On our Way
After a four month winter break in Brentford we were keen to set off on our spring trip, but had to wait until mid March because there were still some winter stoppages affecting locks ahead of us.
With bikes, flowers and coal loaded on the roof, we set off on a beautiful sunny day, working our way up the long Hanwell flight out of London with the help of a couple of cheerful volunteer lock keepers.
Stopping at the top of the flight, Dugald hooked out a harvest of rubbish from the weedhatch including a thong and a bra! The boat suddenly went better without them.
The next couple of days were dull, and cold as we slowly made out way up to Rickmansworth to wait for a lock to open. As we went past the marina below Widewater lock we spotted Lydia – memories of 2016.
Then we passed one of the houses we like, with its large very glass extension on the canalside.
We had arranged to meet our daughter Anna and our grandsons at Rickmansworth where there is a station close to the canal. While waiting to collect them, we suddenly saw Lydia gliding past us, quick greetings with Andy and Faith were exchanged, but we were going to have to catch up another time.
Anna and the boys onboard, we continued up some locks to our overnight stop above Iron Lock. The children, already a bit weary of life on board, jumped off and romped around in the woods.
After lunch we all decamped to the Cassiobury Park amusements, including mini train ride through the woods ending at a large playground. We all had fun using some very weird outside gym equipment designed for slightly longer legs!
Overnight Anna had the joy of sharing our bed with the two boys, while we were reminded how super comfortable our dinette is!
The following day we dropped them off at Kings Langley station, and continued up the canal. The boys seem to enjoy their trip, asking for a longer one next time.
As we set off the next morning we passed Malcolm (who built Ginger Bear) on his way to his ‘annual month’ in London to remind him why he doesn’t live there any longer. He is about to set off for two years of European barging ‘before they kick us out’!
I have done most of the helming so far on this trip. Not my favorite role, but I am having some trouble with the nerves in my arms apparently caused by doing too much dentistry! So I find it difficult to wind heavy lock gear, and open the gates. As a result I have had a steep learning curve. I usually hand over the helm when things get tricky, as Dugald is a much more confident helm than me.
Dugald is now doing most of the lock work, and has been surprised to find how tough it is!
He has developed his own way of doing it, helping me through the lock, then riding on ahead to the next one.
This has led to a few near accidents, as our folding bike is slightly unreliable, and has thrown him into the hedge as he set off on a couple of occasions.
The weather became cold, wet and very windy. At times the it was so foul, it would have been nice to stop, and settle in front of the fire, but we were under time pressure to get to Leicester by the end of March.
We worked our way through the familiar but frequent locks up to the Tring summit, then down to Milton Keynes. There is a long and welcome lock free section here before they start climbing again. We had seen very few boats moving on the canal in any direction since we left Brentford, and had had no chance to share a lock and split the work. When we arrived at the bottom of the Stoke Bruerne flight, a boat was going into the lock, and we were able to share the locks on the flight with this friendly hire boat.
Having completed the flight we waved goodbye on our way to Blisworth Tunnel. A quick routine call from Dugald to check the tunnel light was working before we went in resulted in a sudden crisis – no light. Some time and fuse changes later, we went through the tunnel with light shining – lucky we checked.
On past the Northampton turning with memories of earlier trips, and up the Long Buckby flight having watched the heavy traffic on Watling Street travelling much faster than the Roman centurions years ago.
We moored at the top of the Long Buckby flight, looking forward to going down the Leicester branch of the Grand Union the next morning. We had not been that way before.
The Leicester branch was a complete change, it is very attractive, and has narrow locks for the first part.
We had started early to tackle the first of two flights of ‘staircase’ locks, where one lock fills or drains into the next. We arrived at the Watford flight (Watford Gap) as it opened in the morning, and were waved past by a local boater who wasn’t quite ready to start. He gave us some useful advice about using the staircase of four locks in the middle of a flight of seven. The locks fill from a series of side ponds in an unusual way, the helpful boater said that Dugald just needed to remember ‘red before white and you’ll be alright, white before red and you will wish you were dead’ when opening the paddles, and it all seemed to work alright.
On through the lovely Northamptonshire countryside, passing Crick Marina where they will be holding the largest narrowboat festival of the year, it seemed quiet and sleepy as we passed. It was Lady Day and only nine months until Christmas!
As we moved into Leicestershire we saw occasional large farms in the distance
and a few cows to remind us of the past.
We arrived at Foxton Locks to find that the flight had just closed for the day, so moored at the top and went to explore the area.
There are two staircases of five locks, with a small area in between so that boats going down can pass boats coming up from the flight below. The whole thing is carefully orchestrated by a team of lock keepers, who book the boats into their books, and manage the boat crews making sure the white and red paddles are opened and closed in the correct order.
Foxton is also a large tourist attraction, and is the site of a quicker , but now disused system of getting the boats downhill. An inclined plane was built to bypass the locks and opened in 1900.
The boats were carried in large water filled troughs horizontally down and up a slope on the other side of the hill from the locks using a cable and steam driven winch. Apparently the travel time was reduced from about 70 minutes to 12. We stood at the top of the old inclined plane and looked down, it looked very steep.
The next morning we became part of the spectator sport
We were first down, so like the bucket in Hoffnung’s bricklayer’s story, we met the first boat coming up! The lock keepers orchestrated the juggling of the boats and we passed through to the next staircase and down to the bottom.
The canal became a broad canal again below Foxton, still very pretty and windy, with a fisherman on every bend!
We were slowly heading towards Leicester and the scenery gradually started to change. The towpath improved, the bike came off the roof again and Dugald disappeared off to the next lock (after another slight incident with the folding bike). I found him chatting to a volunteer lock keeper at King’s lock where the canal joins the River Soar. The lock keeper was excited to see Ginger Bear, it was his first day back after the winter and we were the first boat through. He was about to get busy – a little further down the river I met a large barge carrying lock gates on a tight and narrow bend, unexpected and a bit scary. I managed to miss him by a few inches and was congratulating myself when another one turned up causing me to disappear into a large willow to avoid him! Our bear was nearly swept off the roof, and we arrived at the next lock with a certain amount of tree decoration.
The scenery was becoming more urban as we started to move on and off the river between the locks, passing a weir close to Leicester City football ground.
The waterway through the centre of Leicester is quite majestic, but we had heard of recent trouble at the visitor moorings, so we decided not to stop.
We had arranged to moor Ginger Bear at the marina for a few days.
We explored Leicester a little, and spent some time in the cathedral which unsurprisingly has a huge focus on Richard III. A volunteer spent some time enthusiastically talking us through a striking modern stained glass window designed by Thomas Denny and pointed out a tiny football in the corner of one of the windows to added to celebrate Leicester City’s success.
With Ginger Bear settled in the marina, we went to a couple of prearranged meetings at other ends of the country, and then down to Somerset for a lovely family wedding and clan gathering.
Several days later, having wined, dined and talked too much, we were back on the boat. It was time to get back on the river. We had travelled 134 miles and 139 locks so far- next stop York.