Palm trees, pumps, and pop art

Saturday, August 31, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just one more ring...

Sunday, August 4, 2019

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

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

The stadium is now branded in West Ham colours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This photo speaks for itself.

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

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

Who ably managed past a few more landmarks.

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

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

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

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

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

Recently restored Albert Bridge.

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

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

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

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

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