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Thursday, March 20, 2014


"Aim for the chopping block. if you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood. Aim for the chopping block." ~Author Annie Dillard

   As we cruise along Les and I keep our eye's peeled for downed trees along the canal. As most boaters will tell you, usually these offerings fall on the off-side where the canal bed is shallow and a boat cannot get close enough to cut up the tree. Sometimes we are fortunate to find a windfall near a lock as we did near Seabrook lock last month.  In years past with water levels low, we've had to pass on some good wood stock because there was no way to get near them.
  With this winter's ferocious winds and millions of cubic feet of water relentlessly battering the UK, trees are uprooted everywhere; there is wood to be had it seems around every bend on the cut, as happened on the Grand Union Canal between Dudswell Locks 47-48.
Les has nearly cleared all the tree branches from the cut
   There was an old Willow down on the offside between these two locks which had been hacked at over the years by boaters desperate for wood. The winter storm of Valentine's Day 2014 took down two more trees in the same spot--the tops of which hung partially in the short pound between the locks, blocking the offside of the canal. Usually this short pound is incredibly shallow, which is another reason the old Willow tree was still laying there on its side. With the winter of unprecedented rainfall, water flowed continually over the tops of the lock gates and the pound was quite full.
   We made plans to head south from Cow Roast after Les' winter of recuperation. Sadly still tied to the Watford area by two more surgeries to come, Les has decided to cruise slowly down to London for a week and then back up again. So we walked down to Dudswell locks and sussed out the situation. 
View from Dudswell Lock gate after nearly 6.5 hours of work
    The lock gates at Northchurch just south of Dudswell had been padlocked to keep boat traffic from attempting to cruise down to Berkhamsted where a lock was drained last month for major work by Canal & River Trust (CaRT). It was due to open again on February 11th. I suggested we move down from Cow Roast, come just out of Dudswell lock 48 and moor up outside the lock on the nice, hard edging of the offside. 
   This allowed us perfect access to the downed trees, and plenty of room just near the boat to cut it up with the axe and stack it on the roof. We could get away with mooring on the lock bollards because no boats were moving down to Berko yet--everyone was waiting for the Northchurch lock to open.
   We weren't sure what species of trees were down but they weren't Willow. The bark was greenish gray with darker mottled spots on it. A review of the debris on the ground near the trees told us nothing further. I figured it for Ash but decided to force a small branch with swollen buds to bloom. Time will tell...
A shy wood sprite watches us!
   As Les sawed the overhanging boughs into manageable sections we pulled them from the cut and began building a debris pile alongside. Shortly the pound was completely cleared again. Les and the chainsaw chewed through the large boughs, cutting fat rounds of wood I could manage--four at a time--to carry back to the boat. Our efforts were overseen by a shy wood sprite, whose face peaked out at us from a dead leaf on a nearby branch.
   During tea break a young bloke on a plastic cruiser came down through the lock and we invited him to moor up in front of us. He was interested in sussing out some wood for himself.
   As the afternoon went on we discovered the young man was headed down to London and over to the Lee Navigation to moor up permanently. He was new to boating, having lived in squats around London until he saved enough money to buy a second hand boat on which to live. 
   He didn't say what he did for a living so I didn't pry. We talked about how ridiculously expensive rent is in and around London--especially for those in the service trades. Friends of his were living on a boat and convinced him it was the cheapest means of affordable living near the Capitol.
   After six and a half hours of grafting Les and I had a good stock of fresh wood cut, split, and stacked on the roof. We moved over to the towpath side and spent a couple of lovely days watching the two donkeys in their luxury enclosure on the other side of the fence while we waited for the locks south of us to open again.
   As we cruised south we discovered a feast of wood everywhere. We were so spoiled for choice we passed up some off cuts by CaRT who've been trimming the overhanging growth on the offsides, from Leighton Buzzard all the way down to Bulls Bridge over the mild winter. 
   As we traveled through Boxmoor Park and Hemel Hemptead we spotted two mighty uprooted trees near the canal. Boats moored nearby sported roofs covered in wood. We decided we would stop at the edge of Hemel near the B&Q (for Americans, think Home Depot) so Les could purchase another can of paint. In his spare time he's been grinding away at the rust spots on our boat, treating and repainting them. 
  As we approached Boxmoor Lock Les spotted yet another downed tree just near the lock on the offside! We moored up while he sawed the large branches into fat rounds. I brought the boat into the lock, we dropped a paddle to bring the roof down lower, and stacked the fresh cut rounds on the roof for splitting later. Again, while we know this tree wasn't Willow, we aren't sure what it is. There were conkers on the ground nearby; it could be Horse Chestnut. I took another slim branch with one big, fat bud on the end to force. 
   The first branch is in full bloom now. Frilly, bright green catkins with reddish ruffled edges drupe from sticky sleeves. No leaves have unfurled yet, but they are beginning to peak out from the buds. I suspect the trees downed at Dudswell may be Alder. 
   Since NB Val is now sporting a rash of different green colored spots where Les has been grinding off the rust, we have decided to paint her ourselves next year. In the meantime I can choose new paint colors. At the present I am favoring Dulux Weathershield Highland Green with light cream and Gold Rush accent colors, although I am liable to change my mind. As some bright spot once said, " A woman who doesn't change her mind doesn't have one."


Unknown said...

ohmigosh, memories of when I lived in Honolulu and worked on a Sea Bird Yawl which my boy friend of the time, and we spent many hours, caulking, painting, etc. Endless.

Ken and Sheena said...

Hi Les and Jaq. Congratulations on your good fortune. Amazing, isn't it, at the time of year when we need it least, it's everywhere? Cosy glows for you two. I think the fact it's free adds to the satisfaction. No greedy government fingers stealing their 5%. How wonderful is that?

Unknown said...

A narrow boat is an outline on the
water into which one pours money.
The same could be applied to a residence on terra firma.

Wheny ou mentioned repainting Valerie thought of how I would paint a narrow boat. Mind my paint scheme would berather different: orange bow with a 60 degree refelctive white diagonal stripe from the top of the cabin to the waterline. Followed by alternating
wide black and white diagonal stripes at the same degree of angle.
On the opposite side the stripes
would be applied in the opposite cant, the stern would be bright orange with a black rubber covered
platform for the tlller person to stand upon.

Radical yes. Oh and the roof would be painted an aluminum colour to reflect the rays of the sun.

Anonymous said...

Green & cream sounds good! What an epic chopping session - Les you must surely be back to full health if you can manage a six-hour shift.

Keep warm, keep safe

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs