Saturday, 28 June 2014

Silk Road

This week UNESCO added 22 sites along the 2,000-year old Silk Road through China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to its list of World Heritage Sites along with China's Grand Canal. The Grand Canal dates back nearly 2,500 years and at almost 1,800km long is the longest artificial waterway in the world.

What has that to do with Britain's canals? Well, the world-famous 'Silk Road' begins in China and ends in Macclesfield on the Macclesfield Canal in Cheshire. China began producing silk fabrics in 3,500BC, but the practice didn't reach England until the 18th century. High production costs in London drove silk merchants to seek lower prices in provincial towns such as Macclesfield, where hand-loom weaving in garret houses was gradually being replaced by weaving in large mills. At the height of the Silk Industry, Macclesfield had become the world's greatest producer of finished silk, with 120 mills and dye houses, and silk is still produced there, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Timely then for us to have written a feature on the Macclesfield Canal for our friends at Find out some of the highlights and reasons to visit the Macclesfield Canal
- and why not take a trip to one of Macclesfield's four Silk Museums while you're there?

Monday, 16 September 2013

Birmingham Library opened by Malala Yousafzai

Library of Birmingham
I was one of the 10,000 who hip bumped into the new Library of Birmingham at its opening ceremony. The launch was a massive PR success with coverage from the BBC and all the national newspapers. Even I was caught by Al Jazeera TV to give my opinion. Media interest is fabulous, but for me, too many journalists are enjoying the hoo-hah around the £190m cost of the building at the expense of debating and reporting on the more important issue of the library service.

The exterior drama of the building is the glory of Birmingham and architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo but inside, 5 floors dance intimately with books, spiralling the eyes, sparkling the mind. The library director Brian Gambles is quoted in the Bookseller (6 Sept issue) as saying "books were at the heart of this project". I have a hunch this is the right idea, if the engaged faces of children I've spotted in libraries across Britain are any sign of what British citizens born since 2003 want for their future.

On its launch, what did Brummies think about their new library? Speeches at any opening ceremony usually expect puffballs of idealistic words from the mouths of suited dignitaries – and then, if the dignitaries are lucky, the crowds will smile and clap. At the opening ceremony of Birmingham Library the microphone voice said the project would "bring people and communities together"... Par! We in the crowd knew it already had. We'd come from our homes in taxis, on buses, trains, cars, chauffeur-driven cars, on our bikes, on foot. We'd chatted to strangers as we waited for the ceremony to start, and shared the excitement of this day in Birmingham.

The crowd were craning to get a photo of Malala Yousafzai

In the crowd, I stood next to Doctor Trueman from Eastenders, and on my other side was an assertive woman in a mobility scooter. Young men's suits and old ladies' shopping bags rustled together, children jumped up and down to see above the heads of the grown-ups and babies fell asleep in their pushchairs. All sorts were here. And everybody was waiting for Malala Yousafzai.

We listened and clapped at the speeches of the other dignitaries, but finally when Malala took the microphone, to officially open the library, the crowd's response to her was a tear jerker before she even spoke.

She told us it was different here than in Pakistan for girls, "even children of 6 and 7 have read more books than me" "I will empower myself with knowledge" "books are the weapons that can defeat terrorism" "books are very precious... some books visit the corner of your heart and some books go out into the universe"… Wow, I want to read the book this girl will surely write herself, one day! And I hope everyone who wants to read it will be able to pop to the Library of Birmingham and borrow it for a while.

Musicians lined up with the books inside the Library

Saturday, 20 July 2013

In the heatwave - Britain's Coolest Canals

Those of us who already know and love Britain's canals might be forgiven for wanting to keep the secret to ourselves. But the canals are a national treasure to be shared, and our mission is to tell as many folk as we can about all the amazing things to see and do on the towpaths and the water.

