Monday, 3 August 2015

And straight in at Number One is...

The iron gongoozler watches as Tug Harry passes Lock 31
...the Stratford on Avon Canal. How has it taken us so long to discover this gem. It goes straight in to the boating charts as our favourite canal.
There is a timeless quality about this southern section from Kingswood where we joined it from the GU. As soon as one is away from the noise of the M40 motorway that slices over it early on, it disappears into quiet, pastoral countryside. The modern world vanishes and the locks and bridges in their charming black and white painted ironwork transport you right back. Replace our diesel engine with a silently pulling horse and we could be back in 1790 when the canal opened.
It is hard to think of anything about this canal that isn't appealing. The locks are frequent – every quarter mile on average – and quite heavy but they slow the pace and break up the moderately heavy boat traffic so that one is often alone.
It is hard to believe, travelling on this impeccably kept little gem, that little more than fifty years ago this canal was virtually derelict and threatened with closure. The National Trust took it on as a restoration challenge and, overseen by local architect and canal enthusiast David Hutchings, it was brought back to life by a motley workforce of volunteers, prisoners, Borstal boys and even Army units – as an engraved stone on a lock wall recalls. Imagine calling the Army in to restore a canal today!
Restored by volunteers, prisoners and, here, by the Army
The barrel roofed lock cottages are the canal's most photographed feature. The story is that the unique roofs came about because the curved timber formers that were used to help build the bridges were re-purposed as their trusses.
There are only six of these cottages and most have been extended and improved from their original humble form. Least changed is the one at Lock 31 which is owned by the Landmark Trust and available as a holiday let. It had been the home of Ned Taylor who was born there in 1921as one of a family of 11 children and lived there until 2005.
Lock 31 is also site of a very 21st century intrusion into the historic canal. An intrusion but, in my view, a delightful, entertaining and very clever intrusion. It is an iron statue of a human body by Anthony 'Angel of the North' Gormley and one of a number celebrating 50 years of the Landmark Trust.
Some curmudgeonly souls have complained that this is disrespectful, dangerous, ugly and all the rest. Most of them probably haven't been there and viewed it close up. It is certainly not dangerous; it's on the offside and I can't think why anyone should be there when operating the lock. I had dozens of people rushing about in far more dangerous ways when I was climbing the Hatton locks on Sunday. This iron gongoozler keeps still and looks attentively at the boats as they pass by. If he (or is it she?) were sited anywhere else it simply wouldn't work.
It's amusing, too. Walking down the towpath to operate the lock I thought someone from an up-coming boat was standing waiting to work a paddle. I wondered why they didn't move until I got closer!
Is it disrespectful? No; it's not there forever and it doesn't alter the fabric of the lock in any way – quite unlike the hideous and vandalistic carving of poetry in lock beams.
In short, Tug Harry's crew liked it: it's handsomely made, catches the eye, entertains and will draw people to see it who will hopefully gain something more from their visit to the canal.
All the charms of the canal in these few yards
Shortly after the iron gongoozler is a brief stretch that encompasses every special delight of the canal: the short iron trough aqueduct at Yarningdale with its curious low level towpath leads into the gleaming black and white Bucket Lock whose iron bridge is split to allow the towing horse's rope to pass through without hindrance.

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Now if you think the iron gongoozler is curious, just take a look at the barrel roofed cottage by Lock 37 at Preston Bagot. Now apparently seven times its original size, this even sports towering minaret styled chimneys and a roof terrace. It's just been sold for around £550,000.
We are moored tonight in total silence a mile or so short of Wooton Wawen, a village whose name is probably unpronounceable even to people who live there. But we will find that out tomorrow.


  1. It's funny isn't it -- we've done the southern Stratford twice, and each time I've thought it was very pretty, but still found it rather frustrating. The locks are heavy and slow, and all the wrong distance apart -- too close to get back on the boat, but far enough to feel like a long walk. And then there's at least one down in Stratford with the most ridiculous bent balance beams. On the other hand, while some people don't like Bancroft Basin, I thought it was great (as long as you don't mind Japanese people standing on the gunwales to have their photos taken).

  2. I remember that happening when we moored in Little Venice. They always seem quite shocked and very apologetic when a head appears out through a hatch.