To the IWA National Festival and back

I don’t know why I do it, but every year or two I feel an urge to go to the IWA National boat festival and so with Wolverhampton in striking distance of Zulu I decided to go.

By the time Saturday arrived Zulu was in Polesworth, so after realising I had moored in a wasps nest last night I made a hasty departure followed by a nice leisurely run up to Tamworth where I believed there to be a station.  Jolly nice is the approach to Tamworth, especially with so many lovely gardens along the canalside and there is literally miles of moorings to choose from.  Obviously I chose the wrong one in terms of distance from the station but it couldnt be that far, could it?

I walked.  It took 30 minutes after following town centre signs at the Arches instead of turning right.

And what a dump is Tamworth Station – being a weekend the main line was being disassembled by literally hundreds of orange clad workmen.  No trains then?  But yes – the Birmingham train would leave from the other level.  Banging and crashing from the workmen, drilling and concrete breaking, dust and dirt.  Local mums were holding a smoking competition outside the station cafe, and had totally blocked the entrance with their pushchairs. Naturally I had just missed the train so had to pass a very uninteresting 30 minutes before the next.  What a dump!

Finally on the train and quickly through to Wolverhampton via Brum, I decided to walk down the 21 locks to Autherley and very nice it was too.  That was, I’m afraid, the highlight of the day as the festival was, as always for me, a big anticlimax.  Organisation seemed to be confused – there was for instance no obvious way in,  which has to be a bit odd. Some attempts at controlling the mud had been made but the battle was lost for the time time being.

At the IWA National Rally, WolverhamptonI was ushered to the far end of a queueing system, so I could approach the ticket office from and approved angle, even though there was nobody else waiting to buy tickets, which seemed even odder.  £7.50 for a ticket was about normal, but I still don’t know whether any member of the public thought they got any value for this as once inside there was a mudbath surrounded by a few engines, a few boats, a few charity and waterways restoration type stalls, a boiling hot marquee with far too many people trying to shelter and the usual rheumatism cures and magic frying pan stalls which seems to appear at all similar events.

Never mind – there will be some food – and there was indeed a kind of food court with comparatively poor quality and poor value offerings after the marvels of Cropredy Festival a couple of weeks ago.  I joined a short queue to spend six pounds on some dahl with pakora – quite nice but very bland – yet dozens were tucking into the same.  When I think I got once of the nicest plates of half a dozen different curries at Cropredy for the same price, I know where I would rather have been.  On to the beer tent where two – yes only TWO – girls were trying to work out what beers were on offer and possibly twenty anxious customers trying to work out how to be served.  Especially anxious because they had just paid 50 pence for an empty plastic glass by queueing in a separate queue and were now obliged to either queue for beer or queue again for their deposit back.

Not impressed with this nonensense I obtained a pint for £3.20 which could have been mistaken for something out of the drains.  Whilst I will enthuse about a nice pint, as I did for the wonderful dark mild at the Greyhound, I will also damn those who take good beer and serve it in a way which makes it an ordeal to even get half way through it.  Totally horrible.  And then join a queue of 20 to hand my glass back in. Not impressed.

Back out into the mud I searched for something other than  boring stalls – there were a few slightly less boring, but far easier to find something interesting at a local chandlery than to persevere here – and without a focal point such as an arena and without any specific events to wait for I went home after an hour. Imagine going to a music festival where it turned out there was hardly anything on once you had got inside the gates.  Many stalls sat in a small island within a muddy pool. I felt very sorry for those who had paid good money for their pitches, and sorry for those splodging around trying to find something to do.  I can’t criticise arranging a get-together for boat owners, which of course the Festival does extremely well, but I am not sure what pleasure the general public would get from a day out in the mud.

The biggest queue was for the buses back to the car park, wherever it was.  There were however plenty of buses and plenty of cars parked illegally at the roadside sporting “You have been warned” stickers from the police.  At least they could go straight home. The public bus back to town was a nightmare with the dog – the driver drove like a lunatic throwing us all over the place and I was delighted to be back on the train to Tamworth.  I never though I would say that!

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention 2008

The first time I passed through Cropredy on the Oxford Canal was on a school canal society trip in 1974. Whilst I don’t remember much about the week, I retain one memory of the Brasenose Arms which I was told featured on the album cover of a certain band called Fairport Convention.  Being into prog rock at the time it was not cool to admit to liking Fairport, although I do admit to making a few tapes (pre MP3 I’m afraid).

About this time two members of the band had moved to Cropredy and began to play the occasional local gig evolving into an annual festival which now attracts 20,000 visitors every August.  Somehow I never seem to be in the area but here I am on Zulu Warrior – apparently a Cropredy virgin but feeling like an old hand already, especially as Zulu would already have been one year old in 1974.  Who knows – she could have been here many times!

Met up with the Warriors – Sarah, Jim and Baz, who had been allowed to moor on the Long Term moorings and soon visited the Brasenose Arms where the new landlord of two weeks was certainly being initiated in style.

