Breaking the glass

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We spent a very peaceful weekend in Ashton Backwater near Oundle  while others charged up and down the river – including canoes lugged across the lock by healthy young couples.

Oundle is a pretty town dominated by the school and quiet in the holidays. Browsing the independent bookshop, we came away  with The Oundle Annual Quiz – fifty questions on film and show musicals. Filling in the gaps became very competitive. All done and ready to post, feeling smug.

Walking in the opposite direction we found Ashton, a model village rebuilt in the early 1900’s by the Rothschilds for their workers. The style is described as Tudor but feels like Arts and Crafts to us – a striking place and the venue for the World Conker Championships.

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The good weather continued  as we set off on Monday morning. It was warm and still.  I stood in the bow  looking out for shy birds.

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As we went we were quietly breaking the glass of the mirrored surface.

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We planned to stop at Islip if the mooring was free. This mooring is tucked away in a little nook beyond the nine arch bridge. It is hard to get a sixty foot boat into – that was the attraction for Dugald.

Back to Irthlinborough (Rushden and Diamonds) on a grey day  we ventured into the town for a pub lunch. One of the two remaining pubs closed the previous Saturday. The survivor easily won Depressing Pub 2015. This town is a sad and failing place in what otherwise seems a prosperous area.

As we escaped we met Nick Stuart, former mandarin supreme at Education and Employment, crossing the road. We agreed to catch up over tea later.

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I spent some time  testing blackberries for ripeness – not ready yet, as we wandered through an imaginative country park full of activity – open access assault courses, mud slides and cycle tracks. I had seen the empty zip wire from the boat as we passed earlier but it was now swarming with children, and I felt too self conscious to have a go. It was refreshing to see after the greyness of Irthlingborough.

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Dugald was awed by the immaculate state of Pops,  Nick’s boat, but felt better when he realised that she was only a couple of months old.

Memories of DES, DfE, DfEE and DfES were exchanged over tea.  We waved at Nick as he moored his boat in Wellingborough  the next day.

The weather continued damp and grey and the beautiful river felt a little sad and choked by weed.

We moored at Cogenhoe Mill by the lock and in the evening rain walked up  a steep hill into the centre of the village, we thought. Looking at an old photo of Cogenhoe  in the village pub, we found our ‘village’ was the edge of a town with  quite large shops. Coming from the river you get an impression from the bit you see, which may not tell the story of the whole.

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We set off early the next morning, although  early is now an hour  I would previously have considered late.

It rained heavily last night, and passing a large campsite which had been full of activity on our way down, there was an understandable  dampening of spirit and activity.

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Padlocks on the lock gates and empty life belt stands tell us we are getting close to an urban sprawl.

Arriving at Northampton  lock we found volunteers  scurrying around clipping bushes and tidying ready for a big waterways festival next weekend.

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We had booked a berth in the marina, and John the very helpful marina manager found us a good spot. We usually choose isolated places to moor, but this enables Ginger Bear to catch up with new friends for a few days.

Time to stand and stare

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Retracing our way down the Great Ouse, across the Middle Level and back up the Nene we have balanced boating with time to stand and stare.

We watched a grebe family carry out an enchanting ceremony. The female carrying three young on her back was carefully passed a freshly caught fish by the male. This was passed back and forth several times (and waved at the chicks) before eventually being swallowed by the female. The camera was inside the boat and I didn’t dare move to get it.

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The tandem came off the roof and we cycled into Ely to admire the immense but accessible cathedral with its beautiful surrounding buildings. The cathedral can be seen for miles across the flat countryside and is the Ship of the Fens.

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We moored near Upwell Church on the Middle Level. Wandering around its surprisingly intact and crowded old churchyard I was surprised by the number of 18th and 19th century gravestones recording deaths of people in their mid-80’s. This provoked a long debate between us.

Dugald and I used to debate by letter when I was at Dundee and he was at Bearley. A memorable debate involved the surface area/volume ratio of elephants and mice – those were the days!

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Back on the Nene, Peterborough cathedral is huge and central, but feels separate from the city with its gated close and cloisters. We wandered round, brushing up on some history, listening to a visiting choir practising for evensong.

