Thursday, 30 June 2011

All routes lead to Whilton – don’t they?

Thursday 30th June: 1 mile west of Braunston to just north of Weedon, 10 miles, 13 locks


                A boat named Pandora was moored nearby last night. Her roof was used for storage: apart from poles, hoses and various plastic containers there was a large rooftop box.  The start of a new day travelling on the canals brings the opening of Pandora's Box to mind: what will the day bring? what might emerge from "the box"?

               To start with, ticking past us with that beautiful, slow, donk-donk of old engines, came two more old workboats, the first towing a butty loaded with all sorts of old equipment.  Then Cleddau set off, skirted the mostly submerged old wooden boat, was greeted by the cockerel from the offside and continued the last mile into Braunston.

                  From the west, Braunston Turn, the junction, is at its picturesque best, the route of the North Oxford Canal going towards Rugby and Coventry under one white railinged Horseley Ironworks  bridge while the route down the Grand Union passes below the other. Braunston village lies on a ridge quite high above the bustling world of the canal.  How often have we admired the crocketed church spire, (a new word learned last year, which refers to the stone decorative"bumps").  Several times before we have walked up the hill, following the grassy path that leads up to the church. In some circles it is known as "The Cathedral of the Canals", so major has been its association with canal folk. Inside the church has a cared-for feeling: fairly new woodwork partitioning indicates where a previous vestry has become an office and separate room.  The Flower Guild (or equivalent) commands a large amount of space in a back corner; a book display links with the canal's history but most striking was the beautiful marble font.

                Brief supply mission over, the crew returned to the canal, where boats of all lengths and vintages were crawling past one another. At one of the boatyards a welder worked away on the roof of a boat.  There was a queue for the bottom lock (of six) and then Cleddau's progress upwards began. Lock partners this time were going to Whilton, to the vast brokerage there, to swap their boat. Their current live-aboard craft is about fifty feet long, but they are swapping it for a seventy footer, on account of having seven grandchildren... The boaters ahead aborted after the third lock, rained off, moored up their boats and sought shelter in the pub for lunch. We tougher boaters continued, completed the locks, chugged through the tunnel (2042 yards) and cruised on through the tree-lined cutting towards Norton Junction. What surprise then at the junction to see our travel companions execute a smart left turn.

                " We thought you were going to Whilton," Boatwif shouted.

                   "We are," replied the skipper.

                   "After a while?" suggested  Boatwif.

                   From Cleddau's back deck came a bellow: "That's the way to Leicester!"

                  Sheepishly the other skipper confessed, "Oh, we didn't know, our Nicholson's Guide Book's run out, it says go to Book 1!" Some reversing and manoevering occurred!  And then we all set about going down the seven locks together. Walkers who have the time, or lock slaves who steal a glance, will see notices explaining how this area has long been recognised as good for transport routes.  First were the Romans with Watling Street, known now as the A5, then came the canal, then in the 1800s the railway line, and in the 1960s the M1 motorway.

                The Cleddau crew in recent times have frequently beaten a path (usually by road) to the door of Whilton Marina, for here resides one Richard, he who promotes and supplies the composting loos.  And Radio 4 listeners to PM this very week may have heard him explain the rationale behind the plan to create a new canal arm into Daventry. If lucky, when hurtling up the railway line on a London – Stoke train, a good view over the whole marina can be had.

                Whilton was reached, ears becoming accustomed slowly to the constant motorway roar, the rushing trains, emergency sirens and even a helicopter. The boat swap folk moored up and the Captain jumped ship for his customary "OK Richard, composting loo still doing well" conversation.

                Eager for  a quieter overnight mooring Cleddau moved on, leaving behind the alternative boaters on whose back deck a guitarist squatted, strumming, past the Free range eggs – from happy hens sign, past the cruel sight of a teddy bear bow fender, past the boat named It's 5 o'clock –somewhere!

                Long past 5pm the canal is peaceful now, the light is failing and that squawk from the hedge behind may have been an owl.

Tomorrow - through Blisworth Tunnel to Stoke Bruerne

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Ducks, debris and dumb barges

Wednesday 29th June: Bascote (Warks) to 1m west of Braunston (Northants), 8 miles, 13 locks

                “ Aw rite?”... Cleddau is back in “You alright?” territory, first recorded last summer on the North Oxford Canal.* These words have crossed the canal several times today, and on the final occasion its speaker could not have been more cheerful.  It was about 6pm and Boatwif was taking an evening amble along the towpath when from a boat on the opposite side came:

                “ Aw rite?” (Here the speaker stretched out his arms as if to embrace the canal). “I’ve finished work, the sun is shining – and I got a cold beer!”

