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Archive for June, 2017

BCN Challenge 2017: The story of the jam..

Posted by indigodream on 23 June, 2017

18th June 2017

This time last year we were part of an epic convoy to the River Medway in Kent. Because we were moored in the garden of England and as one of my major hobbies is making jams, marmalades, and chutneys, it occurred to me that it might be nice to make a commemorative jar for all the crews taking part. “Medway Medley” was well received and since then I’ve made a few “bespoke” jams for events. Who knows, it may become a new tradition πŸ™‚

Being the 50th anniversary of the BCN Challenge, it seemed natural to make a commemorative jam for the crews, though with 50 boats taking part, it would be a much bigger undertaking πŸ™‚

There were a few challenges:

  • The idea didn’t occur to me until we applied for the event in January – too late for foraged autumn fruit and the event would take place too early for English berries
  • Making 50+ jars of jam is a bit of an effort, though I have managed it before!
  • I would need to make the jam and get it labelled at least a week before the challenge as we’d need the week before to cruise and Indigo Dream is not set up for actually jamming on the canal

But the biggest challenge of all was working out what would a Birmingham preserve look like? How could I capture the essence of the BCN in a preserve?

I started some research on the characteristic foods of Birmingham – this mainly came down to Balti, chips, brawn, pigs trotters, bread and dripping etc etc. Now, I’m very creative but making a jam from a pig’s trotter defeated me utterly.

A good cider for jam-making – it’s pretty good for drinking too πŸ™‚

So I changed tack – I do like to use an alcohol base for my preserves so I started to look at Birmingham brews….

I found that THE Birmingham beer was Ansell’s mild, which used to be brewed in Aston. I was so excited when I read about Ansell’s Mild and was planning an ale-based chutney which would be a preserve to complement your pig’s trotter and represent the savoury end of Birmingham’s cuisine. But sadly, the brewery’s history is both interesting and tragic as the company merged with ever bigger conglomerates who eventually closed the Aston brewery and moved the production of Mild to Burton on Trent. There was outrage in Birmingham as Mild was seen as the brew for the local working man. There was worse to come when Allied brewery discontinued production of mild in 2012 and Birmingham’s signature brew was lost! I frantically searched for supplies of Mild but it has vanished – and really, even if I’d found a barrel, it would be five years old and probably nearer a sherry!

I’d reached a dead-end with Birmingham heritage brews so I looked to the modern city and the advent of microbreweries.

This led me to two options:

  • The Gunmakers Arms and the Two Towers microbrewery which produces a good range of ales – a few of these really appealed as a base for chutney. I though I was on to something, but then I found out that the brewery was closed for refurbishment and might not be open in time. The thing with chutney is that I would need to make it at least six weeks before the BCN Challenge (it needs to mature in the jar)Β  and the brewery was due to open a couple of weeks after that deadline.
  • Aston Manor brewery – a modern mega-brewery in the heart of Birmingham which specialises in the production of cider. I’ve used cider as a base for jams many times so I turned away from the idea of an ale chutney and went back to jam.

Pretty! The photo doesn’t do justice to the clarity of the jelly πŸ™‚

Aston Manor do a fine range of ciders but I wasn’t sure which would be the best base for a jam; there was also the issue of who stocked it (it is available nationally). I got in touch with the brewery to ask their advice – I needed a cider that wasΒ  super-fruity but not too sweet, with a distinct apple flavour; I also told them a little bit about the BCN and the story behind the jam that I was planning to make.

Aston Manor brewery were absolutely brilliant! They got right behind the project and recommendedΒ  their “award-winning, premium cider β€˜Knights’ , made from 100% local Yarlington Mill, Harry Master’s Jersey, Dabinett and Kingston Black bittersweet apples which give it a real depth of flavour. It would be classed as medium, so not too sweet and is made with no artificial flavourings, colourings or sweeteners”. Then they offered to send me a free case of cider in exchange for a few pots of jam and a recipe – wow!

So now I had a boozy base, but I still didn’t have any fruit. If I’d thought about this project back in Autumn 2016 I could have foraged for ingredients along the BCN – I know from experience that the canal has abundant blackberries and elderberries but I’ve also spotted crab apples, plums, sloes, cherries and there is a quince growing in a most unlikely spot under the motorway not far from Spon Lane top lock! But I’d missed my chance – the seasonality of jamming is a source of great joy and great frustration! I have resolved to forage for these common canalside ingredients and have another go at making a Birmingham signature jam in September.

But in early May I needed a bit of lateral thinking and, on impulse, looked up farm shops in Birmingham. This resulted in a visit to the magnificent Essington Farm Shop near Wolverhampton. Sadly it was too soon for their “pick your own” crop but I was able to buy English strawberries, Essington Farm Rhubarb and a medley of other fresh and frozen fruit which would undoubtedly have come from Spain, but I assuaged my conscience with the idea that my project had at least supported a local business.

The finished product…

Now the real work started – I incentivised myself by drinking one bottle of knights cider (just to gauge the flavour you understand!) and using 6 bottles to marinate a rather large bucket the fruit for 24 hours. I’m not too worried about peeling/coring the fruit at this stage – you’ll see why in a moment!

