Easing Back In
The official starting gun was Monday 12th April. Despite being very keen to get going we chose to wait until the following Friday to set out, to give the first rush onto the cut time to disperse a little.
We had a number of things, second jabs included, to run interference in May so we thought we could get two to three weeks of gentle cruising under our belt before returning home and would then start a longer trip at the end of May. With no particular place to go we settled on heading towards Stratford Upon Avon and onto the Avon itself, perhaps as far as Evesham.
Since early November we had made a handful of essential visits to the boat to make sure all was well and to check up on the other boats at the club, saving the members who live much farther away from having to travel. We hadn't had any problems but hadn't been able to do any maintenance work either. As a result the first easing of 29th March was the call to arms to wash the boat, clean things up and start painting out the damage from last season, ready for this one. We had a thrilling afternoon one Sunday when we moved down to the winding hole half a mile away to turn the boat round so that we could tackle the other side.
Finally, on Friday 16th April, following a surprisingly complex discussion about leaving our car parked at the club while we were away, we arrived with a mountain of gear, piled it all on board and started the final preparations to set off. We didn't plan to go far, which was just as well as we had a Zoom meeting scheduled with some other boater friends for half past three. We finally set out at two thirty and got moored up and logged on just in time for that call, or thereabouts.
As we were moored up opposite Tom O' The Wood, a favourite local pub, this was a great opportunity for that first post-lockdown pint. Dry and fine it may have been but the air was still bitterly cold. Huddled between two singularly ineffective columns of fire it was still really nice to enjoy a drink in a busy social environment.
The following day was that bit milder as well as being bright and sunny. We had plenty to do to square things away and get the boat shipshape so we chose not to move. Unusually for us we threw caution to the winds, flouted the regulations and elected to stay right where we were, on a 24 hour mooring, for an extra night. We enjoyed a slow start, a lovely walk across to Lowsonford, with our first morning coffee at the Fleur De Lys there and got stuck into the chores straight after lunch.
The day stayed bright, sunny and even warm so we soaked up the last rays back in the Tom O' The Wood garden before dinner, an almost perfect day after the last few bleak months.
Boating As Advertised
Sunday was another in a run of fine, bright days that were exactly what we think of as the ideal of life on the canals. It was cold overnight and mornings would bring a thick frost in the shadows or layers of mist over the water but these would soon burn off and the days warmed up very pleasantly without getting uncomfortably hot. The towpaths were bone dry despite the wet start to the year, so no trailing mud in and out of the boat.
Despite having discussed the expectation of heavy traffic all over the system we found it very quiet. We would see perhaps two or three boats on the move in a day and the land seemed to be busier than the water. Nonetheless, the magic of timing continued to ensure that what traffic there was would find ways for those who were out to get in one another's way.
Sunday morning was almost gone when we set off up the Grand Union to the junction with the short channel, known as the Lapworth link, that carries you across to the Stratford Upon Avon Canal. At the end of the link your choice is right for Kings Norton and Birmingham, commencing immediately with a climb of fourteen locks in a flight or left for Stratford itself. We chose left and pulled into the services there for water etc. Sure enough, as luck would have it another boat had just pulled in and attached their hose ready to start washing their boat. As one would hope, if no longer expect, we were invited, with polite apologies, to take over the tap immediately and fill our tank.
With that out of the way we had a few locks to do before reaching our planned stop at Lowsonford. We went through a couple, stopped for lunch, did a few more and moored up opposite the Fleur De Lys about four o'clock. Within a few minutes there was a knock on the side and we found the owner of the boat behind introducing himself and apologising in advance if we should hear him take his dogs out at ten o'clock or so that night, very considerate but quite unnecessary.
Over a pint in the last of the sun and moving in to the excellent heated marquee the pub had provided, I worked out that we had done nine locks and covered three miles that day. An excellent attempt at slow time, especially considering that, as the crow flies, we were now tied up just over one mile from where we had been moored last night.
Monday continued the trend. Thick frost cleared by nine, the sun shone, we took our time getting going and after a lengthy battle trying once again to remember how to fold down our new pram hood, we set out to tackle the first lock a few hundred yards away. Sure enough the boat moored ahead of us cast off at the same moment just as a crew appeared at the lock side from a boat on the way up. That little tangle sorted itself out and I moved the boat up to find a cruiser coming up fast behind. "Captain Jack" pulled up and stopped broadside on to the canal. They told us they were stopping for a break so I assumed he was turning round to moor at the pub but after a few minutes of backing and filling he was finally pointed the right way for the lock and forming a queue, by which time the lock was ready for us to go in. We then started a period of leapfrogging with "Captain Jack" all the way to our stop for the night. They were a pleasant enough couple though and perfectly civil, pulling over to let me go first when they found they had put themselves ahead of me while Sue was setting the lock.
With a short stop for lunch, taken alfresco in the deck chairs on the towpath, we carried on as far as Wootton Wawen. As well as being impossible to pronounce and providing a home to an Anglo Welsh hire base, Wootton Wawen has the Yew Tree Farm Shopping Village, which includes an outdoor furniture centre. The village is a few hundred yards from the canal and Sue was keen to visit it so we moored here for the night.
The shopping village seemed to be pretty much in full swing. One or two of the businesses were closed up and there wasn't a huge crowd there on a Monday afternoon but most things were open, including the café / tea room.
