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Summer, but not the First Time.

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As usual, we have had a very intense summer so far. The Jules’ Fuels fleet, comprising Towcester, Bideford, Southern Cross, Cedar and Stanton have already been up to Awbridge to load solid fuels, together with Alan Buckle on his boat, Bletchley. Lawrence and Sarah have also been up to load Lynx with coal for the yard at Alvecote. We have managed to fit in the odd trip with Roach too.

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The loading of all these boats was not without incident; young Dan - Jules Fuels' cabin boy - was made to perform acrobatics for the amusement of the other crew members and this resulted in him sustaining a broken elbow in the middle of his arm. We subsequently had a pleasant evening, together with the entire population of Dudley, enjoying the hospitality of the A & E Department at Russells Hall. The good news is that he can still use his ‘phone.

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Judging has taken place to determine the  “Coal-boater of the Year”, and it turns out that the current holder of the title has not managed to retain it. The judges, including the incumbent, decided that he spent too much time in the pointless occupation of polishing things that were already way too shiny. The above picture shows the judging team, carrying out their duties in much the same manner as mystery shoppers. It is most probable that the members of the judging team are themselves mystified. A decision was finally reached, (after copious amounts of beer, obviously) and the accolade of “Coal-boater of the Year” once again went to the steerer of Southern Cross. By a suprise turn of events, this turned out to be Pete Hawker, as Ryan has now been demoted to deck-hand on the butty-boat Cedar. Here we see Pete aboard Southern Cross receiving the news of his victory in his usual ecstatic manner.

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Mr Dimmock took the defeat very well as can be seen in this photograph taken moments after the announcement was made. 

Due to Pete Hawker taking up his prize of an unpaid holiday for one, Andrew Haysom was summoned to assist in the moving of Southern Cross and Cedar from Awbridge back to the vast, sprawling metropolis that is Stoke Bruerne. What with Andrew being over nine feet tall, Cedar did look very small with him steering. This is actually a very rare ‘photo of Andrew without his flat ‘at on.

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Our own trip up to the Stratford Canal was intense too; we set off in sweltering heat early one Wednesday morning, only to find that there was a four-hour stoppage at Lock 19 on the Wolverhampton flight to replace a rotten paddle-stand. It would have been nice if the Canal & River Trust had issued a warning notice via their email alerting service (to which we are signed up), as we could have stayed in bed until a reasonable hour, but never mind - the good thing is that this work was being carried out within a week of the old paddle-stand failing, unlike the two years or more that it took to replace the same thing at Lock 20 recently. I used to really enjoy using the Wolverhampton 21 Locks, as they were reasonably well maintained, but recent works have not been up to previous standards. A typical example is the paddle gear re-fitted onto the new bottom gates of Lock 12, which is terribly jerky (and therefore liable to be injurious) to use, and has been since the work was completed last winter. This would be condemned in any other place of work under the auspices of Health & Safety. Mind you, at least it can be operated, albeit with care, unlike the paddle gear that was re-fitted on a couple of the locks on the Staffs & Worcs Canal after replacement  gates were installed this last winter too. These locks, including Awbridge Lock right by our yard, were un-useable as a standard size windlass would not pass over the balance beam because the paddle gear was fitted so badly.   This situation was remedied, as the following ‘photo shows, but not until a few weeks afterwards. Clearly, no-one thought to check that the gear was operable before they left the site. This tells you that the operation of paddles is not tested immediately work is completed. Basic methodology, I would have thought.


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Anyway, back to our trip. Up the 21, then along to Factory Locks at Tipton with no more than the usual bumps and scrapes. Below the locks was a different story altogether. The Birmingham Level looked to be around four inches off, not an unusual occurrence in summer, but we use this canal regularly and know that it will be slow going. Bloody hell - it was slow going. This canal has got noticeably worse over the last few years, and in spite of some token spot-dredging by CRT, we still struggle in the same old places. The old gauging stops at Dunkirque and Bromford both brought us to a complete standstill. We got through them both eventually, with a combination of backing off and having a run at the obstacle, and heaving on ropes. Apparently, Bromford Stop has been spot dredged twice recently. No where near enough material was removed on either occasion - the surrounding silt, which is very soft and fluid (and incredibly foul smelling) simply oozes into the hole left by dredging. Whilst we are talking of these stop-places, it appears that CRT are abandoning one side of them by stealth by not attending to overgrowing vegetation. 

The whole length of canal from Tipton to Kings Norton on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal is in a dreadful state. The sheer amount of hard detritus that we hit / get stuck on / get thrown off course by, beggars belief. There are moves afoot to spot dredge some odd places on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, but this will only alleviate a very small part of the problem. The whole lot of this length of canal needs dredging properly NOW. We had to call on a following hire-boat to push us through and out of the Selly Oak railway narrows - once again, this is a location that has been spot-dredged twice recently, with the bare minimum of spoil removed and, once again no where near enough attention paid to the real problem.

