A Grand Day Out 7th March 2010

2010-03-07 @ 18:53:58 by ashtonboatman

A Grand Day Out

It was my birthday on Friday. Emuna and I have a tradition that we have a day off on our birthdays but I decided to postpone mine to Saturday so that I could have a steam train ride. Though Emuna is a lot better than she was, her M E restricted the choice to local lines, which really means the East Lancashire Railway. I checked the timetable on Friday evening, only to find that it was a special diesel weekend! Never mind, I thought, it will still be a day out.

It's only a short walk from our house to Ashton station where we caught the 11.26 train into Manchester Victoria. Under the shattered remnants of a once grand glass roof we caught the tram to Bury and rattled through the North Manchester suburbs, through wooded cuttings and across the bleak country alongside the Bolton & Bury canal beyond Radcliffe to arrive at the buffer stops at Bury interchange. Emuna was dismayed to find that the escalators weren't working.

We walked through the busy centre of Bury to the old Bolton St station where we bought tickets from a very clerkish little man with round spectacles. The next train to Rawtenstall wasn't for a while so Emuna went to purchase coffee while I mooched around society stalls (The class 15 society etc) on one of the platforms. Rejoining Emuna, I realised that the bubble car (a nickname for the single railcars built in the early 1960s to replace steam trains on branch lines) standing nearby was about to depart for Ramsbottom. As we intended to stop for lunch in Ramsbottom we carried our coffees aboard and enjoyed them as we shaked rattled and rolled up the single track.

It was on this train (can a single vehicle be a train?) that I realised what an extraordinary band of passengers we had joined. Usually on a preserved railway one shares the train with a wide cross section of people enjoying a day out in a historic and slightly romantic environment. Diesel weekends, however, are strictly for hardcore anoraks! No-one was actually wearing one of these fabled garments, I don't know if you can still buy them, but they were all wearing clothing of uniform mundanity. Emuna suggested that they were all lads who couldn't get girl friends, but the presence of older members of the tribe with children, and sometimes spouses, suggests that reproductive success is not entirely unknown.

Along the lineside stood more diesel devotees armed with cameras to record for posterity the progress of our humble railcar.

Ramsbottom station is pretty much in the town centre. Years ago we enjoyed a pleasant meal in a cafe in sight of the station and had decided to pay it a repeat visit. It turned out to have been transformed into an upmarket coffee bar, so we walked up the main street, lined with charity shops, looking for another cafe. Nothing appealed so we decided to investigate the imposing "Grant Arms". This proved to provide very enjoyable meals. Outside it is a bizarre sculpture of a vase lying on its side.

Revived by a rest, a meal and a small amount of alcohol we walked back towards the station. Emuna insisted that I take a picture of a sandwich shop called "Big Butts" content which I suppose is some sort of joke on the towns name.

The next Rawtenstall bound train was headed by a rather boring locomotive, nicknamed a Hoover, but I insisted that we walk to the back of the train as there was a diesel of distinction, a Deltic, bringing up the rear. It turned out to be switched off, so I could not enjoy the highbrow tones of its engines as we traversed the stoneclad valley of the Irwell. Emuna took to gurning at lineside photographers.

We left the train at the Rawtenstall terminus and went to explore the town. Sadly, a lot of the shops are now closed, including an entire 1960s shopping arcade.

We came upon an establishment that claimed to be Britain's last temperance bar. Curious, we entered, and found ourselves in a dark wooden bar with a single plain table and spindly wooden chairs. The proprietor stood behind the bar and asked for our orders. I explained that we didn't know the options, so a pale young man with an oddly peaked grey woolen hat stepped forward with a menu. Emuna chose dandelion and burdock while I went for lemon and ginger. This was much nicer than the oversweetened pop bought from a supermarket, with a pleasant tingle from the ginger. All around were shelves of healthy teas and old fashioned advertisments for various concoctions.

A young woman floated in who would easily win the prize for best dressed person of the day. She wore a vivid electric blue dress with a huge silver cross that hung in the space where many women nowadays seem to prefer to display eye popping amounts of cleavage. From each ear hung another cross, smaller, but still a greater weight than I would like to dangle from my lobes. She eyed me with suspicion and conversed inaudibly with the lad in the peaked wooly hat.

More regulars arrived, including the girl's mother, who was surprisingly elderly. They all ordered drinks and Emuna and I gave up our chairs for our elders and betters. Two little ladies, whose husbands probably worked in a mine, in a mine, where a thousand diamonds shine, sat down and stared at us. We began to feel like we had strayed into some strange private cult. Perhaps the girl in the blue dress is the new Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott (or Southcote) (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born at Taleford, and raised in the village of Gittisham in Devon, England.

who is destined to give birth as a virgin to the new Messiah and Rawtenstall will be the new Jerusalem. Perhaps, deep in the vaults of the adjacent Methodist church is a box containing arcane truths revealed unto her.

We finished our drinks and walked towards the station, surprised not to have been asked if we were local in the Royston Vaseyish atmosphere of the pub with no beer. Reading some of the advertisements for the diesel weekend in the booking office I realised that the trains were actually going to run all night, and for a mere £27.50 one could have unlimited overnight travel between Rawtenstall and Heywood!

