Sunday 22 November 2020

Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. Curdworth to Marston Farm

After a stormy night we woke up on boating day to a clear blue autumn sky. We set off early because we weren’t sure that Legend would fit in the small winding hole at Minworth; it’s not marked on the map as a winding hole, mainly because it’s just a kink in the towpath, but we’d looked at it from different angles and we were sure we’d fit. If we didn’t we’d have to go all the way back to Star City in Birmingham before there was anywhere else wide enough, which would take all day. Luckily our calculations proved correct and we were soon on our way north again.

The wind was quite strong all day, but directly behind us, so not too difficult to cope with.

We filled up with water again just below the top Curdworth lock, then carried on down the flight to the hotel where we’d chosen to stay for the up-coming second lockdown. The canal was getting thick with leaves, making it impossible to go more than a hundred yards without having to go into reverse to clear the prop. Getting a wad of wet leaves stuck to the propeller can really slow you down and can be a worrying thing for new boaters. The boat goes all slow and juddery and you know there’s something wrong, so you pull over to check the prop, inevitably using reverse gear as you do. You open the weed hatch and the prop is clear, (all the leaves have either spun off in reverse or simply dropped off when you stopped) so you shut it back up and off you go. All is fine for another few minutes then it all goes slow and juddery again. After the third time this happens you get in a right panic with thoughts of broken gearboxes and failed stern tubes and you’re convinced the boat is going to sink, until you realise what’s really going on.

We call it the Minestrone Season.

We moored up just before the Marston Farm Hotel at Bodymoor Heath. Although being right outside on the mooring rings would have made easier access to the carpark, (which the hotel staff had kindly allowed us to use during lockdown) it was a bit shaded there and in November we need every photon of sunshine we can get.

CRT had suspended the Continuous Cruising requirements to move every 14 days for the duration of lockdown, and advised all boaters to only make essential journeys, so we took advantage of our extended stay and started on the engine rebuild.

Our planned project included new pistons, piston rings and barrels. The SR3 is an air cooled engine and, just like an old fashioned motorbike; each barrel is separate and lifts off the block complete with its piston once the con-rod has been released from the crankshaft.

Unlike a conventional engine which would have to be lifted out of the boat to gain access to the crankshaft, Lister made the SR3 with marine installations in mind and included a removable side ‘door’ on the crank case. Although easier than craning the whole lump out and back in again, gaining access to the far side of the bottom half of the engine is still a pain, and involved some serious contortions on Dave’s part, especially as he was now working underneath the newly installed washing machine. When we put the washing machine in, we measured all the crucial gaps and access points and made sure that getting round the back was possible. And it is. However possible and comfortable are two different things, so it was fortunate that we weren’t in a hurry and Dave could go and tinker with it without any pressure.
We filled the time in-between with wood collection and a few walks, and Ann-Marie made a sterling job of cleaning the roof which had become really grubby with leaf residue. She also made a Bonfire Cake to make up for us not having a WRG bonfire bash this year.

Talking of WRG, Nigel - one of our navvy mates who we last saw at Tewkesbury on his way round the Avon Ring - dropped by the boat one afternoon. His boat is currently at Glascote basin where he works, so he had a walk down to us for a socially distanced cup of tea and a slice of the bonfire cake. Virtual chats with friends and family are all very well, but it’s only when you spend a bit of real time with a real person that you realise how much you’ve missed it.

Back in the engine room, Dave got the new pistons and barrels installed...

...and finally figured out how to get round the oil pipes to get the con-rod nuts back on and torqued up. Once that was done he could seal up the crankcase door and never have to go back round there again. (Doubtful)

All that left was the little matter of adjusting the clearance between the cylinder heads and the pistons. This has to be very accurate; too little and the valves will hit the piston, too much and there won’t be enough compression to ignite the fuel. Measuring the gap is very old school. You place two small pieces of lead soldering wire on top of the piston...

The grease is to keep them in place.
...replace the head and tighten it down, turn the engine through 360˚ so that the piston goes past top dead centre, squashing the lead wire against the cylinder head as it does so.

 then take the head off again and measure how thick the lead is with a micrometer.

