Day 19: the Big Smoke

June 30th, 2010

I’m in Little Venice in London tonight, a stone’s throw from Paddington Station. Chris (different one from at the weekend!) and I had a surprisingly pleasant cruise here from Denham. We did four locks early on – in fact, we had to queue it was so busy – and stopped at Denham Yacht Centre for diesel fuel, a gas cylinder, and a pump out. In fact I also acquired 50m of stout polyprop rope to go with the anchor (needed for going on the Tidal Thames on Saturday) and a lifejacket (ditto).
The bit around Denham and Uxbridge still feels relatively rural – but once we turned off the Grand Union main line at Bull’s Bridge to head towards Paddington, I was expecting things to get urban more quickly. I was surprised, actually – the canal forms a green corridor through Southall, Northolt and Alperton, with quite a lot of smart waterside development. This whole route is full of appetising smells, too – baking bread, cooking curry, all sorts. Beyond Alperton it does get a bit more industrial, but it’s nothing like the Aston Canal or even the canals around Manchester. Once you pass Kensal Green, the western suburbs open up to the canal and you see more people on the towpath. Suddenly we came around under a bridge and out into Little Venice. My plan was to go down to Paddington Basin and try and moor up. It was full to bursting – it looks like some construction work has reduced the number of boat spaces – but I was surprised that all the visitor moorings around this area were 7 or 14 days – no 24 or 48 hour spots, despite being a very popular location! In the end I’ve double-moored in an area where double-mooring is permitted, but I’m blocking two smaller boats in. Oh well, I can move if needs be.
Tomorrow is a day of thesis-ing, and then on Friday we’re off along the Regents Canal to Limehouse. Beyond that is the Thames!

Day 19: Widewater Lock (Denham Station) to Little Venice, 21 miles and 4 locks.
Total so far: 206 miles, 129 locks.

Days 14-18: over the hills and far away

June 29th, 2010

Sorry for the monster blog update, but I’ve been too busy/tired/hospitable to blog for the last few evenings. On Friday (25th June) I had a very gentle cruise to Fenny Stratford on the southern edge of Milton Keynes – which involves going all the way round the town on a long level pound. For all people like to laugh at Milton Keynes, it always seems very leafy and quietly prosperous from the canal, even if the road system and its countless roundabouts are less inspiring!
I met Mike and Chris at Fenny Stratford, and we repaired to what we thought was a pub, the Bridge Inn, for dinner. In fact, the Bridge has partly rebranded itself as Medina’s Bar and Grill, serving steaks and interesting Spanish dishes, all of which were very good indeed.

Saturday was spent climbing gently up the Chilterns – all glorious countryside, and nice to have a canal with a commanding view of the valleys below. The locks come gently at first, and then gradually become more frequent as you approach the summit. We stopped at Marsworth, just below the summit, had dinner on board and then repaired to the Red Lion…

Sunday was Hard Work, mostly for poor Chris and Mike who were happier working locks than driving. We started with eight locks in quick succession up onto the summit at Bulbourne, followed by a leafy and cool three mile cutting before coming to Cowroast lock and the start of the descent. Locks start to come thick and fast, and suddenly we were in Berkhamsted. We stopped for lunch in a small cafe, and then progressed on through the hot afternoon, our cruise punctuated by cheers and groans from pubs where the punters were watching England lose to Germany…
We pressed on to Hemel Hempstead and left the boat by the railway station.

