Three things about the Baku Metro

Sunday, November 30, 2014

It's cheap!

There are a few fun things about the Baku Metro system.  The first is the price - a mere 20 qepik per ride, no matter how far you go.  (The currency in Azerbaijan is the manat, which is pretty much at par with the euro.  One manat is divided into 100 qepik.)  As a comparison, for those of you currently living under the yoke of Transport for London, that's 17 pence per ride, as compared to a bare minimum of £1.50 in London (and that's not even addressing the absolutely usurious single ticket price of £4.70, which is NOT a typo).  Sure, the London tube system is far far more extensive than the Baku system, but still...

(Aside: Recreational googling reveals this may indeed be the cheapest metro system in the world.  Many websites claim Mexico City is cheaper, but at the equivalent of 28 qepik, it still loses out to Baku.  Delhi may actually be the winner, with the cheapest fare clocking in at a mere 10 qepik, but they charge more for greater distances.  And there’s always the chance that someone will steal your phone.)

Some manat and some qepik.  Interestingly, qepik come in coin denominations of 50, 20, 10, 1 and... 3.  Weird.

And here's the whole map of the system. Two lines, 23 stations in total. About 35 km of tracks.  (London has 270 stations and 402km of track.  But then again London's population is between 8 and 13 million, depending on where you draw the lines, whereas Baku is a comfy 2-4 million and there are only 9 million people in the whole country.)

It's tuneful!

This is just utterly charming.  As in pretty much every metro system everywhere, there are announcements made at each stop along the line.  "This is Blah Blah Station."  "The doors are closing." "The next station is Blar-de-Blar."  "Mind the gap."  You know the drill.  The same is true here in Baku.  When the train arrives at a station, the station name is announced and before leaving the station a woman comes on and says "The doors are closing." and announces the next station.  Nothing new there.

Construction of the system was a started in 1967 under Soviet rule, so it's very very very much like the Moscow Metro.  Very deep stations, very long escalators, and very nice decor.

So the look and feel of the system is not new to me.  What is new is the other thing that happens as the train arrives at a station.  Along with a verbal announcement, they play a little tune!  Usually it's a few bars of a simple piano piece, but the charming thing is that it's different for every station.  So if you pay attention, you could sit with your eyes closed and know when your stop came up by the music that's played.  The station at the office - Köroğlu - departs from the usual piano formula with a particularly notable (if horribly distorted) fanfare, which is nice because it's hard to miss.  My home station - İçəri Şəhər (EE-chair-ee SHAY-her) - is the last station at the western end of the red line, and its tune is quite mournful.  It’s as if the woman playing the piano is heartbroken that the ride is over.  This week Gerald set lyrics to the İçəri Şəhər tune that go:
I'm so sad,
You're so sad,
Now it's done,
Go a-way.  
True, it's not exactly Sondheim, but I will never again arrive at the station again without hearing those words in my head.

(Incidentally, as further evidence that the Azeri people seem to be generally happier than the Russians, when Gerald and I arrived at the end of the line of Friday and listened to the sad little song, jokingly making sad faces along with it, a young Azeri guy watched us with bemusement, and you could tell he TOTALLY got it.  The İçəri Şəhər Sad Song.  Nice.)

It's bedevilling!

In my not-inconsiderable experience with underground transport systems of the world, there are a few immutable rules and one of them is this: you can look at a map, figure out which line you’re on (The Green Line, the Victoria Line, Line #2, whatever) and you can be confident that whatever happens, if you stay in your seat, you will remain on the line where you started.

Not so in Baku, though it actually took quite a while for me to figure this out.  As you can see from the map above, there is only one interchange station in the system, called 28th May (Named after Republic Day, the national holiday commemorating the founding of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918.)  Since two lines cross there, I naively assumed that there would be two sets of platforms, one for the red line and one for the green line.  And several times I trudged wearily through the marble clad halls of 28th May seeking out the right platform only to find myself directed back to where I started again and again, with increasing consternation.  There are large scrolling LED signs at each end of every platform that show the terminus station for trains on that platform, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t find a platform showing the correct terminus for the direction I was heading.  Even when I asked local people for help, they kept sending me the wrong way.  It seemed almost random when I managed to find a platform displaying the right sign.

Then one day on the way home from work on the red line, I glanced up at the board to see that the sign was displaying the western terminus station for THE GREEN LINE.  Whaaaa? There I was, standing in what was indisputably a RED LINE station and yet the next train was going to a GREEN LINE terminus?  How could that be?

And then it dawned on me and all became clear, though the realisation was profoundly disturbing.  28th May is an interchange station, but it’s not necessarily the passengers that change there, it’s the TRAINS.  Sometimes a train travelling into the station on the red line will leave on the green line.  That’s why I couldn’t find any more platforms at 28th May, because I suspect there are only two platforms.  That’s also why I had trouble finding the right platform, because when I checked the west-bound platform it had been displaying the green line terminus station, so I assumed I was in the wrong place.  Nope.  Not the wrong place, just the wrong time.  If I’d stuck around, I’d have seen the sign change to show the red line terminus after the green line train passed through.

It was, as I said, profoundly disturbing.  Imagine getting on a Victoria Line train in Brixton and ending up in, say, Mile End, because the Victoria Line train changed into a Central Line train as it passed through Oxford Circus.  It’s just unnatural.  Then again, it’s also sort of diabolically clever because it does eliminate the need to change trains.  I suppose when the whole system is complete that sort of thing will become impractical since the myriad combinations of start and end points will get a bit too much to manage.

You see this map a lot in the train cars themselves.  It's sort of an aspirational version of the metro map showing what I presume is the intended expansion of the current system.  By the time they finish all this maybe they'll jack the price up to 25 qepik.

In any case, I’ve now cracked the mysteries of 28th May Station and the chameleon trains. And while part of me still feels like Baku is breaking a cardinal metro rule, I suppose for 20 qepik I really can’t complain.  In any case, it’s a lovely sunny Sunday and the old men are out playing backgammon in Triangle Square (which is what I call the public square outside my apartment because, of course, it’s shaped like a triangle).  And there’s just enough time for a quick coffee and a pastry downstairs before the hash.  Happy Sunday.

Triangle Square on a sunny Sunday

First thoughts on Baku

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Amazingly, it's already been two weeks since I arrived in Baku, yet at the same time, it’s only been two weeks since I arrived in Baku.  The time flies past, but I think I've accomplished quite a bit.  Things at work feel pretty good.  The office is filled almost entirely with former colleagues from the London and Sochi games, so much so that it feels like we all went on an extended summer holiday and now we're back to whip up another ceremony or two.  People have shuffled around among departments, but the faces are familiar which is comforting.

I moved into my apartment this week and have been happily settling in for several days now, wandering from room to room, moving furniture back and forth to get it just right, happily unpacking and banishing suitcases, opening cupboards and putting things in drawers.

Here's a look at my new place.

The building is nice, with a very wabi-sabi aesthetic in places.  I'm in the top right hand corner, and no, the screened balcony is not mine.

Pointy stairs
It's four floors and 112 steps up a pleasingly pointy staircase.  I should have buns of steel by the time I've spent eight months going up and down those stairs several times a day.

I really like the apartment.  It's a short walk to the Metro station and the commute to work takes about 45 minutes, which is a nice amount of time with the crossword in the mornings. Perhaps best (and potentially most dangerous) of all - there is an absolutely excellent cafe and bakery on the ground floor of the building which is where I'm sitting now having just polished off a passable cappuccino and a transcendent almond croissant.  They also do a quite lavish breakfast in the mornings, which I enjoyed yesterday.

