Traversing The Summit

Just around the corner

Leaving Stockton on Wednesday lunchtime, on the twenty-fourth of April, we had a nice, straightforward cruise. Inevitably, having waited all morning with nothing to see, two single-crewed narrowboats passed us just as we were getting ready to leave. Following them up through the three locks at Calcutt was a bit slow-going, despite any help we could give but we also had the company of "Cavalier", pulling out of Ventnor Marina just after we passed the entrance and heading for Dunchurch, to help us through.

With our water and toilet tanks appropriately full and empty we had no need to struggle with the awkward service dock at Calcutt Boats and could go straight through the top lock and down the short straight past Napton Reservoir to the junction, where we turned right onto the South Oxford Canal. "Cavalier" was heading left so we were on our own, with no boats in sight either way, as we passed Napton Narrowboats. We could see that their diesel point was clear with no boats in the way. As there was very little wind to make life difficult it seemed too good an opportunity to miss so we began to reverse up into the little pontoon there. The unexpectedly deep silt under the hull made it trickier than it needed to be but it went reasonably well and we soon had a full fuel tank too.

The limit of our ambition for the day was to find a mooring at what had once been the Bridge Inn, about a mile from the junction. There was no-one else there so we could moor up for the night in peace. Even if we wanted to go further that would be a problem, as we had arranged to meet boating friends at The Folly, less than a mile away, for lunch and a catch-up on Friday.

On Thursday we didn't move on. We had a nice walk around Chapel Green and Napton-On-The-Hill, where the Village Stores remains a real gem. They have a fantastic range of stock, great quality, a post office for your Amazon parcels and a superb range of food that has people coming from miles around to fetch their lunch. We enjoyed some enormous breakfast baps before continuing on to return to the boat. On the way we scoped out the moorings below the locks, beside The Folly Inn. There seemed to be plenty of room so we didn't worry about moving up today.

Friday was fine and sunny and the morning's cruise was about half an hour to get up to the visitor moorings, where we got settled in good time for a very pleasant lunch at The Folly, all the more enjoyable as neither Sue nor I had to drive home. The Folly is always a bit quirky and today's curve ball was an inability to serve the advertised desserts. It wasn't really clear why not but perhaps they were simply saving us from ourselves, as we had already eaten far too much.

Returning to the boat we spent a couple of hours recovering and then decided to go and investigate the cidery in Napton village. As well as cider they have started to brew their own craft beers and were advertising their summer opening hours. The bar turned out to be little more than a large shed with a small area as a gift shop, some trestle tables and the bar itself. They were clearly just getting things started for the season and it was very quiet but you could imagine it getting quite lively on sunny evenings in the summer.

Climbing Up and Dropping Down

Saturday, twenty-seventh April, was a disappointing contrast in the weather, with a little drizzle starting as we filled up with water before tackling the nine locks that would take us up to the summit. The rain intensified through the ascent, accompanied by a very cold wind. It eased off and eventually stopped as we left the top lock at Marston Doles but after four hours on the move we were chilled through and keen to get moored up and go below where the stove was keeping it warm and cosy. We found a suitable spot at Priors Hardwick Bridge and settled in to watch the final match for the Red Roses in the Women's Six Nations championship, a cracking game against France which secured England's third successive Grand Slam title.

The rain returned even more heavily later that night and continued uninterrupted into a grey, wet, dismal Sunday morning. During the evening, just above the hammering of the raindrops, we could periodically hear the sounds of loud music and people shouting in the distance. The rain finally stopped by about eleven-thirty and I took Archie for a walk back down to the locks and across to Priors Hardwick. On the way we passed the sign for the "Silver Spur After Party" and the site of the "Silver Spur", an annual traditional hunt race in the area that had taken place on the Saturday.

This way for a soggy after party

This explained the noise from the night before, the only mystery remaining being how the late night revellers had maintained their enthusiasm in what must have been miserable conditions during the overnight deluge. Certainly, everywhere we walked the ground was completely sodden, with small streams running across the fields, where they probably weren't even visible the week before and all the tracks around the Silver Spur site were just a sea of mud. For now, the afternoon stayed dry, if grey and cloudy, so we stopped at The Butcher's Arms in Priors Hardwick for a pint on the way back to the boat.

Priors Hardwick Church

Monday morning was brighter, although still with a very chill breeze. We set off  across the summit and at Wormleighton we again spotted this sculpture.

Random Canalside Art

We're still not sure what it is (Green Man? Lion King? Chris Barton?) or why it is there but you can't miss it.

We made our way down to Fenny Compton, stopping at one end for the water point and again at the far end for the Elsan and rubbish facilities at Fenny Compton Marina. Why there is no drinking water tap on the marina wharf, so that you can do everything in one go, is a puzzle.

Fenny Compton tunnel, with the roof removed now but still narrow, sometimes provides its own entertainment if there is a boat coming the other way. Today, however, we were alone and met no opposition. By two o'clock we had had enough and were glad to moor up just before Claydon Top Lock, which would be the start of our descent towards Banbury.

