Back On Board
After a week at home, following a visit from Nick and our grandchildren, we sorted out various bits & pieces and finally set off around one thirty on Monday afternoon to follow our original alternative plan of exploring the Coventry canal down into the city and then heading back and up the Ashby Canal for a while (the original, original plan, to head down to the Kennet & Avon and onto the Severn is definitely postponed for another year).
The first part of the journey involved retracing our steps back up through Calcutt Locks and along to the junction at Braunston but this time turning left onto the North Oxford. It was fine and dry and volunteers busy painting the balance beams and mechanisms on the locks were very helpful in working us through, so we got off to a good start for this trip. This time we had no schedule so Day One got us not quite as far as Flecknoe before we decided enough was enough and we would moor up for the day.
As it was a lovely evening we headed up to the Old Olive Bush at Flecknoe, once presided over by a landlord we had found rather strange and unwelcoming, although mostly harmless. Since our last visit the pub had been taken over by a nice lady called Linda. They had bought the place last year and started to make some changes. Of course, Coronavirus had been a huge blow but she said that business was really picking back up now and seemed upbeat. When I suggested we had found the previous incumbent idiosyncratic, she laughed and said we weren't alone. She had a tale of her own about when she came to see the place, incognito but with a view to buying it. Suffice to say it was now an excellent pub, most welcoming, well run and apparently popular and thriving. The basic, charming character of the building and the grounds seemed completely unharmed by either the new owners' ambitions or the measures required to support social distancing.
Astonishingly the next day was also very fine. Bracken and I walked back and took a few pictures around Shuckburgh church, which is very pretty and gives some idea of how big a place this sleepy hamlet must once have been.
Closer inspection showed that they really need someone like Mike Fielding to get the grass cutting rota going, though.
It was after midday when we set out on the next leg which took us around the junction to moor up outside Braunston. On the way we had two unusual encounters. A hire boat came up behind us pushing so hard that, as we slowed to let another boat come through the bridge ahead, their bow was almost overtaking our stern. Needless to say we looked for an opportunity to let them pass and get away from us as quickly as possible. Only a few minutes later we were hit by a Clifton Cruiser that couldn't handle the narrow gap between us and the boats moored along the towpath. Perhaps next time he may decide to wait but the impact was minor and he did appear extremely contrite.
As we entered the junction a boat crossed our bows that looked familiar. Ian & Pam, acquaintances from Long Itchington, were out on "API Wanderer" (try saying 'appy wanderer) and we exchanged a few pleasantries as we queued outside Midland Swindlers to use the CRT facilities there.
The trip was only one and a half hours so there was plenty of time to take Bracken for a walk up into the village for a look round there before tea.
Rugby And Beyond
Wednesday was quite a long one, for us. We left Braunston on another day that cleared away to be quite fine and dry after about nine o'clock. En route today were Hillmorton Locks, unusual in being a flight of six narrow locks but arranged in pairs so that you only have to go through three of them. You choose which of each pair to use based on which ones are working and who else is going up or down. It had been busy everywhere on this trip and this flight is said to be the busiest on the system, a claim hotly disputed by the volunteer lock keepers at Watford I spoke to a fortnight before. Apparently they don't count them properly here but the technicalities of why the Watford boys believe that rather eluded me.
We carried on through Rugby and beyond to Newbold where there is mooring and a pub. Reading the website for the Barley Mow made it sound like the ideal place for us, promoting itself as boater and dog friendly with several specific facilities on offer. We decided we should get a drink there and have a meal out for once. Sadly, when we arrived it was extremely disappointing. The only lager they had was Carling, most of the beer was off and the menu was a scrawled blackboard with a list of half a dozen dishes mainly designed for children. We had one drink and left but on the way back to the boat we noted that there were a couple of other pubs just off the canal that might be worth investigating another time.
Newbold To Hawkesbury
Leaving Newbold on Thursday morning we called in at Brinklow Marina. We wanted to use their services and it usually helps if you top up with diesel at the same time. We had not been here before and turning into the entrance we found that there was a second bridge to pass under, after which it wasn't clear where to go next. There were no signs and no apparent office or reception building. There was a very large, long lagoon, completely exposed to the strong wind featured in every marina. There were long pontoons extending into the water on each side but they all seemed strangely deserted and rather broken down with just occasional boats moored here and there. As we proceeded all the way down the middle we began to wonder if it was even a going concern.
Just before we reached the end we saw the only person in evidence working on his cabin cruiser and were able to ask for directions. Sure enough, we needed to have turned right as soon as we came in and had now travelled the whole length of the marina pool to no purpose, only to be faced with the need to turn round against the wind and go all the way back again.
Arriving back near the entrance we could now see the diesel pump and managed to let the wind blow us up against the side and back on to it. There was still no sign of any wharf office but just as we got tied up, a car arrived with the harbourmaster coming to find out what we wanted. They were happy to let us use the services, for a small donation to the Air Ambulance but actually did not have any diesel available to sell. They weren't very forthcoming as to why or when new stocks would be arriving but fortunately we weren't particularly low so it wasn't a problem.