Monday featured Yet More Locks, this time in the company of Matt, who had heroically cycled to Hemel from Wandsworth for 9:15am… more fool him! A long gentle descent continued through Kings Langley to the little village of Hunton Bridge, tucked just inside the M25. The guidebook promised a pub, the King’s Head, which we totally failed to find – in its place was a building called the Waterside Tavern which appeared to have in turn transformed into an Italian restaurant. A sign on the canal bridge pointed to a pub, the Dog and Partridge, which we also failed to find until our way back. We did, however, find an excellent and reasonably-priced lunch in a smart but otherwise deserted pub/hotel – the King’s Lodge – which also did a nice pint of Fuller’s. Given that Hunton Bridge is a stone’s throw from junction 20 of the M25, I shall remember that for future road trips!
Once outside Hunton Bridge the canal skirts the edge of Watford. What image does that create in your mind? I had imagined starting to see the backs of interwar semi-detached houses and the like, but in fact we found a golf course, a selection of old mill buildings turned into flats, and some locks set in a large woodland park. This is Cassiobury Park, once the estate of the Earl of Essex and now the playground of the citizens of Watford.
The southern edge of the park brought us our first taste of London – an Underground train rumbled over the canal on a high viaduct, heading to the Metropolitan line’s Watford terminus (which is actually at the edge of Cassiobury Park as the Earl refused permission for a tunnel under his land for the line to reach Watford High Street). Below the viaduct were increasing numbers of moored boats, some smart, some scruffy, some very scruffy indeed, and we meandered our way down to Batchworth Lock in Rickmansworth to stop for the night.

Today I’ve done various odds and ends. I did some data analysis first thing, and then went to find a nearby laundrette (named Scrub-a-rub-dub!) before returning to do a bit of job-hunting and CV writing. I went to Tesco for some supplies, collected the laundry and then motored on down a few locks to the vicinity of Denham railway station so that another Chris can meet me tomorrow morning for the journey into the Big Smoke.

Days 14-18: Cosgrove to Widewater lock via stops at Marsworth, Hemel Hempstead and Rickmansworth, 52 miles and 66 locks.
Total so far 185 miles and 125 locks. Thesis 8791 words and 45 pages.

Day 13: more work, less cruising

June 24th, 2010

This morning I got rather carried away – I wrote over a thousand words, drew some pretty diagrams and received some Helpful and Interesting Data from a friendly Australian researcher. Suddenly it was 1pm and time to have lunch and go cruising!

I motored round the corner into the centre of Stoke Bruerne, which was full of boats and tourists as ever. I lined up on the lock-mooring and then a man sitting on the balance beam shouted to me that he was lining up the lock for two hireboats that were just about to depart from outside the pub opposite. I sat there and waited for them, fuming slightly that they had a profusion of people and that had they split up and shared with me it would have been less work for me… but hey. I did the seven locks down to the bottom and then cruised along through lots of bucolic countryside to Cosgrove, a suitably quirky canal village outside Milton Keynes. I’ve finally realised why canal cruising feels different to river cruising: rivers made the landscape around them, so they lie at the bottom of valleys and you look up at things. They also flood, so villages and towns keep back from the water’s edge. Only large industrial towns, where industry wanted water, approach the riverbank closely. By contrast, a canal is built into a pre-existing landscape. You get views from embankments and aqueducts, and countless bridges cross, reconnecting farms and rights of way cut in two by the navigation. You also get villages, pubs, warehouses and wharves to look at. British Waterways’ influence gives the canal system a vaguely consistent feel, too.

Cosgrove is less touristy than Stoke Bruerne, and yet just as pretty. It has a pretty ornamented bridge next to where I’m moored, a cluster of old warehouses turned into flats and offices, and a rather quaint little tunnel that connects the two halves of the village’s original main street which was cut in half by the canal embankment. The tunnel is keyhole-shaped, so that a horse can walk through it!

A little way outside the village is a junction with the Buckingham Arm of the canal, which once connected that town with the main line, and also was used to tranship goods onto waggons on the Roman road of Watling Street, which is now the A5. The Arm is derelict now apart from the first half-mile or so which is used for moorings. There is inevitably a Canal Society dedicated to restoring it.
By the junction is a short lock – all of three feet of rise – and beyond it a mighty iron aqueduct over the Great Ouse.

Tomorrow I shall meander round the outskirts of Milton Keynes to Fenny Stratford, and then spend a weekend locking over the Chilterns with friends…

Day 13: Stoke Bruerne to Cosgrove, 6 miles and 7 locks.
Total so far 136 miles and 68 locks. Thesis 8183 words and 40 pages.

Days 11 and 12: back to the canals

June 23rd, 2010

Tonight (Wednesday), I’m in Stoke Bruerne, the quintessential canal village. Innocenti’s shabby paint and modernist build are rather shown up by all the brightly-coloured traditional style boats that have clustered here. Apparently there’s a Working Boats festival in Braunston (18 miles north of here) at the weekend.

