Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Heyford–Sidmouth Axis

And so to Heyford. Last time I moored in this area was well before 1994 (when they closed down operations from Upper Heyford airfield). Can remember looking across to the hill and seeing – not to mention hearing – dozens of US Air Force F-111 jet fighters take off in a stream just after breakfast, then come back for lunch. Then off again in the afternoon… it’s much quieter now!

A little further down the canal is Lower Heyford, and Heyford Wharf, which has the merit of being right next to the Oxford – Banbury railway line, with a station 10 feet from the water. Noisy, but convenient for catching trains…

Boat safely tucked up, car retrieved from home, and it’s off for a fortnight’s R&R… home for a day or two to catch up on stuff like doctors and dentists, then off to Sidmouth for nine days on the annual pilgrimage.

It was nice to see Ralph McTell could still fill a 1200 seat marquee and hold everyone spellbound for 90 minutes –  haven’t seen him in concert for over 20 years (and I first booked him to do a gig in Manchester in 1968. Gulp.)

Far too much good music, song, dance, company, food and drink to detail here, but just for balance, here’s a picture of some young Shetland fiddlers, and a not-so-young Shetland fiddler.

South Mainland Young Fiddlers - spot the littl'un!Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham

A Rose by any Other Name

Narrowboats can have pretty much any name you like, and they don’t have to be unique. Kingfisher would appear to be pretty much the favourite: there are dozens of them. Plenty named for the owners along the lines of Fred ’ n’ Ethel, or Emma-Jane, or Lady Sara, too. As a contrast, one of the larger timeshare/hiring outfits had a whole fleet of boats with slightly odd names like Wilson’s Chaos, seemingly named after obscure fairground rides.

There’s also the odd misfit: given the supposed peaceful and relaxing nature of  narrowboating, one wonders at Predator and  Warrior (both seen today), and can only admire the Anglo Welsh hire fleet’s Amerthyst, which is not only misspelt but the wrong colour too. The completely bare interior of Kettle’s On would also suggest it’s misnamed, at least for now. Minnie the Moocher suggests at least one Cab Calloway fan on the cut, and I wish I’d managed to get a picture of Baker Street, complete with the score of the opening bars of that saxophone break.

Others that stick in the mind:

The Vented Spleen
Flying  Pig
(seen a couple of years ago near Market Drayton, then again yesterday)
Rioja Bye Baby
Harold’s Will

Mind you, the (possibly apocryphal) Contains Nuts doesn’t appear on the register at the moment.


Duck Food–Take 2

I know Mallards (especially in the wild) don’t subsist entirely on stale bread, my fingers or hand-outs, although opening the side hatch anywhere pretty soon conjures up a bunch of them demanding food with menaces. And I guess the book does say they’re omnivorous.

Even so, moored up in the jungle on the Oxford Canal between Heyford and Tackley, we were rather surprised to see a Mallard drake paddling along in a stately fashion with head held high, and a sizeable fish in his bill. He kept tossing his head upright in an attempt to align the wriggler with his throat just like a proper-job fish-eating seabird. He got there in the end too! Respect!

Milvus Milvus

Red kites and buzzards are fairly common at home, though we rarely see a kestrel these days (even though when motorways first came into use, they were the bird you saw motoring along them). When travelling North West up the M40 these days, red kites are two-a-penny from the Maidenhead – Marlow – High Wycombe area, then slowly peter out as you get further towards the Midlands, while buzzards become more prevalent.

So, travelling slowly South East from the Potteries, and seeing plenty of buzzards (as well as a dull brown painted boat named Buteo Buteo) , we were idly wondering when and where we would first spot a red kite: we were expecting to see them from Banbury downwards, maybe.

But nature moves in mysterious ways… as we pootled gently into the middle of Banbury, a dark red narrowboat came round a corner, narrowly missing us, and in the excitement of collision avoidance, we nearly failed to notice it was named Red Kite. Spooky!

And as for birds… we did indeed spot a pair of red kites this morning being suitably splendid, at Grants Lock, just South of Banbury. Along with a buzzard surveying a field on the other side of the canal, and a kestrel quietly perching on the telephone lines watching proceedings. All at once. Honour is satisfied!

Flanders, Swan and Pigs

Just down the canal from Adderbury Wharf is a smallholding doubling as a rare breed pig and sheep farm, a camping and caravan site, boat mooring establishment, cafe and shop. They grow their pork, bacon, eggs etc., and even today (when most decent butchers and supermarkets sell fancy flavoured “gourmet” sausages rather than the old Wall’s sawdust jobbies) it’s easy to forget how good simple pork bangers can be with really good local ingredients. Superb bacon butties, and several evening meals to follow. Don’t normally do advertising, but take a bow, The Pig Place!

Moored at the Pig FarmDSCF0783Pig-a-potamus

Duck Food

With the local wildlife on its second or even third brood, large family groups of mallards, swans and moorhens are common, they often follow the boat, while opening up the side-hatch is usually the prompt for a bunch to appear out of nowhere demanding food, more in hope than expectation.