The following day I boiled the fruit – I have two very large jam kettles so it wasn’t a chore and the fruit was cooked within half an hour. That’s the easy bit – the next step was to pass the cooked fruit through a colander to get rid of the apple skins, cores and biggest seeds. This yielded a seedy pulp which I then passed through a sieve (I’ve got two big sieves) – this gave me a very smooth pulp but still with a surprising number of pips. Now it was decision time – go with a jam full of pips or do the extra work to drip the pulp through muslin to give a clear jelly?

I decide to do both – I allowed the pulp to drip through two layers of muslin – this always tests my patience as the secret to a clear jelly is not to touch the pulp while it drips – any attempt to stir the pulp to speed up the process results in a cloudy jelly. I put my hands behind my back and walked out of the kitchen!

On the third day I was ready to make the preserve. I had enough clear extract to make 80-odd jars of jelly so I got on with that first – it’s the hardest to set but so very pretty! But there was a lot of pulp in the muslin and I didn’t have the heart to throw it away so I used that to make a pippy jam – both have merit and it meant that there would be more than enough jam for the boats to share with their crews and for the BCNS to share with their volunteers. I added the last bottle of cider just before boiling the fruit – I didn’t want there to be any alcohol in the jam but I did want that last bit of cider flavour.

An event worthy of its own jam πŸ™‚

After three days of preparation, I had just shy of 150 small jars of BCN jam, but the work wasn’t over – all the jars needed capping while hot and each jar was thoroughly washed and dried – you can guarantee that there will always be an errant blob on the outside, even though I use a potting funnel! Finally I labelled the jars – I had already designed and printed the jar labels, and, from another jammy project, had gold jar top labels which were perfect for a golden anniversary preserve.

I really enjoyed making the jam, but just in case things went pear-shaped in the making I hadn’t told anyone that it was coming! I delivered 130-odd jars to the BCNS a couple of days before the challenge and they decided that each boat could have two jars each at the finish line with their Challenge plaque. I was chuffed by the boater’s reaction to this little gift – it seems that they enjoyed the gesture as well as the flavour πŸ™‚

I also delivered 10 jars to the Aston Manor brewery as promised – it was fun to go into the brewery’s reception (it is a vast complex) where I found that my jam had been a topic for discussion and intrigue. They were quite excited by the jars and I hope that the finished product hit the spot for them. Sending them an “exact” recipe was a challenge, partly because I’m in the “chuck it in the pan and see what happens” school of jamming and I also anticipated that no-one would actually want the actual quantities needed to make 150 pots of jam! I have scaled down the recipe – try it for yourselves and make it better…..

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

2 Bramley Cooking Apples

1 x 500g punnet of strawberries

1 x 250g punnet of blackberries (preferably wild berries from the hedgerows)

1 x 250g punnet of raspberries

1 x handful of rhubarb stems

Handful of redcurrants

Handful of blackcurrants

Handful of red cherries

Note: if you can’t get fresh berries and currants then just buy a frozen “summer fruit” mix from your local farm shop or supermarket.

1 – 2 bottle of Aston Manor Knights Malvern Gold Cider

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Jam Sugar (see below for quantity)

48 Hours in advance:

  • Wash the fruit
  • Place the berries in a large bowl or bucket
  • Cut the rhubarb into 1″ chunks – no need to peel – add to the berries
  • Cut the apples into small chunks and add to the berries – no need to remove the core/skin
  • Pour the cider over until the fruit is just covered
  • Leave to marinate overnight
    • NOTE: the juice from the fruit will add to the volume of liquid in the bucket so make sure you allow enough room!

24 hours in advance:

  • Place the fruit and the cider in a large jam saucepan (these are large and wide-mouthed)
  • Bring to the boil and simmer gently until the fruit is soft (15 – 20 minutes)
  • Once the fruit is soft turn off the heat
  • Now pass the fruit through a colander – this will remove the skins/cores that you really don’t want in a jam – this will leave you with a thick extract full of pips!
  • Then you have three options:
    • For a thick jam with LOTS of pips just use the extract as it is (not recommended)
    • For a thick jam with a few pips, press the extract through a sieve (recommended)
    • For a beautiful clear jelly, allow the juice from the extract to drip through a muslin jelly bag – this will take several hours; preferably overnight. This isΒ  well worth the effort as you can make the clear juice into a jelly and make a jam with the pulp

On the day:

  • Measure the volume of the fruit extract (pippy pulp, smooth pulp or clear juice) that you are using to make your preserve
  • You will need enough jars to hold roughly TWICE the volume of your fruit extract – see below how to sterilise your jars)
  • Allow 1.5 pounds of jam sugar per pint of fruit extract (you can try 1.25 pounds and add the extra if your jam doesn’t set)
  • Put the fruit extract into a clean jam saucepan and add the lemon juice – stir well
  • Warm the extract and just before it boils add the calculated amount of sugar – stir the pot well until the sugar is dissolved
  • Once the sugar has dissolved completely, turn the heat up and bring the preserve to a rolling boil – if you have a jam thermometer you are aiming for a temperature of 105 degrees centigrade.
  • Turn the heat down and simmer for no more than 5 minutes; turn the heat off and test for a set (place a spoonful of preserve on a plate and put it in the fridge to cool – once it’s cold, run your finger over the surface – it will wrinkle if you have a set. Jellies may have a softer set than a pulpy jam.
    • If you don’t have a set then bring the jam to the boil and simmer for another 15 minutes, test for set.
      • If that doesn’t work then add another tablespoonful of lemon juice and bring to the boil again.
        • If that doesn’t work then you could add a bottle of pectin extract e.g. Certo and just bring to the boil
          • If all that doesn’t achieve a set, pot it up and call it a syrup – it will be delicious on ice cream, porridge or Eton Mess
  • Pot your jam while hot into warm sterilised jars – fill your jars to the brim
  • Put a top on the jar – either the lid that came with the jar (well washed in very hot water) or a traditional cellophane cover held in place with an elastic band
  • Allow the jars to cool; wash any spillage from the sides, label and enjoy πŸ™‚

