Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Starting young!

Lockie Paul supervises his new assistant
Apologies for the week of blogging silence but don't blame me, blame 3 Mobile. it's entirely due to the pitiful lack of 3G signal from 3 all around the Oxford area. It's curious really that in a town brimming with students, tourists and townspeople a few steps from the town centre will take you into the internot space. Even in desperately trendy Jericho where we moored the signal was as flimsy as cheap quality toilet paper.
Well more wandering around Oxford – including into the bizarre and brilliant Pitt-Rivers Museum where everything from shrunken heads to Inuit clothing can be stumbled upon in a serendipity of dimly lit exhibition cases. A wonderful place: I could spend days there.
But chiefly we've entertaining family visitors: daughter Nancy and grand-daughter Martha. And the highlight of the trip for little Martha was being apprentice lock-keeper to the super helpful and patient lockie Paul who we met first at Eynsham and the next day at Pinkhill locks. "Thank goodness you're here to help," he said to her as we arrived at Pinkhill on Sunday night, "I'm exhausted after a busy day".
With one eye on the weather forecast "sunshine and thundery showers" I had worked out a 'mini-ring' of canal and river and kept fingers crossed for the sun to shine.
And it did...except on me. We headed out of Isis Lock then back up-river to Swinford Bridge in gorgeous sun – which turned to heavy rain just as I was banging the pins in to moor up. And I got soaked.
The wet shorts and T-shirt were hung over the engine to dry and next morning we headed further, again in perfect sunshine, to Vicky's swimming spot for paddling and lunch before turning (carried out with much anxious sweating between rows of moored plastics) and heading back downstream. But a bit too much dithering about where to moor meant that, once again, the sun vanished, the skies turned black and the rain poured down just as I was mooring. So shorts and T-shirt were soaked again.
On the final day we completed the 'ring' with a run into that delightfully secretive little link between river and canal, Duke's Cut. And on the way I got soaked once more in a sudden torrential downpour! Down the canal we went and back to moor opposite the old Jericho boatyard – still derelict and in planning limbo five years after the first protests into its re-development.

The magnificent Pitt-Rivers museum
With family back off to Suffolk on the coach we sat on the boat watching rain pour down for the rest of the day and the next morning too. At which point Vicky decided that a trip to visit more grandchildren in London would be more entertaining than counting raindrops so off she went.
And within minutes the rain stopped and the sun came out. And I got to thinking "what's the point in sitting here in the sunshine running the engine to charge the batteries when I could cruise down the river instead?"
Moored just above Abingdon Bridge
So I set off on my first single-handing river trip – and here we are in Abingdon.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Guess the mystery object

This was lying in the grass close to where we moored last night. It's about eight or nine feet long, made of wood and the decorative work down the column is a plastic add-on.
What is it; where did it come from? Our guess is some sort of garden ornament washed away in flooding. Any better ideas?

Down river

Self-service during the lockie's lunch hour is a chance to try the clever pole technique for opening and closing gates - saves a lot of walking
A quiet but very hot and humid day heading back down river towards Oxford. We woke to faint rumbles of thunder but no more rain and what storms we saw have done little to raise the river or speed its flow. It's still shallow and docile.
Tonight, after 12 miles and four locks we're back under the shadow of Swinford Toll Bridge ready for a trip into Oxford by bus buy a new phone.
My praise for my waterproof Samsung was premature. The Thames found its Achilles Heel: the water resistant plug that covers the charger socket has long been damaged and sure enough river water penetrated here. The phone worked fine until the battery went flat but now refuses to charge and just beeps pitifully at me.
At least I learned how to take the phone apart to see if I could fix it: I can't.
So tomorrow in Oxford I may treat myself to an iPhone - but on the other hand I've already lost two phones in the drink so dare I trust myself?

