The Grand Tour Continues

Friday, June 28, 2019

A week in, and I’m creeping up on a milestone. Literally creeping AND literally a milestone (well, mile marker...) The Grand Union Canal boasts sturdy mile markers along the towpath, mile after stately mile. And all those signs count down to a place called Braunston at the junction of the Grand Union and Oxford canals. As I set off last Saturday morning I noticed one of those mile markers, one I’d probably seen 20 times before, reading "Braunston 86 miles". And then it hit me: I’m actually going to Braunston! For my whole canal-dwelling life I’ve been floating past those mile markers and in all that time Braunston has been a little like the Emerald City - basically mythical. And now I'm almost there, chugging along my yellow brick canal.

IMG_5057 3
Here's an example from Wednesday. Now I'm sooooo much closer. I think I'm at Mile 19!

Day 5, Bulbourne Junction to Leighton Buzzard:

My first day of serious boat travel alone, facing the Marsworth flight of seven locks, and a further alotment later in the day. (Note: the collective noun for a closely packed group of locks is a flight.) I got an early start at the top of the flight, setting off at 7:30 am on a chilly grey day. Nervous, as it’s been a while since I descended in locks, and I was doing it all single handed. Happily, I had a bit of help on the way, and soon got into the rhythm. Passers by on the towpath are usually very friendly and will often open or close a lock gate, especially for a lone boater.

Like these CRT volunteers who patrol the Marsworth flight of locks. CRT stands for the Canal and River Trust, the not-for-profit organisation that manages the inland waterway. Recognisable by their blue shirts and fancy life jackets,

On Day 5 I also instituted the mid-morning coffee break which I enjoyed with a Millionaire's Shortbread the size of my head from Bluebell's tea room, situated at the bottom of the Marsworth flight. They also supplied a Cornish pasty I had for lunch.

My hands, which complained on days two and three with the amount of time spent tightly gripping ropes or windlasses, are now toughening up remarkably and I’m getting some pretty impressive callouses. (I sometimes treat them to a few minutes gripping the long-suffering bag of frozen peas in the evenings). I’m also getting an epic farmer tan, though on this day there was very little sun and my feet were wet from dashing about in dewy grass in porous running shoes.

My trip down the Marsworth flight turned out to be quick and smooth, and I ended up getting much further than intended that day - all the way to Leighton Buzzard, where I ended the day with a dissipriting pass through town looking for a mooring. It seems the entire city centre is reserved for permanent morning, so I ended up going even further than the already-much-further. (Screw you Leighton Buzzard.) By the time I finally found a mooring I was very happy to make the walk along the towpath to the Globe for the Wednesdays special of pie and chips. Totally knackered.

IMG_5056 (1)
The pub, after 10 miles and an epic 18 locks, single handed.

Day 6, Leighton Buzzard to Old Wolverton:

I got some help the previous evening when mooring up a Leighton Buzzard from a friendly boater named Gavin, who was on his annual week of holiday boating along the canals. Holiday hire boats are very popular, especially with couples of a certain age. My grandparents were keen fans and came on many narrow boating holidays, so it was nice to meet Gavin and his wife Pat. The next morning we shared the first lock and met up again periodically through the day, sharing locks later on.

Here’s Lucky Nickel waiting in a lock alongside Gavin and Pat’s boat, with Pat waiting up top at the gates. After this photo Gavin and I executed a lovely synchronised exit from the lock that was a joy to behold. My manoeuvring skills are getting much sharper.

I also stopped to fill up on diesel and hit the chandlery (AKA: shop for boaty stuff) at Willowbridge Marina. Mostly I needed a few more fenders, which are the little bumpers that hang off the side of the boat and stop it from getting too banged up when I miscalculate. I've always maintained that narrowboating is a contact sport, so I figure a few knocks come with the territory and consider fenders semi-disposable. And I noticed that I really needed an extra pair of fenders on the back end, so it was fun to be able to find those and a few other bits and pieces.

Later I had a quick stop in Bletchley to stock up at Tesco and get some more magic elixir from Halfords. (For Canuck readers: when I say Halfords, in your mind you can substitute that with “Canadian Tire”). I’m using my Brompton bike a lot for these short jaunts, which is working really well.

Finished the day with a long lock-free cruise through Milton Keynes, when I stopped for for quick look at this - a pair of Victorian era brick kilns sitting in a park near the canal. Note that they're not brick kilns because they’re made of brick (though obviously they are). They were kilns for firing bricks, which were made by the zillion and then loaded onto boats on the nearby canal for transport across the country.