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Once we got round the junction at Kings Norton, we could see that a dredger was working away on the other side of the guillotine lock. Good news indeed. Now all we needed was to actually get through the lock - something that has been a major problem for years, even though the lock was drained for "major restoration work” a couple of years ago. No chance! Luckily, the dredger was being operated by Dai, a dour Welshman whom we have known for a long time. A rope was attached from Roach to the dredging hopper, and with the dredger pulling and Roach’s Lister pushing, we just managed to get through. Plain sailing from here then. No chance - immediately outside the lock we picked up a rucksack around the propellor - a rucksack with especially strengthened straps it seemed. We did get it off eventually, and left Dai to continue his digging. The canal was markedly improved from here to Lyons Boatyard. We shaved at least two hours off last years time to cover this couple of miles.

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We still could not get near the jetty at Lyons though, and still had to employ the plank until we had off-loaded sufficient cargo to pull Roach in. Never mind, we’re used to it. And we get plenty of help here, too.

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And we got to go for a curry and some beer later with Sarah and Gary. We had certainly earned it.

We had a couple of small drops to do beyond Lyons Boatyard, and I have to say that I’m glad we were nearly empty, as the canal soon reverts to dreadful. I have to say that boating with an empty boat is completely different to driving a loaded one. We barely registered all the obstacles on the way back to Birmingham, just a small jump as the rear of the boat catches. Even this, though, is doing the boat no good at all. Oh well - it’s never going to be perfect, but recognition of the scale of the problem by CRT would be a start.

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What’s happenning next? Oh! The Narrowboat Trust pair, Nuneaton and Brighton are due tomorrow. Yet more work!

Get down Shep

I was sorry to hear of the passing of John Noakes last week. He came to our yard a few years back to do some filming for a DVD about the inland waterways, which was sold to raise money for the Cotswold Canals Trust. Like everyone else of my generation I grew up with him on Blue Peter, and he turned out to be exactly like he appeared on telly - a thoroughly nice bloke with no airs and graces; no “look at me - I’m a star” about him at all. He turned up at the yard dressed all in white - ideal for a coal yard - and wanted a go at bagging coal. We furnished him with a size twelve “Scubbin”, a very large fork to the layman, with which he proceeded to load a fork-full of finest house-coal into our scoop-scales. Unfortunately, he loaded the coal too far forward in the scoop which immediately tipped the coal back out, right down his front. White clothes - I arsk yer! It was a pleasure to meet you Sir.

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Incidentaly, the “Scubbin” he used is a piece of history in itself as it used to belong to “Caggy” Stevens. For those who don’t know, Alan “Caggy” Stevens was, among other things, the last horse boater on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.


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There’s been plenty going on around here recently. We dry-docked Roach at Stourbridge in April, mainly to enable a hull survey to be carried out, but also to apply a further couple of coats of fancy, and fantastically expensive black paint to protect the hull from being eaten by our extremely predetory canal water. Stourbridge Dry-dock is a fine place to work on a boat, it is covered, clean, and has access platforms right around  the boat to enable ease of working on it. Mainly, though, Stourbridge has loads of fine hostelries for taking ones ease in after a hard days talking about boat maintenance.

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The old girl did look better for a new coat of black, mind. This photo was taken by our esteemed Advertising Executive, Mr Langford, who had inadvertently stepped into the canal having been blinded by the dazzling new paint. I imagine that he has got himself out by now. Another shot from an unusual angle is this picture of our yard taken by me whilst hanging one-handed from a drone. It looks quite tidy from this angle.

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We managed to find time to go on holiday last month, and headed north for a roam around. We ended up staying in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, where one of the pubs, the Railway Inn, has a landlord who is also the local coal-man. This, predictably, meant a few more pints and a long natter about our respective experiences in the industry. He also seemed to know a bit about football in spite of being a Newcastle United fan. A proper local pub.

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Just to prove that we really were on holiday, here’s a picture of Jenny scampering along Hadrians Wall, and then here she is again, in pensive mood, looking out over the Solway Firth from the promenade at Silloth. Silloth is right at the end of “The Land that Time Forgot”. 


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We ended up at the fashionable resort of Barrow-in-Furness, which is an interesting place while at the same time managing to be the epitome of dismal. The beaches and wildlife on Walney Island were fantastic though, well worth the effort of getting there. I’ve put a few of our holiday snaps in a gallery here if anyone is interested.


Bagging of summer-priced coal is now in full swing, ready for stocking up all our customers in time for the coldest winter ever (as forecast every year by most of the media on “slow news days”. I expect that they will be right one day). We are also awaiting the arrival any day now of the entire Grand Union fleet to load coal for Northamptonshire and beyond. This fleet includes the good ship "Southern Cross", captained by Skip Dimmock, who is busy lavishing the shiny bits of his boat with gallons of “Brasso” in the hope of retaining his “Coal-boater of the Year” title. We shall see. I’ve heard that the Judges need to see an improvement in his whisky intake before any consideration is given to his retention of the title.