Yesterday was a short day – I did some errands in Northampton and set off at 2pm to do a few locks and get off the Nene and onto the western side of town. My approach to the first lock was marred by it being against me, and by a teenage lad fishing off the lock-mooring, right where I needed to land. I excused myself and he kindly helped me put the boat through the lock. It’s strange to do narrow locks again after all the hulking great Nene locks. BW have put anti-vandal locks on the bottom few locks of the Northampton flight, but unusually these take the Yale key used for water points rather than the normal “handcuff” key used in Birmingham and in NW England.

The first few miles of the Northampton Arm feel like an extension of the river – with clear water and lots of weed. I moored at Banbury Lane, being the only place I could find where the reeds and irises were thin enough for me to be able to reach the towpath! My uncle and cousin (who live nearby) came by and took me back to theirs for dinner, and it was nice to catch up.

Day 11: Northampton to Banbury Lane Bridge, 3 miles and 4 locks.

Today I had 14 locks to do – the canal rises steeply out of Northampton, and I cunningly waited for a few boats to come down in the morning before attempting the flight, thereby ensuring that all but 3 of the locks turned out to be in my favour. Oh, and I wrote a thousand words of thesis. The bottom couple of locks were being worked on by British Waterways staff who kindly opened and shut the gates for me. Beyond that I was on my own – bringing Innocenti into one lock and setting it to fill, before going back to the previous lock to close the top gate and then on to the next one to open the bottom gates. I got plenty of exercise! At the top of the flight is Gayton Junction, and here we join the Grand Union main line. I shall return to this point from the other direction in September!

Within a mile of the junction is Blisworth village, and then the portal of its famous tunnel. This is a mile and a half long and wide enough for two narrowboats to pass. At the far end I quickly found a mooring space and dug out my special clips for mooring to sheet-pile, which haven’t been used in nearly three years! Tomorrow, Milton Keynes…

Day 12: Banbury Lane Bridge to Stoke Bruerne, 6 miles and 14 locks.
Total so far 130 miles and 61 locks. Thesis 7091 words and 34 pages.

Day 10: Midsummer

June 21st, 2010

I’m in Northampton, after a glorious afternoon’s cruise from Wellingborough. Today was a Good Day – I sent the first chapter of my thesis away to my supervisors for review, and the weather became properly summery. I had assistance through three of today’s twelve locks, which was a welcome change, and generally enjoyed the beautiful scenery and sunshine.

I had planned to stop at Weston Favell, in the Washlands nature reserve, but since it was only a short way (and two locks) into Northampton, I thought I’d press on. The last two locks turned out to be a) against me and b) bastard hard work. Oh well.

This evening I’ve mooched into the town, found some fish and chips and recce’d a laundrette for tomorrow…

Day 10: Wellingborough to Northampton, 13 miles and 12 locks
Total so far: 121 miles and 43 locks. Thesis 5713 words and 26 pages.

A singlehanded weekend

June 20th, 2010

I’m in Wellingborough tonight, about two-thirds of the way up the River Nene towards Northampton, having spent the last two days making my way singlehandedly. I’d originally hoped to have company for this stretch, as there are a lot of locks, but that wasn’t the way it worked out.

Single-handed boating requires Being Prepared, so it’s just as well that I went to Scouts for all those years! In particular I find that I like to have a lot of stuff set ready on the stern deck: mooring pins, mallet, windlass, security keys, sunglasses, jumper and/or raincoat, glass of water and snack-foods that can be eaten with one hand whilst steering (e.g. apples, pears, biscuits).