IMG_5051 (1)
Also there was this manually operated swing bridge along the way. The glaring design flaw here is that it’s operated from the off-side. That’s the side opposite the towpath, where you can’t really moor in order to open and close the bridge. Luckily I was warned about this earlier by a friendly dog walker. (Most people on the towpath are dog walkers but this one was accompanied by a gorgeous red and white basset hound named George, who tugged at my heartstrings for obvious reasons.) George Walker’s advice was that you simply need to wait at the bridge until a pedestrian comes along, and ask them to work the bridge for you. WTF? How can that possibly be the system? Luckily a pair of runners came along at just the right time.

Totals for the day: 17 miles, 6 locks, one swinging bridge and one aqueduct (more on aqueducts later).

Day 7, Old Wolverton to Blisworth:

Setting off from the far end of Milton Keynes, but first I rode up the towpath for a proper look at “the oldest broad canal iron trough aqueduct”, opened in 1811, and still operating.

Gorgeous. It replaced a flight of eight locks crossing the Ouse.

And check out how thin the sides are!!

Then it was a long run up to Stoke Bruerne, home to a flight of seven locks going up, and the British Waterways Canal Museum. I arrived at the bottom of the flight in time for lunch, which I had on the boat before cycling up to the museum at the top of the flight.

A display about how women took over pairs of working boats to keep goods moving during the Second World War

And a replica of the stern end of a butty boat. Boats operated in pairs, one towed behind the other. The butty is the unpowered one. This replica showed the tiny living quarters and made the Lucky Nickel look like a five star hotel.

Then it was back to the boat to work my way up the locks, though there was some unanticipated time pressure because the top and bottom locks of the flight are currently locked up overnight in an effort to conserve water. I knew this and entered the flight at 2pm, thinking that if I was in before the cutoff time they’d have to let me out the other end. Not true. I ended up racing those seven locks, running up to the next one to get it emptied and ready while the current lock was filling with the boat bobbing around like a bath toy all by itself. I ended up making it out the top lock just under the wire, with the CRT man ready to lock the gates. (Apparently four other boats were getting locked in behind me.) I was sweaty and exhausted from running around working those locks alone on a very hot sunny day, and took a bow from the assembled audience as I exited the lock. They applauded politely while I braced myself for the next hurdle:

The entrance to Braunston Tunnel. 1.7 miles of darkness and drippy Victorian brick. Creepy.

Going through the tunnel was bizarre. The boat has a headlight, and I had a failing head torch. But it was still a long long way, and really plays tricks with your head.

I met two boats coming the other which gave me something to focus on in the distance. One was a tour boat that had a very strong light, which made this video possible. The crossing was advertised as taking about 25 minutes, but I was in there for close to 40. No sense rushing these things.

Once I was past those boats it just got odd. I was going slowly and there’s almost no steering required so it’s mesmerising. You know you’re moving, but you get almost no sense of it, except when you pass under the deep ventilation shafts cut into the tunnel after the introduction of steam powered boats. Water was pouring down the shafts, and I was glad I'd taken advice, worn my rain jacket, and closed the roof hatch. Before the advent of powered boats, horse-drawn boats would have to be “legged” through the tunnel, there being no path for the horse. Legging required two men, one on either side of the boat at the bow. Each man would lie on a sort of diving board affair sticking out the side of the boat and use his legs to push on the wall and propel the boat forward. It must have been exhausting.

Once I was through the tunnel, thoroughly chilled and wet, I was grateful to moor up for the night in the tiny village of Blisworth, where I now sit in the Royal Oak pub, tapping this out and enjoying a well earned pint.

Next up: the fabled land of Braunston!

Lucky Nickel's Grand Tour

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

We’re trying something very new here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters on board the Lucky Nickel. Having had that very expensive mechanical work done, the boat is in the best shape it’s ever been in. (Note: this doesn’t mean it’s actually in GREAT shape, just much much better than when I started.) With no immediate work to fill the schedule, and the longest days of the year stretching out before me, I decided it was finally time to take this old boat out for a proper run around the canals. To that end, I mapped out a very long route, recruited a few potential crew members, and stocked up.

The rough plan is to proceed north up the Grand Union through Hemel Hempstead, Tring, Milton Keynes and Blisworth. Turning west around Daventry through Braunston, then South at Napton on the Oxford Canal and through Banbury & Oxford. That’s where I’ll meet the Thames and head along the winding non-tidal portion of the river through all the greatest hits - Reading, Henley, Maidenhead, Windsor, Staines, Shepperton and Teddington. And finally a short but bracing sprint along the tidal Thames and back into the comforting embrace of the Grand Union at Brentford Lock.