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And finally…..

Orders for Summer priced coal are now being taken - and we have the best prices on the cut. Help us to keep on carrying by canal, and ensure that fine sights like the one above are still to be seen. Call Jenny or John on 07885 284812 with your order now.

Riveting stuff

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The Canal and River Trust appear to have a problem. This is a problem that will strike a chord with most folk - lack of storage space. Apparently, the Trust have had numerous large bags of stone donated, and rather than politely refuse, they have accepted on the off-chance that they will “come in useful one day”. The major problem for the Trust is that all their storage facillities are filled to the rafters with nonsensical public relations signage; it seems that they got “a good price, Guv’nor” for ordering enough signs to last a thousand years. This good price clearly did not involve proof-reading. 

The solution to the storage problem was, according to an inside source, resolved in a massive brainstorming session held at an undisclosed location during discussions to consider how to sell yet more well-remunerated, high-level appointments to gullible, licence-paying customers.

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“Put ‘em in the cut,” was the prize-winning suggestion, which was immediately implemented at several locations.. These  were then unveiled to the public as “visionary art installations designed to challenge the usual, one-dimensional, old-fashioned concept of canals as merely functional navigations”, as the official CRT Department of Spin press-release informed us.

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The Trust has clearly been vindicated, as coach-loads of visitors have been observed “Oohing!" and "Aahing!” in astonishment at these sites. Some of these visitors have even been overheard exclaiming “What the f**k are those doing there? I’ve never seen anything so mentally stimulating in all my life!” 


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Meanwhile, over at Dadfords Wharf on the Stourbridge Canal, the ex Stewarts & Lloyds tug “Bittell” has been removed from the water for the replacement of worn plates. This is a very nice tug, but definitely in need of the work being carried out. I was drafted in as “Head Second Riveting Assistant”, a grand title which turned out to be rather grander than the actual job merited.

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Basically, I had to knock the hot rivets tightly into the pre-drilled holes from the inside with a heavy lump of metal, and act as an anvil for Ian Kemp to rivet the ends over on the outside of the vessel. I was duly praised for my anvil impression. John ‘Baldric” Sanderson had the task of heating the rivets up and offering them into the holes with the oldest pair of tongues in the world. I have a little experience of this work, as I performed a similar role when Roach was re-footed a few years ago, with the new plates riveted to the bottom angle and a new bottom-guard riveted on. 

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In between all this work, coal has still been tipped on the yard, bagged, loaded into boats and delivered. It is relentless; it’s like painting the Forth Bridge - with a shovel. It is also daunting, holding a shovel whilst looking at twenty-nine tonnes of smokeless fuel needing to be put into bags. The different coloured bags and pallet wrappers that we use does present a cheerful view over the yard though. Enough to brighten anyone’s day.

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On the boating front, I took Roach down the Severn to Worcester recently with coal aboard; a pretty swift trip as the river was rising quite rapidly. I was saddened to see that the huge, old conker tree by the Camp House Inn at Grimley had fallen over in the high winds. This tree must have been a few-hundred years old and was certainly iconic - a much overused word these days, but appropriate in this case. Luckily, it was too early for a pint as stopping would have been difficult. 

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Pete took over Roach in Worcester, and was due to finish our deliveries by boating up to Hanbury Wharf, and then returning either via the Droitwich Canal, or back down through Worcester. He made it up to Hanbury, but subsequently discovered that the Severn was closed as the water levels had risen substantially. The alternative route up Tardebigge Locks was closed for maintenance work, but after a phone call to the CRT personnel working there, they agreed to allow us to pass through the works early in the morning. This was greatly appreciated - although it has to be acknowledged that the blokes on this length are always helpful - and Pete was able to proceed up the canal. A few locks from the top of Tardebigge flight, a large tree was encountered across the canal. Luckily, I had driven out to give Pete a hand up the locks, and we did manage to get by this obstruction, but it did need both of us to achieve this. The situation was a little strange as two other trees that had fallen down at the same time, and immediately adjacent to this one, had been removed by CRT’s contractor. Oh, well, as the song says, “Two out of three ain’t bad”.

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Flooding is not always confined to rivers, here is a picture from our latest trip round the North. It shows Roach leaving the bottom of Jackson’s Lock having to run the gauntlet of a mini Niagara Falls. This water was cascading out from the blocked chamber on the weir stream. I’m glad that we were not heading the other way - all that water down the chimney would have been disastrous. 


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To finish on a brighter note, here is a picture of Pete leaving the bottom lock of the Wolverhampton flight on his way back to Awbridge from Worcester, cheery smile and all. Looking forward to a pint, I expect.




It’s a Small World

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I had no sooner posted the last blog, when I got a message from the Chief Advertising Executive at Ryford Steam-Powered Advertising Inc - “That’s me and my dad on that boat passing your train of boats in Birmingham in the photo on your blog”. It was about twenty years later that we actually met. They still have the same boat, too, and even moor it right by our yard. 