Up on “THE FIELD” the stage was very impressive with a great view of the stage from almost anywhere.  An imaginary line was drawn behind which deck chairs and picnics were permitted, and the atmosphere was very laid back with the added bonus that dogs were not only allowed into the main stage area, but free poo bags were being handed out with wristbands.  Seth was impressed.

Fairports Cropredy Convention 2008So three days of music and spending ensued.  Swept into the traditional instrument tent by a sudden rainshower I came out having fulfilled another long term ambition – owning an accordion, or to be more precise a button accordion (melodeon).  Something special about buying it in a field, I thought, and the hard case turned out to make a handy seat too.

Robert Plant plays with Fairport ConventionMy highlight of the weekend was when Robert Plant appeared as Fairport’s special guest, playing a haunting version of the wonderful Battle of Evermore (1971) which took me right back to my roots.

And so a good time was had by all (I think) despite the rain on Saturday afternoon.

It was especially nice to be able to head back to the nice warm dry boat instead of sliding into a muddy tent, and although there were a lot of boats it would still have been possible to moor, just a bit further away!  It was also wonderful to see how the village embraces the festival – there is no heavy handed security, gardens and driveways opened up as cafes and stalls and the sports field held one of the most impressive car boot sales on Saturday morning.  It was such a shame it rained hard, as the range of goods on sale was way above the usual car boot tat – no plastic play kitchens or used baby clothes to be seen – instead a range of musical instruments, vintage records and CDs, traditional tools, home made produce, local craftsman bakery and so forth.  I bought a pewter tankard to allow drinking of ale without plastic, and the lady running the stall bartered the price down by 50p without being asked.  You can have that one for two pounds; – its a bit bashed, which is what I liked about it.

So from a boating point of view – some FAQs, but of course the answers are only my opinion!:

Will we be able to moor?  YES, although try to arrive a few days early to avoid being up to a mile away.

Do boats HAVE to double moor?  NO, although in a few places you may prefer to moor alongside someone who invites you.  The canal is often too narrow anyway.

Can I rely on the village stores for groceries?  YES – they stay open until 10pm daily and have plenty of stock.  A local baker brings a van full of fresh bread every morning and farms, clubs and pubs galore open up to serve breakfast.

Should I moor above the lock or below?  ABOVE – the moorings below the lock are a mixture of long term and visitor moorings and form one of two main routes into the festival site.  If you do get a spot below the lock your boat will either become covered in mud or dust depending on the weather.  Once past the festival gate you will be able to find towpath moorings but if approaching from the north remember the nearest winding hole is quite a long way (almost at Banbury).  Boats arriving from the South can wind at Cropredy.

I am not visiting the festival.  Can I still moor at Cropredy?  DIFFICULT – you will end up a long way from the village if you arrive over the weekend.

I am not visiting the festival.  Will I get held up while trying to pass through?  NO.  The festival boats are there to stay and you will be able to pass through unhindered, although the lock can occasionally have a small queue at any time of the summer. At the end of the festival a few boats will leave immediately but there was no evidence of delays, this year at least.

Are the short term moorings strictly enforced?  Apparrently not.

Can I still get water and use the facilities?  Yes but if you move the boat then you will most likely lose your mooring space.  Many people carry water back to their boat on trollies, but at least make sure you fill right up when you arrive.

Can I empty the Elsan?  Yes there is a disposal point but see above.

Is there adequate rubbish disposal?  Yes.  The skips are emptied regularly.

Do we need to bring lots of food?  No.  The quality of the food at the festival was excellent and not too expensive.  Local farms, the canoe club, the sports club and the pubs open up to serve breakfast and several village houses are convereted into take away restaurants.  The festival site is lined with typical festival food stalls and one in particular served and amazingly good plateful of authentic indian food for about 6 pounds.  Worth going for on its own!

Are there any cash machines?  YES – the Bridge Stores has one, and does cash back too.  Then there was a mobile unit with 4 machines between the village and the festival site.

Can we park the car near the boat?  Parking in the village is banned, in theory, but some people do.  The free public car park is about a mile outside the village.  Dropping off and picking up in the village should still be possible at most times.

Are the pubs open for business as normal?  Plastic glasses I’m afraid and both the Red Lion and the Brasenose Arms have stages set in their back gardens.  Some very high quality bands played in the “fringe” starting as early as the Wednesday evening.

What are the loos like?  Excellent.  Plenty of them, very short queues if any, and generally quite acceptable, as far as festival loos are concerned.

Is there a bar on site?  Wadworths run a huge bar at the far side of the Field, together with a couple of smaller bars, one in a campsite, and the other just outside the main gates to the arena.  The main bar is fed from road tankers which don’t do the beer any favours but outside the beer is from the barrel.  Take a pewter tankard if you want to look inconspicuous!

Is it better to  return to a warm dry boat at the end of the night and sit out with a glass of wine and some friends in the moonlight, or to splodge your way back to a cold damp tent by torchlight and try to find the beers which someone stole while you were out?  🙂 What do you think!

Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable weekend – we will be back!

Claydon to Cropredy

Saturday 2nd August
Claydon to Cropredy – South Oxford Canal

Only a couple of miles but very pleasant as we dropped down another three locks into Cropredy ready for Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, which doesn’t start until Thursday.

Moorings were still plentiful and we pulled up just above the short term moorings at the lock.  There are currently few signs of the festival – everything normal, but as it has been held for 30+ years I guess there is a well rehearsed plan behind the scenes, for instance the camping sites and car parks were already layed out and manned, giving a little hint of things to come.

So here were are then – tickets in hand, purchased from Ebay only a couple of weeks ago, and I have already sold the spare camping ticket to a local, who even came up to the Bridge Stores to meet me an collect it.  Result – I have 3 day festival tickets for less than half their face value, which cant be a bad thing.

Now all we need is for the weather to stabilise.  Today has been hot then cold again, like some cheap mixer tap which seems unable to ever reach the temperature you would prefer.  It will be such a shame if everyone gets soaked next week, although it wouldnt be the first time, nor the end of the world, it is so much nicer to sit on the grass than stand in the mud.

So with boat moored its time to go back to Newbury for a while, returning Wednesday if everything goes according to plan.

Ash gig at Coventry

Ash and The Gentlemen, Coventry 1st August 2008The other day, walking up to Hawkesbury Junction along the main road at Longford I spotted a huge poster for an Ash concert in the Ricoh Arena – only a mile or so from where I stood.  Making a mental note I realised it was actually for Friday, and this was Wednesday – so I made a very spur of the moment call to see if tickets were still available.

Three minutes later I had placed my order, mesmerised by the totally automated Ticketmaster service which can actually understand what you say to it.  ASH – COVENTRY – 1ST AUGUST.  “Do you mean “Ash, Coventry Ricoh Arena, Friday 1st August?”  YES!! “How many tickets….” etc and it was so I easy that I read out my card number while walking down the towpath and confirmed the transaction.

As usual I had forgotton that a couple of days travelling by boat can generate amazingly complex return travel plans, so of course the journey to the concert turned out to be from Claydon near Cropredy (almost an hour by road) rather than a 20 minute walk from the Greyhound at Hawkesbury.

Despite this I am so glad I made the effort as the concert was simply outstanding.  Supported by Sheffield band “The Gentlemen” who immediately made a gaff by asking the crowd whether they considered Coventry to be in the North or the South.  “MIDLANDS” … “Oh – OK – so this is the Midlands is it?” but their music was much better than their geography and this band is certainly on the brink of better things than warming up five hundred or so Ash fans.

I still couldn’t work out what this gig was all about.  Why did Ash fly in tonight then back to Norway for a gig the next day, and back to Cardiff the day after?  This seemed like a lot of hard work for so few fans in such a strange venue.  The Ricoh arena had hundreds of staff, some employed specifically to stop people looking through the curtains to the football stadium below.

Ash gig at CoventryAt 9pm Ash appeared and the tiny stage burst into life – how amazing sound and lighting can be these days with a very minimalist amount of equipment.  The band were as good as they could have been – very loud but crystal clear and best of all we were able to stand only 20 feet back from the stage without being trampled or soaked.

It was as if they were playing to a stadium – but it felt like a personal gig in your own front room.  Fantastic.

Outside the rain was tipping down at midnight as we drove round and round and round the Coventry ring road looking for the way home.  The concert a distant and damp memory as we finally located the boat in the pitch dark.  I bet nobody else there had to duck through damp undergrowth with a torch on their way home.

Marston Doles to Claydon

Marston Doles to Claydon, South Oxford Canal

Woke up to a lovely morning, although as usual it had been raining through the night. Took Seth for a walk all the way down the Napton flight, hoping to find some fresh bread and milk at the Canal Stores adjoining the Folly pub, but despite the “open early” signs there was no sign of life, other than three or four other boaters also milling around before doing as I did and heading up to the village stores, which is actually not as far as I remembered.

Fresh bread was available too, albeit “Cuisine de France” brand, frozen dough but baked on the premises. So many local shops seem to have replaced the traditional English baker, getting up before most of us go to bed, with an electric oven and deep freeze, but at least it is still freshly baked bread and I will happily take that in place of sliced white any day.

Returned to Marston Doles via the lanes which pass Napton Water Buffalo farm and sat in the sun for a while and trying to spot a gap in the more or less constant traffic of passing boats so I could do the last couple of locks in the flight without a crowd.

Last time I did Marston Doles top lock there was a most horrendous road accident attended by the air ambulance which landed in the field beside the lock, but this time the only disturbance was the wind as I slipped past the queue waiting to descend the locks and headed out into the long summit pound.  The weather simply can not produce a normal summers day at the moment, but it was very pleasant despite the breeze.

Ended up just outside Cropredy for the night – no point in rushing there yet.