Monthly Archives: April 2016

Morris-less Oxford Musings

After the previous night’s tribulations, we decided that (a) we needed to decide where we were going next, and (b) when. The boaters waiting for the Thames to become navigable were grumbling as most of the river went down to yellow boards, while the short initial stretch through Osney Bridge where the Oxford Canal joined the Thames remained resolutely red, and the lockkeepers noticeably absent. (We subsequently discovered that this stretch is always the first to go onto red boards, and the last to come off). One or two boats came up off the river having braved things up from Reading, including a hire boat! Ah well.

Anyway, after a gentle lunchtime stroll round a pleasantly Morris free city, and stocking up the larder, we seemed to have decided to abandon Plan B (going down the Thames) and head back up the Oxford Canal. We’d call in at Cropredy and repatriate the car back home, and then aim for Liverpool. Or Leeds. Or Lancaster. Or maybe Llangollen. Probably via Leamington. That’s what we like… a firm plan.

Monday afternoon, and the rumours were increasingly strong that the Thames would be OK on Tuesday, so it seemed a good plan for us to move as well, before the parking wardens noticed how long we’d actually been in Jericho (there’s a 48 hour limit). The Captain agreed, but undeterred by Sunday night’s shenanigans, still seemed to spend a great deal of time out partying somewhere on Monday night, although he did come home unaided before breakfast…

Love Rat Biggles in Skinny Dipping Foursome Shock

Depending on where we are, the Captain usually likes to go out for the occasional constitutional at night, so always has free access to the big wide world. Sometimes he’s out for a quite a while, but he usually stays close to the boat; when it’s cold he often just sneaks into our cabin and curls up on the bed by our feet.

Sunday night / Monday morning was cold, and he snuck in soon after we went to bed after the hard day’s Morris watching. At about 06:00 we realised he wasn’t on the boat, and probably hadn’t for been for some time. A quiet call and whistle unusually had no effect. By 07:30 the towpath rush hour was in full force: lots of noisy trains, lots of people rushing to the station on foot or bike, joggers and dog walkers too – exactly the sort of thing he doesn’t like. So, thinking he might have been confused by us moving the boat, we got up – at 07:30!! – and quietly trawled the towpath and undergrowth for a couple of hundred yards in both directions, to no avail. Even the friendly local winos (or more exactly cideros) already camped out on the bench hadn’t seen him.

By 08:30 and another trawl, there was no sign – not even blackbird alarm calls, usually a reliable indication of his approximate whereabouts – and we knew something was definitely up.   Wondering if he’d somehow got aboard another boat, we decided it was still a bit early to go banging on cabin doors.

At about 09:15 there was a knock on our rear cabin door: a young lady walking her dog, (with whom we’d passed the time of day several times before) said “This might sound like a funny question, but do you have a blue cat?”

“Yes!” we said, whereupon she said.

“Is it on board?”…

Moored about 100 yards down the cut, it turned out that at about 02:30am she, her partner and their dog were woken by a pitiful yelling noise, and found a small grey and rather thin drowned rat wailing on their rear deck. Taking him in, drying him off a bit and giving him some chicken to eat, the dog sensibly kept it’s distance, while – normally reticent with strangers – Biggles climbed up on the lady’s shoulder and nestled into her neck the way he only does with people he loves and trusts. And then, after a little doze and further drying session on a hot water bottle, he  sneaked under the couple’s duvet for more love and affection, while the dog watched on jealously.

Once back on Song & Dance, Biggles was so appalled at the possible risk to his reputation that he went straight into celeb mode, and applied for a super-injunction to try and keep the names of the couple out of the papers (“to avoid causing them any more embarrassment”), but the judge refused to grant it.

The paparazzi are rumoured to have some photographs of his night on the tiles, but they have yet to reach this august publication… if they  do surface, rest assured we will publish and be damned. Any emails concerning this event sent to are assured of confidentiality.

In the meantime, our thanks to Kara (Cara?), her partner and dog on Dragonfly for being so understanding with our small grey love rat. He doesn’t seem to be any the worse for his skinny dipping night on the tiles.

