28 Oct

Week 16 – The End Of (100) Days

Return from Rugby

 

We had thought the best of the weather was behind us but we may have called time too early. Although the days get steadily shorter, overnight temperatures are lower and the leaves are falling in earnest there has also been a resurgence of sunshine for the second half of October. Completion day dawned bright and sunny and we had an easy time to finish loading the car to the gunwales and set off for our new home.

 

Calls en route confirmed that the completion had been accomplished well before noon and we arrived before lunchtime while the developers were still completing what they called a ‘sparkle clean’ around the house. A very brief tour of the premises and a short handover process left us holding the keys. We didn’t have long to get a set of keys to the carpet fitters in nearby Southam, grab some lunch at the Gateway Café next door and get back in order to lock the car in the garage in time for the taxi to pick us up and whisk us back to the boat in Rugby.

 

We were there by about three thirty and the boat seemed unharmed, apart from a carpet of leaves right across every horizontal surface. It was still a lovely autumn afternoon and fifteen minutes exercise with a broom in the sunshine was no hardship. We were in a bit of a hurry, though, as we still had to top up with water, turn the boat round, moor up again and get down to Tesco for the supplies we would need for the journey back, everything having been run down before we left, as the fridge was going to be switched off while we were away. Back on board by about six thirty, with the shopping squared away, we finally had the opportunity to sit back with a cup of tea and contemplate our return to a life of bricks and mortar. We had a house again – hooray! But did we really need it?

 

The weekend weather was golden. Misty mornings and early cloud cover cleared away each day, leaving sunshine and blue skies to lift the air temperature for genuinely warm afternoons. The sun weakened from about four o’clock each day but the nights that followed offered clear skies, brilliant moonlight and thousands of stars. We noticed that the canal was much busier than we were used to and began to realise that it was half term. The area around Braunston and Napton is a real focal point for canal users. Of course, half term means that the hire boats are out in force with families hampered by children of school age. It also means that grandparents who own a boat will be using it to help ease the pain of childcare duties, students will descend in gangs for a floating party palace and a fine weekend will ensure that every other stay-at-home boat owner will decide this is a good time to “have a run out in the boat”.

 

On Monday morning, having moored at Ventnor Marina again, we only had the ten Stockton Locks between us and Long Itchington. As we caught up with a nice family, returning from their first narrow boating long weekend, we got through more quickly than usual. We were moored up before noon and on our way down to the house. The carpet fitters were in and working well so we left them to it to start a quest for curtain poles, toilet brushes holders, outside lights and many other deeply exciting things associated with moving back to a bricks and mortar lifestyle. From here on in the focus will be back on land and the rest of the week was a series of deliveries, meetings and estimates from tradesmen of various kinds. We need accounts for gas, water, electricity, broadband, digital TV. That means we need a TV aerial and we want to make sure the lawn is looked after with some continuity when we are away for extended periods etc.

 

We had arranged for the boat engine to be serviced on Wednesday, something I had intended to do myself but ended up deciding was one ball too many to juggle, particularly with the difficulty I had already found in getting the right parts. Assurances from RCR (River Canal Rescue – the AA of the inland waterways) that they could be obtained with ease from knowledgeable staff at Halfords had proved woefully over-optimistic. Getting a professional to do the service and bring the parts with them was an easy solution. This kind of service on the canals always comes with a ‘character’ and this was no exception but looking past the beard, tattoos and ponytail we had a full service, answers to any question that may have been concerning us and a willingness to share the knowledge without reservation.

 

All this took time, however, with no regard for other plans we might have. Emptying the cassette could be done by car but we really needed to top up the water tank. This is built into the hull so we can’t pop it in the boot and run it down to the nearest water point – the boat must go to the mountain. Finishing up around four thirty in late October meant casting off at ten to five to head down to Bascote Locks, pass through the staircase at the top, wind (turn round) in the pound there, come back up through the staircase, call in at the water point at Bascote Bridge and then cruise home to the mooring at Long Itchington. A two hour excursion to get back to where we started, with the only gain being enough water for a cup of tea in the morning. As we only completed filling up at six forty-five the last half hour was a case of navigation by torchlight. It is surprising how difficult it is to moor a narrowboat in the dark. Even with a bombers’ moon, while the light may seem bright as day it is entirely monochrome and the slightest shadow becomes pitch black. As we finished tying up I heard somebody suggest that we had earned the right to a stiff drink and to let somebody else do the cooking so we repaired to The Two Boats Inn.

 

While the engine service was in progress we did pass the time of day with another boater who walked by. They were out of nearby Ventnor Marina and had come out for a single day on Sunday. However, they owned a cat which had met a dog and had ended up 40 feet up a tree by the towpath. It had been up there for two days. On day two they had arranged for the RSPCA and the Fire Brigade to attend. Neither had had any success so now they were waiting for a tree surgeon to arrive about five 5 o’clock on day three. They didn’t know how he could help but were now clutching at straws.

 

We met the tree surgeon in the Two Boats that evening, dining out on the tale of derring-do that surrounded the cat rescue. Apparently, he had begun his ascent using a steel ladder, clad in High Vis and wearing Kevlar chainsaw gloves and a hard hat with full face visor. The cat, by now exhausted, starving and dehydrated, had at first watched his ascent listlessly but warily. The tree fella reached out for the trapped animal, which promptly spread all four paws akimbo and attempted to glide to safety, rather than face the approaching demon. Inevitably, gravity won. Despite the extended surface area the cat plunged forty feet into the blackthorn thicket below. Nonetheless, we were assured that neither pet nor rescuer were harmed in this endeavour and the animal was now safely back in the care of its owners, now happily free to return to their home mooring.

 

We couldn’t really delay the evil day any longer. Our worldly goods were scheduled for delivery from store on Thursday and expected to be with us by about one o’clock. Their arrival would signal the start of a lot of hard work over the next few weeks. Unpacking would be only the start. That would lead to a whole slew of decisions and actions about where to put furniture, how to hang which pictures, what we had to put in place (like a garden shed) just to take stuff that the new house had no home for and whether to hang on to stuff that clearly didn’t fit here or what to do with it. It felt as if it would be a long time before we were free to look much beyond the house concerns.

 

Two large removal lorries arrived on time and one was emptied and gone by about four thirty. The other was only half empty that night and stayed over to complete the job in the morning. To be honest, we thought we had substantially failed the downsizing challenge in choosing this property. Looking at piles and piles of boxes and dismantled furniture crammed into every room, as the removers drove away, it was clear that our old house had been far bigger on the inside than either of us had realised.

 

Depending on how you count them, discounting time spent away on holiday etc., we had now been homeless and afloat for just about 100 days. We have reached the end of that voyage and are looking forward to a new one in the spring.

21 Oct

Week 15 – A High Wind In Warwickshire

Looking back I think we can say the weather finally turned on Friday. The day started grey and damp with rain by eight and a strong breeze. It stopped again by nine and with a forecast for worse later we decided to at least get through Calcutt Locks to start with. Entertaining from the start, as the continually strengthening wind was blowing us firmly onto the bank where the water was shallowest and the mud deepest. Only two or three attempts were required to finally break free and gain sufficient momentum to make progress down the cut.

 

The three locks are very close together and between the middle and top locks is the service wharf for Calcutt Boats, where we needed to call in and get diesel etc. The dock lies parallel to the line of the canal and set back 100 feet or so. It seemed the entire fleet of Calcutt’s own hire boats were already moored stern on with a space left by the diesel pump itself. The mission for the prospective customer, should they choose to accept it, was to leave the middle lock and then immediately manoeuvre in the tiny pound to come beam-on to the wind and reverse back onto the wharf between the other boats. A simple manoeuvre in a car; fraught with difficulty on a 55’ slab-sided narrowboat in a rising gale.

 

The simplest approach was to let the boat be blown against its neighbour and reverse back along it with Sue standing on the gunwale fending it off as we went. Fuelled up and reassured by the attendant that the wind was going to get much worse, it was time to leave again. By this point we were going nowhere by driving straight out at 90° to the wind so it was a case of using what little space was available for both of us to pull the bow round as far as possible into the wind and then racing back to the tiller to get some power on, before she was blown crossways again and then head into the prepared top lock. All, no doubt, highly entertaining for the Calcutt staff who were, presumably, hiding somewhere out of sight to avoid being asked for any assistance.

 

With the rain now starting in earnest we approached Napton Junction, a blind T-junction facing another marina entrance immediately opposite, with a degree of trepidation. The only approach, really, is to keep moving slowly into the cross channel to start the turn until you see or hear any sign of an impending collision. As it happened there was nothing coming in either direction today so we completed that one without incident and as soon as possible found a little stretch of bank where we could pull in, moor up and hope to wait out the rain.

 

By now we were hearing that this was “Storm Callum” and expected to become even more violent and to persist for at least another 24 hours. The rain stopped for a while after lunch so we moved on towards Flecknoe, where we planned to moor up for the night. The wind was still rising but once we were on the move we could keep moving forward and only the tightest corners were a problem. We were very surprised at the numbers of boats moored along the stretch approaching Flecknoe at Bridge 103, everywhere else the moorings had been half empty. In the end we found ourselves moored back at Bridge 101, just where we had mustered the L&G flotilla in April with Mike & Lesley Fielding and Neil & Karen Payne. Under normal conditions this is a nice spot. Today the wind was howling down the open hillside straight against the side of the boat, with minimal screening from a few scraggy trees on the opposite bank. We didn’t get that much rain overnight but the wind just kept on going and we began to wonder about the integrity of a couple of branches overhanging the boat.

 

On Saturday morning it was raining at first and just as windy so we debated whether to move at all. Ultimately we decided it would be nice to moor up somewhere with a bit more shelter. We kept an eye out for a gap in the rapidly moving cloud cover that we thought one might be able to drive a narrowboat through and seized an opportunity about ten o’clock. We made it into Braunston, more or less dry following just a couple of quick showers and moored up near the Stop House, a CRT hangout beside Braunston Marina entrance. At that point the sun came out and stayed with us for the rest of the day, which encouraged us to find a walk up the locks as far as the Admiral Nelson. Steeling ourselves against the temptation to go into the pub and have a drink we turned right here and headed uphill to start a loop round behind Braunston and back in via Wolfhampcote.

 

 

Wolfhampcote is the site of a deserted medieval village, mainly marked by the Church of St. Peter that seems to stand there completely isolated amidst open pasture. Despite having been threatened with demolition in the past there is a group that still maintains the church and services are still held there once or twice a year. The village was abandoned in the 14th Century. While that is said to have been due to the population having been infected with the plague, brought to the village by refugees from London like us, this is now believed to be untrue. Most of the inhabitants generally did survive the Black Death and were living there after had passed. It is now believed that they just gradually sloped off to wealthier areas that were easier to cultivate, leaving the local landowner to use the area for sheep grazing.

 

It was a nice walk in the afternoon sunshine with great views of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire countryside but the wind never really eased up, which made it quite a bit more tiring than usual. In the evening we made our way to The Boathouse for an evening meal. Right on the canal, this Marston’s pub has always specialised in a very wide menu, sold very cheap and thus attracting families and large groups but with cheerful restaurant staff who always seemed welcoming and helpful. In the year or so since our last visit it has had quite a downgrade. They will no longer run a tab, there is no table service to take orders or settle your bill and within 15 minutes of our arrival they had run out of Peroni.

 

By Sunday the wind had eased off somewhat and heavy rain started about six-thirty to continue, without a break, for most of the day until about four o’clock in the afternoon. Any thought of moving on was abandoned quite early on. We had plenty of time in hand and the forecast for Monday was almost as bad; better to spend one day getting wet rather than two. Apart from a brief trip to the chandler’s, late in the afternoon, we stayed on board all day. So far, we always seem to have plenty to do on these occasions. Accounts still need to be reconciled, we need to get up to speed on puppy training etc. and a lot of time was consumed in looking at the colour scheme for the new boat. We know what it should be in principle but continue to struggle with the exact detail of how to arrange it.

 

We really needed to move on Monday as we needed to be in Rugby that night, in order to catch our train the next morning to get back and pick up the car from Purley. It was a cool start and still pretty breezy but not raining at first. We managed to get the water topped up, turn around in the marina entrance and get down to Midland Chandlers for about nine o’clock to pick up the solid fuel (bags of coal and nets of logs) that I had paid for and put by the day before. This was supposed to be a quick stop to grab the goods and go. All went well up to the point where I was loading it all into the top box. The vinyl cover is held on all round by elastic straps. Lifting up one side of the cover and throwing it back we had begun to load things in when another strong gust of wind that we really should have been prepared for lifted the undone cover on our side, cunningly unhooked the bungees on the other side and blew the whole thing into the canal. Moving round to retrieve it Sue was just in time to see it disappear below the surface of the water – who knew it could sink? Fifteen minutes of fruitless fishing with an eight foot boat hook saw us almost at the point of surrender when I just managed to locate it in the thick silt of the canal bed and land it, without the aid of a keep net. Quite a relief as much of the value of the top box is to be able to store things outside the boat and still keep them dry.

 

The Offending Topbox

 

The rain had held off pretty well up to this point and while we did get some spells of light drizzle on the way up to Rugby it was a lot better than the day before. The canal seemed very quiet with only a few boats passed on the way up through Hillmorton. As we left there we began to see the signs of construction in progress. The further we went the more we could see, with huge earthworks alongside the canal for a long distance until, shortly before we reached Rugby we came upon a big bridge being built over it. Looking it up on the interweb we found that what we had seen was work on a new road to connect Rugby with Houlton, a brand new town of 6,200 houses being built the other side of Hillmorton out almost as far as Crick. It seems there is no escape from the endless expansion of development and now we are really in no position to complain, having just bought a newly built property ourselves.

 

Rugby station has had a makeover and seems quite modern but you can’t move or replace the old railway lines so the bones of the old station are still there beneath. There is evidence of that in this VR postbox, still in place, which should delight Neil Payne, who must be suffering withdrawal in one of his obsessions having been abroad for many weeks.