We've just teamed up with, website of Martin Dunford (co-founder of Rough Guides) and Jonathan Knight (founder of Cool Camping) - to write a blog for them, Britain's Coolest Canals, about a few of our favourite canal routes - the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, Macclesfield Canal, Llangollen Canal, Worcester & Birmingham Canal, and the Oxford Canal. Ooooh, and from the blog, you can also win a £1000 narrowboat holiday with UK Boat Hire!

Thanks Cool Places! These boys know a thing or two about travel and leisure time, and it seems they agree with us girls - canals are cool!

Horseboating on the Llangollen Canal

Friday, 12 April 2013

Canal wildlife through the porthole

As a tiny business, we always have a deadline for something looming over hurried Weetabix and rushed elevenses. But the problem with living on the canals is that at this time of year, it's impossible to keep your eyes focused on a laptop when there's so much happening outside the boat.

This morning I 'wasted' time watching the reeds opposite the Coolcanals boat. They're hiding a nest. Only the little red speck of her bill gives the show away. Then HE arrives with purpose, to and fro, to and fro... With attitude, he's on a mission to bring her the best possible reeds to make the perfect nest for their babies.

On his way through the reeds to the nest, reed in bill 

Handing over the reed to her in the well-camouflaged nest

Same place last August - the happy result of such hard work!

Monday, 25 March 2013

I'm dreaming of a white... Easter?

This winter has been cosy for us aboard the 'coolcanals' narrowboat, all tucked up at basecamp in UK Boat Hire's marina at Alvechurch on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.

But Spring is here! And we've set off on our travels again. Coolcanals is back 'off-grid'... relying on the sunshine to fill our hearts and charge our solar panels... Errr... Hmmmm...

Clearing snow off our struggling solar panels

Canal & River Trust keeping the Tardebigge Flight open whatever the weather

Nothing can spoil hireboaters' holiday

Mind your heads under the bridges though!

Bit chilly for bare feet

Monday, 28 January 2013

Life and death on the canals - a tribute to a friend

It won't reach the headlines in the media - Dai wasn't a celebrity. He was just an ordinary man, living a quiet life on his narrowboat Jandai with his wife Jan and dog Foxxie. He was one of the rare few who genuinely travel the canals all year round, and was proud to be a continuous cruiser. His boat was his pride and joy, and the canals were his home. He was out walking his dog on the towpath in this January's snow. He died here. Suddenly. An acute heart attack. His dog wouldn't leave him, his wife couldn't bring him back.

Can there be warmth in the cold certainty of death? In the real world, away from the canals, Dai and I probably wouldn't have met. Our differences would have placed us far apart in prescribed geography, society, politics. But we met on the canals and shared good, real, wholesome friendship over bottles of wine, homecooked food, and boaters' chat. It happens like that on the canals.

When I'm writing for our Coolcanals books, I unapologetically rave repeatedly about the genuine warmth and charms of the canal community. I feel it's my responsibility as a guide writer to try to avoid cliches and idealism when our Coolcanals mantra focuses on the best of canal life - but at its best, canal life IS special. When people like us who live on boats meet passing strangers on their narrowboats, deep life-long friendships can begin from these chance encounters. Martine and I met Dai and Jan only just over a year ago (our sailaway narrowboat was built by Kingfisher Narrowboats who also built Jandai) but we immediately had so much in common - especially our way of life and our love for the canals. Dai loved his engine and boaty gadgets, and although he probably wouldn't have liked to be described as such, we knew that under his macho exterior he was a sweet man who would always give his help to anyone who needed it.

In death, the canal community cares deeply. Dai's wife and dog are wrapped in canal people's love and care. Canals were Dai's home, his community, his life... He loved the canals and they loved him back. But more than anything, he loved and adored his wife Jan and dog Foxxie - and it would be a comfort to him to know that they can rely on the canal community to love them too. 

Happier times - photographing us photographing them! Off on their travels again, leaving us cosily tucked up in Alvechurch marina for our winter mooring (Dai loved to tease us after we gave up continuous cruising)

One of our last get-togethers on our boat early in the new year - unlike us, Dai was a fabulous & keen cook so he had to endure our homecooking efforts!