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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The ceramic mushroom cruise

 

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Ginger Bear has been idle in Brentford since the end of October, so it’s time for another adventure – destination Llangollen in North Wales. 14 years ago we hired a narrowboat and travelled the Llangollen canal, it was a memorable trip and our families remember the rather strange Christmas presents they received that year.

We left almost two weeks ago, and I have been a bit slow to start my blog, too busy winding locks, driving the boat and generally enjoying myself. We are currently moored in afternoon sunshine on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal near Wolverhampton. This is a flavour of the trip so far.

The original plan was to go up the Thames to Oxford and north from there. However the river flows were increasing, and there was a risk that the locks would shut down and we would get stuck on the river for a while. We decided to go up the Grand Union and retrace our initial steps from last summer. It was a good call – a few days after we left, the Thames locks were all showing red boards, and all movement was stopped for some time.

 

We left Brentford on 23rd of March. Dugald had spent the last few days servicing the engine and I secretly crossed my fingers and hoped it would still work. Bikes on the roof, a few plants allowed and we were on our way.

Late March is officially spring, and we have had some beautiful sunny days, but it has also been very cold, windy, wet and muddy. Dugald, of course, thinks it is still winter as spring did not start on the farm until April, perhaps he is right.

There are lambs everywhere

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Fields of horses looking smug in their warm jackets

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Spring flowers on the banks and the buds on the trees are about to burst open.

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Incredibly loud birdsong everywhere, I just wish we were better able to identify them. It’s work in progress.

We hardly saw any other boats moving along the canal for the first few days, but the Easter weekend brought other boaters out, and the numbers have been steadily increasing.

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We travelled alone up to Hemel Hempstead sharing the locks and the driving between us and I became a bit more confident manoeuvring Ginger Bear in the increasingly windy weather.

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A little further up the canal we joined another couple Andy and Faith on their narrowboat Lydia. It is much easier going through the wide locks of the Grand Union with another boat, they were fun to be with and we made good progress together, although we had to stop for two half days because the weather was so appalling – thank you storm Katie. Without our new sailing jackets we would have been utterly miserable.

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We continued this happy partnership for four days until we held back a bit at Gayton Junction so that Dugald could meet a report deadline. Last summer we turned right at Gayton towards Northampton, the River Nene and the Fens. This time we went straight on to Brauntston.

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Sharing a lock with a coal boat is useful if you need some more coal!

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We passed Faith and Andy again at Braunston where they were preparing to retrace their steps down the Grand Union.

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At Braunston turn we ignored the left turn towards Stratford and Oxford which we took last summer, and went straight on up the North Oxford Canal. We were back in narrow locks, initially paired and then single.

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We decided to stop in Rugby to do some shopping and participate in our favourite entertainment – washing. We had worked out where we needed to stop to be close to a bus for the laundrette and within walking distance of a supermarket. Unfortunately the ideal bit of towpath nearest the bus stop was deep in mud, so we had to adjust our plans slightly, mooring instead a little further on by this interesting clump of triffids!

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I was able to amuse myself in the laundrette by reading all the imaginative articles that April 1st attracts while Dugald went off to see if anyone could repair his glasses. He had broken one pair a few days earlier, and then sat on his spare pair as we arrived in Rugby! He was hoping that he wouldn’t have to continue wearing the rather attractive pink pair I lent him.

Although busy, Rugby Specsavers delivered excellent customer service, and he arrived back at the laundrette with a smile on his face and two completely refurbished pairs of glasses.

Having taken a bus to the laundrette we assumed that it would retrace the route on the way back – silly assumption. Swinging left rather than right like a car on a fairground ride, we went first to Tesco (close to the canal and where we planned to shop later), then set off away from the canal into a hillside of different housing estates! We seemed to travel to every conceivable corner before at last turning back towards the canal and our bus stop.

Having washed and shopped, we set off again, noticing the increasing number of moving boats, it was Friday, the start of the weekend, and we had recently passed a hire boat centre. We found ourselves behind a real novice who was struggling to control her boat (probably only just picked it up). I felt extremely sorry for her as she bashed into bridges, and got stuck in banks and hedges.  We stopped and moored before they did, but passed them early the next morning while they slept. Dugald was surprised how much further they had gone, and decided that they must have continued in the dark. Perhaps they had struggled to moor the boat.

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If so, they were lucky to have stopped when they did – a little further down the canal we passed an unmarked burnt out narrowboat which would have been difficult to see in the dark.

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At Hawkesbury junction we turned onto the Coventry Canal and headed for the flight of 11 locks at Atherstone.  We moored in the town beside a dead hat factory which has been left to rot since it closed in 1999.

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I went into the town to do a little shopping and was blocked by a large motorbike rally going through the town, reminiscent of Crewkerne and West Bay.

The cheery, youthful (79 and 80) volunteer lock keepers on the flight swept us through the initial stages, and we soon left Atherstone and the flight behind.

