Monthly Archives: April 2017

Warring Wrens, Curlews and Herbie Again

Aiming for Banbury on Friday, we headed off through Aynho Weir Lock. Like Shipton Wier Lock, it’s an odd lozenge shape that’s fine for 70ft boats and for any less than about 30ft, but a right bu**er for 58ft boats like Song & Dance. Onto the River Cherwell again, I jumped ship some way in advance of Nell’s Bridge Lock, as you need to cross a main road to get at it, Walking up the towpath, I noticed a small commotion: it looked like a sparrow having a dust bath, as one sometimes sees. Quietly moving closer, it appeared to be two smaller birds having a dust bath together – robins I originally thought. Creeping even closer it became clear it was two young wrens having a serious punch-up. They were both flapping around and pecking away at each  other, rolling on their backs and trying to trap the other in the claw waving disembowelling move familiar to any cat staff (but with only two legs, rather less successfully). Never seen anything like that before! With no camera to hand, I got within two feet before both jumped onto their feet then flew into the hedgerow. Adolescent brothers, maybe…

Stopping at the Pig Place just above the lock, madame was again failing to cook bacon sarnies, so we bought some sausages for later, had lunch on the boat and trundled off through Kings Sutton for Banbury. One of these days we’ll visit Kings Sutton – it lies very close to the canal and looks interesting, but with no way across the intervening River Cherwell and railway line the nearest point of access is a couple of bridges up then a long walk back along a main-ish road. Next year maybe.

Anyway, we pottered into Banbury late afternoon, and passing through Castle Quay noticed Herbie again with someone on board, so mooring up again at Spiceball Park, we strolled back along the towpath and banged on the hatch. Sure enough, Neil & Kath emerged: they’d seen us at Heyford when they returned by train from a cultural trip to Oxford. They’d had some friends on board, hence “That’s not Neil at the helm”. Anyway, the teapot was produced, and after a considerable natter we retired to Song & Dance for DIY bangers and mash.

After a shopping expedition on Saturday morning for Sir’s provisions and some clothes for the FO, we set off to get up through Slat Mill Lock and moor by Peewit Farm, just short of Cropredy. The plan was to get into Cropredy  Marina on Sunday morning, and make a start on the enormous laundry backlog. Monday would be devoted to much the same, with maybe a side trip by car to the big Tesco on the outskirts of Banbury, while Tuesday would see an early start down the M40 to Ruislip Crematorium for a funeral. Coming out of Banbury, by the huge new Amazon warehouse, and still miles from the misnamed Peewit Farm and the other side of the M40, we heard a pair of curlews bubbling away. An omen?

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Bluebells, Herbie and Other Oddities

Setting off through Kidlington Green lock on the Tuesday morning, Biggles’ chauffeurs from the day before had already left, and we had a quick run through the outskirts of Kidlington before a stop at Thrupp for first lunch on the boat then a mandatory coffee and cake for second lunch at Annie’s Tea Room. Climbing on and off the River Cherwell at Shipton Weir Lock and Bakers Lock respectively, we failed to get moored anywhere near the Rock of Gibraltar pub so were saved the necessity of a third lunch, and moored up just below Pigeon Lock, near Kirtlington – a place we’ve used quite a few times before. It’s where Biggles first went swimming.

The next morning, as we went up Pigeon Lock, we noticed that as well as loads of blossom, petals and general debris, the water was full of small dead – or occasionally just very nearly dead – winged insects. They didn’t seem to be flying ants; there didn’t seem to many insects flying around, and there were hundreds of the things in every square foot of surface water. Must have been millions overall – we noticed this for some miles up the canal. All very odd.

Cruising along below Kirtlington Quarry on Wednesday morning, the woods were full of bluebells. With no sign of them on the way down last week, the warm and sunny weekend must have brought them all out, even if the weather had again turned dull and cold.

