Monday, 24 August 2015

Tibberton post office saves the day

A view downriver from the Cathedral tower
We were going to have a day out on the bus to Droitwich today. Except there wasn't a bus.
I discovered that when I went into the village post office just to check – the online timetable is mighty confusing. Turns out there never was a bus to Droitwich and, even if there was, it wouldn't be able to get there now because the Tibberton canal bridge is closed to traffic.
Tibberton bridge parapet ws damaged by an errant truck
It was badly biffed by a large truck – "I don't know what he was doing there; following his satnav I think," the postmistress explained. "He was a foreigner," she added, knowingly, as if that explained it all. Which maybe it did. I wonder just how many canal bridges a year are getting smashed by over-large trucks – in the hands of British or foreign drivers – blindly following their satnavs? (Actually, though, it's not really shut: local car drivers just ignore the barriers and drive through!)
"Have you been to Worcester, though?," she went on. "You can get a bus to there." I explained that we'd just come from Worcester. "But did you go to the cathedral - you can go up the tower and see for miles and there's a Magna Carta exhibition too?" We hadn't, so we went and we came away well impressed.
The huge vaulted knave of the cathedral
Dominating as it does, the city's riverside, Worcester Cathedral must be one of the most beautifully positioned in the country. It's another piece of powerful Norman monumental architecture with a wide and airy aisle and a massive tower, which I set about climbing up.
Gasping for breath, with my heart thumping like Ginger Baker's drums I arrived at the top of its 235 steps (the last hundred of them especially tight and steep) and gazed out through the misty rain at what was indeed a spectacular view from the top of it. Looking back down the river, I watched a narrowboat turn into Diglis Basin and then gazed out across to the Malvern hills in the distance.
Charles II stood up here to watch Cromwell's armies slowly encircle his Royalist troops down in the fields below leading to their eventual defeat in the battle that ended the Civil War and his flight abroad.
The tomb of King John below the altar
Back down at ground level the cathedral contains a number of fine tombs but none more prestigious than that of King John, one of the great cartoon villains of English royal history. He is remembered as the King who was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 by the country's Barons who were angered by his demands for taxes and his treatment of them.The Magna Carta has become the foundation of democratic legal systems across the world – a copy of it went to America with the Pilgrim Fathers and it became a basis for the American Constitution. Indeed the Founding Fathers there saw Charles's defeat in our Civil War as the ultimate victory of parliament and democracy over the sovereign powers of a king.
But of course John is even better known as the evil king who abused his powers as monarch while his brother the noble King Richard was away fighting the Crusades and whose agent, the Sheriff of Nottingham was embroiled in perpetual antics with Robin Hood. All of which is entirely fictional and, indeed, John is nowadays regarded as a halfway decent ruler, compared with some.
King John's effigy is the oldest of an English monarch
John's tomb stands centrally in front of the high altar. The effigy on his tomb is actually the oldest royal effigy in England, dating from 1232 and, unlike medieval custom, shows a life-like image of him rather than an idealised one. It looks rather modest compared with some of the decorated and embellished tombs around the cathedral but was originally vividly painted and even covered with a golden cage. His will, in which he requested to be buried here, is also kept in the cathedral library.
More fine tombs: here the C13th Baron Beauchamp
And the entire C17th Moore family, clothiers to royalty
All in all, it was a fascinating day: a wonderful cathedral and some historical insights into the Magna Carta, the Battle of Worcester and a king who has proved to be a lot more complex a character than the evil monarch and Robin Hood's nasty opponent.
So thank you Tibberton postmistress for your recommendation.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Rain stopped play

