On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)

 

Chapter 30 – Into Birmingham for a Curry


Had it not been for John, Elizabeth, Wes and Sharon being in company with me on their boats, and wanting to get into Birmingham, I would not have moved on the day we started our trip. My logbook recalls the tenor of the day. Eight eighths cloud cover and rain all day. Wind gusting in the morning eventually dropping out to nothing by the evening. By the evening, and yet again, not one bit of me was dry! Actually that’s not really true – I do manage to keep dry but the impression of the day is that it was cold and wet and so was I.

The JEWS and I had spent the night moored on the line just below Bradley Green Bridge on the Coventry Canal, whence we were to move towards Birmingham. There was another boat with us. As we pulled away into the gales and horizontal rain that first morning together the JEWS were a bit ahead of me. An affable man from the other boat appeared through the weather and offered to shove my bows off for me, which I was pleased to accept as thew wind was pinning me to the bank somewhat. As I got away and was thanking him he looked slightly sheepish and said “You’re the bloke who writes in Canal Boat magazine, aren’t you. I was just reading your article last night…!”

My first article for Canal Boat magazine had just been published a week or so ago. There was a complimentary copy on board this chap’s hire boat. I was really rather chuffed and a little daunted. Suddenly images came into my head of being accosted at every lock and turn “You write in Canal Boat. Don’t agree with what you said. You’re wrong you know…” or something like that. In the event the few people who have since mentioned the articles, and there have been a few, for it is a fine magazine which thrives and develops despite my being one of its contributors, have in the main been complimentary.

Having left just after ten in the morning our little convoy was at the Glascote Locks in Tamworth by something after noon. Being in a little convoy is good because the other pitch in to help me. Sharon, in particular, is a very hard working and very generous with her locking labour. At this stage Elizabeth was pitching in whilst John stood at he back of his boat offering encouragement! Shortly thereafter, and very unfortunately, Elizabeth strained her back and was off locking duties. This put John in the frame. He is very enthusiastic and threw himself at the locks with a will, now offering different encouragement to Elizabeth who by now, rather reluctantly due to her completely-incorrect assumption that she was not able to drive the boat, was driving the boat!

We all got water at the various British Waterways water points at Fazeley Junction, then, just after two in the afternoon, we turned onto the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. This whole area is Wes’ stamping ground in particular. As a Brummie, albeit lapsed these days, and an enthusiastic urban canal boater, he knows his way around these parts. It was not until the next day that the pleasures, if that is what they be, of urban boating in Birmingham were to be presented to us. For now we were about in open countryside, wooded cuts and a remote lock flight.

Wes, makes a very good Team Leader and Chef d’ Equipe, knowing where we going and how long it will take us to get there, where we will moor and where we’ll have a drink. What else is there?! His plan for the day was to get up the Curdworth Flight and moor close to Wiggin Hill Bridge. There was a pub there, and we would have an early evening pint to wash away the rigours of the day.

The Curdworth Flight is an attractive set of locks, the bottom lock of which has a couple of particularly attractive lock cottages to its side. Along its length are various pubs, and whilst I am not one to stop when in singlehanded mode, now I was with others and am happy to stop. The Dog and Doublet by lock 9 at Bodymoor Heath would feel the benefit on our return voyage, but for now we were pressing to towards our target.

The JEWS got a bit ahead of me going up the flight, so by the time I got to Wiggins Hill Bridge they were already well established on the towpath and preparing for that pint. Nicholson’s describes the place as being a Beefeeter pub, but actually it is now being bought by another chain, has been tidied up and is not a bad place at all, to stop. Two charming girls greeted us as we walked through the door and in moments we were sitting at a big table quaffing foaming pints of some dark brew which went straight to the parts, despite what other brewers might say. We looked at a menu with a view to having a few nibbles with our beer, but we were wooed by sausage and mash, fish and chips with mushy peas and 20 oz steaks. Yes, none of your 8 oz rubbish here. This place did 20 oz steaks. As I get older I eat less meat. I’m no vegetarian, far from it, but I see and enjoy the attraction of pasta, peppers, leaks, carrots, broccoli, tomatoes etc. That night a 20 oz steak with a sub-industrial sized bowl of chips some peas and onion rings called out to me as a reward for a coping with a cold, wet day’s navigation.

