Week 2 – Stoke Hammond to Marsworth Junction

A second week of liveaboard life, as homeless people with no fixed abode, has been completed. We are now already settling in to a slower pace of life, as evidenced by the fact that I still haven’t set up a blog to dump this stuff onto and spare the casual browser. This week’s non-events:

Late start to run down from Stoke Hammond to Leighton Buzzard and our planned supermarket sweep. All went according to plan though it seemed odd that, at a time when there is supposed to be an explosion in canal usage and the weather is fine, there was very little traffic on the move. The absence of traffic was complemented by an endless supply of moored boats. The convention of dropping down to tick-over when passing moored boats meant slow progress throughout the day. For the most part it is all part of the game but it chafes a bit when so many of them seem to be “locked up and left” and appear to be a random collection of scrap metal and general flotsam rather than an actual boat.

Arrived and moored just below Grove Lock by about 16:30, perfect timing for a cup of tea and a chance to relax. Suitably refreshed we wandered the 200 yards up to the Grove Lock Inn for a couple of pints in the evening sunshine. Nice pub, quite pricey but good service and coping well with quite an onrush of people who had obviously been released from being cooped up in work and needed to see daylight.

On Friday we were supposed to get going but found that we had failed the Tesco test the day before. No Orange Juice! Another couple of key items missed as well. In a boat it isn’t just a case of turning round and going back, so Shanks’s pony back to the superstore at Old Linslade and return. Quite an interesting walk anyway as you could see there must have been quite an industry on the canal side as shown by the remains of clearly built wharves the boats would have moored up against for loading and unloading and railway lines still set into the top of one of them.

In the end, it was lunchtime before we started up through the next few locks. We got through the three Soulbury locks in the dry for the first time ever and as far as Slapton, where there is a winding hole. As we wanted to clean the muck left by roosting birds all along the sides of the boat we stopped there and did the starboard side. Then we had some fun going through the bridge, winding (turning round), coming back to clean the port side, reversing through the bridge, winding again and finally getting on our way. Always an interesting operation this winding. It usually involves burying the nose in a tree on the offside and pressing forward with the tiller hard over. There is always a point as the boat slowly, so slowly, responds where you think she is never going to come round and will just sit there at 90° to the canal. This time it was pretty straightforward but it is a whole different story when there is any kind of wind to contend with.

With all these shenanigans we covered a whole 3 miles and 4 locks to moor up at Horton Lock at the end of the day. A nice mooring but right opposite a very busy farmyard working hard on a large dunghill. I could see a stretch of Armco a few hundred yards further up and conceived the bright idea of just moving up away from the farmyard. 20 minutes later we were reversing all the way back to where we started, having run aground on a shelf of silt sitting about 3 yards from the bank. On the plus side, the wind changed and they stopped turning the dunghill over for the night so the smell was much improved by evening as we settled down to watch Djokavic & Nadal battle it out until 23:00. An unexpected treat thanks to the length of the other titanic semi-final struggle between Anderson and Isner earlier in the day lasting 6½ hours

Saturday we passed through seven locks and three miles to Marsworth Junction. That was quite enough for one day and anyway we needed to see the last two sets of the tennis played out. A very finely balanced match but Nadal seemed to be showing his age a bit more and I somehow always felt he might lose out. Exhausted after such a long match we needed a pint at The Red Lion to round it off. Still a fine pub but a little eccentric, both the landlord and the local clientele. If you want to order food you are despatched upstairs to a tiny hatchway through to a small kitchen where one lone woman toils away to take the orders and cook the food. Then she marches you down to the bar to take payment by card and sends you to sit down anywhere inside or out. A few minutes later the same person has to come and find where you are, bring the cutlery and eventually serve the food she has just cooked. To be fair, this worked fine while we were there. I have a feeling it wouldn’t take too much pressure for this system, and the lady in question, to break down completely however.

On Sunday we set off down the Aylesbury Arm in weather that was still very hot. It is a very long time since I felt the need to wear shorts and T-shirt in England, unless engaged in some unpleasantly strenuous sporting activity, but this prolonged spell of sunshine has demanded it and therefore, of course, the sandals. Today the sandals gave up. M&S footwear is not what it used to be and the sole came right off. We later worked out they had been purchased specially for a holiday in the south of France in 2001, so were obviously out of warranty. When we were younger and foolish (in March) we tackled all 16 locks over 6 miles in one day to reach the basin and the same on the way back. This time it was more than sufficient to get to a lovely isolated space two thirds of the way down at Broughton and moor up for the day. Just in time to catch the final at Wimbledon. It was only ever going to be an anti-climax after what both players had been through in the last two days but it was good to see Anderson put up some resistance in the third before finally conceding the championship. This time it was all over in good time for the towpath BBQ and a couple of beers.

Monday seems to be our day for the click & collect challenge, this time in Aylesbury. We polished off the last three locks in the morning and arrived at the posh canal basin pontoons beside Waitrose. Sue reversed on to one of the available berths with great aplomb, making it look as though it was the one she had been aiming for all the time. In truth we could have ended up in any one of the three slots right up to the last minute but once we were committed she slid the boat in very smoothly.

