Tag Archives: Narrowboats

Apsley to Droitwich: Day 5 & 6

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On our way Day 5

This was to be the last day of our trip from Apsley to Droitwich, but a body found in the canal ahead delayed the arrival at Droitwich Spa Marina. No one was sure where the incident occurred. There were varying accounts. And no one was sure if the canal was open yet. When our friends Tony and Deb showed up late the next morning, we decided to push on anyway. It was another great weather day. We were under way by 11am, not our usual 5:30am start, which meant when we did 10 hours on Day 5, we only would have 4 hours left the following day, adding up to the normal 14 hour day we had done up until now. You do the math.

Tony headed back home. He would meet us later at the next flight of locks….The Tardebigge locks, 30 in all, 2.25 miles long and descending 220 feet. The only reason The Hatton Flight is more famous is because more people use it. The Tardebigge Flight is on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, while the Hatton Flight is on the Grand Union Canal. The latter also has double locks while the former is all single locks.

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Solihull

The Tardebigge flight was designed by one man. The Lapworth Flight that we had just completed were all independent designs. The designers put out a tender to many companies to construct one lock on the flight, hence the different shaped locks (all still single) and a mix of lock gates and paddle lifts. One was eventually chosen and so there is a semblance of cohesion along the way. At the time of day we had completed the Lapworth Flight, I was so tired they all looked the same to me. Stone, wood and water. Start low, end high.

And now another new day. On to the Tardebigge flight, through Solihull, a southern district of Birmingham, along the North Stratford Canal, through the Brandwood Tunnel (352 yards long, 0.2 miles….not very long), up to a left turn at King’s Norton Junction on to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, through 2 more tunnels and down to the Tardebigge Flight. From the top of the Lapworth Flight to Tardebigge, we had to travel north, then west and finally south. Nothing on the Cut is straight forward. You go where the canals were cut to get to your destination. Sometimes you even loop back on yourself. We have those farmers and landowners from the 1700s and 1800s to thank for the shape of the Cut.

This day’s trip was going to take us 10 hours. Ought to have been 13 and a half, but we did Tardebigge in 1/3 the time (a record time apparently…ought to be 6 and a half hours and we did it in 2hrs 15 mins) required because it was late, just after 6:30pm when we arrived at the first lock and nearly 9pm when we got to the bottom. It was another hot day and there were 21 miles to cover and those 30 locks at the end of the journey. Would we just moor up before tackling the Tardebigge Flight or go for it? Tony made up our minds. He’d be there waiting. We were going for it.

Clear cruising on Day 5. We passed the place where the body had been found. We learned later that it had been a young woman with epilepsy who must have had a seizure and fallen in the canal off a bridge. Very sad. It took place in Solihull, the south end of Birmingham. Lots of hired boats on the Cut this day, some seasoned and more than a few who had no idea how to handle a boat.

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Approaching the Guillotine lock.

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Leaving the Guillotine Lock

We were following one hire boat for a while. It would slow to a crawl then suddenly accelerate and take off like a bat-out-of-hell (as much as a boat could fly), slowing to a crawl again and so on. Very frustrating. Playing silly buggers. We came to a sharp bend that turned right, into a narrow because trees hung out over the canal on the left. Then the canal cut to the left just as sharply on a bend past the hanging trees.

There was a pub on the right, on the bend. It looked for a moment like the hired boat was going to moor alongside the pub. I thought, great, I’ll just slip by him. He changed his mind and started pulling out, forcing me to veer left, just as a boat rounded the bend coming toward us. Don’t ask me how I threaded the needle, but with help from navigator Deb and best friend support, we avoided disaster. When the water cleared, we were back behind the hire boat that decided to moor up on the next stretch. We were glad to be on our own again.

Lots of pubs along this route. But the one we were interested in was waiting at the bottom of the Tardebigge Flight. We passed through the Brandwood Tunnel, all the while remaining on the North Stratford canal. Eventually, we arrived at the King’s Norton Junction where the North Stratford meets the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. We were finally heading south. Little did I know that there were still 2 tunnels before the Tardebigge locks.

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Entering the Brandwood Tunnel

The first one, well let’s just say it was like walking under a waterfall. A cold shower like none of the other tunnels we encountered. I was soaked at the end of it. And this, the Shortwood Tunnel, was 610 yards long. That’s over a 3rd of a mile of water pouring down on me. And no soap. The second tunnel was the Tardebigge, because it comes just before the locks. It is 580 yards long and is relatively dry….relatively.