And Baku itself is great.  Visually, it reminds me a lot of all the parts of Russia I lived in - Moscow, Krasnodar, Sochi.  The mix of modern and traditional architecture and dilapidated back streets feel very familiar, but there's also an Islamic influence, since Azerbaijan is very much an Islamic place.  The look is familiar, but in some important ways it's very different. Without slagging off Russia too much, I think it's fair to say that the Azeri people have, err, a greater gerenosity of spirit than was the norm in Russia.  The people just seem happier and friendlier here.

I walked around the Old City a bit this morning and it was quiet and lovely.  The more I walked around the more it felt like I’d expected it to feel - a bit like the Diocletian's Palace in Split, and bit like Venice, and a bit like anywhere old and walled and mostly pedestrianised.

A bit of the Old City.  (Called İçəri Şəhər in Azeri.  Pronounced EE-chair-ee SHAY-her.)

And it’s not just a tourist attraction.  Like those other places I listed, people actually live in the Old City.  In fact, several of my colleagues on the ceremonies have apartments there.  I suppose I could have too, if I’d expressed an interest.  And come to think of it, I wonder why I didn’t? (Oh wait, perhaps it was the reports that some people who started in the Old City have since moved out due to the somewhat intermittent nature of the power supply.)  Still, my experience with these kind of places is that the local inhabitants can be a bit brusque with tourists.  Naturally it’s not surprising that you’d get a bit tetchy after the one thousandth person stops right in front of you to take a picture when you’re in a hurry to get to the Metro. I was purposely trying to be discreet, but I saw an Australian woman who was a few steps ahead of me chatting happily with some local men who even posed for a picture.   And a bit later on I passed an old man in an open doorway and gave him a little “Salam” (Hello) and he smiled and returned the greeting.  So… friendly.  Happy.  Nice.

And when I was running yesterday, I was stopped because a car was partially turned into a driveway in front of me but could go no further because it was blocked by a swinging gate.  I went around the front of the car and opened the gate for the driver and he was genuinely thankful.  He did that thing where you put your hand on your heart when you say thank you, like he was thanking me with his whole being.  Again, just nice.  I can’t help but think that in Russia that driver would have been honking and yelling at whoever was supposed to be opening the gate for him.

But here’s an anecdote that simply blew my mind.  There is no big grocery store near my apartment, but there are tiny shops a short walk away - a few different ones for fruit and veg, a fishmonger, a bakery, and so on.  There’s also a small market that’s more like a grocery store with a reasonable selection of packaged stuff and meat and dairy and such.  After I’d unpacked a bit on Wednesday night I went out to gather a few staples so I’d be able to have breakfast the next day and wandered among these shops collecting stuff as I went. Included among these was a bag with a few small pastries I intended as a treat for my first night in the apartment.  I finished up at the little grocery store and went back to the apartment.  After unpacking my purchases, I couldn’t find the bag from the bakery.  I searched up and down for it, and finally figured that I’d absentmindedly put it somewhere very odd (in the closet, behind the boiler, under the couch...) and would find it months from now, transformed into a swelling bag of green fuzz.  The next night I went back to the market again. This was only the second time I’d been in the place, but when I came to pay the guy at the till looked at me, reached behind him, and handed me my bag of goodies from the night before.  I’d obviously left it behind and he had saved it and remembered who it belonged to and gave it back.  Seriously? How charming is that?

So that’s Baku so far.  Naturally there’s a lot more to say, and while work is still at a dull roar I hope to find the time to say it.  Funny, but when you’re not spending every spare minute bailing out a narrowboat, there’s a lot more time for life.

So far, so good.

Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red

Sunday, November 9, 2014

First of all... I'm in Azerbaijan!  So far it's good.  The office is pleasant and filled almost entirely with former colleagues from the Sochi and London games.  The work is not crazy (yet).  And Baku turns out to be a lovely city.  Or at least the westernised, sanitised, 5-star hotel version that I'm currently cosseted in is lovely.  I've even found an apartment just a few minutes walk from the old walled city, and hope to move in next week some time.  I'll certainly write more about Baku and Azerbaijan in the weeks to come, but for now there's one last London thing you should hear about.

Despite the fact that it was all a bit much in the last few weeks - finishing lingering bits of London work, packing up everything in Brixton, dealing with the boat - I did manage to find time on my last day in London to do something entirely unrelated to work or packing or boats. There’s been a remarkable and moving art installation going on at the Tower of London this summer and I was determined not to let slip my last chance to see it.

Because 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War there have been a lot of different remembrance events throughout the year, but "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” must surely be the most arresting.  The installation consists of thousands upon thousands of handmade ceramic poppies planted in waves in the moat of the Tower of London.  Each of the 888,246 poppies represents a British or Commonwealth soldier killed in World War One, and they spill across the lawn and cascade over parapets in a stunning display.  As the project’s own website says: "The scale of the installation intends to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary creating a powerful visual commemoration."

A panoramic shot of the northwest corner of the Tower.  Powerful indeed.

The poppies are the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and theatre designer Tom Piper. Cummins crafted the poppies themselves, which consist of two layers of thin clay cut-outs joined together and then individually shaped by hand by a team of artists and ceramic workers in Cummins’ workshop in Derby, using many techniques from the First World War era.  Tom Piper designed the layout of the poppies in the moat - where they’re placed, how they flow around the moat and how they interact with the Tower itself.  The title of the work comes from a Derbyshire man who joined up early in the war and died in Flanders.  Knowing that everyone was dead and he was surrounded by blood, the man wrote in his will: "The Blood Swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread."

They’re beautiful - each about the size of your hand, and each one unique.

Here’s a video about how the poppies were made.

As you can imagine, the installation of such a - literally - monumental artwork is a massive undertaking.  The job started in July when a senior Yeoman Warder of the Tower, Crawford Butler, knelt and planted the first poppy in the grass.  Since that time, teams of volunteers have been working to assemble and plant the hundreds of thousands of poppies that now fill the moat, with the aim to finish the work on Remembrance Day, November 11.  After that time the poppies will be removed and mailed out to the thousands of people who’ve paid £25 each to purchase one.  Proceeds from the sale of the poppies will be split among six different charities that support servicemen and women, including Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion.  Unsurprisingly, despite the huge number available, the poppies sold out.  I missed the chance to buy one, but am gratified that none will go homeless.

The project has definitely captured the public’s interest.  Besides all those who pre-paid to buy a poppy, hundreds of people volunteered to plant poppies in the moat.  Such is the popularity of the project that so many people volunteered that, despite the scale of the undertaking, they actually ran out of places.  The whole thing reminded me very much of working on a ceremony - the mind-bending scale of the thing, the teams of volunteers, and the stunning effect of the combined efforts of so many people.  My brain could’t help but start whirring about the planning and logistics that must have gone into the project.  And while a few years ago I would have been stumped about how one would even start to tackle such a thing, now I can picture how it must all have been achieved, which was a gratifying realisation given that I’m about to embark on another one of those massive ventures myself.

Here’s the team of volunteers that was working on the Sunday morning I went.

Each poppy is supported on a metal spike that’s hammered into the grass before the actual ceramic piece is fitted on top.