A pair of swans get a free ride up the canal
We were probably optimistic to leave our Worcester mooring in the face of the weather forecast but our 48 hours were up and when you've got to go, you've got to go.
So we went, knowing that at some point in the next few hours we were likely to get wet. Which we did.
First stop was just a couple of locks up the canal where we could moor within a five minute walk of Aldi and Asda for some re-stocking. The Diglis basin area where we had moored might have been the old commercial heart of the waterway but the town shops had been too far away to carry back bags of shopping.
Our first lock of the day had provided some entertainment: a pair of swans had got in there and wouldn't leave so I had to lock them up with the boat. At first they paddled frantically against the incoming water but then settled down and happily grazed the weed off the lock walls as the water went up. Finally I opened the top gate and off they swam.
After the shop stop, it was a mile up to the next lock but the skies were getting blacker and hardly were we into it than the heavens opened. We sat out the worst inside the boat as the lock filled but finally had to venture out into the rain when a hireboat appeared from the lock above. Hire boats are always on a mission - they move whatever the weather.
Locks come thick and fast on this canal and there were four in the next half mile. We'd just got through them when the rain started hammering down again. It had already stopped play in the Oval Ashes test, now it stopped play here too. We moored up, had lunch and listened to the soporific Belgian GP, with only a break to Usain Bolt's 100m world championship win serving to raise pulse rates above comatose.
Last vestige of the old Cadbury cake factory at Blackpole
The Worcester & Birmingham Canal is synonymous with Cadbury's: the firm's boats used it and there is still a canalside factory at Bournville as well as 'Cadbury World'. Less well known is that until the 1970s there used to be another Cadbury factory making cakes, at Blackpole, where we were hiding from the rain. It employed 700 people and in the early seventies the company wanted to build an even bigger factory but were refused permission by the then government. A few years later it closed as part of 'corporate rationalisation'. Nothing remains, except perhaps the bit of wharf building I photographed.
Finally the rain stopped. England lost the test (but not the Ashes) and we moved off. Two single locks brought us to the short, sharp flight of six Offerton locks and, with the arrival of a watery sun, boats were moving again and we shuffled our way up the flight, passing hireboats coming down.
We have climbed steeply out of Worcester through fourteen locks in barely five miles to reach the straggly village of Tibberton. For now the locks have stopped but it's a brief respite for there are plenty to come on this canal.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The three month waterway 'ring'

About the size of a liner and shaped like a house brick
It must count as one of the longest inland waterway circuits that you can achieve. Three months ago we were in Worcester, heading south; tonight we are back there after a round trip that took us down to Sharpness, then the Severn and Avon estuaries to Bristol, the full length of the K&A, up the Thames, up the Oxford, down the Stratford, down the River Avon and finally back up the Severn to re-join the canal system here.
You can't do that sort of waterway ring on your hire boat holiday! Not unless you have a lot of holiday time owing.
Goodbye River Avon; the lock gates closed behind us
The final 16 miles from Tewkesbury to Worcester was without question the dreariest. The River Severn is not an exciting waterway; it runs between high, tree and shrub filled banks and rarely touches civilisation. Indeed the small town of Upton-on-Severn is the only spot, save for the M5, where a road crosses the river and one of the very, very few mooring spots on this run – hence it's always crowded with boats.
We made what is, for us, an early start out of Tewkesbury, heading into the lock at 9.30. We scuttled in a bit quickly, too, because the lock-keeper reported that the 'Edward Elgar' was heading downstream and would make the tight turn into the Avon channel a minute or two after we left it.
"You won't miss it. It's about the size of an ocean liner and looks like a house brick," he grinned. "And he takes up most of the channel." He was right! We shot out onto the Severn just as he was lining up to turn in so we gave him a wide berth, keeping left to let him have room for his turn.
A barge loads with aggregate at its riverside wharf
And that was the excitement for the next hour until we passed an aggregates barge loading up on its wharf close to the M5 crossing. Shortly after we passed, he cast off and plodded gradually closer to us, despite his massive load, evidenced by his freeboard – or lack of it – as he ploughed upstream.
And, laden with sand, it ploughs upstream behind us

