Ginger Bear has been idle in Brentford since the end of October, so it’s time for another adventure – destination Llangollen in North Wales. 14 years ago we hired a narrowboat and travelled the Llangollen canal, it was a memorable trip and our families remember the rather strange Christmas presents they received that year.
We left almost two weeks ago, and I have been a bit slow to start my blog, too busy winding locks, driving the boat and generally enjoying myself. We are currently moored in afternoon sunshine on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal near Wolverhampton. This is a flavour of the trip so far.
The original plan was to go up the Thames to Oxford and north from there. However the river flows were increasing, and there was a risk that the locks would shut down and we would get stuck on the river for a while. We decided to go up the Grand Union and retrace our initial steps from last summer. It was a good call – a few days after we left, the Thames locks were all showing red boards, and all movement was stopped for some time.
We left Brentford on 23rd of March. Dugald had spent the last few days servicing the engine and I secretly crossed my fingers and hoped it would still work. Bikes on the roof, a few plants allowed and we were on our way.
Late March is officially spring, and we have had some beautiful sunny days, but it has also been very cold, windy, wet and muddy. Dugald, of course, thinks it is still winter as spring did not start on the farm until April, perhaps he is right.
There are lambs everywhere
Fields of horses looking smug in their warm jackets
Spring flowers on the banks and the buds on the trees are about to burst open.
Incredibly loud birdsong everywhere, I just wish we were better able to identify them. It’s work in progress.
We hardly saw any other boats moving along the canal for the first few days, but the Easter weekend brought other boaters out, and the numbers have been steadily increasing.
We travelled alone up to Hemel Hempstead sharing the locks and the driving between us and I became a bit more confident manoeuvring Ginger Bear in the increasingly windy weather.
A little further up the canal we joined another couple Andy and Faith on their narrowboat Lydia. It is much easier going through the wide locks of the Grand Union with another boat, they were fun to be with and we made good progress together, although we had to stop for two half days because the weather was so appalling – thank you storm Katie. Without our new sailing jackets we would have been utterly miserable.
We continued this happy partnership for four days until we held back a bit at Gayton Junction so that Dugald could meet a report deadline. Last summer we turned right at Gayton towards Northampton, the River Nene and the Fens. This time we went straight on to Brauntston.
Sharing a lock with a coal boat is useful if you need some more coal!
We passed Faith and Andy again at Braunston where they were preparing to retrace their steps down the Grand Union.
At Braunston turn we ignored the left turn towards Stratford and Oxford which we took last summer, and went straight on up the North Oxford Canal. We were back in narrow locks, initially paired and then single.
We decided to stop in Rugby to do some shopping and participate in our favourite entertainment – washing. We had worked out where we needed to stop to be close to a bus for the laundrette and within walking distance of a supermarket. Unfortunately the ideal bit of towpath nearest the bus stop was deep in mud, so we had to adjust our plans slightly, mooring instead a little further on by this interesting clump of triffids!
I was able to amuse myself in the laundrette by reading all the imaginative articles that April 1st attracts while Dugald went off to see if anyone could repair his glasses. He had broken one pair a few days earlier, and then sat on his spare pair as we arrived in Rugby! He was hoping that he wouldn’t have to continue wearing the rather attractive pink pair I lent him.
Although busy, Rugby Specsavers delivered excellent customer service, and he arrived back at the laundrette with a smile on his face and two completely refurbished pairs of glasses.
Having taken a bus to the laundrette we assumed that it would retrace the route on the way back – silly assumption. Swinging left rather than right like a car on a fairground ride, we went first to Tesco (close to the canal and where we planned to shop later), then set off away from the canal into a hillside of different housing estates! We seemed to travel to every conceivable corner before at last turning back towards the canal and our bus stop.
Having washed and shopped, we set off again, noticing the increasing number of moving boats, it was Friday, the start of the weekend, and we had recently passed a hire boat centre. We found ourselves behind a real novice who was struggling to control her boat (probably only just picked it up). I felt extremely sorry for her as she bashed into bridges, and got stuck in banks and hedges. We stopped and moored before they did, but passed them early the next morning while they slept. Dugald was surprised how much further they had gone, and decided that they must have continued in the dark. Perhaps they had struggled to moor the boat.
