Regular readers will recall that we had made our way down the Grand Union to a company called BLS based alongside Heyford Fields Marina near Nether Heyford. Expectations that they would fit a new heater to finally resolve the issue with our central heating system were foiled, firstly by the failure of the necessary parts to materialise and finally by the declaration of a nationwide Coronavirus lockdown. We were forced to abandon the boat on the quayside at the yard and retreat by taxi to join the great “Stay Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives” campaign. As the restrictions are easing at last I thought it might be time to bring things up to date.
The Benefits Of Boredom
Although technically closed for the lockdown period it was less than three weeks before we had a phone call from BLS. The parts had eventually arrived and as the engineer was a) bored and b) able to just get on with it on his own, they had completed the installation. This was good news but there wasn’t much we could do about it at the moment as we weren’t allowed to leave the house, much less visit the boat.
As they seemed to be at a loose end we did also ask them to look at installing a changeover valve for the gas cylinders. The connection we had was a piece of rubber tubing with a gas regulator on the end. When a cylinder runs out it is usually after dark, almost certainly pouring with rain and always half way through cooking a meal so it can’t just wait. Having to find the gas spanner and mess about unscrewing the regulator from one cylinder and screwing it back on to the full one isn’t that big a deal. How much nicer to just turn a valve to connect the full cylinder and deal with the empty at one’s convenience, once the sun is shining.
It was another few weeks, at which point they were working out how to open up properly again, when they came back with a price to make your eyes water. However, since we hadn’t been asked to contribute anything towards either the new heater or any of the labour to install it we decided to go ahead, especially as, with a temporarily reduced order book, they could complete the work within a week.
A Question Of Interpretation
With the first easing of restrictions, announced by Boris Johnson on 11th May, the Canal & River Trust advised us that their restrictions were also lifting. Leisure boaters, as we are classed, could at last visit their boats and even take them out on the canal. However, presumably by dint of being lumped in with owners of second homes and caravans, they were not permitted to stay on board overnight and should avoid using fixed infrastructure assets, such as locks, if at all possible and should return to their home mooring. Obviously, these restrictions meant that one couldn’t get very far, although longer journeys would be permitted for essential purposes.
Mulling over this latest information we concluded that we were permitted to visit and move the boat, that we should be moving it to its home mooring and that, as it was impossible to do this otherwise, we could not avoid using the sixteen locks in between. As it would take several days to complete the move, however, we would need to drive to the boat in the morning, move it some distance and then drive home to avoid staying on board overnight.
We didn’t want to waste anybody’s time by asking for permission, like everybody CRT were very busy and short-staffed. We would adopt our interpretation and seek forgiveness if we proved to be mistaken. There seemed little likelihood that anyone would take the slightest interest in us in any case. Accordingly, we visited BLS on the Tuesday and went over the work with them – at an appropriate distance. They did ensure that they were close enough to explain what they had done and how tricky it all was. They also regaled us with the usual catalogue of things they wouldn’t have done that way and had had to put right in order to complete the work ‘properly’. This is standard banter when one tradesman works on something previously delivered by another but in fairness a number of the points they identified were clearly very valid and the word ‘cowboy’ never passed their lips. The heating was fired up and the radiators heated up quickly but as the steel boat was in the full glare of the sun on a very hot day (25.8°C) it wasn’t the ideal time to try and run a definitive test. We settled up for the work on the gas and got the boat ready to leave.
Leapfrogging Our Way Home
We had a day off for Sue’s birthday and Bracken’s appointment at the hairdressers but on Thursday 21st May we travelled back over to the yard and set off on our rather disjointed journey home. One of us would drive the car and leave it somewhere up ahead on our route. Then, using the folding bicycle or shanks’ pony, head back and re-join the boat. Having passed the current parking spot we would then walk or cycle back to get the car again. On Thursday we stopped short of the last couple of locks on the Buckby flight, where it was convenient to access the road and headed home for the night. Friday got us through the last couple of locks, Braunston Tunnel and down the six Braunston Locks to moor on the towpath outside Braunston Marina. Returning to set off again on Saturday morning gave us the opportunity to get breakfast from the newly re-opened Gongoozler’s Rest narrowboat café (takeaway only). A pleasant, gentle cruise through the beautiful scenery around Flecknoe saw us safely moored up just above Calcutt Locks, immediately before the entrance to our current home mooring at Calcutt Boats on Saturday afternoon.
The weather, despite some periods of heavy cloud, had mainly been hot, dry and sunny. Nearly, but not quite, perfect. Strong winds that they had been predicting all week arrived as expected and by the time we reached Calcutt they were gusting at 30-40 m.p.h. Far better to moor above the locks and leave the tight manoeuvring in the marina until the winds had abated on Monday. Besides, we wanted to top up with diesel and the marina wharf had gone onto Covid-19 hours, only opening Monday to Friday for limited hours.
The forecast was correct and when we returned on Monday morning the wharf was open and the wind had dropped, so all was well. That is until we arrived back at our berth to find it occupied by “Our Bijou”! The next berth was empty, though, so we just popped it in there for the time being. A quick check with the office established the other boat was just there for the day before going in to be painted tomorrow.
What Now Then?
After a long period of enforced inactivity it was great to be able to get afloat again for a few days and having decent weather for the trip made a nice change. Nonetheless, being back in the marina was a bit of an anti-climax. Now we were back on our home berth we couldn’t go anywhere because we still weren’t permitted to stay on board overnight. Our original plans for the summer, heading down the Kennet & Avon and back up the Severn had already been abandoned. With so much uncertainty about how and when things might change and what would be available even when we were allowed out we decided it would be best to save that for next year and keep to the midlands area for now. We also made the decision to keep our current mooring, which had only been booked until the end of May until September. That way we knew we had somewhere to keep the boat safely, could go out when we were able but would be free to come and go as events and our own whims dictated. Last year the marina hadn’t wanted to talk about winter mooring until October. This year they clearly favoured the bird in hand and were happy to confirm that we could moor here from October to March as well.
All winter we had been looking for the opportunity to do some maintenance on the boat, in particular painting over the previous summer’s battle scars. It had been so consistently wet, cold or wet and cold since we had returned in November that there hadn’t been much chance to do anything. Almost from the moment the restrictions began to be imposed things had taken a turn for the better, with weeks of fine, dry, settled weather. Useless to us of course, since the boat had been thirty miles away and we had not been allowed to visit it in any case.
At least now, with the boat local to home at least we could do some work on her during the day. Rather surprisingly, the weather stayed fine for a while, though any painting needed to be done early in the day or it would now be too hot! We did get that done and gave the whole boat a good clean inside and out. We cleared out the stove and swept the chimney and put a fresh coat of varnish on the woodwork around the stern companionway, which is always exposed to the weather when we are moving with the hatch and stern doors open. We also talked to someone about fitting a pram cover that could be raised over the stern and provide some extra covered space while moored up. We arranged for him to do that some time in late July, although exactly when remains to be seen.
Every couple of weeks we would talk to Jamie at Aintree Boats, just to keep in touch and keep the ball rolling on his commitment to redo the paintwork for when some semblance of normal life restarted. We had thought that was the final task outstanding but while cleaning up the galley one morning, Sue noticed the worktop was sagging in one corner. Closer inspection showed that, right behind the gas oven under the top, there was no longer any support for it. Very difficult to see and impossible to get at without disconnecting and removing the oven (not something we are qualified for). More in hope than expectation, given that the warranty expired three months ago, we e-mailed Dave at Aintree about it that Sunday afternoon. Amazingly, the very next day, we had an e-mail back saying that he has us booked in for August 19th to come and fix it! Fingers crossed, this might be one more headache we don’t have to deal with ourselves.
The latest announcement, lifting restrictions to allow the opening of pubs and restaurants from Independence Day, included letting people to stay away from their primary residence overnight. For us that is all we needed to be able to get out on the cut. Since hire fleets were also allowed to start operating and we know they have all had a surge of immediate bookings we chose to leave it a few days to let the first rush disperse but aimed to leave on Tuesday 7th July. Nothing fancy, a short local trip to start with but hopefully the summer will stay with us for while.
A Sting In The Tale
One item that was finally off the snagging list was the central heating, of course, although we hadn’t had much call for it since the work had been completed.
Whilst up at the boat, on a day when the weather was a lot cooler than it had been, it seemed like a good opportunity to fire up the central heating and have a nice warm cabin to go down into when it was time for a break. We put the heater on and it started to roar into life. A few minutes later we suddenly realised we could no longer hear it and found that it had simply stopped. In addition, when we lifted the deck boards, there was quite a hot smell and a slight trace of fumes. We waited a few minutes and tried switching it on again, this time nothing happened at all.
An urgent phone call to our friends at BLS to find out what I could possibly have done wrong. The boss answered but was driving and asked me to ring Dave (another one!) who had done the work. We managed to get him straight away and he got us to look at the diagnostics on the controller. There weren’t any, which seemed to give him pause. He said he would finish his current job and then come over to us. When he arrived he rummaged around at the back of the heater and came up with a blown fuse. Apparently, the manufacturer has been through a phase of fitting the wrong fuse rating, too low for the initial power required to heat the glow plugs for the diesel-fired heater during the start-up cycle. He fitted the correct fuse and the heater fired up straight away, a relief to us both we suspect.
Cutting the power completely, halfway through the start-up cycle, is one of the worst things you can do and effectively this fault had done exactly that. It doesn’t cause permanent damage but the processor gets confused and things are out of sequence so, once power is restored, it then needs to be stopped and reset correctly to get everything back into sync. Fortunately, as Dave had had to come out, he was there to make sure that was done correctly and stayed for half an hour or so to ensure it was running smoothly. It was a bit disappointing to still have problems after all we had been through with this but to be fair from the time we rang them to when he left with the unit back up and running, including the time to drive over from the other side of Daventry, was about an hour and a half, so we can’t really fault their service. It just leaves us slightly nervous about what might go wrong in the future. In the meantime, however, it did get the radiators very hot, very quickly.
“Parting Shot” went into the water on 13th March 2019, so last month saw the end of the twelve month warranty period – not generous for a sizeable investment, particularly one so heavily imbued with idiosyncrasy. I thought people might like an update on where we stand at this point.
We’ve gone from trying to address large items that were simply not finished or hadn’t even been delivered and fitted, to reporting issues with sealant on the windows and minor leaks in the skin fittings etc. It has taken time and patience arranging and re-arranging snagging trips but by and large all the things that we have raised that are going to be fixed have been fixed, with just two notable exceptions.
Looking at the final version of the snagging list, some things were questions we raised or things we didn’t fully understand. A couple of the other items we just wrote off as being too much trouble, for too little gain, to force the issue. Almost everything else had been addressed, one way or another, by the end of 2019. Since then, although we have been on board a fair bit for various reasons and despite having endured an incredibly wet and windy winter, we haven’t found any new issues.
For fans of statistics:
Queries & Clarifications
Fixes & Resolution
Snagging List Total
In general I have found that, when you get to the end of a project like this, the issues not yet put to bed have a couple of characteristics in common:
o They will be significant but just tolerable, although for how long it is difficult to quantify objectively.
o Their solutions will be expensive and difficult to implement, with no absolute certainty of success.
These factors also make it likely that they will have been one of the first issues reported. The latter is true of our first problem, although not the second.
Issue 1: Some Like It Hot
Essentially from Day One we have complained that the central heating just isn’t working properly. Given enough time it heats up and heats the boat but it takes literally hours to get there. Since this has been a running issue from the start it is still a warranty item and we have to acknowledge that neither Aintree nor the heater suppliers, Eberspaecher, have ever tried to dodge the question or pretend there is nothing wrong. Each cycle in their working to address it, however, is punctuated with very long pauses while they think again and come up with a new approach to investigate it or with a different fix.
First, in April, Aintree changed the pipe layout, quite an invasive exercise so it was good that we weren’t living on board then. In May they came to meet us at Rugeley and made more changes to the pipework in the saloon. Over the next few months Aintree were in discussion with Eberspaecher. We did wonder if this was true but when I spoke to them myself they confirmed they had had several conversations with Aintree about how to proceed. In September, Eberspaecher sent two of their own representatives to meet us at Nantwich. They were very quick to acknowledge that it wasn’t doing the job but they had to get the original and current pipe layouts from Aintree, which they received in October.
Based on that, Eberspaecher eventually recommended another pipe change, which Aintree carried out in November. Since there was no improvement Eberspaecher wanted to engage their own narrowboat specialist, near Northampton, to investigate further. Of course, Christmas intervened so it was 9th January 2020 before they and Eberspaecher met us at the boat. Having swapped the control unit on the heater from a 4 kW to a 5 kW unit they fired it up and were forced to acknowledge it still wasn’t getting hot enough, fast enough.
Along the way we had been through the self-doubt and questioning of our own expectations, various discussions about the radiators themselves and a number of conversations about the various heater sizes and the need to work them hard:
Appropriate Expectations: In the end it was clear that it wasn’t just us, the system was not meeting anyone’s expectations and needed to be sorted.
Radiators Deployed: We had specified the radiators, just because we were told to say what we would like. Nobody had flagged our choice as being a problem. It turned out that neither Aintree nor Eberspaecher were familiar with this style, so they were always a bit of a question mark in the back of our minds. However, Eberspaecher’s narrowboat specialists knew of them and didn’t believe they were a problem.
Correct Sizing: All the parties repeated several times that 4 Kw should be enough for a boat and system of our size and that it was important not to over-specify the heater. Too powerful and it would not work hard enough and so would have a propensity to coke-up and ‘short-cycle’, apparently a very bad thing. However, the tests run with a 5 kW control unit seemed to demonstrate that 4 kW or even 5 kW was not enough.
The conclusion reached was that the whole heater should be changed from the current model to an 8 kW version. Something all parties went away to discuss with their various headquarters and accounts departments.
As it happens, later in January and while we were out on our one trip over the winter, still waiting to hear what was happening next, I bumped into Tim, who used to service the heater on our old boat. I mentioned what was happening and he made a casual comment about a couple of factors that he felt “boat builders generally don’t understand or at least forget”. This conversation bugged me after that, to the point where, later in February, I asked him to come over and check it out in case we were planning major changes unnecessarily that would just make matters worse. He agreed and turned up with all manner of monitors, meters and measuring gear. He did check out the “usual suspects”, which were actually all OK. However, while we waited for the system to warm up (or not), we did a little arithmetic on the output of all the radiators etc. on the boat. We ended up with a figure of 5.5 kW plus the calorifier, for which we didn’t have a number. I have no expertise in this but to the untrained eye it would seem unlikely that either 4 kW or 5 kW of input would ever be sufficient then. As importantly, the margin between 8 kW and the actual amount required was not so great that we would need to be concerned that it was over-specified.
Having put that nagging doubt to bed we started a more active programme of chasing the parties involved. If you make enough calls and speak to the right people direct, you can eventually cut through the miasma of outdated and false information that people love to create and arrive at a single version of the truth accepted by all. By Friday 13th March (slightly ominous) we had established that:
o Eberspaecher would pay for the kit through a distributor called Espar.
o Their narrowboat specialists, BLS, were ready to do the work.
o Aintree Boats would pay the costs for the work by BLS.
o Espar had the kit ready to despatch to BLS near Northampton.
o Everyone had given and received the necessary authorisation.