I managed to get a very rare picture of him looking out over his very own piece of restored canal. Who knows, maybe one day coal will be delivered to Ryford by boat again. Here’s hoping. Actualy, here’s hoping that it’s us that can make that delivery before old age finally catches up.

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In other news, I notice that the three narrow boats exhibited in the basin by Gloucester Waterways Museum have been removed from the water. It seems that only the FMC butty boat “Northwich” is to remain on view to the public - and that on dry land! The other two boats, “Wye” and “Oak”, both of which have had thousands of pounds of restoration work carried out on them over the years, are to be stored pending restoration! I do not expect them to see the light of day again. The same treatment has been meted out to some of the exhibit boats at Ellesmere Port Museum too.  Mind you, it’s not as though the boats at Gloucester have been looked after whilst on display, they have looked derelict for many years now. Boat people were generally very clean and fastidious in the way they kept their boats, and this should be reflected in the presentation of all exhibits. It seems to me that the word “museum” is not appropriate for these attractions anymore - they are more like a waterway themed exhibition, curated by someone with, at best a limited knowledge of, or at worst, a complete disregard for, our fantastic waterways heritage. 

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Many moons ago, around 1994, I delivered coal to the Waterway Museum at Gloucester, for use in the stoves of these three boats.  The cabins were then open to the public, and the boats were in a reasonable state of repair, and, more importantly, looked cared for. The coal was off-loaded onto the museums' Lister-truck - a three-wheeled, flat-bed affair with the engine right on top of the front wheel.  This is what museums should be like, interesting and alive. Around the same time, I loaded some iron bollards, which had been made by a local blacksmith in Gloucester, and were destined for the new development at Salford Quays in Manchester. These were loaded into Roach using the museums own mobile crane as shown above, and were subsequently delivered the same week. The bottom picture shows Roach in the approach to Hulme Lock in Manchester awaiting unloading.

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On the coal-delivery front, we have been busy dodging stoppages, and making road deliveries in-between. Pete has done a bit more boating for us, and we had a very quick dash from the yard to Stoke Prior and back in five days - this being the "window of opportunity” offered by the Canal and River Trust. Hard work but rewarding. Ascending the Wolverhampton Locks in the fading light afforded the opportunity of a few atmospheric photos, particularly around the refuse incinerator half way up. Spurred on by the smell of the Great Western, we made the top in time for a hot pork sandwich and a pint of Bathams. Just to prove that I do steer Roach on the odd occasion, here is a picture taken at Cambrian Wharf on this trip.

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After a quick dash up the Shroppie, Roach had only been back on the yard a day when we found out that a car had struck the bridge parapet at Dimmingsdale and closed the canal. We are at present awaiting news of a re-opening date so that we can resume our waterborne deliveries. As I remarked earlier - here’s hoping.

Haulin’ Ass

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Well, that’s it for another year, Christmas and New Years’ Eve celebrations successfully negotiated with no major mishaps or upsets. Christmas itself was spent on the yard, (and in the Bell, obviously), and was a well earned break for us. Only a short break mind, as we set off on Roach between the two bank holidays to make our regular deliveries along the Shropshire Union Canal. New Years Eve saw us in the Junction Inn at Norbury, where quite a few familiar faces were present - together with some not-so familiar ones. An excellent night was had by all. Jenny and I had spent the previous evening (and the early hours of the morning) with Dave the Duck and Monty, sampling the wares offered by the Hartley Arms in Wheaten Aston. Anyone familiar with Dave’s missives on the Facebook thing will understand that we drank 237.5 pints of whisky each and that we actually sorted out the problems of the entire universe between us. Or maybe we caused them, who knows. Either way, it was a good training session for New Years Eve. 

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New Years Day saw us at the Anchor for a quick “hair of the dog” before venturing further along the Shroppie to carry out a few more deliveries of coal. We winded the boat and ended up back at Norbury where a much quieter night was had in the Junction Inn. The weather was definitely improving from a coal-mans point of view, and a very pleasant, cold day was spent returning down to the Staffs & Worcs Canal before Wheaton Aston Lock was closed for maintenance works to be carried out.  A clear sky, with a fine crescent moon, and Venus and Mars both visible made for a lovely end to the day. (Apologies for waxing lyrical - I know it’s not really me; actually, we ended the day in the bar at Oxley Marine).


The build-up to Christmas had been very busy for us, being flat-out with both boat and road deliveries. A couple of frosty nights helped; we had more frost in two days than we have had in the previous two years! Pete lent a helping hand by skippering Roach for some of this period, a situation he enjoys as driving a top-of-the-range Josher is clearly the best feeling on the cut, particularly for someone used to making do with a pair of old Grand Union boats. 


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The wholesale side of things was also very busy in the run-up to Christmas, with all our customers needing to ensure adequate supplies for the holiday. Here we see Terry Bellamy in charge of unloading a pallet of coal from our trusty Transit at Streethay Wharf; this is a rare photo indeed, as it shows Terry with his gob shut! Well - not completely, he had his concentrative tongue out.

