Sunday, 3 November 2013

The pace has slowed

Not quite this slow perhaps but in the two weeks since my last post we've moved little more than two miles. It's been strange - even by canal standards - slowing down to four miles a month!
We haven't been on the boat the whole time; we used the security and convenience of being in Paddington Basin to disappear off visiting children and grand children.
I have to admit I quite like the Basin. I know a lot of boaters find it characterless and it certainly is wind-blown but I enjoy the modern architecture and watching the hustle and bustle of workers coming and going. And, of course, it's a comfortable walk or a short bus ride to Oxford Street, Hyde Park and all the delights of central London.
It can be entertaining, too. We watched the famous roll-up bridge being demonstrated and witnessed the huge Marks & Spencer offices being evacuated after a fire alarm.
But all good things come to an end and after our alloted week we had to cast off and cruise back out west. As far as Kensal Green, two miles away. The 14 day moorings here have always been popular: there's a canalside Sainsburys and being at the junction of Ladbroke Road and Harrow Road, west London is still a short bus or tube trip away.
When we came into London the moorings were overflowing with boats - many of them the classic 'hippy hutches' with their flapping tarpaulin covers and piles of scrap, on the boat and on the surrounding grass. But some seem to have been shoo-ed away by the CaRT patrols or shuffled off to winter moorings so there's more space.
We've passed the vast Victorian Kensal Green cemetery a few times by boat but now with time to kill (excuse the pun) we decided to visit. It's an amazing place, in a state of Gothic semi-dereliction, though still in use. Isambard Kingdom Brunel is buried here in a family plot, so too Charles Babbage, Blondin, Wilkie Collins and many more.
By way of contrast, yesterday we were among the crowds of the living in Portobello Road Market, heaving with visitors - mostly foreign - to the point at which progress slowed to a shuffle.

Today we found a quiet little park off Ladbroke Grove then wandered back towards the canal past the monstrous Trellick Tower, the 'seventies brutalism' tower block designed by Erno Goldfinger (yes, Ian Fleming did pinch his name for the Bond villain). From a seventies crime-ridden slum it has now been revamped and revitalised as well as getting a Grade 2* listing.

Nearby is a delightful canalside community garden project which has turned a scrap of land into a cheerful and imaginative place to spend some time. The contrast to the concrete monster that overshadows it could not be more great.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Reflections on the K&A

Among the high spots: visiting elegant Bath
We started off loving the Kennet & Avon; by the end we were thoroughly fed up with it. Sadly, I don't think we'll be rushing back.
What are the plus points? It certainly runs through some delightful and varied countryside - the lush, green woods and pastures of Berkshire, then the open Wiltshire downs, the more rugged terrain as you near Bath and the lovely River Avon to Bristol. Some decent towns too: affable little country places like Hungerford and Devizes, historic Bath and - our favourite - the live-wire Bristol.
The Caen Hill flight is something to be remembered, too.
So what's wrong with it? The fact that there are so few moorings is the chief one. I don't mind nudging the bank, dropping down a plank and banging in pins, but I could certainly do with a few more places where I could tie up up to some rings or Armco and feel safe in leaving the boat for a day or three without worrying that some passing speedster wouldn't rip its pins out. (And it happens, we passed six or seven boats adrift or on the brink of it.)
It's a special pain if you have a deep drafted boat like ours - there are many stretches where you simply get bored of trying to get near enough to the side even to put a plank down, only to find you can't, you're grounded and you have to wrestle back into midstream.
And among the lows: the lines of moored boats
Much of the canal seems to be in a poor-ish state too; needing dredging, stretches overgrown with reeds, with badly leaking locks, missing paddle gear and so on. (Not to mention the often awful over-geared mechanisms.)
And as I've said before, I found the lines of 'continuous moorers' from Bradford on Avon through to Bath utterly depressing.
The point about the K&A is that visiting it is a serious commitment. A tiny minority will want to risk their boats coming back to the network on the estuary crossing to Sharpness; the rest will go down and canal and then back again. That should be an enjoyable summer's worth of cruising with the chance to vary the route each way - to moor in different spots, leave the boat and visit other towns, take country walks and so on. It's very far from that at the moment

