2015 08 23 Newsletter – A cruise to Llangollen: Fazeley Junction to Stoke

After I finished the newsletter last Sunday I cruised for an hour away from the comparative hustle and bustle of Fazeley Junction to a very peaceful mooring north of Hopwas village close to Hopwas Hayes wood.

I love these woods. There are over four hundred varied and tranquil acres easily accessible thanks to a well-established network of paths, paths which I had completely to myself for most of the two days I spent there.

I visited the woods two or three times a day. Dusk was my favourite time after the wood’s few visitors had left for the day and the creatures of the night came out to play. Several times a startled raptor screeched in the treetops as it moved away from my noisy passage through the undergrowth beneath. I saw shy muntjac deer silently disappear among the distant trees and once, as I sat quietly leaning against a fallen oak, a badger emerged from its underground lair.

Walking around the wood’s perimeter was just as fascinating. Hundreds of pigs wallowed in deep mud pools along the western edge as thousands of gulls circled overhead. I spent as much time as I could among the trees, but there was plenty of work to drag me back to the boat.

A quiet spot to rest and read in Hopwas Hayes Wood

A quiet spot to rest and read in Hopwas Hayes Wood

Last Sunday I visited Homebase in Tamworth to try and buy a replacement waste for the one in my galley which had broken in two. The store didn’t have anything suitable so I decided to try and repair the broken waste with some heavy duty super glue.

My DIY record is abysmal. Anything I’ve ever tried to build, refurbish, repair, service or replace has failed, fallen apart, dropped off or broken. No matter how hard I tried in the past, I always reached the same painful conclusion. There’s no point in me trying to do the work in the first place so I might as well save myself the effort and frustration and call in the professionals.

On Sunday I decided to adopt a more positive attitude, analyse why I’ve failed in the past, learn from my mistakes and make sure that I approach any new work intelligently and carefully.

Life is so easy when you start off with a positive attitude. I started off by making sure that I had the best tools for the job. In this case the right equipment was a tube of leading brand hang-an-elephant-from-a-helicopter unbreakable, totally fool proof superglue.

In the spirit of doing the job properly, I then read the instructions slowly and carefully.

Will it work on plastic?
Yes it will.
Is it waterproof?
Yes it is.

OK. We were off to a flying start.

I was instructed to make sure that the parts to be stuck together were clean and dry. I scrubbed both parts in the sink then dried them thoroughly with a wad of blue roll.

I liberally applied the glue to both parts then pressed the two parts together and made sure that they were held together firmly for forty eight hours while the glue cured. I applied the glue so liberally that I almost stuck a couple of fingers to each half. After I pressed them firmly together I held them together will half a roll of duct tape and then put the repaired waste out of harm’s way in a cupboard for two days.

On Tuesday evening I carefully removed the tape, noted with satisfaction that I had married the two parts together so well that I could barely see a join, screwed the waste firmly in place then, rather anxiously, turned on the mixer tap to check for leaks.

I sat on the galley floor shining a torch under the sink and noted, rather smugly, that even with the mixer tap fully open not a drop was dripping through the repaired waste.

“That,” I said to myself proudly, “is how to do it!”

Just before I stood up to take the top off a celebratory bottle of Theakston’s Old Peculiar, the waste snapped at the recently repaired join and dumped about a gallon of cold water in my lap.

Anyone know a good plumber?

After a late breakfast on Wednesday I was on my way again enjoying the still, early autumn sun as I cruised beside fields of ripe wheat and ducked under low hanging oak branches heavy with acorns. Just before Whittington I smelled paint and heard a metallic rattle from above. Three harnessed contractors hung from a pylon fifty feet above me quietly chatting while they painted.

At a blind bend into a bridge hole at Huddlesford I spotted the bow of a boat approaching. I slowed to allow the helmsman to correct his line and move away from me. He didn’t. The slowly drifting and out of control boat glanced off my bow. No problem and no hysterics either. I was stationary when we met. He was barely moving. We both possibly lost a little bitumen, but it didn’t matter. Narrowboats are built like tanks, so they can take the knocks. The accident was unavoidable. The approaching boat had picked up something on the propeller which had jammed it solid. Fortunately for the owner, a quick burst in reverse removed the obstacle and we were both on our way again.