Late in the week when I visited, there was a news report suggesting that people who wanted to visit the Tower to view the poppies should delay until after the weekend.  Crowds had been especially heavy that week because of the half-term school break, and the weekend was expected to be particularly rammed.  I had no option but to visit on that Sunday - my last day in London - so I decided to go early in the day to try and beat the worst of the crowds.  Of course this turned out to be complete folly.  Every sidewalk was filled with people by the time I arrived, though in fairness it was already about 10am by the time I got there, even though I’d skipped breakfast and headed out as soon as I woke up.  I wonder how soon those crowds start to assemble in the mornings?  Dawn, probably.  Apparently the display is quite dramatic at night as well, when the waves of poppies are floodlit against the Tower.

You can also really see the crowds in the panorama shot above.

Just this week there have been calls for the poppies to remain at the Tower past the original Remembrance Day closing date.  At first the organisers at Historic Royal Palaces demurred, saying that the operation to remove, pack and mail the poppies was to massive to be delayed. But the clamour from the public and political leaders, including the Prime Minister and representatives from all four political parties, was such that just a few days ago it was announced that two sections of poppies would remain in the moat until the end of November. At the end of the month they'll then tour towns and cities in the UK before being installed permanently at the Imperial War Museum in London and Manchester.  Which is, frankly, just excellent. (Though if the poppies are sold out what happens to the people who bought flowers that will now be stuck in the museum forever?  Online sources are suspiciously silent on this subject.)  And in another heartwarming twist, the Chancellor has waived VAT on the sale of poppies.  Even better, the costs of touring and permanently installing the smaller displays of poppies will be partially offset by fines assessed against banks involved in the LIBOR scandal. Ha!

During my visit I saw lots of families with children, and even a few old men in uniform, some in wheelchairs being pushed by helpers, which was gratifying.  And despite the fact that it started raining when I was about half way around the Tower, there was very little grumbling to be heard.  Most people were polite and though there was hardly room to move, the crowds shifted and flowed in a way that meant if you were a bit patient, spots would open up along the railings surrounding the moat and you could slip in for a few photos almost anywhere. Still, the sheer number of people meant that the sort of quiet reflection one might be inclined to when faced with an installation of this sort really wasn’t possible.  However, there were a few moments when the personal tragedies were brought home.

Like this family memorial taped to the railings near the main entrance.

Because I was alone, unburdened by small children, elderly relatives, prams, dogs, or other encumbrances, I managed to move around fairly well.  And though it was busy, there were moments when you couldn’t help but be struck by the tragedy of the thing, contemplating the number of lives lost simply because it was so graphically displayed before you.  But by the time I’d circumnavigated the site the rain had picked up considerably and I was very very ready for a dry spot and a hearty breakfast.  I made my way back across Tower Bridge and squelched along to the tube, discovering along the way that my shoes were no longer nearly as water-resistant as they once were, and making me reconsider my shoe-packing options for later that evening.  One full English breakfast later, I was fortified enough to tackle the last of the packing and get things sorted out for the early flight the next day.

And now I’m in Baku, Azerbaijan, which is such a complete departure from my life of the last few months that it’s a bit like decompressing too quickly and getting the bends (Or so I imagine, never having had the bends, but nonetheless being fond of a good metaphor.)  I’ll write about life in Azerbaijan as I’m able, but for now know that I’m fine, settling in, dusting off my Russian and making tentative stabs at Azeri (whose alphabet includes such charming characters as this: Ə). Stay tuned.

Boat days, good and bad

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The clock is ticking down faster and faster it seems.  I’ve now got just eight days left before I fly off to Azerbaijan to what promises to be something completely different.  In the next eight days I’ve got to finish a lingering bit of work, get a whole load of equipment onto the boat, get a fair bit of different stuff off the boat, finish packing up all my belongings in Brixton, gather and pack all the bits and pieces I’m taking to Baku, and enjoy a whirlwind tour of coffee dates, drinks and evenings out with friends I want to catch up with before I’m gone for 8 months.  It all seems a bit much sometimes.

However, that didn’t stop me from spending a few days moving the boat from far-flung Uxbridge into central London a few weeks ago.  This was mostly just for fun, because it seemed a shame to go through all the faff of buying a boat and learning how to manage it, and talking about it endlessly to anyone in earshot without giving people a chance to see it for themselves.  So I set off one Saturday morning from Uxbridge in the hopes of getting to Paddington over two days.  It’s about 17 miles, and the boat tops out around 3-1/2 miles per hour, so though it might be technically possible to manage the trip in a single day, driving the boat alone that far it would have been miserable.

It was kind of fun though, and included some sunny spells, and some nicely foreboding clouds.

Here’s the thing about driving a boat versus driving a car.  If you’re on a long road trip in a car it’s not such a big deal to be on your own because it’s easy to simply pull over, shut off the engine and take a break.  On a boat it’s not so simple.  Yes, you can pull over to the bank and stop, but then you’ll have to pound in mooring stakes and tie off properly before you can relax. It’s not impossible, but it’s a process.  And keep in mind that when driving a boat you’re outside all the time, at the tiller.  If you’re alone this means no tea breaks and no pee breaks. It can even be difficult to go get a sweater if it gets chilly.  Even though the boat crawls along at a slow walking pace, you really can’t leave the tiller for more than about 30 seconds without the possibility of things going horribly off course.  On an empty section of canal this is not a disaster - you simply steer back to the middle and keep going, hoping you don’t end up with some unintended contact with the banks, or another boat.  But it does mean that you’re really tied to the tiller the whole time you’re moving.  So that’s why it took me two days to go 17 miles.

And how was it?  Boat life in central London?  I was surprised by my reaction.  I arrived at Paddington Basin around 4pm on a Tuesday, and though there was a definite sense of accomplishment at having successfully piloted my boat to its intended destination, there was also a real feeling of sort of… embarrassment.  Yep.  Do you remember the Not Quite Ready for Prime Time Players?  Well I had the definite sense that me and my boat fall into the Not Quite Ready For Paddington Basin Boaters category.  This is partly because I’m still not supremely confident with handling the boat, but truthfully, it’s mostly because my little green boat is pretty rough looking.  Paint peeling, loud and smelly, and just kinda… well, kinda not quite ready for Paddington Basin.

I was here.

Of course there are much rougher looking boats on the canals than mine, but that didn’t enter my thinking as I moored up alongside another boat at the far end of the basin.  It all just felt… wrong.  Too urban.  Perhaps this was because almost all my experience on the boat so far has been very suburban: leafy towpaths, not glass office towers.  Whatever the reason, I was uneasy.

See what I mean?

Nonetheless, I stuck it out at my coveted Paddington Basin mooring spot for the full seven days I was allowed.  And I did have a couple of people over, and we hung out in the boat with the fire going, drinking beer and talking about boats and other bollocks and they were generally complimentary about the boat.  Or at least they were good at PRETENDING to be generally complimentary about the boat, which is good enough for me.

On the morning of the following Tuesday, I woke up in the boat with plans to move west a bit, in compliance with the seven-day mooring limitation at Paddington Basin.  You might remember that was the night and morning when the UK endured a bit of rough weather caused by the tail end of a hurricane, so when I woke up to lashing rain and cloudy skies I was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of being outdoors at all.  Luckily, by the time breakfast was finished the skies had cleared and the sun came out and I leapt into action to take advantage of the break in the weather.  I turned on the engine pre-heat and then cranked it up, only to have the engine resolutely refuse to actually turn over.  It would crank, but not catch.  Somewhat alarmed, I stepped back a bit and let the pre-heater do its work for a while longer, and that did the trick.  Engine chugging away, I untied my mooring lines and was on the dock, literally pushing the boat out, when I glanced back to see smoke emanating from the engine compartment.

