On the Cut Again


My friend and boat neighbour Eddie has nearly done it all. He has sailed across the Atlantic on a 37 foot sail boat, owned several businesses, travelled the world, is a published photographer and is presently a male nurse at an end-of-life hospice. Did I mention he is also a registered shaman? His partner Miriam has been a psychiatric nurse, a prison warden and coaches a girls’ netball team at a local school. Both very active.

They have been great neighbours and friends to us. Eddie has had narrow boats for 12 years. He and Miriam took us newbies under their wings when we first arrived at Apsley marina. We have appreciated immensely their support and friendship. Many boaters are the same….helpful that is. It’s a community unto itself. We love it and try to be helpful ourselves.

So, when Eddie came calling to ask me to help him move his boat up the canal for work he needed doing, I didn’t hesitate. Of course I’d go. Eddie had to black his boat and needed to take it to a place that can lift the boat out of the water for the process. That place is Cowroast, a marina 22 locks away. Blacking has to be done every 3-5 years. The hull below the outside gunwale is painted with black bitumen. Keeps the hull from rusting and rotting away. No one wants that. Most of us pay someone else to black our hulls. Not Eddie. Messy as the job is, he rises to the challenge and goes for it.


So, one fine Sunday morning, early, we left our marina, turned right and headed for Cowroast. Now, there’s an interesting name for a place. Cowroast. Sounds like someone had a huge BBQ and roasted a whole cow. Not so. No animals were harmed in the naming of the area. Not in Cowroast anyway. The spot was quite an important location for the Romans in Britain. Artifacts were found when the marina and the nearby Cowroast Inn (pub) were being built.

This place was used, among other things, to drive cattle from the north through to London…where animals were harmed. England’s version of a wild west movie. The herds would be rested here until driven on to market in the big city. Thus Cow Rest, which later became Cowroast….no one knows how or why. Sounded more unique I suppose.


Cowroast Marina

I have to admit I had a rather sleepless night before the dawn of our trip. We haven’t had our boat out since we arrived at Apsley marina last August. We were out for a weekend in October on the Oxford Canal. My helmsman skills were greatly lacking on that occasion. I rammed another boat and kept messing up on the locks. To be fair, my boat handles easier than that one, but I lost a bit of confidence and dreaded the day I had to take my own boat back onto the cut. This trip with Eddie was to help me get back into boating condition. It served me well for the return to Apsley Marina a week later.

The drill was set up this way: I handle the locks while Eddie drives the boat. Miriam cooked breakfast and kept the tea flowing. I stayed awake going over in my mind which paddles to open when and when to raise and lower them. Lots to think about for a lad with limited focus and an ‘I’d rather be writing about it’ attitude. 22 locks are a lot of locks believe me….especially in one day. Pushing it. But by the 6th lock, we got into a rhythm and it only took us 7 hours to get there. Then they drove me back (15 minutes….such is the way of the cut) and we met up with my best friend and had a lovely Sunday Roast at the local.

The trip to Cowroast took place on a good weather day. The trip back a week later on a Monday had everything….sun, heavy cloud, sleet and even a snow shower or two. The end of April here has been anything but placid weatherwise. It has been a cold one. Those metal windlasses get cold and wearing gloves around a lock while using a windlass is not a good idea. Slippage and all that. Eddie tried to tell me that the word came from days of old on the canals when women ran the locks for the men. The men would yell, “Wind lass, wind!” meaning to wind faster. Good story, but not true it turns out.

Some of the locks are so close together, it makes sense to walk between them. The towpath was slippery because of recent rains. Actually a mudpath. I slid my way from lock to lock. We passed through a few built-up areas. My favourite is Berkhamsted. A lovely little place located in the Bulbourne Valley in the Chiltern Hills with fine pubs along the canal. Also very historical and a cool 26 miles northwest of London.


Berkhamsted has had so many spellings of its name that locals simply call it Berko. People have lived in the area for over 5,000 years from Neolithic times, through the Iron Age and Saxons, Romans and finally the Normans. Ths Saxons actually surrendered to the conquering Normans under William at Berkhamstead. Chaucer wrote here and the Borough is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The town’s pre-emminence was due to Berkhamsted castle. It was a favourite of the royals of the time up until 1549 when the castle was abandoned. Berkhamsted went into decline and lost its Borough status….until the 19th century when both the railway and the canal went through the town. Things picked up.


A home/business along the cut in Berhamstead.


The Boat Inn Berkhamstead


On the cut past the Boat Inn in Berkhamsted. Eddie’s boat just ahead.


House along the canal in Berkhemsted.

The Queen is due to visit in May of this year (2016). The old school in Berkhamsted turns 475 this year. Worth a Royal visit I guess. Graham Greene, the novelist was born here. The British Film Institute National Archives is in Berkhamsted along with The Roxy, one of the few remaining independent cinemas. But the exciting monument for me is the Canadian Totem Pole, only visible from the canal.

Commissioned by Roger Alsford, great grandson of James Alsford who owned a timber company on Vancouver Island, the totem pole represents the gratitude Roger had toward the Kwakiuti community on the island. Roger went over to work at the company in the 1960s. When the place went on strike, Roger was left bereft of food at the site and the Kwakiuti First Nations people fed and looked after him. First Nations artist Henry Hunt created the totem pole at Thunderbird Park in Victoria British Columbia. It stands 30ft (9m) tall and has a diameter of 3feet (1m). In 1968, the completed red ceder pole was shipped to Birkhamsted and reassembled.


We made our way to the lock near the bridge in Berkhamsted that announces this part of the cut as The Grand Junction Canal, which it was until 1929 when it became part of the Grand Union Canal which stretches from The River Thames all the way to Birmingham….a long trip by narrowboat.


Miriam ready to raise the paddles.

We shared the trip on the way back with a lovely couple, Graham and Jan and their boat ‘Whistler’. It made working the locks easier with extra crew. Graham and Jan are retired and cruise the canals endlessly. They are on their way to The Kennet and Avon off the River Thames. The day flew by and we were making record time when, just before Apsley, in Hemel Hempstead, the unthinkable happened. Stay tuned for the next Blog….’Narrowboat Down’.


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