Sterilising your jars:

  • Make sure that your jars are clean and don’t have any chips or cracks; rinse well with hot water before use. It is fine to re-use jars but do not use pickle or chutney jars – you can never remove the smell of vinegar!
  • Put the jars on a baking tray and place in a cold oven
  • Turn the oven on – set it to 120 degrees centigrade
  • Once the jars have reached 120 degrees (usually around 20 minutes) then remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for a few minutes before you pot your jam.

I take NO responsibility for the results of jam made to this recipe – but if you follow the proportion of jam sugar to fruit then they should get a good result πŸ™‚

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BCN Challenge 2017: The Results!

Posted by indigodream on 20 June, 2017

June 2017

First of all a big “Thank You” to our faithful and diligent crew – none of whom jumped ship during a very busy weekend – humans Kristel, Ian and Christine and greyhound crew Archie, Henry, Alex and Freya πŸ™‚

 

Secondly, a massive thank you to the BCN Society who keep this wonderful event alive – they work so hard to keep every section of the BCN open , even when certain locals are working hard to turn them into linear landfills!

And thirdly a big “Thank You” to everyone who sponsored our good causes – we were very late getting our JustGiving pages set up but you are all amazingly generous and raised ALMOST Β£500 (that’s before Gift Aid!) for three Birmingham Greyhound Trust branches – Hall Green, Perry Barr and Wolverhampton. We really appreciate your support – knowing that we can help a good cause keeps us going, despite the lure of a few fine canalside pubs along the way πŸ™‚
In 22 hours (we got to the finish line a bit earlier than expected!) we cruised 48 miles and did 51 locks. Now that’s a LOT, but fewer lock miles than we’ve covered in previous challenges because it’s all about the points! The BCN Society are very canny when writing the scoring rules (they change every year) – we have a convoluted spreadsheet which plots different routes and on this year’s scoring system, a lock-heavy route yielded fewer points. This felt counter-intuitive as our super-crew means that we are phenomenally fast through locks, but the shallow-sided areas of canals such as the Wyrley and Essington mean that we simply can’t get any faster than 2.5mph on some sections. When we totted our totals at the end of the Challenge we were convinced we were nowhere in the running….

The lovely commemorative plaque – we’re still trying to work out the significance of the hand and the sword but it looks impressive!

So to the results –Β  the diligent BCNS scoring team spent days counting and recounting the points – there were fewer than two points between the top three boats and the top six have never been closer…
  • In first place – nb Tawny Owl with 293.225 points
  • In second place – nb Firefly 292.85 points….
  • In third place – nb Indigo Dream with 291.8 points
Wow, we’d done so much better than we’d anticipated and had come third for the third time!
Either of the followingΒ  would have won us the challenge:
  • Cruising an extra two miles (or two locks) anywhere on the BCN!
  • Cruising up to the Titford Pools above the finish line

 

We did get one quiz question wrong at Birchills Junction – that was worth 3 points – but having seen the answer I don’t think we’d have got it in a million years!

There’s a life lesson here – we defeated ourselves because we deliberately passed by opportunities to gain one or two points because we thought we were more like 50 points adrift of the win!
Now we’re super-motivated for next time because although we doubted our strategy of chasing the points rather than the lock miles, we were actually spot on! We WILL win this challenge one day πŸ˜€
Note: Although we compete for the overall challenge there are two hotly-contested trophies that we’ve never aspired to:
  • The Trolley Trophy – for the extensive and inventive debris dragged from the canal and brought to the finish line – won by nb Maxwell
  • The best dressed boat – won by nb Giddy
Here’s the full results table:
TAWNY OWL 293.225
FIREFLY 292.85
INDIGO DREAM 291.8
TATY LUCY 286.425
CARPE VINUM 284.5
TALISMAN No3 281.025
DOVE 266.1
DOTTERELL 262.25
REBELLION 241.575
MISBOURNE No3 240.575
GOLIATH 239.4
WILLOW 237.55
DODGY 235.05
SQUIRE 226.425
GOOSEANDER 224.575
CHARLEY B 218.25
A J FELGATE 217.675
LOCKHART 212.5
REARSBY 211.25
DORA VENUS 208.875
MAXWELL 207
ENCELADUS 206.4
MIKA 201.35
PENNY LOCK 193.9
GIDDY 188.05
JOANNA & No37 185.275
AMPHORA 182.275
GYPSY EMMA 173
ATLAS AND MALUS 172.7
BEST CURRENT THINKING 172
RED WHARF 170.65
VULPES 164.5
ARTU 161.235
CITY OF DURHAM 160.125
PARSONS PASSAGE 158.375
CRANE 142.7
CECILIA 106.75
OUR LITTLE NIGHTMARE 94.925
BEAU 93.925
FELONIOUS MONGOOSE 92.9
NOTOS 82.5
CLARIE 46.4
PANATHA 13.05
TRAMP TOOK PART
HELEN TOOK PART

 

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BCN Challenge 2017: Day 2 in detail

Posted by indigodream on 19 June, 2017

Sunday 28th May

4am start? No thanks!

