Day 3 - Fenland

Day 3 – Fenland

Yesterday I passed a couple of young blokes on a little narrowboat (about 20′ with an outboard motor under the stern deck). Later they moored behind me at Denver, and asked my advice. Turns out they just bought the boat from Ely and didn’t know about Denver Sluice, or tides. They were hoping to press on but like me they had to wait until 10.45 this morning.

We decided to stick together for the Fenland section not least because I have a windlass for Ashline Lock, and they don’t.

The first section (Well Creek) is quite interesting with views across the fens. Most of the surrounding land is below the water level in the creek and we’d locked down quite some way at Salters Lode so it must be 304m below high tide level.

At Marmot Priory lock Carl and Samson (aka Black the Ripper, see YouTube) got their first lesson in lock working as the old lady lockeeper was detained somewhere and her even older husband has emphasema. The lock loweres the channel to something like ground level, but there are flood banks each side so not much of a view.

Fancy this job?

One exception though was a wind farm near March. It was really windy and most of them were working but a couple were stopped and one had two guys working on one of the blades, abseiling from the hub. See the little black dot on the photo? That’s TWO people.

Later, on Whittlesey Dyke we were heading straight into the afternoon sun. I tried to capture the view but got my hand in the way. Oh well.

I’ve stopped just past Ashline Lock in Whittlesey tonight. I’m booked into Stanground Lock onto the Nene at Peterborough for 10.15 in the morning. Carl and Samson are booked for 10.30 so I guess I’ll be seeing more of them as we cruise up the Nene.

Post edited 7th June to correct Samson’s performing name.

Bara Seren

Bara Seren

At home we have a breadmaker machine but there’s no room on Seren and not enough electric power either. Nor is there an oven, just a two burner hob and small grill. Access to decent bread is tricky on a boat trip so I was determined to make my own. And I thought it’d be a good time to experiment with sourdough.

There’s a lot of online advice about sourdough bread making some trying to turn it into an art form and others into a science needing precise measures and good temperature control. But for centuries nomads, migrants and settlers have made bread as they travelled so it can’t be that hard.

If you want to know about creating a sourdough starter, search online, this is about sourdough baking on a small boat. First make your starter at home a couple of weeks before you set off. Once it’s established you can feed once a week and keep it in a fridge. If you have a fridge onboard take the starter with you. If you’re going solo like me take a small amount of starter in a smaller jar than you’d use at home. Mine is 0.5l which seems OK.

To make a batch of dough the starter needs to be warmer than a fridge so early morning take some (about 2-3 tablespoons) and put it in a mug. Add tablespoon of flour and less than a tbsp of water. Stir it and cover it and leave it in the cabin. Replenish the starter with a similar amount to that you’ve removed and put it back in the fridge.

Lunchtime put a cupful of flour and the starter you prepared earlier (called levain or levan in pretentious sourdough circles) in a bowl. Add just enough water to bring it together. Mash it around with a spatula or knife. Cover and leave to work. Have lunch. Have a nap.

About an hour later tip the dough out on a floured table/worksurface. Sprinkle on about ½teaspoon of salt. Add a bit more water or flour to make a nice kneadable dough. Knead it.

In the absence of an oven you can bake bread in a Dutch Oven on the hob. A proper Dutch Oven is a wide, cast iron pan with a lid. For a small loaf a cast iron saucepan with a lid will do. Other pans probably not, they don’t spread the heat around so well.

Leave dough to rise as you travel on

Oil the inside of the pan well to stop the bread sticking. Place the dough in the pan, cover it and leave it while you go on your way.

Several hours later put the pan on the hob and have the gas on high until the outside of the pan is too hot to touch. Turn gas down low and leave it for about 50min – 1 hour.

The top of the loaf should feel springy when cooked, but will look disappointingly pale. Turn it out. If the pale top bothers you and there’s room under the grill then grill the top for a few minutes.

Next up, tonight I’m making sourdough pizza.

Day 2 Old West & Ely Ouse

Day 2 Old West & Ely Ouse

The Great Ouse is known by various names for all sorts of weird historical reasons that are too complicated to go into here. The section from Hermitage Lock at Earith to Popes Corner where the Cam (from Cambridge) joins the Ouse is known as the Old West, from a boating point of view it’s a bit of a drag. Literally a drag because the top is too close to the bottom and even a shallow drafted boat like Seren suffers from drag. Time drags too because there’s a 4mph speed limit and nothing to look at. Much of the river runs between flood banks and unless you have a big cruiser with a flying bridge you can’t see over them.

