On My Way Home

Sometime in the dark time before dawn I turned over and woke with my hand on something cold and gooey. My slow brain gradually worked out that it was a slug, Ugh! I picked it off my groundsheet and threw it as far as I could, then found several more and gave them the same treatment before dozing off again.

I returned to consciousness as the first light of day eased itself through a thick layer of cloud. The wind had not abated but its chill was no longer tempered by sunshine. Slugs were everywhere. I was reluctant to get out of my sleeping bag and lay there drinking my coffee and dreading making my first move. With my coffee finished I had no more excuse, so I got up, pulled my trousers and boots on then quickly loaded my bike. I rode slowly along the grassy path whence I had arrived, the grass dotted with more little black slugs than I’ve ever seen in one place.

I descended a bank to rejoin the main track, which had become a tractor rutted chalk road. I tried different ruts to ride in, and the grassy mound in the middle, but all were difficult for cycling. After about a quarter mile I reached a main road and followed it for a short distance before turning into the lane to Yatesbury. After a fairly level and straight ride I passed an old aircraft hangar on my left, and the remains of a second one. This was one of the earliest military airfields, opening in 1916, mainly for training purposes. After some civilian use in the 1930s it once again became a training centre for the RAF in 1939 and finally closed in 1960. The hangars, including some from the first world war, are now listed buildings.


I made a 90 degree turn towards the village and had a decision to make. My line went across fields from here and my copy of the Ordnance Survey map showed footpaths travelling quite close to it. However, there was a gap between bits of OS map and my smaller scale map that linked them up only showed roads. My alternative route was to cross the fields to Winterbourne Monkton then follow the A361 most of the way into Swindon. Memories of the footpaths to nowhere in the Windrush valley and the fact that I had already felt the odd drop of rain caused me to choose the latter course.

I passed through part of the village known as Little London and was surprised to see a bus shelter with timetable. This tiny village of 150 inhabitants actually has a bus service.


My route across the fields was another rutted track that was difficult to ride on. A low hill to my right, Windmill Hill, bore Monkton Camp, presumably an iron age hill fort but I can find no information on it anywhere. It seems to me that this area must have been pretty violent in ancient times for it to have been necessary to fortify so many places, at enormous cost in time diverted from growing food etc.

At Winterbourne Monkton I dropped into a valley, passed a derelict farm and stopped at a concrete bridge over a dry river. The name Winterbourne means a stream that only runs in winter. The chalk rock here is porous so rain tends to soak into the ground. Only in winter is there enough rainfall for the rivers to run.


I used up the last of my hot water for cocoa and ate my morning muesli. A rope was rigged from a tree where children had been enjoying swinging out over the empty river bed.Thus refreshed, I moved on to the A road. This wound up and down through a wide rolling hillscape of mainly arable, the golden crops awaiting the combine alternating with fields already shorn.

I almost missed my left turn, signposted Saithrop, simply the name of a farm on my map. The road zig zagged up a gentle slope among corn fields, horse fields and little bits of woodland, then suddenly plunged down the escarpment that had done for so many of the parliamentary cavalry back in the seventeenth century. In the valley the road flattened and straightened with wooded borders. I reached the route of my old friend the Wilts & Berks canal. A right turn took me parallel to it and soon I was able to pick out a towpath hedge and ditch following the contours to my right.

Where the canal crossed the road my planned route took me along a public right of way straight along my line, but a big notice saying “Private Road Locked Gates” put me off. I elected instead to continue along the road, past Wharf Farm, then turn left over the M4. I found that new roads had been built to access a Waitrose supermarket. I turned past the front of the new shop and found, to my amazement, a stretch of re-opened canal with a little trip boat. There was no way down to the towpath but a friendly cyclist, who I met coming out of Waitrose, advised me of a route. This took me over the hump backed bridge that I could see.

The next bridge was that of the old Midland & South Western Junction Railway, now a cyclepath. I very nearly got the classic photograph of a heron perched on a No Fishing notice, but the bird was camera shy and flew off as I aimed my lens.


The restored canal petered out at a road junction, but it’s route was clear further on, even to the extent of having left a gap for it in a multi storey car park.

There was no sign of the North Wilts however, which used to drop away down a flight of locks to my left.


The canal route led me into a pedestrianised shopping area. I was feeling peckish again so I looked around for a fast food outlet. I noticed “Swindon Tented Market” so I thought I’d look in there as I like markets and I’d rather buy from a local trader than a multinational chain. The market is not really a tent, it’s a building that is made to look like one. Inside was a sad sight with more empty stalls than active ones. I found a food stall called Eggilicious and was welcomed by its proprietor who was sitting outside reading a paper whilst someone prepared food inside the stall. He persuaded me to have a minted lamb wrap. His name was Ash Mistry and he had relatives in Ashton, in fact, his brother in law lives on the next street to me. He told me the story of the market. It used to be run by the council but, being good neo liberals, they had leased it to a property company. The property company submitted redevelopment plans to replace the downmarket market with upmarket coffee shops etc. The plans were rejected, but most of the traders had moved out and now, though the company is at least pretending to try to get stallholders back, uncertainty and high rents are persuading them otherwise. At some point the management will of course claim that there is no demand for market stalls.


The wrap was surprisingly substantial and very very delicious.


Something was driving me to get on a train and, as my ticket as far as Cheltenham was for any train, I thought I would go there and explore a bit. I found Swindon station and presented my ticket at the barrier. It was accepted and I pushed my bike through and lifted it up the steps to the platform. Soon an HST for Cheltenham arrived. The announcement said that bicycle space was at the front of the train, but as I turned to head that way the announcer, probably robotic, added that only pre booked bicycles could travel on that train.


I headed back towards the barrier and asked the ticket collector, “what’s all this about having to pre book bikes”? He said that it had been Great Western (them again) policy since May, like it was obvious and everybody must know. I pointed out that as I had come from Greater Manchester (yes there are places beyond the reach of the Great Western) it was unreasonable to expect me to know. The implied but unspoken question was ‘why the hell didn’t you tell me when you checked my ticket’? I went to the ticket office to book my bike but the booking clerk said that as the next train was a unit not an HST I wouldn’t need to book. “Check with the guard” she added. Back on the platform I headed for the bay where a diesel multiple unit for Cheltenham was waiting. The platform display bore the details of the journey, headed by the dire word “Cancelled”. The guard was on her ‘phone. When she had finished her call I explained my situation. She told me that because of a points failure the HST which had been waiting for ages in the opposite platform had to be diverted. Its driver didn’t know the diversionary route, but her driver did. They had cancelled her train so that her driver could take the more important train to South Wales. Very helpfully she went off to make arrangements for my bike to travel on the next Cheltenham train, another HST. When it arrived, after an hour sitting watching trains and people and typing up an account of the first part of my trip, I found it had six bike spaces, only two of which were taken by my bike and one other.

Back in the bad old pre nationalisation days of British Rail there was a single national policy for bikes on trains. It wasn’t always perfect but at least you knew what the rules were wherever you went. Now with myriad different franchises running the trains, and tickets booked in advance to save money but not necessarily knowing which company’s trains you will be travelling on, there’s all kinds of scope for getting stuck somewhere because they won’t take your bike. Clearly travelling with bikes was getting popular on Great Western so, rather than making more bicycle space, they slapped on restrictions. A very British solution. Of course, increasing bike space might reduce passenger space for no extra revenue which, as the railways are run for profit rather than to serve the public, could not be allowed.

The run to Cheltenham was uneventful. I enjoyed the ride from Sapperton tunnel through the Golden Valley with brief glimpses of the Thames & Severn Canal.