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We stopped on Sunday to draw breath, have a walk, and allow Dugald to catch up on emails and stuff.

The next morning we passed Alvecote Marina on the edge of Tamworth, home of Narrowcraft, where Ginger Bear was commissioned having travelled from Poland on the back of a truck nearly nine years ago. We were now nearly as far north as she had ever been – we went on a short ‘shake down’ trip the weekend before we left Alvecote to take her to her mooring in London.

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A little further on, I noticed a narrowboat moored near a bridge selling brass tiller pins. I had seen a bear tiller pin on another boat the day before and wondered if I would be lucky. A few minutes later we set off again with our new bear.

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In the distance we saw a reminder of spring farming in action,

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and later some fields where people seemed to be hand planting something in deep trenches, in fact they seemed to be up to their waists in the trenches. Dugald managed to shout at one of them, and discovered they were planting asparagus – acres of it.

The weather deteriorated, and light rain soon led to hail, not very pleasant and not forecast, but we kept going! We passed the winding hole at Tamhorn where the ‘shake down’ cruise had turned around, Ginger Bear was now making fresh tracks.

At Fradley junction we found a number of children swinging on the swing bridge, had to shoo them away to swing it to let the boat through. Apparently there have been  plans to lock the bridge with a waterways key (all boats have them), but some objection (maybe from the children of the neighborhood) has prevented it from happening .

We turned left onto the Trent and Mersey canal, and immediately met more boat traffic. The Coventry canal had been really quite quiet. We had planned to go a long way north on the Trent and Mersey, up to Middlewich and then turn left down towards Nantwich and the Llangollen.  Reading the guides more carefully, we realised that we would have to take the bikes, plants etc off the roof (again) to go through the Harecastle Tunnel, a very low one way tunnel near Kidsgrove. The last time we went through, we were in a hire boat with nothing on the roof, so it wasn’t a problem. Lugging everything off the roof is a chore, so we decided to alter our route, and go along the Staffordshire and Worcester canal instead. The bridges on this canal are quite low as well, but we think we will squeeze through.

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Yesterday we had better  luck with the weather, canals always look prettier in the sunshine. We went a bit futher up the Trent and Mersey passing an active old factory building – the Armitage Shanks factory at Armitage on a site that dates back to 1817. Strange to see loos piled up on pallets ready to go all over the world.

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We then squeezed our way through a narrow roofless tunnel bored through rock,

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admired more pretty houses and bridges

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remembered Shugborough hall from a boating holiday in 1996

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then turned left at Haywood Junction down the Staffordshire and Worcester canal.

Today we are having mixed weather, sunshine and hailstorms! Fortunately there are hardly any other boats around, and I keep hopping out to do the locks in between writing this and trying to catch enough broadband to upload the photos.

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We have just passed a long line of fishermen with their rods stuck right across the canal. I think they may be taking part in a competition. Fishermen tend to dislike boaters, and usually appear rather grumpy. They seem to play a game which involves leaving their very long carbon fibre rods across the canal until the very last minute and then quickly withdrawing them at the last moment as the boat goes past.It is a game of nerves. Dugald has a new strategy of smiling at them and thanking them for moving their rods. He usually gets no response, but today he managed to extract a couple of smiles and even a few words from some of them.

Two weeks out and the hedges are starting to come into leaf, blossom is appearing on the trees. It will be fun to see the season developing as we travel along. Hopefully weather will warm up a bit before we have our first visitors.

Journey score so far is 178  miles and 134 locks.

More news later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And slowly home

We have spent more time on the Thames than the other waterways, and although it was grey as we set off, we felt the presence of an old friend.

The river is wide, most of the large locks are manned during the day by cheery lock keepers. At lunchtime and later in the season the locks become ‘self service’ operated by boaters. It only requires the press of a button, so my days of winding heavy lock gear and opening gates are over for the moment.

We noticed a change in propeller noise, and hoped it wasn’t too serious. Sheltering under a large road bridge, Dugald rolled his sleeve up and prepared himself for one of his favourite tasks. He opened our weed hatch and delving up to his armpits in the cold water, managed to untangle a cycle inner tube which had wound its way around our new propeller. No damage done, we were on our way again.

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We moored on the edge of Abingdon, looking forward to revisiting this lovely old town. The first time we went, influenced by the MG car plant closures in the 80’s, we had for some reason expected something grey and unattractive. The reality, at least in the centre, is a really interesting town with winding streets and beautiful historic buildings.

It was bright and sunny the next day. The river lit up and we started to see the large houses, gardens and boathouses that are this river’s signature.

