Monday, 25 March 2013

The freeze continues

With more sub-zero temperatures predicted, I decided to spend another couple of nights on board. I got to the boat on Saturday morning and the internal temperature was teetering around zero. Time to fire up the engine, light the stove and put on a brew! Within 30 minutes the cabin was toasty-warm.

There's not much to do on board at the moment, apart from eating and drinking, keeping things clean and tidy, reading, practicing guitar and watching a few more repeats on TV. During more favourable weather I would go ffor a spin but as the weather is not good for pleasuable cruising, I pootled off to Ely by Landy.

Everywhere was looking and feeling a bit bleak - cue some Dickensian-looking photos...

On both days I took a few walks along the river in the hope of seeing a Kingfisher or Barn Owl but there was not much happening anywhere really, probably because of the cold. I really should get myself another dog.

This morning, while the internal temperature was still in the mid teens, outside it was bitterly cold. If this is spring, then you can keep it - roll on summer! 

Looking to the next few days, I think there may be a little more snow on the way and some cold nights but there is a warm front on its way - apparently. This will probably result in some rain and a melting of the remaining snow but the forecast still looks a bit wintery to me.
The water level in the river is fine at the moment and I don't think it should change much in the next week. I did, however, leave a little slack in my mooring ropes and an additional spring from the bank just in case someone decides to raise or lower the sluice at Denver without telling me!
Now some good news, Darren from East Cams District Council has done what he said he would do - the two laybys on the A14 have been cleared of all the rubbish. I actually saw one of the contractors with litter picker and bin bag in hand on Saturday, and this morning, I passed by again to see both laybys clear of litter. When I got home I emailed Darren to thank him. I hope they will be able to keep on top it from now on.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

All's quiet

With a Wednesday night forecast of -2 in Ely (which might go down to -6 in the rural area), I took myself off to Skylark to make sure she was OK. When I arrived yesterday at 3.30pm, it was still quite warm at plus 5!

I spent a quiet night on board without any problems and this morning I woke to a fairly good day. There was no frost around as the air was dry but the forecast for the next week is more of the same so I may pop over to Lazy Otter again.

On my way back home this morning, I pulled into that layby on the A14 and took some more photos of the offending rubbish - it was still there. When I got home I contacted the guy from East Cams DC to ask when it will be cleared away. I won't hold my breath waiting!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Skylark Loaf

A couple of weeks ago I had a go at baking a loaf of bread (with moderate success) and have spent the last 2 weeks developing my recipe. Delia has shown me some of her greatest tips, Paul Hollywood from the 'Great British Bake Off' has been very encouraging and even Michel Roux Jnr  has given me some very useful advice on things like drizzling olive oil and how to pronounce Bon Jovi and celeriac in french. They all explain how to make bread but they tend to leave out the detail of what works best so the most important thing I have learnt is - you really can't beat having a go yourself and learn from experience, your successes and your mistakes.

I soon realised a few basics:

First, baking bread is really easy. If I can do it, anyone can. Don't be put off by anyone who suggests it requires a lot of skill or special equipment. We know a little knowledge can be dangerous but it will also go a long way.

Second, it's fairly quick. The actual time doing things like preparation, mixing, kneading and clearing up only takes about 30 minutes. The rest of the time, the bread is either sitting by itself or baking in the oven. While the bread is doing 'its own thing', you can go off and do 'your own thing' - whatever that may be.

Third, it's very satisfying. Mixing natural ingredients, seeing them work together, creating something very attractive and then being able to eat it is fantastic. The effect is on a par with building your first narrowboat or going solo into your first lock. Really!

So, this is my recipe for


First, a few tips I worked out for myself:

Wash your hands.
Use either imperial or metric measurements - not both.
Get everything out at the start – your ingredients, utensils, scales, bowls, etc.
Make sure everything is clean.
If you have a recipe, read it, at least once.
It helps (but is not essential ) to keep things warm; if the temperatures are too cold the process will take longer.
If you mix the yeast with water that's too hot you will kill it. 
Wash up as you go along - you know it makes sense. 
Put on your favourite CD or listen to the Archers.
Open a bottle of plonk and pour yourself a large glass.