On Saturday morning I went as far as Fotheringay. Two small highlights from this trip – one is Yarwell Mill, where there is a huge caravan site which also features a fair number of private moorings for boats. The Mill itself is adjacent to a lock. By the lock landing stages are large signs that say “Passing Boats: this is Private Property. No Water, No Toilets, No Rubbish. Overnight mooring by arrangement”. Charming! I’ll take my business elsewhere, thanks…
At Warmington Lock I encountered the first of the mechanically-operated guillotine gates (most of them are electric now, but some of the locks are so rural that there’s no electricity nearby). As I wound the handle countless times, a jolly group of ramblers passed by, said hello, and took photos.
After they had disappeared off across the water-meadows, I maneuvered Innocenti out of the upper gates and attempted to pull onto the lock-mooring. The strong cross-wind had other ideas though, and the boat ended up sideways across the lock entrance. I went and drained the lock and raised the guillotine gate (you have to reset the locks on the Nene to empty after use, which is particularly tedious when you’re on your own) and then attempted to get the boat off again. The combination of crosswind and side current to the weir stream almost defeated me, but I got round and the bows headed up-river. But there wasn’t quite enough turning-circle and we went aground. Bother! Ten minutes of poling and shoving later and off we went to Fotheringhay.

Now, if like me you were subjected to Elizabethan-period history at School, you might have heard of Fotheringhay. The castle was where Elizabeth I imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots and eventually had her executed there. All that remains now is a lumpen mound – it was a motte-and-bailey castle – and a selection of rather fine stone buildings that once surrounded it. I’m surprised that more isn’t made of it – the castle site itself is still really a farm, and there’s one (rather smart) pub in the village where I decided to treat myself to lunch. I moored by the castle – there are nice mooring-posts and a sign saying “Overnight mooring £4, short stays £2” but no clue as to how to pay. I enquired at the guest-house near the castle. “Wrong house”, said the lady there, “you want the one across the road”. That was deserted, so I gave up and went to the pub. On the way, I met the ramblers I had seen at Warmington Lock, coming out of the churchyard. They were going to the pub too, and invited me to join them. They turned out to be a group of doctors who knew each other from an internet site, DoctorsNet, and who were meeting up in Real Life for a ramble and a pub lunch. A good time was had, and I excused myself at 2pm and went back to the boat.

I meandered on, finally stopping at Titchmarsh Lock at about 1930. There’s a 48 hour mooring there, but one end of it was occupied by a large weedcutter boat, and the other by a narrowboat that looked familiar. The other side of the river has a large basin occupied by the Middle Nene Cruising Club. I attempted to moor alongside the weedcutter, but with the crosswind it was quite tricky. As I faffed and struggled, the lady and gentleman from the familiar-looking narrowboat, Sunflower, appeared and offered to help. They turned out to be from Waterbeach – I’d seen their boat in and around Cambridge in the past. After a bite to eat, we were invited to join the club members in their bar, which was very convivial.

Day 8: Wansford Station to Titchmarsh Lock, 21 miles and 11 locks.

Today (Sunday) I’ve come to Wellingborough with a brief stop at Irthlingborough for lunch. No real excitement or drama, but the weather was better – getting sunnier and less windy as the day went on. The locks are becoming more frequent but with shorter rises now.

Day 9: Titchmarsh Lock to Wellinborough Embankment, 16 miles and 10 locks.
Total so far: 108 miles and 31 locks (and we’re still north of Cambridge, so not even heading in the right direction yet!)

Navigating the Nene

June 18th, 2010

I woke up earlier than I’d expected this morning, having left my alarm set for 6am rather than the usual 7… anyway, I got two hours work done before Stanground Lock came to life and I was eventually locked through at about 9:30. I motored round the corner to the water-and-pumpout point and tied up. The Environment Agency, who look after the Nene, have kindly provided two pumpout units and a fresh water supply here. Oddly, the fresh water supply is from an old and knackered-looking reel-out fire hose rather than being just a conventional tap. Once I’d got the water tank hooked up I reached for the pumpout hose. A chap appeared and opened up the other pumpout unit and then called to me “It’s not working – I’m here to fix it but I’m waiting for Anglian Water to let me into the plant room”. Shortly after that the Anglian Water guy showed up, and Mr Pumpout discovered that the problem was a tripped circuit breaker. He reset it and I pumped out. This is the last free pumpout for a while – after this I’ll have to pay boatyards to do it…

I carried on working until about 1215, and then stopped for a bite of lunch before heading over to the convenient riverside Asda for some supplies – and then into central Peterborough on a quest for an odd-sized inner tube for my folding bike. The Power Of Google on my phone led my to Richardson’s Cycles, a helpful independent bike shop in the mighty Queensgate shopping centre, where they had both the obscure sizes needed for the Bickerton (its front wheel is smaller than the back one).

