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.

2019-07-30 08.27.22
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.

2019-07-30 09.05.41
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.

2019-07-30 09.06.44
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.

2019-07-30 09.09.10
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.

IMG_6245 (2)
This photo speaks for itself.

2019-07-30 09.28.45 (2)
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.

The Grand Tour: of Pubs!

Monday, July 22, 2019

I know the Grand Tour is over, but I thought it would be fun to do a quick summary of the pubs visited along the way. Each served a purpose, and though I also passed several that had closed down - a sad state of affairs - it was heartening to come across so many welcoming hostelries ready to provide either a swift half on the run or a proper dinner and a well-deserved break.

1. The Red House, Croxley, Day 1
I was utterly, utterly exhausted by the end of Day 1. Face full of diesel fumes, nose smacked by a windlass, somewhat doubting if I really wanted to keep going. Thank you Red House for the restorative pint and curry.

2. The King's Head, Day 2
Midday stop with Piran on Day 2. Preceded by several awkward attempts at mooring accompanied by some passive-aggressive comments from a nearby boat. Nice pub though, with exposed beams and an upper level minstrel gallery.

3. The Paper Mill, Hemel Hempstead, Day 2
Mooring for the second night, directly across from this, where we had dinner. I thought we would not get the boat closer to a pub. Of course I was wrong.

4. The Rising Sun, Berkhamsted, Day 3
Day 3, situated right at the lock in Berkhamsted, such that Piran was able to go in and order our drinks while the lock was filling, then retrieve them a few minutes later. The barman reported that this is apparently not an uncommon practice.

5. The Crystal Palace, Berkhamstead, Day 3
Within sight of the Rising Sun. We visited after a tour of the ruins of Berkhamsted Castle. I was also able to have the remainder of my pint to take away, since I could walk ten feet to the boat and pour it out into another glass so we could continue on our way.

6. The Globe Inn, Leighton Buzzard, Day 5
Alone, after a long long day which ended with a dispiriting chug through the seemingly endless stretches of private mooring in central Leighton Buzzard. Supper and a pint here was definitely what was needed.

7. The Royal Oak, Blisworth, Day 7
Just after Blisworth Tunnel at the lovely little village of the same name. The Royal Oak was friendly and I got to chatting with a couple locals who lived on boats nearby. Nice to have a bit of human contact and get some tips on the upcoming stretch of canal.

8. The Beer Boat, Banbury Locks, Day 8
You've heard about it before, but it bears repeating: BEER BOAT!!!

9. Braunston Marina Beer Tent, Day 9
This may be stretching the definition of "pub" but I think it counts and I make the rules here. Also notable because I arrived as they starting to pack up and drawing off the last of the kegs so: FREE BEER.

10. The Wharf Inn, Fenny Compton, Day 11
Pleasant end to the first day with Mark and Kathy, and good pie.

11. Harcourt Arms Oxford, Day 14
This was a slight miscalculation as my guide book and Google led me to believe this pub would have food, and it seemed nicely off the track from the very busy more trendy place nearby. No food, but I did have a half and rested my bones a bit anyway before proceeding to:

12. Gardeners Arms Oxford, Day 14
Supper here, ordered from what looked like an entirely vegetarian/vegan menu. I had "vegan dirty fries" which were nice, though I still maintain that "vegan cheese" is just Not. A. Thing.

13. The Anchor Oxford, Day 15
Treated myself to a nice dinner out on Saturday at this gastropub very near the canal. One of the lovely things about bringing your whole house with you on vacation is that if you feel like dressing up a bit for dinner you don't have to worry whether you packed anything appropriate. In fact, you don't have to worry about packing at all. I had the lamb. And Eton Mess for dessert.

14. Eagle and Child Oxford, Day 16
A particularly satisfying pub - once the haunt of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. I had one of the snugs to myself where I sat in the right hand window with my beer and my lunch and my trashy serial killer novel. Perfect.

15. Isis Farmhouse, Day 17
This pub is only accessible via the towpath or the river. I like to think this means their beer kegs are delivered by boat, but we didn't ask. They also had the overly generous Ploughman's Lunch you've already heard about.

16. Barley Mow, Clifton Hampden, Day 17
A very short stroll from the campsite we moored alongside after the first day on the Thames. It was touch and go whether we'd get any food, or even a table, since the staff were harried almost to the point of rudeness by an unusual Monday evening rush. All turned out fine though, and I recall the sticky toffee pudding was credible.

17. Chequers, Marlow, Day 19
A quick refresher to kill time in Marlow. 

18. Druid’s Head, Kingston, Day 21
I tried to have a drink at a different pub closer to Teddington Lock after I'd made my pilgrimage to gather as much information as I could about the next day's events. Sadly that pub (the Hand and Flower) was no more. No matter, because The Druid's Head was 17th century, Grade II listed, and a short walk back to the boat. A fitting last pub.

