Sunday, 31 May 2015

An alternative view

The pretty hillside town of Stroud
I have a soft spot for the Sixties. I can't remember much about them but I know I was there and after spending the 'summer of love' as a student in London, listening to the likes of Pink Floyd at the UFO Club I have a lingering liking for all things alternative.
Like Stroud, the town we tripped out to (in a manner of speaking) yesterday, courtesy of our Granny Passes. Google 'where do the hippies live today' and Stroud comes up not far behind Glastonbury and Totness. There's a sizeable Green Party representation on the local council and the town even boasts an Organic Hairdresser whatever that means.
Alternative enough even to claim an organic hairdresser
On Saturday it was enjoying itself at all its alternative best with street markets, a farmers' market and and buzzing crowds of 'alternative' types with plenty of bushy beards, cheesecloth shirts and dyed hair on view.
It's a pretty little town, set on a steep hill on the edge of the Cotswolds and over the years its slightly off the beaten track location and fine surroundings have attracted artists, writers and crafts people of all types – there's even a 'Made in Stroud' shop.
Beside the restored canal lock is the Trust's Visitor Centre and a cafe 
I must admit that, for all its great beauty, I'm not a great enthusiast for the Cotswolds – too many Cabinet ministers and tv celebrities for my taste – but Stroud is a different matter.
After enjoying the town and an organic burger and sausage roll at a market stall we wandered down to the Stroudwater Canal where the Cotswolds Canal Trust has a lockside Visitor Centre and there's a nice  little cafe too. Which meant we could enjoy some scrumptious cake and a drink as our 'pudding' before walking a few more miles of the canal towpath.
An impressive example of what's been achieved is this canal diversion
Work nears an end on one of the final locks being restored on this section
We headed for Brimscombe, the inland port where goods were trans-shipped from the wide Severn barges to the slightly narrower Thames ones for the rest of the journey. The canal is largely in water, if a bit reeded up, and only some final work on a couple of locks needs completing.
A glimpse of the future, the canal heads into the glorious Golden Valley
The walk gives an insight into what a glory this canal will be when it is one day open, running in the 'Golden Valley' as it's known which cuts through the lushly wooded Cotswold hills.
Augustus Gloop, the Trust's dredger at work near Brimscombe
At Brimscombe, though, things come to a complete stop and, sadly, there's precious little left of the inland port whose pool could hold a hundred boats. Just a large mill and a smaller building: the port itself is now a carpark and industrial estate, the last buildings having been demolished as recently as 1965.
This car park was once a huge expanse of water holding up to 100 barges
Now there is just a sign on a dreary sixties office block
Still, the Trust has a plan and judging by what they've delivered so far – including an impressive and expensive looking diversion on the edge of Stroud and some nifty squirming round the town itself – I don't doubt they will deliver.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Back to the docks

Now that's what you call a rich mixture of boats
What's been happening over the past few days? A gentle jog back to Gloucester Docks is the answer, followed by a couple of days looking round what has proved to be an interesting small city. I say small because once it was the gateway to Wales but, after the Severn Bridge was built in 1966 the road and the world seemed to pass Gloucester by.
The extensively and expensively restored Robert Raikes House, now a pub

The city centre has its fair share of sixties and seventies nastiness but a rather lovely cathedral and a number of delightful old buildings, some recently restored and others in line for the treatment. One, the 16th century Robert Raikes House, had a £4.5m refurbishment and is now (as it was in its recent former life) a pub – with an impressive interior that shouldn't be missed.
The cathedral was originally part of a large monastery and houses the tomb of William the Conqueror's eldest son, Robert while in the cathedral is the tomb one of England's early kings – Edward II. That was fortunate for Gloucester because when Henry VIII started knocking down or selling off the monasteries he spared Gloucester because it had a royal tomb and instead made the church a cathedral.
Edward II's tomb in the cathedral
Part of the cloisters of the original abbey
Memorial to Robert of Normandy made by Knights of the Third Crusade
And a stunning modern element, this beautiful stained glass window
While we were wandering in the wilderness down at Sharpness the Docks hosted the Tall Ships Festival – some of the ships passed us as we went down the canal and others on their return trip home as we came back.
Quite something to look at from the windows of Harry
Two were still in the Docks when we arrived: a Lowestoft trawler that I immediately fell in love with and an eccentric Spanish built vessel, created not so long back to match the design whims of its owner who wanted a ship to sail round the world in and then use as a sail training vessel. Worthy ambitions both, but it still looks like the front half of an elegant schooner attached to the rear half of something out of Pirates of the Caribbean.
A classic working ship with its history written in every fibre
With a rich and varied history
The Lowestoft trawler on the other hand is an utterly honest workaday vessel that was bought by its owner for £1who rescued it from being sunk as a dive site in the Med then spent a year working on it to get it back to the UK where he's done a steady amount of work to restore it. What a hero – albeit one with a decent bank balance. Well, he did have a decent bank balance.
The pair were joined by a massive three master yesterday which is due (like the others) to have work done at Tommi Nielsen's yard. Today we watched them manouevre it, the pirate ship and a big river party boat around in the wind and rain, using ropes and a powerful rib to push and pull them around. Made manoeuvreing narrowboats look easy.
While we shelter out of the curiously variable weather; rainstorms one minute, warm sunshine the next, we are planning our next destination. More news soon.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The incredible hulks

