Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Stepping back in time

What lies beyond the old east portal of the Norwood Tunnel?
The railways killed the Chesterfield Canal, just like they killed off most others. But what speeded its demise was the collapse of the Norwood Tunnel. This magnificent 2900 yard long tunnel was a masterpiece of canal engineering but finally collapsed in 1907, cutting the last ten miles into Chesterfield from the rest of the canal.
The remains of the tunnel run under this field
Now the canal has been restored back to the eastern tunnel portal and for five miles out of Chesterfield at the western end. But what about the bit in the middle? We went to have an explore.
The Cuckoo Way footpath follows its old route so we weren't quite in the same exploring league as Dr Livingstone looking for the source of the Nile. All the same, our walk had its moments.
The first mile was easy, an even field of rough pastureland shows in its humps and slumps the line of the old tunnel. But after that the footpath veers around the edges of private gardens and then arrives in a maze of paths and tracks across former spoil tips. The one we want should head toward the M1 motorway but could we find it? No - the Cuckoo Way markers had vanished and we took several wrong turns before finally tracking along the edge of a copse – and discovering, hidden among the trees, the stunning sight of the collapsed tunnel, now just a deep open cutting in the middle of the woods.
Hidden in the woods, a long section of caved in tunnel 
The new route will take the canal under the M1 here
From here the route was clear and we walked under the motorway via a farmer's underpass that is intended to be the route of the new canal. Then across a field and into the trees where, suddenly, there was the bricked up western portal of the tunnel and the overgrown but still clearly evident line of the canal.
Bricked up but still complete, the old west portal
If the Chesterfield's eastern flight of double and triple staircase locks were a masterpiece of canal engineering then what we were about to see the remnants of on the western side left them in the shade. The Norwood locks brought the canal down from the tunnel in a tightly structured run of quadruple and two triple staircases – 13 locks in a quarter of a mile – with huge side pounds to hold the water suplies needed for them.
Magnificent side pound for the Norwood Locks
One of the staircase lock chambers still intact
Remarkably, the lock chambers and side pounds are all still there and the Canal Trust's aim is to bring them back to life. But will they be able to? All now sit among the grounds of very exclusive looking houses with electric gates and expensive cars. Will they be happy to see canal boats chuffing past the end of their tennis courts? Hmmm.
Following the old towpath 
Seadog Brian gets a lift home
Anyway, the canal's course is still clear and in water for another mile and we followed its tree-enclosed towpath until the water disappeared, the nettles took over and Seadog Brian went on strike and demanded lunch and a ride in the backpack.
It had been a fascinating walk – seeing the old canal there, like the almost complete skeleton of some ancient dinosaur gave us all a feeling that it could – and should – be brought back to life.

Find out more about the restoration and history of the canal here here

At last it can be told...

