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.