Returning from holiday to the daily routine is always a little sad but when you don’t really have a daily routine it makes it easier. It was a two stage process for us as we needed to first return to Purley to drop off anything we had had with us that we didn’t want back at the boat and to store the car. We took a detour to Tonbridge to see our son, Nick and the two grandchildren and Sue just got there in time to meet Hallie, who is nearly five now, coming out of school at the end of her second week. Once again Jen, who had come home by train, put us up for the night and she was able to run us to the station the next morning.
I had, rather optimistically, sent an e-mail to the boat builders on Thursday asking for an update. Rather to my surprise I had a response the very next day with photographic evidence that the build is under way. Perhaps they replied so promptly because it was an opportunity to tell us that they would be raising another invoice next week.
Also, waiting in our redirected mail at Jen’s flat, already a week old, was a letter from the developers inviting us to our ‘Home Demo’ session next Friday 5th October. We knew this must mean they are really close to completion but they still hadn’t set any date for the legal completion to take place so we were still at a vague middle to end October.
It certainly felt as if things were gathering momentum as we headed back up to re-join ‘South Downs’ at her holiday marina. We were travelling at the same time of day as we have done previously but it is a lot more crowded at that time on a Saturday. Another lesson learned: we don’t need to travel at the weekend so let’s not do it! Nonetheless, the trip was straightforward and we were back on board at Cropredy Marina by 13:30.
All was well on the boat but there was plenty to do to get unpacked and stow everything away, take advantage of the laundrette for a final batch of washing and sort out the running gear, engine checks etc. ready to leave on Sunday. We seemed to have brought the sunshine back from Devon with us as it was a glorious afternoon and we finished our chores with just time for a stroll up to The Brasenose Arms for a drink before dinner.
Whilst there, just to ensure that our lives would be more complicated, we started looking at puppies that might be available towards the end of November. We had been thinking about it and had reached the conclusion that introducing a puppy would be easier while we were tethered to the house over the winter, rather than straight on to a boat in the spring. We had been rather taken with a miniature labradoodle we met at Knighthayes Court so we have extended our search to include that breed and we found one litter at Rugby that looked like very good candidates. Now we only have to solve the challenge of going to meet them when we are without a car and then convincing the breeder that homeless, boat people are suitable owners who can offer a secure and safe environment for a young dog.
Having waited in for the Tesco delivery and then stopped to fill up with diesel and exchange our empty gas cylinder we left Cropredy Marina, in slightly calmer conditions than prevailed when we arrived, only at about noon on Sunday. Having got through the first three locks by about 13:30 we lingered rather too long over lunch and on a phone call with a dog breeder, which saw us arrive at Claydon Bottom Lock just on 15:00.
Lots of people have mentioned the issues caused by a dry summer and the restrictions in place as a result. We were well aware of very short open times for lock flights at Marston Doles, Napton and Hillmorton. We hadn’t seen anything about restrictions on the Claydon flight, even having looked on the CRT website in the morning. It turned out that they had just been closed as we arrived, last entry being at 15:00. We weren’t the only ones caught out and the boat ahead of us had, perhaps, more reason to complain as we are sure he had reached the bottom lock before the appointed hour and found them already padlocked. We found the lock keeper on the flight but our entreaties fell on deaf ears, despite fulsome apologies for the inconvenience his orders were clear. In truth the only effect of this was a sense of irritation at not being able to execute our intended plan. We only meant to moor at the top of the locks and then just go as far as Fenny Compton by Monday night. We could easily still get there starting from below the bottom lock at the official opening time of 10:00 the next day.
Once north of Cropredy it is a bit of a wilderness. Roads and rail lines are, generally, our constant companions. They often follow the same path of least resistance as the canal or take advantage of the open land the existence of the canal has maintained. Here, presumably because the canal’s dedication to following the contours has created such eccentric meandering, they start to diverge for a while and take more direct lines. Services become fewer and further between, all around there is mainly just farmland and now the villages which lend their names to many of the features on the canal actually stand aloof a good distance away, half a mile or more and usually on higher ground.