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Rain and shine

We are safely tucked up now in Paddington Basin after an entertaining weekend coming down off the river and then making our way across London.
We left Teddington yesterday afternoon for the short, five mile trip running with the ebbing tide down to Brentford. It was a full moon the night before so the tides were high - but just how high and how fast we didn't realise until we saw the river lapping right across the towpath and riverside streets in many areas. Then when we did the awkward cut-back turn into the cut to Brentford we felt the full force of the flow as it tried to swing us round past the entrance.
Riverside high tide flooding at Kingston
What a contrast the canal made to the sweet, clean river. The water looked poisonously black - blacker than a rugby team's communal bath after a muddy match and plastic bottles and rubbish floated everywhere. Very depressing. With the Brentford moorings full of hutches already tucked up, nose to tail, for winter we headed on through the first couple of locks towards London, mooring for the night shortly before the main Hanwell flight.
The weather forecast was not good and, sure enough, we woke to pouring rain. On went the wet weather gear ... and the sun came out. Came out and stayed out so I was soon stripped down to tee-shirt for lock wheeling.
Last time through I found the Hanwell locks hard work but after a summer on the Kennet & Avon they were light relief: the paddles all worked, and with none of those silly low geared mechanisms either, the gates, opened easily and leaked only moderately – and we never got stuck. We were through in a couple of hours and the sun still shone.
It rained and rained and rained
But not for much longer. Soon after the Bulls Bridge junction the skies turned nearly as black as the canal water and the rain started falling heavily - and then even more heavily. And kept falling for the three hours it took to reach Paddington. Whereupon it stopped just as we came to moor up in pretty much the last free slot.
Back in the summer the Basin was full of tidy looking narrowboats, going and coming. Today it's crowded with a motley bunch of decrepit plastic cruisers and shabby boats in varying stages of decay. I guess they've all migrated here for the winter.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Waiting for the tide

We're now at Teddington waiting for high tide this afternoon to make the short run down to Brentford and the Grand Union Canal. Can't say I'm looking forward to the first few miles on that with a dozen or so heavy locks, shallow rubbish strewn water and so on after the deep waters and immaculate locks of the Thames.
Yesterday I walked across the pedestrian bridge here at the lock and into the old Thames TV studios which are now owned by Haymarket Publishing whose swanky offices look out onto the river. This is the nerve centre of the What Car? operation. And I mean operation - it's no longer just a magazine but a website, a mystery shopping business, a car buying advice call centre and a technical centre that scientifically measures the true fuel consumption of cars (rather than those sometimes way off beam manufacturer figures.)
Forty years ago I was one of a gang of four editorial hacks sitting in an attic room in Gillow House, just off Oxford Street putting together the very first issue of What Car? We used typewriters; the photos were virtually all black & white - colour was an expensive commodity permitted on rarely more than three or four editorial pages - and we did our proof checking with ballpoint pens. After four years as a local newspaper reporter it was my break into motoring journalism
It was a great idea for a magazine (I wish I'd had it). Before What Car? no-one had group tests which compared cars, pages of data listing specifications and prices of new cars and tables of used car prices too.
It was an instant success - despite the 1973 oil crisis virtually doubling the price of petrol overnight shortly after the mag was launched, followed shortly afterwards by the 'three day week' with its temporary 50mph speed limits.
We had a good celebration of its 40th birthday: the youngsters who put together today's What Car? got a chance to meet with the old codgers who put together the first one - a bit like looking at some grey haired old gorillas at the zoo I guess - and then us oldies went off for a decent lunch and a chance to share our hazy memories of the antics we got up to.
It was a fun job then; I hope it's still fun now.

And I was not surprisingly the only one who turned up to the event by boat!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Colours of the cut

Being back on the Thames after the rigours of the K&A is a complete delight: Vicky's happy, I'm happy and so is Tug Harry. Even Brian seems slightly more relaxed now that there isn't a lock or swing bridge every few minutes to bring on a bout of frenzied yapping.
It might be the third time we've travelled this stretch of Thames this year but we're far from bored of it: in fact this is the best trip of all. The river is virtually deserted - only once have we had to share a lock with another boat – the moorings are empty and, above it all, the autumn colours of the trees are stunning in the sunshine.

