Five Go off on a Canal Boat (2)

August 31, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Dick, Eating and Drinking, Travel | 3 Comments
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photo 1Since our canal holiday earlier this year, I’ve been a lot more aware of the canal boats I see everyday. I often cycle along the Regent’s Canal towpath on my way to work, and can also see a little bit of it from my flat (a view that’s slowly being eroded by new buildings). There are a real mix of boats, from floating wrecks to beautifully cared for boats with painted names and extensive miniature-gardens of flowers, vegetables and herbs. You get to know some of them for short (or longer) periods of time, depending on the mooring regulations upon particular stretches of the canal (some moorings are long term; some are for a fortnight only).

After getting back from our Kennet & Avon jaunt, I read Emma Smith’s Maiden’s Trip, a fictionalised version of the writer’s experiences working on a barge during the war, when women were called in to help with the vital work of moving cargoes around the country via its waterways. She vividly describes the hardships – and pleasures – of life on the boats, from bad weather and bed bugs to tinned milk cocoa and kedgeree for tea. The maiden’s trip takes them from Limehouse Basin (15 minutes cycle ride from my flat), where they load up, to Birmingham and Coventry and back. The views from the canal encompass desolate and dirty urban wastelands as well unspoiled glorious countryside. They meet a range of people along the way and find friends and rivals among the barge folk, from those for who it’s just a day job to those whose whole lives are lived on the 3

If anyone has any other recommendations for stories set aboard barges, I’d love to hear them please. I keep thinking that Five Go off on a Canal Boat is a great, unwritten story, which I can vividly imagine elements of, in part drawn from my own trip in April: accidentally hitting another boat (perhaps this is Dick, getting distracted by lunch being prepared below deck), having a nasty encounter with some rude and angry men, suspicions being aroused as lights shine out from the boats at night – perhaps a midnight trip up and down the canal, picking up or dropping off some mysterious cargo… And of course this would all be fueled by plenty of ices and lemonade, boiled eggs for breakfast and burnt sausages for tea. This ice cream barge, currently moored near Victoria Park, would provide the perfect stopping off point for refreshments.


5 Things to Do in Norwich

June 16, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Fashion, Learning Stuff, Travel | Leave a comment
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Just back from a lovely weekend in my home town of Norwich. I love that place. Here’s my pick of things to do from this visit.

Eat local. Loads of delicious produce from Norfolk is available on the market and from other delis and stores. Here’s some tasty looking asparagus from Louis’ on Upper St Giles, and some gooseberries and strawberries from the market. Mmmm!



Buy some books. The Dormous bookshop on Elm Hill has good secondhand books including Blytons and Penguins. The Book Hive is a new-ish but now much beloved institution. This picture is of their window display promoting their ‘Book Hive Year’ whereby you can sign up to receive one hand-picked book a month for a year.

Book Hive

Send a postcard home. The Famous Five always send their parents a card or two while they are away. I love this letterbox which is embedded in the window of stylish art/craft/gift shop, Verandah on Upper St Giles (the shop was formerly a Post Office). You can buy some gorgeous cards just up the road at Fabulous Frames (separate post on these to follow).


Learn stuff. Norwich Castle Museum is one good place to do this. It’s a museum in a castle! What could be better than that? They currently have an exhibition on called The Wonder of Birds: Nature: Art: Culture. It’s good. So good I bought a catalogue. No photos allowed inside the exhibition but there were stuffed birds aplenty, drawings, paintings, textiles, fashion, eggs and fossils. Extinct birds were represented too, including the Great Auk, whose replica egg would have delighted Jack of the Adventure series (keen ornithologist Jack dreams of one day spotting a Great Auk).

Wonder of Birds

Eat local, part 2. Ronaldo’s ice cream stall, located on London St, does the best ices. They use local milk and cream, fruits, nuts and liquers. I had liquorice which I wasn’t sure I’d like. It was, needless to say, utterly delicious. If you can’t decide though, I’d make like the Famous Five and have at least three ice creams each:

“I advise you to start off with vanilla, go on to strawberry and finish up with chocolate.” – Julian, Five Have a Wonderful Time.