All that remained was to agree when the work could be done, for which we ended up making arrangements with BLS direct. The first thing to emerge was that their quote was based on the boat going to their yard. Mohammad could go to the mountain but not with his welding gear, so the mountain must come to Mohammad. Secondly, it was a two day job and we could not stay on the boat while they were working on it or overnight. Finally, the heater was not yet with them from Espar.
Since we wanted to make a trip anyway and allowing enough time for the kit to reach them, we settled on leaving our berth on Sunday 22nd March to ensure we could be with them first thing on Tuesday 24th. We then booked a B&B at The Navigation, just up the road, for Tuesday night, so that we could start back late on Wednesday 25th March. I imagine you all know what was coming next!
The Coronavirus situation was steadily heating up over the next week. On the Friday before we were due to leave all pubs and bars were shut down. Checking up the next morning that meant, sure enough, our B&B booking was off, as all areas of the pub would be closed. In the meantime, although the heater had left Espar early in the week by courier, it had still not arrived at BLS. Their view was that if it wasn’t there when we arrived we could leave the boat with them until it was available and the work was done. After a bit of debate we spoke to John, our local taxi driver, to see if he was still taking bookings. He was, so we decided to go ahead and get him to collect us on Tuesday and bring us back home for the night. We would be fairly isolated on the boat and we would just have to risk the car journey if John was up for it. At the time, of course, nobody knew how things were to change a few days later.
We had a great cruise. Setting out about ten-thirty on Sunday we had fine weather, light breezes and sunshine all the way. Mooring up at Nether Heyford, about half an hour from BLS, on Monday afternoon we had a nice walk with Bracken to go and scope the place out and came back through the village of Nether Heyford, which looks a really nice place. By now, we were already advised to stay away from people so we didn’t explore very much but returned to the boat. There we turned on the TV and heard the news that we were all on strict lockdown for the foreseeable future – awkward!
Given our situation, we had no real choice. We moved up to BLS the next morning, another fine day and with a great view of a barn owl hunting in the field beside us on the way. Arriving there we tied up and called Gary to come down and stand the other side of the slipway to give us instructions. Sure enough the kit was still in limbo and its arrival now seemed even more unlikely. We packed up more luggage than originally planned, closed everything down and waited for John to collect us, leaving the boat on their wharf and the keys on board.
Punctual as ever, John whisked us back to our car at Calcutt Boats in half an hour and we headed back to Long Itchington to join the rest of the nation in staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives, while wondering what on earth was going to happen next!
Issue 2: A Lick Of Paint
Whatever else one might find to complain about, the paint job on “Parting Shot” was stunning. Most Aintree owners tend to agree that this is a strong suit and it makes sense, since Jamie Greave who runs the company started with the paint shop as his trade. It is the one thing on which everyone else there defers to him and his eye for the right colour and telling detail is as strong as his technical knowledge. He steered us in the right direction on a couple of areas and we are very glad we listened.
So good does the boat look, especially with the sign-writing added, that we spent the summer listening to any number of unsolicited comments, on the look of the boat in general and the paint finish in particular. It needs to harden for six months or so and then it can be polished. Having moored up for the winter this was one job that didn’t seem temperature dependent and we went to make a start on it a few weeks later. That was when we noticed that there were small bubbles in the paintwork, a handful of them were immediately noticeable but, once spotted, a myriad of tiny pinheads could be identified right across the surface. In fairness, from five feet away you can’t tell that they are there.
Having taken some photos and sent them to Jamie we managed to catch up with him on the phone before Christmas. A reassuring conversation, in a way. He can see there is a problem, which may have a couple of causes and could be a reaction to cold temperatures, which at that time we had had a couple of times. In his experience they may well disappear of their own accord and we should look to see if they are still apparent in the Spring. The reassurance was a commitment, if they persisted, to take the boat into a dry dock and redo the top coat as necessary.
Winter came and went but the pinheads did not. Despite seldom reaching as low as zero degrees all through this dreary, wet winter they continue to be clearly visible. Having taken a few up to date photos we contacted Jamie again as the end of the warranty approached. Another positive discussion, with no arguments or equivocation. He immediately offered to arrange to get the boat into a dry dock convenient to us, at a time when the weather should be more suitable, say June or July, to do the repaint. He would even arrange for Robin Wagg, our sign writer, to come down to recreate his masterpiece on the new paint.
Obviously, as this was mid-March and beyond, Coronavirus intervened here too. The next step was to identify a dry dock, in a convenient place, that had space for a booking at the right time. When the lock-down came the people Jamie would need to contact were no longer around or were too uncertain to want to make new bookings and Aintree Boats themselves closed down a few days in. The ‘essential’ category was probably stretching it and the workforce weren’t in any real position to practice “social distancing” in the yard.
Whatever Next? . . . Who Knows?
Plunged, as we are, into a situation reminiscent of the plot of so many apocalyptic novels and films (“28 Days Later”, “Day of The Triffids”, “Cell” . . . . substitute your own favourite here), who can say what will happen next? Or when? So far, we have the realisation of an overwhelming threat to everyone in the population. This is met by urgent and draconian measures to control the situation by limiting movement and closing for business, in expectation of a healthcare system about to be overwhelmed. This will be by patients with a disease that is communicated instantly and inevitably by its victims who, until it is too late to be of use in preventing the continuing tide of infection, lack any symptoms or diagnostic markers that can be seen and for whom no actual curative treatment is possible. So far, we have followed chapter one of these stories pretty closely so we have to hope that we will not continue along that plotline to the ensuing total breakdown of our social order, alongside the transformation of the population into a mass of crazed zombies / vampires / tripodal vegetables etc. Or perhaps, looking at the behaviour of the baying press pack, it was already too late for that before we started?
Assuming that the tide is stemmed and there is an eventual return to something approaching what was once thought of as normal, it remains to be seen whether the commitments made will still be honoured, or indeed if the various parties will all still be there to honour them. As for when that might be, it is anyone’s guess. Watch this space!
For over two months after returning home “Parting Shot” had been moored up at a nearby marina with nothing more than a couple of trips around the island in the middle of the marina basin. This was partly due to a series of dental appointments, some family affairs to be dealt with and yet another Christmas and New Year interruption. In truth, however, wave after wave of wet, windy weather blown in from every quarter had made venturing out any further rather unappealing.
Early in January a long range forecast suggested a period of drier weather later in the month so we had made tentative plans to have a short trip some time then. As the time approached, the forecasts stayed unusually consistent, with just some minor shifts in timing. By the third week we felt confident enough to prepare the boat to set out on Friday the seventeenth when we were assured there would be a window of at least a few days of settled high pressure, cold but largely free of rain.
We settled on a short run north to Braunston and then up the Leicester Line to Crick and the Welford Arm for a night at The Wharf Inn. We would turn there to come back the same way. Travelling over the same route isn’t as dull as it sounds since you always seem to get a different perspective and there are plenty of options to ensure you don’t end up stopping in the same places on the way back as you did when you were heading out.
We had taken so much off the boat to be cleaned, repaired or just stored in the dry that re-stocking it and preparing for the off was a day’s work on the Thursday. At the same time, one final check of the stoppage list on the CRT website threw a slight spanner in the works as the navigation was closed at Stokley’s Bridge from mid-January due to work being undertaken on the bridge itself by Northamptonshire Highways. This would make the Welford Arm inaccessible from our direction and force us to turn back at Elkington Bridge, the last winding hole before the stoppage. Still, it didn’t seem worth changing our plans altogether so we would just have a shorter day or two.
Friday started out fairly bright, after a wet night and we set off about ten thirty, straight into the three locks at the marina entrance that take you up past Calcutt boats towards the junction with the Oxford Canal at Napton Junction. As we left the top lock, heading up the short stretch past Napton reservoir the air got damper and we could see a weather front coming in across the flat land ahead. It seemed we were to be let down once again as light spitting became a more persistent drizzle that turned to heavy rain by the time we had rounded the turn and were heading up towards Braunston on the section of the Oxford Canal shared by the Grand Union. A rather unpleasant hour or so, made all the jollier by having to pull over and take a trip down the weed hatch to clear some debris from the propeller. It did blow through, however, and we moored up by the Stop House in Braunston to have lunch in some rare sunshine.
Part of the reason for coming through Braunston was to visit Tradline, who have their workshop in the old forge in Braunston Marina. We have found that, whenever we find ourselves bow on to a jetty or the bank, our front button often glides effortlessly over the top, leaving the front stem to rest against the side, grinding up and down with the movement in the water. We had talked to Pete & Karen at Tradline about some additional fender work to protect the stem and arranged to call in on our way past. Pete is a classic craftsman, full of enthusiasm and expertise, although sometimes a bit hard to pin down. There is strict demarcation in place, however, Karen handles the money and manages the schedule. So Pete came out to where we were tied up on the towpath, had a look and measured up his proposed solution. We strolled round to the workshop half an hour later to agree a price with Karen. This was Friday and we expected to be going back past on Tuesday so, no promises, but they would try and have it ready then, as Pete would need to fit it himself.
By now time was getting on and the afternoon sunshine was weakening. We hadn’t set ourselves too hard a target, however, as we had planned to go up the first two locks and moor there, a short walk from the Admiral Nelson, which offered a warm, welcoming atmosphere for an excellent evening’s refreshment.
Return To Crick
We had a good first year with our original boat as permanent moorers in Crick Marina and we got to know the village and the area quite well. Our next stop was planned to be on the towpath at Crick with a nostalgic trip to The Wheatsheaf on Saturday night.
It was a frosty morning but crisp, dry and sunny with very little wind; an ideal day for winter cruising. We had four more locks to clear on the way out of Braunston, which soon warmed up Bracken and I. From there we passed through the Braunston Tunnel and out on a straight run down to Norton Junction, where we would turn sharp left onto the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal.
We had one deadline, imposed by restricted opening times placed on the Watford Locks that demand the last boat through be there by a quarter to three. Somewhat ironically, given the weather, these restrictions, which came into effect in October until the end of March, are designed to conserve water! In fact we found ourselves at the bottom of the locks by about one o’clock and stopped there to top up with drinking water. There are water points at both the top and bottom locks but past experience had taught us that the pressure at the bottom is far better than at the top. You could be waiting there for an hour or more before enough water to fill the tank dribbles through the hosepipe.
With so little traffic we were probably the third boat the lock keepers had seen that day so they were keen to get us through, if only to keep warm themselves. From the top of the locks it is a nice run to the final obstacle, Crick Tunnel. At under a mile it doesn’t really figure in the list of notable canal tunnels but does have the merit of being very straight. It emerges in a cutting just short of the main road with towpath mooring on the left hand side and we tied up there just around half past three.
Sunday morning was a little disappointing. Frosty, yes, well below zero but dank and foggy with it. Since we had a short day ahead, due to the stoppage, we didn’t hurry and decided on a hearty brunch before setting off. The sun started to come through about ten o’clock and by the time we got going at eleven it was a brilliant crisp, clear, sunny day – the sort we should expect in winter but had seen precious few of this year.
Breaking The Ice
Just before we left some canoeists set out from the landing by the bridge and seemed to be making heavy weather of it further down the cut. As we got a little way past Crick Marina the reason became clear, there was ice on the surface of the water. There had been no sign of this back at our mooring and we were a little surprised to see it as we hadn’t thought it had got quite that cold. As we progressed, however, it was clear that there was a thin sheet of ice, about a quarter inch thick, covering the whole surface of the canal. With so little traffic on this section we were now the ice-breakers.
It is not recommended to travel by narrowboat through ice. For something that is just cold water it is amazingly strong and you can see the pressure of your passage pushing it against the banks. It will damage the blacking on your hull and more importantly your boat will force it against the hulls of boats moored at the side and damage them. However, this was really quite thin and by keeping the speed right down we seemed to be able to progress without suffering any particular consequences. There was certainly none of the angry fist waving from moored boats we passed that normally greets a careless driver who fails to slow to tick-over when moving alongside.
Sue steered the boat while I walked with Bracken on the towpath in the sunshine. Very pleasant, apart from the state of the towpath which, after such an exceptional winter, was just a morass in many places, to the point where, at times, you could simply not keep your footing and risked sliding into the canal. By the time we reached Yelvertoft Wharf we had had enough and jumped back on board.
We carried on to the final accessible winding hole at Bridge 28, turned with minimal difficulty and headed back to moor in the sunshine a few bridges further back. We had cruised for about three hours or so and were all tied up by about quarter past two. By the time we made the turn the ice had mostly melted. There are always chores to do but in a sheltered spot with the sun on the boat a couple of hours splitting logs, sorting out the toolbox and cleaning out the engine bay made for a pleasant enough Sunday afternoon.
Retracing Our Steps
Monday gave us another cold, frosty morning with, if anything, a slightly thicker crust of ice on the surface of the water. Overcast at first, the sun made its appearance before ten o’clock to provide a brilliant, crisp, sunny trip right through to the evening. Still a bit unsure about this cruising on ice business we sent a quick message to Neil Payne for the benefit of his greater experience. Reassured, we set out about eleven o’clock to retrace our route back past Yelvertoft Wharf, Crick Tunnel and the Watford Locks to moor up at about three o’clock just before Norton Junction ready to make the turn next day.
By the time we had passed through the tunnel the ice, which had been getting steadily thinner had almost completely disappeared, with no sign of it even in the shadows. No doubt the morning’s sunshine had played its part but we were convinced an invisible boundary, somewhere by Crick, marked a significant change in temperature. Certainly the lock keepers at Watford, for whom we were their only customers that day, told us they had seen no sign of ice all day. We had a lovely cruise in the sunshine and passed only one other boat on the move for the whole day.
Another nostalgic visit was to the New Inn at Buckby top lock, just around the junction. Sadly, I had to be the sole representative of the whole crew. They don’t allow dogs inside and sitting outside in the dark as the temperature fell didn’t appeal to any of us, so Sue and Bracken stayed on board.
Calling In For A New Look
On Tuesday it started out a bit grey. It was still cold but while we could see ice in the water it was much thinner here and not even completely joined up. By ten o’clock sunshine came through again and stayed with us until about three. We would be going back through Braunston and calling in at Tradline in Braunston Marina to have the new fender fitted. To get there, of course, we would need to pass through Braunston Tunnel and work our way down all six locks. We got them on the phone as we were at the top lock and they confirmed they had the ropework ready and were all set to fit it.
We got into the marina about one-thirty. I had been slightly concerned about the approach as there is a lot of activity around the marina entrance with services, a dry dock, workshops and the marina shop all crammed into a small space around the wharf where we needed to moor up. In the event, however, it was quite straightforward and once we had arrived it was a bit easier to see how we could turn around in order to leave again.
Somehow, we always seem to meet Pete at this time of day. I dare say I am doing him an injustice, nevertheless he always gives me the impression of having just returned from a substantial liquid lunch, the aftermath of which lingers round him like a scented cloud. Whatever the truth of it, it seems to have no effect on his performance. By three o’clock we were on our way with our original button cinched up tight, where it can do most good and a brand new rope “moustache” suspended half way down the stem. To be honest, first impressions were that it was rather skinny and positioned a little higher than I felt would be effective. Full credit to a skilled professional, however; Pete’s assurance that it would drop a little over time proved entirely correct and the evidence to date is that it is very effective indeed, keeping us clear of the marina boardwalk that previously we had rubbed against constantly.
