GRUB!: Toad in the Hole

Sunday, January 26, 2020

It's been a very quiet start to 2020 here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters on board the Lucky Nickel. I’m stalled on two different work projects waiting for other people to do things, and motivation for any grand project or adventure has been low, so I’m contenting myself with minor boat maintenance and brief excursions into the outside world. (And a bit of wassailing of course.)

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And photographing stunning sunrises like this one.

We’ve had some quite blustery weather of late, which along with the long travel times for me to get from the marina to anywhere besides Tesco, and the fact that dusk seems to come at about 3:15pm, has meant that I’ve been mostly cocooned in the boat listening to the ropes creak and bingeing on videos. As I said, I’m easing in.

Along with the foul weather and general aimlessness comes the desire for properly cozy food and the time to faff around with it. And since I’d rather cook up something yummy from the comfort of my home than venture out into the rain and wind to find something to blog about, it seemed a good time to pick from the list of potential GRUB! topics. Thus, Toad in the Hole! (Though I did ponder treacle tart quite seriously. All in good time.)

Toad in the Hole is a dish that falls into that enormous category of foodstuffs where meat - in this case sausages - is the star, supported and surrounded by a comforting carbohydrate of some form. The intention with these dishes is to stretch a small amount of an expensive ingredient into a meal for many people (like fish pie or, say, shaving black truffles over a big pot of Kraft Dinner.) I’ll admit now that I’d never had Toad in the Hole before I decided to try it out on this occasion, and if I’d given it any particular thought I suppose I’d assumed the the “hole” into which the toad sausage was planted was some kind of potatoey something-or-other.

(Pause for cries of shock and outrage)

Of course I was woefully misinformed on this subject. Toad in the Hole is, of course, comprised of sausages nestled in a crisp and tasty bed of Yorkshire pudding! This was a revelatory discovery and certainly put a bit more spring in my culinary step as I contemplated supper.

I suppose now I should pause because there’s a chance that somewhere out there in GSWPL-land there may be some sadly deprived readers who are living a grey and unfulfilled Yorkshire pudding-less existence. My condolences to you if you are one of those people, but cheer up because you are about to be introduced to the glory that is Yorkshire pudding!

First of all, this is one of those cases where we’re using the term pudding in its broadest possible sense meaning, basically, food. It’s not Bill Cosby Jell-o pudding custardy thing, and it’s not a chilled and set sweet thing like summer pudding. It’s also not a sweet steamed effort like sticky toffee pudding or Christmas pudding and it’s not a steamed savoury thing like steak and kidney pudding. Or even a sausagey sort of thing like black pudding. (And now I just have to pause and comment that I have blogged about a LOT of pudding.) Unaccountably, Yorkshire pudding is a light and airy baked affair that’s closest cousin is probably American style popovers. Which is to say that it’s a thin batter of flour, egg and liquid, baked with some fat and resulting in a crispy light puffed up golden brown thing that’s really really really good with gravy. Traditionally it’s made in a large baking dish and cut up to be served but it’s actually very common (at least when you’re not in Yorkshire) to get little individual Yorkshire puddings made in muffin tins. These little ones have the advantage of being mostly hollow when done correctly, meaning they are a perfect vessel for gravy.

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Yorkshire puddings made in a muffin tin, from Mary Berry’s recipe. Note that Yorkshire puddings are often simply referred to as “Yorkshires” or even simply “Yorkies” (Not to be confused with the dogs or the chocolate bars.)

So, Toad in the Hole is sausages in Yorkshire pudding. Simple. Filling. Sure to be delicious. And because it was sad to contemplate Yorkshires without gravy, I decided to whip up some onion gravy to go along, since it was mentioned in one of the recipes I found and gravy is pretty much always a good idea.

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The gathering of ingredients, along with the chosen baking dish.

My effort was based on this recipe from the Guardian, though I’ve noted changes I made.

Toad in the Hole with Onion Gravy:

For the Toad:
6 sausages (I used 4. There’s only one of me and I suspected that a day’s worth of leftovers would be plenty.)

For the Hole:
3 tbsp beef dripping or good lard (I just used olive oil, which was the only oil I generally stock)
2 eggs
100g plain flour, sifted, plus 1 tbsp extra for the gravy. (Sifted? Who has time to sift? I’m unemployed and even I don’t have the time for that. Life is too short to sift.)
85ml whole milk
85ml ale (I think this is meant to add lightness to the batter but it’s probably very optional. Just make sure to end up with the right total amount of liquid.)
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp neutral oil (Or perhaps might I suggest... olive oil?)

For the gravy:
2 medium onions
A bit more oil (Like maybe olive oil?)
500ml (2 cups) of beef stock (A stock cube is fine. This is not the Cordon Bleu.)
A bit of flour

Method:
1. Take the batteries out of the smoke detector. You’ll thank me later.

2. Put the oil/dripping in the pan and put it in the oven, which you are about to turn on.

3. Heat the pan with the oil to one million degrees. (This is the one thing that EVERYONE mentions about making Yorkshire pudding: you must get the fat in the pan very hot. Very, very hot. Mary Berry says “absolutely piping hot”. My mom says “screaming hot”. And my mate Simon says, “it should be one degree away from taking down the whole neighbourhood”. Note this might be slightly less that one millions degrees. Perhaps try setting the oven for 200-220ºC/400-450ºF.)

4. Brown the sausages and then set them aside. They’ll cook through in the oven, but won’t get that nice browned look without this step. Plus then you can use all the crunchy leftover bits in the pan for the gravy.

5. Make the batter by cracking the eggs into a large bowl and beating vigorously with a whisk or electric beater, until thick and voluminous. Beat in the flour and milk alternately in small amounts, until you have a smooth batter.