Peterborough is actually quite nice, especially now that they’ve built a smart new square with strange spurty water fountains in front of the cathedral. Strange to see a Norman cathedral in a city most people think of as a New Town…

Anyway, back to the boat and on up the river. I have to admit that my previous experience of the Nene was that it was hard work – but it was my first experience of rivers, there was quite a lot of current and all the (limited) moorings were taken up by boaters coming back from the IWA festival in St Ives.

Now, after the Fens, it seems a pleasant, placid river – wide and gently curving, with handsome old bridges and a gentle bucolic English landscape. This impression is reinforced at two of the settlements I passed, where mills and churches built from honey-coloured stone are reflected in the clear water.

The Nene navigation fell into disuse when a railway line was opened along its length, and the guidebook claims that by 1920 a small motor launch attempted to make the journey from Peterborough to Northampton but “had to be dragged overland in places”. Consequently, in the 1930s a big programme of investments were made and all the locks date from this period. They are big concrete-and-brick affairs, built in the days when Progress had no time for such niceties as environmental protection! Operating them singlehanded turned out to require some practice. Firstly, the locks are deep, and I had to tie a couple of metres of extension rope to my handling rope so that I could climb the lock ladder with the handling rope. The paddles are also extremely large, and the flows so violent that the boat can be pulled about quite violently by them. So, go gently! The convention on the Nene is to empty the locks and leave the guillotine gates open after using them, so lock passages take slightly longer than normal.

Anyway, three locks later I arrive at Wansford Station, which confusingly is not in Wansford but instead in a hamlet called Sibson about a mile away up the Great North Road, which is just within earshot. The EA have provided a lovely visitor mooring here on a large floating pontoon. The station itself is the headquarters and engine sheds of the Nene Valley Railway, from which steam trains run back towards Peterborough.

Tomorrow is a full day, hopefully to Thrapston if not further.

Day 7: Stanground Lock to Wansford Station, 11 miles and 4 locks.
Total so far 71 miles and 10 locks. Thesis now 5639 words and 25 pages.

Day 6 – Back on the river again – and the return of the dreaded weeds!

June 17th, 2010

After two-and-a-half weeks of lounging around in the boatyard, Innocenti has finally got out on the river again today. I paid my bill at Fox’s – which didn’t cause a sharp intake of breath, but did come towards the upper end of what I was expecting – and headed off a bit earlier than usual, at 1030, in order to avoid cluttering up their already-busy marina.

The river between March and Whittlesey is quite dull, so I’m not too worried that the webcam initially didn’t work! I stopped at Flood’s Ferry briefly to have a bite of early lunch and discovered that I’d forgotten to plug the cable back into the router. D’oh. Anyway, you didn’t miss much.

Ashline Lock in Whittlesey is a pleasant spot, and the only boater-operated lock on the main route across the Middle Level. You need a special windlass for it, which I seem to remember they charged me £7 for back in 2007… so time for it to earn its keep. I arrived with another boat close behind, crewed by an Aussie couple who were spending their summer cruising. They went first and then helped me through – then motored off towards Peterborough to try not to be too late for their booked passage through Stanground Lock. It was about 1430 by this time, and I thought it wouldn’t take too long to go the four miles to Stanground. Even without a booked passage I reckoned that the lock-keeper would let me through – there was plenty of time before they knocked off work for the evening.

I reckoned without the Dreaded Fenland Weeds. The King’s Dyke – the channel from Whittlesey to Peterborough – is narrow and weedy and I passed a number of boats that were struggling a bit coming in the opposite direction. About two miles beyond Whittlesey I got stuck. I stopped to clear the weedhatch, the wind blew me onto the bank and then I was very slightly aground. Much faffing and poling off ensued until a passing dog walker helped me by pushing off with the pole while I manoeuvred. This is why single handed takes longer!