The big test came at the end of the day. So many locks and daylight waned. Tony was there and organised the ladies, the three working as a well-oiled machine, lock after lock. We sneaked by one chap who we thought might hold us up, but for some reason, between locks, he had tied up his boat and gone off somewhere. We dodged ahead of him and never looked back, except to take photos. We reached the bottom lock, moored for the night, exhausted after the hot and long day, even though it was only 10 hours….only?

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One of the Tardebigge locks

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On our way down the Tardebigge locks

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Tony and Bestie operate one of the Tardebigge locks.

On the other side of the towpath was the sister pub to the one we had gone to the night before. This one was the Queen’s Head pub.The problem? We were too late for food. It was Sunday and they stopped serving food at 7:30. What did that matter really? The beer was flowing and the crisps and peanuts were plentiful. And guess who we ran into? The guys who had turned back at the Lapworth Flight to take the Birmingham route. They had arrived only and hour before us. It was much further the route they had taken. We all laughed. And we drank. Only 4 hours to Droitwich, so we relaxed and staggered back to the boat.

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Moored beside The Queen’s Head at the bottom of the Tardebigge locks

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Moored at the bottom of the Tardebigge locks.

The next morning we set off, but a little later than usual. We had to cover 4 miles and negotiate 15 more locks, turning off the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to the rather short Droitwich spur which had 3 of the strangest locks we had encountered. After all those very long days, this one seemed like a doddle. So much so that we had 2 chaps work those last 3 locks for us. They had to fill some pound off to the right of the lock, then empty it so the next lock would have plenty of water. 2 volunteers are here every day in the summer from 11am to 4pm, helping boaters through these locks.

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Deb and Bestie working one of the last few locks.

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Going down in one of the locks just before the marina with help from 2 chaps.

It was the only time my best friend allowed me to get off the boat, to watch the proceedings. Quite an impressive way to save water. It takes longer to get through a lock, but we didn’t mind. The marina was in sight and our journey to an end. Out of the last lock, ahead a short distance, turn right through a narrow gap and into our new marina.

I moored alongside a cement dock to fill the thirsty boat with diesel and we went into the marina office to sign in and get our place. I went back to the boat, untied and headed to our new berth, on the north side of the marina. Back in, tie up, engine off. Home.

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Our new home at Droitwich Spa Marina in Worcestershire (like the sauce).

 

Apsley to Droitwich: Day 4

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Heading out at last on Day 4.

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.

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First locks of the day – the Fosse Locks. Candle-shaped lock releases.

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My best friend disposing of the rubbish.

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The mysterious boat

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Strange creatures by the bridge. What did he say?

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.

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Royal Leamington Spa

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More Royal Leamington Spa. Garden by the Canal.

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.

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Beginning of the Hatton Flight of Locks. 21 locks rising 148 feet.

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Moving up the Hatton Flight.

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Looking back at the Hatton Flight. Still some to go.

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Tied to another boat half way up the Hatton Flight.

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Tony giving CRT crew a grilling at the Hatton Flight.

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Nearing the top of the Hatton Flight with a park on the left. Plenty of Gongoozlers (narrowboat watchers).

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One last look back from the top of the Hatton Flight. 21 locks and 148 feet later.

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.”

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The narrow single locks on the Lapworth Flight of Locks on the Stratford Canal.

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Looking up the Lapworth Flight.

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Looking back on the Lapworth Flight.

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.

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Another look back on the Lapworth Flight. Nearly at the top.

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Last lock of the day on Lapworth Flight Locks.

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.

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Moored for the night above the Lapworth Flight.

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Why it’s called the Lily Pad Pond.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

On The Move

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It was time to say goodbye to Apsley Marina and head north to our new home at Droitwich Spa. We had nearly 3 good years at Apsley with good nighbours and great facilities around us to make living on a boat a little easier. The train station was only minutes away with a short 30 minute trip to the centre of London. Everything we needed to get my best friend to work in the city and for me to write and play music.