Cheltenham station was busy. I negotiated the crowded footbridge to reach the booking office as I wanted to be sure of room for my bike for the rest of my journey. This was to be on a Cross Country Voyager such as I had travelled on from Manchester to Birmingham on Monday. On that occasion I had noted that Cross Country’s bicycle policy was to take just one booked bike and one unbooked bike on each train. I had been lucky, there was a space, but I wanted to be sure for the return trip. With my bike booked I headed out into Cheltenham.

A Voyager at Cheltenham.

My first port of call was a cafe, as it was early afternoon and hunger was creeping up on me. Some of the Cheltenham ladies in the cafe found my bike amusing. After an unremarkable ciabatta I went to explore the former Great Western route, now a cycleway through the centre of the town. Once this was an alternative main line to the midlands, reaching Birmingham via Stratford on Avon. According to Dr Beeching it was a duplicate route, a waste of money, and so it had to close. Much of the route now is used for running steam trains.


I went off cycling down the roads to explore a bit. Realising that my ‘phone was low on battery power I thought I would sample a pub and charge it up. I chose the first one I came to, the Kings Arms. It was not really my sort of place with continuous sport on a big screen and not much in the way of real ale, but I enjoyed my pint of bitter and was enjoying my writing.


With some charge in my ‘phone I went back to the station and sat on the platform writing and enjoying watching trains come and go.

A Train for Maesteg, South Wales, at Cheltenham.

When my train arrived I loaded my bike into its pre booked space, on Voyagers you hang your bike by the front wheel to save space, then found my pre booked seat. I became a little conscious of the fact that I hadn’t really washed for a week. I wondered if that was why the rather posh and fragrant lady sitting next to me moved to another seat.

At Birmingham New Street my bay in the carriage filled up. Opposite to me sat a retired couple returning from a holiday in Penzance to their home in Glossop. Beside me was a Wiganer who reminded me a little of Alf Hall, the stereotypical simple Lancashire man. He had been to visit an elderly aunt in Worcester. A conversation was carried on between the three of them in which everthing that the Glossop couple said they’d done the Wigan man said he’d like to do, then asked all kinds of daft questions about it. This would be followed by an explanation of his bad knees and speculation as to how much they would restrict him. I imagine that the couple were retired teachers as they seemed to have a shallow smattering of knowledge about almost everything. I was tempted to join in when they came round to talking about canals, but decided that I would get irritated by the banality of it and returned to studying the passing countryside.

Suddenly my muscles painfully locked up in my right leg causing me to exclaim “owwwww” and ask to be let out of my seat. I marched up and down the corridor until the pain went away and my leg would work properly again. I regained my seat with apologies, explaining that I had been cycling for 5 days. The Wiganer, of course, wanted to know all about it, then began speculating about whether he could do the same. He started listing all that he would need to carry with him, which would require a support vehicle, to carry it all. He wondered how his knees would stand up to it. I suggested that he start with really short bike rides and gradually build up. The teachers nodded sagely. They were concerned about me camping on private property without permission, very bourgeoise. I explained that I left no mess, though I now regret not explaining to them my rather anarchistic view of land ownership.

“I think”, said the Wiganer, “you must be at least ten years younger than me to cycle all that way”. “I don’t know” I said, “I’m 63”. “Oh bloody ell” he exclaimed “yer older”.

I thought I might be tired after my travels so I had booked a ticket all the way to Ashton rather than cycle up the towpath. They routed me via Stalybridge so, at Picadilly I rushed to the distant platform 13 to catch a Trans pennine train which whizzed me past Portland Basin. At Stalybridge I sat enjoying the cooling evening air as I waited for the local train, until a bunch of noisy smoking swearing pop music playing teenagers, lads and lasses, arrived to spoil the atmosphere. When my train arrived I headed for the opposite end of it for my short one stop ride to Ashton. A brief bikeride from the station and I reached home, where Em had a tasty curry ready for me.


Now you can save money on train fares and help to get wooden boats restored


Caen Hill Beckons.

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I hadn't travelled as far as I intended on Wednesday so I decided to stick mostly to main roads on the Thursday. The road towards Purton was busy with morning commuters as I pedalled along.

I turned off to go through Purton the back way, through an industrial estate, over a level crossing then up a steady hill on a narrow lane past hobby farms of miniature goats, rare breeds and ponies. I came across a horse all done up like it was ready to go jousting. It was busy scratching its bottom on a fence post until it saw me and enquired if I had any carrots.

I waited at the level crossing for a London bound HST to pass.

It was an easy undulating ride along main roads to the next town, Wooton Bassett. Famous for its townsfolks all too frequent spontaneous tributes to dead soldiers returning from Afghanistan, this town has a lovely old wide main street, probably a former market place. I was tempted by the town museum, located in the old Town Hall, but great magnets were drawing me on towards the end of my line.



I did stop briefly at the railway bridges for Wooton Bassett junction, to have a drink and look at the junction where the direct route to South Wales via the Severn tunnel diverges from Brunel's original London to Bath and Bristol railway. One way traffic was being imposed on the road as preparations were being made to rebuild the bridges ready to electrify the railway. I took a picture of an HST from Wales, still in front line service after 30+ years but soon to be replaced by Japanese trains which actually go no faster.


Up to the 1980s Britain led the world on high speed train technology, then government indifference ( Margaret Thatcher was known to hate railways) and slavish adherance to a free market ideology largely destroyed our train building industry.


There was nowhere to get away from the parade of growling lorries and impatient motorists so, after quenching my growing thirst, I remounted and went in search of the Wilts & Berks canal, which also ran this way. I found it down a lane, deep in a wooded cutting at the back of someone.s garden.

Lyneham was next on my itinerary, mostly famous for it's RAF base, where the sad cargoes from the Afghan war were landed. The airfield might have been interesting if I could see any aircraft. It turns out that it is no longer an airfield, just a maze of grey buildings and high security fences.  I plodded on towards Calne.


At a field used for weekend car boot sales there was a huge sculpture of a motorbike made entirely from scaffolding.


Calne seemed a nice busy old town. My map showed a branch of the canal terminating near the river bridge, so I went to have a look. The terminal basin has been built on with modern flats called, unsurprisingly,

“The Wharf”. A new gate into a park on the canal route depicts a modern steel pleasure narrow boat. Perhaps one day such craft will be able to navigate to the town.



After Calne I had decided to diverge slightly from the main road, partly to move nearer to my line but largely because I wanted a break from the traffic. I turned down a pleasant lane towards the farming settlement of Broads Green, then on through the nicely unpretentious Heddington Wick and on to a place where my only route was along an alleged public footpath. There was no signpost but there was a very overgrown stile to show where the path should go. I lifted my bike over the gate and followed the field edge to an electric fence, near to which a herd of big cows was gathered.

They were clearly surprised to see me limbo under the wire then drag my bike after me, forming a defensive circle to face me. To say that I was scared of cows would be an exaggeration, but I am uneasy in a field full of them. One nightmare that I still remember from childhood was of being in a field full of cattle that were running about madly and kicking their back legs in the air. Suddenly all went black and I woke up very frightened. As I walked towards the herd it broke it's defensive line and the cattle began to behave just like the ones in my dream before once more forming a circle, this time all round me, shoulder to shoulder. The herd was treating me as a predator. As I walked forward the ones ahead of me shrank back and the ones behind advanced, so the circle moved across the field until, as I approached the far gate they melted away and went back to the serious business of grazing and filling their udders with milk.

