Saturday 23 February 2013

Park and Ride! the future of entering the urban environs

February half term and the lady who sleeps on my left and myself have just returned from a four day child free break in Amsterdam. We emerged early from Euro’s tunnel, breezed past Bruges, pootled through the Polders, crossed the Maas and its massive carp, before traipsing over a thousand ditches and dykes to the Dutch capital’s Olympic stadium where we declined the offer of a “Fanny Blankers-Koen” experience (two laps of the track in retro shorts with a baby at the breast) opting instead for the excellent Park & Ride scheme.

Enthusing about a Park & Ride scheme in this way serves as a reminder that years are ticking by, but also acts as an indicator that any crisis may almost be past. Dreams of Harleys and hoodless hairdresser cars are gone, and the merits of “Park & Ride” and its associated subjects seem to serve for a withering life’s rumination.

It worked like a dream (the park and!)

A super safe car watched over by a man in a hat and epaulettes throughout its stay and free tram tickets in and out of town for only eight zobs a day, if you are driving to Amsterdam I can’t recommend it highly enough, 24 hour parking on the street on which we stayed was the best part of fifty zobs, sans the security guard in full fig.

We stayed on the banks of a canal fifty odd yards from where Anne Frank got stuck in the loft. Canals have long held an appeal for me and Mdme, and in 1990s BC (before children) when house prices were way beyond our means we came very close to buying a boat to live on. A historical working water course that served as a home, employment and also supported a diverse habitat was typical of the canals that criss-crossed the North West and threw up engineering leviathans like the Anderton lift and Pontcysyllte aqueduct. Canals are all about man having some control over the forces of water which is pretty much what I strive for in this job day in day out.

Ensconced in the canal ring laid out in the 17th century we could cover pretty much all of town on foot. As canal systems go it doesn’t seem too complicated, flat land, no locks just push the water where you want boys, just go a bit steady if you plan on putting up anything over two stories as the land’s a bit squishy.

All of the buildings lining the canals of the inner ring are four stories or more, all bar a few chucked up in recent years are slightly off centre. Built on soft ground hundreds of years ago many have settled to an angle where they lean forward, back or slump on the shoulder of the adjoining house, take out the wrong house and a whole street could crumble, there’s no front doors plucked from Homebase fitted here and while we are on doors most front doors and windows on the canal ring are over eight feet high. Your average Dutchman/woman can be a big old unit but the front doors on our street hinted at inhabitants of Hagrid’s proportions: our ground floor apartment had curtains that would not have been out of place in a school hall.

Food was a surprise, Indonesian was everywhere and drew rave reviews, but the best we ate was at a nondescript cafe that scored well on trip advisor (8th out of 1721 Amsterdam restaurants no less) the menu was filled with fish and game and I punished the Duck and Venison while Mdme opted for Scallops and Beef. On a neighbouring table a distinguished Dutch couple were eagerly devouring a quorum of quail, Mevrouw who had remarkable eyebrows and could have passed for the mother of Ming the Merciless mishandled a wing that subsequently flew beneath our table. Unperturbed by age, appetite or etiquette she dropped to her septuagenarian (I’m guessing) knees and scrabbled around for the errant bones and any meat that may remain, emerging wing in hand, to her table as if nothing has happened.

Both the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum were under refurbishment, and as a result an abridged version of their contents were on show which suited us fine, all the good bits without the tat. The Potato eaters didn’t disappoint and neither did all the swirly stuff with black crows dark skies and flaming Cyprus trees he produced when marbles were being lost.
I can’t get excited about old Dutch masters so the Rijksmuseum started as a box ticking exercise. Loads of Rembrandts that were much better than anticipated but the best for me was Vermeer and his Milkmaid, this man could draw sunshine and the painting hung in its temporary hall with a dozen other masterpieces drew the eye as soon as we walked through the door. Twentieth century stuff is more to Mdme and my tastes and the plastic chairs of Stedelijk museum along with the odd Picasso and Magritte filled a morning although all were bested by some photos by Ansel Adams.

Culture done we returned to the streets. At the age of thirteen I visited Amsterdam on a school trip, things were a little different in those days and for much of a three day stay we were left to our own devices. A lot of our time was spent jumping on and off trams and wandering aimlessly around the streets wondering at the funny smells emanating from some cafes and why the Dutch had a preference for red light bulbs when football matches suggested that their colour of first choice was undoubtedly orange. Each evening after our hostel tea of packet soup and mild cheese we were released onto the streets; I can remember several passes through and a brief game of football with some colourful characters in what I now know is the red light district.

