Return to The Canals
Our trip back onto the canal system from Oundle was a game of two halves. We had some arrangements to meet up with people back home and down in Croydon so we needed to leave the boat for a week. Northampton Marina, which had been so easy to arrange when we were setting out, was now very busy. They have a lot of people wintering there, it seems, starting in September so, now, they could only say that they thought they might be able to take us but we'd have to call again nearer the time. That begged the question of what would we do if, in the end, there was no room at the Inn? We spoke to White Mills Marina, where we had spent a night on the way down. They had no issues and were happy for us to stay there for a week, so we booked ourselves in.
We had four days to get from Oundle to White Mills, a distance of about twenty-eight miles with twenty locks. With some forecasts for bad weather in the mix this seemed like a bit of a rush, for us, but it was also true that we were ready to get off the river now and back to the familiar canal world. We would be away from the boat for about a week and when we came back we would be heading up through Northampton onto the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union and it's seventeen locks to get to the junction with the main line at Gayton. It is only about seven miles with eight locks from White Mills to Northampton itself, so we reckoned we could take two to three days to get to Gayton junction.
Oundle to Stanwick
We left Oundle on Sunday morning in some reasonable sunshine and although the clouds came in for the afternoon it stayed dry. On the way we passed "Sophia" and their butty "Mister Ben" heading back downstream. We had last seen them stuck under Fotheringhay Bridge on their way upstream at the end of July.
A lot of this trip would be checking off landmarks from our journey down and often stopping at the same places, where we knew there was secure mooring or access to services. Tonight we stopped at the EA pontoon at Islip Mill just short of the Thrapston bridge. Just before we reached there, coming round a tight bend in a narrow stretch of water, we ran into a flock of paddleboarders, some of whom couldn't have been more than six years old. We managed to slow down to a stop without slewing right across the river, which would have been quite likely. There were adults on a couple of the boards but it seemed pretty dangerous to just let these little kids loose on the river, far from in control of their boards.
We had time for a short walk up to the Titchmarsh Wildlife reserve, across the river and back round through Islip before dinner. The wildlife reserve was obviously a great place for bird watchers and there were permissive paths around it, through what were primarily fishing grounds, so they were not unwelcoming. However, they were very keen to make it clear that there is no parking on the approach track.
The next morning we had a stroll around Islip and back across the river to the Thrapston side but then we got going as the weather looked to be alright for today but a lot less promising on Tuesday. This trip took us up as far as Stanwick Lakes and we were there in time to take a walk around the lakes and round via Irthlingborough Lock, now repaired having been out of action when we were last here. We were impressed again at the range of equipment and facilities available in the country park:
A Break In The Journey
One of the things that we have found more difficult to locate on the river has been rubbish disposal facilities. There were some big bins down by the Visitor Centre so, after tea, with less people around than there had been in high summer, I had the job of carrying a couple of stored up black sacks for the twenty minute walk down to the Centre.
As predicted, heavy rain started just before seven the next morning and carried on pounding down all morning. We stayed put and managed to put the time to good use, including, as we had collected another overspill over the course of yesterday, sending some details to Beta, the manufacturers of our engine, about our mysterious coolant issue.
Shortly before two o'clock the rain seemed to ease up and stop. We were keen to make some ground, or perhaps that should be water, to maintain our schedule to get to our mooring on time, although it would be easy enough to put it off for a day if we had to. The afternoon was grey, misty, dank and dismal and if it weren't so mild it would have been wintry. However, the rain mainly stayed off and we were able to get through a couple more locks, including the interesting radial lock at Ditchford, before mooring up at a Friends of The River Nene site just beyond there. Only about four and a half miles over two and a half hours but that bit closer to where we needed to be. We were surrounded by large built up areas like Wellingborough, Rushden and Irthlingborough but here among the gravel pits was an enclave of open country and fishing lakes, as well as a couple of railway bridges that could be seen a little way upstream. The mooring was right by a large lake, presumably post-industrial but everywhere was so wet we didn't explore far. We did notice, however, a lot of surveying and marking out going on a little further up the hillside from the lake, so no doubt this view will be spoiled by another housing estate very soon.