In other news, a further picture from the carrier-bag archive has turned up. Here we see the view from the stern of Roach with three 70ft mud-hoppers and two butties in tow, making 420ft of boat in all. The location is Brasshouse Lane on the Birmingham Canal and the butties are Bideford and Pictor. The year is 1994. The folks on the hire boat were completely un-fazed by this train of boats; luckily, this was about the only time that the boats behaved themselves by staying in line. The two hoppers between the butties belonged to Union Towage Ltd, and were named Ass and Ox, hence the title of this essay. Happy New Year everyone.

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Nostalgia

There have been a few ancient photos of me posted on the internet of late by some of my old mates from Rotherham. This has put me in a nostalgic frame of mind, particularly as Jenny and I made the effort to go and see my old house-mate Vaj playing slap-bass in his rockabilly band, the Tombstone Buzzards. (Click on the picture for a tune from them).

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Vaj and I used to knock about with a bunch of Teds in the late seventies, and I even played sax in a band with him. When I say played sax, what I really mean is that I could go “PARP” occasionally, in between dancing around on stage - an early Bez really. The truth of the matter is that I was the only one with a driving licence and access to a car, which meant that I had to be in the band. "The Wurlitzer” we were called, which gave rise to the classic gig opening of:

“Knock knock”, “Who’s there?” “Wurlitzer” “Wurlitzer who?” “Wurlitzer one for the money, two for the show…….”

This photo of “Wurlitzer” is taken from the “Sheffield Star” in 1978. Cool, or what?

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Back to the cut then, but still a few years ago, sometime in the mid eighties, I took these photos of a Waddingtons keel loaded with steel bars on the river Don round the back of Thrybergh Bar Mill near Rotherham. This was back in the day when our weekends amusement was boating from Rotherham to Thorne and back. The main reason for these trips was the fact that Darley’s Brewery was situated in Thorne, and most of the licensed premises there sold said beer, which was an excellent pint. Darley’s was eventually taken over by Wards of Sheffield, who also brewed good beer (even if it did smell of eggs!), who were in turn taken over by Vaux of Sunderland. Scottish and Newcastle Breweries finally acquired Vaux, so that was the end of that.

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These photos are a bit random, it just depends which carrier bag I most recently came across at the back of the shed. Talking of sheds, the yard of Les Allen and Sons was the home base of Roach in the early coaling days. This photo shows Roach in the old arm (now filled in) at Valencia Wharf shortly after the Allens had finished boat-building in the shed behind. I enjoyed my time at the Allens yard, it was a little piece of proper old days - they didn’t even have a telephone there; if you wanted the Allens to build you a boat, you had to get out and find them. Even then, you wouldn’t get the boat you wanted - you would get the boat that Bob Allen thought you should have. The electricity supply was equally idiosyncratic; the cables were carried overhead via telegraph pole in the foreground from T & S Elements yard across the main road, and terminated in a jumble of spaghetti-like wiring in the shed which was made from an old wooden joey boat on it’s side, the boats bottom being the back wall of the shed. Only Albert Brookes was allowed to touch the wiring as only Albert Brookes had any idea of how it worked at all.

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Coal-bagging was carried out by us at the Allens yard, but we also used to load coal loose into the boats, usually just along the cut at Tividale Stop. This was done unofficially, as it was assumed that if permission was to be sought from British Waterways, then we would be waiting still. Tipping twenty tonnes into a boat from a lorry was certainly a time to keep your wits about you, as this amount of coal definitely fills a narrow boat. The first picture shows Richard Clapham in charge of loading Cepheus, and the second picture clearly shows how careful everyone involved needs to be as the lorry looms over the butty boat Ethel. 

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We used to tip loose coal into boats at various locations around the canal network, but many of these places are no longer available which is a shame. I expect that the HSE would also have a view on these proceedings now.

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Occasionally, we would sneak into the wet-dock at Icknield Port when it was raining to bag up coal from the boat; this was possible as Richard had some sort of caretaker mooring round there. He was a bit handy with a shovel in those days was Richard; he’s older and wiser now, and no longer owns a shovel. We could do with finding another, younger, Richard Clapham to help out now that I’m getting old and doddery.

We haven’t tipped coal into a boat for a few years, as nowadays we have to carry such a variety of fuels to satisfy the demands of the modern fire enthusiast.

Here is a fine picture of Cepheus appearing from under Icknield Port Road bridge having just loaded at Tividale. This whole area is soon to be re-developed with housing, and having seen the artists impression that has been released, I fear that the Icknield Port Loop will just end up as another bit of homogenised urban canal that could be in any old city anywhere, and be of no interest to boaters at all.