The train arrived, topped and tailed by class 37 diesels. We went to the leading carriage in order to be close to the engine. It was an open coach of the kind with sets of 4 seats facing inward to a table. Opposite sat two middle aged men and a boy of about 8, presumably the son of one of the men, who were encouraging him in the irritating displacement activity of repeatedly spinning a coin on the formica topped table.

In the next bay were a group of gricers http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=gricer who, judging by their estuarine vowels, hailed from the South Eastern corner of the land. Though almost certainly into their third decades of life, their humour was consistently teenage. It became clear that all of our fellow travellers at this end of the carriage were planning to avail themselves of the opportunity to travel all night.

The engine had been steadily beating like a giant heart, but, in response to the guard's whistle, it started to haul the train out of the station, demonstrating why this class are dubbed "growlers". Though they spent most of their 40+ years in service on relatively humble trains some of the class had a brief fling in the spotlight when Gerard Fiennes, then General Manager of the Western Region, had them re-geared to run in pairs up to 100 MPH for pulling the top expresses from Paddington to the West. Later Mr Fiennes published a book called "I tried to Run a Railway" which upset the transport minister and he was promptly sacked.

OK, so I'm a bit of a secret gricer myself!

Between Ramsbottom and Summerseat there are two tunnels close together. The driver braked through the first of these, then gunned the engine through the second, longer bore, to the delight of all as the prolonged growl of the engine was magnified by the tunnel lining.

Back at Bury, time was pressing and we hurried through the town centre to catch a tram. A stray gricer stood on the platform to photograph the tram. Back at Victoria we had a short wait for the Ashton train. As the train sped across the remnants of Ashton Moss my 'phone rang. It was Fian, our shop training co-ordinator. She was going to boatsit for the first time but had been unable to contact the boatsitting organiser to obtain a key. I arranged to meet her, walked home with Emuna and met Dave the driver who had just finished his days voluntary work. He handed the van over to me and I drove to the basin to meet Fian and show her the basics of staying in a back cabin. I drove home just in time to eat a lovely meal prepared by Emuna.

Hunger abated, we set out in the van to collect our friend Sandie from Stalybridge, then hurried to Rusholme for the Saturday night Latihan. http://www.web.net/latihan/more.html The latihan left me with a stiff neck,lately I seem to be leaving the latihan with various pains that wear off in an hour or two. It's very odd, but that applies to everything about the latihan. (Who am I to talk about strange cults. Subud members are always pointing out that it's not a cult, Sometimes methinks they protest too much). After tea and biscuits and a long chat with a lady who is using Facebook for the first time, we returned to the van, now a little heavier with some donations for the charity shop from a Subud lady who is on a mission to declutter her home. Sandie and Emuna nattered about spiritual things, particularly the incompatibility between Subud and Gurdjieff work http://www.gurdjieff.org/.

We dropped Sandie off and went to visit a friend who has lung cancer. He's just had radiotherapy which burned his oesophagus and made it difficult to eat. Hearing that my birthday cake was chocolate he developed a craving for chocolate cake (made by Emuna to my mother's secret recipe), so we took him some. He enjoyed it in spite of swallowing still being painful. The conversation was of things on which I had no strong views and so, though I enjoyed the company, did not join in, drinking lemongrass tea and watching something forgettable on the TV instead. Tiredness was creeping over me, so soon we headed for home to draw the curtains on a grand day.

1st March 2010 Another Trip to the East

2010-03-01 @ 08:17:21 by ashtonboatman

Another trip to the East

Not India or China but Grimsby and Lincoln. After the last trip we got offered some funding that the wonderful Fiona has been working on for ages "in principle". On the strength of this I booked a ticket for another trip to the sawmill. This turned out to be premature as we're still waiting for the funding to be confirmed. This is frustrating as we can't buy timber or promise anyone a job restoring "Hazel" until we're sure that the money will be forthcoming.

Nevertheless, I was able to discuss logs in more detail, but later realised that there had been let's say a misunderstanding over the amount of cubic feet of timber we had been discussing. I'll have to go back again.

My next destination was Lincoln, where we are hoping to load the timber on to a boat for transport to Stalybridge. My friends there had invited me to stay, but I've been yearning to spend a night in the wild for ages, so I decided to visit them the next day. I cycled into Grimsby along the sea wall beside the Humber. Being Grimsby I thought it would be appropriate to dine on fish and chips. People in the town centre seemed puzzled by the concept of a chip shop, though there was plenty of choice if I wanted a kebab, curried dog or Kentucky Fried Rat. Eventually I tracked down the appropriate establishment and took my ample portion to the station to eat.

A very big young man with a red goatee beard approached me. He started the conversation by complaining about Polish people coming here and taking all the jobs. It always amazes me that racists are so arrogant that they assume that everyone will share their tiny minded views. His next line was to try to blag some money out of me, unsuccessfully.

I climbed aboard the railcar for the Barton on Humber branch and had a free ride to Burton Haven. I always have a dilemma on trains where the guard isn't bothered about tickets. Should I save money for myself or insist on paying so that my journey will be counted next time the authorities try to close the line. This time I took the selfish option.