At Streethay Wharf I stopped briefly to spend some money. I have three fenders, two tipcat and a button, protecting my rudder. I fitted them a couple of months ago. Now that they’ve been compacted slightly after occasional lock bumps, they’ve developed a rather pronounced brewer’s droop. I bought a couple of strainers to fix them more securely, and bag of coal and another of kindling as insurance against the odd inevitable chilly early morning as autumn advances.

After Streethay Wharf, cruising parallel to the A38 I kept pace with two lanes of very slow moving traffic for half an hour. I could see drivers hunched over steering wheels, stressed by the inconvenience of moving at four miles an hour. I cruised on serenely without a care in the world, delighted that I could travel as fast as 4mph along this short straight stretch.

At Fradley junction as I made my turn I encountered the longest lock queue since I set off on my travels in April. Six boats waited ahead of me. Passing through this one lock took an hour so after quickly ascending that, and Shade House lock which followed, I decided to stop for the night on the visitor moorings above the flight.

Last time I moored here I remembered being slightly annoyed at the sound of boy racers revving engines and screeching tyres nearby. At the time I hoped someone would report them to the police and hopefully put a stop to their racket. I considered doing so myself. I’m very pleased I didn’t. Less than a mile away to the south west is the Curborough Sprint Course, a figure of eight official race track.

On Thursday morning I made a bit of a fool of myself. I suppose it was overdue. I haven’t done anything particularly stupid for at least a week.

I set Wood End lock, my first of the day, took the boat in and then climbed out of the lock taking my centre line with me. Normally when I’m in an ascending lock, I leave the engine in gear on tick over so the boat is held against the front gate as the boat rises. I didn’t want to do that on this occasion because there was an obstruction on the front gate which I suspected would snag the bow fender. Instead, I left the engine in neutral, took my centre line with me and tied it to the upstream bollard. This stops the boat being pushed away from the upstream gate when the paddles are first raised and then slammed back against the upstream gates as the water which enters the lock travels down to the downstream gates then surges back to push the boat forward.

After I raised the paddles slowly to make sure that the boat’s ascent was gentle, I was joined by the crew of the boat following me. I’m male, so I can’t multi task. I can’t focus on what I’m doing and hold a conversation, especially first thing in the morning.

The boaters noticed my web site address on the cabin side and asked about the site. I told them all about it, about how it’s developed and now, because of the products and training I offer, I treat the site as my full time job.

They told me that they thought training for both aspiring and new boat owners was a wonderful idea and complimented me on the concept in general and my implied proficient helmsmanship in particular. We swung the upstream gate open, I bid them farewell and as nonchalantly as possible steered my boat out of the lock with my arm casually draped over the tiller and, I hoped, an air of competence and confidence about me.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten to untie my centre line. Twenty feet out of the lock the cabin dipped violently to port almost throwing me off the boat. The two boaters watched bemused as I leaped off the boat and then began tugging frantically at the iron hard knot around the bollard, tightened almost immovably by twenty tonnes of boat.

I don’t think that I left them with quite as good an impression as I hoped.

A little later as I approached Armitage I could see the forested slopes of Cannock Chase ahead of me, seemingly close enough to touch but still three hours away. I stopped close to Tesco in Rugeley, left four bags of my own rubbish at the store and collected eight bags of food, carried my shopping back to the boat and collected my rucksack before hiking to a nearby builder’s merchants where I bought a new sink waste. Back on the boat, in the time the kettle took to boil, the new waste was installed and working perfectly.

Fully stocked again I headed out of Rugeley and towards an encounter with the best trained boat dog in the world.

I noticed the collie a hundred metres away from his boat staring intently at something in the grass. As I approached the dog, it didn’t move an inch. The owner noticed the stationary dog from where he was working at the stern of his own boat. He leaned forwards, picked up something which he put in his pocket and strolled towards the still immobile dog. I drew level with the dog at the same time as the owner reached it. He obviously knew what the dog was focussed on, pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket and reached down to scoop up the dog’s poo. After many, many encounters with half hidden discarded dog muck, seeing a dog trained to indicate its own mess was a delight. Well done that owner!

After a sharp right hand turn onto the Trent aqueduct, then an equally sharp left hand turn into bridge 68, two hours of urban sprawl ended suddenly with a wide view of glorious Cannock Chase and the brisk breeze courtesy of the open countryside.