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Dugald has often talked about a colleague, Simon Judge, who blogs about his narrowboat adventures on Scholar Gypsy. We had an unexpected encounter with Simon and his family in Peterborough while he waited to go into the Middle Level. They have been narrowboating for 35 years, and have a beautiful boat. Simon does not seem in danger of stopping and staring for long. He recently moved his boat to Ely, and has been testing the narrowboat limits by going out to sea on the Wash. The morning we met up with them, they had just come back into the river at Wisbech. The crew had been up since 4am, and the previous day they had beached the boat on the sand and climbed down ladders to play cricket on the beach. We had a very enjoyable hour with them exchanging yarns, but we have no plans to take Ginger Bear to sea.

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Yesterday we motored up the Nene with increasing weather warnings of heavy rain and possible flooding. As we were travelling along I suddenly heard a hoot and saw smoke from a steam train. A couple of bends later we moored at Wansford Station by the Nene Valley Railway. We found ourselves in the middle of a Driver Experience Day. Lots of enthusiasts in boiler suits, having parted with a large sum of money, were discussing the nitty gritty of steam engines. Dugald was like a child in a sweet factory, excited to find engine yards, old steam trains and workshops restoring them, including the original Thomas the Tank Engine. We spent a long time discussing the restoration programme with a very enthusiastic volunteer before going off to watch some of the would-be train drivers going through their paces.

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We had promised ourselves a short trip, but once we left the (very safe) Wansford mooring it took us another four hours to find a safe mooring for the evening at Fotheringhay,

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We moored below the remains of the Fotheringhay castle mound and moat. I found my favourite Fairport Convention song – Fotheringhay to play to Dugald.  It is about Mary Queen of Scots whose temporary burial place we had seen at Peterborough Cathedral, following her beheading at Fotheringhay Castle. Fotheringhay is also the birthplace of Richard III.

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Few villages have such a claim on English history. In the evening we walked through this lovely place and into the Falcon Inn. We were warmly welcomed by Sally. She runs a pub that has been proclaimed Northamptonshire Eating Pub of the Year 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 – with good reason. We had an excellent meal for a very modest price accompanied by excellent customer service.

Today we decided to stay. We copied part of the map and planned a circular route of about 6 miles. Ignoring the rain we set off and sometime later realised that we had not only missed a turning, but gone off the map. Some adjustment via some very noisy piglets found us having a good pub lunch in an expected village. We eventually got back to the boat a bit later and 10,000 steps further than planned. Neither of us deserve our orienteering badges yet.

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It is now Saturday morning, I failed to post the blog yesterday – no signal even on top of the mound. The sun is shining and we have spent the last three hours motoring up the river, through some more handraulic locks and have now found a lovely mooring WITH a signal. I will quickly post the blog before the signal disappears, then we are off to explore more footpaths and hopefully the delights of Oundle.

First objective achieved – Cambridge reached

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For the Cambridge leg of the trip Dugald takes up the thread.

Wendy’s last post provoked the response “tell him to slow down”. So I did and had a good snooze while she went off in pursuit of Konik ponies in Wicken Fen. We discovered that we are not patient enough to be good naturalists – we want results too quickly.

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Back at the pub, the Five Miles from Anywhere, No Hurry Inn there was people watching to be done. A smart broadbeam boat disgorged a couple, she with unshocking pink hair, he with dreadlocks down to his knees. White, middle aged and inherently quite good looking, we wondered what his motive for this style was. Later in Cambridge a large guided party passed us – led by a walking guide who had been a Cambridge street cleaner for many years and was now a very knowledgeable presenter – a more encouraging picture.

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Leaving the Great Ouse and joining the Cam, there was an immediate change to a warmer and more intimate atmosphere. The river seems to announce the magic of the city.

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We arrived to take the only available visitor mooring in the centre of the city. Walking round that evening reminded me of what a glorious place it is – and how privileged I was to spend a happy three years there.

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Wendy and I met in September 1970 and she visited me in Cambridge once – in November 1970. I fell out of favour shortly afterwards for reasons too complex to explain. I did not take her punting that November weekend and had never done so since. This needed remedying. The girl managing the desk at Scudamores looked sceptical and pitying at my claim that I had last punted in 1994 (when showing Anna round the city and the university). I chose a wooden pole – always used one before – why change now? Because it’s incredibly heavy that’s why. I made it to the Mill and back in an hour and just kept balance sufficiently to avoid indignity – a triumph.  After that a good lunch with Perran and Jane was essential.DSCF0615

Today is 8 August, 27 years after I joined the Department of Education and Science. It was a radical change from farming and surprised some in the Department too. A director, told of my new post and my previous occupation, remarked “Rather an arcane job for a farmer, I’d have thought” and turned away. The only appropriate response was a Harvey Smith behind his back.

