You know the routine by now….all the engine checks etc., and off we go. Except this morning, in the mist when we went to push-off, we were going nowhere. Stuck in the reeds on a shallow bank. Didn’t matter how much power I gave to the prop, forwards or reverse, we didn’t move.
The Cut is just that, land cut into a trough a few centuries ago with a deeper middle and shallower sides. Like a giant, wide V shape. The bottom is mostly very soft silt, dredged infrequently and sporadically, building up at the sides as props churn up the silt, pushing it outwards. Eventually, even the middle silt builds until you have a quagmire of thick, silt soup. Very often, the bottom of my boat drags along silt, pushed through by the prop. If you look behind as you go, clouds of silt bubble up to the surface as you go.
Stuck, but drifting ever closer to that big patch of reeds behind us, Deb has the solution. She’s the old salt on this voyage. “Right,” she announces when all other methods have failed to release us, ” Everyone to the Port side.” Deb and Bestie move along the Port (left) side gunwales and I helm, standing as far left as possible. Deb orders, “Right, now rock the boat and ease the engine forward.” I start singing (quietly) the tune ‘Rock the Boat’ by the Hues Corporation as the craft gently eases out to the middle and off we go….5:40am. Must make up some time.
First stop, a rubbish bin just past one of the Fosse locks, first of the day. Just off to the left is a mysterious looking boat that looks rather sinister. Pirates? Then, just before the bridge, two figures that aren’t exactly pirates loom ominously by the way. On we go. Through Royal Leamington Spa.
The city of Leamington Spa was given its Royal status by Queen Victoria for the popularity of the salt spa which is no longer there. The baths are now an art gallery and museum. Leamington became a retirement location. The canal runs through the south of the town and on to next door Warwick. I was disappointed in the lack of development along the canal. So much more could be done. It’s as if there were no canal at all, just a rubbish pit. That part has been cleaned up, but the potential for canalside recreation and business does not seem to have been a priority. It doesn’t appear to be visible at all.
Moving on along the canal, we finally reach the Hatton flight of locks, a challenge and a wonder to behold. Fortunately, Deb’s husband Tony joined us to help get us through these 2 miles of 21 locks in a row, which rise (we were going up) 148 feet (45 metres). The locks were widened in the 1930s to accommodate wide working boats or 2 narrowboats. The locks were dubbed ‘The Stairway to Heaven’ by those who worked on the them because by the time they got to the top, their pay awaited just a little further along the canal.
So….up we went, one lock at a time. It was a hot day by now. Half way up the locks we were joined by a family on their boat who had moored along one of the water compounds between the locks. It had been late in the day when they began up the flight and they decided to moor and finish the next day. Lots to see and do on the way up and down….pubs, parks, children’s’ playgrounds, picnic areas, tourist information, cafes and a CRT (Canal and River Trust) hut where Tony stopped on his bike to give the volunteer workers a piece of his mind.
The CRT run the canals, or are supposed to, and have failed to look after the system to make it better for boaters. They have left maintenance of old locks too late, not dredged nearly enough to make the Cut passable, failed to cut foliage and growth along the banks of the Cut, allowing overgrowth to virtually cut the Cut in two in many places. And…the whole organisation is basically mismanaged. They have tried to rebrand themselves and change personnel, but nothing changes. There are lots more gripes, but I have bored you enough.
Tony says if they spent more of their time and our money on the system, rather than on, as he says, voles, moles, water fowl and fish, leaving them to interest groups (there are many), we might have a viable network of usable canals after all. The CRT workers listened politely and even agreed with Tony on many points (Tony does his homework), but said they were powerless to effect change. The 2 bullies at the top of the chain see to that. Their solution? Raise our license fees x4 (already nearly £1000 annually) to get the work done.
OK, now that’s enough of that. Back to the Hatton Flight. The family who joined us half way up the flight, consisted of a man, a woman and their daughter, a precocious 10-year-old who loved to jump all over the place. The husband worked the locks (thus freeing Tony to pontificate) and the wife steered the boat. I tried to get her to follow me closely into the next lock, but she she was too busy trying to control her craft and keep her daughter in check.
We did the next best thing. We tied the front and back of the boats together and I drove both of us from lock to lock. Hard on my engine, but better than the alternative. Up we went until finally we reached heaven. And lovely it was too, to be free again. The engine thanked me for cutting us loose and off we went.
Tony went home. We left him still having his say. More beautiful countryside and then another 90 degree turn on to the Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal. But it was tricky because there was another boat in front of us, taking its time on the turn and then mooring up just under the bridge at the entrance to this arm of the canal.
By now we were extremely tired but decided to push on and do the Lapworth Flight of locks….all single locks and my first. Another climb to the top, 16 locks and then we would push on for another hour. We had earlier decided to moor up before the Lapworth Flight, but Tony called and said we had better continue. He joined us again and off we went, a climb of over 100 feet. Because of the time of day, we were nearly the only boat on the system, everyone else having the good sense to moor up for the night.
We were nearly to the top when another boat approached, coming down the flight. Four men were on board, apparently on their annual boys trip they had been taking for years together. They seemed to be in a bit of a flap. Tony asks, “You’re late coming on the this flight. Where’re you off to?” “We were at the top and heard they found a body in the canal ahead and the police shut down the system” said one of the crew, “so we’re going back down and taking the canal through Birmingham. We have to get this rental boat back.”
Shock. A dead body in the canal? It could take days for the police to sort it out. What to do? Go back too? What if it was open tomorrow? We decided to moor up after the top lock and wait the night. Lovely spot that was known as the Lily Pad. Tony took Deb home for the night so she could have a proper shower and see her children (3 Springer Spaniels). They would return late morning the next day after assessing the situation ahead.
Reprieve! We could sleep in. Tony and Deb headed off. Me and my best friend walked back down the lock flight on the towpath to a pub we had heard about to have a meal. It was Saturday evening and a big screen TV in the alfresco setting was showing the FA Cup football (soccer) match between Manchester United and Chelsea FC. It had also been the day Prince Harry and Meghan were married. Big day and all we could think of was food (not really that unusual for me).
Back to the boat after the meal and 2 pints, some down-time and sleep, a nice long one. It was nearly 11am when Tony brought Deb back. No info on whether the canal ahead was open and what had actually happened, except that it was a woman’s body they found. Poor thing. We decided to go ahead. This was supposed to be the last day push to Droitwich Spa Marina. Day 5. The delay was unavoidable. We only hoped the way ahead was clear.