On the Thames after a long sleep

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Over the winter of 2017-18 Ginger Bear slumbered longer than ever before. She arrived back on 15 October and only left Brentford again on 26 May  – over 7 months. Not all of this was down to Wendy’s view that cruises of the future should be relaxed affairs without specific objectives. Some of it was down to Wendy being in the tender and competent care of the NHS at the end of April. On 16 May we had a test run on the Thames with a short trip to Teddington and back with old work colleagues – Tony, Juliet and Audrey – enjoyed by all but in very low temperatures, a biting wind and some rain.

On 26 May we were ready for a real cruise and set off down the Brent to the Thames Lock.

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As we passed the MSO yard we could see the bow of our near neighbour Saumur sticking out of the dry dock.

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If Ginger Bear was feeling nervous about her first big trip of 2018 she had good reason for doing so. Out of Thames Lock on the stretch past Sion Park we met an Idiot (First Class with bar) coming down the river at high speed. The speed limit on the tidal river is 8 knots and although large twin engined plastic cruisers exceed this, they are generally fairly restrained. Not so the idiot in the Moonraker 36 who was certainly doing 12 knots and probably more. Shouting and gesticulating did nothing to slow him down – and for the avoidance of doubt he was male – and the impact was striking. Not so much on the boats – our propeller grunted as it dealt with the disturbed water – but on the bank: we could see the huge wash on the bank and almost feel the damage.

Unfortunately we did not get the boat’s name. We reported the incident to the Port of London Authority later on and they said mildly they had had to speak to a number of people that day. Being now in one of the seriously grumpy decades of life we felt being spoken to was much too modest a penalty for this selfish oaf.

But even grumpies eventually calm down. Richmond looked in full bank holiday swing with the White Cross packed to the gunnels.  Getting to Hampton Court and Molesey Lock we saw there are now four of the ramshackle accommodation boats all moored by the bridge, all of them a risk to the people renting space on them.

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As we went into the lock we were in the company of a hard drinking hired dayboat. Chaos shouting and confusion followed, punctuated by the assurance that “Owen knows what he’s doing”. Very clear to everyone watching that Owen hadn’t a clue but miraculously no-one was hurt.

Mooring in Sunbury was easy. It’s a good spot and not many people know about it, so we were on our own. But Art Deco, a smart broadbeam we’ve seen elsewhere on the Thames, does and she arrived shortly afterwards. That was the night of the legendary London thunder storm and torrents of rain fell as the sky was constantly lit up.

It was a good time to be going up the river with all the riverside gardens looking fresh and at their best.

 

 

Going up and down the river quite regularly it’s striking how new houses are growing out of old sites. Just above Shepperton Lock a very large new house is complete and the garden has moved from building site to trim beds. Wendy who has an aversion to garden grasses managed to admit they looked rather good in this case.

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In other places the decay continues in preparation for the next renewal.

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The same is true of the boats. Leaving the handsome waterworks building above Bell Weir Lock we passed the beautiful shape of an old MFV which is being allowed to rot slowly.

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The river is littered with boats which are dying or preparing for death in spite of the Environment Agency’s best efforts to get them removed.

A more cheerful sight was presented by the mooring at Cookham which we reached on the Thursday of half term week. The weather was good, although nothing like as hot as our later heatwave, and half term sailing was in full swing. Fleets of Optimists with young and enthusiastic crews were towed up the river and released in swarms. Lots of noise and laughter.

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The  next day we walked along the river to Bourne End where more young sailors were learning their trade while parents fussed around them.

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Leaving the river we went in search of one of the (many) houses Wendy lived in as a child. In the days of a very large Royal Navy naval officers moved around the country and the world and so did their children. Wendy’s hunch about where the Forester’s House could be found was right and we paused for a short drink at the adjacent pub, the Crooked Billet.

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Wendy remembers very well being fiercely reprimanded in her school for writing that the way home meant turning right at the “pub the Cooked Billet”. “Pub” was not in the permitted lexicon of High March School, Beaconsfield.

Walking through the woods we went on to Marlow to complete an eight mile walk, fortunately with a train to get us back. The mooring at Cookham was a busy place. Every morning a major dog walking exercise took place in the meadow with dogs of all shapes and sizes.

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Cookham and Bourne End are good places to observe the Thames property market. Opposite us was a compact little house whose owners obviously felt the need for a little more space. Easy to sympathise with their dilemma as swarms of builders scurried around fulfilling the order.

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We managed to ground the boat at an uncomfortable angle as a result of lock keepers trying to manage down the flow after the earlier heavy rain and were lucky to be pulled off the ledge by an old style Dutch barge. No hands available for pictures during this operation! Setting off down river we were quickly stopped by a red board and the lock keeper at Cookham Lock. He allowed us down the lock to moor in a delightful and quiet spot below the lock. A new discovery and a nice spot. Cormorants cannot read.

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While waiting for the river to calm down we took another walk along the river and up over the chalk bluff of Winter Hill. At one point the path turned sharply up a chalk slope for a steep climb. At the bottom was a picnicking family and about 15 feet up the path three or four children of the party. One of them was a small boy of three (?) in dungarees and yellow boots who was immediately worried about our safety. He stepped into the path and said “It’s very steep and you need to take VERY small steps”; and he then gave us a convincing demonstration of the technique. He had surely been told the same thing by his parents, but his caring concern for us was hilarious and memorable.

The next day we were on the way down the river with a fast stream to carry us. The old bridge at Maidenhead is exciting in a fast stream and protected against boaters with poor judgement.

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At Bray Lock we met enthusiastic and hot Windsor Half Marathon Runners. They may not have been fast but they had a lot of spirit.

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After Windsor we were queuing for Romney Lock with a lot of other boats. A great scene, but missed by the young on all the boats who were all studying their phones with an intensity that cut out everything around them. Leaving the lock as we turned onto the main river there was an attractive old house we have seen many times before – but now deserted  and boarded up. Alongside it an old wooden barn looks doomed too.

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A few minutes online reveals that there is permission to demolish it and replace it with a new build. The house has an almost fairy tale quality about it. Demolishing it may not be wrong – but it feels sad.

At Old Windsor Lock Wendy was organising the lock with lots of boats in it. As we left a small hire boat jumped the queue provoking lots of chuntering from me. But as they left the lock and the crew fanned Grandpa while calling for an ambulance, it became clear their need was indeed greater than ours. A helpful riverside house called them in and we can only hope that Grandpa got the help he needed. Moored at Runnymede we watched the last episode of “A Very English Scandal” and forty years fell away with the memories. It is hard to believe that the outcome would have been the same in 2018.

The “Glorious Fourth” was miserable and cold with a cutting breeze. The river was completely deserted. Stopping for milk in Staines Wendy discovered that Waitrose had closed down there: we are still trying to work out what this means. As we approached Kingston Wendy noticed the bank was covered in colourful flowering broom, giving out a glorious intense scent. Somehow we’d never noticed it before.

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The next morning we left Teddington Lock at 7.30 to catch the tide and were tied up in Brentford at 9.20. As so often in the past the sights of the Thames seem surprising and new – even if we’ve seen them before. We hope to go back soon.

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Bath, Bristol, Brunel and back – the last of 2017

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This is a restrospective – as before history rather than a current story. But just as narrowboats go about their business very slowly so too do their narrators. If you need speed the solution is a car + social media. If you can afford slower contemplation – here it is.

At the end of August 2017 Ginger Bear was settled in Caen Hill Marina to rest for the period of John and Mackenzie’s wedding. Alastair came to see us for dinner. He was in Brentford before being exiled to Devizes.

Monday was the start of a week of wedding celebrations that were frenetic, joyful and memorable.

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We arrived back at the marina the following Monday exhausted and with a trailer load of rubbish, bamboo flares and other wedding paraphernalia. We got odd looks as we parked the trailer. Small wonder. The terms and conditions of the marina outlawed trailers. But we had not got a copy of the Ts and Cs. Serious error.

After a severe wigging from Sarah we recovered our trailer and completed our wedding tasks. We had a further discussion about the Ts and Cs before leaving prematurely in a very high wind the following day. Caen Hill is a great marina. We respect their rules, but make sure you ask for the Ts and Cs if you berth there.

On the way to Bath we stopped at Avoncliff, close to where I lived as a child, a beautiful spot with spectacular scenery.

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Passing some of the local fauna at very close quarters….

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.. we were off to Bath where we moored in a good spot above the last locks into the Avon.

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Then on 17 September we were back on a proper river after going through the 19’ deep lock on the way.

