Waking on Thursday morning, 13th September, it felt like we had had the coldest night since the summer, with plenty of condensation and even some traces of frost. The rising sun was clear and hot and it quickly started steam rising from the boats, the surrounding fields and the canal surface. This mist, in turn, burned off in no time and it became really hot in the sunshine, to such an extent that by 11:00 we found two people by Nell Bridge set up with their deck chairs and sun lotion positively sunbathing. Last year, at this time, we were on the Grand Union, being pursued by a fierce wind from the north and running the stove to keep warm, so quite a contrast. I suspect these days are precious and need to be savoured; we have already seen the first signs of leaves genuinely being shed for autumn and the falling temperatures at night are a clear warning.
We didn’t go far this day. We had passed a site called “The Pig Place” a number of times in the past and decided to call in to see what it was about and probably moor there overnight. We hadn’t tied up for more than 10 minutes before the owner came over to ask why we were there, as we hadn’t yet been up to the shop. I must say this didn’t seem quite as welcoming as we had hoped. The Pig Place turned out to be a very small camping and motorhome site with a couple of moorings also available for boats. There is a farm shop at the top of the site, where they sell products mainly based on pigs and apples, a van next to it, where they dispense all things based on cooked pig and a small horse box on the other side of the site which has been converted into a little bar serving most things including Hook Norton on draught. In the centre of the site is a collection of pens containing variously ducks, pigs, hens and even a couple of terriers. Scattered around the whole of the field are small clusters of armchairs and settees, generally accompanied by a metal barbecue frame of some sort. We assume the idea is that you buy pig parts from the Farm Shop and sit cooking them over a pint or two of Old Hooky in the evening sun. Not such a bad idea in the summer, actually.
The location was really nice with nice views of the Cherwell valley, the site was small enough to be pleasant, particularly as they don’t allow children. A couple we had spoken to on the way up, who had volunteered to act as assistant lock-keepers for us, were staying there in their motorhome and said they had really enjoyed it. We found the people running it helpful enough but not exactly as friendly and outgoing as we had expected. They charge very handsomely to moor overnight, with a surcharge for an electric hook-up and a stricture against running your engine to generate electricity if you don’t pay it. We ended up with quite mixed feelings but shore power is a nice treat once in a while so we decided to stay for a night. We did sample their pigs, in the form of a pork & apple burger and a spicy boar 7″ sausage hot dog for lunch and they were very tasty.
In the afternoon we went for a circular walk that took us back down to Aynho and then through Clifton to the outskirts of Deddington. We didn’t visit Puddingface again but did find a nice teashop called ‘Foodies’ tucked away in the centre. A pot of tea for two and two slices of tiffin set us up for the walk back, which was rather spoiled as the meadows that we had been expecting to amble through, as well as many of the gates and landmarks, had been completely ploughed up, making both walking and navigating more difficult than anticipated. It was fortunate it had been so dry as blazing a trail across a muddy field would have been far more painful. By the time we got back we needed another cup of tea to revive us but we did hold our resolve and avoid visiting the bar, which had opened in our absence and attracted half a dozen or so of the campers to sit out on the sofas and enjoy the late afternoon sun.
Friday was a nice enough morning after a greyer start but the sun didn’t have the same heat in it as it had on Thursday. We used the time and the electricity we had paid for to run the washing machine and do some chores around the boat such as refilling the stern greaser tube, which was now screwed down nearly to the bottom. By mid-morning we were ready to leave but they had the grill on and the smell of bacon wafting down the slope tempted us into a bacon roll with our coffee, as a last tribute to the pigs that had given their lives to make this possible, so we didn’t get going until about 11:30 in the end.