By now we were losing the sun and the air was steadily getting cooler again. We planned to moor at another favourite spot below Flecknoe. We had no more obstacles in our path and once we had made the turn onto the South Oxford it was a trouble-free cruise down to Bridge 101 and we were moored up for tea by four o’clock. On the way we played leapfrog with a kingfisher hunting along the bank. Of several attempts this was the best we could do to get a picture of it with a mobile phone while steering a moving boat.
The Final Leg
The night’s mooring was a hop, skip and barely a jump from our berth at Calcutt Boats so we had plenty of time for a walk up the hill to Flecknoe on Wednesday morning. Usually there is a good view from there over most of the surrounding countryside. Today, however, we were shrouded in thick fog right through to midday and the skies continued grey and overcast all afternoon. Nevertheless it is a nice circular walk and given that this was only late January it was just nice that the temperature was mild and for once the rain stayed away.
Setting out on the boat about eleven o’clock we were back at the wharf in Calcutt by twelve-thirty to fill up with diesel etc. As well as being mild and dry there was very little wind, extremely rare when at a marina, so it was even easy to get back into the entrance and manoeuvre onto our berth.
All in all we had had a great trip. Despite a damp start the forecast break in the weather had materialised. The cold is never half as miserable to deal with as is the constant rain of the past few months and we had enjoyed a lot of really great sunshine. The forecast from here on is far from promising so this may well be our only cruise this winter so we have to be grateful we were able to get that.
Saturday, 26th October continued the theme of the last few days – very wet. The rain which had been drumming on the roof all night showed no signs of stopping and the towpath was essentially a narrow muddy ditch just a few inches higher than the canal itself. At this point we were just outside Warwick and could easily have got as far as Stockton Locks, a few minutes walk from our house, if we wanted to push it all day. We didn’t. Instead we had planned to get through Warwick and Royal Leamington Spa, which are virtually conjoined, then stop opposite the church at Radford Semele for the night and move up to Long Itchington on Sunday.
Being just at the top of Cape Locks we would have to work through them as soon as we left and we realised that one thing we did have going for us was an excellent wi-fi signal, with a Rugby World Cup semi-final kicking off at nine o’clock in the morning. Watching TV at this time doesn’t feel quite right somehow. Under the circumstances, however, it seemed sensible to settle in and watch the match before setting out, by which time, hopefully, the rain would have eased off. As we all know, it was a fantastic performance from a side that had clearly reached the top of its game at exactly the right time to see off the All Blacks 19-7. This would surely have been more but for some dodgy video replay second guessing and a couple of missed kicks. Even then if we had not messed about with the lineout at just the wrong time it would certainly have been a whitewash.
Not knowing then, as we know now, that England had peaked too soon and would offer a sad shambling failure in the final a week later, we could bask in the warm glow of an unexpected victory for a few days. Just as well as, at the end of the match, the rain was undiminished and we needed all the warmth we could get as we headed down through the locks. Thankfully, there were only these two locks for the day and by the time we had reached Tesco Warwick at the Emscote Road Bridge the rain had at last stopped for a while, allowing us to moor up and do a last bit of shopping.
The Curse of the “Harry Hudson”
Our idle fellow travellers of the day before will have had to get up early and move on, whatever the weather, as their boat was due back at Kate Boats in Warwick early on Saturday morning. The turnaround must have been very swift as we were just about to finish lunch and cast off again when round the sharp left-hander under Bridge 46 came a very long narrowboat which pulled over and attempted to tie up behind us on the part of the off side bank intended to provide a buffer and a passing place for boats negotiating the tight, hidden bend.
We didn’t think too much of it and carried on down through Leamington Spa, now almost as familiar to us from the land as from the water. we got to Radford Semele in renewed afternoon drizzle by about half past three. This is a lovely spot in the summer with the canal sitting above a nature reserve, the River Leam running through that to the North and a fine, old church dominating the high ground opposite, to the South. The church looks as if it has stood there undisturbed for centuries and, indeed, parts of it date back to the eleventh century and Domesday. It turns out, however, that the whole thing was completely gutted by fire at Easter in 2008. The current building was restored and re-opened in 2013, looking much the same as it always had outside but with a considerably updated interior.
Sunday morning was quite the contrast. Temperatures dropped to 2°C overnight with a thick frost over the whole boat but the sun rose in a clear blue sky and stayed with us all day. The frost soon melted away and with a busy ten locks to get through over the next four miles the exercise was bound to warm us up.
We got up through Radford Bottom and the first two Fosse Locks and passed the “Harry Hudson” again, moored at a water point. As they were just about to reel in their hose, we said we would wait for them at the next lock. There was a lot more traffic around today. Some of it might be due to people who had been stuck indoors for days taking advantage of the weather but a good deal of it was going West, coming towards us. It mainly consisted of boats hired from bases at Stockton and Napton, which had presumably picked up their boats either on the Friday afternoon or Saturday morning and were out for the half term week.
We waited at Fosse Top Lock with the bottom gates open. A boat arrived to come down and we told them we were waiting for one boat on the way up. This was the correct thing to do, in order to conserve water by working the lock once for two boats, rather than have to empty and fill it twice to travel singly. It was the right thing to do but nevertheless, as we continued to wait for “Harry Hudson” to appear, the delay extended and the atmosphere became increasingly tense. At last she hove into view and slowly approached the lock while we stood by to receive her and close the gates to begin operation.
There is something about this boat that seems to suppress the eager, co-operative spirit you usually find on the canals. The new crew were far younger and more sprightly than the previous complement. One middle aged man seemed to be in charge. A woman, presumably his wife, was on board. There was one boy on the roof who seemed to want to get involved and at least four teenage girls sitting in the well deck at the front. Despite this wealth of youthful muscle and energy only one person left the boat to open the paddles on their side and everyone else stayed on board.
This pattern was repeated over the next four locks, with just Bracken and I trudging on alone, once the first lock was closed, to get ahead of the boats and start filling the next lock, into which, once we had opened the gates, the “Harry Hudson” would then serenely sail. At one point the matriarch began to remonstrate with the girls, threatening sanctions if they didn’t leave the cabin and come outside immediately. “At last”, we thought, “these idle adolescents are going to be put to work”. It turned out, however, that she was just annoyed because she wanted to take a group photo of them on the boat with her iPhone and they wouldn’t co-operate, being too busy pulling one another’s hair.
The last set of locks, the Bascote Staircase, requires double the turns of the windlass to raise and lower the middle paddle and as we approached that I decided enough was enough and told them they needed to get the boy off the roof and put him to work on their side of the locks which, in fairness, they did. We let them go first up towards Stockton as we wanted to top up with water on the way but also because we wanted to get rid of them at that point.
A mile further on, just after one o’clock, we found ourselves a space just past the Two Boats Inn at Long Itchington, moored up intending to leave the boat here for a few days and took ourselves off to the pub. Here we were able to sit comfortably out by the canal, basking in unaccustomed sunshine, over a couple of pints and a steak and stilton panini. A pleasant lunch stop to mark the end of our journey before strolling home to fetch the car.
The Final Leg
We were due to take the boat into Calcutt Marina for the winter on the first of November. Looking at the forecast, however, Wednesday, 30th October, looked a lot more promising than Friday so we spoke to them and arranged to go in early. In the meantime, we visited the boat daily, collecting things to take back to the house and doing some maintenance on the boat itself.
Wednesday actually lived up to its billing. Fortified with a hearty breakfast at The Buck & Bell we set out about eleven o’clock in brilliant sunshine that lasted well into the afternoon. Some complicated logistics were involved to ensure that, having moored up for the winter in Calcutt Boats about five miles away, we would have the car there to bring us home. Nonetheless, it was a fine day for a cruise, even with another ten locks between us and the marina entrance. By now, the half term hirers were well on the way round their various cruising rings so we had a pretty much uninterrupted trip and a CRT lock keeper all to ourselves to help us on our way.
With Stockton Top lock behind us that should have been it for the day but we needed to make sure the diesel tank was full and to get a replacement for the gas cylinder that had run out in the middle of preparing our evening meal at Merry Hill. That meant going up through the first two locks to reach the service wharf, turning round and coming back down the same two locks to reach the marina entrance. For once the wind, which usually complicates any attempt to manoeuvre in the open water of the basin, was fairly light and we were able to reverse into our berth without mishap. Now all that remained was to shut down the water and gas, turn off all electrics except for the battery charger and head home for the winter.
Staff at Sherborne Marina had been keen to reassure us work on the site would stop by five o’clock on Friday evening and they were as good as their word. It was a bit of a shock for Jen, though, when it started again at eight o’clock on Saturday morning. We had hoped that they would not work at the weekends but it sounded as though the whole site had burst into life. In fact, when Bracken and I went for a walk, it turned out that the only activity was two guys and an angle grinder playing a symphony in concrete and steel. Unfortunately, they happened to be just twenty feet from the boat.
Jen & Sue went shopping and as expected they weren’t seen again until five o’clock, an hour or so after Jen’s partner Dave had arrived. In the morning I somehow managed to watch England in a quarter final of the Rugby World Cup, a game in which, for the first time, the team showed enough ability to spark some belief that they could be a winning side. Perhaps, after a pretty lacklustre lead-in, Eddie’s plan was really coming together and they would peak at the right time for a big finish?
The whole area by the canal outside the marina had been heaving all day on Saturday. With Legoland and the Sea Life Centre, as well as all the bars and cafes along and behind the waterfront, a lot of the crowd were parents with small children, many dressed up as, I was told, characters from Frozen because 100 years of Disney On Ice was also on at the Arena. We went over to the Malt House in the evening at about six thirty and the pub, which was busy at first, slowly emptied out. According to the barman this was normal on a Saturday night and their main business was during the day. It was fine weather throughout the day and even though it was getting colder we were able to sit outside on the terrace looking over the canal junction for an hour or so.
North And South
On Sunday morning nobody turned up for work so Jen got her lie-in before deciding to go for a run around the nearby Edgbaston Reservoir, if only to justify the full English breakfast Sue had prepared for her return.
Breakfast was essentially brunch so it was nearly noon when we got going. The first stop was to go up to the junction with the mainline and turn back in the opposite direction to our planned route in order to get to Sherborne Wharf canalside facilities and, at last, fill up with diesel. It still baffles me how this can be the only fuel point in so many miles given the amount of boats that clearly have moorings in the area as well as passing travellers.
There is a small brick shed on the towpath close by the Roundhouse, right next to The Distillery pub. There is a diesel pump, a pump out station and Elsan disposal as well as a gas cage and supplies of wood, coal and kindling. You sense that, now The Distillery is a fashionable and popular pub, there has been some tension between that and Sherborne Wharf. You have to let them know if you want to stop for fuel and they send someone round to open up. If you need a pump out there are very strictly limited times when you can get it done. It has to be before noon or after four o’clock to protect the olfactory sensibilities of the lunchtime trade.
Having warned them we were on our way round there was someone at the fuel hut waiting for us. She was a pleasant, friendly woman who told us that, while she and her partner live on their boat all year round, they had just returned from a trip to France the day before, during which they had purchased a gîte with a view to moving out there. I don’t know where she stood on Brexit itself as, at this point, asking anyone that can only open the door for potential discord and hostility. What I have found is that, even if they have diametrically opposing views on Europe, any two people can find instant agreement and harmony in their being heartily sick of the whole business, disgusted by the inability of our politicians of any stripe to grow up and find a way forward together and massively embarrassed at the laughing stock we have made of ourselves in Europe and all around the world. This was true again this morning so we parted on good terms and can wish them well on what sounds like an exciting venture.
As we were now facing the wrong way it was tempting to attempt a turn in the entrance to the marina just a few yards further up the canal. Discretion took the better part of valour, however, as that entrance has an extremely tight angle coming our way. A much larger and more convenient winding hole is formed by the Icknield Port Loop at Rotton Park Junction just half a mile further on. Jen & Dave had taken Bracken for a walk and re-joined us as we were fuelling up and enjoyed a brief cruise in some quite pleasant sunshine as we turned and headed back into the centre to drop them back at Brindley Wharf so they could drive home.
We carried on through Gas Street Basin to leave the BCN and pick up the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Worcester Bar, with a ninety degree right hand turn almost immediately after that. As we headed down the next stretch towards Edgbaston Tunnel we passed a small army of teenagers in Hi-Vis armed with magnets. Rather than being locked in a fierce free-for-all, no-holds-barred, magnet fishing competition they all appeared to be under supervision by CRT on an organised Sunday afternoon clean up squad to drag the countless bits of random metal out of the bottom of the canal. Not only was it highly commendable but they all actually seemed to be enjoying themselves as well.
Shortly after the short tunnel you pass through a University area and then into Selly Oak. As you approach a bend and a bridge, ahead, there is a huge new Sainsbury’s on the towpath side of the canal with a convenient wharf right outside it. Of course, there are no mooring rings or bollards to tie up to, no Armco to hook onto and no way to drive mooring pins into the hard concrete surface. Moving on under the bridge there is a mooring but with room for only one long boat or the two floating sheds that were already tied up there. Supplies were needed so there was no choice but to pull in and stand there like a lemon, holding the centre line, while Sue walked back to the supermarket and got what we needed as quickly as possible.
From here there are a couple of miles past Cadbury’s through the notorious Bournville area before you reach King’s Norton Junction. On hire boats in the past we have been warned that you should never stop moving passing through Bournville, never moor there overnight and keep one eye out for any activity on the bridges. On this run, certainly, we didn’t see any threat and, compared to past trips through, it looked as though the area was better kept and less run-down than previously. We even saw a secure mooring for visitors close to the station there. Nonetheless, it is all very built up and not a particularly pleasant landscape for mooring. The urban sprawl continues round the turn into the Stratford Upon Avon Canal at King’s Norton and we had already decided that the first point where we would be happy to stop for the night was about three miles further on from there, at Warstock.
A couple of hundred yards after you have made the turn into the Stratford Upon Avon canal you pass through a Guillotine Stop Lock. These are quite rare and apparently more common in East Anglia. The gates at each end of the lock are designed to be lifted vertically (like a guillotine blade) to allow the boat to pass underneath Once again the main purpose of a stop lock was to prevent water flowing from one canal to the other, whichever happened to be higher at the time, while each canal was under a separate commercial ownership. Since the canals were nationalised in 1948 this is no longer an issue and the gates are permanently locked open. This design seems to be more complicated and need more maintenance when in use but requires less space and does not need room for the gates to swing open. This sample seems to also use less space by being extremely narrow and we lost another fender on our way through.
There were no more obstacles on our route except Brandwood Tunnel, only 350 yards long and suitably straight, before reaching our intended mooring. Warstock may be on the outskirts of the Birmingham conurbation but it is no rural idyll. The mooring, right opposite a bus station yard, is just before a bridge which carries a busy road across to several parades of shops that include a large Co-op supermarket and a huge MacDonald’s “Drive Thru”. Nonetheless, it did have a couple of water points. It was already well past four o’clock and getting colder with a threat of rain so a good time to moor up for the night.