Monday, 22 July 2013

Around and back again

Approaching the winding hole, somewhere among the swimmers and the trees
With the usual cataclysmic weather forecasts of thunderstorms and flooding on the radio, we thought it might be sensible to turn tail and head back towards the sanctuary of Oxford. But not before doing the final half mile of the navigable Thames to Inglesham. This is where the river meets the dormant Thames & Severn Canal which once provided a water route for cargo through the Cotswolds and on to London.
The hope is that one day the restored Cotswold canals will again link the Thames to the Severn (or at least its parellel man-made channel, the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal). One day!
For the moment you have to turn by the Round House - a former canal lengthsman's cottage - and the lock gates of the old canal. Apparently you can turn a full length 70ft boat there. Well it took me about 93 forwards and backwards manoeuvres to get 56ft Harry turned. I blame the shallow water and the overhanging trees. Others may blame the helmsman if they wish.
But round we finally got and headed back downstream on an energy sapping hot afternoon and on a river whose level seemed to have dropped even further. At least that's why I reckon we got stuck on a mudbank that stretched virtually into mid bend about a mile later. After much pole work and reversing we got ourselves off and I stuck firmly in mid-channel after that.
Rain falls for the first time on our trip
We finally moored up in the middle of nowhere and watched the long anticipated storms circle around in spectacular forks of lightning and distant rumbles of thunder. All we've had is a few short, sharp showers and sweltering humidity.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

I want an iPhone - or do I?

I want an iPhone; have done for years. But last year I fell in the cut and drowned my phone so I bought a waterproof Samsung instead. A basic, simple, not-very-smart phone but that is water and dust proof. I proved its dust proofing by submerging it in sawdust for months while restoring Harry.
Now I've proved its waterproof dropping it in the River Thames. I managed to fumble-finger it over the side while we were moored up and, rather than lose it, slipped on some swimming shorts and went in to have a search.
Fortunately the river bottom was solid and after a quick prod about, I felt it, fished it out...and discovered I had a new message! Yes, it's still working perfectly despite being in three feet of Thames water for 15 minutes.
So do I stick with my Samsung or risk getting an iPhone? With my track record on phones and water I reckon I'm better sticking with what I've got.

Grandstand seats

Harry at Lechlade with his-and-hers thrones on the sun-deck
We slipped through the final lock on the Thames this morning and arrived at Lechlade where the river gently sways through half a mile of meadows, perfect for mooring and perfect, too, for watching the skies above the Fairford Airshow just down the road.
And what a show it was too. The day began with a low level fly-over by an RAF tanker and two Eurofighter jets just as we were mooring up. Then came the awesome delta shape of the legendary Vulcan V-bomber, the last flying example but still capable of putting on a great show. Despite the morning cloud we could still get a decent view of the first Red Arrows display, followed by a whole line-up of aircraft from tankers to fighters.
The cloud cleared after lunch and the temperature climbed towards 30 deg as we watched the Swiss team in their propellor driven Pilatus trainer aircraft do some precision aerobatics - "the flying penknives" as Vicky called them.
Red Arrows and A400 fly-past

Then came an awesome performance by a Typhoon Eurofighter; its powers of climb and turn just breathtaking and all accompanied by the thunderous roar of its engine rumbling and reverberating around the countryside. You couldn't help buy grin broadly at the sheer thrill of the noise.
Another superb Red Arrows display was followed later by a flypast of the team flanking the RAF's new Airbus A400 transport.
All great stuff and I'm seriously tempted to take a trip to the show as a paying punter next year.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Twisting and turning

Do you remember that village fete game where you try and steer a probe along a devilishly twisted length of wire without touching the edge and sounding a buzzer?
Well that's what today's length of the river has been like. We've been twisting and turning our way through stretches that wound back and forth, the river ahead sometimes seeming to almost disappear between the trees. If they were tarmac the bends
would make a driver's dream of an Alpine pass. In a boat, it's slower and harder work and slightly tricky if you happen to meet someone coming downstream under a bridge on a hairpin bend. As we did!
Followed by meeting a sailing dinghy on the next bend and a single scull rowing skiff a couple of bends later. As we also did.
But it's been a great day - 13 miles and five locks that have taken us within a couple of miles of Lechlade to another quiet, rural mooring on the edge of the sleepy picture postcard hamlet of Buscot where the local stately home, Buscot Park, is owned by the National Trust – though the toffs who previously owned it still live there. For a glimpse of how the other half continue to live see this which might encourage you to vote Labour if you don't already!