Beyond the gate a narrow strip of woodland ran off to the left. Beside the first trees was a pen of young game birds, being raised to be released then shot for expensive fun. To the right was a mayhem of felled and uprooted trees, trunks and wrenched off limbs lying higgledy piggledy like corpses on a battlefield. Ahead was Bromham House Farm, where I could hear tractors manouevering. According to the map the footpath went to the left of the farm buildings, but there was no way through there. I had to pick my way between grey concrete buildings and slurry pits before finding the driveway out on to the A342. The farm workers either studiously ignored me or stared like I had just landed from another planet.


A turn at the village of Rowde brought me on to a straight fairly level minor road to my destination, Caen Hill Locks. They looked very neat with mown lawns and recently painted balance beams. I had joined the locks at the bottom of the spectacular straight line of locks that is so often photographed. I stopped at the first of these to enjoy the last of my rations, aiming to buy more food in Devizes.

Two steel boats were working down the locks and I fell into conversation with the lockwheeler. She was a woman in her fifties, stylishly dressed with a red hat. She had a grumble about lack of maintenance because the full lock had partly emptied and she had to let some water in so that we could open the gates. I told her she should try the Ashton Canal. She was not happy about the way that the Canal and Rivers Trust (CRT) run the canals, particularly the office based culture that is ignorant of the waterways and their people and will bully mercilessly those who cannot move on because of illness or other unforseen circumstances. There are some good people working for CRT but unfortunately this is the kind of story I am hearing a lot of and experiencing myself to some extent. There is a disconnect between the lovely being nice to everyone and everything surface gloss and the heartless reality on the ground.

We talked about historic boats. It turned out that her son had just bought an 1890 iron butty. She took a leaflet and we went our ways. My way was uphill on the neat towpath, the, leaving the canal, into the centre of Devizes.

It was market day and the town was busy. I had promised myself a meal in a cafe when I reached Devizes, so I locked my bike on the market place and ordered baked sweet potato and vegetable chilli in a cafe' next to a vegetable stall, I sat outside, watching the people and listening to the, often unintelligible, calls of the stallholders.


One call that I did understand was “Five creamy avocado pears for just one pound”. I thought that wasa good deal so I purchased some. I explored the busy town centre and did some more shopping so that I could cook myself a meal. Feeling the need I followed the signs to the public toilets and though it cost 20p I was amazed to find such clean and pleasant facilities with an attendant. I took the opportunity to have a good wash. Such facilities in towns around my area were closed years ago because of spending cuts, but here there seems to be no austerity. I’d even noticed that some villages have public libraries while we’re struggling to hold on to our main libraries.

It was time to move on. My new line to Banbury I would follow as far as Swindon. The first part would involve gaining altitude by following the bridle paths up Roundway hill. The first part was so straight and even in its slope that I thought it must be an old inclined plane. I can find no record of such though. The chalk quarries on the hill were presumably disused well before the coming of the canal as they were used to bury the dead from the battle of Roundway in 1643. A strong parliamentary force was unfortunately routed by a smaller royalist army. The parliamentary cavalry ran away, many of them perishing as, in their panic, they plunged headlong down an escarpment. The poor bloody infantry got left on the hill. They in turn tried to retreat  but ended up being massacred.

The hill was steep and I had to push my bike most of the way up, stopping on the seat above the Millennium White Horse to enjoy the view and use the last of my flask with its foul tasting water for cocoa. I ate the first of the avacados. Camper vans were discreetly parked beside the wooded old quarries. I set off along a white chalk road through arable fields, travelling mostly down a gentle hill with the site of the slaughter to my left. A combine harvester trailing dust rose gradually above the hilltop like a ship breasting the horizon in a dry sea of wheat.

After crossing a main road my route lay along a bridle path through a golf course. I’m wary of golfers. I know a place where golfers (who pay a lot of money to be there you know) regularly attempt to intimidate walkers on the public footpath across their course. I was pleased to see a clear sign for the path, skirting the edge of the course. I followed it up the hill and searched for a gate. The golfers were not hostile, but not helpful either. I eventually found a stile, bridle paths should have gates for horses to go through, and carried my possessions over in several vourneys.

The field I had entered was one of unkempt rough grass which I will not dignify with the title of hay. The only way out seemed to be through a gate to my right into a sheep field. From this I had to scale a steel gate into a wheatfield atop Morgans Hill. I crossed this, keeping to the tramlines left by tractors to avoid damaging the crop, then lifted my bike over a fence and a gate in quick succession to find myself at the ancient Wansdyke which follows the contours of the hills.


I consulted the map to regain my bearings. To my left were two pylons, to my right Furze Knoll, toped by trees and grazed by black beefy cattle. I should have gone the other side of the pylons but it didnt matter, I was on a footpath again and if I follwed ot I would hit the old Roman road that I needed to traverse. All around me was history and prehistory etched into the landscape.


The Roman road was nicely surfaced in fine chalk.

I rode confidently along it for about a mile, then turned off up another bridleway towards Cherhill Down, topped by a great needle of a monument. A combine harvester was making the most of of the dry weather to work late into the evening gathering the grain.

I began to push my laden cycle up the steep path on to Cherhill Down. This is a National trust site and the grass is varied and speckled with wild flowers. The monument was passed some distance to my left and I headed for woodland where my map marks Tumulus in gothic script. A family were out enjoying he hills, calling to a daughter who wanted to go a different way.



Evening was drawing on and I wanted to eat, but fires were to be “avoided” on this land and there were lots of walkers and runners about who I thought might grass me up. I found a nice spot between two mounds, which I think were ancient burial mounds, parked my bike against a tree and sat looking out at the amazing view. I soon went to get my coat as, despite the sunshine, there was a constant cold North westerly wind. I ate a couple more avacados as I was getting peckish, then the cold wind forced me to take shelter behind a mound and did some typing.

When I got bored with typing I climbed the fence into the wood and collected dry sticks. In the middle of the wood was a concrete surface that could have been the top of a water tank. I carefully laid out the things that I would need to cook a meal. By about 7 PM the hill was devoid of people, so I scrumpled up some paper, covered it with sticks and set light to it. In order to do minimum environmental damage I positioned the fire on a small area anready trodden bare by animals.

Soon I had a good blaze going and I began cooking. When my meal was ready I braved the wind to go and sit looking at the wonderful view. A whistling roar to my right drew my attention and I watched in amazement as the RAF Red Arrows aerial display team flew past in formation, barely higher than my hilltop perch.


By the time I had tidied up and put things away it was getting dark, so I laid my tarpaulin in the gap between the mounds, rolled out my sleeping bag, rolled up my coat as a pillow and wriggled my way into the warm soft envelope of my sleeping bag.

I didn’t know it was the night for the Perseids meteor shower. I woke in the middle of the night and opened my eyes to a wonderful panorama of stars, then one moved. As I watched, pinpricks of light would flash across the fly, the heavens putting on a free firework display for me. I watched for a while then dozed off again.


The South Cotswolds.

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One of the delights of sleeping in the open is to wake up in the middle of the night and open your eyes to the stars. That night they put on a particularly good show. At 6 am prompt the activity at the brickworks moved up a gear, then a London bound HST rattled by. It was time to breakfast, pack up and get moving. I was away by 8, over the level crossing and starting the long slow climb through Blockley. I had re-arranged my belongings to reduce the weight in my rucksack, which made for greater comfort.



Blockley is a lovely cotswold stone village. Above it the gradient eased, then started to allow me some bits of downhill. I am always wary of places with the 'on The Hill' suffix, and my next target was Bourton on the Hill. Just before the village I joined briefly a main road. A handy garage cum corner shop invited me to stop and stock up on nibbles. I noticed that there were many Indian foods on sale and I was served by a pleasant young Indian woman who took an interest in my journey. I asked for water and she directed me to a tap by the carwash. Thus provisioned I carried on. I didn't actually go through Bourton on the Hill, it is on the side of the hill and my route took me along the ridge, gradually trending downhill. I passed a driveway marked Sezincote Indian house and garden, so I wonder if there is an Indian community here, hence the spicy foodstuffs at the garage.