The crew pose at the top of the final locks
Finally we have a 3G signal so here's a bit of fleshing out of the story so far. You left us an exhausted and demoralised couple, moored in Retford after days of struggle against clinging blanket weed. If it hadn't been for the fact we had agreed to meet with daughter Olivia and partner Nick we would probably have turned round and headed back.
"It will get better" they all said. And it did – though there were still patches that didn't. But first, with crew coming aboard we had to re-stock the galley, which wasn't hard since we were moored right outside Aldi and off-loaded the trolley contents straight through the side hatch into the cupboards and fridge.
Stocking up from Retford's canalside Aldi
From Retford the canal heads out into the country and soon contorts itself through some of Brindley's notorious contour following double twists through Ranby, a village whose inhabitants must be deaf from the constant roar of the adjacent A1. We missed the 'mooring outside the village hall' and with the light fading tied up in the traditional deep-boat-in-a-shallow-canal fashion – on ropes and pins about four feet from the bank.
A typical mooring for a deep draughted boat like ours
After the four Forest locks the next day things did improve and we meandered past the impressive grounds of a Victorian mansion pile before closing on the unimpressive Worksop, a town that sadly shows its decaying and decrepit side to the canal  - and boasts the horribly awkward Town Lock too.
Again, though, things improved and the far side of the lock was tidy Worksop. We moored for lunch and found ourselves opposite Worksop cricket ground with a grandstand view of some pretty decent quality cricket from Harry's roof!
Not so memorable - Worksop's nasty Town Lock
Grandstand view for Worksop CC match
The end of day two saw us in Rhodesia – honest. The African country was named after Cecil Rhodes who founded it; the Nottinghamshire one is a little ex-mining village named after the boss of the collery firm, Preston Rhodes. We  dug into another rough mooring at the canal's edge and prepared for the final assault up 26 locks the next day.
Climbing through the Thorpe locks in dappled sunlight
It proved to be a doddle. A delightful doddle in glorious sunshine. Maybe a bit too much sunshine, but who's complaining. After the three Shireoaks locks the canal left the world behind and disappeared into tree-filled countryside where the dappled sunlit shone onto a unique trail of single, double and treble locks up the climb to the summit. Was it hard going? No, not really; just a steady haul.
Remarkably we were the only boat on the flight until we crossed with another coming down. The towpath, though, was alive with walkers, runners, anglers, cyclists and strolling families. It was great to see – and great as well not to see any traces of vandalism or graffiti on a stretch that runs close to some pretty run-down and deprived areas.
End of the line, the final winding hole with its feeder stream
From the top lock it's about two miles to the final winding hole at Kiveton, whose now dis-used quarries supplied the stone to rebuild the Houses of Parliament 150 years ago, barging it down the canal to West Stockwith and then sending it round the coast to the Thames by Humber Keels.
We moored just by the picturesque winding hole which also feeds the canal with water. You can go on a couple of hundred yards to the old Norwood Tunnel portal but we said thanks but no thanks. It looked too weedy to enjoy a 200 yard reverse back.
We celebrated our success with a brisk mile's walk to The Beehive in nearby Harthill for a few drinks and some exceptionally large Sunday dinners.
Next day the plan was to walk the dinners off with some Time Team style detective work tracing the route of the old canal.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

We finally made it

In case you think that we are trapped, incommunicado, in a Sargasso Sea of blanket weed somewhere on the Chesterfield Canal, this is a brief blog to report that we did finally make it to the head of the navigation. Things did improve markedly once we were past Retford and the Forest Locks (though there were still a few sticky patches) and the final day's assault on the 26 locks up through Shireoaks and Turnerwood were stunning.
We had a fascinating afternoon's walk along the route of the old canal, tracking the remains of the tunnel and then following the skeletal remains of the Norwood locks down the other side.
And today we have come right back down through 33 locks to find ourselves the other side of Worksop. But, as ever, there's precious little 3G signal (we cruised the last mile, phone in hand to find somewhere to moor with a rudimentary signal) so photos and a more in depth review will have to wait.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Heaven and hell

A motley collection of rubbish from around the prop
Hereabouts is Puritan country – you know the non-conformist, Methodist, Pilgrim Fathers, hellfire and brimstone religionists who preached that toil and suffering in this world is all part of the rocky road to paradise.
Well, if they had been boaters this would have been their local canal and it would have suited them perfectly. It feels like the road to perdition but everyone you meet tells you to keep right right on to the end because canalling paradise awaits.
All I can say is, that it better had be because we couldn't have been toiling and suffering any more than we have been today. In nine hours we have travelled nine miles and three locks to reach Retford. Two of those miles alone took nearly an hour and the rest were rarely pleasant.
Weed and more weed was the problem – and despite passing two weed cutting boats. It's not just the weed but the shallow, silty bottom of the canal. As we crawled along we churned a frothing mush of silt and weed behind us, which is turn dragged up any rubbish that happened to be in it and spun it round our prop – endless roots and bits of branch, industrial quantities of weed and a sizeable length of heavy duty Bowden cable with an unidentifiable lump of metal attached to it. The weed is that half rotted blanket weed which rises to the surface with a delightful cesspit odour.
Yes, there are stretches that are deeper and cleaner but then the weed and sludge wraps you in its grasp again and from Clayworth pretty much all the way to the edge of Retford it was horrible.