Rugby Station’s Skin Deep Modern Makeover

 

Our rail journey itself on Tuesday morning was straightforward, really but maintained our experience of the success rate for public transport at a pathetic 50%. As the first of the two trains we had booked approached Euston it came to a halt and the conductor appeared to be announcing that we had encountered a gridlock, with all four main lines each having trains sitting at red signals in both directions. It turned out to be the result of an encounter between road vehicle and a railway bridge that meant that when we did start again we had to proceed at snail’s pace through the affected area. They did announce that as we were delayed more than fifteen minutes we could go to the LNR website and make a claim for compensation. Sue tried this but the complexity of the whole process exhausted even her terrier-like tenacity and she gave up. After all, off-peak with a Senior Railcard, the whole journey had only cost £5.30 each to start with.

 

The main mission for the day was to get the car and visit the local branch of our bank in Caterham to arrange transfer to our solicitor of the funds required to complete the house purchase. The amount was such that this could only be arranged in person. With that, on top of settling two more invoices for the boat build in the last ten days, it felt quite painful. Even though that was the only reason the money was in the account at all, it still seemed a shock to see the balance drop to almost nothing.

 

We had arranged to stay with Jen and to be down until Friday, when the house purchase was expected to complete. A chance to visit our mothers and meet up with friends. We had put out feelers to see if, while we were down, one or two people might have a gap in their busy schedules to meet up for a drink or a meal. It was great to find that we could muster a party of fourteen for dinner at The Horseshoe in Warlingham on Wednesday night. It was really nice to see everyone to catch up on their news, and we managed to include a round of “name that puppy!”. It might have been yet another farewell tour for us but we got the impression it was also a good excuse for everyone else to get together after the summer as well.

 

Weather-wise, Wednesday had been a complete washout, with a permanent light but penetrating drizzle. Thursday was much better, which was good as we aimed to get as much as possible of the stuff we had stored in Jen’s flat packed in the car before going to see the grandchildren and their parents in Tonbridge for the evening. Sue got to pick Liam, who is two now, up from nursery and walk him home and we had a chance to catch up on progress with the house they are trying to buy down there. In the past, we have experienced all the same issues of deposits, mortgages and negotiations on the price based on defects in the survey etc. that they are having now. Hearing about it made us appreciate just how much easier our move has been this time!

13 Oct

Week 14 – Long Itch to Liverpool (and back)

Friday was the big day for the “Home Demo” but not until two o’clock. A nice day again, if not quite as good as Thursday, so we walked down the towpath and worked our way cross country to the other end of Long Itchington and back through the village via the Co-op and over the fields behind the church to where we had moored the boat by the Two Boats Inn. We still liked the village and looked forward to getting to know it more.

 

A quick lunch and it was time to go down to the house. Good news, it was definitely finished and included everything we expected. Now it is decorated it feels like the house we thought it would be and we only found a couple of things that still needed to be done.

 

 

 

While we were at the development we had asked them to chase their solicitor and when we got back to the boat we had a message to confirm that completion day was definitely set for 19th October. We just managed to get to the removers in time before the weekend to confirm they could do the dates to match so now we were all set for that. It seemed only right to visit the Two Boats and celebrate (again!) with a couple of drinks before dinner.

 

Saturday was a universal washout. The good news was that this had been accurately predicted for some time so we had no plans to go anywhere. I would like to be a better man but I’m afraid we couldn’t help a sneaking sense of smugness and a little schadenfreude as we watched drenched, unsmiling crews drive past having had to come down Stockton Locks in the pouring rain in order to meet whatever timetables were urging them on. Many were hire boats so it was also their holiday they were suffering through, presumably to get back to a base in time. Not very long ago that would have been us and it is good to be able to avoid it now.

 

For us this was a chance to catch up on the rainy day things we had put aside in favour of being outside in the sunshine. Particularly with news of the completion date we had a lot of things to think about. We needed to look into getting the services set up, finding a vet, some puppy classes, someone to care for the lawn when we are away for long periods, arrange insurance etc. etc. etc. We were never going to get through it all at once but we made a start.

 

As we would be in Aintree on Monday, looking at the progress on our new boat, I also went through the much procrastinated “power audit” to measure the power every electrical thing on the boat is using, over how much of the day, in order to work out how many batteries we need of what type. Not so important for “South Downs”, as we seem to have come to a wary understanding with her, but useful as input to a decision on the battery supply for the new boat. We also had to compile a list of all the items on the plans that were still marked as “TBD” so we could either “D” on the day or at least establish when the “D” would have to have been made.

 

Sunday was a contrast. Dawn has been noticeably tardy of late. When it did come, it was bright and sunny, once again striking mist off the water, following a cold night getting close to zero. The air was bitter at first and stayed cold in the shade but by nine o’clock it was already warm in the sun and the day heated up steadily through the afternoon. We had quite a few locks to tackle en route to Leamington Spa and that warms you up quite nicely too.

 

We moored up close to the centre, in easy walking distance of the railway station, after another unusually long cruise. We were between a brightly floodlit loading bay on the offside and a busy office building, working round the clock, on the quite busy towpath side. It doesn’t sound ideal but as we were leaving the boat overnight the next day we hoped it would offer some extra security around her.

 

Our trip to see the boat builders in Liverpool sounded straightforward, in principle, but actually involved four trains. Leamington to Birmingham New Street was half an hour late and then found itself hot on the heels of a local stopping train. Inevitably, the connection from Birmingham to Liverpool Lime Street was missed by a mile. At Lime Street we needed to change and take a train from Platform 1 to Liverpool Central, apparently with a train every 5 minutes. After scouring the departure boards in Lime Street station for any train to Liverpool Central and finding no mention of it we asked a porter, who told us we had to go downstairs to the underground and take any train from Platform 1 there. Liverpool has an underground railway – who knew! Finally, another local train for a few stops to Fazakerley, a name specifically designed to be spoken in a scouse accent. The station is tiny and completely unmanned. There was no taxi rank in evidence so, given that it was now a fairly fine afternoon, we chose to walk to Aintree Boats from there. It was actually not a bad walk with a lot of wide green verges and roads that, while busy, were not jammed as they would be in London. We did think it would be helpful if Aintree Boats decided to move somewhere closer – to almost anywhere.

 

The boat is taking shape. By the time we got there it had slipped a week from the progress we had been told to expect only a week previously but in canal time that translates to being bang on schedule. Our hard copy of the actual plans had been sent to Aintree for us to collect there and it was a little disconcerting to see that, in order to give them to us, Mark had to unseal the tube with all the copies in. It begs a question as to what they have been working from until we arrived but we decided it was a question we would be better not to ask. We have to hope they have had copies electronically, as we have, and are using them. We covered all the outstanding items, one way or another, in a couple of hours there and headed off to spend the night with Lenny Henry.

 

 

The Premier Inn experience is not quite as he portrays it in the adverts, we were expected to take breakfast at the Toby Inn next door, at extra cost, and we made up the set with an evening meal at a local Harvester in the Retail Park up the road. Adequate was the word coming most often to mind. This is one thing about not having a car with you. Your choices become severely limited, you can’t go somewhere and then just change your mind and move on somewhere else and when you are staying somewhere in the wild North West these restrictions are exaggerated.

 

We called a taxi to take us back to Lime Street, less than a tenner and a lot less hassle. At the station there was news of a derailment at Sheffield but it didn’t seem to affect our train to Birmingham which arrived in good time to get the connection back to Leamington Spa. Of course, this was affected and was eventually delayed by 35 minutes, although this time it was able to maintain a sensible speed. While we waited at New Street a nice lady from Network Rail, who was no doubt completely innocent, approached us and asked if we could spare a minute to answer a questionnaire. We were able to confirm that, unexpectedly, we could spare 35 minutes. What she did advise us was that if the delay was more than half an hour we could claim compensation, a fair return for the valuable feedback we were able to offer.

 

Leamington Spa was warm, absurdly warm for October but very pleasant all the same. The boat was apparently unharmed and we got on the move as soon as we could, moving down for a shopping trip at a Morrison’s just across the road from the canal before winding (turning round) and heading back the way we had come. It really was a beautiful evening for a cruise along the canal and we were able to get out of the town and moor up opposite the church at Radford Semele, on an aqueduct sitting above a lovely nature reserve and the River Leam, just in time for an aperitif in the sunset.

An evening cruise in October

On Wednesday, another lovely summer’s October day, we retraced our route back up to Long Itchington where we couldn’t resist going back down to the house and pestering them for another look around. We then contacted the insurer we talked to in July, good old Saga, to arrange insurance for the property. It was a bit of a surprise to be told that, because their records had not been updated with the latest Postcode Address Files, their system couldn’t recognise the postcode and they couldn’t quote. They weren’t the only ones. We tried several insurers who all took the same approach. There was no question of an exception process to refer it to an actual underwriter. No postcode – no quote. This included the Post Office themselves! In despair and frustration we retired to the Two Boats to plan our movements over the next week or two.

 

The early completion means that we can’t really go anywhere, as we had planned, before needing to pick up the keys. We did want to have collected our car at that point, too, so would need to head south by train during that time as well. We ended up planning a very slow series of short hops to Rugby, where the service to London is more convenient, followed by a trip down to Purley to collect the car and hopefully meet some old friends there. We would return by car on the Friday, collect the house keys, pass them to the carpet fitters and then return to the boat at Rugby to bring it back down, a bit more energetically, over the weekend.

 

Thursday morning started fine but with a lot more cloud around. There is a small shop a couple of hundred yards from the canal in the houses off Stockton Road and a notice beside the first lock explains that by going through the alley between some garages, just a few yards down the towpath you can get straight there. As we had failed the shopping challenge in the Co-op the day before we needed some milk so I set off to find the shop. The notice by the lock is very old. The sturdy five barred gate that guards the street entrance to the garages and its impressive array of padlocks is very new. CCTV may well have captured footage of a man of advancing years forced to perform a commando roll under the gate in order to escape. I managed to find a more dignified route back with the milk but it was a long way round.

 

Although the weather forecast was poor and there was a lot more cloud around we had plenty of sunshine heading back up the Stockton Flight. We could see no-one else moving in either direction. Although that meant we didn’t get any help on any of the ten locks, their being so close together also meant that we could introduce our own system to speed things up by emptying the lock ahead while filling the one we were in. We were all done in much less than two hours. Arriving at the top we were greeted by the same uncommunicative volunteer lockkeeper who had watched us go down. This time, while he presented the same taciturn, grumpy demeanour when we arrived, he suddenly asked about having seen us go down last week. I explained where we had been and all of a sudden he became quite chatty and even helped to finish off the lock. Can’t wait to see how he behaves next time.

 

Having moored up for the day, just outside Ventnor Marina, before noon. We tackled the insurance question again. A couple of the companies we had contacted had suggested that if we used a comparison site they would have many more insurers on their panel and would return results from any of them that did have the postcode in their system. With a better mobile broadband signal we tried this and eventually got around seven quotes. Among the top three, along with two complete unknowns, was Saga. Quite a palaver to end up back where we started! The price is more expensive than they suggested in July but still the cheapest of the reputable companies. The first priority is to get cover in place now. We’ll tackle the ‘best value’ question next year when, presumably, they will all recognise the house’s existence and be able to vie for our business. In the meantime, we derived a mischievous satisfaction from forcing Saga to insure us after all. There was a lot more to look into and arrange which would be tedious and time-consuming at the best of times. It was now pretty clear that the issue of “computer says no” in relation to the postcode was going to keep coming up and make it doubly tiresome.

06 Oct

Week 13 – Back to the Grind

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.

 

These could be anyone’s . . .

. . . but they’ve got our name on ’em

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Fenny Compton “Tunnel”

 

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.

 

A new addition. Doesn’t look too much trouble at the moment 🙂

 

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.

 

Wigwam – complete with what looks like a Jacuzzi

 

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.

 

Heading down Stockton Locks

 

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.

30 Sep

Week 12 – Escape to Lympstone

We have stayed at a particular cottage in Lympstone a couple of times before. It sets right at the end of a tiny cobbled lane with no vehicle access. The lane opens out into the last couple of houses that look out onto the whole Exe estuary, with Powderham Castle straight ahead across the tidal river, the narrowing channel towards Topsham and Exeter on your right and the wider waters leading to Exmouth and the protective arm of Dawlish Warren to the left. The sun sets directly onto the cottage with its little patio outside and at the flood the water, littered with small boats bobbing at anchor, is lapping only ten feet away but a comfortable distance below the sea wall.

 

Powderham Castle from the Living Room

 

We had tried to book this cottage again a couple of years ago only to find that it had been sold and taken off the holiday let market. This year we suddenly noticed that it had come back on, refurbished and refitted and couldn’t resist taking it for a week regardless of all the other upheaval we were involved in.

 

After a day in Purley running errands, catching up on our admin and the all-important pre-holiday trip to the hairdressers for both of us, we drove down on Friday in blustery sunshine most of the way, with the occasional squally rain shower that would lash down hard out of nowhere, driven by the wind and then stop almost as soon as it had started. The A303 seems to have become even worse since we last used it and the notorious section past Stonehenge and Winterbourne Stoke was a nose to tail crawl for several miles. To be fair to Renault’s SatNav, despite its stubborn French idiosyncrasies it did its job and re-routed us through Langport to the M5 so we didn’t lose too much time overall. We were in Lympstone, hauling our baggage along the cobbled lane before 16:00.

 

Lympstone and the cottage are just as we remembered but both seem to have had an extra coat of gloss since we last stayed here. We had been through a couple of times since but only on our bikes on the Exe Valley trail. There is a great downhill section down and into the village but a tough uphill climb at the station to get out and on towards the Royal Marine Commando base at Exton; you can’t afford to stop and admire the scenery as you swoop past The Swan at the bottom of the hill. We worked out that it had been seven years since our last proper visit. The Globe Inn has a very different feel, The Swan has upped its game, a teashop has appeared and a lot of the properties have been decorated, renovated or extended in different ways. The cottage has the same basic layout as before but is lighter and brighter inside and has better central heating and excellent internet connection. It is nice to find that, overall, the changes we can see are improvements and have done nothing to spoil the memory.