A short run along an A road brough me to the turning for Lower Slaughter. This was an exciting plunge down a steep road. I was glad I had fixed my back brake. The village itself is lovely, with the river running beside the main street as at Bourton on the Water. Unlike Bourton however, this place does not set out to attract plebian trippers. It oozes wealth and upmarket cars are constantly passing to and from the ho

Lower Slaughter.


There was a bridle path following the stream signpsted to Bourton on the Water, soI thought I'd follow it. In fact it soon left the river and made its way through boring horse fields. Part of the route was being surfaced with road planings by a gang of elderly people puffing hard with loaded barrows. I entered Bourton through a housing estate and missed the pretty bit. I've seen it before and visited its tourist traps.


In my childhood Bourton on the Water was a favourite destination for a day out, either in a bus from school or in our old Austin A30 with my parents. We would traipse around the same old attractions time after time. The most memorable one for me was the Witchcraft Museum, now gone. My mum particularly liked Birdland, where you could see all kinds of brightly coloured birds, including the amazing insect sized humming birds. When she had raised an abandoned thrush nestling to the flying stage we took it to Birdland for release, figuring that a tame thrush would do better there than amongst the rough birds of our village.

In fact I should have gone through the pretty bits. I carelessly took the wrong road, past the Model Village and Birdland,. Eventually I realised that I had taken the wrong road, but I had gone quite a long way and didn't fancy riding back. I spotted a public footpath going in the direction of the correct road and I thought I'd follow it. Bad mistake! I struggled through very narrow bits and forced the bike through prickly bits. The path crossed the Windrush, that was good, but then it followed the river downstream. I came to a kissing gate and had to unload everything, lift the bike over, then load up again. There were about 5 of these, then the path crossed back over the river, not good, and skirted a lake. It crossed the river again and doubled back on itself, then became a farm track. A sinposted bridle path looked like it was going the right way, so I took that route, only to find it deteriorating into rutted field crossings. A herd of bullocks followed me across one field, then stopped at the gate mooing to the herd in the next field, who took little interest in me but engaged in a mooing match with the first herd.


In the next field the main track seemed to turn left, so I followed it, only to find it doubled back on itself towards a farm. I struggled across rough ground to another corner of the field but found no way out, having to traverse a third side before finding a gateway on to a tarmacked road. I thought this must be the road I was supposed to be on, so I turned left and was surprised to cross the river again. I asked a man out walking his dog where it went. He said Great Rissington, the village I was trying to avoid. He asked where I wanted to go but I couldn't remember the name of the village. He suggested Sherborne (the second one of the trip). Yes, I said. “Go back the other way and turn left at the top of the hill” he said “mind, it's a bit of a steep bank”! He was right, it was. Eventually I was rewarded for my troubles by a lovely long steady descent to Sherborne. I like it when descents are steady. I can just freewheel at a nice speed. On steep descents I have to use my brakes and I hate wasting all that energy. If I go too fast my hat flies off and I have to stop to recover it. The trick is to keep my head down slightly so that the wind hitting the brim forces it down rather than giving it lift.

Sherborne turned out to be a pleasant little row of cottages, most of which actually looked like they might be inhabited by working people rather than the elite. In fact, as I headed South through the cotswolds the area seemed to get more properly rural and less of a suburban idyll. A short sharp uphill stretch brought me to the main A40. I leaned my bike against a stone wall and got out my flask to make a brew with the last of the hot water. As I sat on the wall a weasel darted across the road straight towards my bike. It stopped on nthe tarmac, stood on it's hind legs, waggled its head a bit then darted back to the opposite verge. I had clearly blocked its regular path for I saw it cross further down the road and start searching for a way through to the woodland beyond.


I only had to ride a short way along the A40, mercifully, before taking another lane. I seemed to be on a bit of a plateau and I fair whizzed through the countryside. There were plenty of lorries about, serving the local agriculture which is pactised on a large scale with big machines here. The air was full of the fruity odours of the countryside and everywhere you could hear the distant hum of combine harvesters making the most of the sunshine to gather in the golden grains.

The valley of the river Leach cuts into the plateau and my speed picked up as I started to plunge downhill, only to screech to a halt as the slipstream of a passing artic had kindly removed my hat.

Three villages cluster together, Coln St Aldwyns, Hatherop and Quenington. In Quenington I came across a co-operative village shop/cafe, run by volunteers from the local community. I stopped to buy supplies. It was all a bit upmarket, but I suppose that's what people want there. It seems ironic that the co-operative system, which began in working class Rochdale, is now seemingly thriving in the wealthier areas but doing very little in the Northern mill towns of its cradle. I noticed as I travelled about that the Co-op itself seems to be thriving in this part of the country, whereas around Ashton it is rapidly selling out to the likes of Asda and Rajah Brothers. Part of the key to community co-operatives is having enough willing, capable people with time on their hands, something that we tend to lack around Tameside.

Quenington Co-op.


I got the co-operatoors to fill my kettle and water bottle. It was the foulest tasting water of my trip. I hope they don't make tea with it. Outside I got talking to a customer who nearly knocked my bike over with her car door. She explained how the co-op was set up and was interested in my journey and the boats. As we talked a huge low loader, laden with what looked like heavy concrete blocks, stopped to ask directions. The lady explained the route and the driver said he was glad he needed to turn right as he wasn't sure he'd get round to the left.

This is racehorse country and I passed a considerable stable block.

Inow had the scent of the end of my route in my nostrils, but, after all the frustrating meandering about in the Windrush footpaths it seemed unlikely that I would reach Devizes today. I looked at my map for likely campsites in the Wooton Rivers area. My route brought me to what used to be the A419, now bypassed. Across the way my map suggested, lay the route of the Thames & Severn Canal. I went down a lane to have a look. I found a big lake with a burned out Range Rover and a bridge over a dual carriageway, but no sign of the canal.


It was a straight level run towards Cricklade, but before I got there I came across one of the most cycle unfriendly road layouts ever. There was a roundabout and Cricklade was signposted down a sliproad on to the dual carriageway. I checked and double checked the signs to ensure that it was not a motorway, but with juggernauts hurtling along and no cycle reservation I really didn't fancy it. As I rode down the sliproad I was hooted at by a bus and a lorry, which made me think I shouldn't be there. There was a footpath indicated over stiles across overgrown fields but no cycle route. I went back and followed the pavement over the bridge for traffic from the other direction to see if there was a path on the other side. The path doubled back along the dual carriageway in the wrong direction. There was nothing for it but to brave the speeding motor molochs and set off along the A419. Luckily it was less than a mile to the Cricklade sliproad.

Somewhere in the middle of all this should have been the junction between the Thames & Severn and North Wilts canals, but I could find no sign of either.


Cricklade claims to be the first town on the Thames. It has a good shopping street, where I topped up on supplies and on my way out of town I passed the proposed Northern terminus of the Swindon & Cricklade railway.


This is a preservationist project along the abandoned trackbed of the erstwhile Midland & South Western Junction Railway. This meandering country route provided a way for trains to go from the Midland Railway to the London & South Western railway without too much interference from the Great Western ( you may have picked up by now that I'm not a huge Great western fan. )


I left Cricklade Southbound on a B road, looking out for signs of the old canal. At Dance Common I found what looked like a filled in channel, though it may actually have been the remains of Saxon ramparts.