We ate there. We ate there on the way back too, but that’s another story.

Wes skill as a Team Leader is that he slips the word ‘only’ into the conversation, a conversation which was actually our orders for the day, in such a way that you find yourself repeating it to others with conviction, and it is only later that you realise the enormity of what you are taking on. Apparently on this day, the next day, we were to ‘summit’ (Wes is a climber) and get through to Gas Street Basin in Birmingham. We were to do the Minworth Locks (“only” three of them), then do the Aston Locks and then it was “only” the Farmers Bridge Locks to get through to make our landfall in the heart of Birmingham. Fair enough – I felt like I was almost there before I’d started! However, the day broke cold and wet yet again, and there was serious talk of making this a layday. Newspapers, hot coffee, lunch in the pub., that sort of thing. I was just getting settled into this mode when there was a change of plan. It had stopped raining, the wind had dropped and the skies looked a bit brighter over the area we were to travel. We set off just after 1100 hrs!

Minworth seemed like quite an attractive place. Minworth Bottom Lock has a classic small brick-arched bridge just before it, but it is a bit deceiving. The damned thing is very low and if one is not dead centre of it passing through and on into the lock, things can happen. They happened to me and the bloody thing buckled the ‘coolie hat’ on top of my smoke stack. I’ve had about five of the things, and had a spare on board, so I didn’t mind much; except that I was a bit peeved at myself. I thought I’d done enough of this on The Cut lark to avoid silly things like that happening. There is always something on The Cut and one must never take it for granted.

Wes had to spend time in his weed hatch at the top of the Minworth Locks. The ubiquitous plastic bags and baler twine (baler twine in Birmingham?) had him in his grasp and he was going nowhere. I spent a few minutes checking on what we had done so far and what we still had to do. I talked to John and Elizabeth about it. ‘There’s “only” about twelve locks from here’ seemed to be the general opinion, but I was sure about that. The up-coming Aston Flight was “only” eleven locks, but after that there were the Farmers Bridge Locks, and there were thirteen of those. Wes might have said there were “only” thirteen of those, but he still had his head down his weed hatch at the time! It turned out that John and Elizabeth knew that and I was the one a bit vague about what we were doing that day. “Best we get started,” we agreed, “for there is much still to do…”

Before Aston Locks there is a pound of several miles, which passes through Tyburn. Thereafter there is Salford Junction. Here the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal makes a left turn as it continues towards the heart of Birmingham. Straight on and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal becomes the Tame Valley Canal and at Salford Junction the Grand Union Canal leads down to Bordersley Junction where the Digbeth Branch leads to the Typhoo Basin and the Ashted Locks and Ashted Tunnel. There are more miles of canals in Birmingham than there are in Venice and, in their way, perhaps they are more impressive.

The most dramatic feature of Salford Junction? Spaghetti Junction above it! When I was a kid the motorway network was being developed and expanded. There was talk of this amazing junction in Birmingham, where the M6 and the A38(M) wound round each other and other smaller roads. I have driven over it many times, but on the M6, which is the top element, so one sees nothing and, really, is aware of nothing. What I didn’t realise is that the roads are only one element of Spaghetti Junction. The railway runs through there, and at the bottom, providing the industrial foundation on which all the rest is built, maybe, there are the canals.

Coming in from Tyburn on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal one does not see the best of it. Later we’d be back here, this time on the Tame Valley Canal. Then one sees the lot, and there’s a lot to see!

Magnificent.