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Ginger Bear was happy to be on a river again without the shallow water dragging her.

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At Bitton Railway Bridge there was a large group of about 20 boats on a so called picnic spot. 4 or 5 deep they frustrated the efforts of conventional boaters to moor. There was quite a lot shouting going on as we wound through the traffic jam.

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Leaving Hanham Lock we were soon in rowing territory with a lot of novice rowers and a great deal of starting and stopping. As in some other places the coaches have got used to the idea that they own the river and that other craft are verminous. A bit of mutual tolerance would be good.

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By early afternoon we were turning into Netham Lock at the start of Bristol’s floating harbour. The lock keeper was helpful in giving guidance on the harbour and an hour later we were moored outside the Arnolfini in the city centre.

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We enjoyed walking round the basin and then had a meal with John and Mackenzie.

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The next day we took a ferry to the SS Great Britain and spent a fascinating time there with John. It is wonderfully laid out and explained.

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We looked at the replica propeller, the original being the first ocean going one. There is a wonderful sign advising that when leaving port the revs must not exceed 2rpm without the agreement of the pilot – caution indeed.

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That evening we walked through the magnificent Queen Square on the way to a farewell drink with Sue, Mackenzie’s mother, before her return to Australia. John and Mackenzie live in Bristol and it’s a great city.

The next day we were on our way back.

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In the early afternoon we came up to Saltford Lock. On the lock standing there were lots of beautiful varnished skiffs similar to those at Dittons Skiff and Punting Club. The lock was open and the skiffers beckoned us in with enthusiasm. The problem was that the flow from the weir across the lock entrance is very strong and one mistake would reduce the skiffs to matchsticks.

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Hard to make this clear, the more so as these skiffers were from Berlin, so the only answer was lots of speed to offset the weir flow and then a very rapid stop once we were in the lock. The Berlin skiffers smiled and waved and we were grateful we had done them no harm! By the evening we were back in Bath after an interesting passage through the deep lock. I was helming and the whole boat throbbed as the water came into this – the deepest lock we have been through.

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From Bath we had a slow and easy trip back up the K and A with much shorter day trips than in the past.

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At Hilperton the Boatyard gave great customer service from a family business. We stopped at Semington Bridge and Alastair and Gabi picked us up and swept us off for a welcome dinner in Devizes.

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The next day we moved to pole position for the flight. On 22nd we set off at 7.00 in thick fog and a cold morning.

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After a short coffee break we started up the main flight. We were blessed with a brilliant volunteer, Alan Gladman, who saw us all the way up the flight.

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By 2.25 we were out of lock 50 and ready to moor, after 29 locks in seven and a half hours. Lunch was eventually at 4.15.

We headed slowly East. Our progress was punctuated by Dugald making trips back to London for school meetings. Fortunately the GWR is close to the canal for most of its length.

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Julie and Mike joined us at Kintbury for a good lunch at the Dundas Arms.

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We then set off behind the horse drawn trip boat and watched it winding very skilfully at Dreweat’s Lock.

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The crew watched the placid Monty carefully because he is apparently prone to deciding enough is enough and setting off at a smart pace for home.  He reminded both of us of horses we had known in our youth.

Autumn was beginning and we still had not done lots of the painting we planned to do. As she headed East Ginger Bear began to look like a patchwork quilt. On 7th October we arrived in Reading in time to meet Joel and Ethan for a weekend sleepover while Anna and Ru went to a 40th. We tried winding in the Reading Gaol loop and just about got round before settling on the moorings of the Bel and the Dragon. Recommendation – go straight to the Bel and Dragon moorings. We had a memorable breakfast in front of an open fire, and lunch wasn’t long afterwards.

 

 

We managed to set off in spite of the lunch and moored at the Lynch just above Shiplake College. The island was explored with the boys as in Swallows and Amazons, but Ethan decided I had to carry him past the wasps’ nest in the large log across the path.

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There was more exploration the following morning before we set off for Henley.

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There was lots of space in Henley which is unusual.  The boys enjoyed the play area between the mooring and the town, especially the zip wire. After a while Dugald had become the referee/manager for an increasing number of children competing on the wire to register a record or personal best. A lot of fun that kept them going until their exhausted mother turned up to pick them up at 5.00 in the evening.

The next day we were on the way again, past the Llanthony which was still in the same spot on the bank. We moored below Brunel’s wonderful brick railway bridge opposite a large house in which a wake was clearly going on. Intimations of mortality.

A school meeting held up our departure from Maidenhead. Dugald reminisced about driving one of the umpire launches for the punting championships here at the beginning of August – strange what excites him. Then we were off to Windsor, Runnymede and Shepperton. There we were due to meet Sara and her inimitable children, Elena, Tom and Rosie. Once they were on board for a trip around Desborough Island the split of duties became clear. I was there to field the incredibly energetic children – where do they get it from? – while Dugald and Sara nattered non-stop about education, funding, universal credit and a host of other things. But we landed everyone safely and they all waved energetically as we set off again.

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Then on to Sunbury to meet up with John and Mackenzie for a short trip to Kingston. Mackenzie had never experienced the boat in motion, but he passed the test pretty well. An agreeable dinner in Kingston celebrated John’s 33rd. Life is moving on: with our oldest being 40 and our youngest 33, time seems to be passing. But spending it on a cruising boat does not seem a bad answer.

15th October was the last day of our 2017 cruising, exactly seven months after we set off in March. As we went down to Teddington we passed a large gathering of Thames A raters preparing for a race. Timeless and elegant – and exhausting to crew.

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We went through Teddington Lock at 11.00 and were back on our mooring at 13.00.

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Another great cruising year in which we headed North and West and covered 950 miles and went through 570 locks. Next year it’s going to be more relaxed – I’m going to be in charge.

Down the flight

 

From Hungerford we had about ten days to get to Caen Hill Marina where we were planning to leave Ginger Bear and go to Bath for John’s wedding. There was no need to rush so we had a very pleasant but wet circular walk to the South of Hungerford. We crossed the green common land of Hungerford Port Down and then circled round through some very lush estates where beautiful sleek suckler herds of Hereford crosses grazed alongside some very pampered outdoor pigs. We returned along the towpath and were struck by the density of the tufts of sedge grass that were deliberately planted to protect the banks. This was the same tough grass that plagued the river meadows at Bearley and gave Dugald fond memories.

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We had an easy day to Great Bedwyn under a mainly grey sky. On the last lock two teenage girls were conspiring just like the heroines of Tamara Drew, one of Dugald’s favorite films.

We moored close to the town bridge, not far from where we had moored on a hire boat trip in 2001. Great Bedwyn is a pretty village. We decided to go up into the village and have a quick memorial drink in a pub where we had met Dugald’s mother for lunch all those years ago. Alas it had just turned into an interesting looking gallery, so we went a bit further up the hill to another attractive looking pub, but it was not yet open – plan foiled.

The next day we had planned a short trip to allow us to visit the Crofton Pump House where the beam engines still work. This plan went well except that it is closed on Wednesdays and it was Wednesday – so we’ll have to try on the way back.

We moored on the straight near the pumping station.

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Here the GWR track runs very close to the canal.

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The canal was completed in 1810 and the railway followed in 1841. By 1851 the GWR had bought the canal and although they were obliged to keep it open, ensured its decline by ignoring its maintenance.

Nearby there is another delightful Wiltshire village, Wilton, with a friendly pub, the Swan. It was a pretty half mile walk from the canal.

 

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The Crofton Flight up to the summit of the Kennet and Avon had restricted opening hours to control the loss of water from the summit. So we made a half past six start to ensure we were in a good place when Lock 56 was unlocked at 10am. We got there just after 8am and were the first in the queue. We were soon joined by Provencale Rose. The lock was opened on time and we were on our way and soon through the Bruce Tunnel which was short high and dry – a nice change.

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Now on the summit it would be downhill all the way to Bristol. We made good progress with Provencale Rose.

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But at Heathey Close Lock we had a major dog poo alert which took some time to sort out. A lot of expletives about the thoughtful owners who leave it about. But they are angels compared with the man we met next.

On the lock I found a lock key and one open paddle. Looking below and into the distance there was no-one to be seen. I assumed a novice crew on a hire boat had left it, shut the paddle and started filling. Our companions thought they could find a home for the key. As we went into the now full lock a man arrived incandescent with rage that we had taken the lock he had in his mind booked from half a mile away by leaving his key – not to mention our companions appropriating the key! He ranted and raved, shouted and screamed. It was a genuine misunderstanding and I don’t think he had any prior right to the lock. I apologised and offered to help him through the lock, but  he carried on ranting. He made the mistake of calling me an ignorant Englishwoman, so I eventually used some of my Irish genes to match his! On reflection most people on the waterways behave with great courtesy, but he was an unusual and striking exception.