Pour ¼ pint of 'hand warm' water into a measuring jug and add one level table spoon of dried yeast and the same quantity of white or brown sugar. Stir gently and leave in a warm place for at least 15 minutes. The yeast should be ready when its frothy head is about an inch high. Stir gently again.

While the yeast is 'brewing' , mix one teaspoon of salt (optional), a handful of mixed fruit and/or nuts (desirable) and one pound of good quality bread flour (essential). I have found a 50/50 mix of strong wholegrain and strong white flour works well together. It rises nicely and creates a final texture somewhere between a warm crumpet and a house brick - oh, yes, and it tastes great.

Stir the yeast into the flour with a wooden spoon or similar. Add more warm water until it's thick enough to manhandle but not too sticky. Now put the spoon down and work it with your fingers. Add some honey and some olive oil. When it's got to a dry but homogeneous state, take it out of the bowl and put it on your worktop. You can add more flour to stop it sticking to the worktop but a few drizzles of olive oil works well too.

Kneading activates the gluten (apparently this is the magical stuff that 'glutens' the bread together). Kneading should be vigorous. Use both hands and take out your anger or frustration on it. It might help if you play a few tracks on your Queen CD - that works for me.  Push it, pull it, thump it, squash it, stretch it, fold it and keep doing this for 10 minutes. Now mould it into a ball about the size of a large grapefruit and put it back into the bowl and stretch clingfilm over the top to keep the moisture in. To 'prove' the yeast is working, place it near a source of heat like a radiator. It will work at almost any temperature (even in fridge) but should only take 1 - 2 hours near a radiator. Pour yourself another glass of wine. When it's finished (the bread that is), it should end up as big as a medium-sized melon. Remove it and knead it again to knock out the air pockets that have formed.

Now, you can either grease a warm baking tray with butter or use a bread tin with sides (it doesn't matter which). Place the bread mix on it or in it. You can use all the mixture in one round or long lump or divide it and shape it into fingers, baps, your initials or whatever takes your fancy - experiment.
You can make some deep cuts on the top with a sharp knife. This will increase the surface area, make the bread grow as the cuts open out in the oven and will make the final loaf look more interesting. Now spread some (optional) olive oil on it and sprinkle on porridge oats or similar. Place some more clingfilm over it, making sure it doesn't touch it as this will hinder its growth. I use a couple of mugs at either end of the tray to do this. Put it back near the radiator and pour yourself another glass of wine. When it’s grown back to the size of a medium melon, it's ready for the next stage.

Put a flat baking tray in the bottom of the oven and preheat it to 200 deg for a non-fan oven or 180 deg for fan oven. When it's up to temperature pour in some cold water. This will immediately create steam and will help the baking process. Put the bread, on its tray, in the middle of the oven making sure it has plenty of room to rise if it wants to. Shut the door and pour yourself another glass of wine.
Look at it in about 30 minutes.  If it needs more time, turn the oven down to 150 deg. and give it another 10 minutes or so. When it looks done, take it out and tap the bottom with your finger. If it sound hollow, its done. If it sounds damp (however that sounds), it needs more time. It may benefit from being turned over for the last 5 minutes; a bit like you did on the beach last year on holiday. When it’s finished, place it on a wire baking tray and don't be tempted to try it until it’s cold.
Finally, cut yourself and a friend two generous chunks and add whatever you like on top, eg butter and jam, marmalade, honey, banana and custard, bovril and peanut butter, etc, etc. Then, with a full glass of wine to wash it down, test it to destruction.

Now, just to prove I did it, a photo.


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Plans are in hand

As the weather has not been good enough for pleasurable cruising, I have been developing plans for the spring.

