Tuesday, 26 August 2008

IWA National Festival & Boat Show 2008

CanalIf you think travelling ought to involve some discomfort then welcome to my trip to Wolverhampton. To start with, the train from Leamington was as heaving as a hen night at 3am. I shared the vestibule at the end of the coach with eight other people - we'd have fitted a couple more in but there was a ball of bodies consisting of three students in one corner who were fast asleep and mostly horizontal. As the weather was unusually warm this wasn't pleasant and didn't get any better every time we stopped at a station. Coventry saw a few get off and a few get on. Birmingham International removed a couple but this was balanced by one person and a ton of luggage.

New Street was the best though. We lost a few but those that got on obviously thought that we were standing there for fun and charged by us into the main part of the carriage. Of course when they got there a shock awaited - no seats ! Last on were a couple with their young daughter, three cases and a folded pushchair. They repeatedly said that they had booked seats and were going to get them. I had a feeling that he saw the presence of anyone in a berth with their name on it as a slight to his masculinity. None of us cared much as it was crowded enough without a ranting fat bloke in the middle of the space.

London commuters have a technique for dealing with this sort of travel - listen to a walkman with some nice soothing music, and read a good book. It works well and despite struggling to find space for my feet some of the time the trip was fine. Of course had anyone walking in with a blue rosette, my hatred of those who scrapped the evil BR (we'd have had 12 coaches in the old days not 4) would have erupted and I'd have pummeled them into the carpet with a diet coke bottle and a Sexton Blake penny dreadful.

The fun didn't stop at the station either. Finding a bus was easy - the stands are just across the road and a 505 was waiting. Explaining to the driver where I wanted to go was the challenge. I wasn't even the first he'd heard either - the people in front had also wanted Pendeford park for the same event. Our driver didn't really want anyone on his vehicle who wasn't from "round 'ere". We don't understand the route. We don't get the "exact money only" stuff. We don't realise that you can't buy a return. And as for the accent, well it doesn't really help if you don't speak Black Country. Anyway, for future reference a day ranger costs 3 quid and a single £1.50.

We were dropped off a ten minute walk from the park. I think the driver tried to explain that he would be going closer but only after a trip around the houses but it might as well have been in Chinese. Still, it was a nice day for a stroll.

Crowds£7.50 to get in was a touch steep even if a free show guide was included. The first thing that struck the visitor, or rather stuck him or her was the ground. Thanks to several days of rain, vehicles unloading and the crowds already there, the place was a mudbath. A temporary road had been laid along part of the showground but if you'd decided that flip-flops were the order of the day you would be wanting a dip in the canal later on.

I don't own a barge and only half aspire to doing so. The problem isn't buying one, it's finding somewhere to put it, especially if you fancy living aboard permanently. With this in mind I skipped any stand featuring engines or other mechanical bits. People with fenders, rope or otherwise got only a cursory glance. Strangely I didn't see anyone selling tyres despite their popularity with the boating crowd who like to decorate barge sides with them. This Corracolsstill left dozens of stands for entertainment. The exhibitors had come from all over the country. Many were promoting their own particular bit of the canal system and for the uninitiated the maps showing just how far you can still travel buy boat were fascinating. I was mentally planning a cruise from Leamington down to Worcester and back via Oxford. At 4mph thats a long journey but very satisfying.

The boats were fun. A display of historic vessels ran along the canal at one side of the show - a passout was required to get back in meaning you could have seen the best bits without paying :-(

Since I don't know a huge amount about barges, the detail Tug bargedifferences were slightly lost on me. In fact if I'm honest most working boats look the same apart from the paint jobs on the cabins. For technical reasons though, I found the insides of the hulls interesting as these are normally hidden by the canvas over the load. One owner tried to persuade me that by tightening up the turnbuckles that joined the tops of his sides he could gain a couple of inches for excessively narrow locks. Not sure how the cabin would get thorough though. Perhaps he takes a run at them...

I did learn one thing. There are mobile diesel stations for boats. One had a pump in it's middle. He also sold logs, coal and charcoal - just like an all night garage ! You could even have a pump-out which is perhaps a service that Shell et al might like to look into offering for night time users.

Barn owlsBack in the show we all waddled around on the soggy ground. The biggest mud bath was opposite a display of birds of prey. Everyone had the chance to pet birds with sharp beaks and talons. They were all very well behaved and didn't eat anyone, at least while I was there.

Of course if you wanted to buy a boat then plenty of people could oblige. Two rows of boats separated by and entertaining, wobbly, pontoon. One ladies description of it's movement as like a cakewalk was pretty accurate. Of course not being landlubbers we didn't care, unlike those soft, southern, nancy b******s down south who got a bit jittery when one of their bridges was a bit bouncy a couple of years ago. It's all part of the fun !

The ground conditions limited the boat visiting for me. Thanks to an irrational fear (surely a coating of the stuff isn't going to put the serious boater off buying ?) of mud, most builders asked people to take their shoes off before boarding, or wear blue plastic overshoes. Now my feet are big and I doubt any overshoe would fit me and if it did I'd look like I was wearing a bin bag on each foot. Not good. Anyway, I was only tyre (prop ?) kicking and there were queues for most craft.

There was an exception, and since I was there I determined to see the inside of one craft. This came from a Southam builder and was for sale for the "bargain" price of £46000 for a 51 foot boat. Fully fitted and with a years mooring. It was cosy in a couple of places but the shower looked good and there was the same amount of space as you'd find in a much more expensive flat. Storage would be an issue but not unsolvable. The options list showed that the price would go up once such luxuries as electricity, central heating and a non-chemical toilet were added but it didn't sound like that bad a deal. The ceiling was high enough for me to walk down it and not rub the top of my head too - something new in the canal world.

Later, avoiding some more mud I ended up in the clutches of a finance salesman so I asked the obvious question about the boat I visited. If you fancy something similar, here are the numbers: Deposit will be £9k. The remaining £37k will be loaned against the boat for 10 years. Repayments will be just over £500 per month. In other words you pay back £60k - I can't help feeling that there are better deals out there.

Lunch time saw me in the beer tent. I had brought some lovely cheese rolls smothered in home made tomato chutney and a proper pint would go very nicely with these. From the 40 beers on offer, I went for "Ginger Snaps" which was lovely. Full bodied but not too heavy for a day in the sunshine.

More strolling and I found an oddity - a canal boat you can tow behind the car. At 38 foot long it's a reasonable sized aquatic caravan. Not sure how you power it though as I'm sure most boats have a propeller underneath. Perhaps in these eco-friendly times the owner is supposed to row. Or perhaps you don't sail the thing, just dump it in the water and live aboard. With most canal holidays Bargesbeing elongated pub crawls with a bit of sailing, this isn't such a bad thing if you can find a nice pub !

One area I did miss out on big time were the craft lessons. Even though they cost extra I'd have really enjoyed a few hours learning to signwrite or paint traditional roses and castles. Looking at the prices, being taught how to make a button fender would have been a good business proposition too. Perhaps next year.

More pictures on Flickr
Inland Waterways Association website

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