Of course there were also a few drinks enjoyed on the back deck of the boat. And I hasten to add, for anyone fearing that my liver suffered even more than my poor aching nose on this trip, there were also days with no pubs at all. Nevertheless coming up on a new pub, especially one right on the water, was a particularly satisfying addition to the trip. It's only been a week or so since I finished the trip, but I kind of miss it already. And now it's been just a week or so since I finished the trip and I've already moved the boat again a few times and am now in previously uncharted territory in the far north east of London. I'm still contemplating one last boat adventure for the summer, while also preparing for the next job, which is starting in a few short weeks. More on all that another time.

The Grand Tour: Big Finish

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Day 22: Kingston to Brentford:

When last we left our hero she was moored in Kingston upon Thames with an impromptu support group of two other boats, all of us nervously awaiting the next morning’s trip through Teddington Lock. The entrance from the Thames back into the Grand Union Canal, is about five miles downstream of Teddington at Brentford Lock, meaning an hour or two of travel on the tidal part of the river Thames. Until Teddington, water levels and flow is controlled by the series of locks I’d travelled through, with accompanying weirs alongside.

The weirs regulate the water level along the river, locks allow boats to navigate past them.

Teddington is the last downstream lock on the Thames, meaning that after Teddington the water level rises and falls with the tide. The force of the tide ebbing and flowing can be substantial so for a small, flat-bottomed, and relatively under-powered narrowboat to have a hope of navigating the distance between Teddington and Brentford in a controlled fashion travel must be timed precisely with the tides. Going downstream, the recommendation is to leave Teddington half an hour before high tide (over what’s sometimes called slack water) when the tide is about to turn. As the water starts to fall, the current helps push the boat along. Leaving too early means very slow progress as the boat’s engine tries to “punch against the tide” and leaving too late means your speed at the entrance to Brentford lock will make it difficult to turn without being pulled too far downstream with the current. If you miss the turn into Brentford, the next (and only other) entrance to the canal system is the lock far downstream at Limehouse, and the amount of time it would take to get there means you’d be attempting that notoriously difficult turn in very unfavourable tide conditions. Next stop after that is, errr, Margate. Or possibly Dunkirk. Needless to say, I was a bit anxious about this whole procedure.

Luckily I had assistance in the form of the return of Day One’s able crew - Jeremy and Paola. They’re both experienced sailors so I thought they’d be ideal companions, and they were. We made the short hop from my Kingston mooring to the lock with ease and tied up along with several other narrowboats, all of whom were waiting for the tide to make the run to Brentford, each with a different level of apprehension about the manoeuvre. Adding to the confusion, the Experienced Guy I’d met the day before had been planning to leave at 11:20am, having devised a spreadsheet that calculated optimum times based on the tide tables. However, the lock keeper at Teddington firmly recommended 12:20pm, based on high water being at 12:50. It gradually became clear that the hour’s difference was a miscalculation between UTC (which is used on tide tables) and British Summer Time, and that Experienced Guy was going to need to revise his spreadsheet. We settled in to wait, chatting and passing the time until seven of us made for the lock at about 12:20.

Here are the front four of a flotilla of narrowboats in Teddington lock. Lucky Nickel was bang in the middle of the pack, which was ideal.

Once we exited the lock, the boats spread out into a long chugging line. The trip was largely uneventful, though we did have to keep a close eye out for other craft, especially rowers, who have the disadvantage of not looking where they're going, and of being very wide and a bit unwieldy. There was also the usual ration of river cruisers, kayaks, dragon boats, stand-up paddleboards and RIBs, all of which I managed to avoid. Jeremy cleverly started up his chart plotter app, which gave a continuous readout of our speed so we had a good sense of how fast the tide was turning. My average speed on Lucky Nickel is normally about 2.5 mph, reaching a top speed of 4mph with a slight current on the regatta course at Henley. Riding the tide on the Thames we reached blistering 5 knots, or 5.7 mph. And of course Jeremy and Paola were perfect companions, having used the waiting time at the lock to gather some food supplies, so all I had to do was sit at the tiller, be fed, and have my picture taken.

Like here, passing under Richmond Bridge.

Despite the lock keeper's estimate that the trip would be 45 minutes to an hour long, we were on the river for close to two hours before approaching the entrance to Brentford Lock. Frustratingly, the inlet is not sign-posted at all and is also hairpin turn due to the angle at which the River Brent meets the Thames coming downstream. We were all on high alert, with Jeremy spotting in the bow. We also had the advantage of seeing the boats in front of us start their turns. This, however, did not lessen my anxiety as we approached what I think was the most stressful left-turn of my life.

Of course it turned out fine. I started my manouevre quite early, having seen at least one of the leading boats take a very wide turn that looked a bit late. With Jeremy gesticulating from the bow and pointing out landmarks ("The big silver sculpture is on THE OTHER SIDE of the channel." Critical information.) I edged tight around the turn, coming very close the the upstream wall, but finally clearing easily and gratefully into the passage. Mission accomplished!


And here's a screenshot of the GPS track for the Scariest Left Hand Turn. Not bad.

We edged up to the bottom of Brentford Lock and waited while the first boats were cycled up and through. And I watched and waved and cheered as my nervous Kingston mates each appeared around the corner until all were safely gathered in. In the end it was not all that difficult, though I was very pleased to have had a spotter to help guide me in and provide moral support the whole way.

Looking towards at the bottom gates of Brentford Lock, closing me off from the river - back in the loving embrace of the Grand Union Canal at last. Upstream parts of the river were fun, but the further downstream I got, the more stressful it was. It's really really nice to be back.

We moored not long after, exactly where I moored after the boat's first trip through Brentford lock back in 2014. It seemed fitting, and I was in no mood for more locks. I was in the mood to celebrate!

And celebrate we did. Properly!

Relieved skipper

And trusty crew

It was a good day, but despite the momentousness of the occasion, I wasn't quite finished.

Day 23: Brentford to Home

I had hoped to recruit a crew for the last day, which involved going up the Hanwell flight of eight locks, but I was utterly unsuccessful in that attempt, meaning the last day of the trip would be a single-handed journey of six miles and ten locks. Perhaps it was fitting I finish on my own. I slept in, had a slap-up breakfast and set off.

Here's the boat patiently waiting for me to prepare a lock, while paddleboarders frolic nearby.

The day's travel was smooth but long. Luckily, there was a fair bit of foot traffic on the towpath, so sometimes I got a bit of help from passers-by. And then part way up the flight I ran into a man out for the afternoon with his young son, who was fascinated with the locks and the boat. The pair stayed with me through at least four locks, helping work the gates and chatting while the shy little boy was quietly educated about the workings of locks.

Here's my crew waiting by a gate paddle while the lock fills. They were just lovely. I even gave them a short ride on the boat between locks, which I was assured by Dad would be the highlight of the day, or possibly his entire life to date, for the little guy.

The Hanwell flight is interesting because several of its locks once used side ponds, which you can still see today. Side ponds are a way of conserving water by diverting the water draining from a lock into a nearby reservoir so that it can be used to partially refill the lock.

Explained well, if not exactly excitingly, in this video.

And here's a set of side paddles overlooking a very overgrown side pond. Clearly they are no longer in use.

The other cool site on this part of the canal is Three Bridges, a spot where the canal threads between a roadway above and a rail line below. This was the last big project of GSWPL hero and frequent blog subject Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who engineered how the rail line was inserted under the existing canal and roadway.

Taken from the roadway, you can see the canal on the left, which passes over the rail line in an iron trough.

I made it to the top of the Hanwell flight by about 4:30, finally completing the last of 175 locks on the trip.

Hanwell top lock! Number 90 on the system, completed 23 days after lock 89 at Cowley Peachey.

And then it was just a few miles to the turn at Bull's Bridge onto the Paddington Arm of the canal and I was back in very familiar territory. A short hop later and I arrived back at the marina and moored up. Job done.

This is the summary of the trip from, which I used extensively throughout the trip to estimate travel times from place to place. It was invaluable.

I didn't mention it at the time, but I made a purchase at a little shop at the bottom of the last flight of locks up to Braunston. You often see boats with small oval plaques fastened to the inside of their back doors. The cast metal and enamel medallions are just four inches across and feature the names of prominent canal landmarks or waterways. They're meant to signify that the boat to which the plaque is affixed has navigated that particular feature. Some denote particular tunnels or aqueducts or notable flights of locks, some whole systems like the Kennet & Avon Canal, and some are for what are called cruising rings - a circular route traveling a series of canals starting and ending at the same point. I have just completed the Thames Ring - going from London up the Grand Union to Braunston, down the Oxford Canal to the Thames, and along the river back to the Grand Union at Brentford. It seemed like tempting fate while I was standing looking at the display of plaques at Boat Shop near Braunston. But I did it anyway, though I worried outloud to the shopkeeper that I might be jinxing myself by buying the plaque before completing the journey. He thoughtfully tucked the item into an opaque envelope, taped it shut, and told me to hide it away until I finished.

And now I'm finished, I think it's time to put this up. (I'm also particularly chuffed that of all the Cruising Ring plaques I can see online, this journey is the longest by quite a margin.) (And I know this says 248 miles and my summary says 246. It's because I started counting slightly after I left the marina. Rest assured I really did those first two miles as well.)

Now I'm enjoying a few days at the marina resting and blogging and catching up on laundry and all the life admin tasks I've been ignoring for the last three weeks. (Hello 2018-19 taxes!) However, I think I'll be back out again soon. As my fellow Aden Bowman alum said, "I've got the urge for going." I'm more confident in myself and the boat than I've ever been, so while the Grand Tour might be finished, Lucky Nickel still has plenty of places to go. And Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers may just get to come along for some of it.