And there has been a decent amount of that: we set off from Reading on Monday, in cold, bright weather and pulled up for the night at Henley on the town moorings.
Oddly, we've never stopped here before and I'm not sure we will particularly bother to do so again - it's a small town which is suffering from a serious dose of affluenza. The streets are filled with slightly kitsch art galleries, expensive restaurants and bars, patisseries rather than Greggs outlets, the sort of ladies clothes shops you only find in towns like this and, of course, a Waitrose. There was a decent crop of charity shops, however so not all was lost!
Overnight mooring in Henley costs nine quid - and there's no escape, you have to buy a ticket in the carpark machine or someone comes round and knocks on your door. You do get mooring rings and decent rubbish bins, which is something. And if you think it's expensive, try Marlow just downriver which charges £11. Makes Windsor at £8 seem a snip.
It all seems a bit cheeky to a cheapskate canal-er like me. Boaters bring business; all these riverside towns are chokker with moored craft in the summer. How about doing the decent thing and offering a rebate if you spend more than a certain amount at local businesses?
Yesterday we decided to do a long stint as the forecast was good and for today was rubbish. As always seems to be the way it ended up being just that bit longer than it should have been. I was going to stop in Maidenhead but the river's a long way from the town centre and the evening was sunny so we pressed on for Windsor where the shops are nearer.
We got there in the gathering gloom and finished mooring up in pitch dark. Amazing how quickly a sunny evening becomes a dark cold night! But it was worth it. This morning it p***ed down again. During a lull in the rain we headed for the shops only to get seriously soaked when it started again.
Windsor Castle in the sunshine - an impressive sight
After lunch the day brightened and by mid afternoon the sun was shining again so we put a couple more hours in and moored – in daylight this time – at Egham where we've had an entertaining evening watching the aircraft climb out of Heathrow at all sorts of different angles and directions.
Tomorrow sun is forecast again for the final 15 miles to Teddington.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Back on the Thames

Yes, we're off the K&A and back on the Thames. We exited Blakes Lock at Reading last night, making it a 13 day trip back from Bristol. Not bad going because apart from our mad day at Caen Hill we haven't been rushing.
Though we are heading down river to Brentford we turned upstream to moor up. Reading isn't the most encouraging place to stay if you're boating. Riverside outside Tesco at the junction of the canal and river is a favourite if you need shopping but not otherwise; it's a grimly, unlit spot with a curious collection of shanties and semi-derelict boats across the river. When we we there earlier in the year drunken revelling and noisy middle of the night narrowboating (including someone falling in) from there kept everyone awake.
This time, the riverside was deserted so we headed up through Caversham Lock to moor just the other side of the bridge - a convenient stop for Mrs B's Lidl substitute, Aldi.
Thames lock-keepers go off duty at 5pm in October so the lock was DIY operational. Simple push-button stuff...except that once I had pushed the buttons to get us and a following boat in, the electrics failed and we couldn't get out except by opening the top gates manually with a thousand and one turns of a wheel.
Today it has p***ed with rain so we stayed put and Mrs B decided to cook a Sunday roast instead followed by blackberry and apple crumble. Bad weather certainly has its compensations!