For the next day we planned to go only as far as the Wharf Tavern, Hockley Heath, a hugely unambitious six or seven miles with no locks or any other obstacles. It would provide a good jumping off point for us to head down thirteen locks on the Lapworth flight on Tuesday so we were anticipating a gentle and relaxing day of straight forward cruising. There was time to start the washing machine before we got going and Sue also decided to wash her hair before we started. This was fine, right up until the moment she turned on the hair dryer, following which all appliances using 230v mains power stopped working!
After a minute or two of confusion it was obvious that we had overloaded the inverter. Having worked out what had caused the problem I strode confidently to the services cupboard, aft, to reset the circuit breaker, which would obviously have tripped. Nothing happened. The power refused to flow, the inverter remained resolutely inoperative and no mains powered devices would work. As I had now exhausted my expertise in this field it was time to call Lenny the Electrician and ask what else to look for. To be fair, despite being initially unavailable, he came back pretty quickly and after a brief discussion identified that we had almost certainly overloaded the main fuse, which would need to be replaced. He managed to explain how to find it and what I must absolutely NOT do while trying to repair it, which was helpful. However, no repair was going to happen without a replacement 400 Amp MEGA fuse, which I could be fairly confident would not be available at your local convenience store. The mysteries and magic of electrickery continue to elude me so I chose not to explore the question of why all events surrounding the electrical system never seem to trip the relevant circuit breakers before burning out the fuses behind them.
In principle, this situation should not be a real disaster. The 12v system was intact and the most vital systems on board such as the water pump, lighting circuits, shower pump, central heating etc. all run from that. However, for reasons known only to Aintree but presumably having to do with cost, the mobile internet connection and WiFi, both televisions and the cooker are all mains powered as is, of course, the microwave. It would be nice, therefore, to get this resolved before nightfall.
The boatyard we had passed just half a mile back was closed on Mondays. The next one, five miles further on, didn’t have them in stock but could get one tomorrow afternoon. Swallow Cruisers had them on the shelf but they were a mile beyond our planned mooring. They were also closing at three o’clock and as it had already taken quite a while to get to this point it was gone noon before we were even setting out. Far from enjoying a leisurely cruise down to Hockley Heath, we were now in a race against time.
There were no shortcuts to be made going by road and the churned up state of the towpath meant that cycling there wasn’t really an option. In distance terms we calculated that we should be able to get to the mooring by about two thirty at normal cruising speed, but that would depend on how many stretches of moored boats we would have to slow to a crawl for. The whole trip became an exercise in calculating and recalculating whether we could make the mooring and walk on from there in time or exactly when it would become necessary for me to leave the boat before we got there, if it seemed I could walk faster than the boat could travel in order to get to the boatyard in time.
In the end I jumped off at the bridge before the Wharf Inn and legged it up to the boatyard, phoning them en route to confirm I was on the way. I got there a couple of minutes after three, grabbed the fuse and a spare to keep on board and headed back to where Sue was now moored up. Ten minutes later I hadn’t electrocuted myself or shorted out the new fuse, everything was back together, mains power was restored and we could relax at last, keeping the engine running so Sue could finish the washing, whilst taking care to switch nothing else on.
Easing Down To Hatton
Some time ago we had arranged to meet Mike & Lesley Fielding on Friday to help us down the Hatton Flight. We had allowed a little leeway for the unexpected but, as we had managed to keep to schedule all the way, we now needed to spin out the time a little or we would be there too early.
Tuesday’s plan covered a paltry two and a half miles but included two lift bridges and thirteen locks which would take an extra three hours or so to get through, leaving us two thirds of the way through Lapworth Locks at a handy mooring beside The Boot Inn. The guy at Swallow Cruisers, who had sold me the fuse, had warned me that they had a crane coming in first thing this morning. As we wanted to call in there for services we left it until about ten thirty before we got going. It had been dry overnight and, despite a dull start, by this time the weather was brightening up so we had a pleasant trip down. It was a nice sunny afternoon once we had moored up so a chance to sweep all the leaves off the roof, clean off the accumulated guano and do one or two other jobs on the outside of the boat. A trip to The Boot provided firm evidence that we were no longer in the north, with the price of a pint of beer soaring to five pounds ten rather than the four pounds or so we had got used to.
Wednesday’s hop was even shorter, two miles at most and only six locks on the way. From our overnight mooring the next few locks take you down to a junction where a strange triangular arrangement gives access to the Lapworth Link, a short, one furlong stretch of canal that connects the Stratford Upon Avon canal to the Grand Union at Kingswood Junction. You can take the right hand lock straight ahead to continue down the rest of the Lapworth locks and on to Stratford Upon Avon. If you choose the left hand lock it takes you on to the link and the junction with the Grand Union.
We turned right at the junction and moored up less than a mile further on, opposite the Tom O’ The Wood pub. Not as nice an afternoon as it was the day before but good enough for a walk along to the next bridge and up into Rowington for a fairly dry route back. As well as spotting a VR post box to photograph for Neil Payne, the route back to the pub brought us through a field alongside an area of goat enclosures. As we left it via a kissing gate Bracken let out an enormous howl and we thought one of us must have trodden on her paw somehow. It turned out that, as we were working the gate, she had been sniffing the wire separating us sheep from the goats and had had her first encounter with an electric fence. She didn’t seem to have been harmed at all but she was certainly thoughtful for a few minutes.
With heavy rain starting in the early evening and temptation close at hand we went across to the pub for a meal in the evening. Bracken was fairly co-operative, as long as her chew lasted, so we were able to have our dinner and a drink in warm, comfortable surroundings, rather than being forced to sit outside in the rain.
Thursday’s trip was another short one, maybe four miles with just one short tunnel on the way. This would put us at the top of the Hatton flight ready to start down the twenty-one locks on Friday morning and hopefully meet our helpers on the way down. We could easily have done this section the day before and just spent the day at Hatton Top and we soon wished that we had. Heavy rain followed us down all the way, so a damp, uncomfortable cruise. Any gaps between showers in the afternoon were very brief and it didn’t seem likely that the rain would clear tomorrow either.
Helpful “Harry Hudson”
We first noticed the “Harry Hudson”, an enormous Kate Boats hire craft as I took Bracken out for a walk on Thursday night, simply because it was tied up on a water point we planned to use just before the top lock. With a wet day and many, many locks in prospect we had decided to start the day with a full English breakfast at the café situated between that top lock and the next one down. As we left the premises we saw that “Harry Hudson” had left the water point, dropped through the first lock but was now tying up in the pound right outside the café. A group of rather elderly boaters were in the unsteady process of disembarking and heading inside. One of them did offer an explanation that they had a lady on board who couldn’t walk very far. We couldn’t help noticing that, despite the wheeled walker in the front cockpit, the lady in question was the first one through the café door entirely unaided.
We returned to our boat, moved on to the water point and then worked our way through the top lock and into the next one. By this time the crew of the “Harry Hudson” had finished their breakfast so, with some misgivings, we did the decent thing and waited in the rain while they got back aboard and came to join us in the lock.
At first one of the elderly gentlemen on board brought his walking stick up onto the lock side, closed the lock gates and went to help the youngest of their team, probably around fifty, open the paddles for the bottom gate. As we progressed down the locks the one man who had been doing anything disappeared into the boat and the younger woman continued to do her best, although it did seem that most of the work on both sides of each lock was being done by Bracken and I.
We were probably nearly half way down when Mike & Lesley arrived, after parking at the bottom and walking up. Ahead of us we had caught up with another boat that had an adult and two kids on board who seemed to be being taught how to work the locks. They didn’t seem to be in any hurry and the grown up kept having to get off to help the children work the gates and paddles, so Lesley actually spent most of the time helping them, in order to keep things moving.
Meanwhile Mike and I carried on working our locks behind. Shortly after their arrival the lady from “Harry Hudson” slipped on the wet grass and landed on her backside. Slightly embarrassing but no real harm done except a pair of wet trousers. It was with some surprise, therefore, that we gradually realised that, having gone back on board to clean up a bit, she wasn’t coming back out. She seemed to have taken Mike & Lesley’s arrival as a signal that her efforts were no longer required. Mike and I were left to close the gates for each lock as the boats left, fill the next lock and open both gates. Sue would bring our boat in, then “Harry Hudson” would pull over at the entrance landing, the woman would get off and close one gate behind them coming in. Their gung-ho helmsman liked to get up a bit of speed coming in and was undeterred by the hefty smack he delivered to our starboard quarter on one occasion. The woman would then leave Mike and I to open the paddles and the gates at the far end and hurry back on board before her boat dropped into the lock. With each passing lock Mike’s indignation rose another incredulous notch and the hints that perhaps this was not acceptable became broader and broader. Not as broad as their hide was thick, however, since they gave no acknowledgement and just carried on as before.
At last we cleared the final lock on the flight and carried on another mile, past the Saltisford Arm, to moor up just before Cape Top Lock and opposite the Cape Of Good Hope pub (not the famous headland eight thousand five hundred miles away). The rain had just about stopped for the moment and after four hours on the trip we were ready for the comfort of a warm, dry bar, a cold, wet pint and a spot of lunch.
As we crossed the lock to the pub “Harry Hudson” arrived and adopted their usual practice of never tying up more than ten steps from their destination, whether there was a mooring there or not. The infirm old lady routine had even less credibility this time as they were in the spillway for the lock and breasted up to two other boats they would have to cross in order to reach land. Still, the fire was going and there was a warm welcome inside so we could forget about this strange behaviour and relax.
We don’t seem to hear much about the Stourbridge Canal. I’m not sure it features in many of the popular holiday ‘ring’ routes. There isn’t much in the way of recommended moorings along the way and there are quite a few warnings about stopping overnight. We had reports that it was very overgrown causing difficulties in navigating it and once you enter it you are firmly committed to a journey into the Black Country and the intricate labyrinth of canals, loops and backwaters of the BCN – Birmingham Canal Navigations. Most people are familiar with the big city and bright lights of Gas Street Basin and the re-vamped centre of Birmingham that lies at the end of this journey. On our last trip in this area, however, the route to get there was quite a post-industrial wasteland so we weren’t quite sure how much we would enjoy the trip.
On Sunday morning we woke to heavy rain that finally seemed to have stopped about ten o’clock. We set out from Kinver then and headed up the Staffs & Worcs for three more locks before the junction. We may have been foolish enough to mention that we have had surprisingly few problems with things stuck in the propeller on this trip. In the last lock, Stewponey, we hit double trouble.
First Sue lost reverse completely and we had to stop the engine and get the weed hatch open, at which point a heavy drizzle started. In the event, there was nothing wrapped around the prop, so we assumed that whatever was causing the problem initially must have been dislodged in the meantime. In trying to re-fit the weed hatch, however, I found that the hundreds of little square wood chippings, derived from some enthusiastic CRT maintenance upstream, were jamming in the lip of the hatch underwater and stopping it seating back in place. I had to pick each little piece out individually until we could lock it back down.
Engine started, back off the boat, lock gate open and Sue engaged forward gear. There was an almighty thud, the engine stopped and the silence was broken by the high pitched warning alarm from the ignition. Pulling the boat through the gates by hand we tied up and went back down the weed hatch again. This time there was certainly something there. The propeller was jammed rock solid by a large piece of wood. Thankfully, a few minutes of pushing and shoving managed to loosen it up and I began to pull it up through the hatch. It turned out to be a section of tree about three feet long and at least five inches thick. Clearly this was a branch that had been cut but then dodged the woodchipper and gone straight into the canal. It is bad enough having these problems but it is a bit rich when they are caused by CRT’s own maintenance efforts.
Stourton Junction is only just beyond Stewponey Lock so, with propulsion restored, we soon made the turn to arrive almost immediately at the foot of the first of the four locks of the Stourton flight at the start of the Stourbridge Canal. As we worked our way up the rain finally stopped and we arrived at the top in time for Sue to prepare a toasted cheese sandwich for a lunch we could have on the move.
Once you leave the locks behind it does feel like a bit of a backwater. There are more reed beds encroaching on the width of the canal than we had seen for a while and pretty much open country beyond the fringe of trees along the towpath. In the next couple of miles the only thing we passed of note was the Bell’s Mill Fishing lake with its heavily advertised café and tackle shop. Looking through a very serious-looking secure fence, that went on for ages, it is clearly a big operation.
The Town Arm
At this point, when you look at it on the map, you are passing through a sort of rural spearhead into the massive urban sprawl of the West Midlands with The Black Country to the north and eventually Birmingham itself to the east. Crossing an aqueduct over the River Stour, through the arch of the next bridge, you can see the gates of a lock blocking the route. Between the bridge and the lock is the junction with the Stourbridge Town Arm, heading off to the right just inside the outskirts of this conurbation.
Travelling down this arm you follow a properly made up and well used towpath beside some suburban housing estates. Lots of people were out walking and cycling on a Sunday afternoon. There are a few industrial units on the off side, most of which seem disused. For some reason, presumably to do with the nature of the ground and the relationship with the river alongside, as you get closer to the town at the end of the arm the building recedes and the canal seems to be going through more open country again.
The arm is just one and a quarter miles long ending at a canal basin and the Bonded Warehouse, with The Old Wharf Inn sitting on the main road just beyond. The Old Wharf Inn is a pleasant but unremarkable refurbished pub. The Bonded Warehouse was originally built in the eighteenth century and now has three stories. It has a particularly distinctive semi-circular east end to the building and it is owned and run by Stourbridge Navigation Trust who have restored and refurbished it, along with the canal company offices across the cobbled lane that leads down to them from the outside world. They run various events at the Bonded Warehouse as well as hiring it out for all kinds of functions.
The Trust also seems to run a secure mooring area in the narrow basin that houses a number of permanent moorers and also offers a safe haven to any visitors, when space allows. The Bonded Warehouse also boasts some basic services and it lies opposite a winding hole, the only way to turn and go back up the arm. We had tried to contact the secretary of the trust to book some secure mooring in the basin but it turned out they were on leave that week and no-one else could work the diary. Instead we tied up on some rings that were provided where the canal takes a sharp left turn about a quarter of a mile before the end of the arm.
We had received very little feedback on the town arm but what we had seen recommended not mooring any further up the branch and seemed to imply the area was quite dodgy. We didn’t find any reason for concern and with a lot of new development and a small, newly established, grassy park area just ahead of us it was even quite pleasant.
We were aware that there was an Open Weekend scheduled for 19th / 20th October which would include a rally of old canal boats but we had assumed that, a week earlier, we would not be caught up in it and would be well out of the way by the time it got going. It turned out that preparations were under way and the boats were already arriving. Several more appeared in the afternoon and into the evening. The last couple had nowhere to moor so one breasted up alongside a CRT work boat that was tied up round the bend and another reversed back up and positioned himself across the mouth of an abandoned backwater right on the bend itself.
Monday morning brought some unwelcome news. My brother rang to let me know our Mother had passed away overnight. It was both unexpected and unsurprising. At the age of ninety-five she had become increasingly frail over quite a long time but these things still come as a shock. Given that we were a hundred and fifty miles away, with no car, there really wasn’t very much we could usefully do at this point, other than to keep in touch.
When looking at places we would pass through, Stourbridge had at least offered some sort of Town Trail available online to follow and there was supposed to be a Tourist Information Centre. We headed off to find that but drew a blank as the present occupiers of the building told us it had moved to different premises and then had closed down. The online trail could not be downloaded but had to be followed on the browser. Fortunately, mobile data seemed to be pretty good in the town so we traced the route as best we could on the phone.