Tuesday morning, the last day of April, was just how most spring days should be. It started several degrees warmer than of late and stayed bright, sunny and warm all day, although with quite a strong breeze at times.

Coming Into Claydon Top

We dropped down the five Claydon Locks and three more beyond to approach Cropredy where, just beyond the marina there, we found some nice new Armco piling to attach to and moor up in the sun. The towpath had just been reinforced so it was lovely and clean to walk on, for once. We had only seen Mike & Lesley Fielding on Friday but it would be rude to come through Cropredy without being in touch. Having spent the afternoon washing and polishing that side of the boat, we walked down to their lovely tailor-made house and joined them for an aperitif before we all repaired to the Brasenose Arms for dinner. On the way the recently refurbished village sign looked very fine in the sunshine.

Cropredy's recently refreshed village sign

May did not start by fulfilling yesterday's promise of fine spring weather. Heavy rain overnight had made a mockery of our cleaning and polishing of the day before and the morning was damp and murky, although still mild compared to most of April. We started out to take on all the services below Cropredy Bridge.

As we approached there was a boat called "Ellen" on the left with someone on board and we couldn't make out if he was about to pull out. In the end, we could see the mooring lines were still tied on, so we carried on through. We were already gliding past when they let us know they were actually queuing for the service wharf. There was nowhere for us to pull in there so we could only carry on under the bridge and pull over on the left, opposite the wharf, where "Andante" was already taking on water. It was certainly busy here this morning. As we waited there "Twyford" turned up, wanting to wind here as well as to get water.

"Andante" moved on, "Ellen" moved up, we eventually reversed up onto the dock as they finished up and "Twyford" was turned round, with a fair amount of shouting and bow hauling, while we had our turn. Meanwhile, "Two Lazy B's" came through, took one look at the chaos and decided they wouldn't bother after all. It was certainly time-consuming but it has to be said that it was all accomplished quite calmly and with good humour on all sides.

We had another three locks to do and the towpaths along this section were filthy. Levels must have been high, as the crossing boards on the top gates of all the locks were four inches below the water level and cautiously paddling from side to side took more time. Nonetheless, we moored up at Spicer's Park in Banbury, just beside the footbridge there, before two o'clock, ready for life in the big city.

A Busy Time in Banbury

The moorings by the park are not considered the most favourable by some, being surrounded by tree cover with a fair amount of passing foot traffic. However, they are convenient to cross the bridge for Tesco, Waitrose, B&Q, Halfords and several other essential establishments, so they suited our initial purpose perfectly. We collected some items ordered online and did a major supermarket shop in the afternoon

We stayed here overnight so that we could go to the Banbury Gateway shopping centre in the opposite direction, on the other side of the park. M&S have a store there, as well as a couple of outdoor leisure chains so that Sue could look for some new walking shoes and a rucksack. It is further to walk but easy to find and we spent the morning there. While Sue went food shopping in M&S, Archie and I went to sit outside Gregg's with a cup of coffee and a bacon roll. Incredibly, Gregg's had run out of bacon, putting us in mind of KFC having run out of chicken. They did manage to rustle up a sausage bun and Archie seemed satisfied with that.

Returning to the boat shortly after midday, we decided to move up into the main town. There has been a lot of redevelopment here and the moorings have been improved somewhat but we were surprised that it didn't seem very busy. We were able to get a spot just past Tom Rolt Bridge behind "Runaway Parents", which was perfect for us, not right under the bridge but not right outside the bars and restaurants further up. We tried connecting our shoreline to the electricity points that had been installed all along the mooring. Having registered for an account, paid a five pound deposit and established which post we were attached to, we flicked the switch and got absolutely nothing, which includes any meaningful service support. It wasn't a problem for us but it seems a shame to have gone to all that trouble to provide a facility for nothing.

We had lunch at Lock 29, a space beside Castle Quay Shopping Centre that seems to have been carved out of the collapse of some of the retailers there. It is lined with all manner of food stalls from every nation, with cake stalls, a bar, a tea shop, sweet vendors, etc. The central space has seating for people to consume their edible purchases and there are a few pop-up type stores, particularly a couple for 'vintage' and recycled clothing. It was a really nice vibrant sort of place.

We enjoyed walking round the rest of Banbury in the afternoon, re-acquainting ourselves with the town. One thing we noticed was the huge number of dog-friendly establishments. They have even produced a map of all the businesses that welcome dogs and I don't think we were turned away from going in anywhere, all the time we were there. A good thing, as the weather had declined again, with plenty of heavy rain overnight and more drizzle for a lot of Friday so we often needed to seek refuge inside shops. We were also struck by how friendly all the people we spoke to seemed. Sometimes a casual remark as we left a shop would see us struggling to disengage and get away for the next ten minutes.

Posted in Archie, Cruises, Long Haul, Parting Shot.

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