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We had hoped to moor on the visitor’s moorings at Wallingford, but found a large white hire boat comfortably sitting in the middle of the mooring leaving not quite enough length for us on either side. A request from us to move up a bit received a negative response. This gave Dugald the opportunity to practice one of his favourite mooring techniques. We turned round, went up the river and found a couple of conveniently spaced trees to attach ourselves to. This type of mooring has sometimes led to slight disagreement between skipper and crew, but on this occasion the bank I jumped onto was firm, the trunk of the nearest tree was accessible, and not surrounded by brambles or nettles – all happy.

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The next day we donned walking boots, and complete with picnic and map set off to walk part of the Ridgeway. It was a beautiful day and a lovely walk.

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We carried on to Goring where we had arranged to meet Kay and George, Dugald’s sister and her husband. Typically the weather was overcast and the river looked a little dull. We still had a great day.

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More opportunity for Dugald’s tree technique at lunchtime, and in the afternoon we passed an alpaca farm – instant memories of great times had at Brookfield.

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We dropped Kay and George near Reading station. Continuing to Shiplake we moored on an island, tied between two trees of course.

The Thames islands are reminiscent of those found in children’s stories. The next day Swallows and Amazon style we checked out our island – it took ten minutes to walk around. Signs of previous camp fires and people but we were alone.

Having spent a day playing on our very small island we set off again planning to meet Hugh, Dugald’s brother in Henley on Thames the next day.

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Although the weather was dry and bright, a northerly wind was blowing and it was very cold as we left Henley.

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Hugh took over as temporary lock keeper in several ‘self service’ locks. Stopping in Cookham for lunch we decided to visit the Stanley Spencer gallery – he lived in Cookham and many of his paintings include local characters from the village.

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Cliveden reach is one of our favourite spots, and we have spent quite a bit of time there.

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We like to moor on one side of a particular island, but often find another boat sitting in ‘our’ space. We planned to return the next day and crossed our fingers.

On to Maidenhead, mooring for the night just below Maidenhead railway bridge, Hugh caught a train home. The railway bridge has always fascinated Dugald. Built by Brunel, its brick arches are the widest and flattest in the world.

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We failed to keep our plan to leave early the next day, and found ourselves following a couple of other boats as we went back towards Cliveden, fingers still crossed. Fortunately they turned away from our island, and it was still empty. We moored between the trees and settled in. This island is only a few metres long, so no need to spend much time exploring.

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A day spent relaxing and watching other boats.

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The rowers were out in force as we went from Maidenhead to Windsor the next day.

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In Windsor we moored on yet another island, connected to the town by a footbridge. If you look at the main blog picture you can see we have been here before.

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What you won’t have seen is the life size Hurricane sitting in the park opposite the island. It is there to celebrate the local aircraft designer Sydney Camm.

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Another long walk was planned. Although we had been to Windsor several times, we had never been to Windsor Great Park.

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We tried to avoid the deer who were in rut, roaring stags trying to round up their hinds, and the smell of musk everywhere. I was keen to avoid tangling with a testosterone fuelled stag.

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Once off the Long Walk we found ourselves in ancient woodland full of enormous oaks. We seemed to be alone, apart from an unexpected group of children riding.

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A Dutch barge passed us as we waited at a lock below Windsor – much more spacious than Ginger Bear, but also more difficult to handle and no good on canals. A bit like a car that won’t fit in your garage, or street!

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Arriving at Desborough Island we met a dinghy race, squeezed through without upsetting the race, and moored on a grassy bank opposite the island for the night.

The following day we picked up Sara Hollingshead an ex colleague of Dugald, and her family for a quick trip around Desborough Island. Their three small children are used to boats and were brilliant. The children seemed to be excited to be motoring round the island which is home to their rugby club – the Weybridge Vandals.

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Having dropped them off on a rather rickety trip boat pontoon, we found ourselves in a middle of a skiff race. Dugald rows with the Dittons Skiff and Punting Club and it was no surprise to find some of them racing. Fortunately I don’t think they recognised him in the boat – most skiffers think narrowboats are a nuisance.

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Nearer to London the traffic and activity on the Thames increases. Sailing, rowing, canoeing on the river, walkers, runners and bikers on the towpath. It is good to see so much energy and enthusiasm when we are constantly told the population is becoming fat and lazy.

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I have been trying to get a decent picture of a heron for months, suddenly I had a model who didn’t fly away as soon as my camera came out.

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Just before Molesey lock we pass a group of houseboats. I have always rather fancied one of these – they are also grouped around an island.

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Through Molesey lock to Hampton Court, we moored just behind Magna Carta. She is a luxury hotel barge, aimed at the American market – worth looking up to see what barge luxury looks like.

We have often come across her, she is usually taking up all available mooring space!

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I have never been to Bushy Park and wasn’t aware it is another of Henry’s hunting parks, apparently the second largest – he did lots of hunting around London. I was rather engaged by this park, similar to Richmond, and thought it would be good for picnicking in the summer. More deer in rut! Not everyone was keeping clear. One dog owner was ignoring his dog’s efforts to taunt a stag. The current view is that too many voyeurs are putting the stags off mating, and that people should keep their distance not only for their own safety, but to give the stags some space and avoid scattering the hinds.