And so that’s what I’m doing. As I write this it’s Day 4, and my plan is to send out short but more frequent blogs with a few highlights every few days. So here’s a quick overview of the first three days:

Day 1, Le Grand Depart, Hayes & Harlington to Croxley:

Proudly flying the flag, off we go!

Left Hayes & Harlington at 7am and picked up my first crew of the voyage, Jeremy and Paola, near Uxbridge station. It was a warm day and it was great to have two willing friends to work the locks for the first day of the trip. 

Entering Denham Deep Lock - the deepest lock on the Grand Union. This lock marks the furthest north I'd ever taken the boat. Beyond here be dragons.

Paola at the tiller. With prosecco. Because that's the kind of boat this is.

Jeremy and Paola working a lock gate. Well, Paola working a lock gate and Jeremy looking on cheerily

I also recorded the first accident report of the trip when the ratchet on a gate paddle slipped and my lock key/windlass spun and whacked me sharply on the nose. There are 176 to negotiate on this trip. This was at lock #2. Off to a flying start. Luckily nothing is broken, though I did spend a bit of time later that evening with a bag of frozen peas on my face. No lasting damage.

On Day 1 we completed 13 miles plus 11 locks, for 23 Lock/Miles. Get used to that metric. Because it takes (very) roughly the same amount of time to work through as lock as it takes to travel one mile of canal. So our pace that day was 2.5 lock miles per hour. And Croxley Station, where Jeremy and Paola departed, is actually still on the underground system, so 7 hours of hard graft and 23 lock miles and my Oyster Card was still useful. The slowness of this form of travel will be an ongoing theme. Brace yourself.

And sadly the engine is burning a lot of oil, which makes a lot of fumes. It’s an old engine, so this isn’t surprising, but it means that being at the tiller all day gets you a snoot full of diesel and burnt oil, so I was a bit loopy by the time I made it to:

First pub of the trip - the Red House, Croxley. Where I had a very well deserved pint and a curry and then slept like the dead. (Note: I actually slept on the boat, not at the pub.)

Day 2, Croxley to Hemel Hempsted:

Joined by new crew, Piran who arrived complete with fancy dress (including two different hats) and sun cream, so that’s a good start. 

Approaching a lock - all the locks so far are climbing, as we follow the canal on the way up the Chilterns

First Mate Piran at the mooring, with the pub #2 in the background, and a handy pedestrian bridge to get us there as quickly as possible. 

Besides that perfect mooring, we also found a nearby automotive supply shop which might help with the oil fumes. 

Completed 7 miles and 12 locks, 19 lock miles at about 2.4 LMph. Once we moored Piran checked Google maps and determined that to drive from where we started to where we finished would have taken 18 minutes. This was slightly dispiriting. Travelling on a canal boat is literally slower than walking. However, if you want to transport a few tons of boat-shaped steel and all your belongings at the same time it’s actually sort of economical. Speed is not the point; I need to keep reminding myself of that.

Day 3: Hemel Hempsted to Tring

A big day - Piran and I got our double-act locking system finely honed so we were maximally efficient in getting through what will probably be the most locks in one day in the whole trip - 22 in total, over 9 and a half miles. 31.5 lock miles in about 10 hours. Epic.

And there were so many highlights!

Starting with an early morning visit to the Kent Brush Company - brush makers since 1777 and, by royal appointment, also brush makers to Her Majesty the Queen. Of course we bought brushes. Tooth brushes. Hair brushes. Nail brushes. Even right-handed beard brushes.

Screenshot 2019-06-25 at 10.12.35 pm
Thank you Aspley Auto Spares for this tin of viscous awesomeness, seen here warming in a bowl of hot water to make it liquid enough to pour into my poor old engine. It helped mitigate the smoke and fumes some.

And there was the Winkwell Swing Bridge! It’s mechanised so you can stop traffic and swing it out of the way to allow boats to pass! This was immensely satisfying. I can’t believe they let anyone with a British Waterways Boater’s Key rock up and work this thing!

This pub was literally right at a lock, meaning it was sort of mandatory for us to have a small drink while we were waiting for the lock to fill. 

And so we did. Thank you to pub #3 of the trip, the Rising Sun

Ee also visited the ruins of Berkhamsted Castle, and then pub #4, the Crystal Palace, where once again the boat and pub could hardly have been closer.

Somewhere along the way I managed to whack myself with a windlass again, this time on the shin. This trip is certainly taking its toll. But even after all that we still managed to make it to Tring before dark. The section of canal at Tring is the highest point I'll visit in the system meaning that from now on all locks descend to sea level at the Thames. Piran got a late train back to London and I had a long-deserved shower and fell into bed. Amusingly, when I started the trip I had this idea that at the end of a day on the boat I’d want to go out for a run. Bwahahahahahahaha! Working locks is physically demanding and exhausting. No need to be a hero. By the end of the Day 3 all I wanted was a G&T and a pillow.