Actually, we were rather impressed with the Dragonfly crew: even though expecting their first able-seaman/seawoman trainee in June, they had boated from Cambridge to Oxford in 12 days. It took us 6 weeks just from Ely, last year. Must try harder!

Local Institutions, and More Morris Dancing, I’m Afraid

Yateley Morris MenBemused lady

Sunday morning proved rather more amenable, weather-wise, and we weren’t expecting much boat traffic (no hire movements and the Thames still on red boards), so we risked venturing into town, only to find more morris dancers. Yateley were in Gloucester Green – our friend Ian from Tuesday Night is dancing, so there’s no-one watching Song & Dance. Fingers crossed. Not sure what the chap in Tatters and Port and Starboard socks was doing, but at least he’s got the socks on the right way: his companion looks suitably awe-struck.

Music in Blackwell's Norrington RoomMusic in Blackwell's Norrington Room

The festival was using the Philosophy section of Blackwell’s Norrington Room as a music venue, deep in the dark underground. Must be 30 years since I last ventured into the depths of Blackwells, and had forgotten what an astonishing place it is. Managed to find a copy of Michael Houghton’s biography of Sandy Denny, too, recently recommended by someone who knows my musical tastes only too well.

Two Ancient InstitutionsTwo Ancient InstitutionsChiltern Hundreds Morris

Bampton Traditional Morris were  capering outside The Sheldonian Theatre – last time we were here it was mobbed by new undergraduates all in sub-fusc on Matriculation Day. At least Bampton Morris looked as though they knew what the were doing, which is more than the students did. They were sharing the pitch with Chiltern Hundreds Clog Morris.

By now fearing for Song & Dance’s moorings, an early return found the pins well pulled about (someone had kindly put the front ones back in) and what appeared to be a space opened up a hundred yards downstream with proper cemented-in mooring rings. A hasty whip round untying the boat and moving down (before anyone else noticed) led to the discovery that the space was approximately 12 inches too short. The crew of Baguette – now there’s an odd name for a British narrowboat – were aboard and happy to re-position her forward the requisite foot, so that was fine. They’d been there for a week waiting for the Thames to become navigable, and said they’d enjoy a change of view…

Fran and Sue managed to find the cunningly moved boat, Sue was suitably despatched onto a train home, and we went for Steak Frites and a bottle, to end a pleasant weekend. All was well with the world… or so we thought.

Dances with Dinosaurs

Sir had given the Quartermaster the weekend off to go Morris Dancing around Oxford in the cold – there’s no accounting for taste. With an 11:00 start outside the Pitt Rivers museum and Sue (a morris dancer, and – as it happened – our first guest to stay overnight) needing to be collected from the station, we were somewhat bemused during breakfast to find quite heavy wet snow falling. The first we’d seen all winter, and it had to wait until mid-April! Fortunately, there were quite a few boat movements expected, so the First Officer was unable to join them, needing to ensure no other idiots dragged out the mooring pins, and to be on standby to move the boat if a safer spot became available.

The museum took pity on the dancers and let them dance inside (why?).

Jackstraws Morris - Pitt Rivers MuseumLiquid Lunch

The above pictures courtesy of Shirley Dixon  and nicked from Farcebook – see if you can spot the dinosaurs. Rather like the sign over the musicians, too. Apparently they all retired to a pub for lunch: I shudder to think what was in the pork pies…

Lines!Many a True Word

Ridgeway Step Dancers

With our friends from Yateley Morris and Cropredy Marina (moored just behind us on their boat Tuesday Night) saying they were staying put for the afternoon and would keep an eye on Song & Dance, a visit to town to see the afternoon dancing was risked, particularly as the precipitation had stopped, and the venue was the indoor market.

Joined by the Ridgeway Stepdancers, Jackstraws managed to get their lines straight (at least while stationary) – the liquid lunch hadn’t done too much damage.

Back in the real world, the sun had come out in Broad Street, and lots of people were dancing and watching.