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We left him behind and found a mooring at Pewsey just short of the wharf. On the following day Philip and Annie Mangnall arrived with their grandson Jun and their dog Ludo. We had an agreeable lunch at the Waterfront and then cruised slowly to the Barge Inn at Honeystreet. Jun enjoyed himself but Ludo was very unimpressed and squeaked in protest most of the way.

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We cruised on very slowly getting to Horton Bridge the next day. It was a warm and sunny day as we walked up to the Wansdyke, an intriguing bank and ditch whose origin is still disputed.

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Dugald was reminiscing about drilling oilseed rape in Home Field on August Bank Holiday Sunday in 1983 – not sure how or why he remembers this sort of thing. But we then came across someone doing the same thing – so lots of tales and admiring photos.

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The next day was supposed to be the hottest Bank Holiday Monday since 1965 and it certainly felt like it. We made the short trip to Devizes and moored opposite the wharf.

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We were waiting there for our daughter Claudia and 5 year old granddaughter Eliza. They arrived on the Tuesday and we set off to go down the beginning of the Caen Hill Flight with them. At first Eliza thought it might be fun to help with  with the locks.

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The novelty soon wore off, and having brought her new bike with her, she was soon racing down the tow path, with Claudia in pursuit.

 

Stopping at the Black Horse at the top of the main flight we moored for the night and some supper.

On Wednesday the forecast looked dire – a lot heavy rain. Nevertheless we set off at 11.00 with our heavy weather gear on.

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We were very lucky to team up with Michaela  and Peter on an Oxford hire boat “Bath”. They were great companions and we got into a good rhythm in the locks.

I helmed Ginger Bear while Eliza alternately entertained herself inside the boat

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and in the cockpit with her lifejacket and whistle.

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Peter and I decided to try driving into the locks together, a new trick for both of us, but it worked out pretty well.

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We got through the main flight of 16 in just over two hours, but there were no moorings to be had below so together we went through the next six locks until we peeled off at Lower Foxhangers to moor. We said goodbye to Michaela and Peter.

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As in the past a good partnership with another boat makes a lot of locks much easier with the bonus of meeting some nice people.

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Eliza had another blast down the towpath before she and Claudia went back to Devizes by taxi and we settled down for a rest a few hundred yards from our destination Caen Hill marina.

Heading West

Ginger Bear got back to Brentford on 17 May and set out again on 8 August. So she had a stay of 83 days. Phineas Fogg was supposed to have gone round the world in 80 days, we had seemed to be very busy but did rather less. The  interlude included our daughter Anna’s 40th birthday, the birthdays of two of our grandchildren, time in Dorset and in France and quite a lot of boat scrubbing, blacking and so on. But the big boat event was to replace the cockpit floor and put in 32mm sound deadening. The engine noise had become increasingly annoying, and the floor was starting to warp and deteriorate. It could be regarded as a boatyard job and I have to admit I wasn’t sure that Dugald would be able to create a new floor without access to more complex cutting tools and a workshop. My worries were unfounded, after much measuring, sawing and swearing, we have a beautiful new floor, cutting out most of the engine sound.

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The aim of the late summer cruise was to go slowly down to Devizes in time for our son John’s wedding in Bath at the beginning of September. The forecast for the beginning of August was not promising, and there was much talk of a lack of water on the Kennet and Avon. So maybe the one problem would resolve the other.

On the morning of 8 August Dugald was fuming about a barge that had been hogging the service berth for 24 hours. Admittedly it turned out that the pumpout needed repair but it was nevertheless blocking the services. We had to catch the tide on the Thames, so left without doing the normal loo cassette emptying, Dugald confident that we had a spare one for the near future.

By early afternoon we were on the way up the Thames. It was grey and cold, not at all like August, but quite like the forecast.

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There were very few other boats about, but the moorings at Hampton Court were full, so we carried on through Molesey Lock. In the early evening we moored in Sunbury. Dugald had checked the weed hatch and bilges before we left, but a routine check again found quite a lot of water in the bilge. Much pumping and cursing and the weed hatch, which he had checked before we left was reset properly on its register. We were lucky, one of the commonest causes of narrowboat sinking is a weed hatch that has not been fully clamped down after checking, or where the seal has failed.

The next morning the forecast was appalling. But the comfortable decision to stay put was demolished by finding all the cassettes were full. We had to go to Shepperton at least. Again the barge was cursed although the fault was really Dugald’s – but it’s a lot easier to blame someone else. We left quickly and were through Shepperton Lock in constant drizzle by 10. Half an hour later we were moored outside the Thames Court pub, cassette problem resolved. Ten minutes later the heavens opened. The only answer was a very slow and long lunch at the pub.  The option with five puddings was very good – not such a bad day.

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The rain stopped and next day we decided to travel the short distance to the green moorings at Runnymede. We had ringside seats as a dragon boat went through her paces next to us.

IMG_8322We set off for Cliveden the next morning and the sun shone on the meadows and hills. Going into Windsor there was suddenly a lot of traffic. In Bray Lock we were alongside Fringella with a champagne fuelled party in full swing.

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At 1400 the situation on the Cliveden Island looked bad, but as we arrived a cruiser left our favourite spot and we slotted in – very happy. Later a number of other boats came to check out the spot and looked very disgruntled. We first moored here in 2009 and it has been our favourite mooring ever since.

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On the Sunday the aim was to hop from one favourite island to another – the Lynch above Shiplake. We left Cliveden and were going through Bourne End with a large number of canoeists, mixed with rowers. Through Marlow and on to Temple Lock which disgorged a large number of boats packed in like sardines.

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Our luck ran out at Hurley Lock where there was a queue. The lock keeper packed us in alongside Never Say Never from Windsor whose owner was very nervous about us and fiddled constantly with his fenders.

Heading towards Henley we slowed down to admire a lovely old boat – Llanthony, a Dunkirk Little Ship. Dugald has a thing about classic boats and cars!

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Then as we arrived, Dugald was excited to see a traction engine towing a water tank across the bridge.

 

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Passing through Wargrave we saw a house that had featured on Grand Designs. The design had upset the neighbours, they had felt it didn’t blend in.

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Later we encountered a party boat exiting a lock with inebriated crew and some erratic navigation, nearby there were overcrowded boats, children dangling their feet from the bow without life jackets. No mishaps but plenty of potential for them.

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We pressed on to our target island, but we had left it too late in the afternoon to be looking. All the good positions had gone and eventually we set off towards Sonning and found two friendly trees. We did a bit of ‘wild mooring’ between them.

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The next day would be our first day on the Kennet and Avon for 8 years. After a quick visit to the Reading Tesco we were on our way up. The canal goes through the busy centre of Reading.

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Before winding its way quietly out into the countryside.

IMG_8388I did not much like the K and A the last time we were here, large river locks with fierce gate paddles which squirted large amounts of water towards the boat even if you opened them gently, narrow lock beams to walk along with very low rails. But someone has been listening and at least the rails across the lock gates now seem to be at a sensible height. With our pink fore and aft line rigged and coupled to a ratchet block and a clam cleat (Dugald’s sailing influence), controlling the boat on its own in a rising lock is easy even when the gate paddles are pretty fierce.

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We made good progress in the next couple of days and even the turf locks seemed OK.

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A walker on the towpath asked Dugald if the boat was electric because she was so quiet. Dugald was very chuffed and it is true that the sound deadening under the cockpit floor has made slow cruising at low revs very quiet and pleasant indeed.

A bit later we came across Anne, a WOB (Women on Barges) with an elegant restored butty firmly on the ground. A bit of lateral heaving got her afloat again and she was able to proceed later. We ended the second day at Aldermaston on the visitors’ moorings just below the Aldermaston Lock. This coincided with ABC Boats releasing at least four hire boats at the same time and some chaos ensued.

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All of this was proceeding at a more civilised pace than our rushed cruising in the past, but Dugald is still seized by a sense of urgency about it all. I think he’s learning slowly.

Setting off from Aldermaston the next day we broke the day above Woolhampton Lock so that I could concentrate on a Skype call. Dugald contented himself with polishing part of the topsides.

As we went along parallel to the GWR line we could see new pylons erected without any wire attached – part of the electrification project.