It’s a simple cruise of about 5 miles and two locks from The Pig Place to Banbury and we arrived at a mooring just before Banbury Lock, which rises up and opens into the shopping centre, in about 3 hours. We have moored here before a few times. It is by a busy road bridge and opposite a pub garden but also beside a small park. Neither the traffic noise nor the natives have ever bothered us here before. When we arrived there was only space on a tight curve, which is always awkward for a long steel narrowboat. However, shortly afterwards, the crew of “Katie”, with whom we had played leapfrog for the last few days, returned and cast off. That gave us a straight side and rings to tie up to and it was just starting to rain, making up our minds to stop there, at least for the night.
This was our first visit to an actual town since we left Oxford eight days ago and we planned to be here for a couple of days so we just ran some errands in the afternoon. In the evening a special treat; takeaway fish & chips from an actual chip shop. Always a lottery in a strange town but Banbury Fish Bar turned out to be really good. Excellent fish, good batter, not too greasy. Unlike our erstwhile local emporium at Caterham, they seemed to be expecting people to come in and ask for fried fish and chips so they had some ready, rather than making us stand around and wait for it. Even so it was still perfectly fresh not something that had been crisping under the lights for hours. Full marks!
We had set aside Saturday to explore Banbury and to that end, had visited their Tourist Information office in Castle Quay shopping centre on Friday to pick up a copy of the Banbury Historic Town Trail. Before that, we visited Tooley’s historic boatyard and had a brief tour. This seems to have been originally established at the same time as the canal was built. The best evidence for that is, perhaps, the arrangement for draining the dry dock. This empties directly into the River Cherwell, which lies below the level of the canal, via a culvert that is actually built under the canal itself. It is the oldest working boatyard in existence, having been in continuous use since then, although the Tooley name only dates from the start of the 20th century, when George Tooley bought the business. It was made famous in the book ‘Narrowboat’ by Tom Rolt, which itself revived interest in the moribund canal network when it was published in the 1940’s. As part of Banbury’s redevelopment in the 1990’s it was proposed to close and relocate the yard but enough local opposition was mustered to save it so it now lies as a curious ramshackle anomaly in the heart of the modern shopping centre and quayside development. While it is still a full scale working business Tooley’s are keen to promote its history and allow people to look around on a Saturday morning. It’s well worth a visit for an hour or so.
We needed a coffee after that and sat outside Café Quay overlooking the canal and enjoying the sunshine just as Mike & Lesley Fielding brought “Charlie Mo” through on their latest excursion to the Upper Thames and back. Having met them earlier in the week we knew they would be passing us but had not really expected to see them. We only had time for a brief greeting as they were on a mission to get down to Oxford but it was nice to have caught them.
We then turned our attention to the Historic Town Trail. This turned out to be a blurred black & white photocopy of a leaflet published in 2008 in which the map was so vague and the images so indistinct it was difficult to tell what represented streets versus buildings, never mind exactly where the 12 points of interest it contained actually were. The descriptions of each of these items were extremely brief, never more than a couple of sentences, of which half were statements of the bleeding obvious. Many of these descriptions attempts to identify the site referred to specific businesses and were woefully out of date as they had clearly changed hands at least twice. Nonetheless, we stumbled our way around it, managed to find most of the items mentioned and saw a quite a bit of Banbury in the process.
Banbury is largely separated from the canal by the huge Castle Quay Shopping Centre that runs right alongside it and by the bus station at the end. When you get through to the other side you find what seems to be the centre of the town, with the Market Place providing a large open space and several shopping streets around it. It was quite busy during the day, particularly from noon onward but not unduly crowded. In the evening, however, this area is absolutely dead with very few people around and no signs of life at all, which we had found odd for a town with such a large population around it. By following the trail we found ourselves in an area at the top of Parson Street and High Street that was littered with pubs, restaurants, bars, hotels etc. as well as the town cinema, which has two screens. We decided we would go to the pictures that evening and have a meal afterwards, so we booked ourselves into an Italian restaurant called ‘La Foglia’.