After Popes Corner the Ely Ouse is wider and deeper and you can go faster, though in my case not much, Seren seems to cruise most happily at about 5-6mph According to my GPS system.

I stopped at Ely to refill the water tank and then ground on to the Denver Sluice. Denver is where the tidal river begins and I need to navigate about ½mile of the tidal section tomorrow before turning into Salters Lode lock, the entry to the fenland drains known as the Middle Level. Tide times dictate when the lock can be used, if the tide is too low you’d be on the mud when the lock opened. It looks like 10.45 tomorrow, so time for laundry and boat cleaning.

Meanwhile, here’s a photo of dinner, all the major food groups covered and only one pan to wash. I cheated by bringing frozen beef stew from home!

I’ve been making bread too, but I’ll tell you about that when I’ve cut it for tomorrow’s lunch…

Day 01 No Disasters Yet

Linda took me to the boatyard and stayed around a while until I got organised. Started the engine at 09.40 and set off. Weather fine until lunchtime. I stopped for a quick lunch at the GOBA moorings at Paxton then carried on, first in drizzle then in increasingly heavy rain. When I was packing this morning I put heavy duty waterproofs in the locker under the bed. Won’t need those up in June surely? Mid afternoon I got them out. And the workboots, thick socks and fleece.

I caught up with a young bloke at one of the locks, he works for Jones Boatyard and had been dropped off by the boss to bring an old cruiser back to the yard for sale. It’s been neglected a while and made even Seren look shipshape. He had trouble restarting it after every lock but we went through all the locks to St Ives together. I had hoped to get to Earith today as I did last year on the way to Crick, but I’d had enough of working locks in the rain so I’m on St Ives wharf tonight.

Two minor tech problems to report.

The domestic water temp gauge I installed on the dash had been showing 68°C all day (good) Then suddenly went to 88.8e. I guess the rain has got in. The actual hot water is fine though.

Then there’s the mapping. It seems to have stopped around Godmanchester. It relies on an internet connection to report my position and for some reason that was off. On mobile internet you’d expect it to be a bit flaky, but it should reconnect when the signal is OK. It’s fine now I’ve manually restarted it, but I don’t want to be doing that everyday, I have enough to do. We’ll see how it goes.

Next, emails and editing GOBA News.

Seren's Route to Llangollen

Seren’s Route to Llangollen

I’ve spoken to a few people recently who’ve expressed surprise that it’s possible to get from the East of England to Llangollen by inland waterways. If you want to check out just how extensive the network is, click here.

That map is provided by the Canal and Rivers Trust that took over from British Waterways. CRT manage the majority of our rivers and canals and the map shows both theirs and others.

If you want to plan a route, or see how I’m doing then try this link. CanalPlan covers all UK inland waterways, you can input a start point (Tempsford Bridge South for Seren) and end point (Llangollen Basin) and CanalPlan works out the route. Unless I fall behind schedule I’ll probably deviate from the quickest route through Brum in favour of the ‘Old Line’ as it’s said to be prettier. If I’m way ahead nearing Llangollen then I’ll detour down the Montgomery to Maesbury and back.

Seren has IT Onboard

Blogging last year’s Crick trip was a pain. I took an old Galaxy Tab and cheap Chinese keyboard that got more and more dodgy as time went by. In the end I did a few notes using the on-screen keyboard then gave up.

This year I need better IT. Apart from the blog I have a magazine to edit! I joined the Great Ouse Boating Association (GOBA) in 2018 because most of the river banks down here are private – there are not a lot of places to moor. GOBA negotiates deals with landowners and provides free moorings for members. Then like a fool I volunteered to edit GOBA News.

GN is thrice-yearly glossy mag for members and editing it isn’t too onerous, but this summer’s edition is complicated by my being away on my trip to Llangollen at the crucial time. I’ve done as much as I can prior to leaving but a lot of copy will arrive on (or after) the June 10 deadline.

I did some research into the best (ie cheapest) way of providing reliable wifi on a boat. And settled on a basic mobile WiFi gadget from Amazon and a 4G data SIM from 3. Most data ‘bundles’ from most phone companies expire after 30 days even if you’ve hardly used them. Not ideal for me as I can be away for a few weeks on Seren and need a lot of data, then not use any at all for months. The 3 SIM lasts two years.

The rest of the IT system consists of my phone and an old laptop. It all works well at the moment in the boatyard, I and hope it holds up under pressure.

Never one to waste an opportunity to make a few quid I wrote a piece for Waterways World about IT Afloat. It’s available NOW.

