Monday, 19 October 2015

The Montgomery Canal

The Montgomery Canal meandered for 35 miles through Shropshire and east Montgomeryshire (now part of the modern Welsh county of Powys). It joined the Llangollen Canal at Frankton Junction and ran south west to the market town of Newtown. The northern section opened in 1796 and the last section to Newtown was completed in 1819. Its primary purpose was to transport limestone from the quarries at Llanymynech and the coal to convert the limestone to quicklime in canal-side kilns for use as a fertiliser, although it also carried other general cargo such as timber and building materials. Like many canals, competition from the adjacent and still open railway sealed its fate and it closed in 1936. However, some sections have been restored and reopened as a navigable waterway while other sections contain water but are unnavigable except for canoes. Other sections are dry, although a well maintained towpath runs along much of its length.  More information can be found on the CRT website.

Three of us walked the final eight miles from Garthmyl to Newtown.  Although most of this section contains water, the rebuilding of the A483 with low over-bridges has prevented it being navigated by large craft. Despite this, some of the locks have been very well preserved and new gates have been fitted to some of them.  It makes a very pleasant walking or cycle path.

We lunched at the friendly Abermule Hotel, half way between Garthmyl and Newtown, and which is reached by crossing a spectacular iron bridge across the River Severn, which runs close to the route of the canal. The bridge was cast in 1852 by the Brymbo Iron Foundry of Wrexham, which also cast some of the smaller iron bridges over the canal.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Annual Engine Service

As it's nearly four years since the antifreeze was changed (see 5th December 2011 blog) and as it only has a recommended life of 2 years, we decided it was time to drain the water system and refill it with Triple QX Blue Antifreeze obtained from Euro Car Parts in Cambridge, which used to be Unipart. The cooling system has a total capacity of about 31 litres including the swim tank, so 15 litres of antifreeze gives almost a 50% mixture - good enough for the harshest of English winters.  As before, the system was drained by disconnecting the bottom hose from the swim tank and draining the system into the engine bilges, from where most of the coolant can be pumped into containers using the bilge pump.  The last few litres have to be sponged out, wearing rubber gloves to avoid skin contact with the ethylene glycol.

We poured the 15 litres of new antifreeze into the filler cap (using a length of rubber hose attached to a funnel) and then topped it up with about 16 litres of water.  Running the engine for a while allows the antifreeze and water to mix thoroughly and gets it warmed up for the next job - changing the oil. It's important to check the water level after running the engine for a few minutes, as further topping up may be needed. Also the bleed nut at the top of the swim tank must be used to release the air lock that is created in the top few cm of the swim tank.

Changing the oil and oil filter is very easy on the BMC 1.8 engine, as it is fitted with a sump pump that enables the oil to be pumped out into an old oil container for subsequent disposal at the recycling centre, along with the old coolant. So far, so good!

The next job was to change the fuel filter.  This is when the fun started!  For the past 5 years I have successfully bled the new fuel filter by slackening the unused blanking plug (behind the copper pipe in the above photo), followed by the union nut at the very top of the filter housing, as described in the Calcutt BMC Engine Operator's Handbook, which can be downloaded from their website.  However, for some inexplicable reason (short memory and the end of a long day), this year I followed the instructions in the BMC official engine manual.  This manual makes no mention of bleeding the top union nut on the filter housing, but instead recommends bleeding the fuel line from the filter to the injector pump at the point where it enters the pump.
When I subsequently started the engine, it ran for a few seconds and then died, as the slug of air still trapped in the top of the filter housing worked its way through to the injectors!  That meant the whole injector pump and the high pressure fuel lines to the injectors had to be bled. This is not an easy job, which on this occasion was made even more difficult by one of the bleed nuts (on the injector pump anti-stall valve) shearing off as soon as I went anywhere near it with a spanner! I removed the whole of the anti-stall valve assembly, shut off the fuel valve at the tank and went back to base in a somewhat frustrated mood.
The next morning I 'phoned Calcutt Boats and ordered a new valve assembly, which arrived first thing in the post the following day (really great service, Calcutt - thank you). This morning we returned to Patience, fitted the new valve assembly and systematically bled the whole fuel system, including the high pressure pipes to the injectors. The engine still stubbornly refused to start, so the whole procedure was repeated.  After heating the glow plugs for 30 seconds, more than the 20 seconds normally required for a cold start, and cranking it for a while, the engine finally spluttered into life - hooray!

