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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: The Results!

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 20 May, 2020

Sunday May 10th 2020

Thanks to the wonder of spreadsheets and the hard work of the judges who read and scored 13 cruising logs every day, we had the overall scores by Sunday afternoon…

Drumroll please…

1.      501.75 – Team Indigo Dream 🥇

2.      491.87 – Team Firefly 🥈

3.      468.75 – Team Rebellion 🥉

4.      450.25 – The Workers

5.      433.75 – Urban Moorings

6.      393.00 – Whisky Galore

7.      391.30 – Team NB Styxl

8.      359.45 – Team Pugnipeek

9.      338.50 – Steaming Behind

10.   245.50 – Sugar & Spice

11.   242.75 – Anado Solo

12.   40.5 – Team Willum

13.   21.75 – Team Biscuits

14.   -3.37 – Barnier’s Stern Gland

Yes! Team Indigo Dream won the Virtual BCN Challenge 2020 with flying colours – I cannot praise the team enough for their hard work and inventiveness throughout the last six days.

I also want to thank all the teams that took part – it was such good fun to take part, but I think that many observers have enjoyed the mayhem too.

The biggest round of applause has to go to Team Barnier’s Stern Gland – anyone can score zero, but to score minus points takes real skill!

Being a virtual challenge, there is no award ceremony, so I just adjusted our trophy from 2018 and awarded to ourselves.


Not forgetting Archie Beanz, who represented all the canine crews when we won this trophy for the first time:

Archie collecting a well-earned trophy for the 2018 BCN Challenge

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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Day 6

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 19 May, 2020

The Virtual Adventrues of Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

Day 6: Saturday 9th May

Well here we are, the last day and, as befits a BCN Challenge crew nearing the finishing line, we were getting really tired. Those of us that have completed the real thing agreed that this event, held over 6 days, was way harder!

1. Outline Cruising Log

Bromford Junction (via Spon Lane Locks) Spon Lane Junction 0.5 3 09:00:00 09:27:00
Spon Lane Junction Oldbury Locks Junction 0.5 0 09:27:00 09:39:00
Oldbury Locks Junc Old Loop East 0.25 0 09:39:00 09:45:00
Houghton chem junc Houghton chem term 0.5 0 09:45:00 09:57:00
Houghton chem term Houghton chem junc 0.5 0 09:57:00 10:09:00
Oldbury Loop East Oldbury Loop West 1 0 10:09:00 10:33:00
Old Loop West Brades Hall Junction 0.6 0 10:33:00 10:47:24
Brades Hall Junction Tipton Junction 1.5 0 10:47:24 11:23:24
Tipton Junction Tipton Green Junction 0.5 0 11:23:24 11:35:24
Tipton Green Junc Watery Lane Junc 0.5 3 11:35:24 12:02:24
Watery Lane Junc Toll End Junc 1.5 7 12:02:24 13:13:24
Toll End Junction Tame Valley Junction 0.5 0 13:13:24 13:25:24
Tame Valley Junction Moorcroft Junction 1 0 13:25:24 13:49:24
Moorcroft Junct (Br btm) Bradley top Locks Junct 1 9 13:49:24 14:58:24
Bradley Top lk Junc Bradley Marr Jnc 0.4 0 14:58:24 15:08:00
Bradley Marr Jun Bradley Marr term 0.5 3 15:08:00 15:35:00
Bradley Marr term Bradley Marr Jun 0.5 3 15:35:00 16:02:00
Bradley Marr Jnc Bradley Workshop 0.1 0 16:02:00 16:04:24



Part 1 of today’s route


Part 2 of today’s route



The last leg of the challenge


2. Detailed Cruising Log

This morning we started at the bottom of Spon Lane locks, nice easy flight of 3 locks if you avoid stirring up the mud! By the top our travel companions needed rest, little did they know that today we do loads of locks!


The crew showing signs of exhaustion as we enter the last day of the challenge 🙂

Historical Snippet: On Tuesday 19th November, the West Bromwich sirens sounded at 6.53pm, the 185th warning. This was the beginning of the West Bromwich Blitz. One local resident recalls his childhood memories when his Dad ran all the way home from Smethwick and the top of Spon Lane was in flames. With the candle factory and the wood factory up there, this made for an explosive combination.

Water supply to the Smethwick summit was a problem, and in 1778, a Boulton and Watt pumping engine was installed at the junction, to pump water back up the top three locks of the flight to the summit. Originally a set of 6 locks, but was reconstructed in 1790 to improve the water flow after the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal was built. The top lock has a split bridge  which allowed horses to cross the canal without having to disconnect the towing rope, which passed through the gap between the two halves of the bridge. This particular example is, however, a 1986 reconstruction. The remaining three locks at Smethwick were duplicated at the same time. The pumping engine at the junction now served no purpose and was removed.


The turn at the top of Spon Lane is always interesting…

From Spon Lane Junction, half way down the then 6 lock flight, the main line of the canal was continued along the contours, taking a somewhat winding course to Wolverhampton. Water was supplied from reservoirs at Smethwick, by 1774 from Titford Pool, and soon from various mine pumping engines discharging into the canal. An important milestone in the establishment of Black Country industry came when John Wilkinson set up an iron works at Bradley near Bilston. In 1757 he started making iron there by coke-smelting rather than using charcoal. His example was followed by others and iron making spread rapidly across the Black Country. Another important development of the 18th century was the construction of canals to link the Black Country mines industries to the rest of the country. Between 1768 and 1772 a canal was constructed by James Brindley starting in Birmingham through the heart of the Black Country and eventually leading to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. The Tipton Green Branch was completed around 1805 with 3 locks and a length of quarter of a mile. The Toll End Branch was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1783 (along with the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, Broadwaters Canal, and several other branches) to provide access to a proposed new coal mine. Work was started from the Broadwaters Canal (now part of the Walsall Canal) but halted in 1784 for eight years, being completed as a closed branch with two locks in 1801. In 1806 it was decided to extend this branch to the Tipton Green Branch with further locks, and in January 1809 the Toll End Communication Canal was completed making the length 1 3/8 miles. In 1829 Thomas Telford’s BCN New Main Line (Island Line)cut across the Tipton Green Canal, forming Watery Lane Junction, and creating a de facto Tipton Green Locks Branch of three locks and a Toll End Locks Branch of seven locks. From the later 20th Century Caggy’s Boatyard occupied the basin at Watery Lane Junction. The Horseley Ironworks operated their first foundry from a site between the two branches where many iron bridges, including the Engine Arm Aqueduct (1825), two roving bridges at Smethwick Junction (1828) and Galton Bridge, were cast.





There is a fabulous aqueduct where you have a rea transport sandwich with the M5 over the top spanning over the West Coast Main Line. Our canal, the Old Main Line goes under the railway line and over the New Main Line!



Under the M5 in all its decaying glory:

We went past the bottom of Titford without going up!! Yesterday’s water shortages put us that bit behind.



We turned into the Chemical Arm and time travelled back to before the M5:

.To break up our trip along the Old Main Line, we paused briefly at Tividale Quays, and set the time machine to 2009. We were pleased to see eleven other boats moored there, on their way to the National Rally at Wolverhampton. The event was hosted by Andrew and Frances Phasey, who lived there at the time. Andrew is the new Commodore of St Pancras Cruising Club, and was planning to spend today overseeing (controlling is too rigid a word) the Club’s annual cruise on the Thames tideway from Limehouse down to Margaretness and then upstream to Teddington.


The time machine was not quite reset to today so we sawt this group of refuges from the tidal Thames arriving at Tivdale



And with the time machine correctly set, a quick view down to the Netherton Tunnel but no boats to wave at!



And yes this is the entrance to the Black Country Museum and Dudley Tunnel NOT the Chemcial Arm.



Tipton Green needed a bit of a re-dial on the timer:



Emily likes locks but found Bradley all too easy as they have single gates!


The Locks themselves represent a particular stage in the technological development of English Canals in general and The Birmingham Canal Navigations in particular. Both the Rotton Brunt Line and the new locks at Bradley were built on dead straight alignments, ignoring any minor changes in the contour and taking the most time-efficient route. The locks were amongst the last on the BCN to have a single gate at top and bottom, the original Birmingham Canal Locks had double bottom gates as did the last the BCN Company built at Rushall and Perry Barr. The lagoons alongside each lock were a device to maximise water capacity in the short intervening pounds, and finally, the locks themselves are all at one side of the canal, not located midstream as earlier locks were. It is thought that this feature, which is shared by the locks at Oldbury and Perry Barr, was to make subsequent duplication straightforward. Thus restoring the locks allows access to and understanding of a particular phase of canal development.



Bradley Lock 7



Bradley Top Lock:



Bradley Loop




Obviously wonderful that is being pushed for restoration:


Later on, we retraced our steps between Toll End Junction and Moorcroft Junction, before turning up the Bradley Arm. It wasn’t entirely clear if the scrutineers would notice if we claimed points for these two sections, but we decided honesty was best. To travel up the Bradley Locks, we bravely set our time machine to 2035, confident that by then the restoration would have been completed. We approached the final lock on the flight with some trepidation, as one of the options for the restoration would see it moved to the other side of the site of Bradley lane bridge. Another option involves a new aqueduct being built over the road, or a boat lift, but these seem less practicable than a new swing bridge.

For our last section of canal, we ventured down the Bradley Marr canal, which enabled us to complete our only staircase locks all week. Documentation is poor for this stretch, so there was some argument amongst the crew as to whether we should expect to find side ponds (red before white and all that), or something similar to the pair of locks on the Stourbridge Canal (not a staircase, strictly), or whether the design was similar to that on the Brades Hall branch (where it is possible to flood the lower lock if you are not careful). This debate delayed us for a few minutes, meaning we arrived at the Bradley depot a few minutes after 4pm.

Quick proof that we are moored up at Bradley Workshops…

Bradley 3

Bradley 2

Bradley 1


3. Daily Challenge and 4. From the Galley

This morning I was informed that my crew had complained to the organisers that they were starved and such food as was offered to them was little more than swill. I admit I was a little hurt to find out that the crew had been complaining of starvation on board.  Indigo Dream prides herself on the quality of her catering, even to the extent of having James Martin, celebrity chef cooking on board while we mooched around Brindley Place and the Soho Loop in July 2018.

This particular episode of Great British Adventures was broadcast on 25th February 2019.