Plan 1. A trip in Skylark to Peterborough and maybe Northampton via Denver Sluice and Salter's Lode. I think we'll need to set aside 3 or 4 weeks to do this justice but we'll see how it pans out.

Plan 2. A circular cycle ride from home taking in most of the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. The round trip measures about 200 miles so I should be able to do this in 4 days/3 nights (if the weather brightens up).

Plan 3. Performing at the first 'Buskers' afternoon at the Limes Hotel in Needham Market. This is scheduled for Sunday, 14th April at 1.30pm so, if you can make it, come along to watch (and hopefully enjoy it), or if you can sing and/or play an instrument, come and strut your stuff on stage. That could be fun too!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The good, the mad and the ugly

I've just got back from two nights on the boat. When I arrived on Monday the internal temperature was a chilly 3 degrees but everything in the waterpipe department was still flowing freely. Overnight the outside temperature went down to minus 6 or so but inside Skylark it was in the high teens. That solid fuel stove really does push out some heat.
On Monday, it was good weather for walking so I took a hike into Stretham along the river and over the fields. The ground was still very waterlogged and the paths a bit muddy. The wind was from thre north and these pictures don't give any indication about how cold it was. Believe me, it was cold...

On Tuesday, the weather was still good so I drove into Cambridge and looked for the Sedgwick Museum, recommended by Rose. As you're not allowed to photograph anything inside, I took this memorable shot outside. As you can probably guess the museum is mainly about fossils and rocks. Everything is set in very attractive hardwood Victorian cabinets - no expense seems to have been spared in the presentation. My conclusion, while I have a general interest in things rocky and fossily, I found the exhibits about Darwin the most interesting. It's something about learning what made them go off in a smallboat to the wildest parts of the world for years on end without any knowledge of what they would find. They experienced challenges, deprivations, and, for some of them, even death but they also experienced great opportunities, discovered fantastic natural wonders and built for themselves reputations that would live long after their own deaths. Their sense of adventure stands as an inspiration to us all - much more inspiring (I think) than a pile of rocks or old bones!
As I left I was approached by a young Spanish researcher who wanted to know what I had thought about the museum. I said it was all good but I would have preferred to see more about the people who had found the relics, like Darwin and his chums. She noted it down as best she could and asked if I would be interested in being contacted again to help Cambridge City Council make the museum even better. I agreed and await their call.
It was still very cold, even in the city, so I had a brief wander around the market and the nearby streets, then headed back to the Landy. As I returned along the Cam, I took a few shots of Jesus Lock. While it is in tip-top condition, I guess this is not used much now as there are only a few live-aboards upstream and they don't seem to ever move, and visitor numbers to the city are probably low due to the new 10% charge. For me that would have amounted to an extra £80, really not worth it. However, it looks nice...albeit on foot.
Back on board, I busied myself running the engine, cleaning and polishing, preparing my slap up evening meal and generally chilling out. Before I battened down the hatches, I went outside to check the tension on the ropes and as I stood at the end of the jetty, I heard a couple of birds madly chattering to each other. You know the sort of thing - they might have had a disagreement over a fish or one of them may have pinched the others playmate. Anyway, it went on for a few seconds and got louder so I looked towards the stern of the boat and there were two Kingfishers flapping about and squawking at each other with wide open beaks. They settled on the gunwales of Skylark for a moment, then took off, in my direction. Like miniture models of prototype jet planes, they darted under under my feet and along the underside of the pontoon to the jetty. Like a couple of blue and orange flashes, they zoomed out of the other end and took off into the wide blue yonder. What on earth was that all about? For me it was a wonderful surprise. I have never seen Kingfishers so close before - a fantastic piece of luck!
A brief look at the internet suggests this was probably a spat between two males; one of them trespassing on the others territory:

Kingfisher Behaviour:
The Kingfisher is highly territorial. Since it must eat around 60% of its body weight each day, it is essential to have control over a suitable stretch of river. It is solitary for most of the year, roosting alone in heavy cover. If another kingfisher enters its territory, both birds 'display' from perches and fights may occur. One bird will grab the others beak and try to hold it under water. Pairs form in the autumn but each bird retains a separate territory, generally at least 1 kilometre long.

