Thursday, 29 August 2013

Westward ho!

The tree-lined charms of the K&A

 We had been viewing a trip down the Kennet & Avon with some suspicion after hearing tales of shallow sections, difficult locks, lines of permanent moorers and so on. But so far it's been an absolute delight: sleepy, rural, tree lined and surprisingly free of boats, moored or moving. And especially free of those big plastics from the Thames.
First sight of the K&A however did ring a few alarm bells. Its junction with the Thames in Reading is marked by the all too familiar and sorry canal hallmarks of graffiti daubed signs, litter and hippy boaters – one of whom 'entertained' those of us moored by the riverside Tesco with 3 a.m. drunken boating about, shouting, shrieking and falling in. Other parts of riverside Reading have their appeal but this is an especially charmless spot and worth avoiding except for shop-stops.
Boating through the Oracle
Once on the K&A, though, things soon improve. It starts with a run right through the centre of the town's Oracle shopping mall on a twiddly, one-way traffic light controlled section where, a bit like zoo visitors, the shoppers can envy, admire or perhaps laugh at these waterborne creatures from an alien world. It's quite the best amalgam of old canal and modern city centre that I've seen.
Sorry, Mrs B I'm afraid mooring is not allowed - even there
After that the canal soon throws off urban Reading and passes into its own leafy world, close to but invisible from the shops, offices and houses. The K&A is a mix of river and canal and this stretch is largely winding, tree lined river. It's delightful.
The locks though are, in a word, bizarre. Designed by the Edgar Allen Poe of the lock business: all strange lengths, odd widths and depths, with a motley assortment of paddle gear scrounged from the leftovers sheds of other canal companies.
The Garston turf lock empty
And full. Well, it's certainly different!
None is stranger than the 'turf lock' at Garston which looks like it's been hit by a bomb despite, or maybe because of, the wartime pill boxes either side. The lock walls are not there, just a curious framework of steel girders, and the sides slope away at an angle in a mix of mud and the sort of sturdy weeds that can withstand regular flooding as the lock fills. Apparently it and many others since replaced were originally timber sided with sloped turf banks either side. They leaked like sieves but that didn't matter as this waterway is the River Kennet kept the system well topped up.
And Sheffield Lock with its wibbly wobbly walls
After  Garston is another oddity: Sheffield Lock with its 'crinkly-crankly' walls and a couple of extra feet in width thrown in so even two boats bang about as it fills.
What surprises will today's locks bring?

Spot the Brian

Just in case, Brian is the one in the red collar (I think)
Brian; meet Charlie. Charlie; meet Brian!
We always thought our Brian was a one-off, not simply because of his, er, singular personality traits but also because of his looks – a sort of long legged dachshund (sorry, Brian) or Jack Russell with more than a hint of German sausage dog to him.
But then, on the riverside towpath at Reading, we met Charlie, or Charleston to give him his full moniker and Brian met his doppelganger.
Like Brian, Charlie is a rescue dog – his owner actually found him wandering at the roadside after he'd been chucked out of a car.
He's four so a little less grey round the gills than 12 year old Brian. But they frisked happily around each other with the usual displays of canine affection, bottom sniffing and mutual pissing, until it was time to exchange final pees and say cheerio.

Friday, 23 August 2013


Nice waterway, shame about the lock landings. That's our verdict after today's little contretemps. We came in to moor up at the Chertsey lock landing and, too late, I spotted that the overhanging edge was coming straight at our cabin side. Bang! we clumped it and left two nasty scrapes down the pristine paintwork.
And when we moored up for the night I noticed a matching pair of scrapes on the other side which we must have banged on an earlier lock.
I'm not entirely sure why the lock landing edges have to overhang at all - and so much: the one at Chertsey would have still bashed us even if we had substantial fenders down. Maybe we need to do what the plastics do and run with huge balloons in knitted socks dangling everywhere. Or the hippy boat trick of hanging old tyres off the sides.
Ah well, just have to get out the touch up paint.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Some terrific photos from the Tideway

Our boating blogger pal and Canal Boat mag boat tester Adam Porter was watching out for us from Hungerford Bridge – the pedestrian bridge beside Charing Cross rail bridge – and got these terrific pictures. I knew we were small fry out there but I hadn't realised just quite how insignificant.
Thanks Adam – and you can see the full set on his blog here

