A Summer on the Nene by "BB"

Book dust cover 

A short while ago I read a fascinating article by “Old Stager” in the IWA Northampton Magazine, Endeavour. He recalled a book that he owned titled “A Summer on the Nene” by “BB” with illustrations by D.J. Watkins-Pitchford. I was familiar with Denys Watkins-Pitchford as being the illustrator of Tom Rolt’s Narrow Boat but I was unaware of much of his other work. The review by “Old Stager” was compelling, particularly given our proximity and interest in the Nene. Quite simply his review got me hooked, so I sought out a copy through ABE Books and it became my bedside reading for few weeks.

 Denys Watkins-Pitchford was a well-known naturalist, illustrator and author. He not only illustrated “A Summer on the Nene” but penned it; “BB” was his nom-de-plume. Published in 1967 the book is richly illustrated with wood cuts and describes a pair of journeys taken in 1966, down the Nene from Oundle to Orton Waterville in May and a trip upstream in early autumn to Woolaston Mill. The title therefore uses some artistic licence. BB was not very physically fit during the voyages and most of the locking appears to have been done by his crew, his wife and daughter, or others he meets. For both journeys he borrowed a fibreglass cruiser the Jolly Enterprise from the then newly built Oundle Marina. Unfortunately the upstream journey in the spring was curtailed when they damaged the propeller when mooring at Wansford.

Brought up in rural Northamptonshire (Lamport) as the son of vicar, he has a countryman’s outlook on nature. He shoots, hence the nom-de-plume which relates to shooting, and fishes, but has a particular interest in birds. As a result the book has numerous wood cuts of ornithological subjects. Since I can well recall the sixties, the book has, for that time, an almost old-fashioned look. The use of wood cuts makes it feel more like a book from at least a couple of decades earlier, but they contribute greatly to its charm. BB is capable of evocative descriptions of wildlife and nature. He is particularly eloquent when he describes the nesting habits and behaviour of birds but he is also capable of describing rural scenes in way that transports the reader to the place and his time. I would recommend the BB Society web site for those who wish to discover more about BB’s life and work.

One of the many charming wood cuts that are within the text

I was particularly taken by BB’s descriptions of a favourite spot of ours, Wadenhoe. He clearly loves the place and spends some pages describing its charms. He describes how he would have like to visit the Kings Head Inn and its garden at the “threshold of high summer when the goldfinches sang in the apple trees and the sedge and reed warblers chattered from the river jungles below”. I can say that we have enjoyed mooring at Wansford in high summer by the Kings Head, although our knowledge of bird calls cannot match that of BB, we can report that it is a spot which can transport you away from the cares of modern life.

Wadenhoe Church from the Nene in 2006

Wadenhoe Church in 2006

Although 1966 seems not that far back to me, much has of course changed since BB was writing. He describes the manual operation of the River Nene locks and the boating traffic that includes working boats delivering flour to the mills in Wellingborough. He also describes processes in agriculture that have since changed. It is noteworthy that he mentions stubble burning several times in the book, a practice which was popular with farmers at the time but that was effectively banned in 1993. He also bemoans the loss of the red kite to Northamptonshire, a bird which is now well re-established in the Rockingham area – I drove along the Nene valley just this week and saw three around Oundle.

As with all similar books, “A Summer on the Nene” also covers the history of the area. It includes the happenings at Fotheringhay in the 16th century involving Mary Queen of Scots, the village being illustrated with several impressive full-page wood cuts. However, the unique feature of the book, as far as English history is concerned, is much more prosaic. Unusually, the book contains a ten-page appendix recoding an interview with a Mrs Julyans who lived in the rural Nene Valley in the 19th century and who died in 1967. The picture she paints of rural life is heart-warming without being nostalgic. It certainly adds to the book’s appeal and it helps increase its focus on rural life. The review by Old Stager describes some of this material.

Which brings me back to where I started. Old Stager lent the original copy of his book and it was never returned; he relied on a library copy when writing his piece for Endeavour. I understand he would like his original copy back. I can vouch that my copy didn’t belong to Old Stager, it was an ex-library copy from far-off Kent! He did note in his piece that a copy had been on sale in Uppingham for around £150 but my very smart copy was nowhere near that cost.

Boat Polishing

I have always polished Albert by hand, but noticing that  NB Yarwood and MB Willow have both used two-handed electric polishers to refresh their paintwork I decided to do the same. I purchased the polisher via the web for a little over £20 and made a suitable extension that would allow me to use the marina mains supply when at home and the on-board 240v ac when on the cut.