Friday, 11 October 2013

Getting stuck in

This week we have been mostly getting stuck. And a right pain it has been too. We reached Newbury okay and moored at West Mills just before the town bridge. On the way up the canal when we moored on the other side of the bridge we weren't terribly enamoured of Newbury which had a scruffy, down at heel feel. Funny how one's views change. West Mills is the classier side of town with some pretty canalside terraced houses and a waterside mini-park. When you step out from the canal onto the main street, turn left and you discover a classy assembly of shops (John Lewis Home, M&S etc etc). Turn right, go over the bridge and you're back in scruff-ville.
Newbury isn't the only town we've been through where the river or canal marks a social divide - in Lincoln for example one bank of the river is smart and posh, the other cheap and scruffy.
Have sweated our way out of the town through three hefty locks in the space of a mile we arrived – via the first of many swingbridges – at Bulls Lock. Now we got slightly stuck here on the sill going up the canal. I should have remembered because we got seriously stuck on the sill coming out.
Having poled, pulled, reversed and sworn vigorously we eventually enlisted the help of a passing walker to help. As we discussed possible exit strategies I happened to say to him:
"What we need is someone with a PhD in Physics"
"Er, funny you should say that," he replied.
"You've got a PhD in Physics! You're the man we need."
"No, what you need is an engineer," he laughed.
Anyway, we found another passer-by and while the Doctor of Physics and I heaved on the bow line, Vicky and our other helper open the top paddles to flush some water through the lock and Harry slowly, slowly came free.
Much thanks all round and we set off - only to nearly go aground 50 yards further on a shoal in midstream where the River Kennet joins the canal. After that it was a mud churning crawl down to the next lock, negotiated with no problem before we went aground again while mooring for the following swingbridge. Poling and cursing eventually got us free.
Finally we moored at the official (mooring rings etc) visitor moorings at Thatcham where I had to leave the stern hanging four feet out in the stream because it wouldn't go closer in. Despite that, the following morning we were seriously, seriously grounded and needed mass pushing by two other boaters with poles as well as me with our pole to get free.
On we went, grinding along the bottom until, inexplicably, the canal suddenly deepened and all was well. The waterway in this stretch is a mixture of canal cut and river so I can only assume that the lack of rain this summer has made the levels drop.
Last night we moored at Aldermaston Wharf and then got stuck again trying to get past a mass of three-deep moored hire boats while another two hire boats were coming the other way. Grrrh!
With 15 locks and 10 swing bridges in the last 12 miles, not for nothing is this stretch of the K&A known as 'divorce alley'! Fortunately for me there's only one more swing bridge to go.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Stop 'n go

It's been slower going since our locking marathon up to Devizes – aching muscles and joints take a while to recover these days. We are now in Hungerford, the overtly , yet charming Berkshire town that is the next town of any size eastwards along the canal.
It's 25 miles on from Devizes and, I wasn't surprised to realise when checking back in the guidebook, two dozen locks as well. Devizes is the place where the canal changes character dramatically: westwards it plunges headlong down in lock flights whereas eastwards it steps slowly and carefully down in single locks (or groups of two and three) spread out along its length.
I know which I prefer: a day or two of hard work and then some light relief. The lock-a-mile style of the run to Hungerford became decidedly irksome as we found lock after lock set against us and seemed to be barely round the bend before the next appeared - always just a little too far away for a comfortable walk.
It's not just the design of the canal which is different: the number of boats is far, far less. West of the Caen Hill locks three or four hire companies keep the canal busy with moving boats whereas here we saw barely three or four boats a day.
The numbers of seemingly static boats is far lower, too. Yes, there are still some clusters, inevitably near pubs, roads or good tv reception points, but nowhere near the lines of non-movers out west.
On our way east we've passed back through the rolling, open downlands of Wiltshire that lured us to some enjoyable long walks on our way down. Now we are back into leafy, wooded Berkshire where the canal will merge with the River Kennet.
Now that's what I call a pie!
The weather has been the real talking point. A couple of days ago it was cold and damp enough to light the back cabin stove and for Mrs B to produce one of her magnificent chicken and vegetable pies in it (not for nothing is she the author of  The Canal Boat Cook Book). Yet yesterday we were digging the shorts back out of the 'not needed for a few months' drawer under the bed and sitting in warm sunshine on the deck eating a salad. Cazy.
Next stop is Newbury - just nine miles but 11 locks away - and then the Thames at Reading will seem almost at touching distance with 18 miles and 21 locks to go.
We now have a deadline - Teddington Lock by the 18th of the month. What Car? magazine was launched 40 years ago this month and a group of us old crusties who worked on it as eager young motoring hacks are being wheeled in to Haymarket Publishing to celebrate. I guess we are celebrating our own survival as much as the magazine's!
Anyway, Haymarket's offices are at the old Thames Studios in Teddington, just over the river from the lock so I will be the only one boating to the lunch.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