 

Saturday was a complete washout, as had been long-predicted. An ideal excuse to laze about the cottage, wander into the big stores we don’t easily have access to on the boat to look at ideas for the house and pick up the bits you always find you have forgotten at the supermarket. What, then, to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Exeter? For the second week in a row we found ourselves at the cinema. Largely on the toss of a coin, we went to see “A Simple Favour”. Excellent! It was far better than we had expected. In principle it is a mystery thriller, with the odd knowing nod to Gaslight & Dominique but it was also very funny. We both enjoyed it hugely so I would certainly recommend it and it filled the time nicely for our return to Lympstone, still in the driving rain, for dinner at The Globe. This pub seems to have been taken over and run by a local company called ‘Good Game’. I guess it is part of a diversification strategy based around and original farming business and it is all about the meat and game. Locally sourced from their own pig farm or their neighbours cattle or in the latter case shot in the wild on their own land and served fresh to the table. They had a great selection of real ales but also a range of English lagers such as ‘Sulis’ from Bath Ales, which was as good as any Peroni or San Miguel but perhaps a bit lighter and a lager from Samuel Adams that I have yet to try. It was quite a contrast to what we remember as very much a locals’ spit & sawdust where silence fell as soon as a stranger entered the doors. The only down side is that, of course, they have also adjusted their prices to match.

 

The miserable weather was forecast to continue through Sunday morning and it seemed to be going that way, which called for a leisurely breakfast, trending into brunch, with all the trimmings. The sea was grey but fairly still first thing but things changed a lot very quickly so that first the wind rose, followed by heavy rain about 08:00, then a steady drizzle and a little calmer. About 11:00 we began to see the odd dog walker on the tideline and we realised it had stopped and small gaps were appearing in the clouds. By noon the sun was out, the wind was light and the sky was mainly blue which was how it stayed for the rest of the day.

 

A la Ronde

 

We went off to have a look at A la Ronde, a National Trust property just a couple of miles away that we had never visited before. A smallish house built in the 18th Century by two ladies following their experiences on the Grand European Tour it is a fascinating property. It was rare, in those times for women to do the tour, as rare as it was for them to own property or mastermind the construction of a building so they were clearly unusual and they were most imaginative. The house is built with 16 sides, designed in such a way as to catch the sun in different rooms as it moves around the property throughout the day. There is something for everybody here. I think Judy Edwards would be fascinated by the huge collection of handicraft items created by the pair, mainly based on shells found locally and the feathers of birds; some found in the field, some taken from the kitchens. The more engineering minded will be hooked by some of the innovations installed by the only male owner of the house and there is even a croquet lawn to captivate Nigel Trotter.

 

View of the Croquet Lawn from below the Ha-Ha

 

Much is made of the shell gallery, which can be seen if you follow this link:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/a-la-ronde/features/the-shell-gallery-at-a-la-ronde

but for us the absolute highlight was the stunning panorama presented from the west window of the first floor bedroom. It is a sensational view up and down the estuary and yet the room that provides it was not even part of the original design as only store rooms occupied the upper floor at that time.

 

Jane Parminter is believed to have been the principal designer of the original property in all its intricate detail, sometimes using local shipwrights, who were skilled at fitting all manner of features into small, oddly shaped spaces just as our boat builders are today. Mary, seventeen years younger and an orphaned second cousin for whom Jane had become guardian, was just as passionate about the house, lived in it for nearly fifty years until her death and established the rules of inheritance that insisted the property only be passed down to an unmarried, female relative. They say that this tradition was only broken once in Victorian times. The truth is this breach lasted forty years and was the period when most of the innovations seen around the property such as central heating, speaking tubes, dumb waiters and the bedroom with the fabulous view were installed.

 

By the time we left A la Ronde the weather had improved to such an extent that were able to take a walk from the cottage up and out onto the surrounding hills and back into the outskirts from the other side which led us back down to the sea and a walk along the exposed foreshore to the emerge via a small harbour into the centre of the village again in time for a traditional cream tea and another debate about jam or cream first.

 

On Monday we awoke to a jewel of a morning. The high ground behind the village casts a long shadow first thing and the opposite bank is bathed in sunlight so, at this time of year when the nights have been cold but the rising sun still has the heat in it, you can see the expanding band of sunlight running down the far side of the estuary marked by the mist and steam rising from the surface of the water before it finally burns off an hour or so later. We headed east towards Otterton and took a walk up to the South West Coast Path and then back inland to return along the River Otter for a late lunch at the mill café in Otterton. Views from the coast path were as spectacular as always far out to sea and along the rich, red cliffs of the coastline. The walk back offered equally impressive views inland, over the forests and across the lush green pastures laid out on the flat plan around the river. It’s a shame the camera utterly fails to capture what the eye so readily sees.

 

View from the Coat Path

 

The Otter is pretty wide in places but is also generally shallow and unnavigable frequently clamouring for attention with a classic ‘babbling brook’ sound as it rushes over the stones. On the way back down the east bank we came across a specially constructed fish pass. A weir had been built across the river at this point, presumably to manage the water for use at the mill downstream. Apparently the fish couldn’t swim up it to spawn. In 1998 a special stepped ‘pass’ was constructed on one side of the weir that allowed them to make their way past and restored migratory fish runs to the River Otter after an interval of 100 years.

 

The Fish Pass on the Otter

 

The weather on Tuesday was every bit as good as Monday and slightly warmer towards the end, it was definitely time to declare an Indian Summer and we spent the day exploring the Killerton Estate. The house was built in the 18th century and the family that owned the estate can be traced back to the 12th century yeoman farmers, steadily increasing in prosperity and prestige through farming, property and marriage. We don’t know much more because every aspect of every room in the house had been overtaken by an exhibition on women’s suffrage. We were aware that there was an exhibition on the topic but had thought it would have a specific space alongside the normal presentation. Instead it absolutely drowned out any other information on the history of both the estate and its owners. We did learn that Sir Richard Acland, having inherited Killerton in 1939, ended up giving the whole 6,400 acre estate with the family home, 20 farms and a watermill over to the National Trust in 1944. What we found striking was that it was not done to avoid tax or duties and not because he couldn’t afford to maintain it but solely on the basis of his own socialist beliefs and the desire to make it available for the enjoyment of all. Quite a gesture!

 

Under the circumstances we didn’t stay long in the house, preferring to get back out in the sunshine. There is a pleasant walk around the immediate grounds that take you past a number of interesting features. My favourite was the little thatched summer house built for Lady Lydia. This is interesting in itself, being rough-hewn with basketry and hessian ceilings and a floor made up of a mosaic of cobbles, log ends and deer knuckle-bones yet with a separate little ‘hermitage’ room which has a full-on 16th century stained glass window from the Netherlands. On top of that, originally called the Summer Cot it became known, in the 1860’s, as the Bear’s Hut when the 12th Baronet’s brother, Gilbert, brought a Black Bear called Tom back from Canada and housed it there.

 

The Bears Hut

 

 

The Bears Hut Window

 

Clyston Mill is about 3 miles away near Broadclyst on a route that takes you past the Old Post Office in Budlake. The Trust have dressed this up to exactly represent a Post Office in the 1950’s and it is a bit alarming to find that they regard that as a part of our ancient heritage. When did my childhood become ancient history? It is a good display, though. The national savings stamps for boys and girls and the postal orders caught our eye. It also shows clearly that, despite complaints about Post Office counters moving into W H Smith and Spar shops today, the Post Office was always just one aspect of what was a general store with a very wide range of goods for sale.

 

By the time we had toured the mill, which is still working and producing flour today on specific days, then explored the mediaeval hall known as Marker’s in Broadclyst village itself and found our way back over to Killerton House we were ready for a refreshing cup of tea back at the cottage, where our daughter Jen was waiting, having come down by train to join us for a couple of days.

 

Wall to wall sunshine was once again the order of the day on Wednesday. With a young person on board something more adventurous was in order so we booked the three of us in to a Segway tour in Haldon Forest, high up above Exeter on the edge of Dartmoor. This was great fun, as always and the only way to travel. Certainly an all-terrain Segway and the land to use it on are the first things on my shopping list when I win the lottery! If they were ever road legal in the UK I might have to save up for one anyway.

 

Segway Team

 

After that excitement we just had time to cross to the other side of the estuary for a circular walk around Woodbury Common, only 5 miles but a lot of up and down with it. The walk took us mostly through heath and woodland and as we went along with the sunlight streaming through the trees it was strongly reminiscent of the woods in Surrey where we used to do our field shooting and made us quite nostalgic to have a bow in hand and a quiver full of arrows ready to be lost. It seems a very long time since we were able to do that and we certainly don’t have room for the gear on the boat.

 

Thursday was our last day here but it was another day of completely clear blue skies and sunshine. A leisurely visit to a place called Knighthayes Court, another National Trust Property near Tiverton. This one was only late Victorian but had been built in a grand gothic style. The original architect William Burges was famous in his day but had some quite wild and lavish ideas. Apparently he was known to dress up in mediaeval costume and was fond of smoking opium, so a bit of a character. Presumably some of his more elaborate designs were produced under the influence. He was sacked and replaced before it was built but a lot of his designs were used in the final building if a little toned down. Once they moved in the family still found it a bit much and plastered over a lot of the ornate ceilings etc. The Trust have restored one bedroom to the full original Burges design and it gives a good feel for the flights of fancy he pursued.

 

William Burges full-on Master Bedroom Design

 

 

We called in to the Antiques Centre on Topsham Quay on the way back to Lympstone. This is a fascinating collection of all manner of bric-a-brac, antiques and pure tat spread over three floors and always worth a browse. Topsham is a really nice little town on the Exe estuary just north of Lympstone. We had stayed there before and we once considered it a possible retirement destination. Then we saw the amount of development planned around it. A lot of that has now been completed and it is as bad as we feared, with some of the houses just built being quite ugly and completely out of keeping. More importantly there is no way that the sheer numbers of people and cars who will be coming to occupy all of this could ever be accommodated in the narrow streets and limited facilities of the existing town and no scope to change those things without destroying it completely. It made us quite sad to see.

 

A final tea of jam & cream scones basking in the afternoon sun outside the cottage, a last fantastic evening sunset to watch and a delicious farewell meal at The Swan brought our holiday effectively to an end. A shame to leave this little idyll but a lot to look forward to when we get back to our floating home.

22 Sep

Week 11 – Aynho to Cropredy

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.

Ebony & Ivory

living in perfect harmony

 

 

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.

14 Sep

Week 10 – Back In The Cut

Thursday 6th September and with children back at school, their parents safely back at work and some slightly chillier mornings the feeling that summer was drawing to a close was getting stronger. We were rudely awoken before 06:30 by the rattle of sculls on the hull as an early eight skimmed past a fraction too close; amazing how much noise that makes on a steel shell and how long it takes to work out what the hell it is. Still, this morning was to be our last on the Thames and we certainly wouldn’t be troubled by rowing teams on the Oxford Canal.

 

The Thames continues north from Oxford for a way before veering sharp left and heading west to Lechlade and the source. At the turn is the junction with the Duke’s Cut, dug by order of the 4th Duke of Malborough to provide a link from the Thames to the Oxford Canal, which ended at the Oxford terminus. This created a direct route to London for his Warwickshire coal. At the point where the cut meets the canal the levels could differ very significantly in either direction so the Duke’s Cut Lock was constructed with gates that opened either way, according to which channel’s level was the higher at a given time. Three miles further down the Oxford Canal the two waterways lie very close and the Sheepwash Channel, an unused backwater, was dredged out to provide another route between them that avoided the whole stretch of river up to the Duke’s Cut. It is the latter channel that we planned to follow so we just had to negotiate Osney Lock and the Osney Bridge to be beyond the reach of the EA. At 7′ 6″ this is the lowest bridge on the Thames. Standing on the rear deck I had to duck very low and it must bar access to most of the costly cruisers we have passed on the river.

 

The change in atmosphere, immediately on turning into the junction, was dramatic. Narrower, hemmed in by trees, meaner housing and commercial premises. It instantly felt darker and gloomier, despite a brilliantly sunny morning. The first thing to strike us was how slowly we were having to move. It is only a very short stretch before you come to CRT’s Isis Lock and the canal proper. It’s astonishing how quickly we had become accustomed to the broad and carefully managed Thames. Where was the lockkeeper? Where were the electronic controls? Most importantly, how were we to manoeuvre our large boat into that tiny, narrow chamber?

 

Having worked out how to wind the paddles and successfully threaded the needle we carried on up, passing long lines of boats that here, in the narrow confines of the cut, obliged us to slow to tickover from an already snail-like 4 m.p.h. The water here felt shallow and there were new reminders of life on the canal and the way it likes to throw little challenges your way at every turn. CRT workboats were doing some hedge trimming but drifting across the channel in the process, a paddle on the next lock was out of action and by the time we reached Wolvercote Lock we were already pulling over to get down the weed hatch and untangle a skein of nettles and brambles from the propeller shaft.

 

We hadn’t met many lift bridges in our month on the river but today we had three in the next stretch. The first of these was working well and just reminded us what they were supposed to be about. The second required the user to lift it slightly to catch the point of balance, leap athletically aboard and race to the other side to hang off it to hold it open and then let it down and run across once the boat was through. A couple of boats heading south had already warned us about the third. The lock had just been replaced and also required your full bodyweight to hold the bridge in position to be unlocked. Sue’s newer BWB key wouldn’t turn. My, more worn, copy fitted and turned alright but didn’t release the lock and wouldn’t turn back or come out. Thankfully, after ten minutes struggle, a farm worker who wanted to bring his van across the bridge stopped the other side and came back to help. He had seen them repair the lock the day before, knew it was not fitted correctly and had worked out the knack. Without his help I suspect we would still be there.