‘King of Thieves’ will probably not go down as a classic or one of the great blockbusters of all time but with a cast that included Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent it occurred to us that it might always be the last chance to see actors we have grown up watching all our lives starring in a new film together. I’m not quite sure how Paul Whitehouse wormed his way into this august company but he managed to seem as old as the rest in a particularly whiney role. The film was good fun at times but also did a good job of demonstrating what nasty characters the people involved really were at the same time. I suspect that people of our age, already in decline, will find more resonance in the humour than today’s youngsters, still subconsciously convinced of their own immortality.
When we emerged darkness had just about fallen and Banbury had come alive. This was clearly where all the activity transferred itself once the shops shut, leaving the lower town in deserted darkness. Before going into dinner we had a drink at the Church House pub. A noisy and chaotic meeting place on a Saturday night, ideal for groups of young people about to go out on the town. Each new arrival was greeted with loud cheers and jeers in equal measure. There were plenty of more mature drinkers there too and it was an interesting building to house a pub, with a huge vaulted ceiling, little galleries and balconies and a covered garden in the back.
Sunday was a deliberately quiet day involving the usual chores of emptying and filling various receptacles and moving up through Banbury to Spiceball Park on the other side, which gave access across a footbridge to all the out of town stores such as Tesco, Waitrose, B&Q, Homebase and crucially for Sue, Dunelm. As we were about to leave the boat mid-week we didn’t need that much at the supermarkets but there were certainly some essentials we wouldn’t be able to do without for the next couple of days. Opposite Tesco there is a coffee factory that, even on a Sunday, was working hard to create an incredibly invasive stench of burnt chicory that hangs over the entire district. We decided to move on into the country a little way and moor up just before Little Bourton lock, which is nicely isolated apart from the sound of the M40. As it turns out, quite a fresh wind was blowing in exactly the right direction to ensure the road noise was loud and clear and the smell from the coffee factory was nearly as strong as it had been in town but you can quickly become inured to both if you put your mind to it.
After a weekend with lots of sunshine Monday started off very dull and grey with little rain, as such, but damp moisture floating in the air. It was much milder too, although the breeze continued and could make it feel cool. We chose to stay put until noon, by which time it was feeling drier, before setting out on the couple of miles to Cropredy where we were to spend Monday night. Having found convenient mooring, opposite a handsome new property just short of Cropredy Lock, the sun was fully out and it turned into a glorious Indian summer afternoon that seemed to take autumn back by at least a couple of weeks. Apparently, we were experiencing the ragged remnants of Hurricane Helene which was pulling warm air up from the Philippines and threatening to deliver gale force winds over the next couple of days.
On Friday we had picked an unprompted message from our boatbuilders, who were due to start the build this Monday. In typical style the voicemail merely said to call them back with no hint as to the purpose of the call and when we tried to return it we there was just an answerphone advising the caller that they were not available and it was not possible to leave a message of our own. This had continued throughout Friday afternoon and into Monday morning, leaving us to speculate on what excuse was about to be offered for a delay. Suddenly, at noon on Monday, the phone was actually answered. Far from ringing to announce a hold-up they had just wanted to confirm that they were starting work. Incredibly, we are on our way and on schedule. We suspect the latter may not last.
The wind had actually dropped at lunchtime so we set off in the sunshine to follow the Cropredy Battlefield and Village Trails. In June 1644, Royalists and Parliamentarians had a stand-off across the River Cherwell at Banbury and as the King’s forces began to move north in search of a better place to bring the Roundheads to battle the Parliament troops followed on the western bank. They thought they saw an opportunity in the way the Royalist army was becoming spread out along the route and this encouraged Sir William Waller to launch an attack across the Cherwell at a number of points, notably over Cropredy Bridge and through Slat Mill Ford. The King’s forces repelled that attack, captured a number of cannon and drove the Roundhead forces back across the river but they did not pursue them across. This was the Battle of Cropredy. It petered out after a couple more days of facing off across the river as the King’s troops headed south and the rate of desertion in the Parliamentarian army made it imprudent to follow. It seems more like a skirmish than a decisive battle with the true victor being low morale amongst the Roundheads. The real importance of the encounter is said to be that it was pivotal in Parliament deciding that it needed better trained, more professional troops, which led to the formation of the ‘New Model Army’ and that was a decisive factor in Parliament’s being able to declare victory in the civil war at Naseby in 1645. It seems incredible that, if this was the catalyst, the New Model Army could have been conceived, recruited, trained and become so effective in just 9 months.