Day 4: Tring to Bulbourne Junction

Back down to a skeleton crew, meaning it’s just me for a while. I’m getting to a section of canal where there won’t be easy station access, plus it's mid-week, so no extra crew. This means I'll be going EVEN SLOWER, because working locks on your own is really tedious and time consuming. Slept in today and planned a very very short hop up the canal - 1.5 miles and no locks. It’s basically a day off! There were some local sites to see, and four days in I already need a break. Spent the morning reassessing my schedule based on the timing from the previous three days. Then I went to Tring!

The Tring Natural History Museum, which is fantastic and home to an amazing story of a heist caper you won't believe. Listen to it here.

The Tring Museum is a classic along the same line as Kelvingrove and the Horniman

I also cycled over to this, which seemed an appropriate pilgrimage.

The Bridgewater Monument, in honour of the Duke of Bridgewater, the“Father of the Inland Waterway”, who built the first canal in England. You can climb up the inside for fabulous views but only on weekends and bank holidays, not random Tuesdays. 

Then it was back to the boat, where I did actually manage a run and dinner and finally got a blog going, meaning you’re now all caught up. Stay tuned for more of these short posts as I go along. Less text, more photos, and ongoing highlights and lowlights from Lucky Nickel’s Grand Tour.

A Day Out: Margate

Sunday, June 23, 2019

It really was not the best day for a trip to the seaside. Most of the time it was rainy and blustery, but considering Piran and I are both still currently “funemployed” there was no reason not to go for it. Plus, I was promised a visit to the famous Margate Shell Grotto, which seemed like as good a reason as any to hop a train and see what there was to see.

Of course it was raining when we stepped out of the station at Margate and made our way to the seaside. However, all was not lost as we quickly diverted to a cheery double decker bus converted into a café that overlooked the beach. There we had unconventional bacon sandwiches and watched while the rain stopped, then started again, then stopped again, then… well you get the idea. It was the theme of the day.

324067a1-237d-4a7c-8a3c-676ca097e161 (1)
I call this photo “Antici-bacon”

Margate was the first of England’s seaside resorts (its resort-i-ness dating back to 1705) and had its heyday back when the seaside was a favourite option for a family summer holiday. The Great English Seaside Holiday was most popular in the 1950s, spurred by the Holiday Pay Act of 1938, easy transport links by rail and road, and the establishment of holiday camps like Butlin’s. The era of package holidays and cut price air fares to Majorca was still years away. Towns like Blackpool and Morecombe served the north, with Londoners likely to visit Brighton or Margate. It sounds like it was quite idyllic.
"Whether it was a day out at the seaside or a fortnight, all British resorts offered fun and escape from daily life. There were amusement arcades, candyfloss stalls and seafood shacks selling cockles and whelks in paper cones. Cafes with Formica tables and wooden chairs served fish and chips accompanied by mugs of hot tea and white bread and butter. There were donkey rides on the beach, crazy golf, helter skelter slides and dodgems. Along the promenade you would find shops selling rock, postcards, buckets and spades, along with plastic windmills and packets of flags to adorn the sand castles.” From here
The Margate we visited had clearly seen happier days, as is the case with most of the great old seaside towns. But recently Margate has been rebranded “Shoreditch-on-Sea” - a newly revived hipster hangout touted as “Kent’s capital of cool”. A quick Google results in a cheery array of articles with titles like “How to take the ultimate trip to this coastal gem” and “A perfect day in Margate”. I was ready to be impressed, though Piran was skeptical. After we finished our bacon sandwiches, we struck off to find out if Margate 2019 stacks up to the hype - Coastal Gem or Dismal Dregs? (And for the record the bacon sarnies were different because the bacon was cut into odd chunks instead of slices, which I think is why they took an inordinately long amount of time to arrive. It was clearly good quality bacon though, so worth the wait in the end.)

So far, so grey, but better was to come.

Our first stop must have been one of Margate’s great selling points as a seaside holiday spot: Dreamland! A permanent amusement park located right at the seaside, Dreamland was first established in the late 19th century and by the 1920s boasted the famous “Scenic Railway”, the first roller coaster built in the UK, and now a  Grade II* listed heritage site. Dreamland and the Scenic Railway have had their ups and downs (see what I did there?) with expansion, closure, fire, re-opening, delays, financial troubles, and re-re-opening marking the history of the venture. Happily it’s now open again and now doesn’t even charge an admission fee. I wouldn’t say it was heaving with custom on a rainy Saturday, but that just meant there was no queue for the famed Scenic Railway.