Getting out was easier than getting in and we didn't have much further to go to a nice mooring spot we knew just below Brinklow itself. It was very busy here too and already there was very little space left. We managed to get in and secure the stern line to the Armco along the bank. However, that ran out before it got to the front and we had to put a pin in to the rather soft bank to tie up the bow. Halfway through lunch we heard someone shouting from a passing boat. The wash of boats going by had pulled the pin free and our bow was now drifting across to block the cut. We recovered it and this time put a second pin through and crosswise to the first, as well as trying to find a firmer spot to hammer them into. This seemed to work as we had no more issues while we were there. It was striking, however, that from inside the boat we had no inkling that there was anything wrong until we heard the shouting from outside.
We had a walk up into Brinklow in the afternoon and wandered round the old castle site, known as The Tump. There is little to see but the grassed over ridges, mounds and hollows but it is quite easy to picture the design and layout. It is unusual in having a double bailey and it commands a great view of the surrounding area.
Brinklow itself is quite a pretty village, although that afternoon it had a steady stream of absolutely enormous pieces of agricultural equipment being driven through it, which excited Bracken no end. There are a few pubs and one or two shops but it is best known for its fish & chip shop which has some rave reviews on the boating forums.
Leaving Brinklow the next day we made our way down to Hawkesbury Junction and moored up just short of the stop lock. It was another nice dry day but we were promised a lot of rain for Saturday so we planned to stay put there until Sunday. The Greyhound on the junction was operating in full swing, with booking systems, name & number tracking and internet driven table service. There were lots of staff to help manage the social distancing but scant regard for it among the customers. Having been admitted and seated we watched them happily leave by the entrance or wander out to the toilets and stop to talk to friends on the way back forming doorway-blocking clusters for others to squeeze past.
Deciding to dodge the rain and not to move on Saturday also gave us the opportunity to try and sort out our washing machine problem.
I found a synopsis of this old episode of Ronnie Barker's "Open All Hours" that seemed entirely apposite: "Nurse Gladys Emmanuel has a problem with her washing machine, which turns into a major nightmare for Arkwright".
On the way to Hillmorton Locks I had suggested that, as we could get water both there and at our planned destination for the night, we could do some washing on the way. Sue duly got things ready but when she pressed the 'on' button nothing happened. There were no lights or error codes just a dead, blank screen. The power was on to everything else so it was specific to the washing machine. The next thing would be to check the socket it was plugged into, the fuse in the plug and the cable. After a bit of hunting about we realised that all these things were sealed in behind the tightly fitting appliance. At that point we had to put that on hold for a while.
The next day we had managed to get through to Dave at Aintree Boats and picked his brains on how to remove the washing machine. It seemed that, essentially, this would involve dismantling the boat. Dragging out my trusty toolbox, we set to.
Off came the "privacy door" into the galley, the doorstop in the floor and an inch thick wooden bead on the other side of the appliance. This created just enough room to lift and rock it forward, inch by inch, until we could just see and reach in behind it. This allowed us to confirm that the plug was in place, the socket was switched on, the fuse in the plug was fine and the cable was undamaged. None the wiser, we began shuffling it all back together again.
The privacy door was so big and heavy it had had to go outside on the bank. Sure enough, the serious rain started five minutes before we could get it back inside. Still it is clearly made of tough stuff so, once the weather cleared, it dried off OK and was hung back on its hinges.
Having exhausted any ability to fix the problem on our own, the next step was to call for a service engineer. Naturally, the warranty had expired so we had to take out a service agreement. Having got through that process we were transferred to the manufacturers' service department. Unsurprisingly, on a Saturday afternoon and with the Covid-19 excuse to fall back on, a call to get help rather than pay money took a lot longer to be answered. The details of the job passed on by the service contract people hadn't arrived, of course, so we had to explain again. Getting an agent who couldn't even write down a telephone number correctly to understand that the machine was on a boat and thus a moving target was impossible so we ended up agreeing that they should send the engineer to the postcode of The Greyhound. Apparently Friday, 7th August, two weeks away, was the earliest date so we now had a fixed deadline to get back to Hawkesbury Junction.
Confidence in the engineer arriving at the right time and place, as well as ourselves is, naturally, rather low.
The origin of the expression 'sent to Coventry' is unclear. The most common theory is that it derives from the Civil War, when captured Royalist soldiers were held there and shunned by the town's strongly Parliamentarian inhabitants. The other principal explanation offered is from the eighteenth century. The townsfolk had a powerful aversion to the military stationed there and they were ignored by Coventry society. This passed into wider usage so that, if an officer transgressed or offended his fellows' sensibilities, they might refuse to interact him in any way outside their immediate duties and this became known as being 'sent to Coventry'. In our case, to paraphrase an old joke, we were not sent to Coventry, we went of our own accord.