 

By the time we reached the Duke’s Cut junction we had already been going for three and a half hours, it had clouded over and with some way to go before our destination of Thrupp it was time for lunch. When we got going again we had begun to acclimatise, helped by a little bit of familiar fine rain. The pace no longer felt quite so painful, the banks not quite so confining and the challenge of oncoming boats, always at the most inconvenient moments, all part of the fun. Still, no prospect of any U-turns along here, so woe betide the inattentive boater who cruises past the place he is aiming for.

 

Thrupp starts with a welcoming mooring sign followed, just around the bend, by The Jolly Boatman with more visitor mooring just outside. Having nabbed the one space there for the evening, a stroll further up to the right angle turn at the next Lift Bridge (electronically controlled this time as a public road runs across it) showed that visitor moorings were regularly interspersed with permanent spaces controlled by the mighty TCCC (Thrupp Canal Cruising Club). The TCCC clearly have an iron grip on the whole area, even where the ownership is with CRT. It must be said it all seems to be the better for it. The whole area is clean and tidy. Permanent moorers have not been allowed to set up camps and junk heaps all around their berths. The facilities are clean and maintained, with a warden on site who can be contacted and a notice even offers a mobile phone number for help in finding short term and visitor mooring if you should arrive and find that the official visitor mooring is full. On inspection, while other visitor areas existed, all were occupied and we had the best spot available that night. Eight miles today and we’d almost lost count of the locks and lift bridges, so the hardest day we’d had since entering the Thames. Time for a well-earned refresher at The Jolly Boatman.

 

Beyond where we were moored, a few lengths along from the pub, the mooring belongs to TCCC as the towpath passes between the canal on one side and fenced small fields and large gardens on the other for about 300 yards. After that and with The Boat just off to the left, the area opens right up for a short terrace of stone cottages facing the canal across a quiet road on the towpath side, followed by a couple of much larger farmhouse properties set well back behind large grounds. On the off side trees give way to open fields and fences so the mooring here is bathed in sunlight most of the day (when the weather is fine). Some of it is 48 hour but a fair section towards the lift bridge is 7 Day. All are free within those restrictions. Having taken a short stroll down here on the following bright, sunny morning I found at least two boat lengths had opened up on the 7 Day section, so cruising on Friday consisted of a short scramble back to the boat to cast off and get down there as quickly as possible. Our final resting place was little short of perfect.

 

We had intended to stay in Thrupp on Friday, where the 4G signal was excellent, to try and get on with changing both our e-mail addresses on myriad accounts for which they are the user name. As the mooring we had been on was for 48 hours we expected to move again on Saturday morning, with a view to meeting Sue’s brother Phil and his wife Dot and possibly her sister Linda and her husband Alan for lunch on Saturday. We had a slight concern that finding a mooring beyond Thrupp, where they could find us and pick us up by road, might be awkward, especially as rain was forecast for Saturday. Having a 7 Day slot meant we could just stay over a third night and tell them exactly where to collect us.

 

The weather that Friday was too good to sit indoors changing e-mail all day so we went for a walk to Kidlington and Yarnton. We walked across the fields directly towards St. Mary’s church to arrive at what we assume must have been the original village, very pretty and peaceful in the sunshine as we skirted the churchyard and made our way between paddocks and through a copse around the main town to Mill End. The village was developed along the A4260 to the south in the early part of the 20th century and seems to have filled in from there As we needed a few supplies we headed into what is now the main centre and the modern High Street and shopping centre. This is probably what most people think of as Kidlington today but the original village in the north is well worth a visit.

 

Thrupp also has a thriving tea shop in Annie’s Tearoom by the lift bridge that had to be sampled in the afternoon and it was then only fair to visit The Boat and give them a chance to compete with The Jolly Boatman for our affections. It was more of a traditional locals pub, it seemed and while nice enough I don’t think I would bother again. One pleasant surprise at both of these establishments was that the price of a round of drinks that we had become accustomed to all along the Thames had instantly dropped by 15-20%.

 

Saturday proved cool and showery in the morning, as predicted. A good day to stay in and do some of that outstanding admin. We had nothing planned for the day but our lunch out and we were duly collected at 13:00 to head off for Puddingface at the Crown & Tuns in Deddington, where the speciality is pies. The blackboard bears a list of pies on offer that is certainly extensive and covers a wide range from basic Steak & Kidney through to Lamb, Apricot & Moroccan Spices. If you don’t want a pie the offering is meagre and unimaginative in the extreme but why would you come here and then not order a pie? Those we ordered were all delicious and it was a very enjoyable lunch. I am not sure that the nature of these pies would pass Mike Fielding’s very exacting standards, however. By default most of the pies came with puff pastry and in all cases were served as a pastry lid on an earthenware dish of filling both of which would lose marks. On the positive side they were all served as individual pies and came with a separate jug of gravy on the side, which should score well. Perhaps it is the flavour that really counts?

 

We left Thrupp on Sunday morning which, after a grey and breezy start, brightened up nicely to become a really sunny afternoon. There is a long section of TCCC controlled mooring beyond the bridge in Thrupp and a little public mooring for 14 Days right at the end. As you pass through Shipton Bridge here there is just a single lock gate beyond, with no chamber or paddles, which is chained and padlocked open. There doesn’t seem to be anything different about the canal on one side of the gate or the other so we have no idea what it was for but I am sure someone will enlighten us.

 

Right the way up until north of Banbury the Oxford Canal runs parallel to and often right alongside the River Cherwell, sometimes only six feet apart with the towpath on a raised bank sandwiched between the two. The Cherwell is no Thames or Severn and it isn’t navigable, as such but it is a substantial river that lends its name to Cherwell Valley, Cherwell District Council and many other local companies and institutions. The philosophy for constructing the Oxford Canal was to avoid difficult and costly engineering, such as tunnels, aqueducts and even locks where possible, by following the contours of the land so this proximity is unsurprising; the Cherwell was probably responsible for forming those contours. At the next lock, Shipton Weir, the canal actually opens into the River Cherwell and you travel along it for a short section. This lock is particularly curious because it is diamond shaped and can accommodate two fairly long boats at once, where most of the other locks are a single boat width and length. There is no explanation as to why this is at the lock and even with a bit of digging no definitive answer. The best suggestion we found was that you have to start controlling the water supply again as you enter the canal downstream from the river. The fall of this lock is quite shallow and the extra width allows it to pass sufficient water downstream to feed the deeper locks there and also to cope with some excess water when the river is in flood.

 

The next lock, Baker’s Lock, takes you back from the river onto the man-made canal. Just before the lock we began to hear a ruckus amongst the cattle in a field ahead. We came upon a recalcitrant cow that had somehow found a way to position itself on the six inches of canal bank on the wrong side of a pretty new and robust looking barbed wire fence. All its fellows had gathered around the spot to look on from inside the fence and a farmer had just arrived, in a JCB with fork lift attachments, to assess the situation. He clearly couldn’t work out how the cow had got itself outside the fence as, with some exasperation, he got back in the cab and set about using the forks to prise two of the hard-driven fence posts out of the ground and lift the wire to get it back through. What he may have felt he didn’t need was an audience but being a sunny Sunday lunchtime there were plenty of people out on the towpath, no doubt in search of ‘wellbeing’, who gathered in a growing knot of spectators to watch the proceedings. Even a couple of passing boats slowed to a crawl to witness his efforts. The last we saw, as we rounded a bend was the cow, safely back in the field, in a belligerent stand-off with the farmer who, we assume, wanted to examine her for injury. After a couple of approaches had been met with a forward lunge from the cow I think her herdsman felt safe in assuming she was unharmed and walked off in disgust.

Bovine Onlookers

 

Shortly afterwards we found ourselves moored outside the Rock of Gibraltar in Enslow with a total distance travelled of two miles, having had just one electric lift bridge and the two locks to contend with. There is staging outside the pub, shown on maps as patrons only mooring but everybody was moored on the opposite side. We did go and sample the establishment. It is an interesting layout, with lots of levels and nooks and crannies. It is in desperate need of a good makeover, however, so we could see why, despite it being a sunny Sunday afternoon, the garden was deserted and the pub wasn’t packed with families out for their Sunday lunch.

 

On Monday we set out for the Heyfords. The three locks en route were no problem and the trip was very uneventful. On the way we passed under Northbrook Bridge 210. This is two bridges, which are now Grade II listed. The old pack horse bridge over the River Cherwell was extended over the canal using the same colour stone so it looks like one structure. This is the furthest point we had previously reached, on a walk from a mooring in Lower Heyford last April, so from here on we were no longer in terra incognita. It is also notable in being a bridge with a public right of way crossing it that is impossible to get up to from the towpath. On our previous trip, on foot, that had meant our planned route didn’t work and we had had to find another way across the canal and back onto the path. Cruising in the opposite direction this time and finding a convenient space just before the bridge at Lower Heyford we decided to stop there, where there is a shop, a café and some services available.

 

It is time that more attention was called to a 21st Century scourge that should, by now, have been added to the list of those offences against human rights that should be expected to attract the greatest censure. I am referring, of course, to the curse of Internet Deprivation, with which we were afflicted almost as soon as we arrived. Our mobile broadband hotspot device had shown a 4G signal when we tied up but within a few minutes it had dropped to 3G and then nothing at all. Both phones, on different networks, had No Service, Emergency Calls Only. I dug out the SIM from Three that we have as a back-up to O2 and EE but although many continuous cruisers swear by Three, there was no signal there either. We thought for a while that we had Digital TV reception but that too began to break up after about 10 minutes.

 

It is amazing just how many of the things that you go to do are dependent on some sort of internet connection. Like a lot of things, it is when you realise you don’t have it that you suddenly feel you need it the most. We managed to deal with a couple of things, like Sue’s call to the Doctor’s surgery, by climbing to higher ground at the top of the village. We tried the café at the Wharf for tea but they had no broadband at all. In the end we were forced to visit The Bell and managed to hijack someone’s unsecured wi-fi (it might even have been theirs, it wasn’t obvious though) to get a limited fix over a drink or two before returning, still slightly strung out, to enjoy an unconnected dinner and to dust off the DVD player.

 

We clearly needed to return to the modern world so we set out fairly early on Tuesday to get to Aynho Wharf, where we planned to spend a couple of nights. There was a lot more traffic today. A couple of Day Boats were out in the mix and quite a lot of hire boats heading towards their mid-week turnover as well as a steady flow of private boats in both directions. We found ourselves queuing at locks and bridges for the first time in many weeks and were generally just behind “Plum Crumble”, a boat out of Cropredy on the first trip out since being re-painted there at great expense to the owners, a nice couple whose names we shall probably never know.

 

The wind, that had been rising the previous evening, didn’t seem that strong as we left Lower Heyford, which is quite low-lying. From there the canal begins to rise, the land becomes more open and the banks are lined with wire fences rather than hedges so the wind really began to make its presence felt. We had experienced windy days through this section before and the effect on a slab-sided narrowboat can be quite dramatic. It is generally fine as long as you are moving forward but the moment you come to a halt, with no power on the engine, the uncontrollable sideways drift begins, so you really need to tie up to something secure as you reach the side. Several boats we had passed going the other way had issued dire warnings about Somerton Deep Lock as problems with the gate were causing delays. When we arrived there we found we were number four in the queue, which meant the lock landing, with its smooth banks and deeply embedded mooring posts was already full. “Plum Crumble” was hanging on for dear life but had managed to get a line on one of the bollards.

 

We were left drifting in mid-stream, being blown steadily over to the offside. When we looked back, the Day Boat behind was broadside on and about to go full circle. We had a line ashore but only a two foot wide strip of towpath, behind a bed of tall reeds, to stand on. I could just about hold it but it took the help of a passer-by to actually bring the boat to the side and we managed to secure it to a fencepost. As a boat left the lock we could all move up and we were able to get onto the lock landing. Untying, engaging the engine and securing on the landing before letting the power off required very careful timing and “Plum Crumble”, while being helpful and encouraging us to close up as much as possible couldn’t help casting the occasional anxious glance at his nice new paintwork. The debris that had been blocking the gate had been cleared and passage through the lock was more straightforward after that but there is a clue in the name. At 12 feet, Somerton Deep Lock is one of the deepest in the narrow canal system and so takes some time to fill and empty with each cycle.

 

Having finally cleared the lock we reached Aynho, where there is 48 hour mooring just before the bridge. The scenario here was much the same. We had to cut the engine because we were right at the bridge and as soon as that happened the wind tried to take the boat. A bit easier here with a wider towpath and fixed rings but a lot of effort to inch her back against the bank until Sue could get off and we could both secure her. A couple of boats immediately behind us left as we were wrestling with this and we were able to move the boat back to a space away from the open fencing into the lee of a thick hedge, which simplified things enormously. All in all it had been quite a hard morning, for us. It was a relief to find that we were once more connected to the outside world and could relax for a late lunch before attending to all those things we hadn’t been able to do on Monday.

 

There was heavy rain overnight and there were a few showers on and off through the morning so this was a good opportunity to stay in and sort out the last few accounts needing our e-mail addresses changing. The variability in how this is accomplished is astonishing. Some organisations just do it, others require you to jump through several hoops to confirm that you really want to do it and others won’t let you do it yourself at all. Whatever the approach adopted, some of these online processes succeed seamlessly and some fail dismally, in the worst cases changing the account but then refusing to allow access to either the new or the old e-mail address. We were left with those that we had to call in order to change or to fix the mess created. We even had a couple who couldn’t do it at all and just said that if we had to change the e-mail address they would have to close the account altogether and we would have to create a new one. We are not looking forward to going through it all again when we finally get our new home address!

 

By lunchtime we had had enough and needed some fresh air and exercise. The sky had cleared to leave a bright and mild afternoon so we went out for a circular walk via a nearby village called Souldern, which seemed a nice quiet place with a lot of old houses including a large manor house, a church and little else except a pub and a garage. We didn’t see anyone as we walked around it. No doubt it comes alive when everyone comes back from wherever they go to amass the kind of money required to own a property there. There was an old mill some distance from the village at the bottom of a very long single track lane with concrete strips a wheelbase apart all the way down it. The walk took us past two magnificent railway viaducts, Aynho and Souldern. It also passed under the M40 twice. I am not sure why the huge railway viaducts seemed to be admirable and part of the landscape while the raised motorway came across as an intrusive eyesore.