Welsh treats

June 1, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Posted in Aunt Fanny, Eating and Drinking, Learning Stuff, Travel | 1 Comment
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photoLast weekend I went to Hay-on-Wye, a small and charming town on the Welsh/English border (it’s on the very edge of Wales). My trip coincided with the first weekend of the Hay Festival (it finishes today) and I managed to go to talks on a wide range of things, from the efforts of the National Trust in Wales to become more sustainable, to a history of the universe with a focus on the potential life-giving properties of comets (the Rosetta space probe is about to land on comet Churymov-Gerasimenko).

The town is always lively and bustling – Hay is famous for its second-hand bookshops – but there’s even more going on during the festival, from markets, street performers and food stalls set up near the castle. The festival site is a little way out of town and enterprising locals set up small stalls, beer gardens and cafes in their gardens on the route down to the site. My favourite of these was the lady who was selling fresh Welsh cakes for 50p each. Mmmm. These were so good I had to make some myself as soon as we got back to London.Welsh cakes Those pictured below are my own effort. The recipe came courtesy of and can be found on my recipe pages, with a couple of my own tweaks.

I also managed to do a little bit of shopping and bought a few things which I think would appeal to Aunt Fanny et al. Two types of local honey: Shenmore honey, a raw bramble honey, and a set Wye valley blossom honey; an earthenware jar from Hay Antique Market, which is now holding some beautiful Sweet Williams, a grill scrubbing brush, which is so aesthetically pleasing it almost (but not quite) makes me want to clean my grill, a 1/3 pink old school milk bottle and some original 1940’s celluloid buttons, which I can imagine adorning the Five’s shirts and blazers. It all looked so nice, I couldn’t resist taking some photos of each bit. Here they are.

celluloid buttons

1940s celluloid buttons. 10 for a pound on Castle Street

photo 2Raw bramble honey, from a garden behind The Great English Outdoors

photo 31/3 pint school milk bottle and grill scrubbing brush from Flow

Sweet WilliamsSweet Williams from Joanne’s Florist, Globe Town, London (yes, London) £2.

Needless to say, there are also some amazing bookshops in Hay, a couple of which specialise in children’s books and /or Penguin classics, Observer Guides to Trees (etc) – all great Famous Five style-fodder. My two recommendations are Rose’s Books (I was sorely tempted by early editions of Finniston Farm, Five are Together Again, and the Welsh-set Five Get in a Fix, all of which I don’t yet have) and Barnabee’s Books (where I picked up a 60s edition of the Observer Guide to Trees for £2). In short, Hay=Heaven.



Five Go Off on a Canal Boat

May 4, 2014 at 8:35 am | Posted in Anne, Eating and Drinking, Travel | 1 Comment
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photoHello there, and I hope you’re all enjoying the lovely May bank holiday weather. It was a little bit wetter last week when I and four chums (yes, there really were Five of us!) went on a canal boat holiday along the Kennet & Avon canal. Although the Famous Five never went on a boating holiday (they do use boats as frequent means of transport though, especially to get to Kirrin Island) it was a very FFS holiday. I suppose the closest point of comparison would be  Five Go Off in a Caravan –  living in a small and compact space and enjoying a VERY slow pace of travel.

We had three nights and four days on the boat, and I felt very much like Anne when we arrived at Bathampton (just outside of Bath) and were shown over the boat, the ‘Dorothy Beryl’, by Richard, her owner. In Five Go Off in Caravan, the Five are inspired by a passing traveling circus to hire two caravans to take them away for the summer holidays. When the little caravans arrive, one red, one green, Anne and the rest of the Kirrins sequel in delight as they explore their temporary homes:

‘”Bunks along one side – is that where we sleep? How gorgeous!”

“Look at this little sink – we can really wash up! And golly, water comes out of these taps!”