We must be mad

We had a great time in Bristol and were sorely tempted by the estuary trip up to Sharpness but the timings of the winter stoppages in that area and the prospect of getting stuck on the far side of the country from all our family (on whom we're hoping to rely for the occasional 'house relief' during the dark winter months on the boat - hint, hint) unfortunately forced us to conclude that a return back down the canal would be a wiser option.
And, having decided to go; well, what was the point in hanging around? We did a short first day so that Vicky could get her Lidl fix in Trowbridge and moored right on the proposed new junction with the under-restoration Wilts & Berks Canal. There's nothing but a sign at the moment but one day...
With bad weather threatened for later in the week we pressed on the next morning towards the daunting Caen Hill flight. Initial thoughts were that we would do the 14 locks leading up to the flight then moor at the bottom and carry on the next day.
But when we got there it was only 2.30pm and the sun was sort of shining so we decided to go for it.
Two and a half hours later we were up the flight - the only boat on the whole route during that time. And with just six more locks before Devizes Wharf we thought we might as well do them to. And we finished them just as the drizzle, which had come and gone during the afternoon, turned into more serious rain. Thirty six locks plus five swingbridges thrown in too.
Large portions of fish and chips took away some of the pain but we were both crashed out by 8.30 p.m.
As much as the weather what had driven us on was a desire to be away from the rather depressing western half of the canal. It's a beautiful waterway, with fine scenery and delightful towns like Bradford on Avon and Bath. But the mile after mile of moored boats gets very depressing. I'm upset by the squalid ruins that some people live on and angered by the flagrant abuse of the system by others - those who effectively 'live' on short term visitor moorings, who continuously cruise no more than a mile or so. (Or less - can a boat with no engine being poled along, or a pedal powered boat seriously be a continuous cruiser?)
But at least these are impecunious students and others trying to live cheaply. What of the brand new widebeams whose owners have bought as floating homes - if you can afford a new widebeam you can afford a mooring fee I think.
Rant over! We are now in Devizes and will be heading gradually east from here to reach the Thames and then aim for Brentford and the Grand Union. Well, that's today's plan anyway.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Making Sunday special

Today was our last day in Bristol and we certainly made it another special day. It started with a lung-bursting walk - climb more like - to the rarefied heights of Clifton where the affluent Georgian merchants who built the city's fortune built their elegant houses up and away from the noisy, drunken, dangerous docklands that had created their wealth.
Today's Clifton is still home of the affluent elite, paying top whack prices for tiny terraced houses to live amidst the trendy restaurants, boutiques, bars and bespoke kitchen companies (I've never seen so many of these in a couple of streets).
But the thrills of Clifton for the visitor like us are the spectacular views over the Avon Gorge and, of course, a walk across Brunel's iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge.
How strange that his most famous achievement and Bristol's landmark feature was a commercial disaster in its day and only completed after his death and some 30 years after he designed it.
The Bridge was built in the spirit of the great Victorian age of enterprise and engineering but its prime purpose was so that those wealthy Clifton-ites could cross the river without having to descend among the riff-raff in the city below.

The fabulous Ambling Band - a still photo can't convey the energy
But if the morning was fascinating, the afternoon was a delight. We had, it turned out, happened into Bristol on one of its monthly 'Make Sunday Special' days when large parts of the city centre are closed to traffic and opened to street performers, bands, kiddies' entertainments, food and craft stalls and much more – including armchairs on the streets to watch the shows! On a sunny Sunday it was alive and buzzing. The brilliant Ambling Band, a kind of New Orleans jazz band on LSD (look 'em up on You Tube ) were our favourite.
Teaching the crowds African dancing
Street chess matches
Top marks to Bristol Council for setting up these events - another object lesson in how to bring people back to our dying city centres. People were there in thousands, having fun - and spending money.
It was a great, great end to our time there. We are very sad to be leaving the city: the last time we felt this way about departing was leaving Liverpool after a similarly magnificent stay.
"Will you be coming back," the Henham lock-keeper asked as we left. You bet!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