At the following bridge a fuel boat sat higher and dryer than two months earlier when I last passed this way with half of its propeller now exposed to the elements.

I stopped for the night overlooking Shugborough Hall with the intention of spending a day or two exploring nearby Cannock Chase’s twenty six miles of forest and heath. Sadly I realised that I was falling behind schedule. In order to reach Llangollen with enough time to do a few days hill walking before returning to Napton Junction and my next batch of discovery days at the beginning of October, I needed to move on.

Before I moved off on Friday I decided to check my mud box. The steel cylinder is part of my raw water cooling system. Canal water is drawn in to the boat through a grill in the hull then passes through the mud box before moving on to the heat exchanger. The mud box traps any sediment or fine weed which has managed to penetrate the grill.

I have been told to check the mud box regularly but my last check had been two months earlier. On opening it I was quite surprised to find it completely free of mud. I’ll have to keep an eye on the water as I explore new waterways. I’m sure they won’t all be quite as forgiving as the canals and rivers I’ve travelled on this year so far.

After putting the engine room back together I moved on through Haywood lock, past Haywood Junction and on to unfamiliar water. I enjoyed three hours of far quieter cruising than I expected. My Pearson’s guide indicated a canal shadowed by a busy railway and road but most of the time both were hidden from sight and inaudible over the purr of my engine and rhythmic wet exhaust woosh.

Stone was a pleasure to cruise through. There was now a grittier, more northern feel to the waterway. I’m always on guard when on new and unknown canals. I smile and wave at everyone on my travels. A few hooded, baseball cap wearing teenagers ignored me completely so when I brought the boat in to the lock by the Star in with its lock side tables full of slightly drunken middle aged males I was a little nervous, especially when two of them climbed unsteadily to their feet and walked towards me. I casually removed my camera from the cockpit hatch and prepared for a confrontation. They walked past me, closed the gates behind me, slurred a friendly hello then sat down again.

I was feeling much better about the town but still slightly nervous when I pulled over onto the lock landing at the next lock to be met by a rather intimidating off the lead Rottweiler followed by an even more intimidating heavily muscled and shaven headed man in his early thirties. The dog wagged its tail, he smiled, waved and walked on, and I popped inside the boat to change my underpants.

At my next and final lock of the day, I met another Stone resident. This time the inland waterways tamest grey heron. As I approached the lock it stood motionless on the roof of a GRP cruiser just five feet away from me as I passed before flapping calmly onto the lock landing as I pulled on to it, ignoring me completely as it focussed on the water behind my stern.

I stopped for the night just below the Meaford flight of four locks opposite a new and tidy housing estate. After a peaceful night’s sleep I set off again, thankful that there had been no noise on the towpath the previous night in such a built up area. I was wondering how noisy that particular mooring would be on a weekend night, then I realised that the previous evening had been Friday and still as quiet as a grave.

On Saturday morning at 6.30am I quickly climbed up through the three locks of the Meaford flight, then through Barleston where I passed an angler with a difference. The elderly guy was fishing from the seat of his mobility scooter. He was completely covered in faded India ink tattoos, including Maori style spirals on his face and shaven head. I smiled and waved. He grimaced and threw a handful of maggots in the canal. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

At Trentham lock I met three middle aged guys on a 140 mile road trip taking their recently purchased boat to its new mooring in Burnley. I met them at each lock for the rest of the day where they insisted on doing as much work for me as they could, help which was very much appreciated when I needed to make a brew.

Stoke's drab outskirts

Stoke’s drab outskirts

On the outskirts of drab Stoke a bolt of glamorous lightening brightened my day. A tall willow thin and beautiful blonde running effortlessly along the towpath slowed down to ask me for directions to the nearby Britannia stadium. As I pulled over to show her the way, I was sure that if I had been twenty years younger, she had been ten years older, I was better looking, and she lowered her standards a little, there could have been a wonderful future for us together. As it was, I watched her seductively gyrate along the towpath before continuing with my solo boating.

The last lock before Etruria Junction was a test of stamina. Each of the downstream paddles took forty turns to open fully. There’s no gym membership required when you live this lifestyle.

My plan for the day was to reach the far end of Harecastle tunnel but as I passed Westport Lake and the western outskirts of Stoke, the combination of the smell of freshly cooked Stoke oatcakes and a free mooring overlooking Westport lake was too much for me.