Because we’d had an indulgent 10pm finish on Saturday, we needed to be up and cruising by 4am. We set the alarms for 3.45am and although the human crew got up willingly enough, the greyhound crew were deeply unimpressed and snuggled down in the duvets, hoping that we weren’t actually serious!

We had deliberately overnighted on a lock-free pound so that the first up could single-hand while the rest of the crew got organised. Richard took the helm and got us away at dead on 4am. Although we had calculated that sun wouldn’t rise until 4.55am-ish, I had thought a false dawn might give us some light for cruising but it was far darker than I expected. The weather was cool and a little overcast and we didn’t have the benefit of moon and starlight as we’d had on previous dawn excursions.

Sunrise πŸ™‚

Once we got moving, the hounds consented to get up – it was easy enough to drop the dog-walking crew off at one bridge and pick them up at the next without losing any time. No-one fancied any breakfast at 4am, but we topped up on warm danish pastries a little later so that the crew would have enough energy for the Rushall flight.

Although the Anglesey Arm had a fair few points attached, by the time we got to Catshill Junction we figured that we were managing less than 3mph and we’d be too pushed for time if we ventured up the arm so we turned, with some reluctance, towards the Rushall flight. By the time we got to top lock the sun had risen and it was promising to be a glorious day. There was a boat going down in front of us, which meant we had to turn every lock, but we still moved quickly and smoothly down the flight.

A magical dawn on the Curly Wyrly πŸ™‚

I looked out for the swallows that used to inhabit the shaded eaves of low bridges along the flight, but was disappointed not to see any – I wonder whether they just decided not to migrate back to Birmingham or were the nests removed – I hope it was the former.

We participated in a wildlife rescue at one lock – the lock was almost empty, with Indigo Dream getting ready to move out when the shore crew far above called out that there was a hedgehog in the water. We sadly assume it was dead, but then the crew saw it move! I reversed Indigo Dream to the back of the lock (we were well below the cill by then) and ran to the front of the boat with our little children’s toy fishing net. I crawled onto the bow and managed to get the hedgehog into the net and by doing so I learnt three things:

  • Hedgehogs are very strong swimmers
  • Hedgehogs are very heavy for their size
  • A child’s toy fishing net is only just strong enough to lift a sodden hedgehog from the water!

It took some effort to lift the little animal up to the shore crew, but we made it! The poor little thing seemed exhausted and shock – we put it in the shelter of a nearby hedgerow and moved on. Luckily the hounds weren’t around, though for the life of me I can’t remember where they were – the Rushall is good for dog-walking once you get past the road bridges so they might have been lock-wheeling with Richard.

The supremacy of canal over road πŸ™‚

We were soon at Newton Junction and turned right onto the Tame Valley canal. Because we are so efficient at locking we had wondered whether to change our strategy and go the other way – down the Perry Barr flight, up Aston and Farmer’s Bridge then on to the finish line. But we had calculated that was a high effort/low point route so we stuck to our plan.

I love the Tame Valley canal – in the bright sunshine it was hard to imagine that the overnight cruisers had been stoned by youths along this lush waterway. I was pleased that we hadn’t run the gauntlet, because by day the Tame Valley canal showed its best face to our BCN newbies, Kristel and Ian. The views from the Tame Valley are spectacular – from the aqueduct soaring above the M6 to the long view across to the centre of Birmingham, perched high on its plateau. With the awareness of just how many locks there are between the outside world and Birmingham, I think that boaters have a unique understanding of the city’s complex geography.

We soon caught up with another Challenge boat who were taking it easy – absolutely their prerogative, but we’re contenders! We sighed, then we gnashed our teeth when I realised, on turning the page of our cruising log, that we’d missed a quiz question at Newton Junction – aaargh! Christine volunteered to cycle back to find the answer, in the meantime Richard cycled ahead to find the answer to the question at Ocker Hill Junction. I took the helm and pootled along behind the boat in front – we had asked whether we could overtake but they declined – their prerogative also!

We picked Richard up at Ocker Hill junction and did a time check. Would we have time to turn right and do a there and back high value trip up to Walsall Junction or should we turn left ensuring that we could get the bonus for finishing early? Hmmm. We needed three hours for the trip to Walsall and we only had an hour and a half of slack with no hope of making up time as we know from experience that the Walsall Canal is slow, so we turned left to join an unexpected queue for the Ryder’s Green flight.

Rushall Top – 6.10am and we’ve already been cruising for a couple of hours!

We’re never going to cheer when we see a queue at a lock flight but on the other hand, it does mean that there are lots of crew around to set locks. There was a good atmosphere up the flight. With all the boats going the same way it was inevitable that every lock would be set against us, and every other boat behind us! But all the crews got into a rhythm and we worked up the flight efficiently enough. The sight of 10 or more boats filing the flight from end to end was quite extraordinary – local walkers expressed their astonishment at the sudden stampede of boats on an otherwise unregarded stretch of the BCN!

