Tag Archives: Canal Locks

Apsley to Droitwich: Day 2

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Day 2. Heading off into the mist.

Up at 4:45 am. Check the engine (oil, water, stern tube and weed hatch). All good. Start the engine by 5am. Have coffee. Untie and go. It’s a very cold start this morning….3 Degrees Celsius. Heavy mist on the water, the sun is low in the east, just rising. My hand is frozen to the tiller. And so begins Day 2.

We make our way through a very thick mist to the next set of locks. Winding past moored boats on tickover. Don’t want to disturb boaters at this time of day. The going is slow. Tickover is the slowest our boats can go and you hear the engine actually ticking over. How ’bout that.

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Under Bridge 107 and into one of the Soulbury locks.

We head toward Milton Keynes. They feature part of this artificial city in the Harry Potter films where Harry is living with the Dursleys.

Milton Keynes was built in the 1960s to alleviate London sprawl. The government back then basically said, ‘Here’s some land. Build a city.’ And they did. I’ve heard the word sterile used to describe it. But going through on a narrowboat, you’d never know you were in an urban centre. We wind through parkland, a few houses and fields. This early in the morning only a couple of joggers are about, one dog walker and a few cyclists. Always cyclists.

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Houses along the way on the canal with private moorings.

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Ready to lower the boat in a lock.

And it’s warming up thank goodness. My best friend puts on more coffee and I begin to thaw. We can use all electrics on the go. We have a Dometic Travel pack that allows us to use 240 volts on the move. Brilliant piece of kit, already on the boat when we bought it. We can use all appliances, sparingly, and our coffee maker gets a lot of use.

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CRT dredging part of the canal. Day 2

Today we’re heading for the Buckby locks. If that proves a little too ambitious, we’ll moor up a little sooner opposite Rugby Boat sales. On the hill next to the canal is a great pub and Inn, The Narrowboat. I vote for an earlier mooring even though it is still a 12 hour day, 35 miles and only 13 locks. That’s a lot of non-stop helming.

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Best friend at the helm with Deb looking on. I’m walking along the towpath for some exercise.

We also have to go through the locks at Stoke Bruerne, where most of the day’s locks reside and the Blisworth tunnel of nearly 2 miles. Of all the things to get through on the Cut, tunnels are my least favourite, especially when boats are coming the other way. I get my first and only injury at Stoke Bruerne too. I hardly notice the great pubs along the top lock as we pass. 3 years ago, when we came down this way to Apsley from Crick marina, we stopped to eat at the Indian restaurant canalside. Best one ever.

Ah, the injury. I was told to stay on the boat. My best friend and Deb feared for my life if I got off. You see, I am a bit of a klutz (clumsy) at times and boats are a challenge. My fellow travellers said, ‘Stay on the boat. If you get into trouble, honk the horn.’ The horn….that’s another story. Anyway, we got to one of the Stoke Bruerne locks and the wind got hold of the boat as I tried to keep it steady and ready to go into the lock once the gates were opened. The boat got blown to the side, so I stepped off (naughty boy), grabbed the rope and held the boat along the edge.

When it was time to go into the lock, I put the rope back and grabbed the boat ledge on the roof to get back on. Well….there was a chunk of cement broken off the side of the canal wall where I stood and some clown had filled the breach with loose gravel and not cemented it in. My right foot slipped on the loose gravel, went between boat and cement wall into the canal, scraping it badly along the side and my left knee smashed down hard on the gravel. I pulled myself up and got on the boat.

My left knee was bleeding badly, my right foot was soaked and my lower leg was torn and cut. No time to whimper. Get into that lock. Secured. Gates close behind me. A shadow looms overhead. My best friend. “I saw the whole thing. You idiot. All you had to do was stay on the boat.” “Yeah, but the wind and the gravel….” There were no excuses I could give that were good enough to save me. “I don’t care,” said my best friend. “Just look at the state of you. Can’t do anything about it now. Wait until we get through the tunnel.” I poured a bottle of water over the affected area and drove on, bleeding all over my shoes and the deck.

The tunnels are dark, cold and wet. Sometimes, the water pours from pores in the ceiling and rains all over me. The other 2 hide inside the boat. I have a front floodlight to light the way ahead and warn other boaters coming toward me that I’m present. All the lights have to be put on inside the boat (a regulation) and I close the doors behind me as a safety precaution. Some days are wetter than others. This was a bad one. I was soaked by the time we exited, nearly 2 miles later. But I had the whole tunnel to myself this day.

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Mum duck and ducklings.

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Canada Goose and gosling.

On we go, past some of the most beautiful countryside England has to offer….and, yes, more great pubs that tantalize but are verboten because of our deadline. Besides, we were heading for the Narrowboat Inn. I was determined. The most fascinating thing about Day 2 has been the number of families of ducks, geese and swans all along the Cut, as well as Herons. No families of those, but so many eyeing the families of others. Herons will eat anything small and furry , even small rabbits.

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The English countryside. Day 2.

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More fields of gold (rapeseed).

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Ubiquitous Hawthorne trees along the route.

We have crossed over 2 aqueducts today too. Narrow pans of water high over the land or a train network or even a river. These aren’t that high and have railed fencing on either side for safety. But they afford good views of the land about. Never a dull moment on the Cut.

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Aqueduct No. 1

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Aqueduct No. 2

We gradually wind our way to Stowe Hill Wharf where we find Rugby Boat Sales and, as ever, The Narrowboat Inn on the hill. We moor along the bank just before a bridge. At this time of the day, moorings are hard to come by and we are a little too close to the bridge. But chances are, no one else is coming through tonight and we are starting again very early the next day.