From steam ship to street art

That's what we've seen today as we've walked, walked and walked still further in a day long exploration of Bristol.
We started off by intending to tire out seadog Brian with a morning walk up nearby Brandon Hill park so we could leave him in the boat on guard duty for the rest of the morning. I think the walk tired us more than him: the hill is very steep and topped with the Victorian Cabot Tower built in honour of Bristol's famous Elizabethan sailor. You can climb the tower too but a misty morning with no view gave us a good excuse not to!
Next came a stroll across town to the St Nicholas Street market area where we explored a fascinating rabbit warren of indoor and outdoor market stalls trading in every conceivable thing from old stamps to hot sauces to vintage records and ethnic clothing. A pot pourri of tiny, edgy businesses that could never survive in mainstream shopping streets - and maybe a pointer to what some of today's bland city centres could aim for.
On the way back we stumbled upon a streetscape of massive street art works. Truly spectacular pieces of work, many on buildings due for demolition. Bristol - home of Banksy - has a thriving street art scene apparently which even draw its own sizeable tourist traffic.
Next we crossed the harbour yet again on the little 80p ferry for lunch in the famous 'Brunel's Buttery', a little open-air snack bar on the waterfront famed for its bacon sandwiches. It makes 70,000 of them a year.
Naturally I had to sample one (with chips). It was every bit as good as promised. - thick white bread and lashings of bacon. Sensible Mrs B had a jacket potato, also good she says. Though not as good as mine I'm sure! Our old mate Ray from Streethay Wharf dropped by unexpectedly to join our gourmet lunch party on his way home to Cornwall.
The replica of John Cabot's Elizabethan ship sails past the Great Britain
And after the Buttery, the ship.  Brunel's SS Great Britain exhibition is riveting on every level. The ship itself - the largest in the world when launched in 1845, pioneering iron hull construction and propeller drive on a ship this size, and staying in use until 1933 (albeit with several major refits and a fair share of disasters along the way).
Brunel's revolutionary propeller
Then there was the rescue in 1970 which involved refloating the hulk from its resting place in the Falkland Islands where it had been scuttled 40 years earlier and towing it on a pontoon 8000 miles back to the UK.
The iron hull being conserved in the dry dock 'under water'
A recreated cabin
And finally the conservation and restoration work which has created a magnificent display back in the Bristol drydock in which it was built over 150 years ago. To say too much about what has been done would spoil your visit if you've never been.
Above the water line, you see the ship recreated as it was while below water is the hull as it was rescued being conserved. All I can say is, go and see it. It is magnificent.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the 'M Shed' along the harbourside, described as a museum of Bristol, but which is a ragbag of haphazardly arranged bits and pieces that never seems to spend more than a few moments on any subject and offers only superficiality. We were through it in half an hour.
A shallow stream now but the lock gates show how high the tides can be
To end the day we walked along the harbourside to the huge lock gates that stem the tidal river - though when we saw it at low tide, there was little more than a stream in a muddy trough. From here you get a fine view of that other famous Brunel enterprise, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, way up high across the Avon Gorge.
It's been a great day in what has proved to be a great city.

Friday, 27 September 2013

End of the line

Moored in the floating harbour with masts of SS Great Britain behind us
Well, this is it. We've reached the end of the line on the Kennet & Avon. To be pedantic, we reached it earlier this morning when we passed through Hanham Lock, the gateway to the tidal River Avon and the official end/start of the K&A. From there to Bristol, where we are now, the waterway is under the control of Bristol Harbour - which, incidentally, is owned by Bristol City Council.
We had a relaxing couple of hours trip down the river to here. In the autumn sunlight the river is simply a delight; broad, deep, tree-lined and almost free from signs of human habitation away from the locks.
The harbour, by contrast, is huge, busy and full of life. It's called a 'floating harbour' not because it floats but because it's non-tidal, isolated from the tidal waters by lock gates. It was created 200 years ago when the original, tidal harbour was becoming increasingly silted up and difficult for shipping.
These days, commercial traffic has deserted Bristol,as it has many harbours. In its place have come waterside bars and restaurants, office blocks and the inevitable blocks of flats. However the dockside has enough traces of the old times in the shape of cranes, old craft, shunting trains and, of course, Brunel's SS Great Britain to give it a real atmosphere. It feels far more vibrant and alive than, say, Salford Quays or even Liverpool's restored dock areas.
A tight fit under the swing bridge to enter the main dock area
The visiting boater pays a hefty price for mooring here - £47 for two days - though for that you get lots of mooring pontoons, plenty of water points, the option of electric at most of them and - in our case - a vantage point right opposite the SS Great Britain. Tomorrow we will be taking the 80p ferry trip across the harbour to pay that a visit.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Avon caling

