In April 2021 the remedy for a long winter of Covid confinement was to get out of London onto the canals and rivers. Our aim was to have a relaxed cruise, spending less time travelling and more time enjoying our stopping places. My initial ambition to go up to the Peak Forest was scuppered by a major breach in the Macclesfield Canal. Wendy breathed a sigh of relief. The plan was to amble slowly up the Thames and the Oxford Canal, returning to London via the Grand Union by the middle of July. We never completed the plan.
Ginger Bear had an appointment for blacking at Four All’s yard at Laleham on 9 April. By luck we realised the week before our departure that the Thames Lock was still only opening on two days a week. We had to leave on Tuesday to get to Laleham by Friday. We were early at the lock that morning. The queue built up quickly behind us. It included a nervous broadbeam owner who wanted to get to Bristol in time for the birth of his first child. He had no reservation for the lock and was worried he wouldn’t be allowed through. I assured him that CRT people are human and kind and so it proved. Whether his faith in the accuracy of the baby’s due date was warranted we never found out.
At 9.00 we were through the lock and onto the Thames. It was bitterly cold at 1.5° but fun to be on the river again.
Three short days took us to Hampton Court, Shepperton and Laleham. There were few boats around because travel was still restricted – and it was fiendishly cold. So we were the only available spectacle for a large group of children at Molesey Lock. One of them shouted ‘Goodbye Grandpa’ as we left.
We had a week in Somerset with fresh spring walking while Ginger Bear was blacked, anodes were replaced and a new set of domestic batteries fitted. By 17 April she was ready to go.
We thanked Four All for its work. It’s a quirky yard but has always served us well. We fully expected to return in later years. But now we had a short run to Runnymede Meadow. Going through Penton Hook lock we passed a familiar broadbeam – Sexy Beast. The owner, like the boat, had a substantial beam. Somehow the name was not an obvious match.
In Staines there were many Union flags at half-mast. We got to a good berth in Runnymede in time to watch the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.
From here on we took short hops and stayed at each mooring longer than in the past. Wendy had successfully banned yomping. Approaching Romney Lock we checked a decayed house that has been left untended for many years. This time there was progress: the old wooden barn was being rebuilt. Heart-warming to see that it will survive albeit in a new form.
In spite of the cold, spring was beginning to win. The first ducklings were scooting around. The swans looked serene against the blackthorn blossom.
Enterprising drivers were out for a picnic.
This was our fourteenth season on the Thames and each year there are new buildings emerging on the banks of the river. In parallel here and on the canals there is decay and chaos. It may be imagination but the gap between the newest grand houses and the scruffiest residential boats seems to grow wider. It feels like a metaphor for modern Britain.
We spent three pleasant days in Windsor. The town was subdued without the normal throng of visitors. Alastair Reid, formerly of Daddy Longlegs and Brentford, came to see us for a socially distanced pizza and beer on the grass of Bath Island. From Windsor we ambled slowly up the river determined to see more of the places we had ignored in the past.
Stopping in Cookham we had a pleasant walk along the river. When we got back we met the moorings steward. She came from farming stock and a long yarn followed. Her father was a German prisoner of war who worked as a pigman in the war and stayed on. The pigman at the University Farm in Cambridge had also been a POW, a large and jovial man, whose name I have sadly forgotten.
Past Bourne End we saw the first wild swimmers of the season.
Going through Marlow is always a delight. It is one of the most attractive parts of the river with the long crescent of the weir showing off the town.
We moored between Hambledon Lock and Temple Island, fighting with an enthusiastic cross wind as we made up. We had often looked up at Culham Court as we passed. Now there was time to see it. A seven mile walk took us past Hambledon Lock and the house and back through Remenham. It was a wonderful spring walk. Approaching the house we crossed fields of cowslips. We had never seen such a dense cover. Past the house, which has a severe look, we followed the footpath closely, passing near the new chapel built in 2016. It is an active place of worship, but not for idle observers. Firm guides kept us on the path. They ushered a romantic couple taking photographs away from the path back onto it. In the valley below two herds of deer moved separately across the ground. It was a magnificent view.
Remenham was a more worldly place but gave us beautiful bluebells.
The next day we tore ourselves away from the first bout of the Johnson-Cummings duel and moved on. After a near miss with a Dutch barge that emerged from Reading Marina without looking, hooting or thinking, we moored in Pangbourne Meadow. We crossed the river to the small village of Whitchurch on Thames. There is still a toll on the bridge and a notice of the rates.