A little further on a sign announced the site of the canal.

The river Key aqueduct has been restored with lottery money but is still bone dry on top. I stopped to have a look and decided to stay. There was a pile of ash from a previous fire so i didn't even have to scorch any grass to cook my tea!

As the map shows, there was once quite a network of canals in this area. Only one is fully navigable, the Kennett & Avon, whose Caen Hill lock flight was my destination. That this waterway survived and was eventually restored was down to the perseverance of one John Gould. I visited him once when I was working on the British Waterways Bill in 1990. He told me never to trust British Waterways, for they promise you one thing then do another. I think the same can be said of any large organisation, private or state owned.

The Kennett & Avon fell into deep decline after it fell into the hands of, you guessed it, the Great Western. They couldn't, by law, close it or forbid traffic, so they knobbled the remaining carriers by malicious regulations, like no cabin fires on a Sunday.

The Thames & Severn was another broad canal which struggled to compete with the railway. This was partly because it was poorly engineered with a chronic lack of water, leaky pounds and a constantly collapsing tunnel. In the early 20th century the county council took it over and paid out a small fortune in repairs, but to no avail. My dad remembered visiting Cirencester in the 1930s and being surprised to see a canal derelict. His local waterway, the Coventry canal, was then thriving. An active restoration project is working on re-opening the route, currently concentrating on the stretch from the Severn up to Stroud.

The Wilts & Berks and North Wilts were narrow canals built, surprisingly, to carry coal. The Somerset Coal Canal was a narrow branch off the Kennett & Avon to tap the Somerset coalfield. It was converted to a railway (Great Western of course) in the 1870s but an amazing lock flight can still be found at Coombe Hay. The railway was just a rural branch but achieved fame after closure as the location for filming the “Titfield Thunderbolt”.


The idea of the Wilts & Berks and North Wilts was as a distribution network for the black gold of Somerset. With the loss of this traffic the routes faded away. The last pit in Somerset was served by the Somerset & Dorset Railway (not Great Western) but closed in the 1960s.


It looked like rain, so I unleashed my pop up tent and planted it on what would have been the outside edge of the aqueduct. It did rain, but I was snug and dry and woke up to a bright morning.

Into the Cotswolds

After eating my tea and tidying up I decided to ride down the towpath to the “Cape of Good Hope” pub beside Cape 2 locks in Warwick. I bought a pint of very pleasant Wye Valley ale and put my 'phone on charge.


My last visit to the Cape of Good Hope was, I think, in 1987 on "Lilith"s first busking tour for Green Deserts.


We were being towed by a Warwickshire Fly Boats motor boat and chanced upon my old friend Rod North.


There was some kind of party going on, but it wasn't really my scene. Why do people get so excited about singing "Delilah", a song about a man making excuses for murdering his girlfriend?

This time I quietly enjoyed the scene, and enjoyed eavesdropping on two women discussing friends and family, not because I was interested in what they were saying but because I liked to hear my native accent being spoken. A large bird landed on the top of the telegraph pole across the canal, sillhouetted against the sunset. I cycled back up to my tent in the gathering dusk and turned in for the night.

I slept like a young log, but woke fairly early. I made my strange early morning drink of camp coffee mixed with cocoa. It was pleasant but I had forgotten that the camp mixture is sweetened. I'm not sure if I'll get any more.

Parallel with Hatton locks is the Hatton bank, a 1 in 70 incline on the London to Birmingham route of the old Great Western. As it grew light I listened to trains working hard to get up the gradient. An approaching deep throated roar from the railway prompted me to open the flap and look out. I saw a pair of class 20s, locomotives of 1950s design, dragging a rake of London Underground stock up the bank, with another two class 20s at the back being hauled dead.


Eventually I got up and started packing. My back tyre had been rather soft so I got out the pump and started to blow it up,then noticed with alarm that there was a developing split in the tyre and the tube was sticking out. It was only a matter of time and miles before it would blow. I toyed with the idea of risking carrying on the Stratford, but caution got the better of me and I loaded up then pedalled back down the towpath to Warwick.

Enquiries about a bike shop got me directed to Halfords on a retail park near Leamington. I got there at 8.30, but, as they didn't open until 9, I got myself a second breakfast of scotch eggs from Sainsburys.

I could either get them to fit the tyre or buy the tools to do it. In fact the fitting charge of £9 was probably less than the tools would have cost and, as the man said it would be done in 20 minutes , I left him to it.

He didn't do a brilliant job as I soon noticed a bumping, indicating that the tyre wasn't quite seated all round. This was exacerbated by the fact that he'd blown it up to about 3000psi! Nevertheless, I was mobile. I cycled back up the towpath to resume my route. Leaving the canal I headed towards Hampton on the Hill, noting that the lane I was on was called “Ugly Bridge Lane”. Presumably this is related to the concrete bridge built when the waterway was widened in the 1930s. From Hampton I went on to Sherbourne, then opted to deviate along the Avon valley rather than follow the busy A46.

This was a pleasant ride if a bit up and down. My initial problems with puffing and blowing on the slightest hill seemed to have subsided as my heart and lungs have got into their stride, but I was carrying a lot of weight and hills were a bit challenging.

Hampton Lucy is a delightful village. Like every settlement around here it oozes affluence.


I made a mistake in choosing to ride in a westerly direction parrallell to the river. My line went through the village of Alveston on the South side of the river. The map appeared to show footpaths approaching the river from opposite sides and I surmised that there must be a footbridge there. I descended the steep river banks to an overgrown smallholding but could find neither footpaths or bridge. Disappointed, I rode back to Hampton Lucy, passing for a second time the decomposing corpse of a fox. I crossed the river to Charlecote and passed Charlecote Park, where young Will Shakespeare once, allegedly, got caught poaching deer.


Charlecote Mill,

I was moving into the lands where the rich people live. A land of private. Private drives, private fishing, private property, private ownership, private schools, private tax arrangements and so on. After the successful re-instatement of navigation on the Avon from Tewkesbury to Stratford (allowed to fall into disrepair by the Great Western Railway), there was a scheme to open up the Higher Avon to navigation, from Stratford to Warwick, where a flight of locks would connect to the Grand Union Canal. This was stymied by private interests who don't want the riff raff on their river.


I had deviated a little from my line, partly to avoid the busy road and partly to find a river crossing. I was also interested in finding the remnants of the Stratford & Moreton Tramway which went near but not quite on my line. This horse drawn line connected with the canal in Stratford and ran to Moreton in the Marsh with a branch to Shipston on Stour. Built in the 1820s it was part of an ambitious plan to connect with the Thames at Oxford, then carry on with a railway to London. Alas, these extensions were never built and the line remained a rural backwater. Overtaken by time and technology it was bought up by the Oxford Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway which reached Moreton in the 1850s. They built their own branch to Stratford from Honeybourne, presumably the old route was too bendy for their trains. The Moreton to Shipston section was eventually converted to a steam railway and the whole lot came under the omnipresent aegis of the Great Western, who took over the OW&W. The remaining route through to Stratford continued in use to serve limeworks around Newbold using horsepower to the end, which came in 1880. The track remained in place until a wartime scrap drive in 1916, but it was still technically still open until 1926!


Shipston on Stour became relatively less important over time and its railway was just a meandering rural branch. In 1929 the Great Western substituted a bus service for the passenger trains, but occassional goods trains lingered on until closure in 1960. I remember visiting Shipston station with my brother in about 1962. The track was still in place, red rusty, and all was derelict.

