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|Peter and Pauline Curtis's Christmas Newsletter|
Before starting this years newsletter I looked back over the last couple of years and I can see the same themes reappearing - water remains central although this year there has been a decided change of phase.
Once more we began the year by Escaping to New Zealand for three months covering much of both Islands. We spent most of our time touring and, whenever possible, camping off the beaten track. Every year we find fresh interests and much of our time was spent exploring NZ Heritage including the role of Gold. We spent a lot of time in the Goldfields in Otago (South Island), which is also an area now developing some first class wines - very convenient. The Goldfield Areas were fascinating and Gold played a formative role in the development of New Zealand. There is still a lot of evidence on the ground from tiny villages hardly changed in a hundred years to the scars on the countryside from dredging the rivers - like a giants plowed field with furrows 25 meters deep and a hundred meters wide. We also visited goldfields in the Coromandel and Westland - New Zealand Gold has all been written up, as has our continuing research into New Zealand Wines, Wineries and Vineyard restaurants.
At the other end of the scale we visited Hayes Engineering workshop, again little changed since it was closed 50 years ago. It is still capable of operating and was specially opened up for us to see as we were looking around the outside and seemed interested - a very typically New Zealand reaction, you ask a couple of questions and you are whisked behind the scenes for hours by enthusiasts - it happened time and time again with aircraft, cars and ships. Hayes most famous inventions were to do with the seemingly mundane but actually crucial job of tensioning the wire for fences. His designs started in 1905 and were soon in use all over New Zealand. They were developed further and the final version produced in 1924 is still in use now and finally won one of the most prestigious international engineering innovation awards in 1982 - that must be a record! We find these little snatches of history fascinating.
Coming back to the theme of water and steam we revisited Esme and Colin at the Steam Museum at Tokomaru - Colin has not been well but they were still keeping the steaming days running. We also had another trip on the last remaining steam paddle wheeler in NZ, the Waimarie on the Whanganui River. The Waimarie (meaning Good Fortune) has been lovingly restored to a condition she probably never experienced in her working days when she fought her way up the rapids of the Whanganui, paddled, pulled and even poled by generations of river men. We also had another trip on Lake Wakatipu on the Earnslaw, the Lady of the Lake whose steam engines are still as smooth and sweet as when they were made nearly a hundred years ago.
We completed the steam trio with the Steam Tug Lyttleton, built by Ferguson Bros. of Glasgow and sailed out via the Suez Canal under her own steam in 1907 taking 69 days - the 6 stops for bunkering took 15 of those days. The saloon would grace a private yacht. She remained in service for over 60 years and she is now lovingly maintained by another group of enthusiasts. She probably has one of the best-qualified crews almost regardless of size in the world and often carries four with full skippers tickets as well as the now increasingly rare engineering staff with steam tickets.
We hope the few cameos above have given some insight in our growing interest in New Zealand Heritage. We have started to build up a Library of early NZ books and it is also fascinating to see how the portrayal of history has been distorted by "political correctness" in even a century. One wonders even more about what we take as read here in the UK.
Back to water, the highlight was the Sailing in New Zealand. This time we hoped to go to Great Barrier island and round the Coromandel to the Mercury Islands where Cook stopped to time the transit of Mercury. We got to Great Barrier Island - the size of Guernsey and a similar time away by ferry - with a few adventures on route. Pete still has vivid memories of trying to free the (supposedly) self-furling jib in increasingly strong winds and seas as we powered down on the islands and rocks off Great Barrier. The front of even a small yacht is a very lonely place when you are only held by a safety harness arguing with recalcitrant lengths of tangled rope and jammed gear in rough seas. We then spent a couple of delightful days in the sheltered harbours before the weather forecasts forced us to abandon plans for the Mercury Islands and run for the shelter of the Coromandel coast and back to Waiheke Island where we rode out the worst of the storm. We could not even get ashore to see Jenny and Kev who now have a Bach on the Island.
After wading through the huge piles of mail and catching up with Pauline's Charity Work it was time to set off for a part of England we hardly know - the fens and the East Anglian waterways. "Taking the Tube to Bedford" was a summer cruise with the David Piper Owners Club exploring the Eastern parts of the inland waterways system. Careful scheduling resulted in our departing at the start of the Queens Jubilee weekend. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and we stopped to greet the Terrapin, which was basking on a branch opposite the house. Our evening was brightened by a firework display, near Abingdon, and the locks were decorated with bunting and flags.