In the morning we found a wonderful cheese shop in Pangbourne. The town is a delight. On the way out we passed the Seven Sisters, source of much scandal and gossip in the 1890s. At Beale Park rowers were busy inhaling spring air.
Wallingford is a favourite spot and we stopped there. We explored the castle gardens for the first time.
A walk to the west of Wallingford brought us back over Shillingford Bridge and then across Benson Lock.
The hire fleets were still waiting patiently at base so the river was quieter than usual. At Culham Lock we met Tony Wright who was on the verge of a record. On May 7th he would have completed fifty-five years as a lock keeper, forty-one of them at Culham. Apparently the record is fifty-six years, held by a lock keeper who started work in 1771. Tony was cheerful and helpful, full of memories. He described the decline in traffic on the river. In earlier years he would see 23,000 lock passages a year with 6,000 in August. In 2020 the year’s traffic was 6,000. It was a delight to meet him and we hope that on May 7th 2022 he will be recognised as the longest serving lock keeper ever.
There were plenty of mooring spaces in Abingdon. On our second day Wendy was woken early in the morning by the whooshing noise of balloons. The sky was full of them. Their colours lit up the morning.
Later in the day – after Andrew Marr – we walked to Culham and Sutton Courtenay.
On the way we met a Duke of Edinburgh group that was feeling hopelessly lost. It took Wendy some time to persuade them they were in exactly the right place!
We moved slowly through Oxford, then to King’s Lock and right into Duke’s Cut. At King’s Lock there was a feeling of energy and excitement. The scene in the Cut was more downbeat.
Thrupp was quiet and the seven-day moorings, normally packed, were easily available. We settled there for a few days. My cousin Nettie came from Oxford to see us and we enjoyed a short walk to Shipton-on-Cherwell.
My brother Hugh arrived unexpectedly and swept us off to a sumptuous lunch at Islip. His friends, Mike and Celia moved there recently from Richmond. On a longer walk we passed the site of a bad railway accident on Christmas Eve 1874. 34 people died when nine carriages plunged off the bridge into the canal. We passed the ruins of an old house at Hampton Gay and heard a loud complaining noise in the distance. It was sheering time for the local flock and they were not happy. It was too cold to be losing your winter coat.
We skirted the northern edge of Kidlington. The main new town is not very attractive but the old village and the church are delightful.
We left Thrupp on 11 May. The waterpoint is at the edge of the Thrupp Canal Cruising Club. The members are great enthusiasts and early risers. We got a cheery farewell. From Thrupp we headed north through old stamping ground at Aynho to Cropredy. We had pleasant new walks because we were going more slowly.
Oilseed rape was in flower, the most enjoyable time if you are growing it.
We moored above Cropredy Lock. A tap on the window came soon after. It was Faith from Lydia, a boat we had spent time with in 2016. She and Andy now live in Cropredy and Lydia lives in the marina.
She had been repainted in the last couple of years, with a paint scheme based on the old Tate and Lyle golden syrup cans. She was immaculate as were many of the boats in the marina. It made a real contrast with the more worn appearance of many boats on the cut and indeed with us. Ginger Bear stayed in the marina while we went down to London for Hugh’s 70th birthday party. Strictly Covid compliant in the garden, with rain periodically washing the small open-sided marquee. A great party in spite of the rain. Back in Cropredy we had an excellent dinner with Faith and Andy before leaving.
At Fenny Compton we walked a country route and met a worried local couple on what will be the route of HS2.
In Priors Hardwick the sheep in the churchyard did not seem bothered by HS2.
At Napton we walked up to the windmill on the hill for the first time. There is a spectacular view from there. It is said to embrace seven counties.
Wendy was busy potting as well as walking.
At Braunston we turned north towards Coventry. It was beginning to feel like summer. At Brinklow we walked up to the motte and bailey. On the way we had to step over an amorous couple straddling the footpath. Given many acres of grassland around, no marks for imagination. In the village the church is built on a slope so that there is a difference of 10-12’ between the east and west ends of the church.
Another local walk took us through immaculate crops of rye and potatoes. Wendy looked puzzled by the height of the rye.
After Hawkesbury we went up a short section of the Coventry Canal to the Ashby. This has the distinction for me of being the weirdest bit of the waterways system. There is a mixture of humour and chaos that makes it memorable.
As we went up the Ashby Canal we talked about how long it would be sensible to remain living on the boat. We were approaching ten years of Ginger Bear being our only home. We lived successfully together in a small space. But was this sustainable in the longer term? What would happen when I was not strong enough to carry the coal and lug the lovely cassettes around?