This is what they look like when they are empty
But his destination was barely a couple of miles up river at another wharf where aggregates are unloaded and transhipped. This curious little run over a road-free route is the last survivor of what was once busy commercial traffic on the river - every now and then the remains of old wharves jut out from the undergrowth as a reminder.
Above Upton the run gets, if possible, even duller. The monotony was only broken by the occasional fall of an Aussie wicket on R4's Test Match Special (but if only I'd known about the nightmare England collapse that was to come later!) and by the spectacular sight of a couple of
sizeable fish leaping into the air in mid-stream. With no 'the one that got away' exaggeration I would guess the sleek, slim fish must have been a couple of feet long. What were they? Salmon? Trout?
Gradually we eased towards the extremity of Worcester – making better time than I had expected and averaging close to 4mph. The town's ring road bridge, then the new pedestrian bridge and finally Diglis river locks, where the lockie guided us into one of the huge chambers.
From here it was barely half a mile before we could go through the two heavy double locks that guard the entrance to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and arrive back on the canals.
Off the river and in the bottom lock of the canal

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Where the Avon meets the Severn

Hide the yellow lines and it could be 1600
Tewkesbury stands at the meeting point of the River Avon with the Severn. These days that can mean only one thing – it floods. And badly.
In days of yore, rivers were the natural place to build townships and Tewkesbury is indeed an ancient settlement, with a huge and spectacular Norman abbey dating back to 1087 and a town centre with an impressive array of medieval timber framed buildings – all of which seemed to have survived successive generations of flooding.
The 2007 floods were as high as the houses across the river
And, if you look at aerial photos of the worst recent floods, in 2007, you can see why: the abbey and surrounding streets stand on an island surrounded by floodwaters. It's quite a statement about the foresight of the builders and the shortsightedness of their descendants today who happily build estates on flood plains.
It was raining as we arrived yesterday but fortunately that stopped overnight so we could take a stroll around some of the 350 listed buildings in the town centre.
The oldest pub in Gloucestershire
Among them are the oldest pub in Gloucestershire, dating from 1308, and a coaching inn, The Royal Hop Pole, that's now a Wetherspoons but was a favourite dining spot of Dickens' Mr Pickwick in 'Pickwick Papers' who probably enjoyed 'curry night'. Queen Mary stayed here in 1930, though probably not on a 'twofer' as George V was seemingly not with her.
And the Wethersoons where Mr Pickwick had an ale or two
Battle of Tewkesbury banners fly from houses
Timber-framed buildings, some with their street frontages sadly messed about with to become shops, jostle with more modern buildings along the main streets; wherever you turn you seem to find another. Many are decorated with large heraldic flags: Tewkesbury was the scene of one of the critical battles of the Wars of the Roses and every July holds a massive re-enactment (the biggest in Europe, apparently) and the flags are those of the knights who took part back in 1471.
Alleys here
And alleys there

The town is also famous for its alleys, which go back to the 17th century and were a ways of squeezing in more housing into the tight confines of the old town. As well as being the only source of light and air for the overcrowded houses built down them, they also acted as drains and rubbish dumps. Cholera and diptheria became rife at the peak of overcrowding in the 19th century.
The magnificent Abbey boasts Europe's tallest tower
The Abbey is a massive, solid and impressive building – it claims the largest Norman tower in Europe. The interior quite takes your breath away; the wide nave is lined by massive columns, supporting the roof on decorated columns, with intricately carved figureheads at every juncture. The sense of space and strength is remarkable.
A stunning interior; the decorated roof on huge columns
The interior holds some intricately chapels dating back to the 14th century, built as memorials to various local nobles and churchmen. Most famous is 'the kneeling knight' - a statue of Edward Despenser who fought with the Black Prince and was rewarded with various baronial titles as a result. He is carved kneeling in prayer on the roof of his chapel and facing the high altar.
The kneeling knight on top of his chapel
The Abbey escaped Henry VIII's bulldozers because the townspeople bought it from him. He took the cash but turfed the monks out all the same so only the church survives. Aside, that is, from the Mill Avon, a stretch of river cut by the monks to supply their water mill. There's still a mill building there, though non functioning, but now the stretch provides boat moorings and the lock through to the Severn.
The huge Healings Mill near the lock, built in 1869 and originally steam powered, continued the town's tradition of corn milling, with grain coming from Canada and the USA and then transhipped by the firm's barges upriver from Avonmouth and Sharpness. Sadly in 2006 it closed and the building lies empty awaiting some sort of redevelopment.
A fascinating couple of days in a very enjoyable small town, albeit one living something of a fragile existence where watching the weather forecast must be a daily essential.
However the high spot of the stay must be, finally after so many attempts, getting a decent photo of a kingfisher. Not on the branch of a tree or tucked in a riverside hedge but on our way to Tesco. Carrying my camera, just on the off chance, we spotted one perched on a mooring bracket across the river and he posed graciously while I stood on the bridge and snapped him.
And highlight of the day - at last I get a kingfisher photo

