Free At Last
The start of July often seems to be significant in our boating life. We brought our first boat into its home mooring at Crick on 1st July 2017. A year later, on 4th July 2018, we set out from Crick on our summer tour of the Grand Union, River Thames and South Oxford, homeless apart from our narrowboat while the new house was just a hole in the ground.
On the fourth of July this year, over fifteen weeks since they were closed down even before lockdown began, the pubs were allowed to open again. This headline news rather drowned out some of the accompanying easing of restrictions, which for us included the freedom to stay on board your boat overnight, not just visit it and take it out for the day.
Our first instinct was, of course, to immediately launch ourselves into a long cruise from that Saturday morning. Having the announcement in advance of the fact, however, gave us the opportunity for some mature reflection. A cursory survey of the market showed that local hire companies had virtually no boats available from that day. Clearly, the latter days of lockdown had been the chance for everyone who might normally have headed for Florida, Barbados or Torremolinos to book a holiday that did not involve travel to foreign parts on the limited flights available. We guess a UK self-catering break, whether in a cottage or on a boat, also supported the 'bubble' principle.
As well as every boat for hire casting off simultaneously, crewed with drivers of varied experience and capability, the pent up demand from people such as ourselves would surely manifest itself in a mass exodus from the marinas over the weekend. With so many hire bases and marinas in our local area it was going to be crowded and chaotic out there while they all gradually dispersed into the network, so we decided to wait until the dust had settled and follow in their wake on the Tuesday.
Where To Then?
Our original scheme to head down the Kennet & Avon and come back up via the Severn had long since been abandoned. While waiting to get out we had made a plan to head into Coventry for a day or two and then go up the Ashby arm and decide what more to do after that. Just before the big release, however, it turned out that Nick and the grandchildren were keen to come and stay with us for a couple of nights over Bastille Day, so we had to think again. We recalled that when we went out in January we had not been able to go up the Welford Arm, as a bridge en route was closed to navigation at the time, so we thought we would do that again and go all the way to Welford this time.
We should just have enough time to get there and back by Sunday night, although it did put us under a schedule again. News that Leicester was on local lockdown again made us think but the exclusion zone announced was a long way beyond the junction for Welford so we just got on with it.
The rain didn't disappoint, first drops falling on the jetty as we cast off the last mooring line. Still it really didn't turn into anything serious until we were about to moor up, so a fine day really.
Winds were light so leaving the marina was straightforward and we struck lucky with one boat coming out of the bottom lock just in time for us to drive straight in and another coming up from behind to join us and share the load for all three locks.
Going up through Braunston we were really on our own but found a few boats coming down, so we got through the six locks there with a lot of them turned in our favour. Through the Braunston tunnel and down to moor up just short of Norton Junction ready to head up the Leicester Line the next day.
Scaling The Summit
This end of the Leicester Line has a long summit, guarded at each end by well-known flights of locks. Branching off the Grand Union main line at Norton Junction it travels north through some lovely countryside for a mile or so before passing Watford Gap services on the M1. Shortly after that the level rises fifty four feet, in less than a quarter of mile, by means of the Watford Locks, seven in total including four arranged in a staircase. Twenty miles further north the level drops back down seventy five feet, over a similar distance, via Foxton Locks, ten locks altogether grouped in two staircases of five locks each. In each case, as several locks can be occupied at the same time, boats are managed through in groups; one group going up and then another group brought down.
This is a popular route and there have always been queues at either end during the summer months. Lately, for various reasons, access has been more restricted so that when CRT lock keepers are not on hand to assist each flight is locked up. During the lockdown access was by pre-booking and for essential travel only. This had been eased to allow normal first come, first served passage but for very restricted hours. Coming up Braunston locks the day before, we had met someone coming down who told us they had been in a queue of ten boats first thing in the morning, not all of whom had made it through that day. We were quite pleased, therefore, to arrive at the foot of Watford Locks at ten fifteen and find we were the seventh in line and would definitely be going up with the next group. We only waited about an hour to start the ascent and were all done by one o'clock. We were even more pleased when we spoke to someone queuing to go down who had been there since nine thirty in the morning and was still not moving yet. It made us think a bit more carefully about how we would manage the return journey.
