Monday, 31 March 2014

A graveyard of football dreams

The deserted Rushden & Diamonds stadium
Irthlingborough is a routine stop-over for Nene boaters, with nearly 400 yards of quality, bollarded moorings. Once there were showers, toilet facilities and rubbish disposal but all those are long gone.
It's a sad story – and not just for smelly boaters desperate for a washroom! It's a sorry tale of football dreams dissolving into nightmare. The moorings were built alongside the new stadium complex for Rushden & Diamonds football club all financed by Max Griggs, the man behind Doc Martens Airwear boots, also then made in an adjoining factory. For a while all went swimmingly; the club was promoted up through the non-league ranks and into Div2 of the Football League.
But then, as so often, the money started to run out. Griggs couldn't afford to keep financing the club, it changed hands a couple of times, slipped back out of the Football League and finally out of existence altogether in 2011. The huge modern site, of stadium, sports centre, restaurants and car parks now sits idle and deserted. It's like a football graveyard – the grounds immaculately maintained yet not a sight or sound of football life.
We'd stopped there after a short run from Ditchford to make the short uphill walk to the town for supplies at the local Tesco Local. It's never been the most desirable of towns but like the football club seems to be sliding into the relegation zone from even mid-table respectability.
Swans enjoying dinner on a farmer's wheatfield
All the way along, the river is shadowed by old gravel pit lakes – one of which near Ringstead has become a new 60 boat marina since our last trip but beyond Irthlingborough the scenery becomes increasingly rural and pretty and on another warm, sunny day we spotted a kingfisher, shelduck and several oyster catchers to join the swallows we spotted yesterday. We also saw numerous swans – most of them grazing riverside farm fields. Is it my imagination or has there been a huge swell of swan numbers? I recall a Thameside farmer telling me that swans had stripped his fields of crops worth several hundred thousand pounds one winter. I can't imagine society tolerating a cull of these beautiful birds but will something have to be done at some point to limit their numbers?
Hard work: the dreaded manual Nene lock
To end on a happier note, after sweating over the first two of the Nene's dreaded manual turnwheel lock, we finished the day by tieing up on a traditional river boating mooring - against a rough bank with our pins hammered into the earth and looking across to the attractive (and affluent) little village of Denford. The Nene runs tantalisingly close to so many such places; close but rarely close enough, especially with mooring often so tricky. But here at Denford we've found a perfect little one-boat size slot and around us is total silence. Perfect.

Moored on the bankside overlooking Denford village

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Eleven miles and eleven locks

Approaching the picturesque Doddington Lock
 Locks come thick and fast on the upper reaches of the Nene - or 'Nen' (rhymes with 'hen') as the locals call it. But no matter, under the sun of another fine day we made steady progress from the edge of Northampton to where we are now at Ditchford near Irthlingborough.
This stretch of river is almost continuously surrounded by old gravel pits, now fishing lakes, water parks or wildlife reserves - with the odd residential caravan park thrown in. Like the vast Billing Aquadrome we passed first thing in the morning: what a curious hobby it is to buy a vast American motorhome then drive to a car park full of other camper vans on the edge of Northampton and sit beside it reading the Sunday Mirror.
Leaving Northampton behind the river becomes entirely rural, mixing stretches of unprepossessing scrubby flood plains with pretty meadows. Sadly the always popular moorings at Cogenhoe (pronounce it 'cook-know') are off limits, thanks to disreputable boaters leaving rubbish about the place which in the end caused the death of a cow.
A steady succession of locks brought us to the delightful setting of Doddington lock, set among trees and flanked by picturesque mill houses and cottages. Here and at the earlier White Mills lock pieces of semi wasteland between lock cuts and weir streams had been acquired and developed as permanent mooring sites for three or four boats.
The vast solar farm at Wellingborough
The next lock, Wollaston, is flanked by a bigger 'island' with moorings and slightly ramshackle cottage. It was always a favourite of ours: the cottage owner's ultra friendly dog would come and greet boaters in the hope of a biscuit or two. Four years on it was good to see the owner still about though not with his dog any longer. After a slight stroke he couldn't give it the exercise it needed so passed it on to a friend.
Wellingborough is one of the very few towns of any size near the Nene and the approach is marked by a large modern prison which has virtually doubled in size since we were last here. And adjacent to the prison is a vast field of solar panels; line upon line of them all angled to catch the sun. It is a 60 hectare 'solar farm' developed by Lark Energy who have built several of these and which can produce 10MWp – enough to supply 2000 homes.
The handsome Victorian railway viaducts
Wellingborough has a substantial waterfront with plenty of moorings but the constant loud drone of Whitworths flour mills across the river would put anyone off staying there for long. Even if the general ambience of the place did not! We stopped long enough to fill up with water at a recently renewed EA water point. Facilities like these are virtually non-existent on the Nene unfortunately.
Fortunately the town was soon behind and we were back out in a part of the countryside with two major landmarks - a massive 14-arch Victorian railway viaduct (two of them actually set beside each other) and the nearby hillside the massive Chester House. Gutted by fire when we were last here, it has been partially rebuilt though the work, it seems, is ongoing.
Apparently the area round Chester House and farm is a historically important site - it has been a  settlement since Mesolithic times, with archaelogical finds of flint tools, Roman remains and vestiges of a medieval hamlet. Last year the site got a £4m Heritage Lottery grant to open the site to the public and develop an archaelogical resource centre. The things you learn from Wikipaedia!
Tied up below Ditchford Lock by the new moorings
Another discovery of a different sort came at our last lock of the day, Ditchford. A narrowboat got trapped on the weir here in 2012 and sank. It was a well publicised disaster at the time. Less well known is that before it could be retrieved the boat managed to cause £250,000 damage to the foundations of the weir – as the river tried to force its way around the boat it scoured away the footings. The weir is now shut for repairs. We are moored for the night just below the lock near another new mooring site on a weir stream where a new canoe hire operation is also based.