Damn. I pulled the boat back into the dock, hastily tied it off and shut off the engine.  Then I opened up the engine compartment to see if I could figure out the problem.  In fact, it was fairly obvious what had happened - the alternator belt was broken and lying half-submerged in the bilge, likely having fallen onto some hot part of the engine in the process.  Luckily, I’ve actually dealt with the alternator belt before, so it didn’t take me long to replace it (I had two spares, for just such an occurrence).  So I was feeling fairly pleased with myself by the time I cast off again and chugged out of Paddington Basin heading west.

I’d already scoped out a likely mooring spot near Westbourne Park and it was still open when I arrived.  Sadly, I was soon to discover WHY it was open.  For some reason that I can’t fathom, there were large blocks of stone submerged near the towpath, making it impossible to get the bloat close enough to the towpath to moor comfortably.  I should have realised there’d be a reason why that mooring space was suspiciously available.  After a few minutes of swearing and consternation, and a brief episode of being sort of stuck on the stones, I pushed onwards into the high winds and eventually found a mooring spot  a little further along.  It was really not a stellar morning on the boat.

Boat Life
Here’s a photo of the kind of submerged stones I encountered along the towpath.  What possible reason is there for this?

(As a non-boat related aside, that day didn’t really get much better.  I got some work done at the theatre and then suited up to cycle home only to discover a massive, catastrophic puncture in my rear tire.

And I do mean massive.  It made a very loud bang.

There was no repairing it, so I folded up the bike and jumped on the tube, only to find that the Victoria line was so backed up that I had to allow about five trains past before there was space to board.  And then when I’d finally carried my bike all the way back to the house I had to sit on the front step waiting for my housemate to get home because the deadbolt locks have been acting funny and I could not get my key to work.  So really, it was just not a good day at all.)

Some days on the boat are like that, when I think this whole thing has been a huge error in judgement and I despair quietly (or loudly, to anyone who will listen).  And then some days are like yesterday.  Yesterday I rocked up to the boat around 11am to continue the journey north and west back to Uxbridge, where I’ll leave the boat when I jet off next week.  (Next week!  Yikes!)  There I was joined by my friends Jeremy and Paola, who you may remember from a certain Italian wedding earlier this summer.  Jeremy and Paola are proper sailing people, so when they expressed interest in seeing the boat and coming along for a ride I was a bit worried that the whole thing might be sort of tame and disappointing for people who were use to reefing mizen masts and sailing sailing over the bounding main and such. After all, piloting a narrowboat at a brisk three miles an hour over a dead flat canal with no tides or currents or salt spray in your face must seem awfully pedestrian.

But of course they were great sports and we had a lovely day.  The weather cooperated and though it was a bit chilly and windy, it’s really not fair to complain when you can spend a dry day out on the boat in just a fleece in late October.  We’re living on borrowed time here in that respect, and every sunny warm day feels a bit like winning a (small) lottery.

Boat Life
They even brought me a present for the boat!

Better still, they were keen on being at the tiller, which meant that the whole trip, though short, was much more sociable and fun than the solitary trip east.  Chatting away and trading off time on the tiller makes for a much more enjoyable day, and leaves time for pleasantries such as making cups of tea and passing around biscuits (still lots left) and taking pictures of passing oddities.

Boat Life
Paola pretending to listen to Jeremy pontificating

We chugged along happily, taking in the sites along the canal, including quite a few very interesting boats.

Another member of the Not Quite Ready For Paddington Basin Boaters?

Boat Life
And we had the excitement of passing over the aqueduct that crosses the North Circular, which is simply very very cool.

There was even a traffic jam down on the road, which made us feel quite smug, because even though we might only have been going about two and half miles an hour, we were still moving. Also, we were on a boat, which is inherently vastly cooler than being stuck in a car on the North Circular.  Oh, also we had bread and cheese and olives and possibly also a bit of beer. And eventually we fetched up at a nice canalside pub and moored up, which is soooo much easier with three people than with one.  And we had a bit of a quencher at the pub before Jeremy and Paolo trotted off to the tube station and I went for a nice long run along the towpath and then came back and lit a fire and settled in for a cozy night of blogging and videos and supper and cozy warmth on the canal.

So sometimes things work out and I think this might be a pretty good life after all.


P.S.  Full disclosure: The next day was another BAD boat day involving me managing to disable my engine entirely by sending the radiator cap overboard and it was just crap and I really don’t want to talk about it.

There's a nip in the air

Sunday, October 5, 2014

It was an absolutely glorious September here in London: the warmest in a century and the driest on record. In fact, this September could well have passed through a US airport security checkpoint carrying ID for June or July and not have raised an eyebrow.  And now, as if on cue, October is suddenly properly autumnal.  Seasonal changes are supposed to be gradual, but this year it's as if the Early Sunset switch was flipped and the back-order of brightly coloured, crunchy dried leaves arrived overnight.  I've been busy with a small show at Hampstead Theatre (London readers, go see it) so I haven't been out to the boat in while. However, there was a bit of a clamour for more posts about the boat (here at GSWPL World Headquarters a "clamour" is defined as at least three of the total of eleven GSWPL readers commenting in favour of something), and given the fresh nip in the air, it seemed like an opportune time to talk about boat heating.

I've only been a boat owner for a very short time, but I'd say that there are two questions that everyone asks when they find out I've bought a narrowboat. The first is always "Where are you going to moor it?", which is a topic we'll skip lightly over right now since its a bit of a minefield.  The second is usually something like, "What are you going to do in the winter? Aren't those boats really cold?"  Of course they can be chilly.  A boat has the disadvantage of sitting a foot or two deep in water (of course) which is an excellent way of siphoning off heat. Add to this the fact that most boats aren't overly-well endowed with insulation, which doesn't help matters at all.  The final indignity is that, due to the presence of gas appliances and carbon monoxide producing device on board (like the gas cooker and the wood stove), there are very strict requirements for how many fresh air vents there must be in a boat, and where they are to be located.  So a narrowboat is essentially a steel shell sitting in cold water, riddled with above-the-waterline holes you're not allowed to close.  Not ideal for creating a dry and cozy home.

However, there are solutions!  Right now my boat is equipped with the most basic and reliable of those options, a wood burning stove.  Actually, my stove is what's called "multi-fuel” or “solid fuel” since it can burn wood or coal, which is a great advantage.

The stove in question.

I've had the stove fired up several times since I bought the boat.  Ripping apart some of the more heinous Unabomber decor has provided a reasonable supply of dry wood, and I inherited a partial bag of coal from Nes before he fled to South America.  When it gets going, that stove puts out a lot of heat, but getting it lit properly is by no means an exact science.  At least not for me.  At least not yet.  I've lit many a campfire in my day, but getting a coal fire burning well and evenly is a different ball game.  However, right now it's still a fun diversion starting and tending the fire, and having a roaring fire crackling in the stove is one of the most cozy things imaginable.  I've even managed to get it going well enough that it's still warm to touch the next morning.

However, enjoying poking at a fire on an evening that's just slightly chilly when the heat and light is merely a pleasant addition to a quiet evening is a long way from arriving home late from a long shift in January, when you can see your breath in your own living room and then having to essentially rub sticks together to make warmth to keep yourself alive.  It's all a bit primitive for my tastes.  And when I think about the amount of wood and coal I've burned just running the stove for fun, I'm a bit flummoxed about how to keep enough fuel on hand to have the stove ticking over more or less all the time through the winter.  And there's the question of where to store that amount of wood and bags of coal.  I see quite a few boats with piles of wood on the roof which seems a bit... hillbilly to me.

