Being footloose and fancy free in Leighton Buzzard isn't every young boy's dream but just for three days at the start of July I managed to make the best of it. I did the town trail provided on the internet, explored some of the area beyond Grove Lock and went for a look round the opposite side of the canal. I even treated myself to dinner and drinks at the Grove Lock Inn on Saturday night. It is hard to say which was sadder, my dining alone in the corner or the couple the Maître d' sat at the next table, who were rather obviously having their very first meeting, arranged in a safe space through some dating app. I rather suspect I had the more enjoyable evening.
It turned out that the canal doesn't run through Leighton Buzzard at all. Leighton Buzzard and Linslade were two separate towns in different counties. The boundary lay along the River Ouzel, which here runs broadly parallel to the canal and to the east. The canal was cut through Linslade which, at the time, was in Buckinghamshire. In 1965 Linslade was dragged into Bedfordshire, lumped together with its neighbour and combined into the Parish of Leighton Linslade. There is a Leighton Linslade Town Council as the administrative authority and some attempt has been made to bind the communities together but I came away with a sense that, even now, there is a lingering resentment over this arranged marriage.
On the west side of the river, Linslade is frequently referred to. They each have their own war memorials and churches, clubs and associations rather than joining forces. It surfaces rather obviously in the way they celebrate their difference at the old boundary along the Great Ouzel.
Leighton Buzzard has the town with the main shopping and commercial centre, although Tesco, Homebase & Aldi occupy a kind of island between canal and river on the Linslade side. Most of the planned expansion seems to be around Leighton Buzzard. Linslade seems almost as large but mainly residential. A bit run down near the canal, it has small businesses for fast food, mini cabs and convenience stores scattered around its streets but no real centre, as such. It does, however, have the railway station, rather tactlessly called "Leighton Buzzard Station", which must rub salt into the wound.
Neither side seems that keen to engage with the surrounding countryside. Walking back and forth a few times I found that, other than walking all the way along the towpath back to the main bridge, there was only one route across from the canal to Leighton Buzzard, even on foot. The town has bought a plot of land from the Canal & River Trust in 2012. They called it Peace Meadow and landscaped it with nice paths for its residents to use but it still it offers no access back to the the town except by going back out onto the towpath and completing two sides of a triangle.
Exploring the Linslade side, I could find no way down to the canal anywhere near the main crossing. A large park then runs alongside the canal but access is completely sealed off. Further along there is the Tiddenfoot Waterside Park that you can drive to and then walk around. Even there, while you can pick up a path out towards Grove Lock, that only brings you to a busy main road with no footway and a very uncomfortable ten minute walk in the slipstream of many, many articulated lorries and transit vans to reach the pub.
I followed a bridleway from Linslade, parallel to the west bank of the canal, thinking it would lead to Old Linslade or at least to Leighton Lock where one could cross over to join the towpath on the other side of the canal. Instead, I found it just linked various small developments and then came to a complete dead end with the sewage works ahead and the two other possible paths marked "strictly private - no right of way" in a very emphatic manner.
Sue returned from Jen's pre-nuptial revels safe and sound on Sunday afternoon, more or less recovered from a night of axe throwing and exotic cocktails and ready to set out on Monday morning and retrace our steps, this time with a slightly greater sense of purpose.
The Rule Of Three
Things come in threes, they say. By and large, the boat has been running well and my engine maintenance has mainly been notional checking of oil and water levels daily, with a weekly check on the gearbox oil. Apart from the day to day needs around water, sanitation and occasional diesel top-ups things largely tick over effortlessly. At this point, however, we had three things we needed to sort out.
Lately, we have been having a coolant issue, which manifested itself again as we were about to set off. We have placed a drip tray under the expansion tube for the engine coolant. For days everything will be fine, then suddenly, usually on a Tuesday it seems, the normally empty tray will be full of blue anti-freeze solution, perhaps a pint or more. However, on checking the level, that seems still to be absolutely fine. For the next few days the tray will then remain dry. This mysterious cycle has been going on for two or three weeks and is becoming a little disturbing. Why is it expelling the fluid? and if it does, why doesn't the level go down?
When Sue was cooking dinner on Sunday night, the gas bottle ran out. These last for several months but always expire at a crucial moment. Last year we had a changeover valve installed so this time it was easy, turn the valve and carry on cooking. However, the empty bottle does now need to be replaced. Sure enough, when I went to remove it from the locker the next day, I found it could not be lifted out without unscrewing and removing the locker lid. The bolts that hold that in place protrude through to the underside and foul the gas canister. Also, Facebook has been full of reports that, following a lockdown and staycation barbecue bonanza, the bottles we use are in very short supply.
Finally, when I went to check the engine, there was a large pool of coolant sitting on the swim underneath the central heating pipes, which run through the engine bay along one side. For one moment I thought there must be a connection between this and the engine coolant issue, which would have made it even stranger. Looking closer it was clear they were unrelated. A joint on the heating pipes seemed to be leaking. It was a push-fit joint, which I know nothing about but I pushed it a bit tighter and that seemed to stop the dripping. I can't say it left me confident in this being a permanent fix, though.
With all this and the need to get fresh supplies, water etc. we had quite a stuttering start. First, I had a conversation with the engine manufacturer about the coolant. They made a couple of suggestions regarding the filler cap and the filler neck itself but weren't that sure about it, other than it shouldn't be a major problem as long as everything else was normal, such as the engine temperature.