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Nearly home, we arranged to meet our daughter Anna and grandsons at Teddington Lock. We needed to go through the lock early the next morning. It was great to see them and catch up.

Early the next morning we went through the lock and onto the tidal Thames. It was cold and grey and the river seemed deserted apart from the narrowboat we had joined in the lock. Dugald named the skipper Captain Slow for obvious reasons. There was no way they were going to get to Brentford at their booked time through the lock.

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We passed them and then found ourselves following a crane pulled by a smoking tug.

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Turning in towards Brentford, we motored up to the Thames Lock where the lock keeper was waiting to let us in.

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Now back on the Grand Union, the Gauging Lock is next and last. This is where they used to assess your load by measuring your freeboard and charge you accordingly.

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Quick sprint across the canal to our mooring – home at last.

We had covered a total of 655 miles and 488 locks since we left.

I am pleased to be sitting snugly on the boat as I write. Wind and rain have been lashing the boat continually all morning. It wouldn’t be fun to be out on the river.

Our next task is to find some things to occupy us through the winter. There is a plan to head north, and across to Wales to find the Llangollen canal in the Spring. More news later.

Retracing our steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now continue our journey on the Thames.

Unplanned stay in Tewkesbury

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Clattering down The Avon we stopped at Tewkesbury.

We had phoned Tewkesbury Marina and they had arranged to lift Ginger Bear out of the water.Simon and his team were incredibly helpful and quickly pulled her up the slipway bottom first.

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An engineer had been called to check the damage. They were all impressed by the bend in the prop.

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Much sucking of teeth, next step – new propeller. Time was spent rubbing and polishing the old propeller, like Aladdin’s lamp – no genie, but magic numbers were revealed identifying size, pitch and rotation. Very important if we were to get the correct replacement. A new propeller would take some time; we settled down to wait.

If you have to get stuck somewhere, Tewkesbury Marina is a rather good place to be stuck. The customer service is truly fantastic (a real pleasure to be on the receiving end), nothing was too much trouble, and a berth was quickly found for us for as long as we needed one in this immaculate marina.

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We explored the delights of Tewskesbury, a rather intriguing small town with some lovely old buildings. It has starred on television masquerading as an island during floods.

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A cheerful bus driver dropped us off in a nearby village so that we could satisfy Dugald’s ambition to climb Bredon Hill. It was a very gusty day with forbidding clouds and heavy downpours – the views were amazing.

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On the way up we managed to find Neil and Nettie’s family cottage where Dugald stayed as a child.

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Walking along the river, Dugald was very excited to see dinghies racing. We sat and watched them for a while as they went round a racing mark. It was good spectator sport.

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Dugald collected our car from London and we ventured further afield. We visited friends Frank and Lorna near Shrewsbury,

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and went to Gloucester to have a look at the docks.

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We walked along the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal viewing some overambitious projects on the way. Dugald has plans to take Ginger Bear from Sharpness to Avonmouth with a pilot on board. I have made it clear that this is one trip I intend to miss.

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My sister Anne and husband Richard live in Devon but frequently dash around the country on business for their company Clickety Books. They publish great educational children’s books which my grandchildren love. We provide periodic floating hotel facilities for them, and they dropped in for a night on their way back from Birmingham. The following morning we woke up to thick autumn mist to find the boat festooned with cobwebs. Spiders and narrowboats go together: apparently they like slightly damp environments and at this time of year their handiwork is beautiful.

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We waited patiently. The weather was pretty awful, but Dugald managed to do a little DIY in between the showers

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and I made some changes to our garden.

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At last our shiny new propeller arrived.

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Ginger Bear again suffered the indignity of being pulled out. The propeller was fitted and tested, all OK.

We were nearly ready to go, but just had to take the car back to London. Dugald set off promising to be back later on a train arriving at 8pm. I spent most of the day washing the clothes and cleaning the boat. Unusually I was so organised that I timed supper to be ready as he arrived home. The phone rang just after 8, and he told me with an increasingly fractured signal that, engrossed in his book, he had missed the stop – next stop Worcester! I rescued supper, he grabbed a taxi and an hour later we opened a bottle of wine together.

We have changed our plans and are retracing our steps up The Avon. This may sound boring, but walkers know that ‘there and back’ trips never feel the same. ‘There’ always feels quite different from ‘back’.

We sampled new places.

It took us five hours to shake off Bredon Hill before we stopped at Evesham for the night

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Yesterday was a lovely sunny day and we moored at Bidford-on-Avon. Bidford is a pretty village which still retains a butcher, baker, small timber framed bank and a couple of pubs. I don’t know what the secret is, but they must be doing something right. We were by the large recreation ground and in the evening the entire village appeared to be out exercising their dogs and supervising their swimming.

