Retracing our steps

Two nights and a rugby match later we set off again up the canal. Anne and Richard came with us for a while, up the first flight. As we wound locks we also picked blackberries which were at last at their peak. We stopped at Wilmcote and dropped them off at the GWR timewarp station – the date on the footbridge was 1883. It had taken us five hours, and they would be back in Stratford to collect their car in six minutes.

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The weather stayed good and the canal had not lost its attraction, or stiff lock paddles. It has a particular style of barrel roofed canal cottages. The frames that were used to build the bridges were then reused as roof trusses. There are still quite a few standing, often with extensions that have become the main part of the house.

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We planned to turn right toward Warwick at Kingswood Junction, a small basin about three quarters of the way up the canal. As we went into the last lock, I saw a camera crew in the distance and a narrowboat emerging from the junction. A few minutes later Prunella Scales was helping to open our lock gate while Timothy West manoeuvred. They were filming a trip for their Great Canal Journey series. She was charming and chatty; I warned her that the locks were rather hard work and secretly hoped that the crew would help her.

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We were now heading back through the tunnel towards Warwick and my old friend the Hatton Flight.

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We conquered this and a couple more covering 18 miles and 46 locks over the next two days.

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The weather remained sunny and boaters along the bank were taking advantage of it, touching up their paintwork, chopping logs for their stoves and generally preparing for the winter.

We passed an old coal barge sheeting down the supplies and neatly setting out its wares, getting ready for winter trips to supply moored boats. The beautifully tied knots and carefully placed supplies suggested that it was going via a historic boat festival, hoping to win a ‘best in show’. These boats are still an essential lifeline for boaters and we rely on a coal barge to supply our coal and diesel at regular intervals when we are on our mooring

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At the top of the last flight on the Grand Union we turned right at Napton Junction onto the Oxford Canal. This was new territory for both of us. Narrow locks, stiff paddles, lots of hire boats and very pretty.

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We rescued a hire boat crew that was being harassed by another moored boat as they tried to squeeze their very long boat into the space between us. A small amount of adjustment to our mooring position enabled them to fit in and keep an arrangement to meet some friends in a nearby pub as planned. The boater at the other end of the arrangement threatened loud music all night and promised they would regret not mooring around the corner, but eventually retreated muttering to his boat. Most people on the canals are helpful, but sometimes …..

Our hire boat friends warned us that there was a canal festival in Banbury in three days’ time, and the next day we saw a beautiful old boat towing a butty (unpowered boat) in the traditional way. Constrained by their deeper draught it is not easy for them on this narrow, winding canal, or anyone they meet.

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I spent a happy afternoon in the garden of an enterprising pub in Fenny Compton watching our washing. They have a shop and laundrette and hairdresser in the pub. Dugald painted more bits of our boat. We then set off into the countryside and, mooring by hedgerows heaving with berries, we walked through well-kept fields and villages managing to stay on the footpaths and our map.

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On through Cropbredy, scene of the annual Fairport Cropredy Convention. Apparently it started in 1976 when Fairport played in someone’s garden, then became an annual reunion and later a major folk festival. If we had tried to come through in June, I think we would have struggled.

We went through Banbury the day before the festival, quite a squeeze to get past some of the boats; lucky we didn’t try to get through the next day.

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The A feature of the Oxford canal are the lift bridges: most had been up and just presented a narrow obstacle to pass. later section of canal as we approached Oxford had the additional pleasure of having to lift the bridges. I eventually got the hang of it and managed not to drop a bridge on the boat or Dugald as they passed underneath.

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The weather changed and we carried on in heavy rain. Everything wet and dripping. We passed some really lovely villages, and intriguing canal side shops. We decided to investigate them another time in better weather.

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We went into Oxford four years ago and remembered the entry into the city as narrow and cluttered with ‘new age’ communities similar to the ‘gyptians’ described in Philp Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. We were surprised by the change in the last few years. There is still a community, but it is smaller and the canal seems less cluttered.

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There are also large areas on the way in designated as conservation sites with no moorings.

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We spent a wet evening in Oxford, having supper at the excellent Jam Factory and catching up with Nettie, Dugald’s cousin. Around us were large numbers of Swindon fans in Oxford for a game – conspicuous for their intelligence and good humour. The police were there in large numbers too – to empathise with the fans.

We now continue our journey on the Thames.

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