James Martin cooking on the Soho Loop of the BCN



The famousArchie Beanz and some geezer off the TV.


Sadly, James Martin was not available at short notice to help with today’s challenge, so I used a few of his recipes instead.


Emily Breakfast

To stop the crew revolting while I was preparing a gourmet lunch, Emily prepared us a trendy breakfast of crushed avocado and poached egg on toast:


In the meanwhile, I got on with these vegetarian recipes from James Martin:

·        Salt-baked Celeriac

·        Twice-Baked Cheese Souffles

I also baked a batch of Cheesy Chomps (click here for the recipe) for the greyhounds – though they are made with wholesome ingredients and are often eaten by greyhound mums who report that they are like cheesy hobnobs!

Finally, for something sweet, I knocked up a batch of scones and served them up with whipped double cream and home-made jam – the last pot of the jam that I made to commemorate last year’s BCN Challenge. I don’t know whether the judges are party to the debate on whether the cream or the jam goes first, so I served them in separate pots to suit both Cornish and Devonian sides of the argument.

Day 6 Challenge - lunch

This was our gourmet lunch and guess what? We did NOT gain any bonus points for the challenge!

Emily Pancakes

The thing with revolting crews is that they’re never satisfied – “Where’s the bacon?” cried the meat eaters. Emily quickly knocked up a batch of pancakes which she served with maple syrup and crispy bacon. But we know our crew, in order to save complaints from our vegetarians, there were also fresh blueberries to go with the pancakes!

In case there were any doubt that the gourmet lunch had been prepared today by my own fair hands, I recorded some insructional videos – I only wish I could have included the aroma!








5. Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector)

I had a busy morning cooking, so I didn’t deploy the Geistersammler until later afternoon. Two very familiar figures came into the cabin – they seemed to be having a wrangling argument which I suspected had been going on in the afterlife for quite some time…

“I tell you; it was less expensive and equally beneficial to carry the canal over Smethwick than to tunnel under it…” James Brindley’s voice had a weary whining quality.

“Nonsense, man!” Telford replied, with his trademark brusqueness. Your old mainline was little better than a crooked ditch. This great and flourishing town deserved better!”

“How dare you impugn my reputation!” Brindley blustered.

“It’s not about you. It’s about trade, and industry and making the best of the resources we have. Efficiency, that’s the thing!”

“And the cost of your efficiency? I was commissioned to bring the canals to Birmingham, my designs suited the lay of the land and the pockets of the shareholders.”

“Aye, the shareholders bought it cheap and paid later. What about all the delays at your accursed Smethwick locks? I won’t even mention the basest behaviours they fostered – quarrelling boatmen, fights over who was to enter the locks first and the incessant complaints of the factory owners.”

“That’s as may be, but my canals reached the very heart and soul of this city, passing by industries left marooned by your bypassing monstrosity.”

“Ahem, gentlemen.” I interrupted them before Telford could get his oar in again. “That fact is, that now, in 2020, we boaters enjoy both of your canals. Mr Brindley, the twists and turns of your old main line are interesting and tranquil, they allow us to take time to explore the city’s hidden past.”

Telford humphed dismissively while Brindley preened.

“But Mr Telford, your Main Line is obviously a marvel of engineering, so straight, so deep, so fast…”

“See, your canal is but a bypass, allowing boats to pass through with little regard for the city.” Said Brindley triumphantly. “Hah! So, you would associate yourself with these idlers who come to the canals to holiday rather than work, such company suits you well…”

I shook my head and cut the connection to the Geistersammler and wondered how many more centuries the two great engineers would spend in debate…

As I turned away, I felt greyhound leaning against me. I stretched out my hand, but it passed right through Archie’s ghost.

“I wondered whether you’d come to visit.” I said.

“Oh yes, all the BCN Challenge crews are here.” Answered Archie, who had always been very eloquent for a greyhound.

I looked out of the window, Blue and Lou, our crew in 2009, were rolling in the long green grass at Bradley Workshops – they’d been very bored on the Wednesbury Oak Loop as we cruised slowly up the weed-strewn canal, stopping to clear the propeller every five minutes.

2009 Crew Blue

Blue – the original Indigo Dreamer crewing on the BCN Challenge in 2009


2009 Crew Lou 2

Lou, another original in every sense of the word 🙂

I looked around. Ranger T Dawg, crew of 2011, was lying on deck with Lynx. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Herbie Beanz stealing the ghost of a hot chicken from the kitchen counter.

2011 Crew Lynx & Ranger

“How did he get that chicken?” I asked.

May - Herbie

“Well, you bought one for Saffy and Alex didn’t you!” said Archie smugly.

“But they ate it!” I said.

Archie sighed, “Yes, and now it’s a ghost chicken so Herbs can eat it again.” There was a clatter as Henry B Beanz managed to open the lid of the bin and rummage noisily in the contents – some things really didn’t change, in this life or the next. I heard a dainty huff, Freya, curled up on a nest of dog beds, clearly didn’t approve of Henry’s uncouth behaviour.

2017 crew - freya & Alex

I found a perch on the sofa and Archie cuddled up to me.

“I miss you Archie, I so wanted you to crew for us one more time, but I had a feeling that 2018 would be the last one for you and Henry.”

2018 crew

“I’m here at the finish line, that’s what’s important.” He said, “and we did train Harmony to be the crew of the future.”

“That you did, and you trained Alex too, though Saffy’s had to learn all by herself – it’s quite possible that she might be better at digging canals than cruising on them…

Saffy Digging

“But Archie, how is it you’re all here? I turned the Geistersammler off ages ago.”

Archie nudged my chest with his nose. “We’re all here, in the heart and soul of Indigo Dream. We don’t need a machine to visit, we never really went away.”

2011 Archie

Harmony, Alex and Saffy greyhounds stepped on deck after being out for a walk at the finish line. Our ghostly visitors vanished, but I could still feel them nearby, forever and always…

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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Day 5

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 18 May, 2020

The Virtual Adventures of Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

Day 5: Friday 8th May (VE Day)

1. Outline Cruise Log



Tame Valley Junction Toll End Junction





Toll End Junction Danks South End





Danks South End Danks North End





Danks North End Danks South End





Danks South End Haines Bridge Junction





Haines Junction Haines Terminus





Haines Terminus Haines Junction





Haines Bridge Junc Ryders Green Junction





Ryders Green Junction Swan Bridge Junction





Swan Bridge Junction Balls Hill terminus





Balls Hill terminus Swan Bridge Junction





Swan Bridge Junction Ridgacre Branch terminus





Halford Junction Halford Terminus





Halford Terminus Halford Junction





Dartmouth Junction Dartmouth terminus





Dartmouth Terminus Dartmouth Junction





Ridgacre Branch terminus Swan Bridge Junction





Swan Bridge Junction Ryders Green Junction





Ryders Green Junction Pudding Green Junction





Pudding Green Junction Bromford Junction





2. Detailed Cruising Log

Another historic day on every level – some canals on which we have our history, historic canals that no longer exist and a historic landmark – the end of World War 2 in Europe (an important distinction!).

In the present day, it was gloriously warm and sunny, though this report from the Birmingham Mail reports that 75 years ago “the skies over the city were filled with rain” :

In doing some research on the day, I found this useful reminder in the archives of the Imperial War Museum:

“Not everyone celebrated VE Day. For those who had lost loved ones in the conflict, it was a time to reflect. Amidst the street parties and rejoicing, many people mourned the death of a friend or relative, or worried about those who were still serving overseas. For many of the widows the war had produced, the noise and jubilation as people celebrated VE Day was too much to bear and not something they could take part in.

There was also an air of anti-climax. The hardships of the war years had taken their toll on many people and left them with little energy for rejoicing. In Britain, the strain of air raids, the strictures of wartime life and the impact of rationing all left their mark on a weary population who knew there were more difficulties yet to endure.

But many thousands (or millions) celebrated, letting go of their fears and worries for a day:

As did many of today’s boaters, displaying bunting and medals…

Ketura Bunting

VE Day MEdalsAs always, it was an interesting day on the canals and we used the time machine to flit about several eras, even attempting to save a drowning man – we couldn’t help ourselves, despite the risk of disrupting the laws of time travel.

Our first historic canal was Danks – seen here on an old OS map:


It’s surrounded by iron works, though the name “Golds Hill” is a misnomer as the only gold here was black in the form of a rich coal seam.

Golds Hill ironworks has a fascinating history – it was a family-run business, you could almost call it dynastic, and in the sprit of yesterday’s philanthropists, the crew found a few extracts from the obituary of James Bagnall, sixth son of John Bagnall, whom I believe owned Golds Ironworks along with many others. James Bagnall apparently “took great interest in the moral and spiritual welfare of his work people. Schools were built by the firm at Gold‘s Hill for the benefit of their children, which were licenced for Divine worship, and a chaplain was appointed in June, 1853. These institutions he continued to support until his death; and while others similarly situated, when they had acquired a fortune, left the smoky district and retired into the country, he continued to reside among his own people to the last.”

I particularly liked this quote from a eulogy delivered at his funeral – “…And I recollect, also, on two or three occasions, being present at what was at the time an annual Christmas sight, viz., the giving away in great profusion blankets, sheets, shirts, flannels, and other things to persons represented to him as being deserving of his benevolence; and at that time his eye would sparkle with pleasure, his whole Countenance would be beaming with benignity; and, as the recipients of his bounty, one and all, thanked him, I have heard him say, ‘Don’t thank me, my friends, but thank God for what I give you – He gave it to me. My father was at one time a man of the people, and see how greatly the Lord has blessed him and his children!’”

It seems that Cadbury’s great reform in Bourneville was more representative of the spirit of industrial Birmingham than I’d ever imagined.

I’ll share a few photographs before we move on from this fascinating branch:



And how it looked in real life…


Golds Hill Ironworks

This an etching of the Leabrook Works – for all the good deeds, ironworking was still a hard, polluting industry.



After the excitement of the ironworks, we settled into a gentler rhythm, enjoying a few canals that we’ve cruised before…


Ryders Green Locks…



And the view down…



Wednesbury Old Canal (Ridgeacre Stub – taken by crew on bikes as cruising it in the present day is strictly forbidden!)