Two thirds of the way along the summit is Welford Junction, where the Welford Arm branches right for a mile and a half to Welford itself. It is just a bit farther than we wanted to go in one a day so we stopped short at a nice spot in the middle of the countryside, well placed to finish the trip outward next day. Even so we had been going for seven and a half hours through seven locks and Crick Tunnel, which felt far too much like hard work, particularly as the rain that had started at eleven o'clock had kept going for most of the afternoon. Still, it was fairly mild with not much wind, last time we came this way we were breaking through a layer of ice on the canal, so we were still ahead of the game.
Up The Junction
Although it rained all night we got off to a dry, dull start about ten o'clock on Thursday morning. It is a straightforward run to the junction and we had a good hour before it started again; steady, fine drizzle with occasional waves of something more intense. The junction itself is simple to negotiate but as you proceed up the arm you have entered a different land. Reed beds are more frequent and more extensive, choking off the navigable water. The trees stand a little closer to the water across a narrow, broken-down towpath and close in low overhead. You soon realise you are on the road less travelled.
There is only one shallow lock before you arrive at the end of the arm, which then opens out to a restored wharf. There are moorings for quite a few boats along the towpath, a CRT service block, space to turn of course and both a tearoom and a pub.
Arriving here at half past one we tied up for lunch, hoping that the rain would blow through while we dried out and give us a chance to look around the little village beyond the wharf. It never did stop but slackened off long enough to tempt us out. We had a walk up into the village, which must once have been quite a prosperous place to judge from the size and style of many of the older houses. The weather didn't encourage us to explore for too long and we remembered that we had been here on "South Downs" in December 2017 when it had been just as dismal and depressing and we had said then we should come back another time to look around properly. I suspect the good people of Welford will be hoping that we don't visit for a third time!
The Wharf Inn had re-opened, with a range of measures in place to support social distancing and separation, which included not allowing children or dogs, either inside or in the garden and extensive marquee that had been set up there. That ruled out us visiting the pub together and certainly eating there. I could understand the children but why no dogs? In the end I left Sue & Bracken at the boat and wandered up for a drink about seven o'clock. There were only three other people there, one lone boater and a Scot accompanied by a lady. They didn't seem to be a couple, just old friends enjoying a loud and lively catch-up. If it wasn't quite 'back to normal' it was nice to be back in a pub and before long we had all been drawn, with slightly raised voices to counter our COVID-secure distancing, into a classic pub conversation. As they began to debate Brexit it all felt very familiar. It moved on to different approaches to Coronavirus in England and Scotland, which was not too controversial but as the conversation turned to the original Act of Union I made my excuses and left.
Back to Braunston
The rain petered out overnight and Friday morning was dry and much brighter. The occasional sunshine banished the dank, darkness of the trip up and route seemed much less enclosed and hidden. Yesterday's imagined strains of Duelling Banjos were banished and we were soon back to join the Leicester Line again.
We didn't want to find ourselves trapped the wrong side of Watford Locks by being too far back in a queue. We wouldn't get there today but we decided to go through the Crick Tunnel and moor up as close to the locks as we could without actually sleeping under the M1. We would skip breakfast and get going a bit earlier than usual to join the queue, where we could book in and then relax over a bacon sandwich while we were waiting.
On the way we passed the infamous Crack's Hill, which mysteriously swallows all forms of electronic communication for about a mile around Crick. Even that looked nice in the sunshine.
Things went pretty much according to plan except that when we arrived there, ahead of the advertised opening time, we were first in the queue and the locks were already manned. There was a workboat and accompanying butty, a small unpowered craft towed behind the boat, already on the way up. Boat and butty would not fit together in one lock so we would go down as soon as the work boat cleared the staircase, while the crew walked back down and began manhandling the butty through each lock in turn. Once we were below the staircase we would be able to pass them in the pound of one of the lower locks. While the first boat came through we just had time for our own planned bacon butty before we had to start down.