My best friend’s art studio was now in Herefordshire. My friend had a music studio in his barn for recording my music and it cost much less to live further north than it did nearer London. Friends of ours lived up that way. They had their boat at Droitwich Spa marina, so we decided to head that way. It would be a long trip…122 miles and 178 locks, but we had help and could manage it. A trip like that usually takes 11 days. We had to do it in 5. Thatmeant long days at the helm.

We said our goodbyes with little fanfare. No fuss after all we had lived through since moving our boat to Apsley. So long to our garden and our good neighbours. We were heading for new adventures and a new home. Once we passed the turn off to Crick where we bought our boat, we would be in new territory. I looked forward to the challenge and seeing new sections of the Cut.

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The Tring Summit on the Grand Union Canal.

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My best friend happy in her work at the locks.

I took photos with my trusty LG Mobile (Cell) phone to give you an idea about everything along the route. I could have taken pics every couple of minutes, there was so much to see. But my poor old phone kept telling me I had no more space. And if you know me, 1 photo of an object is never enough. Because I helmed (drove the boat) the whole way….spelled off occasionally by a good friend who came with us to help with locks….it was difficult to snap and steer.

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The rolling countryside around the canal.

So difficult, in fact, my best friend laid down the 2 second rule. You see, I have a bit of a focus issue. I am like a goldfish. I can concentrate on one thing at a time for a very short moment. If I am helming, all my energy and attention has to be on the driving. If a duck with a new batch of cute, fluffy little ducklings goes by, I watch them until the boat is ready to smash into the canal side. Hence, the 2 second rule. Ducklings for 2 seconds, drive. Lovely house with gardens by the canal, 2 seconds, drive. Inviting pub, drive. Remembering the rule is another thing. Swan with cygnets….best friend, “2 second rule!!!”, drive.

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The 2 second rule in play here. Duck on the ledge of an aquaduct.

When we passed a particularly lovely spot, the friend helping us offered to take the helm while I took photos. She was a great help the whole trip. She is an experienced boater and talked me through numerous tricky situations. “The boat has 3 gears,” she says, “Forward, neutral and reverse. Use them all in a pickle, but use them slowly. You can’t rush your way out of a difficult situation.” “Yes ma’am.” I tend to ram the thing into reverse , then ram it into forward when I sense trouble or become stuck on the bottom. That can be a tad scary on a 20 ton, 60 foot boat on a narrow canal.

Which reminds me. A little info is called for here. The canals do not have an endless supply of water. Apparently, and don’t take my recollections as gospel….my best friend doesn’t….the ground in this country doesn’t drain very well. Though we get our fair share of rain, most of it evaporates before it seeps into the ground. If we have a dry spell of only a week or 2, water reserves dry up and hose pipe bans are put in place.

The CRT (Canal and River Trust) tells us that canal water levels have been going down over the last years due to all kinds of reasons. More boats on the Cut, boaters leaving gate paddles open thus draining water pounds, old locks leaking too much and a lack of rain. They say that within 5 short years unless there is a concerted effort to reverse the trend, there won’t be enough water for travel. That would be disastrous for us boaters to say the least. 15,000 marooned boats.

But now to the brighter side. You could not have picked better weather in May for this move. The 1st day was a little chilly and overcast but stayed dry. Then the sun came out and the rest of the trip was glorious. The best of England spread before us. Some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere on earth and at only 4 mph, it goes by slowly enough to allow us to appreciate it.

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Das Boat heading toward a lock. is there enough water in the pound? This time there was.

And now for the trip itself….each day’s journey with commentary and photos. 5 days of the best this country can offer. Come on along. You won’t be disappointed and you may even find yourself booking a holiday on a canal boat to see it all. But hurry, you never know when the well will dry up.

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At the helm on the cold 1st day. My best friend and Deb the helper in the background.

 

 

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.

 

 

Mad March in the Marina.

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Mad March in the Marina.
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Snow between boats on the first day.

You’d think all my years living in Canada would have prepared me for winter weather in England. Well….it didn’t. My 12 years living over here have turned me into a giant wuss. All I’ve had to do is get used to the wind and rain. I don’t mind rain. The wind I could do without, those 70mph winds that is. Even 50mph winds become tiresome. And I expect some cold weather and maybe a dusting of snow when it’s wintertime. But this? In March?