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The sun is out again today and the river I found rather grey on the way down is showing its beauty. The leaves are just starting to change colour and there are bright berries everywhere.

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We have just moored the boat in the Stratford Basin again between Hamlet and Lady Macbeth. Like the other boats we are part of the tourist scene. We have visitors again so must go shopping. Anne and Richard are exhibiting in Coventry and we are close enough to provide bed and a good meal tonight.

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Shakespeare’s Avon Way

Dugald declared the end of summer on 31st August; that is his ex-farmer’s view – Mike Pearce used to say that a day in August was worth two in September. I felt this was a little sudden, and that a gentle ease from summer to autumn through September would be better. It was cold and I could hear light rain on the roof as I woke on 1st September; perhaps he was right.

Still mulling this over, we set off towards another flight of locks. Joining a boat in the first lock we realised we had committed ourselves to working the flight with a chaotic hire boat crew. Dugald’s note in the log reads ‘crew not very switched on’ – a massive understatement.

Happily I saw a single handed boat waiting in the lock ahead of us, I suggested they should catch up and help him, and we nobly held back to travel with the next boat. Briar Rose proved to be great company down the rest of the flight and beyond.

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We had to stop for water and let Adam and Adrian continue their adventure, but we had a fun day. I have just checked their progress – the elderly have dawdled while the young have been round the world and back.

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On Wednesday we motored into Leamington Spa and settled Ginger Bear near the station. The next day we took a train to London, leaving our washing in a laundry, in an archway adjacent to multiple quirky car workshops. We had an enjoyable lunch with my sister Anne and our son John. I mentioned that we had a twenty two lock flight to tackle the next day, and John offered to help.

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We zoomed through the Hatton flight the next day with John’s help

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Summer Wine had been waiting under a bridge at the bottom of the flight for another boat with some muscle, and joined us, the wife engaging John and me in a continuous commentary and life story, while Dugald had a silent trip with her almost deaf husband. There is no predicting who you will meet and work with next.

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We did a bit of route planning and set off the next day through another tunnel complete with separate horse tunnel.

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Turning down the Stratford canal we met the first of many pretty and very narrow bridges.

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We were now off the wide Grand Union and into the narrow locks that make up much of the canal system. The wider boats may be more comfortable to live on, but they can’t come this way.

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The Stratford is a very beautiful canal. We had early autumn/later summer morning mists. It was reminiscent of the bottom meadows at Bearley.

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We wound and ground our way towards Stratford, lovely canal, quirky lockside cottages, very heavy lock gates and heavy lock gear.

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We went over vertiginous aqueducts and through very low bridges.

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By the time we reached Stratford I was exhausted.

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A day of rest, wandering and being. We managed to get tickets for The Jew of Malta, a Marlowe play the next night, and invited John and Mackenzie to join us.

I had passed a woman on a boat brushing the deck enthusiastically while saying ‘it’s the same wherever you are’. She managed to make me feel a little guilty about my lack of housekeeping, so I spent part of the day cleaning the boat in anticipation of visitors. I am sure that John and Mackenzie didn’t notice but I felt better having cleared some of the spiders and dust away.

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We were last in Stratford when John spent a wonderful gap year in a local student company. We never spent much time in the town, but this time enjoyed an afternoon wandering around. It has not been spoilt by millions of tourists. It retains its extraordinary atmosphere.

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John bumped into a colleague TJ as we went into The Swan . He mentioned that his partner Becky Allen was signing for the performance for the first time. I groaned inwardly (and unforgivably) at the notion of signing during the play. I was wrong. Becky was utterly brilliant, sparky and engaging: she was the partner in Barabas’s soliloquies. She was a sprite who engaged with the play which was in its own right amazing.

The next day was  Dugald’s 66th birthday, he looks as if he has lost a couple of years in the last few weeks. We managed, with John’s help to have some family presents and lovely messages from friends.

We have now left Stratford and set off on another new waterway – The River Avon.

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I must admit that I am not a huge fan yet. Large heavy locks and a slightly dull appearance, maybe due to the lack of sun.

Dugald had a slightly traumatic birthday. Leaving a lock we hit something under the water: there were accompanying crashing, crunching noises and then we developed a clatter, clatter in addition to the usual engine noise. We often get things caught around the propeller in the canals: dresses, canvas covers, fishing lines, but this seemed a bit more. We stopped and lifted up boards in the stern, unscrewed the infamous weed hatch, and had a look. One of the propeller blades had changed shape and developed an interesting tight curve. My father who was the Navy’s propeller expert would not have approved of this new shape. There was discussion about trying to bash it back into shape, but unrealistic. We agreed it was not terminal, but needed fixing and decided to continue gently down the river and get a boatyard to have a look a little later.

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We moored for the night outside Evesham in a Lock cut. The lock had a strange ‘flood proof’ lock keepers hut which has been empty since being inundated in the flood of 2007!