                Boatwif’s response, predictably perhaps, was “And I’ve just had my cup of tea!” The truth is she had had two since mooring up, but had faded into unconsciousness for a while after the top third of the mug and so had had to drink another!  Fatigue hits after Grand Union lock flights: heaving, pushing, pulling, winding, rope-throwing, rope-heaving, precision steering... Today had involved 10 locks at Stockton plus three at Calcutt just 2.5 miles later.

                When you share double locks with another boat up or down a flight inevitably conversation turns to boats and routes. Our partner’s boat had been built by Reading Marine at Aldermaston in 2000, repainted by them two years ago – and got caught up in that company’s going out of business. Their destination is the River Nene and Peterborough.  It was good to be able to impart a hint of the delight of that special mooring found last year at the lakes just outside the city. Their favourite trip from home mooring on the Staffs and Worcs is down to the River Weaver; the Cleddau crew already has plans to check that navigation out in late September or October.

                Once all locks were done Cleddau’s route today took her past moored boats (many of them full seventy footers) and the two huge marinas at Ventnor Farm and Calcutt. Then Napton Junction was reached. Here the Grand Union goes right for Oxford, left for Braunston.   Wigram Turn Marina sits right on the junction, a large notice proclaiming No Servicing on Saturdays.  Is this where nb Valerie is temporarily tied up...? It was hard to see but all looks well.

                The Oxford Canal, for that is currently our cut, has a different feel from the Grand Union. It winds and weaves; where the fields are not hedged views are of corn crops and gentle undulating slopes. Bridges and buildings are of red brick, though several farm buildings seem to be in total disrepair. “Always on corners,” shouted the Captain, only once today, but probably for the thousandth time in a cruising career. This canal requires a fair amount of jiggling and dancing around oncoming and tied up craft.  Then, just before mooring up, Cleddau progressed gently past a workboat busy dredging the waters by the banks, deepening the edge, moving the clay back towards the middle of the cut. Somewhere, comfortable against the hedge and oblivious of boats, a red-hatted reader concentrated on his words...

                A towpath trundle this evening was sheer delight, not a road or a railway line to create intrusive noise. The canal belonged to ducks on the bank, blackbirds on the branches, a cockerel on the offside, inquisitive escapee sheep beside a bridge, a beetle and butterflies. Yet it is as if this is Braunston’s backyard: a submerged wooden barge plus at separate points a discarded life ring and a tattered stern pram cover.

 Tomorrow:  Braunston – the Buckby Flight, no further than Weedon...


Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Flowers, fountains - and a fan

Tuesday 28th June: Warwick to Bascote, 10 miles, 12 locks

    This morning for the first time the battery state of charge read as below 50%. Why? Because yesterday’s cruising was all over by 11am, the fridge was working flat out in the heat – and so hot was it that the Tesco-bought electric desk fan was dug out of a cupboard and turned ON! After mooring up the manager at the Saltisford Trust moorings had rattled off facilities, which apparently included an electric hook up but the sizzling brains did not register what a boon that might have been... still, today, the fan is tucked back into the cupboard and the batteries have recharged.

    Though the last few hours of today’s boating have been through quiet Warwickshire countryside the day hasn’t been without a few curious sightings.  In a conversation yesterday evening the Captain had gleaned that not far away was moored the steam-powered narrow boat President, en route back from Braunston to Dudley.  The annual working boats rally last weekend was apparently well attended with 108 boats gathered there from far and wide; today several passed by returning to their home moorings. Strangest craft sighted, though, was one grey blunt-ended job whose origin and purpose remains a mystery.

    On the adrenalin stakes the encounter with two narrow boats which between them were carrying 17 excited young teenagers ranked high: Cleddau approached a bridge, the route of the canal beyond turning sharp left. Half way through the bridge hole an oncoming boat hove into view; a woman smoking on the front deck flailed her hands about while three teenagers were standing on the roof.  Their boat’s only course was straight forward – into concrete edging.  It juddered sharply, the teenagers clung to each other – and all survived.  Behind was a second boat, also carrying a youthful crew. “Beautiful boat, beautiful boat,  we like your boat,” smiled – or sneered – a girl from the front deck.  Cleddau moved on, shortly afterwards to espy a group of collapsed youths on the towpath.  Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition? Late June surely is the season for summer adventure.

    The Captain gave permission for Boatwif to dive into Leamington Spa.  The canal skirts the back end, the grubby end, of town, although there is much canal side new residential building. The railway line dominates the end of the street leading from the canal, but after that there are hints of Regency style. The destination was the Royal Pump Rooms, transformed in 1999 into a cultural centre (ie. housing Tourist Information, Library, Museum, Art Gallery, tea rooms). No viewing possible of the one-time Assembly Room but the remnant of the Turkish Baths was delightful and the museum very informative. From there to Jephson Gardens, named after Doctor Jephson, he of the spa waters treatment and diet fame. Floral abundance is obviously a Leamington feature and the gardens are truly a delight. The finer Leamington architecture seemed to be further off the walking map but apparently the Crescent or thereabouts was used for the most recent filming of Upstairs, Downstairs. All Saint’s Church, (not open), looks pretty big: it’s reputed to be the third largest parish church in the country and served as a temporary cathedral after the 1940 bombing of Coventry’s Cathedral.