Wicket Brood chap looking a bit off colourJackstraws tossing the caber

This chap seemed to be doing his best not to look like a morris dancer despite the purple face paint, so Jackstraws did their caber-tossing dance. No morris dancer was hurt during the making of this picture.

Jackstraws Morris about to do a runnerJackstraws Morris airborne

FireclogThey even managed to all get airborne at the same time.

These two young girls from Fireclog were attracting considerable interest, too.

On return to the boat, our pins had been put back a couple of times by the Tuesday Night crew, who had then spotted a safer mooring and nabbed it. That’ll teach me to go and watch morris dancers.

After hosing down the sweaty dancers, Biggles stayed in charge on board while the three of us hoped for no more boats moving that evening, went to eat at a nearby Lebanese restaurant, then got hot and sweaty dancing in St. Barnabas’ church to the estimable Simon Care Trio.

Jericho Woes

We’d never had any problems mooring in Jericho before: it’s very close to the centre of Oxford, very close to the noisy mainline railway station, and a major cycle/walking/dog walking route, with the bells of St. Barnabas to keep you awake: not everyone likes mooring there but it is very convenient, and – surprisingly – Sir has always seemed at home there.

Well, we arrived mid-morning, and all the decent spots with mooring rings were occupied: some boats had been waiting over a week for the Thames to become navigable, and (sensibly) the 2 day limit didn’t seem to be an issue.

So we were forced to use mooring pins. Not normally an issue, but the consistency of the banks was not unadjacent to warm butter. You could push in a mooring pin with one finger. This did not bode well.

Some hour or so later, a hire boat from the immediately opposite College Cruisers went past at Mach 2, pulled all three pins out, and making all the kitchen drawers open… and Song & Dance was floating away unattached to terra firma.

We went and remonstrated with the hire company, who are supposed to provide training for their clients. Still, at least they gave us some free if rather old mooring pins so we could double-pin the front and back to make it more secure – in theory at least. Even double pinned, they were pulling away a bit every time a boat went past. And with all the hire boats on the other side we couldn’t even breast up with another more securely tied boat without blocking the canal completely… We clearly weren’t going to be able to leave the boat unattended for long!

Meanwhile, used to ducks and swans demanding food with menaces in Oxford, it was a novelty to find that the local geese had adopted similar tactics, perhaps taking refuge from the Thames.

Jericho GeeseJericho Goose

Once the boat movements seemed to have ceased for the day we crossed our fingers and toddled of to a concert featuring our dear friends Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, who were – as expected – splendid as well as delighted to spend a little time catching up.

Let’s hope we’re still moored up to something in the morning.

The Best Laid Plans…

Apart from getting to Oxford for the Folk Weekend, at which the chief cook was supposed to be dancing, the rest of the summer’s activities were becoming as clear as the muddy canal water.

Plan A (back in the mists of time) was to head North and do some of the Pennine Canals: rumoured to be scenically splendid, and none of the crew had been waterborne up there before. However, the storms over the winter had left rather a legacy of problems, so this probably isn’t too good an idea at the moment, at least until things become clearer.

Plan B was to come down the Thames again from Oxford (for the third year running) –perhaps with a side trip up to Lechlade and back – then out on the Kennet & Avon Canal, with the intention of making it all the way to Bristol. Then a return to Reading and Oxford or – a very big maybe – prep the boat and hire a pilot for the tidal Severn transit to re-enter the canal system at Gloucester. Given the wet winter the Thames has been pretty flighty, and the Kennet can be a handful too, so this was looking a bit problematical.

Coming into Thrupp, we’d had some difficulty finding a suitable mooring: there were decidedly more boats than usual at this time of year. The Thames around Oxford had been on “red boards” (un-navigable) for several days, and clearly people were hanging around somewhere congenial until things improved.

