Thursday, 22 July 2010

Cruise Twelve/Thirteen - Broken Briton

OK, let’s get it over with - I fell in the canal. It was raining, I was standing on one boat pulling the other towards me with a rope, and I slipped. As a consequence, I now have two sprained wrists (one from the rope snapping my wrist back at the time, the other from jumping down awkwardly trying to protect the first sprained one a couple of days after) which makes typing a bit difficult… Spending a morning in hospital wasn’t the most fun either, but on the plus side I was given x-ray images of my left hand. Y’know, for when I get bored. I felt a bit dejected about it at first - you don’t realise how much your wrists are needed for everyday things, let alone boat things, so it feels ridiculous saying “sorry, I can’t do that” about something very simple - but I read a quote the other day (forgive me Ed Byrne, I can’t remember who said it): “If you don’t want to be criticised, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing” and I figured the same applied to getting hurt. I’ve never properly injured anything at all before, but this is the most physical job I’ve had, and it carries a certain amount of risk, so to hell with it - I’d rather do this and sprain my wrist than sit doing nothing all day and have no troubles.

We’re currently near Liverpool, having gone down the Anderton Boat Lift to Northwich and back up again. Another glimmer of excitement (considering the tiny canal world in which we operate) was passing the house of a boat-loving children's TV presenter we met in a pub a couple of weeks ago - he was headed the same way so told us to look out for his home. And no, I'm not telling you the name of his boat. Or house. But it was very pretty! We’ve reviewed practices, now that we’ve passed the halfway stage - halfway through the season! - and the past week has seemed very much more organised, which is nice. It also means I’m only a couple of weeks away from going up to Edinburgh for a week, which I’m very excited about. Up there I’ll be going to some shows at the Fringe, including one of my favourite comedians who hardly ever visits the UK, and also taking some friends out for a boat ride on the canal towards the Falkirk Wheel.

I’ve also been trying to plan a few things for the future. I would love to run a hotel boat of my own at some point - obviously Corinne and Neil make it look easy after years of experience, but I think with the right partners in crime I could do something like this successfully, maybe on the Glasgow/Edinburgh canals where there are currently no hotel boats. However I now have a working holiday visa for Australia so that’s my immediate plan, and who knows by what I’ll be distracted out there…

Next up this season, we’re meandering back down towards London, where we’ll arrive by September. En route, Corinne’s sister will be replacing me while I’m in Edinburgh, Sara’s parents (who speak no English) will be visiting, and we’ll be travelling through various places with double-barrelled names about which I previously had no clue. Market Harborough, anyone? Leighton Buzzard? They all sound like 80s soap stars to me.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Cruise Twelve - We're Not In England Any More

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Guests are blissfully unaware there's nobody at the helm.

Out of our side hatch - I was too scared of losing my camera to go any further forward!


Corinne and Bertie, just hangin'.


Chirk Aqueduct


Summer night sky!

My oh my, Wales is a beauty of a country. First glimpses from Shropshire (as pointed out by Neil, yelling out “that’s Wales over there!” across the boats while nodding his head towards two greyish mountains) weren’t too promising, but as we actually crossed the border things were looking up. The line runs across Chirk Aqueduct, a very pretty stone structure next to a slightly taller viaduct which frames the valley below perfectly with its arches - a great photo opportunity! The one-way aqueduct is followed by a one-way tunnel, so I went ahead to check for oncoming boats. There happened to be one, so as I told the couple on board that we were approaching, they attempted to move to the side to wait. Unfortunately (or hilariously, depending on where you were standing) the woman lost her balance as they turned, and in the canal she went. I went over to offer assistance, and she greeted me with a mix of exasperation and resignation: “Don’t worry, this happens every year.” She was more irritated that she’d lost £2.60 from her pocket during the process - made worse by the fact that she’d been saving up to buy shoes with better grip. OK, I might have made that last bit up.

This was already a few days into the cruise, but the second half of this trip has certainly been the most memorable, if only for the scenery. Guests this week were lovely, on the whole… apart from Trevor watching and quizzing us at the kitchen windows at every stop. Nothing wrong with asking questions, of course, but a little intrusive when it’s constant (and peppered with failed jokes (and looking down through the window instead of face-to-face (and very loud))).