The final task was to inspect and adjust the tension on the alternator drive belt.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Ten Things I Have Learned About Narrow Boating

The original purpose of this blog was not so much the diary of events that it has become, but to describe how we use a boat and what lessons we learn as we go along.
Now, six years after first dipping our toe in the waters I wrote down these ten things I've learned in the process. If you're new to boating I hope they are useful. If you're an experienced boater I hope you agree.
1. Make sure you learn some basic engineering / maintenance skills - or, like me, have a boating partner who is skilled in practical engineering. It's not all swanning about through green avenues of trees and light twinkling on the waters, more's the pity. It also involves anti-freeze, oil, sludge, battery charging, air locks and odd things wrapped around the prop.
2. Solo boating requires special  skills and techniques. Learn about boating first with an experienced crew before attempting lock flights on your own. A longer than usual centre rope can help by holding on to the rope while working the lock gates. More info at Canal Boat - Going It Alone.
3. Cultivate a tick-over mentality. Go slowly. Really slowly. 4 mph is an absolute max when cruising, far far slower in locks, at blind corners, near moored boats etc. If your wake is breaking on the water's edge you're going too fast. No doubt a helpful liveaboard boater will be out on deck shouting at you before long.
4. There is no brake. You can only progress cautiously then engage reverse. Even in an emergency give it a moment when shifting from full steam ahead to full speed astern if you don't want to lose your gearbox. Narrow boats often misbehave in reverse, which may mean you swing around more than you'd like and steering backwards is a guessing game, but reverse gear is your only means of slowing or stopping.
5. Effective steering is only possible when you are under way and the engine is in forward gear.
6. Canals and especially locks are full of hazards. Always be aware and think how you can avoid risk or escape from a problem. Ask yourself and your crew how you would cope with running aground, getting stuck on the lock cill, become adrift with engine problems, man overboard ....
7. The centre rope is your friend. Use it to pull the boat to the mooring or keep it in place in a lock. A single mooring rope at bow or at stern will leave the other end waving around. The centre rope will pull in each end equally. Make sure centre ropes on both port and starboard are immediately available at the tiller. Extend them if boating solo.
8. Wear suitable clothing before you set off, anticipating imminent weather changes. Waterproofs, non-slip shoes, warm clothes, hat with a brim or peak against direct sun or rain. Plus a complete set of clothes to change into if the first set become wet.
9. Share the load. Alternate steering and locking, all crew need to know what to do.
10. Always greet oncoming boaters and thank lock keepers (usually volunteers) and any fellow boaters who help with locks. But beware a gongoozler who offers to help in locks, they could be very valuable but you shouldn't rely on them.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Newbold to Norton

Wednesday 23rd. There is a superb view of Venus (the planet, rather than the unclothed goddess) at 6am and at 9am in bright sunshine (at last) we set off down the Oxford towards Braunston and, we hope, Norton Junction tonight.
Passing a boat called "There and Back Again" and recognising the title of The Hobbit, I thought that could be a good title for a boating blog. After all, it's what we do.
It's a good day for boat names: I spot "Drawn to Water", "Still Thinking" (get the pun? and just "Eventually" which is very existential, I think .... And while I'm musing, or locking up the Hillmorton Locks, John tackles the shower, which does not drain properly, and discovers the fault is a blocked filter (all that hair we've lost while boating ...).
At some point I shall write a blog entry about the virtues of having an onboard engineer and shall praise the number of things he has fixed as well as those he has avoided by his maintenance regime and his risk avoidance strategies. Later he will perform annual maintenance on the engine, while in our marina - of which more later.