Stourbridge has plenty of residential streets with long terraces dating from the nineteenth century and a very occasional corner shop. All the activity in the town is enclosed in a very fast, busy ring road with a heavy reliance on the underpass as a means of getting pedestrians from one side to the other. In this respect it is reminiscent of Wellesley Road in Croydon and the tunnels are every bit as attractive.
All the places thought worth mentioning at the time our guide was written are in this beleaguered enclave which, effectively, constitutes the original town. We covered the ground looking at the various sites briefly described, mainly civic or religious buildings with a bank or two thrown in. Much had changed from the original description but the main elements are still there.
We came away rather underwhelmed. Once inside the half dozen streets involved you can forget the traffic whirling round the outside and it is a nice enough place. We found an excellent French Deli for a baguette and a coffee where we could sit outside with Bracken. However, nothing really seized the imagination and the tour was over pretty briefly. Perhaps the unexpected rain half way round clouded our view, it certainly dampened our enthusiasm to follow other trails listed to explore, in more detail, the history of Stourbridge’s involvement in the glass industry and it’s association with locomotives. By mid-afternoon we returned to the boat to pick up mundane tasks like Tesco shopping, renewing our house insurance and to have a first think about funeral arrangements; all activities which felt better aligned to the afternoon’s weather.
Back Up The Junction
To get back to the junction at the top of the Town Arm we needed to fill our water tank and then turn around, so on Tuesday morning we started off by breasting up to the boat that was moored directly on the water point just ahead of us and then went down to the very end and the winding hole at the Bonded Warehouse. As we entered the secure mooring area boats were double and triple breasted so it didn’t look as though there was much room for manoeuvre. The situation was further complicated as, while we were getting water, a horde of excited, chattering children had passed us heading in the same direction. By the time we got there they were getting settled into a few large canoes which was all happening right on the service dock and immediately opposite the turning point. It looked a bit risky for them (at 18 tonnes they probably weren’t much of a risk to our boat) but we didn’t have much choice so we made the turn, managed to avoid them and got moored up stern on at the end of the arm and had to walk across to use the services. Once we were finally ready to leave we were now, of course, some way behind the canoes which were being inexpertly paddled by the children who were far more interested in non-stop talking to one another than listening to the few adults in charge. Fortunately, I had spoken to one of the latter back at the Warehouse and agreed that if we blew the horn they would let us past and that more or less worked.
At the top of the arm there is very little space between the bridge from the left and the first of a long flight of sixteen locks to the right. Slap bang on the lock landing was the CRT work boat ‘Stour’ which, we came to realise, had been moored there solely to allow the crew to make themselves at home and brew up a cup of tea. Once again we had no choice but to moor alongside them and scramble across their boat to get on shore to work the lock. We had twenty four locks to get through today and this first flight lifts the canal nearly 150 feet altogether. We had some luck today, though, as we found most of the locks set in our favour, since boats were coming down for the Stourbridge Festival and we also got some help from a BCN volunteer.
On the way we passed the Red House Cone Glass Museum, the last of many such cones in the area and one of only four left in the country. Built in 1794 it was still producing glass in 1936.
We also passed the rather congested Dadford’s Wharf, which houses a professional narrowboat painting service. It must be quite a juggling act to get that blue boat out!
At the top of the flight we took the junction to the right. To be honest, I had quite forgotten that we needed to do this and had to do the narrowboat equivalent of a frantic handbrake turn when I suddenly realised that the inviting passage straight ahead was actually the short dead end of the Fens Branch. For the moment we were still on the Stourbridge Canal but two serpentine miles further on we reached the foot of the Delph Locks and the start of the Birmingham Canal Navigations – the BCN.
Into The BCN
I’ve no idea if the old saw about Birmingham having more miles of canal than Venice is true or whether there is even any sensible comparison to be made. I am told that the Birmingham Canal Navigations totalled some one hundred and sixty miles of which 100 miles are now navigable again. It is a network of old contour channels, more modern straight cuts and endless loops, and wharves and backwaters that served the industrial powerhouse that once earned Birmingham the title of “Britain’s second city”. The BCN alone could provide the basis for a trip of several weeks in its own right. The names provide a sense that you are now travelling along something more than just another inland waterway.
BCN Dudley No.1 meets the Stourbridge Canal at Black Delph Bridge with eight locks arranged in a tight flight rising another eighty four feet to Ninelocks bridge. This somewhat confusing statement is explained by the fact that the middle seven locks of an original flight of nine were rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century using only six locks to provide the same rise and fall. Of course, The Tenth Lock, a pub at the bottom of the flight, retains its name in order to further the confusion of the uninformed traveller.
There were no boats coming down on this flight and all the locks were filled against us but they are so close together it helps to speed things up. Leaving the top lock it is barely half a mile to an area we had never heard of called ‘Merry Hill’, which we had been advised was a fairly safe and suitable place to moor. It turned out that this is the name given to a huge Retail Centre in Brierley Hill. The canal passes by on quite a high embankment and meets another part of the development, canalside, with a couple of pubs, Marstons and Wetherspoons, opposite a basin. The whole area has been landscaped and fitted with some mooring rings so we stopped a little way before the pubs. The basin had official offside mooring provided with a small marina but the banks were crowded with people fishing into the night, so we were probably a lot less disturbed where we stopped.
At this point we were heading to Birmingham to be in position on Thursday night to meet my brother John who would be visiting the NEC on Thursday afternoon, Dave from Aintree Boats for some more snagging on Friday and our daughter Jen would also be meeting us there on Friday night, ready for a full day’s shopping in central Birmingham on Saturday before her partner Dave joined us on Saturday evening. We only had to cover about three and a half miles, with one lock, to get to the Withymoor Island trust, just before the Netherton Tunnel, where we had booked a berth for Wednesday night in advance. From there it should only take half a day to get to the middle of the city on Thursday. After a bit of thought about various people finding us and our being able to stay in one place for the whole of our visit, we had decided to book a visitor mooring with Sherborne Marina. Their nightly charges were twice what we had paid anywhere else, with electricity on top at £7.50 a day (is that legal?) but they were also the only game in town and it would provide a degree of certainty and security as well as access to all services.
Since we only had a short trip on Wednesday and the morning forecast was poor we had decided to leave later in the morning. In the meantime, we thought we would treat ourselves to a Sausage & Egg McMuffin from the golden arches we could see across the retail park from our galley window. Sue volunteered to go for them but was gone rather longer than expected. She returned without the eagerly anticipated McMuffins as McDonalds till system was down nationwide and they were unable to take any orders, never mind process payments of any kind. This had only just happened so perhaps a grown-up would arrive there soon and put in some sophisticated replacement system like, say, a pad and pen. In the meantime, Sue had used her initiative and purchased a packet of muffins and some sausages to add to our eggs and make our own, far superior, McMuffins.
Leaving Merry Hill about 11:30 the weather was improving and by the time we had finished at the services here it was quite sunny and even warm. A mile or so later found us at Blowers Green Lock. The way north from here was impassable as the Parkhead Locks were closed for repairs. In any case they led only to the Dudley Tunnel. Due to the exceptionally low profile of the tunnel most boats will not fit through and passage has to be booked and supervised by the Dudley Canal Trust. At Blowers Green we had to stop to top up the water tank as, for some reason, the excellent modern services at Merry Hill did not include a canal side water point.
The route from there continues almost straight back on itself along the BCN Dudley No. 2 and then winds its way round to the Netherton Tunnel, which can accommodate almost any craft. Our stop for the night was pre-booked with the Withymoor Island Trust who had advised that they were happy for us to moor but we would have to breast up alongside Dave Dent’s boat. On the way there we pulled over for lunch just past Cattle Bridge and made use of a dry, sunny afternoon to chop some firewood and empty our new jerry-can into the diesel tank. We weren’t really close to empty but it is easier to carry the jerrycan empty and we knew that diesel shouldn’t just be stored indefinitely. We had no idea what happens if you do keep it too long but we had definitely both heard this so why take chances?
Rather than heading straight off, as we still had a few hours of daylight left we took a walk across Cattle Bridge and up to Saint Andrews church on top of Netherton Hill. Fifty metres above the level of the canal the hilltop gave a superb view back across Merry Hill, Brierley Hill and most of Dudley. Some wetland, some brown field clearance and acres of modern warehouses, old industrial sites and residential developments from every era. It might not be pretty but it is an impressive sight.
Returning to the boat we set off for Withymoor Island. Interestingly, this turned out to be neither in a place called Withymoor nor an island. It is just a section of the offside of the canal with private mooring and a service wharf for most things such as pump out, water and gas. There is also a very short arm as you approach, which at first we took to be our destination. As we tried to turn into it, however, we realised that there was a boom across it so presumably the boats in there are on residential moorings and never go anywhere. Having re-positioned ourselves back out in the channel again we identified what we thought must be Dave Dent’s boat. It was at the end and as it happens, the space behind it was just big enough for us to get into. Once I found Jackie, the caretaker, she confirmed it was OK to leave it there and we were settled for the night.
A Visit To Old Ma Pardoe
As well as identifying the Withymoor Island Trust as a safe place to moor and get services our guides made reference to the importance of visiting Ma Pardoe’s. It was already dark when we set out in search of this landmark, walking up the main A459 Halesowen Road into Netherton. On a junction at the top of the road we found the Old Swan Inn.
Doris Pardoe ran this pub for 53 years from 1931 until she died in 1984, hence the nickname “Old Ma Pardoe’s”. Stepping inside is to step back in time to a real old-fashioned pub, occupied by real old-fashioned, Black Country locals. One can only imagine that Doris never let anything change throughout her reign until, by the time she died, the place had become such an institution that no-one would dare to change it, if only in the name of conservation.
A real claim to fame, now, is that it is one of the few pubs that still brews their own beer on the premises. The bar is lined with many handpumps, none bearing any label or description. Only when asked will the barman point to a small blackboard, high above our heads, listing the beers on offer. Of course, we had heard of none of them. I knew far better than to ask if they did Peroni or San Miguel on draft and mentally threw a dart in the blackboard. I did pluck up the courage to ask for a glass of Merlot, for the lady, and as expected that was very much one size fits all, in the shape of a small, screw-top bottle. It never even occurred to me to offer anything but cold, hard cash in payment.
We took a seat and watched more customers arrive. They were all clearly daily regulars, familiar to one another and their dogs but they were not unfriendly and didn’t seem bothered by us. It was certainly worth the visit and rumour has it that the food there is good but we didn’t sample that. As Bracken was absorbed in her chew, I risked another spin of the wheel on the beer list and Sue had a second bottle of red wine before we headed back to the boat for dinner.
Netherton Tunnel & The New Main Line
The next morning was bright and clear but quite a bit colder and we set off on the last mile to Netherton Tunnel in brilliant sunshine. The area we went through did not look nearly as rough as expected and there were plenty of places we would probably have been happy to moor overnight without the need to book secure mooring had we known. Approaching the tunnel you get a good look at the ridge that made it necessary in the first place and you get a sense that on the other side lies a different land. Netherton Tunnel is very long and impressively straight. At three thousand and thirty-five yards or about one and three quarter miles it is longer than Harecastle Tunnel, where they made so much fuss about inspecting the boat and letting you through, but here the roof is consistently high and you can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel even before you enter the south portal and it is difficult to believe that it will take you half an hour to reach it.
The ‘main’ route west out of Birmingham heads towards Wolverhampton and as you emerge on the other side of Netherton Tunnel you pass under BCN Old Main Line and continue straight on to a junction with BCN New Main Line. As the names suggest the former is the original route, winding its way around Oldbury with a flight of locks to negotiate to the Smethwick summit, while the latter is a more recent addition that spears its way through every obstacle, via some impressively brutal cuttings and the Galton Tunnel, passing under the Old Main Line once more along the way, into the heart of Birmingham. As well as being straight and devoid of time-consuming locks or movable bridges the New Main Line is very wide with a towpath on both sides, which are both well-used by pedestrians and cyclists alike.
An hour along this virtual motorway and you reach the junction where the channel is joined by the Old Main Line for the final run into the city centre. Just before you get there, at Ladywood Junction, BCN Oozells Street Loop forks to the right to form an arc of canal, at the apex of which is Sherborne Marina. This turned out to be a few pontoons on the way in, leading to a small basin lined with moored boats, including one which was in use as the office and one that had sunk and lay resting on the bottom half-submerged. The whole area was at the centre of a huge building site that had sprung up around it with the girder skeletons of new blocks of flats being hammered, welded and angle-ground by a whole orchestra of construction workers in high-vis and hard hats, all competing to make the most noise.
Sherborne ‘Marina’ Receiving Visitors
Having eventually attracted the attention of the marina staff they directed us to reverse up to a jetty used by their tourist trip boat to take on stores and pump out and moor stern on, alongside an unoccupied boat already there, at the point most directly beneath the current phase of the building. We were assured that the noise would stop strictly at 5 o’clock. Never let the word ‘marina’ fool you into picturing anything remotely glamorous!
John and Ali duly arrived from the NEC and managed to locate us by about three o’clock. It was nice to catch up with them but John and I spent a less than jolly hour talking about funeral arrangements before they had to get going again. Bracken and I explored the local neighbourhood, we sent our location details to Dave for his snagging visit the next day and we settled down for the night.
Dave found us OK and most of Friday was taken up with the snagging, which mainly consisted of addressing the issues of the sealant that had started breaking down around the windows. Having brought some better, clear sealant with him, for each window, portal and solar panel, Dave had to remove the old product, clear off the sticky mess left behind and reseal the unit with the new stuff. He obviously couldn’t do this with only the stern touching land so we had to take the boat out into the main loop and moor up alongside the towpath. Once he had done the first half, we had to go up to the junction and turn it around to moor up for the other side.
While he was working on this I fulfilled my role by going up to a nearby Costa to get some coffees. Once again the gremlins struck. As soon as I walked in they announced that they could only take cash payments as, like McDonalds before them, their till system had just gone down. At least here the manager was present and had had the wit to bring out a pen and paper on which to write the orders and record their cost and payment to enter into the system later. I happened to have some cash, not always a given these days, so we were good to go and the barista could roll up his sleeves and turn to.
We had the odd very short shower but not enough to interfere with the work but Dave didn’t finally finish until well into the afternoon and the sky was steadily darkening. We still had to bring the boat back in to the marina, turn it around in the basin and back on to the wharf we left that morning. As we were finishing this last manoeuvre we realised that a) the Sherborne trip boat had been left moored across our berth and b) it was already gone four o’clock and the office in the narrowboat should be officially closed.
Leaving Sue to use the engine and rudder to hold station I scrambled across the neighbouring boat to get to shore and sprint round to the office, where I found there was still someone there, relaxing over a cup of tea and having a natter with the driver of the trip boat. He was full of apologies, after all we had paid for the berth until Sunday, and came straight out to move the trip boat out of our way. I’m not sure what we would have done if they had shut up shop and things were left as they had been for the night. As all was well, however, and Sue was still in time to take Bracken up to meet Jen at New Street Station ready for the weekend.
On Saturday 5th October we left the Shropshire Union at Autherley Junction and headed south. We joined the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and would be travelling around twenty five miles to its end at Stourport On Severn before turning round and coming half that distance back again to take the Stourbridge Canal towards Birmingham.