We were at Aston Bottom Lock just after 1400 hrs. We made a poor start. I was a little behind the others so did not see the scene unfold, but apparently a couple coming down the locks had ‘stolen’ the Aston Bottom Lock from Wes. It was empty, he was approaching it when the woman, apparently with not so much as a glance in Wes’ direction, filled the lock and locked her husband and boat down whilst Wes had to hang around. This happens occasionally and is usually due to a misunderstanding. Wes thought this was more of a deliberate act. He must have let her know, in terms, what he thought about the situation, because when the boat eventually passed me, moored, as I was, quietly against a brick wall a bit back from the scene, the husband was staring blankly ahead and the woman with a face like thunder was exclaiming to no-one in particular “It’s not my bloody fault he’s had to get into his bloody weed hatch!”

After that it was all work, work, work. The locks are reasonably well maintained, but the gates are heavy and there is enough detritus in the canal that often things are stuck in the locks, or round the gates, or in the paddles, or against your boat… or anywhere. And as for the colour of the water…One could call it black, but black is rather a pure colour, if it is a colour at all. This was black, but in a ghastly brooding maelstrom of dark hues all painted in gloom.

My memory of this part of the canal is of just that – detritus. The canal is full of it. The areas next to the canal, be they chain-link fences, some scrubby weeds and bushes, some tired-looking trees, all are choked with plastic bags, beer cans and… well, detritus. British Waterways have not made a bad job of opening the canal up but everywhere is blighted by disrespect. Never mind the detritus; what really bears down upon one, what really lowers the tone and flattens the spirit is the graffiti. It is EVERYWHERE. One never actually sees anyone making it, but there is not a surface anywhere near the canal which is not blighted (that word again) with seemingly maniacal daubing.

I did not see used syringes and used condoms because I tried not to look for them. Of course there were hobos and, of course, they were sitting on soiled mattresses round a foul-smelling burning brazier smoking foul-smelling cigarettes or something, and, of course, they had a mangy dog or two with them.

And of course I am being disingenuous and not seeing, or at least not describing it thus, the place as the working example of urban restoration and renewal and the opening up for recreation of what was once a moribund waterway. But that is the problem for me; I could see that it was exactly that and I repeat, British Waterways have made a good job of making the canal both usable and, potentially, attractive, but it is falling into disregard all over again. There is a restored section of canal in Stalybridge on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal at the edge of the Pennines. It was, and is, a massive project of which the town, and all who were associated with it, should be most proud. I passed through there in June 2005 and wrote of the place thus:
The fabric of the restored section is most impressive. It could be so wonderful. My GEO Surveys/British Waterways chart describes the restored canal at Stalybridge as being 'now central to the regeneration of the town'. No doubt, but it would be a pity indeed if by the time the regeneration of the town has progressed enough to be noticed the restored section of the canal has degenerated to a level at which it slows the very regeneration of the town to which it is, apparently, central. I mean there is only so much graffiti, broken tiles and paving slabs, cigarette butts, broken bottles and loitering youths the canal environs can take, isn't there?
I have the same sort of reaction to the section of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal which passes through the Aston Locks. It could look so much better if it were allowed to be how British Waterways made it look when they first cleaned it up.

Never mind, hope springs eternal. The weather had improved and the team was working well. Travelling in convoy, and with no-one else – well, not since the lock-stealing woman! - coming the other way, the locks are inevitably again one. However, Sharon ahead of John and John, ahead of me, were taking the time to lift a bottom paddle as they cleared each lock, and sometimes they had time to open the gates too, so by the time I got to them the locks were either empty, in which case I could, often, push the gates open with FRILFORD’s bow fender, or the gates were, indeed, open.

We all gathered at the top of the Aston Flight shortly before five in the afternoon. Sharon had the kettle on and we sat on a bench enjoying a mug of tea and a chocolate biscuit. “”Only” the Farmers Bridge Locks to go, and we’ll be there…!” was Wes’ encouragement to all. “Only” was right by then. We were old campaigners. We’d been locking all our lives, it seemed, and the thirteen locks at Farmers Bridge were “only” a slight distraction from the delights of Birmingham which we knew lay before us.