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By this time we had joined forces with Old Lady owned by Ioan who was accompanied by his very good humoured boxer Hudson.

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We moored at Thatcham and then moved on to Newbury with Old Lady the next day, mooring  at New Mills.

On the Thursday I went off to a meeting in Edinburgh and was back late that night. Dugald had moved Ginger Bear out of the shade of a large ash tree and found the panels worked a lot better. Friday was a stand still day.

On Saturday we set off again. At the first lock we met a broadbeam coming out. A young woman was doing all the winding, looking after the baby in a pushchair and then walking half a mile to the next lock. She seemed to be doing 90% of the family’s work. We stopped at Hamstead Lock near Marsh Benham. My sister Anne and husband Richard lived here in the early 80s so we went off to look at their house and have a drink at the now reopened Red House. Her neat hand painted sign is still there over thirty years later.

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It is generally difficult to moor close to the bank on this canal, there tends to be a mud shelf along the edge. We had generally moored on visitors moorings on this trip, where edge has been dredged. There were no visitor moorings in this area, and we had moored among some reeds as close to the bank as possible, then used our slightly wobbly plank to get ashore. I had commented several times that I thought the boat was listing more than usual and was probably aground, Dugald was very unconcerned. The next morning we had rather a struggle getting the bow unstuck so perhaps we were after all rather firmly on the mud. We set off towards Kintbury and the canal became ever quieter, more rural and beautiful. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning. As in 2009 the water tap in Kintbury is very slow at its work so we were there for some time. Dugald helped a maintenance boat through the lock while we waited watched by a group who were waiting for a trip on a horse drawn barge.

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In the middle of the afternoon we arrived in Hungerford and moored in the centre of the town on a 48 hour mooring – perfect.

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This is as far as we brought Ginger Bear in 2009 when work meant we had to turn round and go back to London. So the next stage is new ground for her.

 

Catching up

 

I am writing this as we cruise very slowly down the Kennet and Avon with summer slipping away. Our pace is in marked contrast to our recent trip to York and back which felt a bit like a yomp. I demanded a slower pace. As I have failed so far to record the second half of our York trip I think it now becomes history rather than a blog – my assumption being that a blog is reasonably contemporary.

To keep the history brief Ginger Bear spent a week in York in the tender care of York Marina so that if the river levels changed, she would go up and down with them. Patrick and Elizabeth Walker came from Northallerton and we went to the rather good Blacksmith’s Arms in Naburn for lunch. It was good to see them, and in Elizabeth’s case we had not seen her for 34 years. We can’t afford an interval that long again.

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After a manic trip to Somerset over Easter weekend for a 70th birthday lunch we toasted my brother Charlie’s 55th birthday with prosecco as we cruised into York and back before also repairing to the Blacksmith’s Arms.

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A tourist’s day in York eventually found us in the National Railway Museum.

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Train spotting is not really my thing, so I settled down on a quiet bench to read my Kindle, only to find myself in the middle of a presentation on Japanese bullet trains. I now know much more about them!

We then set off again, retracing out steps. On the way back we followed the Ouse, the Aire and Calder and then the tidal Trent. On a second run they felt less worrying.

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We passed Kellingley Colliery, crawling with diggers and earth movers. It was the last deep mine: closed at the end of 2015 it is being redeveloped as an industrial park. Dugald was prompted to look at one of his favourite sites – Gridwatch – and remarked that the dial for coal generated power showed nil. That evening the news recorded that the previous 24 hours had been the first in British generating history with no power being generated from coal. It was moving to see the former giant being taken down.

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We followed our river and canal route back until we passed Nottingham. Even at this stage of the spring we saw relatively few boats out on the water – but hundreds penned in marinas. Perhaps we should be thankful. After the Cranfleet Cut we headed for the Trent and Mersey, breaking away from our earlier route.

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We paused in Shardlow so that I could reach a meeting from East Midlands Airport. It is a delightful place and still has the atmosphere of an important inland port.

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From there we went on to meet Dugald’s brother Hugh and his wife Julie at Willington. Hugh is an obsessive walker so spent more time pacing the towpath than on the boat but they both enjoyed it a lot.  We spent the night at the head of the Coventry Canal. Before we left the two brothers spent some time admiring the ingenious way in which the Trent and Mersey engineers had deprived the Coventry Canal of more than the bare minimum of water.

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Again Hugh strode ahead. After passing through beautiful woodlands at Hopwas and the winding hole we had turned Ginger Bear on our first test outing in her in 2007 we arrived at Fazeley Junction. It was a Sunday and somehow I had checked and convinced myself there were trains from Tamworth to Willington. This turned out not to be true so Hugh and Julie had to taxi back to Willington – I owe them apologies.

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We carried on South past the site of  Boudicca’s last stand and through Nuneaton. I had heard dire stories about Nuneaton and was wary of it, so we continued to Hawkesbury Junction.

It was now May and the weather made some effort to improve. As we went past a huge National Grid distribution centre I was heartened to see water vole resting places. I had learnt about these ‘water vole hotels’ through a piece on Countryfile.

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Later in the morning we passed under a completely static M6 and unusually had the satisfaction of going faster than 21st century traffic. We were also now passing more narrowboats every day. The “pensioners” – like us – were coming out of hibernation and setting off for the season.

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We stopped in Rugby, went into the town and looked at the school for the first time. Returning to the boat by bus we clearly had not learned our lesson from an earlier experience. We set off on the right bus but on the wrong bit of the figure of eight it runs. We both found ourselves in childlike giggles as the bus took us out of town in the wrong direction! We got back to our starting point half an hour later and then set off on the correct loop. We have both seen a lot of suburban Rugby and its surrounds.

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Soon after we were at Napton and on the Oxford Canal again. It is a delight and ambles around in a wonderfully eccentric way. Apparently the designer, James Brindley, believed that the more places it visited the more trade it would pick up, notwithstanding the obvious increase in the time of travel. He may have been wrong but the result is very pleasant.

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We missed seeing the naked rambler this year, and he would have been very cold indeed had he been there. We arranged to meet Dugald’s sister Kay and husband George at Fenny Compton Wharf. They arrived by taxi having left their car at Aynho Wharf a little further down the canal. In 2016 they had the very best of the weather on the Llangollen, but this was not repeated in 2017. Overcast, cold and windy there were nevertheless lots of boats about. Later it brightened as we got to Cropredy and went into the marina to refuel and water. As ever the marina manager was immensely cheerful and helpful. What a model of customer service – and that is why we return here whenever we go past.

We moored before Banbury and the motorway. Kay felt deprived of the view of lambs, but I pointed out that you could see them if you peered through the hedge. The next morning Kay and George were up early for a walk to get a proper view of lambs. We left well in time for a late lunch reservation at the Great Western in Aynho. In Aynho Weir Lock there was very little flow from the river which was surprising for the time of year.

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We moored on the long straight before the Great Western . I had promised Kay hundreds of rabbits below the railway embankment and there were none to be seen. But there were lots of house martins in the stable yard of the Great Western where we had a good lunch. When we had waved them goodbye, we got back to a lovely sunny afternoon and hundreds of rabbits. Sorry Kay.

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Later we heard that John had completed his first 10k run in 55 minutes and that Macron had won comprehensively in the French presidential election.

Winter returned with a vengeance the next day and we were in full offshore kit. We and others struggled with a recalcitrant lock gate in. I rang CRT who said Nigel was on his way, but later we learned that Nigel had been on his way two weeks before.

 

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We moored on the very tidy moorings at Thrupp and treated ourselves to a good meal at Morse’s favourite, the Boat Inn.

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When we came out there was a lively display of belly dancing, Appalachian and other clog dancing going on in the car park. A very colourful and eccentric mix.

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Down to Oxford the next day and dinner at the Jam Factory with Nettie, Dugald’s cousin.  We were now heading down the Thames and making some haste to get back to London.

The river locks are set to empty and fill more slowly when the lock keepers are not there. Culham lock takes about 30 minutes to fill on ‘self service’, and when we arrived it was empty. I set it to fill, and settled to read my book. A few minutes later a couple of local characters in steam launches they had built themselves arrived below the lock  and kept us entertained with stories while we were waiting.

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As we entered the lock at Goring Dugald declared that this would be his choice of a place for a house on the Thames. Lovely but dream on.

We moored at Henley for a wholesome lunch and catch up with family friends Cleone and Frank. We had a very pleasant lunch and we were glad to see them. Two months later Dugald was at Frank’s funeral; but Frank and Cleone had been determined to continue to live life to the full even at the end.