Below the tracks they have cleverly displayed the machinery of the engine. It’s like they knew I was coming!

The ride has been completely rebuilt three times since 1920 - the pulleys and clutch mechanism are the only original parts left.

Also, the Dreamland roller coaster is so old-fashioned it requires a live brakeman to control the speed of the train during the ride.

Which was apparently terrifying for some of us.

The ride was short but fun, though the rest of the attractions at Dreamland - carousels, and other more daredevil offerings - did not tempt us. We did, however, spend a very happy chunk of time in the warm and dry arcade where Canada bested England in air hockey (naturally) and the investment of two pounds in 2p coins yielded an impressive haul from the coin pusher machines.

Skittles, popping candy (AKA pop rocks), jelly beans, a Dreamland pencil sharpener, a tiny model plane and at least half an hour of solid amusement. I think that was £2 well spent.

Following our triumph in the arcade it was time to find the famous Margate Shell Grotto. First - a quick reminder for the vocabularically challenged: a grotto is a small picturesque cave, especially an artificial one, or an indoor structure resembling a cave. (Also, "vocabularically": of or pertaining to vocabulary. Obvs.) It’s generally agreed that the Margate Shell Grotto was first discovered in 1835, the most colourful account being that "in 1835 Mr James Newlove lowered his young son Joshua into a hole in the ground that had appeared during the digging of a duck pond. Joshua emerged describing tunnels covered with shells. He had discovered the Shell Grotto, its walls decorated with strange symbols mosaiced in millions of shells.” From here.

They are not kidding when they say “millions” of shells. Every inch of the walls and the arched ceiling of the caves is covered.

That’s the Shell Grotto - an artificial series of subterranean hallways and rooms completely covered in more than 4.6 million tiny seashells. The caves themselves are not extensive. We’re not talking Chiselhurst here. Not even Hellfire. (Which I also visited but didn’t blog about because honestly people, I can’t tell you absolutely everything I do or I wouldn’t have time to do any of it.) The Shell Grotto caves are not deep or massive - they’re only a few steps below street level and consist of just 104’ of corridors 3-4’ wide. But what they lack in size they make up for in intricacy and mystery.

The entrance passage splits in two and then converges again at an area called the Dome, a peaked area that reaches up to ground level where it’s capped with a window that allows light in.

Here you can see the natural light spilling in through the dome.

Prior to their discovery in 1835 there is apparently no record of the grotto anywhere. No documents or maps have ever been found, meaning that everyone is free to speculate about their origin and purpose. One popular theory is that the caves are a rich man’s folly (an ornamental building or structure with no practical purpose). Apparently shell grottos were popular in the 17th century, though hiding one under farmland that was never part of a larger estate would be very odd. And how would an undertaking like that have escaped being recorded somewhere?

Others think the grotto might have been a meeting place for a secret society or that it has some sort of religious or spiritual significance. It’s easy to read what you want into the designs on the walls.

For instance, the printed guide sheet calls this the “Birth Panel”. I would call it something more like “Mirror Tulip”. Or possibly "Feed Me Seymour".

This area in the room at the end of the passageway is called the Altar

Most of the shells that make up the patterns are assumed to have been sourced locally. The grotto is less than half a mile from the seaside and the mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters that outline the designs are all local. However, the background of the patterns are filled in with millions of flat winkle shells, which don’t occur locally and were probably brought from somewhere nearer Southampton. When they were discovered the shells were more brightly coloured. Very soon after it was discovered the grotto opened to the public and not long after that it was internally lit with gas lamps. The residue from the gas lamps dirtied the shells and though tests have been done to try cleaning them, the shells have lost their original colour. Cleaning them wouldn’t bring them back to their original state, and could damage them further.

IMG_4746 2
This modern reproduction in the small museum at the entrance to the tunnels shows what the shells might have looked like when they were new. This is also the only place where you’re allowed - even encouraged - to touch shells on the wall. They want you to get it out of your system here so you’ll keep your grubby paws off their Grade II* listed walls once you’re inside.