We carried on clattering down the Avon through Evesham

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My view of the river and mood improved as the sun came out, and the cows came out to play.

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We shared a lock for part of the day with an engaging guy on Selworthy. He was very familiar with the Avon and its eccentricities.

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We spent most of the afternoon viewing Bredon Hill from different angles as the river wound round it. Dugald and Hugh remembered it from their childhood, and Dugald is obsessive about climbing up to the top again.

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We had arranged to meet Dugald’s cousin Neil and his wife Olivia at the Severn Sailing Club, where they have been doing time for decades. It was near here that Neil took Dugald and Hugh sailing in an Enterprise in the late 50s, so there were lots of family memories to share over a good supper with them. It was a delight to catch up after many years.

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Setting off again

Ginger Bear slumbered for four days in Northampton waiting for our return from a family wedding.

Our nephew Jun married his long term girlfriend Liberty. He looked great in his uniform, and she was beautiful in lace and embroidered cowboy boots. After the service there was a quirky reception in a field. The threatening rain clouds failed to deliver and the sun shone.

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It is a shock that we are now part of the ‘older group’, even if we still think we are thirty five. The little ones had a great time running round the field with balls, bats, croquet mallets and fairy wings.

It was lovely to catch up with our children, grandchildren, family and friends.

Ginger Bear had recharged her batteries and was ready to go, but it was raining heavily, so we decided to stay another night. I was able to spend a happy afternoon in the tiny marina laundry room feeding coins into hungry washing machines and tumble driers. I did manage to read most of a book during the lock in, but increasingly appreciated the ease of our friendly Brentford laundrette’s service washes.

On Tuesday we were working our way back up the seventeen locks from Northampton to Gayton Junction. The locks had been quiet on the way down, and were now very busy with boats in both directions. Some going down to the festival and others trying to leave before it started. Volunteer lock keepers were helping to maintain the flow, and we passed a friendly Leon who was helping another boat down.

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Reaching the mainline again, we turned north and moored near Bugbrooke in position to meet visitors the next day.

Claudia and Eliza (daughter and granddaughter) arrived the next morning having driven from Dorset.

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Eliza is used to staying on the boat in London, but was not very impressed when told she had to wear a lifejacket and lifeline when on deck. She managed this most of the time without complaint, and when fed up with the Hi Vis outfit entertained herself below with beads, colouring and favourite books.

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It was lovely having them for a couple of nights, and we waved them off on Friday morning hoping they would be early enough to miss the worst of the early Bank Holiday traffic jams.

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A passing boat had warned of a problem with the next flight of locks, so we decided to stock up with supplies at Weedon.  We were also keen to investigate a hidden military depot and barracks built in 1803 which originally had access from the canal. Legend has it that some of the buildings had originally been intended to hide the King in the event of Napoleonic invasion.

We peered through the old canal gateway, saddened to see the buildings had been turned into untidy industrial units.

On towards the Buckby flight and into our own Bank Holiday traffic jam. We joined the queue and moored for the rest of the day. All movement had finished, and some boats had been in the queue all day. We walked up the flight to look at the problem with the second lock of six.

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An impatient boat had tried to push its way out of the lock before the water was level and broken the gate. A very effective temporary repair was in place, but boats now had to be helped through the lock carefully by Canal and River Trust personnel, one at a time. There were long queues in both directions.

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The next day we slowly moved up the queue, doing a bit of gardening and maintenance on the way.

The guys on the lock were really helpful and at least one had given up holiday to come in and manage the lock over the Bank Holiday weekend.

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We later moored above the flight of locks and wondered about the profession of the owner of a boat and house below the lock.

Yesterday we waited for the rain to clear before carrying on through a long tunnel and down another flight to Braunston. Passage through the tunnel became increasingly tricky as the boat in front slowed and then seemed almost to stop.  It was difficult to understand what was happening in the dark. When we eventually emerged we saw that a large wooden board had attached itself to the bow of the boat in front making it almost impossible for them to steer. They fished it out as they came out of the tunnel, and resumed normal steering. We then accompanied Crossley with her cheery crew and bouncy collie down through the flight of locks which made our progress much quicker and easier.

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Braunston was a major junction in the canals’ heyday, and still is very busy. Boats, many of them hireboats, going in all directions. We turned down the combined route of the Oxford and Grand Unions canals at an interesting dualled junction, and moored a little later.

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A circular walk, while supper cooked, took us to Flecknoe where we found an odd brick building with no obvious purpose on the edge of the village. It had the appearance of an air traffic control tower with no adjacent airfield. Unable to solve the mystery we carried on and passed a narrowboat decorated with almost anything that could be fitted onto it.

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Arriving back late we rescued our chicken and ate it. Delving deep into the internet suggested that the mysterious brick building was a corn drying kiln built between the wars.

Today, a morning of constant rain has given me time to write. We have watched frequent boats passing with grim faced sodden figures standing at the helm. Eyes straight ahead, no customary wave.

