Looking For A Window
For over two months after returning home “Parting Shot” had been moored up at a nearby marina with nothing more than a couple of trips around the island in the middle of the marina basin. This was partly due to a series of dental appointments, some family affairs to be dealt with and yet another Christmas and New Year interruption. In truth, however, wave after wave of wet, windy weather blown in from every quarter had made venturing out any further rather unappealing.
Early in January a long range forecast suggested a period of drier weather later in the month so we had made tentative plans to have a short trip some time then. As the time approached, the forecasts stayed unusually consistent, with just some minor shifts in timing. By the third week we felt confident enough to prepare the boat to set out on Friday the seventeenth when we were assured there would be a window of at least a few days of settled high pressure, cold but largely free of rain.
We settled on a short run north to Braunston and then up the Leicester Line to Crick and the Welford Arm for a night at The Wharf Inn. We would turn there to come back the same way. Travelling over the same route isn’t as dull as it sounds since you always seem to get a different perspective and there are plenty of options to ensure you don’t end up stopping in the same places on the way back as you did when you were heading out.
We had taken so much off the boat to be cleaned, repaired or just stored in the dry that re-stocking it and preparing for the off was a day’s work on the Thursday. At the same time, one final check of the stoppage list on the CRT website threw a slight spanner in the works as the navigation was closed at Stokley’s Bridge from mid-January due to work being undertaken on the bridge itself by Northamptonshire Highways. This would make the Welford Arm inaccessible from our direction and force us to turn back at Elkington Bridge, the last winding hole before the stoppage. Still, it didn’t seem worth changing our plans altogether so we would just have a shorter day or two.
Friday started out fairly bright, after a wet night and we set off about ten thirty, straight into the three locks at the marina entrance that take you up past Calcutt boats towards the junction with the Oxford Canal at Napton Junction. As we left the top lock, heading up the short stretch past Napton reservoir the air got damper and we could see a weather front coming in across the flat land ahead. It seemed we were to be let down once again as light spitting became a more persistent drizzle that turned to heavy rain by the time we had rounded the turn and were heading up towards Braunston on the section of the Oxford Canal shared by the Grand Union. A rather unpleasant hour or so, made all the jollier by having to pull over and take a trip down the weed hatch to clear some debris from the propeller. It did blow through, however, and we moored up by the Stop House in Braunston to have lunch in some rare sunshine.
Part of the reason for coming through Braunston was to visit Tradline, who have their workshop in the old forge in Braunston Marina. We have found that, whenever we find ourselves bow on to a jetty or the bank, our front button often glides effortlessly over the top, leaving the front stem to rest against the side, grinding up and down with the movement in the water. We had talked to Pete & Karen at Tradline about some additional fender work to protect the stem and arranged to call in on our way past. Pete is a classic craftsman, full of enthusiasm and expertise, although sometimes a bit hard to pin down. There is strict demarcation in place, however, Karen handles the money and manages the schedule. So Pete came out to where we were tied up on the towpath, had a look and measured up his proposed solution. We strolled round to the workshop half an hour later to agree a price with Karen. This was Friday and we expected to be going back past on Tuesday so, no promises, but they would try and have it ready then, as Pete would need to fit it himself.
By now time was getting on and the afternoon sunshine was weakening. We hadn’t set ourselves too hard a target, however, as we had planned to go up the first two locks and moor there, a short walk from the Admiral Nelson, which offered a warm, welcoming atmosphere for an excellent evening’s refreshment.
Return To Crick
We had a good first year with our original boat as permanent moorers in Crick Marina and we got to know the village and the area quite well. Our next stop was planned to be on the towpath at Crick with a nostalgic trip to The Wheatsheaf on Saturday night.
It was a frosty morning but crisp, dry and sunny with very little wind; an ideal day for winter cruising. We had four more locks to clear on the way out of Braunston, which soon warmed up Bracken and I. From there we passed through the Braunston Tunnel and out on a straight run down to Norton Junction, where we would turn sharp left onto the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal.
We had one deadline, imposed by restricted opening times placed on the Watford Locks that demand the last boat through be there by a quarter to three. Somewhat ironically, given the weather, these restrictions, which came into effect in October until the end of March, are designed to conserve water! In fact we found ourselves at the bottom of the locks by about one o’clock and stopped there to top up with drinking water. There are water points at both the top and bottom locks but past experience had taught us that the pressure at the bottom is far better than at the top. You could be waiting there for an hour or more before enough water to fill the tank dribbles through the hosepipe.
With so little traffic we were probably the third boat the lock keepers had seen that day so they were keen to get us through, if only to keep warm themselves. From the top of the locks it is a nice run to the final obstacle, Crick Tunnel. At under a mile it doesn’t really figure in the list of notable canal tunnels but does have the merit of being very straight. It emerges in a cutting just short of the main road with towpath mooring on the left hand side and we tied up there just around half past three.
Sunday morning was a little disappointing. Frosty, yes, well below zero but dank and foggy with it. Since we had a short day ahead, due to the stoppage, we didn’t hurry and decided on a hearty brunch before setting off. The sun started to come through about ten o’clock and by the time we got going at eleven it was a brilliant crisp, clear, sunny day – the sort we should expect in winter but had seen precious few of this year.
Breaking The Ice
Just before we left some canoeists set out from the landing by the bridge and seemed to be making heavy weather of it further down the cut. As we got a little way past Crick Marina the reason became clear, there was ice on the surface of the water. There had been no sign of this back at our mooring and we were a little surprised to see it as we hadn’t thought it had got quite that cold. As we progressed, however, it was clear that there was a thin sheet of ice, about a quarter inch thick, covering the whole surface of the canal. With so little traffic on this section we were now the ice-breakers.