The gasket set includes a set of 0.01mm shims for placing under the cylinder head gasket should you need to adjust the gap. Dave carefully followed the procedure and all three were within tolerance with no need for any adjustment. However, when he came to tighten the head bolts for real with the inlet and exhaust manifold on
, he discovered that the torque settings were 50ft/lb, which was quite a bit more than he’d done for the checks. Would that make the clearance too small? Possibly, but here was only one way to tell for certain, so it was lucky there was no rush. Two days later, at the correct torque setting, two of the heads needed a shim to bring them into tolerance, but the other one was fine.

Ten days after starting the strip down, and with quite a few days off in between, we finally finished the rebuild and restarted the engine for a test run. There was a bit of smoking, but nowhere near what it had been, and probably just oil from the rebuild burning off. It might be that we need to get the injectors reconditioned, but we’ll run the new stuff in first.

Outside of the engine room lockdown life has still been going on. Bonfire night came and went; Ann-Marie lovingly painted our bonfire bunting and hung it up in the windows, where no-one came past the boat to see it. The weather is getting more wintry, wet and windy with waves on the canal and mud everywhere. We’ve had a couple of walks round the beautiful Kingsbury Waterpark with its ever growing population of migratory water birds.

Also there’s a flock of Fieldfares round here which provide entertainment and one day we were delighted to see a Goldcrest, a first for us.

Now he’s out of the engine room, Dave has been getting in Ann-Marie’s way in the kitchen and has started making bread in an effort to minimise our trips to the shops. We’re also using dried milk powder instead of fresh and when we do go shopping we make sure we stock up on tinned stuff.

There are very few people walking past the boat. Unlike Wallingford where we were close to the town and nearly everyone took their allotted exercise on the Thames path, out here, away from anywhere big, we get the occasional dog walker and the odd fisherman, but that’s all. Apart from Nigel and half a dozen words with another boater, we’ve not talked to anyone in person since we got here. This winter is going to be tough for solo liveaboards; at least we’ve got each other.

The almost total lack of boat movement at the moment has resulted in the canal water becoming amazingly clear. Being able to see just how shallow the edges are in most places is a bit of an eye opener! There is truth in the saying that what you can’t see doesn’t worry you.

In order to restrict our boat movements as much as possible, we’re going to stay where we are until we run out of drinking water. When that happens we’ll go down the next two locks to the tap and then reverse back up one lock to the moorings outside the Dog and Doublet pub, where we’ll stay till this lockdown is all over, however long that may be.

We hope you’re staying safe and well in these troubled times Dear Reader, remember there is always light at the end of every tunnel.

Monday 9 November 2020

Grand Union Canal. Biringham and Fazeley Canal. Knowle to Curdworth.

Autumn has definitely arrived; we’ve got a fire in most days, Dave’s been out wombling for wood, and Ann-Marie has pulled all the summer veg plants out and replaced them with spring bulbs.

After a day of rain, a wet grass and muddy walk over to Temple Balsal left us both with wet feet. We live in our walking boots - Dave especially - even really good ones rarely last more than 3 years and at the end of last winter we knew we’d both be needing new ones before long.

A couple of days later, with some help from the CRT volunteer lock keepers, we climbed up the beautiful Knowle locks and moored up just before Kixley Lane bridge.

Another lovely mooring and the best place for access to the town. We really like Knowle, the people
are friendly and the town is the perfect size to be big enough to be useful without being soul-less.

The idea of getting wet feet again finally over came our trepidation about shoe shopping in a time of Covid, so we gritted our loins and girded our teeth and drove into Solihull to buy new walking boots. Despite the stress of trying boots on while wearing a face mask and trying to maintain social distance, it wasn't quite as horrific as we’d expected, and we both managed to find a pair we were happy with in Millets, which was the first shop we went in.

The following morning Martin and Yvonne were coming to see us on their way to Hawne Basin. When they’re not on Evolution over winter, they take their gas bottles home to use at the cottage, so between us we’d hatched a cunning plan. They could bring their spare full gas bottle with them and sell it to us, then they could take our empty one to Hawne for exchange and take it home. We’d also arranged to give them our remaining wooden garden chair. After the other one got stolen at Stourport there didn’t seem much point only having one. So when they drove down Kixley lane to the little parking spot, they found Dave waiting for them, sat on a chair next to a gas bottle on a sack truck. Oh how we laughed.