I alighted at the tiny halt and the railcar rattled away into the night. I followed the public footpath signs across a timber wharf beside a little inlet. Cranes silently awaited the next ship. I was pleased to see that this little port was obviously still in business. I wanted to bivouwac as close to the water as practicable, but with a chilly wind blowing I decided to use one of the timber stacks as a windbreak. Nevertheless, though cocooned in a sleeping bag and tarpaulin,I just had to open my eyes and move my coat aside to peer out across the Humber at the lights of Hull several miles away.

I woke on a grey, cold but dry morning and, after exploring the area a little, caught a railcar, busy with commuters, as far as Habrough. Here I had a long wait, but there were plenty of passengers to chat with. My railcar to Lincoln was again well loaded and I enjoyed the journey across a gently undulating rural landscape.

After some self generated confusion I met Debbie and her two youngest sons beside Brayford Pool. Brayford Pool is a wonderful city centre lake where the Fosdyke canal (built by the Romans) meets the River Witham. Since mediaeval times it has been famous for its swans. Nowadays the pool is a tourist attraction, but development pressures are putting the swans at risk. Everyone (almost,see http://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/showthread.php?t=283935 ) claims to love the swans, but most fail to understand their habitat needs. Their grazing grounds have been taken to build the university and increasing construction and trip boat activity means that there is hardly anywhere left where they can peacefully get out of the water. At night they suffer constant harrasment from drunken idiots and at all times they are at risk from discarded fishing tackle.

The last time I was at Brayford Pool was in 1959, trainspotting with my brother while my dad and sister visited the cathedral. I don't remember much about it, I was only 6, but cine film taken at the time shows the pool full of swans and barges. My main interest was the parade of steam trains at the level crossing.

Debbie and her partner Lee are wonderful people who have become advocates for the swan population, constantly fighting against all kinds of vested interests. They have formed the Lincoln Swan Management Team to try to help the swans survive in this increasingly hostile environment. Because the swan's natural food supply is cut off, this group now spends about £1000 a year on grain to keep them alive, as well as constantly clearing litter from their one bit of usable bank ( currently threatened by more trip boats).

After eating at the University we went to what Debbie calls the Mothership, a Lincoln size barge with it's hold fitted out tastefully using reclaimed timber and wonderfully warmed by an Aga. Next to the barge is the converted wooden butty "Chance 2". This boat appears to be a Nursers boat and may have once been Thomas Clayton's "Mersey" before being sold to Chance & Hunt. When I first saw her, on the Shroppie in 1987, she was called "Valentine" and belonged to the self sufficiency writer John Seymour. Back in about 1970 I recall a centre spread in the Leamington Spa Courier about the houseboat conversion on this boat, then named "Chance 2" and moored at the Blue Lias near Long Itchington on the Grand Union.

Lee and Debbie's two older children now have their own boats, so choosing to carry on the water way of life. We looked at and discussed possible timber loading sites. It's annoying that proper use of the waterways, for carrying stuff, now has to be sneaked in around the all important leisure trade.

Lee returned from work later and Debbie served up a tasty meal before I had to leave to catch the 17.21 train back to Grimsby. Here I had a long wait. Irritatingly the later train from Lincoln just misses the last Manchester train but I couldn't get an earlier train because my cheap ticket was for a specific service. It didn't matter as I enjoy exploring new places and went for a walk round Grimsby. As I came back to the station I saw a fox confidently trot across the level crossing.

Sitting on the station ( why do they use cold stainless steel for station seats?) I met the bearded giant again. He asked if I smoked weed. I explained that I don't smoke anything, which seemed to annoy him. It's my policy not to be intimidated, but this man is very large and seems rather unpredictable, so I decided to maintain a low profile. Consequently I did not intervene as he launched an all out attack on the vending machine ( does anyone ever look at the much vaunted cctv?). He left via the footbridge with various items of stolen junk food and, as he walked along the opposite platform, berated me for not sharing my chips on the previous day, telling me that he is well acquainted with Jesus and I will not go to heaven.

Further entertainment was provided for me as a train was delayed by a fight which broke out in the doorway as the guard stood by and watched.

When my train arrived I was ready for a sleep, so I remember little of the journey. From Piccadilly I rode up the towpath to check the boats at Portland Basin, then home and so to bed.

29th January 2010 I've been Looking at Logs

2010-01-29 @ 06:39:53 by ashtonboat

I've been looking at logs.

I've been away looking at logs, and that means there's some real boatbuilding in the offing at last. It's been such a long job to build up the organisation so that this would be possible. It all hangs now on the wonderful work that Fiona, our development worker, is doing. We have all digits crossed for a funding bid that she's made to restore "Hazel" and use her to give holidays to people recovering from depression etc. We should know next week if we have the money. In the meantime I'm starting to make preparations.

One of the difficulties of wooden boatbuilding is finding enough good, big logs. Most sawmills can't cut the lengths that we need. I had heard about a sawmill near Grimsby in Lincolnshire so I decided to go and have a look. I went by train and bike as I prefer to travel that way, it reduces the carbon footprint and, if you book in advance, it's cheaper.