Shortly after Chirk came Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which I’m still having trouble pronouncing. Sara has decided that Welsh words are better if you pretend they’re Italian and pronounce them as such, which doesn’t much help if you aren’t Italian. Despite the difficult name, the experience is a great one - from the approach where it seems like you’re about to dip into nothingness, to the middle where it feels like you’re suspended in mid air, to stepping off the boat (the aqueduct being about an inch wider than the boats and straight across, there’s no reason to have to steer, so Neil puts the engine onto its lowest setting and we all get off and pretend it’s a ghost ship). The canal is 120 feet above a beautiful valley, with a small towpath on one side and a few millimetres of iron on the other - all that separates the boat from the air!

Llangollen, our final stop on this cruise, is a sweet little place. Its own steam railway and of course the nearby aqueducts mean a lot of its industry is understandably focused on tourists - the main street is filled with gift shops and cafes, the wharf offers horse-drawn boat trips and the number of people taking pictures on the bridge seems to outweigh the people just going about their day. Nevertheless we managed to find a proper pub with lots of ales, enormous dogs, a very chatty barman called Mike, a French engineering student who had come to Wales to learn English (?) and an atrocious band on stage. What a Saturday night, eh? Llangollen has an annual music festival which happens to fall in July, so at the end of next cruise, in Chester, we’re going to hop on the train back there to catch the Choir of the World concert. There’s limited time for us to actually experience much culture because we work so much - my social activity consists of keeping up with TV gossip via a Twitter feed whilst trying to steer a boat - so it’s great to be able to make plans. As Sara whispered, clutching our newly bought tickets, “we have a life!” I might even wear a dress.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

CRUISE SIX/SEVEN/EIGHT/NINE/Where are we again? - Respite, Reflect, Recycle, Reduce, Re-energise

OK, I’ve been a bit slack for the past few weeks - a weekend off is not a good way to remain motivated! It was Corinne’s birthday celebration over the last bank holiday so I took the opportunity to head back to Scotland for a few days to catch up with old friends and neighbours (neighbours being, er, a pub), restart my contact lens wearing, and get a beautiful beige wrist support for my newly detected carpal tunnel syndrome.

I’ll be honest - the days off and blurry heat of late has made me forget things which have happened, the order in which other things came and what I kept reminding myself to write down and never did. So I’m going to jot a few notes and hope that my memory will be good enough to convert them into eloquent prose (everyone has a dream).

Tardebigge is a flight of locks totalling 36, ish. We did it in around three hours, which is great going considering we have two boats which have to go through completely separately! It has beautiful scenery and a great reservoir halfway down which is hidden until you go up a few steps on a seemingly plain grassy hill…then over the top is a glittering sea of cold, clean water. I was tempted to jump in as it was such a hot day - sadly there was plenty more work to keep me from cooling off.

Since then it’s really felt like summer. Hard work, long days, lots of sun (and a bit of rain), lots of food and wine and nights that end far too late for anybody’s good. Birmingham was fun, as I met up with an old bandmate and her partner for some cocktails and stumbling about the city, and she proceeded to tell me that her new band was covering one of our most ridiculous songs from times past. Hopefully I’ll get to see it performed live one day, as it always felt fun to play…

Conversations amongst the crew have been slowly descending into the stupid, to the point where now they literally make no sense. Here’s an example:

“Can you pass the colander?”
“Scolapasta.”
“Your face is a scolapasta.”
“Your mother’s face is a scolapasta.”
“What’s for breakfast tomorrow?”
“Jam sandwiches.”
“How do you say jam in Italian?”
“Your face is jam in Italian.”

And so forth. Needless to say, days are tiring… the worst day of the season is now behind us, though - the bottom lock at Hurleston has changed shape to the point where the butty can’t exactly fit in, so the day started with greasing the sides (with biodegradable grease, don’t worry) and then an agonising wait through breakfast until we arrived at the lock. We liberally applied (biodegradable) washing up liquid around the sides of the boat as she was slowly inching in, and had to use a winch for the last third. Once she was in and the gates shut behind, then began the process of filling the lock, bit by bit, and emptying, bit by bit, until forty five minutes later, the back end had been nearly sunk a few times (on purpose) and she finally gasped her way up the last couple of feet. Relief all round - it’s taken up to three hours in previous years, and there’s no guarantee that it would work at all - it could easily have ended up with the boat at the bottom of a lock full of water. It didn’t feel like a normal day at work; I was genuinely feeling quite emotional at the thought of what could go wrong. Now all we have to do is go back the other way next week!

So clearly this update hasn’t exactly been all-examining, but I’m planning to get back to regular writing now. In short - I’ve been enjoying myself, have muscles I can actually feel in my arms and legs, and am sunkissed if not tanned. Hopefully the July weather will be as generous as June’s!