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

From secondhand books to hover-van victim

Another couple of canal books for the bookshelf
Secondhand bookshops are alive and well and living in Pershore. The little town manages to support two of them despite the inevitable clutch of local charity shops, all with substantial shelves of reading matter.
I have to admit that charity shops are my usual source of reading matter these days but somehow I couldn't get past the tempting window of Edgeberrow Books without venturing inside. And what a treasure trove it proved to be. It is not the sort of shop you visit for a couple of whodunnits to read on the train. No, it's where enthusiast collectors of 'niche' specialities peruse its tall and closely packed shelves. Remarkably, among the lines of railway, naval, historical, aircraft, motoring and every other sort of speciality I found no less than two shelves of canal books. "I bought a collection of 150 books," the owner explained.
I could have bought several but settled for two: E. Temple Thurston's 'The Flower of Gloster' and 'Voyage into England' by John Seymour. Both are travelogues on the inland waterways, the first in 1911 and the other in the sixties.
Pershore's old packhorse bridge and newer motor bridge
And that was the last of our stay in charming little Pershore. We cast off and headed downstream, with 15 miles but now only three locks separating us from Tewksbury and the Severn. After Pershore Lock and the two bridges (pre and post motor car) the river was wider and slower now, sweeping in long, gentle curves through a wide flood plain – from which most villages had kept a safe distance.
Always in the middle distance, distinctive Bredon Hill
Always in the near distance as we boxed the compass was the steep mound of Bredon Hill, to the left, to the right, in front and finally behind us.
Nafford Lock complete with elderly looking footbridge
Second lock of the day was Nafford where we came upon an oddity on the Avon, a footbridge across the lock which had to be swung out of the way when locking, then replaced afterwards. Nafford also had the first mechanical flood controlling weir on the river, all the others having been open weirs over rocks.
Another tricky old bridge, this at Eckington
After Nafford the river swept through a quick sequence of tight bends, culminating in an absurdly tight hairpin corner before we reached the oddly angled and multi arched 16th century Eckington Bridge. I bet this is a challenge to line up for when running downstream on a fast river. It reminded me of the equally tricky Irthlingborough Bridge on the Nene.
As crashed into by Top Gear
A wide, straight couple of miles brought us to Strensham Lock where we moored for the night on the weir stream, leaving the lock for tomorrow. We are next to a boat we saw earlier at Pershore, a very Pretty Taylor's of Chester timber canal cruiser, famed – or notorious, really – for having been badly damaged by someone on Top Gear while filming a hover-van episode on the Avon a few years ago. Presumably the Beeb's insurance coughed up for the repairs which, being a wooden boat, were probably not far away from the cost of fixing a dented Lamborghini.
Later, looking back up the river later I spotted a bobbing shape in mid-stream – a wild swimmer, the first we've seen on the Avon. Rather him than me; I'll stick with an evening beer and the Champions League commentary on Radio 5 Live.