The river has been almost totally isolated from the outside world, at least all the way to Radcot where a large pub, mooring area and camp site attracted the crowds. Since then we have seen more boats about, a fair few of whom have probably come for a free viewing of the Fairford Airshow. Unfortunately we missed our chance to see the Red Arrows today but they will be back tomorrow.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Now you know it really is hot!

Vicky goes open water swimming in the Thames! Needless to say Brian and me stayed dry on the bankside.

A nice little earner!

Swinford Bridge where we moored last night is one of only two surviving privately owned toll bridges across the Thames. To cross in a car costs 5p!
Don't laugh! It's on a busy road and earns its owner over £100,000 a year. And it's tax free, all thanks to the terms and conditions of the royal charter that set it up a few hundred years ago. That's no income tax, no inheritance tax and - just like Amazon and the rest - no corporation tax.
Yes, it's a good little earner. So much so that when it came up for sale a few years back the bridge, toll house and grounds went for over a million quid. The daft thing is that Oxfordshire Council didn't buy it - it's a rush-hour snarl up on the road, irritates scores of drivers and, because the private owners can't (or won't) put in any traffic lights, buses and lorries regularly get jammed up with other vehicles on the narrow carriageway.
There is one snag - the toll operators are also responsible for keeping the bridge in good condition. I hope they're putting some of those 5p coins away for a rainy day.

A quiet corner of England

I've never come across a river like this Thames. Moor up on every other one I've boated on and you can bet that within minutes some landowner will rush up either telling you to p**s off or demanding to have his palm crossed with notes for a night's stay.
Yes, here on the Upper Thames one can apparently nudge into the bank almost anywhere, bang in a couple of pins and break out the deck chairs and the beer. FoC. It's remarkable really and quite delightful. We're presently nestled into the edge of a cow meadow and here and there other boats are snuggled in for the night as well.
(It's certainly not like that on the Lower Thames where you get pounced on before you've even got your boat stopped in some spots.)
It's proving to be a delightful river and not just because it's so easy and cheap to moor (though cheap always appeals to us boaters). It winds and twists its way through almost empty countryside; here and there a house or a bankside chalet or an occasional bridge but that's about it.
You have to keep reminding yourself that this docile little country waterway is England's glorious royal river that sixty odd miles east will flow broad and fast through the centre of London, lending its notable presence to so many famous riverside landmarks - Traitor's Gate in the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and more and more.

Messing about on the river

Well we've finally left the Oxford Canal and turned onto the Upper Thames, exchanging the shallow, narrow canal for the wide, deep waters of the river.
We exited the canal via the delightfully named Sheepwash Channel, a sort of back alley exit that ducks under a couple of rail bridges before reaching the river.
At the last lock we met someone who had come nearly as far as us - but on foot. 73-year-old John Mason had walked 80 miles of towpath all the way from Coventry, the latest in his annual long distance fund raising walks in aid of the Alzheimers Society. Read more about him here.
 A few miles up-river we happened upon our Thames-loving narrowboating friends, Ian and Allison (or the Nobbies as we like to call them) nestling in a shaded mooring spot by Swinford Bridge.
They were headed down river and us upstream but we breasted up alongside and spent an enjoyable evening in the local pub, the Talbot.
This morning we woke at the startlingly early time of five a.m. (!) and watched in sleepy delight as the sun slowly came up and early morning mists swirled around the surface of the river, fish rose for flies and birds sang. Worth waking up early for.
Now we've breakfasted, waved the Nobbies off and written this blog and it's still only eight a.m.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Another world