We, not me, I was at the back, but we collectively, were at Farmers Bridge Lock 13, the bottom lock, by five fifteen in the afternoon. As I waited I got into my weed hatch and removed the usual rubbish from around the propeller. I tried not to think of the ghastliness of the place whence it had come, but I did do some pretty thorough hand-washing before I continued.

The Farmers Bridge flight seemed to go much better than the Aston flight. The locks are very close together and pass through and under some quirky tunnels and bridges. Some of the gates are a bit heavy but there are distractions. At one stage one passes right by the huge picture window of a smart Chinese restaurant. Inside was all starched white tablecloths, Chinese lions, bamboo, dynastic ephemera, chopsticks. Outside were FRILFORD and me, tired, a bit grubby, but with our own ephemera and at home in our place on The Cut. There seemed so much distance between us and what was in the window, I could have been looking into Shanghai.

A couple of hours it took me to get to Farmers Bridge Lock No 1. The others had gone on into the ever-opening basin to find moorings but Sharon, bless her, true to herself, had stayed to help me through the top lock. A few minutes later I joined the others on the Sheepcote Street moorings. We were just around the corner from Gas Street Basin on a pedestrianised section below an apartment block and opposite the National Indoor Arena. It was an attractive and, apparently, safe place to stop and a good reward for a long, hard day. I grabbed some glasses and Wes, John and I drank some shots of whisky to celebrate our safe arrival. I thanked Wes for guiding us to the summit.

It had been a good day.

Next day there was talk of going to a concert at Symphony Hall, which is right there next to Gas Street Basin, but there was nothing on that we wanted to hear. Neil Sedaka was on and the place was full of once-young teenyboppers reliving their ‘dangerous years’, but that did not appeal to us. Maybe our younger years had been more ‘dangerous’ than Neil Sedaka! So it was after a certain amount of bumbling about in the streets of Birmingham, ducking in and out of the odd welcoming hostelry, it was time to gear up for the curry night.

Let me hand over to John and Elizabeth Boland at this point. The Balti night was John’s wish so it is perfect that they’ve kindly agreed to describe it – thus:

When it became clear that this boat trip would take us into the heart of Birmingham, Elizabeth and I told Adrian, Wes and Sharon that we would dearly love to eat a meal in an authentic Balti restaurant in Birmingham’s fabled Balti Triangle.

Several years ago, we were on a trip to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall, when a cold and punishing rainstorm, late at night, drove us into the only restaurant we could find. We sat down to what we expected to be just another curry. What we were to discover was unlike anything we had ever tasted in an Indian restaurant in the U.S. This was our first delightful foray into the world of Balti cuisine.

There exists a bit of controversy as to the derivation of Balti. Most references credit Birmingham’s Pakistani and Kashmiri communities for establishing it in the mid-1970s. Today, there are around 50 Balti “houses” in the Balti Triangle area of Birmingham and today they have spread throughout most of the country. We have been delighted to find Balti houses while traveling in all parts of the UK. Sadly, Balti is virtually unknown in the US and is completely unavailable in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we live.

Today has been a beautiful Saturday in Birmingham. We spent the day exploring the lively town center shops with a visit and lunch at the modern Selfridges in the impressive food hall. At 5:00 pm we met for tea and sundowners on Adrian’s boat and then off to hail a cab to the Balti Triangle and our chosen restaurant, Popular Balti on Ladypool Road.

The driver assured us, as we stuffed ourselves into the back of his little cab, that he knew exactly how to get us there. With our map in hand and our combined back seat driving skills in high form we were soon to conclude that this cabbie had no idea where we were to end up, other than into the Balti Triangle. We assured the driver that we would be fine from where we were and we struck out on foot.

It was no small wonder that the cabbie couldn’t find the place because it was simply not visible from the street unless you were standing directly in front. It was good that we were fairly early for the Saturday supper crowd; there were just a few tables with one large enough for the five of us to snuggle around.

This was an authentic Balti House with plastic tablecloths, soft Asian music and exotic aromas of the spices and herbs that make this food so addictive to our palates. We were greeted and offered large menus by a soft spoken fellow who explained that, since no alcohol was available, we should feel free to provide our own and which could be purchased just a few steps down the street. Hearing that, Wes was out and back in a few minutes toting bottles of wine.