We moored overnight at the bottom of Spon Lane Locks, having traversed the oldest section of the BCN. Once we arrived there, we quickly dialled back to April 1769, to attempt the rescue of the first person who drowned in the canal, and was found floating near there. No luck, sadly, though maybe it’s just as well, as the laws of causality have a lot to say about not attempting to change the past.

We did take note that the canal company were advertising at that time for a “sober diligent man of unexceptional Character, who understands Accounts”. We concluded that nobody on board Indigo Dream fitted this description.

We also observed a lot of poor behaviour amongst the boatmen queuing for the locks. This was only finally solved in 1838 when the new main line was built. A contemporary reported “In consequence of this improvement Mr Telford ought to have had a public reward for introducing good manners among boatmen, who formerly seldom passed without quarrels and imprecations, arising from the difficulty and delay of passing the towing line below the inner boar; whereas now the meet and pass in good humour and with mutual salutations”

Ah yes, that s the spirit of the BCN Marathon Challenge 🙂



Bromfrod Junction – our overnight mooring.

 3. Daily Challenge

Today’s challenge was, well, challenging, because, as this limerick describes, Indigo Dream has a pretty uncluttered roof – mainly because I’m only 5′ 2″ and struggle to helm if I can’t see – even Richard’s bike has folding pedals and handlebars.

Why Indigo Dream’s Roof is Clear…

A wise woman from Wales once said

“Don’t put stuff on your roof you don’t want on your head”

For low bridges and branches

Will sweep and dislodge them

And wearing your chimney will wreck your street cred!

I was also immediately reminded of Nb Herbie’s famous blog post about how to define boaters by the appearance of their roofs…

However, photographs of actual boat roofs were banned from this challenge so we had to be more creative.

Here is our video entry accompanied by a poem.

Note: We found the robin’s nest abandoned in a shed last year – no birds were harmed in the making of this video.

I’ve been tinkering with the “script” below…

Indigo’s Dream Roof

Were all bridges as tall as titans

And trees were all well-trimmed

Our roof would soon be brightened

And with wondrous items brimmed.


For all important navigation

A sundial points us to the light,

Signs (port and sherry) lead us to libation,

The telescope guides

us home on a starry, starry night


To help us breathe and stay alive

We have mushrooms that will satisfy.

Defibrillators do save lives

But may work better if kept inside.


The oils are there to keep us loose,

The mooring rope will keep us tight.

The scrap will pay for some fine foods

For the barbecue tonight.


We should flick the feather duster,

The mop and bucket should be cleaning.

But is dirt such a disaster?

To be honest, we’d rather be boating!


We have chainsaw, logs and chimney,

Complete with robin’s nest on the top,

So until they’re hatched and flying free

The fiery stove will be on stop.


We’re equipped as per regulations

With lights, anchor and fender,

The flag of our proud nations

Enhances our roof’s splendour.


We have a bicycle made for two.

The barometer’s set for fair.

We have some dodgy homebrew,

You’re welcome to come and share.

Today’s challenge was

4. From the Galley

As it is VE Day, I decided to look into what food might have been available for the actual celebrations, given that many basic foodstuffs had been rationed for so long.

I was heartened to find that celebrants were given extra sugar rations to enable them to bake a cake for the day. The Board of Trade also announced that people could purchase red, white and blue bunting without using ration coupons. Alcohol was an important part of the celebrations – many people had squirrelled away bottles for this “much-dreamed-of occasion” and it was interesting that first thing on the morning of VE Day, Churchill had “gained assurances from the Ministry of Food that there were enough beer supplies in the capital”.

Speaking of Churchill and alcohol, today’s Gin is Boodles Mulberry gin. This was originally named after the Pall Mall Gentleman’s Club called Boodles. Boodles Gin used to be enjoyed by Sir Winston Churchill and Ian Fleming. It dates back to 1845 but over time it became increasingly difficult to find. It hadn’t been available at all in the UK for a long time, until it was relaunched in 2013.

Boodles gin for ChurchillAlthough our shops were recently short of some food supplies for a microsecond, it’s hard to imagine the scale of shortages during the war (though there was a flourishing black market – plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose)

Apparently onions were a big thing and if someone got hold of an onion they’d “sit around and look at it. It was just like a beautiful, beautiful thing”.

This photograph is for them…


Given the shortage of sugar, I was surprised to read that the wartime government really promoted the cause of preserving and made extra sugar rations available for that purpose. I guess it’s getting the balance right – the profligacy of using sugar against the waste if fruit and vegetables were not preserved. As a particularly keen marmalade makes I was fascinated by this quote:

“If you got an orange, you’d use the zest in one dish and the juice in another, and you might use one slice in your saved gin and reuse it for three nights running. Then you would keep the husk that you zested and juiced and use that to stew up perhaps with some water and sugar to make some form of syrup to flavour things. Or you might pulp it and mix it up with butter and make it into orange curd, which you’d use sparingly.


A wealth of citrus fruit

As you’ll see when I post “Tales from the Geistersammler” the “Idle Women” who worked canal boats (usually between Birmingham and London” during the war, were not given extra rations, despite the heavy work expected of them. One report says that they mainly survived on cocoa made with condensed milk, the truly horrible sounding “national loaf” and peanut butter, together with vegetables and fruit that they, ahem, foraged from the towpaths and surrounding fields.

At the same time, crumble became the sweet dish of choice – crumble topping could be made with less fat to flour than pastry and needed relatively little sugar, and no eggs (ok, only rich pastries need eggs!).

In tribute to the Idle Women, I acquired a rhubarb crumble and served it with evaporated milk (I didn’t have a tin of condensed in the cupboard). I also made a cup of cocoa using cocoa powder and condensed milk – I actually like evaporated milk but the cocoa was pretty thick and ‘orrible, though it was sweet enough without any extra sugar. However, the cocoa was hot and rich and filling – after a cold day on the canals it might have been just the thing.

Cocoa and Crumble


Read more:

5. Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector)

We thought we’d spend part of the day in 1945 so that we could witness some of Birmingham’s VE Day celebrations. We didn’t stay long – it was their event to celebrate, having lived through the fear and privation of war.

We were enjoying a cup of tea when an old woman popped out of the Geistersammler.

“I’d love a cuppa.” She said. “Ooh, is that real milk? Sorry, where are  my manners, I’m Sarah Fanshawe, Idle Woman. It’s good to be back on a boat again.”

I poured her a cup, it was a bit strong after stewing in the pot, but I doubt if she’d notice after she loaded three spoonfuls of sugar and what looked like half a pint of milk into her mug.

“Sugar and fresh milk…” she smacked her lips with relish, “Nectar of the gods! You learn to appreciate these things when you’ve lived on condensed milk. Cheers!”

She lifted her mug and slurped a big mouthful.

“If must have been hard to be an old lady in the war. How on earth did you manage on the working boats?”

She looked at me askance.

“I was old when I died, that’s me out there…”

I looked out of the window – the road adjacent to the canal was thronged with people, laughing and singing. One was a tall woman in her early twenties, wearing thick trousers, a linen short and a red kerchief. She looked strong and fit. Sarah caught me staring.

“They wanted women with a ‘robust constitution’ – no more plain Jane for me, I was useful, had a place in world, no need for my mother to worry that no-one would court a gangling girl like me.”

I looked again at young Sarah dancing in the street. Her face was alight with joy.“So you never married?” I asked.

“Huh, you sound like my mother, of course I married, see that ring on my finger?” She held out a spectral hand, a tiny solitaire diamond glittered alongside a plain gold band.

“My Ted proposed in 1939, but her was whisked off to war before we could get wed. I got a few letters but then he was captured.”

“You look so happy there though.”

“That’s because they’d liberated his camp a few days before, I’d just heard he was coming home.”

Sarah’s ghost was rather conventional, twinset and pearls, narrow court shoes, beautifully styled hair. I looked again at her younger self, wild and free.

“I was proud to be an Idle Women, though I hate that they called us that. Millie, Janet and me worked a motor and butty between here and London. It was hard, hard work but we were fit, like trees on windswept moors are fit. I was always cold and hungry – they never gave us extra rations, not like the Land Girls, and some shops along the way wouldn’t take coupons from Birmingham.”

“What did you eat then?”

“We made thick hot cocoa from condensed milk; there was always the national loaf though it always crumbled into mush when we tried to spread anything on it. Sometimes we had peanut butter. We took the odd potato or swede from the fields around the canal. We never felt guilty about that, after all, we were part of the war effort. The autumn was the best, we picked blackberries until our hands were stained purple, and saved our sugar ration to make crumble from windfall apples”

“Did you carry on working after VE day?” I asked. “You look so independent there.

“I wanted to be married, to be a wife and a mother. I saved all my coupons so that I’d have enough fabric for a wedding dress. I knew of some empty houses on our road that we could squat in and start our lives together, me and Ted.”

“Did you have a good life?””I had a life, which many didn’t. I won’t say it wasn’t hard, Ted and me had seen things that no-one should really, and I was used to wearing the trousers, literally. But when the children came I found a new place in the world and yes, I had a good life.”

She looked indulgently at her younger self. I thought she might regret the passing of her youth and freedom, but she seemed contented enough.“It’s been nice to visit you dear, but I think you’d better send me back now. Ted is waiting for his tea…”

Idle Women


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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Day 4

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 17 May, 2020

The Virtual Adventures of Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

Day 4 – Thursday 7th May

1. Outline Cruising Log







Wednesfield Junction

Neachall Branch Junction





Neachall Branch Junction

Neachall Branch Terminus





Neachall Branch Terminus

Neachall Branch Junction





Neachall Branch Junction

Bentley Canal Junction





Bentley Canal Junction

Anson Branch Terminal





Anson Branch Terminal

Bentley Canal Junction





Bentley Canal Junction

Anson Branch Junction





Anson Branch Junction

Moorcroft Junction





Moorcroft Junction

Monway Arm Junction





Monway Arm Junction

Monway Terminus





Monway Terminus

Monway Junction





Monway Arm Junction

Gospel Oak Junction





Gospel Oak Junction

Gospel Oak Terminus





Dumaresq Junction

Dumaresq Terminus





Dumaresq Terminus

Dumaresq Junction





Gospel Oak Terminus

Gospel Oak Junction





Gospel Oak Junction

Tame Valley Junction





2. Detailed Cruising Log

The day started fair, and with fewer locks today I had the opportunity to spend the day in the galley, but more of that later…

For the moment, we set the time machine to take us back to the Bentley Canal in its heyday. Again the contrast with the present day, or even the days of forty years ago, was marked. The first thing we noticed were the neat locks. Christine tells me that there was only paddle gear on one side, which would have made it easier had we not had enough crew to operate both sides of the lock. No matter, it meant that Simon could spend the morning on the daily challenge while Christine and Emily lock-wheeled and Richard manned the helm.