The Narrowboat Inn. Tired as we are, the hill climb is worth every step. I have a cheeseburger with the works….a gourmet burger at that….and 2 pints of Pale Ale. Back to the boat and straight to bed. Day 3 is not far off.

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Morning mist at our mooring at Stowe Hill Wharf. Getting ready to go.

 

 

Lock Lore

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A lock near us.

One thing I know for sure about living on a narrowboat in England. A lot of work is involved in maintaining it and cruising on it. If we could simply cruise along the canals, unimpeded by obstacles that get in the way, things would be jolly. Some of those obstacles are natural, while others come in the form of locks and swing bridges.

If all this sounds like boat-speak, you’re right. When I first got into this lifestyle, I knew nothing. And I’m still learning. What is a windlass, you ask? What are gate paddles? What is a pound (not money)? What is a cill? All questions I know you’ve been asking yourself. Expat Larry is here to answer all your queries about narrowboating. If only he had all the answers.

Be that as it may, he knows about locks. Last summer, a few of us spent our days moving other people’s boats from here to there to get work done. Every so many years, the bottoms of our boats need to be blacked. This is a process that uses some form of bitumen that is applied with brushes and rollers to the hull that first has to be blasted clean of the old black. The blacking protects the bottom of the narrowboat’s hull. Most people pay to have it done. Our boat is due this year and we’ve decided to do it ourselves.

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One of the boats we moved in a lock.

You can’t just do it any old place. Some marinas have facilities for maintenance. Ours doesn’t, so it’s off to places north or south to do the work. In our case, last summer, a few people needed work done and some of us provided the crew to get them there and back. We became the lock crew. And we were good. 2 of us got the lock ready for the boat to go in, then walked to the next lock to get it ready. The other 2 crew waited until the boat left the lock and closed it up for the next boat that would eventually come along. We had our system.

But, if you can share the lock with another boat, all the better. Locks on the Grand Union Canal (where we live) are double locks….2 narrowboats or 1 widebeam. If you can travel in 2s, you save water, a vanishing commodity in the canals these days. You’d never think that living in a country known for its abundance of rainy days. Apparently, it’s the wrong type of ground in this country to retain all that rain water. Don’t worry about it or try to figure it out. I never do.

Approaching the low side of a lock. Two of the intrepeid crew wait to open the gates to let us in.

Approaching the low end of a lock. Two of the intrepid crew ready to open the gates to let the boat in.

So, here we are, a couple of locks down the way on one of the trips, when we meet up with a couple on one of those what we call plastic boats, the kind you find on lakes. Anyway, the folks navigating this craft were, well, not quite entirely with us if you know what I mean. They were away with the fairies, on some kind of mind expanding substance, not a care in the world. “Where you heading to my friend?” I asked after about the 3rd lock. “Huh? Heading to? Uh….not sure. What direction is this?” “South” I said. “South? What direction to Birmingham?” he asked. “North” I said. “Oh yeah? I guess we’re going the wrong way. ” “I guess. What’re you going to do?”

He just shrugged his shoulders. He insisted on pulling his boat into the lock rather than cruising in. It took a lot longer. He said he was afraid the boat we were moving would crush his if he drove in. No logic there, especially since he had fenders the size of a pilates ball. But he kept up this odd behaviour, heading in the wrong direction with no plan. He decided to moor up after the next lock anyway. Thank da Lawd.

By the end of the summer, we became the best lock crew anyone could hope to acquire. We decided not to get back on the boat between locks as we can walk faster than the boats are allowed to go on the canals. In total, we walked about 50 miles that summer, rain or shine. Many locks and many good laughs. And quite a feat considering every one of the lock crew have bad knees and bad backs. Brave bunch….but no medals.

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Lock gates open, ready for the boat to enter.

We got to know each lock very well along this stretch of the canal. Some of the paddles are buggers to open and the gates are heavier than hell to open and close. Some leak badly while others are just plain old and falling apart. This is why we have the CRC, the Canal and River Trust. They are the organisation that looks after the canals, most of them anyway. And the locks.

The locks are getting older too. Some of the gates are from the later part of the 19th century and early 20th. They have been serviced here and there, but there are a lot of them and budgets don’t allow for a complete overhaul of the system. Well, budgets and money wasted on ridiculous salaries for the top dogs and some frivolous projects. It seems the only time locks get serviced is when they completely fail, through age, overuse and vandalism….mostly age.

It was a relief when news came that a lock near us, that has been leaking badly, was going to be fixed. The notices went up and then the materials needed began appearing. Barges with water pumps and cranes then appeared and finally the steel fencing to keep us out and the workers in went up. The work began. The top gates were replaced and the bottom gates repaired. What fascinated me was the junk on the bottom of the lock once the water had been drained away. Treasures galore, mostly of metal that had fallen off boats over the years and tossed in by locals….like car hub caps and road signs of one type or other.

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Stuff at the bottom of our local lock.

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Preparing the lock for work.

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The new gates at the top of the lock.

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Finishing things off in the repaired lock.

This work went on for a few days. On one of those days, I was walking along the towpath to shop at the local Sainsbury’s (Supermarket) and noticed a narrowboat inching up to the barrier put up to shut off the lock. An older gentleman, who had the demeanor of an original boater, complete with old, unattended boat, stood at the tiller, grumbling to himself.

I stopped and stated the bleeding obvious. “The lock is closed for repair” I said. “I can see that” said he of the Cut. “Did you check the online lock closure reports?” I asked. “Don’t have a computer” he said. “Did you see any of the signs as you were coming along?” I inquired. “There’s always signs for this and that” he said, “But I didn’t see any of them.” I asked the next obvious question, “Did anyone along the way warn you this lock was closed?” “Yeah” he said, “A few people did, but I didn’t believe them.”

He did now.