Heading down to Oxford was by now familiar territory, and the mild but wet winter had not only helped the bird life, but for the first time for us, the towpaths were seriously muddy in places, the Cherwell was running high, and many of the low-lying fields were still awash with patches of standing water. So it was clear that even if the Thames came off red boards shortly, it was likely to stay volatile and run pretty fiercely. There was no slack in the land, and any more heavy rain would just sluice straight off the fields and into the river. So Plan B was looking a bit iffy too… We’ll clearly have to have some serious discussions with the Captain over the weekend.

But first, Oxford. There’s a 2 night limit on mooring in Jericho (convenient for the town centre and festival) after which they charge you £25 a night, and going down onto the other moorings on the Thames for the rest of the weekend wasn’t an option. So Thursday night was to be spent as close to Oxford as possible, to give us a quick run into Jericho on the Friday morning for the pick of the moorings. We’d have to take a chance on staying another night…

Unfortunately, beyond Kidlington, options are limited, as most of the towpaths on the outskirts of Oxford are either “conservation areas” or given over to the mysterious Oxford Agenda 21 Moorings.

Wolvercote JunctionWolvercote Junction

Wolvercote Junction - Duke's Cut Lock

So we ended up bailing out at Wolvercote Junction, where The Dukes Cut branches off to the Thames. Looking unpromising on paper, the junction lies in the armpit of the major flyover joining the A34 and the A40 Oxford Ring Road, with a busy railway junction a mere 50 yards away. However, it proved surprisingly amenable if you looked in the other direction, and not nearly as noisy as we’d feared. You can see why the lock cottage has remained unoccupied for several years, though!

The Hedges are Alive with the Sound of Birdsong

Monday morning saw a fairly leisurely shopping expedition round Banbury, then an undemanding meander through the outskirts for lunch at the place Biggles decided to swim the canal this time last year,  followed by moving gently on to a reasonably civilised mooring place just opposite the Pig Place in fairly unremarkable weather.

Tuesday and another amble to moor up just above Dashwood’s Lock, a pleasant spot in the middle of nowhere – after the busy-ness of Heyford Wharf, and before the excitement of Somerton and its Deep Lock. Wonder if Dashwood’s Lock is named after Peter Dashwood, a long time stalwart and regional coordinator of DEAFASS – The Dance Earnestly and Forget About Song Society?

By Dashwood's Lock

Wednesday morning dawned bright and sunny: not a bad view from last night’s bedroom.

Dashwood's LockBy Dashwood's Lock

The trees are just starting to bud their leaves, the hawthorn’s showing white flowers, the fields of rape are pretty green and only just hinting at the garish yellow to come, while the sound of birdsong is everywhere – dawn chorus, dusk chorus, dinner-time chorus – you name it.

Buzzard in the EarKnitted Flowers

The weather was so pleasant that even the Captain came out to sniff the air before casting off. And walking up to the lock, we found some more knitted flowers on the lock balance beam: there were single ones on the Napton Flight heading uphill from Braunston to Cropredy last autumn, for no obvious reason. Clearly they’ve been breeding.

Buzzards seem to have been breeding too, because we always seemed to be in sight or earshot of one or two: if you click on the picture of Biggles on the roof to enlarge it, the small flea that looks bound for his ear is actually a Buzzard in the distance.

But although bright and sunny, it was cold… and nothing like the hot sunny weather at this time last year, when the deck chairs came out.

And as we travelled these fairly rural chunks of Oxfordshire, it looks as though the mild and wet winter has had a major impact on the bird life. Flocks of House Sparrows (often rare these days) seemed to be chittering in every hedge; we’ve never seen so many Robins chirping away, while the constant chiff chiff  chiff of the misnamed Chiff Chaff was ever-present (perhaps it’s an Oxfordshire dialect), and the unmistakeable cry of the Green Woodpecker came every few minutes. No Kingfishers spotted as yet, but some Kestrels, a Sparrowhawk, cormorants a-plenty and, of course, a Heron or three. And just passing through Somerton, we saw our first Swallow of the year. Heard plenty of Wrens too, but spotted only a very few. Compared to travelling this way at the same time last year, it really was a remarkable difference.