Beautiful views 

And natural, river-like edges

But even the weed cutters can't keep the enemy at bay
All of which is a tragedy for the canal is delightful. It runs almost entirely along a countryside route that blends lush hedges and trees with distant views and the canal's almost entirely natural edges, full of wildflowers and reeds give it the feel more of being a river than man made. A feeling emphasised by the zillions of fish to be seen swimming through the unusually clear water.
But is that enough? If it wasn't for mule headed determination and the repeated talk of the paradise that awaits in the final flight of locks we would certainly have turned round by now. We're deep draughted and I make allowances for that wherever we boat but today was hell. Heaven better be waiting!
Of course, the analogy does break down doesn't it. Heaven is a one-way trip but after our glimpse of the pearly gates we have to go through this hell again.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

At last – back onto a 'proper' canal

Passing one of several disused brickworks on the Chesterfield
We are moored in the middle of nowhere but, at last, after many days of frustration, we have a perfect 3G signal so I can blog without having to stand on the roof or climb a high bank and wave vaguely around in the hope of capturing a spare waveband from the ether.
If I look into the distance the reason we have a signal is standing high on the horizon - a tall phone mast. But we've been near those before and still scored a blank. So forget 4G and wi-fi on trains, just give us 3G - or even 2G - on the canals.
But enough of that. Since disappearing into the void on the River Witham, we've travelled to Lincoln and left the boat in Brayford Pool (where you can eat any food you like so long as it's from a multi-branch chain outlet: how depressing), visited family, returned and headed via the Fossdyke (I never cease to wonder that the Romans dug this out 2000 years ago) and Torksey down the River Trent to West Stockwith and the start of the Chesterfield Canal.
Yet another Trent-side power station
I'm not a great fan of power stations so the Trent is not my favourite river - there's not much else to see from a boat. Gainsborough is the only Trent-side town but most boaters whizz through at high speed, carried by the tide. They're not missing much,  as we discovered later when returning by bus, it's a desperate dump, saved only by the wonderful medieval Gainsborough Old Hall which is well worth a visit, especially thanks to the clever interactive audio-visual headset guides. The rest of the town is empty shops, poor people, too-young mums and squalor. Even immigrants seem to have given it a miss.
Under Gainsborough Bridge at high speed
I've been making a habit of ballsing up my turns and lock entries on tidal rivers – Harry is a big, heavy boat and hard to turn is my excuse. We came down to West Stockwith on a fast ebbing tide, turned to stem it (at least I know the jargon) and then drove hard for the lock. I though we were in but the push of the tide caught the stern and banged us hard into the lock wall. Null points again!
We parked up for a few days at West Stockwith while I replaced our exhausted old batteries with a new set of deep-cycle AGMs. I hope they last – they cost enough! It's a lovely little village of charming hotch-potchy old houses strung along the river: a port since the times of those clever Romans again as the River Idle which they used an inland navigation joins the Trent here too.
Modern commuters have passed the village by as it's too far from major towns or big rail links so it has the quiet, sleepy backwater air of a provincial French village.
The Chesterfield is said to be a glorious canal but gets few visitors. After that entry from the Trent there's 50 odd locks in its 40 miles... and then you turn round and go back again.
Churning through the dreaded Chesterfield weed
It's also notorious for weeds – as we found out today, taking two hours to churn through three miles of the stuff before giving up for the night.
Blame the sunshine – it makes the stuff grow. Hmmm. I think I'll keep the sun and deal with the weeds.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Along the Witham via the forties and fifties

The wonderful Kinema in the Woods
Boating along the River Witham is like stepping back in time. And not just because the 3G phone and internet connection is rubbish. No, as one local boater put it, Lincolnshire is a friendly, safe sort of place – a bit like most of Britain was back when when we were young.
But the past is not always what you expect. It certainly wasn't at Langrick Bridge, our first mooring after Boston. There's not much to Langrick Bridge except a friendly little boatyard and shop – and an American roadhouse bar and grill. We didn't so much see that as hear it. There's no mistaking the deep throaty roar of a V8 so I climbed the bank from the moorings and discovered the 'Witham and Blues Bar & Grill' and outside it a collection of hot rods and performance motors to make any car enthusiast drool.
Americana at Witham & Blues roadhouse
Now that's what I call a car engine
Next stop for us after Langrick was supposed to be Kirkstead Bridge, a mile walk from Woodhall Spa, but the moorings were full so we went on to Southrey where there are moorings – and pubs – each side. Take your pick. We picked the north side for the village (actually just a handful of houses) and Riverside Inn – a slightly sleepy but very friendly pub with good value pub grub.
Sculpture celebrating the Water Rail Way at Southrey
Nicholson's Guide remarks that the village has a 'little white wooden church built by the villagers in 1898 and clearly cherished.' Sadly, now it looks like an advert for a bad upvc double glazing company with its plastic windows and plastic t&g effect cladding. Oh dear, oh dear.
Along this bank of the river runs the Water Rail Way, a tarmac cycle and footpath along the route of the old rail line from Lincoln to Woodhall Spa.
Next morning we headed back to Woodhall Spa. This is a delightful oddity of a place, part holiday centre for caravanners in the numerous sites, part genteel retirement village. It was a spa town, though the old spa baths have long been empty and derelict. These days its chief claim to fame is as the wartime base for the legendary 617 Squadron - the Dambusters who operated from the now vanished Woodhall Spa airfield (though not for the dam busting raid itself).
The village square has a fine memorial garden with two large memorials to members of the squadron who lost their lives in WW2 and in later actions. The WW2 theme is everywhere in the Spa, from other memorials to a cafe to books and memorabilia.
The other great attraction is the Kinema in the Woods. Opened in the 1920s this lovely little cinema has two screens and its own Compton theatre organ in the main one. But it was Screen Two (or Kinema Two, to be precise) that we went to to see the excellent Jersey Boys, the Clint Eastwood directed tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
It's a super little place beautifully painted with scenes of rural Lincolnshire in trompe l’oeil style. And - like everywhere round here - it's the way cinemas used to be: no noisy audience members, no mobile phones going off, just appreciative watchers. Mostly of pensionable age..which is maybe why we had an intermission. For a wee break as much as an ice cream break.
Now we are at the isolated mooring in Fiskerton Fen nature reserve hoping that this evening, as we did on our last visit, we will see owls patrolling the banksides.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The RNLI in association with Betfair and Wonga