The proportions of this timber Severn barge are awesome
The largest collection of historical vessels in the UK is probably not in one of the boat museums or in London or in Liverpool docks but here on the banks of the Severn estuary.
The Purton Hulks is a collection of more than eighty craft of all ages and types, from topsail schooners to concrete hulled freight barges that are in resting in the mud flats in various stages of decay.
How they came to be there is a fascinating tale; visiting them now is a poignant and evocative experience which will grip anyone with an interest in ships or just an enthusiasm for photography – the picture opportunities are endless.
One of several ferro-concrete hulled barges embedded in the silt
You can find them all along the estuary edge from where we are moored a mile or more up river to Purton and for much of the time it is possible to walk among them. And it's possible to walk because they have done their final job of work which was to halt the erosion of the river bank with the potential danger that meant to the retaining wall of the canal.
The story began back in 1909 when erosion was first noticed and a group of redundant timber barges was hauled up onto the mud with the aim of causing silt build up over time and easing the problem. Over the years, particularly from the 1950s through to the '70s more vessels of all sizes and types were laid up along the bankside.
Decaying gracefully by the riverside
Time and tide has caused them to decay over the years but so too in many cases, did theft of timber and fittings and vandalism for this unique collection lacked and still lacks any form of legal protection. What a bizarre and shameful situation that is: if they were a collection of stones and grassy humps of some ancient castle English Heritage would be jumping all over the site.
A tribute column lists the craft that have been identified
As it is the volunteer Friends of Purton group has painstakingly recorded, photographed and researched the boats, identifying fragmentary remains, campaigning for their protection and giving each a memorial plaque beside it where details of its age, size, builder and date beached are recorded. 
I can't tell the story better than their website so here are some more photos of this unique group.

Eerily, this timber barge seems to be floating through a sea of grass

The sun sets on another ferro-concrete boat

This Hulk has done its job and allowed the bank to build up around it

Each identified Hulk has its own simple memorial panel 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Lock, Berkeley and home*

