Thursday, 23 July 2015

Back home

Surrounded by the shopping mall is historic Tooley's yard
Tonight we are moored outside Tooley's Boatyard in Banbury – but a very different Tooley's it is than the place where Harry was built some twenty years ago.
Tooley's then was in its final years as the yard where Tom Rolt's boat Cressy had been made ready for his honeymoon cruise – the voyage that became the legendary book Narrowboat. Indeed our boat was one of the last built before the whole area was redeveloped to form the bland Castle Quays shopping mall.
Tooley's does survive; and it's still a working boatyard but cramped into a small corner marked 'heritage' between Marks & Spencer and BHS.
We've been back on the Oxford Canal for two days now after a long weekend of family visiting. We left the boat in the care of the friendly Thrupp Canal Cruising Club whose immaculately kept moorings occupy a stretch of the canalside in this picturesque outcrop of Oxford.
North from there we've been travelling through Oxfordshire countryside at its finest on a rural route that barely touches a village let alone a town (Banbury is our first).
Oddly shaped Shipton Weir Lock where canal meets river
The Oxford is an early canal so its engineers did things the easy way and followed the contours of the land to minimise the need for locks or aqueducts. Here it follows the Cherwell valley – and in a couple of places actually cheats and uses short stretches of the river itself. The result is a winding, scenic route. The going is slow, though. The locks, though narrow are heavy, and the canal is relatively shallow. The locks at the river junctions are unusual lozenge shapes, built like that so that even though the level only changes by about a foot, a decent quantity of water is generated to feed the canal below.
Like the K&A of recent memory the Oxford is largely soft-sided with only minimal piled edges. Trouble is that these get eaten away by the wash of passing boats and often eroded further by farmers' cows coming down to get water. Repairing is a never-ending job.
Badly eroded canal edge and, below, a sizable repair

It's hard not to enjoy the prettiness of the surroundings; the honey coloured Cotswold stone houses and bridges are quintessentially English. I bet there are few Labour voters here though: this is the wealthy heart of home counties England. Ironically, though, one of the prettiest spots we passed - a fine farmhouse, ancient stone barn and village church clustered together was for many years right at – and I mean right at – the end of the runway of Upprt Heyford, one of the biggest US airbases in Europe home of nuclear bombers and then fighter jets. It closed after the Cold War ended in 1993 and large parts still lie deserted and decaying.
Last night we moored just below Heyford Common Lock where a leaking side weir had been causing day-long problems with very low water levels in the next pound. Wary of this, we made an unusually early start – for us – this morning to get through the pound before the passage of other boats started the levels dropping again.
Heading into Somerton Deep Lock
Just as well we did; we were stirring up the canal bottom all the way and only just made it into Somerton Deep Lock (called that because it's the deepest narrow lock on the system). And for the rest of the day it was pretty much the same story. As the canal got busier so the levels started to drop and we found ourselves struggling into several of the locks.
But we finally made it to Banbury – a town whose sometimes scruffy canalside is almost masochistically appealing after the endless miles of idyllic Oxfordshire affluence. I think one night will probably be enough though!

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