Complimentary Poppadoms and dips were followed with a selection of starters. Elizabeth ordered her beloved onion Bhaji. Soon the table was spread with mouth-watering delicacies and the group grew a bit quiet as we focused on the task at hand.

The main courses arrived, sizzling, in the traditional flat-bottomed Balti, or bucket, in which the fresh ingredients and a tantalizing combination of spices are fast-cooked over a high flame and served directly to the table with a huge, soft, and lightly buttered Nan, straight out of the tandoori oven. For those who enjoy the flavor of curry and spices, it just can’t get much better than this!

The high tone of the evening spilled over into an adjoining table of ladies on a “night out” who were welcomed with our generous suggestions of what was especially delicious on the menu and an offer to share in our wine.

The cab ride home was a bit more raucous as we were all fully sated with rich food and uninhibitedly lubed with wine. The cabbie was giving as he received, with all good humor and we were deposited close to Gas Street Basin, with a short walk along the charmingly lighted esplanade at canal side, to our boats.

Our wishes had been fulfilled, and then some. The food was memorable and it was everything we had anticipated, but the true joy of the evening was being together and sharing it with these dear, cherished friends once again.

Thank you John; thank you Elizabeth - wonderful - I’ll take it from here!

To get out of Birmingham we left going west on the Birmingham Main Line. Wes, as team leader, took us round the Soho Loop before we later turned off the Main Line onto Wednesbury Old Canal. There we tackled the eight Ryders Green Locks. We were going down this time. I got completely weeded up at one stage and later we stopped whilst the others did a bit of provisions shopping and I, unwittingly of course (no-one does this wittingly!), walked dog sh*t through my boat. However careful you are this is going to happen if you use the towpath, and of course you use the towpath. I have no fan for it to hit, but it, the sh*t, was everywhere and as the others returned I was mopping down the decks and sponging carpets. Not good.

Wes and Sharon on Simba Dada moved off before John, Elizabeth and me. Wes had a date to see his mother; we’d catch him up later. Before moving off I crawled over the back of the engine, underneath the rear deck and sorted out my weed hatch again. Later, within a few moments of moving off, the engine spluttered and died. I got it going again but then it died again. This had never happened before. I opened the engine hatch rather hopefully and had a look round. All seemed okay but, mercifully, I started to get back under the rear deck and I saw the problem immediately. There is a fuel cut-off lever in the fuel line under there. I’d knocked it when I was there previously and it was all but closed. I was starving the engine of fuel. I opened it, cranked the engine and it fired up immediately. Another thing to look out for. One never, ever, stops learning.

At about 1530 hrs, with me leading and John and Elizabeth on station behind FRILFORD, we made the turn onto the Tame Valley Canal. After three miles we got to a modest aqueduct. I got very excited. Below us was the junction of the M5 and M6 motorways and there, on the M6 a couple of miles away, as plain as day, was the RAC Headquarters. I stopped and took photographs. John and Elizabeth had to stop; I was blocking their way. “Blimey!” I called out, “I have been at this motorway junction and so underneath this aqueduct in my car many, many, many times. Very recently, in fact. I never knew it was here! Never knew…!” Below were thousands of vehicles, most moving no faster than three miles an hour. I got back onto FRILFORD and set off again – at my usual three miles and hour!

Thereafter, and with the Tame Valley Canal showing some incongruous rural aspects we came across Simba Dada moored on the line. “Join us for dinner,” was Wes’ cheery greeting;"be ready soon.” “I thought you were having dinner with your mother,” I replied. “No,” assured Wes, “she’s past all that…” I’d got it slightly wrong. Wes had had an appointment with his mother – in her final resting place. Good for him. I have such appointments with my mother. Always enjoyable visits.