On this trip Mdme and myself walked its streets on a late morning. An elderly Amsterdamonian was restapling the faux fur that surrounded the window of a store titled “Pure Lust” while his wife buffed up the exotic window display with some Mr Sheen. Further on a fancy underpant emporium seemed shackled under the name of “stout”, while a few doors down a young lady, who I can only assume had just got out of the shower, appeared at a window waving frantically and beckoning me closer. I didn’t recognise her as a follower of this page although she may have taken The Shooting Times and wanted to pick me up on some rubbish that I have written of late. I tried to take her picture but as if by magic Larry the large Latvian appeared and persuaded me otherwise. Obviously a jealous type, he had nothing to fear, as I only had eyes for the lady who was, at the time, scowling on my left.

With water, water everywhere opportunities for fishing were keenly anticipated. The travel rod and bits of tackle were packed but were removed at border control (our front door) by security (Mdme) there is fishing to be had in the middle of Amsterdam and some super Zander can be caught down near the station where the Amstel River meets up with the sea. Guided fishing can be had, with spinning the preferred method of choice. The canals themselves contain a few fish but are ultimately void of life. Victor the vole man would have a fit at the amount of “hard bank” and we saw very few water fowl, although the plethora of ditches and channels on the city’s periphery are a more attractive place for a wildfowl to hang out and we saw thousands and thousands of all types of geese on our drive up to town.

Four days flew by and Mdme wishes to return. In spite of, or because of the sex and drugs and rock and roll, it is the friendliest city we have visited in recent years. Incredibly tolerant and non judgemental we only felt threatened during the morning and evening rush hour when a million strong peloton careered all ways around town on their sit up and beg bikes. Mums with a host of kids in a box on the front of a bike, glamorous city workers in designer gear, shop delivery boys and much more besides, all peddling furiously making the most of a flat land with no hills.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Hay Knives and Celebrity Squares

The current generalissimo at command centre central of all things environmental, has declared that the rain we have experienced over the past twelve months is of a variety previously unseen on these shores:

Scene 1 Lord Smith of Finsbury is preparing his speech in a warm office in an urban environs with a cast of thousands tending to his every need.

Generalissimo Smith “Microwave rain is a..

1st minion, (sotto voce ) “Wrong oven Generalissimo sir it's Convection....Convection rain”

Generalissimo Smith “My apologies, halogen rain is a rele.......

1st minion, (sotto voce ) “Convection! Convection!”

Generalissimo Smith “Ah yes, convection rain is a new phenomenon that this country had better get its head around because experts predict it is the future of rainfall in theses Isles...... ( fill/wing it, give them what they want and bugger the substance)

Convection rain is not a new occurrence in the UK; mention is made of it in meteorological records dating back over a hundred years. We had an exceptional amount of rain fall during last summer but this winter’s rainfall has been marginally above average. As I write there is a programme on national TV dramatically titled “The year that Britain flooded” a more apt title for the rivers of this region would be “The year that the chalkstreams got out of jail” needless to say I am sitting in the kitchen away from the TV but close to a small gammon joint that is almost ready to come out of the oven. Since both a roof and a bridge gave way beneath my weight, the lady who sleeps on my left has declared that calories must now be counted. As a result I am now half a yard closer to Usain Bolt in the run for the bus but food tends to crop up at regular intervals during conversation. I am quite surprised that I am trusted to be left alone in a room with only a part cooked ham for company.

Anyway, the rain and the flooding

Much more of the sensational hyperbolic rubbish on rain with decrees from those completely unsuited to the post to which they have been appointed, and I’m donning my loin cloth and heading off to a cave to grow the mother of all beards. The world is increasingly ruled by loons and it’ll be a hermit’s life for me.

A few yards downstream much of Bransbury Common is under several inches of water, (which is how it should be at this time of year). There are islands amongst the puddles and parts where, if you went through the top crust, you would just keep on going down. It wasn’t the easiest trek for the world’s wobbliest spaniel, but he did insist on coming along.

At home the river is in great condition. When the sun shines again the jaded look that the river assumed for two winters will be washed away and the gravel will take on a sparkle unseen for several seasons. Ranunculus is peeping through and an April weed cut is guaranteed. The spring ditches that run down through the village are running well but drop back after a succession of rain free days. Otters are about, and one of our few remaining carp was duffed up at the weekend. The trout in the river are back on full form and take any olive that puts in an appearance around midday.

On the Itchen the main river carries far more colour than the Dever and is close to going over the banks. Weed growth should once again be prolific during the coming season with the only course of action to cut everything out.