Seren 2019

Over the winter 2018-19 I’ve done a lot more work on Seren, fitting new propshaft bearings and couplings, replacing the rear deck, finishing the WC/Shower, installing a proper hot water system and recycling a daughter’s old kitchen units.

There was a plan to take Seren out of the water in the spring for a thorough clean underneath and repaint with anti-fouling and to polish up the battle-scared hull. The guys at the boatyard assured me they could put Seren on a trailer and drag her up the slipway. No crane required. After an hour of trying the strap dragging Seren on to the trailer snapped and she slid back into the river. Seems she’s heavier than the more modern GRP cruisers.

Next winter I’ll hire a crane and do it properly. Meanwhile we’re off the Llangollen in time for the International Eisteddfod. I’ve got a ticket for Jools Holland on Monday 1st July and I reckon it’ll take three weeks to get there so to be on the safe side, and possibly allow myself a little R&R and sight-seeing on the way I’m leaving on Tuesday 4th June.

Seren (more backstory)

Once on the Great Ouse we had to register the boat with the Environment Agency who control the various Anglian waterways. We took the opportunity to register her under a new name ‘Seren’. One day I’ll get around to making new name plates.

We did few local trips on Seren in 2017 then I set about improvements for the 2018 season. I’ve seen a lot of people completely gut an old boat determined to renew everything, then run out of money, energy or lifespan. My plan is to do as much as I can over each winter and have Seren usable by late spring.

If you scroll down this blog back to early 2018 you’ll see how that went. The wood stove went, the WC/shower was re built (but not finished) and the DIY hot water system failed spectacularly. Nevertheless I made it to the Crick Boatshow over the late May bank holiday. Unfortunately Linda has trouble with muscular/skeletal pains and now finds sleeping on Seren impossible, so I went by myself and she came over for a day in the car.

Crick is just over an hour along the A428 from here. Or 10 days by boat. I blogged the outward journey (scroll it’s still there) but not the return. The trip to Crick was ‘enlivened’ by a host of disasters but the only real breakdown on the return was my old Galaxy Tab, so no blog.

Coralita 2017 (more backstory)

Coralita 2017 (more backstory)

I looked at a lot of boats online. We like canals more than rivers and many of them are narrow so a narrowboat would suit us very well. Unfortunately new-ish ones are expensive and old ones need a lot of work. Narrowboat-style cruisers are built of steel and steel rusts. Boats old enough to be cheap enough are going to need patching or even completely re-plating.

So we looked at GRP cruisers. Many of them are built as river cruisers capable of going down estuaries and even out to sea. Accordingly they are wide and deep and no use at all on a narrow canal. Small cruisers are available but often short as well as narrow, intended really for day trips or occasional overnight stays.

Eventually we found Coralita a 40 year old GRP cruiser built for canals. She is 8m long 2.01m wide and has a very unusual layout. Most boats have a cockpit about two thirds of the way back, or right at the back. Traditional looking narrowboats just have a rear deck and a tiller. Coralita has a front cockpit with a sliding roof. Normal cruiser cockpits are too high for canal bridges and tunnels, Coralita has a low roofline and with the cockpit up front you can cruise with the roof shut during bad weather. Though they view through ancient Perspex isn’t great.

Coralita was for sale at Pershore on the river Avon, so we bought her are brought her back to the Great Ouse via the Avon, Stratford Canal, Oxford Canal, Grand Union Canal, River Nene, Middle Level (fens) and on to the Ouse near Denver. It took 16 days and we spent a lot of time debating improvements (read on…)

Voyage to Llan (the backstory)

Voyage to Llan (the backstory)

During the late 70s and early 80s we lived in Blackburn, Lancs and we (I) wanted a boat. So I built one. It was cheap and rough and intended to be upgraded as time money allowed. Then we moved to Cambridgshire where a cheap, rough home-made boat stuck out a bit amongst the floating gin palaces on the Great Ouse. And then some fool put the mortgage rate up to 15% and even a cheap DIY boat was an unaffordable luxury so we sold it.

I always intended, sooner or later, to build another but in 1999 we found ourselves living in Llangollen and taking on the restoration of a crumbling ruin and an enormous, but very steep, garden. No place for boat building and little time or spare cash either.

In 2016 we left Llan to spend more time babysitting our grandchildren, both our daughters having settled close to the area where they grew up. One in Cambs and one in Beds. We live in Potton, Beds about half way between them.

Coralita on the Avon

I don’t have the energy to contemplate building a boat from scratch once more, so in 2017 we (I) bought a cheap old GRP cruiser that went and was just about habitable with a view to improving it over time. (Read on…)