Early on Monday morning I enjoyed cycling down the towpath the 5 miles to Manchester Picadilly station. Just as I turned into the station approach I heard a psssssshhhough from the back wheel. The tube had gone, not just a puncture but a great split. Not a good start to the trip. I decided to take the bike with me on the offchance of finding a bike shop in Grimsby and, after a while spent relaxing and watching trains come and go, I loaded myself and the redundant bike on to a Transpennine Express unit bound for Cleethorpes.

Once we were clear of the urban sprawl I could enjoy the Pennine scenery as the unit growled up the gradient through Chinley then through a tunnel and rattled down the Hope Valley. Just think, I could be stressed out on the motorway!

Past Sheffield I was in less familiar territory as we threaded a mixture of countryside, town and post industrial wasteland, all the while playing spot the canal as we paralleled the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation. Mr Waddingtons light blue barges hove into view a time or two, though sadly not in use.

The train rumbled on to a bridge over the wide muddy banked Trent. A steel narrowboat was heading upstream on the first of the tide. Soon we were in Scunthorpe, with its unfashionably grim industry, then riding out over the Humberside plains.

As the train slowed into Grimsby Station I grabbed my useless bike ready to quickly exit the pneumatic doors and lock it to a bike rack, then, following directions from the station staff, headed quickly through a pedestrian area to the 'bus station.

For some reason 'bus routes and schedules form a body of arcane knowledge only known to a secret society of regular users. By relentless quizzing of various acolytes of this order I managed to work out that I needed the X1 Humber Flyer from stand D, but the complex charts required to ascertain the times of the flyers were mysteriously absent. Eventually a 'bus driver cracked under interrogation and admitted that the relevant charabanc would depart at a quarter to.

This gave me time for a short walk to the old docks, where a trawler with scabby paint was berthed alongside the fishing museum. Grinning guides in sou'westers were poised to show the sadly absent public around their ship. Ahead of her lay the "Lincoln Castle", a fine big paddle steamer that used to be the main link to Hull before the construction of the Humber Bridge. Now she is beached on a sandbank in the silted dock. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS_Lincoln_Castle Had I time I would have liked to look round the museum. The rather down at heel appearance of the vessels reflects the difficulty in getting funding for floating heritage. Also in the dock were two wooden fishing boats, one sunk and one listing drunkenly, illustrating the even greater problem of getting funds for anything wooden. In contrast the museum building was a modern, high quality structure which I'm sure contains lots of well funded audio visual whizziness.

Back at the'bus station the steamer's wheeled replacement, with a remarkably cheerful driver, was soon flying me out of town into the countryside, to deposit me at the delightful village of Keelby. Following directions given by a helpful passenger I completed the 10 minute walk to Somerscales sawmill, just as most people were going out for lunch.

Luckily the receptionist stayed at her post and, with a refreshing lack of safety overkill, suggested that I look round on my own, but be careful. I strode towards the log piles and was soon perching atop them pacing out logs and assessing their planking potential. They have some amazingly big logs there, up to 40 feet long. Usually it's hard to get more than 20 ft (about 7 metres for metric readers). Underneath the good logs were others that had rotted beyond all use, so long had they been in the pile. The log piles seemed to go on for ever and I excitedly trotted about, searching for the perfect boatbuilding log.

Between piles ran black muddy roadways rutted with the tracks of the machines used for moving the logs. As I crossed them the mud came to the tops of my boots. I moved to the corner of the stacking area, stepped confidently into a rut, and suddenly found myself up to my knees in soft black ooze. Chuckling at my predicament I pulled myself out and decided to avoid all ruts in future.

The log shifters appear to indulge in some kind of sport that involves hitting life expired vehicles with huge logs, perhaps some kind of giants cricket. At least, this is how it seemed from the amount of totally smashed cars that lay on the margins of the field.

With my perambulation of the huge log stacking area complete, I returned to the office. The boss had returned, gone looking for me, given up and left again. However, Danny, his son, was available and I took him to some of the logs that interested me. I asked about price, whilst firmly gripping a large tree trunk. Prices have gone up recently, but not too much. The bigger logs command a premium, but this has to be balanced with the fact that there is normally less waste on a bigger log.

I asked about the market for oak, boatbuilding being a pretty minor outlet. Danny told me that a lot went for oak framed houses, not restorations but new build. Apparently there has been a boom in this form of construction recently, which might explain the price rise. Another factor is that British Waterways have gone back to using oak for lock gates. A few years ago they were full of the joys of Opepe, but this Ghanaian hardwood is not sustainably grown and environmental considerations have now swayed them back to using native oak. I'm glad that awareness of rainforest destruction is now having a real effect, even though it means that our timber will be a bit more expensive.

"Have you seen the sawmill" asked Danny. I hadn't, so he showed me the most sophisticated sawmill I've ever seen. Under remote control from the safety of a glass cabin a log was quickly fed through the sawblade, guided by a laser, pulled back, rotated, then fed through again for another cut without pausing to draw breath. The mill was only installed about 18 months ago and Danny was obviously proud of it. It can only cut up to 25 feet though, longer logs will have to use an older, but still impressive, machine alongside. This one can cut up to 50 feet.