It all began on a Monday near the end of February, leading into March. Calls for big snow and ice storms for Britain, coming in from Russia. They don’t need nuclear weapons. Just send us your weather. Usually, the media plays up this kind of doomsday weather. Everyone knows that snow, any snow, cripples the infrastructure of Britain, especially the south of England. So when the weather gurus (Met Office) get it right, all hell breaks loose. Mostly, it hits in Scotland. Not this time.

Right about now, all my compatriots in Canada are laughing their collective faces off because of our whining and moaning about a little bit of snow. But this time it was serious. High winds, drifting snow, ice rain and ice pellets, the lot. All for several days. As I write this on the 2nd of March, the snow continues to fall. My best friend and I braved our way to Sainsbury’s this afternoon for a few needed comestibles and returned in a hail of pellet-like snow balls whipping our faces and pummeling our bodies.

It all adds credence to the old saying about March weather, ‘In like a lion and out like a lamb’ and vice versa. In like a rampaging elephant here. For the south of England anyway. Kids love it. Schools are cancelled, snowmen made, sleds and toboggans dusted off and hot chocolate served. Unless you have to drive, it’s very pretty out there.

 

Wildlife seems confused on stormy winter days. Some ducks sit on the frozen surface of the marina or on the cut wondering where the water went. Swans and geese slide around like very bad skaters. Finding shelter isn’t easy for these foul. Good thing they have feathers and all that down. Nature’s way of looking after the defenceless.

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Birds on ice.

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The frozen marina.

Here in the marina for we mammals, things go on as usual except that getting on and off the boat can be tricky. More on that in a moment. But the thing that gets used overtime is the old solid fuel burning stove. Day and night we stoke the fire and keep things positively cosy in this 60 foot long, 6.6 feet wide narrowboat. This week we decided to burn wood. Usually it’s coal, but that blows back when it’s very windy and has a thick choking quality to it. So wood.

We don’t live out on the cut where boaters gather up any wood they can find along the towpath from felled trees and tree branches to broken fence posts. Wooden pallets (skids) are a favourite if they can be obtained. A few people buy peat to burn. Smells terrible. The little shop in the marina sells wood. Not cheap but dry and useable. Wood burns much more quickly than coal. You use a lot more of it. And it smells better. Everyone has a preference.

We had to learn about coal too. Some burns more slowly but produces more ash. The one we use burns more quickly but is cleaner. There are a lot of things to learn when you go from a regular house to a boat. Keeping warm in the winter is a big one. It’s surprising how warm these boats get when the stove is on with the central heating. We have that too. It’s run off the boat’s diesel fuel. Sometimes it gets so warm on the boat, we have to open windows.

No one can figure out who is responsible for spreading salt and grit around the marina when the walkways and jettys become icy. Seems to be up to we boaters. There is a container at one end that contains grit. We help ourselves. Of course you have to get to it first. And therein lies the problem on very slippery days.

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Snow at night. 5 inches this time.

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Car covered in snow in the marina.

 

And so back to that thing I mentioned about it being slippery getting on and off the boat on such days. My best friend had a meeting in London and I was left to do the laundry. She slipped on the jetty as she got off the boat, but walked off to the train station unscathed. I got off the boat to check on the laundry and slipped on the same spot. This time, I was heading into the water….the very cold, icy water.

But I was determined not to fall in all the way. Only one leg went in. On the way down into the abyss, I shot out my arm toward the jetty and threw my other leg back toward the boat. The result? A badly bruised and wrenched right arm and a twisted left leg. I was stuck. I couldn’t move. And I was in pain.

To the rescue, my good neighbour Eddie the Brave. He heard the thud as I collapsed between boat and jetty. Out he came and gingerly lifted me up, battered and bruised and shaken but very much alive. Instead of doing the smart thing, I thanked Eddie and continued on to the laundry room, sloshing along on my soaked and frozen leg. Stupid boy.

When I got back to the boat, I changed into dry jeans. I was still a little bit in shock but surprised I felt as good as I did….that is until the next day. Amazing what stiffens and shows up overnight. Stupid boy. Even after all that, the snow continued. A crazy week in March. Bring on Spring.

 

Sad Goodbyes

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Sad Goodbyes

You get used to people being around. If they’re nice people, you even enjoy running into them here and there. In this day of neighbours who never speak or not even knowing your neighbour, it’s refreshing to live in a community that cares for every person in and around that community.  That doesn’t mean everyone gets involved in caring. Some don’t mind being cared for, they just don’t get involved. But, if you have enough people who care, even one, then community has a chance.