Fibbersley Nature Reseve – a far cry from the canal’s heavy industrial past…

But that is as it is today, back in the day, the canal served a thriving industrial area – collieries, ironworks claypits and brickworks, of course. But there were also more diverse manufactories producing manure, acid, weldless steel tubing and phosphorus, and there, in the middle, a maker of chocolate and confectionery. It was an unexpected hint of sweetness in the fumes and stench.

Bentley Lock Noo 1

We were surprised at the complexity of the canal network here – it’s not such a big area geopraphically. But the great expansion of the local population on the mid-1800’s speaks of the rise of insutry and its insatiable need for coal.

There were some fascinating canalside industries – “The Phosphorus Company” of Wednesbury developed an innovative process for generating phosphorus from electricity. Although it was only on the site for a couple of years, imagine, in 1890, the sight of vast steam driven electric furnaces driving a huge alternator to produce electricity.

It didn’t take us long to reach the end of the first flight of six locks. Soon after we made use of the “time telescope” to take a look at the entrance to the Neachells Branch – it was a sorry sight, but fortunately we were cruising in happier times, when the collieries were in production and the canal abuzz with traffic.

Our next adventure was the Anson Branch – the subject of much team debate. We were very excited to find reference to an Act of Parliament which allowed the construction of an inclined plane. The lift would have linked the branch to the Wyrley and Essington at Birchills. Indigo Dream has never been lofted on an inclined plane, so we thought this might be our chance,  but sadly the structure was never built. It sounds as if ideas for extending the canals were ditched in favour of a tramway. Another industry that fascinated us here was a weldless steel tubing company – we were familiar with Stewarts and Lloyds over on the Dudley Canal, but hadn’t realised there were others in the city. Interestingly, the rise in weldless steel tubing was partly driven by the rise in the popularlity of bicycles!

We travered various arms before briefly visiting familiar territory on the Walsall Canal. Then we deployed the time machine again and headed up the Gospel Oak Branch.

View_looking_back_at roving_bridge_gospel_oak_branch_behind_on_left

Looking back at the roving bridge at the entrance to the Gospel Oak Branch

The Dumaresq Branch at the far end of Gospel Oak was a mystery – we knew that it served the Gospel Oak Ironworks but there is very little information beyond that. Speaking to locals wandering the towpath back in the day didn’t help us. Was the canal named for the unfortunate Mr Edward Dumaresq who moved to Australia and had had a disastrous second marriage to a woman he described as “utterly selfish, hard-hearted, tyrannical and a swindler”? Or was it Lieutenant John Dumaresq who invented a mechanical calculating device that related vital variables of fire control when firing from one moving ship to a moving target. Ah, we’ll never know!

At the end of the day, we headed to our overnight mooring at the Tame Valley Junction.


After a filling dinner (see From the galley), we took a walk up to the site of Ocker Hill Power Station and used the time machine to take a look at the cable laying operation. It seems impossible now that this heavy, inflexible cable was laid by a workforce of women, many of whom managed a cheery grin for the camera.o

Ocker Hill Power Station

3. Daily Challenge

As I mentioned in the introduction, all boats were fitted with an “Automat Sensucht” – a time machine which would enable us to cruise the lost 60 miles of canals of the BCN. This was today’s message from the organisers:

When we set about this challenge we didn’t fully anticipate the huge amount of you who would take part and so procuring supplies of the “Automat Sensucht” became a little more difficult than we envisaged. We ended up sourcing the supplies from a wide range of different manufacturers, both here and abroad, and in different times and while they all have the same specification we are aware that they probably all look a bit different. To assist us with some market research on this subject it would be helpful if you can all share a photo of your machine so we know which suppliers we will be best to use in future.

Simon took on the challenge of creating ARID’s Automat Sensucht – I’d have been happy with a photograph of his creation, but he rightly pointed out that all crew members needed a fundamental grasp of how to operate the device, so he wrote a most instructive manual for us…

The Automat Sensucht: A Manual

Overall design concept: The Automat Sensucht used by the Indigo Dreamers comprises everyday boating components. When disassembled, they can be used by members of our crew when they assist visiting boaters who are traversing the tidal Thames. This approach reduces the risk of theft and/or inappropriate use of the device, and enables it to be stored in plain sight when not in use.

Training: New  users should take the virtual course now offered by the RYA (Royal Yachting Association), and secure their VHF SRC qualification (Virtual Hyperspace For Spacetime Roving Canalling). It is possible to use the device to enable you to take the training after you have used it for the first time, but this carries some obvious risks.

Instructions for use

Automat Sensucht

  1. Unlock the virtual device. To avoid malicious use this requires use of a) CRT/BW key, b) an Environment Agency Abloy key, c) the key to the marina next to the finest Cathedral in England d) the key to the Elsan point at March, Middle Level Navigation, and e) a CRT anti-vandal key. Not necessarily in that order. If you use the keys in the wrong order, something very unpleasant will happen to you, and the device will no longer work.
  2. Connect up the virtual power supply to a convenient 12 volt supply. This gets increasingly difficult in the 18th Century. Variants are available for those who have a virtual 24V system on their boats. (I am getting bored of typing the word “virtual”, so will leave it out from now on).
  3. If you are in the middle of a lock flight, set the thing that looks like a VHF radio to the number of locks in the flight – in this case the Wolverhampton 21. Press the “scan” button to see if there are other boats in the flight, and “dual” to see if the lock width has changed (useful between Napton and Knowle, in particular)
  4. Set the target year using the large silver handle. (An Ouse key is preferable, but both mine are on the boat).
  5. Set the target date using the calendar device. As currently configured, the device is obviously set up for Tuesday 21st July 1925.
  6. Set the target time using the stop watch.
  7. Use the thermostat to estimate the temperature at the target date and time, and dress accordingly
  8. 😎  Orient the boat correctly in the space time continuum, using the device that looks like a compass
  9. Use the wind gauge to assess the rate of flux in the space time continuum. Pay particular attention to gusts.
  10. The yellow safety knife can be used if knots are discovered in the space time continuum
  11. If the towpath is muddy, turn up the squelch knob on the radio
  12. Issue an alert using the air horn, and blow the whistle if there are likely to be greyhounds at the target location. You can use as many hoots as you like, as nobody knows what the international conventions are today, let alone in the last century.
  13. Press the PTT button on the radio. PTT stands for “Press to Teleport”
  14. Switch off, in the reverse order to step 1, and carefully disassemble and stow the components. Try to avoid the silver handle touching both battery posts at the same time.
  15. Use the clipboards (you can never have too many) to organise assorted navigational documents, and record where and when you have been.
  16. The flags may be useful for semaphore communication, if the battery runs down.

4. From the Galley

A few days ago, I was distressed to find so few traditional Birmingham foods for vegetarians who don’t like curry, so I set out to find a recipe for vegetarian faggots. I was delighted to find many different versions online and spent some time in the galley making my own version. Fortunately, I belong to the school of cookery that believes “if I have half the ingredients the recipe will probably work!” – that was definitely the case today.

Note: These are super-delicious!

Vegetarian Faggots – makes four big faggots – all weights are very approximate!

  • 150g celeriac, diced
  • 150g carrots, diced
  • 50g leeks, halved lengthways and thinkly sliced
  • 50g mushrooms (shitake & chestnut), finely chopped
  • 100g tinned chick peas with a liitle bit of juice
  • 150g dried breadcrumbs
  • 10g pine nuts
  • 10g pecan nuts
  • Half a bell pepper (I used a yellow pepper), finely chopped
  • Small handful of parsley, chopped
  • Four fresh sage leaves, chopped
  • Large pinch of ground Allspice
  • Large pinch of ground Mace
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Sunflower oil for frying


Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 4 – 5 (around 180 degrees centigrade). Peel and dice the celeriac and carrots. Place them on a baking tray and drizzle over some veg oil. Season with some salt (you don’t need much) and pepper. Roast in the oven until they’re soft – 30 minutes was plenty. 

If you have a blender/processor, whizz the nuts with the breadcrumbs – they don’t need to be too fine as the nuts give some texture. Put the crumb into a large mixing bowl.

Chop the leeks, mushrooms and pepper finely (I used the blender).  Add put some vegetable oil to a small frying pan and heat gently; add the mace and allspice and toast gently for a minute then add the leek/mushroom/pepper mixture to the pan.  Cook for 5 – 10 minutes until soft. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Remove the celeriac and carrot from the oven and set them aside to cool a little. If you have one, give the roasted vegetables and the chick peas a whizz in your blender (or use an old-fashioned masher). Add the ingredients to crumb that you put aside in a bowl earlier and mix well (hands are best!) until you have thick sticky paste.

Take a handfuls of mixture (I have small hands) and roll into balls. Shallow fry (I used a wok) until golden brown with a nice crust on the outside. 

Put a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray, then place the faggots on the tray. Pop them in the oven (at 180 degrees C or gas mark 4), uncovered for 15 minutes while you make the onion gravy…

Onion Gravy:

  • Two small white onions – halved and sliced thinly
  • 20g-ish Butter/oil
  • Tablespoon flour
  • 400ml vegetable stock (I used a knorr stock cube)
  • A few drops of gravy browning

Melt the butter/oil over a low heat and add the onions. Fry the onions gently until golden brown – this may take a few minutes. 

Add the flour to the onions and stir until it has absorbed the oil; allow to cook for a minute or so.

Add the stock, stirring vigorously until it boils – don’t worry if the gravy is a bit thin at this point

Putting it all together…

Take the faggots out of the oven and transfer to a casserole dish. Pour the onion gravy over them and return to the oven for another 20 minutes.


Vegetarian Faggots

Bonus Recipe for Greyhounds and their pals: Liver Cake

I did have recipes for meat-based faggots too, but the greyhounds objected to wasting good offal on humans so I made liver cake for them instead:

There are many, many versions of this popular houndie snack– here’s mine!

