Monday, 27 April 2015

Magic Bluebells

The path leading to the secret bluebell woods

Located not very far from Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds is a secret bluebell wood. It’s virtually impossible to find and as the locals don’t want hoards of walkers, trekkers or naturalists any sign erected to direct people to the site is soon removed. The woods is also a haven for bats but frankly I wonder how many of them find it as the location is such a closely guarded secret.

Today I visited the woods being careful to ensure I was not being followed by people in bobble hats. I took a circuitous route to throw off any would be sleuths keen to discover the wood’s whereabouts. Clutching cameras, lenses and a tripod I walked the last half mile to this woodland treasure anticipating the rich carpet of bluebells that awaited.

Someone had been busy.
Imagine my surprise to discover the woods were devoid of all but a few token bluebells dotted among the vast green openness. Had there been a blight which had wiped out the bluebells? Had I got lost and wandered into the wrong wood?  Was I too late, had the bluebells been and gone? Perhaps they were magic bluebells which hid on the approach of a photographer!

Hardly a bluebell to be seen. 
None of the above. I was too early, about a fortnight too early. Although bluebells are out in vast numbers on roadsides nearby the millions of bulbs in the woods have yet to blossom. I will have to return in a week or so and check progress by then, of course, it will be raining.

Isn’t nature so inconvenient.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Jo (left), Lori (right) on lock duty.

Take a golfer and put him on a football pitch. Transplant a vet delivering sheep and drop her into a hospital maternity suite.  Pluck a fryer from the local chippy and put him in a Michelin 3-star kitchen. All would have an idea of what’s needed and their existing skills would give them a start but their knowledge would soon show gaps when it came down to the specialist skills. Well, that’s how it’s been this last weekend.

Six experienced sailors went afloat on a canal boat. Firstly we’re not really sure if it qualifies for the definition ‘boat’. Tin bath-tub with an engine would be more accurate. Now it has to be said this bath-tub was well appointed. Three double en-suite cabins, a hot water system with proper radiators, WiFi, four, yes four televisions, filter coffee maker, full size domestic fridge, a cooker which would not look out of place in a modern flat, mains powered toaster, even a hairdryer. It was very comfortable and boasted a finish as every bit as good as you’d expect ashore. The only problem is that it does not behave like a boat…its passage through the water owes more to the fluid dynamics of a tin box. The load on the tiller was enormous. Sometimes the box responded to the helm and sometimes it did not. Naturally it chose not to respond just when we most needed it.  One thing canals have in common with the sea is that Sod’s Law operates on both. There is also an acceptance that canal boats are meant to come into contact….with each other, with bridges, with lock gates, with banks. They are the aquatic manifestation of dodgems. We did not see one canal boat without a scratch or dent. Come to think of it we did not see one bridge or lock that did not carry the scars of close encounters of the canal boat kind. As one boater recently said on a TV programme “Canal boating is a contact sport”.

The lock crew (Jo, Jan and Lori) on their way to the next lock.
Now, the reason I mention all this is not to belittle canal boaters or even canal boats it’s just that the whole ethos is as alien to us yachties as soccer would be to a golfer. On yachts you go to extreme lengths to stop boats coming into contact and we invest fortunes in large inflatable fenders to stop contact. Fenders have no place on canals - to bump is to live.

We have finger light tillers and wheels on a yacht and can move twenty tons of boat with a finger touch. On the canal boat you need brute strength and body weight to move the rudder. Instincts have to be re-learned.

Jan, Jo, Lori (l to r) opening gate to let us through.

Having said all this we had a great time. Of course we’d do it totally different next time, such is the benefit of the learning experience.

We had this rosy idea that we’d potter along at a gentle pace through idyllic tree-fringed meadows and cruise to a halt at a canalside pub dispensing local ales and honest, nourishing food. Well, forget the gentle pace for a start. The boat was 68 feet long and as the canal averages a width of around 15 feet, in places significantly less, then where you can turn around dictates your destination. We picked up the boat at 2pm and set off at 4.30pm having had the briefing. Our first stop was scheduled for the Folly Inn at Napton. We should have realized there was a message in the pub’s name! It was fully booked – there was no room at the inn. We did find an alternative but that involved a two-mile walk – there and back. High on the euphoria canals infuse we set off on the hike. By the time we got back we were as knackered as those barge horses must have been hauling coal south along the tow paths.

There were a suspiciously large number of duck dishes on the canal-side pubs' menus.

An early start the next day saw us heading for Cropedy just north of Banbury. It’s here we were to turn the boat and head back. Nine hours later we reached the winding point (wind as in weather not clocks). The weather was kind, we added a few new scratches to the tin bath, left our mark on a couple of locks and provided entertainment for the spectators of this contact sport. A short walk into the village brought us to the Brasenose Arms pub…with live music which started around about pudding. Suffice it to say we listened for a while and then made our excuses and left.

The locksmiths on their way to the next in the flight. Despite appearances, they did also come on the boat.
Next morning up with the larks to head back. Another nine hours and we were almost back where we started. Sadly a navigation error lead to us mooring around a mile and a half from our planned pub for the last supper. We march up the hill at Napton and down the other side to land in the Kings Head – a source of irresistible BBQ ribs. Whether it was worth the hike or not I’m not sure. I could see a pattern emerging. It was becoming a trend. Moor, walk a couple of miles, eat and then walk a couple of miles back again. 

Only 18 more to go!
Now, despite all the knocks, bangs and scrapes. Despite the rather dodgy navigation as far as pubs were concerned, despite having a boat with the handling characteristics of a bath-tub we had a smashing time. Would we do it again? Perhaps. If we do then next time we’d check out the boat handling and make sure the night stops were adjacent to the pubs and not two miles away.

Pass the liniment.