Two weeks ago I washed Albert thoroughly and polished the most faded side of the boat (south facing) in the marina. Last weekend when the weather was glorious (unlike this weekend) so we took Albert to Cosgrove to her turn around and finish the other side. With some Craftmaster Carnauba Wax polish the paint work came up fine. I am impressed with the polisher - far less effort than by hand and it gives a much more even finish.

Polishing Albert at Cosgrove

The Result

Maggie was so inspired with the result she just had to clean and polish the windows.
Window Cleaner

Lydney Harbour Light

When we recently visited Lydney Harbour I was taken by the grand-looking lamp that was situated at the end of the quay. It looked like a standard former gas light but attached to it was an unusual  rotating mechanism that was operated by hand. It also has a ladder, presumably to allow the lamp to be lit, when it was powered by gas.

Lydney Harbour Light

Since the lantern of the light was completely symmetrical, the reason for the rotating mechanism was not immediately clear but I surmised that it might have acted as a form of warning light with the lantern head shuttered and rotating like those in conventional lighthouses. Thanks to a lead provided by my friend Mike Peet, I have since discovered that this was indeed the case.

The light appears to have been manufactured by William Sugg Ltd. of Westminster who provided gas lighting for many of the most famous locations in London and whose columns can still be seen today. On the excellent site dedicated to the history of theWilliam Sugg Co. there is a section related to the Lydney Harbour light.

Lydney Harbour Light, William Sugg archive image

This image, taken from the their web site, shows the light partially blacked out. I presume, from the location of the ladder that this was the landwards section and that the light flashed out to sea. 

Lydney Harbour Light archive image

In this more modern image from the William Sugg & Co. site, the lantern is quite different. It appears from  the close up (below) to have been converted to electricity using overhead conductors; risky for the those climbing the ladder!. Also, at this unknown date, the column does not have a rotating lantern and is not blacked out.

Lydney Harbour Light close up archive image 

The History of Gloucester Harbour Trustees by W. A. Stone (Clerk to the Trustees 1958 -1966) provided me with some more detail. The history reports that the Lydney Harbour light was in place in 1890 where it was described as being a fixed white light showing the entrance to the harbour. It is not reported as flashing, but I suppose that many such navigation lights did flash and this was not unusual. I presume the light was described as being fixed because most of the other lights concerned with navigation were mounted on floating buoys. In 1927 both red and white lights were reported as being in use at Lydney and in 1966 red and white gas lights were reported along with a manual gong, presumably as a fog warning.

This section of the Severn Estuary can be difficult to navigate with very strong tides and shifting sand banks. Although narrowboats do pass this way with the aid of a pilot, this section of the estuary has had disastrous accidents, most notably the accident that destroyed the Severn Railway Bridge just a few miles upstream. That disaster occurred on the night of October 25th 1960, in thick fog, as two petrol barges made their way upstream towards Sharpness Docks. They failed to see the entrance to the docks and collided together as one barge turned to go back. Together they hit the Severn Bridge and exploded destroying the bridge and killing five people. It is chilling to think that the crews would have passed close by the Lydney Harbour light, then working on gas and presumably flashing, as they made their way upstream; the navigation channel is close to the "Welsh" shore. I presume the reported manual gong was also in use since that fateful night several of the boats that left Avonmouth were bound for Lydney Harbour carrying wood and would have required guidance to enter the harbour. 

The site of the Severn Railway Bridge in 2011
Taken from the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal showing a model of the swing section over the canal

Musical Holding Tank!

Beware - this post mentions the T-word !

Whenever boaters congregate talk very soon tends to gravitate towards toilets. In this case I am reporting on our unusual musical holding tank that contains the toilet waste.

Albert has a shallow holding tank that extends across the width of the boat. On either side of the boat, in each gunwale, there are two connections - one for the pump out and the other for flushing with water. It is a very handy system. Originally the air vent for the system was one small hole on one of the flushing connections. This proved inadequate and caused unfortunate smells in cabin when the tank was partially full and the loo was used. In an effort to increase the ventilation to the tank and reduce the smell, I drilled 10-mm diameter holes in both flushing connectors. This dramatically reduced the odour problem but had an interesting side effect – the tank now plays tunes!

Shortly after drilling the holes we began to hear a quiet musical sound as we moved around the cabin. At first it  appeared to be coming from some distance away, but since we heard it at several moorings we realised that it emanated from our boat. Eventually we traced it to our holding tank vents. As the “contents” move around below the floor, air is forced out of the vents making a nice musical note. Both vents, being the same size, make the same note! Boaters mooring nearby are often mystified as to the source of the "pan-pipe" music and are often incredulous over our explanation.