Can you spot us?
Just coming into view

Under the arch
Close emcounters of the ferry kind

A small splash to keep the passengers awake
Under Charing Crossl Bridge and away

Ride of a lifetime

The Limehouse lock gates opened and there in front of us was a yacht waiting to come in, sitting bobbing about on churning waves. I contemplated my fate with a gulp, revved up and pushed the gearstick forward. We were off.
We pitched and rolled as we turned upstream and the tide and waves took us. Another gulp. Then after a couple of minutes when I realised we weren't about to sink I started to settle down into the trip.
And what a trip it was to prove to be – so enjoyable that we'd have turned round and done the whole thing again.
Everything was in our favour: the weather was perfect, the water calm (or so they told me; it didn't look calm to me!) and our expert yachtsman son-in-law Nick was standing beside me on the counter to give advice and tips about handling the push of the tide and coping with the river traffic.
There are a few minutes to acclimatise to the trip as you pass tall old riverside buildings and the famous Prospect of Whitby pub. And then as you round a curve the awesome spectacle of Tower Bridge and the glimmering needle of The Shard.
Before the bridge we'd already been passed by one of the high speed Clipper catarmaran river buses but after the bridge the action comes thick and fast.
The bridges follow each other quickly, mostly at different angles on the curving river so there are decisions to be made about arches and angles, and more decisions about river buses, Clippers and tugs hauling big barges moving every which way. But though they all throw up big wakes, they're all on the alert and so long as you don't dither or do any silly you'll be alright. Well, we were anyway.
The big tug deck swept any waves away so Vicky, Streethay-Nick and Able Seadog Brian could all stay up front and enjoy the action, without getting too wet.
Sadly the Thames trip is like a three hour action movie in which all the stunts happen in the first hour. After the House of Parliament the trip boats are left behind, the river quietens and flattens and you've an hour to contemplate the unbelievable numbers of luxury riverside apartment blocks lining either bank giving way in the final hour to the more widely spaced large and luxurious houses of the suburbs before reaching the tidal limit at Teddington Lock.
Twenty hugely enjoyable miles done in just three hours with the JP3 running perfectly at little more than tickover.
When can we do it again?
Leaving Limehouse with Mac's boat Freederic following

First sight of Tower Bridge and the Shard

Brian keeps a watching brief on the helm team

One of the big Clippers about to accelerate away from its stop

Past Tower Bridge and the Boris Building
The bridges are tightly spaced and often busy
But after Parliament things quieten down

Immense display of wealth at Chelsea

Brian reflects on the trip

But decides it's not worth losing sleep over

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Time for a Valium!

Moored alongside our friend Mac waiting for our day of destiny. Hope his Indian can ward off any evil spirits - and rib boats - on our trip
Today we're sitting in Limehouse Marina looking out at the river we're heading onto tomorrow morning. And boy, does it look scary. The river itself doesn't look too bad - just a bit 'sloppy' as Mrs Harry put it...but then the 'rib experience' boats come charging down or the big, fast, catamaran clippers go up and we just gulp at the waves.
Whatever, it will certainly make a change from the weedy, often rubbish infested London canals we've been on. We left Paddington Basin yesterday after our permitted seven days and were through the three Camden locks by mid-morning while most of the usual oddballs and fruit-loops were still sleeping off the night before (sadly, two or three of them on the towpath itself).
Even the iconic Kings Cross gasometer is getting a re- build
Kings Cross was as far as we reached last time we were in London. Then it was a wasteland; now it's in mid-transformation with huge works going on everywhere. The results will doubtless be impressive but will there be anywhere that ordinary people can afford to live? I can't help doubt it.
Pretty quickly the glass and steel of Kings Cross gives way to the graffiti and shabbiness of the old East End. The gentrification of places like Hoxton and Hackney has barely just touched the canal. There's a smart new entrance to Victoria Park (as well as other improvements here all courtesy of London 2012 cash) but the lines of moored boats there are evidence of a very different lifestyle to the flash young Hackney trendies in their designer apartments. And it's all a very far cry from when I used to work here as a young reporter when the canal was empty, the streets were poor and crime was rife. "We don't bother about bank robberies" said my then editor on the Hackney Gazette "we get so many of them".
Lines of boats along the canal at Victoria Park
Limehouse Marina is very gentrified too, with soaring apartments round it, a Gordon Ramsay gastro-pub next door and the local streets full of runners spending their lunch hours from Canary Wharf pounding aggressively round to work up the macho urge to do more killer financial deals in the afternoon.
A stroll around Canary Wharf was like a trip into The Truman Show - huge designer buildings, beautiful designer squares, designer cars, elegant designer shops and all populated by designer people - perfectly formed with expensive clothes and fine tans. No litter, no dog mess, scarcely an ethnic minority face to be seen. Too, too perfect.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