Some of my boating friends swear by the wood stove, saying it's by far the most reliable method.  Another says he grew up in a house heated by a coal fire and claims you quickly become very proficient at getting it lit and burning efficiently.  A solid fuel stove will also help dry the air in the boat, where humidity and condensation are always an issue.  And apparently a lot of wood can be found by foraging on the towpath when the maintenance crews cut down trees, but that wood then has to be dried and seasoned and stored and chopped and... ugh.  I get exhausted just thinking about it.  It sounds like you'd have to make feeding and tending your woodstove a part time job, which is why I started looking into more advanced boat heating systems.

At the other end of the spectrum from the rubbing-sticks-together method are the highly engineered (mostly German, naturally) gas or diesel burning furnaces.  With names like “Airtronic” and price tags to match, these are tiny things about the size of a loaf of bread, that live in the engine compartment and heat either by blowing forced hot air through small diameter ducts, or by heating water in a separate tank and then pumping the heated water through radiators.  It's the closest thing to the set-it-and-forget-it sort of heating that people have in normal houses.  There are programmable thermostats and you can move the heat to different rooms in the boat, which is a problem with the solid fuel stoves.  Stoves provide a lot of heat for the room they're in, but the bedroom at the end of the boat wouldn't get as much of that heat as I'd like.  The fancy bread-loaf furnaces burn the same diesel that's already in the tank for the engine, so no need for piles of wood on the roof.  The fanciest of the diesel furnaces even come with apps for your phone so you can fire up the furnace as you emerge from the tube station and get things nice and toasty before you ever get on board. Undeniably, there are a lot of advantages to the posh system.

Airtronic and van
Here’s a photo from online of the Airtronic D2, which are popular with people who have camper vans and trailers / caravans.  See? It really is tiny.

So what are the disadvantages?  Cost is one. A complete system with the burner and ducts, properly installed, will end up near the £3,000 mark.  The solid fuel stove is free, since I've already got it.  The machines are also quite noisy - emitting a high pitched sort of whine when they run.  Even though it would be outside under the back deck, having that noise as a background to your life for several months of the year could get tedious.  They also use a fair bit of electrical power to run, which is an important consideration.

The biggest problem, though, is reliability.  Time and again people have told me in person, or I’ve read online that while these systems are great when they work, they require a lot of potentially expensive maintenance and are prone to breaking down.  When I mentioned to the boat mechanic about getting one, he said, quite matter-of-factly, “But you’ll still need the stove for when the other breaks down.”  Not if the other breaks down.  When.  That’s what really pushed me to think about another alternative.  I wasn’t too scared off by the price, since I’ve already decided that I was going to make a point of NOT cheaping out on the parts of the boat that will make it pleasant and comfortable to live on - batteries and battery charging, heating, hot water supply, that kind of thing.  But enough people said enough bad things and the tiny fancy diesel burners that it’s clear I need a third way.

Enter the Refleks stove, a sort of half-way house between the cheap and cozy reliability of the wood burning stove and the expensive fuel efficiency and ease of use of the diesel furnace. Refleks stoves burn diesel fuel, but do so in a stove-style way.  And they come in some very sexy options, including stainless steel.

This is my favourite.  I’ve started calling it the dalek. And that round rail at the top is called a "fiddle rail".  I love that! You can stick a kettle on the top burner to keep hot water on while you've got the stove running.

Yes, they're more expensive than my existing stove - probably about £1,000 installed.  But unlike the wood stove, the Refleks burns diesel from the boat’s existing tank, so there’s no need to forage for wood along to towpath and festoon the boat with piles of deadfall in various stages of preparedness.  And there are no ashes to clean up.  The website claims “instant variable heat output”, though poking around various websites indicates that lighting the stove can be a bit of a process.  But can it really be any worse than piling up sticks and coal and poking away at them hopefully?

And unlike the Ebersbacher type furnaces, there are basically no moving parts to a Refleks stove.  There may be a small pump to pull fuel from the tank, but otherwise, no power draw and no noise.  Maintenance is supposed to be quite simple, and you can get models that have a little round window so you can see the flame and get some of that atavistic coziness that comes from staring at fire.  And you can even get models fitted with what’s called a back-boiler.  That’s essentially a sealed jacket of water that wraps part-way around the back of the stove.  The water is heated by the stove and can then be sent around the boat to radiators to provide heat in other rooms.  (I suppose I should point out here that it's possible to make up a back-boiler system for a solid fuel stove using a jacketed chimney.  But that doesn't eliminate any of the other disadvantages of that kind of stove.)

It really feels like the Refleks stove is the best of both worlds, so the shiny stainless steel dalek stove is currently the top pick for heating on my boat, though purchase and installation will likely have to wait until I’m back from Azerbaijan.  Until then, any time spent on the boat before my departure will be accompanied by the evocative smell of woodsmoke,  somewhat endless poking at reluctant coals, and occasional cursing.  And probably three pairs of socks and a nice wooly jumper worn to bed.

GRUB!: Biscuits

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Most of my time these days is taken up with work things and boat things.  I’ve been trying to spend two or three nights a week on the boat, partly because it just feels cool and fun, and partly because I think the more time I spend there the more I can learn about what works and what doesn’t and just generally get used to things.  Like, for instance, the finite amount of electrical power available on a boat.  Right now I’ve got just two batteries powering everything that’s NOT the starter motor, and they’re kept topped up by the alternator and a single 100w solar panel.  On a sunny day that’s not bad.  On a cloudy day like today, after an evening when I did a bit of recreational soldering and then left a little 12v cooler of leftovers plugged in overnight, the power situation is on a knife edge.  I can charge a phone or an iPad and run the water pump and things like that, but I can’t use the inverter that gives me 240v AC power.  So my plans to fire up the soldering iron again were foiled and I’ve decamped to a local cafe that has free wifi and where electricity comes pouring out the wall like magic, regardless of how much soldering you might be doing.  It’s certainly a new perspective.

On to today’s topic.  I’m wary of spending too much time blogging about the boat, mindful of the fact that not everyone will find it as endlessly fascinating as I do. (Steve G, you’re obviously exempt front his comment.)  So I trawled through my list of potential blog topics, thinking it might be about time for a GRUB! post and hit on the idea of reviewing a few classic English biscuits.  This is partly because biscuits are just inherently a Good Thing, and also partly because I’m presently captivated by the current series of The Great British Bake Off. Those of you outside the UK may not be aware of the show; it’s a sort of extremely polite and English version of “Survivor” with yeast and pastry instead of bug-eating and obstacle courses.  (UK readers: I’m rooting for Richard.)  It really makes you want to bust out the mixing bowls and whip up a batch of just about anything.

First, let’s talk about biscuits vs. cookies.  Some would say they’re different words for the same thing, but I think that doesn’t really cover the subtlety of it, because the word cookie is also used here,  meaning that the whole category of foodstuff that we in North America call cookies, is here divided in two.  A UK biscuit will alway be crisp and crumbly; a UK cookie is the more North American large soft, cake-ish, chewy sort of affair that will often have chocolate chips or raisins or such.  In fact, a biscuit that has gone soft is considered stale, an argument that astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember was advanced in the Great Jaffa Cake debate about whether Jaffas are cakes or biscuits.  (Wherein Jaffas were determined to be cakes, because they go hard and dry when stale, where as biscuits go soft. Which makes on wonder if, in fact, Jaffa Cakes might actually be cookies…)

We start our review with Rich Tea biscuits, which have appeared in the blog before.  In that post I had no hesitation in declaring that these must be most inappropriately named biscuits in the English Biscuit Pantheon.  I stand behind that judgement to this day and in reviewing the previous post I find that I can’t really top it, so I’m excerpting it here in its entirety:
Rich Tea biscuits present a real paradox.  They are, in fact, the dullest biscuits imaginable, so how did they ever end up being described them as "rich"?  They don't exactly set the biscuit world on fire with their indulgent deliciousness.