Friday, 21 May 2010

CRUISE FIVE - Mayflies By

Nearly the end of May, and the end of the Thames. Sara’s back from Italy, we’re back to canals and locks and bridges and steering, and it feels like the “river cruises” were some kind of weird dream with lots of swans and mayflies (they’re pretty, as insects go, but incredibly sticky - which isn’t so good when you’re trying to sweep and wash the boat and come up with a brush full of fly bits).

We all get asked a lot of questions about the work we do, so I thought this week I’d describe in detail the actual tasks so as not to confuse anybody in the future. The following is what Sara and I do - Corinne and Neil do all this plus running the actual business and keeping all the technical bits (engine, onboard toilets) working, so spare a thought for them!

We are cooks: Every day we start work at 7am, and either Sara or I begin the day by baking cakes, chopping veg, or any other food preparation that needs to be done for the day’s meals. Due to the rest of the work, it’s impractical to sort out lunch and dinner nearer the time so we have to be as organised as possible! With a spare half an hour during the day we’ll sometimes make another cake or start preparations for the next day.

We are chambermaids: While the guests have their breakfast, we clean all the cabins and bathrooms, and make sure everything is stocked and tidy. On turnaround days, the guests leave in the morning, giving us until lunchtime-ish to deep clean everything and change all the bed linen, then the new guests arrive in the afternoon (this is the one day per cruise both of us have an entire afternoon/evening off!).

We are waitresses: We prepare the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner (the table is in sections and needs to be taken down between meals for safety and ease, as they take up most of the room!). We serve lunch, which is a main course then fruit, and dinner, which is three courses plus cheese. We make tea and coffee after each meal as well as at 11am and 4pm (with which we serve all this cake that we make).

We are boat crew: This is definitely the most physically demanding part, and takes up most of the mornings and afternoons. One of us cleans the outside of the boat or polishes brass every morning at 7am while the other is in the kitchen. After breakfast we take lines up and one of us steers the butty while the other generally walks or cycles ahead to set the first lock or open any bridges along the way. This carries on until lunchtime, and can involve dodging oncoming boats, using a massive pole to force us away from shallow banks, hurrying over bridges and stepping gingerly across tiny platforms with a windlass (this is the metal hook/key-type thing which works the ratchet paddles on each gate of most locks) to get the lock ready as you can see the boats fast approaching, and tying off the elum at every lock as it adds another 2 feet to the length that we just can’t afford in the shorter locks! We moor up for lunch and afterwards, more of the same until we stop at our destination for the night. Hopefully at this point there’s time for a shower before we serve dinner, then the crew have their dinner after the guests finish, by which time it’s late enough for bed, sleep and starting all over again….

Not to mention: looking after Bertie, helping less steady passengers on and off the boat, writing out copies of recipes for guests who have asked, answering questions from passers-by, supplying Neil with cups of tea and glasses of squash throughout the day, polishing the rose panels, and last but not least (in fact, probably most), washing up for up to thirteen people from the prep and service of three meals a day.

So I hope that’s clarified things a bit! It’s the most hectic job I’ve ever had, but I love it and consider myself extremely lucky to be part of this little world. Another note, for a few people who know who they are: we aren’t barges, we don’t sail, and you don’t generally get pirates on canals.

Thanks for listening, you may now resume your normal viewing patterns.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Cruises Three and Four - Thames, Pole, Chowder

We’re at the end of cruise four now, and we’ve just arrived on the Thames. It’s been a bit of a rocky road to get here, involving precarious DIY by Sara and me, perched on the edge of the boat as we rescued a battered rose panel which had been almost torn to shreds by stonework on the side of a bridge; scary fast steering through winding canal (mixed with flowing rivers); getting stuck in a muddy bank on a VERY windy day and having to pole ourselves out of it; and of course lots and lots of comfort food. Cruise three, Devizes to Newbury, wasn’t a full one, so we had more time to spend with the guests. This is, in the words of Adrian Monk, a gift and a curse - everyone eating together meant that our evenings finished earlier than usual, and we could go to the pub (giving one guest her first ever game of darts, and she very nearly won!) or just sit and chat with them (that same guest gave us a recipe for a German snack she had as a kid - stale hot dog buns covered in butter and sugar and put in the oven until they’re solid. They last for weeks, apparently) instead of going straight to bed. However it also meant that we didn’t have as many people who were up for helping with the locks, so the actual work has been a lot more strenuous! We’ve picked up a couple of extra people for the past few days - the crew of another hotel boat vanished overnight (we presume on purpose) two days before the start of their season, so while they staff up again we’ve taken on one of their guests, and a local seasoned lock wheeler has joined us too.