When you're out in the middle of nowhere and all you can see is sea you can't help but start thinking 'what if?' and imagining Seadog Brian being hoisted up to safety by a rescue helicopter winchman as Nb Harry disappeared under the waves.
And then we got to thinking another what if: what if – like the NHS and schools and prisons – the RNLI was privatised?
"The engine has just blown up, the stern gland has failed and we're shipping water! I think we're sinking, dear. Call the RNLI!"
"This is the RNLI in association with Betfair and Wonga. We value your call which may be recorded for training purposes. If you wish to make a donation, press 1, if you would like to visit a lifeboat station press 2, if you would like to work for us, press 3, if you would like information about our associated companies press 4, if you wish to renew your membership press 6, if you have an emergency press 7 and listen to the options.
"Emergency call-outs are to members only. If you wish to join our gold membership, including helicopter rescue, press 1, our silver membership for coastal waters by lifeboat only press 2, our bronze level, for rivers only, press 3 but please note this service is only 9-5 Monday to Friday. If you wish to be rescued at a weekend you will need to call our duty rescue service provided by our partners A Toss.

"All our operators are busy, please hold on."
"They are playing bloody 'For those in peril on the sea' now!' Answer the blasted phone!
"Hallo this is Tracey speaking, how may I help you today?"
"We bloody sinking; we need rescuing - now"
"I'm sorry, sir, please do not swear at me or I shall have to cut you off."
"Sorry - we are sinking. Water is up to my knees.
"Are you a member?"
"In that case I will need your credit card number."
"Here you are."
"Gold cover will be £750.50 sir. That's with the ten per cent discount I can offer you today.There is an extra five per cent if you take out a mayday loan from our partners Wonga.
"Bloody hell!"
"Please watch the language sir. That's per person of course."
"And we have a dog."
"Pets are covered by our partner service. You will need to call them separately"
"Water is up to my thighs now"
"I will be sending our Team Shell in association in association with Britcopters and Natwest Banking helicopter just as soon as we have cleared your payment.
"Meanwhile I would just like to tell you that our partners Wonga are offering you special odds of 5-1 that you will be rescued before sinking.
"Sir? Sir? Sir? Are you still there?
Ah well, next caller then.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Across The Wash

We did it. We crossed The Wash. In terms of adventurous exploits it doesn't quite rank with Hilary on Everest, Shackleton in the Antarctic or Livingstone in Africa but it was by far the most adventurous thing we've ever done in a narrowboat and though plenty of others have made the trip before us, many others refuse point blank to consider it.
The Wash is a treacherous place, full of hidden and ever changing sandbanks, strange currents and fierce tides. You don't go there without without a lot of experience - we had none and a reliable boat - ours had overheated two days earlier. But we did have Daryl Hill, a wash pilot whose day job is bringing  commercial boats through its trickeries and who has been shepherding narrowboats across for many years – and hadn't lost one yet. 
Awaiting the off at Wisbech
Passing Sutton Bridge       