On the small stream water is also high and I have been digging one bank back that has encroached a little too far into the channel during three years of low flows. I have had to do the same at home at the top of the Millstream. In a nod to retro riverkeeping I have been using one of the few hay knives to escape a life hung on a country pub wall to cut the marginal growth that has encroached into cubes, these are then pulled out with grabs and laid on the edge of the bank. The channel is gently widened, a bank that previously had the consistency of instant whip is firmed up a tad, the marginal growth will be twice as dense as the previous year and a soft edge to the river is maintained for all those biodiversities that we are being spurred on to protect.

I was also invited along to the neighbouring big fish water to witness a netting operation by a group of fishery students; a useful stock assessment and great practice for the students.
The hundred metre net took some hauling but after forty five minutes the leads were lifted to reveal large numbers of small roach, some jumbo pike and one of the biggest chub I have ever seen in the Dever valley living alongside a good head of supersize rainbows.

At the end of last week, a popular quiz show host arrived to fish along with a well known fishing author to trot for grayling and roach. The lady who sleeps on my left has always garnered a secret ambition for one of us to appear on a game show, a fast track to fortune or a speedboat at the very least. I must admit that in my youth I was quite envious of the top three booths in celebrity squares. The glamour of answering questions from height, appealed and where were the ladders? Rusty Lee’s acrophobia was cruelly exposed by her insistence on a seat in the bottom row (which was a surprise as she seemed such a confident woman) and Willie Rushton’s messiah complex revealed by his commandeering of the central box on every show. To date neither my wife or I have made any appearance on a quiz show.


The angling quiz show host was a thoroughly nice man, a very keen fisherman with a car full of gear and funny to boot. Unfortunately, in the true spirit of Tiswas, he fell in the river up to his neck around lunchtime while leaning over to look at some roach, blame was immediately apportioned to the phantom flan flinger and my application for “who wants to be a millionaire” moved to the bottom of the pile.

Last week a nice man called Graham with an Open Reach turned up at our house and after the best part of a broadband free three weeks our internet connection was restored. Graham was the first BT engineer in recent months to take his ladder from the roof of his van. He replaced the short stretch of line from the last pole, where there was broadband, to our house where there wasn’t, Simples! We had suggested this course of action on several occasions but what do we hicks in the sticks know about telecommunications. We have been offered a £40 discount for our trouble but have declined and are making a formal complaint to OFCOM

Enough is enough; I’m off to snaffle ham. With muffled cutlery and judicious carving no one will ever know,

and if suspicions are raised there’s always the cat to blame.

Friday 1 February 2013

Rural Broadband on Poles and lines? mobile broadband is the future

But for the thoroughly inefficient forces of BT, this would have been on here ages ago.

Sorry its late.

The following has been written with one fat finger on a phone in my neighbours garden in the falling snow with little wine while my neighbours watch Flog it!

If I am found frozen in the morning "sans pulse" please erect a telegraph pole in my name in a forgotten field and mark it with a pile of broken BT broadband flowers.

And so it begins, the fighting season and the annual clash with the dark forces of crack willow. All shall yield to the shock and awe of the saw and victory will be mine Mwahahahahaha!

Willow management is key on a chalkstream the size of the Dever, although it was not mentioned at the Water Framework presentation and chalkstream summit. In these parts a rotational cutting back of Crack Willow has a beneficial effect and bumps up the all important biodiversity. A few years ago I was asked to look at a stretch of river a few miles upstream from here that had not been submitted to the shock and awe of the saw for some years, Crack Willow had formed a triumphant arch over the entire stretch of river which was void of weed and marginal growth and few fish had chosen to make it their home. Two months of Willow management (going bananas with a chainsaw) let in light that saw weed return and biodiversity increase, some Willows will be cut back each year, others every two years and a few afforded the treat of a third season.

At home much of the one year old willow has been bundled into faggots and floated down river to help mend an over-widened bank on a bend. Two Large Hawthorns had cast a shadow over the bend,the marginal growth had thinned and the bank was open to erosion. The Hawthorns have gone and the faggots have been staked on the original line of the river bank and planted up with sedge from the Millstream

I have been accompanied for the past three weeks by two students studying countryside management at nearby Sparsholt college. Good company and full of ideas, they have taught me much about the potential of the Iphone and its apps, the urban dictionary and what the happening country dude/ho should be wearing bankside. We have achieved much during our time together, the war on willow has finished a week earlier than expected, and they carried out much of the work on the bank repair and made a great job of it to boot!

Midweek, my employer and I were summoned by the village elders to give an account of our activities. A potentially difficult crowd, we were warned that if they started talking loudly amongst themselves mid presentation things were not going well and, at the close, the thumb may well be pointing down. An hour of chat and power point pictures seemed to go well enough and we received several nice comments at the end, including one elderly lady whose husband had looked after a neighbouring stretch of river for eighteen years in the sixties and seventies. Sadly the estate in question no longer employs a full time riverkeeper and the river has slipped into decline, so it was interesting to hear her talk of how that particular stretch of river used to be.