The next day we passed under Ferry Barr Bridge and down the thirteen locks of the Perry Barr Flight. Again, the team was working well – John and Elizabeth ahead (John doing the locks, Elizabeth steering the boat, as she had been since the earliest days of this trip, with great aplomb), me in the middle and Wes and Sharon bringing up the rear. However far back Sharon is, one has to work like hell to stay ahead of her, and before long she’d caught up and was helping me lock down as well as Wes.

And then on to Spaghetti Junction again – but this time we got the full show. There are huge concrete flyovers, there are railway lines, there are cast iron towpath bridges and there are the canals, Tame Valley Canal, Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and the Grand Union Canal. I stared up in wonder. A bright red lorry appeared on a flyover, sort of mid levels, from behind my left shoulder. I watched it disappear into the maze of flyovers, waited a few moments and was delighted to see it reappear, going in a quite different direction, and at another level, passing away to the right. How does it all work? There is some graffiti but not much. It is as though Spaghetti Junction is just too big; there is too much concrete, too many flyovers, just too daunting. Wonderful stuff.

We hadn’t finished for the day, however. One wouldn’t stop right there anyway – not that sort of a place. The Tame Valley Canal became the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal once again and we were back at the Minworth Locks. The others went ahead but I stopped at Minworth itself to post an important and urgent letter to my solicitor about my flat purchase. The Post Office down the road, marked in the Nicholson’s Guide – my reason for stopping – was now a private house but mercifully the post box was still there and, as I steered FRILFORD away a few minutes later, a postman came and emptied it. Thank you God!

It was not long before our little convoy was back together again at the ex-Beefeeter Pub close to Wiggins Hill Bridge. One or two of our party resisted the lure of the 20 oz steak that night, but I didn’t. Marvellous it was, again! Wes and Sharon brought a laptop and gave us a photographic tour of their tour down the River Nile to the Valley of the Kings. Buoyed up by a few pints of Old Sheep Sweat, or whatever, we all enjoyed a very good evening.

The next day brought the Curdworth Flight. John and Elizabeth got held up with a broken fan belt, but Valley Cruisers of Springwood Haven near Nuneaton, whence came their boat, were very good, came out and had them going again within an hour or so. Indeed they lost no time at all. I had gone ahead but there were boaters everywhere, more going my way than coming up, thus progress was slow. A charming Indian woman I later came to know was called Indrani was winding a 55 foot boat singlehanded in one of the pounds, which slowed things up a bit. I locked her through her next lock and a little later she pulled over and locked me through a couple. She has a permanent mooring in the area and was doing a bit of ‘practising’ that day in preparation for a trip she will make next year.

We got as far as the Dog and Doublet next to lock 9. It was approaching four in the afternoon and I think the idea was to have a couple of throat-clearing pints and move on. Indrani appeared on her boat together with a friend who’d cycled up the towpath to meet her. We offered them drinks: they accepted. Throats took quite a bit of clearing, it seemed so we tarried a while longer and then stayed for dinner at the pub. “Whither the Adrian Rayson, singlehander; he of the don’t stop for anything until the light is failing?!” I hear you cry… Well, I can be persuaded by others. When I am singlehanding there are no others…

Again under Wes’ careful guidance there was a plan for a fish lunch in Fazeley the next day. Having knocked off the last three Curdworth locks I stopped for fuel and a slurry tank pump out at the new Fazeley Marina and joined the others on the line at Fazeley shortly before one o’clock. We all walked into town and found the fish shop Wes knows. It was a calm day and the sun shone brightly out of a clear sky. We dragged tables and chairs onto the towpath and it was a very happy bunch who sat there scoffing fish, chips, mushy peas, curry sauce, tommy sauce, giant pickles, Worcester sauce - you name it, it was there…!

Post lunch Wes decided to have a bit of a rest and give himself up to Sharon’s ministrations. Sadly he does not enjoy the best of health, although he never, ever, mentions anything or complains, and the rest of us were glad that he was sensible enough to have a pause when a pause was needed. Those ‘rest of us’, John, Elizabeth and me, now Leaderless, decided to stick with the original plan and make for Bradley Green Bridge (48) on the Coventry Canal, where we’d first met almost two weeks earlier.