Sorry about the awful pun. We are moored tonight on the side of the River Avon in the middle of nowhere halfway between Bath and Bristol.
It's a delightful river, the Avon. We have seen more kingfishers here than in the whole of the rest of the trip - at least six or seven of them - as well as otters right in the middle of Bath at the horseshoe weir and tonight the bats are flying about.
The locks are quite different to those on the K&A - much longer and a little wider too. They are handsomely built, too, out of rough cut stone and you really feel the history of the waterway under your feet as you tread the worn stone steps and lock edges.
After nearly a week in and around Bath I think we've seen enough for now of the city, glorious as it is. It's rammed with tourists and exchange students - would be nice to go back in mid-winter when things might be a bit quieter.
Tomorrow we will be in Bristol which is a place neither of us have visited before. I'm looking forward to a visit to Brunel's magnificent SS Great Britain.

Monday, 23 September 2013

We've been Googled

The Google Streetview canal mapper has just walked past us here at Bathampton en route to Bath. Does that mean one day Harry may be a virtual star.

A spectacular achievement

The glorious Dundas Aqueduct from the river
What bold and inventive engineers the great canal builders were. I think this every time I reach some massive tunnel, huge flight of locks or soaring aqueduct. But rarely is the evidence more obvious than on the handful of miles between Bradford on Avon and the edge of Bath, where we are now.
Two elegant aqueducts, a water powered pumping station to feed the canal from the river Avon below it and a canal route that winds precipitously around the edge of a steep and tree filled hillside. Accompanying us for the day was our local 'guide', Canal Boat editor Nick Wall on his local, and favourite, stretch of canal.
And if the engineering isn't enough to admire then the views certainly are, houses and villages clinging to the hills, distant views along the valley and all that beautiful stone architecture.
And Dundas from the canal above
At times, though, it was hard going. The Avoncliff Aqueduct, which features blind 90 degree turns into and out of it was a traffic jam of boats trying to manoeuvre, life not made any easier by knots of canoeists paddling between us all.
The stretch mixes distant views
Dundas Aqueduct was wider and easier: we moored here and took a walk down to the river valley which is the only place you can see the full glory of Rennie's architecture. It's so much more than a functional piece of canal engineering with its fluted columns and decorative edges. We walked down the surviving arm of the old Somerset Coal Canal which joined the K&A here too and had an excellent snack at the busy Angelfish Cafe in Brassknocker Basin
The canal water levels were low everywhere and we were regularly scraping the bottom as we wound along the hillside from here toward Bath past regular signs warning 'No mooring, danger of falling trees'. More than scraping at times. Once the boat banged and rocked violently from side to side as we went over some massive unseen obstruction that was quite possibly one of those dead trees.
with tight and shallow tree shrouded stretches
Last night we pulled up a mile short of Bath itself, with views of the city in the distance. We're at Bathampton where generations of transport come close together - the River Avon, the main line railway, the motorway and the canal, all within less than half a mile. Its succesors may be faster but none catch match the elegance and style of John Rennie's canal.