We decided to accelerate our return because there was ‘lots to do’. On the stretch from Molesey Lock to Teddington we came across Barn Owl, a delightful varnished electric river boat, stranded with no power.

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We took them alongside, worried that our steel sides would harm their tender wood, but managed to deliver them safely to the lock layby at Teddington. Barn Owl’s charming crew took us for a thank you drink at the Tide End. Both turned out to be eminent physicists so it was reassuring that they together could be confounded by the electrics of a small boat.

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Early the next morning we left Teddington Lock in the company of an old tug-style boat, Firefly. She had a very old single cylinder Dutch diesel engine from about 1900. We set off at a smart speed on the tide with our engine at about 2000 rpm. Dugald was amazed and then impressed as Firefly sailed past us.

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By 8am we were approaching the Thames Lock and we were back on our berth by 9. Shortly afterwards the heavens opened and it rained solidly for the rest of the day.

Our spring cruise had lasted nine weeks and we covered 660 miles and went through 314 locks. I felt it was a bit of a yomp, and have given notice that I am in charge of planning – or more accurately not planning – the cruises for 2018! Our next cruise down to Bristol for John and Mackenzie’s wedding will be more relaxed!

 

 

 

Going tidal

I was not really looking forward to the next stage of the trip. It had taken Dugald some time to persuade me to agree to a cruise involving several rivers, and some tidal sections. I could only see problems – rain, rising river levels and possible stranding for weeks in the north when we needed to be back in the south.  He thought it would be a great adventure, and fun. Boaters are great storytellers, and I eventually managed to put aside the tales of getting stuck on the rivers Soar, Trent and Ouse. I would try his adventure and let the fun begin.

An early start was planned, but delayed by the discovery that in our absence some enthusiast had cable tied our electricity cable to the beams around the marina. It took Dugald some time and much muttering to unscramble this arrangement. We eventually left the marina, and set off down the Soar. The weather looked threatening with dark clouds and a moist feeling in the air  fuelling my fears.

We passed a typical group of canal and river horses having fun on the bank. I have never fully understood where these horses come from or who they belong to. We only seem to see them on the edge of waterways.

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The Soar had not been very wide up to this point, but now started to widen and become more river like as it flowed towards the Trent.

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The landscape became more industrial as a power station appeared in the distance.

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We passed through ‘deep’, ‘shallow’, ‘stop’ and ‘flood’ locks to arrive at the junction where the River Soar flows into the River Trent. I could tick that one off my list.

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A left and right turn, and we were heading up the Cranfield Cut towards the Nottingham and Beeston Canal.

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As we went into Nottingham along the canal we were passed by a couple of cheery young men on their way to a local spectacle – a couple of ‘lads’ were on a roof chucking bricks and roofing tiles at a number of police in riot gear. We passed the scene shortly afterwards – welcome to Nottingham!

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The next morning was bright, cold and sunny, a good day for cruising a large river. We went through Meadow Lane Lock and onto the River Trent, which one of our guides describes as Seine-like, or Rhone-like. A bit of an exaggeration, but it is impressive and wide.

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The large locks on the Trent are operated by cheerful and very helpful lock keepers. There is a clear traffic light system on the locks, and we often found a green light as we approached  our next lock because the lock keepers at the last lock has radioed  ahead to warn that we were on our way.

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Exiting the locks, we often joined the flows coming from the weirs, luckily it was less scary than it might appear – I have never fancied white water rafting.

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The sun was shining, it was a lovely day, I settled down to enjoy the trip. We saw very few boats on the move, more ‘river’ horses, grazing cattle, sheep and lots of lambs.

At Averham we went past another very large power station,

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and just beyond a long unprotected weir. The river conditions were calm, but it is probably very exciting going past when  is in spate.

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We went through a cut into Newark, and we moored there for the night below the castle. Keith, a former work colleague of Dugald and his wife Karen joined us for an enjoyable supper and catch up on the boat.

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The next day, the forecast was bright and sunny, but the weather was not, and I was feeling apprehensive, we had booked to go through the tidal lock at Cromwell, and would be spending two days on the tidal Trent dodging mud banks. First we had to get to Cromwell. As we got to the first lock the traffic light showed amber, meaning that the lock was not yet manned for the day, and it was self service. We approached with the intention of pressing all the buttons ourselves, but as we rounded the corner between the lock and the weir, the traffic light went red and we did an undignified stop, ending with the boat pointing down the weir! Position recovered, we made up and waited for the light to go green and the gates to open.

On to Cromwell lock where we were expected, we picked up a copy of the excellent River Trent (Tidal) produced by the Boating Association marking all the banks and providing aerial views of the river and landmarks.

Out onto the river by ourselves, no sign of another boat, we went down river with increasing speed, measuring it against helpful km markers on the banks as we went. Dugald skilfully navigated us to Torksey where we were to moor in the lock cut before catching the tide early the next morning.

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Dugald had a wander around the edge of Torksey and found a potato field with an interesting ridge pattern. The building in the background is the remains of a sixteenth century manor house which was torched by the royalists in the Civil War and never restored.

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We had contacted the lock keepers at Keadby to book in through the lock, and get their advice about the tides. It was agreed that we would need to catch the tide at 6.45 am.

Dugald decided to get up without waking me and set off.  I woke to hear the engine starting, and decided to quickly get up, looked out of a window, and couldn’t see a thing! He had taken an executive decision and set off in thick fog assuming that it would quickly burn off.  He knew from many previous ‘discussions’ about fog when sailing in the English Channel years ago that a consultation would have led to a negative response. Unfortunately he misinterpreted which arch of Torksey bridge he was looking at, and at the last minute saw the correct channel and headed for it. Too late, we hit a gravel bank and stuck. Luckily some quick poling got us off and we were away, but the fog stayed with us for some time, lifting at times to show us another power station

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and then coming back in banks, slowing our progress.

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Eventually the sun burnt through. The flow gradually increased as we travelled, and by the time we reached Gainsborough we could see the effect on the bridge supports as we swept past the huge wharves.

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We had been travelling alone on the river, but were overtaken by a boat that suddenly appeared behind us and then disappeared into the distance. They slowed down to pass us, and we didn’t have to deal with too much wash.

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We passed a few scattered settlements hiding behind large banks and walls.

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Passing through the M180 bridge we called Keadby lock to let them know our position.

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Half an hour later we had an exciting but successful entrance to Keady Lock. The tide was flowing quite fast by the time we turned in and of course I worried about being swept on down to the Humber, but Dugald ensured that my fears were unfounded.  I have to admit, once we got going and the fog cleared allowing the sun to come out, it was quite enjoyable. We had briefly seen one boat, but had had an impression of being alone on the river

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We were now on part of the South Yorkshire Navigation, the Stainforth and Keadby Canal. This canal has few locks, but lots of swing bridges to hamper progress. Our first obstacle was a railway bridge which slides in on itself rather than swings. Our guide suggested hooting at the bridge keeper, but the Keadby lock keeper advised against this saying that it would elicit some vigorous hand signals!

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This canal is wide and fairly straight with large fields of wind turbines, and trains running alongside.

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Some of the swing bridges have adjacent railway crossings. On these crossings I was surprised to see a crossing keeper coming out of the signal box and close the rail crossing by hand as we closed the swing bridge road barriers before swinging the bridge.

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We had to stop at Thorne, the hydraulics on one of the lock gates had broken and a lock keeper would be there in the morning to help us through. We walked through the town to get some food and decided that our guide gave it a better write up than it deserved, but maybe we had walked through the wrong bits. Dugald had agree to attach my new WOB flag to the tiller. WOB stands for Women In Barges, a very friendly and helpful international Facebook group. Members are encouraged to fly their flag so that their boats can be recognised.

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A chatty lock keeper helped us through the injured lock the next morning and swung the adjacent bridge for us. He told us that we should just make it to Sykehouse lock on the Grand Junction Canal before the lock keeper went home at lunchtime. It was another sunny day.

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At midday we joined the New Junction Canal which is the most recently built inland waterway (1929). It starts with a rather daunting guillotine gate as a small aqueduct crosses over the River Don and in the distance is a series of swing and lift bridges.

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This canal is very straight and very wide, and the bridges all respond to the press of a button. Lots of flashing lights, barriers, chatty walkers, cyclists and annoyed drivers. We could see the Sykehouse lock in the distance, and thought it would be on self service by the time we got there, but the lock keeper had kindly waited for us, and we joined a patient narrowboat in the lock who had been waiting for us as well.