Just before Northbrook lock, a boat coming the other way said that one of the top paddles was stuck up (or rather jammed up – they’re not proud); they’d had real difficulty opening the bottom gate and extracting their boat, and called CaRT. As we arrived, two CaRT people were walking down the bank with long poles and hooks, expecting to fish debris out of the paddle area. After half-an-hour with no success, they said they’d try and get us through by brute force, and with the bottom paddles open and three of us straining on the balance beam, we managed to crack the bottom gate open and equalize the pressure. Once the bottom gate was open, there was no problem in locking up; once through we said “good bye and thanks” and left them carrying on trying to fix the problem.

Arriving at Heyford, there was space on the visitor mooring, and we weren’t in a hurry, so we moored up after a short-ish day. We noticed we were immediately in front of our folky friends Neil & Kath’s boat Herbie. They moor Herbie at Cropredy these days, so it wasn’t surprising. The boat was closed up with no sign of life, and with Heyford station so close, we guessed they’d maybe caught a train somewhere. Or perhaps just retired to the pub. Never mind – it was cold so we retired to The Bell for dinner ourselves. Last time we were there they persuaded SWMBO to try some dry Perry one lunchtime. It was over 7% ABV. After nearly three-quarters of a punt she was somewhat unnecessary the rest of the afternoon.

We were a little late getting organised on Thursday morning, and saw Herbie pulling away. “That’s not Neil at the helm” remarked herself. Perhaps they’d lent the boat to some friends for a few days. It was still cold and miserable, so after negotiating Heyford more quickly than usual – they’ve electrified the really difficult lift bridge (hooray) – and pulling up just outside Upper Heyford at Allen’s Lock we went up the hill to The Barley Mow for lunch and a warm up. The Guinness was good, as were the baguettes, and they had a nice fire going. Perfect. Setting off again into the cold, we ended up mooring at another favourite spot between Somerton Deep Lock and Aynho Wharf. Even when you know it well, it’s a nice canal for pottering along slowly.

Manifestly Missing in Wolvercote–Sue’s Revenge?

To retrace one’s steps from Jericho up the Oxford Canal, a 58ft boat like Song & Dance needs to let down through Isis Lock, wind in Castle Mill Stream then climb back up through the lock back onto the canal. Castle Mill Stream is technically part of the Thames system and theoretically requires an Environment Agency Licence, but I rather suspect no one actually bothers about it. The more pleasant alternative is actually to go on to the Thames and travel uphill a few miles, before re-joining the canal at Duke’s Cut. But that would definitely require an expensive day licence from Godstow Lock, so Wolvercote and the Annex 21 Residential Moorings it was.

Not far from Wolvercote lock, we saw Dragonfly moored up: the boat who rescued Sir from a death worse than fate last year. We brought him out to the rear deck to wave and say thanks, but there was no one on board.

As we approached the lock, an elderly gentleman avec windlass but sans CaRT sweatshirt or life-jacket kindly drained the lock and opened the bottom gate for us. Said he was a volunteer, but clearly an unofficial one. Reckoned he’d been around the Oxford Canal for several decades. Anyway, the head gardener and he chatted away furiously while I sorted out the top gates, and then went ahead to prep the next obstacle. It’s a busy spot from the crewing perspective: Wolvercote lock, two heavy lift bridges, Duke’s Lock and then another heavy lift bridge, before time to relax on a pleasant mile and half stretch before our expected mooring: a pleasant spot just before Kidlington Green Lock.

Going down into the boat to get some bits for mooring, I thought a quick headcount was in order, to check all items on the manifest were present and correct. but we appeared to be missing something. Although tempted to follow Eric Frank Russell’s solution, we reluctantly came to the conclusion that Sir had jumped ship somewhere after we’d last seen him below Wolvercote lock. With the nearest winding hole a good hour and half each way at Thrupp, there was nothing for it but a long walk back to the outskirts of Oxford, to try and locate the mutineer.

Sending Fran off ahead while I secured the boat properly, we trekked in tandem back down the canal with no joy, all the way to Wolvercote lock. There, there was a hire boat unloading kids and bikes and relatives and stuff: again  like everyone else on the way they’d seen no sign. When they eventually moved off madam crossed over from the towpath sign for one last call, and a sheepish “miaow” preceded the emergence of a small grey cat from the bushes.