I motored down to Stanground Lock, which marks the end of the Middle Level system. Beyond is the River Nene and the convenient town centre moorings in Peterborough. I arrived at 1640. The place was deserted – rather Marie Celeste-like. A sign on the little shed-office by the lock said “Closed”. I made a pot of tea and waited to see if the lock-keeper would reappear. After an hour, a boat appeared. When I went out, I discovered that a) he was towing another dead boat and b) the lock-keeper was locking him through. I went up to speak to her – she said “Oh, he was my 3:30 booking but he’s had trouble, so he’s the last one for today. You can go tomorrow, about 9:30 or maybe 10ish”. I thanked her and went back to the boat for more tea. Another boat approached behind me – a smartish-looking narrowboat. I shouted to the helmsman to come alongside me, but he chose instead to moor behind, against a small sheet-pile jetty built for anglers. I went inside. Shortly afterwards I heard a female voice that sounded in a bad mood. I stuck my head out. It was the lady from the boat behind, complaining that she had booked ahead, been told she could stay overnight and have first passage in the morning, and now was complaining that I was occupying the one-and-only landing stage despite having not played by the rules. Now she was concerned that the sheet-pile jetty would scratch her boat’s paint. I asked her if she would like me to move – I could easily swap places with them, and my paint is already scratched! She refused my offer, instead ranting at me about people not playing by the rules getting her goat. I asked her if there was anything else I could do. She said that really the only thing that she wanted me to do was to “piss off”, but that that wasn’t really an option. I stood there and apologised profusely. I told her about my gearbox trouble and my hefty bill. She calmed down slightly. I apologised some more and helped her tie up her bow line. Eventually she calmed down, felt that she had told me off sufficiently that I was unlikely to commit such a crime again (indeed so!) and shook my hand before going back to her boat. Oh well.

So, a note for future reference: the Middle Level navigation notes say “24 hours notice is required at Stanground Lock”. I had assumed that this was to do with the lock-keeper’s working hours, so she knew how many boats to expect. This isn’t actually the reason. The notes should probably say “Stanground Lock only permits a certain number of boats to pass through per day. You must call ahead to the lock-keeper to see if you will be permitted to use the lock”. I’m guessing that the Middle Level Commissioners restrict the use of the lock in order to restrict the volume of water entering their system from the River Nene – because every litre of water that enters the system has to be pumped out again at the St Germans Pumping Station near King’s Lynn. That station is currently being rebuilt (take a look, it’s an interesting website if you like heavy engineering) so that may be at least part of the reason for trying to keep water out of the Middle Level. I might write to the Middle Level Commissioners asking them to provide a better explanation in next year’s navigation notes.

Day 6: Fox’s Boatyard, March to Stanground Lock. 15 miles and 1 lock.
Total so far 60 miles and 6 locks. Thesis now 4521 words, 20 pages.

Oily rags and leaky seals

June 15th, 2010

I’ve been back living on the boat since Monday, albeit moored up in Fox’s boatyard. On Monday afternoon at about 3-ish, the boat rocked gently and a pole appeared outside the window. It was Gary, who hadn’t realised I was in. Between us we punted round to the covered dock (punting 20 tonnes of Innocenti is quite hard work, even with two of you) and Gary got the deckboards up and introduced the new gearbox to the engine. By 5 o’clock when he knocked off, the engine and gearbox were mated up again, but the oil cooler and propeller shaft remained to be connected.

This morning I cracked on with lots of thesis-writing (2500 words and counting!) and some followups from my trip to Krakow. After lunch Gary reappeared (he’d been painting another boat in the morning) and fairly quickly finished off connecting up the gearbox. The engine came to life again and drove the prop nicely once in gear. We left the engine running for the oil to warm up before changing it and Gary went off for a cuppa.

On his return, various of Innocenti’s engine gremlins were duly squashed. The engine mountings were re-adjusted to stop the engine from wobbling – although the wobble has understandably worn the Aquadrive coupling somewhat, so I need to be careful with that or that’ll be another £500 for a new coupling…