  • 500g lamb or chicken liver (raw or boiled – the pre-boiled liver makes a ‘softer’ cake – see below)
  • 3 eggs
  • About 450g Self-raising Flour (or Plain Flour with 3 tsp of Baking Powder)
  • Milk to mix

For a more luxurious version add 30g of philadelphia cheese. I like to add 30g of Garlic and Herb Boursi – that makes it smell even more attractive as a training aid. However, garlic is controversial – some say it’s fine, some say it’s not – if you’re worried don’t add it (generations of my hounds have been absolutely fine). 

Liquidise the liver in a blender and put in a mixing bowl with the 3 eggs – beat well; add flour until the mixture binds to a ‘soft dropping’ consistency (splats gently off a spoon); if the mixture become too thick then you can add a bit of milk to get the right consistency. The easiest method involves baking in a shallow cake tin (a 9″ round sponge tin works well) but I often make liver muffins (as shown below) ; bake at 180 degrees C for 40 minutes – depending on your oven, you may want to give it another 10 – 15 minutes if still seems ‘raw’ in the middle.

Keep out of reach of greyhounds until cool – that’s the hardest part of the recipe!

Liver Muffins

Gin of the Day 

Lytham Gin from Lancashire.

A wonderfully dry floral and fruity gin, made with ten carefully chosen botanicals. Flavours of juniper and orange have been enhanced with the infusion of pink roses, apricots and hibiscus flowers.

Lytham Gin

4. Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector)

The Bentley Canal curves around the area of Willenhall. With such a rich industrial history, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Geistersammler, even so, I was surprised when a fine gentleman appeared in the cabin. He was dressed in white breeches and a long-tailed coat; he wore an extravagant silk bow tie around the collar of a fine cotton shirt. As he saw me, he swept his tall hat from his head and bowed.

“Mr Harthill, Leader of the Board of Health at your service.”

“Welcome, what tales do you have to tell?”

Before he could draw breath, a wretched man staggered out of the Geistersammler. He collapsed at Mr Hartill’s feet, his grey face convulsed with pain as he clutched his belly. He was filthy and looked as if he should smell, but, as he was a ghost, we were spared the stench of his stained clothes.

“Water?” the wretch croaked, before convulsing again and vanishing back into the Geistersammler.

“Who was that?” I asked, shocked.

Mr Hartill shook his head sadly. “That was Joshua Morris, victim of the great cholera epidemic of 1849. Two hundred souls and more we lost to the bloody flux.  This what I and the Health Board vowed to prevent.”

“What did you do?”

“It came too fast.” He pointed to the busy industrial landscape that surrounded us. “The canal, the manufactories, the people. But where was the clean water, the sewers, the burial grounds? Nowhere, I tell you. That is what my Health Board built.”

“A Health Board built sewers? Wasn’t that the job of the council?”

“The Justices kept the peace, the parish managed the trade, but the cholera swept through like a fire. More was needed.”

“Did you succeed?”

“Look.” He smiled.

I looked around, the landscape looked bleak and hellish to my modern eyes, but he seemed so proud of what his board had achieved. As I mused on what health might mean to different societies and different times, another fine gentleman stepped out of the Geistersammler.

“Ah! My lady, may I introduce you to Mr. Farquhar, secretary to the Willenhall Literary Society.”

“Literary Society?” I looked blank.

“Yes, a most important institution.” Mr Farquhar explained. “We commissioned the library here in 1866 and championed schooling for the children. Our people had been too weak to study, but thanks to the Health Board, they became strong enough to learn. Thus our society grew and prospered.”

The men shook hands and turned to look over the valley below, their faces full of satisfaction at a job well done.

Their pride seemed out of place to my modern eyes, but then I remembered Joshua’s suffering – maybe these philanthropists had earned the right to a little self-congratulation…

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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Day 3

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 15 May, 2020

The Virtual Adventures of Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

Day 3 – Wednesday 6th May

1. Outline Crusing Log




Time in

Time out

Sneyd Junction to Essington branch junction





Essington locks Junc to Essington locks terminus





Essington locks terminus to Essington locks Junction





Essington branch junction to Wyrley Bank terminus





Wyrley Bank terminus to Sneyd Junction





Sneyd Junction to Wednesfield Junction





2. Detailed Cruising Log

Sneyd Junction proved to be a very sociable mooring, giving us the chance to share tall tales with regular resident boats and our fellow BCN Challengers. That is the advantage of a time machine, we can just pop to a time before Covid, enjoy a gathering, then pop back to the present for a good night’s sleep.

The day dawned fair and sunny, thought the air was distinctly chilly. We heard groans from the resident boaters as they found that their rooftops gardens had been touched by an overnight frost. Luckily the crew of ARID were toasty warm and raring to go. As well as the hearty porridge served for breakfast, Christine decided to eat the pink grapefruit that she’d brought aboard. I found one half of the rind resting on a warm radiator, filling the boat with its tangy fragrance. I squirrelled the other half-rind away for slicing into twists for tonight’s beverage.

Sneyd Junction – Gateway to the historic Sneyd Locks

Team Rebellion, also moored at Sneyd Junction, kindly let us start up the locks first, on the understanding that we opened the bottom paddles behind us. That was fine by us – Christine, Emily and Richard are both super-efficient lock-wheelers so they soon got into a rhythm, working three locks at a time, emptying the one behind us for the next boat, working Indigo Dream through the second, and preparing the next. I stayed on the helm – with Richard on heavy duties, I’m the only one who can cruise Indigo Dream cleanly into the locks at the speed we need to maintain the 5 minute per lock pace.

Simon, our resident mathematician, spent some time developing the concept of curlitude, which is defined as C = M/D -1. In this formula D is the direct distance (as the crow flies) between any two points that we have visited as part of our cruise, and M is the minimum distance (making use of time travel where necessary) by canal between the same two points. So, for example, for the Cannock Extension which we visited yesterday, this has a curlitude of zero (as M=D). By contrast over the last two days we have travelled from the end of the Lord’s Hayes branch to the wharf for Norton Cannock Colliery, on the Wyrley Bank branch – see below:


Simon Curlitude 2For these two points D = 0.25 miles, and M= 9.35 miles (via Birchills and Sneyd Junctions), giving a curlitude of just over 36.  I wonder if this is a record for the BCN, or indeed for the UK canal system? As a contrast the infamous meanderings on the Southern Oxford near Wormleighton only has a C-value of 2.6/0.6-1 = 3.3. 

Simon CurlitudeThe time machine was essential for today’s cruising as there is little left of the Essington Locks and Wyrley Bank Branch in modern times, though walkers and cyclist can still enjoy the footpath that follows the line of the old canal towpath.

Christine Wyrley Branch Canal

This is one of Andy Tidy’s photographs:

Several of today’s photographs are “creative commons” from

People using the paths today could never have imagined that this was a bustling canal surrounded by coal mines, both deep shafts and open cast.

But I’m ahead of myself, the day began with the Sneyd Locks…

Christine Sneyd Lock historic

Although we took a moment to take a look at the Sneyd Reservoir nearby. We didn’t spot the old pumping house that once kept the water flowing into the canal, but it was a lovely spot to visit.

B Sneyd Reservoir

Sneyd Reservoir

Christine spotted that the bridges on the Wyrley Bank are arched – this is apparently because the builders were not expecting any subsidence from the open cast coal mining. This in contrast with the bridged over the Cannock Extension Arm, which were ‘square’ and had structures that would allow builders to use bottle jacks to raise the bridges in case of subsidence caused by deep shaft mining in the Cannock Coalfields.

Sadly, the only bridge I spotted today was a simple footbridge which has replaced what used to be a swingbridge over the canal.

Wyrley Branch FootbridgeWe reached a significant milestone today. We paused at the top of the Essington Locks to enjoy what used to be the highest point of the Birmingham Canal network at 536′. We looked across into the hazy distance, towards the current summit at Titford (510′) – it felt as if we could have stepped across the Tame Valley to the BCNS’ current home, forgetting for a moment the miles of toil that actually lay between us.

It’s difficult to read, but the geological survey of the area, undertaken in 1860, gives a fascinating view of the land beneath the canal.

Back on the Wyrley and Essington, we enjoyed cruising past Hollybank Basin, another historic stub which, although it is in water, is too silted for navigation.

Hollybank BasinIt was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for laden, deep-drafted boats to navigate this shallow, narrow, winding canal, though it is a delight for us in a modern relatively shallow-drafted boat.

Fulbourne grounded by Wednesfield Junction

We moored up at Wednesfield Junction – a good place for a restful night’s sleep before more locking on historic canals tomorrow.

Bentley Canal Entrance

Although ARID is pretty luxurious by boating standards, the crew was still a little envious of the duck castles near our mooring!.

Duck House Wednesfield

3. Daily Challenge
The challenges became increasingly surreal as the week went on. Today’s was to create a prop-stopping bladeful of trash from oddments in our own homes. Photographs of our propeller finds were NOT allowed – we had to find suitable objects. Luckily, I haven’t got as far with my planned decluttering as I expected so we had plenty of material.
I added a little ditty to go with our entry…

12 Props a fouling

Over twelve days of boating, my propeller gave to me..

Twelve plastic carriers

Eleven yards of netting

Ten feet of carpet

Nine old foam cushions

Eight hats and jumpers

Seven belts and ties

Six pairs of trousers

Five bras and panties

Four rubber tyres

Three golfing brollies

Two balls of wool

And a beautiful silken sari.

4. From the galley

Christine got up at the crack of dawn to get the bread on so it was ready and cooled down before lunch. She used a small bread maker (530watt) on a low setting, which worked very well with ARID’s 2.5kw inverter and left plenty of power for phone charging and other devices. The bread too three hours – perfect timing for lunch.