We’d gone up a few locks when Christine caught up with us – she’d got the quiz answer and was now in locking mode, helping us and other boats up the flight – her stamina is awesome and she knows everyone!

With plenty of crew around, Richard cycled ahead to the Wednesfield Old Canal (aka the Ridgeacre Stub) to get a points photo. Back in 2009, we recalled that the stub had just been closed because of a heavy pollution event. Sadly, it has never opened again and so another stretch of canal was lost. Cruising up the stub is forbidden (disqualifiable action on the Challenge!), but this year’s rules allowed crew on foot/wheels to go up the stub as far as the road bridge and get a points photo. I imagined that the stub would be a stinking midden, but the photos show a lovely canal that belies the rot beneath its surface.

Wildlife rescue πŸ™‚

There was a certain chaos at the top lock – one of the deep drafted historic boats was badly aground and no amount of effort seemed enough to shift her. The crew was busy with the pole, Christine tried to help from shore and I offered a bit of water from the prop as I took Indigo Dream past. I was going to offer a snatch but in trying to push some water back I realised that Indigo Dream was in danger of grounding herself on the offside so I had to move on. I felt awful leaving her there, but Christine reported that a tug coming up the flight behind us was primed to give them a snatch. We met both boats later at the finish line so all ended well.

The canal between Ryder’s Green top and Pudding green Junction was a bit of a shock – well, to me at least – I don’t recall it being so derelict. The channel was narrow with rubbish strewn reed beds encroaching on all sides. There was some impressive trash, including a gargantuan tractor tyre which was almost big enough to encircle the boat let alone the prop! It was dispiriting as I’ve always enjoyed our trips down Ryders Green. I mused again on the wisdom of the BCN Society whose clever points system meant that the best part of 50 boats would visit the stretch during the challenge and give it a boost.

Archie supervising at Ryders Green…

On previous challenges, we’ve had a plan at the start and stuck to it rigorously, but this challenge was full of choices. We hadn’t realised how critical these choices might be – but I’ll explain that when I publish the next post which reveals the results!

At Pudding Green Junction the choice was to cruise over to the Smethwick Locks and visit the Engine Arm on our way to the Oldbury Locks or go straight up the Spon Lane locks. We chose the latter – the boats that had travelled up Ryders Green before us had vanished, swallowed by the vastΒ  canal network and its myriad cruising options. This meant that we had Spon Lane to ourselves.

I like the Spon Lane locks – although the water is full of trash and the prop stirs up black tar and the smell of heavy hydrocarbons, the flight has a unique charm as it feels so removed from modern Birmingham. Despite being overshadowed by the M5, the flight has no road access so the dogs could come out for a bimble (they weren’t that interested) and although Spon Lane top lock is gateway to a concrete wasteland, the flight itself is surrounded by lavish wild hedgerows.

There is an acute turn at the top of Spon Lane locks – there are many ways to get around, but we’ve found that the fastest is to have a crew member on the point of the path by the top lock giving the boat a tug around while I’m busy on the tiller. The only tricky bit is picking the shore crew up after this manoeuvre!

The next stretch of the BCN is one of our favourites, not because of its beauty but because ofΒ  the sheer fascination of how this ancient canal survived the erection of the M5 above it. The waterway quietly passes beneath the motorway, giving an unparalleled view of its supporting structures. Very little grows in the shade, but here and there old brick bridges take the footpath across the canal, looking as incongruous as kittens at a heavy rock concert!

Wednesfield Old Canal – if we hadn’t been told you wouldn’t believe that this water was so polluted the BCN Society have declared it a no-go area 😦

We soon arrived at Oldbury Turn and the last flight up to the finish line at Titford. By now it was around 11am and the queue that we’d feared simply wasn’t there! There was a boat going up the flight ahead of us but there was none of the frenetic activity we’d experienced at Ryder’s Green. We flew up the Oldbury flight and soon joined the colour and bustle at the BCN’s headquarters at the old pump house. There must have been 15 or so boats moored up already, as many had decided to cruise a continuous 24 hours and finish 6 hours early. We mooched up the canal and took the first mooring place adjacent to the towpath – bresting up doesn’t work for us with four hounds on board. We thought about doing the last four-point leg up to the Titford Pools, but because we were so convinced that we were out of the running we chose to moor up early and get a good houndie mooring- this had truly been the challenge of choices!

We’d moored up at 12.30am – 90 minutes early! This gave us time to check our cruising log and make a note of the photographs that we’d need to submit later. Half an hour later we pootled down to the Pump House to submit our cruising log and collect our BCN Challenge Plaque. The Pumphouse was a merry meeting ground – the BCN Society had laid on cake, beer and burgers. Crews and their dogs slumped on the sunlit grass and smiled with the slightly hysterical glaze of people who had worked hard on too little sleep!

I was weary and it was a bit too hot for the hounds, so we wended our way back to the boat – it took ages as we stopped to chat with boaters along the way and the hounds got a lot of attention! But back at the boat we turned the fans on and chilled. I was soon joined by Ian, who stretched out with Freya on the dog bed nearest to the most powerful fan, The rest of the crew joined us an hour later. Christine needed to travel back to London, but she’d managed to get a lift to the station with another boater – she was still full of beans! The rest of us slumped, had supper, and by 8pm everyone was in bed apart from me (I’m a night owl).