[…] “It’s like a proper house inside.Doesn’t it seem nice and big? […]

The children spent hours examining their caravans and finding out all the secrets. They certainly well-fitted, spotlessly clean, and very roomy.’

Our boat was full of secrets and extremely well equipped. The dining table and seats turned into a double bed, the sitting room area revealed another bed (all bedding stowed underneath) and there were all sorts of cupboards hidden everywhere containing everything we needed. There was even a shower, toilet and little fridge – and a wood burning stove which came in very handy for us to warm up and dry our wet clothes (there was plenty of rain).

CANAL ARTLike the Five’s caravans, out boat was fairly modern rather than old-fashioned and traditional. Before the caravans arrive, Anne asks if they will be gypsy caravans, on high wheels, but Julian shakes his head “No, they’re modern, Mother says, streamlined and all that.” I’d been secretly hoping our boat would be old and traditionally painted in classic canal boat style, but she was instead a neat blue with her name painted in bright yellow on her side. We did have a small stool by the stove that was traditionally decorated though. Canal boat art is beautiful, with roses and castles the traditional means of decoration. This example is from the Chester Canal Boat Trust.

If you live in London (as I do), you can also visit the Canal Museum by King’s Cross to see examples of canal art, find out more about the history of London’s canals and even step on board a real boat (and also play inside a recreation of one). Excitingly, the Canal Museum also doubles up as a museum for the history of ice cream (I have previously blogged on this, I think).

When my boss found out I was going on a boating holiday, he recommended a book called Maiden’s Trip, by Emma Smith. It’s about women taking on boatmen’s work during the war and hauling cargoes along the Grand Union Canal. Unfortunately I couldn’t get hold of it before I went, but I was inspired by the blurb on the Bloomsbury website to cook kedgeree for dinner on the first night. We actually ate very well on board. Richard provided delicious breakfast food for us, all sourced locally – creamy milk (with actual lumps of cream floating in it), local bread, eggs, bacon and a pot of homemade marmalade.  photoI brought some tinned evaporated milk for my breakfast coffee (Louis brought an aeropress – I don’t think the Five had one of those). This is our lunch on the first day – cheese and cucumber sandwiches. We were delayed in eating these due to an unfortunate bump we accidentally gave some resident boaters – slightly scary men with large dogs who were not best pleased and actually boarded our boat to give us a piece of their mind. Oops.

This incident did get me imagining a Famous Five-type adventure on a canal boat, with the mystery kickstarted by a similar sort of incident (the Five think the men nasty sorts, moor just around the corner for the night and then witness strange goings on, which could be smuggling by boat, or perhaps a kidnap victim being stashed on board). However, in actuality, the only other eventful thing that happened that day was getting grounded on an aquaduct with an extreme right angle and nearly leaving Louis behind on the bank.

We also had the pleasure of working locks and swing bridges. Because the pace of travel on a canal boat is very slow (you have to go slowly for various reasons, not least because you don’t want to violently disturb all of the moored boats), having locks and bridges adds a LOT of excitement to the journey. The captain/skipper has to steer the boat close enough to the bank for you to hop off and run ahead to open the bridge, or get the lock working (two people are best for the latter). As the boat barely travels at walking pace, if there are a couple of bridges or locks coming up it’s not worthwhile getting back on board so you get a good walk as well as a work out using the windlass (lock key) to work the winding mechanism that lets water in and out. This can actually be quite physically taxing.

photoWe worked about 7 locks on the second day which took us almost up to the bottom of Caen (pronounced ‘Cane’) Hill lock flight. This is a group of 29 locks, with 16 of them being placed in very close succession to take your boat up, or down, Caen Hill near Devizes. The guides say to allow around 4 hours to work the flight, but as as we only had 4 days, we didn’t have the time or inclination to do this (we would have just had to come back down again right away, and it would have taken a whole day). Richard told us about a time he was travelling with a relative who was a marine – he got some of his colleagues to help and they managed the locks in a record time of 1 and a half hours.