Ann-Marie had made a delicious orange and almond cake and, because we were in tier 2 and our guests weren’t allowed inside, we made take-away coffee and took a picnic down to the top of the locks where we sat on the gates and admired the view.

Back at the boat it had brightened up a bit so we were able to roll the cratch cover up and sit in the well deck where we had more coffee and finished the cake off before they left. In the afternoon we moved the car to Chelmsley Wood, which is nowhere near a canal, but at a point half way as the crow flies between Knowle on the GU, and Curdworth on the Birmingham and Fazeley. We left it in it’s natural habitat; on the roadside in the urban sprawl, just one more anonymous silver hatchback amid all the others. Our walk back to the boat was an eclectic mix of footways; tree lined pavements through the huge Birmingham Airport industrial complex...

...dizzy-high overpasses spanning Junction 4 of the M42, the noisy pavement along the side of Catherine-de-Barnes lane and the quiet towpath back to Legend.

In the morning Dave did a quick early morning run into Knowle for some bread rolls, then we set off with a big day’s boating ahead. First the ten mile summit from Knowle to Camp Hill with the water about eight inches below where it should have been. We’d phoned CRT about the low water when we first got to the top, and we’d asked a couple of the maintenance team guys what was going on, and the consensus seemed to be that there was a leak somewhere but until it gets bigger they won’t be able to find it. It didn’t cause us any major problems though. It was slow going sometimes - to avoid making a wash - and we cloncked over the bottom more than once going through bridge holes, but there was very little traffic, we only passed two boats going the other way, so keeping to the middle was easy.

Camp Hill is the furthest north that wide beam boats on the Southern canals and rivers can go.

The major improvement program in the 1930s that saw the GU widened and straightened only got as far as there before resistance from the Birmingham narrowboat companies, who were concerned about losing their monopoly, combined with the growing realisation that moving freight by road and rail was the way forward, brought it all to a grinding halt. Camp Hill locks and all the others on the Birmingham Canal Navigations are only seven feet wide. Just before the locks there there is a big space to turn, enough secure overnight moorings for two or three boats and and a very good services block. We emptied out and filled up, then set off down the locks to Bordesley Junction where we turned right onto the last part of the GU - formerly the beginning of the Birmingham and Warwick Junction Canal - and down Garrison Locks.

New water for us; we try to ticking off another bit of the BCN whenever we can, but with more canals than Venice, there’s still an awful lot of it we haven’t done. At the bottom of Garrison locks we had a late lunch on the go, then at Star City, under Spaghetti Junction on the M6, we turned right onto the Birmingham and Fazeley.
The graffiti and razor wire of the city gradually receded as we headed north-east, then as we dropped down the three Minworth locks the open fields returned.
After a big 10 hour boating day, we finally stopped just short of Curdworth outside the Cuttle Bridge inn.

The next morning we had a lovely walk back to Chelmsley Wood through Water Orton...

...and some very pleasant urban parks and were back at the boat just in time for lunch. In the afternoon, because the pub’s all night flood lights were a bit bright, we moved up through the next bridge.

Crucially, that bridge was on the county border between Minworth in Birmingham and Curdworth in Warwickshire so we moved from Covid Tier 2 into Tier 1, which meant that when M&Y came for lunch on their way home the next day they were able to come through the doors. Yipee. In actual fact they didn’t spend very long indoors as it was such a nice day we sat out on the towpath and had a barbecue.

We stayed at Curdworth for the full fortnight, there were some lovely autumnal days when we got out for walks, and we had a drive over to Wenlock to spend a day with Alison and pick up the new engine bits that had arrived. It began to look likely that there was going to be another lockdown, so while we could still travel, we went down to Mum and Dad’s to fit the carpet tiles in the hallway...

...and took the opportunity to pop in on our mates at Wallingford on the way. All the time we were moored there we had either been flooded or in the first lockdown, and despite living next door to Colin and Julia for months, we’d never actually been inside Smith’s Lady, so it was really wonderful to finally be able to step aboard and have a look round their beautiful boat. Steve came over and joined us and we spent a far too short couple of hours catching up and swapping watery tales. Colin had recently fitted a water purifying system, which we were very interested in. Water collection was the only thing that made our life difficult when we were stuck; being able to make drinking quality water from a river would make us completely independent. And at £500 for the whole system it certainly gave us something to think about.