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I don’t have an electric beater, but I do have this nifty little hand-cranked food processor sort of thing that I got at a dollar store in Azerbaijan. I has a chopping blade, a whipping attachment and a basket for spin-drying greens. Genius little device, plus this was the first time I’ve got to use the whipping thingy, so yay!

4. Add the ale and mustard and beat again. (At this point the batter will be worryingly runny and you might want to WhatsApp your mom if she is a seasoned Yorkshire pudding maker and send her a quick video of the runniness, after which she will assure you that it looks fine and mention AGAIN that the fat really must be very very VERY hot.)

5. Let the batter sit for a bit while you’re waiting for the oven rack to start melting, which is a good indication that the fat is almost hot enough. (This is the point at which I had the little boat oven turned up to gas mark nine, which is as high as it goes. That’s supposed to be equivalent to 275 deg c but was actually hovering around 200 on my oven thermometer. This is also the point at which I started to think my first Yorkshire puddings were not going to set any records for awesomeness.)

6. Get the fire extinguisher out of the cupboard and set it nearby. Remove the pan of hot fat from the oven and quickly pour in the batter, which should sizzle when it hits the oil. Add the sausages after that, take photo for your blog (optional), and then get the whole thing back in the oven. Bake for about 35 minutes until the batter has risen beautifully and is golden brown and delicious. (Alternatively, peer helplessly through the grease-spattered window of your inadequate oven trying to see if it’s rising at all.)

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Optional Photo. Yes everything is kind of swimming in fat. 
This is not a diet food situation, people.

7. In between peering, get on with the gravy. Slice the onion thinly, add a bit more oil to the sausage pan, and get it all on the heat. The onion should cook slowly on low heat. Really slowly. They shouldn’t brown so much as melt. Help things along by adding a bit of stock to the pan.

8. Once the onions have cooked down a lot add most of the stock and let it cook down more to thicken. Once you get tired of waiting for it to thicken, add a spoon of flour to the remaining stock and mix it into a slurry and then pour that in to thicken things up because honestly who has time to wait for gravy to thicken when there is Yorkshire pudding to be had?

9. Get the Toad in the Hole out of the oven.

10. Put the batteries back in the smoke detector (do NOT forget this step) and put away the fire extinguisher.

11. Eat!

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The finished dish. Not much rise on the Yorkshire pudding, but the gravy’s looking decent.

And that's Toad in the Hole, Lucky Nickel style. I also steamed some broccoli to go along with it, and even though the Yorkshire pudding was nothing like as high and light as it could have been, it still tasted like Yorkshire pudding, if a bit more dense. Plus I had almost a whole can of beer left and lots of gravy, so all in all I’m calling this a success and a very worthwhile way to spend an evening.

Here we come a wassailing!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

I’m finally back in London, back on the boat, and settling in to 2020. But there was one last festive event to attend before the first Monday morning of the new year: Twelfth Night!

As any fule kno, Twelfth Night occurs twelve days after Christmas and the day before Epiphany (the day on which the Magi visited the Christ Child). These two days are traditionally seen as the end of the Christmas season and many people take them as a cue to pack up the Christmas tree and get on with the drudgery of January. I took them as a cue to shake off the jet-lag of the previous day’s red-eye flight and accept Piran’s invitation to breakfast and a Twelfth Night celebration at Bankside, which promised to include wassailing, a Green Man, twelfth cake, mummery and a good old fashioned farandole. I mean how could you not?

First things first: wassailing has nothing to do with sailing. Wassail is a hot mulled cider drink whose name derives from the Old English “was hál” meaning “be hale”. Which is a lot like the Russian drinking salute "На здоровье!” meaning “to health”. (Also used in French, German, Italian, Greek, Irish, Spanish, Welsh... I could go on). It’s a toast! Which is funny because wassail is traditionally served with slices of toast floating in it and sipped from a big communal drinking vessel called a wassail bowl. Hence, the lyrics to the carol:
"Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink unto thee."
Wassail is integral to the practice of wassailing, which comes in two forms. The first is very similar to carolling, involving going door-to-door singing and offering drinks from the wassail bowl (hence the lyrics of the song). The second, and more appropriate to my Twelfth Night festivities, is particular to apple and cider producing areas of England and involves visiting the local orchards on Twelfth Night, to drink and sing to the health of the cider apple trees and ensure a good harvest the next year. Often the soggy wassail toast is placed is the branches of the trees by the Wassail Queen (more on her later) as a gift to the tree spirits.

It’s all very folky and earthy, which brings us to the next component: the Green Man. He's frequently seen as carved stone decoration in churches and secular buildings and normally depicted as a face completely covered in or made from leaves. It seems like it must be some kind of ancient folklore so I was surprised to discover that this centuries-old architectural motif wasn’t even named “The Green Man” until 1939. Since that time the Green Man has been adopted as a counter-culture symbol of nature, rebirth, and the cycle of the seasons, which is how we found him on Twelfth Night, in his winter form as the Holly Man. (The Green Man is also a very popular pub name, with at least seven Green Mans in the Greater London area.)

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The Holly Man and his supporters, crossing the Thames on the Millennium Bridge.

This is where Piran and I joined the crowd on Sunday morning, having enjoyed a very piggy breakfast which included three kinds of pig-derived yumminess and walked through the city to catch up with the revelry just as the Holly Man and his gang (including a piper!) were starting across the bridge at St. Paul's. The Holly Man himself is portrayed by David Risley, who dons the green every year, re-making the living bits every time. (I know this because of course the Green Man has a facebook page. Also: Piran told me.) His makeup was particularly impressive, as you’ll see later.