We strolled back to the office and Danny had to leave to attend to other business. Accepting a cup of coffee, I sat and admired the unusual office. Though it is clearly a modern building it contains no MDF or plastics. The walls are bare brick, the beams oak and everything else made of proper wood ( except the computer of course). It was heated by an elegant glass fronted woodstove and furnished with tasteful antique chairs and sideboard.

Coffee finished, I set off back towards the village. As I walked down the lane a huge lorry, loaded with logs, headed for the sawmill. I was feeling peckish and explored the village a little in search of sustenance. Amazingly, I had a choice of grocers, and a separate post office if I needed it. I entered a mini supermarket and chose one from a wide range of pork pies, then walked to a bench opposite the 'bus stop to sit and consume it.

With my hunger banished I crossed the road to await the Humber Flyer. First a school 'bus arrived and disgorged its young cargo. They walked past me staring fixedly into their palms which contained mobile 'phones and computer games. The flyer arrived, this time driven by a woman with incredibly red lipstick, and whisked me back to Grimsby.

There was more than an hour to wait for the train as my cheap ticket was only valid on the 18.48 service. I walked to the old docks again and considered having a look at the modern port in the distance, but I decided it was too far. If my bike was serviceable there would be no problem. Back in town I followed a waterway that was presumably once navigable but is now cut off by a pumping station. I imagined Keels and Sloops lined up alongside the brick warehouses bordering the water, men toiling to unload their cargoes.

As darkness fell I returned to the station and reclaimed my bike. I enjoyed watching the comings and goings of passengers, then suddenly remembered my camera. I had brought my new digibole camelode with the intention of photographing logs, but in my excitment I completely forgot. To make up for this omission I photographed the Cleethorpes to Barton on Humber railcar progressing through the station.

Soon my train snaked into the platform. I loaded up my bike and found a seat. As we grumbled off into the night I took out my 'phone and started to make arrangements with volunteers for the next couple of days and send out texts to remind people about the forthcoming recycling trips. My impression of the day was one of the consummate friendliness of the people I had met.

Suddenly I was jerked forward from my seat as the train made the most abrupt stop that I've ever known on rails. The guard hurried forward into the drivers cab, then, after a while walked back. A passenger near me asked what was wrong. The guards reply was bizzarre. He said " I don't think there's anything to worry about because the driver hasn't spoken to me, if he does speak to me then it will be a serious situation". With that he toddled off to the back of the train.

After what seemed like half a geological era the train crew conferred again in the cab, then we moved up to the next signal, where we stopped for the driver to 'phone the signalman ( why don't they have radios?) before restarting our journey. Later the guard announced what had happened over the pa system. It seems that some foolish person had dashed across the line in front of the train, so close that the driver couldn't be sure that he hadn't been hit. This meant that he had to walk back along the track until he was satisfied that there was no corpse lying by the line, hence the long delay.

As we raced into the blackberry black night I had an idea. I rang Dave the driver. Dave is a volunteer who loves driving and has taken charge of the society's van. As I guessed, an extra trip to meet me at Stockport station would be no problem for him, and so I was able to avoid the chore of pushing my bike back up the towpath from Manchester.

After Doncaster I began to doze and, though I recall Sheffield, I didn't properly regain consciousness until Hazel Grove in the Manchester suburbs. Dave and his wife, Ann Marie, were waiting in the van to drive me to Ashton, where I checked that the boat's pumps were working properly before going home.

17th January 2010 Kingfisher Morning

2010-01-17 @ 11:46:44 by ashtonboatman

Kingfisher Morning

Friday morning at Portland Basin. The snow and ice had departed overnight and so I was able at last to drive the van down the hill to the wharf. I noticed Mr Woodcutter perched on the hatches of "Elton" peering into the watery interior. I had been unable to keep the boat afloat during the icy period. I think ice had prevented a bilge pump from switching off, so it ran until the battery was exhausted, then the boat filled up with water.

As I walked over to talk to the woodcutter my eye detected a movement near the stern end of "Hazel". A flash of electric blue whizzed out across the water as a kingfisher took flight. It is years since I've seen a kingfisher at Portland Basin. I was delighted. It seemed like an omen of good things to come in the awakening year.

Mr Woodcutter came back across the boats and I set him up with some waste wood to cut up for the boat ranges. He is the first volunteer I have ever come across who never tires of cutting wood. Consequently we have not had the usual Christmas firewood crisis this year.

Mr Woodcutter is an excellent fellow, and yet would be despised as a scrounger by many, which is why I call him Mr Woodcutter. He is a simple man, not in the sense of being a simpleton, but of enjoying the simple things in life. He enjoys walking and physical exercise, which is why he comes and cuts our firewood. Most of all he enjoys a skinful of good quality ale (none of your cheap lager thank you very much). Unlike many who get the taste for alcohol, Mr Woodcutter seems to be very much in control of the drink, rather than the drink being in control of him.

Mr Woodcutter's dislikes include employment, which is why some people would have little time for him. Personally I feel that the idle rich, who live by renting out their inherited assets, are more of a brake on the well being of the populace than the few who choose to take the pittance that the dole offers in return for a less stressed life. Post triumph of capitalism that is an unpopular view!