A weedy wasteland

First impressions of being back on the canals were not good and the mood of depression on board continued as we struggled into London through a rubbish filled and weedy wasterland.
The long climb up the dozen locks from Brentford to Bulls Bridge was a curious mixture of well kept locks interspersed by rubbish filled pounds. But worse was ahead as we turned into the Paddington branch toward London.
The hot weather and the absence of locks had clearly proved ideal growing conditions for weed and in the half submerged green stuff was all the usual canal detritus - old plastic carrier bags, waste bags of garden rubbish, the odd shopping trolley and even, once, a motor scooter! I found myself reversing as much as I was going forwards to try and shake it all off (Harry's weed hatch is almost impossible to access unless you're a contortionist and weightlifter.) When moored up I hacked off the rest with the boat hook.
Clearly there are more 'continuous cruisers' in London than there were when we were last here five years ago - local boaters we spoke to agree that numbers have soared. And you seen some strange - and often sad - floating homes as you pass the longer than ever line of moorers on the 14-day site by Kensal Green cemetery. See below...
The whole situation is a mess; it's been allowed to develop over the years and now I can't see an easy or fair way to move people on who've been allowed to make their homes in places they arguably shouldn't have been.
I guess I'd tighten up the policing of Visitor Moorings (and probably reduce the time allowed on very popular ones) but also increase the number of permament canalside moorings with some sort of charge and some sort of control over boat standards - if only for safety - and rubbish. (Stands by for flak from all sides!)
Little Venice, always crowded, was also home to two and three deep boats that the cynic in me couldn't imagine having moved far from this honeypot mooring site in recent times.
A rare chance to see Tower Bridge being lifted and the traffic halted to let a sailing barge pass
Fortunately we did find a slot in the more rigorously policed Paddington Basin and here we've been for our allotted seven days. It's a bit clinical, pretty windy and can be noisy but it's central and it's free so who's grumbling. Not us for sure. We've used the time to meet family and walk or bus around central London, even finding ourselves on Tower Bridge for a rare close-up view of the bridge being lifted to let a sailing barge through.
Brian takes to the buses for a sightseeing trip in the big city
Tomorrow we head off through London on our way to Limehouse Basin for a trip back up the tidal Thames on Wednesday. Having seen how busy the river was with huge trip boats and catamarans at the weekend that's something we're approaching with a certain amount of apprehension!

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Into the inky blackness

We are back on the canals are a short and pretty swift run down the tidal river from teddington. It had its anxious moments, chiefly before we started. The JP engine is supposed to be run in low compression on rivers when worked hard but my low comp adjusters produced lots of noise and smoke but generated little confidence among the crew. So I stayed in high and took it easy. Fortunately after 15 mins pushing we could feel the tide turn and soon were racing through
Richmond at a heady 7mph.
Tonight we are in Brentford tucked under the last surviving overhead loading bay from the working boat days with just the ghosts of old boaters and the pigeons for company.
It's odd being back on the canals: no more plastics, no more bobbing on waves, DIY locks and murky water the colour of old engine oil instead of the clear deep river. I'm not sure we like it but I'm sure we soon will

Another day, another palace

Carrying on the Royal theme we left Windsor yesterday and are now moored up outside the golden gates of Henry VIII's magnificent Hampton Court (which was actually built by Cardinal Wolsey, son of an Ipswich butcher and half-inched by Henry after Wolsey had got the axe. Literally.)
It's a lovely mooring, marred only by the speed of the passing cruisers and pleasure boats which necessitated lots of extra spring lines to stop us bashing the side hard and causing Brian to bark 'repel boarders' at every instance.
We moored here five years ago in little Nb Star after a wind-blown trip up the tidal river from Brentford before heading on up river past the multiplicity of shacks, bungalows and shanties that inhabited the riverside through Sunbury, Walton and Shepperton. Things are changing fast these days: the shacks are fewer and in their place have come glass and steel homes with swanky cruisers. Little wonder – a shack would cost you the thick end of £500,000 these days, a house a million and rising. Waterside living has become a desirable and expensive business.
An old Top Gear mate, Tom Stewart, called to see us last night and we spent a happy evening reminiscing and gossiping over a couple of beers. This afternoon we hit the tidal Thames at Teddington for the short trip down to Brentford and back to the canals.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Visiting the Queen