Speaking of guests… I really didn’t want to write anything about any of the people we look after, but some things are too inane not to put in. To avoid actual names, I’m going to call all the male guests “Trevor” and the female guests “Deirdre”. And if those happen to be your names and you’re on one of our future cruises, rest assured I might not be talking about you. Although, to be honest, I might. So here’s a short conversation Neil had with Trevor the other day.

Trevor: “There’s a carpark.” (points to carpark)
Neil: “Yup.”
Trevor: “You could park a car in that.”

Well, it made me laugh anyway.

We’ve seen a lot of Tranquil Rose this week - a fellow hotel boat which seemed to be a few steps behind us most of the week, occasionally catching up (I heard a worried, “Er, is that person allowed to be on our boat?” from Deirdre as one of the owners clambered across us to fill TR at a water point). It’s run by a lovely couple called Steve and Steph, who are good friends with Neil and Corinne - they’re selling up this year to take control of Llangollen Wharf, but as I know the daughter of the potential buyer, I’m sure he’s lovely too!

And so here we are in Henley on a massive beautiful river, which requires barely any butty-steering, and so more time is spent in the kitchen. We’ve finished the limoncello we bought, which turned out to be made in the Netherlands and tasted a bit like soap, but Sara’s off to her home in Italy for a long weekend so she’s promised to bring some of the real stuff back. We’ve had Italian and Scottish evenings for the guests since the first week, and during the next cruise I’m going to attempt a Michelin-starred restaurant’s recipe - wish me luck! Next blog entry will probably be more about me than the cruise/guests, unless anything really spectacular happens… but I don’t want to write it all out here (I’m waiting for the next showing of Four Lions at the cinema, and I absolutely do not want to be late). Hope you’re all well, I want to hear from you! Send me a text or email if we haven’t spoken in a while. Oxford next week, see you there…

Also - a piece of cake to the folk who noted the Crystal Maze-related blog title.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Cruise Two - The Disaster Show

Who would have thought the bad stuff would happen right at the start of the summer? This week’s holiday started off well enough - a day off to explore Bath (what a beautiful city, why did nobody tell me?!), cheese and tea shopping, a couple of drinks playing multilingual Scrabble and chatting to the local bartenders of a music venue. Back to the boats to greet our new guests and discover that they are, in fact, all lovely, and mostly new to this boating lark. That means no more singing Avenue Q songs in the kitchen in case we scare them off… the cruise got started the next day, so for lunch we arrived at Bradford-on-Avon - our route is back the way we came before heading up to Reading and Henley - and as we were leaving, the Bad Things began. I’d been coughing quite a bit, so had been sent off to the chemist for throat sweets and was to meet the boats back at the first lock after they’d set off. This left only three crew: slightly inconvenient, but no catastrophe. So I went, and I came back, and there were Snipe and Taurus about to go under the bridge before the lock. I stood by the gate. I waited. Corinne came to join me, as she’d come ahead to check it was all set. We waited. Nothing was happening, nothing was moving. We waited. From our positions we could just about see under the bridge - the front of the motor was sitting there, apparently not doing a thing. Corinne went back to find out what the situation was, while I continued coughing and waiting. She was gone a while - there was a boat waiting to come the other way through the lock, and a crowd was gathering, as it became obvious there was a problem.

All of a sudden I saw Bertie sitting on top of the boat, shivering and wrapped in a towel, standard procedure after he falls into a canal. Again?! He doesn’t like water much, but seems predisposed to finding himself in it, and he’s only a little thing so if he isn’t willing to swim it’s a bit of a race to pull him out. As Corinne would say, il mio cane e pazzo! So that’s Bad Thing number one. Bad Thing number two - my cough was rapidly turning into a full blown cold (and is making me miserable as I type this!). Colds, according to Corinne and Neil, happen to people at the start of seasons, when all the new work gets on top of you. Aggravatingly, as with most snuffly fluey things, I’m completely fine and able to work mentally and physically, but constant running noses and coughing get in the way of food prep and service, cycling, talking and general activity! Bad Thing number three was the main issue with the boat - a huge piece of wood was stuck in the propeller, meaning the motor couldn’t work, meaning we had no power at all to move either boat. Corinne eventually had to bow-haul (pull with a rope) both boats into the lock - no mean feat, at 70ft long and 7ft wide each - just to get us out of the way, and the problem was sorted on the other side. The problem being sorted, however, relied on poor Neil having to get into the freezing canal up to his shoulders to physically drag the piece of wood away. Sara and I were sent to put on the kettle and run Neil a bath while onlookers and passengers in turn watched, laughed, panicked and took pictures. Canal folk (an expression I like, as opposed to “boat people”) appear to be generally a friendly bunch though, and we had some assistance from a couple of guys with beards, leather jackets and excellent West Country accents. We decided enough work had been done for that day and we moored, calmed down and had plenty of tea. Since then the weather has turned from “utterly glorious” to decidedly disgusting, but everything else is going smoothly. The last day of the second cruise was Caen Hill - a huge flight of 29 locks which somehow didn’t seem too ominous coming the other way… possibly because all of our eight passengers on the first cruise were helping out in some way. We have to separate the boats to do this flight, as the locks aren’t wide enough to hold both, so Neil went ahead by himself with the motor while Corinne bow-hauled the butty through and between every single lock. A tough day for everyone, but we finished on a high with Nutella mousse and alcoholic ginger beer to reward ourselves… Mmmm. Roll on Cruise Three!