Souldern Mill

 

Aynho Viaduct

 

Back at Aynho we had arranged to meet up with Mike & Lesley Fielding for a meal at the Great Western Arms there. For a Wednesday evening it seemed very busy, with every table we could see reserved and while the dinner service is in full swing it isn’t really a pub for drinking. They found us a table though and we had a really nice meal there. It was nice to catch up on all the news from their ongoing house build and to hear how their boat, Charlie Mo, is performing. The latter was delivered in March from the same boatyard who will be building ours so we are always keen to hear about any snags or pitfalls we should watch out for.

07 Sep

Week 9 – Reading to Oxford

Thursday’s assault on Thames & Kennet Marina in Reading, from our forward lying up position at Sonning Lock, was as straightforward as we had planned; roughly 2 miles travelled and we had located our berth, moved onto it and tied up in a little over an hour. A lovely, sunny morning to be on the move with no wind to complicate things as we manoeuvred around the marina basin. There is an awful lot of water around this area with the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake and Caversham Lakes just beside the marina, so much water, in fact, that when I asked at the office for directions to the road they asked me if I realised it was about a mile and a half from there! The approach snakes around a series of detours to work around various lakes and lagoons to get to their site.

 

Today we were going up to Long Itchington so that we could go and see our house for the first time tomorrow. This time everything worked according to plan with the only exception being the laundry service we had booked to pick up the heavy washing at 12:00. We got a call at 10:00 to say they were looking for our boat in the marina, obviously this was a problem as we weren’t there yet. In the end we had to drop it off in the taxi on the way to the station and it was far from being on the way. Reading seems to be a big place and about as we expected, having driven round most of it because of this mix-up. The taxi driver assured me that it wasn’t as big as it seemed, it was just that the roads and the one-way systems made it seem very big. This was an interesting perspective but perception and the taxi meter are king and the fare certainly suggested we had travelled a long way.

 

White Hall Farm in Long Itchington dates from the 1400’s, with many alteration and additions over the centuries. It has many original features, large well-proportioned rooms and is beautifully dressed and decorated in keeping. Having just started to offer B&B on two of the ’empty nest’ rooms in the last year or so it is already getting very good reviews and I guess this is another. We received a warm welcome, had a really comfortable stay, an excellent breakfast and were given free rein to use a large sitting room just down the landing rather than just lurk in our bedroom. If you are looking for somewhere to stay in the village this is the best option there is.

 

We had hoped to validate our positive view of The Harvester as the place to dine in Long Itchington but here we were in for a disappointment. The chef was on holiday, only returning the next day and the only food on offer was from the wood-fired pizza oven at the top of the garden. We had heard the output from there is excellent but it wasn’t what we had built our expectations on tonight, so we finished our drinks and moved on to The Duck On The Pond. That’s the thing about a night out in ‘Long Itch’ – plenty of options. We don’t think it is time to mark The Harvester down just yet, we will reserve judgement until next time and hope to consolidate our view that it has the best food in town then.

 

Friday morning was perfect. Fresh air, warm sun, blue skies, dew on the grass. An ideal day to view our new home. It does exist! There are walls, a roof, windows etc and you can see the whole shape of it. We were able to check off the options we had had to choose, put in a change request on the bathroom mirror and we also got a chance to see the inside of an identical house that is much more finished with a lot of the decoration completed. When you go into a building that is just past first Fix and the walls are plasterboard, cables are running everywhere, the floors are bare and it is full of trades going about their business (mainly drinking coffee) the space always seems small and cramped. Being able to also see a more finished product was great reassurance that, by the time we move in, the space will feel much lighter and more open. The light in the garden and the movement of the sun seems to work just as we hoped and the visit was very positive by the end.

 

Sue had been able to measure the windows for future curtain / blind options. I had been able to establish where the steel in the lintels would be so I could advise her what fixings not to consider. That left a short trip into Southam and the eponymous Southam Carpets to choose the soft flooring pattern and arrange for them to measure up and order in the material. When will all this happen? At the moment we seem to back to saying 31st October. They are well ahead to meet that date so it shouldn’t be later. We could push for them to finish earlier but we aren’t in a hurry and pushing people to do things quicker doesn’t usually produce a higher quality outcome.

 

The return trip to the marina went smoothly again, a couple more points in the positive column for public transport, I suppose. We made it back for about 16:00 and as we didn’t want to pay for another night there we were now in a bit of a hurry. We had to clear the rubbish, fill up with water and get across to their service dock to settle up and book out before they closed at 17:00. As we would be on their fuel dock anyway I had planned to top up the diesel tank. Being self-service and in a bit of a rush I just got on with it and went in to pay. This where I realised that too much haste had made me forget one of Neil Payne’s key pieces of advice – “always check the split before you fill up”. We usually declare 80% domestic and 20% propulsion. Domestic usage enjoys tax relief that makes quite a difference to the cost. To my horror in this place they insisted they would only use a standard 40% domestic and 60% propulsion split. Since the fuel was already in the tank I was hardly on the front foot to argue this one and just had to pay up. The worst of this I didn’t realise until the next day when I did the sums. It looks to me as if they charged the entire quantity at £1.34 anyway. If so the split is irrelevant to me and they have, presumably, just pocketed the 15% VAT saving on 40% of it. A good job I was just topping up the tank while I was there and didn’t have to fill up from empty at 250 litres!

 

By now it was 17:30 and we still had to do the shopping. There is a Tesco Extra just beyond the marina entrance and mooring right beside it. We had thought this was restricted to 2 hours but there were no notices on display about any restrictions at all when we arrived at the rather smart new landing. It was also empty except for two very down at heel and overladen plastic boats at the far end. We moved up close to them, already thinking that if we moored now, left plenty of space for others and moved on early the next morning we might get away with staying here overnight. That would save us hunting for space at seven or eight o’clock at night in unfamiliar territory. Looking around a bit further I did find a notice lying in some fallen leaves that suggested you had to register arrival and pay £9.50 for every 24 hours to moor here. We decided not to bother and were pretty sure our neighbours would not have paid for the privilege. That didn’t stop us feeling guilty, of course. Neither of us are usually comfortable flouting the rules.

 

We have noticed a lot more instances of people camping alongside the river at this end. Quite often when we have moored in the last few days, thinking the area deserted, you only had to peer through the surrounding tree line to spy little pop-up dome tents lurking in the undergrowth camouflaged against the bushes. As you travel along, if you start to look, you can see more small encampments hidden away, just beyond the banks. Generally, you don’t see anyone there. They don’t make much noise, move quietly in or out and seem to spend their time at the tent, inside the tent. Once or twice, standing outside late at night in the still air, I have heard voices murmuring and realised the occupants had returned unseen but that is about it. Here at Reading, however, we looked around and could just see 3 or 4 people gathered around a proper camp fire that had obviously been going most of the day. As the evening wore on the talk got louder, occasional shouts were heard as their conversation reached a point of real disagreement, followed by the opening of another tin and a heart-warming moment of reconciliation (“we’ve all had a drink . . . “) before the next outburst. All this set to music coming from an ancient boom box and playing just loud enough to be heard. These guys must all have been in their fifties and it created a scene that made one think of novels of people movements during the great depression etc. As far as we could tell this little band were the crew of the boats that had been moored at the end when we arrived and it seemed they met regularly and knew one another well. Overall, apart from providing some diversion, they didn’t bother us. They were fairly easy to block out and as far as I could tell they actually packed up and crept off to bed surprisingly early at about 23:00.

 

Saturday morning, 1st September, officially the first day of autumn. A sunny morning, after a slightly colder night, had left just a suggestion of mist, like smoke on the water (but a lighter purple J ). We have been noticing the tree foliage turning brown over recent weeks and this morning the roof of the boat was covered in dried up, brown leaves. We’re pretty sure this had nothing to do with a dramatic effect of the overnight change in season but was a consequence of the lack of water through such a dry summer, which seems to have done quite a lot of damage to the trees.

 

Breakfast was accompanied by the sound of one of our neighbours trying to start the outboard engine on his floating scrapheap. Each pull and cough of the starter handle was another ratchet in the tension. The engine would catch and fire, lifting our spirits only to have them dashed again as it spluttered and died. Once or twice it really seemed to have got running but when left unattended, presumably to cast off, it would sulk and fall silent. In the end the captain, whose enthusiasm for the task never seemed to flag adopted what might be regarded as a high risk approach. He cast off the boat and shoved off away from the bank into the river with no motive power at all. Then sitting, adrift, in the middle of the Thames he turned his attention once more to the pull cord. After a few tries the engine caught and fired as it had before but this time, as he was able to keep a firm and experienced hand on the throttle he managed to keep it going, engaged the prop and headed nonchalantly away towards the rising sun accompanied by our cheers and applause.

 

It was a perfect day to be travelling on the water the air was fresh and clean but the sun was hot and it strengthened to become one of the warmest days we have had for a couple of weeks. As it we had left early, to make good our escape from the mooring police, the locks were on self-service but it turned out to be extremely easy to operate them. This might seem to make the role of the lockkeeper redundant but it is an essential one although it is not the locks they need to manage but the people in them. With one or two boats going through on their own it is fine. When it gets busy the real skill is in controlling who comes in, when, on which side and ensuring they have all got themselves secured against the currents before the sluices open. I can’t begin to imagine the chaos and eventual antagonism that would develop if six or eight boats together were left to their own devices to negotiate these locks.

 

Seen from the water, Reading (they would probably prefer to call it Caversham) doesn’t seem nearly as bad as you might expect. They have a couple of nice bridges, plenty of open park space on the riverside and a lot of boating activity. As you go beyond the town there are miles of hoarding on the south side and we couldn’t work out what was behind them at all. On the opposite bank was a similar expanse of open field all marked out with signs like: “Road W23”. This too seemed to go on forever. There seemed to be piles of accumulated rubbish gathered together as if awaiting collection. It seemed as though it must be some kind of permanent showground or exhibition site, although we believe the Reading Festival was held elsewhere. Google was uninformative on both counts so any suggestions or local knowledge would be welcome. Both features ended, eventually, as we came past Mapledurham, Purley On Thames (who knew!) and Whitchurch which is near Pangbourne. Once out of Reading there are lots of nice houses here too but while they are obviously expensive status symbols they somehow don’t seem quite as grand or extravagant as the displays on the way out of Henley.

 

We passed through the Goring Gap, where the Berkshire Downs and the Chiltern Hills meet and form the narrowest part of the Thames Valley, to arrive at Goring Lock moorings where we easily found a good space, free for 24 hours, on a well-constructed wharf and in time for lunch. We had thought of walking back to a National Trust property at Basildon Park but the contours of the Goring Gap and the position of the crossings made any route on foot far too long and convoluted. We settled for a circular walk from Goring across the bridge to Streatley sitting on the other side and up into an area called The Holies before circling back across Lardon Chase and back to the bridge. This route promised fabulous viewpoints from three positions to see right across Goring itself, then out over the Gap and the Chilterns and finally in the other direction west of the river and across the Berkshire Downs. It was not that long a walk. Unfortunately, the very contours that had frustrated our attempt to find a route to Basildon Park meant that each of these vantage points was preceded by extremely steep climbs and followed by equally sharp descents. It is always heart-breaking to see hard-won height so rapidly lost. Nonetheless, the views were every bit as stunning as billed and made the effort worthwhile. Only 6½ miles, so not too taxing in theory but with 3,000 feet of ascent on top of that we felt we had earned a drink at the Miller of Mansfield in Goring. This turned out to be a really nice pub offering an excellent table by the window, with a good view of the village, where you could sit and soak up the evening sun.

 

We had come to the view that, on the Thames, where the cruisers and gin palaces come out in their hundreds at the end of the week, we would be well advised to moor up on Friday night or Saturday morning and stay put until Monday. As we needed to be clear of the Thames by 6th September, when our one month licence was due to expire, we couldn’t really afford that luxury so, on Sunday morning we set off a bit later than usual heading, eventually, for Wallingford. It was another glorious day, even warmer than Saturday and we managed to hit the first two locks just as they were about to close. When you enter a lock, heading upstream, you are a long way below the level of the river beyond and have no idea what lies ahead. As we left the Goring Lock itself the gates opened to reveal a shoal of canoeists lurking in the pound waiting to go down. They were all dressed alike, four or five to a boat, so we assumed it was some sort of club expedition but they caused little trouble and we sailed on thinking no more of it. The second lock, Cleeve Lock had a water point tucked just at the end of the lock landing which we intended to use. The reach from Goring Lock to Cleeve Lock, at 1,100 yards is the shortest on the river so we were there almost immediately and went straight in to find a slightly harassed looking lockkeeper who told us: “I thought I was doing fine this morning then I suddenly had about 50 canoes turn up and now I’m just trying to get everyone through as quickly as possible.”

 

What we had encountered downstream was just the first batch. These gates opened to reveal twice the number of canoes, all with crews in the same yellow jerseys, milling about in the cut. Around them more conventional lock users had arrived and were trying to avoid them including blocking the water point. We threaded our way through and had no choice but to move over towards the weir race and wait patiently, backing and filling, while the situation sorted itself out. As far as we could tell they some sort of taster session with an experienced cox in each boat. They didn’t seem to be that competent and took an age to move into the lock.

Shoal of canoes seizing the lock

Queue created by the canoe jam

While we were waiting the boat on the water point moved out of the way and chatting to them we learned that there was something called “Bunkfest” being held at Wallingford all weekend with many boaters in attendance. The combination of that, weekend cruisers and brilliant sunshine made it likely that we wouldn’t find mooring in the town as we had hoped and that indeed proved to be the case. We found nowhere suitable, in places that would have been two or three boats were already breasted up and so we ended up at Benson Lock. Had a word with the lockkeeper about the mooring available at the lock and he was somewhat hesitant as to whether we could fit on the end of his lock mooring on the upstream side. As we were waiting for the lock to fill he came back and said he thought we would just fit and by the way, we had just pipped two other boats to the post by about three minutes. Clearly mooring genuinely was at a premium today.