A late night wild swimmer braves the Avon

Monday, 17 August 2015

Small earthquake in Chile, not many hurt

A narrowboat struggles to untangle a rope round the prop
Today was the sort of day that reminds me of that famous Times headline summing up a very minor news event in terms that made it even less attractive to readers. It was, in short, a day that was neither quiet, nor exciting but mildly diverting all the same.
We seem to be running out of river quite quickly now. Today we covered eleven miles from Evesham down to Pershore, dropping through only three locks on the way.
It was easy cruising on a generally wide and smoothly flowing river but there was something of interest at each lock. At the first, Chadbury, we discovered narrowboat Cider with Rosie stuck just outside the bottom gates with a rope wound round the prop.
We patiently waited in the lock while they tried to free it, wondering why they didn't move across to the landing stage to do the job. Eventually they realised it wasn't going to be a quick job and we helped them pull the boat across.
The previous day, out on a cruise-about with friends, we'd come the same way and been helped through the next lock, Fladbury, by Avon Navigation Trust volunteers who were collecting cash for the Trust at the same time. Good idea.
Three's a crowd - and there's another round the bend
The river was so quiet we moored below the lock for our picnic lunch and not a boat came past. Today we came through the lock and no less than three narrowboats and a plastic cruiser were crowded into the narrow exit channel waiting to go up.
It was a long, east run from here down past the handsome houses of Cropthorne straggling high above the southern bank, then a rather bleak stretch between flood banks before coming into open country again. It was here we came upon another narrowboat trying to rescue a sheep which had got itself in the river (why do farmers not put some electric fencing up along their banks as sheep regularly fall in while stretching for tasty nibbles?). Shortly afterwards, historic boats Thea and Owl passed us heading upstream.
An odd shaped lock at the oddly named Wyre Piddle
The entertainingly named village of Wyre Piddle straggled along the northern bank, with a hotch-pox mix of old and new, large and small riverside houses and then we were at Wyre Lock. This is a curious diamond shaped affair, reminiscent of one or two on the Oxford Canal, which leaves one wondering how to position the boat – or get one's lock wheeling crew back on board.
Pershore's Abbey tower had been in view for a while now and there was a good length of moorings along the side of the recreation ground, though we couldn't get Harry's deep stern into the edge.
Elegant Georgian buildings in elegant Pershore
What a contrast Pershore is to the rough and ready Evesham. It's a handsome, classy town of Georgian and Victorian houses, many with balconies or side archways for the horses and carriages, and a rich mix of independent small shops from secondhand book sellers to interiors to ironmongers.
Just a portion of the Abbey survives
Beautiful carving by Tom Harvey
It also has an Abbey which survived Henry VIII's ravages a little more intact than Evesham, with its fine tower and the stump of its nave still sound. In the grounds of the Abbey the trunk of an old elm tree has been exquisitely carved by Tom Harvey into the form of a monk reading.
A traditional Romany encampment on the edge of town
The day was rounded off by another vignette when we came upon a traditional Romany gypsy encampment on the roadside verge by Pershore bridge. Two horse-drawn caravans sat quietly there, a couple of men relaxing in one while a woman tended a fire on the ground and horses grazed there and across the road. Around them were some small tents, a trotting cart and a few dogs.
It was a scene that could have been played out across many years. We were intrigued to know more about them but, if boaters can get irritated with the often tiresome questions from passers-by about life on a boat then the widely disliked gypsies must feel even more defensive and resentful of intrusion. And I wasn't about to buy some 'lucky heather' to pay for a few minutes of their time so we left them alone.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Beware - the rain falls mainly on the plain

I think I should have been grateful that the forecast heavy rain never arrived yesterday. I've been looking at Google today and discovered that when it does rain here, boy oh boy, do bad things happen.

The calm river now compared with 2007 below
Evesham has been a regular, severe victim of flooding from the river for many hundreds of years. The really big one in 2007 was unimaginably huge when you compare these photos of the riverside then and now. It's not just the height of the water that's scary when you're sitting in a boat, it's how quickly the river can rise. Back in 1998, it came up 19 feet in a few hours! Static homes were swept off the nearby caravan site and boats off their moorings to be crushed against the town bridge arches, threatening it with serious damage. There's nowhere off-river you can escape to in that time; just trust your luck to some tall mooring posts.
The park bandstand in 2007
And as it looks from our window today
It's the low lying floodplain land that gives the Vale of Evesham the fertile soil that has made it a centre of fruit and vegetable growing – glass houses and polytunnels abound.
The C15th Round House is one of several old buildings
I remember on many road journeys dropping down from the scenic hills and picture postcard villages of the Cotswolds into the flatlands of the Vale.  It may be a centre of agriculture but that's not where the money is these times and the area always had a reek of being down-at-heel compared to the posh affluence on the Tory hills above it.
Never more than now. Charity shops, cheap stores and closed frontages abound while foreign voices fill the streets. The agri-businesses offer ready work for Poles, Rumanians, Portuguese and every other nationality whose home countries have high unemployment and poor living standards.
Life must be hard back there to work in agriculture here – I've done it as a student and it's the toughest of work – especially for minimum wages, rough accommodation and quite likely exploitation too.
The other side of the river from the main shopping area lies Dock Street, a ramshackle road of small shops that has become the home for ethnic stores of every sort. Without them it would doubtless be even more down-at-heel than it is.
The Abbey's surviving tower is under repair
All that said, riverside Evesham is pretty enough. There's a large park sweeping uphill to the remains of the old Abbey that must have dominated the scene before Henry VIII flattened it. Now just a tower survives, clad in scaffolding for restoration at the moment to ensure it continues to survive for many more years.
And the weather forecast remains fine for the next few days so I don't need to have bad dreams about those flooding pictures.