The rain seemed to stop after lunch leaving a general greyness and mizzle. We decided to go a little further.

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A few minutes after we left the rain started again, but of course it is now more difficult to stop.  We decided to continue to Napton Junction, turn right towards Warwick, and stop before the locks at Calcutt. Unfortunately for me a boat was waiting to go into the lock, so it ‘seemed sensible’ to take the opportunity to accompany them down through the three locks in the rain – and then stop. We are now moored in a quiet country spot. Not sure about the signal strength, so may have to post this tomorrow.

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Breaking the glass

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We spent a very peaceful weekend in Ashton Backwater near Oundle  while others charged up and down the river – including canoes lugged across the lock by healthy young couples.

Oundle is a pretty town dominated by the school and quiet in the holidays. Browsing the independent bookshop, we came away  with The Oundle Annual Quiz – fifty questions on film and show musicals. Filling in the gaps became very competitive. All done and ready to post, feeling smug.

Walking in the opposite direction we found Ashton, a model village rebuilt in the early 1900’s by the Rothschilds for their workers. The style is described as Tudor but feels like Arts and Crafts to us – a striking place and the venue for the World Conker Championships.

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The good weather continued  as we set off on Monday morning. It was warm and still.  I stood in the bow  looking out for shy birds.

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As we went we were quietly breaking the glass of the mirrored surface.

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We planned to stop at Islip if the mooring was free. This mooring is tucked away in a little nook beyond the nine arch bridge. It is hard to get a sixty foot boat into – that was the attraction for Dugald.

Back to Irthlinborough (Rushden and Diamonds) on a grey day  we ventured into the town for a pub lunch. One of the two remaining pubs closed the previous Saturday. The survivor easily won Depressing Pub 2015. This town is a sad and failing place in what otherwise seems a prosperous area.

As we escaped we met Nick Stuart, former mandarin supreme at Education and Employment, crossing the road. We agreed to catch up over tea later.

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I spent some time  testing blackberries for ripeness – not ready yet, as we wandered through an imaginative country park full of activity – open access assault courses, mud slides and cycle tracks. I had seen the empty zip wire from the boat as we passed earlier but it was now swarming with children, and I felt too self conscious to have a go. It was refreshing to see after the greyness of Irthlingborough.

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Dugald was awed by the immaculate state of Pops,  Nick’s boat, but felt better when he realised that she was only a couple of months old.

Memories of DES, DfE, DfEE and DfES were exchanged over tea.  We waved at Nick as he moored his boat in Wellingborough  the next day.

The weather continued damp and grey and the beautiful river felt a little sad and choked by weed.

We moored at Cogenhoe Mill by the lock and in the evening rain walked up  a steep hill into the centre of the village, we thought. Looking at an old photo of Cogenhoe  in the village pub, we found our ‘village’ was the edge of a town with  quite large shops. Coming from the river you get an impression from the bit you see, which may not tell the story of the whole.

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We set off early the next morning, although  early is now an hour  I would previously have considered late.

It rained heavily last night, and passing a large campsite which had been full of activity on our way down, there was an understandable  dampening of spirit and activity.

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Padlocks on the lock gates and empty life belt stands tell us we are getting close to an urban sprawl.

Arriving at Northampton  lock we found volunteers  scurrying around clipping bushes and tidying ready for a big waterways festival next weekend.

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We had booked a berth in the marina, and John the very helpful marina manager found us a good spot. We usually choose isolated places to moor, but this enables Ginger Bear to catch up with new friends for a few days.

Time to stand and stare

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Retracing our way down the Great Ouse, across the Middle Level and back up the Nene we have balanced boating with time to stand and stare.

We watched a grebe family carry out an enchanting ceremony. The female carrying three young on her back was carefully passed a freshly caught fish by the male. This was passed back and forth several times (and waved at the chicks) before eventually being swallowed by the female. The camera was inside the boat and I didn’t dare move to get it.

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The tandem came off the roof and we cycled into Ely to admire the immense but accessible cathedral with its beautiful surrounding buildings. The cathedral can be seen for miles across the flat countryside and is the Ship of the Fens.

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We moored near Upwell Church on the Middle Level. Wandering around its surprisingly intact and crowded old churchyard I was surprised by the number of 18th and 19th century gravestones recording deaths of people in their mid-80’s. This provoked a long debate between us.

Dugald and I used to debate by letter when I was at Dundee and he was at Bearley. A memorable debate involved the surface area/volume ratio of elephants and mice – those were the days!

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Back on the Nene, Peterborough cathedral is huge and central, but feels separate from the city with its gated close and cloisters. We wandered round, brushing up on some history, listening to a visiting choir practising for evensong.