There being only a few short passages, it wasn’t long before we felt like we’d fully partaken of the Shell Grotto experience and were ready to sample a few more of Margate’s delights, though the weather continued to be fickle. We made our way along the sea front and out to the end of the harbour arm that shelters the small bay at the heart of Margate’s seaside. It being windy and grey, we didn’t tarry and soon ended up at Margate’s newest attraction and part of what drives its fresh claims to hip-ness: the Turner Contemporary Gallery. Opened in 2011 the gallery is named for JMW Turner, the famed 19th century English romantic painter. Turner went to school in Margate and visited often. As the name implies, the gallery’s focus is on modern art, and it was intended to be a catalyst for reinvigorating the town. Reaction has been mixed, with people objecting to the architectural style and claiming it’s gentrifying the area and threatening the traditional seaside attractions of the town. Personally, I was mostly pleased that within the gallery I was able to find a comfy spot to sit and rest my feet for a bit. And though Piran found the exhibition of seaside photography unfocused, I enjoyed it, though apparently not enough to take any photos.

IMG_4751 2
Instead here’s a shot that nicely sums up the weather conditions for the day. "Variable" just about covers it.

And this shows the gallery in context. It’s the sort of featureless light blue-ish blocks at the top centre.

After the gallery we decided to take our chances with the weather and walk around the northeast corner of the Kent coast hoping to make it as far as Ramsgate, a distance of about 15km. This proved, at intervals, wet, windy, warm, and dry and took us along clifftops and down to some interesting chalk formations right on the beach.

The tide was too high to pass but we did have a nice wander through these chalk stacks before going back up to the cliff top.

The walk also took us through Broadstairs, where there were no notably wide stairs in evidence, but where we did get a quenching pint and saw some nice beach huts - another defining feature of the English seaside. Beach huts are tiny wooden shelters that appear in ranks along the edge of beaches. Usually owned privately, but sometimes rented out, they’re a quintessential part of the seaside experience. At roughly 8’ x 8’ these ones have a wooden awning that lifts up in front, supported by two large swinging doors that open out to the side, creating a bit of privacy and - crucially - a windbreak. And though they may be modest in size, beach huts often sell for outsized prices.

These ones are all locked up but you can see how they work. Check out this episode of one of my favourite shows to see a beach hut in all its glory.

We did make it all the way to Ramsgate well before dark and rewarded ourselves with dinner and a cheap bottle of rosé in a lovely and neighbourhoody Italian restaurant near the beach before shambling off to the poorly located station in Ramsgate, via a dodgy pub. The trip back to London was long and sleepy, as was the long long way back to my far-flung mooring. It was well past midnight by the time I got home, and considering I’d been up before six to get the train to Margate, I fell into bed with great relief.

In the end I can’t say that Margate bowled me over with its hipness or revitalised splendour. I’m sure on a warm sunny day, with the beach full and Dreamland in its glory it would be a different experience, though I think that experience would still feel more faded that fantastic. Even with 4.6 million seashells.

A Day Out: Brooklyn

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Yes, you read that right, Brooklyn. And no, I’m not talking about some obscure village in the West Midlands that might have been the first Brooklyn before the other one got more famous. I’m talking about actual Brooklyn in actual New York City.

Because Karen and I went to New York! Here we are pictured with a giant dreidel in the background, the reason for which will soon become clear.

Over the five days we were there we spent most of our time eating, walking, and seeing shows, but we did manage something a bit different too. We booked an AirBnb in Brooklyn for this trip, which turned out to be freakin’ genius. I’ve been in New York with Karen before, but that was long ago, and we stayed in a small and pricey hotel in Manhattan. (Because I think all hotels in Manhattan are small and pricey. Plus it was before AirBnb was really A Thing.) This time we luxuriated in a private two bedroom apartment with full kitchen and a backyard lounging area for something similar to what we paid for a double hotel room last time. And it turns out that NOT being smack in the middle of Manhattan is actually quite pleasant and relaxing, as evidenced by our reaction when we finally did get the subway there for a show one evening and were immediately overwhelmed by the crowds and tourists and general mayhem. Brooklyn rocks.

So we were staying in Brooklyn in an AirBnb. And as Astute Go Stay Work Work Play Live Readers know, AirBnb now offers “experiences” as well as accommodations. Thus it seemed a natural fit to do a walking tour of the neighbourhood. This neighbourhood, however, was not just a typical collection of brownstones. (Which are definitely a thing - brownstones. And they are actually brown. Oh, and when we left the house that first day a woman walking by gave us a friendly “Good Morning”! Truly, we were living on Sesame Street.) This walking tour was in the nearby Crown Heights area, which is home to a thriving Chassidic Jewish community, hence the giant dreidel selfie above. Our tour was offered by a young rabbi named Yoni, which is pronounced like he’s the eighth of the seven dwarves and is very tired. Yoni lives in the area and tours people around every day (except, of course, Saturday).

Here’s Yoni at one of our early stops.