If so, they were lucky to have stopped when they did – a little further down the canal we passed an unmarked burnt out narrowboat which would have been difficult to see in the dark.
At Hawkesbury junction we turned onto the Coventry Canal and headed for the flight of 11 locks at Atherstone. We moored in the town beside a dead hat factory which has been left to rot since it closed in 1999.
I went into the town to do a little shopping and was blocked by a large motorbike rally going through the town, reminiscent of Crewkerne and West Bay.
The cheery, youthful (79 and 80) volunteer lock keepers on the flight swept us through the initial stages, and we soon left Atherstone and the flight behind.
We stopped on Sunday to draw breath, have a walk, and allow Dugald to catch up on emails and stuff.
The next morning we passed Alvecote Marina on the edge of Tamworth, home of Narrowcraft, where Ginger Bear was commissioned having travelled from Poland on the back of a truck nearly nine years ago. We were now nearly as far north as she had ever been – we went on a short ‘shake down’ trip the weekend before we left Alvecote to take her to her mooring in London.
A little further on, I noticed a narrowboat moored near a bridge selling brass tiller pins. I had seen a bear tiller pin on another boat the day before and wondered if I would be lucky. A few minutes later we set off again with our new bear.
In the distance we saw a reminder of spring farming in action,
and later some fields where people seemed to be hand planting something in deep trenches, in fact they seemed to be up to their waists in the trenches. Dugald managed to shout at one of them, and discovered they were planting asparagus – acres of it.
The weather deteriorated, and light rain soon led to hail, not very pleasant and not forecast, but we kept going! We passed the winding hole at Tamhorn where the ‘shake down’ cruise had turned around, Ginger Bear was now making fresh tracks.
At Fradley junction we found a number of children swinging on the swing bridge, had to shoo them away to swing it to let the boat through. Apparently there have been plans to lock the bridge with a waterways key (all boats have them), but some objection (maybe from the children of the neighborhood) has prevented it from happening .
We turned left onto the Trent and Mersey canal, and immediately met more boat traffic. The Coventry canal had been really quite quiet. We had planned to go a long way north on the Trent and Mersey, up to Middlewich and then turn left down towards Nantwich and the Llangollen. Reading the guides more carefully, we realised that we would have to take the bikes, plants etc off the roof (again) to go through the Harecastle Tunnel, a very low one way tunnel near Kidsgrove. The last time we went through, we were in a hire boat with nothing on the roof, so it wasn’t a problem. Lugging everything off the roof is a chore, so we decided to alter our route, and go along the Staffordshire and Worcester canal instead. The bridges on this canal are quite low as well, but we think we will squeeze through.
Yesterday we had better luck with the weather, canals always look prettier in the sunshine. We went a bit futher up the Trent and Mersey passing an active old factory building – the Armitage Shanks factory at Armitage on a site that dates back to 1817. Strange to see loos piled up on pallets ready to go all over the world.
We then squeezed our way through a narrow roofless tunnel bored through rock,
admired more pretty houses and bridges
remembered Shugborough hall from a boating holiday in 1996
then turned left at Haywood Junction down the Staffordshire and Worcester canal.
Today we are having mixed weather, sunshine and hailstorms! Fortunately there are hardly any other boats around, and I keep hopping out to do the locks in between writing this and trying to catch enough broadband to upload the photos.
We have just passed a long line of fishermen with their rods stuck right across the canal. I think they may be taking part in a competition. Fishermen tend to dislike boaters, and usually appear rather grumpy. They seem to play a game which involves leaving their very long carbon fibre rods across the canal until the very last minute and then quickly withdrawing them at the last moment as the boat goes past.It is a game of nerves. Dugald has a new strategy of smiling at them and thanking them for moving their rods. He usually gets no response, but today he managed to extract a couple of smiles and even a few words from some of them.
Two weeks out and the hedges are starting to come into leaf, blossom is appearing on the trees. It will be fun to see the season developing as we travel along. Hopefully weather will warm up a bit before we have our first visitors.
Journey score so far is 178 miles and 134 locks.
More news later.