Sunday, 30 November 2014

Goodbye and thanks for all the cheese

Calais to Birmingham
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Statistics for our adventure (Belgium and France only):

Kilometers   - 3134
Engine hours - 1188
Fuel used - 1354 litres
Cost of fuel - €1,750.62

After finishing my small prayer I looked up and noticed the sun reflecting brightly from something shiny on the bridge, it was our wagon driver’s bald head. Quickly, I ran to the cabin next to the locked gates.

The captain had seen me running up and was stood by his desk with his paw out for the €39 he reckoned we owed him. I ignored his request and insisted he open the gates immediately before the crane driver left through the far end.

“Now which key is it”? I could hear him chunter to himself as he slowly thumbed through the bunch. Then just as the crane operative was about to shout out “hasta la vista baby” The gates swung open and with literally seconds to go, the wagon made it.

“Just in time hey Fred?” I said with a huge sigh of relief.

“Yes, but we quite often get wagons turning up at this time for the crane” he replied in a casual tone of voice.

If only he had bothered to mention this earlier it would have saved us a lot of torment. Needless to say, he didn’t get the beers and I didn’t pay him or the capitan a penny more than we’d agreed.

Paul, our wagon driver, immediately swung into action and organised the operation and within no time at all the boat was on the wagon and Tracy and I were happily ensconced within the cab. I baggsied the passenger seat and Tracy was perched on Paul’s cab bed with her legs swinging off the ground.

We were so happy to be off that it wasn’t until we reached the ferry port before we started to feel sad about our adventure coming to an end. After waiting for three hours in the ferry car park, it was time for us to say a final au revoir to France and that was that.

Luckily for us, Paul had booked us on as two spare drivers, this meant all three of us could enjoy a slap up roast chicken and chips for a bargain price in the wagon driver’s dining room. Tracy stood out like a twiglet in a bag of pork scratchings as she looked like the only person in there who didn’t enjoy a Yorkie bar or twelve.

Arriving at Dover it was dark, cold and very, very wet. We passed through passport control and, as we were longer than the average wagon, directed through a short cut and over to customs. Arriving at customs we were flagged down by a bad tempered looking lad in a high viz jacket. “Wait here and we will be with you shortly” he scowled.

“Do you get checked by customs often?” Tracy asked Paul.

“The last time” he stated “I got caught with a wagon full of tobacco”.

“What happened, did you get a fine?” Tracy asked innocently.

“Nah, I got six years for it.” Paul answered matter of factly.

“Oh” is all we could think of saying in answer to this bombshell.

By 1.00am, we were all shattered and just wanted to climb in bed. Tracy, who knows no shame, had taken her shoes off and had made a nest for herself on Paul’s cab bed.

At 2.00am we spotted a custom’s official walking across the yard and Paul jumped out and accosted him. It turned out to be a big misunderstanding. They had no record of wanting to examine the wagon and we could have gone at any time. We couldn’t believe that not one of the custom’s officials noticed a bloody great narrowboat clogging their yard up or thought to tell us. (My theory was that they remembered Paul and decided to keep him waiting).

Paul was now over his driver’s hours and so we had no choice but to stay where we were and get our heads down. Paul had thoughtfully brought a ladder with him for us to use and the pair of us clambered sleepily up and in to bed.

The next morning, Tracy made us all fresh coffee.

We jumped into the cab with Paul, both ready and eager to get off. Forgetfully, we hadn’t changed our clocks from French time and we were an hour too early to leave. When the wheels finally did start turning we exited the dark and dreary custom’s yard blinking into bright warm sunshine, it was 11am almost 18 hours from the start of our journey from the port of Calais and we had travelled all of 1.5 miles not including the ferry crossing. 

Unbelievably, after a shaky start, our journey was traffic and trouble free. Even the usually snarled up motorway through Birmingham was thankfully clear. By late afternoon we were exiting the motorway and careering down small country lanes to Church Minshall where we were being put back into the water at Aqueduct Marina.