We started out in the basement community library that Yoni and his wife started, where we spent the first half hour just talking, and it became clear this was not going to be your average AirBnb experience. Yoni took great pains to talk to us about the philosophy behind Judaism in general and his particular branch of Hasidism in particular - the Lubavitch or Chabad movement. Unlike other orthodox Jewish sects that close themselves off from the world, the Chabad are more open, seeking to engage with the wider community. Yet even though they're more involved with the outside world than other orthodox communities, they are still clearly set apart. The men wear tzitzit, full beards (but not payess), dark coats and the big black hats that remind me of Amish. Women dress modestly, though they don’t stand out as much as the men do. Yoni explained this is because women are considered to be on a higher plane than men. Men need more constant reminders of their faith, hence the particular clothing and grooming rules. (Married women, though, must keep their heads covered. Interestingly, many elect to do this by wearing wigs, which I found fascinating and possibly uncomfortable.)

(Aside: Obviously a lot of the terms I'm using here are Hebrew or Yiddish, meaning they’re transliterated and often vary according to dialect or tradition, therefore the spelling and anglicised pronunciation can be variable and/or approximate. Sabbath, Shabbes, and Shabbat, for example. Or Hasidic and Chassidic, parve and parev, etc. Just go with it.)

Ours was a small group - just seven in total - and included a mixed faith family from Ottawa whose son was about to have his bar mitzvah, so the poor kid got a lot of attention from Yoni. The first stop we made was at the women’s ritual bath, called the mikvah. I was surprised we got to go in, especially led by a man and with non-believers and men in tow, but I guess that’s the privilege of being with an insider like Yoni.

Here’s one of the baths.

The mikvah is meant to be used daily by Chabad Jews - men go in the morning and women in the evening, immersing fully in the water, which must contain some rainwater. There are also many many other rules that describe the state and use of the mikvah. Actually, there are many many rules in general - 613 commandments in total. I know. I thought there were ten too. These ones are more specific and set out the do’s and do nots of living a proper Jewish life. Yoni spent a lot of time elucidating this for us. Not the rules in particular (always cover the head, keep kosher, do not touch members of the opposite sex) but the reason why they are so careful to keep them.

As far as I understood it, the rules governing Jewish life mean that common - and not so common - acts become ways of honouring and reinforcing a relationship with God. I recall Yoni saying something like, “God, you tell me exactly how you want me to do it, and that's how I’ll do it. I want to do it just how you like it.” Whether “it” is how to dress, or eat, or study, or marry, or raise children. It was clearly something that gave him joy and that he took pleasure in trying to elucidate for us. I’m sure I’m not explaining it well but regardless, it was a deeper dive into the philosophy than I was expecting, and done in a very friendly, non-icky way.

But back to the walking part. After the mikvah we visited a scribe, where they make and repair Judaica - the scrolls, mezuzah, and physical objects that form part of worship and daily life. It was excellent - up a winding stair to a couple of workshops where items are still hand made in a very traditional way. First was the small room where they make tefillin - the black boxes with long straps that men wear on their arms and heads during weekday prayer.

Inchoate tefillin. These are standard size - about 40mm x 40mm, but they also make travel size ones, which I think is both practical and adorable.

As, it seems, with most aspects of Chassidic life, the making and use of tefillin is very precise. They may look like wooden boxes but they’re actually made from the heavy hide of a kosher animal, painstakingly stretched into that shape, and containing tiny hand-lettered scrolls of specific verses of Torah. The lettering must be done with a hand-cut feather quill and executed perfectly on parchment from kosher animal hide, or the tefillin themselves are not kosher. (“Kosher” is a term that can apply to non-food items and simply signifies something is or is not compliant with Jewish law). Tefillin also must be inspected twice every seven years to make sure the scrolls have not deteriorated, thus making them unreadable and therefore not kosher. Even the tiniest imperfection requires correction.

Here’s Yoni and, smiling in the doorway, the Rabbi who runs the workshop. Yoni is holding a sample of the kind of hide they use to make tefillin.

The scribe’s workshop also produce mezuzah - the tiny Hebrew scrolls that are fixed, askew, to doorways. More importantly, this scribe workshop also make and repair Torah scrolls. Like the scrolls in mezuzah and tefillin, Torah scrolls must be absolutely perfect and precise.

Here’s the shelf of scrolls awaiting repair. Even the barest knowledge of the detail required makes one understand this photo represents a monumental task. Every stroke of every letter must be perfect. Writing a new Torah scroll can take a year and cost up to $30-80,000. And woe betide anyone who drops a Torah scroll on the ground - that requires atonement by ritual fasting during daylight hours for forty days.