I could go on and on about rich tea biscuits, but I think I'll leave that to the experts. Here's an excerpt from the now-defunct blog A Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down, which was dedicated to all things biscuit.
The Rich Tea presents us straight away with a paradox. If these are 'Rich' tea, where are 'Poor' tea biscuits and what on earth do they taste like? Well they would have to be fairly ropey old affairs because the Rich Tea itself is not exactly a self contained one biscuit flavour festival. What flavour it does manage to achieve comes from the various sugars in the recipe, sucrose, maltose and some glucose plus a little bit of salt...

There are attempts at turning Rich Teas into something more palatable, covering them in chocolate or sticking some sort of cream up the middle, but it's all a bit hopeless really. So what are they good for? Dunking of course. The Rich tea can drive even the staunchest anti-dunker to dunk. The Rich Tea then comes into its own, convincing you that you have done the right thing by giving the eater the reward of sloppy hot Rich Tea, which is actually better than what you started with.

What else are Rich teas for? Humility. Through Rich Tea biscuits we learn that not all biscuits have been blessed with a fantastic taste, and that there is space in this world for dry bland biscuits that you can dunk in tea.
In fairness, I performed my Rich Tea Biscuit Rant for my friend Dan once and he leapt to the defence of the (I thought) indefensible biscuit claiming that he does indeed like dunking RTs in his tea, which I suppose is appropriate.  Apparently, there’s a sort of biscuit brinkmanship that takes place with Dan and his Rich Tea biscuits wherein he tries to keep them dunked for as long as possible, removing them milliseconds before they dissolve completely.  Edgey.

Moving on slightly from the Rich Tea we encounter the classic Digestive biscuit.  Digestives are just a few grams of fibre away from Rich Tea biscuits, being identical in shape and size and almost indistinguishable from the RT except there’s obviously a lot more roughage in the Digestive.

Clearly the digestive is much earthier than the Rich Tea.  Also, how charming is it that the English label their biscuits so emphatically?  I especially like that the Rich Teas are noted as “round”.

Digestive biscuits occupy much the same place here as Graham Crackers do in North America.  They date back at least to 1876, and Wikipedia says "The term "digestive" is derived from the belief that they had antacid properties due to the use of sodium bicarbonate when they were first developed.”  Certainly they are an improvement on the Rich Tea, though they really come into their own in the Chocolate Digestive, a chocolate-topped version (available in milk, dark and a few other fleeting brand extensions that come and go).  The dark chocolate covered digestive biscuit is almost as good as a chocolate covered Hobnob.

Hobnobs are a further extension of the large diameter biscuit category.  It Rich Tea biscuits are smooth and featureless, and Digestives add a tantalising bit of fibre to the mix, Hobnobs are the next step on the continuum that probably ends with a nosebag of raw oats or a small shrub.  Hobnobs are excellent nobbly, oaty, crunchy, and generally superior in every way. They too are available in chocolate topped versions, and the dark chocolate covered Hobnob is, I think, the apotheosis of the large diameter plain biscuit form.

The Large Diameter Biscuit Lineup.  (Nosebag not pictured.)

Moving into the more exotic, let’s have a quick look at a real oddball of the biscuit world, the Garibaldi.  Named, for some unknown reason, after the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi (no, really), Garibaldi biscuits consist of a layer of squashed currants baked between two layers of a very plain biscuit dough.  My friend Ted (and generations of English school boys before and after him) call them “squashed fly biscuits” because that’s what they look like, as you can see.


Garibaldis have a nice shiny, lightly browned appearance, and a slightly toothy texture. They’re rectangular and come out of the package stuck together in strips of five and have to be broken apart to portion them out.  Currants, of course, are generally inferior to raisins in every way, but here make a reasonable filling and result in an oddly satisfying biscuit that feels a bit indulgent (because of the fruitiness) and yet also quite plain and virtuous (because the biscuit part is really almost completely devoid of sweetness).

Now that we’re firmly in the sandwich-biscuit category, we can address the Jammie Dodger. Purportedly the nation’s most popular biscuit among children, the Jammie Dodger is made up of vanilla shortbread sandwiching a sugary, sticky layer of raspberry jam.  Jammie Dodgers have a distinctive heart-shaped opening on top to show off the jammy bit, and a sort of modernist splat pattern around that, making what I think is an odd juxtaposition.

Like Garibaldis, Jammie Dodgers are toothsome, and the jammie filling can be quite dentally challenging if your JDs are edging towards their Sell By Date.

Having started at the sad depths of biscuitry inhabited by the Rich Tea and moved through the various levels of biscuity goodness, we now reach the giddy heights of my favourite English biscuit the Bourbon Cream (though I must allow that dark chocolate covered Hobnobs are a very strong contender).  Bourbons are a rectangular sandwich made of two chocolate biscuits with chocolate cream between.  Manufactured by Peek Frean, I encountered these biscuits growing up in Canada, where they could only found as part of a Peek Freans assortment alongside other inferior biscuits like Arrowroots and those sort of Jammie Dodger-ish ones where you nibble the cookie away from the outside until you’re left with a circle of red sugar coated jelly-like substance, a layer of cream, and a tiny bit of the bottom biscuit (Fruit Cremes, if anyone cares).  Imagine my infinite delight when I first arrived in England and discovered you could by whole packs composed entirely of Bourbon Creams!  Adding to their charm, the originators of Bourbons (and Garibaldis), the aforementioned Peek Freans, are located in London, where both biscuits were invented.

A Jenga stack of Bourbon Creams, exhibiting the proud label and the regulation 10 holes.  These are a particularly cheap versions (Tesco Value Brand, about 45p for a pack of more than 30) so they don’t show much of the usual sprinkling of sugar on the top.

And now I’m back on my little boat, where I’m having a nice cup of tea and some biscuits. (Because there are now enough biscuits on the boat that I have to evenly distribute them between port and starboard for storage, so they don’t cause the boat to start listing.)  And I’m having my tea in a mug I only unpacked a few weeks ago.  Before I came to London in 2010, I left a carefully curated series of boxes behind filled with the kind of things I thought I’d want if I ended up staying and setting myself up in a flat.  At the time I envisioned myself on my own in a tiny place that I’d have to equip completely so I packed a lot of favourite kitchen items that I knew would make a place feel like mine.  Then I promptly moved into a shared house that was bursting with saucepans and teaspoons and can openers and such, meaning that my kitchen boxes gathered dust in the attic for four years.  But now, finally, I’ve got a kitchen again, and I recently rooted through boxes uttering little cries of delight and then laboriously trudging things out to the boat.  And what elicited the greatest squeal of happiness?  The mug.

Up until five years ago, when I threw my life up in the air, I had my morning coffee in this mug every day.  And I’d forgotten it!

This is the kind of thing that makes me disproportionately happy these days: being able to have MY things, in MY space.  Tea towels from Russia (with the days of the week in Cyrillic!), a spoon rest from New York, a small mechanical boat clock I bought years ago only to have it end up on a different boat I never could have foreseen owning, my last box of Kraft Dinner, and a chest full of small tools I actually get to use again.  Happy days.