While SWMBO was driving along the Grand Union this morning, I was sitting quietly in the front deck area in the hot sunshine, and without thinking draped my arm over the side. This was too much temptation for a passing/following mallard who, mistaking my middle finger for her morning croissant, did her best to swallow it. Don’t know who was more surprised…

Savaged to death by a lady duck: not the epitaph I had in mind.

Ovine Peregrinations

DSCF0730Moored up just outside Braunston for the day. There were four fields opposite the boat: the near one (“South”), the far one (“North”) – you can just make out the fence, and two (“East” and “West”) just out of shot to the left and the right of the picture. The fields show particularly fine  remains of the old “ridge and furrow” cultivation system.

As evening drew on, (with far more sheep than in the picture) all the sheep in the South field wandered determinedly  into the East field over the space of a few minutes, followed by those in the North field. With no sign of sheep dogs or humans, it looked as though they were programmed to go and eat or something at a particular time or signal. But five minutes later (too quick for nosh) they all wandered back into the North and South fields (far to quickly to have eaten); another five minutes and they all – to a sheep – wandered into the East field, where they remained for the rest of the evening. Strange beasts, sheep.

Oh. There were a pair of Peregrine Falcons perched on the church steeple, too.


Trains and Boats and Automobiles

With a car in Stoke-on-Trent, and a funeral to attend down in Dorset, it was time for some rationalisation… parking up in Alvecote Marina for a few days Fran stayed put looking after Sir, while Bob caught a train from Tamworth to Stoke to rescue the car, drove home, then to Poole and back, then caught a train back to Tamworth. A frenetic couple of days: it was good to get back to the the boat! All the trains ran to time: a pleasant surprise.

Biggles Throws a Wobbly

It had already become clear on this journey that Biggles was living up to the old adage that any cat in unfamiliar territory immediately forms a one-feline escape committee – that’s why they’re into every room, cupboard, drawer, whatever: always looking for a way out.

Heading down the Trent & Mersey through familiar territory towards Fradley Junction on a hot sunny day, as we approached Wood End Lock (soon, it was to appear, to be christened Wits End Lock), it was clear there was a queue of boats in front of us so we decided to stop for an early lunch while it cleared.

The first mate came up and said that the Captain was throwing a wobbly and not at all happy. On descending into the saloon to investigate, Sir fought his way through the locked cat flap into the well deck – didn’t think that was possible. Then he burrowed under the bottom edge of the securely fastened cratch cover – didn’t think that was possible either. Finally, with the feline equivalent of a cry “Geronimo” he leapt three feet across the water to the towpath while we were still travelling, and disappeared into the thick hedgerow.

It was impossible to moor where he’d gone overboard, so we backed up to the nearest place and started searching and calling. After lunch – with no sign – and in need of provisions,  SWMBO went on a long trip down the towpath to Fradley Junction, while I continued calling and searching up and down the hedgerows for some distance either side of where we were moored  (which was some distance from where he jumped overboard).

At about 19:00 he strolled in through the front deck area completely unconcerned – butter wouldn’t melt – and started eating his dinner.

As he now seemed to be well settled, we left him with his usual access outside overnight so he could do his business. Vaguely aware that he went out at zero:dark early, there was no sign of him at breakfast. Or lunch. This time he came back, again completely unconcerned, about tea time.

A 28 hour snack lunch must be some kind of record.

Locking him in, we steamed through Fradley Junction on to the Coventry canal without stopping for a beer at The Swan (sacrilege) and ended up moored at Whittington, a nice little village with a decent pub for dinner.

Fradley Junction: entrance to Coventry CanalThe Swan @ Fradley JunctionCottage in WhittingtonWhittington Bridge No 78

Because stoats are…

A sunny Saturday spent hooked up to electricity and water in Great Haywood Marina catching up on the washing and drying, while someone visited the large Canal Side Farm shop adjacent, and someone else supervised the engine maintenance requirements (oil and filter change now it’s run in a bit). Guess who did what.

The quiet night weather-wise  saw a large hot-air balloon drifting very slowly over the marina in the evening, and another coming into land just across the railway line at 08:30 Sunday morning: there’s an outfit based at nearby Shugborough Hall, and it was pretty much perfect weather for it. Don’t see nearly so many balloons these days, I guess the foot and mouth restrictions some years back made it all too difficult for many operators.

Wandering further down the Trent & Mersey Canal on Sunday afternoon,  after passing the delights of Rugeley power station and the Armitage Shanks toilet factory (bidets are clearly in at the moment) and getting near Kings Bromley, we both saw a weasel-y animal rearing up out  of the canal-side greenery before bolting across the towpath into the woods. First time ever we’ve seen anything like that on a canal (though I guess there’s no reason why we shouldn’t). Eschewing the old joke, Google suggests the black-tip on the tail means it was a stoat. Definitely a first.

Normally reluctant to leave the boat during broad daylight, and not entirely happy in a busy marina with people traipsing through the boat fixing things, Sir expressed his approval of our quiet, remote and sunny moorings near Kings Bromley by diving off immediately into the bushes and returning two minutes later with a small rodent which he ceremoniously discombobulated on our newly cleaned floor. Good job he didn’t find a stoat…