And another of the Wednesfield Old Canal – slowly going back to nature…

Obviously there’s no time to fill the water tank on the Challenge, but we have a huge water tank so it wasn’t a worry. But when we got to the end of the day we realised that the tank was nigh on empty – oops! We didn’t have the energy to move the boat to the water point at the pumphouse so we made an agreement not to shower, ignore the smell and fill up in the morning!

However, we’d also gone through our drinking water, and that couldn’t be ignored. While everyone went to bed, I walked back to the Pumphouse to fill a 5l water bottle. The canal was very mellow, with tired boat crews now sitting on deck contemplating their reflections in pints of ale. I chatted to a few and fretted over the gang of youngsters who had congregated on the canal bridge and the derelict warehouse across the canal from our mooring. But apart from gradually dismantling the warehouse wall and mindlessly throwing bricks into the canal, they bore us no malice and left the boats alone.

I got back to a boat full of snoozing crew – apart from Henry and Freya hounds who’d heard fireworks in the distance and were cuddled up in a trembling heap in the close, but safe, confines of the front cabin. Archie and Alex were already on the bed with Richard, leaving me a human origami challenge to find some space for myself. If course, this all meant that we now had two humans and four greyhounds squashed into the front cabin in the in the heat and humidity of an English summer, with no water for showers – no wonder we pick crew for their tolerance rather than their stamina!

We had a peaceful night’s sleep, though I woke up in the wee small hours to close the side-hatch, which we often leave open on hot night if it’s on the waterside. I’d been woken by a torrential rain storm which was giving the kitchen floor a good wash!

Apart from that brief awakening the crew slept the sleep of the righteous having cruised just shy of 100 lock miles in 22 hours!

Photoblog:

A bit of help on the acute turn at Spon Lane Junction…

 

This aqueduct has it all – the new main line canal below, the train line just above and the M5 puts the concrete lid on the whole lot!

 

It’s not pretty but it is fascinating – it would have been so easy to lose these canals when the motorway was built – their very existence here is a miracle πŸ™‚

 

The official finish – although boats were moored for a mile along the canal, BCNS central was where we handed in our challenge logs and picked up a well-earned beer!

 

Graffiti written for tarty Archie πŸ˜€

 

That “end of challenge” feeling πŸ™‚

 

Exhausted!

 

Archie and Henry wanted to spend the evening on deck watching the world go by but it was too much effort πŸ™‚

 

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BCN Challenge 2017: Day 1 in detail

Posted by indigodream on 17 June, 2017

Saturday 27th May

No sneaky peeking! This year’s rules stated that we could open the envelopes with the cruising log and all-important bonus questions at 7.55am πŸ™‚

With the crew assembled on Friday night, we were well-placed for an early start on Saturday morning, which was just as well as we had a little bit of juggling around to get to our official starting point at Parkhead Junction on the Dudley Canal.

We’d had endless debates about where best to start the challenge, and although we strongly fancied starting at the bottom of the Delph flight, we simply couldn’t fit an extra 8 locks into our day so we decided on Parkhead Junction (high points!). But we’d taken the advice of the BCN Society, who recommended mooring overnight at Merryhill as the youth around Parkhead were known to be troublesome. This gave us around half an hour’s cruise (including one lock) before we got to the starting line. Inevitably, great minds think alike and we were second to our start line with two boats locking up behind us!

Our first challenge was shutting the bottom gates of Parkhead bottom lock – there was a considerable something blocking the bottom gates and no amount of shoving with poles and gates would shift it. Luckily for us, Indigo Dream’s powerful engine made short work of flushing the object away and we’d hoped that would be that! We proceeded up the locks, a bit more slowly than if we’d been first in the queue, but were soon at the tunnel portal where we divided our labours – crew with the boat for the points photo at the Dudley Tunnel portal and shore-base crew to look for the first of the treasure hunt clues (it was cunning!).

We were up the first three locks so quickly we didn’t have time to take photos! Here we are at Parkhead Top – during the day it looks like an idyllic place to moor with wonderful dog-walking, Shame it has a bad reputation for overnight stays, not sure if that is still the case.

Then we hot-footed it down the locks, except we couldn’t – the boat that had entered the bottom lock behind us was stuck – whatever object we dislodged had made its way back and was blocking the bottom gates again – no amount of work would shift it until the heroic crew got in the water. I was surprised at the depth of the water – I ‘d always thought of the Dudley No 2 Canal as being shallow, but there are obviously deep pools (the area is surrounded by disused mines and subsidence often leads to hidden depths in the canals). We came down top lock and waited in the pound below – the canal here is really pleasant, surrounded by lush parkland, hard to imagine “unquiet slumbers” here as it would otherwise be a perfect overnight mooring for hounds. We took advantage of the delay to walk the dogs, who luckily don’t really do mornings and failed to spot the cat hunting on the fringes of the woodland nearby!

It took a good half an hour to clear the bottom gates – the chaps in the water managed to shift whatever it was – hard, heavy, L-shaped but otherwise unidentified. They must have done a good job because we didn’t have any more problems with it and were soon on our way.