When lots of dogs and their masters are around, the boss doesn’t really like being held while walking down the towpath: the thought of a two and a half mile trek like that didn’t appeal. The hire boat was just pulling up at the next lift bridge – the couple were on their first cruise, and would be delighted to give a lift to a distressed pussy and his female servant, especially as I’d offered to work the remaining bridges and lock for them…

Dropping us at Song & Dance they carried on to moor just above the lock; after dinner they wandered down and joined us for a glass or two, and a pleasant evening. Sir remained sheepishly in his basket all evening.

That’s twice now that Biggles has done something manifestly daft the day after our friend Sue has left the boat. Perhaps there’s a message there somewhere.

Morris Oxford – again

Jackstraws weren’t dancing on the Sunday, but our boat-guest Sue was dancing with her other side Rockhoppers, and it was nice and warm and sunny again, so we tootled along to the the Ashmolean to watch.

Ashmolean Belly DancersAshmolean Belly Dancers

DSCF5548

Fran was particularly taken by the Belly Dancers, and I have vague memories of our Sue doing a demonstration at a Jackstraws Christmas Party some quite a few years ago. Perhaps alcohol was involved. Or perhaps there’ll be a new side forming…

RockhoppersRockhoppers

Morris cognoscenti will spot that (a)  Rockhopper Sue isn’t dancing in this set, (b) fellow Sidmouth MC Barry Goodman is playing melodeon, and (c) there’s another member of Jackstraws double-teaming with Rockhoppers.

Teppa's Tump

Also putting in an appearance were Taeppa’s Tump, a side from Maidenhead near the Captain’s winter quarters.

Moulton MorrisSimon Care

Moulton Morris seem to be starting their dancers young, even if their musician was too busy planning his escape to Costa Del Folk to play… (sorry, Simon!)

While Rockhoppers had their annual dinner, the Song & Dance chef continued the endless pursuit of hares on a hillside, and we went to see Leveret… a lovely concert with Andy Cutting & friends and their delightful perpetual motion music.

All in all a pretty good weekend.

What a Change

The Saturday after Easter. The Saturday after we’d set sail from Cropredy. Must be Oxford Folk Weekend, and as usual, SWMBO and the rest of Jackstraws Morris had been invited to dance. But – unlike last year – the weather was warm and sunny. No snow. No biting wind. No having to dance indoors with the dinosaurs

And thankfully, no huge backlog of boats trying to get onto the Thames, and no trying to keep mooring pins in a bank with the consistency of warm butter.

Our friend Sue – of Jackstraws and Rockhoppers – was staying over like last year, and arrived from the station just in time to go dancing. Apparently we have to have some pictures, so those of a nervous disposition should look away now…

Jackstraws Morris: Oxford Folk WeekendJackstraws Morris: Oxford Folk Weekend

Here they are, as good as ever, in Broad Street, just outside Balliol College.

Jackstraws Morris: Oxford Folk WeekendJackstraws Morris: Oxford Folk Weekend

Jackstraws Morris & Friends: Oxford Folk Weekend

And later on, on an interestingly down-hill pitch, they even managed to get some passers by to join in, even if the wee lad who didn’t speak English seemed a bit bemused.

Scandawegian Session

And where else but Oxford would you stumble onto a pub sessions with three nyckelharpas, a viola, the smallest portable harmonium ever seen, and an Arabic looking gentlemen playing a black-skinned banjo, as well as the more usual accoutrements?

After dancing all day, the ladies were tired, so we retired – as last year – to  a Lebanese restaurant just across the canal in Jericho, for some nice Lebanese food, and some nice Lebanese wine too (courtesy of Serge Hochar – it’s a good job we didn’t know he was now “the late…” or we might have had to raise another glass or two, which would have been a bad move).