In our old neighbourhood in Kent, we hardly knew anyone on the street. Even when we did meet some to say hello, that would be the extent of our contact. Not many people there had anything in common with his or her neighbour and, sometimes, there were those who made life miserable on our street. We had a recluse I called Elvis because of his apparent love of the king. Another had kids that screamed all day. Across the street, lived the family from hell and down the way was an old perv whose language would make a sailor blush, as my mum used to say. Mostly, we left each other alone and got on with our lives.

Not so in the boating community. I mean, we have our share of old curmudgeons on the cut who just want to be left alone, but boaters are a special bunch and even the toughest old bird will help another boater in trouble. Out on the cut (boaters name for the canal), people are constantly on the move, but over time end up running into people they’ve passed on any number of occasions, people they have moored near for a time or those they’ve helped over time. Even the times we’ve been out of the marina, we have passed boats we’ve seen before and give the friendly wave and greetings.

Marina life is another animal altogether. You live in close proximity with other boaters for an extended period of time. Some come and go more regularly, but the majority stay and you see them almost every day. Some work, some are retired and others only come to their boat occasionally to do work or go out on the cut for a while. In our marina, we have 12 boats out of 60 that are residential. We 12 live on our boats full-time. Sounds downright Apocalyptic, don’t it? Well, it isn’t, just happens they designate 12 spaces for residential which means we get a post box and a longer, wider jetty than the others and a couple of other perks.

The  other  48 boats are supposed to be leisure, but people still live on them….quietly.  The rules are a bit vague about liveaboards (as they are known), so no one ever really knows who can actually live on their boats and all that jazz. Anyway, beyond our boat (the last in the line of residents) people do live aboard. And we are glad they do because there are some quality folk you love to have around you. Two of these people are Lynn and Keith, longtime residents of this area both off and on a boat.

Lynn used to work for the Dickinson family when this whole area was paper mills and the admin offices attached to them. Keith did the same but was also in the Royal Navy for 9 years, a real sailor and looks like one these days too. Lynn was in the army when they met. Their children were born, grew up and have moved on over the years, some as far away as Australia. Both have long since retired and have enjoyed narrowboating for these past 8 years. Their boat, ‘Eight Bells’ was in the marina when we arrived just over 2 years ago.

The only way I can describe Keith is by his humour. He always has a quip about this and that. When he takes his cassette shitter to be emptied at the Elsan Point, he tells us he’s just going to the Post (Office). And he loves to comment on the weather. That is very English. But one day a woman came to the marina looking for Keith, as it turned out, but didn’t know his name. All she could say to describe him was she was looking for the man who loves to talk about the weather.  Only one person it could be….Keith.

While on duty in the navy, he was chosen to serve the Queen at a military event and practice d endlessly with a silver tray and champagne flute before the big day. When it came, Keith approached her Maj with the tray and the champagne and bowed as he said, “Ma’am”. But the Queen said, “Oh no, I never drink Champagne at lunch.” Keith says he almost said, “Oh shit!” as he turned away, but somehow restrained himself. Great story.

Lynn is a little more subdued, but after a glass of her favourite white wine, she opens right up. She is one of the most pleasant people I have ever encountered on this old earth. Keith is too, of course, but Lynn has a smiling quality about her that can make my day as much as Keith’s quips make me laugh. She is a very patient person in my estimation. We men can be a trial to live with at times….and that’s all I’m going to say about that. A great couple. Love them as we all do in the marina.

Keith’s health has not been the best this year so far. They both said it was time to call it quits and live on land. So, their boat will be taken to a broker next week to be sold and that, as they say, shall be the end of another era. They say they aren’t going far. They’ll return from time to time to see us, but you know what happens. People get busy. But I’ll miss the day-to-day  presence of both of them. Still, they say they are coming to our marina Caribbean night at the beginning of September. Keith quips that he hopes the weather reflects the atmosphere of the soirée.

Today, when I went over to their boat to take the photo you see at the head of this Blog, Keith pulled his blue shirt up over his belly and gave me a cheeky smile. Lynn made him pull it down and told him to behave. They are going to be missed around the marina.