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Oh! By the way, we are still flogging coal, and it’s getting cold so get your orders in now. We have been busy, out and about, and Pete Hawker has been seen out on Roach occasionally too. Here’s a picture to prove it! Tony Phillips also turned up at the yard recently with Trent 5, to load a few tonnes for the usual crew in Gas Street. Needless to say, his main concern was whether the Bathams was on at the Bell. It was……...

Holiday Boating

Well, off we went. Young Ryan Dimmock (of Southern Cross fame) had never seen the sea, he said, so we offered him the chance of a lifetime - a trip down the Severn to that fine Gloucestershire resort of Sharpness. Needless to say, he jumped at the chance. 


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We loaded him up with coal on the off-chance that our customers would want some, and set off. We managed to get to Stourport with few problems and many photo opportunities, and even managed a pint or two in a pub or two. Having off-loaded some coal on the way, we eventually locked down onto the Severn, where Ryan’s grin widened as he realised that deep water was available. PLAYTIME! 

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Even though Southern Cross appears to have been built with two rear ends, it doesn’t go too badly. It’s not got the sleek, sporty lines of a Josher (like Roach!), but Ryan did manage to keep up after a fashion. A few shots of the boats are included here for the delectation of the armchair enthusiast.

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A cracking trip was had down the river to Worcester, where Jake, the skipper of the trip boat, decided to show Ryan what a ship-shaped boat was capable of by whizzing past him under Worcester Bridge causing very little wash. 

A large delivery of coal at the Diglis Lock island was interrupted by astonishingly heavy rainfall, but with Ryan and I being hardy souls, the delivery was eventually made even though some of the bags were still damp. We even amaze ourselves sometimes. 

Upton-upon-Severn was our host that night, and we tied on the concrete steps below the bridge. It was a Friday night and absolutely dead. There was hardly anyone in any of the pubs, so we manfully set about helping the local economy all on our own. Come the morning, it transpired that Southern Cross was parked on a rock and could not move. I was already half a mile down the river before I noticed that Southern Cross had not moved, so I reversed back up the river to assist. Having snapped Ryans front tying-up rope trying to pull him off, I tied abreast of him and all of the the mighty HR2’s horses were brought into play; no problem - the boat was free.

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We decided to continue down to Upper Lode Lock breasted up, so that Ryan could concentrate on polishing his brasses up to dazzling on the Brasso-ometer. The wind was up and this caused quite a lot of spray from the fore-ends; this only served to heighten Ryans’ excitement. 

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Upper Lode Lock is unusual in that it has a tidal basin at the lower end of it. This basin has steps set into the sides up which we unloaded coal for Paul in the lock house. We carry out this drop with the lock full, as there are fewer steps to negotiate. This is a major consideration for someone of my advancing years. 

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After dropping coal at various public houses along the way, we eventually landed in Gloucester. There had been a big tide, so we came down the East Channel towards Gloucester Lock at a good lick, accompanied by various items of flotsam. The brakes had to be applied sharply as we came round the last turn onto the quay-side as the light for the lock was showing red. We got a green light just as we were about to grab the chains hanging from the quay-side and so entered the lock without further ado. After rising up the lock, we passed through Gloucester Docks and noted the appalling state of the ex-working narrow boats on display outside the Waterways Museum. The state of these boats is even more galling as the Canal & River Trust has just re-opened the museum with a mass of publicity trumpeting the excellence of said museum. After passing under Llanthony lift bridge we had a quick stop at Sainsburys to top up the pot-noodle supply. There is a light-ship tied on this length, and it is for sale. I’m not quite sure what one could do with such a vessel - I don’t think that it has its’ own motive power. At present I think that the owners offer some sort of holistic foot massage; the speed at which the light flashes probably signifies the extent of the current clients delight.

Sharpness was eventually achieved after a night of drunken debauchery at the Ship Inn, Framilode in the company of a whole host of local inebriates; the Langfords, Mr Cawston, the Mitchells, Mr Jones et al. A fine night over which a veil is best drawn.

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Having made our deliveries at Sharpness, and been fed home-made scones with jam and cream by the lovely Sue Painter, we found time to wander down to the old dock. Our intrepid traveller, Mr Dimmock, was certainly taken with Sharpness and spent a whistful minute or two staring out along the Severn estuary, dreaming, no doubt, about taking Southern Cross abroad to Lydney. My mate Bernie who hails from these parts joined us here, and so we set sail for a few minutes to tie up by Purton to view the “Hulks”. These are a number of barges that have been driven onto the bank between the canal and the river on big tides to provide bank protection. Some of these vessels are still recognisable, but most have either been covered over with mud deposited by the tide, or the timbers have disappeared over time. They are absolutely fascinating and well worth visiting.

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That night was spent in Gloucester, and after a few drinkies, we walked to Over Bridge to view the Severn Bore. It was due at a quarter to midnight and we were the only two people there. It turned out to be a very good bore, and made a fine end to the day. All in all, it seems that Ryan enjoyed his sojourn Severn-side, and he has even suggested that he would like to do the trip again. He did say that his outstanding memory of the trip would be the other Jules (Julian Jones) astride his tiny tractor as he fetched his coal from the boats at Sandfield Bridge.