After the scribe it was on to the kosher bakery where we sampled rugelach - the small croissant-ish shaped pastries in several flabours. The shop was busy because we visited on a Friday so people were coming in and out buying supplies for their Shabbes dinner that evening.

Rugelach are the stripey ones in the bottom left. Yummy.

Then it was on to a local shop that sells the traditional black hats and long coats Chassidic men wear, and where the bar mitzvah boy was used as a model. I have, however, spared him an appearance in the blog because frankly, I think he’s got enough on his plate these days.

The hats are made in Italy from felted rabbit fur.

Undoubtedly though, the most surprising and personal part of the tour was when we were invited into Yoni’s home, where preparations were underway for Shabbes dinner. (Full disclosure - it was actually Yoni’s mother-in-law’s home, but apparently Yoni, his wife, and their seven kids are there most days, and always for Shabbes.) We met Yoni’s wife Rivky and his mother-in-law, who welcomed us into her kosher kitchen and told us about how she prepares food that adheres to Jewish dietary law.

It’s impossible for me to get into the minutiae of kosher law here, but Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will undoubtedly know that one of the chief rules is that it’s not permissible to mix meat and milk. This means a kosher kitchen will always have duplicate sets of crockery and cutlery, one for meat dishes and one for dairy.

IMG_4420 (1)
And it means if you’re lucky you’ve got two sinks and two stoves, like this lovely kitchen. In the middle, there’s even a separate prep station with a third sink for foods that are parve - neither meat nor milk and therefore freely consumed with either.

Those stoves are also not ordinary - they have a special Sabbath Mode. This allows the cook to prepare food the day before and ensure that, without intervention, it’s hot and tasty for dinner the next day. For this reason - no work on the Sabbath - one of the most traditional Shabbes dish is cholent - a long-simmered stew that sits on the back of the stove. (Chabad should perhaps think about investing in this clever bit of kit that I came across in a boat-related context but seems ideal for this purpose.) There are a lot of rules to remember when keeping kosher, but if you make a mistake, what then? Of course you can check with your rabbi but if he’s not available, there’s always

After we got the low-down on keeping a kosher kitchen, we all gathered around the big dining room table and just chatted. Rivky and her mother talked about their beliefs and traditions just as Yoni had done. About how using the recipes that have been passed down in the family, and serving the same foods for Shabbes dinner strengthen their connection to that family and to their traditions. For instance, even if not everyone loves cholent (and that particular dish seems to evoke a love/hate response), it’s still important to maintain the tradition. (At which point I simply have to include this link).

We also got a taste of potato kugel, cooked just for us! Kugel is a baked pudding/casserole affair, most often made with potatoes or noodles. It was tasty, and evoked a comment that I found particularly heart-warming. When Rivky had a bit of the kugel she smiled and said, “It tastes like Hannukah!”, which made Karen and I laugh out loud. Then I had to explain that “it tastes like Christmas” is a common phrase outside of Crown Heights, and must evoke the same sense of warm comfort. Visiting the house was remarkable, and having the chance to talk about the rituals and joys of Chassidic life in a welcoming, open way was certainly unique.

Out last stop was to see the famous neighbourhood synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway. The Chabad Chassidic movement was founded in 1775 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi but the  most recent leader of the movement was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe in 1941 and settled in Crown Heights Brooklyn. He became the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad movement in 1951 and remained so until his death in 1994. The synagogue on Eastern Parkway was the centre of the Chabad movement during Rabbi Schneerson's time and remains so today. It’s a highly significant spot for Chabad Jews.

Yoni is standing in the control room in 770 where the Rebbe’s speeches would be broadcast, via the complex array of switches and rotary dial phones, to locations all over the world. WLCC stands for World Lubavitch Communications Centre.

We ended at the main prayer hall of 770 Eastern Parkway - a surprisingly modest room. Yoni gave the men yarmulkes to wear and took them down to the men’s prayer area, while we stayed up in the women’s area, overlooking. It’s a unfamiliar layout for those used to Christian houses of worship. There’s a raised area in the middle which I think is where a leader would speak, but mostly it’s filled with benches and tables and books, and with men praying and studying on their own. It was more like a library than anything, which I suppose makes sense considering the importance Judaism places on scholarship.

Here’s the men’s prayer room. Surprisingly ordinary looking.

Finally, with our two-hour tour stretching well into its third hour, Yoni had to rush off to prepare for Shabbes and Karen and I had to rush off for lunch, which consisted of ice cream and pie. Because we are really good at this.

Karen in the pose that was typical of about 75% of our time in New York - stuffing our faces. What can I say? It was a great trip.