We've been visiting another planet today. The planet Oxford. It's a world whose population seems to be largely divided into two only marginally similar species. The first are teenagers, dressed in a variety of brightly coloured tee shirts and baggy jeans (boys) or sawn off shorts (girls). These can be found wandering zombie-like in the morning; their living-dead faces gazing bankly ahead. Later, as the sun warms them, they begin to shriek and chatter in a babel of tongues, still seemingly oblivious to the world each other and their various smart phones.
The second species is the affluent academic, either bumbling along translating Aramaic texts to themselves or riding upright bicycles - the elderly ladies among these looking for all the world like latter-day Miss Marples in their flowing summer frocks and straw hats. And everyone talks proper – not just pleasantly but in the sort of modulated English you thought had died with The Home Service.
It's an absurdly wonderful planet, crazily full of tourists busily snapping each other or any piece of stonework that could be more than a few months old. In amongst the shopping streets are the glorious golden stonework buildings of academic Oxford, with its secret world of cloistered colleges protected by bowler hatted gatemen who politely allow we proletariat the merest glimpse inside before shoing us on our way.
Jericho is a satellite suburb of this planet, its main street alive with bars, bistros and even a cinema. It's a sort of Oxford Islington, with property prices to match: a back-street Victorian two bedroomed mid-terrace will set you back over £400,000.
The towpath is full of joggers and walkers and the occasional angler. We passed a father and son - the son fishing, the father reading a book on thinking.
As I said, it's another planet!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Hello from Jericho

Moored in the jungle of the Cherwell Valley
We've been in the land of internot rather than internet these past few days as we headed south from Banbury towards Oxford. Now the virtual world has caught up with the real one I can report - well, not a lot really except heat and more heat.
We've been dawdling, aiming to meet a few old mates along the way, and I'm glad we've not had to rush either. Instead we've sought out the shade and laid up for the afternoon before heading on a bit further in the cooler evenings.
Shade was actually pretty hard to find: the Oxford is a truly rural canal but runs through an open landscape of low hedges and few trees – which get 'bagged' by the first boat to spot them.
The curiously shaped Cherwell Weir locks
Last night, though, we finally found trees, and lots of them, as the canal wove its way into the Cherwell valley along a thickly tree lines route in a waterway edged with reeds and towering grasses like something out of The African Queen. Then, as the pink sun set behind us, hundreds of rooks flew noisily across the sky to roost in the trees around.
More weaving through the woods this morning, and even a section on the River Cherwell itself before we finally closed with Oxford. By now the shallowness of the canal - occassionally a problem all the way - was becoming a serious issue. At the popular Thrupp moorings we couldn't get closer than three feet from the side then as we neared Kidlington we were grinding and bumping along the bottom in mid channel at tickover.
Welcome to Oxford: the Agenda 21 moorings begin
Like many canals, this one enters the city through its back yard, skirted by a railway line on one side, a medley of back gardens on the other and in many parts is lined by 'Agenda 21 residential mooring' boats. These are there by some complicated witches brew of planning issues, past BW inaction and boater eco-agitation. Supposedly the moorings are to encourage a 'low impact alternative lifestyle' though some of the rotting hulks and that rubbish covered plastic boat with five cats sunning themselves on it seem poor adverts for any sort of enjoyable alternative lifestyle.
It wouldn't be so bad but the occasional 48 hour visitor moorings elsewhere on the canal were inevitably far too shallow to use. After grounding out at several I was resigned to a night in mid-stream until we finally happened on an empty stretch of mooring rings on the edge of Jericho at 9p.m. tonight.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Where would you rather be?

Down here or up there? South of Banbury we meandered under the M40 at a steady 3mph -- which was rather faster than the stationary Friday afternoon traffic up there.
M40 traffic noise blights a long corridor of Oxfordshire - we went for a walk in the evening and you can hear it echoing for miles.
The noise is almost entirely road noise rather than vehicle exhaust noise. If someone could only invent a quieter road surface this part of the world would be a much more peaceful place.