And now if you’e excuse me I think it’s time for another twenty three biscuits.

Go Stay Work Play... Float!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Apologies for the break in blogging, but I’ve really had my hands full for the last few weeks. Remember when I talked about messing about in boats?  Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember that near the end of that post I mused somewhat idly about how living on a narrowboat on a canal might be a interesting option for an itinerant London-dweller itching for a place of her own but without the lottery winnings or generous inheritance to afford a place on dry land.  It seems those musings were not as idle as you (or, in fact, I) might have thought.  Why do I say that?  Because… this:

Er, this is my boat.

Yeah… I bought a narrowboat.  It’s a bit sudden, I’ll grant you that.  But there were circumstances.  And I think it’s fair to say the boat was a good deal.  Value for money, I think, though it’s definitely what a real estate agent would call a “fixer-upper”.  It’s functional right now, but it’s not going to win any beauty contests.  Unless they have beauty contests for “Boat that looks most like someone’s lakeside cottage from the 1970s” in which case I would probably clean up.  But like I said… value for money.  The main reason that the boat was such a good deal is that it takes a fair bit of imagination to see past the wood panelling and custom cabinet-work of the previous owners.

No extra charge for the high-end fittings

Without going into details, I think it’s safe to say that even if I spend more than the original purchase price on improvements - enough to upgrade pretty much all of the systems and get it looking more like an Ikea catalogue and less like the Unabomber's shack, I’ll struggle to spend even as much as a down payment on a studio flat in London.  And I already own it outright - no mortgage, and no rent.

I did think about it, you know.  And I talked to quite a few people too, people at home in Canada and friends here in London.  And every time I expected someone to say, “What?  A boat?  Are you crazy?”  Instead I heard things like, “Oh, yeah I can see you doing that” and “That’s totally you.”  Friends in London almost invariably said, “Oh, yeah I have a friend/ cousin/ former student/ hairdresser/ chimney sweep who lives on a boat” as if it were the most normal and acceptable thing possible.  You’re all enablers.  Every one of you.  So I took the proverbial plunge (though I hasten to add that I have not yet actually taken any literal plunges).

The other reason this particular boat was a deal was priced as it was is  because it was located in Cheshire.  Remember the Grand Day Out when I saw Iron Bridge and failed to find the Secret Bunker?  Well the real reason for that trip was to go see this boat, which was moored at a marina near Nantwich.  And the friend I brought along - Nes - was there because he lived on a boat for a year and is also a certified guy-who-knows-about-engines-and-electricalish-stuff and could look at the diesel engine and see something other than a large noisy lump of metal emitting trippy fumes and looking rather greasy.  So we went to see the boat on a Wednesday, and I made an offer on it Thursday morning when the office opened.  I might have pondered a bit longer, but as we were leaving the marina there was a couple waiting to go look at the same boat, so I figured it was carpe diem time.  Also Nes was hopelessly incorrigible and egged me on relentlessly.  (Nes: This is basically all your fault. You know that, right?)

Here’s me when holding the keys to my boat, on Day One.

Adding to the urgency was the fact that Nes was planning to move back to SOUTH AMERICA in just a few weeks, so if I was going to buy a boat I wanted to do it in soon, to maximise the amount of boat-related knowledge and experience I could squeeze out of the poor guy before he fled the country.  There followed a sort of frenzied period when we made a second trip to Cheshire to drive the boat from the marina where I bought it to a marina where they would take it out of the water, put it on a flat bed truck, and drive it to another marina in suburban London.  And then there was the time it took to get it from that marina, which is on the Thames, into the canal system (Shepperton to Brentford, for those in the know) and up to its current mooring spot in far-flung Uxbridge, all the while trying to remember that the tiller steers sort of backwards and you should really turn the engine pre-heater off once it’s started and that the grease on lock gears stains permanently, while simultaneously vomiting out large sums of cash about every 4 hours on everything from alternator belts and ropes and floating keychains to dish rags and generous lashings of gin and tonic.

And so that’s the big news… I bought a boat.  In fact, I’m on the boat now, as I write this.  I woke up on board this morning, had a nice productive day of puttering around dismantling some of the more heinous Unabomber-y bits and generally knocking the place into shape (including ejecting several pieces of really foul carpet that were basically a Level 4 biohazard), made dinner, and watched two episodes of House of Cards.  All while floating.  It’s been quite agreeable.

So, the details:  The boat is a 45’ long narrowboat, meaning that it’s roughly 7’ wide.  (45’ is small for a narrowboat - some get up just over 70’ long, which means that the bow and stern are basically two different time zones.)  It’s got a 1.5 litre BMC diesel engine.  The stern is what’s called a “Cruiser” style, which means that it’s got a generously sized deck instead of the Traditional and Semi-Traditional styles.  The deck is a great feature - it’s like having a balcony in an apartment.

Breakfast on the deck.

Entering from the back deck (or stern, as we boat-people would say) there’s a kitchen with a sink with running water, gas cooker (stove and oven) and a pretty generous amount of counter space, shelving and drawers.  No refrigerator yet, but that’s coming. For now there’s a 12 volt cooler that I rarely use.  There’s also no hot running water because the gas heater is disconnected, another thing that will be sorted while I’m away.


It's LITERALLY a galley kitchen!

Moving along, there’s a wood stove, which pumps out quite a remarkable amount of heat, but will likely be used merely for ambience/ emergencies since I’m also having a forced hot air system put in.  And there’s a built in couch that will eventually convert into a second (sorta-almost) double bed, and I’ve just sorted out a table and chair in the living area.  The bathroom needs a lot of work, thought it’s functional right now.  There’s a chemical toilet (not bad at all, really), sink, and shower (which I haven’t tried because, as I mentioned, no hot water).

The current heating system

Living / Dining / Home Office / Guest Room

At the front of the boat is a separate bedroom, which was another important feature for me. The cabin of this boat is quite a small living space - about 200 square feet in total - but one of the things that makes it feel like a proper home is that the bed doesn’t have to fold out of the ceiling or pop up from underneath the dining table and then be stowed away again before you can actually move.  That was non-negotiable.

The Coke bedspread is temporary

Water comes from a tank under the bow deck that’s filled at various water points on the canals.  Gas for the stove and (eventually) hot water comes from large propane cylinders in special lockers at the stern.  Electricity is from batteries which are charged either by the alternator (when the engine is running) or by a small solar panel on the roof.

And that’s it.  It’s a home.  Outdoor deck, kitchen, living/dining, bathroom, bedroom.  All that, with a guaranteed water view, 24/7.

There is a lot of work to do, but while I’m in Azerbaijan (remember that?) I’m leaving the boat with a mechanic who’s going to do a bunch of mechanical and other upgrades while I’m away. Gas-fired fridge, new hot water heater, engine tune-up, scraping and re-painting the hull, scraping and priming the exterior so I can give it a sexy new colour scheme… the list goes on. When I get back, the plan is to move onto it full time and start renovating the interior.  In the mean time, I’m spending a few nights a week onboard, getting a feel for how things might work, measuring up and making drawings, and generally just trying to figure out this new lifestyle.  I’m sad at the thought of leaving the big, friendly house in Brixton, but it was starting to feel like it was time for that move anyway.  And with me doing more work internationally and leaving the UK for months at a stretch, it’s hugely appealing to think that I can simply drive my house to a marina where they’ll pluck it out of the water and stick it on a shelf until I get back.  It all just kind of makes sense.  And I can’t deny it, it feels cool.  Really, really cool.