Christine Bread MakerChristine Bread

Bread Recipe 

Water – 180ml

Oil – 1 tablespoon (15ml)

Salt – 1 teaspoon

Strong White Bread Flour – 200g

Six Seed Bread Flour – 120g

Caster Sugar – 1 Tablespoon

Skimmed Milk Powder – 1 Tablespoon

Easy blend yeast – 1 Teaspoon

The small loaf allowed us a couple of delicious slices each, but that wasn’t really enough to fuel a locking crew, so we supplemented our lunch with a traditional Birmingham treat – Shrewsbury Cakes. These date back to Elizabethan times (the first Elizabeth that is!) though recipes in those days tended to be a little imprecise:

To make Shrewsbury Cakes – Take two pound of floure dryed in the oven and weighed after it is dryed, then put to it one pound of butter that must be layd an hour or two in rose-water, so done poure the water from the butter, and put the butter to the flowre with the yolks and whites of five eggs, two races of ginger, and three quarters of a pound of sugar, a little salt, grate your spice, and it well be the better, knead all these together till you may rowle the past, then roule it forth with the top of a bowle, then prick them with a pin made of wood, or if you have a comb that hath not been used, that will do them quickly, and is best to that purpose, so bake them upon pye plates, but not too much in the oven, for the heat of the plates will dry them very much, after they come forth of the oven, you may cut them without the bowles of what bignesse or what fashion you please.

— The Compleat Cook of 1658

Of course, modern bakers have interpreted that in different ways, and there are many variants. To add extra energy, I threw some raisins into the mix!

  • 1 lb (450g) Plain flour

  • 8 oz (225 g) Butter

  • 8 oz (225g) Caster sugar

  • ½ tsp Mixed spice

  • 2oz Raisins

  • 1 Egg

  • Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl, and rub in the butter. Add in the raisins. Work in the egg with a knife or spatula and knead lightly to form a stiff dough.

  1. Divide the dough into 16 equal balls, and pat out into 5” (13cm) rounds.

  1. Bake at gas mark 4 -5 (depending on your oven, ARID’s is a bit hopeless) for 10-15 minutes (nearer the 15 I’d say).

Gin of the Day

Being in the heart of England it would only be appropriate to try a locally sourced gin and today Emily cycled to the Hearts Distillery to collect a freshly distilled bottle. It was quite a trip but well worth the effort.

The recommended serve would be lots of ice, one-part Hearts and two parts quality tonic, with a twist of orange peel, but we improvised with provisions on board and used some grapefruit peel from Christine’s breakfast.
Emily Wolverhampton Gin

5. Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector) 

Today we travelled through Essington’s coalfields so it was inevitable that the Geistersammler would pick up a miner…

“Howdo…” the miner’s voice was gruff.

“Welcome, friend, do you have a tale for us?”

“Aye, if you like tales of fortune, good and bad.”

We nodded, the beautiful countryside around us gave no clues as to the area’s mining heritage.

“Lucky Tom, they call me. I’m right pleased about that, because you could call me Unlucky Tom too, when bad luck befalls those behind me. Miners are a superstitious lot, do you know that they’ll never work on New Year’s Day because it’s unlucky? It’s as like they’d throw an unlucky man down a shaft and walk away.” He coughed nastily and wiped a faint hand over his dirty face.

“You weren’t murdered were you?” We were a bit shocked by his tale.

“Naw, I told you, I’m Lucky Tom. I’ve lived through every calamity that the deep mines can inflict on a man. See away there in the Black Country?” He pointed towards the far horizon to the South. “The masters would have their coal, so we picked our way through the seams, tunnelling like earthworms through the rock, the roof barely feet above our heads. Them tunnels collapsed often enough, but never on me, though I dug out my fair share of sad bodies from those narrow tombs.”

We were silent, it seemed too horrible to be true, but he carried on…

“Aye, I were just a young lad when the pit in Audley went up – I remember saying to the gaffer that the air was foul, but he said I’d not cleaned the stables right. I was walking home when I heard it go – the firedamp. The ponies dead, and eleven men and boys, but not me, Lucky Tom.” He laughed humourlessly.

“I moved then, to Cheadle. Ah, the mines almost got me, I was in a faint when the cage came up the shaft. I was revived in the clean, fresh air, but the gaffer and his mate were suffocated. They say that for every disaster there’s a miracle – that’s me, Lucky Tom.” He coughed painfully, his lungs sounding wet and awful. He hawked up some black phlegm, and I was relieved that it vanished before it hit the floor.

“Then just last year, 1872, Pelsall Hall Colliery. I was sat at the pithead, eating my breakfast, when the call came, Pull up! We dragged the cage up. A few poor souls were clung to it, soaked to the skin. We went down to look for more, in the darkness we heard men splashing about, shouting, scratching at the posts to stay afloat. We got some out but when the water fell, we found twenty-two broken bodies. I’ve seen a lot of things in my time, but that was the worst, so I moved here.”

“But you lived to tell the tale…”

“Aye, I vowed never to go down a shaft again, who knows when a man’s luck will run out? Ah’ve been looking after pit ponies for me whole life, figured I could look after these beasts too.”

He gestured out of the window, to our astonishment, half a dozen grand towing horses, bedecked in brasses, waited patiently for Tom. In the meadows behind them, hundreds of ghostly pit ponies blinked in the sunshine. I should have realised that the Geistersammler could draw their immense spirits too.

“Aye, treat them right and they’ll follow you in this life and the next. I’ve been a lucky man, but the coal killed me in the end.” Tom coughed deeply, his face turning blue under the grime.

I hastily closed to link to the Geisterstammler, unwilling to watch him suffer, and I vowed never to take a humble bag of coal for granted again.


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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Day 2

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 14 May, 2020

The Virtual Adventures of Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

Day 2: Tuesday 5th March

1. Outline Cruising Log: Day 2




Time in

Time out

 Gilpin’s Arm





W&E main line to Pelsall Junction





Cannock Extension to Watling St & return





W&E main line to Lord Hayes Junction





Lord Hayes Branch





W&E main line to Birchills  Junc





Birchills Junc to Walsall Junc





Walsall Junc to Basin and return





Walsall Junc to Birchills Junc





Birchills Junc to Sneyd Junc





2. Detailed Cruising Log

We had a peaceful night at Gilpin’s Junction but were very glad of ARID’s generous dimensions. After accusations of “greyhound abuse” on our opening post we had to quickly re-assign the sofa and human beds.  Sadly the inclement weather meant that we had to let Simon indoors, the meagre blanket that we’d left for him on deck being covered in yesterday’s snow. Christine had the inflatable bed on the floor, where she found her legs pinned by 30kg of snoozing greyhound, but at least her feet were warm!


Alex on a 4′ 6″ double bed – he’d rather a king size but really, the clue’s in the name Alex, narrowboat!



Saffy Sofa

Saffy now has a sofa…on day 1 we were accused of hound abuse because Saffy only had an armchair! 😀



The morning started bright and breezy; the wind had a cold edge but at least the skies were blue – I’d say a 17 on the cyanometer which we are now using to gauge the weather.

Gilpin’s Arm

In 2020, of course, the turn to Gilpin’s Arm is tranquil and countryfied; with the lockdown in force, the air is particularly clear. Image our surprise then when we activated the time machine and found this smoky, industrial landscape before us. Nonetheless, if it weren’t for industry, there would be no canals, so we forgot about the fume-filled air and enjoyed the energy that formed our modern world.

While we were there, we encountered some strange craft, never seen on any other part of the canal system…

As a helmswoman challenged by height I can definitely see (or not!) the disadvantages of this engine design!

Cannock Extension

It never ceases to amaze us how the Cannock Extension can be arrow straight when the Wyrley and Essington is so convoluted!

For fun, we deployed the time machine, but soon found ourselves head to head with this formidable convoy of Amptom Boats (85′ x 7′ 9″) being towed by a day tug as their journey could be completed in a day. Although the canal is wide and deep, it was easier to move forward in time than to move into the bank!

We moved to 2009, where we met some old friends – traditional craft nb Fulbourne and arguably the BCN’s most famous residents, Atlas and Malus.

Atlas & Malus


Fulbourne at Pelsall Junction

We came back to the present to cruise the now quiet and beautiful canal – it’s a perfect place for the greyhounds to stretch their legs.

In 2017 the propeller picked up a fine length of stair carpet under Wyrley Grove Bridge. In 2018, we picked up the second length – same carpet, same place. Sadly, we didn’t pick up a third section today as I have a house to furnish in Wales!

Cannock Carpet 2017


Cannock Carpet 2018

Wyrley and Essington Canal

My personal favourite – winding and beautiful, surrounded by lush countryside with a fine view over the Tame Valley to the Birmingham Plateau beyond.

It’s affectionately nicknamed the “Curly Wyrley” for good reason…


Wyrley & Essington views 2a

The Curly Wyrley


Wyrley & Essington views 1a

Lush countryside and expansive views…


Curly Wurly Orchid

And a most unexpected treasure – a wild English orchid growing on the towpath…

Lord’s Hayes Arm

We flitted between times on this Arm – although there is little left in the present, it exists in the past, and is expected to live again in the future (hopefully as soon as 2030) as part of the new route down to Hatherton. Of course we stopped there to inspect the new junction that will be.

While passing through Fishley Colliery, we paused in the present for quick a game of golf (in the present day).

Christine Lord's Hayes 1

Lord’s Hayes Arm looking particularly tranquil on this day…


Simon Lord's Hayes Terminus

The Lord’s Hayes Arm terminus – present day – a nursing home appropriately named “Water’s Edge”

Walsall Canal

Ah the Walsall Canal is familiar ground for Indigo Dream. However, after a day spend relaxing with no locks to do, the crew found the toil of the Walsall flight a bit taxing. Lucky for us that Simon found a fine place for us to take the waters – the brine pools at Walsall swimming pool providing some much needed hydrotherapy.


Simon Walsall Brine BathsThe Town Basin was quiet, but it a very fine mooring spot, However we turned back up the locks, pleased to be avoiding the stretch from Walsall to Ocker Hill, which is invariably shallow and slow.

Walsall Locks

Fine view from the Walsall Locks…


Walsall Town Basin

Winding in Walsall Town Basin…


Walsall Top towards Birchills

Heading away from Walsall Top Lock towards our overnight mooring…


Sneyd Junction Moorings

3. Daily Challenge

Things started to get a bit surreal today as our challenge was to make a swan! The organisers suggested a towel sculpture or origami – they could never have guessed that one crew (definitely not us!), had a laser cutter out and were able to create the most beautiful stylised swan in plywood.

I’m no great shakes at origami so I turned to towels…

I present to you (drum roll) the rare green-winged towel swan and her brood of origami cygnets…

As the day’s quiz was also about birds, I decided to pen a little ditty for the judges:

12 Birds a Boating 

On the twelfth day of boating, these birds we saw, I pledge!