The BCN is extraordinary on many levels, but I’m always amazed at its vastness – although we started in the company of three other boats, they soon vanished and for the next several hours we hardly saw another boat – yet we knew there were 48 others on the Challenge – we’d been subsumed by the city’s marvellous maze!

Dudley Tunnel (South Portal)…

Now we had a long lock-free section so it must be time for breakfast! I got busy in the kitchen – the downside of cooking with bottled gas is that it seems very slow compared to mains gas, so while I was there I laid the foundations for lunch and dinner as well. Although our crew had been very worried about whether they’d be physically fit enough for the challenge, in truth, we select crew based on their ability to get along in a confined space for 30 hours straight and not throw a hissy fit when they get tired! As we all know, such goodwill is based on good nutrition and hydration – that’s my role on board, oh, and driving into locks at insane speeds!

There were points to be gained at the Bumblehole winding hole, but there we had a technical hitch – Indigo Dream, with the bikes on the roof, wouldn’t fit under the bridge at the entrance to the arm. We did a quick strategic calculation – would the points we’d gain by the photo outweigh the time we’d lose taking the bikes off? Answer – no! So on we went, having also made the calculation that the points/time balance didn’t justify a trip to Hawne Basin, much as we love it down there.

Brrrr – the dauntless crew of nb Giddy going above and beyond (under and in!) to remove n obstruction from the lockgate at Parkhead Bottom Lock…

The Netherton Tunnel is a special place – the headroom of a cathedral, the width of a motorway and superbly resonant. Christine and I are both musicians, so we took advantage of the acoustics to pipe (Christine) and sing (me) our way through the tunnel – it was a magical experience! Three years ago, we sang our way through Ghosty Hill tunnel and had resolved to learn some songs that we could perform together – we never did get round to that, but nonetheless we found our music in Netherton..

We met one (non-challenge) boat near the far end, who apparently hugged the side as Indigo Dream steamed towards him,though there really is ample room to pass!

There is a short length of dead straight canal at the far end of the tunnel which joins the magnificent mainline – another Telford Canal, straight and deep. But watch out for the almost hidden narrows where the money men of the original commercial canal levied their tolls on passing boaters. With the Brades flight and Gower Branch closed by emergency works (National Grid), we needed to find an efficient route up to the old Mainline that wouldn’t mean retracing our steps later in the challenge. The only feasible option was the Factory Locks at Tipton – another hidden gem of the BCN. We met a non-challenge boat waiting below the locks and he, very gallantly, let us pass. My crew had gone ahead to set the locks, though they were amply manned by volunteers from the “Friends of the Tipton Canal” group, who were doing a great job of clearing rubbish from the water. My lock entry was delayed as Indigo Dream was soundly grounded on a hard shelf just shy of the lock moorings – it took a bit of jiggling to get her off, all the while being aware of my crew watching their watches above me!

Got to love the New Main line…

We were soon through the three locks and were now on an enormously long lock-free Wolverhampton Levels which lead to the equally lock-free Wyrley and Essington Canal.It was a great opportunity for the crew to relax (we took turns on the helm) and graze for lunch (my signature boat lunch – fajitas!)

We had a side-trip up and down the Wednesbury Oak Loop (no longer a loop!), to the CRT Bradley Workshop with its mountains of lock gates under construction for the winter maintenance period. There were points both ways on this leg, plus points for a photo at the end and a bonus for visiting the loop – it had to be done! We had some doubts about the time/points balance as, in 2009, it took us hours to get up and down the arm because the super-abundant weed meant that we needed to clear the prop every 10 minutes. The water is still clear and weedy, but we were less troubled by it, though we did pick up a rather colourful sari which held us up for a short while. Richard’s sisters were off in a few days time to the Wedding of the century II in Mauritius so he took a photo and zapped it across to them in case they wanted us to keep it for them . . . .

The mainline and Wolverhampton levels are deep, well-suited to Indigo Dream’s powerful engine/prop combination. We arrived at the Wyrley and Essington all too soon. We love the Curly Wyrly, but it is shallow and it was almost impossible for us to make any headway as it is all to easy to generate a breaking wash on the shallow edges. We might have been tempted into an afternoon torpor, but there were treasure hunt questions to be answered and we needed to find Hollybank Basin. It’s a stub of canal between Horsley Fields and Birchills Junction and clearly marked

Quick photo stop at Bradley Workshops…

on our BCN map, but the three BCN veterans on board had no recollection of it; when we checked with a local boater who moors nearby he had no knowledge of it either! I let three of the crew off with the hounds to scout ahead and I soon spotted their frantic gesticulations – there was the narrow but perfectly visible entrance to Hollybank Basin. Two fishermen at the junction seemed bemused – they’d seen more boats on the Curly Wurley that day than they’d normally see in any month, and their apparent fascination with the apparent disused stub of Hollybank was a mystery! We’d agreed that I would drive Indigo Dream into the stub and reverse out while the shore crew would take the points photo from the towpath. I cruised a few boat lengths into the stub, just enough to spot a chain/rope across the canal which presumably marks the limit of navigation. The stub was deserted but looked wonderfully green and tranquil – is it a potential mooring spot? Who knows!