The freighter Wilson Tees eases its way into Sharpness Lock
Two days ago we hiked 13 miles to post a letter; today we walked eight miles to find a Co-op. On the way, as it was nearly high tide, we decided to check out the sea lock at the docks. 
The canal forks as it arrives at Sharpness; right was the old exit to the estuary, now a small marina while left heads into the heart of the docks and then exits to the estuary via a much bigger, newer lock. You have to walk all the way round the edge of the docks to find it, past grain stores, cement silos, stacks of timber and a scrap metal depot which illustrate that this is still a busy little docks. 
Sharpness was quiet today but it's normally a busy little docks
First you have to negotiate what locals call 'the island', the sizeable area of land between the two arms of canal. It's all semi-derelict now, save for the Dockers' Club, and there's just a decaying sign on a fence to recall the camp of the HMS Vindicatrix sea training school that was based here. All that could change for CaRT has ambitious development plans for the whole of the dockland estate with housing and, on the island, leisure facilities.
A plaintive reminder of the sea training base that was here
Arriving at the lock we missed a narrowboat and a big cruiser who left for the trip to Bristol just before high tide but a cargo ship, the 1500 tonne Wilson Tees from Lithunia carrying a load of fertiliser was inching its way patiently in.
The incoming tide runs fast – even for a big coaster – and it had turned, positioned itself against the arm of the mole (the pier as we landlubbers call it) and was using bow thrusters and engine to pivot slowly round against the force of the tide.
Quite a little crowd had gathered to watch. There's an immaculate picnic area there to watch the ships or just view the river – across to Lydney or down beyond the two Severn bridges. Apparently you used to be able to walk right to the lockside, until someone sadly committed suicide by driving their car off the harbour edge!)
After the lock it was time to head for the nearest small town, Berkeley and its Co-op. There's a tiddly shop at Sharpness docks and a marginally better Mace and PO at Newtown on the hill behind them but for a proper shop that sells stuff like vegetables, it's Berkeley four miles away up a busier than expected B-road on a hotter than expected afternoon.
Remarkably, little Berkeley had two charity shops, which kept Harrywoman happy and a decent Co-op wherewe bought lunch (including a Little Caesar meal for Seadog Brian), and stocked up on fruit and veg.
Looking for somewhere to have our picnic lunch we discovered there was a whole lot more to Berkeley than a Co-op. Like a Norman castle, lived in by the same family who built it – a family who can trace their lineage back to Saxon times. And a stunning 13th century church. And the house where Edward Jenner, the man who invented vaccination, lived.
The magnificent Berkeley Castle lived in by the family for 900 years
Robert Fitzharding, first baron of Berkeley, was an Anglo Saxon nobleman and he built the present keep and wall with much of the rest added in the 14th century. Remarkably his descendants still live there though as there isn't much call for noblemen to fight in battles any more, the place earns its keep as a wedding venue and filming location for the likes of Wolf Hall these days.
A beautiful 13the century church but its bell tower is out of sight
Unfortunately it's well screened from view unless you're a paying visitor, which we weren't today. We contended ourselves with a look in the beautiful church. Note the lack of a bell tower in the photo – the baron of Berkeley didn't want townsfolk peering into his castle from the tower so it's built separately on the other side of the churchyard.
Tomb of the 8th Lord of Berkeley who fought at Crecy and his wife
The church has impressive Berkeley tombs. There's an eerie sense of historical immediacy standing by the tomb of the 3rd Baron who fought alongside the king at the Battle of Crecy. Outside are some fascinating tombs, too, including that of Dicky Pearce, the Earl of Suffolk's fool and last court jester who died after falling from the minstrels' gallery of the castle's hall. Or, as some say, was he pushed – just as a joke? The inscription on his tomb was written by Jonathan Swift.
Tomb of Dicky Pearce, the last court jester in England
Edward Jenner lived very nearby. He noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox, a very mild cousin to smallpox, never caught the virulent disease. He scraped the pus of the milkmaid's cowpox blisters and injected them in patients – who were successfully immunised against smallpox.
A return trip along the busy road to Sharpness loomed until Harrywoman had the brilliant idea of returning along the Severn Way. Some Google-mapping and querying of locals confirmed that it could be done: the small stream by the castle led to the oddly named Berkeley Pill – a Severn tributary whose tidal waters once allowed trading craft right up to Berkeley and the castle. And from the Pill, the path led along the estuary side back to Sharpness.
Among the flotsam, this curious item of iron tipped timber
It was a great walk, through sheep fields and along the estuary bank, where lines of flotsam timber, some virtually tree trunk size, begged to be collected for firewood. Finally we were back at the docks picnic area for a last sit down and look at the ebbing river before heading home.

* A self-indulgent play on words to remind me of my uni philosophy course on Messrs Locke, Berkeley and Hume.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A long way to post a letter

