Joy and I got back from Camperjam on Sunday and on Monday morning, at 5-30 am to be precise, I was off on another trip. Not in the Sick Bay this time but in a 45 foot canal narrow-boat. An old friend from my Kellogg days had invited me to join him on a circumnavigation of the famous Cheshire Ring. I was going to cycle to Marple, chuck my bike on the barge roof and get off at Stockton Heath and then ride home after four days on the barge.
Having never set foot on a barge I was very keen to have a go and then he told me I had to be at Marple Locks at the crack of dawn – and then we had to get through 36 locks before nightfall in order to get past a point in the canal which was due to be closed the following day to fix a leak. It was going to be a long hard slog and I was going to have to learn how to set a lock very quickly. Like most people I thought that the water in a lock rose and fell by the opening and closing of the gates. Not true – it’s more complicated than that, and a lot harder work.
Being a campervan devotee I fell to wondering if there were similarities between us and the narrow-boat community. Silly question really, they are exactly the same. They are just as daft about their boats as we are about our vans. (Incidentally they tell me BOAT stands for Bring Out Another Thousand, which just about sums up our approach to the money pits that we fall in love with). Like us they are a bunch of people who will go to extraordinary lengths to help someone in trouble and the sense of camaraderie is every bit as evident as in the air-cooled scene. The second morning our engine would not start and one boater brought out his jump-leads, another gave us a spare battery and eventually we got going. (Although in fact the issue was resolved simply by changing a fuse – even more echoes of the world of VW).
In amongst all the great people you meet there is always the odd tosser, just as we have in our lot. On the second day I tried to help a barge coming along behind us by setting a lock ready for him. A chap coming the other way strode over and demanded to know what the hell I was doing. I explained and he said that I was an idiot and that I should always check that nobody is coming the other way. Not only had I greatly inconvenienced him but I had ‘wasted 150,000 litres of precious canal water!’ I pointed out that it was peeing down with rain, and had been all day, but that just made it worse.
Still, we made it through all 36 locks and so were able to relax a bit as we ambled back through the Cheshire countryside at 1000 rpm on the final couple of days. The sun came out and the experience became even more like the bliss you get on a good day in the campervan. But even that has its moments. Just as your bus can let you down at crucial moments so we had an adventure just when we didn’t want it. We were in the middle of the Preston Brook Tunnel when the barge lost power and it became difficult to steer. There’s very little room inside these tunnels and to be honest I didn’t feel too happy even when things were going well. When we lost power and steering we crashed into the tunnel wall. Much of the impact was taken by my poor bike but that was the least of our problems. You only have twenty minutes inside this tunnel before people can enter from the opposite direction and I imagined them crashing into us. In the old days, apparently, the bargemen used to lie on their backs and push with their legs against the roof of the tunnel. Fortunately we managed to limp on and then we saw the, oh so welcome, ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’. This phrase will always have an extra resonance with me now, as I am sure it must have had with claustrophobic boatmen centuries ago.
As we crawled out the tunnel the chap in front waved us over as his experienced ear could detect that we were having engine trouble. He removed the ‘weed hatch’ and told me stick my hand into the propeller as it was probably clogged up with something. I was reluctant as I didn’t want my arm chewed up and the water was filthy. He insisted that the thing was not revolving and I managed to extricate the nylon rags that were causing the problem. This helpful chap was in his seventies and had been boating all his life. In fact he had built his own boat in his back garden. The hull was made out of slightly thinner steel than normal because the usual stuff was too heavy for one person to lift. The whole thing took two and a half years to complete and he was naturally very proud of his achievement.
If the place every VW nut wants to visit is the museum in Wolfsburg, then the Mecca for canal folk has got to be the amazing Anderton Lift. Built in the nineteenth century this contraption lifts fully laden barges from the River Weaver, fifty feet below, onto the Trent-Mersey canal. There is a superb visitor centre which explains the working principles and the history in some detail and if you are interested in feats of Victorian engineering you should go and see it.
Camperjam was a bit disappointing as we had booked to stay with the Late Bay mob but not many turned up and the only person I knew was Nigel (aka Jivedubbin on TLB), who was in a different area with friends and family. He had trouble one night with a bunch of lads playing dub’n’bass at five in the morning. He called security who eventually evicted the idiots but they had a lousy night’s kip.
The highlight of the entertainment was the final performance of Sixteen Stone Pig after playing at every Camperjam since it began. We took camp chairs and a bottle of red to the show and loved it. We left just before the end because Joy wanted to catch a Dolly Parton tribute which I have to admit was really good fun.
But I also had a bit of work to do at Camperjam. I have been hampered by the position of the sump plug on my Fellows Speed Subaru conversion and wanted to get a new sump so that the plug would be more accessible thus making an oil change easier. I knew the Fellows lads would be there so went to find them. The new sump was £150 and after some discussion Perry suggested that I just weld in a new boss on the existing sump, and then I can put the plug wherever I want. He offered to send me the part free of charge (I’m a good customer and advocate of Fellows Speed) and that’s what I have decided to do. Hopefully that will resolve an issue that has been bugging me ever since I did my first oil change on the Scooby.
At Camperjam you always see some amazing old buses with immaculately presented engines. Just like the canal crowd for whom their old barge is a life long passion. One night we moored next to a lovely boat whose owner invited us to have a look at the pristine old engine –