 

After a late lunch, we wandered down to Wallingford via the scattered castle ruins. The castle was not that informative and much harder to understand than Berkhamsted. Wallingford is said to be where William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard as he was known to pals) finally crossed the Thames in the course of consolidating his victory, with the support of Wigod the local Lord of the Manor. It is clearly a strategic crossing point and a major castle was built there very early in the conquest on the site of the old wooden fortifications. On the way up from Goring, all along the banks we had seen the outlines of pillboxes and gun emplacements thrown up during the second world war. Clearly, the civil defence teams in the ’40s felt that Hitler’s staff might well aim to emulate William’s approach. You can see very clearly that the wide flat plains between the hills would provide excellent tank country, in the dry season at least.

 

We had a look round at the remains of “Bunkfest”. Mostly, the stalls and stands were packing up in the town centre but performers were still going strong in several of the pubs and the streets remained very busy. At its height it must have been manic and it was clearly a big deal for the town.

 

Having returned to the boat, while Sue prepared a meal and watched Countryfile, I decided to go and have a poke around Benson. It turns out that the town isn’t by the river at all. A busy A road cuts off a segment of land along the water behind which are a lot of very nice, large, secluded and expensive properties. To find the town you have to cross the main road and walk up to the church and the centre. It is pretty unremarkable. It is more of a village than a town, the church looks run down, one of the pubs is now a house and with the exception of the Co-op the shops in the High Street are typically useless ‘specialist’ places dealing with ‘upcycled’ furniture, ‘vintage’ clothing and the like. A true dormitory community.

 

At the top of the High Street I came to The Crown, which had a notice on the window proclaiming “New Management, New Chef, New atmosphere”. Presumably, the latter was code for new customers. It seemed rude not to try out this reincarnation if so much effort had gone into it so I stepped inside for a pint. I wasn’t that impressed, the advertised new ‘atmosphere’ was clearly a work in progress, possibly doomed never to be successful. The most remarkable feature was the pub lavatories. Clearly someone with influence had casually suggested adopting a brewery theme and the minions had taken the ball and rather let it run away with them. Only pictures can describe what I found there:

 

 

Over zealous adherence to the interior design brief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday morning dawned bright enough but chillier, with much less strength to the sun when it broke through. There was almost no traffic on the water in the morning. We had a few miles to go and our route to Oxford would take us into Clifton Hampden and through the Clifton Cut. This cuts off a meandering section of the river that is now navigable for only half its length and has a weir at the top. Nonetheless, the navigable section ends at The Plough in Long Wittenham and as there was mooring shown there we decided not to go through Clifton Lock today but to explore the disused arm and moor there overnight. We arrived at lunchtime just as a boat called “Bumble” was tying up. We had just room to turn and back the stern into the overhanging bushes to moor up behind “Bumble” on a plank and scaffolding wharf at the bottom of The Plough garden. It’s quite a long garden. It takes about 5 minutes uphill to get to the bar!

I told you it would fit!

Where is the Pub?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it was already lunchtime we decided on a pub lunch with our light salad deferred to become an evening meal. Very good food, including home-made shortcrust pie with gravy that turned out to be mostly chicken, bacon & cider filling rather than mostly pastry. We definitely needed to work that off so took a walk back around the long curve of the Thames path to Day’s Lock, from the landward side this time and then straight across the arc over fields from Clifton Hampden back to Long Wittenham. Clifton Hampden, in particular, was a very well-kept hamlet with a lovely old church and manor house in good condition at its centre. At Day’s Lock we were in sight of Dorchester, where we know Jason Moore has family and we were tempted to go and have a look. In the end, the extra couple of miles for the return trip was a bit more than we wanted to do at that point, so we left it for another time.

 

Back at the boat there was a cruiser moored alongside with its crew drinking beer nearby. A number of vessels came up the arm, found no room at the Inn (literally), turned around and retreated back towards the junction. In the end, with the cruiser now departed, Sue took pity on one elderly couple in “Natterjack II” and invited them to moor alongside for the night.

 

Tuesday morning, once our neighbours had cleared away, we hauled ourselves out of the tree and the very shallow water before engaging the propeller and headed back, full steam, towards Clifton Hampden and Clifton Lock. I wasn’t really looking at the chart and somehow thought the turning for the lock was back by the bridge we could see in the distance when, in fact, it doubled back around the nose of an island well before that. We hadn’t attempted a handbrake turn in a narrowboat before, she took it pretty well and we completed a 340° turn, at speed, very smoothly. Clearly one of the benefits of the river; it could have been a real issue on a much narrower canal.

 

We were heading for Abingdon, somehow not expecting very much. Neither of us can quite put our finger on what association with the name had left us both with such a negative view but it was clearly a false perception. Abingdon was far more attractive than we had anticipated and also far more welcoming to boaters than almost anywhere we had so far visited on the Thames. Plenty of mooring was available, free for up to 3 days stay, alongside well maintained siding and beautifully kept parks a stone’s throw from the bridge and main route into the town. There were rings to tie up to and clean, clear notices explaining the terms and locations of visitor mooring versus that available to residents of White Horse Vale by permit only. What we saw as we walked up to Tesco, a mile or two away, along the Ock River Trail looked interesting and seemed to be well documented in signs and information boards along the way. We were now somewhat under pressure to move on and get off the river, with our licence expiring the next day. Otherwise we might well have stayed another day in Abingdon and explored it further. As it was we have made a note to return on another trip and get to know it better.

St. Helen’s Church Abingdon on a lovely autumn morning

 

Moored under the shadow of the church spire, with The Nag’s Head overlooking us from the bridge, we had to go and sample the latter. Not a bad pub, quite a nice position, shame about the self-absorbed and indifferent staff. Still it was a nice place to sit and have a drink at the end of the day. We returned to the boat to the sound of the bells of St. Helen’s as Abingdon’s campanologists warmed up for an evening’s practice. Apparently, Abingdon has a very fine and extensive array of bells that have to be exercised regularly and the ringers meet every Tuesday evening from seven until nine. Not only were we only a few yards away but on alternate Tuesdays they practice at St. Nicolas’ on the other side of town instead, so our luck was in! Eventually one of the regular silences between peals extended to a point where we realised it wasn’t going to start again this time and it was all over. We could now settle down to a peaceful evening. At least we hadn’t arrived on a Friday when the learners’ practices take place.

 

The next day, Wednesday 5th September, was the day our licence for the Thames ran out at midnight. Another fine, dry, bright, sunny morning. Fresh at the start but warming up more quickly than on Tuesday. We felt we should probably try not to get used to this weather; it has to break properly sometime. We planned to moor up near to Oxford that night and then run through and get well out into the Oxford Canal and away from the city outskirts by the next evening. We would be relying on a degree of discretion from the EA through the last couple of locks as we would technically have overstayed. Straightforward run up to the outskirts of Oxford through three locks, including Sandford. Here we found the same lockkeeper we had talked with at Benson who told us what was different about Sandford Lock, apart from the fact that you could see it was even bigger than others we had encountered, at least half as wide again. Apparently, it also has the deepest drop on the non-tidal Thames and to manage the turbulence created in that volume of water, the lock fills from the bottom. The sluices open through pipes sitting on the bottom which then release it evenly to raise the lock level.

 

There is a lot of bank available for mooring on the approach to Oxford and we were aiming for an area just south of Folly Bridge and opposite Christchurch Meadow. Unfortunately, the welcoming approach of Abingdon is not replicated here. It isn’t hostile, just indifferent. There are no rings or bollards to tie up to, the metalled path runs very close to the bank so it is hard to get a secure purchase for your pins, the banks are high and variably overgrown and where shoaling or a shelf underwater prevents you reaching the bank it isn’t apparent or signposted so it is a matter of trial and error. We thought we had found a spot next to “Sans Souci” who had passed us over lunch. In fact there was an obstruction so that wouldn’t worked. We turned around, so easy on the Thames and found a spot downstream that was not ideal. We had not quite finished tying up when “Sans Souci” sailed past. After a brief debate we decided to turn again and move back up to the spot where they had been moored before. It was still vacant and we did get in although it was hardly simple. In the end we had spent 1 hour 10 minutes on the mooring process and we had to conclude that, this had been the most awkward site we had encountered on our whole month on the Thames. On the positive side, nobody was demanding any fees for mooring there.

31 Aug

Week 8 – Staines to Reading

Thursday morning brought persistent drizzle so we stayed put until about 11:00, by which time the sky had cleared and the rain stopped, although the air was fresher than it has been for a while. An overnight guest, who had appeared the evening before, had also cleared away by then. We had just settled in for the evening when this chap appeared, laden with all manner of bags and knapsacks, which he dropped down right opposite our boat and about 20 yards from the bank. He proceeded to collect water from the river, where some steps led down to the water’s edge, cook up a meal, wash out his mess tins in the river again, pitch a small dome-shaped pop-up tent and settle down for the night. The tent was still there when we woke in the morning but by the time we were ready to leave he had already struck camp and moved on. We don’t know who he was, we don’t know where he came from or where he was going. We did wonder what we were in for at first but he caused no trouble, interfered with no-one and when he vanished into the morning, he left no sign that he had ever been there. We did speculate, based on the kind of kit he was carrying, the efficiency of his camping activity and the discipline shown in leaving no trace of his presence; that he might be an ex-serviceman but we have no way of knowing now. In retrospect, we wish that we had engaged with him, just a little, to find out more. After all, what was he doing that was so different from ourselves, other than a slight difference in scale?

 

We set out through Maidenhead on the river and from that vantage point it seemed as unremarkable as we had been led to expect. The river frontage seemed OK but nothing special and we weren’t tempted to change our minds and stop for a tour. Only one lock today, Boulter’s Lock, which we passed through as the sun began to make itself felt again. That took about fifteen minutes so we were tying up at our next mooring after a 2 mile voyage of three quarters of an hour in total. We had chosen to stop at moorings shown on the map as lying alongside the steeply rising hillside of the Cliveden Estate on the Buckinghamshire side. The bank is heavily wooded National Trust land and there are little inlets here and there where posts have been sunk in the bank to tie up to. We found one that we could just fit into but were slightly puzzled as to why, given that this was the only purpose of these posts, they were square rather than round, which would enable mooring lines to slip easily around them. I guess it demonstrates that the NT is a very land based organisation. As evening came near we saw a wide beam approaching, every bit as vast as “Plan B” who had dogged our mooring at both Staines and Bells of Ouzeley. As it came level with us on the opposite side of the river we realised it was a hotel boat. It began to turn through 180° and we realised she planned to moor in a tiny bay 100 yards behind our own. The ensuing half hour of shouting, backing and filling and frequent whining of bow thrusters in action showed that we were right in our belief that they could never fit in the space. Their captain stuck it out, perhaps through sheer refusal to lose face in front of the hotel guests and in the end had her tied up at the stern to a couple of trees, with the bow floating a number of yards out in midstream. With that he declared himself satisfied but we wonder how many of those on board were really fooled that he meant to do that all along.

That’ll Do

Cliveden is a very large estate at one time owned by the Astor’s but even more famous as the place where, in the midst of the cold war in 1961, John Profumo met a young model and embarked on the affair that would ruin him and rock the government, as well lead to the phrase “he would say that wouldn’t he?”. The estate has a trail running between the river and a near vertical hillside with paths climbing up to the grounds and gardens high above, as well as the beautiful stately home that is now a private hotel. We had a good wander round the grounds and woodland walks in a now sunny afternoon and looked at various information boards and exhibitions. One of the latter was ‘Cliveden’s Women’, an outdoor exhibition made up of 20 portraits of women with inspiring real-life stories. To be featured, the women needed to have a connection to Cliveden, however loose. Somewhat surprisingly, Christine Keeler was not included, despite her having had a very ‘loose’ connection with Cliveden.

 

Since having entered the Thames we had got used to the principle of 24 hours free mooring and then having to pay after that. Since leaving Staines, however, despite the general environment having improved from what has, so far, been the low water mark of our trip we seem to have entered the lands of the robber barons. Any Tom, Dick or Harry who has the rights to a couple of yards of river bank, no matter how broken down, overgrown or generally unsuitable it may be, has a right to demand money for mooring against it without any obligations on their part, without being required to maintain any standards with no apparent on limitation or control on the charge they collect and from the moment your mooring lines touch ground. A lot of the moorings are owned by this or that Borough or Parish Council, some are privates estates or just farms with a river frontage. The NT are more than happy to get in on the act. We had to stump up for a night at Runnymede but hadn’t been charged at the Bells of Ouzeley, despite an overstay there. We got away with it in Maidenhead as well. We thought we had escaped at Cliveden too, hidden away in the woodland far below the estate but no, at 09:00 along came the NT warden to collect the fee of £10. At least here it was half price for members of the Trust, so a fiver to us but that too is completely inconsistent with the no concessions approach from the NT at Runnymede.

 

Friday morning was bright but fresh with a strong, cool breeze as we made our way up to Cookham, about 1½ miles in all. This took us through Cookham Lock, which is interesting in that it has two chambers with a full set of electrically operated gates in the middle, as well as at either end. The lock was built this way to allow smaller boats to be brought through using less water. Apparently these gates were decommissioned last year and will no longer be used. It begs the question as to what has changed in these modern times that the EA don’t see a need to save water any more. I thought it was quite the reverse?

 

We found a mooring just past Cookham Reach Sailing Club on an overgrown, uneven bank and just deep enough for us to stay afloat. There was no hesitation in the local authority demanding a mooring fee – £4 this time – despite the lack of any effort to make mooring easier.