The Bankside Twelfth Night celebrations are led each year by a group of performers called the Lions Part, who also do an autumnally themed thing in October. We followed the Holly Man & Co. across the bridge to the riverbank near the Globe Theatre, where they were met by the other half of the company who’d paraded over from the George Inn (more on the George later).

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More mummers arriving in thier distinctive costumes completely covered in multicoloured rags. They’re thought to originate with Mummers’ humble roots when poor performers would turn their only coat inside out and decorate the lining with cheap strips of discarded cloth.

After everyone arrived the group proceeded to wassail the boats on the river and the Globe Theatre, with the support and encouragement of the actual Mayor of Southwark, who appeared in full ceremonial robes. Luckily I’d bought a program so could recite along with the wassailing toast before the whole company moved a bit further east to get ready for the Mummers' Play.

Mummers' plays date from around mid to late 18th century and are traditional folk tales a bit like early pantos with a stock cast of characters that normally include the hero Saint George (or King George in our case, or Prince George... you get the idea) and a baddie called the Turkish Knight. These two fight to the death but then the vanquished character is brought back to life by the Doctor, who revives the casualty through odd and comic means, thus symbolically reawakening the earth from the dead of winter. Other characters also come into the play including Cleverlegs, a minstrel; Father Christmas; Beelzebub, who gives a topical monologue; and Jill Finney (modern gender-reversed version of the role) who exhorts cash donations from the crowd at the end of the performance. (I took a bunch of photos of the performance, but the sightline was awful so there’s no use posting them here.)

(Side note particularly for Far Eastern Canadians: Mummers and Mummers’ plays are obviously related to the old Newfoundland practise of mummering, wherein jolly gangs of mummers dress up in outrageous disguises which seem to require wearing extra-large undergarments outside your clothing. Mummers visit their neighbours houses where they sing, dance, tell jokes and do all manner of informal performance until the people in the house correctly guess their identities. The hosts are also expected to provide food and drink, and the whole thing sounds quite jolly. Oh, and these days there’s an annual parade!)

The final part of our Twelfth Night mummers' performance was the crowning of the Twelfth Night royalty: King Bean and Queen Pea. Small cakes - Twelfth Bakes - were given out to everyone in the crowd, and whoever got the pea and bean would be assigned the royal role. It's a bit like finding the sixpence in the Christmas Pudding but instead of conferring good luck, you get to be king for a day. The French do the same thing for Epiphany with King Cake.)

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Handing out Twelfth Bakes.

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So hopeful. Sadly, neither of us were crowned. The lucky two got to wear rustic handmade crowns. It’s thought that the simple paper crowns and other regalia once made for Twelfth Night royalty are the origins of the paper hats we now get in Christmas crackers.

With the royalty crowned it was time to move on, but to where? The pub, of course! The whole crowd was exhorted to join the mummers in a farandole all the way from the Globe Theatre to the George Inn on Borough High Street.

A farandole is a folk dance originating in France and in our case involved making a very very long moving human chain all the way to the pub, led by two of the mummers. Of course Piran and I joined in behind the Turkish Knight, who led a merry way through Southwark and Borough Market, winding and bending as much as possible and necessitating a few cries of “Mind the bollards!” as each obstacle was encountered. The line started out quite short, though it did include a guy who’d arrived on his Brompton. Rather than miss out, he simply hung onto the handlebars of his folded bike, and the next person in the line hung onto the seat. I thought this was quite clever since Bromptons can get tiring to carry on your own.

Of course I’ve got no photos of the farandole because both my hands were occupied the whole time. But it was quite fun, despite the awkward rotation of the shoulder that was required to stay connected with the woman behind me. The path to the pub was about half a mile long - not a short distance to travel without breaking the chain, especially with more and more people joining along the route. We also had to cross Borough High Street, a major thoroughfare. Luckily, mummer volunteers in rags and hi-vis vests were along to stop traffic, though by the time we at the front of the line were at the pub, the tail was still on the other side of the road at least 350 feet away. I’ve no idea how they managed to hold back the traffic for that long but one of the mummers was very excited because apparently this was the first year they’ve got all the way to the pub without breaking the chain! Surely this bodes well for 2020.

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And now finally: The George Inn!

It’s a fantastic pub, and one I’ve been to many times. The last remaining galleried coaching inn in London, there’s been a pub on the site since the late 1500s! The inside is a rambling collection of cozy small rooms, but the big feature is the outside courtyard, especially lovely in summer. Sadly they no longer rent rooms so it's a bit of a stretch to call it an Inn, but I suppose when you've been around for 450-ish years you get a bit of leeway.

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The galleried bit of “galleried inn”. (Neither of us got a decent photo of the yard so this one is from Wikimedia: By Ewan Munro from London, UK - George, Borough, SE1, CC BY-SA 2.0)

When we arrived the yard was rammed already and the bar was worse, so I left Piran to help wassail the George Inn while I fetched the beer. The Lions Part gang did some singing and I heard there was storytelling in the Snug, though we did not partake. Mostly we just hung out in the yard catching up and grabbing photos with the mummers when we could.

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See what I mean about his makeup?

Night fell, and I polished off a pint of George ale and a cup of some kind of mulled cider which I suppose was basically wassail (not including toast) but was mostly nice because it was very warm and did not include toast. The festivities wound down slowly and eventually we left for the walk to the station, having seen off the festive season in proper fashion.

Wassail, Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers!

And Happy 2020. 

Merry Belated Christmas. I got you a blog.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Hey remember me? I know, I know. Even taking into account the work factor, it’s been a longer break than usual (or possibly ever). Reminder: I was in Abu Dhabi working on the UAE's National Day show, which I’ve done twice before, in 2018 and 2015. (Shortest job re-cap ever: It was fine.) Then I was in London for a grand total of six days - just long enough to bail out the boat (not kidding), swap shorts and t-shirts for scarves and gloves in my suitcase, and do a quick blitz of Christmas shopping. Then six days in Winnipeg visiting. And now Saskatoon for Christmas. There. All caught up.