When reading about this and looking at the landscape we suddenly realised that we were reading it all wrong. When these events took place the canal did not exist and it was only the Cherwell that lay between the two forces. We had become so used to the idea of the canal as historical feature of the landscape that it took a deliberate act of will to set it aside and properly see how parliament’s troops would have been able to muster on the west bank.
The route back followed the towpath north again and we encountered the black swan Mike Fielding had reported a week or so back. It was swimming about accompanied by a normal white swan but we had no idea if the two would ever mate. Something to debate over a pint in the last of the sunshine at The Red Lion.
With weather forecasters continuing to live in the shadow of Michael Fish’s misplaced nonchalance in 1987 we are never now entirely sure how much credence to give their awful warnings of gale force winds from the storms they now insist on naming. Often enough they are a damp squib with no impact at all. The winds certainly did kick in on this occasion, however. Tuesday morning was dull, grey, mild, moist and very windy. We only had the lock ahead of us and another quarter mile to go to take the boat into the marina where we planned to leave her moored while we enjoyed a much-needed holiday in the West Country. We got going and arrived at the service dock in reasonably good order, having made the turn in from the canal. Having been allocated a berth, however, we had to back out into the wide and very exposed basin to try and turn into the wind, which had picked up a couple of notches since our arrival. As the wind caught us, with the engine doing very little to counter its effect, we executed a graceful pirouette and landed beam on against a bank of reeds back at the entrance. Someone came to offer assistance and we first had to explain to them that despite appearances we weren’t trying to leave the marina but moor in it. With their help to haul the bow round head on into the wind we were able to get some traction and a modicum of control that was just enough to cross the basin and slot into the pontoon. If only Sue had caught it on video we would surely have been £250 to the good right there, as soon as Harry Hill saw it.
We had arrived here a day before we were due to travel down to Purley in order to get ourselves settled and also to provide time, with full access to running water and electricity, to clean the boat inside and out and do some other maintenance. After 12 weeks on the move it certainly needed it even though the weather has been kind so we were not yet finding much mud on the towpath. In particular we had managed to get covered in some sort of sticky sap when moored under some trees recently. A 55 foot narrowboat is a bit like a Tardis but in reverse; it seems quite small and even cramped when you are inside but it is much bigger when you are washing down the outside. Despite the wind blowing hard all day we had no rain and managed to get everything done and dried by late afternoon and without falling in the water or off the boat. Apparently, the dregs of Hurricane Helene were expected to give way to Storm Ali the next day so perhaps it was as well we would be on dry land for the next week or so.
To go on holiday in Devon we would really need the car, which was being looked after in Purley. A long trip, then, to get back there and collect it but also an opportunity to visit our respective nonagenarian mothers, pick up the mail forwarded from our old house and see our daughter Jen, who would have the pleasure of playing hostess to us for two nights before we set off on Friday morning.
We left Cropredy about 10:00 with the wind already rising again. We heard later from Mike & Lesley that it was so bad in Lechlade they were trapped there in the local pub for the day so perhaps the wind warnings were not overblown after all and we really would be better off away from the boat. The journey down was tedious but it was straightforward, with no issues. We seemed to stay just ahead of the cloud and rain and were back in Purley by 13:30 for a sunny afternoon. We even had time for a nostalgic trip to the local tip, where we had made so many visits while clearing the house, to get rid of some bulky waste from Jen’s flat renovations before settling down to an excellent home-made lasagne prepared by her and her boyfriend Dave.