The first thing we noticed as we landed at the marina was how friendly and lovely everybody was. They couldn’t do enough for us. The crane lifted Genie’s Wish off the wagon and we waved goodbye to our good buddie Paul as he drove off leaving the boat swinging gently in the breeze. It was then lowered on to a special trailer made for purpose and pulled by a tractor over to the slipway. There we watched as she was slowly pushed back into the water and like a revived giant fish our lovely home was afloat once more.

The crew chatted and laughed with us. This was such a marked contrast to what we had experienced in France that it felt fantastic to be back home.

After getting (free) water, it was now late and starting to go dark, we just had enough time to moor up on the visitor moorings outside the marina.

The next morning we awoke to the most perfect English day. The sun had its hat and shades on and everywhere looked golden. We walked the dogs down the towpath and the scenery was breathtakingly magical. The tiny humpbacked bridges and narrow locks put a smile on our faces as they looked very toy town in comparison to what we had been experiencing. We felt like two hobbits returning to the Shires after our adventure on the big scary waterways of Europe.

Our mooring in Church Minshull

Number one priority was a good old English breakfast and our dog walk led us all the way back to the marina where the cafĂ© served us both up a navvie’s feast.

Like a couple of prisoners enjoying our last requested meal, we ate in silence and savored every mouth full. The plates were enormous and fully laden with sausage, bacon, eggs, black pudding, tomatoes and mushrooms (all liberally smothered in brown sauce) accompanied by a couple of thick slices of toasted homemade bread and a mug of tea. To us, it was the nicest meal we had ever eaten.

We filled up with diesel and bought three new ropes to replace the ones snapped back in France, and then we were on our way again.

We looked at one other as we approached our first lock. “No more waiting for VNF” we both laughed as Tracy jumped off windlass in hand.

We only just squeezed into the lock (fenders up) with an inch either side and what a doddle to operate. Quickly, we ascended and were off on our travels in what seemed like moments.

It was getting fairly late by the time we eventually made it into Nantwich and there was only one spot left on the town moorings at this popular spot. Having been starved of a decent takeout, I pulled my bike off the roof, and cycled like a man possessed into the town centre in order to find a Chinese. We felt no shame for our gluttony even after having a breakfast the size of planet earth.

After our tea of chicken foo young, special fried rice, curry sauce and a huge bag of prawn crackers we then lolled on the sofa too stuffed to do much else.

The next day, we had a wander into the town centre in order to get a new SIM for the phone. It was a warm sunny day and Nantwich was buzzing with excitement. The town crier was clanging his bell in the street and people were dancing and cheering merrily as a drumbeating band marched proudly through.

It was now 1pm and suddenly I got a waft of fish and chips.

“Another one off the junk food bucket list” I said to myself as I entered the chippy.

As the salt and vinegar was being splashed upon my dinner I noticed the fella next to me order a steak and kidney pudding (a pie made with suet pastry, a true northern delicacy) something I’d almost forgotten about, not having eaten one in years.

“Too late now, next time” I said to myself as I bit in to a chip.

We really did love the feel of Nantwich. The people were friendly, kind and chatty but we had to move on.

The weather continued to be glorious and even the flight of 15 locks at Audlem didn’t dampen our spirits.

We only just fit into the locks

In fact, after working only three locks we spotted a pub, it was the ‘Shroppie Fly’ and with it being a Sunday the smell of the roast started our noses twitching.

Resistance was futile. Even the dogs’ mouths were watering. We tied up and stumbled in. Tracy ordered a cup of tea as we still had twelve locks to go through where as I opted for a pint of real ale with my Sunday dinner. Perfect.

With Tracy on lock winding duty we flew through the remaining locks and were mooring up in Market Drayton just before lights out.