Banbury makes me cross

After the rural charms and delightful honey coloured stone cottages and barns of Oxfordshire's peaceful countryside, Banbury arrives like an unpleasant rash of modernity.
To be fair it's no worse than many towns, probably better than some, but that's not saying much these days. And I expected more from a town in the middle of such traditionally English charm.
But no, most of the centre has been blitzed by developers and replaced with the modern concrete charms of a huge shopping mall, sports centre and busy ring road. As usual, you only need to walk a few streets away from the same-as-ever brands of shopping gloss to find squalor and mess.
After a few sunny days in the quiet countryside my feeling of inner calm and relaxation was soon jolted by the sights of noisy drinkers, smokers hanging around outside every cheap cafe and the grotesques on their fat carts motoring towards the nearest Greggs. A typical English town enjoying a summer's day in a haze of smoke, beer, noise and grease.
Banbury, of course, has a unique place in canal history as the place where Tom Rolt had Cressy prepared for canal live at Tooleys Yard. The yard and adjacent wharf were an important centre for working boats on the canal for many years but all of that vanished with the developers' bulldozers in the '90s.
The yard that survives is rather like a non-alcoholic beer. It may be called 'beer' but has nothing of the taste or spark. It's a sorry little place with a ramshackle collection of memorabilia of no particular relevance to the site and a little brick blacksmith's forge all overwhelmed by the surrounding shopping centre. Tom Rolt would have been saddened and so were we.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Busy, busy, busy

Just three locks and four miles took us from Cropredy to Banbury where we are moored tonight - but they also took us about three hours to negotiate. Boy, were things busy.
To begin with we were third in a queue going down, with no-one coming up - which means that every lock has to be filled again after the previous boat has emptied it before the next boat can go down.
We passed one or two boats after that but never crossed in a lock but somehow by the third lock there were four of us waiting to go down and no less than six boats waiting to come up.
We stooged into Banbury past a long line of filled-up 48 hour moorings and were on the point of giving up when we spotted the last empty spot almost outside Tooley's Yard where Harry was built.
The Yard still exists - just - but virtually all the Harry era buildings have been long since submerged beneath a massive shopping mall. And sadly the bloke who built Harry wasn't around either. In fact, without knowing it, we'd passed him at a lock earlier in the day heading north. A shame neither of us realised.

Brian stages a walk to rule protest

Brian consults a fellow ship's dog about walking to rule
The world wide web is struggling to reach Cropredy, the pretty Oxfordshire village where we moored last night so it's a belated blog.
The highlight of an otherwise quiet day was that Brian staged a 'Walk to Rule'.
"I have been in communication with my brother ship's dogs about the amount of walking we are being asked to do between locks which is well beyond the terms and conditions of our pet-dog contracts," he told us. (We understand dog-gerel of course.)
"We are being asked to walk backwards and forwards in extreme heat conditions and even to assist in locking duties by having our leads tied to the lock beams in the expectation that we will assist in pulling. This change in our duties has been imposed by management without proper consultation.
"Therefore my brothers and I have decided that our pay rates should be increased by two biscuits a day and that we should have a compulsory rest period of one hour at midday. Unless we can reach agreement we have agreed by a show of paws to walk to rule."
Which he did, refusing to walk quickly, stopping to sniff whenever possible and taking frequent toilet breaks.
He now gets two biscuits a day!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Slow pet for a slow boat

Meet Thomasina the tortoise; arguably the perfect pet for a 4mph canal boat. After all what other pet can't out-run the boat and will happily live on dandelion, clover and weeds freely available in towpath verges?
Thomasina is 67, which is barely middle-aged for a tortoise, and has been with her carers for 40 years now. Today she was enjoying the sun and a dandelion snack at Napton.

Where the buffalo roam

"Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day."

Not Kansas but Napton where herds of buffalo roam the canalside fields and the skies certainly weren't cloudy all day today.
Napton is at the start – or end depending on which way you're going – of the Southern Oxford Canal which winds round the edge of Napton Hill and its landmark windmill before climbing the flight of locks to the canal summit.
We pulled up just before the locks for our now customary high noon siesta then set off for the stiff climb up the hill to the windmill. It's private but the view is stunning – a breathtaking panorama across seven counties.
Later, with some buffalo ice cream safely in the fridge we set off up the locks – stopping near the top for a 15 minute breather to hear The Archers (and a dramatic episode it was, too, at least by Archers standards).
Now moored up on the twisting summit stretch. Last night we watched two little owls, mother feed her young, in a tree. Tonight we've been watching fledgling swallows learn to fly and land. Can't beat it!