The delightful St Cyr's church on the Stroudwater Canal
Yesterday we walked thirteen miles to post a letter. It was only meant to be three but when we got to Frampton upon Severn's post office and store we found it wasn't there. If you see what I mean.
So we set off on a ten mile hike to find another.
There was possibly one closer – though I'm not sure; shops are thin on the ground around here – but we  had already planned to walk part of the route of the Stroudwater Canal to Stonehouse, and that certainly had a P.O. so the letter joined our packed lunches.
A derelict lock but the gates were new in 1996
The Cotswold Canals restoration project was launched back in 2001 as a breathtaking scheme to resurrect the two canals that run from the head of navigation on the Thames at Lechlade to the Severn. Just 36 miles of canal and the lengthy Sapperton Tunnel. Since then it's been a flagship of the restoration movement attracting £25m in funding from the Heritage Lottery and others. With the aid of this – and huge volunteer help – a tough six mile stretch through Stonehouse and Stroud is now open. Now attention has turned to the section we were due to walk which will link this to the G&S at Saul. It's due to be done in 2020.
So what have they got to do? Beyond the short arm at Saul was the first obstacle; a low road bridge. But, judging by what's been achieved so far, that's just a small issue. After that the canal continued in water for a few hundred yards then petered out at a derelict lock, overgrown by brambles.  Oddly though the lock gates were dated 1996.
How to get under the M5 is the restorer's next challenge
Beyond this the canal simply disappeared –  just a steep bank between the River Frome and a farmer's field which is where the old canal is now buried. Soon after that a section is back in water but we wrong-slotted and couldn't find it. Instead we walked along the river bank to the A38 and M5, the two major obstacles in the canal's path. The canal will have to be re-routed under each. (On the way back we found our missing section by walking up the A38 to a roundabout and there it was – the second exit.)
Isolated sections are in water – this even has a surviving bridge
It's river bank all the way from the A38 to the edge of Eastington then north up a road and suddenly here's the canal again. Not just a reedy, sleepy section but a real canal with huge Severn barge size locks, all there , full of water and ready to go. Well nearly ready. We walked past "the world's first advanced composite lift bridge" as it says on the plaque to the last challenge – a main railway line that crosses the canal on an embankment. Tunneling a culvert through will not be hard, just esxpensive in costs for disrupting the railway.
Another minor problem – driving the canal under this railway line
Nutshell Bridge, Stonehouse and its surviving bridge house
Beyond the railway is the jewel in the crown of this stretch, a quintessentially English scene: views across open meadows to distant hills off to one side while on the other, a handsome Elizabethean house, Stonehouse Court, now a hotel and the delightful St Cyr's church.
The canal here is already in use by a canal society trip boat and as it enters Stonehouse, even looks like a workaday canal scene, back gardens of bungalows look onto the towpath; modern 'executive homes' stand opposite.
Now we were in the town all we had to do was post our letter, buy an ice cream ... and head home again.
It was a delightful walk on a sunny day and an eye-opening look at what can be achieved with determination and ambition. Can't wait for 2020 and a chance to do it again – by boat.
Today we left Saul and headed down to the end of the line at Sharpness for a weekend of more exploring. And Sunday lunch at the Dockers' Club.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Bores and boats

The  Gloucester & Sharpness is only fifteen miles long and it's straight enough and deep enough to race down it at high speed – as many boats do. But if you take things easy and have an explore away from the boat there's plenty to slow you down.
We arrived back after our long weekend away to find Harry safe and sound by Rea swingbridge. Before we left there was a last chance to see the famous Severn Bore, with the river just a five minute walk away down the road at Stonebench. By Bore standards this one was weak (just one out of five possible stars according to the experts) and we'd also missed the best of the spring tide over the weekend.
Before and after - barely a minute as the Bore surges up and fills the river

All the same, a Bore, even a small Bore would be worth seeing so I waited on the river bank for its arrival. And waited. And waited. Until at 11 a.m. I gave up, walked up the bank and suddenly, with staggering speed the fresh tide came racing up the river and I rushed back.
It wasn't terribly high, true, but the sheer speed of the water is awesome and within a minute the level was three or four feet up the bank and still coming on hard and fast. A five star Bore must be a sight to see.
The handsome schooner Vilma heads up the canal
Back at the boat, we unmoored and headed on for Sellars Bridge and a fill-up of water. This is another of the manual bridges that are opened and closed by a keeper heaving round a large wheel. All that's due to change in a year or two when the bridges are automated and the keepers sadly lose their jobs in a cost saving exercise by CaRT.
There's enough headroom for a narrowboat to get through Sellars with the bridge closed so when the keeper started spinning the wheel to open it, something tall was clearly coming through. And it was a beautiful tall ship, 'Vilma' from Beaumaris, built in Denmark in the 1940s (so Mr Google told me later) and rigged as a topsail schooner. That sounds knowledgeable but actually haven't a clue what it means!
An old barge lies derelict and its water filled hold turns into a reed bed
The next bridges are much lower to the water; no chance of getting under them, and electrically operated, though still by a keeper. We went through Parkend and then arrived out of low lying rural scenery into the hustle and bustle of Saul Junction.
The junction is dominated by the large, busy looking yard of RW Davis where there is everything from lifeboats to the famous RW Davis Northwich Trader narrowboats being worked on. Saul Junction was once a watery crossroads where the Stroudwater Canal, coming up from the Severn, crossed the G&S en route to the inland port of Brimscombe near Stroud where it met the Thames & Severn Canal which went the rest of the way to the Thames at Lechlade. The Cotswold Canals restoration project aims to have this stupendous link back in service one day and already has significant sections back in water.
For the moment though there's just a quarter mile giving access to Saul Marina, a massive mooring basin tucked out of sight behind the boatyard.
Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will do some more exploring in the area. As I said, this is not a canal to be rushed.