We contented ourselves with taking  a nice walk up the flight, watching people working its gates and wondering if any of them would get attacked by the nesting swans. You can see films of last year’s swans and cygnets here, on the Canal and Rivers Trust website (I think this year’s must be there too, but can’t find on the website). There were also plenty of ducks and ducklings on the canals at this time of year, and we saw a number of herons plus the usual coots and

By the time we returned to Bathampton on Tuesday evening, we all felt like experienced boaters. I’m dying to go again. Because the boats travel slowly, it’s a great way to see the countryside and also relax (if there are a few of you, there’s plenty of opportunity to work (steer, handle ropes, do the locks etc) but you rarely need 5 people so lots of time to read, write, sleep on the roof of the boat and so on. As I live by the Regent’s Canal in London, and cycle the towpath every morning, it’s given me a different perspective of the boats I pass every day. I’m actually quite jealous. There’s something very satisfying about the rhythms of life on the water. And one other curious thing – it took me a day or two to stop having a sensation of gently rocking when I got back on land.


Cycling in Essex

July 18, 2013 at 7:51 am | Posted in Cycle Rides, Cycling, Eating and Drinking, Travel | 1 Comment
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IMG_2085Essex is a great county to cycle round. Last Saturday Mr C [still waiting for the right Famous Five pseudonym to present itself] and I did a circular route from Audley End to well, obviously, Audley End. The towns, villages and countryside along the route are beautiful, with just the right amount of hills (I never felt like I was constantly peddling up hill but there were enough inclines to keep things interesting).

IMG_2100The first stop was Saffron Walden, home of the glorious Fry Art Galley which has an extensive and wonderful collection of works by Edward Bawden, Eric Ravillious, Kenneth Rowntree and many more. You can get fine cakes, quiches and scones from Cafe Cou Cou but it is extremely hard to find anywhere to leave your bikes. We ended having to ask the vicar if it was ok to lock our bikes up to the church railings.

From Saffron Walden we set off in the direction of Thaxted, a sweet village with a windmill and plenty of impressive examples of pargetting, a traditional style of decorating the exterior plasterwork of buildings with patterns. Pargetting is big in this part of Essex and nearby Cambridgeshire. IMG_2072

We kept looking for a river or pool in which we could take a dip (temperatures exceeded 30 degrees on Saturday) but sadly this was not to be. But we did come across some very cute hens, and Mr C bought some freshly laid eggs which we had for breakfast with Brick Lane bagels the following day. This is my egg cup, Mr C is far too manly for such a thing.IMG_2099

Given our various stop offs, and the high temperatures, we took our time getting round the 34 mile route. By early evening we were more than ready for a drink and pub meal. We stopped off at The Cricketers Arms by Rickling Green and had a quintessentially English experience of drinking Pimms (me)/ale (Mr C) while sitting on the grass watching a game of cricket.IMG_2097

I’d highly recommend this ride although doing it in one day means you won’t have time to visit all of the various attractions en route (the house at Audley End, Bridge End Garden and turf maze, Saffron Walden Museum, and various churches). The route can be found here.

And here is some recommended viewing; 4 films from the East Anglian Film Archive:

The House that Essex Built (1958)

An A-Z of East Anglian Villages: Ugley (1975)

Britain’s Historic Counties: Essex (c.1955)

Ripe Earth (1938) Boulting Brothers documentary about harvest time in Essex.

All packed…

March 30, 2013 at 10:12 am | Posted in Cycling, Timmy, Travel | 2 Comments

…and ready to set off for Caen, Normandy via London Waterloo, Portsmouth and Brittany Ferries. Plastic Timmy is raring to go, as am I, especially as I will be riding my brand new (to me) bicycle, an early 80s British bike built by Mike Kowal and restored for me by the brilliant Rob Sargent of Sargent and Co. More on all of this to follow.


Happy Birthday to the Famous Five

June 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff, Travel, Uncle Quentin | 1 Comment
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2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the Famous Five. The first book, Five on a Treasure Island was published in 1942, with a further twenty following over the next two decades.