I had noticed a lot of light aircraft flying about and guessed there must be an airfield nearby. My route took me past it and, as there was a plane taxi-ing out to the runway, I decided to stop and watch it take off, which it did, its wings wobbling unsteadily in the strong crosswind. Several flying schools seemed to be based here. I noticed a Vulcan bomber parked at the far end of the airfield. I doubt if they give flying lessons in that.


There was a stiff climb out of the Avon valley to the village of Loxley, and an even stiffer climb through the village. I asked a postman if I was on the right road as I find it very distressing to labour up a hill then find I've gone the wrong way. My route was correct and soon I was on relatively flat ground approaching the main Stratford to Banbury road, which I had to travel along a short way. Here the road used to do a dog leg for a bridge over the old SMJ railway, now straightened out and the cutting filled in.


Onward and Southward. A hectic plunge into the Stour valley brought me to Alderminster and the A 34 road. I was low on water so I entered the grounds of the delightful church to find the tap provided for people to water flowers. Topped up i carried on along the main road, looking out for traces of the old tramway, for I knew it followed this road to Newbold. I was looking between the road and the river, then I realised that the road had an extremely wide verge on one side. This was probably the tramway route. Approaching Newbold I diverged down a little road to get supplies from a farm shop. Using another lane to rejoin the A34 I came across what was obviously the tramway crossing. On one side the trackbed had clearly been used as an allotment, now derelict, on the other was a big back garden for a house that could well have served the local wharf (the term goods yard was still unknown when this line was built).

I took a good if juddery bridle path from Newbold towards a long thin woodland marked on the map that I suspected to be the old tram route. Indeed it was. I found an embankment and the abutments of a bridge.

After following the route for ¼ mile or so its route became unclear and I followed paths across the field (which might have been the tramway route), towards Ilmington, then whizzed downhill along a road signposted to Shipston. A signpost to “Wharf Farm” was another sign of the old way and an angle gateway suggested the site of a level crossing. To follow the old line I knew I had to take a right turn, but I turned too early up a road that was marked on my map only as an unmade track. I faced a stiff climb and passed another likely crossing site before turning South, almost on my line.

A left turn took me on to unmade roads again. An area of field was growing a crop of blue flowers, woad?

At Scorpion Manor Farm a remote controlled electric gate blocked my way. I checked the map then noticed the bridleway gate and waymarkers alongside it. A smartly dressed woman came out of the house to ask if I needed directions. Through the gate I crunched across the gravel then had to control my speed as I headed downhill on the bone shattering stone driveway. After another electronic gate I emerged on to the road to Paxford.


In this area nearly every junction has a signpost to some Business Centre or other, usually located in former farmyards. The roads are busy with vans and small lorries servicing their transport needs. Though apparently rural, this is in fact a highly industrial area. The B road to Paxford was up and down, then a steep descent into the village. I turned left following a signpost to Aston Magna, but then I ignored an unmarked left turn that looked like it went nowhere and followed the road most travelled, which brought me on to a bigger road. I didn't realise until I reached a level crossing where there should have been a bridge over the railway that I had in fact rejoined the B4479.

I stopped at the level crossing. It was 4.30, there was a long climb ahead and my calf muscles were telling me it was time to stop. The problem was, where to camp. There seemed to be no cover anywhere and the last thing I wanted was for a raging farmer to turn up shouting “Oi git orf my land” halfway through cooking my dinner. Between the road and the railway I noticed a meadow infested with ragwort. This is deadly to many animals so I surmised that the land couldn't be being managed. A closer look revealed that the access gate hadn't been opened this year and the corrugated iron buildings, obviously shelters for animals, were in disrepair.

I unloaded my bike and lifted it over the gate, ranging my belongings against the overgrown hedge that hid me from the road. There was little dry wood in this field, but a foray into the wheatfield next door procured more than enough fuel for my fire. Whilst I was busy with this task a twin rotor army helicopter flew directly over me at treetop height

When wild camping the most dangerous time for attracting unwanted attention is when you make a fire. In a dry summer it's also important to take care not to ignite your surroundings. I picked an area where the grass was too moist to burn and, with a bit of paper, dry grass from elsewhere and dead sticks, I soon had a useful blaze going. My routine is to cook my meal, in an old wok rescued from the scrap, then boil a kettle to fill a flask for the morning. Surplus water is used to make a post meal brew, then the fire is allowed to go out.

It hadn't rained all day and the sky was clear so I elected not to unfurl the tent but to sleep in the open. Next to the field ran the Oxford to Worcester railway which carried a boring succession of diesel multiple units. On the other side was Blockley Brickworks, where the activity died down as the day shift left at 5 pm but whose chimneys seemed to get smokier after dark.


Resuming at Tile Hill

Every now and then I take to my bike and ride as near as I can along a line drawn on the map. At night I sleep out at whatever discreet spot I can find. My last trip, 5 years ago, ended at Tile Hill near Coventry. Recently I resumed the trip, following the line previously drawn to Caen Hill locks near Devizes in Wiltshire.

My train wasn't until 12.07 from Piccadilly, so I spent the morning with the usual running about making sure everything was in place for me to go, then went home to say goodbye to Em. She's been quite poorly lately so she was in bed communicating electronically with friends around the world. I left most of my keys at home lest I should lose them, but took keys to the boats as there were a couple of things to pick up there on my way. What I forgot was that it was Monday, so the museum wasn't open and, without the gate key, I couldn't get in. I had to ring the bell on the museum door and ask one of the staff to let me through on to the wharf.  http://www.tameside.gov.uk/museumsgalleries/portland  A couple of them came and they said they enjoyed the fresh air.

On my way at last, I pedalled off down the towpath with an hour to my train. I immediately began to wonder if this trip ws a good idea. A gusty North Westerly wind was impeding my progress and I was already finding it hard going despite the recently tarmacked towpath. My museum friends had remarked on the amount of stuff I was carrying and my rucksack was feeling mightily uncomfortable. Things got easier as I descended the locks and gained more shelter from the buildings, but I was still wondering what it would be like to pedal through the Cotswolds with all this weight as I arrived at Piccadilly with 20 minutes to spare.http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3235897

My train was the 12.07 Cross Country to Exeter St Davids, a four car Voyager set.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1uSnLJnPtk    It was already in the platform so I found the bike rack and hung my bike in it, then got stuck behind 2 old ladies faffing about with their luggage while I sought my reserved seat. The train was uncomfortably crammed, in fact one young passenger nearly got off again as she was suffering from claustrophobia.

The Voyagers are very fast and futuristic looking diesel trains. They can go faster round bends than traditional trains as they lean over like a motorbike. The drawback of this is that to allow for tilting within the restricted British loading gauge demands a very narrow body profile. Coupled with a commercial imperative to insert as many farepayers as you can into as few carriages as possible and you have a recipe for sardines.

Shortly after sitting down, the guard announced that “an item has been found”. I looked for and failed to find my camera. This was worrying as, though the camera isn't worth much, the SD card contains important photographs. I made my way to the end of the train and, after some carefully chosen security questions, the guard handed me my camera.

I had booked my ticket through Raileasy, which has the clever option of finding savings by booking your journey in several chunks rather than as a single trip. My tickets were separately Manchester to Stoke, Stoke to Birmingham and Birmingham to Tile Hill. I didn't have to get off at Stoke on Trent but my reservation from there to Brum was in a different carriage, so I said goodbye to the family I had been sitting with and moved to Coach F. Here another luggage drama took place. It was announced that we should all check our luggage as someone had left the train with the wrong bag. A middle aged punk lady started to panic when she couldn't find her suitcase and went to get the guard, only to have the embarrassment of discovering that she'd stowed it at the other end of the coach.

