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.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Dawdling in Devizes

Wadworth's impressive brewery dominates the town
We are passing a few days here waiting for our travelling pal, Mac, to catch up. And what a pleasant little, old fashioned country town it is too. It has its own brewery (Wadworth's), independent cinema, market and, of course, canal. What more can you ask for in a small town?
Today, like many similar towns, it looks a little frayed round the shirt cuffs but clearly it wasn't always this way to judge by the many handsome and ornate sandstone buildings that dot the streetscapes around the place. Apparently the place has no less than 500 listed buildings!
Handsome buildings can be seen in every street
The town's wealth and status originated in the wool and cloth trades, then it grew to become the largest corn market in the south west and, thanks to the canal, a centre of transport.
These days it seems quieter and a little sleepy – the Beeching axe that closed its railway line didn't help, though it has kept the 'commuter-isation' of the place at bay and so it retains more individuality and charm than many.
The indoor market
Today the town was bustling; it was market day – and a chance to be reminded what proper vegetables look like (e.g. in all shapes and sizes). We picked up a massive cauliflower, a couple of punnets of strawberries, many of which would have been rejected by Tesco for not being designer-strawb styling, and some excellent cheese.
There's an indoor market too of smaller stalls and a little tea-bar largely occupied by old dears in wheelchairs.
It reminded me of visits to Bury St Edmunds market before the old covered market was knocked down and replaced by a shopping mall as part of the town's gentrification.
Town wharf and K&A Trust centre
We are moored opposite Devizes Wharf, home of the energetic Wharf Theatre and the Kennet&Avon Trust canal museum and cafe. And what a fascinating little museum it is too, telling the full history of the waterway and detailing the massive efforts, largely by volunteers, that were needed to bring it back to life. I had no idea just how derelict it had become - all bar a dozen or so of its hundred locks had fallen into disrepair, the famous pumping engine houses were in ruin, wharves like the one at Devizes were crumbling into decay and even the famous Caen Hill flight was in a perilous state.
We took a walk down the famous 29 locks to psych ourselves up for the trip down them at the weekend. I'm not sure that wasn't a mistake....

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Time for a walk

Is this what they mean by a doggy bag?
Back at Hungerford our travelling partner Mac dipped out for a few days of visiting family and friends so to let him catch back up we slowed our pace too.
The original plan was for us to find somewhere to leave the boat then do some visiting as well but finding a suitable place to leave Harry on this summit stretch of the K&A has been harder than finding a nine pound note.
The whole canal has been shallow but this stretch is shallowest of the lot. We found a slot at the friendly Pewsey Wharf Boat Club but frustratingly couldn't get the stern closer than the centre of the channel. And to tie up on pins at the bankside, like the many 'locals' to be found hereabouts do, was nigh on impossible too for a deep drafted boat like ours, certainly not for a few days away.
So we abandoned the visiting and have been dawdling through those moorings we could make and taking a closer look at some of the fine scenery in the rolling Wiltshire downs.
One man and his dog
The last couple of days we've been moored outside the little village of All Cannings (fine village pub and excellent little volunteer manned community shop). A couple of hours walking took us to the top of the local high spot, Cliffords Hill, and back so yesterday we adventured a bit further, a couple of miles down the towpath and then a climb up the next ridge of hills.
The beautiful rolling chalk downs of Wiltshire
Only snag is that while Nicholson's marks canalside footpaths, once you're half a mile off the towpath you're off piste so it wasn't long before we were somewhat lost and struggling round a recently ploughed cornfield in the vague hope that we were heading towards a proper path again.
Bristly rough ploughed stubble is bad enough for humans to walk on; for Seadog Brian whose nether regions are rather close to the ground it became a cause for mutiny. He stopped. We stopped – and decided that maybe he was just small enough to fit in the rucksack. He agreed and once we had reached smoother going would have been quite content to stay there.
 Finally, four hours and six or seven miles after we started we finally found our way back to Harry. It was a great walk (well, for two of us); fabulous scenery, far reaching views, sunshine and a fresh, cooling breeze. Reminds you what a glorious country Britain is.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

201 not out

Water only flows one way – downhill – so maintaining a water supply for the summit level has been a problem for every canal designer. Tap a nearby river or build a reservoir were the usual solutions but neither would have worked on the K&A so instead the ingenious engineers enlarged a small lake further down and built Crofton Pumping Station with two huge steam powered beam engines to pump water from there back up to the summit.
Two hundred and one years later they still do the job (albeit only occasionally now as electric pumps perform the day to day job). That makes them the oldest working steam pumping engines in the world. The newer of the pair was built by Harvey's of Hayle in 1845 but older, built by Boulton & Watt, dates from 1812. And to put that in perspective, that was the year Napoleon was retreating from Moscow.
They're impressive beasts to see, even if it wasn't a steaming day. but more than the sheer size what thrilled me was the sheer elegance and quality of the engineering. I fancy a Formula One engineer would look at it and be impressed.
PS After grumbling about the state of some K&A locks it was good to see some serious improvement works going on at various locks today.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Rough round the edges

My reading glasses fell in the cut the other day and with them went my rose tinted spectacles. After three days on the Kennet & Avon my eyes have been opened to some of its shortcomings.
It's still a very beautiful, largely rural canal but it has its problems too. Some of the locks are desperately in need of attention: most leak but we've come upon several that leak more out the bottom gates then is going in the top ones necessitating a two-man (or one man and his boat) shove to get one to open. We got stuck on a sill going into one, too.
Mooring is probably the biggest issue for a deep drafted boat like ours. Unless you luck into one of the pretty infrequent visitor moorings you're limited to those bits of bankside that aren't reed-filled, which many are, and when you find one you'll be lucky to get a deep boat within a plank's width of the side. It's frustrating and probably one reason why some of the visitor moorings appear clogged with, shall we say, infrequent movers. 
We've been breasting up alongside our shallower drafted travelling companion and Seadog Brian has become pretty adept at leaping between boats and then walking the plank to do his necessaries. There can't be many boaters who need to wear a lifejacket to go to the toilet!
We spent a day in Newbury, which the canal winds pleasantly through the centre of. It's probably the best aspect of a small town which looks rather forlorn with a dowdy shopping mall (the Kennet Centre) and too many empty shops. Out of town, under the controversial by-pass was what we christened 'The By-pass Boatyard' – a "continuous cruiser" with so much stuff gathered along the towpath, a generator working away powering his angle grinder on his boat that it would be hard to conceive him moving anywhere in a hurry.
The horse drawn trip boat with its human caargo
The canal remains a delight, though, with lovely mill streams and weirs everywhere, handsome houses and, outside the pretty village of Kintbury, even a horse drawn trip boat.
Hungerford, where we are now, is a small and clearly extremely affluent little place. Put it this way, I saw two E Type Jaguars out for a sunny drive as well as the usual motoring affluence of big Audis and sporty BMWs.
We've just met up with the couple who had Harry built for them and filled in some of its early history. They loved the boat, having seen it lying sad and neglected on the K&A in the years after they sold it.