Tuesday morning was another fine day but with less frost first thing and a gentle, rising mist instead. That soon cleared and once we were ready to leave we had a chat with the guy from Anglo Welsh. He was very helpful and let us use their facilities. We were surprised that all their boats seemed to be in although hiring was now allowed. He confirmed that they were fully booked for the summer but right now the restriction to single households, as well as the kids now being back at school after Easter, meant they had most of the fleet sitting idle for the next few weeks.
Wootton Wawen is also home to one of three cast iron aqueducts on the Southern part of the Stratford Upon Avon Canal, all within about four miles. All three have in common the distinctive feature of a towpath on the base of the trough alongside so that you are walking below the level of the canal water.
We had already crossed the barely noticeable Yarningale Aqueduct, less than the length of our boat at forty two feet, on our way down. The second is Wootton Wawen Aqueduct itself, just beyond our overnight mooring, with the Anglo Welsh hire base sitting just to the east of its entrance. We had explored the aqueduct on foot the evening before and it is a lot more impressive, crossing a busy road and couple of boat lengths long at over a hundred and ten feet.
The most impressive, however, is the Edstone Aqueduct, about a mile and a half further on. At four hundred and seventy five feet it is the longest aqueduct in England and spans a road, a river and two railway lines, although one is defunct. The aqueduct once had a pipe at one side that used to allow water to be drawn for the locomotives using the track beneath.
Having decided to go for a walk around the area and explore it from below as well as just crossing it, we managed just one and a half miles and one lock before mooring up for the day. We made up a picnic and set off for a couple of hours walk which seemed to take us through every kind of countryside. At various times we were walking through ploughed fields, sheep pastures, cow fields, orchards and plantations all looking very picturesque in brilliant sunshine.
Straight On To Stratford
Wednesday was a dull and cloudy morning, as if the fine spell may have come to an end, although it brightened up considerably in the afternoon.
Crossing the aqueduct as we set out we covered the couple of miles to Wilmcote after which there is a long flight of eleven locks down to the outskirts of Stratford Upon Avon. Happily, when we arrived at the top lock, we found there were volunteer lockkeepers on duty who helped us all the way down. It certainly speeded things up to have an extra pair of hands and we were through the lot in an hour and a half.
We had the option of carrying through another handful of locks to Bancroft Basin but chose to stop there and walk to the supermarket for the weekly shop. It wasn't that far but quite a tedious trek beside very busy roads and through big newish housing and trading estates. It took two to three hours altogether but would have been quite a bit further to walk from the basin.
On Thursday the sun had returned along with a sharp frost overnight. We decided we would only be going as far as the basin in Stratford today but would tackle the River Avon the next day. Going onto the river meant making some adjustments, most notably dragging out and setting up the anchor. I knew this was going to involve pulling everything out of the bow lockers and quite a lot of head scratching while we tried to remember how to do it. I would much rather go through that in peace and quiet, rather than under the watchful gaze of the town centre's army of gongoozlers, so we would do that where we were now and set off later. Sure enough, I couldn't remember how to fix the anchor line and still pass it through the deck and once I had figured that out and got it in position the trim of the boat was out of whack. Bags of coal and logs had to be dragged out of their neat storage and stacked on the opposite side to offset the weight of the anchor, rope and chain. Finally, we were ready to set off down the last five locks into Bancroft Basin.
This basin sits right above the lock down to the River Avon, inside Bancroft Gardens, beside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and close to the Swan Theatre. There are pontoons to moor on but also lots of restaurant and trip boats moored around the edges. It is popular, particularly on sunny days and is a mecca for gongoozlers. It is also famous for a tricky wind that blows across it. On this occasion Sue was driving as we approached and took on the challenge of trying to turn and reverse in a very restricted space to get onto the mooring pontoons. Somewhat to her surprise she managed it perfectly. We had barely inches clear from the various commercial boats at some points but squeezed round and backed in very smoothly. It was still only mid-afternoon and we had time for a look round a rather deserted looking Stratford before tea. The Red Lion, one of the few pubs that seemed to have decided to open, was just across the main road so we went over there for a drink before dinner and its garden, while out of the sun, offered enough shelter to avoid us getting too cold.
Friday morning was another stunner as we prepared to drop down to the river. We were ready to leave by ten thirty and disaster struck immediately. As we pulled away from the pontoon we were caught by the wind and pushed sideways before we were clear of the pontoons. Our bike rack caught the tunnel flash of the boat protruding from the neighbouring jetty and scratched the paintwork. Naturally, we had to stop and exchange insurance details.
My first thought, of course, was "why didn't I let Sue drive?". Of course, I didn't have much option but to accept responsibility. As I was the only one moving it could really only be my fault. However, the other party seemed to be someone for whom a free admission of liability, open agreement with everything they had to say and a desire to make amends could only be seen as a deliberate provocation. It was as if he hoped that by repeating the same things again and again he could push me into somehow going into denial and allow him to enjoy an even bigger rush of righteous indignation than he was experiencing already.
His estimate of the amount of damage and the effort involved in fixing it grew by the minute, fuelled by occasional comments from the invisible woman inside the boat and further embellished with his experience as a professional boat painter and an expert in everything. His estimates quickly passed the point where any simple agreement to settle it was impractical. There didn't seem to be anything else worth saying but when you start out on the wrong side of the argument you just have to suck it up and wait for it to run down. Eventually we were able to bring the conversation to a close, leaving him to wait far longer for the matter to go through our insurers.
Not a great start to our excursion onto the river but I don't suppose it was a great start to his weekend either.