Boat jam at Avoncliff Aqueduct

Thursday, 19 September 2013


Clinging, as it does, to the steep hillside above the River Avon BOA (as the locals seem to know it) has a special charm. The twisty, haphazard streets, the handsome stone buildings, from stunning to quaint, the eccentric shops all add up to a picturesque and interesting spot to be spending a few days. That's without mentioning the mighty medieval tithe barn or the atmospheric little Saxon church. Or the canal – though that keeps its distance from the main body of the town. And a good thing too, some would say, to judge by the long line of what we euphemistically call 'continuous moorers'.
But pictures are better than words so here are a few more...
The river runs through it

Atmospheric Saxon church

Impressive medieval tithe barn

The old Masonic hall

One of the many lung bursting climbs

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The rain is falling on the plain

Eleven more locks yesterday - five of them in company with a friendly couple on an ex-Challenger share boat - and two more today have brought us to a complete change of scenery.
Tumbling down the hill from Devizes in a succession of flights, 36 locks have seen the rolling downlands disappear in favour of somewhat less soul-lifting low flat plains. The stone houses are still charming and the hamlets pretty but it's just not the same.
The canal-scape is quite different, too: much busier for one thing. The stretch from the bottom of the Devizes locks to Bath is home to several hire boat firms and their boats are on the move in both directions - wide beams as well as narrow boats. It's been good to meet foreign visitors enjoying our canals, too: we met a family of New Zealanders and an American couple who've been coming on canal holidays for the past five years.
Less pleasing, though, to witness the growing ranks of 'continuous moorers' in varying condition from good to dire. Are they all engaged in a continuous journey, staying not more than 14 days before moving on? Maybe – though the evidence suggests not. And if they were then there would be a helluva lot more boats on the move than there presently are.
I'm a bit of a woolly minded liberal on this subject: for some the canals are all they can manage in the way of a home, while others side-step the rules because they can. I don't have any sympathy for someone who can afford a £100k+ widebeam or barge and then can't or won't pay for a mooring. But the whole issue has been allowed to grow until it's almost out of control and won't be resolved without a lot of pain all round.
But let's not get too grumpy, we have also seen an entertaining range of craft down to the utterly bizarre - like the pedal-powered 'green lifestyle' boat we passed (stationary, not being pedalled by its crew of Wiggins-alikes). So here's a few:

Lovely wooden hull but quite a project
You're entering Indian country - nice boat, great paint job

Little aluminium (I think) lifeboat
After a long sunny summer and a couple of days when it threatened but never materialised, today the rain is finally falling on the plain and we are moored with the stove burning in the pretty canalside town of Bradford-on-Avon. We may linger a while - but not too long, honest.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Twenty three locks later

Devizes is a nice little town but after a week there cabin fever had started to set in and then there was the looming possibility of the mooring warden arriving with an overstaying warning.
It was time to move on, but with the forecasters warning of heavy rain and winds we decided just to head down a few of the six locks that provide a sharpener before the main 16 lock Caen Hill flight.
The worst is behind us
After three there was a pub - but it didn't look very promising. (Tripadvisor reviews speak of a 'grumpy landlady' and word seemed to have got around). So we went down three more to the moorings just above the flight. But they were full.
There was nothing for it; we had to go all the way down. So at 1.00 pm we started in drizzling rain and at 4.00 pm we finished in drizzling rain. In between we enjoyed a three hour weather window of dry weather and probably the easiest flight of wide locks we've ever done.
The flight was almost empty and since the last boats had come up the locks were all set in our favour. It was just a question of driving out of one and into the next.
It's a remarkable flight: massive side pounds store the water that empties out of each lock chamber ready to re-fill the next one down so none is wasted. They seem to over-spill back into the locks to keep the chambers full so there isn't the need to keep topping up water lost through leaking bottom gates.
The only irritation is that many of the paddles have ludicrously low gearing so you have to twirl away with the windlass to get them up and down.
Half way down...
...and we're still looking cheerful - if a bit wind blown
We were the only boat going down the flight and only passed one going up. And we were quickly into a rhythm. Vicky came in; I closed one gate behind her, she steered across and pushed the other shut if it had partly opened then joined me in opening the bottom paddles before hopping back on board. (I'd previously nipped down to the next lock and opened it ready for Vicky to drive straight out and in.) As she went out, I dropped the paddles and closed up. And so it went on, 16 times.
At the bottom the moorings were again full so we went on through the next lock and moored in the long pound after it. Twenty threelocks in a busy but enjoyable afternoon. Then time for a fry-up tea and the second half of Southampton v West Ham on Radio 5 Live.