Whilst we were having breakfast the following morning there was a knock on the door. A chap from the Canal and River Trust had arrived to ask us to move along, the mooring was for overnighting only and we were at risk of out staying our welcome.

With only the five Tyrley locks left to tackle it started to rain. Tracy got back onto the boat and began umbrella holding duty, we couldn’t fold the wheelhouse back up as the bridges were too low. Navigating down the canal and through the many bridges was like threading the boat through the eyes of many needles. Wet, cold and damp, it suddenly came to us why we left for France in the first place - British weather.

You can see the rain lashing down on the canal

We had a couple of scones with cream and jam and very nice they were too!

The scenery continued to be stunning but the drips of cold wet rain running down our faces and off the ends of our noses were distracting us somewhat. It was a relief to finally get tied up and dried off.

The Anchor Inn, a really old pub originally built for the canal folk. A visit is highly recommended

You can see where they have blasted through the rock

At Norbury Junction

Our appetites for takeaway food hadn’t subsided yet and our guide showed a chippy a short walk away in Gnosall Green. Off our little piggy feet trotted hoping to work up a sweat to burn off some of the calories we were about to consume. I had a hankering for a steak and kidney pudding and the thought of biting into the soft ‘babbieshed’ as they say in Wigan, was making me weak-kneed.

Disaster. It turns out we were now too far south to buy puddings. In fact, the chippy owner had never even heard of them. I had to console myself with a steak and kidney pie, which was nice but not in the pudding league.

The following morning after breakfast, our journey continued and by the time we reached the stop lock at Autherley Junction our surroundings had began to take on a suburban air. As we approached, a boat began reversing up to the lock gates on the far side. This completely flummoxed Tracy who opened the gate so I could enter.

“Didn’t you see us reversing” the lady off the boat shouted to Tracy.

“Yes but I thought you were mooring up, not attempting to go through a lock backwards” she responsed.

“What? So you did see our narrowboat reversing?” she said red in the face.

Tracy chose to ignore her at this point and directed me quickly into the lock. On the other side her husband drove back through the small opening of the bridge to allow us to pass and as we came out the pair of them glowered at us. But who goes through a lock backwards? It’s a new one on me and down right dangerous I’d say. 

We wanted to moor up in the centre of Wolverhampton but were warned against doing this by a number of people. The next day, trussed up in our waterproofs like a couple of navy seals, we started the first of 21 locks into Wolverhampton city centre. While I was waiting to enter, Tracy came running back from the first lock, she needed an anti-vandal key to operate them. Oh dear, this was going to be a very long and wet day.

None of the locks were set in our favour and the pair of us were already soaked through and chilled right to the core. It was horribly slow going and it wasn’t until we reached the sixth lock that we met another boat coming down. At least now the locks would be set for us; well they should have been but the leaking lock doors filled them all back up again.

The rain was coming down monsoon styley by the time we reached lock number one we just couldn’t take any more of it so we tied up and battened down the hatches. After a couple of hot drinks and a sandwich we noticed the rain had died down to a mere drizzle so we made the decision to continue and as it turned out, it was only a short distance from there to Tipton near the Black Country Museum where we had been advised to tie up for the night.

Our mooring near the Black Country Museum

With the weather threatening to throw barrels of water at us for a second day, we set off early the following morning. The journey snaked through an industrial landscape that was full of reminders of when the canal was used to transport all manner of goods back in the day.

This is the original wharf that Cadbury used to transport milk and chocolate crumb to...

...their factory at Bournville

You can see where the ropes from the horse-drawn boats have rubbed this post over the years

It was touch and go whether we could get under this low bridge

And another low one

We were thankful of this long motorway bridge as it kept us out of the relentless rain

This was the lowest bridge we have come across on our travels and we had to shift the bike handlebars to get under it

As we were both enjoying this nostalgic journey it wasn’t long before we found ourselves slap bang in the centre of Birmingham and for now our journey’s end.