Mr Woodcutter is an expert at staying one step ahead of the system, and good for him. He is fascinated by the Loch Ness Monster and often stays near Inverness, which he considers to be the best place on Earth, in order to catch a glimpse of the fabulous beast. So far he has been unsuccessful.

I lit fires in "Forget me Not" and "Southam" to dry the cabins out, then started the petrol powered pump to raise "Elton". As the water gushed from "Elton I started sorting out the bilge pumps that had failed during the icy period. Soon the boat was floating again and the woodcutter had run out of work for his bowsaw. We picked up saw horse, bowsaw and firewood sacks and walked the quarter mile to the bit of woodland that I look after. Mr Woodcutter was happy to get to work cutting up the sycamores that I felled a week or so previously.

Returning to the boats I put some pies in "Southam"s oven and carried on sorting out pumps. Mr Woodcutter niether eats nor drinks during the day so I enjoyed my meal alone. He cut loads of wood, which I collected in the van later. By the end of the day, which is about 3PM at this time of year, things seemed to be getting back to normal after the disruption caused by wintry weather.

5th January 2010 A Cold Christmas for Captain Kit Crewbucket

2010-01-05 @ 13:52:18 by ashtonboatman

A Cold Christmas for Captain Kit Crewbucket.

Captain Kit Crewbucket is a lucky black tomcat. In February 2003 he appeared under a tarpaulin in the hold of "Forget me Not". He was lost, terrified and wouldn't come near anyone. We estimated his age as about 6 months. Gradually as we put food out he learned to trust us. When I brought his food at dusk I would look under the tarpaulin and just see his two eyes shining in the dark. I thought it looked a bit ghostly, so I named him Kit Crewbucket after a spirit that is said to haunt Harecastle canal tunnel. One of the museum staff took a particular interest in our new arrival, but he called the cat Captain. As all readers of T.S. Eliot will know, a cat has three names, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXkLgtusza4 so he became Captain Kit Crewbucket.

Soon Captain Kit realised that he was on to a good thing on the boats with plenty of admirers to give him titbits and make fuss of him. He has become something of a celebrity at Portland Basin, with a regular column in the WCBS newsletter and occasional appearances in the local paper. Fans would visit from foreign places (like Yorkshire) in the hope of a glimpse of our celebrity pussycat.

It must be said that Captain Kit has always enjoyed the summer more than the winter. Basking in the sun has always been more his style than sheltering from the dreich drizzle and, his particular bette noir, snow.

When it began to snow, just before the Solstice, the Captain began to show a marked reluctance to come outside. When he did he would carefully hop between my footprints to avoid his paws sinking into the white stuff. After New Year the temperature dropped more and everywhere became covered in an 8 inch freezing white duvet. Kit had made himself a nest aboard "Hazel" and refused to leave it even for his favourite cat treats. It seemed like the time had come for the Captain to be given a holiday from the boats.

My partner, Emuna, loves cats. She used to have a wonderful black and white cat called Oedipuss who lived to be a grand old lady of 20. After Oedi died, Emuna decided not to have another cat. For several years, As Oedipuss got older, she had been reluctant to go away because she would not trust anyone else with the precious puss. She felt that having a cat was too much of a tie.

Emuna enthusiastically offered to look after Captain Kit for a while at her little house in Ashton, so we drove through the deep snow to park the van as near the basin as we dared, then trudged down to collect him. Cats generally don't like leaving their territories, and Kit was no exception. He struggled and yowled as I carried him through the deep snow to the van (which by then looked like a mobile ice cream).

Soon we were at Emuna's house and, after spending about an hour hiding under the bed, Captain Kit realised that lying on top of the bed was much more comfortable, and he's hardly moved from there since. He seems to be taking quite nicely to being a house cat. Now my concern is whether I'll be able to prise Emuna and Captain Kit apart when the time comes for him to resume command of the boats.

A Wintry Week 20th December 2009

2009-12-20 @ 22:08:36 by ashtonboatman

A wintry week

Oh the joys of looking after old boats in the winter. For a while I've been putting off searching "Elton" to find where she was leaking. Steadily the leak got worse until last Sunday she virtually sank and I had to start the 2" pump to bring here up again. I kept changing batteries for the bilge pumps, which were running constantly, sometimes getting up at 3 AM, until on Wednesday I decided I would have to drop everything else I was supposed to be doing to trawl through piles of useful items in her hold and try to find it. My delay in dealing with this was partly because I was feeling rotten with a virus that just won't go away. Paddling about in freezing water is not a recommended cure for the flu!

I was all day shifting stuff around and lifting shutts ( floor sections) until it was getting dark. I was on the verge of giving up when I spotted a commotion in the bilge under the back cabin. I lifted the shutt to reveal a little fountain where a knot in the elm bottom had dropped out. A quick squirt of expanding foam plugged the leak and I headed thankfully home. An evening inspection showed that she was still taking a lot of water. My theory about this was that moving stuff around had altered her trim and put a leaky seam under water. Early on Thursday, before starting my day's gardening work, I re-trimmed the boat, changed the bilge pump battery and hoped for the best.