Friday, 14 August 2015

So where was all that rain?

We dressed for the rain but it never came
They forecast storms and tempests but they didn't happen here. Tug Harry didn't have to turn into the Ark.
After tieing up early yesterday because of the forecasts, what rain we got didn't arrive until midnight when it was heavy enough, briefly, to wake us with its drumming on the roof.
Not quite Lords; village cricket Bidford fashion
In the still-dry previous evening we had managed a walk round Bidford's huge green where a village cricket game at its most bucolic was underway. Fielders in shorts or tracksuit bottoms outnumbered those in whites and a few pints were hidden behind the boundary line to refresh the deep fielders between balls. There was even a youngster of about ten making up the numbers!
Back at the boat, we had a late evening visitor: a kingfisher perched on our bow Tee-stud.
Our late evening visitor posed briefly for the paparazzo
This morning it was still raining but was slackening by ten a.m. so we donned our wet gear and set off. Half an hour later it had stopped completely.
Only four locks separated us from our destination, Evesham, and the river was flowing just that bit faster to help push us on our way. Best known lock on the stretch is Harvington/Robert Aickman – all the Upper Avon locks have double names to commemorate an individual or group associated with the restoration.
The Robert Aickman memorial lock
This one celebrates one of the most influential figures in the renewal of the inland waterways. Aickman helped found the Inland Waterways Association in 1946 and campaigned for the waterways for more than twenty years.
A rather handsome looking bronze bust of the campaigner
He has his name writ large across the top of the lock as well as a handsome memorial, centre of which is a fine 3D style bust. What a shame that this impeccably kept lock was spoiled by a mound of rubbish around and under one of the benches - bottles, packets, almost a full set of men's clothes including pants (what did he go home in?) and even chunks of broken up plastic packaging chucked in the hedge. A good job Harrywoman was on hand to get it cleared up.
Shameful - the litter which Harrywoman cleared up
Just on from here, George Billington Lock (built in six weeks so its terminally ill donor might be able to see it finished) sports a curious small tower beside it. This is a memorial to Eric Pritchard, who built the tower as a lockkeeper's hut as well as other works on the river.
Not an errant space capsule but a lock hut
After this it was a simple, smooth couple of miles down to Evesham. The lock here is a bit of a demon to a newcomer: there's a large semi-open weir before it and you sneak past this still wondering where the lock is, the only clue being a 'left' arrow in the distance. And there it is, a sharp left turn off the river with currents pulling you every which way and nowhere obvious to moor if the gates are closed. Fortunately they weren't. It would all be a seriously sweaty palms job if the river was swollen. Or if the weir had been as fast running as the fierce open weir back at Harvington.
Evesham Lock is where the Upper Avon ends and the Lower Avon begins. A famous triangular lock house spanning a disused second lock chamber used to be the base of the Lower Avon authority until the two Trusts sensibly merged.
Evesham's lock house was flooded four feet deep in 2007
The house was badly damaged in the 2007 floods – which shows how high the waters must have risen – but has now been rebuilt.
Leaving the lock we went under the town bridge and onto a long length of pleasant parkside mooring. We'd just tied up when the rain began again - but even then only briefly.