The carpet fitting went quite well. Dave started on Friday while Ann-Marie helped Mum with her new raised bed in the garden, then we all had fish and chips at Karen’s in the evening.

On Saturday Dave finished the carpet tiles and started on the six threshold strips. They were a bit of a pain because the screws were too short, but once Dad came up with some longer ones it was all fine.

After lunch on the Sunday we set off home via Aldermaston where Ken and Annie were moored on Ceilidh. It was really good to catch up with them as we hadn’t seen them for ages.

The next day we turned the boat round. This killed two birds with one stone; first it meant we could go the the nearest tap and fill up, and second it put the chimney on the towpath side so Dave could fit the new stainless steel chimney liner and clean up the side of the boat where the old galvanised liner had leaked sooty tar all down it.

 There was a lock between the windy hole and the tap, so we turned round and went down  backwards.

Always nice to do something exciting!

On Friday afternoon, after a rather wet week, Dave took the old rusty flue pipe out ready to go over to Ernie the Welder in the morning.

It came out relatively easily, mainly because there wasn’t a lot of metal left above the join with the ceiling collar.

Of course that meant we didn’t have any heating, but luckily it was really mild that weekend, so we snuggled up under the duvet with the electric blanket on. We’d had a new length of pipe delivered to Ernie so, in the morning, as soon as Dave turned up with the old one to use as a pattern he got on with it.

Between them Dave and Ernie decided that as the old pipe was only rotten at the top, it made sense to replace that bit rather than scrap the whole thing and make a new one. That meant that even with quite a bit of time spent getting the angles perfect, Ernie had it all done in an hour and only charged us £50.

Of course it also meant that we only used about a foot of the new pipe and we’ve now got to find somewhere to keep what’s left. Dad’s garage perhaps?

As soon as he got back , Dave got on with putting the pipe back in so that we could have a fire again. He used mineral fibre insulation to make up the gap between the pipe and the collar and sealed up the joints with high temperature mastic.

Unfortunately we had to then leave it for 24 hours for the mastic to cure, so that meant another evening under the duvet, this time with the electric blanket, pizza and wine. It’s a a hard life.

Dave was up early to paint the flue and the stove top with stove paint, then we went off for a day with Laura and Alison on Wenlock Edge. Anne joined us there for Laura’s lovely Lamb curry and left with some cushions. (It’s a long story. Short version: L&A are swapping the cushions on their new corner unit. Anne is building a new sofa and needs cushions.)

When we got back home we lit a couple of small fires to cure the paint properly, followed by a proper fire to finally get the boat warm again.

To be fair we were really lucky with the weather, we had no heating for three days around Halloween and only got slightly chilly. Halloween is our First Kiss anniversary, and although we didn’t have our usual warm hats and coats towpath barbecue surrounded by candles, we’ll still remember this one.


Saturday 24 October 2020

Stratford on Avon Canal.Grand Union Canal. Edstone Aqueduct to Knowle.

We’ve put a big tick next to Draper Bridge.

It’s a lovely place to be; quiet, sunny with a very pleasant view. While we were there our daily walks took us along some more bits of the Monarch’s Way... of which took us past the shop in Wootton Wawen which sells 75p Magnum lookalikes. Result!

Despite the sunshine and icecream, the weather was definitely turning. We’ve dug the winter clothes out from under the bed and vac-packed the summer dresses, shorts and sunhats away. The countryside is still full of free fruit, the damsons are still prolific and so juicy that we’ve got a constant bowlful on the table and we’re eating them like sweets. We’ve found the odd bullace tree in between  the abundance of sloes, which has given us some gorgeous looking chutney, and of course we’ve got the obligatory two bottles of sloe gin set up for Christmas. The blackberries are still going and although they’re getting sparser, there’s still more than enough for our breakfast porridge.

After three lovely days there we had to crack on. On a misty morning we slipped our mooring, crossed the fabulous Edstone Aqueduct...

...and headed for Wootton Wawen. The visitor moorings there are 24hrs only, but that was enough for our needs. Dave had been waiting for the towpath to swap sides so that he could drill a hole in the side of the boat for the skin fitting that would provide the drain for the washing machine, and put the second to last piece of that particular puzzle in place.

After he’d finished we took advantage of the sunshine and went out to find another bit of the Monarch’s way. And another 75p ice cream. Just as well we were only there for one night.

On the first official day of Autumn we walked back to Edstone for the car, drove to Chalcote Park (NT) and had a lovely walk around the parkland.

We leapfrogged the car forward to leave it at Lowsonford, and as we walked back to the Legend we came across several boats having difficulty with low water on the Preston Bagot locks. 

We had planned to go up those particular locks that afternoon, but decided instead to moor at the bottom and wait a couple of days until a forecast band of rain had passed, and hopefully raised the water levels a bit.

While it was raining we got all the maps out, downloaded CRT’s planned winter stoppages list, and sketched out our travels for the winter and into next year.

We’d had ideas about going into Birmingham and then exploring the Wirley and Essington canal, but with closures on both the way in and out we realised that it wouldn’t really be possible, so we’ve decided we’re going to skirt round the city. We need to be up the GU and through Knowle locks before they shut in November, and down Camp Hill and Garrison locks before they shut, followed by a right turn onto the Birmingham and Fazely at Spaghetti Junction which will take us to Curdworth on our way to Fazely junction. Hopefully we can do that in a couple of hops; mooring in the city centre is fine but we don’t like stopping for long in the outskirts. So we won’t be seeing much of Birmingham this year, but we can come back and do the Wirley and Essington some other time.

After a day of rain we figured that the locks should be deeper and easier to navigate and, for the most part they were.

However, despite us being only the third boat through that day, the shortest pound was already looking quite low. It only takes one leaky lock to mess up a whole flight and if that lock is at the end of a short pound, as this one was, it doesn’t take long for it to happen. The South Stratford is a really busy canal with lots of hire boats and summer cruisers off to Stratford and the popular Avon Ring; having a difficult lock in the middle of a tightly planned schedule can really cause problems for them. We’d seen several boats running later than usual over the previous couple of weeks and no doubt this one lock was the reason. We consider ourselves extremely lucky that our plans are always flexible enough to allow another couple of days moored somewhere when the going gets tough - or even just because it’s nice where we are. Anyway we got through without trouble and at Lowsonford, - just as it started to rain - we hurriedly moored up in the clearest spot we could find at Moorhills bend, just below the bottom lock.

While we were boating, we got in touch with a Lister engine specialist and ordered some new pistons, rings and barrels for our smoky old SR3, so when we moored up we were £450 worse off. But that’s OK, as in 2020 there was £500 in the holiday budget that hadn’t been touched. We asked for it to be delivered to the Margees, so there was a small chance it was going to be there at the weekend when we went to pick up the new inverter.

When we were on our way down the Stratford 9 years ago, we’d walked over to Henley-in-Arden. We knew this because it was in the diary, but Ann-Marie couldn’t remember it at all and Dave only remembered the Motte and Bailey, so we thought it was time for a revisit.

We found a little cosy café for lunch, had a walk up and down the high street and went home with an ice cream from the co-op. However, despite spending a couple of hours there, neither of us remembered much about our first visit. We were quite encouraged by this. As we are getting close to having navigated the entire system, it has occasionally crossed our minds that sooner or later there won’t be anywhere that we haven’t been, and it’ll all get a bit boring. This is clearly not the case. We’ll happily do the whole thing again, at worst it’ll be like visiting old friends, and at best we’ll be discovering it all anew! 

After a lovely day out at Wenlock edge with Alison and Laura, including a walk along the Edge and a fabulous roast dinner, we came home with our new inverter. Unfortunately the engine parts hadn’t turned up, so we’ll just have to go back again. Ah well. 

The next day we filled the water tank and had a lovely morning boating up to Kingswood junction...

...where we found a hire boat moored in our favourite spot, but as luck would have it they were only there for lunch and pulled out just as we came out of the lock.

We moored there for the first time 9 years ago and we’ve been back at least twice since, so this was our fourth time and it’s starting to feel like home. It does feel strange that we've been doing this long enough to have favourite moorings.