Twelve woodpeckers drumming

Eleven plovers piping

Ten magpies leaping

Nine starlings dancing

Eight herons fishing

Seven swans a swimming

Six geese a guarding

Five golden pheasants

Four cooty birds

Three laying hens

Two summer swallows

And a kingfisher on the water’s edge.


4. From the galley

Recipe of the Day: Traditional Birmingham Food (controversial!)

Google search: Traditional Birmingham Food (savoury)– faggots, groaty pudding, Balti, pork scratchings

Google search: Traditional Birmingham Food for vegetarians: Vegetable balti

Google Search: Traditional Birmingham Food for vegetarians who don’t like curry: No results found!

Alright, I’m only joking! There are many fine vegetarian options, I should know, I’ve cooked most of them for our crew over the years (and have a spectacular recipe to share tomorrow)!

When I designed and made a commemorative BCN jam back in 2017, it was much easier to find traditional savoury recipes (which is why I made a BCN Balti Chutney in 2018!). But there is good foraging on the BCN – all these ingredients will be found around the city (at a push, top up the fruit in the farm shop in Essington!)

Jammin’ on the BCN – a celebration jam for the 2017 BCN Marathon Challenge

5. Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector) 

The Geistersammler remained strangely empty until we reached the far reaches of the Cannock Extension Arm, when we were greeted by a number of spectral visitors…

“Ave Natis! Cassius est nomen meum..

The Roman centurion, wearing armour that I’d only seen in my schoolbooks, must have sensed my confusion. He switched to English, and was surprisingly eloquent.

“Greeting sailors! My name is Cassius, centurion of Rome. I was completing my watch on Watling Street when I was drawn to your fine ship!”

“Welcome! I don’t imagine there were barges, sorry, ships, here in your time.”

“No, there were forests and troublesome Britons, led by that red-haired wench, Boudicca. But we crushed her under our iron-shod sandals, though who knows what we might find in these far-flung counties.”

“You’ll find us! My name is Esne and you will not take my village from me!” a Briton popped out of the Geistersammler. He was simply dressed, but was obviously a man of some substance. His spear looked sharp as it scraped along the cabin’s ceiling. 

The centurion drew his short sword. “YOUR village? All things belong to Caesar.”

“Essington is mine, for now and always!” Esne yelled.

“Pax Domus!” I cried, invoking the traditional peace of the house before war broke out.

“Indeed, there is little point in fighting. We are one people now.” a languid voice joined our conversation.

“Caradoc of Cannock Chase at your service. Who would have guessed that our town would be named by the heathen Welsh. How times have changed since you two were busy dividing the country between you. We are one now.”

“Ah, welcome Caradoc, was the canal here in your time? Do you have a tale to tell?”

“There was no such thing here, though water was our fortune. The fair springs of Reaumorehill Well yielded the cleanest, freshest water in the country.”

“Oh, but it’s always been so hard to keep water in the canal.”

“’tis true, the gravelly soil which gave Cannock its name is profligate with its treasure, thus we are rich in rain and poor in drought.”

Caradoc’s ghost winked. “The king sent his tax collectors here while London burned; they came for money and for water but found neither, forty-two of our forty-four households were too poor to pay. We sent them away thirsty while we bathed in our good fortune when the next thunderstorm washed over us.” 

Esne laughed with Caradoc – nothing better than dodging taxes.

“You corrupt Britons,” Cassius shook his head, “You never give unto Caesar, whether it be respect or tithes. But surely there were Roman hands in the making of this straight canal – deep, fitted for its purpose, no Briton could construct so efficiently!”

I thought of the extravagant curves of the Wyrley and Essington canal, barely two miles away. Thinking that the sight of it might kill our roman friend for a second time, I quickly closed the connection to the Geistersammler for another day…         

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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Day 1

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 13 May, 2020

The Virtual Adventures of Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

Day 1 Monday 4th May:

Every morning, Andy Tidy, one of the esteemed judges, issued a brief video about current canal conditions – today we were faced with bad weather…

Around the same time, our Team email inbox received the first quiz (Film/cinema) and the day’s challenge was to post photos of the crew in their foul weather gear – if only the challenges had stayed that simple… He also told us that Virtual Volunteer Lockies would be helping so we could go through locks twice as fast, nothing like changing a plan first thing in the morning.

1. Outline Crusing Log: Day 1




Time in

Time out


Huddlesford Junction to Ogley Junction






Ogley Junction to Anglesey Basin & Return






Ogley Junction to Catshill Junction via…






Sandhills Arm (return)




Catshill Junction to Gilpin’s Junction via…






Slough Arm (return)*

Note: we found a lock on this arm that was not on the scoresheet!




Overnight mooring at Gilpin’s Junction






2. Detailed Cruising Log

Today we visited the following waterways:

Lichfield Canal (Historic) 

Huddlesford Junction

Our starting point at Huddlesford Junction


Ogley Lock

One of the Ogley Locks – it was in better condition when we travelled through it this morning using the time machine, though we were pleased that our horsepower was in the engine bay and we didn’t have to manouvre a rope through that footbridge!

We had several opportunities to use the time machine to compare the canal in 1920 to its state today, and also to look forward to 2030 when it was fully restored. As the restored route will be different to the original route, this had to be done with care, otherwise we could find ourselves in the middle of a road or railway embankment, or in someone’s living room.

Sadly we were not able to transit the aqueduct over the M6 toll road, but we did briefly step off the boat and time travel to inspect it as it is today. We also took special care with our time settings at pipehill bridge, where the route of the canal was altered when the Birmingham to Lichfield railway was built.  We paused for a swift pint at the Duke of Wellington in Lichfield,  as the restored route will no longer pass it.

Wyrley and Essington

We made our best attempts to follow the original Wyrley and Essington Bylaws “No boat shall go more slowly than 2mph or faster than 3mph, that each boat should have only one horse, and that boats going the same way shall follow in regular order without any attempt to pass or injure one another”. Sadly we were woefully over-horsed and ARID’s engine has 42!

Ref. The Canals of the West Midlands, Charles Hadfield 1966

Slough Railway Bridge

The railway bridge near the entrance to the historic Slough Arm


Slough Arm

The entrance to the old Slough Arm is at the far left of this photo…

Gilpin's Junction 2

Google Earth image of our overnight mooring spot – Gilpin’s Junction:

Anglesey Basin

Anglesey Basin

3. Daily Challenge – dressing for foul weather

As advised, today’s weather was unseasonably brisk, but ARID’s crew are followers of Fell walker, Alfred Wainwright who famously stated “There‘s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing” therefore we were all equipped for the conditions.

The crew are very grateful to the volunteers who helped at each of today’s locks, which meant that they could keep their hands warm in their pockets instead of clutching frozen windlasses.  The Ogley lock system uses 25,000 gallons of water each time a boat passes through so lucky for us that we’ve had a lot of rain recently so the Cannock Resevoir which feeds the Anglesey Branch and Wyrley and Essington is reasonably full!

Sue & Harmony




Breaking ice is a noisy business…

4. From the Galley

Recipe of the Day: Welsh Rarebit

Welsh RarebitHeathens refer to Welsh Rarebit as “posh cheese on toast” – pah, what an insult. This version is rich and delicious, making use of the boater’s favourite ingredient – beer!

Bread – preferably doorstop thickness

25g butter

200g Grated cheese – strong cheddar is a must, but I added some Swiss Gruyere (the king of cheeses)

1 teaspoon of mild mustard

1 teaspoon of Worcestershire Sauce (or use a small dollop of brown sauce)

4 tablespoons of beer

1 teaspoon of flour (if needed to thicken)

Toast the bread on one side – while that’s happening, melt the butter in a saucepan (gentle heat), add the mustard, sauce and beer; mix thoroughly, add the cheese and stir until melted.

Smear the melted cheese mixture over the untoasted side of the bread and grin until golden brown and bubbling.

A bracing lunch for a cold, hungry crew!

tanqueray-flor-de-sevilla-ginGin of the Day: Tanqueray Flor de Sevilla

In honour of Candied Orange Peel Day today’s gin is Tanqueray Flor de Sevilla, a spiced citrus gin inspired by Charles Tanqerary’s visit to Seville, and its famous oranges.

5. Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector)

Our unique gadget, the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector) brought us a few luminous guests this afternoon…

“My name is Elias, may I warm my hands by your fire?”

“Well, we don’t have a fire, but these radiators are warm.”

“What strange device is a ra-dia-tor?”

“These metal panels, they give off heat. But can you feel heat, being of a ghostly nature?”

“Ah, I cannot, in truth I could not when I was more vital, the leprosy made my hands numb, then my fingers withered most horribly.”

“Oh, are you not from these parts? I thought leprosy was only found in far lands.”

“Nay, leprosy blighted the fair town of Lichfield many years before my birth. Your fine boat just passed by the leper hospital, which abided there for a hundred years or more. Though the poor souls who resided there rarely lived for more than ten years. So it was when my soul left this earth in the year of our lord 1263.”

“Oh, how awful.”

“Aye, ‘twas as awful as awful may be, but I take comfort that I paid for my sins by enduring purgatory on earth. I now dwell in heaven.”

“But you’re a ghost! You were caught in our Geistersammler!”

“Nay, I was drawn to the souls in your strange device. I am an angel.”

“That’s lovely, but we’d hoped to talk to ghosts, find out more about the canal and its history.”

Ah’ll tell you some history of this blasted canal and its thrice-cursed owners!” A harsh voice emerged from the Geistersammler.

“Welcome, friend, please tell us your story…”

“Thomas Johnson I be, ropemaker. Ye’d think I’d be a rich man, yet here I dwell with the ghosts of the workhouse.”

“But the canal must have needed your ropes,”

“Need, yes, pay, no! Tight-fisted misers that they are. I’ll tell you who does pay though! The hangman! The Lichfield gallows be busy enough, I would like as not have been hung by my own rope if the consumption hadn’t choked me first.”

“Oh, that’s a terrible story, but wait a moment, there’s another ghost arriving…”

“Chewie, let’s get this bucket hooked up to the hyperdrive…”

“Han Solo! What are you doing here, you’re not from Lichfield!”

“I don’t ask questions kid. Hey you, tall guy, beard, you got Wookie skills?”


“Never mind, I never seen a diesel hyperdrive before but here we go…”

“May the fourth be with you” I muttered as I cut the link to the Geistersammler – that was more than enough ghosts for one day! 