Omens, Portents and a Tactical Error

With all the diversions delays and so on, the need for two trips to shuttle everything – including the boss – to winter quarters, and some pre-departure chores to do, it was mid-afternoon on Easter Tuesday before we finally set sail. Not helped by the Captain disappearing and taking some time to locate, rather confused, a long way from the boat. That “marina orientation” course looks even more necessary!

Despite the plan to head North, we started by heading South for reasons that really aren’t mentioned in polite society. It was a glorious sunny and warm April day, with a few scattered fair-weather cumulus and very little wind. We’d been serenaded during our departure preparations by a Reed Bunting and a Blackbird in the hedge by the boat. The omens were good, and it was nice to back on the cut again.

As seemingly usual, as we passed Peewit Farm by Slat Mill Lock, a mile or two south of Cropredy, there wasn’t a Lapwing in sight, but, as usual we heard and saw a pair of Curlews bubbling away. Still seems a little odd hearing them in rural Oxfordshire, even more so now they’re on the Red List of endangered species. They even gave us a fly-past – the omens were good.

Reaching Banbury late afternoon after a few locks had exercised muscles that had atrophied over the winter, we moored up close to the centre in Spiceball Park. We could have moored right in the middle of the shopping centre, but the boss prefers some greenery to hide in or explore. And there we made a tactical error.

Quickly scanning TripAdvisor, we headed for a highly regarded Italian Restaurant for a celebratory dinner, and having failed to take on board the comments about portion sizes, both of us ordered a starter and a main. The starters were both large enough to be main courses for two, so although the food was excellent, we failed at the second hurdle. Asking for TWO doggie bags is a first for us. Perhaps the portents for our usual summer exercise-led weight loss programme weren’t as good as the cruising omens.

We staggered back to the boat, to find the Captain, fresh from bothering the hedgerow birds in the park, sitting on the back deck with an accusing eye.

Still, at least we’re afloat.

Denillanne Bigglesworth is Unwell…

…or more particularly has been unwell (unlike Jeffrey Bernard, who was always unwell). Now 15+ years old, and still standing his ground when faced by whippets, the boss is still foolish enough to get into a scrap with the neighbourhood unneutered toms. In the New Year he developed a nasty abscess on his head. We took him to the vet, who decreed that in addition to the foul smelling wound and infection, he was seriously dehydrated, had lost a lot of weight and was proper poorly. There followed a long period with blood tests, being kept on a drip, antibiotics, a second mortgage, special diets – you know the drill. Basically, with chronic and occasionally acute pancreatitis and chronic kidney disease he was reaching the end of his nine lives.

It rather looked as though Biggles wasn’t going to go boating again: twice we took him to the vet, not expecting to bring him back home, but somehow he pulled through, perked up, started eating us out of house and home, put some weight back on and generally seemed to be near to his normal self. Much to his pleasure, and the astonishment of the vet, even though he seems to have developed an addiction to the pussy equivalent of Complan. And with the next-door neighbour’s cat still putting sir’s nose out of joint, he seemed happier when on the boat, so, against all the odds, it looked as though some more boating adventures in 2017 were on the menu.

Hence it was back to cruise planning mode after all. With an old friend passing away unexpectedly, involving us in some tracking people down and sorting out stuff exercises, we were a bit busier than we were expecting to be, but did manage to squeeze in a visit to the nearby Savill Garden one sunny afternoon, one of the deputy gardener’s favourite places.

So here are some pictures. Nothing to do with Biggles or Boating, but you can’t have it all!

The tulip border was magnificent, and the big lilies were gearing up for the season.

The Savill Garden: Tulip BorderDSCF5479

The rhododendrons and azaleas are always lovely here, and most of the magnolias were in their prime…

The Savill GardenThe Savill Garden: Magnolias

… as was the head gardener and her chums.

The Savill Garden: A Rose by any other Name...Weeeeed....

We thought there’d been a snowstorm here, but it was just more magnolias.

The Savill Garden: Snow Fall?The Savill Garden: More Magnolias

Really  must get down to getting ready to take Biggles boating again.