We set off and were immediately through Fazeley Junction and onto the Coventry Canal. Half an hour later we were at Glascote Locks in Tamworth and about forty minutes after that, clear of them and making for the Bradley Green Bridge.

It’s a fair old hike, however, so it was over a couple of hours later, as the light was starting to fail (my sort of time!), that FRILFORD and me, and John and Elizabeth on their boat, were alongside near the winding hole at Bradley Green Bridge. In exactly the same place as we’d been before, but this time facing the other way.

John and Elizabeth invited me to a timely dinner. I wondered how on earth they could do that. Dinner within half an hour of arriving after a long day? Ah – couples. In the long pounds, free of locks, one steers and the other prepares dinner whilst on the move. I could try that when singlehanding but I suspect neither the boat handling nor the cooking would benefit!

What of Wes and Sharon? They would see us tomorrow at some point as we climbed the Atherstone Flight.

The next day they did. They must have made an early start. John and Elizabeth were slightly ahead of me but I was only rising in the bottom lock as a familiar boat appeared on the layby berth and Sharon quietly assumed her role of locking both me and Wes up the flight. At the top of the flight, some three hours, a couple of miles and eleven locks later, I pressed on whilst John and Elizabeth stopped to do some shopping. I was on a bit of a mission. My solicitor, David, had said he had a large file of papers which he required me to read re my flat purchase. Head leases, subleases, boundary matters, water, sewerage and other services. Aaaaggghh. The dull bit of property purchase – especially leasehold purchase – but David is very thorough in his work and the very least I could do is to read through what he had prepared for me. I’d arranged for it to be mailed to Valley Cruisers. Today was the last full day of our trip and John and Elizabeth had to redeliver their boat the next morning. Thus we were all aiming for Valley Cruisers.

I picked up the stuff, read it, signed the bits I had to sign and cycled to the local Post Office to mail it back to David. Rather efficient actually, and I was pleased with myself. It was not long before John and Elizabeth on their boat and Wes and Sharon on Simba Dada appeared round the corner and, yet again, John and Elizabeth were inviting us all to dinner with them.

We had a fine evening reviewing what had been a very busy couple of weeks. An evening which included the divvying up of the now-redundant stores. Wes and Sharon got some pasta, some coffee and fruit and perhaps a bottle of wine. I got most of a bottle of whisky, some pasta and some loo rolls. Much the better deal!

It always surprises me how quickly these times together finish. One minute you feel like you will be with these people for the rest of your life (a comfortable prospect even for this singlehander) and the next minute the atmosphere has changed and there are people standing, a little awkwardly, perhaps, next to a car into which packed suitcases have been loaded. Goodbyes are a little rushed and don’t feel as sincere as you want them to be and the air is full of “see you soon”, even though you’re not going to. Recent memories are already somewhat distant.

Sharon took John and Elizabeth away in her car, leaving Wes and me standing in an empty car park. “What are you doing now?” asked Wes, “I’m taking the boat to the Lime Kilns pub on the Ashby Canal for a pint or two. Sharon will join me there later, or maybe tomorrow. It’s about three hours away. You want to come? It’s a good pub…”

I did want to, but I also wanted some space. I was suddenly back to being a singlehander. I’m always a singlehander but for the past two weeks I had been in close company with friends, so it felt very different. “No,” I replied. “Thanks, Wes, but I’m going to stay here for the weekend, do some jobs on the boat and kick back a bit. But thanks. I’ll see you later.”

I took FRILFORD under the bridge, round the corner and tied up next to a hedge. Shortly thereafter Wes and Simba Dada passed me. We waved, he was gone round the next bend and I was alone.

“Missing you already” is one of the most facile phrases in the modern English language. I walked up and down the towpath a bit, fiddled at some non-job which didn’t need doing, planned the jobs that did need doing but not today, then sat quietly on FRILFORD’s foredeck watching the canal slip by.

I was enjoying the solitude and the lack of a schedule – and was missing the JEWS already.