I did think I’d manage to get at least one other Abu Dhabi blog post up before work go to be too much. I even sought out a touristy destination and took lots of pictures and notes and then promptly did no further blogging of any sort. I blame the fact that we were on a six day work week, which meant that the seventh day was mostly consumed with life admin like buying groceries and doing laundry and general self care (mostly napping and eating pop-tarts for lunch while sitting mesmerised by endless YouTube videos of van life and tiny houses.) Life, you know? It’s what happens in between blogs.

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Qasr Al Watan. Also known as the Presidential Palace. It was pretty. I didn’t blog about it.

I do love this work, and I'm amazed that people continue to pay me to live in interesting places and work on the largest shows on the planet. But the lifestyle comes with sacrifices and one of those is that it can be hard to maintain something like a normality when you live in a hotel, get up in the morning, and sit at the hotel breakfast buffet with your work colleagues. Then get on the shuttle bus with your work colleagues. Then you spend your twelve hour work day with your work colleagues. Then get back on the shuttle bus with the same people to go “home”. And then maybe go for a drink in the hotel bar with… everyone from work. Then rinse and repeat the next day for four months. The people that do these shows are lovely, brilliant, and amazing and I’m lucky to call them not just colleagues but friends. But honestly, I do not need to be with them 16 hours a day. Love ya, but please go away.

One of the things I do to mitigate this is to eat breakfast in my room, which makes life feel a lot more normal. And because I was in town for twice as long as I have been before, I connected with the Abu Dhabi branch of the Hash House Harriers, who have always been my go-to solution for helping get out of the work bubble. As ever, the Abu Dhabi Hash was full of friendly, crazy, like-minded people who welcomed me to the club and gave me a social group outside of work, which can be more precious than all the pop-tarts in the world.

My first run with the Abu Dhabi Hash was only a few days after I arrived, in mid-August. It will not surprise Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers to learn that August in Abu Dhabi is, and I’m going to be indelicate here, fucking hot. I was not surprised by this. What did surprise me was the humidity. It’s supposed to be the desert right? How can it be so humid? I remember arriving at the airport late in the evening and walking out of the overly air-conditioned terminal straight into a wall of damp heat, and being consumed with hysterical laughter. I think my driver was a bit alarmed but I couldn’t help it. It was just so ridiculous think that people were expected to exist in those conditions. Indonesia, yeah. Indonesia should be humid. It’s basically a jungle. But Abu Dhabi? Whaaaaat?

Still, on the first Monday I was in Abu Dhabi I dutifully hopped in a taxi and made my way to the start point of that week’s run, the middle of a giant, baking parking lot near the Presidential Palace. And it wasn’t long before a few brave souls arrived to make up a pack of… five. I guess even hashers have their limits. Most of them were either on vacation or not crazy enough to want to be out running in those temperatures.

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Because these are not running conditions. These are conditions for making beef jerky.

Regardless, I managed to stagger around the 5k loop in a sprightly 40 minutes. Many many many walk breaks are required when “running” in those temperatures. And I was relieved that after the run we all made our way to a boat and had a lovely evening zipping around the water in the dark before mooring just off a sandy beach where we ate shawarmas and drank beer. Proper hashing!

I even managed to set my own running trail for the group while I was in town, before work got to be too much. This was nice, because setting a trail every once in a while is part of the deal, so I was glad to do it. However this did require me to go scout out the route several times in advance, meaning I was running outside even more than the once-weekly hash run. This proved challenging. I ran the trail at least three times in advance of the actual run date, just to make sure I had things figured out. And this was in mid-September when temperatures were still hovering somewhere between surface-of-the-sun and blast-furnace.

In those temperatures, any breeze might feel good. I say “might". It might also feel like you were running across a giant griddle while an enormous monster with bad breath exhaled fulsomely in your face. You might, while you were running, silently pray for the wind to stop, just for a bit. Then you might run into the lea of a large building where you were sheltered from the wind and you might then suddenly feel the full dead weight of the heat press into you and quickly decide that any breeze is better than no breeze and hasten to the next open stretch.

Yep. Running in the summer in Abu Dhabi is hard work.

However, running in the desert in November sounded like it might be a blast. By November the weather is noticeably more tolerable. It’s still hot during the day, but by evening it cools enough that it’s genuinely pleasant (as opposed to simply less awful). Sometimes you even want long sleeves. Which is why I organised my work calendar and warned my colleagues they’d have to cover for me one Saturday in early November so that I could go for the Abu Dhabi Hash House Harriers annual Rehydration Run.

Re-hy (rhyming with knee-high) sounded like a perfect day. Drive out to the desert, pitch a tent, run a trail full of themed drink stops, get back to camp in time for sunset, sit around a big campfire until all hours hanging out, drinking beer and having fun, pack up the next day and go back to work. Perfect. And because it’s the Hash, it took about three minutes before someone responded to my group WhatsApp request to borrow some camping gear, which was then delivered to me at work, and included a tent, sleeping bag and camp chair.

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Setting up the tent in my living room, as a test. 

Getting to the campsite involved hitching a ride with another friendly hasher and then meeting up with a convoy of others at a gas station on the last stretch of paved road before the site. The convoy was a necessary precaution. I later learned that you basically don’t drive out into the desert by yourself because the odds of your vehicle getting stuck in the sand are so high you kind of always need a buddy to pull you out. It would be like leaving on a Christmas road trip on the prairies without jumper cables and a shovel.