As part of the decision to settle in Long Itchington we had looked at its location in relation to Leamington Spa, Warwick, Rugby, Stratford On Avon and even Banbury. It seemed to be in easy striking distance of all of them and between them offer most of the amenities we could want. It came as something of a surprise, once we were moving in, to find that our nearest example of many stores was Coventry and that the city was only six miles directly north of our new home. Even then, other than flirting with a couple of retail parks on the southern rim, we had never been tempted to visit it. Nevertheless, people had told us that Coventry really did have something to offer and with the canal basin just on the inner ring road it made a handy access point for the inner city.
On this first Sunday, then, we set off from Hawkesbury Junction on a fine, sunny morning and turned left down the five and a half mile stretch of the Coventry Canal that terminates in the Coventry Canal Basin. The Coventry & Oxford Canal group on Facebook used to have a great many posts from the CRT Community Engagement Officer, Nick Cleaver, about work being done with a large group of volunteers to maintain and improve this arm. There was a lot of this work in evidence along the towpath and beside the canal.
Sadly, there was more evidence that most people in Coventry just don't care. It must be quite depressing for the volunteers to clear so much litter only to see it all back again in a couple of days and to put their effort into providing facilities that are immediately defaced.
The same lack of interest or pride pervades the city, to our eyes. Along the canal, around the basin and through the town centre you can see that a great deal of money was spent on regeneration in the early nineties. A lot of it went on providing amenities and visitor information and facilities as well as sculptures and decorations celebrating quite a rich history. Just as we saw in places like Staines, however, once the investment was made, nothing has been done to maintain it and there is little sign that the local population values what was done. I am sure a lot of it will be blamed on austerity but things must be pretty austere when you can't afford to send the work experience boy out with a bucket and sponge to wash down the signs every now and then. They have a long way to go to meet expectations for the City of Culture 2021!
We were surprised when we arrived at about midday on Sunday that there was only one other boat moored in the basin. It is not secured from the town but there is a lot of pedestrian traffic through it and it is surrounded by flats so it doesn't feel isolated. By and large, we felt quite safe.
We did have one incident on the Sunday night, about nine o'clock. Through the window I could see a couple walking alongside the quay and noticed the male disappear from view. Just then, we felt that side of the boat dip. I shot out to the back and threw open the hatch to find him standing on the back deck. He certainly looked startled, as though he hadn't imagined anyone would be on board but I didn't ask any questions, just shouted "Off!" and he scrambled back down like a scolded dog. We think he was just posing for his girlfriend to take a photo and won't have thought about the fact that this was someone's home. It was unsettling for us, though and I guess he could also have reacted differently and attempted to argue, or worse.
Famously, Coventry had the heart bombed out of it in the second world war and it is clear to see the devastation caused through the rebuilding done afterward. It looks a bit like Croydon. They did have statue of Lady Godiva in the main precinct but in the age of Me Too, they should probably be thinking twice about promoting Peeping Tom as a local notable. There is a lot of current building work going on, just like every other city we visit. While we were there, however, a whole new tranche of work had started, in the name of creating a COVID-19 secure environment in the centre. This had the effect of closing off large areas of pavement and pedestrianised centres with big, orange barriers and funnelling all the pedestrians much closer together than normal, while large signs enjoined us all to practise a strict two metre social distancing.
Under the surface, though, there is quite a lot still to see. Some of the old buildings did survive and some have been rebuilt exactly as before, Like Ford's Hospital, a bombed out alms house rebuilt in 1953.
Naturally, the pièce de résistance is the cathedral. The new one is obviously a world famous and magnificent piece of modern design but the decision not to raze the ruins of the original building to the ground but let them stand as testament to the past and the appalling destruction of one night was quite inspired. Apparently, as they were clearing up after the raid, they had to stop the clean up party tearing down the tower.
Another feature of Coventry is that there don't seem to be many green spaces. On Monday morning, therefore, while Sue went off to the laundrette she had identified near the basin, I walked Bracken back down the canal to find a park. We went nearly three miles before we found Stoke Heath, a really nice recreation ground where she could run and play ball. It was being used by lots of the locals for walking and running exercise. In all the new housing developed along the canal we were almost at Stoke Heath before we found even one tiny swing park sited amongst the flats and houses.
Returning to the boat we heard the news that the laundrette Sue had walked to was shut. Google is your friend and we managed to find a place not too far away that would collect within the hour, do a service wash and bring it back by noon the next day. It meant another night here but that was fine and beat traipsing around Coventry with a bag full of dirty laundry, keeping our fingers crossed that the next one on the list was open. We used the time to do some shopping, get my first post lockdown haircut and we spent Tuesday morning doing a bit more sightseeing. The laundry were true to their word and by midday we were casting off and heading back out of Coventry to Hawkesbury Junction.