Wednesday morning started out just as damp and dreary as the afternoon before but the the rain stayed off and the clouds gradually blew apart from about ten o'clock for some good sunny spells in the morning that turned into a really nice, hot and sunny afternoon. Having been impressed by how clear the water in the rivers had been we suddenly hit a thick patch of vegetation above Upper Wellingborough Lock.
We wondered if this was going to be the start of a long battle with weed, that had grown up over the summer but it petered out soon after that and the water was clear again.
All six locks on our four hour cruise seemed determined to be contrary, in some way or another. We only got any assistance on one of them, Earl's Barton lock, when we met "The Lethbridge-Stewart" coming downstream. Presumably big Doctor Who fans rather than a detachment from UNIT but we didn't get the chance to ask.
Arriving at White Mills Marina at around half-past one we made a nice clean entry and manoeuvred onto the pontoon without fuss, despite the presence of gongoozlers. There seemed to be quite a lot of admin to get through before we were free to finish tying up. However, this time, the award-winning Boathouse café was open and COVID-free, so we were able to get a late lunch there before setting about refuelling, doing the laundry, cleaning and taking on water etc. ready to leave the boat for a week.
Not being moored in Northampton meant we couldn't walk to the station the next morning but the taxi was prompt and the trip was only ten minutes on green lights all the way. This time we knew our best bet was to get off at Rugby so by midday we were back at the house and already embroiled in weeding, lawn mowing, grocery shopping and so on. All the things we hadn't missed at all since we had last left in the middle of July.
A Night In Northampton
A week after we had left we were once more in a taxi and on the way back to White Mills Marina. We had had a good break and perhaps it had been fortunate that I developed a heavy cold while we were at home, with all mod cons, rather than on the boat. It wasn't COVID, according to the tests but still quite unpleasant, so I was glad to be over it as we headed back. Fine for me but, of course, Sue was now starting to show all the symptoms of finally having caught it from me.
All seemed well back at the boat. Electricity had run out but Gary at the marina had been checking and had topped it up for us as requested. There were quite a few small maintenance chores to get out of the way and I also had a conversation with an engineer at Beta Marine about the coolant issue. He gave me the name of someone on our route who he would like to look at it so I called them and agreed to get in touch again when we were closer to where he is based.
We had had quite a few nice, sunny autumn days over the last week and it stayed fine the afternoon we returned. Friday was not bad as well but as we prepared the boat to leave we could feel the wind rising steadily. Allowing for a farewell breakfast at The Boathouse it was eleven-thirty by the time we got going. Navigating through the pontoons and out of the narrow marina entrance went well. Turning upstream against the wind as we emerged did not! Just beyond the entrance and a few yards downstream is the lock and the other side of the spit of land that forms one side of the lock is a weir. The wind was coming straight on to the side of the boat and eventually pinned us broadside on to pivot on this spit. A lot of revs on the engine, with a great deal of backing and filling, finally got us into a position where the wind was pushing the stern toward the lock rather than the bow towards the weir. Gradually, the stern moved further towards the lock entrance, which brought the bow round to point upstream and we were able to get on our way. Rather more excitement than we had wanted at the start of the journey.
Once we were moving in the right direction the wind was more manageable and we made good progress but it still made its influence felt, particularly when we had to pull over to work the locks. It also made life awkward when we missed a turn at Northampton Boat Club and had to reverse up a few hundred yards and turn left across it but there were no weirs to worry about there. We had a couple of options where we had thought we might moor up before reaching Northampton, one of which was just past here at Weston Favell Lock, in all other respects, however, the weather was fine, warm and sunny and it was ideal for cruising so we carried on.
At Abington Lock we lost a fender and while we were looking to see if we could recover it we were caught up by "Invincible". They were keen to join us in the lock. We had been advised that for all the locks on the Nene the maximum beam of craft entering them should be regarded as thirteen feet. Since every narrow boat is at least six feet ten inches we had been under the impression that you couldn't double up as that would be a beam of thirteen feet and eight inches. However, our new companions clearly felt as invincible as the name of their boat suggested and insisted they had often done it before, so we agreed to give it a try. Sure enough we were able to fit side by side quite comfortably, another strike against the River Nene guide we were relying on.