The oil drain pump turned out not to pump out all the oil from the sump, as the little tube that it sucks through was too short. The tube was lengthened and lots of grotty oil removed. The old oil filter came out and a new one went in. New oil, too. Apparently the right oil for a BMC 1.5 diesel engine is very old school SAE 30 oil, which isn’t readily available from yer average Halfords. It does seem widely available on the ‘net though, and doubtless the helpful A1 Motor Stores in Cambridge will be able to order it for me. Gary also pointed out that what I had previously believed to be a water trap in the fuel line (hidden down in the depths of the engine bay where it’s hard to get at) is actually another fuel filter. This was duly replaced and the fuel system bled and the engine restarted. The engine sounds less noisy now – possibly because the old blocked fuel filter was starving the engine – and definitely because of the bad engine mounting. All well until a wipe round with a rag revealed a drip from the oil filter casing. Out came the O-ring from the casing and much fiddling and muttered invective resulted until the new one was seated properly and the filter stopped leaking. This explains why Innocenti’s had a very slight oil leak for ages…

Anyway, you’d think I’d be ready to go now, but there’s one last obstacle between me and the river – the bill. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is the admin lady’s day off, so they can’t give me a bill until Thursday. Gary said he’ll have a final check of the engine on Thursday anyway to make sure that nothing’s leaked, and I’ll need some diesel and a gas cylinder before I go anyway.

I’ve updated the cruise plan – to summarise, this weekend I’ll be on the River Nene (with no crew as yet – please come and join me if you’re free) and next weekend I’ll be in the Chilterns going over the Grand Union summit level. The following weekend, circumstances permitting, I shall be in London!


June 14th, 2010

I’m in Krakow this week – and before you ask, the boat has not mysteriously developed the ability to fly – although a narrowboat slung form a giant airship would be rather cool!

I attended the European Geophysical Union conference in Vienna at the beginning of May, where I met Piotr Koperski who was presenting a paper on some technology very similar to my own. He’s a physicist and was keen for me to meet his engineer colleagues, so they invited me to Krakow for a meeting.

I flew out yesterday from Stansted on Ryanair. I like flying, even on a commercial airliner and even on Ryanair. I even like spending time in airports. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me! Anyway, my flight was uneventful and I arrived in Krakow at about 2130 and was met by Marian Soida, one of Piotr’s colleagues. They work for the Jagellonian University – the oldest in Poland, founded in 1364 – and specifically work at the Astronomical Observatory, a short drive from the airport. Astronomers being the sort who need to work bizaare hours, the Observatory has accommodation on site which is where I’m staying.

The Observatory itself is certainly a lovely setting. It’s on a hilltop at the edge of the city and surrounded by woodland. The summit of the hill itself is occupied by a Napoleonic-era fort (very like the Palmerston forts on Portsdown Hill) which is now home to three optical telescopes in their characteristic domes. Further down the hill, inamongst the lawns and flowerbeds, are various radio telescopes – one big one (15m diameter) and one smaller one (8m). There’s also a volleyball court and two office buildings (imaginatively called “old building” and “new building”) which house offices, labs and a library.

On Tuesday I gave a short talk about my work and then engaged in more detailed discussions over a late lunch at a restaurant down the road. Traditional Polish food was on the menu – borscht (beetroot soup) and then potato pancakes (like rosti – fried grated potato) with goulash. Very tasty indeed.

On Wednesday I managed to do some work on my thesis and then Piotr took me into the city centre. Krakow is certainly pretty – lots of tall stone buildings in various baroque-ish styles, and a grand castle overlooking the river. The city’s old defensive ramparts are now a semicircular park, the Planty, which surrounds the old town. After an afternoon’s wander around, I met Janusz for a beer in a subterranean pub, very atmospheric.

On Thursday we had a final meeting to wrap up what we’d decided to work on. This in a rather smart little meeting room at the observatory with grandiose upholstered chairs and a little wooden table. A secretary brought in a tray of tea and coffee and shortly after she left, I reached for my notebook, nudged the little table and managed to spill everyone’s coffee. Much chaos ensued while we cleared up. It wasn’t just my inherent clumsiness as Andrzej did the same thing later – the table was at just the wrong height to catch your knees on.

Friday brought me back to the UK again, and changed perspectives on Poland. Certainly in the areas of Krakow I visited, everything looked well-maintained and relatively prosperous, much better than I was expecting. Do go and visit if you can – it’s an interesting (and cheap) place for a city break!

Everyone’s been very friendly and helpful. I’ll take some pictures of the observatory tomorrow.