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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Introduction

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 12 May, 2020

Tuesday 12th May, 2020

I am way behind with the blog so rather than try to catch up chronologically from where I left off, I’m going to write about an event that we took part in last week – a Virtual BCN Challenge organised by some brave and dedicated folk over on Canalworld Forum.

The event starter on Monday 4th May and would run over the next 6 days.

Here are the rough rules (I’ll spare you the details – the virtual event was no less byzantine than the real thing!):

– We were allowed to ‘virtually’ cruise for 7 hours a day.

– All boats were fitted with an “Automat Sensucht” or time machine, which would allow us to cruise the lost 60 miles of the BCN and flit back and forth in history.

– The cruising and locking speeds were set by the organisers, but as different stretches of canals had different score multipliers it became a game of strategy and planning.

– Mooring was only allowed in certain approved spots, so an important part of the planning was to make it to an approved spot by the end of the day’s cruising or risk incurring penalties.

– Additional points were available for completing daily quizzes and challenges.

– Random additional points were also available for creativity and various other ways of entertaining the judges.

– We decided to fit Indigo Dream with a Geistersammler or Ghost Collector, which would enable us to converse with various historical people along the way – this proved to be a wise decision, but I’ll come to that later.

As always, crew selection was vital to a successful challenge. We were delighted to welcome on board BCN Challenge veterans Emily and greyhound Harmony, who were part of our winning crew in 2018; Christine from nb Ketura who joined us in 2014 and 2017 (coming 3rd both times) and Challenge newbie (but immensely experienced and knowledgeable boater) Simon from nb Scholar Gypsy. It was Saffy greyhound’s first  challenge but Alex had seen it all before and was not impressed – he supported the team by staying in bed all day, every day – he is possibly the only soul alive who wants lockdown to last forever!

Tean Indigo Dream – or more precisely Team Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

We arranged a daily team meeting via Zoom and set up a team Whatsapp group for ease of communication. Simon also set up a group email so we could all receive briefings from challenge HQ simultaneously.

As well as the fun of the competition, it was such a joy to spend time with boating friends, especially as the real Indigo Dream has been stranded (safely) on the River Nene since the middle of September – first by floodwater and then by the lockdown. If the world had been anywhere near normal, Indigo Dream would have been in Brussels by now and we’d be having a 3-month cruising sabbatical. The timing of the Virtual BCN Challenge couldn’t have been better as it certainly stopped us from moping and dreaming about what might have been.

We adjusted team roles every day according to the needs of the daily challenges but roughly:

  • Richard and Simon were the routemasters, responsible for calculating the most points-efficient routes and adapting them according to the daily conditions imposed by the judges e.g. stoppages and poor cruising conditions, though on the first day we did allow virtual volunteer lockies to speed up that process.
  • Emily and Christine were the quizmasters – the daily quiz was generally circulated first thing in the morning – they (with the help of the other morning crew) never took more than 30 minutes to complet it.
  • I was nominally the skipper/spokesperson – I was responsible for reporting our results in every day and for maintaining our cruising log on Canalworld Forum. I also undertook many of the week’s challenges and wrote “Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost collector), which proved to be popular.

Let’s go…

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End of an Era – saying goodbye to the Beanz Clan…

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 10 May, 2020

Archie Beanz on his first Indigo Dream Cruise in 2011

I’m afraid that this is one of the saddest posts I’ve ever written – greyhounds are not immortal (more’s the pity) but the passing of Archie Beanz, last of the Beanzy Boyz, last week really rocked us. He was 12, which is a good age, but he’d been diagnosed with a malignant, though non-invasive cancer last year, which had been controlled by a couple of surgeries, from which he recovered well. However a fortnight ago, a huge tumourous mass swelled up on his neck and this time it was inoperable.

We were forced to say goodbye to Herbie in October, when old age finally got to his back legs just shy of his 15th birthday.

Henry Beanz took himself off to the rainbow bridge last May, just shy of his 12th birthday, we’re not sure why, but he had been living with kidney failure for a few years.

So this is a tribute to three fine hounds who cruised the length and breadth of the country with us. We’ll always be grateful to them for their company and for teaching Alex Puppy how to live well after a traumatic start in life.

Henry B Beanz cruising with us in May 2011. but he was already an experienced boating hound by then 🙂

Henry B Beanz (Eighty Six Gold) – May 2007 – May 2019

Herbie Beanz (Spare the Air) – October 2005 – September 2019

Archie Beanz (Rainham Midnight) – February 2008 – April 2020

I’m not sure I can find words that will do justice to this clan, so I’m going to link to their individual blog posts which will tell you everything you need to know. We have thousands of Beanzy photographs – I’ll let them do the talking as well.

Herbie joined the crew later in 2011 – this is him in my super-squashy armchair

I was thinking about the waterways that they cruised with us – the BCN several times – Henry and ARchie crewed on four BCN 24-hour Maarathon Challenges with us, coming third three times before finally winning in 2018. The BCNS had a photographer on the finish line in 2018 – he just couldn’t stop taking photos of Archie “He’s just so photogenic” gushed the man, entranced!

Then there’s the length and breadth of the Grand Union and the Thames; Herbie came to the Medway’ they all cruised the Leeds and Liverpool (and routes up there); took Liverpool by storm; they crossed the Mersey with us so that means they cruised the Manchester SHip Canal, River Weaver and the Trent and Mersey. Archie got to run on his own private sandbank when we crossed the Nene, so that means he was with us on Brandon Creek and the River Great Ouse. Of course, Archie got be on TV with James Martin, celebrity chef, who came to film a show on Indigo Dream in 2018.

Henry Beanz turned out to be a fine narrator – I hadn’t realised quite how many blog posts he’d written until I came to compile this list…

Archie zooming round our garden in his prime

Henry B Beanz and THE Indigo Dream pose in 2012

Herbie enjoyed boating, but his favourite place was this radiator in our house – his nickname was “radiator boy” and that fixture will forever be “Herbie’s Radiator” 🙂

Of course, while Henry Beanz was a fine stroyteller, you’d obviously expect a hound of Archie’s charisma to have a voice too. He was quite the ladies hound (one in every port!)

Archie receiving our award for winning the BCN Marathon Challenge in 2018

Archie chasing Saffy across their private sandbank on the Nene last September

They were wonderful cruising companions and we will miss them more than we can say – we’ve always imagined a ghostly Indigo Dream moored under the mythical rainbow bridge – Henry and Archie will be reunited on the deck (Archie was never quite the same after Henry left – they were a bonded pair); Herbie will grab his favourite bed where there will be an endless supply of hot chickens and squeaky toys to eviscerate – run free Beanzy Boyz, run free.

Archie was the last of this famous pack to go to the bridge – truly the end of an era..


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The Odyssey 2019: Day 10 – Part 3

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 16 September, 2019

Sandbank by RAF No. 4 to the Nene

Convoy at anchor…

I really enjoyed our time on the beach, but all too quickly the tide turned and we had to head back to sea. This proved to be a little more awkward than we expected as we reversed off the sand but then got swung around in the turn and managed to ground ourselves. With the tide coming in, we would have got off eventually, but we had an uncomfortable few minutes jiggling ourselves off the sand. Although there was too much water to allow us to stay on the rapidly disappearing beach, there wasn’t enough for us to set off towards the Nene so we spent an hour at anchor not far from RAF No 4. It was a good opportunity to get some hot food on the go and watch the westering sun, but bobbing around in a flat-bottomed boat on the incoming tide will never be a particularly pleasant experience. It was a good test of the convoys’ anchors (especially ours, which was new and had been the subject of much research!). Sailors will laugh, but anchoring is a novel experience for us and at first we were worried that the anchor wouldn’t hold, then we were afraid that it wouldn’t come back up, then, when it came up easily, we were a bit amazed that we’d been held so steady! A few boats had tricky anchors, so getting the convoy away took a little while, but we were soon off.

The convoy headed off using local buoys and landmarks all as directed by Pilot Daryl. Now he just looks round, uses no posh electronics, I guess he checks which duck is where, gets the seals to tell if the channel has shifted, holds up a finger, sniffs the air and says go that way! Best of all he gets on the radio and says point to the right (or left) as you will get pulled across by the wind or tide. It is a remarkable process as we had to skirt round various sand banks whilst tide and wind took us in all sorts of random directions, for example at one point, Daryl told us to point our boats at a grain silo in Kings Lynn yet we actually drove down a heading 30 odd degrees away from where we were pointing towards a doughnut shaped artificial island.

This is the course we followed:

As we turned towards the narrow channel approaching the Nene, we were joined by the local pilot boat. The sun was setting fast as we headed up the Nene through Sutton Bridge and it was full dark by the time we arrived in Wisbech. However, because the convoy had been well-briefed, we all knew where and when to turn, and in what order – this enabled us all to reverse onto the mooring pontoon in Wisbech Yacht Harbour in good order. Andrew Phasey had equipped the convoy with bottles of fizz and we had an impromptu party on the pontoon (the convoy was strictly tee-total during the crossing!) to celebrate a truly epic day’s cruising.

From Richard: A few hints if only so I remember, forgot this on our second trip so a record here:

  • Coming into Wisbech the tide is barrelling along but you hardly feel it in the boat.
  • Hit reverse before you turn, it makes the turn so much easier plus you will probably be in a convoy and find you are running out of room which makes everything awkward, that bit of reverse makes life much easier.
  • Once you have turned don’t try to steer in reverse, the flow is so fast that a small tweak works, anything more significant does not!
  • Steer by ferry gliding, a bit of forward gear is remarkable but you have to remember to do it!


The westering sun – by now we were watching the tide and the time…

A closer view of the “doughnut” island – it was a handy navigation feature

The pilot boat approaching – it did slow down when it got close 🙂

I don’t think we’ll end up on as a pilot’s cautionary tale – the convoy was well-led and very well-behaved!

Magical 🙂

The entrance to the Nene estuary is very narrow

The narrow waters meant that we got a great view of the seals – I have never seen so many in my life and I was thrilled 🙂

On the River Nene – it’s pretty straight and although it’s narrow by comparison to where we’ve been, there was plenty of room for our boats to shuffle into our mooring configuration.

The steaming lights have to be set high in order to comply with navigation rules – I loved how our intrepid narrowboats looked like tall ships in the dim dusk light 🙂

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