car park, right by the (dodgy) water point.  My cunning plan was to drive up for water one evening, pick up the ballast next day, and reverse back just in time for Dusty:  water, ballast, diesel, in that order, with a little coal thrown in, because it has been a long winter, and a cold spring. 

But the timing needed luck: hanging out by the water point more than just overnight, waiting for deliveries, is Not Done.  Water, ballast, diesel, was what I wanted.

Alas, Dusty beat the ballast man by two days, so by the time the bricks arrived I was watered and fuelled and back on my mooring.  I had a half a metric tonne of steel bricks to load onto my boat, and the bricks were a quarter of a mile away.  The choice was, move the boat to the bricks, or move the bricks to the boat. 

I decided that I could carry 500kg of bricks by wheelbarrow, if I didn’t care how many times I went up and down the path, and so I went on until I had about a third of the bricks piled on the grass by my boat’s stern.

By early evening the Grumpy Mechanic, watching me trudge up and down with the wheelbarrow, had had quite enough.

Sod that! he shouted, and then excused himself, because he never uses bad language in front of a woman without apologising. 

He drove his boat up to the water point and ordered me to hand him the bricks, two by two.  Piling them onto the bow deck, he reversed his boat back to mine (it’s all right for him – his boat is fitted with a bow thruster).  Together, in the late evening sunshine we tossed the bricks onto the towpath.

The next day, with my boat now full of water and fuel, I carefully placed the brick ballast in the stern of the boat.  British summer had finally arrived and the temperature was in the high 80s as I leapt on and off the boat holding 10kg with each load.

When I had finished loading the bricks I changed clothes and went to a party, a three mile walk there, and another three back.  I hadn’t had anything to drink stronger than water for a week or so, but as I felt the weight of the bottle of wine in my knapsack on the way to the party, I comforted myself that I wouldn’t be lugging it home.

In the morning I noticed, but ignored, a pain in my left calf.  The pain got worse over the next few days until I could barely walk.  My elder daughter became more and more anxious and urged me to go to the hospital.  It isn’t like you to be hobbling about, Mum!  she said.

I googled unexplained calf pain – unexplained because I really couldn’t think of anything I might have done to hurt myself – and read Deep Vein Thrombosis.  I broke my six year no doctor stint.

I don’t have DVT.  I do have water, diesel, ballast, and several empty wine bottles.  Also a badly sprained calf muscle, unexplained. 

The doctor says that something as simple as standing up too quickly can do it, at my age.

April 28, 2010

Doing the chores

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 6:08 am

My favourite chore – just as well, because it’s at least a daily one eight months of the year – is the fire.

From the time I got back to England in early January, until just a few days ago, the stove has been going almost continuously. Once a fortnight, or so, Dusty rings his bell, ties his boat up to mine and tosses 25 kg bags of coal onto my roof, before filling my tank with diesel and, if I need it, replacing my propane. If I am not home he slips a bill through my stern doors before he moves on to the next boat.

In between his visits I drag the coal bags one by one from the roof and onto my covered front deck, and twice a day I fill my coal scuttle using a small black shovel. I’m a little bit glad when the bag is empty enough that instead of shovelling I can lift it and pour the last nuggets, but then I’m a little bit sad too, because I know in just one more scuttlefull I’ll have to heave another 25 kg bag from the roof.

On a really bad day I realise at about 9 o’clock at night that the scuttle needs refilling and the bag is empty. I don’t like doing the roof manoeuvre ever, but especially not in the cold and dark. So then I suffer from duelling aphorisms: never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, competing with: sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof.

At bedtime I bank up the coal and close down the dampers, and with luck, in the morning I only need to open all the draughts and the fire will wake up with me. There’s a “Mr Tippy” steel box by the stove for emptying hot ashes and I proudly keep count – nine days, ten days, a fortnight and the fire has never gone out. Coal is heavy and dirty, but it burns for a long time and a fire set just right can be left alone for many hours.

But the wind conspires with the stove to make my fire temperamental and capricious. On still nights if I turn the draught too low the fire will die, and when it is windy, if I give the stove too much air, the coal will be burnt to ashes before dawn.

On those mornings I kneel cold and tea-less in front of the stove, trying to coax it into life: fire first, kettle next.

But all is changed, now that spring has finally arrived: the trees are in blossom, the hedge has leaves and the flowers in the towpath gardens no longer look windswept and tentative. Yesterday the temperature reached the heady heights 21 C (that’s around 70 in “old money” – the Brit expression for all measurements imperial).