One last thing… the name of the boat right now is “Dragonfly”.  Despite imprecations from relatives with a fondness for dragonflies, I’m going to change the name.  And don’t give me that malarky about it being bad luck to change a boat’s name because this boat started life as “Lisa Jane” before it was “Dragonfly”, so it’s my turn. I’ve got a few ideas, but haven’t made a decision yet, and this is where you come in.  I’m thinking about doing a Canadian-ish paint scheme - dark red, cream, maybe some black, so I thought something with a Canadian or prairie sound would be nice.  Or maybe it needs a Russian twist, since it was Russian roubles that bought it.  Suggestions are welcome; click on the bottom left where it says “Post a Comment” and give me your best.

And THAT’S why I haven’t been blogging much.

Me at the tiller, looking and feeling pretty insufferably smug.  Wouldn't you?

A Day Out: The Iron Bridge

Sunday, August 17, 2014

It's been a busy week here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters.  First, some News About Pam.  I received the paperwork for my next big international gig!  I'm going to work on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the inaugural European Games, which will be held in June 2015.  "European Games?  What?"  Yeah, I know.  That's what I said too.   Apparently when the European Olympic committee got together after London 2012 they decided they needed their own games just for European athletes, I suppose as a counterpoint to the Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games and Asian Games and Left-Handed Games and Upside-Down Polka-Dot Dinosaur Games and whatever.  No matter, if they're having a ceremony, I'll be there.

And just exactly where will that be?  Good question.  Naturally, the inaugural European Games are being held in the first city you think of when you think Europe: Baku, Azerbaijan. "Wha...?" Yeah, again, I know.  I was actually pretty sure Azerbaijan was fictional, located somewhere southeast of Narnia on the way to Mordor.  But it turns out it's a real place!  It's on the Caspian Sea, tucked between Georgia (not the peach one), Armenia, Iran and Russia. Yep, Russia.  Baku is a mere 1,000km from Sochi.  And while the official language is Azerbaijani (sometimes called Azeri), there's also a lot of Russian spoken.  Irony can be dammed ironic sometimes, can't it?  In fact, Baku is supposed to be an unexpectedly pleasant, pretty, fun place.  Reports from those who are already there are really encouraging. So I'll be packing my bags again to start work at the beginning of November.

There are also other big developments on life in London that came to a head this week, which are definitely a whole other post, or perhaps even a whole other blog (don't hold your breath for that).  In the mean time, let's move on to today's topic, which I visited on a Grand Day Out this week: the Iron Bridge.

Who doesn't love a good bridge? 

What's so special about the Iron Bridge?  Well, as you might expect from the name, it's made of iron.  In fact, it's the first bridge made from iron in the world.  I figured this probably happened some time in the mid-nineteenth century, so I was pretty impressed to discover that construction started in 1779.  Cast iron had recently become much more efficient and economical to produce after Abraham Darby invented the process of smelting with coke.  I could go down a rabbit hole here with the whole iron-production process, but let's just say there ended up being a lot more refined iron around the area, which was already well-supplied with easy to access ore deposits.  Building a bridge out of iron was intended to be a showpiece to demonstrate the remarkable properties of the material and a monument to the skills of Shropshire ironmasters.  And it had the added benefit of allowing people to cross the deep gorge without having to detour to another bridge two miles away, while allowing barge traffic to pass under its tall single span.  (Documents concerning the commissioning of the bridge include the first recorded use in English of the phrase "Win-Win Situation".)

Ironbridge Gorge

The bridge itself is lovely but what you can't tell from the photos is that all of those pieces are SOLID IRON.  These days we're used to I-beams and hollow tubing that have immense strength because of their cross-sectional shapes.  In the 18th century, before the advent of true structural engineering calculations, they simply built the bridge as if they were making it from wood, but used iron instead.  The same dimensions and techniques as a wooden structure - right down to the dove-tailed joints - but solid iron.  The result is that the whole thing is massively over-engineered.  There are estimates that half the structure could be removed and the bridge would still stand (This is from a half-remembered conversation that took place at Birmingham University about a decade ago and was reported in passing by my companion for the day.  Which is about on par with the rigorous level of fact-checking that I normally employ for the blog.  It’s not exactly the New York Times over here.)

That's solid iron, with my hand for scale.

And see?  Dovetails!

After it was completed the Iron Bridge remained a unique curiosity for the first 20 years of its existence.  However, severe flooding on the Severn river in 1795 damaged or washed away all the bridges in the area except the Iron Bridge, so people started to take the construction method much more seriously.  The development of a single-span cast-iron bridge genuinely represents a turning point in British bridge design and engineering, after which cast iron became widely used in the construction of bridges, aqueducts and buildings.  Some sources call the Iron Bridge the most important bridge in the world. (I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere, but see above note about fact-checking.)

A consequence of the vast weight of iron used in the bridge (more than 378 tons) is that it puts enormous pressure on the stone abutments on either side of the bank, which started to show cracks as early as 1784.  Repairs and replacement to the stonework have been an ongoing theme of the bridge’s life, culminating in the installation of an upside-down underwater reinforced concrete arch in the riverbed in the mid-1970s, which helps hold the two piers apart.  The ironwork also shows signs of wear, with many pieces suffering serious cracks.  Keep in mind this was long before people got used to the idea that all the bits in big structures need room to expand and contract, so it's not surprising that the whole thing is riddled with breaks.

For instance, I'm no structural engineer, but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be able to see light through this join...

The bridge was closed to vehicle traffic in 1934, having been in use for more than 150 years. It remains open for pedestrian use today, and was still charging a toll to each person passing over until 1950.  Apparently even royalty were not exempt from the charge.  There’s a little museum in the tollhouse on one side of the bridge, and it included pictures of Prince Charles visiting the bridge and ceremonially paying the toll with a penny from 1779.  The museum also had some nice displays about how they think the bridge was actually assembled, including a nice model. And if you go you should definitely visit the pork pie shop on the other side of the gorge. Well worth the trip - hand raised, spicy, with nice chunky bits of pork and savoury jelly.


The bridge was actually just a fun detour on the way home from the real purpose of the Grand Day Out.  So once we completed our main mission, and the detour to the bridge, my fellow adventurer - the Officer in Charge of Iron Smelting Explanations, Driving and Diesel Engine Inspection - and I - the Office in Charge of Navigation, Catering and Broadway Show Tunes - took another detour to Hemel Hempstead to visit a Magic Roundabout, which astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember from last week’s post.  This particular iteration of the magic roundabout concept includes SIX mini roundabouts arrayed in a larger overall roundabout configuration, which we piloted for several circuits in a zippy rented Fiat.

It turns out to be not bad, but very disconcerting when you end up going what feels like the wrong way around the inner ring of the roundabout.  I still don't quite understand the point, despite the best efforts of the OiC ISE, D & DEI to explain why multiple mini roundabouts actually increase the flow of traffic.  But it was fun, really.

And just because it had to be done, we stopped for photos of this sign.

We didn't visit the Secret Bunker because it cost £8.50 and it wasn't even located appealingly far underground.  But this is a gratuitous picture of the OiC ISE, D & DEI trying to figure out where the Secret Bunker is. 
"I'm sure it's around here somewhere... If only it wasn't so damned secret!"  
(And yes, we did phone each other in the morning to colour-coordinate outfits.)

Oh, and did I mention that we swung by Warwick Castle too?  And went for a nice Italian dinner in Berkhamsted?  And still made it back to London in time for a gin and tonic?  Truly, it was a Grand Day Out.