There is a forty-eight hour EA mooring on the outside of a bend to the east of Northampton Lock that is known as Midsummer Meadow. It isn't quite the rural idyll suggested by the name but would have been suitable for us if it were not already occupied. There might have been just room for us to get in but the other two boats already there had the look of a classic traveller encampment, complete with a dozen kids running around and what looked like an open fire going. On balance we decided that we would pass and try our luck on the town quay moorings beyond the lock.
We had no trouble getting through and found one space beyond the footbridge near Morrison's. The only other space was actually underneath the footbridge, something most people try to avoid but that was all that was left when "Invincible", beaten on this occasion, arrived a few minutes later. We did find that the quayside had a solid concrete projection all along that was at just the right height for our gunwales to slip underneath and then rise up with the movement of the water to scrape our paint off on the underside. Having solved that problem, with the judicious deployment of strategically placed fenders and old karting tyres, we could relax, at last, after what had been quite a long, tiring day for us. The river is wide here and although there were a lot of people walking around the riverside and we were right by the main town we didn't have any trouble and it felt quite safe. It seems that the benches here are a favourite place for people, living in Northampton but with family far away in the sub-continent or even old Cathay, to come as a group and engage in video calls with their relatives. One little group was huddled on the bench by us, shouting at their laptop screen for a couple of hours.
It was a nice, mild evening so I went for a walk up into the town. First you have to pass the Carlsberg brewery, probably the biggest brewery in the world (or perhaps just the biggest we have seen).
The area down by the river is uninspiring and the road that starts to climb the hill to the north from the Cotton End Bridge is all Kwikfit fitters, closed down Chinese restaurants and dingy, suspicious-looking night clubs. Once you get to the top of the hill, however, it opens out and looks much more like a going concern. There are some fine old buildings, it is very much open for business and the Friday evening buzz was just beginning in the bars and pubs that appeared. So far, we have only really walked straight to the station and back or visited the supermarket by the river for our shopping. One day we need to return for a proper tour of the town.
Last Leg Up The Locks
We were still on the River Nene overnight but as soon as we set off the next morning we should have been passing through the Cotton Lock and onto the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal. As we cruised under the bridge and past the Carlsberg site we could see the real extent of it and were so fascinated that we managed to miss the turn and found ourselves heading up a dead end. Reversing out, we started up today's seventeen locks.
It was a mild morning but fairly grey at first. Having to stop at only the second lock to disentangle a pair of jogging bottoms from the propeller didn't auger well but having dealt with that we made steady progress up the flight and the weather gradually brightened up as we went.
While we had been exploring the fens we had seen a bulletin that work was taking place to remove Allcotts Bridge by Lock 10. In August the bridge, a lift bridge that is normally left open all the time, was declared to be weak and in a dangerous condition. For a week or so passage through the locks was only allowed at certain times, escorted by CRT staff and pre-booked. At the beginning of September the bridge was removed and the navigation restriction lifted and it was interesting to see that "removal" hadn't included removal from the site but just leaving it at the side of the canal.
For much of this stretch we could see a tall thin tower in the distance making a real landmark. Built by the Express Lift Company and now called The National Lift Tower this was the only lift-testing tower in the United Kingdom and is four hundred and eighteen feet tall. The company was sold to OTIS who used other facilities in the United States but it was given Grade II listed building status in nineteen ninety-seven, when the land was sold for development. It has since been refurbished and is actively used for a wide range of research and development and training purposes as well as some abseiling. It even has its own website at www.nationallifttower.net
Beside each lock is a double panel mosaic, designed in collaboration with local primary schools. One panel shows an aspect of canal heritage and the other contains a letter and a reference to nature. The letters, one at each of seventeen locks, spell out "The Northampton Arm".
There was no sign of Leon, the guy who had helped us on the way down in July, until we were pulling out of Lock 5, when he suddenly appeared behind us. With just four more to go, I'm not sure we needed his help by now but he seemed keen to pitch in so we let him get on with it.
By now it was really quite hot and sunny so we were very happy to tie up before the junction with the Grand Union main line, just opposite Gaydon Marina, a very smart looking establishment and pretty busy even on a Saturday afternoon. There was time to walk up to the Greyhound at Milton Malsor, a mile or two away, for a well-earned pint before dinner.