We have had the odd Grayling fisherman in attendance and all have caught fish. Despite being bank high the river remains fishable, clears fairly quickly following rain, and the Grayling and Roach continue to co operate. Through the village the spring ditches are at a level that have not been experienced for a few years. Water is rising in fields to the east of the village and a few ditches could do with a bit of a clear out but although high, the groundwater is nowhere near the level that it was in early 2001.

Over on the Itchen similar water levels are being experienced, the spring ditch is flowing strongly although surprisingly coloured. It winds its way through the middle of Easton and may also act as a point of drainage for direct run off. On the main river the top pool continues to hold Salmon although I can see no sign of redds or spawning fish.

Heavy snow has tidied things up a bit, and the place looks a picture,the springs that feed this river resemble black satin ribbons as they slice through the pristine fields that flank the valley, all manner of things hammer away at the few pheasant feeders and all and sundry are missing the easy larder of the three acres of maize that would have been in the parish had we been shooting this year, Oh for a jolly farmer etc etc.

Child B made the most of the snow, following 18th birthday celebrations a house full of hungover dudes/hos woke to blizzard conditions and no clear exit strategy to their homes. Much of the day was spent dragging half an upturned car roof box containing said dudes/hos behind a Peugeot 207 up and down the road until Ivan and his snowplough arrived mid-afternoon to re-open the road.

Family celebrations on a snow filled weekend undertook more conventional sledging practice on the hill two fields behind our house, albeit in the same roof box that managed to accomodate three generations; all made it safely to the bottom of the black run despite a lack of helmets, life jackets and several hours of risk assessment. The rain that fell in the weeks that preceded the snow is working its way down into the aquifer freeimg up space in the upper soil for any snow melt or rain that will inevitabvly come. The river has dropped a few inches during the cold snap and is back within its banks.

The Indian runners that live on the bottom island have taken a bit of a pasting of late, with half a dozen vanishing in the night. No sign of feathers or footprints in the snow or mud, the finger is being pointed at a human fiend tempted by some of the fattest well fed ducks in the valley. The few that remain are understandably a tad jumpy and we make great efforts to bed them down for the night in an old kennel situated near the island. They seem to respond to my proletarian tone and I can shut them in most nights, my employer however has experienced problems. If it's my northern vowels that bring them in, it may pay her to adopt her best Bradford accent when calling them to bed.

This current piece of poor prose is penned in the dark from a bench in my neighbour’s garden, snow is falling softly on the ground and ice is beginning to form on my glass of red wine. Welcome to BT broadband in the country. Our home internet connection is not the sharpest, Child A who currently resides in an urban environs is quick to point this out on her home visits, but now it is currently defunct. After several hours on the phone, Sanjay is very sorry, but this house will be sans internet for two weeks or more. A man with an open reach will visit in a few weeks and if the problem is found to be of our own making we will be charged a hundred pounds or more. After a decade or more of poor service from BT we are resigned to our situation and feel a tad “mugged off” (studentspeak picked up in recent weeks). We are the furthest property from the exchange and must expect poor service. Thirty yards from this property is a BT pole connected to a different exchange that enjoys an imperious Internet service as does the rest of this small village. Five years ago BT took the decision that it was best to replace the twenty nine telegraph poles and one and half miles of cable to maintain this ancient telegraph spur than connect us to the other exchange thirty yards down the road.


In the grand scheme of things, no internet is no biggy. The lady who sleeps on my left and I are relearning the art of conversation, a little hesitant with a hint of staccato rhythm, it is back and forth conversation all the same. Child B has started to notice things and occassionally look up. On current performance BT and their poles and lines must be under threat from the mobile companies and the air borne pixies that deliver the internet via the magic of fresh air.

At home, following my triple pike with tuck, salco and flop from the roof (Olympic legacy?) the wrecking ball has been booked and a substantial redesign is planned for the out buildings that house the tractor and all the other gubbins that are necessary for looking after a chalkstream and rearing a few brown trout.

A mile from here Flash Gordon only has twenty four hours to save the earth and a few acres of solar panels are currently being installed to help him in this task. For some reason Scottish power supply the parcels of electricity to the people of this parish and for several weeks they have been busy connecting the field of panels to the amps and ohms at the substation a few hundred yards from here. This has involved a surprise road closure that lasted for two weeks and a host of funny machines moving up and down the lane in the middle of the night. Investigations as to how the work is going and when our exit route from the village will be restored are invariably met with a chippy reply and a few verses of “O Flower of Scotland”

Culloden still counts for some in certain quarters.