    Then back to the canal.  In one area of the pound to Radford Bottom Lock there seemed to be a sea of waste plastic, a dismal view. Then ducks and locks regained prominence.  These Grand Union locks demand respect. They are large - but loyal. They work efficiently, steps and bollards are well placed  and it was a relief to find that operating just one paddle and one gate each end was perfectly feasible. At one point a curious mallard and two young chicks slipped into the lock behind Cleddau, rode out the rising waters – and clambered out, relatively unscathed! Crew members concentrated hard at the last two locks, the  Bascote Staircase Locks, to make sure the water was organised into the right place in the right order...

    Moored now far from flowers and fountains, but the towpath grasses and reeds are attractive enough. Just avoid gazing across the canal towards the cement works at Rugby!

    Tomorrow to Napton (or beyond).

Monday, 27 June 2011

21 giant watery steps...

Monday 27th June: Rowington (Grand Union) to Saltisford Arm, Warwick, 6 miles, 21 locks

The heat yesterday, the weather forecast for today, the presence of the Dutch barge moored just three hundred yards ahead and a secret ambition of the Captain’s to boat at dawn lead to an alarm clock ringing at 5am... On the radio the World Service was still broadcasting.  At 0535 the engine was eased into life and Cleddau crept past the other boats moored nearby.

 The rising sun was still low in the sky but the birds were soon awake and singing invisibly in trees and bushes. Boats had side hatches and doors open, to draw inside any coolness the night had brought.  On the back deck of one boat a golden spaniel was sound asleep; there was not a twitch or a snuffle as Cleddau passed.

Stillness. No dog walkers; no fishermen. Then just before 0630 along the towpath stumbled three figures. Three young men, not heading for any boat, but carrying camping gear and musical instruments, were making their way northward. No conversation was exchanged – but Boatwif wondered whether these were the wandering minstrels whose travels from Kent to Wiltshire she had been aware of a year or so ago...

The Shrewley Tunnel appeared: 433 wet yards of it. Drizzle and drip, drizzle and drain all the way through!  Sometime after that the Captain allowed a breakfast stop. Then at around 0730 the first of the Hatton 21 locks appeared. Still no-one about. The top lock cafe was firmly shut until 9 o'clock. A notice requested boaters to travel through the locks together so as to conserve water.  There would have to be a wait.

Within ten minutes a boat hove into view, galloped into the lock – and we were off.   “This’ll be a hard morning,” murmured an accented voice. Cleddau’s lock companions, South Africans, are on a UK “gap year”, six months house-sitting and six months of boat rental. The lady started her lock routine and then without pause the boats progressed down the hill to Warwick! At the bottom the Captain gleefully remarked on the absence of heavy rain. “Yes, just burnt to a crisp,” was the swift response. 21 deep Grand Union locks smoothly worked by four senior personages! Triumph at the 2 hours 50 minute time temporarily masked the thirst and exhaustion felt by all...

Together the boats cruised into the Saltisford Arm, a stretch of about three hundred yards run by a Trust and where residential boaters enjoy pleasant and peaceful moorings. Space permitting, there is free visitor mooring for a first night, £4 per subsequent night.  The area is secure, water and other necessary facilities are easy to access – and heart’s desire for long-term boaters, there is an excellent laundry room. Freshly laundered bedding tonight!

After lunch and showers there was time for an afternoon stroll into Warwick. Dazed with fatigue and humidity the Cleddau crew inspected the church*, a bookshop and a coffee shop.  Iced tea in a cooled room brought some relief. When seafarers reach land they see things with unblinkered eyes:  for days there have been no sightings of those modern humanoids with slinky oblongs pressed to their ears while their mouths move expressionlessly, yet here they were again in an urban environment. Odd, too, the sight in Sainsbury’s: customers in flimsy T-shirts, but staff members all clothed in fleecy, long sleeved tops to withstand their air-conditioned store!

Will tomorrow bring rain or shine? Humidity or breeze? What other strange sights will there be as Cleddau continues downhill for two more locks then starts uphill again at Radford Semele...

Tomorrow to Leamington Spa, then on to moor near Fosse Wharf.

Most unexpected sighting in St Mary’s Church: in a small oratory chapel, an altar cloth, used during the Queen’s 1953 Coronation .