A quick check after work showed that she was OK, but on the way to Latihan it started to snow. Frost and snow themselves cause problems with frozen up bilge pumps and snow weighing down float switches so that they don't work. The last couple of days have seen me running round with blowlamps and kettles of hot water to keep the pumps working while the scene has become steadily more christmas cardy.

Tomorrow is the Solstice and I plan a celebration with a bonfire to remind the Sun to come back. The winter weather is causing a few logistical problems in setting this up though.

The End of The Flea Market Stall 15th December 2009

2009-12-14 @ 19:24:59 by ashtonboatman

The end of the Flea Market stall.

We started doing recycling trips with the boats in August 1996. At first we collected metal and clothes/bric a brac. We thought that we would develop it by starting to collect waste paper, glass etc, but the bottom fell out of the market for these commodities and, when it started to recover, the council started collecting them. However, a successful jumble sale or two showed that there was money in clothes and nick nacks, so we decided to give car boots a try. These went well, so we decided to have a go at council run markets, settling down on the Tuesday flea market in Ashton market place. To begin with the returns on this were marginal, but we were so broke in those days that we stuck at it for lack of any other income.

The big turn round came when we invested £40 in a secondhand stall that was advertised in Loot, and asked for a pitch, ie an area where you can erect your own stall rather than renting a stall from the council. We got our investment back the first day we used our own stall.

Our pitch was in front of the town hall steps. An excellent location, but we were forced to return to a ready made stall after a councillor complained about it being untidy. (He'd be untidy if he had to stand in that wind all day). After one time when we failed to make our stall money I approached the market management again and they let us have a pitch opposite Kwik Save alongside the market hall. At first this didn't do too well, but after a while our customers found us and soon other traders started to join us.

A bombshell hit when pitches were suddenly banned completely because they made the place look untidy (councillors again, or one particular one). A load of traders, including me, went to a meeting in the council offices and got it reversed.

On the morning of 25th May 2004 I drove, towing the market trailer, into town to set up our stall. I could see a big plume of smoke in the town centre and thought I hope that isn't the market hall. It was! If you have pyromaniac tendencies have a look at

The fire actually helped us. We were given a new pitch on a busy corner right in front of MacDonalds.

I should have mentioned the market trailer. This excellent box trailer was built for us using part of an old caravan chassis by Benchmaster Engineering of Mossley. It was a great boost when we got that as it meant that market stock no longer had to be unloaded from a boat in the early hours of the morning, then put back at the end of the day.

Anyway, things went well for the last 5 years, though sometimes it's been a struggle to find enough volunteers to keep it running. The stalwart for many years was David Lloyd, but, sadly, he was taken away by a heart attack.

Just lately I've been concerned about the amount of my time that the stall has been taking. Now that we have a huge shop on Stamford St in Ashton the income from the stall is not so crucial, and I keep thinking about all the other things that I could be doing on the boats with the 15 hours of my time that it takes each week. I was thinking of ways that we could carry on running the stall with less of my involvement when the powers that be dropped another bombshell. Our pitch was to increase in price from £10 to £90! We could reduce this by trimming down the area, but this would mean trimming down on takings too. I asked about moving back to our old pitch alongside the (rebuilt) market hall, but they aren't allowing pitches there now. Probably because they are so terribly untidy.

So, that's it. I've enjoyed 12 years market trading and, for a lot of that time, it was a lifeline to the Wooden Canal Boat Society. Now we have the problem of what to do with shop rejects as we all hate dumping them. The market stall kept down our landfill contributions considerably. I think it's sad that the tidier uppers of this world are steadily destroying our wonderful markets. They did it to Tommyfield Market in Oldham, which is now a shadow of it's former self.

Have a look at our untidy stall at market13

Living in Fear 29th November 2009

2009-11-29 @ 20:36:52 by ashtonboatman

Living in fear

Today I tried to distribute leaflets for the recycling trip. This is a job that I'd really like to delegate, but it looks like I'm stuck with doing it for ever. To be honest it's a bit of a chore, but it has to be done every month to remind residents in our collection area of the date of the next recycling trip. Sunday December 6th in this case.

Today my task was complicated by the fact that I've managed to stab myself in the heel with a nail, so I'm limping, and I've contracted some sort of virus, so I'm wheezing. I only managed to get about half the area leafleted.

Most people are very welcoming of our recycling efforts, but occasionally I meet with hostility. I try to do the leafleting in the morning as troublesome children are less likely to be active then. I am used to being insulted by them- "yer f_____g tramp" etc and have sometimes had objects thrown at me, once being hit on the shin by a half brick. On another occasion a child of about 5 or 6 repeatedly collided with me on his little bike. I think it was his big brother who told me "we don't recycle" with an air of moral superiority.

Today I was waved away from the living room window by someone as I approached a letterbox. On another occasion a man opened his door as I pushed a leaflet through his door and said "scuse me mate, I'm not trying to be funny, but I don't want people I don't know coming on my land. I said OK and moved towards the next house. He said"I own that one as well". For someone not trying, he was being very funny.