Now for the ugly stuff. Driving home this morning in brilliant sunshine, the Cambridgeshire and Suffolk countryside looked lovely - then I got to Newmarket and the appalling sight of rubbish on the A14 verges. It's mainly the bit to the east of the A11 junction.

I've now emailed the local District Council and asked if they have noticed the problem and can do something to sort it out...see if you can pick out the litter in these photos.
By the way, it's not like this elsewhere along the A14 because most of the local Councils are keeping their bits clean and tidy. And as if to prove this point, as I drove on past Bury St Edmunds, I saw the roadside litter team of Mid Suffolk District Council in their hiviz jackets litter picking their patch. It looked great, not a fag paper to be seen. Well done guys, keep it up.

Later note: A nice man from ECDC has emailed me saying he's instructed his contractors to sort it out. We'll see what happens.

Now, not wanting to end on a negative, let's have a look at some of my neighbours at Lazy Otter in the late evening sunshine...


Monday, 4 March 2013


I decided to take a quick trip into Ely yesterday. Just over an hour from Lazy Otter, and I moored in my favourite spot next to the Maltings. Is that big willow starting to turn a lighter shade of green?

I spent a very leisurely couple of hours looking around the town including a walk around the Cathedral.

I mentioned a few months ago, the 'powers that be' have introduced an entrance fee of £7.50 or thereabouts but on Sunday, it's free. Now I don't blame the Cathedral chappies for trying to earn a bit of cash from the day trippers but I don't see why regular visitors should pay the same. Anyway, I took my opportunity and paid them a free visit, thank you very much. And very nice it was too.

Monday morning was very quiet. I didn't hear any rowers or people going to the station so I wondered if it was a bank holiday or something. Perhaps they were all just being considerate to lazy boaters having a lie in. I got up at 9.00am, made myself an industrial strength coffee and tentatively looked outside. I found the morning was already showing signs of being fab-u-lus. There was no wind to speak of and the sun, yes, the sun, was shining. Being only the 4th of March, I couldn't expect it to be too bright but it was there in a spring-like hazy sort of way.

I aimed to go back today because I'm taking Rose into Cambridge tomorrow to view the Quentin Blake exhibition at the Fitzwilliam, so I took a brisk morning walk up the hill to the Cathedral. As I said, the infernal charges apply on all days except Sunday, so I thought I would test the system. I approached the main entrance in a nonchalant, but inquisitive manner and asked if I could just pop in for a few minutes because there was something I wanted to see that I had missed yesterday but was told clearly that the charges don't allow for that. Undeterred, I left and went around to the side door and tentatively opened the latch. Inside, a lady sat behind a desk and when I asked the same thing, I was told the charges didn't allow that. I left and decided I would try again, another time, but with a different cover story. If that fails, I may have to revert to praying.

I left Ely at mid day. It was looking very attractive in its hazey spring sunshine. And it was so warm, I was able to open the front doors and most of the portholes to give the boat a good airing. Fab-u-lus!

Now the boring bit.

I have a message for the Highways Agency (or would it be Suffolk County Council?): my frequent trips along the A14 would be very much nicer if someone could spend a little time and money getting rid of the roadside litter. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's in the negatives at the moment (and I'm being polite). It really is poor for most of my route and it detracts from our beautiful countryside but the laybys to the east of Newmarket are appalling. I totally blame the mindless, inconsiderate people who drop it but whoever is responsible for the thankless task of litter clearance is either doing something more important somewhere else, has had their budget slashed or just can't be bothered to sort it out. Of course, they could be waiting for the grass to grow to cover it up but, believe me, someone has to get out there and clear it up - it's a bl**dy mess!!

End of rant.