The Ashby is delightful – quiet, peaceful and pleasant. The barley flowed in waves and the grass looked verdant. It reminded me that in May and early June the farm always looked its best before drought or disease disfigured the picture. In this rural scene the sudden emergence of the huge Triumph works at Hinckley was a surprise. But it was also a reminder that there are some ventures in the UK that are very successful.
At bridge 25 we stopped at Ashby Boats to get some gas. It turned out that Bobby was not only an expert on Barrus engines – rebadged Yanmars – but had actually set up the engine in Ginger Bear. After a long discussion I went away believing I could reduce the idling speed on the boat. For years I felt she ticked over too fast so that moored boats cursed us. The only solution was to constantly declutch to neutral to reduce speed and then re-engage the engine. Not very good for the gearbox or for my sense of calm. After a morning wrestling with the cables of the morse control, I found that I could reduce the idling speed by about 100 rpm by making one turn on the adjusting screw on the cable. This tiny adjustment was a huge improvement. It had only taken me 14 years to get there.
We walked to the battle site at Bosworth Field. The museum there is excellent. You meet some interesting fifteenth century characters. They include the earnest, the laid back and the ferocious.
On the hill the standards of the Houses of York and Lancaster are a stirring sight.
We reached the top of the Ashby and turned.
We had never explored the Ashby before. It was a delight. Now for another new venture – to the centre of Coventry. Work associations with Coventry did not leave me with great affection for the city. Not to mention the joys of the inner ring road which always seemed to me one of the most dangerous bits of road engineering in England. Approaching it by canal was a pleasant surprise. One surprise was how clean it was: there was no litter anywhere. It looked the better for it. The canal is narrow so requires concentration.
We moored in the basin in the centre. It is well preserved and gives a sense of the work and trade that sustained it.
Our stay was short and included the transport museum and a morning at the cathedral. The transport museum was enjoyable, bringing out how a successful bicycle industry moved into car production quickly. There were some glorious cars to be seen, but I also met two old friends – the Massey-Ferguson 35 and 65. Both were a delight to drive. The 65 was so much better than the crude Fordsons we also had.
But the highlight was the cathedral. Wendy had last visited it as a schoolgirl shortly after it was consecrated. I had rushed round between work meetings in Coventry. Spending three hours there in 2021 was a revelation for both of us. Nearly sixty years after its consecration it remains a striking and radical building.
After a couple of days in Coventry we were on our way. This was the beginning of the return to London. From Hawkesbury Junction we went through Braunston and moored just to the west of Norton Junction. From here we had a memorable walk to Ashby St Ledgers. It sounds exotic and it is. We had an excellent lunch at the Olde Coach House. The village is attractive with a sixteenth century manor house that was expanded by Lutyens. There are cottages in the village that also bear his stamp.
But the most interesting feature is the gatehouse to the manor. It is here that the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot are said to have met. This was the family home of Robert Catesby.
On 26 June we went down the Buckby Flight early in the morning to miss the traffic and moored opposite Whilton Marina. After our discussions about possibly moving back to land in the next couple of years, it seemed sensible to ask the opinion of one of the country’s biggest brokers. We talked initially to Ian who was very helpful. He had a quick look at the boat and said she would sell easily. The pandemic had pushed the price of boats up as staycations were attractive.
The next day we moved to Bugbrooke. Wendy’s sister Biddy and her husband Nick came to stay, and we ate well at the Wharf Inn. The debate about whether to move to land continued. It made sense: the notion of staying on the boat until we couldn’t manage began to seem foolish rather than heroic.
We were due to go down to London because we had promised Eliza, our granddaughter, a week on the boat. This meant a return journey of 178 locks, and that suddenly looked a big undertaking. When Bob, the valuer, came the next day, the debate was settled. It made sense to sell her immediately while prices were high. He told us what we needed to do to prepare her for sale. Eliza was understandably upset and complained that she would never be able to go to Windsor again. Claudia had to explain that she could go to Windsor in a car rather than a boat. But we undoubtedly owe Eliza a holiday!
At Whilton we made up alongside the marina which helpfully supplied us with power. For two weeks we worked day and night to get her ready, remove all our belongings and take them to London. On Friday 16 July an exhausted couple left her and headed for London.
We made a sudden decision, but the right one. We had enjoyed Ginger Bear for fourteen years, and for nearly ten of them she had been our only home. I know as the spring of 2022 comes in sight, we will miss aspects of the waterway life. What are they? The immediacy, the intimacy and the narrowness of it. Feeling close to animals and the country in a way that you never get living in a house.