A few bridges later we joined the Aire and Calder navigation just opposite a reservoir where some great dinghy sailing was going on.

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This waterway is also very straight and wide, but we immediately noticed a difference, we passed many more boats, mostly river cruisers. We moored a little later and sat on the bank in the sunshine watching the boats go by, and people walking on both sides of the bank.

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It was bright, cold and windy the next morning as we continued, through more locks, passing Kellingley Colliery which is now closed and being decommissioned.

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We also saw much larger barges on this stretch.

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At Knottingley we left the navigation which was heading on towards Leeds and turned right into the beginning of the North Yorkshire Navigations and onto the River Aire.

There was nothing much to see on the Aire,  it seemed to wind around fields with muddy banks for miles. At one of the locks some CRT workmen helped us through, they were getting fed up with pressure washing the cobbled lock top, it had apparently already taken them two days already. The river widened, and became a water ski area, we were grateful that on a dull and windy Monday there was no one coming round the bend at 15 knots with a skier behind. Yet another power station appeared and then we realised we could actually see three at the same time.

There is a flood lock between the Aire and the Selby Canal which was open as we arrived

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The scenery immediately changed for the better.

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We passed many empty fishing stands as we moved along the canal, apparently at certain times of the year there can be a thousand fishermen lining the banks. I wonder if they like it because there are very few boats on the stretch, or perhaps it is just that the fishing is superb.

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We moored in Selby basin and Dugald went to chat up the lock keeper. We had booked passage through the tidal lock to go onto the River Ouse early the next morning.

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Having some spare time, we decided to explore this rather attractive town, and its large abbey described by Simon Jenkins as one of England’s best churches.

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Another early start – the Selby lock keeper spent a lot of time staring intently at the river until he was satisfied the tide was right then we went through the lock with a small cruiser. As we met the tideway she turned up the river and set off at great speed ahead of us. It was a cold grey day with biting wind. We passed quickly under Selby rail and road bridges. Both these bridges swing for large vessels, but we zoomed through underneath.

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On up the river, steep muddy banks on either side sharing others’ lost items.

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We passed several large working flour mills, but neighbouring wharves appeared rusty and neglected.

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Passing through Cawood we met another bridge, Dugald opted for the right hand arch by the pontoon which was ok and did not freak out the bridge keeper – but the Ouse notes recommend the left hand one!

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Speeding  up the swirly muddy river we arrived at Naburn Lock, the head of the tideway, several hours later as the tide started to slacken.

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Through the lock and up the river a little further, we moored at York Marina on a floating riverside pontoon where Ginger Bear would be safe.  We were heading south for a few days.

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canal map 2

132 miles and 37 locks, 20 moveable bridges

Spring Cruise to York

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.

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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.

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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.IMG_6556

Then we passed one of the houses we like, with its large very glass extension on the canalside.

IMG_6564We 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.

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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’!

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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!

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He has developed his own way of doing it, helping me through the lock, then riding on ahead to the next one.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Leicester branch was a complete change, it is very attractive, and has narrow locks for the first part.

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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!

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As we moved into Leicestershire we saw occasional large farms in the distanceIMG_6779

and a few cows to remind us of the past.

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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.

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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. DSCF2181

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.

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The next morning we became part of the spectator sport

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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.

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The canal became a broad canal again below Foxton, still very pretty and windy, with a fisherman on every bend!

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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.

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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.IMG_6854

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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.

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We had arranged to moor Ginger Bear at the marina for a few days.

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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.

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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.

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Stopped by a board

We wandered around Birmingham soaking up the changes since we were last there. The weather was warm and the areas around the International Conference Centre and Gas Street basin were buzzing with people walking over the connecting bridges and dining canalside.

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The central area, Paradise, is being redeveloped, large pieces of brutalist architecture are being bulldozed in an eleven year plan. New Street Station gleams like a shiny ship on the edge of the chaos, and new tram tracks are being laid.

While Dugald went to London for some meetings, I spent a happy day using the laundrette facilities on the wharf, restocking and exploring further.

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The next day we had a clear run out of the centre, down the Farmers Bridge flight.

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I met a cheerful boater at the top of the flight who knew Brentford well.

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It felt much tighter and intimate here,

we could see people working in offices right on the edge of the locks,

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and others in dark corners with no work and no home.

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The old structure of the canal mixed up with the new.

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The lock keeper turned up near the bottom of the flight in time to watch me make a complete hash of going into the next lock. Every previous entry that day had been perfect!

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We were entertained by a family of geese marching past us on one of the locks. We don’t usually get as close to the goslings when they are out of the water.

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At Aston Junction we joined the Grand Union, although at this stage it remains a narrow canal,

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then on through the Ashted lock flight which has a very tight tunnel immediately after the first lock.

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There was demolition and development all around.

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We are used to seeing graffiti adjacent to the canal,the decoration at the beginning of the Camp Hill flight is in a different league and quite spectacular.

Working our way through Solihull, we gradually left the suburbs and later moored in the countryside beyond the intriguingly named village of Catherine de Barnes.

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We set up our table and chairs beside the towpath, it was the first warm evening of our trip.

We had been through twenty five locks on our way out of Birmingham, and only seen one other boat on the move.

Back on the main Grand Union, we were working big locks again.

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First the Knowle flight of six locks to be followed by our old friend the Hatton flight of twenty one – another busy day ahead!

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Fortunately the weather was good, and we relaxed between Knowle and Hatton enjoying the view. The banks were covered in bluebells,

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Cygnets enjoying the sunshine,

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And we waved at the turning to the Stratford canal, reminded of our trip last year, and passed the second boat of the day.

We paired up with nb Amadeus going down the Hatton flight. Half way down the flight there was an ‘incident’ with a cyclist. The ‘elderly’ father on Amadeus (misuse of the word – he was only 71) and a speeding cyclist met on the towpath under a bridge, the cyclist and his bike ended up in the canal. There was much yelling and abuse from the cyclist, and a CRT volunteer turned up to help retrieve the bike. A little later Amadeus had a problem with her propeller, and we carried on without her. Further down the locks we were interviewed by two bike riding policemen who had been called by the biker, he had accused the father of pushing him into the canal. Near the bottom of the flight the volunteer lock keeper caught up with us and said “Oh, you are the naughtly boat”, he thought that we had pushed the cyclist in!

I said it was nothing to do with us, and hadn’t seen exactly what had happened. Later, I saw the cyclist (who apparently was also a boater) coming down the towpath, I hoped that the he would realise that too. I didn’t fancy being pushed into the canal by an angry cyclist.

There was nowhere to moor at the bottom of the flight, so we stopped just beyond Cape locks, both exhausted having done another 28 (big) locks, and more to look forward to the next day. We decided to award ourselves a treat, and staggered into Warwick for a rather good meal at a small italian.

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We were lucky to meet nb Albert Ross at the bottom of the Fosse locks. Her skipper was winding the locks, and he was very good at it. I think he had been working out at the gym. We stayed with them until lunchtime, when they stopped at one of the pubs in Itchington. It was the first hot weekend day, and the pubs were packed. I heard grumbles from boaters on the locks about sixty people waiting for drinks and chaos in the pubs. Sad thirsty boaters.

On through the Stockton locks, a brief spell of thunder and hail, and then a delightful and unexpected meeting with two of my old patients as we passed between locks.

We carried on through the Calcutt flight, stopping briefly at the top to show two young men in a hire boat how to work the paddles and go through a lock. I hope they got the hang of it eventually.

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We left the Grand Union and started down the Oxford canal. This canal is very popular and there are always lots of hire boats. We met our first one at the first bridge!

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We moored in the countryside near Napton – another long day. We were having to push ourselves a bit as we had arranged to meet my sister Bids and her husband Nick a couple of days later in Banbury, and we still had some way to go.

IMG_5147Napton flight next and a busier canal, we set off early the next morning to try to get ahead of the crowd. Back in narrow locks there was no prospect of sharing.

IMG_5150It was a beautiful morning, and the water buffalo were lying peacefully in their field.

IMG_5153The lock arms were very decorative having been yarn bombed.

The canal then winds through the countryside for a long time.

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We passed a boat that seems to have found a way around the need to have a licence, it has moored on the field rather than in the canal.

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While I was admiring the very yellow rape fields, Dugald suddenly said “naked man ahead”. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, but there he was swinging along, wearing only a rucksack and wellies, he waved cheerfully from the towpath as we went past.I was quite pleased I hadn’t had to squeeze past him on the narrow towpath, and wondered whether he would stop and chat to people on the nearby Napton flight.