I secured the boat, bought a couple of cheese and bacon oatcakes and a cup of tea, and sat in the sunshine enjoying the view.

After my late lunch I changed my engine oil, thoroughly cleaned the engine room, and then retired for the day to escape torrential rain, thunder and lightning.

As I sat eating my dinner I watched flashes of lightning momentarily illuminate the black rain clouds above the lake and listened to rain drumming on the roof. Who needs television with nature providing the entertainment?

I had some more entertainment at five thirty this morning. I was woken by loud and drunken voices but they moved away quickly so I cuddled my teddy a little more tightly and returned to the land of Nod.

A fellow boater told me this morning how lucky I had been. A gang of youths had worked their way up the line of boats moored next to the lake causing as much mayhem as possible. Two boats were cast adrift, several poles and planks removed and thrown into the canal, and a bike was partially removed from its roof rack, saved by the padlock which secured it.

A lady in the boat next to me told me that the youths stopped at my boat, realised that they would have to climb on board to either untie it or reach the rack where my pole and plank are stored, so carried on to untie the boat behind me.

The view from my window at Westport Lake

The view from my window at Westport Lake

I’m staying on this mooring again tonight. I think there’s less chance of them returning on a Sunday night than after a drunken Saturday night out, but I will be waiting. I’ll keep my shoes and clothes close at hand, and I have a little surprise gift for them as a thank you for their attention. I hope they like it.

Useful Information

Discovery Day And Narrowboat Helmsmanship Training

If you’re new to this site you might not know about the service I launched in June 2014. I host narrowboat experience days on board my own 62′ long narrowboat James No 194. The ten hour days are a combination of discussion about the pros and cons of living on board, narrowboat designs and the best equipment for live aboard boaters, and a six to eight hour helmsmanship training cruise along the Oxford and/or Grand Union Canals.

I’m running the discovery days approximately on the first ten days of August, October and December this year. As summer approaches more and more site users are booking the relatively few discovery days still available. August onwards is still relatively free. If you are interested in joining me for a fun and information packed discovery day please check the diary before it’s too late.

Update 23rd August 2015

The earliest dates are now at the beginning of October. If you want to  see the available dates for October onward click here.

In the meantime, meet recent discovery day attendee Chris Smith.

“I have had a passion for canal boats for 15 years, have rented a couple of times and need to make sure my love was for real, seeing that I live in Australia. My wife is British, and needs to spend quality time with her aged parents, so probably would not want to be full time with me on a boat. Learning about single handling was my main ambition, which was amply fulfilled by my great instructor!

Everything went really well, my instructor seemed relaxed more than I would have been if someone unknown was steering my biggest capital possession down a narrow lane with clueless hirers coming at me from all directions.

The instruction was wonderful, confidence building, and any admonition was “ in a perfect world” this or that should have happened. Every hirer should be required to have more than 10 minutes instruction, as adequately illustrated by events.

Paul even acted as a marriage counselor in a lock where a family situation was becoming heated  and eased the situation with cool independent advice.

I am so glad that I took the Discovery Day. It has given me more confidence I my abilities, I have learned more that I could have imagined  in one day, and Paul has instilled in me some basics that I was not aware of and will remember forever.

We had a very windy day, which really helped to learn some techniques that will be invaluable when I get to do my own thing.”

Finally, I would like to thank Paul for a fantastic day that I’ll be talking about for a while to come. I also believe that it a brave move to trust a complete novice and stranger to steer your home up and down the canal. Thanks for all the advice and I hope to keep in touch and let you know how I get on buying and living on a boat.”

You can find out more about my discovery days and availability here.

I Need Some Help!

Each time I write a newsletter, I tick another subject off the list of things which those new to boating have told me that they want to read about. The hardest part of the process isn’t the writing itself, it’s constantly thinking of new content for each issue. The trouble is, I don’t know what you want to read. I think I keep the newsletters reasonably interesting but I don’t know for sure. That’s where I need your help.

Can you let me know what you would like to read in the future? Are there any areas of narrowboat life you don’t think I’ve covered enough or areas which I’ve missed completely? Please let me know what you want to read about. Thanks for your help.

Useful Information

Please Help Keep This Site Online

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.