Dusty was the only unhappy boater on the canal as the days began to warm. He grumbled that he hoped it would be a short summer. I still had 3 bags on the roof and didn’t order more, though his text message announcing his visit read: “You think spring has sprung, but I had ice on my boat yesterday. Plant your coal bulbs now!”

Dusty is right, of course. We still need our fires, and I still light mine most evenings; as soon as the sun goes down, it’s cold. But I don’t need to keep the fire going through the night, and if I throw in a shovelful of coal in the morning I am sitting in a tee shirt with the doors open by 10 am.

These days, wood, and not coal, is my friend. Small logs burn fast, and can be scrounged here and there. I’ve watched my neighbours drag fallen branches from along the river below the lock and cut them up on makeshift sawhorses. Until September we just need a quick, fire fix. Poor Dusty.

March 3, 2010

Of no fixed address

Filed under: Back story,BBC radio addiction,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 4:11 pm

My electrics have, to use slang my New Zealand grandmother favoured, been giving me gyp lately.  I replaced an alternator, disconnected the adverc, and ripped out the split diode thingy (and I barely know what any of this stuff is).  Nevertheless the batteries complain.  They reward my careful evening attention with nothing more grateful than red warning lights each morning.

The Grumpy Mechanic has had it up to here with my batteries.  He says his back has never been the same since he hauled mine out to test them last year and he isn’t doing it again.  I’m not complaining, he says, though he is.  Replace the lot, Girl, is his advice.

Since I usually do what I am told, I have.  That is, I ordered new ones, to be delivered to the pub today, because that’s our boaty poste restante.   Just after eleven o’clock opening time I trundled up the towpath with my computer and my dongle, ordered a latte, and set up camp.

On Twitter I read that Michael Foot, Labour Party leader 1980 – 1983 died this morning, aged 96.  I tweeted that I bet every obituary mentioned his donkey jacket and the longest suicide note in history.

In January 1979 I had just won a scholarship to Oxford, starting the following fall.  The US news was full of the Iranian revolution and what British journalists (an educated lot, on the whole) had dubbed their Winter of Discontent.  The UK Labour government was at war with the unions who had been their backers.  Despite beer and sandwiches at Downing Street, everything was going badly wrong.  

My friends said, You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

It sure looked like it from the television news.  Rubbish collectors, gravediggers, ambulance drivers and other public sector workers all were out on strike.  I watched films of mounds of garbage on the streets and heard dark reports of dead bodies piled up in morgues.   Inflation was only just down from a peak of 26.9%.

For the first time I took an interest in a UK election, called that spring.  Margaret Thatcher, Conservative, was elected, the first and only woman Prime Minister. 

The following year, 1980, the Labour Party lurched to the left and Michael Foot, a kindly maverick (really a maverick – he lost the party whip for two years because he was an inveterate peacenik) was their candidate for Prime Minister.  I am reluctant to say he was already elderly when he became party leader at 67, but it certainly seemed so to my much younger self.  An intellectual and wholly unworldly Socialist, he reminded me of my grandfather.  Of course, he was also wholly unfit to lead a political party.

He was ridiculed for his scruffy clothes, and particularly for the coat he wore on Remembrance Sunday (Veterans’ Day).  The press called it a “donkey jacket” and were outraged by what they claimed was disrespect to our Glorious Dead.  It was quite in vain that Foot repeatedly pleaded that the Queen Mother herself had admired his jacket as they both waited to lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph.

1983 was my first general election in the UK and I was a little puzzled at first to find that here politicians published election “manifestos”.  My high school history lessons had led me to believe that manifestos were strictly for commies.  I bought the full versions for all three main parties and read them closely.

Michael Foot’s party manifesto went into extraordinary detail.  I laughed out loud when I came to the bit that said “The Labour Party supports the wishes of women in childbirth.”  I was then expecting my second baby.  I adore my children once they exit the birth canal, but my wishes in childbirth generally involved mass murder.

That year the Labour Party suffered the worst general election defeat in 50 years, and the manifesto came to be known as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Meanwhile, back at the pub, I was the only customer, still nursing my latte two hours on.  Stematos, the Greek landlord, and I both had our laptops open on opposite sides of the bar.  I thought of telling Stematos that Michael Foot had died, but I wasn’t sure he would know who I was talking about.  Stematos was googling plant stands. 

There was no sign of the battery delivery, and after a while the punters began to arrive for lunch: the chatter was about pension fund bailouts, bowel cancer, birthdays, and how the Grumpy Mechanic might be getting on in his new flat.  No one mentioned Michael Foot.  I made Stematos happy by ordering feta cheese, olives, bread and a small glass of wine.  He thought I was going to sit there all day on the latte. 