Criss-crossing the town to collect things was no great problem but it turns out that George at Asda by Stoke Mandeville hospital is quite a hike from the town (and back). Stoke Mandeville is where my niece is about to take up her first residency. After many years of study she became a doctor this month, although she tells me it will be another year, still, before she is fully qualified rather than just registered.

Aylesbury was also an opportunity to visit the local branch of my current bootmaker of choice, Clarks, for some new sandals. One can only hope that these perform better than Marks & Spencer. Perhaps the latter are spread too thin and the cobbler should stick to his last.

While we were in town we heard from our conveyancer on the new house. With the local authority search at last returned she was able to enclose the draft contracts etc. We repaired to the King’s Head after dinner on board the boat to peruse these documents in depth. Alas! The contract and the developer’s solicitors’ information and the plans contained therein all refer to a plot that we aren’t buying. The modern deficiency in attention to detail seems to have infected the legal profession, which one might have hoped was a last bastion of punctilious pedantry. Thanks goodness for the ready supply of Chiltern ales on hand in this historic hostelry, owned by the National Trust and run by the brewery itself.

Having restocked what we could from Waitrose, ASDA and Sainsbury’s we set off back up the Aylesbury Arm on Tuesday morning and made it through one lock and about a mile before stopping at the Tesco superstore to gather what I am assured are the provisions only they can supply. A chance for coffee at their Costa, at least, before setting out again. Today we chose to stop after Lock 10 where we had found a perfect, one boat, mooring for lunch on the way down that was till vacant for a night stop heading back. A lovely isolated spot, beyond the reach of the towpath improvements closer to town and so with far fewer cyclists and walkers to disturb us.

Time to transform to my secret identity of Bicycle Repair Man (one for the Monty Python fans) and set up my old mountain bike with a new wheel. We have the old bike with us for emergencies. I wanted to make it as compact as possible to store on the boat, so I thought I would fit it with a quick release skewer on the front wheel and some folding pedals. Normally I would leave this sort of thing to Halfords but when I asked in a couple of their stores they each said this was a job for a proper bike mechanic and I would need to book it in for a day when that esteemed individual was on duty. In the end it was easier and cheaper to buy a new front wheel than to re-engineer the old one and Decathlon had folding pedals in stock for a tenner (these are two of the items we clicked and collected in Milton Keynes). I sat down to tackle the task of replacing the front wheel, fitting a new inner tube filled with green slime (all the rage apparently), transferring the tyre itself from the old wheel and fitting the replacement pedals. Somewhat surprisingly this all went rather well. There was a minimum of the cursing and running back and forth to the toolbox to get out an ever-increasing range of tools that usually accompanies any of my DIY efforts. Even the £10 pedals seem remarkably well engineered and sturdy for the price. A quick test drive up and down the towpath seemed to show all was well, so time to quit while we were ahead and not examine things too closely.

BBQ time again, I’m afraid. There is nothing quite like sitting in an idyllic location, with no-one around and the sound of water streaming over the lock 50 yards away, watching the sunset with a couple of beers accompanied by the smell of charring meat.

Wednesday, hot and sunny as almost goes without saying. Nine locks to tackle and about three miles to cover to get back up to Marsworth Junction. As my brother and his wife were bringing Anna, my niece, with all her goods & chattels up to Aylesbury to move her into her flat near the hospital, we planned to stay at the junction in the hope that they could meet us for a quick look at the boat and some dinner. The spot we found was convenient but very exposed to the sun, making the boat like a steel oven.

We had had an assurance back from the conveyancer that it was “all alright really” (my interpretation of a vague excuse and half-hearted apology) with a copy of the correct contract and plans. We’d also received a draft of the revised drawings for the boat. That meant the rest of the day was spent buried in reviewing paperwork and admin – I really thought I had left that behind!

We did have a brief excursion to the Bluebell Tearooms right by our mooring and serving the car park for a number of reservoirs open to the public for recreation. A nice place, serving great tea and cakes. However, it also seemed to be inhabited by staff and obvious ‘regulars’ who could only communicate with one another by shouting at the top of their voices. Even in the garden it ruined what could have been a nice peaceful ambience.

The Red Admiral has no fear!

While we finished going through the boat plans a butterfly, the one pictured above, kept flying around us. It landed on the laptop screen first and then kept returning to rest in several places long enough to get a picture. Sue and I thought it must be a Red Admiral but that is because that is the only butterfly we knew until this year. I’m sure Neil Payne will enlighten us. We certainly know it isn’t an orange tip thanks to his expert tutelage.

John, Ali and Anna were able to come and meet us and dinner was, inevitably, taken at The Red Lion, which felt well-earned after all that office work.

There are a couple of things I haven’t mentioned. One is the number of Red Kites we have seen in the last two weeks, often very close by and in a soaring display, riding the thermals; common as muck it seems now. The other is the vast numbers of tiny frogs, no bigger than the nail on your little finger, spotted on the improved towpath heading into Aylesbury. They were all crossing the path, heading for the canal but slowly and in such numbers that it was almost impossible to avoid treading on one. Our best guess is that the sun-soaked surface of the path is to their liking and for something so tiny even a couple of hops demands a rest before being able to move on.

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