Repairs underway to the damaged Ditchford weir

Off we go!

Smart new liftbridge halfway down the Northampton locks
British Summer Time started a day early for us when we put an end to our winter wanderings and headed eastwards on our 2014 cruise towards the Nene and the Great Ouse rivers.
And we did in glorious summer sunshine, losing layers of clothing by the hour and lockwheeling in tee-shirts by mid-morning.What a far cry from the weather only three days earlier when we'd been climbing the Braunston locks in a blizzard of hail!
The link from the Grand Union Canal to the River Nene at Northampton is down the 17 narrow locks of the Northampton Arm – the first 13 of them in a flight of less than a mile ending under the M1 motorway.
It's a relatively little used route and from memory of our past trips on it, could be overgrown with reeds, shallow in parts and generally rather shabby so it was good to see that things have generally improved. The locks worked, the reeds had been chopped back, a lift-bridge halfway down was smartly restored and painted and on a sunny day all was well.
Save for the drone of the motorway, it's a very rural stretch that drops into the vast floodplain around Northampton but it was a surprise to see how the town has encroached into this space since we were last here. A big new estate has arrived and is still being expanded in a mish-mash of houses, some of which would be certainly be attractive on their own but were cramped together like terra-cotta warriors in an emperor's tomb - a tomb with no gardens (not that you'd want to sit in one with that ever-present whoosh of m-way traffic.
New houses marching across the landscape as Northampton expands
Beyond the houses another rural stretch was more like the old canal we remembered, shallow and rubbish strewn with all the cut reed floating in the water and regularly tangling with the prop.
Soon, though, we were at the final lock by the Carlsberg brewery whose award winning design has not aged well, and then out onto the river. We hoped to find a mooring slot on the town riverfront to shop at the nearby Morrisons. It was always a popular spot to stop but not on Saturday: not a single boat was tied up. We wondered why.
Maybe because the whole area round the shops and waterside flats is an utter mess - rubbish everywhere and the few litter bins overflowing - cans, bags, even broken glass strewn about. All we wanted to do was shop and get out fast. Northampton – you and your council are a disgrace. The whole area is squalid.
We went through the first of the 37 Nene locks at Becketts Park and I remembered how much I loved them. Not. That fiddly little 'Abloy' key forever getting caught in the locks; the absurdly low geared hydraulic paddle gear that needs hundreds of windlass turns to raise and lower. Oh, groan.
It was now 4.30 and we were wondering where to moor. There's a floating pontoon in Becketts Park but it had no boats; just graffiti so we pressed on. No matter, the sun was still warm and we were still enjoying the trip and so was the boat, revelling in the deep, clear water.
Lockwheeling Nene style - finger on the guillotine button at Weston Favel
Some things might have changed since our last trip on the Nene but some hadn't - like the line of decrepit and semi-sunk boats before Rush Mills Lock. Overnight moorings are hard to find on this stretch of the river so we pushed on through the barrage gates that close off the town's washland flood storage zone when the river is getting dangerously high.
Out the other side and, with the sun dropping, we were thinking about a night spent on a lock mooring when we spotted a vacant visitor mooring at Northampton Boat Club, pulled up and were warmly welcomed.
A giant Morrisons pizza, a beer and by 9.00 pm all eyes on board Harry were closing after a day in the sun and 21 locks. Karaoke night at the boat club bar would not be getting the benefits of the Nb Harry crew!