Cruise One - The Beginning






My hands are sore and red: the outsides from sunburn, and the insides from rope burn. My head is still not used to waking up and starting work at 7am, although my body seems to be coping fine, and I’ve never eaten better in my life. Less than three weeks into my six months here, and things are going well so far…

I started taking pictures of boats and pretty canal scenery, but quickly realised it might get a bit boring - water does mostly look the same, as do boats when you see them enough. So above are some pics of random things, and I’ll add anything else that interests me (along with maybe a few canal boats - just the ones with funny names, obviously). Does anyone think Bertie the dog looks like Rude Dawg? As for the non picture portion of this, here we go.

Corinne and Neil are probably the most fun employers I’ve ever had. The four of us get along very well and I find that we’re giggling away at least half of every day, whether it’s at Neil’s mumblings about cake and tea, Sara’s attempts at translating (pazzi Italiani!) or Bertie the dog’s incessant hand-chewing. Our day consists of baking and cooking - for up to nine guests at a time as well as four crew - in addition to lock work and steering the butty (we use twin boats, one with the engine and one that tags along behind). Neil operates the motor and gives direction from up ahead while either Sara or I use the tiller to shift the second boat about. It’s a lot of hard work, especially for beginners; swing bridges and lock paddles are heavy and sometimes stiff too, though the hardest part is tying back the elum (the rudder bit where the tiller goes) on the back of the butty when we enter a lock, as our boats are too long to fit into some of them if we leave it as it is.

The weather has been utterly glorious. Very lucky for our first week considering it was mid-April! I have a tan on my face now, and the backs of my hands, but am still a pale Scot everywhere else - I’ll start wearing shorts once the bruising on my legs calms down a bit. Must remember to look where I’m going when I get in and out of the boats… our first guests have also been fantastic, as they’re all old hands at this so have been providing guidance and help in abundance. We seem to see the same boats along the canals at various points, as if we’re in some unwitting tag team - sister boats “Cat” and “Steben” providing some amusement, at least for me.

Sara and I, when not working, have been out and about the little villages and towns exploring a bit and tasting the local ales - some nice (I tried a pint of Croppie in Honey Street, a village famed for being the international crop circle centre) and some not so nice (Funky Monkey in Bradford-on-Avon, beautiful town, ale too fizzy and pale for me). I’m assuming this will continue and by the end I’ll either be an expert, or a drunk. Three guesses…?

Monday, 5 April 2010

Ready For Adventure

Welcome to my ramblings about being on a boat for the summer. I got fed up of looking for a career, and decided instead to have an adventure - so I'm going to be working on twin boats, Snipe and Taurus, and travelling up and down canals in England and Wales for six months. I have no experience in this kind of thing, so I'm hoping to learn a lot as well as save up some money for further adventures in the future! If you want to read more about the company with whom I'm working, check out www.canalvoyagers.com.

I have no idea of what the summer will be like, but I'll be telling you about it whenever I have Internet connection. The company is run by a lovely couple, Corinne and Neil, and their new little puppy Bertie - expect a million photos of him soon! Alongside Corinne and Neil will be myself and Sara, a girl from Venice. We're yet to meet but apparently our birthdays are a few days apart so expect September to be a busy time...

As well as documenting my trip, I really wanted to use this as an opportunity to stay in touch with my family and friends. You're all scattered around the country (and the world, to be honest) and although I'll be meeting a few of you along the way this summer, it would be lovely to hear from you all, so feel free to comment on any of this stuff.

We begin on April 12th. I think I'm ready.