Our car made it out the to the site, though several others got stuck, and the has rescue team spent a lot of time pulling cars out of the sand before we finally got around to starting the run. This left the rest of us free to set up camp, get the beer on ice, and take photos.

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Of the campsite

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On the haunted camel graveyard.

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And here’s something that is obvious in retrospect: tent pegs do not work in the desert. Instead, tents are secured by tying them to heavy weights like plastic bags filled with the one thing you’re never going to run out of… sand. 

The other thing that is obvious in retrospect: everything you bring and every surface of your body will be completely coated in sand after approximately 4 minutes in the desert. Nothing is spared.

When we finally did get out on the trail, I contented myself with walking most (all) of the way. And how do you stop the sand getting in your shoes on a trek like that? Easy. Leave your shoes in the tent.

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On the advice of those far more experienced, I walked 5k through the desert in my socks. And they were right, it was comfy and fine. Anyone who did wear shoes ended up having to stop frequently to pour out the sand anyway, and many ended the run in sock feet with their shoes hanging around their necks.

The run itself was longer than expected, and involved scaling a few wickedly high sand dunes. Happily, it was also punctuated with five different drink stops, each designed after a different TV show, which was the year’s theme.

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Our first stop was ER, where we had appropriately anaesthetic libations.

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Then it was on to Vikings, where we first had to negotiate with the advance raiding party.

Then on to a couple other stops, including “America’s Got Talent” (featuring a battery powered karaoke machine!) Before we got to the last stop, a golden oldie:

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M*A*S*H! Complete with an IV bag of red wine.

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Along the way there were ridiculously picturesque vistas

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And the beginnings of a nice sunset

Once we got back to camp there was beer and food and a large bonfire. And of course there was a guy with a guitar so there was also a lot of singing including at least one loud rendition of “American Pie” and an excellent solo “Ring of Fire” by guitar guy putting on a heavy Irish accent, which gave that old standard an excellent fresh new sound. I stayed up late, sang songs, hung out, and finally made it to bed in the wee hours, very tired and completely coated in a thin layer of sand and sweat.

The next morning people roused themselves slowly and packed up. I had to be at work later that same day so when I got back to the hotel I had a bite of breakfast and one of the top three showers of my life and left the unpacking for that evening, so that I could attempt to prevent the sand from coating every surface in the room. This was marginally successful, though the hotel plumbing system must have had a bit of a shock when I finally shook everything out in the shower stall and rid my luggage of a few cups of desert sand.

So yes, I’m back. I’ll try to be a bit more regular with the blogging, though no promises about frequency (as usual). It might just be possible that after blogging more or less continuously for eleven years I’m getting just slightly burnt out. ELEVEN. YEARS. 480 posts. That’s probably about a million words. So maybe you should all count yourselves lucky that I’m still here at all, even if it’s four months between posts.

’Til next time.

Palm trees, pumps, and pop art

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Utterly uninspired. That’s what I’ve been lately. At least when it comes to blogging. Plus I figure you got way more than your usual ration of blogs through July, what with the whole Grand Tour thing, so I haven't been stressing much about the lack of output, blog-wise. Also I’ve actually been busy, mostly because a few weeks ago I packed my bags for a return visit to Abu Dhabi for this year’s edition of the show I did last year. I’m here earlier in the process than I have been before, so this gig is occupying a funny in-between status: still only half as long as a genuinely big job like Jakarta, but twice as long as the other times I’ve been here. Not short, not long. I guess it’s a Goldilocks Gig.

It’s all fine here. We’re in a different hotel than last year which, while lacking the OTT opulence and private beach of last year, is actually within walking distance of the stadium, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. Still there’s no denying it - I miss the beach. But only an utter ingrate would complain about being put up in a very nice hotel with 3 meals a day at the buffet and a lovely young man named Mazhar who brings me fresh towels every day and will apparently not be content until I’ve got at least 50 litres of bottled water stockpiled regardless of how may pleading notes I leave asking him to stop adding to the collection.

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Nice room. It’s got a kitchenette, and the toaster and washing machine and fridge all behave, unlike last year. The couch is a bit cement-like but you can’t have everything.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been here twice before, or maybe I’m just getting kind of jaded in general, but I’ve not been at all inspired to go out and do things around Abu Dhabi this time around. The one thing I've managed to do is meet up with the Abu Dhabi Hash House Harriers. And, as ever, they turn out to be friendly and welcoming even if they are possibly more insane than other Hashes, because they run outside in Abu Dhabi in August. (Though of course they are universally incredulous when I tell that that yes, of course we hash in the winter in Canada, reasoning that running in 38° heat with 85% humidity might be uncomfortable, but running in -38° plus windchill is beyond imagining.)

It may make me sound like a broken record, but any time I’ve managed to connect with a Hash group while on a gig it’s always been a Good Thing. In fact, it’s probably simplest if I just copy and paste what I said here six (!) years ago when I was on my first overseas gig in Russia, because it’s the same pattern that’s repeated itself again and again around the world, and I’m still just as grateful for it now as I was then:
"As I mentioned, I've been running with the local Moscow chapter of the international "drinking club with a running problem". I've said it before, but it bears repeating... I love the Hash. I'd been in town for exactly four days before I found myself running through a farflung park in the outskirts of Moscow with a group of like-minded, friendly, crazy people who welcomed me like I was family. It was a place I'd never have gone as a tourist, but with the Hash it was routine. Then on the following Friday I met up with them again for weekly drinks. And I've just returned from my second Sunday run, in another lovely park. And I've been invited to a casual run on Wednesday and a dinner party next week. I bet I have colleagues in the office who've been here months longer than me but have no one to socialise with who's not also working on the Ceremonies, so I am pathetically grateful to the Hash for giving me a ready-made social group of people with local knowledge, common interests and, of course, beer.”
So yes, I’ve hashed a couple times. Oh, and I went with colleagues to a ridiculously over the top all you can eat and drink brunch.