Monday, 8 July 2013

A late night and an early morning

We went on just a tad too long last night, finishing off the Coventry Canal – and passing lots of moorings on the way – and pressing on in the gathering gloom through Sutton Stop and onto the North Oxford. Where moorings can be hard to find - especially in a deep draughted boat because the canal edges are often shallow.
"You didn't tell me that," said the skipper "when I said 'let's keep going'!" In the end we dug ourselves in on a bend, with the bows a couple of feet out and the stern hanging six feet out into the channel. Oh, and pylon power cables overhead and the motorway a background roar. We were too knackered to worry. A couple of large glasses of wine and off to bed.
This morning we set off smartly (for us) well before nine to head for lunch and some Tesco shopping at Rugby. Which, of course, only served to give the skipper more ammunition for her long running "I-love-Lidl" campaign. So the next mooring has to be within walking distance of a Lidl. I hope I don't die of starvation before we find one.
Tonight we're in Braunston where we move briefly onto the Grand Union before heading onto the southern Oxford towards, er, Oxford.

PS Brian fans will be pleased to know that a member of his fan club recognised him as we passed through Rugby. "Ooh, it's Brian the Dog I recognised" she exclaimed with delight.
He's been basking in the glory all afternoon. Or is he just basking in the sun?

Charity Dock

A wonderfully bizarre scene at Charity Dock on the Coventry. Long may the place survive in its utterly eccentric, shambolic and indescribably chaotic fashion.

Nuneaton mess

I have never seen so many dead plastic bottles floating in the cut as we did in Nuneaton. There were hundreds; clusters at every bridge hole and more drifting along in the stream.
Now it would be easy to blame the scrotes but if that's the reason then Nuneaton-ites must have a massive consumption of energy drinks. My reckoning is that a) there was a bottle race at some point in the past or b) a strange physical phenomenon known as 'bottle clustering' causes it. I'm going for this one - time to commission some research.
On a healthier note than high-carb energy drinks, Nuneaton also boats an astonishing number of allotments, most of them carefully tended, along its canalsides.
And compared with the last time we passed through, the town does seem to be on the up. Slightly. All the same it does seem to turn its back in embarrassment on the canal and tries to pretend it's not there instead of embracing it as a community resource.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Third time lucky?

I'm not saying! Whatever luck we've got left with Tug Harry I'm not going to waste on any casual claims.
I thought we were okay after the first false start when I fixed the blown head gasket and had the water pump rebuilt...only to get no further than Tamworth again before the engine started misbehaving and we returned once more to base.
Yesterday, with re-routed fuel lines and the fuel injectors all cleaned and checked we set off again.
And today we are ten miles and thirteen locks beyond Tamworth, moored up and hiding from the 30 degree heat a short distance beyond the eleven lock Atherstone flight. And I can report that, so far, the engine hasn't missed a beat. Touch wood.
Curiously the last time we did this trip down the Coventry Canal from Streethay it was mid-winter, the snow began to fall and the canal was freezing up around us. This time we're travelling in the hottest days of the year. Yesterday we moored up in the afternoon and travelled again until 9.30 in the cool evening. Today it was already hot at breakfast time and as I pressed on through the Atherstone locks the temperature soared - in the air and in the crew who were threatening mutiny near the end of the flight.
It was a long, hard haul up the locks. They were busy with boats and running short of water in places as a result. At one lock a hire boat coming out and us going in were both grounded and only ten minutes of rope hauling and pole-ing got us both through.
The top lock at Atherstone looks a sadder sight than when we last passed through - the resident lock-keeper gone and his eccentric weather forecast notes gone too. And the canal coal yard apparently shut as well.
But it's a sunny day, the boat's running well - at the moment - and no time for grumbling. When the sun sinks a little we'll head off again for a few more cool evening miles.