The waterways through the centre of Birmingham

Gas Street basin

Mine your step!

The only roundabout we are aware of on the network

What a wonderful city Birmingham is. Not ever spending time there myself, my expectations couldn’t have been further from the truth.

A beautiful old pub in the back streets of Birmingham

We didn't manage to go to Germany, but Germany came to us. The Christmas markets in Birmingham

Pull the udder one - it's got mayo in it

Over almost 17 years of travelling from town to village on Genie’s Wish, something I’ve come to realise is that you could be in the nicest of picturesque towns or the quaintest of floral villages but if the locals are of the unfriendly variety, move on before the grey blanket of despair is pulled over your eyes.

The big city of Birmingham however, was a revelation in terms of mixed integration that actually works and salt of the earth people with a genuine kindness. A good example to this was when I went out cycling one night in a quest for a good take out curry. I found myself after about an hour or so of searching and asking in a very old pub called the Hen and Chickens. The decor took me back to the days when bright florescent lighting was used to pierce through clouds of cigarette smoke in rowdy atmospheres. Where grimy men would have once shuffled merrily over sticky carpets for more ale and I’d have been sent back outside to sit patiently in the back of the car with a packet of crisps and a small bottle of pop.

Could a whole factory full of night shift workers have directed me to the wrong place? Initially I hesitated before entering this establishment, as there was no indication from the door that they even served food.

I walked to the bar and no sooner had I ordered from the small menu when an Asian chap sat beside me said “you may as well have a pint while you’re waiting, allow me to buy you one, what will it be?”

The place was brimming with a good and friendly atmosphere and by the time I was leaving had been included in many a conversation. The chicken jalfrazi I’d ordered came under the heading of ‘one of the best take away curries I had ever eaten’. Tracy was equally impressed with her choice, needless to say we’ve been back since and will definitely be going back again before we leave Birmingham.

That week we decided to pay the Sealife centre a visit.

“If you buy a packet of a certain type of crisps from the shop over the road, we can let you in for half price” I was informed as I entered. This was a revelation and something that never happened back in France (the use of initiative).

“Do you know were we can find water”?


“But there’s a running tap just beside you”

“Oh yes so there is!”

“How long have you worked here?”

“Around 40 years”.

You couldn’t make it up.   

The tour itself was interesting and well structured, there were amongst other things: turtles, sharks and even penguins. All was good, that is before we were herded in to the 4D cinema experience. This was a short 3D film that featured animated penguins. The extra 1D is due to the seat randomly rumbling in conjunction with the film whilst you’re being sprayed in the face with dirty water that smelt and tasted stagnant.

“It smells like wee?” Tracy said wincing.

“It probably smells like that because it’s been piped direct from the penguin tank to add extra realism” I replied. Although this would have meant penguins had been pissing on us for the last 15 minutes.

After the first dowsing a number of people got up and left, where as I (being a starter/finisher) sat with my lips tightly shut for the rest of the show with an overwhelming urge to spit. Eventually at the risk of catching legionnaires, I swallowed just before informing the lady on our way out, of our distasteful experience.

“Oh maybe the water needs changing” she replied.

Maybe a word in the English vocabulary that so often means should be!

We also visited the art gallery...

...and the new library

Our holiday in Birmingham sadly brings us to the end of our European adventure. In these last closing words, we’d just like to take the opportunity to say THANK YOU SO MUCH to all the kind and lovely people who we met on our journey and to you, the reader, for giving our blog purpose and the two of us the drive to get out there and go that extra mile.

Gap year over, it’s back to work now and Tracy has already landed herself a full time job. We are now looking forward to planning the next chapter for when we retire. There are so many places Genie’s Wish couldn’t take us and we would love to go back to experience the Netherlands, Germany and a trip down to the Mediterranean Sea.

God bless every one of you. Goodbye and thanks for all the cheese.        

Some more pictures from our journey. We love and have missed the English sense of humour