Just before you get to Rugely there is an acute left turn after crossing an aqueduct. I always have difficulty in getting Monarch round this in one go, so this time I was ready for it. I lined her up, gave the whistle a warning blast of our approach which was immediately answered by a high pitched toot toot from the trees to our left, from which emerged a bright blue and yellow boat. It cut right across our bows. At the tiller was a large orange haired lady behind a massive bust. I slammed Monarch into astern. We only just missed ramming her amidships; luckily for her we had a good head of steam! As the large lady glided past like a galleon in full sail, and without giving us a single glance she shouted. 'If you can't handle it get a smaller boat!' with that she lifted a fat pink arm festooned with bangles from under what looked like a flowing green robe, held it straight up in the air, gave it a circular motion and stuck one finger up. And with that she was gone. Her image is imprinted in my mind to this day. Just like the encounter with Storming Norman! I remember that she even had red hairy armpits. I now know how the Romans must have felt with that Boadicea woman. She had orange hair!
After getting Monarch out of the mud we resumed our voyage south, now dominated by the big power station chimney on our left which never seems to go away. This stretch seems to pass every back garden in Staffordshire. Surprising what you see in back gardens! It's an illustrated picture book of English domesticity. Somewhere along here, one particular garden used to be inhabited by a group of flashing gnomes, all facing the canal. I felt quite bereft as we didn't spot them this time. They must have packed their little bags and gone, or, are all locked up in Stafford jail! The fat lady with orange hair could have frightened them by flashing her boobs at them! Mind I could be wrong. They might be on another stretch of gardens on another canal, but I was sure it was this one.
When I first acquired Monarch she was quite sophisticated on the domestic side with all the toiletry mods and cons, even an anodised gold shower complete with an anodised gold framed glass door. The door had to come off, as it got in the way of some steam modifications and in my mind didn't really fit in with the feeling of a turn of the century steamer. In time the same went for the toilet door. We use the space round the toilet for various steam bits and latterly Pete Neville's steam heat exchanger, plus now and again, bags of coal. This has somewhat thinned down the offers of help from female crew, including my partner. We had one rather cut glass lady crew who never fancied using our Porta Potti. She got quite stroppy when finally having to use it and steam started to emit from between her legs. Steve Adams a crew member had to dash in and push her off it in a most undignified manner to urgently get at a steam valve. Phil Martino who has the steamer Adamant reckons the whole shower, wash basin and toilet compartment on Monarch should be thrown out and opened up to the engine room and used as a big coal bunker.
Had a quick couple of pints with Hazardous and Steve Hudson at Glascote. Filled up with water and were off again. We were seriously getting low on fuel. I had been constantly on the mobile since Glascote trying all the central heating oil companies within a twenty mile radius to arrange for a load of 28 second kerosene. None of them could deliver within a week. Could do no better with the coal merchants either. Would have thought they would have been gasping for customers in such hot weather. When it's freezing they can never squeeze in a delivery either. You can never get it right. We could finish up having to burn wooden pallets. I could get a load of them at Atherstone. She steams well on pallets.
In desperation I had been in touch with the organisers at Shackerstone to explain that we were running late and could they use any influence with a local fuel oil company. One of the lady organisers (and I wish I could remember her name as she worked wonders) volunteered that she and her husband would organize to get a load of five gallon oil drums and with their Transit Van go round to all their friends with central heating oil tanks and beg borrow or steal a few gallons from each.
The arrangement was to meet us at a mutually agreed remote canal bridge in the dead of night. They were to park on top of the bridge with Monarch underneath and siphon the whole lot into Monarchs tanks. We had been in mobile telephone contact throughout the evening as this wonderful couple were going round filling there five gallon drums as we were steaming south. Once they had a full load we were to decide on the nearest convenient bridge with road access. We got to the designated bridge before them and sat in the bridge hole. They phoned to say they were running late so we put the kettle on the boiler for a brew. It was a lovely moonlight night and we seemed to be in the wilds of nowhere. A welcome time to relax for a bit instead of steaming flat out all the time. After about half an hour we could hear sirens and see blue flashing lights across the fields. A fire engine and police car came screeching up the lane, the fire engine parking on top of the bridge with men with yellow helmets looking over the top with another couple very purposely unreeling big hoses. It was pandemonium and I had a suspicion that we had something to do with it! It went through my mind that it could be a health and safety precaution as we were going to load fuel; maybe they were very efficient at this kind of thing in this part of the country. 'What's wrong?' I tentatively shouted. 'Aren't you on fire?' they shouted. It appears that a car driver going over the bridge had seen all the steam coming up from under the bridge, spotted the boat and had assumed we were on fire and had alerted the fire brigade. This is not the first time this has happened. They packed their stuff away and departed. All was peaceful again. I must say they were very quick in coming and we would have been very thankful if we had really been on fire. Another phone call from the gallant lady and her husband to say the fuel would be with us in about ten minutes. They parked the van on top and we tried to siphon the fuel down to the boat, but for some reason it didn't work, so we man- handled the drums down on to the cabin top and poured the fuel into the filler through a big funnel. What a night! We shall be forever grateful to that lovely couple from Shackerstone.
The next day Dave (Rivets) Herman joined us. He has a posh Steve Hudson boat and good humouredly puts up with our ribbing of the fact that his rivets are not as genuine as ours. So he is affectionately known as Rivets. We could see Rivets head complete with immaculate white Panama hat looking over a bridge parapet at Atherstone long before we got to him. That bloody hat isn't going to stay white for very long, dryly commented Pete, whose face was as black as mine. Rivets has a genuine interest in steam, knew that we were only two handed and running late and had kindly offered to give us a hand through Atherstone locks. After completing the locks Dave decided to join and help us for the rest of the voyage.
We steamed through the night, now confident that we had enough fuel to be able to use both burners and run her at full power. It was with a feeling of relief as we finally turned left and under the bridge into the Ashby canal. I love this isolated rural canal. Once you get beyond the initial mile or two of bungalows it seems as if you are entering a magical little kingdom of it's own. For some reason it is different. Even the village names have a different ring to them, and a passport control wouldn't go amiss. The Ashby has one drawback, especially for Monarch. It is shallow and the bottom feels like porridge and we have to plough through it. You can hear the difference from the steam exhaust from the funnel as she screws through the mud. She starts to bark, a sign that the engine is working hard. The mud also takes you on its own course, especially on bends and Monarch becomes very heavy on the tiller, we nearly lost her up the bank on a number of occasions, in fact we nearly lost Rivet's. The mud grabbed the rudder on one bend and swung him out on the end of the tiller, nearly missing a moored boat. I seem to recall that it had a very apt name which we joked about. In the early hours we made to where King Richard III lost his kingdom for a horse and we got our heads down.
The next day, cruising flat out along a lovely wild section of the canal with its bullrushes and tall grass with Monarch idyllically leaving a trail of white steam behind in a clear blue sky, we started to realise that at long last we were nearing Shackerstone as a number of boats started to pass us coming the other way, the crew of each enquiring 'Where had we been?' They were leaving the rally to return home. When we finally arrived there was a heartfelt but belated welcome with blasts from the whistles of Adamant and Laplander and hoots from the various boats. It was the last afternoon of the rally, but at least we had made it. And Rivets was as black as us, bless him. The next day Pete said where shall we go now. I've another week and a bit off. Lets go to the BCN, I said, there's a working boat rally on next weekend. That was it, done! Birmingham it was. We were to be away for another six months!