We extended the trip via the delightful but tortuous and meandering upper Thames. On one corner we were surprised to confront what appeared to be an adolescent gannet. We know the bird from New Zealand but had not seen one in England, and certainly not on the Thames. The lockkeeper at Shifford said it was a permanent feature, and was thought to be about 3 years old - it was still very quiet and we spent time looking at his pictures of the otters which are around his lock. We moored easily in Lechlade just before lunch. Where was everyone on this Bank Holiday Monday? Has Foot and Mouth finished boating in England?
We worked our way up the Oxford canal and down the Grand Union to Stoke Bruerne to meet up with friends and listen to the Mikron Theatre Company. Mikron has been touring the waterways for 31 years, and they arrived in aboard their vintage narrowboat Tyseley. "All Steamed Up" is about the adventures of the Cornishman Richard Trevithick, and tells the remarkable story of this giant of a man, who invented the first practical high-pressure steam engine and built the first steam locomotive, yet is practically forgotten.
The next day we met up with the rest of the DPOC group and set off down to the Nene and on towards Cambridge and Bedford via the Northampton canal, the Nene, the Middle Levels, the Great Ouse and the Cam. There were also many associated smaller rivers, drains and lodes to explore. It is a fascinating area where the land is below the level of the rivers and pumped dry for agriculture. In some areas the ground has sunk 12 feet in the last hundred or so years. The drainage schemes go back to the 17th century and gradually rivers have been straightened and many massive drainage channels cut.
It is an area well worth visiting and we will return again - there are so many contrasts from wide placid stretches on the Great Ouse to the excitement of tidal stretches. Some of the lodes were so weeded up it was almost impossible to move - one boat got stuck for 4 hours. In contrast there was the NT Wicken Lode where the channel was only just wide enough for boats to pass and the water so clear it was like looking into an underwater garden. Landside, there are magnificent Cathedrals at Peterborough and Ely not to speak of the other place to see. We spent a month in the area and in total were away from home for 7 weeks.
Finally I should answer the question many of you will be asking - Why the title "Taking the Tube to Bedford". This comes about from the first days on the Great Ouse when we were listening in to snatches of the maritime radio traffic from local boats, mostly glass fibre, who obviously did not expect visiting narrowboats to be similarly equipped - we could hear our progress being reported by such statements as "The four steel tubes have left the moorings at ... ". This went on, to our amusement for several days, until one of our number broke and reported that one of our boats would have four plastic fenders in the next lock after which there was a deafening silence and we heard nothing more about us on that channel. Discussion much later with one of the locals provided the explanation - it is apparently a local joke that narrowboats are extruded in long lengths and crimped off to the required size and it must have been a considerable embarrassment to have been overheard by visitors!
Once we got back it was on to a different watery occupation. We had a fruit crisis in the garden and the freezers were already full so it was making gage and plum jam and chutney until we ran out of jars and, of course, Winemaking. Our wine stocks had been seriously depleted by the DPOC so there was a good excuse and we have batches of Gooseberry, Blackcurrant, Loganberry, Cherry, Mixed fruit and Stoneberry bubbling away - 24 demijohns at the last count which should keep us going for several years!
Continuing the interest in Steam we went to Southampton on a trip organised by the Great Britain Trust to see the tall ships and have a special tour of HMS Warrior, the first fully steel battleship, steam powered of course. We have belonged to the Great Britain Trust for many years and they have finally been awarded a massive lottery grant to preserve the Great Britain. She is a classic ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, abandoned in the Falklands for almost a century before finally being re-floated and returned to her home port of Bristol. Unfortunately her engines, once the most powerful steam engines ever built, will never run again.
Over the August Bank Holiday we went north to stay with Miles and Felicity near to Huddersfield. We wanted to visit the three and a quarter mile Standedge Tunnel under the Pennines, one of the seven marvels of the waterways. It is still the longest canal tunnel in the country and has just reopened as part of the restoration of the Huddersfield Narrow. We hope to cruise the Huddersfield Narrow and Rochdale canal in the next couple of years, hopefully as another DPOC cruise. Mikron have made the Huddersfield canal the subject of their other play "Warehouse Hill" this year and are based at nearby Marsden. On our way back we took the steam railway running from Bolton Abbey - a fascinating little line run by a small band of real enthusiasts.