Jane joined us for the trip out of the city as we went back onto the Great Ouse. Coming from the South you can understand why Ely cathedral is known as the Ship of the Fens. Tomorrow we will get the tandem off the roof and bike into Ely to admire it.

A day off

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We are two weeks out of London, have covered 186 miles, and been through 148 locks, 3 swing bridges and 1 tunnel. My phone tells me we could be back in London in less than two hours by car. We would normally be back on the mooring and at work nursing our post-holiday blues: not so this year – on we go.

Despite plans to take things slowly we have kept up a relentless pace. Leaving early in the morning, carrying on until the evening and beyond tired.

We planned to reach Cambridge by 6 August to meet up with our friends Perran and Jane. We have been so speedy, we are now in danger of arriving and leaving before they are back in their riverside house. Cambridge moorings have a 48 hour limit. I suggested we should stay here today.

Lying in our sunlit bed, relaxing and reading my kindle, with a background noise of birds and a distant machine working a field, I heard the noise of sawing – Dugald was already busy creating a temporary workbench. Next step was to undercoat our newly acquired gang plank. So much for a day off!

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Off to the top of the bank again with my mobile wifi to see if I can locate a nearby pub. Perhaps there’s time for a walk and pub lunch between coats of paint. I found a riverbank path to Ely, and we returned from our five and a half mile round trip in time to put the first top coat on Dugald’s creations. There are still no spaces on the banks in the centre of Ely.

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Walking along the path on top of the riverbank, lined with thistles and ragwort, I stopped to admire fluffy thistles about to send their seeds across to neighbouring field. Dugald was not keen: he has disliked thistles since he and his brother Hugh were sent out in the school holidays with ‘thistle spudders’ to pull up all the thistles on the farm. The ragwort is a mystery too: it used to be an offence to be found with ragwort in your fields, and certainly was seen as a disgrace. But we have seen it growing everywhere near the rivers and canals.

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Our planned stop at Ely

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I have been unable to post a blog or upload photos for 2 days, having moored each night in signal free zones. We knew Ely would deliver a good signal, a useful laundrette and an opportunity to explore the city and cathedral.

When we got there we managed to fill up with water, while being hassled by an impatient boat that wanted the water point. There are plenty of moorings, but each one we passed had a smug boat on it – not a space to be had.

It reminded us of sailing holidays in Greece and Croatia and the daily race to find a mooring for the night.

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We continued up this large and rather monotonous river

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But we enjoyed the company of families of Greater Crested Grebes for a little longer.

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Further up the river we found a quiet spot, and I hope if I climb high up the river bank, I will have enough signal to post this tonight, watched by some sleepy looking cows.

Onto the flat and beyond

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We came off the lovely River Neme at Peterborough, then down Stanground Lock that controls the water levels in the Fens to continue our journey below sea level. Tina is the third generation lock keeper who is dedicated and enthusiastic.

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We thought this part of our journey would probably be boring, travelling on long straight drains with high banks. We were wrong.

The Middle Level is different, shallow, narrow and windy in some places with VERY low bridges.

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Long straight open patches, initially quite industrial with chimneys of brickworks and factories.

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Occasional isolated farms and frequent clusters of wind turbines.

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Glimpses of corn fields over the top of the high banks, no livestock apart from a few tape lined fields of horses.

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We wound our way very slowly through three pretty villages, March, Upwell and Outwell, where the river seems to take the place of the high street. Lanes run along the top of the river bank in place of pavements.

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This morning we moored at Salters Lode Lock, a carefully managed exit point from the Middle Level onto the River Great Ouse. We had to wait for the tide to drop sufficiently to allow us to drive the boat out of the lock under a very low concrete bridge. There was a debate about taking the flowers and bikes off the roof in order to get under the bridge. The cheery lock keeper decided that moving us down the queue to third place would mean the river levels would be low enough to get through without having to take off all the clutter first.

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So we set off round a very sharp bend onto the tidal part of the Great Ouse, heading for the tall gates of Denver Sluice, where we would go into the non-tidal and therefore safer part of the Great Ouse. Many ‘playground stories’ have been told about the extreme difficulty of this manoeuvre, including getting stuck on mudbanks or ending up outside the sluice on the tideway until the next tide.

We did put our lifejackets on, and checked where the anchor was hiding. As usual the reality was much tamer than the stories, and we made it uneventfully to Denver Sluice, and out onto the non – tidal Great Ouse.