In the morning Dave fitted the new inverter (the final jigsaw piece) and we put a load through the washing machine using only solar power. Most people would be baffled by the amount of excitement this gave us, but we know that you, Dear Reader, having followed our journey from the start, will completely understand why watching our smalls going round and round on nothing but sunshine nearly brought us to tears.

We stayed at the beautiful Kingswood for just over a week.

While we were there Frankie and Harry finally sold their house which was a load of everyone’s minds and means they can now get on with their lives.

It also rained for two days solid, so that when we finally went out for a walk we found one place where the little stream next to the canal was now flowing across the towpath and into the cut, before flowing back the other way a bit further on.

Something else that needs planning and sorting out is our flue pipe. Not the chimney - which does need replacing but is just a matter of picking one up from a chandlers - but the flue pipe from the top of the stove to the roof. It’s rusting through at the top where it goes into the roof collar and although we’ve repaired it with high temperature sealant, that is really only a temporary measure and we need to get it replaced as soon as possible. It’s a bespoke item with a welded angle at each end so that it follows the profile of the boat, so we need to either get the boat to a yard that can do neat, precise fabrication, or arrange a day when we can remove the old pipe and take it in the car. It’s been ongoing since we were at Wallingford and we thought we’d be able to get one made up at Stourport while we were in dry dock, but they were short staffed and too busy. We’ve gone through a couple of other options but the covid restrictions have been making things difficult, and at the moment we are looking for a local fabricator. We’ll let you know how that develops.

 Over the years our DVD film collection has got somewhat out of hand and grown far too large for our little boat. We keep them in zip-up folders to save space, but even though they each take 128 discs there’s still a pile in a cupboard that fall out every time we open the door. This situation had to end, so we’ve started on a campaign to thin them down to just the 5 folders - we think 640 films should be enough - and after that it will be a One in, One out regime. We put about 30 straight into the “Won’t watch again” pile, reunited them with their fly sheets and left them on the book exchange shelf at Kingswood services, and we’ve obviously kept all our old favourites, but that has left us with about 20 in the “Don’t Know” pile. So, as the weather is getting more Autumnal, we have a bag full of films to go through that we either can’t remember or have never seen. That sounds like a good plan to us. 

From our happy place at Kingswood we went up the last lock on the South Stratford, filled and emptied at the services...

... then made the tight right turn into the short Lapworth Link. We chugged slowly under the railway bridge and past the permanent moorings, then with two blasts of the hooter to warn other boats, emerged onto the Grand Union and turned north towards Birmingham.

We didn’t go far, just far enough for a rapid wash, and moored up in a nice looking spot before Bakers Lane Bridge. (We will stop mentioning the washing at some point, but humour us for now.)

We knew we were getting low on gas; it had started to get smelly which is a sure fire indication that it's about to run out. (Apparently, the additive that is put into LPG to make it smell is everso slightly heavier than the gas so it's more concentrated at the bottom of the bottle) Anyway, we were hoping that our second bottle would last until we went to see Yvonne and Martin in Hawne basin where we could get them both exchanged, however the bottle had other ideas and gave up half way through boiling the kettle for our bedtime cuppa. That was sad, but better than running out half way through a shower or cooking dinner.

Dave tried the electric kettle in the morning, but the batteries were having none of it, so he had to resort to the camping cooker for our morning tea. After a cold breakfast we walked back to Kingswood for the car, then exchanged one of our bottles at a local stockist and had a lovely hot cooked breakfast for lunch.

The next day was Sunday. It was a beautiful sunny morning so, with Dave’s yummy Bake-Off Technical Challenge bagels on the back deck...


...we set off for another super mooring at the bottom of Knowle locks with big wide views and plenty of solar. As soon as we were tied up and the washing was out on the line we walked back for the car and went into Solihull for the Waitrose Weekend paper and a Halloween pumpkin. Last year we ended up with a the last one in the shop; a very sorry looking lumpy thing, so this year we didn’t leave it till the last minute and came home with a fine example.

In a few days we’ll ascend the flight, but for now we’ll stay at the bottom and enjoy the view.



Brentford to New Haw Lock. GU mainline. River Brent. River Thames. Wey and Godalming Navigations.

We had just over a week at Brentford waiting for the Thames strong stream warnings to come down from red to amber, and we made good use of o...