All the same we were nervous. I was nervous about the engine and Mrs B was just plain nervous about going to sea with a skipper who had managed two significant cock-ups on tidal waters in the last couple of weeks. But that's another story.
We had a companion narrowboater making the trip with us: Anthony on Fish Eagle who, it turned out had done the Bristol to Sharpness crossing and previously owned a sea boat. I don't know whether that made me feel better or worse.
Good weather is essential for the trip. The local prophets of doom who always seem to appear when you're about to undertake anything mildly tricky were already hovering round the boats at Wisbech muttering about too much northerly wind. "Oh, it gets rough out there when the wind's from the north or east. I wouldn't be going out in one of those."
It was a sunny, warm morning when Daryl arrived and with just a hint of the dreaded northerlies. "Don't worry about that; there's not enough wind to cause any trouble." So at 10.30am off we went.
Lighthouses mark the end of the river
Seals watch us from the sandbanks
Daryl guides through the tricky route
The first ten miles are on down the Nene with the ebbing tide so there's still a chance to change one's mind. We were past the active little port and big swingbridge at Sutton Bridge and then the twin white lighthouses that mark the end of the river came into view. And with them came a sudden choppiness to the water as the wind hit the tide. If it was like this in the river what would it be like in The Wash? Like a millpond was the answer. Suddenly the landscape opened out into a vast watery plain streaked with low sandbanks glistening in the sun on which dozens of seals basked. Hazy dots in the far distance were the tiny outlines of large ships and further still barely visible land.
Gleaming in the sun this vast, flat shimmering expanse looked magical, like a strange mirage where water and sky merged.
The route out into the Wash from the Nene is the trickiest part of the navigation; a series of marker buoys leading us in a long sweeping 'S' between lurking sandbanks. Daryl was travelling with Anthony and had briefed me beforehand in case we got separated. No chance of that! I clung to his stern as if attached by an invisible towrope. All the same, a series of post-it notes on my rear hatch had the various buoys marked out, just in case.
Already Boston Stump, the massive tower of St Botolph's Church was visible over to our left but we left it there and headed north further out to sea – our route takes a giant right angle course north and then west to avoid expansive sandbanks and absorb time between the ebbing tide from Wisbech and the inbound tide to Boston.
A deceptively calm skipper
It's lonely out there
Nothing but sea, sky and the occasional buoy
As we went further out to sea the north easterly wind started to make its presence felt and we pitched and rolled in a modest swell. Un-nerving for a few minutes after that milk-water calm of the canals but soon a satisfyingly nautical experience. Harry's engine chugged happily away and the crew relaxed - even Brian who was by now asleep.
Beached for a short pee and paddle break

Brian enjoying his run on the sands
Beaching on a sandbank is the usual procedure on these trips to kill time, de-water any dogs and have a laugh or two but the sea was too "lumpy' to let us put down on Roger Sand without too severe a bump so we went further 'round the corner' - that's a sailing expression and beached. Or in my case, semi-beached, leaving me with a thigh deep wade ashore carrying Seadog Brian - who promptly claimed the sandbank as his territory in the usual fashion.
The stop was a short one and before long the rising tide lifted us off and we swung back onto our course. Boston Stump was bigger now, this time on our right as we carried on west before swinging almost ninety degrees right and into the River Witham.
Coming up through Boston with the Stump in sight
Journey's end: in Boston Lock
The Witham winds through a series of easy curves towards the town and all we had to do now was adjust our arrival to reach the lock at the right time: it's only 47ft long so we had to pass through when the rising tide was on a level with the non tidal river the other side, allowing both doors to be open and us to pass through. Get there too late and you spend the night hanging from a hawser outside the lock gate. But trusty Daryl knows all the tell-tale marks of how high the river is and got us there in good time.
And at 7.00pm we were through the lock and the adventure was over.
It had been a superb day; the trip was exhilarating, the seascape stunning, the sight of the seals and the seabirds wonderful and Daryl great company as well as a superb guide.
Our fellow voyager Anthony on Sea Eagle came round after we tied up in Boston and we rounded off a memorable day with a fish and chip supper and a couple of bottles of red wine.
I was asleep last night as soon as my head touched the pillow.

*If you fancy the trip, do try it. Call Daryl on 07909 880071for advice and make a booking. He handles trips in either direction and does also them to and from Denver on the Great Ouse, though it's a trickier route than the Wisbech-Boston one.