There was also considerable preparation for Pauline's 50th birthday party, mostly restricted to her friends although my sister and husband were over from Guernsey at the time. It seemed to go well with the first arrivals bearing Champagne and Foie Gras at 1100 and the last leaving just before midnight. We had laid out many of our better homemade wines and in some cases had three successive years to taste. The weather was kind and many sat down by the river and we organised a boat trip for those who did not know the Thames well.
Two days later we went north to join our DPOC friends on a transit of the Anderton lift, part of the autumn cruise which we could not make. This is another of the seven wonders of the waterways - a huge structure that lifted boats up and down 70 feet to the River Weaver from the Trent and Mersey Canal close to Nantwich. It has just been restored after 15 years slow degradation after corrosion was found. We spent the afternoon on a trip organised by Brian round the Lock gate manufacturing yard at Nantwich before the long drive home.
Her birthday continued with a good head of steam - Pete's present was a trip on the Orient express pulled by the original Flying Scotsman. The trip, the second great indulgence, was all we had hoped. The coaches, Pullmans from the 1920s were beautifully restored, the service from another era, the food very good and the engine one of the most famous built. The Flying Scotsman was the first engine to haul a train at a verified 100 mph and much latter in her working life she did the longest non-stop run under steam of 450 miles in Australia. She has also been faithfully restored to her former glory but is currently restricted by the state of the track to 70 mph. It is an interesting fact that the current schedule by 125s from Bristol to London is slower than in the days of steam.
The biggest problem these days with steam trains is water - we stopped in Chertsey and a fire tender drew up to fill us up and the same on the return trip. The trip took us from London Victoria to Southampton in a leisurely two hours whilst lunch was served and ending at the QE2 terminal in the docks. We then visited the aviation museum, the birthplace of the Schneider Trophy racing seaplanes, the Spitfire and the classic flying boats. The founder showed us round. It was then by boat to see the replica of Cook's Endeavour which many of you will have seen in the TV series The Ship. The day was rounded off by a leisurely Dinner on the way back.
We also visited the Kew Bridge Steam Museum where we are members of the Kew Bridge Engines Trust. They have a magnificent collection of the pumping engines, which used to provide water to London, including a working 90-inch bore beam engine. They steam every weekend but this was a visit to an exhibition of Richard Trevithick's work. Trevithick is still hardly known but on Christmas Eve 1801 he took some friends for a ride on his latest invention up Camborne Hill - the first ever vehicle driven by steam and 28 years before Stevenson's Rocket. He invented the first practical high pressure steam engine, the only type now in use and the Cornish boiler, still in use and the basis of most high pressure boilers yet he died in poverty. We could not resist a repeat performance of the Mikron giving a matinee of "All Steamed Up" to round the visit off.
Penultimately I come to our cruise down to South Africa and on round The Cape to Mauritius, an area of the world we have never visited. The Queen Elizabeth 2 was as impressive as ever, and following a couple of incidents involving water (floods etc) we had two upgrades in quick succession and completed most of the journey in a style to which we would happily become accustomed. It is impossible to do justice in a paragraph to a journey covering Madeira, Dakar (Senegal), Cape Town and Durban (SA), Mauritius, Cape Town, Namibia, St Helena (we failed to land as the sea were too rough for the tenders), Tenerife and Vigo (Spain).
We found fascinating contrasts in a continent intent on destroying itself with the assistance of the World Banks and Aid Agencies. South Africa is the exception, but is now teetering on the brink of losing Nelson Mandela's vision and descending into the downward spiral gripping the rest of Africa. There is superb wildlife roaming free in vast national parks throughout Africa whilst man lives in small cages behind razor wire and protected by alarms with "Armed Response". We have just found time to write it all up before the year ended - you can find the story at The Cape Town Line which is complete with an introduction to the Queen Elizabeth 2 Liner and coverage of the journey in three parts with 60 illustrations.
Finally Pauline took Watercolour painting classes on board the QE2 and has taken to it like a duck to water.
Are we still glad we left the rat race? Yes, yes and yes, and a few good reasons follow.