 

After lunch we had a good walk around the back of Cookham over Winter Hill, although the viewpoint was obscured by trees and we had clearer vistas on the climb up than at the top. There doesn’t seem to be any such thing as open country around here though. It is a highly populated area and every time you turn a corner there are more people out enjoying the countryside or another lot of houses overlooking the path and every route seems tightly fenced in and controlled. We ended up in Cookham itself and we made our way to the tea shop for a rather mean cream tea. At least the scones were plain but strictly one scone per person that turned out to be served hot having just been microwaved for some reason, perhaps because they were going stale? As it happens we sat inside. Looking out as we poured the tea we realised that, quite contrary to the forecast, it was raining. It was a brief shower, twenty minutes or so but came down very hard and soaked everyone caught in it. It was only by chance that we escaped being among their number so the cream tea did us a favour. Once it stopped we left the shelter of the tearoom and were comfortably back on the boat by the time a much longer and more persistent rainstorm came in about 6 o’clock.

Misty Morning Heron

Happily, the next morning and the start of the Bank Holiday weekend was fine and bright. It was a lot chillier first thing, after the rain and there was a rolling mist across the water. Rearrange these words into a popular phrase or saying: “Is winter coming?”. Our plan was to move up to Marlow early, before people started looking for mooring, get settled in and hole up there until Monday, particularly in view of a consistently horrendous weather forecast for Sunday.

Marlow Approach

We got to Higginson Park in Marlow by about 10:45. While it was very busy we managed to just get in on the mooring there by a water outlet that was supposed to be kept clear. There followed a great game of musical berths. The boat in front said they were just about to leave, the boat that had just arrived said they were happy if we moved into their slot to leave them room behind, then just as we began to haul ourselves into the vacated space another narrowboat, who having just arrived, had not been involved in the discussion began to make a move to moor there. Somehow we managed to sort out the confusion and once the music stopped we had everyone shuffled back and forth until we all had a space. The nice thing is that, on the water, this seems to be generally handled with willing co-operation and good humour. I dread to think what would be the outcome of the same scenario around car parking places in a street in London.

 

Higginson Park Quayside

The park was teeming. The path beside the river was a constant flow of people and cycles in both directions, the ice cream van was parked just the other side of the asphalt path and when we flung open our own side hatch I had half-expected to be asked for a “99” or a strawberry Mivvi. The bouncy castle and children’s’ roundabout were in operation all day. It wasn’t that hot but stayed mild and pleasant and many families and groups of friends were sat out picnicking into the evening. The mooring fee here was a princely sum of £13 a night! It came with free use of the Leisure Centre showers etc. but that hardly justifies that price. No wonder Marlow is so spotless and well cared for. There was an option to moor for free just a little further down, if there was space. In the end, though we settled for simplicity and peace of mind from knowing that it was sorted until we decided to leave.

While sorting out the mooring I picked up some leaflets from Tourist Information and in the afternoon we managed to combine the Town Walk and the River Walk with the WWI walk into one decent tour of the town and we had become reasonably well acquainted with it by the end.

The Compleat Angler

Across the Bridge

No visit to Marlow could be complete without a visit to The Compleat Angler, now a MacDonalds (not Ronald McDonald; the much more high end MacDonald Hotels & Resorts). This famous inn lies on the south side of the bridge at Marlow and we had a very pleasant pint on the sunlit terrace and perused the bar menu without visibly choking on the prices. It must be said it was an excellent establishment of its kind, spotless, very well-maintained, with excellent service. The reason they showed us the bar menu was because they had no tables available in the restaurant that evening, which says something for the affluence of the area. We drank up quietly and crossed back to the shady side to visit a more modest establishment in the High Street, The George & Dragon. We had a great meal there, at very reasonable cost, in a really nice environment and with service we felt was quite as good as the Angler’s. Definitely to be recommended if you visit the town.

 

 

The next day was very different. Everyone we spoke to referenced the heavily trailed downpour, confirming our decision to stay put. I went out early to get ahead of it and have a look at Marlow on the south side of the river. It didn’t take long, Marlow seems to have only a tiny toehold across the water. As you cross the bridge you find The Compleat Angler on one side and the magnificent Marlow Rowing Club on the other, behind which is access to some modern apartments fronting the river that is closed to the public. Beyond that a series of houses, some quite old, some that would have you believe they are older than they are and a few new or extensively remodelled line the road for a quarter mile or so. Beyond that there is nothing until you get to Bisham. It made me wonder why they bothered to include them in Marlow at all. There must be issues in administering a district that straddles the Thames that one could do without.

 

Arriving back at the boat I noticed the 40 minute short trips on Salters Steamers had also been cancelled “due to heavy rain forecast”. We set out for Sainsbury’s at the top of the town, shopping being a suitable activity for a rainy day if you have to have one. We made it there in the dry but by 10:30 the rain had started in earnest. Taking refuge in Costa didn’t help, it was just an opportunity to watch the rain get progressively harder so we gathered our bags and splashed back to the riverside. For the next five hours we watched the steady downpour while getting on with various indoor tasks that have been steadily backing up during this summer, simply because it has been far too nice outside. The scene in the park could not have been more different from the day before. Completely deserted, no ice-cream van and no rides or bouncy castles at the playground. The advertised table-top sale was postponed to another day and the Pirate Pizza oven on the back of a boat further down remained cold. It began to clear about 16:30 and while a few eager souls emerged, mainly to walk their dogs, they were few and far between.

 

The next day was a grey start but drier, despite the saturated ground. It brightened up for the morning and a bit more in the afternoon for a mild, fairly sunny, pleasant Bank Holiday Monday. We got going before nine and moved down to stop short of Henley at Temple Island and were moored up before lunch. We had no need to go into a busy place like Henley on a fine Bank Holiday so we planned to have a walk around the area outside today before moving up to the town tomorrow. We followed a route along the river downstream and then over Aston Hill and Remenham Hill to return along the river via the foot of Henley Bridge. It was a nice walk that took us through a private deer park. We saw a lot of different groups and plenty of stags with a full spread of antlers. The white hart used to be viewed as a rare and mystical phenomenon that led to it being adopted on coats of arms that, in turn, gave rise to many pubs called The White Hart. In this park there seemed to be quite a large number that were pale enough to fit the description so perhaps they have become more common.

Why it is called Temple Island

We were also accompanied by the constant high-pitched squeal of red kites. We saw a group of 5 or 6 circling just one small spinney and many others on the way. Their whining has followed us up the Thames and they always seem to be around. In the 1930’s these birds were close to extinction and barely survived into the late 1960’s, when the RSPB and various conservation groups began concerted efforts to protect and reintroduce the birds to England and Scotland. I am not sure if they took account of the fact that they had come close to extinction because they were regarded as vermin and were systematically eradicated over centuries. They are now as common as muck and enough of a pest to have signs in Higginson Park in Marlow warning visitors to beware of red kites stealing their food, just like seagulls. I guess conservationists should be wary of what they wish for. One can imagine their next project is likely to be launching a campaign to have the birds’ schedule 1 status repealed in order to allow them to carry out a cull.

 

We hadn’t really understood how all-consuming the Royal Regatta is in this area. We were actually at the start of the course even where we moored and walked alongside the regatta lawns for most of their length. You could see how many small items to do with the setting up and running of the regatta were permanently installed just to facilitate that one event. There were markers in the ground every few yards, posts in the roads with numbers denoting parking spaces, metal fences and holes for marquee poles that would all be used each year. Even on a Bank Holiday Monday a team of groundsmen were working on the grass, presumably to repair the damage from this year and let it heal by next year.

 

On Tuesday morning I went out for a recce down into the town and to explore the moorings on the opposite side and beyond the bridge. These town side moorings turned out to be about fifteen minutes’ walk from the bridge, to have limited space and cost the same as those on the regatta side. Now people had left there was plenty of space there that was actually only a couple of minutes’ walk from the bridge across to the town.

 

There are different people and organisations who own the riparian rights along both banks here but all the signs on either side, right down into the town, announce that a £10 mooring fee, for each 24 hours or part thereof, should be paid, on demand, to SRB Moorings. We presumed this was some faceless corporation who had put in a keen bid to secure the business from the different owners. In fact, it turned out to be just Steve (Steve Ryan-Bell), a cheerful rascal who cruises up and down in his small boat to lift a tenner from anyone he finds or to take a photo and leave a note inviting the owner to send him an instant payment via PayPal if the vessel is unattended, as was the case with us. When we moved up to our new berth he called by in person and we had a brief chat with him. He was full of little titbits like which of the buildings opposite had been the boathouse for George Harrison’s Friar Park estate, which lies above the town. Steve assured us we had made a wise decision to stop here. As well as being closer to town he claimed there had been trouble with the local youths on the moorings beyond the bridge, as they lay beside a public park. This may well have been sound advice, honestly given. However, we did realise that he might just have a vested interest as he has no rights to collect any revenues beyond the bridge, Henley Town Council not yet having embraced outsourcing to that level.

 

Neil Payne & Karen Payne paid us a brief visit on their way back from Norway for a stopover in the UK before embarking on their European Grand Tour the next day. This planned holiday seems to get extended every time we see them but it sounds like a great trip and we are sure they will have a wonderful time. We can’t help being slightly jealous. We enjoyed catching up for an hour or so before they had to leave and there seemed a lot we didn’t have time to cover, like the location of the VR postbox I had teased Neil with earlier in the week.

 

Around that visit we explored Henley. It seems a bigger, busier town than Marlow and somehow more self-important. The state of preservation of the buildings seems remarkable. Henley seems to have avoided all the influences that have affected other towns. It doesn’t appear to have ever been bombed or caught fire so wholesale destruction of what went before has not made way for the modern development seen elsewhere. I am guessing the wealth, power and influence surrounding the town during the period over the last couple of centuries when that kind of development was happening elsewhere will also have contributed limiting the degree and type of change. As you get to the outskirts you start to see early 20th century building and some modern office blocks and flats etc. This is most obvious near the station. The coming of the railway was a game change across the nation. Henley couldn’t afford to be left out and it is here that the arrival of the first line and the steady evolution and then decline has taken out chunks of what was there before and then returned it to be built on in the modern style.

 

Like Marlow, Henley’s presence is principally only on one side of the river with, mainly Regatta HQ, the Leander Club and a few other rowing clubs, including Henley Rowing Club further down. Everything else is on the west side of the river. The sheer scale and opulence of these ‘clubs’ is astonishing in itself. The words ‘rowing club’ suggest a rusty corrugated iron boathouse by the river with, perhaps, a wooden shack beside it to serve as a clubhouse for the members. In reality, they nearly all have magnificent premises, solidly built and several stories high, maintained in immaculate condition. The Leander, in particular, is more like a luxury hotel and there are serried ranks of boats housed in secure buildings that look more like modern, state of the art warehouses. Regatta HQ has its own multi story building across the road from the Leander beside the bridge. It has a dedicated wharf for arriving dignitaries and a beautifully varnished, sleek and powerful motor launch moored there ready to be despatched to fetch them.

 

The Henley equivalent of The Compleat Angler in Marlow in fame and position is probably The Angel on the Bridge so we had to pay them a visit. Much more of a pub than the luxurious Angler but pleasant enough, although here they are on the shady side of an evening so we were better off inside.

 

Wednesday was a run down to Sonning with a view to mooring just beyond Sonning Lock as a jumping off point for taking the boat into a marina in Reading. We had an appointment to see our new half-built house in Long Itchington on Friday so we had arranged to take the train from Reading station. We didn’t fancy leaving the boat unattended on the side in central Reading, hence the night booked in the marina. On the way we passed a seemingly endless stream of riverside houses, all huge examples of conspicuous consumption. The wealth in this area really comes home to you when you consider that many of these enormous places are actually just secondary properties to the main residence, essentially the family boathouse.

A Relatively Modest Example

For us, Wednesdays cruise was a longish 6½ miles and three locks but we were still moored up for lunch, leaving time for a circular walk from Sonning to Shiplake and back via a place called Binfield Heath. A pleasant walk in the countryside. The first three miles were back along the Thames Path so along the route we had travelled in the morning. Still, the change in perception afforded by the different perspective is always interesting. The Thames Path is always busy but once that was left behind, crossing the fields and woods, it was deserted. This was probably the first time we had the feeling of walking in open country, without bumping into someone round every corner or finding a housing estate every 100 yards, since leaving the Leicester line at the beginning of July. Mainly illusory, of course, with the Thames Valley Business Park in Reading just visible over the treetops on the way down into the valley. Another sign that we might, at last, be leaving the ‘burbs was in the river itself. The waters were no longer clear and transparent, as they had been at Henley and the banks were quite heavily overgrown, forcing us to hack our way through to bang in the pins. Very much more like the canals, in fact. Furthermore, the mooring arrangement had reverted to a free 24 hours so long as you register your arrival. Good news indeed!

 

At one point, in a small hamlet, there was this sign on a field gate through which could be seen two piebald horses grazing happily.

It put us in mind of returning home to our house in Calleydown Crescent many years ago and finding a horse tied to a tree in next door’s front garden. In that case the neighbour had failed to keep up the livery fee and the stable had just returned them to the owners while they were out. Clearly, there has to be a story here too but one can only speculate what it might be about.

23 Aug

Week 7 – Staines to Maidenhead

Thursday 16th August – must be the shortest cruise ever! Woke on Thursday morning to a fine drizzle that soon became persistent, heavy rain that lasted into the afternoon. We had heard it was coming so had a rainy day plan to stay put in Staines for the day. We would go to Sainsbury’s, just across the bridge, first and in the afternoon we would do a bit of shopping in the town and go to the pictures. We certainly didn’t intend to spend another night with our various friends on the Town hall quayside so, the evening before, I had checked out the lovely new landing outside the Swan Hotel, on the other side of the river and investigated their policy on mooring there. As customers they were happy to let boaters moor there overnight, provided there was room, so we conceived the plan to shimmy across the Thames on Thursday morning moor outside the hotel (also nearer to Sainsbury’s), book a table for the evening and go about our business for the rest of the day. I calculated a voyage of a little under 0.1 miles.

 

10 a.m. in Staines and our old mooring is already busy with two Romanians being harangued by an English woman while all three are drinking tins of lager.