And so a satisfying few days meandering ended up in the busy waterway metropolis of Thrupp, and dinner at a favourite pub The Boat Inn. Can’t be bad.

Plumbing, Pizzas, Warps and Farewells

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny as promised, but instead of the early start, 10:00am found the first mate scouring Banbury’s DIY sheds for the requisite plumbing bits to solve the dirty dishwater flood, while chief cook was washing all the dirty towels used to mop up last night’s floods. Fortunately, we still had a car at Cropredy, and the sheds were the near side of Banbury, only a few minutes away by car. However, after masterful plumbing instruction from Biggles, by lunchtime, we were ready to resume departure preparations, settle up our account, and say farewell to the helpful and friendly Marina people.

Smart new Warps

For Christmas, the Captain had generously bought us some fancy new red white and blue mooring ropes (apparently known as warps), to match Song & Dance’s colour scheme. They look very smart compared to the old black and rather travel-stained ones with which we ended last year. Wonder how long they’ll look smart given the mud and crud they inevitably pick up. Still, it was a lovely thought!

Cropedy MooringMoored next to Red Kite

We said “goodbye” to our starboard neighbour, who’d been keeping an eye on the boat for us: Michael’s doing his boat up, and is one of those interesting people you meet on the canals. Once upon a long time ago he was soundman for Joe Strummer and The Clash; moving to New York he became heavily involved in the recording of Paul Simon’s Gracelands; he is now working part time in Banbury’s Oxfam record and book shop, while doing a PhD in Italian Renaissance Gardens at Rome University having turned down Oxford’s offer; he is good mates with all the Fairport / Cropredy crew and about to set up a radio station for the local Banbury Patriots footy team. You couldn’t make it up.

There’s a gap in the boats on the far side where our sister boat Toulouse normally resides, so we guess they’re out on the cut somewhere: the owner introduced himself last time we were up and was especially interested in how much we paid for Song & Dance… modesty forbids: it would only upset him!

And despite several visits over the winter, we have never met the owners of Red Kite, our port-side neighbours, even though we nearly T-boned them the first time we headed down to Banbury, back in 2014.

It was early afternoon by the time we got away, the sun had gone in – shame – but we had a pleasant and undemanding trip down to moor at Spiceball Park, pretty much in the middle of Banbury. 10 minutes by car. Several hours by Song & Dance. After the trials and tribulations and a long day, a visit to Pizza Express for a discount offer meal and bottle of wine seemed well deserved.

And funnily enough, without conscious effort, we’d set out on our summer cruise on April 10th, the same day as last year. Another omen?

Buzzards, Banbury and Dirty Dish Water

Just noticed that two backdated posts haven’t shown up in the news feeds: Biggles says that they are Moth-eaten Moggy-Part The First and Moth-eaten Moggie-Part the Second (a.k.a. “Taking The Piss”) if anyone is interested in his well being (or otherwise).

Just before packing the spring and summer boating essentials for a trip up to Banbury and Cropredy to prepare Song & Dance for departure, we noticed a Buzzard orbiting the winter quarters. An fairly unusual sight in Sunningdale: Red Kites are often spotted, Buzzards rather less so.

Saturday morning, loading Biggles into his charabanc for the journey North, we noticed two Buzzards orbiting over the garden, and another nearby being mobbed by a Ring Necked Parakeet. An omen?

Despite best intentions, we were rather late departing, but Sir remained remarkably unperturbed; on arrival at Cropredy Marina he jumped out of the car, strolled nonchalantly across the access road, then jumped aboard Song & Dance to start checking out that his essentials were where he expected.

Thinking this was a good omen we started getting everything ready for an early-ish Sunday morning departure, only to find that on emptying the large bowl of post-dinner dirty washing up water down the drain, most of it had escaped on to the kitchen floor, and was making a bolt for the bathroom and bedroom floors too. Something had clearly gone horribly wrong with the under-sink plumbing…

So much for a good omen, and the early night in preparation for an early start on Sunday, when lovely weather was forecast for the morning. That’s the glamorous life afloat…