To mark the occasion, the Ginger Pop shops in Corfe and Poole, in conjunction with the Dorset Tourist Office, the Energy Institute and others are running an adventure trail around the Isle of Purbeck this summer. This is based on the sixth adventure, Five on Kirrin Island Again, in which Uncle Quentin attempts to solve humanity’s energy problems through an incredible new invention. Helping the Five thwart the plans of baddies eager to steal Uncle Q’s secrets, the trail takes in a variety of locations around the area, giving visitors the chance to explore all manner of attractions and to win some exciting prizes!

Demonstrating typical levels of organisation, imagination and intrepidation, Anne has organised a trip for us via train, steam train and boat. So, hurrah, we are off on Friday for a long weekend roaming across Blyton country. I’ll be sure to report back on our activities, not giving away any vital clues about the trail of course.

For more information on the Famous Five Adventure Trail 2012, visit the Ginger Pop website.


Norfolk Cycle Tour (Day Two)

June 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Cycle Rides, Cycling, Travel | 1 Comment
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I got up early for a pre-breakfast cycle to the beach which was a mile or so from where I was staying. When I left the barn a little after 7 there was a thick mist hanging in the air and this got even thicker as I got closer to the sea. The previous day I’d been able to see the Happisburgh lighthouse, with its distinctive bright red and white stripes, from many miles away but this morning it was completely invisible. Happisburgh suffers from extreme coastal erosion and as I went down the cliff path, the one remaining house on the edge of the cliff looked very lonely, bereft and run down.

I left my bike and Timmy behind and went down to the beach. It was a bit like the beginning of of A Matter of a Life and Death when airman David Niven gets washed up on a beach which looks very other worldly. There may have been other people down there but as I could only see a few metres in any direction it felt like I had the whole place completely to myself. Gradually the sun began to break through, the mist started to roll back from the land, and the lighthouse slowly revealed itself. After a little wander around the churchyard (which, it turns out, did actually feature in an M R James adapatation – eek) I cycled back to the farmhouse for a hearty breakfast of poached fruits with yoghurt followed by scrambled eggs and smoked salmon (Rosie definitely knows how to feed her guests).

This set me up nicely for the long morning’s (hot and sunny) cycle to Felbrigg where I planned to rub one of the church brasses. I decided to set myself an additional challenge: to visit 20 churches over the course of my four day trip. I’d already looked around four the previous day, plus Happisburgh that morning, so I was well on track. Or so I thought.

From Happisburgh I picked up National Cycle Route 1 which took me down lots of quiet lanes. For the most part the national and regional cycle routes are well signposted but occasionally either they are not, or I get distracted by looking at other things and miss crucial turnings. Happily I didn’t go too far wrong and soon after Ridlington followed the route up past Witton Bridge to St Margaret’s. The church has a round tower and from the end of the churchyard a glorious view over to the coast (you can see Happisburgh lighthouse and church, plus several other churches dotted across the landscape). As on the previous day I trustingly left my bike and luggage outside while I went in to look around. I was pleased that all of the churches that I went to, no matter how remote they were, were all unlocked and accessible. However, all had notices about ‘smart water’ and anti-theft deterrents and it’s very sad to think of people robbing these beautiful old buildings. Church tally for the day: 2 and counting.

I mounted up and continued down to Paston, best known for its association with the Paston Letters. These span the 15th and 16th centuries and give an incredible insight into the life of a private, socially rising family, during this time. William Paston’s magnificient thatched Tithe Barn, built around 1580, is still there, as is the church (yes, another St Margaret’s   – she’s a popular saint in Norfolk) in which numerous members of the family are commemorated. It also has good wall paintings of St Christopher which are well worth seeing.