At the junction, still on the Shropshire Union, is a stop lock so shallow, just four inches, that it is hard to tell by eye whether you will be going up or down. It is a lock added to address the concern of Thomas Telford that the canal it is about to meet would steal the Shropshire Union’s water. Now, of course, it is completely irrelevant but still you have to go through the process of raising and lowering the paddles and working the gates.
Having made the turn we planned to stop almost immediately at Oxley Marine for diesel and other services. Oxley Marine is not a slick operation but it got the job done. The sanitary station was a manhole round the corner, water was available from a rain butt with a watering can and and it was clear that, on a Saturday lunchtime, faffing around with tax and splits was not expected to be something we would want to indulge in, 80 pence a litre would be fine and of course, cash only, no cards.
Our planned stop for the night was just above Bratch Locks and with the stop lock on the Shroppie that would be seven locks today. As we moved on we began to learn that the Staffs & Worcs locks, while certainly not unique were definitely “special”. The spindles for the paddles are placed so close to the balance beam that you can’t use a long throw windlass to wind them or you will crack your knuckles. People who know about physics and stuff will probably chip in with gabble about “mechanical advantage” and the like. All I know is it is a lot harder to work a lock when the handle is only six inches from the spindle. Another “feature” is that many of the locks have a bridge right beside them. However, there is no access from the lock to the bridge. The only way from one side of the lock to the other is to creep across the platforms on the lock gates. Not a big deal but tricky with a windlass in one hand and a dog in the other.
Some days you just can’t get a break and everything seems against you. The days when everything falls into place and lands butter side up seem to be far less common but Sunday was one such. After a really wet night we woke to a dry morning with a little bit of blue sky, By the time we got moving it had turned into a really nice dry, bright, sunny day.
We were immediately into Bratch Locks, which are three locks so close together they look like a staircase and there are complicated instructions on how to negotiate them safely, with parts of the structure painted in red and others in blue to aid the explanation. First piece of luck for the day was that a lock keeper was on duty so we didn’t have to try and work all this out for ourselves, we just let him tell us what to do.
While we were at Wheaton Aston a chap moored outside the pub opposite had told us that a new Sainsbury’s had opened up at a place called Wombourne, so that was our next stop. Another stroke of luck to find the mooring right beside the bridge for the supermarket vacant and waiting for us. They even had a special offer on Scotch, so two trips were required.
We had another six locks to do before arriving at our planned mooring site above Greensforge Lock. This had been chosen as it was a 48 hour mooring right by a full set of services and a pub, as well as road access. We could sit here all day on Monday so that Dave from Aintree Boats could do his worst and we could leave on Tuesday fully supplied. You never know quite what you are going to find in reality but we got there at about two thirty, after a pleasant cruise in the sunshine, to find that the, very short, visitor mooring was free and right by the services building, so we were close enough to fill the water tank as often as we wanted without even moving onto the water point.
As we hadn’t yet had anything to eat, the ideal would be to get lunch in the pub beside the lock. Being a Sunday, in many places you would find that they were fully booked, only did roast dinners on a Sunday, didn’t allow dogs on the premises, stopped serving food at 14:00 etc. Not a bit of it! They had a very busy clientele, a relaxed attitude, an efficient approach to get everyone served and a special Sunday A La Carte menu that included snacks as well as main meals. To top it all they were cheap as chips, so we had some of those with our ‘red hot wings’. After a busy morning it was very nice to sit outside in the sunshine enjoying a pint or two over lunch. Even Bracken co-operated by concentrating on her chew rather than on barking at our food.
Monday morning and up early (for us) because Dave was coming. Except by nine o’clock we received a text telling us that he wasn’t. He’d been watching the weather and as he needed a clear day to seal the windows he won’t be coming today. To be fair the forecast for the day was foul but we hadn’t been aware that the visit was weather dependent in the first place.
Now we had to decide whether to stay here today, as planned, or move on because he wasn’t coming. As the weather was supposed to be very bad we stayed, only to see it dry up about ten o’clock and be dull, damp but broadly dry all day. Being right by the water point we got some washing done and we did manage to get in a couple of walks from the boat during the day. Before dinner we took Bracken over to The Navigation for a drink. She was pretty good inside, given the right incentive. Some of the locals, mostly the same people that we had seen in there the day before, made a lot of fuss of her. One of them, who fancied himself a dog handler, decided to take hold of her chew. He was happy enough with the growling that ensued but went a bit pale when he realised that, in trying keep hold of it, she also had one of his fingers! Luckily I had a piece of sausage to distract her with and he was able to withdraw unharmed. He may be a bit less gung ho in future.
Chimney Disaster Averted
The lower section of the Shropshire Union was built by Thomas Telford and runs in a ruthless straight line through the landscape. It is pleasant to cruise on but this presumably reflects it having been built much later in the canal age and a recognition that, in the long term, speedy transit for goods and materials was more important in the economics of the canal than initial construction costs.
The Staffordshire & Worcestershire was one of James Brindley’s, completed much earlier and based on managing the construction outlay by following the contours. We were soon made aware of this as we travelled south by the more convoluted course of the canal and many bends. Another feature that points to the era in which it was built is the height of the bridges and the angle of approach. We have not had to worry about this for some time and now found ourselves getting caught out by how low the bridge holes were. Having been forced to fire up the wood burner as we approached the end of the Shroppie we still had the chimney on. Arriving at Dunsley Tunnel, with Bracken and I walking on the towpath, I could see this was going to be a problem. It is only twenty one metres long but so low that it would be sure to knock the chimney straight off the roof. I flagged Sue down and she just managed to back off before the entrance so that I could get the chimney down and the stopper back on to stop rain going down the flue.
Engine Trouble (But Not Ours)
Shortly after leaving Greensforge we came to Rocky Lock and at first we thought we were in luck as a boat was coming up, which would make our passage faster. It turned out that the boat in the lock was towing a really old traditional workboat behind it. They told us it was eighty six years old and weighed twenty four tonnes. It had thrown a crankshaft through the engine casing and now they needed to get it to a place where they could have the roof over the engine lifted off.
First they had to get the lead boat through, then shut the gates and empty the lock again, then haul the second boat in by hand, refill the lock, open the top gate and re-attach the tow to move out of the way. Far from being through this one quickly, then, it took twice as long.
We carried on past the junction for Stourbridge and Birmingham, down through Kinver and another short tunnel at Cookley, this one sixty five metres long, to moor just beyond before Debdale Lock. The rain really chucked it down just as we reached the tunnel but it lasted no more than ten minutes before we could get tied up and start drying out.
There wasn’t much to see in Cookley, which seems to sit mainly above and away from the canal cutting. It seemed quite a well-off place, however, and had a fantastic sports and recreation area which then led into a belt of common land and a path back down to the canal level. A great place for Bracken to have a run and chase rabbits.
Wednesday, 9th October, was a largely bright and sunny day and we had a good run down to Stourport On Severn, via yet another supermarket stop at Tesco, right beside the canal in Kidderminster.
We managed to moor just above the basin in Stourport and went to have a look around the place. Somewhere in our guides it said that Stourport could not make up its mind if it was a seaside town or a riverside town and we would have to agree. Stroll down past the basin to the locks and it feels like a riverside embankment with a nice path along it and big park area. Just the other side of the entrance off the river to the canal is a classic, small seaside town amusement park with the usual dilapidated rides, looking a bit forlorn in the deserted autumn. The size of the car parking available gives a bit of a hint as to how much busier this place must be in summer.
Coming back up the High Street there are two or three amusement arcades, fish & chips shops and stores selling fishing nets and kiss-me-quick hats. Even in the basin there is a sense of duality with plenty of narrow boats on private moorings but they are dwarfed by a selection of huge Tupperware cruisers that are clearly built to cruise the tidal Severn and beyond to the open sea.
One curious sight down there was an opening, off the water and through a bridge, into a large area of mooring laid out with pontoons, each provided with water and electricity. There was space for quite a few boats and it had obviously been incorporated into the new development of flats that surrounded it. It was completely empty and the entrance was blocked off in a very permanent looking way. It would be ideal for boaters to be able to moor in there, as space here is at something of a premium. If it isn’t for visitors and it isn’t being used by the residents why did they build it in the first place?
The hot news of the day was a text from Dave at Aintree Boats confirming that he would be with us on Friday 18th October. Fingers crossed!
We had allowed the possibility of staying an extra night here but based on what we saw we decided we would move on the next day. First we had the interesting challenge of renewing Bracken’s medication. We had been in touch with our vet and they had sent us a prescription by email, but how to fill it? We could order it online but wouldn’t get it in time. Pets At Home don’t supply medicines, even in their veterinary practice. We rang a local vet and they were very helpful. They didn’t have it in stock but could order it and have it there early the next morning – this was about five o’clock in the afternoon. They would have to see Bracken first, even though we had a written prescription but if we came over now they could do that and then place the order. We were only ten minutes walk away, the vet saw her in about another ten minutes and we picked up the medication the next morning before nine o’clock, a brilliant service. What’s more, having seen the price of the drugs, the vet told the receptionist not to charge for his consultation. Very kind, especially when you consider that our own vet, who already had all the facts on their system and only had to press a button, still charged us £15 to send the written prescription by email.
With that sorted we headed back up the canal the way we had come. For the night we had decided to moor at Pratt’s Wharf, about as close to the nearest town of Kidderminster as we wanted to get for an overnight stay. There was no mooring as such but it was a good spot where the canal widens past the abandoned wharf so we had some sun. The area around it is Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve so it should have been pretty peaceful. We couldn’t see the industrial plant on the other side of the canal and beyond the River Stour that had activity going on all night but it didn’t disturb us that much.
No-one had a good word to say about Kidderminster. There were several negative comments when we asked about mooring, there are no services of any kind, which seems odd for such a big town and a search for any kind of town trail or heritage guide had drawn a complete blank. What any query about Kidderminster will throw up is every major retail store you can think of. The plan for Friday was to move up to the mooring by Tesco, which puts you as close as possible to B&Q and then to go through the lock in the town and moor again outside Sainsbury’s, which is in a retail park with Halfords, Pets At Home, PC World and several others. I must say that, having passed through the town on the canal twice and walked through part of it today, it didn’t seem as black as it was painted. The people were friendly and there were no obvious signs of unusual vandalism or delinquency.
Having last refuelled as we came onto the Staffs & Worcs we had been looking ahead to when we might next be able to get diesel, only to find that we were in a bit of a desert. As far as we could tell we would not be able to refuel until we reached the centre of Birmingham. It was quite likely that what we had could last until then but it would be helpful to have some margin of error. A solution seemed to be to get a 20 litre jerry can and fill it at the Sainsbury’s petrol station. It would be road diesel at the normal price for private cars etc. with no distinction between domestic use or propulsion but it would provide peace of mind. Halfords had the jerry cans in stock so we could click and collect there. We would need to use the fuel fairly soon as it does deteriorate but once the can was empty it would still be valuable piece of equipment to have on board. If we hit a similar problem in future we would have the extra option of walking to the nearest petrol station to get us out of trouble.
The day went well, by and large. As we finished near to Tesco the heavens opened in an absolute deluge but that gave us time to have lunch and an hour later it had stopped, rather to our surprise. By the time we got through the lock and up to the visitor mooring by Sainsbury’s we were in pleasant autumn sunshine. Based on previous reviews of mooring overnight here we had determined that we would finish our errands and move on a bit further to spend the night just below Wolverley Lock. As we settled down for the evening we had a message from the boiler makers confirming that they had now received the pipe layouts from Aintree Boats and would be reviewing them in the next few days. Good to hear that gradual progress was being made, rather than the problem being quietly kicked into the long grass.
Kinver & The Rock Houses
The plan for Saturday was to moor in Kinver, described by everyone as a very charming, pretty village. We would have a short cruise to get there and spend the lunchtime and afternoon having a look around the place and stay there for the night. There was the issue that all the mooring actually above Kinver Lock is private for its entire length but we could stop short on some twenty four hour visitor moorings below the lock. The village itself seemed to be a little way away from the canal in any case.
We tied up and walked into the village and found ourselves underwhelmed. Reports of Kinver’s attractions are as overblown as those on the horrors of Kidderminster. We wandered through the High Street and explored a small alley containing a handful of shops and then realised that was about it. They did have a disproportionately large number of tea shops and cafes so, a little bewildered, we chose one with some seating outside and ordered some lunch while we decided what to do next. Kinver also seemed to have a decent mobile signal so we were able to do a little research into a brown sign we had seen on our walk round. Kinver Edge is owned by the National Trust. It is a high point with plenty of woodland and heath around it and the property also contains the Rock Houses; homes hewn from the sandstone of this high bluff in which people were still living well into the twentieth century. This seemed a good way of making use of the afternoon and giving Bracken some exercise so we set off after lunch, following the signs uphill.
Rock Houses At Kinver Edge
It was a bit of a climb here and there but, accompanied by some pleasant sunshine, it was a good place to spend the afternoon. As well as a good walk and a spectacular panoramic view we visited the Rock Houses and learnt a bit about them. There are records of people living there from the eighteenth century but they are believed to have been inhabited long before that. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the growth of industry in the area attracted workers who couldn’t find or afford accommodation elsewhere, as well as agricultural labourers. Some homes were owned by the occupiers but most were rented out by the people who employed them or owned the land they worked.
The houses were carved out of the easily worked sandstone so, if an extra room were required, they just dug a bit deeper. They had water from a well and eventually gas. They never did get electricity but the houses were fully occupied into the 1930’s and there were some still living there in the 1950’s. In the early twentieth century they were a major tourist attraction with visitors coming from far and wide on the Kinver light railway to see them and to take refreshment at the tea room the families set up to exploit their curiosity. The absence of mains sewage was the factor that finally saw them declared unfit for habitation and abandoned. The National Trust is working on a programme of restoration and, of course, has set up its own tea room.
Back on the boat we might have hoped to watch England play France in the Rugby World Cup but the game had been cancelled by Typhoon Hagibis. It is a shame that we didn’t get the chance to watch what is usually a gripping contest. On the plus side, points put England through to the quarter finals. The Scotland v Japan game would potentially suffer the same fate and if so the Scots would not be so lucky. Somehow it seemed typical that they were trying to change the rules and threatening to take legal action even before the event had occurred or a decision been taken. There was a time when we would never have imagined seeing such behaviour.
Saturday 28th September was quite a fine morning and despite a few short showers it was a good run up the five Alderley Locks into Market Drayton and we arrived about noon. It was sunnier still that afternoon and we went up into the town for a look around.
The town seemed to be very busy. There were lots of stalls everywhere and every shop was holding some sort of tasting or event. It turned out that we had arrived on the day of the Ginger & Spice festival. There were no ginger wigs available to help us fit in, but we were allowed to wander around the displays of street food, ginger ale, sweets and bakery. We tried a few of the samples and bought one or two items as we went around. The excuse for all this is a long tradition of gingerbread production in Market Drayton and the Billington’s Gingerbread brand, whose secret recipe has been guarded there for 200 years. Apparently the local practice is to eat a finger of gingerbread after dunking it in port or tea.