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There was so much cheese they had it in a separate room. A Cheese ROOM.

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And a dessert room. Not pictured is the area where you could ice your own giant cookie from a piping bag suspended over a plate. Or possibly just hold your open mouth under the piping bag while no-one was looking.

I also took a taxi to the Waitrose to visit the hidden pork room. And I… I… ummm, ok that’s pretty much all I’ve done in three weeks other than work, run on the treadmill in the hotel gym, eat too much at the buffet, watch videos, and fight with my VPN (which is really not working well and forcing me to take desperate measure in order to watch the new series of The Great British Bake Off). (And can someone explain to me why Pop Tarts are kept in the pork room? Oh, ok.)

Which is all a really long-winded way of saying there’s really not much to blog about out here so far. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a few fun things I did before I left London, back when I had the boat in the Far East of London and had nothing better to do than noodle around in Walthamstow and environs. I was a bit surprised to find Walthamstow as interesting as I did, though I was equipped with an extensive itinerary provided by Piran that included no less than nine stops, of which I managed seven. (The other two were closed on Saturday. But honestly, three of the seven were mostly just drive-bys.)

I started the day at the Pumphouse Museum, a hodge podge of a place housed in a former sewage pumping works. The Pumphouse Museum falls in to a category of museum I like to think of as “Small But Plucky”. It’s run by volunteers and sort of unfocussed, but you can’t help being equally charmed and puzzled by it. For instance, there were two garage bays filled with fire engines and assorted fire fighting paraphernalia, including an unlabelled display of six different standard household smoke detectors. And there was a crane and couple of underground train carriages up on blocks in the yard, one of which was shrouded in tarpaulins. And of course there’s the restored engine house that still holds the old sewage pump, along with a merry and assortment of other machines and Walthamstow-related bits and pieces, and a whole other room full of model trains and railroad memorabilia.

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Really charming. And the old guy who explained everything was endearingly enthusiastic about sewage pumping, so I liked him.

The next stop was at the other end of the museum spectrum - The William Morris Gallery. William Morris (yes, the wallpaper guy) was born and lived in Walthamstow, and his former home, set in lovely public gardens, is now a Grade II listed building and houses 2013’s Museum of the Year. It is gorgeous and well laid out and beautifully maintained and full of thoughtful, articulate, multimedia dispays and explanations of Morris’s life and work.

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This room demonstrated the methods used in tapestry making and block-printing wallpaper.

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You didn’t think you’d get away with hearing about the William Morris Gallery without seeing a picture of wallpaper did you?

It was all in sharp contrast to the Pumphouse Museum. And I’ll admit that though I found the Pumphouse charming, I elected to have lunch at the café of the William Morris Gallery, overlooking the gardens, and not at the Pumphouse canteen. I did, however, leave some money in the Pumphouse donation box, because while I might doubt their ability to make a credible flat white, they do have a reciprocating steam engine and 2/3 scale prop-built replica of a London “B” Omnibus, and that’s worth supporting.

Slotting neatly between the Pumphouse Museum and the William Morris Gallery on the Go Stay Work Play Live Museum Continuum (patent pending) was my next stop, the Vestry House Museum. It’s a museum of local heritage housed in an old workhouse.

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Evidence of the building’s workhouse origins, the inscription above the entrance door reads, “if any would not work neither should be eat”.

The Vestryhouse was also a bit unfocussed. There was a room about life in the workhouse (spoiler alert: not actually very nice) and I enjoyed the displays of Victorian kitchenware, and the inevitable cabinet of articles related to wartime rationing. (Maybe I’m getting over-muesumed, but I feel like I’ve seen the same display in at least seven other places.) They also had a whole room of vintage toys, most of which had been made in Walthamstow, or sold in beloved local toy stores.

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If anyone is struggling with what to get me for Christmas, I’ll happily take a set of “Construments - The Hobby of Ten Thousand Thrills!” (Makes £20 worth of Magnifiers, Shadowscopes, Cameras, Kaleidoscopes, Signalling Lamps, Photo-Printers, Watch Projectors, Lamp Stands and Experimental Instruments) All for the low low price of 18 and 6.

The Vestryhouse museum was nice, but the ultimate goal of the the day was to visit a truly unique spot, tucked into a hipster alleyway that still has one or two actual industrial business not yet crowded out by the architecture studio, three craft breweries, two artisanal sausage carts and gin distillery (of course). Yes friends, the goal of the day was nothing less than God’s Own Junkyard.

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From the outside you just get a tantalising hint of the wonders within.

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Inside, you’ll find the largest collection of neon lighting and signs in Europe and it is utterly fantastic.

God’s Own Junkyard was founded by the late Chris Bracey, a second generation neon artist whose father moved to Walthamstow after World War II and set up shop as a neon signmaker for fairgrounds and circuses, eventually branching out into industrial signs as well. The younger Bracey started out as a graphic designer before joining the family business, and spent the first half of his neon career making signs for bars and strip clubs in Soho. When neon fell out of fashion, Chris ended up salvaging a lot of neon signs that were being removed. Those vintage rescues, many of which were Bracey’s work to begin with, form part of the collection at God’s Own Junkyard.

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A collection that leaves you wondering where to look. 
Maybe at the largest mirrorball in Europe?

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Then your eye starts to pick out favourites in the visual cacophony.

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A lot of what you see is Bracey’s original artwork

A chance meeting with a film industry art director in the 1980s led Chris Bracey into making neon signs and props for film sets, many of which are now also part of the scene at GOJY. He also developed a clientele of celebrity collectors for whom he did custom work and shortly before he died he held his first solo exhibition of neon art in the UK.