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New Kid on the Block

Mr Dimmock had better look out; buck his ideas up; be prepared to be deposed: there’s a new kid on the block.

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Young Andrew Haysome has spent a little time on the yard bagging coal this summer. He was obviously fired up, having read my last missive and having seen the calibre of coal-bagger to make it onto the short-list for coal-boating honours. He even progressed onto the advanced course for the more mature student which involved using the patent Awbridge Bagging & Sealing Mill. He’s certainly one to keep an eye on; there’s even talk that coal-bagging may be included at the next Olympic Games in Tokyo. It’s got to be more interesting than synchronised golf. Andrew also found time to smarten up the Narrow Boat Trusts’ pair of boats, Nuneaton and Brighton, on which he was staying. He even owns his own flat cap. Look out, Ryan!

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We have continued to be busy this summer. Since Southern Cross and Bletchley departed (see previous missive), we have loaded Jules Fuels' boats, Towcester and Bideford, with fuels for their own customers in the Northampton area, and we have loaded the Narrow Boat Trust pair for their customers on the Thames and surrounding areas. 

Towcester and Bideford turned up with a fresh victim, ahem - crew member, Matt, who provided us with amusement by performing his comedy “man overboard” routine. 

The Narrow Boat Trust Principle Loading Team made an appearance, and demanded to be taken to the Bell at every opportunity. No change there, then. We finally persuaded them that they should leave, and we even helped them up the Wolverhampton Locks. Actually, we drew a few paddles on the top half of the lock-flight, where we found them long-lining the boats up the locks with professional aplomb. We then helped them to navigate to the Great Western for a light refreshment.

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We also managed to find time to deliver a boat-load of coal to Sarah and Gary at Lyons Boatyard on the Northern Stratford Canal. We had a completely expected dreadful journey there; the Worcester & Birmingham Canal is in a dreadful state; far worse than the Staffs & Worcs Canal which is currently being dredged. The Stratford Canal is no better. No matter; we had plenty of help off-loading and we finished up in the local Indian restaurant, where the replenishment of vital fluids was undertaken. 

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As previously mentioned, we’ve had the Land & Water dredging team carrying out much needed cleaning of the Staffs & Worcs Canal. There have been a few familliar faces on the job; Dai Carver is the dredger-driver and, it turns out, a stunt double for a thespian dredger-driver. He will be appearing on a telly screen near you some time in the future in a load of nonsense called "Forgotten”. Another familliar face is that of Jim Taylor who has been employed solely to model a new range of pink gloves. I even managed a couple of days on the tug myself - just to keep my hand in.


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They have been transhipping dredgings from boats to lorries right by our yard, and this resulted in a very busy yard indeed. We have had to juggle our own lorries in and out with the dredging hauliers to-ing and fro-ing. As well as bulk tippers arriving with fuels for us to bag, we send pre-packed coal out; the accompanying picture shows John loading twenty-five tonnes of pre-packed Excel onto a lorry for delivery to a customer in Cheshire. We do aim to deliver by boat whenever possible, but sometimes the logistics of a job just make this impossible.

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Our next trip out will be a jaunt down the Severn in the company of Mr Dimmock. We have magnanimously decided to give him one more chance to prove that he still has what it takes in the cut-throat world of international coal-boating. Watch this space.

Coal-boater of the Year winner announced.

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Well, it’s that time of year again. The prestigious title of “Coal-boater of the Year” has once again been hotly contested, and has been awarded for the second year running to Ryan Dimmock, operator of Southern Cross, before any other nominations were received. His deadly rival, Alan Buckle, of Bletchley fame was a close second by virtue of being in the same pub at the same time. The only other crew with any hope at all of success in this contest, Jules and Richard of Jules Fuels, were unaware of the need to be in the right place at the right time (i.e. The Bell), so had no chance of coming third, even if they aspired to this lofty height. 

This years award ceremony was timed to coincide with the annual coal-shovelling refresher course at the Awbridge College of Fine Arts and Bagging. Ryan is shown here having already worked out which end of the shovel to hold - full marks for task number one, Ryan.

The “putting coal into bags” exercise was less successful, all students proving generally inept. Alan, Ryan and Alex finally decided that they might be able to perform this mind-bogglingly difficult task if they worked together; I’m glad that I will not be the one offering these particular bags for sale to the general public. If you are one of Ryan’s customers, then please be aware that there is the correct weight in them, even though the bags look like they have been sealed by a monkey. 

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Having dished out the awards, which consisted mainly of alcohol, we managed to send them on their way with two boat-loads of coal, the majority of which was bagged by our tame “mystery bagger”, known only as “The Stick”. Some say that he’s a one-time member of an international boy band, who had to leave the high-life to pursue his boyhood dream of putting combustible products in red bags, and others say that this is just a complete misunderstanding, and that he has just got nothing better to do. Either way, he’s all we can afford.