With time to spare and a fresh map of the area just received from the Ordnance Survey I thought I might be able to find a walk around where we were temporarily stranded. At first sight the map shows quite a number of rights of way around the area. Closer examination shows that most of these run parallel to one another and you have to go a long way to be able to join them up into any kind of circular route. If you try to discount the towpath, as being somewhere you have already seen, it is virtually impossible to link them at all. There are a number of points where a footpath or bridleway crosses the canal over a remote footbridge and where you assume that you will be able to join the towpath, only to arrive there and find the hedges and fences tightly sealed to any interaction between the two.
I cobbled together a route I thought might work and with the addition of a scramble over a couple of gates and through a barbed wire fence it more or less did. It was still a pleasant autumn afternoon, cool but sunny, with the smoke from a dozen bonfires rising in the late sunshine, scenting the air and signalling the season.
On Monday morning, with the locks not due to open until 10:00, I decided to delve into the engine bay and tighten the stern gland packing plate. At some point, the propeller shaft has to leave the inside of the hull and drive the propeller in the water outside. Something has to stop the water coming back in the hole and that is the packing around the stern gland, which is impregnated with grease to be as watertight as possible. It is impossible to maintain that 100% so every day a bit more grease is squeezed into the packing from a tap on a tube above, a task of 30 seconds or so. From time to time, however, the packing will have worn down enough to require the crew to get down and dirty with the stern gland itself and tighten some nuts to compress the packing a little more. It isn’t a difficult job, other than the very confined space you are working in, but the grease encountered has remarkable properties that ensure even a single touch will smear itself over every surface within a wide radius – skin, clothes, machinery, decking are all instantly daubed with grey-black ooze that sticks like the proverbial on a blanket and takes an age to wipe down and clean off.
Eventually, of course, the packing will need to be renewed altogether, something best done by someone who knows what they are doing. It is said that it can be done while the boat is in the water but that is not an exercise for the faint-hearted and we will be leaving it to someone else, perhaps when she is out of the water for blacking.
Naturally, by the time this had all been cleaned up, the locks had been opened before we were ready and we had had to wave boats past to go through before us, which we then had to follow up. Even so, it was an easy run to Fenny Compton and we were moored up at lunchtime ready to turn our attention to other things. On the way we passed through Fenny Compton Tunnel. Apparently, they went to all the trouble of digging a tunnel through the higher ground but it became a significant bottleneck and at some point, perhaps when the Oxford was doing battle with the upstart and more direct Grand Junction, they just took the roof off. It is now a narrow channel, open to the sky with some odd places where you can get two boats past one another. It must have been easier to just dig a cutting in the first place but it looks like the land above the tunnel was in other private hands and wasn’t available for sale until 40 or so years later.
We had agreed to visit the breeder in Church Lawford, west of Rugby and about 35 minutes away by the car we didn’t have. Naturally, we called John of John’s Cars in Long Itchington, whom we have used a number of times before, to arrange for him to collect us the next day. Next we spoke to the solicitor and the developer about our invitation to visit the new house on Friday. We had planned to continue up the Oxford Canal and follow it west to Hawkesbury Junction. There we could join the Coventry Canal and work our way round and back to Long Itchington via Warwick and Leamington Spa. If, instead, we turned left onto the Grand Union at Napton Junction we could be in Long Itchington in a few days so everything seemed to fit in but there was still no fixed date for completion.
We stayed put on Tuesday and John picked us up, as reliably as ever, bang on time and for a very fair rate. The breeder we went to see seemed very nice. She was professional, knowledgeable and was happy to spend time with us going through the background to her dogs and their care and treatment there. All the dogs were obviously well cared for and kept in the house. They were healthy, bright and well behaved. The whole place just felt right to us. The litter we had come to see was a week old and we were allowed to hold two of the puppies still available. It didn’t take many minutes for us to agree on the one that we both fell in love with and we left with yet another big new commitment to add to our list in a few weeks time.
We were lucky enough to get a lift from there to Sainsbury’s in Rugby. Any chance to shop for long-dated heavy or bulky items cannot be missed and by going there we could do that and call a taxi to take it all back to Fenny Compton. Sadly, John had other commitments so we ended up with a Rugby firm and travelling a shorter distance for quite a lot higher fare (and a correspondingly smaller tip).
Not moving from Fenny Compton worked well for us that day as we had arranged to meet Mike & Lesley Fielding that night and The Wharf Inn by the canal provided a suitable venue for a really enjoyable evening and a chance to catch up on their adventures in the Upper Thames in the gales a couple of weeks ago and the progress, or lack of it, in finally snagging and completing their new house in Cropredy. As our boat is now in build it was also a chance to get the latest feedback on their vessel, “Charlie Mo”, now she is being run in. As we are using the same boatbuilder any news on their performance is valuable intelligence.