Having explored the festival we headed up to the Morrisons supermarket at the top of the town for supplies before heading back to the boat. On the way we approached a very substantial industrial looking building among the shops in Cheshire Street and wondered what it could be. It turned out to be Equity Will Writers. Such premises imply a factory setting, with row on row of paralegals and lawyers churning out the last wishes of the good people of Market Drayton and surrounding area 24/7. Perhaps the local citizens are particularly jealous of their legacies and given to frequent and capricious changes of heart, requiring constant re-writes? We were curious too about the doors on the first floor level. Sacks of wills being winched down into waiting carts? or a short cut out of the building for staff who can’t take the pressure?
Around The Town
The tourist information office is in the Library, so that was closed, but we did find a rudimentary town trail online that we could download. We had had a night of torrential rain, which showed no sign of having entered the boat so, hopefully, the diagnosis was correct and the temporary fix effective. Having established that, we ventured out into a wet Sunday atmosphere to take the tour. Regular periods of fine drizzle weren’t helpful but it was mild enough and we were able to get round it.
First we took Bracken for a run in a field just down from the canal. We couldn’t find any sign of a recreation space in Market Drayton. Although we were right beside both a sports club and large playing field both forbade any form of dog walking. What we did find was an open gate into a field that was devoid of livestock, was neither planted nor ploughed and bore no signs of any crop except, perhaps, set-aside. She had a good romp in there and worked off some energy so that she was happy to just follow us around for the next hour or so.
Having followed the trail we had to conclude that not too much of note had happened in Market Drayton, although it had had its own great fire along the way, in 1651. The Buttercross, standing in the Market Square, looked like an ancient building but had actually only been built in 1824, to allow the farmers’ wives to display and sell their wares under cover. It was not clear what they had been doing until then, since the market first started in the 13th Century – getting wet presumably.
In common with many traditional market towns Market Drayton has more than its fair share of pubs, many with quite a history and some of which still are actually pubs. Most sat over the town’s aquifer which provided the water source for the ales. The Red Lion has been restored to encompass the new Joules brewery, resurrected from a period of being subsumed into Bass Charrington. It is a very smart and tidy operation that even runs tours for the public, but not on a Sunday, sadly.
We were pointed to quite a few fine old buildings around the town as well as some plaques where others had stood and there was a great view over the Tern Valley from St. Mary’s church. Struggling for some other claim to fame the leaflet highlighted the Clive Steps which lead to the old Grammar School, where Robert Clive was once, briefly, a pupil. Of course, there are now mixed views on the once proud public reputation of Clive of India.
Revisiting Visiting Plans
Our daughter Jen has plans to come up and see us on 18th October and as a rough guess, a few days ago, we had decided that Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin would be a good place to meet. It was long past time to look at that in more detail. Having done so we realised that, if we went straight there, we could be about a week too early.
By Saturday we expected to reach Autherley Junction and the end of the Shropshire Union Canal. Once there, we would turn down the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. Shortly after that, at the Stourton Junction, we had planned to turn left up the Stourbridge Canal towards Birmingham. It seemed to us that we could use the extra time by carrying on past Stourton to the end of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire, where it meets the River Severn at Stourport-On-Severn. There is an option to go out on the Severn and work our way up to Birmingham another way but, given the issues with water levels and flooding at the moment, we felt it would be better to save that for another time, so we would turn at Stourport and go back up to Stourton Junction and continue from there as planned.
We left Market Drayton on Monday morning for the first of a series of hops down to the junction. We had another five locks to go through, which wasn’t expected to be much of a challenge. When we arrived at the bottom of the Tyrley flight we found that, with so much rain in September, the by-wash of excess water being channelled from above the locks was very strong. As we tried to leave the landing and move into the open lock the boat was just swept across the canal and pinned against the side of the deep cutting that formed the approach. Bow thrusters proved ineffective in this situation but, with some difficulty, Sue managed to pass me a line that I could use to try and haul her back to the towpath side. I then got hold of the mooring line attached to the bow. By hauling on that as Sue made the next attempt we were able to keep the nose pointing in the right direction while the engine kept the stern in line until we were past the spillway.
Similar problems were evident at the next four locks but weren’t quite so severe. With a bit more room to manoeuvre there we didn’t have any more issues. Warned of another very wet afternoon ahead we soon moored up at Goldstone Bridge opposite the Wharf Inn in good time before it started. Not a very welcoming place it turned out. No Dogs, very limited opening hours and a big focus on fields of motor homes and static moorings, so we didn’t bother.
Our short cruise for the day took us through the famous High Bridge, with a telegraph pole mounted on the strengthening span below the upper arch, as far as Norbury Junction, which is no longer a junction. The Newport Canal, which once led off from here has long since disappeared, leaving just a very short arm with some mooring for a few boats and a dry dock at the end.
On the other side of the canal, opposite the defunct junction, is Norbury Wharf a very busy place offering all manner of marine services, a café, diesel fuel, a chandlery, a hire fleet and boat trips on the Shropshire Star. With a CRT yard beside the wharf and with the CRT service point one side of the arm and the Junction Inn on the other it was a hive of industry. The rain arrived on cue and we settled down for the rest of the day to wait it out and tried to firm up our plans.
For some days now we had been promised that, of all the days this week, Wednesday would be fine, dry and bright. Disappointing, then, to hear the first raindrops landing on the roof at about seven fifteen in the morning. Two hours or so of gentle, intermittent rainfall followed. We moved up for fuel and services at about 11:30, as it seemed to be drying up and by noon we were starting to see signs of brightness. We had the washing machine going and stopped in Gnosall (pronounced ‘knows all’ apparently) Heath to fill the water tank again in brilliant, warm sunshine. We were right by the Navigation Inn and clearly not in a hurry so we decided to have lunch on the terrace in the sunshine and moor up here for the night. It turned into a lovely afternoon as we walked over to Gnosall proper for a ‘nose’ around.
Bracken had been very good on our walk along the towpath and over to Gnosall, coming when called and walking to heel very nicely. We were a few yards from the boat, congratulating ourselves on a very pleasant afternoon, well spent when she spotted a gap in the otherwise very secure hedging and fence and disappeared into a field. To our utter horror we realised that she was now chasing a horse! Suddenly cast into the role of that poor hapless fellow filmed in Richmond Park trying to stop Fenton from chasing the deer I scrambled over the fence and started trying to recall her. For what seemed forever she was oblivious of any shouts, entreaties or bribes. The poor beast must have been terrified, while Bracken clearly thought they were having a great game.
Just as the owner emerged from the house nearby and came over to see what was happening the horse landed a kick which stopped Bracken in her tracks and allowed me to secure her. The owner was surprisingly relaxed, having steadied the horse he assured me that it was unharmed and would calm down soon and brushed off my profuse apologies. I scooped up Bracken and beat a hasty retreat.
When the hoof landed she had yelped and had dropped down on her side. Naturally, I feared the worst, whatever that might be, so I carried her back to the fence she had come through and got her back onto the towpath. She was clearly limping when I put her down but managing to walk and to hop onto the boat so we concluded that she had got away without any serious damage, although certainly shocked and bruised. For the next couple of days she looked a bit sorry for herself and took it easy. She could still put weight on it when she wanted to, though, and steadily got back to her old self. I wish I believed that she has learned a lesson from this but the way she behaves when we pass a field with cows or horses suggests not. We will need to be even more stringent about where we let her off in the future.
No Room For Denial
Tuesday had been the first of October and it was no longer possible to deny that Autumn had arrived. Lately we have seen huge gaggles of the horrible Canada Geese, usually for some reason with a Greylag or two mixed in, grazing in the fields, presumably storing up for a long migration. Suddenly, conkers seemed to be everywhere underfoot and a gust of wind would bring down a little fusillade of acorns. Whether there is any connection to the season I don’t know but where, for the whole summer we had seen one kingfisher. This week we had seen four or five at least, but they weren’t as easy to photograph as the geese.
Despite a sunny afternoon, temperatures were dropping and it seemed we would have to light the stove for the first time since we left. Accordingly, while it was still fine, I fished out all the paraphernalia: the axe, ash bucket, chopping block, logs and kindling. It went surprisingly well. The fire caught easily, stayed alight without difficulty and began to warm the space quickly. It worked so well that, once Sue had started the oven to cook dinner as well, we were sweltering and had to throw open the hatches to cool things down.
On a dull, still Thursday we headed down to Wheaton Aston. It stayed dry and we were able to have a walk around the village in the afternoon. It really doesn’t look as if there is anything there at first but turning off the busy road that runs across the Tavern Bridge you can find quite a nice village centre with the Church and local Co-op.
We also found one furry creature waiting to greet us on a garden wall. I’m sure someone will know what it is.
Moving on the next day we planned to spend Friday night moored at Pendleford Bridge, the last visitor mooring some way before the junction itself. Beyond there, it looked quite built up and we expected it to be busy with Napton Narrowboats based right by the stop lock.
On the way we would pass a village called Brewood. Somewhere we read that this was pronounced “Brood” but they could have been having us on. However you say it, the village has a tremendous write-up in our Pearson’s guide, in particular the filled baps provided by the Village Bakery. On the strength of that we had determined to moor there to have a look round and as it would be lunchtime were looking forward to sampling the baps. Sadly, we could find no trace of the bakery or of Coopers’ food store. The High Street was full of beauty parlours, tanning salons and the other useless businesses that only flourish with enough idle affluence to support them. The village itself was as pretty as we had been told and was very busy with a constant stream of cars, heavily laden with wedding guests, all looking for space to park and discharge their passengers as close as possible to the church to try and preserve their fascinators and stilettos in what had become persistent, driving drizzle. We did manage to get some quite nice flatbread sandwiches to take away from a bistro called The Mess but the weather didn’t encourage us to linger much longer and we headed back to eat them on the boat.
Pendleford Bridge was not a disappointment, but only because we weren’t expecting much in the first place. We didn’t find any signs to designate it as mooring, or any rings to tie up to. There was a busy road in the distance and a large industrial site just around the corner through a modern bridge. Nonetheless, where we were was quiet and we managed to moor up there despite a large, broken stone shelf sitting under the water. We even saw some sun in the late afternoon and it dried up a bit, which is more than I can say for our small oil leak, which had reappeared under the gearbox in the last couple of days.
What About The Snagging?
Since he had failed to appear last Wednesday, 25th September, we had been waiting to get a new date for Dave to come and carry on snagging for the boat. He had been supposed to ring me later that day but we heard nothing. I left it until the Monday and rang him, to be offered 28th October. When I mildly complained that this was four weeks away he insisted that it wasn’t, as it was October already. I initially forbore to point out that it was actually 30th September. When he told me it was 14th October, however, I could see I would have to give him more time to get his head together and look at a calendar.
After many promises to ring back over the next few days, plus an apology that he was at yet another funeral, we finally got a text on Wednesday night confirming he would be with us on Monday 7th October. So now we needed to work out where we could moor up on Sunday with road access and stay for two nights so we could be there all day on Monday.
Or it might still be Week 19? It is pretty approximate as the weeks tend to start or end whenever I decide they do – just like old times! This week we had a lot of servicing elements planned, as much as actual travelling, starting with our 500 hour engine service which was booked for Monday morning in Nantwich. We were still in range of the original engine fitter so it made sense for us to get him to come and do it, then he couldn’t start blaming anyone else. To make that work we really had to get there and find a mooring on Sunday, so that we could text him the exact location to find us. Of course, there was no saying what time it would actually be finished so we planned to stay here for a couple of nights.
We had been promised that the weather would break down on Sunday and at first that seemed to be the case. We had successive waves of very heavy rain from about 05:30 for a couple of hours and anticipated a wet trip. After that period, however, it settled down. It was very mild and stayed dry with some good spells of sunshine for the rest of the day. We had a couple of short periods of fine drizzle after we moored up in time for lunch and the rest of the afternoon was quite fine.
We found ourselves moored on the embankment approaching the aqueduct. Beside us were signs pointing the way for the Nantwich Riverside Loop, so it seemed wrong not to get out and follow the route. The towpath here is well made up and we followed it along the embankment, across the aqueduct and past the visitor mooring at the far end, where the loop turns off and starts to go through the edge of a new housing estate and then through fields to the Shrewbridge Road before taking you back through a park and nature reserve along a path between the lake and the river to arrive on Welsh Row, the main road back to the canal and our starting point. A very nice walk for the afternoon.
Gary, the engineer, gave us an ETA of ten o’clock and turned up promptly at eleven fifteen. We have had a very slight drip of oil under the engine for some time, which I had spoken to him about on the phone and having examined it he recommended contacting the gearbox manufacturers, PRM Newage, to have it looked at under warranty. Otherwise, it was a clean bill of health with various filters and the oil changed ready for another 250 hours.
While Bracken and I waited for Gary, Sue went into town to start the shopping. Big town equals big grocery shop. You don’t always get your supermarket of choice and in Nantwich the main offering is Morrison. How many times you have to go there depends on how much you are able to carry back and how far you have to carry it. As it happens their store is the other side of the town. As the canal lies quite a little way from the town centre to start with, we would have to go at least twice. While she was in there Sue also picked up a town trail from the Tourist Information office. Since yesterday’s Nantwich Riverside Loop neatly avoided pretty much all of Nantwich we could still do the town itself today.
After lunch we talked to the gearbox people, who said an engineer would contact us. Then we set out on the trail. It wasn’t quite as well organised or the sites quite as comprehensively labelled as in Chester but we found our way around it. Nantwich, as the ‘wich’ in the name implies, was another salt town, based on the natural brine springs in the area one of which, ‘Old Biot’, still feeds an open air swimming pool, which is the last of its kind in Britain. It seems ages since we went down the Anderton boat lift to explore the River Weaver but Nantwich is still on the same river. As well as the importance of salt production, Nantwich was significant as the last outpost in the area before the Welsh border. As you leave the town centre and cross the bridge over the river you follow Welsh Row, the main road to Wales used by the coaching trade in one direction and, earlier, by marauding Welsh armies in the other.
They seem quite proud of the number of disasters that have befallen the town over the centuries but the most notable was the Great Fire of 1583, “caused by an illicit person’s brewing”, which lasted for 20 days. Constant winds fanned the flames but fire-fighting efforts were also hampered by the four bears that were released from their cage in the town’s bear pit for their own safety. It’s an ill wind, however, and the resultant re-building has left lots of attractive timber framed buildings in the main town.
All in all it was a nice town and an interesting tour, despite the rain that made its presence felt half way through. That rain continued solidly right through the next day until about three in the afternoon. We tried to wait it out and spent the morning doing some more detailed route planning but in the end, about half past twelve, we decided we would need to move. Our forty eight hours on the mooring here were up and we needed to get water etc. in any case. We had also heard from the gearbox guy and arranged to meet him further up the canal that afternoon.
Wet it was but windy it wasn’t, so reversing up all the way back to the CRT services at the last bridge seemed a viable proposition. As ever, keeping it in a straight line was one problem, other traffic in either direction would be quite another. Fortunately, everyone else seemed to have the good sense to stay battened down and we completed the manoeuvre quite easily. While we were there the engineer rang and said he had finished his other job early so we arranged to meet at the other end of the Nantwich aqueduct in a few minutes.