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Dugald has often talked about a colleague, Simon Judge, who blogs about his narrowboat adventures on Scholar Gypsy. We had an unexpected encounter with Simon and his family in Peterborough while he waited to go into the Middle Level. They have been narrowboating for 35 years, and have a beautiful boat. Simon does not seem in danger of stopping and staring for long. He recently moved his boat to Ely, and has been testing the narrowboat limits by going out to sea on the Wash. The morning we met up with them, they had just come back into the river at Wisbech. The crew had been up since 4am, and the previous day they had beached the boat on the sand and climbed down ladders to play cricket on the beach. We had a very enjoyable hour with them exchanging yarns, but we have no plans to take Ginger Bear to sea.

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Yesterday we motored up the Nene with increasing weather warnings of heavy rain and possible flooding. As we were travelling along I suddenly heard a hoot and saw smoke from a steam train. A couple of bends later we moored at Wansford Station by the Nene Valley Railway. We found ourselves in the middle of a Driver Experience Day. Lots of enthusiasts in boiler suits, having parted with a large sum of money, were discussing the nitty gritty of steam engines. Dugald was like a child in a sweet factory, excited to find engine yards, old steam trains and workshops restoring them, including the original Thomas the Tank Engine. We spent a long time discussing the restoration programme with a very enthusiastic volunteer before going off to watch some of the would-be train drivers going through their paces.

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We had promised ourselves a short trip, but once we left the (very safe) Wansford mooring it took us another four hours to find a safe mooring for the evening at Fotheringhay,

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We moored below the remains of the Fotheringhay castle mound and moat. I found my favourite Fairport Convention song – Fotheringhay to play to Dugald.  It is about Mary Queen of Scots whose temporary burial place we had seen at Peterborough Cathedral, following her beheading at Fotheringhay Castle. Fotheringhay is also the birthplace of Richard III.

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Few villages have such a claim on English history. In the evening we walked through this lovely place and into the Falcon Inn. We were warmly welcomed by Sally. She runs a pub that has been proclaimed Northamptonshire Eating Pub of the Year 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 – with good reason. We had an excellent meal for a very modest price accompanied by excellent customer service.

Today we decided to stay. We copied part of the map and planned a circular route of about 6 miles. Ignoring the rain we set off and sometime later realised that we had not only missed a turning, but gone off the map. Some adjustment via some very noisy piglets found us having a good pub lunch in an expected village. We eventually got back to the boat a bit later and 10,000 steps further than planned. Neither of us deserve our orienteering badges yet.

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It is now Saturday morning, I failed to post the blog yesterday – no signal even on top of the mound. The sun is shining and we have spent the last three hours motoring up the river, through some more handraulic locks and have now found a lovely mooring WITH a signal. I will quickly post the blog before the signal disappears, then we are off to explore more footpaths and hopefully the delights of Oundle.

First objective achieved – Cambridge reached

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For the Cambridge leg of the trip Dugald takes up the thread.

Wendy’s last post provoked the response “tell him to slow down”. So I did and had a good snooze while she went off in pursuit of Konik ponies in Wicken Fen. We discovered that we are not patient enough to be good naturalists – we want results too quickly.

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Back at the pub, the Five Miles from Anywhere, No Hurry Inn there was people watching to be done. A smart broadbeam boat disgorged a couple, she with unshocking pink hair, he with dreadlocks down to his knees. White, middle aged and inherently quite good looking, we wondered what his motive for this style was. Later in Cambridge a large guided party passed us – led by a walking guide who had been a Cambridge street cleaner for many years and was now a very knowledgeable presenter – a more encouraging picture.

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Leaving the Great Ouse and joining the Cam, there was an immediate change to a warmer and more intimate atmosphere. The river seems to announce the magic of the city.

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We arrived to take the only available visitor mooring in the centre of the city. Walking round that evening reminded me of what a glorious place it is – and how privileged I was to spend a happy three years there.

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Wendy and I met in September 1970 and she visited me in Cambridge once – in November 1970. I fell out of favour shortly afterwards for reasons too complex to explain. I did not take her punting that November weekend and had never done so since. This needed remedying. The girl managing the desk at Scudamores looked sceptical and pitying at my claim that I had last punted in 1994 (when showing Anna round the city and the university). I chose a wooden pole – always used one before – why change now? Because it’s incredibly heavy that’s why. I made it to the Mill and back in an hour and just kept balance sufficiently to avoid indignity – a triumph.  After that a good lunch with Perran and Jane was essential.DSCF0615

Today is 8 August, 27 years after I joined the Department of Education and Science. It was a radical change from farming and surprised some in the Department too. A director, told of my new post and my previous occupation, remarked “Rather an arcane job for a farmer, I’d have thought” and turned away. The only appropriate response was a Harvey Smith behind his back.

Jane joined us for the trip out of the city as we went back onto the Great Ouse. Coming from the South you can understand why Ely cathedral is known as the Ship of the Fens. Tomorrow we will get the tandem off the roof and bike into Ely to admire it.