From a crowded New Street I got the London Midland local train and alighted at Tile Hill.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tile_Hill    

Before setting out I adjusted my rucksack straps which made it much more comfortable, but my previous concerns returned as I struggled up the incline over the railway bridge.

My map, though old, was clear. I needed to take the second left, immediately before Burton Green and immediately after the abandoned Berkswell to Kenilworth railway. The second turn left was just before the sign announcing Burton Green, but i could see no sign of the old railway. As it was at the top of a hill I shrugged and turned. Perhaps the railway had tunnelled under. Sweating like a pig, I stopped to remove my coat and roll it up on the handlebars, then enjoyed some nice downhill freewheeling.

After a while I found myself in Warwick University, which is in Coventry (!?).   http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/warwick

The road that I should have taken should have turned right, so I took the next available right tun and, once clear of the university, went through a pleasant undulating country of oak woods and fields. I came to a crossroads that shouldn't have been there. I realised that I was on completely the wrong road, but one direction was signposted to Kenilworth, so I went that way.

The Kenilworth that I first entered was unlike the place that I have been to before.   http://www.kenilworthweb.co.uk/          

It was ancient and quaint but horribly overwhelmed with upmarket tweeness. Over the brow of the hill I came to Kenilworth Castle. I recall being unimpressed by this monument on a childhood visit and had no wish to repeat the experience. It was indeed one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit.

Another dip and rise brought me to a different Kenilworth, a high street of normal shops and cafes selling stuff at normal prices. I stopped to buy vegetables. I needed coffee but I didn't want a jar that was heavy and might break. A refill pack would be better, but vulnerable to damp. When I was a kid coffee was unknown in our house. One day, probably prompted by my older siblings, mum brought home some coffee. It was Camp Coffee in a bottle. Sainsbury's still have it, still with the same colonial label but in a lightweight plastic bottle. I decided to buy some as I am camping. I don't know how much of a caffiene hit I'll get from it as it is mostly chicory.

Leaving Kenilworth, I soon found the little turning towards the village of Beausale, then kept an eye out for the track leading to the delightfully named Goodrest Farm. This turned out to be a good concrete road. From the farm a footpath is marked towards Hatton. I was pleased to find that this is a good well used and waymarked path through woods and wheatfields. Lovely Warwickshire as I remember it from my childhood. As I rode along a hawk hovered ahead of me, then suddenly dropped on some hapless mouse or vole, which it carried away in its claws as it flew off to enjoy its meal.

I grew up not 20 miles from here. All I knew about Hatton then was that it was the local "loonybin". Any strange behaviour would prompt a remark like 'you'll end up in Hatton if you're not careful'. One of the little jobs carried out by number one boaters was to deliver coal to Hatton for the asylum boilers. The footpath headed straight for the asylum but was marked as turning right to Turkey Farm. I could see some of the old buildings and wondered if it was still in use as a hospital. When I got there I found that the footpath led straight into a new estate of upmarket housing. At least one of the old buildings is still standing, though this turns out to be the Chest Hospital and appears to be being converted.

The old mental asylums had their drawbacks. There were some very bad practices in them which led to a movement to get them closed down, spurred on by films like “One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest”. Margaret Thatcher's government seemed to be doing something progressive when they brought in “Care in the Community”. In many ways it seemed a better idea, but the resources deployed are totally inadequate. The problem with the old asylums was not that the idea of asylum is inherently bad. In fact a lot of people need asylum, if only on a temporary basis. The problem was partly the moralistic attitudes of the time, but mainly the lack of resources and the perception that it was a cinderella service. Thatcher and her pals seized on the care in the community option as a way of saving money and as a result many mentally unwell people find themselves living in cardboard boxes or prisons.


Partway up the Hatton 21 lock flight my route crosses the Warwick and Birmingham canal.  http://www.warwickshireias.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/THE-WARWICK-AND-BIMINGHAM-CANAL.pdf

I stopped here and found a camping site in the bushes beside a lock. There's plenty of dry brittle wood here so I lit a fire, cooked my tea, boiled a kettle to make a flask for the morning, then sat, leaning against a bollard to type this.

I've had a few funny looks from dogwalkers and a brief shower prompted me to put up my pop up tent, then it went sunny again. Shortly I'll be riding down the locks for a pint at the Cape of Good Hope in Warwick.

Book your tickets this way     https://wcbs.t rainsplit.com/main.aspx

A Good Trip

Today we ran a short trip to Lumb Lane and back for a group called Just Life. http://justlife.org.uk/projects/justlife-manchester/  It was a really enjoyable trip on a nice sunny day. We had a few problems (as usual) with rubbish on the blade. One of our guests was from Africa and he was really interested in the plants that grow in Britain. He didn't know about brambles, stinging nettles, rosebay willowherb etc that we just take for granted. here's some photos.Yes I did point out to our crew member that dangling his foot over the side was not a good idea.

Make Beautiful Things from Fragments of Hazel.

When we removed the old planks from "Hazel" we didn't throw them away or burn them in the plank steaming boiler.  Instead We saved them for .making into nice things. Mosly these are rose or castle designs on sections of old planking. Ryan Hinds got a friend to make a little bit of "Hazel" into a special E cigarrette "mod" which he auctioned online and raised nearly £300 for the "Hazel" project. Most of the bits of bottom and side planking have so far been painted by Anne Riley and Maxine Bailey and they have now mostly been sold. We have a stack of further fragments prepared but there's a limit to how much Maxine and Anne can do. We need more painters, wood turners, carvers, sculptors etc to use these fragments to make interesting beautiful items to sell and raise more money for this worthwhile project. We specially need people who can do something with the more interesting fragments such as knees, stempost, sternpost etc. 

Can you help? You don't even need to live local as I can usually arrange to have things transported around the country.

If you can help email me at theboatman@mail.com

Here's some examples. What can you do?

Another Christmas (Christmas 2014)

Another Christmas

I'm back again to find that it's almost a year since my last post. In the circumstances it's amazing that the trend of my pageviews is inexorably upwards.

Apologies to all my fans for being so remiss. My excuse is that I've been busy tring to get "Hazel" finished. This wonderful project is turning into a nightmare as I continue to struggle with increasingly technical problems ages after the boat should have been in service. It's a case of so near yet so far away. Most of it is finished, but those things still to be completed, the gas system, the battery charging system and the shower are all being difficult to sort out.

Christmas has given me a couple of days much needed enforced rest. Last Sunday I went down to Rugby to drop off presents for my brother and my various nephews, great nephews etc. I hoped to see our electronics expert in the midlands on the same trip but he proved to be excessively elusive. I brought the van back on Monday morning, laden with lots of donations for the shop, and handed it over to Lee who was doing shop deliveries for the day. Wednesday was Christmas Eve and it's the tradition that I give our manager the day off and run the shop. I enjoy this and I was able to take the opportunity, between customers, to sort out part of our huge book section. The Wooden Canal Boat Society shop is the biggest secondhand bookshop for miles around but sorting out the books is not a popular job. We really need a bookworm volunteer to maintain it. I'd love to do it but I don't have the time. Bob was a great help, a really good willing volunteer. We packed up at 2PM as the customers had stopped coming in, then me and Em went home for tea and present wrapping, plus doing the rounds of battery changing and boat checking. I don't want anything sinking over Christmas.

Christmas morning I cooked us a breakfast then we had great fun unwrapping presents. People have given us some really nice things. Somehow I've managed to lose one of Emunas gifts! she'll have another Christmas when I find it.