It is not recommended to travel by narrowboat through ice. For something that is just cold water it is amazingly strong and you can see the pressure of your passage pushing it against the banks. It will damage the blacking on your hull and more importantly your boat will force it against the hulls of boats moored at the side and damage them. However, this was really quite thin and by keeping the speed right down we seemed to be able to progress without suffering any particular consequences. There was certainly none of the angry fist waving from moored boats we passed that normally greets a careless driver who fails to slow to tick-over when moving alongside.
Sue steered the boat while I walked with Bracken on the towpath in the sunshine. Very pleasant, apart from the state of the towpath which, after such an exceptional winter, was just a morass in many places, to the point where, at times, you could simply not keep your footing and risked sliding into the canal. By the time we reached Yelvertoft Wharf we had had enough and jumped back on board.
We carried on to the final accessible winding hole at Bridge 28, turned with minimal difficulty and headed back to moor in the sunshine a few bridges further back. We had cruised for about three hours or so and were all tied up by about quarter past two. By the time we made the turn the ice had mostly melted. There are always chores to do but in a sheltered spot with the sun on the boat a couple of hours splitting logs, sorting out the toolbox and cleaning out the engine bay made for a pleasant enough Sunday afternoon.
Retracing Our Steps
Monday gave us another cold, frosty morning with, if anything, a slightly thicker crust of ice on the surface of the water. Overcast at first, the sun made its appearance before ten o’clock to provide a brilliant, crisp, sunny trip right through to the evening. Still a bit unsure about this cruising on ice business we sent a quick message to Neil Payne for the benefit of his greater experience. Reassured, we set out about eleven o’clock to retrace our route back past Yelvertoft Wharf, Crick Tunnel and the Watford Locks to moor up at about three o’clock just before Norton Junction ready to make the turn next day.
By the time we had passed through the tunnel the ice, which had been getting steadily thinner had almost completely disappeared, with no sign of it even in the shadows. No doubt the morning’s sunshine had played its part but we were convinced an invisible boundary, somewhere by Crick, marked a significant change in temperature. Certainly the lock keepers at Watford, for whom we were their only customers that day, told us they had seen no sign of ice all day. We had a lovely cruise in the sunshine and passed only one other boat on the move for the whole day.
Another nostalgic visit was to the New Inn at Buckby top lock, just around the junction. Sadly, I had to be the sole representative of the whole crew. They don’t allow dogs inside and sitting outside in the dark as the temperature fell didn’t appeal to any of us, so Sue and Bracken stayed on board.
Calling In For A New Look
On Tuesday it started out a bit grey. It was still cold but while we could see ice in the water it was much thinner here and not even completely joined up. By ten o’clock sunshine came through again and stayed with us until about three. We would be going back through Braunston and calling in at Tradline in Braunston Marina to have the new fender fitted. To get there, of course, we would need to pass through Braunston Tunnel and work our way down all six locks. We got them on the phone as we were at the top lock and they confirmed they had the ropework ready and were all set to fit it.
We got into the marina about one-thirty. I had been slightly concerned about the approach as there is a lot of activity around the marina entrance with services, a dry dock, workshops and the marina shop all crammed into a small space around the wharf where we needed to moor up. In the event, however, it was quite straightforward and once we had arrived it was a bit easier to see how we could turn around in order to leave again.
Somehow, we always seem to meet Pete at this time of day. I dare say I am doing him an injustice, nevertheless he always gives me the impression of having just returned from a substantial liquid lunch, the aftermath of which lingers round him like a scented cloud. Whatever the truth of it, it seems to have no effect on his performance. By three o’clock we were on our way with our original button cinched up tight, where it can do most good and a brand new rope “moustache” suspended half way down the stem. To be honest, first impressions were that it was rather skinny and positioned a little higher than I felt would be effective. Full credit to a skilled professional, however; Pete’s assurance that it would drop a little over time proved entirely correct and the evidence to date is that it is very effective indeed, keeping us clear of the marina boardwalk that previously we had rubbed against constantly.
By now we were losing the sun and the air was steadily getting cooler again. We planned to moor at another favourite spot below Flecknoe. We had no more obstacles in our path and once we had made the turn onto the South Oxford it was a trouble-free cruise down to Bridge 101 and we were moored up for tea by four o’clock. On the way we played leapfrog with a kingfisher hunting along the bank. Of several attempts this was the best we could do to get a picture of it with a mobile phone while steering a moving boat.
The Final Leg
The night’s mooring was a hop, skip and barely a jump from our berth at Calcutt Boats so we had plenty of time for a walk up the hill to Flecknoe on Wednesday morning. Usually there is a good view from there over most of the surrounding countryside. Today, however, we were shrouded in thick fog right through to midday and the skies continued grey and overcast all afternoon. Nevertheless it is a nice circular walk and given that this was only late January it was just nice that the temperature was mild and for once the rain stayed away.
Setting out on the boat about eleven o’clock we were back at the wharf in Calcutt by twelve-thirty to fill up with diesel etc. As well as being mild and dry there was very little wind, extremely rare when at a marina, so it was even easy to get back into the entrance and manoeuvre onto our berth.
All in all we had had a great trip. Despite a damp start the forecast break in the weather had materialised. The cold is never half as miserable to deal with as is the constant rain of the past few months and we had enjoyed a lot of really great sunshine. The forecast from here on is far from promising so this may well be our only cruise this winter so we have to be grateful we were able to get that.