From Paston I temporarily left national cycle route 1 and headed for Knapton, partly because it was a shortcut but mostly because I wanted to see Knapton church which is famed for its glorious ceiling of carved angels. I’m afraid my photograph doesn’t really capture its full glory but it really is stunning. From Knapton, to Trunch, via ‘quiet lanes’. The ‘quiet lanes’ concept is a nice one that has been implemented by Norfolk County Council over the past ten years or so in an attempt to make these small roads more people and cycle friendly and to encourage cars to drive considerately and/or use alternative routes.

After pausing at Trunch church (good font, churches so far: 5) my hopes of getting to Felbrigg by lunchtime were rapidly waning. I grabbed a quick and refreshing ginger beer before leaving the cycle route to cut across country via some less pleasant B roads. Finally arriving at Felbrigg around 2 I locked up my bike, left my luggage in the National Trust lockers and took my brass rubbing kit down to, yes, you’ve guessed it, St Margaret’s church. My 1970s Shire Guide to brass rubbing advised writing to the current incumbent to get permission beforehand which I duly did. The internet is a glorious thing so I didn’t have to go the local library to consult Crockford’s Clerical Library as the Shire guide suggests, but was instead able to Google the vicar and send him an email (to which he replied quickly and in the affirmative).

All of the brasses in the church are covered in mats to protect them so I spent a little while rolling these back to look at the brasses and decide which one to rub. I finally opted for Jane Coningsby, who had a nice Tudor ruff but who was inconveniently positioned half under the an altar table near the front of the church. It was quite hard work but very enjoyable, and had novelty value for people coming in to look at the church. One advantage of being situated under the altar meant I didn’t have people stepping over me all the time. After a cup of tea at the National Trust tea room I had time for a quick look around the hall before it shut. Picking up the cycle route that runs through Felbrigg estate and out the other side I then headed off to Holt for a shower and good rest followed by a trip by car (yes!) to the Wiveton Bell for dinner (local crab) with a friend who drove up from Norwich. Lovely.

Tally so far: cream teas (0), ginger beers (1), churches (10), brasses (1 rubbed), stately homes (1), ruined castles (0).

An Expedition to a Mysterious Island…

March 31, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Posted in Cycle Rides, Cycling, Travel | 1 Comment
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… is looking unlikely to happen these Easter hols. Prof. Hayling and I have been idly planning a cycle trip out to Osea Island, Essex, inspired by the spooky goings on of The Woman in Black. We thought to meet at Witham train station and cycle across at low tide (even more so than its near neighbour Mersea Island, Osea gets cut off from the mainland by the sea), and perhaps have a picnic before heading back. However, it appears that Osea is as verboten as Whispering Island in Five Have a Mystery to Solve. It is privately owned and you cannot visit unless you are paying to stay in private accommodation on the island (see Osea’s FAQs). Bah.

So, what should we do? Sneak across in the spirit of Wilfred, Toby (Billycock Hill) and some of the other Blyton boys (and girls) who cock a snook at authority and the concept of property ownership? Or follow the righteous example set by the upright Julian and do our very best to keep out of trouble? I’m afraid to say it will no doubt be the latter and we’ll try to come up with an alternative Essex cycle ride. I’m currently thinking of a trip to Tiptree (I like the way that phrase rolls off the keyboard), or a circular ride around Dedham Vale and Constable country. Unless anyone else has some good Essex cycle ride recommendations (more or less equidistant between Norwich and London if possible please!)?

Touring England

March 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Posted in Anne, Fun and Games, Learning Stuff, Travel | 2 Comments

A lovely Sunday afternoon spent with Anne: tea, scones and the Touring England board game – an exciting 1930s race around the country by motor car. Anne won. You actually tour England and Wales but the 1930s was clearly a time more indifferent to the divisions between the nations of Great Britain. Apart from that little slip up, the game is both educational (there are interesting facts about each town or city you have to visit) and fun.

Each players picks 8 cards at random and these decide the destinations you must set off to visit (pre-motorway) before returning to your home town. You choose your route and encounter a number of obstacles along the way (traffic lights, minor collisions, stubborn ferries that require you to roll at 6 before boarding). As the box says, this is a game requiring both skill and judgement.

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