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We now began our descent towards London down the Claydon flight. Stopping at the very friendly Copredy Marina for fuel, it was very windy and Dugald struggled to get out again without playing bumping the moored boats, but all was well.

We were now close enough to Banbury to relax, we would make our rendezvous the next morning.

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Another beautiful sunny day. We moored in the centre of Banbury, and Dugald collected Bids and Nick from the station, while I got lost in an enormous Morrisons. They had to send a search party out for me.

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Nick quickly got the hang of manoeuvring the boat, and enjoyed taking her through what is supposed to be the deepest narrow lock in the country.

Biddy and I made a great team at the locks, it was really good to have some help again

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Mooring at Aynho in the same spot as last year, we were entertained by a family of geese in the field opposite.

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Back in lift bridge territory, the Mill lift bridge seemed to have a life of its own. Both Biddy and I had to sit on the arms to keep it up long enough for the boat to go through. I am not sure how a single hander would manage.

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The weather wasn’t great, and we stopped for the night in the pretty village of Thrupp. Dugald and Nick were excited to find an enthusiast on nb Osiris who had the engine from one of the Queen Mary’s lifeboats – and was very proud of it. It made a lovely deep ump-ump-ump noise.

It rained heavily overnight, and we set off again through more bridges and locks. We decided to go through Dukes Cut onto the Thames and as we had a bit of spare time to go up the Thames a bit before turning round and dropping Bids and Nick in Oxford.

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Coming back down the river, the flow was quite fast,

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and we found a yellow board advising stream increasing at Kings Lock. On to Godstow Lock, the last one before Oxford, and we found moored boats by the lock, and a red board. A red board indicates the the river is becoming dangerous to travel on, and we had to stop.

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We joined the queue and moored on the bank. A change of plan – following lunch at the nearby Trout Inn, Bids and Nick took a taxi into Oxford, and we went back to the boat hoping we wouldn’t be stuck at the lock for too long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the heart of the system

The canal widened as we headed to Chester and we were back in double locks. It was cold wet and windy and we were grateful to be able to share some of the locks with NB Greenfields until they stopped for lunch.

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We kept company with Beeston Castle for a long time and tried to decide whether it was the castle we had dragged John and his cousins up to in 1996. I remember complaints about the hill, but I don’t remember it being that steep.

We came across a 70 foot hire boat wafting around in the middle of the canal while some of her crew walked with boat hooks on the towpath. It wasn’t clear whether they were trying to get the crew back on the boat, or find somewhere to moor. They got the boat stuck in the mud on the other side of the canal, but assured us they were OK. We overtook wondering how long it would take them to reunite with their crew. A 70 foot boat is quite a challenge for an inexperienced crew.

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We passed endless lines of moored boats before more large and slow locks into Chester. We took the last mooring in the middle of Chester before a winding hole to avoid going through Northgate Locks – a hard work staircase of three.

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Twenty years ago, Dugald walked the boys around the city walls. John, Paddy and Ollie were excited to be walking Roman walls. This time we walked the cold and windswept walls, watching narrowboats head towards the staircase locks below, until stopped by scaffolding and diversions. We retreated to Urbano to eat Pizza, drink wine and reminisce.

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It is duckling time of year, and this duck had 25 ducklings. We wondered how she was going to manage to keep tabs on them all. This heroic duck would surely have got a medal in the Soviet Union.

The next day we explored the quirky mixed vintage shopping centre – some medieval, some Victorian and later rebuild. The ‘rows’ have timbered galleried shops and walkways. We also managed to fit in our usual wash and restock.

On our way out of Chester we were joined by another narrowboat, and her cheerful crew helped us up through the locks. ‘Windermere’ was one of three hire boats travelling together, on an annual holiday arranged by people who drink in the same pub. The other two boats always set off at eight each morning, while this one sauntered along some time later luckily for us.

At the top of the flight out of Chester they dropped off to join their mates in a pub for lunch.

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We carried on and the sun came out briefly. Noticing the daily changes in the plants and trees we passed, we now saw the first potatoes peeping through the soil.

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We passed Beeston again and noticed the extraordinary Wild Boar Hotel on the hill nearby.

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The line of stables at the top of the Bunbury staircase locks served the fast ‘fly’ boats used for the trip between the Mersey and the Midland factories in 24 hours. Bunbury was one of the places where they changed horses, and they had priority at the locks. It must have been an exhausting schedule.

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The weather deteriorated and we had patches of wind, rain, sun and hail.

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Passing the Hursleston flight at the entrance to the Llangollen, I saw it was deserted, such a contrast to the previous Saturday.

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We stopped just before Nantwich at the bridge with a wooden horse made from lockgates, and turned down the arm into the Nantwich Canal Centre where we had arranged a berth for the night. On the Llangollen a stray piece of aluminium canal lining had engaged forcefully with the exhaust for our heating system and turned it into a mobile can opener. It made a hideous noise every time it touched a lock side, and we were worried about the damage it could cause another boat.

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We finished mooring when the heavens opened, thunder, lightning, rain and hail – just avoiding a major soaking.

The next morning some incredibly helpful guys from the Canal Centre quickly looked at, and discussed solutions for our bent exhaust outlet. We decided on the pragmatic thing –  heat up and bash the metal back into place. Swiftly done, small financial transaction completed and we were off again. Another really good customer experience.

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My cousin Sarah was joining us a little later, and we wandered into Nantwich to get some supplies. Neither Dugald nor I had any great expectations of Nantwich, somehow the name didn’t promise much. We were in for a surprise, it is a really pretty small town unspoilt and full of interesting old houses. The only disappointment was the railway station, the building and car park had been taken over by an Indian restaurant, and we had to rethink Sarah’s parking. A little later Sarah joined us, parked her car at the Canal Centre and we were off again.

Sarah had arrived just in time. We had three flights of locks planned for the next day!

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We did a couple of locks that afternoon to get into the swing of things, and then moored below the Audlem flight.

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The next morning we set off in sunshine up the flight, and with extra help we made good progress. On through the Adderley flight avoiding the temptations at the cake stalls on the locks. Sarah decided that with the addition of a clipboard, I could be renamed ‘lock monitor’ implying a bossiness that I don’t really recognise in myself.

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Dugald always keeps an eye out for farming activity near the canal. He spent many hours on a slurry tanker, and was delighted to catch one going over a bridge. We hoped it would not discharge its contents until we were well past

We went through a rather damp flight at Tyrley, helping the boat in front who had an injured crew member, and then set off through the deep Woodseaves cutting. There were contractors working here, and as we passed a moored barge we got firmly stuck on the bottom. It took much pushing, shoving, and pulling helped by one of the men to get us off the mud and on our way again.

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We passed Steamboat President and her butty Kildaire. Dugald was very excited, he loves steam.

The Shroppie is a difficult canal to moor on with all its cuttings and embankments, our planned mooring was full.  It was another hour getting colder and wetter before we could stop and collapse in a heap. Strangely Sarah did not seem put off by the experience and was as cheerful as ever.

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Norbury Junction was busy the next day, boats were gathering for a festival over the bank holiday weekend.

At Gnossal we moored near a pub, hoping to get a taxi to get Sarah to Nantwich or a nearby station. This proved too difficult, but we found a solution – bus to Stafford, train to Crewe, taxi to Nantwich. It is always a bit tricky trying to reconnect visitors with their vehicles! The bus arrived on time, and apparently the other connections worked as well. We had had a good couple of days, Sarah was great company as always.

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In spite of the rain and hail, we continued, passing a long line of fishermen doing their best to ignore us.

We stopped at the bottom of the Shroppie to buy a ‘handcuff key’ in readiness for our climb up to Wolverhampton and then Birmingham, then turned right down the Staffs and Worcs.

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We ignored the turn to Birmingham, and moored a little later above Compton Lock.

The following day we moved a little further and moored close to our target – Wightwick Manor (pronounced Wittick).

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Wightwick Manor is an unusual National Trust property built at the end of the nineteenth century by a wealthy paint manufacturer, Theodore Mander. It is a Victorian attempt at a manor house. Built in the Arts and Craft style with a bit of a baronial medieval twist, and is full of pre-Raphaelite paintings.

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The small manor house felt comfortable to wander through, and we would have spent longer exploring the gardens if it hadn’t been pouring with rain.