As you might expect, Gary’s confident diagnosis was instantly rubbished by the new expert on the block, who had his own theories. My role was to hold the umbrella over the open engine hatch, a task that fell comfortably within my technical abilities, while he removed, resealed and replaced one of the connections from the engine. He was obviously competent but also happy to acknowledge that this might not be the final solution. If it didn’t do the trick the leak is minimal and could easily wait until we are laid up for the winter. That morning I had arranged a mooring from November with Calcutt Boats and he had been down there on a job only the day before, so he was happy to deal with it then, if it were necessary and we left it that I would keep him posted.
We parted company as the rain began to ease and we headed off down through Hack Green Locks to Bridge 85 where we had arranged to meet Aintree Boats and Eberspaecher, the boiler makers, the next morning. In preparation for their visit we turned off the heating programme that we usually rely on for hot water and warmth first thing each morning, crossing our fingers for a mild night.
We were in luck, it was very mild and the kettle can always be relied on for hot water. Before we had finished breakfast Aintree had already sent their text to say that they would not be coming. Another death in the workforce family, it seems, so how can you seriously complain? The boiler team were still en route, however, so while I waited I set about the exciting task of drying out the engine room and cleaning the gutters around it. They hit some traffic that delayed them but turned up in due course and I must say they were very thorough. The conclusion was that the system definitely isn’t heating up as quickly as it should do. The size of the heater is absolutely not a problem, the type of radiators we have chosen may play a part but actual flow of the water is the key element. Without Aintree there to provide details of the plumbing they couldn’t do much more but left to get in touch with them and obtain some diagrams. Watch this space!
There was time in the afternoon to go for a walk in the local area. I have been planning routes based on public rights of way on the Ordnance Survey for at least fifty years and I have to say it does seem to have become harder rather than easier to walk these paths, certainly here in the North West. I thought that relying on a designated long distance path, the South Cheshire Way, would give us a good chance for a clear route. Instead we ran foul of careless crop planting within the first fifteen minutes. We were faced with a wall of seven foot high sweet corn planted right across the path, with no attempt to reinstate the right of way as required by law.
We did manage to pick our way around it all eventually but lost both the time and enthusiasm to complete the whole route planned and ended up cutting it short. We did still manage to come back past Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker. This is one of Nantwich’s most famous tourist attractions but surely that is a bit of a contradiction?
Thursday started pretty bright and we had a good run down to Audlem to moor up a few yards from the Shroppie Fly, a famous pub on the canal whose name refers to the ‘fly boats’ that became the express service of the established canal age, running non-stop day and night delivering urgent and perishable goods. We risked another walk in the afternoon, which was straightforward this time and brought us back into the village of Audlem from the other side, with a great view of the church across the fields.
We did have a couple of short spells of fine drizzle during the day but by and large it was fine and sunny. That evening we celebrated Bracken’s first birthday, the day before, by taking her into the pub. We managed a good hour with her engrossed in her chew while we ate and had a conversation. Quite a promising improvement, as she usually starts barking as soon as our food arrives and gets us thrown out of the pub.
If Thursday was more sunshine than showers, Friday was the reverse. There were frequent spells of fine drizzle as we prepared to tackle the remaining thirteen locks to the top of the Audlem flight. A large posse of CRT volunteer lock keepers were in attendance to keep things moving and made the job a good deal quicker and easier than it might have been. We even managed to stay fairly dry overall, until the heavens opened just as we were finishing the top lock; our cue to moor up and have lunch.
This was when we discovered THE LEAK. There was water on the kitchen work top and on the cushions of the dinette as well as on some of the things we had left out on the seats and table there. There were no leaks from the window so we struggled, at first, to work out where it was coming from. In the end we found a steady dripping from behind the wooden beading on the wall between the galley and the dinette, but how was it getting there?
We took photos and emailed them to Aintree and tried to call them. A bit later Dave called us. He couldn’t talk for long as the office had called him but he was at a funeral. However, his guess was that one of the mushroom vents in the centre of the roof was leaking and the rain was making its way across the ceiling inside the insulation and finding its way down the side wall. The best suggestion was to cover the vent with something. It seemed like a long way from the vent to the leak but Sue found a glass mixing bowl and we put that over the top. Eventually, the dripping stopped. The jury is still out on whether that is down to an accurate diagnosis and effective temporary fix or just because the rain had stopped.
We didn’t have very much further to go as we had decided to stop just short of the next group of locks for the night and tackle them on Saturday. Once the rain passed we went back to have a look at the cake stall beside the top lock we had just come through. An impressive array and the lemon drizzle cake and chocolate tiffin proved irresistible. Having added our money to the cash box we moved up to the mooring in time for the sun to come out and dry everything off for the evening, inside and out.
It hasn’t been a great summer but in the last week we have had the best and longest spell of decent weather since we left in May. There was one hot, dry spell that lasted a few days but we managed to spend that week back in Croydon, where it was actually too hot to be enjoyable. Wednesday 18th September was another fine morning, if a little cold and misty at the start. We took Bracken over to the other side of the canal, opposite the Country Park, which is shown on the map as a golf course but appears to have been abandoned. There is a lot of open land but it is almost impossible to identify the greens or fairway from the surrounding rough.
Originally, we had expected to meet Aintree Boats for some snagging in the city on Thursday. One piece of good news while we were last at home was that the manufacturers of the boat’s diesel central heating boiler wanted to arrange a site visit on Wednesday 25th August. This was good news in that, firstly, it shows that Aintree Boats really had been in ongoing discussions with them and second, it should give clarity on whether the system is sized, installed and configured correctly and in line with our specification. If not, we should be able to agree what needs to be fixed and if it is, then we can find out if there are options to improve on what we specified that we can consider. As this issue has been the one constant running theme, Aintree decided to postpone their visit and be here at the same time.
Since that meant we now had Thursday free of visiting snaggers we decided to leave it until late morning to make the short hop to Chester. We would be able to get our bearings in the afternoon, deal with a few chores, like a visit to the launderette and a big weekly shop at Tesco and work out a plan for what to do the next day.
It looked for a moment as though this might have been a tactical error. We had identified a mooring in a the large basin at the northern end of Chester, by Taylor’s Boatyard, as the best place to stay for a couple of nights. When we arrived at twelve thirty there was no room at the inn and we ended up round the bend and under the Northgate Staircase locks. Fortunately, there was room there to turn around and as we went back for a second pass the boat nearest the locks indicated that they were about to finish lunch and move on. The basin is so wide that we could turn again and reverse up to the CRT services to take on water while we waited for their space to come free. Now, of course, we could worry that someone else might turn up while we were busy and slip into the space ahead of us. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and we were safely moored up by quarter past one.
We had a good afternoon finding our way around and settled in for a quiet evening on the boat on our berth opposite Telford’s Warehouse. Originally conceived by good old Thomas Telford in the 1790’s, the Warehouse stands as a magnificent example of Georgian architecture and as a reminder of the once thriving port of Chester. The building was constructed partly over the canal to allow boats to be located and unloaded from the full height of the loading bay within the building. It is Grade II listed and was converted to a pub in 1980. Little did we know that Wednesday night is Latin Mania night! The frantic Latin rhythm, the excited voices of the Samba students and the persistent percussion underpinning it all, carried,unhindered across the water. Fortunately, it quietened down by eleven o’clock, apart from the loud farewells of the participants, slowly taking their exhausted leave.
Thursday was the day for our grand tour of Chester, following the guide we had picked up at the visitor centre the day before, which was also the start point. The weather was absolutely perfect. Warm and sunny but with just enough breeze to keep it from being uncomfortably hot. We started our tour with a cup of coffee sitting in the sun outside the Coach House pub and it felt positively continental.
The guide was pretty good, a sensible route that covered a good proportion of the city and offered just enough description. By the end of it we felt we had a pretty good grasp of the layout and a bit of the history. Our memory was that we had really liked Chester when we visited here once before and we weren’t disappointed. One thing that hadn’t changed since then was the city fathers’ understanding of pedestrianisation, which seems sketchy at best. You are walking around broad thoroughfares and open squares that give every sign of being traffic free, along with hundreds of other tourists, and you suddenly find yourself in the path of a double decker bus!
A redeeming factor is that every notable feature is neatly labelled. In many towns you can follow a guide that talks about ‘a half-timbered building’ and look around to see half a dozen such, with no clue as to the particular site they are trying to describe. You are almost never left in doubt in Chester. If you see more than one candidate for the landmark in question, just look a little more closely and you will find the correct one clearly identified with a sign, even when there has been a change of use or ownership since the guide was written.
You get quite an emphasis on Chester’s foundation as a Roman base from which to do battle with savage Britons in Wales and the North. That position continued over the next two millennia. William the Bastard, scourged his way north in the wake of his victory near Hastings and installed his nephew Hugh Lupus as Earl of Chester, with the right to make his own laws and taxes. By virtue of both his name and savagery he was known on one side as ‘The Wolf’ but based on his girth and fondness for the feasting table the Welsh knew him as ‘Hugh the Fat’. In the 15th century there was a formidable mediaeval gate known as Welshgate guarding the only approach to the city from Wales. just one and a half miles away and following the last great rebellion in 1400 the Welsh were forbidden to enter the city after sunset, to gather in groups of more than three people or to carry knives. It seems this law still stands and although we saw some groups of Welsh people during the day, and even one or two in the evening, none of them were carrying knives.
We are told Fat Hugh also had some responsibility for the eventual demise of Chester as a major port and the transfer of it’s trade to the fishing village of Liverpool. He built the weir in the river, that is Britain’s oldest surviving dam, to power his mills. It slowed the river down, which contributed to the mediaeval harbour silting up. The Jolly Miller of Dee, immortalised in song, was jolly because the farmers had to bring their corn to their mills by law, so the millers could set their own prices. Penalties for not using these mills included having the farmers hands chopped off!
Like a lot of people, apparently, we were surprised to learn that the black and white half-timbered Tudor buildings that characterize much of the city are nothing of the sort but are part of a Victorian ‘black & white’ Revival movement.
There were lots more little nuggets to plagiarise on the way and we had a lovely tour in the sunshine, with a lunchtime break for an excellent pork roll with all the trimmings, including a bit of crackling for Bracken. As we finished the tour, walking into Abbey Square and around the Cathedral, we noticed odd items in the Georgian streets that looked like window dressing to make it look like the 18th Century. Rounding a corner to find a sea of trucks, a forest of floodlights and a rats nest of cables running in every direction offered an explanation and the little army of creative looking people in ripped jeans all ignoring one another and staring at their phones confirmed it; the area was being set up for filming although there was no clue as to what. David Jenkinson would probably have felt right at home.
It was only about four o’clock, leaving time to go round again to the various stores, whose locations we had noted en route, and shop for a variety of items you just can’t get outside a large town.
Throughout this whole tour Bracken was amazingly well-behaved. We had expected that it would be difficult to keep her from getting bored and demanding attention and thought it likely we might have to cut the day short. On the contrary, she followed us around patiently and just sat and waited while we talked about the sights we were being introduced to. Even as we traipsed around the shops she was quiet and relaxed while one of us went inside and the other waited with her. It is also true to say that everywhere she went, she was the star attraction. We lost count of the number of people who would suddenly stop us and say what a lovely dog she was and want to meet her. The people here are very nice and at least twice, as we were standing looking at the guide in different places, complete strangers stopped to ask if we were lost or needed help. Perhaps it’s Cheshire? After all, the last time that happened was in Macclesfield. If it were to happen in Croydon, of course, you should be very afraid!
To round off a near perfect day we walked around the basin and found a bench on the west facing terrace of the Telford Warehouse to enjoy a couple of drinks in the setting sun before going home for dinner. Bracken was really quite good again, while engrossed in something to chew, which lasted for at least forty minutes.
Friday continued the run of bright, sunny mornings. A bit more of a breeze made it feel cooler but another nice day. Before leaving Chester we went for a walk over to an area called The Cop which leads to the Dee River walk. We had read a lot yesterday about Chester’s role as a major port open to sea-going vessels before the river silted up. Out here along the river on this side of the city you can really see how that was possible. It is wide and deep, heading straight down to the sea. As the walk and a designated cycle route runs alongside it with no access to traffic it was an ideal area for Bracken to have a run.
Back at the boat, ready to set off, I went up to the Northgate staircase lock, just around the corner to let the volunteer lock keepers know that we were coming up. Having them there meant that we shouldn’t have quite as much trouble as we had had coming down on Sunday. They were also struggling to balance the level and told us that it had been a problem for a couple of weeks since a boat had hit the top gate. As they were letting water out of the middle lock, and chatting to Sue on the stern, we suddenly noticed that the boat had begun to list violently to port. By the time the lockie had rushed back to the paddles, stopped the water flowing out and let some more back in to right the boat we had lost a glass and two plates that were sitting on the draining board. The problem was a narrow ridge below the top of the lock. The base plate of the boat projects an inch or so around the hull to provide extra protection and a couple of footholds below the surface of the water. This caught on the ridge as the water dropped and caused the list, a potential disaster in a wide lock like this that would have allowed room for the boat to turn turtle.
Although we were on our own this time and so it took a little longer, we had a good run up the rest of the locks out of Chester, on a very warm, sunny afternoon, back past the place where we had moored last Saturday night and pulled up just short of Tattenhall Marina. We needed to get some diesel the next morning and had decided to treat ourselves to breakfast in their café while we were there. There are obvious reasons why railways often follow the line of the canal and we are well used to finding ourselves moored within earshot. This particular spot was about as close to the tracks as it was possible to be. Just beyond the hedge was the West Coast Mainline. Normally it doesn’t bother us but even we couldn’t help noticing when the Virgin express trains thundered past.
Saturday was another very fine, bright day, the last we could expect if the forecast was to be believed, but much windier than it had been recently. Just the challenge we weren’t hoping for when navigating a marina. All in all it went very well and we slotted neatly into the service pontoon by the café. Unfortunately, their diesel hose would not reach anywhere near our filler cap at the stern. We would need to back out, turn around and reverse back onto the pontoon again. Having placed an order for two full breakfasts and filled up with water etc. we steeled ourselves for the attempt. We might be learning something at last. We backed off far enough to really give us plenty of room and used a lot more power against the wind as we made the turn. We cheated a bit by being able to pass a line to one of the guys from the marina as we reversed back in but still it felt quite successful.
By the time we had filled the tank our breakfast was ready and one look at the size of it turned it instantly into brunch. It was excellent, though, and the people here were very nice, something that we had seen commented on in reviews online before we arrived. As we were now facing forward our departure was a bit more straightforward, although it was a very busy morning and as we headed for the narrow entrance we almost didn’t spot “May Bee Tomorrow” on a collision course, powering across our bow at speed from the other lagoon. We signalled for them to go ahead, slowed down to let them out first and followed them out into the cut. We regretted that decision only a little later as we approached the first lock. Obviously they knew we were behind them and yet resolutely closed the lock against us, even though we sounded the horn to warn them not to shut the gates. It isn’t often you meet with such ignorance but people are people everywhere.
Once again we had the locks to ourselves, then, until we arrived at Bunbury staircase, which sits right beside an Anglo Welsh yard. They were running one of their customers through his induction as we arrived and joined us in the lock. As it happens that didn’t save us much effort as there was a squad of CRT volunteers who basically did the whole thing for us. We were aiming to moor up just beyond here so it was a relaxing finish for the day. Imagine our delight at finding a space just behind “May Bee Tomorrow”, who had obviously turned around and were presumably planning to head straight back to the marina they had come from on Sunday.