With an appointment looming on Friday we needed to move on at a rate to which we have become unaccustomed. We were now in the Summit Pound which wanders along at the same level for about eight miles before arriving at a group of nine locks to The Folly Inn at Napton. At that point we would start going down the locks for the first time in months. One of the more unusual sights on the way was the sudden appearance of a native American encampment in a field on the opposite bank.
There are restrictions we were well aware of at Napton Locks so we had to be into the lower flight of six locks by 15:00 or we would have to wait there until 10:00 the following morning. We were there in good time and there was a only a small queue. On the way down, as well as encountering a brace of sheep roaming the towpath, that both cantered off ahead whenever anyone approached, we passed the herd of water buffalo we had previously seen as calves perhaps two or three years ago. They are now absolutely huge and make a very strange sight in an English rural landscape!
We were at the bottom by about 16:30 but we were the last boat to make it through. It wasn’t that long a stretch and it had turned into a really fine and sunny afternoon but we have become used to taking our time, often taking deliberately short hops to avoid getting to places too early, so by the time we were moored up we felt that we had had quite a hard day and had definitely earned a pint in The Folly.
The word most often appearing in reviews or comments on The Folly Inn is ‘quirky’. The landlord is clearly ‘a character’ and the approach is, by and large, to prioritise casual conversation with all and sundry over speed of service to thirsty customers. The place is absolutely stuffed with objets that are definitely not d’art hanging from every beam and rafter, on every door and wall, in every room. The range is vast and eclectic. Everywhere you look your eye falls on something that can only be described as weird and bears no relation to any of the other things around it. It is a job to take it all in at first but you quickly come to realise that, while most of it is an overlay of disparate junk, there is a single thread running through and underneath it all – the moustache. The publican sports a bushy and heavily waxed version, the password for the wi-fi is ‘moustache’, the cruet is composed of two halves of a ceramic moustache joined by magnets and so it goes on, all around the rooms.
What The Folly also offered that evening, from the little pergola outside, was a magnificent view of the setting sun over open pastures behind the pub. With the air so mild and the sun on your face it still felt like summer. Once it was gone, however, it soon cooled down and we retreated back inside to face the jumble sale once more. Overwhelmed at first it took about ten minutes to get past all the bric-a-brac and acclimatise to the warm, cosy and friendly atmosphere of the place. Once you are prepared to take it on their terms it is very pleasant. The menu is straightforward pub food served in heaped portions and seeing the plates steaming past, we succumbed to the offer of 8 oz. fillet steak at a very reasonable price, less than twenty of your English pounds. It turned out to be an excellent choice, having been cooked absolutely to perfection – moist, pink and melting in the mouth.
Leaving The Folly moorings the next morning, heading for Long Itchington, we had to cover a fairly short distance to the turn at Napton Junction. After that, while the mileage was low, we had two groups of locks to work through including the Stockton flight of ten in a row. Now we were back on the Grand Union we were dealing with locks sized to take two boats together but traffic was light and there was no-one ready to lock down with us. We didn’t get much help from boats coming up either and the volunteer lockkeeper at the top of the flight offered no real assistance, as well as being the surliest and least communicative of his ilk that we have ever met. We are not sure why he had volunteered but it certainly wasn’t due to a love of meeting new people. We could probably have got through faster than we did by opening both paddles each time but at twenty-two full turns to open every paddle and another twenty-two to close it, we preferred to just open one and wait patiently, enjoying the sunshine that had unexpectedly appeared about 11:00, heralding another lovely, warm afternoon of wall to wall sunshine.
Ten locks in a row sounds daunting when you are planning it but you soon get into a rhythm. Being close together you don’t have to keep stopping and letting someone off and then back on again so we were moored up for a late lunch on Thursday afternoon. In the meantime, on our way down from Napton, we had heard from our solicitor that we were being offered a completion date of 19th October on the house, two weeks earlier than they had indicated only the day before. Having checked that the timing would work for the carpet fitters and removal company we accepted and now just needed to get the formal notice to be able to start making all the arrangements required. Great news but a lot to do and a trip to Liverpool to see the new boat to fit in next Monday as well.