The Junkyard is now maintained by Chris Bracey’s sons and is open to the public, free of charge, a few days a week. The rest of the time they seem to do a good trade in hiring out neon signs individually, hiring out the whole place for photoshoots, and continuing to produce original pieces for sale. They also sell souvenirs, and are home to the brilliantly named café, Rolling Scone. And refreshingly, there was nary a ration card in sight.

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The Sunday I was there a neon maker was set up in the corner with a flaming gas jet, quietly working over a long section of glass tube to match a pattern laid out on his work table. It was fascinating to watch.

God’s Own Junkyard is absolutely worth the trek out to the far north-east (especially considering how easy it is to combine with a lovely G&T). And if you manage to time it so you can take in a few of the other Wonders of Walthamstow, so much the better. Meanwhile I'm 6,998 km away in the desert, slowly wilting like a tube of glass in a gas jet, and hoping to find something worth blogging about before the work schedule takes over again. 

Just one more ring...

Sunday, August 4, 2019

I’ve really been enjoying moving around on the boat these days. With the engine behaving well, the weather cooperating, and my comfort with the boat at an all-time high, there is every reason in the world to simply tootle around and see what there is to see. Last week this sent me into the wilds of the Far East - to Hackney and beyond. My excuse was a few days of freelance technical drawing work for a designer friend with a studio in the area, which right now is reason enough to spend two days moving the boat. This took me further east than I’ve been before, past Victoria Park and along the entire short length of the Hertford Union Canal, a tiny mile-long cut that connects the Regent’s Canal to the River Lea. Once on the Lea I found a leafy spot at Hackney Marshes and spent a very pleasant week enjoying the hipster neighbourhood and checking out the surprisingly cool environs of Walthamstow, which may feature in a future blog.

When I eventually turned around to leave the River Lea I decided to take a slight detour on my way south for a celebratory lap around the old Olympic Stadium. You may not be aware of it, but the Olympic Stadium sits on an island completely surrounded by the River Lea and City Mill River, with the Bow River not far off. (The Lea is more properly known as the Lea Navigation, and is controlled by locks and weirs. The Bow is semi-tidal and therefore less navigable.) So it seemed natural for me to take a short detour around the island for old time’s sake.

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The stadium is now branded in West Ham colours

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I’m pretty sure this was the site of the infamous Bubble Rehearsal

It was a nice little trip, though the back waters surrounding the stadium are quite weedy, and I had to stop a few times to clear them out of the propellor and rudder. And near around the site of our old workshop (recently torn down, boo!) there are two extremely low bridges.

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And I mean LOW. Of course I took my poor, battered stove chimney down, but the water heater chimney is screwed together so I had to inch forward as slowly as possible until I was confident it would clear. There was about 2-3” of space. The low bridge after this one cleared by even less. If the water level had been higher...

Then it was down the Limehouse Cut, a shortcut created between Limehouse Basin and the River Lea. I used to cycle down the towpath of the Limehouse Cut on my way to work at Three Mills Studios, which I also went past on the boat that Sunday afternoon. It was quite satisfying to see it all again. I’m unofficially calling that trip the Olympic Ring, though annoyingly there is no small bass plaque for that particular navigational achievement (unlike the Thames Ring). Maybe I’ll have to get one made up. If only I was in the business of knowing how to have original one-off items made.

Finally I ended up at Limehouse Basin, which is the other point at which the canal system meets the Thames. Limehouse Basin provides residential moorings for narrowboats but also for yachts and much much larger boats. That far downstream the traffic is often of the more serious ocean-going variety. There are also a few overnight moorings available for visiting canal boats so I tied up alongside a high wall and checked out the area.

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Limehouse used to be a working dock for narrowboats loading cargo for transport along the canals. It’s all gentrified now, as evidenced by the zillion dollar residential towers overlooking the basin.

Limehouse, though, was not the end goal but just the starting point for one more really big adventure for Lucky Nickel this summer. Since I got the boat, I’ve wanted to take it along the Thames through central London. Narrowboats are really not built for tidal waters, but if done at the right tide state it’s possible to get a tiny flat-bottomed boat from Limehouse to Brentford safely. So having completed the Thames Ring, and with that long-standing desire in the back of my head, and with Piran’s insistent nudges urging me on, I decided to look into what would be needed to complete the London Ring - a journey from my marina on the Paddington Arm, along the Regent’s Canal to Limehouse and then out onto the Thames for the trip west to Brentford Lock and back home once again to the marina. (Note that it's also possible to go the other way round - anti-clockwise. But that means entering Limehouse Lock coming from upstream. And all the advice is that if you think the left turn into Brentford is hairy, it's nothing compared to trying to get into Limehouse.)

The Thames tideway is under the control of the Port of London Authority, and naturally there are different rules on the Thames than there are on the canals. One of those rules is that vessels 45' and longer must have a VHF radio on board. Lucky Nickel is exactly 45’ so acquiring a VHF radio was the first hurdle. While it’s simple to order the equipment on Amazon, you also need a licence to operate one, and to get a licence you need to complete a radio operator’s course and then sit an in-person exam, all of which were not impossible but would be tricky to sort out in the short term.

Also, there’s the not-insignificant fact that there's a lot of traffic on the Thames in central London. Commercial tour boats, working tugs, and the infamous Thames Clippers all go up and down the river daily. There are a lot of bridges to pass under, and there's an exclusion zones around the parliament buildings at Westminster. And there are rules about all of that. There are also currents and tides so the water moves around and up and down a lot more than on the canals. All of this was enough to make me pause.