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The two boats, looking resplendent in their respective owners liveries, left on Saturday morning and made it as far as Pendeford Rockin’ before getting stuck on a large obstruction which was finally moved out of the way by the simple expedient of Alan jumping in and physically shifting the offending lump of masonry to one side. I imagine that this helped him to build up a thirst in time for a sneck-lifter or two at the Fox. 

It turned out to be a good walk along a plank to the pub, but I’m sure they managed.

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Ryan, in the meantime, was apparently too cool to worry about such mundane problems. He was too busy grooming his astonishingly dazzling smile (his words), and his astonishingly dazzling hair (his words). Here he is attempting to influence the judging team with his astonishingness. 

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In other news, the local wildlife has been observed doing what wildlife does: the robins have fledged, allowing us to access a whole load of pre-pack fuel that they had been nesting on, the heron has been helping to keep down the local fish population, and the moorhens have been observed dashing hither and thither like little balls of black belly-button fluff on outstandingly big feet. It is abundantly clear why moorhens are delivered in eggs. None of these, however, are anywhere near as gifted as the goldcrest that performed a series of impressions on our window ledge. We signed him up immediately and his promo-video is below. 






Ploddin’ on

Well, we sold more coal in April this year than either January or February. 

March saw us traipsing all over the place - Pete took Roach up round the North via Great Haywood and Stoke, and back down the Shroppie, whilst we were busy with road deliveries. We swapped over with him at Audlem so that we could visit the Anchor at High Offley on the Saturday night, and have Sunday dinner in the Junction Inn at Norbury. It’s a hard life.

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The next outing was up into Birmingham by way of Tipton, where there just happened to be a beer festival and attendant boat gathering on over Easter. Good planning, or so we thought - we ended up spending the Friday night at Rough Hills Stop on the outskirts of Wolverhampton as we had forgotten about the stoppage to allow Network Rail to renew the railway bridge there. It turned out to be an interesting night though, as we got to see the old bridge lifted off by what seemed to be the biggest mobile crane in the world. This was all carried out under flood-lights at night, which made the whole operation appear even more impressive.

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We were able to get through the site on the Saturday morning with a bit of dismantling of the floating platform. It seems that the works planners didn’t expect a narrow boat to be seven feet wide! They had to remove the same sections a few days later when Graham Wigley passed through the works on Collingwood. The site workers were all good natured, though, and removed the necessary sections with good grace. 

An excellent night was had in the Fountain at Tipton, before heading off to Hockley Port, and a night with Penny Barber on Easter Sunday. This involved Penny cooking an excellent meal for us, and this was accompanied with beer, wine, and a bottle of fine port - a picture of which was sent to Mick, Penny’s other half, who was at work on nights. This made him feel much better.

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The trip continued through Birmingham, and down to Worcester and Gloucester with Pete in charge once again. Pete took over at Dunhampstead, and after loading more coal there, he whizzed down the Severn to Sharpness and returned to our yard by way of Stourport. This turned out to be a good trip, with further coal being loaded at both Stourport and Caunsall. 

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Another trip round the North ensued; this time Jenny and I managed the whole trip. This also turned out to be an excellent trip, as frosty mornings combined with snow and hail reminded people that this country is not yet Mediteranean in climate, despite global warming. We even got battered by a mini-tornado whilst waiting for Harecastle Tunnel to open, and awoke to find that the previous nights hail had frozen hard. Just what the Coalman ordered. Steady progress down the Cheshire Locks was followed by a pint or several in the Kings Lock at Middlewich, another fine establishment. This is a pub that has improved immensely since the change of ownership. We had a very convivial night there, early doors with Phil and Michelle, followed by a few more with Bernie and ‘Shell.

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We managed to get to Norbury Junction, on the Shropshire Union Canal, for the festival held over the May Bank Holliday, and spent a couple of days there. Good food, good company and a great band on the Saturday night - “Vavoom” - well worth seeing. 

We sold a bit of coal, and bought a bit of “stuff” from some of the trading boats that formed a floating market along the towing path. Mal Edwards was observed outside the pub, on the Sunday morning, knitting fenders with a large, self inflicted headache. 

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We got back to the yard, tied up and departed to the Dales for a weeks holiday. Very nice it was too. A bit of walking. a bit of train travel and a pint or two, everything a holiday needs. This is the view from the bedroom window - it doesn’t get much better than that. (It’s the Black Horse at Giggleswick in case you were wondering). 



On a more somber note, we were privileged to be able to help an old friend, Colin Brace, give his late father one last trip aboard a narrow boat. John Henry Brace, known to all as Jack, was a well known boatman back in the day, and had worked “Joshers” for a long period of time. We loaded Jack onto Roach at Tipton, and carried him to Broad Street Basin in Wolverhampton, thus mirroring his life - he was born in Tipton, and passed away in Wolverhampton. Colin steered the boat all the way in what was a fitting tribute to his father. 

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