Musical Holding Tank!
As the boat is rocked, sloshing of its "contents" causes air to play a tune in the vents

The video shows one of the vents and the boat being rocked to cause the air movement. I wonder what note it is playing.

Lydney Canal and Harbour

Lydney Harbour

A few weeks ago we visited some friends who live near Chepstow and visited Lydney Harbour on the shores of the River Severn. The harbour offers some superb views across the estuary. In sight are the two Severn crossings, the famous Berkeley Castle, two nuclear power stations with reactors in various stages of decommision ( Berkeley and Oldbury), and the docks at Sharpness Docks.

View towards Sharpness Docks
The docks are to the right and the white building on the left marks the entrance to the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal

Berkeley Nuclear Power Station
The outline of the castle can just be seen between the two reactor buildings

The harbour, completed in 1821, has a small basin but it was an important port for the transportation of  iron and coal from the Forest of Dean. Some of these goods would have found their way along the Stroudwater to the Thames and Severn Canals to London. Wood, particularly hardwood, was imported into Lydney for the plywood factory which was just inland. 

Remains of a Severn Trow

As at Purton across the estuary, several Severn trows were beached along the sea wall to provide protection from erosion. We observed some of the discarded trows during our trip along the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal in 2011.

Lydney Docks
Old photo of Lydney Harbour from http://www.sungreen.co.uk showing a line of  beached trows

Behind the harbour, as can be seen on the picture above, lies the one mile long Lydney Canal which was opened in 1813 and linked inland to Pidock's Canal and various tramways and railways. It now provides moorings for yachts. The plywood factory is to the top right of the picture which was taken in 1957.

River Vltava, Prague

Last weekend I was in Prague for a conference. Most of the time was spent indoors but because I arrived on Friday afternoon I was able to walk through the city and down to the Charles Bridge. Tourists were thronging the area in the late afternoon sun. It was very pleasant.

Charles Bridge and the River Vltava
A couple enjoying the last of the days sunshine on the Charles Bridge

Restaurant and weir 
Note the fisherman standing in a punt just below the wei

As I walked across the bridge I could help observing the boat traffic - always a boater? Various small trip boats and pedalos were moving around in circles underneath the arches of the bridge.  Occasionally a larger boat arrived and negotiated the lock just upstream. 

Pedalos and trip boats on the River Vltava

Weir and bridge protection
Just as I was about to return to the conference hotel because the sun was finally setting a large paddle steamer came into view and passed under the bridge. It was the eponymous Vltava one of only two such paddle steamers still operating in Prague. Built in 1940, she looked magnificent as she passed under the arches of the bridged and turned just below the weir.

PS Vltava
Note the three rudders visible in the lower picture

Horse Boating on the Grand Western Canal

Last month (is it that long ago?), we took a few days break in Somerset near Taunton - you may recall that we visited the remains of  Nynehead boat lift. The same day we visited Nynehead we moved over the border into Devon to take a trip on a horse drawn barge along the section of the Grand Western that has been restored and is in water . The Tiverton Canal Company operates from the Tiverton terminus of the canal where there is a newly opened Canal Centre.

Horseboat and Canal Centre at Tiverton

The Tiverton Canal Company not only operate the horseboat but they have a floating cafe called Dirt Ditty's  in the basin, so we took the opportunity to have lunch there. The pasties went down very well! Whilst were eating the boat, the "Tivertonian" duly arrived.

Tivertonian drawn by Taffy 

The horse and boat are famous for being on the front cover of the 2012 Countryfile Calender that was produced for Children in Need. The BBC have also made a film about the boat and the canal

Taffy the Calender Horse!

Just after we left the basin for our two-hour and a half hour trip, the dog Roxy jumped onto the back of Taffy the horse for a lift.

Roxy hitching a ride

Negotiating reeds

Going under a bridge

Taffy coming home

The trip started at Tiverton basin and the boat turned around at East Manley just short of the aqueduct that crosses the former Brunel designed broad gauge railway. At the winding hole some private boats are moored. Unfortunately just beyond here the canal suffered a severe breach in November 2012 but this does not unduly shorten the trip. It looks like the canal, which is owned by Devon County Council will reopen in the near future enabling boaters to travel as far as Lowdwells. (See Map).

Canal at East Manley
We can thoroughly recommend this trip. Horseboating is unique and should be experienced. As the crew pointed out, there are only four horse-drawn trip boats in the country, I recommend trying this one if you are in the West Country.