When I was a kid there were many knocks on the door. My Mum dealt pleasantly with all kinds of people. In those days there were many tramps, probably mostly people who couldn't cope with life after World War 2. They always got a sandwich and a cup of tea. My parents didn't give lifts to people who they thought were beatniks, but they would often stop for soldiers, who, in those days, would wear their uniform to hitch hike home on leave. I think the IRA put a stop to that tradition.

As I got older I found that hitch hiking was a good way to get around the country. I met many interesting people that way, and I hope that meeting me made their journeys more enjoyable. When I started driving, both privately and for a job, I enjoyed many interesting conversations with hitch hikers. If driving alone on a motorway I would often drop off at a services to see if anyone needed a lift.

Try hitch hiking nowadays- you'll starve to death before you get a lift.

I remember in the 1980s standing at a junction near Luton until eventually a Jamaican man in a big Ford Granada stopped for me. As we rolled up the M1 he asked "how long you bin waitin there". "About 3 hours" I replied. "No-one got no sense of community here" he said. "In Jamaica you wouldn't even need to lift your thumb, you just start walkin and somebody would stop to ask if you needed a lift"

Never having visited Jamaica I can't vouch for his assertion, but I do think we've become a particularly mean spirited nation during my lifetime. People seem to live more and more in their own anaesthetic bubbles and resent any disturbance from outside. The track Comfortably Numb from Pink Floyd's The Wall springs to mind.  

The media have had a lot to do with it. The way that they report exceptional events such as murders is calculated to increase fear. Be afraid, be very afraid of strangers is their constant refrain. As people absorb this subliminal message they steadily cut themselves off from the outside world, and so the sense of community dies a death of a thousand cuts. As they are brought up to consider outsiders as hostile, children learn to have no respect for them, hence the slings and arrows of outrageous youngsters that I sometimes suffer whilst leafletting. This process is wonderfully described in Michael Moore's film Bowling for Columbine.

So, how do we start to reverse this? Well, you could start by coming on one of our recycling trips and meet a lot of friendly strangers ( they don't come much stranger). Generally though, stop being so fearful. Strangers are often very interesting people

The flying pig flu, Winter Solstice etc 28th December 2009

Is this the Flying Pig Flu

I seem to have had some sort of orrible virus for weeks. It's been a blasted nuisance as I've had no choice but to keep showing up at the boats to at least keep the bilge pumps working through the ice and keep Captain Kit fed.

I had a Solstice celebration planned. Originally I was going to take "Southam" for a trip down the canal to a place in Audenshaw where we could build a fire. Come the Solstice the cut was frozen. It was breakable, but "Southam" is 73 years old and feeling her age. I decided to build a fire near Portland Basin on a site where some scallies had been camping and so there was already a scorched patch.

Luckily a new volunteer called Gary offered to help build the fire. we had to drag all the incendiary materials, including parts of "Hazel"s interior, over 2 bridges and a field in snow and slippery ice. I was flagging as the lurgi had gone on to my chest and any exertion left me puffing like a steam train. Largely thanks to Emuna's imaginative input, and, of course Steve the Viking and his wassail bowl, the whole thing was a lot of fun.

We had a really nice latihan http://www.web.net/latihan/
in Manchester on Christmas Eve, and a really pleasant Christmas day, me and Emuna shut out the rest of the world for a couple of days. She gave me a digibole camelode which i am learning to use. I was still feeling rotten though, and on Boxing Day Emuna started to feel ill. We had to cancel a trip to Rugby to see my brother on 27th.

I've begun to feel better at last, and I'm becoming BOOOWAD!

I've started catching up with things. Near Portland Basin there's an area of woodland that I look after. It was a sludge lagoon for dredgings from the Ashton Canal between Portland Basin and Eli Whalleys. The council let us plant oak trees on it and they're doing nicely. In one part I planted a Yew surrounded by a ring of oaks from acorns of a tree that grows near my son's grave. It is a kind of memorial to him. Every now and then it's necessary to go and cut back the invasive sycamores etc. Today I decided to relieve the boowadome by doing that for a couple of hours. Sadly the main use that the public seem to have for the woodland is to shoot up drogs or drink cheap alcohol. The area is littered with the detritus of these activities. I wish I had more time to keep it clean.

It's amazing how big the pile of wood is that you create when cutting down a few sycamores. We have an excellent woodcutting volunteer who has joined recently. I'll have to get him involved in turning this lot into firewood. When I've worked out how to download pictures from my digibole camelode I'll show you a picture of the Yew tree.

Building the wood shelter 25th November 2009

2009-11-25 @ 20:41:45 by ashtonboatman

Building the wood shelter.

Today was my day at the Heritage Boatyard in Stalybridge. It was raining on and off but I enjoyed working on the wood shelter. It's nice to be getting the useful timber into some kind of order, so that we can find it when we want it, and out of the rain, so that it lasts until we need it.

Ken Lee was there dismantling the big pallets that we're building the shelter from. Laurence Sullivan repaired the lights on the market trailer.

There's been a hold up on sorting the slipway area out. We were digging out clay and delivering it to The Mount where they were building a demonstration straw bale building. The clay was needed to plaster over the bales. It was nearly finished when some nasty person set fire to it. I'm waiting to hear from Deramore who is the main man there to see what they're going to do next and whether they will need more clay.