Arriving at Norton we find a terrible crumbling towpath between bridges 9 and 10, where netting has been erected to warn of holes and weak edges. Nevertheless we find a spot that just works - and unlike the moorings on the Leicester line we can receive TV signals.
In the evening a visit to the New Inn to encounter the UK's biggest pub bore, spouting loudly across the room throughout our meal, meaning we have to move seats to a quieter area next to the skittle game.

Back on board we seem to have entered a parallel universe as the TV news features Prince Harry laying a patio and various improbably dressed rugby fans speaking incomprehensibly in Scots and Japanese. The new Lib Dem leader looks like a young Brummie footballer sporting cropped hair, unfeasibly expressive eyebrows and a line about being brought up in the shadow of the gas works that sounds like Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen.

Thursday 24th. Shooting through the Watford locks in good time we head on untroubled towards Welford with good weather and nothing to slow us down. The journey home has to be by road via Snarestone to pick up the second car. Rush hour plus problems on the A14 provide an unsatisfactory way to end a great trip. We recommend The Ashby Canal!

Back down The Ashby 2

Tuesday 22nd. Overcast with occasional rain showers. This is not how it's supposed to be! We pass Charity Wharf with its bizarre collection of mad dummies and decaying boats. Funny how these don't feature in Waterways World ....
We reach the Marston Junction, a place of many pylons, between The Ashby and the Coventry canals and make a very sharp turn into the Coventry for a few miles before reaching Hawkesbury and another big turn into The Oxford.  I'm singing Paul Simon "I hear the drizzle of the rain, like a memory it falls ..." and I'm feeling full of reminiscence, but the canal pulls me on. A pair of swans with an extraordinary eight cygnets all shimmy alongside in a long string and I'm back to concentrating on the water ahead.

Our continuing journey to Newbold is peppered with brief heavy showers followed occasionally by a blast of sunshine to warm our backs and light up the cut, revealing the first autumnal hints which hide invisibly when it rains. At one stage the rain falls so fiercely it peppers the surface water making it look like a rough and muddy farm track.
But it's the equinox and evening brings calm and golden rays. Mooring at The Barley Mow next to the Newbold tunnel we are alarmed by a threatening clunk from somewhere down in the bilges. Turns out there is a protruding ledge at the moorings and, concerned that this might damage the hull, we tie the gangplank to the side to act as a large fender. It works well and, thanks to a couple of pints and a good meal at The Barley Mow, we sleep undisturbed.

Back Down The Ashby 1

Monday 21st. Patience has been moored quietly at Snarestone for a week while we rest up at home, but now it's time to head back down the Ashby and get Patience to her moorings at Welford.
Leaving one car at Welford we go on to Snarestone, arriving at midday, unload the car and off we go, leaving the tunnel, the newly opened extra mile and The Globe behind. It's raining heavily but there's nothing to be gained by mooring up (though The Globe is tempting) so we trundle on, pausing only to pump out our foul tank in a nearby marina between bridges 42 and 43. Foul explosions averted, eventually the clouds clear and the sun starts to dry us out as we slowly retrace our path down The Ashby towards Braunston.

Approaching a bridge we spot eight people in a newly hired boat struggling to avoid us, the bridge and everything. Five of them are on the tiller, which presumably is part of the problem as they career across the canal. Whatever advice they've been given about steering seems already to be lost. Note - take especial care where hire boats start out. And to new hirers: it looks easy but it takes a bit of practice!

Elsewhere, on what is the most peaceful and beautiful northern section of The Ashby (eg bridge 20, pictured), I spy a solitary fox on a field edge 50 yards from the boat. Unaware of us he basks in the sun, trots up and down a bit, red pelt glowing in the afternoon sun. As a poultry keeper I have a special loathing of the fox, but here, basking innocently in the afternoon sun (and therefore nowhere near my hens) it is a sight to see.

At 6.30 we arrive back at Lime Kiln, mooring up just yards from where we were on the way up, by the water point near the bridge (15).  Again a lengthy boat or two has taken the quieter section opposite the pub car park, but we're happy to have made the distance, survived the rain and to be well fed at Lime Kilns.