A big hit with us are the head bands given by one of my nephews. He's been wearing one permanently for years and Emuna has been trying to persuade him to remove it because she says it makes him look odd. He's come up with a brilliant ruse to normalise his appearance, give them to everyone else so that the wearing of the band becomes normal. There's two small flaws in this strategy. There's about 70 million people in Britain and normalisation of headbands requires them to be supplied to a large proportion then, the other flaw, they have to be persuaded to wear them. Emuna and I have been showing willing over Christmas but I doubt if I will keep it up as it doesn't protect me from sun or rain and it's surprisingly hot, causing my brain to overheat. Apart from that, I look more like an American soldier in the Vietnam war than Indiana Jones.

After presents I had to go out and see to the boats again while Emuna had a rest. With that done I returned and lit the stove ready for Christmas lunch in the front room. I had a sudden bright idea. Why not postpone our Christmas meal until teatime and go out on to the moors as the sun was shining brightly after days of constant rain. Emuna liked the idea so I closed down the stove and we climbed aboard the van.

As we headed East into the Pennines the sky darkened ahead of us. We went via Oldham and eventually stopped beside a small reservoir high above Diggle. It was now dull and raining intermittently, but, looking back down the valley we could see Lancashire lit up by bright sunshine. Emuna was too tired to walk so she sat and enjoyed the view while I walked in a big circle around the bleak moorlands of sodden peat and grim stone. By the time I got back it was nearly dark so we drove home via Delph, Uppermill and Mossley.

I revived the fire and Emuna cooked the dinner. Captain Kit Crewbucket, who is staying with us as he was poorly and needed looking after, enjoyed offcuts of chicken. It was a nice quiet evening sitting reading and occassionally stuffing more wood into the stove.

Boxing day morning Emuna was slumbering so I went out to check the boats and plant some trees. Each year I plant a few oak trees to replace the ones that I've used in boatbuilding. The Ashton Canal is gradually becoming an oak corridor as I plant up the vacant bits of waterside land. Back home, Em was still feeling shattered, so we've spent most of the day in bed reading, watching films and stroking the cat. It's been a nice rest, though the nagging knowledge that the boat has to be finished doesn't go away.It's back to work tomorrow. A couple of days of just me working on the boat so I can get on with my jobs. It's not very exciting but I've enjoyed this midwinter pause.

PS. The reason for Emuna's constant tiredness is that she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME.

Landscape with Landlords (1st January 2014)

Landscape with Landlords

My nephew gave me a copy of "The Landscape Trilogy" for Christmas, the three part autobiography of Tom Rolt. An excellent present. I've particularly enjoyed reading the final part, "Landscape with Figures" as I've not had a chance to read that before.

Rolt was an extremely good writer and had a big influence on me, along with many other boaters and people who are generally dissatisfied with modern materialistic culture. Nevertheless, I've always been a bit uneasy about where he was coming from. Like everyone else, Rolt had no choice about the circumstances of his birth, in his case into an Edwardian family sufficiently wealthy to not need to soil their hands with work. To his credit, young LTC trained as an engineer and took relatively menial jobs in the years between the wars. He clearly admired people who lived simply, and, in particular, those who pursued the perfection of a craft that relied on the rack o th ee more than intricate computational skills.

Rolt had a key role in starting both the waterway movement and the railway preservation movement in postwar Britain, motivating people to volunteer to keep these things, threatened by the ever onward drive towards the mundane, in being for all to enjoy. It is partly thanks to Rolt that we have a canal network and that I can go and enjoy a ride on a steam train whenever i feel the urge.

Like Rolt, I despair of the constant drive to generate money at the expense of all else, constantly making the world a duller, greyer, more predictable place. I love to see land, buildings, machines etc lovingly hand made and cared for. Without resuming this direction of having a spiritual bond with our surroundings, our community and our technology, learning to live more simply, I don't quite see how we can hope to survive on this little planet. However, a crucial part of this for me is that it has to be fair. While there are still masters and servants then the servants will always envy the masters.

Rolt somehow partially inverted this, being of the master's class but often envying the servants, deploring the sad decline in subsistence agriculture for example. Tolstoy was similar, and Ghandhi, but both these men sought to live the simple life of a peasant rather than just idealise it from a lofty eminence.

My disappointment with the later Rolt really surfaced when I read about his very valuable tenure at the Tal y Llyn Railway in 1951/52. He claimed that it was a financial disaster for him as he was only paid £30 a month. That's about £7 a week. In 1950 the average wage for a factory worker was about £5.70, and often this had to support a family. My first wage as late as 1971 was only £10 a week. £7 a week was simply not enough for an upper middle class lifestyle.

I am interested in building a better, more human, more democratic world where communities make their own decisions, use their own resources and people work for each other. This is not possible if some people think they're so much better than others that their children have to be privately educated. I hate to say it, but Rolt was a snob who thought himself better than the riff raff on the council estate.

War and Freedom (6th December 2013)

War and Freedom

I have lots of confusion around the business of armed conflict. Part of me is a pacifist hippy, hating all war, but another part of me challenges this as naive. I have a fascination with military hardware, especially aircraft, but I am saddened by the fact that so much human ingenuity goes into machines of destruction.

Is it just me or do other people see military aircraft differently depending on their origin. To me a Mescherschmidt has a nasty malevolent look, whereas a Spitfire, though a very similar aircraft, looks beautiful. I remember seeing B52s flying into Britain ready to begin operations against Iraq. To me they were like invaders from Mordor.

I've always been a great admirer of Ghandhi, but I once read his opinions of how Hitler should be resisted, non violently. Non violent resistance depends for its success on the humanity of your opponents. If you are dealing with psychopaths, who are incapable of compassion, it will not work. Sadly, there was no alternative to the second world war. Had my parents generation not fought then the whole world would probably be living under oppressive regimes. The freedoms that we have are easily eroded though, the main threat now coming not from governments but from corporations.

I've recently been reading some books about military leaders. Their psychology fascinates me. The first was Field Marshal Montgomery's autobiography. Though he was known for blowing his own trumpet, I think there is little doubt that his appointment in 1942 was crucial to turning the war around. I hadn't realised that his predecessor's only plan was to retreat when Rommel attacked at El Alemein. The question in my mind is what would have happened in the modern world. It seems to be widely accepted now that Monty was a paedophile. Some say that this only went as far as getting boys to strip naked to be inspected. My partner, who has dealt professionally with paedophiles, tells me that if he was doing this there is little doubt that he was going further. This, apparently was generally known about at the time and seen as an eccentricity. Today he would have been arrested, probably long before he rose to the rank of General. Would it be right to turn a blind eye to his predelictions in order to get the best man in the crucial position?

I'm now reading about Garibaldi. I never knew much about him, just that he founded Italy and had a biscuit named after him. He must have got a buzz out of battle. Beginning as a pirate off the South American coast he fought for liberation movements in Brazil and Uruguay before returning to his native Italy, then a hotch potch of monarchies, dukedoms, Papal states and parts of the Austrian empire. With a ragtag volunteer army, fiercely loyal to him, he frequently defeated bigger, better armed and more conventional forces until, eventually Italy became a constitutional monarchy with reasonable freedoms for its people. Garibaldi was obviously a brilliant and charismatic leader, but he also seems to have been a decent man who cared about others. He would not put up with maltreatment of prisoners and only fought for liberation causes, eschewing honours and money and with little time for politicians. Though he didn't go himself, some Garibaldinis fought on the Union side in the American civil war, but Garibaldi would not give his support until he was sure that a Northern victory would definitely mean emancipation for the slaves.

It worries me that the freedoms achieved at such great cost in the past by people like the Garibaldinis, trades unionists, mass trespassers etc can so easily be lost in an era when most information is controlled by a handful of wealthy people and the population seems to be taken in by bread, circuses and shopping.