 

We waited a while to see if the rain would ease, while watching anxiously to ensure the staging remained clear. By 11:00 we finally decided that it was not going to let up and donned our wet weather gear, for the first time in months. Just then “Plan B” hove into view with a crew member poised on the bow, line in hand. We had noticed her moored a little further downstream yesterday afternoon and she was a veritable leviathan. A wide-beam to start with, extremely tall and at least 70 feet long. Our hearts sank as it seemed clear they had had the same idea and we feared they would take up the entire mooring. Once she was tied up I had a quick, rather splashy, trot up the towpath to size up the situation across the river. It seemed likely that we could just squeeze in between “Plan B” and the end of the staging we cast off as quickly as we could and hurried across lest any other craft should suddenly appear with the same idea. There was just room to squeeze in so we were set for next 24 hours and 10 minutes’ walk in the rain closer to Sainsbury’s.

 

The little enclave on this side of the river had a rather different feel, part of the old town with a couple of nice pubs and restaurants in a few streets of smaller, older houses and no shops, as such. It seems to be a conservation area known as the Hythe and is in the ward of Egham Hythe. Hythe is an old word for port so presumably, historically, the area was based around the river traffic and crossing. Certainly dinner at The Swan was very pleasant, with our table overlooking the river having a view along it in both directions. A minor celebration, of sorts, as we had received the contract from our boat builder today and made the next stage payment to let them buy the steel.

 

Friday dawned bright and sunny, if a little fresher. Today we planned to head up to Runnymede via Bell Weir Lock and moor there tonight before an even shorter hop up to Bells of Ouzeley, where we had been assured we would find plenty of mooring and we had arranged to meet our engineer on Saturday morning. We found a pretty good site, pleasantly rural to look at, just beyond the National Trust car park at the start of the meadows. The A308 was just a stone’s throw away but over a bank and not really visible so we’ve certainly done worse. The big drawback is that the NT demand £7 a night to moor against their bank with no concessions for senior citizens or members – an outrage! This is the first time we have had to pay for mooring on the Thames but we gather it may get worse through Windsor.

 

We walked up to have a look at the mooring opposite the Bells in the afternoon. It seemed ok but a little cramped and was marked as 24 hours only by the parish council. “Plan B” had taken up residence against a good length of it and right in the middle but they were likely to be gone tomorrow. While we were there we watched a quite stout lady of a certain age unsteadily lever herself down the bank into a dilapidated old rowing boat. The operation took about ten minutes and once seated she took up the oars and began to row across the river towards a narrow channel behind a tiny eyot just upstream. What really had us fascinated was that she was facing the bow of the boat, looking in the direction of travel and pulled the blades of the oars back above the surface of the water, dropped them in and pushed them back through the water towards her. The complete opposite of what we had always thought was the normal technique. It certainly looked slow, clumsy and inefficient. The whole performance began to make us wonder if she was unfamiliar with water and had stolen the boat but the pace of the getaway made that unlikely.

 

We strolled up behind Runnymede and walked back down past the JFK memorial. This is definitely worth a visit as there is more to it than just the inscribed slab. There is a board here explaining how it came to be there and the background to its design. One bit I liked is that there is a step up to it for every one of the 50 States in the US, each made up of over a thousand individual, axe-hewn setts of Portuguese Granite. They wanted the setts laid randomly and each step thus to be unique but “The craftsmen were unable to comprehend this need for individuality, and could only complete their task when the steps were likened to the uneven appearance of a crowd at a football match.”

 

Fifty unique steps up to the memorial itself – one for every State.

The memorial itself – this all sits on an acre of land we gave over to become part of the

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a look at an art work in the meadow known as “The Jurors”, the gist of which we sort of got but not the detail. Everyone else visiting at the time seemed equally baffled and there was no helpful information board here. Another artwork across the meadow, new this year, was like a giant concrete pillbox wrapped around a pool of stagnant water in which words taken from Clause 39 of Magna Carta (you all know it: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”) are reflected legibly from where they have been crafted inversely around the rim. I have included Sue in the picture to give a sense of the sheer size (of the sculpture not of Sue). The only information actually on display by this piece is a list of the bodies who were involved in funding it, presumably to head off at the pass complaints from NT members about where their annual subscriptions are being spent.

 

A new monument at Runnymede

The pool at the centre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On to the monument to Magna Carta provided by the American Bar Association in 1957. Sue swears it wasn’t there when she often visited as a child and I can’t decide if her memory is playing tricks or if she has lied to me about her age for the last four decades. Everyone knows that the Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede, of course. Except that it turns out it wasn’t. It seems no-one knows where it was actually signed. Runnymede was just where the rebellious Barons had their encampment, with the King on the opposite bank. One theory is that it was signed under the Ankerwycke Yew, an ancient tree on the far side of the river. It seems more likely that they actually met on the little strip of ground in the river, just opposite our mooring, now known as Magna Carta Island. Because of the association with his name some people think King John was the architect of this charter of freedoms and even a benevolent sovereign, rather than a failed despot brought to book by his disgruntled investors. I suppose you have to think that if John hadn’t been such a dick, behaving as an arrogant tyrant and merciless collector of revenues, throwing away our continental territory and being defeated by Louis of France, he might never have generated the antagonism and desperation needed to spark the rebellion of the Barons in the first place. History might have looked very different without the remnants of the freedoms listed in the charter having been embedded in English law for so long.

 

Bells of Ouzeley by night

 

Saturday morning we moved up to Bells of Ouzeley and were duly attended by our engineer who spent three hours putting in the switch he had made up in the workshop and fitting heavier gauge cable around the battery and inverter circuit, which he felt would ease the load on the system. At the same time he relished the chance to make it clear that you get what you pay for and half the problem was likely to be the ‘bargain’ batteries I had bought at the Crick show. We didn’t feel at all tempted to invest even more money in replacing the batteries again so, having imparted his wisdom and relieved us of some more pound notes and a bacon sandwich, he went on his way. There is no major ‘fault’ as such, the system is now as robust as it is going to be and we have the knowledge and means to manage around it so we will live with it as it is since we anticipate selling this boat within the next year.

 

We had an amble round Old Windsor in the afternoon. A world away from Staines. A lot of very nice properties some of them not nearly as old as they pretend to be but all very much in keeping and firmly aloof from the bustle of “new” Windsor across the park.

 

As we waved goodbye to the electrician I had a message from Jason Moore. He and Sharan were in Windsor for the weekend and wanted to know if we were nearby. We certainly weren’t far away, being just the other side of Home Farm in Old Windsor. They seemed to have had a great weekend, visiting the castle, taking the open top bus tour and embarking on the river cruise with commentary. They called in to see us on the way home on Sunday afternoon and had a gander at the boat. Sharan seemed shocked at the size of it and surprised by the facilities on board, Perhaps she can be persuaded to become a boat owner after all?

 

On Sunday morning we had left in good time and walked back up past the JFK memorial and out to Englefield Green and Windsor Great Park. This place seems vast and almost devoid of rights of way so presumably access to its many paths is purely on a grace & favour basis. Before going into the park we had a coffee at The Fox & Hounds in Englefield Green, a really well-maintained and managed pub, it seemed to us, worth a visit for a meal sometime. As we then made our way through the wooded park we came upon a game of polo taking place across a very wide field. I don’t know anything about the game but one of the riders managed to hit the ball at least twice and even took it through the upright stick things (is it a goal?). The rest, while cantering back and forth furiously, in a tight bunch, seemed to be playing ‘air polo’.

 

A stroll around the Obelisk Pond took us back up to the Saville (not that one) Garden and the very expensive Gift Shop at about the time the day’s visitors really seemed to getting going. Moving against the tide, we made our way out to the surrounding countryside, heading back towards Runnymede. This took us past the Air Forces Memorial on Cooper’s Hill, which is maintained by the War Graves Commission and is a really magnificent and worthwhile tribute to the 20,000 plus airmen (and women) whose names are inscribed there and thousands more who played their part without being so recorded. The view out from the monument, high up on the hill, is breath-taking especially from the roof.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are many, many steps down the path to the flat meadow below but neither of us had ‘one of our falls’ and we arrived at the NT tea room for lunch unscathed.

 

We were on a 24-hour mooring at the Bells of Ouzeley but had, for once, decided to flout the rules and stay a second night right where we were. By Monday morning we seemed to have got away with it and cast off about 09:30 towards Windsor proper. Before mooring up there, however, we urgently needed to find boater’s facilities to fill and empty the relevant tanks on board. The only place to do this seemed to be Boveney Lock a mile or so beyond Windsor. We duly made our way up there, completed our mission and returned to moor up at Baths Isle (this used to be the site of the public baths) at Windsor. A good enough berth in a place where mooring is at a premium but only at a cost of £8 per night paid to the Water Bailiff on demand. There does not seem to be anywhere that charges don’t apply, your only choice is whether to pay it on the Windsor Castle side or move to the other bank and pay it on the Eton College side.

 

After lunch we went into Windsor town and ran a couple of errands, as well as picking up a self-guided town trail to take us around the place on Tuesday. For Monday we settled for a stroll to the other side and a wander around Eton High Street and the outside of the college buildings. Interesting to see the famous school but you have little idea what you are looking at most of the time. One bonus is that Eton seems to be largely above the high water mark for Windsor tourists so it was much more peaceful than the other side of the river which reminded me of visiting famous landmarks in Rome or Florence.

 

On the way back to the boat we passed the life-size model of a Hawker Hurricane on a stand by the Island. We had no idea why it was sited there but it turns out that the designer, Sir Sidney Camm, was a long-time resident of Windsor. He went on to be responsible for the Hunter and the Harrier jump jet. Despite the Spitfire always seeming to be in the limelight as we grew up, yet another of the many things I didn’t know turns out to be that, in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Hurricane shot down more enemy aircraft than the combined totals of all other aircraft and ground forces.

 

Sir Sidney Camm’s Hawker Hurricane

 

French Brothers’ Boats have pretty much got the river sewn up as far as trip boats are concerned. Giant double-deckers, ten times our size, fully armed with booze and discos and creating a heavy wash every time they pass. Turns out Monday night was race night at Windsor racecourse. Apparently they run a ferry service from Windsor to the racecourse and back every 20 minutes or so all evening using three or four boats. Made for a really rocking evening on our boat!

 

After dinner we thought we should have a look at what our itinerary looks like for the weeks ahead. We have some actual fixed points being leaving the boat and going up to see our new house in Long Itchington on 31st August; getting off the river by 5th September, when our licence runs out and booking in to Cropredy Marina on 18th September to moor up while we go off for our much needed holiday in Devon. A first rough plan suggests we might need to get a bit more of a move on, particularly in the first few days of September.

 

On Tuesday morning we set out to follow the town trail we picked up yesterday. Every day is a school day on this trip but the 57 points of interest covered on this tour had us pretty much overwhelmed. We did catch the changing of the guard, although the small group of Coldstream Guards marching behind the band seemed rather outnumbered by the heavily armed police presence holding back the crowd, all trying to look genial while clutching an automatic rifle with a pistol on one hip and a Taser on the other. Lots of interesting facts, too many to list here (collective sigh of relief!) but to just pick one: It took a 15 year old schoolgirl just 10 minutes to come up with the winning entry in a competition to design one of four 2012 Jubilee memorial. Having been fabricated and installed in King Edward court, it seems simple but surprisingly good. Unexpectedly it was sunny all day but not too hot and with a nice breeze so much more comfortable than the heatwave of July. Exhausted by sight-seeing we had a couple of hours sitting around in deckchairs by the boat before an evening out overlooking the river and the castle on a warm evening that seemed positively Mediterranean.

 

Much greyer day on Wednesday with a trip up to Maidenhead that was heavily interrupted even for us. We had to have separate stops for water, a sanitary station and diesel, as well as lunch. We couldn’t get into Boveney Lock on arrival because two French Brothers warships arrived just ahead of us and took up the whole thing and when we got to Bray Lock it turns out to be rather small; two Tupperware boats ahead of us was all it could handle and we had to wait for another cycle although that gave us a chance to check out the wreckage all around the lock.

 

A feature of the Thames, particularly, as we came up from Brentford was the number of wrecked boats just sitting in the water, like the two we photographed at Sunbury.

 

Abandoned Hulks

opposite the Sunbury Regatta

These had petered out once we got past Staines but as we arrived at Bray Lock we could see two boats caught separately trapped on the weir and another was visible just beyond the lock. It seems one had been stolen by kids, set alight and cast adrift to burn out against the barrier. Another appeared to have just come loose from somewhere upstream and come to rest there months ago. Apparently it isn’t registered so they can’t contact the owner to discuss its recovery. Presumably the owner must be staring at an empty mooring scratching his head but doesn’t seem to have bothered to do the obvious and follow the river down or contact the authorities. The one beyond the lock had been there since April when, the owner having left his lines too tightly tied, it was dragged under the rising waters of a flood and sank. In this case they know whose it is but he is still arguing with is Insurers as to who should pay for the recovery, while the damage needing to be repaired steadily increases.

 

Wrecked on the Weir

 

Appropriately named but burnt out

 

Lost in Bray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We moored up on Wednesday afternoon by a green lawn just short of Maidenhead by the viaduct which is another of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s and is labelled “The Sounding Arch”. It’s singular claim to fame is that: “the brick arches are the widest and flattest in the world – each span is 128 feet with a rise of just 24 feet”. It appears that the board of the GWR didn’t trust the design and were so nervous that they insisted the wooden framework used to support the arches during construction should remain in place as additional insurance against it collapsing under the weight of the trains. Brunel’s critics were finally silenced when this wooden support was washed away in floods a year or two later and the bridge stayed standing.

 

Brunel’s low profile viaduct

 

We hadn’t been to a supermarket for fresh supplies since Staines the previous Thursday so we headed out, on foot, to both Sainsbury’s and Tesco beyond the railway station. Walking up there was fine but returning with four heavy bags of shopping wasn’t going to be much fun so, as we are now outside the Oyster zone, we decided to try the bus – exciting! The bus stop was opposite Tesco, we didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes, the driver did take cash and setting us down at the closest stop it saved some pain. However, with two fares, the bus journey of just under a mile cost £5.00 and left us ¾ mile from the closest road access to the boat. On balance, we would have done better to call for a taxi from inside the store, we think.