We set off a bit later than planned the next day. Heavy rain was forecast and it seemed unlikely that we would miss it. There is a flight of 21 locks up to Wolverhampton.

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A single hander on NB Love Boat had passed us as we left our mooring and we groaned as we found him in the first lock of the flight. However, it was really a blessing in disguise. He was local, able to warn us about tight locks, shallow areas, and most importantly show me how to use my handcuff (anti vandal – water conservation) key. The rain started heavily about half way up the flight, and by the time we reached the top and moored we were cold and tired, but fairly dry in our trusty red outfits.

On towards Birmingham,

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passing areas of urban regeneration

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and continuing degeneration.

We didn’t have time to explore some of the interesting nooks and crannies this time. We needed to go straight to the centre so that Dugald could take a quick trip into London the next day. We went straight down the ‘New Main Line’, another of Telford’s creations.

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Passing frequent toll islands now missing their toll houses, the canal on either side is very narrow, maybe to avoid boats dashing through without stopping.

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20th century motorways mix with 18th and 19th century canals and aqueducts.

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Birmingham is still the heart of the system. There are continuous loops that weave their way and in and out of the Main Line

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Sudden heavy rain heralded our arrival in the centre, and we gratefully moored up opposite the Fiddle and Bone and Sherborne Wharf. It was a handy spot to stay a couple of days.

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402 miles and 282 locks

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A tree and other diversions

From the Staffs and Worcs canal we turned onto the Shropshire Union canal at Autherley Junction.

The Shroppie is a very pretty canal,

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and almost immediately the bridges were much bigger!

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IMG_4310The rain stopped, the sun shone for a bit, and then we had a sudden hail storm. Eventually the weather settled to cold drizzle as we arrived at Norbury for the night.

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The following morning we set off along another deep cutting and came across a fuel barge halted by a fallen tree. There was quite a queue on the other side of the tree. Norbury Junction is a hire boat base, and a number of their boats were going to miss their 9am return slots.

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It was typical that the only firm arrangement we had made during the whole trip was to meet some friends at Market Drayton that afternoon!

Apparently contractors had been called out, but Dugald was impatient and full of ideas. He decided to start tackling the fallen tree with his trusty bow saw kneeling on the bow of our boat, helped by an enthusiast from one of the hire boats who had climbed along the tree. We had the first disagreement of the trip! With my H&S hat on, I suggested that the trunk was unstable, it might roll and land on our boat, squashing our home, and probably invalidating our insurance. I got off the boat, and the sawing continued.

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They did manage to create an archway, but there were some thick underwater limbs still preventing a boat from being pulled through, and it was going to take more than a bow saw to sort it out.

Fortunately Matt and Cath soon turned up with their trusty chainsaws, extendable saw poles, hooks and a dinghy.

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After an unplanned stop of five hours we carried on to Market Drayton  and moored on the edge of an embankment where Ginger Bear was going to wait while we zoomed off to spend the weekend with our friends Frank and Lorna.

Deep cuttings and steep embankments are part of the signature of this canal. They caused Thomas Telford a lot of grief while he tried to engineer them, and some were not completed before he died.

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We had a great weekend with them, and the sun shone. We walked up some steep Shropshire hills with stunning views,

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and visited a flying museum at RAF Cosford. Frank and Dugald flew Chipmunks with the University Air Squadron when they were at Cambridge together. Lorna and I entertained ourselves with snippets of social history from the information boards around the planes, while Frank and Dugald were reliving their youth – with a very small plane.

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Refreshed, we left Market Drayton, after refuelling and nearly gaining a new crew member called Mabel.

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We headed for two flights of locks. We were able to refuel at some of the Adderley locks. There were stalls by some locks selling eggs, sausages, cakes and biscuits.

On to the longer Audlem flight, we decided to pause for the night between lock 11 and 12 of the fifteen.

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The following day we skirted Nantwich, and then turned left onto the Llangollen canal and the Hurleston flight.

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A very cheerful lockkeeper helped us through.

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We stopped for the night near a bridge and footpath so that we could have a walk and drop into a village pub for a quick drink before supper. The towpaths had been extremely muddy for some time, but the fields we were to cross looked pretty good. Looks can be deceptive, and we quickly found ourselves deep in mud and bog! Undeterred we trudged on, and managed to clean the mud off our boots by the time we reached the pub. Yet another pub to cross off our list. Almost empty, yet could not be bothered to say hello or serve us with a smile.

The next day felt like the first real day of spring. The sun shone, birds were chattering very noisily and the hedgerows were filling with leaves and blossom. We decided to try our new birdsong app. Knowing we were struggling to identify the birdsong, daughter Anna suggested an app which we had downloaded. The idea is great, you record the birdsong, and by some magic, the bird is identified along with its picture. However, I think it is designed with well behaved, occasional bird table visitors in mind rather than an unruly hedgeful. The result of our recording was a number of suggestions, but an overall request for fewer songs at a time, and preferably individual ones. We are still waiting for a moment when we have one bird calling.

I know what this tit sounds like.

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We wound our way along this pretty canal lifting bridges,

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winding locks through ever changing countryside. We dipped briefly into Wales and then went through some strange peat bog areas around Whixall, similar to some of the fenland we saw last summer.

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We stopped for a few days in Ellesmere, to practice our laundrette skills, replenish our supplies and take some exercise. We bought a map and planned a circular walk including part of the Shropshire Way.

It was a beautiful sunny day, we walked along well marked footpaths over green rolling hills with great views. Unfortunately the shiny green fields were waterlogged and we squelched our way from stile to stile – or diving boards as Dugald preferred to call them as each one seemed to have a large pond around it. It was Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining, and the only people we met over the 10 miles we walked were during the first and last half mile.

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Dugald’s sister Kay and her husband George joined us on Monday, and we set off towards Llangollen. We spent the first night moored on the edge of the Montgomery canal, and walked down this peaceful canal for some time. The Frankton flight at the top of this canal is only open for a few hours a day, and we were not going to be able to explore it this time.

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The next day the scenery started to change, glimpses of viaducts across valleys,

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and we were welcomed to Wales at the entrance to Chirk tunnel.

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Shortly afterwards we cross Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It is over 1000 feet long and 120 feet high in the middle. It is really just a water filled metal trough held up on pillars across the valley. There is a quite narrow walkway and rail on one side, sheer drop on the other.

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Amazing views of the valley and the River Dee below. This whole area is quite busy with walkers (Offa’s Dyke path runs through this area) and people just admiring the views.

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There are no more locks before Llangollen, and the canal snakes through the edge of the valley in a spectacular fashion, still hugging the Dee.

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The canal is very shallow and in some places one way for long stretches. Unusually there is a significant flow as it is fed from the Dee above Llangollen. This combination makes progress towards Llangollen quite slow, and it feels as if the boat is swimming through treacle at times.

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There was plenty of space to moor in the basin above the town, but apparently it can become impossibly crowded in the height of summer.

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We walked towards the Horseshoe Falls where the canal begins, and then went for a meal in the town. George had booked us a table at the Corn Mill without realising that it was the site of the lunch 14 years ago that led to the ceramic mushrooms spree. We had a good meal and luckily it was dark and too late to look for mushrooms.

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The next morning we found some fantastic pork pies and excellent local chicken from a long established cheery butcher, then worked our way back down the canal.

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As the landscape became more pastoral we managed to find a lovely spot to moor in the evening with lambs to entertain us and much birdsong.

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We dropped Kay and George off in Ellesmere the next day having really enjoyed their company, replenished our supplies, and then set off again retracing our steps. I realised that they had got off quite lightly, only four lock encounters in four days, not even one lift bridge.

The canal always looks different going the other way, so we are noticing new things as we head back towards the main part of the Shropshire Union, and the scenery changes daily, more leaves, cows now out in the fields, and very busy farm machinery entertaining Dugald.

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As I write today, the sun has been shining, but a bitter wind is blowing, and we have seen some very new lambs with orange plastic jackets on to keep them warm. It was Saturday afternoon chaos as we came down the Hursleston flight of locks, no sign of the volunteer lockkeepers today. There wasn’t enough water between the locks, people were getting their boats stuck, tempers were frayed. Queues of boats waiting to go up the Llangollen. As we turned up the Shropshire Union we made a mental note to avoid the busy spots at weekends. We left Brentford exactly a month ago and have done 314 miles and 206 locks. We are now off to Chester.

Dave Straton suggested a map to make sense of the trip. It has stretched my skills, but here is my best effort. Actually it required Dugald’s best effort to get the blobs on!

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