The busy boatyard of RW Davis dominates the canal scene at Saul Junction

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Who'd have thought it.

Lower Parting where the two channels of the river meet again
We looked out the window yesterday morning and saw, to our complete surprise, moored across the Docks was narrowboat Sea Eagle who we crossed The Wash with last summer.
A couple of hours later we bumped into Anthony, its skipper, who it turns out moors down the canal at Saul; so maybe not such a surprise to find him there. Meeting him changed our plans for the day as he told us of some interesting walks around Alney Island, the nature reserve on the other side of the river from the docks. So, after a morning's wander round Gloucester's shops - a decidedly unlovely clutch of 1960s and 70s precincts sadly - we headed across the footbridge from the Dock to the island.
Ships masts rise above dock buildings - a view unchanged for 150 years
Alney is one of the largest natural river islands in the country. It starts back at Upper Parting where the river splits and ends two miles down at Lower Parting where they meet again for the final run to the estuary. At its widest, it's three quarters of a mile across. Most of it is low lying and prone to flooding but there are a few houses and an electric sub station: the rest is meadow and nature reserve. Which is why we saw hardly any interesting birds. In my experience, if you want to see birds, don't go to a nature reserve – I think they deliberately hide from visitors!
We walked round the southern edge of the island, following the river and looked back across at the docks where tall masts stood out between the old brick buildings in a view that has been unchanged for 150 years. We were looking out for the remains of Llanthony Lock, which was built to by-pass the river weir and give an alternative route to the rest of the river to boats that didn't want to pay the canal dues. It was in service from 1871 until 1924 when its walls started to move inwards. But it's still there, remarkably complete, and even has a lock house that's occupied.
Llanthony Lock: when restored it will be the gateway to a revived canal
The lock, the house and the land around it were bought by the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal Trust as part of its restoration plan. Boats would come down the river as we did, carry on past Gloucester Lock, by-pass the weir via a restored Llanthony Lock, head on down river to Lower Parting, turn up the west channel and then, via a new, yet to be built lock, into the canal. An interesting bit of tidal river boating there!
We followed the route they will take to Lower Parting, a glorious spot where the two channels meet and the river, now wide and magnificent again, flows on. It's a wonderfully remote place, with fine views – and to see the Severn Bore racing up towards you there must be a great sight.
A father and young son were fishing – for sea bass. Now that's what I call angling; catching fish you can take home and eat.
We headed north up the side of the western channel towards the huge modern road bridge that takes the A40 from Gloucester to Wales. Beside it is the railway bridge and sandwiched between them an single arched stone bridge whose classic proportions could only have been designed by one man – yes, it's that chap Thomas Telford once more.
Another great Telford bridge once spanned the Severn as the main road to Wales
Over Bridge is now just used as a footbridge but this was once  the main road bridge west out of the city – and until the first Severn Bridge was built in the 1960s the main road route to south Wales as there was no crossing possible lower down the river. We had a few family holidays in Wales and I must have crossed it a few times as a child; how strange.
We walked across, ducked under the big new bridge and turned off the river path to see if we could discover the start of the Herefs & Gloucs Canal. And it was quite a surprise to clamber up the bank and find, not a damp ditch, but a fully finished canal basin, all pristine, smart, in water and even with a cluster of boats able to ply the half mile length that's in water. There's even a Wharf House visitor centre though that was shut by the time we got there.
The basin of the Herefs & Gloucs Canal - all built by volunteer labour
It's a hell of an achievement. The basin was dug out by the developer of the surrounding houses but all the building work was done by Canal Trust volunteers and the Waterway Recovery Group. You have to admire the grit and enthusiasm of these restoration groups and hope that they can maintain their impetus over what will always be a long haul.
Today we've moved on from the Docks: our 48 hours is up and we are moored out in the country now ready for a weekend of grandparent duties way across country in Suffolk. Back blogging next week.
The bridge lifts and we have to leave the wonderful Docks behind