By now it was late afternoon and we had some locking to do this year, there were points for a there AND back cruise of the Walsall canal. It had been our intention to cruise all the way to Ocker Hill and back before finding a place to moor overnight on the rural Curly Wyrly. Our plan was looking good as we met a stampede of boats coming up the Walsall flight, meaning that all the locks were set our way and we had the benefit of help from the upcoming crews – sweet! We flew down the flight, but as we did so we started to get some disturbing reports from BCN Challenge Central. Groups of stone-throwing youths were gathering along the Tame Valley canal from Ocker Hill to Salfords Junction – two boats had broken windows and one crew member had been injured.Β  I know that some boats kept going with bulldog spirit of the undefeated; I favour “discretion as the better part of valour” so we visited Walsall Town Basin and turned back up the locks. It’s a risk assessment – we take the BCN Challenge very seriously and by missing the stretch from Walsall Junction to Ocker Hill we probably scuppered any chance of being on the podium; but we didn’t want to risk our human and canine crew either. Loads of photos were taken the the Authorities all notified and apparently responding well to what is a really unusual incident, we have never had any nastiness on the BCN.

Nice sari – took some unwinding from the prop but it will be fine after a good wash πŸ˜€

We flew back up the Walsall flight in something silly under 20 minutes, though our hearts sank at the top lock as there was a group of youths throwing stones at the residential moorings on the offside. We took photographs of them and then, amazingly, Christine engaged them in conversation and had them helping her to open and close the lock gates! It was a brief accord, as we cruised away they’d started to mess around with the lock again, but at least Indigo Dream was unscathed and the boats opposite had a brief respite.

We were a bit chastened as we cruised on – the 7pm mark is tricky – on a normal cruising day we’d be moored up and in the pub, but we had at least three or four more hours to do. Aha, must be time for a bracing dinner to lift everyone’s spirits – my second signature boat dish – tagine – lamb for the carnivores and chick pea for the veggies. Needless to say, in between feasts the boat runs on doughnuts and cookies!

We encouraged everyone to try to relax as we took turns on the helm – we were lock free for the rest of the cruising day. But once again, we had questions to answer as we headed up the Cannock Extension Arm for a points photo at the Colliery Basins. It is a lovely stretch so a great opportunity to give the dogs a good walk before dark while we took the boat up to the turn. It was all going to plan when the prop stopped dead under a bridge! Of course, as Indigo Dream slewed across the canal, another challenge boat approached! We hastily pulled her out of the way while Richard got busy down the weedhatch. This time it is was a five foot length of sodden stair carpet – it would have matched the piece we “found” at during the last challenge. I had a wry thought that maybe we could furnish a house for impoverished boaters and clothe them entirely from lucky finds on the BCN! Actually, we could probably provide them with transport too – push bike, motorbike, car – it’s all been found in these waters!

Hollybank Basin – a hitherto unknown to us branch of the Curly Wyrley….

We can laugh, you have to, but it’s very strange that on one hand you have dedicated societies working hard to preserve the canals as a valuable asset for the city; then you have the “idiots”, who seem to be equally intent on filling them with rubbish.

It was a darkening dusk by the time we got back onto the main Curly Wyrly and we might have looked forward to a starlit cruise, but the clouds had gathered and a gloomy drizzle had started to fall. We pondered how far we could get that evening – we had decided in advance that we wouldn’t lock after dark so the plan was to stop at 11pm and tackle Rushall at dawn. In the end, we decided to moor up outside the giant Tesco store in Brownhills. We’d always heard it was a safe mooring, though we’d never stopped there before. It did give us the opportunity to run into the store and get some extra milk – we would definitely be needing coffee for Day 2!

Because we’d moored up at up 10am, we had the alarms set for 3.30am for a 4am start. This was essential – we were so behind on our schedule we knew we’d have to cut swathes from our cruising plan, but we weren’t ready to give up! We hastily made the beds and got settled, though we heard a few challenge boats singing their way along the canal and mooring up briefly. Alex puppy and Archie joined us on the bed -Alex sighed with contentment as he squiggled between us – he’d actually coped very well with the rigours of challenge boating, but he loves a quiet bed the best πŸ™‚

Photoblog:

Winding at Walsall Town Basin – and a god shot of Indigo Dream’s new paintwork!

 

It was only a fleeting visit to Walsall – having decided not to cruise down to Ocker Hill, we had to hot foot it back up the flight in order to get round as much of the Curly Wyrley as possible before dark…

 

Our super-efficient crew in action…

 

Newlyweds Amy and James on Severner Willow – so lovely to see them on their way to their new life in Bollington πŸ™‚

 

The Curly Wyrley – a wonderful bit of Birmingham countryside πŸ™‚

 

When I was growing up in very rural Wales, I was taught that children living in big cities in England didn’t know what a cow looked like – but Birmingham has them πŸ™‚

 

Winding at Colliery Basin on the Cannock Extension of the Curly Wyrley – and a fine shot of our new “greyhound” themed artwork πŸ™‚

 

We were doing very well, but as we headed back down the Cannock extension this 6′ length of carpet stopped us dead! It took some time to extract from the prop :-p

New crew members, Alex and Freya, set up their command centre on a nest of six dog beds inside, in front of the fan – they’re not daft!

 

 

 

 

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