Just as I was about to give up, five spanking new batteries were delivered to the pub porch.  I hauled them in two loads to the boat, a little less than half a mile from the pub, three batteries on the first journey (when I was fresh) and two on the next, when I was tired.  I needed to rest a lot on both trips.  Lifting them inside was pretty hard, and I was afraid I might drop one into the canal, since I was already exhausted from getting them there.

They cost £100 each, and I really did not want to lose any in the water.

3 batteries - the 1st load

Three batteries - the first load

When I got them onboard I put them on my scale, just out of curiosity.  Each battery weighed 62.8 pounds, meaning the load of two was almost exactly as heavy as I am (on a good day), and the load of three was a whole lot heavier.  I felt like one tough Duchess.

Batteries waiting to be installed.

All five batteries safely in the engine room, waiting to be installed.

By the time I had pushed the empty cart back up the tow path it was 5 pm and I thought I deserved a big glass of wine.

I turned on the radio.  It was all about Michael Foot.  I wasn’t wrong.  Every report mentioned the donkey jacket and the suicide note.  You can read the BBC obituary here.

I haven’t quite forgotten that once I get the new batteries installed, I’ll have five old ones to haul up the tow path, but sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof. Or so I am told.

February 24, 2010

Swan wars

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 11:20 am

For many years a pair of swans has lived at Enslow, where my boat Pangolin is moored.  The swans spend their days cruising along the canal and knocking at the sides of boats, begging for bread.  They rarely stray farther than the quarter of a mile line of moored narrowboats except to try their luck at the marina just beyond the bridge.

The male swan must have been part of a study at some time, because his left leg is tagged with the letters BUG.  All the boaters know the pair as Bugsy and his missus.

Last year was a rough one for the Bugsies. 

First, a much younger and larger swan (nicknamed Brutus) tried to move in on the territory, and though Bugsy saw him off, he was badly wounded.  The boaters were incensed.  Down the pub dark threats were muttered against this intruder, and one boater was rumoured to have called the RSPCA anonymously to say that if they didn’t come and take Brutus away he would take matters into his own hands. 

Perhaps Brutus knew what was good for him, but he wasn’t seen again that spring, and after awhile Bugsy dutifully made the missus several nests for her inspection.  She tried first one, and then another, and finally settled on the one almost opposite my boat.

In May I watched the proud parents take their day old cygnets for a first swimming lesson on the canal.  The little cygnets swam about for five minutes or so and then were tucked back into the nest for the night.

Babies and watchful parents

They were never seen again, though a mink was later spotted looking sleek and well fed by the lock.  Mrs Bugsy spent weeks more sitting on her nest, but if she had any more eggs they were eaten too.

It made me sad last summer not to see a brood of cygnets growing up.  I went away late September, and when I came back in January, a different family had moved in: Brutus and his missus were back, with one overgrown cygnet, the last one of a brood they must have hatched last spring.

The three begged at my window and I guiltily fed them.  I don’t think any of the other boaters did.  They’re very loyal at Enslow.

Bugsy was gone, and Mrs Bugsy spent her evenings swimming up and down and calling mournfully for him.  The Grumpy Mechanic said, It really just breaks your heart.  Dusty said it was a very bad sign that he had left her.  At the pub everyone asked each other, Have you seen Bugsy? Have you seen Bugsy?

Suddenly the word in the pub was he had been spotted in a field.  Everyone shook their heads: He was flopping about!  He must have had a stroke! Or something.  The Grumpy Mechanic said Bugsy was ever so old.  The Grumpy Mechanic has been here the longest, twenty years now, but he can’t remember just when Bugsy came.   Years and years back, he said.  He was sure there was a number you could call for Swan Rescue.  A van would come and pick Bugsy up.  Poor old Bugsy!  It breaks your heart!

Two of the boaters decided to pick him up themselves, but when they got to the field, he was gone, and we were back to, Have you seen Bugsy?  Have you seen Bugsy?

Brutus’ cygnet disappeared first – nine months old and time to strike off on his own, I suppose – and then, suddenly, he and his missus left too.  I watched them fly noisily over the canal and across the fields and I didn’t see them again. 

When I realised Mrs Bugsy had given up her mournful search and was gone as well, I was very sad.  For a while we had no swans at all.

I took a walk to Pigeon’s lock, two miles up the towpath, and spotted a pair of swans on the opposite side.  One swam close to me, begging for bread, and I felt ridiculously happy when I saw that it was Bugsy.

I was so glad Bugsy was all right and he and his missus were together again, but I wondered if they would ever come back to Enslow.  I missed them!

This morning they were here, knocking on the boat.  I opened my window to throw them bread, and a duck joined in the happy feasting.

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