Luckily, as I was passing through Camden Locks the week before I paired up with a nice young man who was very chatty and mentioned that he’d been at Limehouse Basin recently. When I said I’d been thinking about the Thames trip he told me that the harbourmaster at Limehouse often pilots boats up the Thames on that trip. I fired off a quick email to Limehouse and shortly after got a phone call from Adam, who turned out to be lovely and helpful and ex-Navy. Adam said all the right things. Yes, he frequently helps people move their boats from Limehouse to Brentford, narrowboats included. Yes, he could book the lock at Limehouse and call ahead to Brentford. Yes, he could bring a radio and life jackets and a life ring. Yes, he could advise on the best times to leave to hit the tide right. Yes, he could teach me along the way, so I would understand how to pass through safely if I wanted to do the trip again on my own. And he would do all this for what seemed a quite reasonable fee to fulfil a years-long dream.

So I hired Adam to help me take the Lucky Nickel up the Thames on the morning tide on a cloudy Tuesday. And of course Piran came along too, because it was partly his idea, and because he’s more familiar with the boat than anyone else currently on this continent, and because he, like me, is still (f)unemployed and thus available on a random weekday morning.

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Here I am getting ready to head into Limehouse Lock that morning. Note the new life preserver on the roof. We also had to remove or tie down anything that was loose up top.

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Limehouse lock is big. And the gates are differently shaped to other locks I’ve seen. They're actually quarter-circles, which I think means it’s easier for them to move while the water level is unequal.

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And here’s why I think the shape of the lock doors makes it easier to move them. Because the lock keeper actually cracks the bottom gates open a bit before the water level was equalised to speed things up. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but this is the water pouring out of the lock through the doors, at least a foot above the river water level. It was kind of creepy. Apparently it’s even more alarming when they do it going the other way - opening the doors to raise the water level in the lock, thus exposing you to a wall of water pouring into the lock.

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Here we are about to exit the lock, alongside a second boat that had done the trip many times before.

And then we were on the Thames. Which is freakin' HUGE at that point. And bouncy. For that first bit I had my hand welded to the tiller with the other arm braced to the rail. There were no giant waves, but the movement of the water bounced the boat around sideways and front-to-back in a way that was truly unsettling. Perhaps it would have been less so if we hadn’t been on a boat that contained virtually all of my worldly possessions.

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Here’s me at the tiller, looking nervous, having just exited the lock. And Adam - cool and calm. Just another day at the office for him. Piran has a whole collection of photos of me looking anxious, hunched over, and concentrating intently. For our purposes, this one is enough.

It all happens fast on that part of the river. And the biggest and most exciting landmark comes first.

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This photo speaks for itself.

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As does this one. This is slightly before or after I looked to the right and then starting jumping up and down shouting “Oh my god it’s the Tower of London!”

We passed HMS Belfast, London Bridge, Southwark Cathedral, the Globe Theatre, and the Tate Modern. I continued driving until just before Waterloo Bridge, and then handed over to Piran.

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Who ably managed past a few more landmarks.

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The London Eye on the left, and Beg Ben - swathed in scaffolding, coming up on the right.

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More scaffolding on the Palace of Westminster, with the buoys marking the exclusion zone just visible in the water.

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The MI6 building on the left, and Vauxhall Bridge coming up.

The Thames Clippers do put up quite a wake, but mostly we kept well clear of them. (Or possibly they kept well clear of us. I imagine the internal paperwork resulting from an upturned narrowboat under Westminster Bridge is ferocious and best avoided.) Adam coached us along, reminding us to watch out not just in front but also for what might be coming up behind, directing us around the bends in the river, and telling us which arches to pass under at each bridge. We left Limehouse about an hour after low tide, so we were being carried upstream by the rising tide faster and faster the later it got. Since we were traveling with the tide, we had right of way against boats coming downstream against the tide - the reasoning being that a boat has more manoeuvrability when working against the tide than being swept along with it.

The further upstream we got, the calmer the water got and the less traffic there was. By the time we passed Battersea Park and Albert Bridge it started to feel much like the Thames felt just above the locks at Teddington. We began to see rowing boats on the water, and the rain was coming and going enough that I was happy to hand the tiller to Adam and put the kettle on.

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Recently restored Albert Bridge.

I was pleased that the engine chugged along quite happily. Further downstream I'd pushed the throttle much harder than I’ve had to before to maintain steering in the heavier water but it was all fine. The engine temperature rose a bit but stayed well within tolerances. It might be noisy, and leaking oil, and a bit smokey and smelly, but that engine is getting the job done these days.

Adam calculated we’d take about 3-1/2 hours to get to the lock at Brentford. Normally it’s 3 hours, but I’d warned him that the Lucky Nickel is not built for speed. In the end we pulled into the channel for Brentford Lock almost exactly 3 hours after we left, a bit ahead of schedule. And while the boat with which we’d shared the lock at Limehouse had steamed well ahead of us, they’d simply had to tie up and wait on arrival at Brentford because the lock didn’t start operating that day until 12:15. (Their hours are synced with the tide). And I hasten to add that approaching Brentford from the east is much less stressful than the other way around. The downstream right hand turn is not bad at all.

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We only had a short wait, so we tied up alongside a ladder in the embankment wall and Adam departed to get the train back to town. Thanks Adam! (Aside: If you ever need Adam's services, get in touch and I'll pass on his details. He was sooooooo worth it.)

After getting through the Thames Lock and the Brentford Gauging Lock, we were back on the canal and quickly moored very near where I was just a few weeks ago. By this time it was quite rainy and chilly and though things had gone really well both Piran and I admitted we were kind exhausted and shaky at the same time. Adrenalin perhaps? After another cup of coffee and fortifying gala pork pie he headed off and I went for a short run to shake things off, still grinning like an idiot.


And that was the London Ring. It's been a few days now, but I still smile every time I think about driving my boat under Tower Bridge.