We paid a visit to the Queen today – along with thousands of others. Anyone who doubts the cash value of the Royals need only come to Windsor. The place is awash with visitors: local day trippers picnicing on the riverside and tourists from around the world busy photographing the castle, each other and anything else more than five years old. That's when they're not spending money in the flashy shops and restaurants. Or the good old fashioned fish n chip shops and tacky souvenir stalls.
Yes, Windsor is a sort of massive National Trust property set in Southend-on-Thames. Or, as Pearsons Guide puts it so well, "half Truman Show, half Walt Disney".
There's plenty of space for boats to moor (at eight quid a pop) and be part of the show but one day will be enough for us; the crowds and the hubbub are just too much.
And does the Queen really live there? How can she put up with the aircraft noise? The skies echo constantly with the roar of jets taking off from nearby Heathrow.
Curiously, her castle is so huge – the largest inhabited castle in the world apparently – that we only grasped the scale and majesty of it all in an evening walk on the opposite bank. I wonder how many tourists get that far?
The opposite bank is actually Eton and surprisinglyfew visitors seem to walk across the river bridge to visit the place. It's an oddity: one long, quaint street of shops none of which appear to offer anything that could earn them a crust: a dog and cat boutique, a few scrappy antique shops, a couple of restaurants. It's one of those places where I guess no-one actually needs to earn a living, merely dabbles. It's 'old money' darling. All the chaps of course look exactly like David Cameron.
It's been a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. Forty years ago I was a young journalist on one of the area's local papers. As the 'entertainment reporter', the Theatre Royal Windsor was part of my patch.  Windsor was a quiet, refined town, the visitors mainly elderly Americans in bad jumpers. In that pre-Princess Di era the Royal family were of little more than passing interest to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

We're in the money

Harry moored in welcoming Abingdon

To be more accurate we're in amongst the money. Money has started to talk – or rather shout – on the Thames. It's a big river now with big boats, big houses and big fees for mooring.
Abingdon was the last town that welcomed boaters with open arms and no demand for mooring fees. As a result this delightful riverside town was thronged with boating visitors spending money in its stores and coffee shops. (It's not just boaters who get the 'welcome' treatment; cars are allowed two hours free parking in the town car parks.)
It's a pity Henley doesn't offer the same welcome. Attempt to moor to visit this snooty town and before you have tied your ropes someone will have arrived with a demand for eight quid. We left and did our shopping in Marlow instead, a much more cheery and welcoming place. It's our old home town where the house we bought 30 plus years ago for about £30,000 is now worth £630,000!
But that's nothing compared with the price of a riverside home anywhere within striking distance of London. It's depressing to discover that hereabouts even a lottery win wouldn't buy you a fancy home. In Henley, for example, a riverside building plot with planning consent for a large modern house will set you back £3 million. That's before you start building. A big plush pad would probably be beyond even a Euromillions winner.
Glass and steel modernity at Wargrave
Sadly in among the supremely genteel 'old money' houses, the modern glass and steel Huf houses and Scandiwegian log lodges are many riverside super-homes that flaunt their wealth like a fat rich man flaunting his sun tanned gut and chunky gold jewellery.
Same goes for the boats. Quite why anyone needs a boat so tall you need an elevator to reach the steering wheel I just don't know. Boats that might be at home on the Med spend their time burbling and bow thrustering around the Thames simply being bigger than the boat next door.
Even a Euromillions win wouldn't get you this one!
All the same, the rich variety of floating fun on the river is a great part of the Thames's charm. There's everything from kids learning to scull to athletic paddlers standing up on surf boards to elegant old steam launches to huge Dutch barges. And swimmers. Inspired presumably by David Walliams the bobbing scull caps of wet suited river swimmers can be found everywhere.
So with blog updated, Tillergraph column written and shopping done we're off to visit the Queen in Windsor before moving on to Teddington where the tidal river begins. We'll run down this to Brentford then turn back onto the canals for the trip through central London.