Having turned the boat around we set off back the way we had come on Wednesday and stopped at the service point, tucked right under the bridge at Linslade, for water, the Elsan and rubbish disposal. As well as being tight under the bridge there is a winding hole here. One theory about this name is that the old bargees would use the wind to help turn the boat. Personally, I have never found the wind to be anything other than a hindrance during such manoeuvres. Sure enough, we soon had a visit from "Fyne Lady", caught by the wind when attempting to turn and ending up wedged between our stern and the opposite bank. The single-handed lady driving was remarkably philosophical. After a couple of attempts to improve the situation she decided to just wait and see if wind and water would sort it out eventually. To some extent it did, at least to the point where we could take a line and help pull her back for another, successful, attempt. She seemed incredibly laid back generally. While we were waiting she told us she was soon meeting fellow boaters to go down the Northampton Arm and on to the Nene, just like us. She said one of her friends had a wide beam and I mentioned that we thought the locks on the Northampton arm were single locks, wide enough for narrowboats only. She just thought for a moment and said "Well, if that's right, we'll just have to go somewhere else but I'm sure we'll have a good time."
With that sorted we moved up a few hundred yards to the two hour shoppers' mooring outside Tesco. While Sue re-stocked the larder I took advantage of Homebase to get some bits to fix the gas locker.
Next another short hop to Wyevale Shipping again. They had the replacement gas cylinder we needed. They also got one of their engineers to have a look at the heating pipes. It turned out that push-fit fittings also need to be screwed tight for compression. These had worked loose over a couple of years so he tightened them up and didn't charge us a thing.
At last we were ready to get going properly but it was already mid-afternoon so we ended up moored just beyond Old Linslade. Nearly six hours to do three and a half miles and one lock.
We did rather better the next day although sure enough, it being a Tuesday, I found that the engine had dumped a pint or more of coolant into the drip tray, which had to be dealt with before we set off.
We made it back through Fenny Stratford and all the way to Milton Keynes. Five and a half hours for nine and a half miles, five locks and one swing bridge, which I remembered how to operate this time. We even successfully timed our exit from Soulbury Locks to allow us to go below and have a coffee while the day's heavy rain shower washed over us for twenty minutes.
Having moored up I got in touch with a local engineer based along our route to see if we could arrange to get the engine checked over at some point. It turned out that they were in Milton Keynes for a job the next day anyway and arranged to come and have a look. He couldn't see anything wrong with the filler cap or filler neck as suggested by Beta. He pressure tested the system and found no issue there and no other explanation for what was happening. Almost as an afterthought, he did undo the bleed screw on the skin tank, which let out a gasp of air, followed by a rush of blue liquid, which he almost caught. The coolant level at the filler cap end immediately sank out of sight. We topped it up with around seven pints in the end. Clearly an airlock is forming that forces out the liquid but leaves the level at the top looking the same. What we still don't have is any explanation for how the air was getting in there and so no assurance it won't happen again.
With all this we didn't get going until past noon but managed a few miles. We also adjusted our plans slightly to put the boat into Northampton Marina on Sunday afternoon, a day earlier. The last day, Sunday, would involve tackling all seventeen of the Northampton Locks in one day but there isn't anywhere to break the journey on the way down. That meant we still had three days to get to the top of the arm, about twelve miles away.
On Thursday we were helped by "Knot So Fast" pulling off the wharf at Wolverton, without looking, right in front of us and then crawling along ahead until they stopped for lunch at the pub. We found a nice spot that looked good for our lunch near the excellently named Yardley Gobion. It was so nice we decided to stay there and I went and explored Hanslope and Castlethorpe in the afternoon.
Over the next couple of days we made our way back to Stoke Bruerne, once again finding ourselves catching up with "Knot So Fast" and locking up with them to the long pound and then on to Blisworth, where we were ready to start the descent down the arm.
Being a Sunday, we wanted to get to the marina in good time before they closed. However, they had already warned us that we should not set off too early as we would be likely to find the pounds between the locks very low. We got going about 09:30, stopped at the service point on the junction and then set off down the Northampton Arm for the first lock. It was a fine, sunny morning so there were lots of people out walking and exercising their dogs and all of them were warning us of empty pounds further down the flight as they passed by. We began to think that the day might be even more challenging than just working through a lot of locks.
We were just starting on the second lock when a chap appeared, introduced himself as Leon and asked if we wanted help down the flight. I'm afraid we were slightly suspicious at first. However, it was already clear that an extra pair of hands and someone who knew the locks well managing one chamber while the next one was already being prepared would be really useful, so we lent him a windlass and accepted his help. It turned out that he had been helping people through for seventeen years. In that time he had had some disagreements with CRT, which is why he no longer carries a windlass of his own. He isn't an official volunteer but seems to do it every day. He was short, wiry, very Geordie and good company, with an endless string of gags and one-liners to keep us amused. He certainly seemed to know what needed doing to keep the pounds in water and I am sure we made far better progress for having his advice and assistance. He didn't ask for any money, or anything else in return for his help, although, naturally, I gave him a tip when we parted company at the bottom. As a result, we were booked in and settled on our berth in the marina by two thirty in the afternoon. Of course, the next ten days would be all about the much anticipated and too-much delayed wedding of the year.