Getting through Watford by ten thirty set us well on our way back down to Norton Junction and right to Braunston. On foot with Bracken, we came up behind a small hire boat called "Driftweed". The couple on board were trying to get off the bank, which was badly silted up and someone from a nearby boat was already offering them enough advice. We helped give them a shove and they managed to pull away. Having got back on board we were now following in their wake. They were clearly new to this and slowed right down to cope with entering the darkness of Braunston tunnel from the daylight. We struggled to slow down enough to keep a good distance between us. It is easy to forget how nervous tunnels used to make us, even now they are not a favourite and this one, which is quite long and has at least two significant kinks to negotiate, is not a good one to be your first.
Catching up with "Driftweed" at the locks ahead we were able to pair down the whole flight with them. They had lots of questions and it became clear that they had no itinerary and no idea where they were or where they were going. It turned out they had set out from Weedon, several miles to the south. The guy driving started by asking which way they should go at the junction to get to Milton Keynes, to which the only answer was that they had come through at least thirteen locks in the wrong direction. When we told him that, he wasn't remotely fazed, so it didn't seem as though they had intended to go there at all. It was impossible to really advise them which way they should go as it wasn't clear what they really wanted. We moored up for the day after the locks and they moored just behind us. We saw them later and they had enjoyed the afternoon strolling round Braunston but were just about to set off again. It was already about five o'clock, they still didn't seem really decided which way they were going at the junction ahead and we were pretty sure that the guy, who had told us he was a full time lorry driver, didn't really want to start driving again at all.
Social Distancing In The Sun
While the crew of the "Driftweed" headed South, or possibly North, we walked East, back up to the locks and the newly re-opened Admiral Nelson.
On a hot, sunny evening, a week after the pubs came back, it was pretty packed. We spent a pleasant hour or so outside enjoying a couple of pints and watching the throng of patrons and the staff utterly fail to observe any of the social distancing measures that had been put in place.
One good example was a customer, waiting to get to the bar, leaning casually against the board that announced, in very large letters, "Please Queue The Other Side", where a lane of traffic cones and marker tape were set out. Another was the crowd of twenty or so youngsters occupying three trestle tables further down the garden getting steadily louder and closer to one another as time went on. It is doubtful that they represented a single household or even a 'bubble'.
To her credit one barmaid refused to go down and collect their glasses. The landlord was summoned, stood on the front doorstep for a few minutes looking down the slope, then went inside and despatched someone else to do it. It is pretty clear that relying on people to follow rules to protect themselves and others is futile. On the other hand, the scene was so close to normal it was quite nice to see.
Back To Base
Sunday was a very fine day with lots of sunshine and perfect for boating. We didn't have too far to go back to our starting point in Calcutt's marina. There was an awful lot of traffic though due to a combination of fine weather, all the hire boats out for their first day and more leisure boats out for the weekend all added to those now cruising longer term. Happily, it was largely uneventful despite the crowds. We weren't held up unduly and didn't meet anyone running out of control round the blind bends.
As we came up to Shuckbrugh, where there is a wharf with a line of permanent moorings and the canal narrows a bit, we did find a wide beam heading towards us, which turned out to be a hotel boat. We were just alert enough to stop the engines and reverse up a little to let them come through as it looked unlikely we would pass comfortably alongside the moored boats, especially with someone else tied up on the towpath opposite them. It sounded as though there was an exchange of views between the driver of the wide beam and the owners of one of the permanent moorings as he came through. We heard them shouting that "it's not a wide canal" etc. The truth is that for this section, between Napton Junction and Braunston Junction, the 'narrow' Oxford Canal is also the 'wide' Grand Union canal so the hotel boat was doing nothing wrong. Argument over, he carried on through and we were able to proceed with no more than a few minutes lost.
For the rest of that section until we turned off down to Calcutt Locks it was so busy on this sunny, Sunday morning that we found ourselves effectively in a procession of boats. Even with a stop at the wharf to top up with diesel we were back on our berth by half past one, rather earlier than we had intended but certainly in good time to get home and make preparations for the invasion of the grandchildren on the morrow.