Sunday, 9 July 2017

I've had a roaring in my ears

Oh what an unremittingly tedious stretch of canal these first fifteen miles of the Trent & Mersey make.
Having dispatched the heavy and awkward first five double width locks of the canal we join the railway, briefly, and then the roar of the A38 trunk road which accompanies the canal, sometimes separated by little more than a bit of Armco, for mile after noisy mile. And, having spent too long moored by the A38 in the past, I can tell you that this road is never quiet.
The road is one thing, the dreary long straights through a landscape of gravel pits, old and new, is another. There's little to distract you from the traffic roar.
Despite all this the little town of Willington (above) continues to thrive. Once known only for its power station cooling towers it's become the go-to destination on a sunny weekend for anyone fancying a spot of waterway entertainment. It's puffed its chest out and said 'come on in, tourists'.
The Green Dragon pub, which had just become a decent eaterie when we last visited has expanded dramatically, taking over the adjacent two properties for B&B accommodation and doubling its garden. It was heaving. So was the new tea room round the corner. And even the other two local boozers weren't quiet. Up the road, the already huge Mercia Marina has more shops, waterside cabins and bars under construction too.
And of course there are us boaters as part of the Saturday show.
A rare vertical rainbow or sundog
We visited the (new, improved) Co-op then headed out in search of a mooring with bit more quiet and a decent phone signal. We found the latter but the A38 was now droning past nearby. At least the railway was gone. And we saw a rare vertical rainbow, a sundog, caused apparently by the sun reflecting off ice crystals in high clouds.
A lonely looking black swan in Burton
Today saw us head through Burton upon Trent, with a brief shop stop at the local Lidl, a couple of forlorn looking streets away from our mooring in this every-dowdy town. And then out into the country again - which won't seemingly be country much longer. A new bridge and road next to the Bridge Inn at Branston will lead to a massive new housing development - to be called, wait for it, 'Branston Locks'.
Tatenhill Lock; a pretty spot of calm amid the traffic din
This will add yet more noise to the A38 which now marched beside us more or less unrelentingly for five miles until we reached Wychnor Lock. Here the canal swerves away and, briefly, merges with the River Trent – which makes things tricky in bad weather – before reaching the peaceful sanctuary of pretty Alrewas, where we are now.

A boat name that is exactly what it says on the tin

Friday, 7 July 2017

Off the river and already missing it

 We are finally off the River Soar and back onto the canals – the Trent & Mersey to be precise. And we are already missing the deep water, the fine views and the twisting, turning nature of a river that is right up there among our favourites.
The last couple of days have been a continuing delight, though the weather was perhaps a little too scorchio at times. We'd given Loughborough short shrift last time we came this way but a longer wander revealed a not unpleasant little town with a big, old fashioned market in its pedestrianised centre and a decent collection of shops. It's a bit of a stroll from the canal but, as I always say, if in doubt follow the grannies. And a gaggle of grannies off a bus led us straight to the shops.
The waterway arcs around the town and exits via two locks. At the first a couple of drunks were cooling their feet in the water at the lock landing and quite unperturbed when a 20 ton narrowboat came within a couple of feet of those feet. A giant anonymous industrial works overshadows the second at Bishops Meadow; I suspect it's some sort of power station or recycling plant.
Aircraft are a blight on Kegworth
We were back on the river proper now, save for a short canal cut at Zouch and wound our way through open country, past the posh riverside homes and pretty but vulnerable waterside wooden cabins at Normanton on – or occasionally under – Soar (top pic), to Kegworth where we moored for the night. Last time we were here we got caught in a massive thunderstorm and mused on the likelihood of lightning striking the tall chimney of Narrowboat Star. Thunderstorms were forecast again but they held off. I'd made the shocking discovery earlier we were low on beer stocks so we walked into the town Co-op to to remedy that.
I've been through Kegworth a few times on the A6 and it's a forgettable little place, hammered by heavy traffic and by aircraft coming over it to land at East Midlands Airport. The walk from the river reveals some nicer backstreets but you can't be away from that aircraft noise.
We got back to the boat and as we stepped inside a torrential downpour began.
Barges everywhere at Redhill Marina
Today the last three miles of Soar took us down towards its junction with the Trent and how things have changed on this stretch. When we last passed, Redhill Marina was a scruffy place full of small plastic boats. Now it's wall to wall widebeams and Dutch barges – I haven't seen so many barges together since the Thames.
And a leopard skin narrowboat too
Finally we reached Trent Lock, where the Soar meets the Trent at a mighty watery Tee junction. Well, it's a cross roads actually as straight across from us is the Erewash Canal. We swung left, upstream through the Sawley locks and finally left the Trent to enter the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Into the quiet of the canal at Shardlow
In bad weather, when the rivers are flowing fiercely, it's a sheltered sanctuary. Today, ticking over past a mile or more of boats it seemed, frankly, a bit of an anti-climax. I don't think many people enjoy the first few miles of the T&M; the scenery is bland and the locks are wide, deep and heavy. We moored up after three of them and took an evening wander down the disused Derby&Ashby railway, now a cycleway, to take a last, lingering look at the Trent. It'll be a while until we are back on a river.
After a hard day's lockwheeling Seadog Brian has a nap

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Messing about on the river

Today was everything that is great about being out on the river. Terrific weather, fine scenery and a whole lot of people enjoying themselves in every sort of style from bicycle pedalloes to canoes to little plastic cruisers to monster widebeams. And, of course, Tug Harry enjoying having a serious depth of water beneath it at last.
We’ve been through some of the prettiest reaches of the Soar today; the river twists and turns its way between rush and willow edged low banks that offer views across the fields. It’s open, empty country.
The idyllic Cossington Lock moorings
The isolated Cossington Lock, with moorings watched over by  herd of longhorn cattle is divine. Finally the river touches habitation at Mountsorrel, passing the gardens of fine houses before reaching the lock. It’s flanked by a pub to ensure plenty of gongoozling action.
On the way there we’d fuelled up at Sileby Mill Boatyard (amazingly, our first fuelling stop since way back at Stourport). They deserve a plug: friendly, helpful and with a well stocked chandlery.
A pedallo with a difference
From Mountsorrel it was just a short run to Barrow-upon-Soar: short but full of boating action. Canoes, of course, and plastic cruisers and our first Dutch barge but also bicycles on floats with paddle power and – zaniest of all – what must have been a home created paddle-wheel canoe. Houseboats, too, on riverside moorings and, inevitably those floating tanks, the widebeams.
River boating comes in every shape and size
Then through Pillings Flood Lock and into another rural stretch where we’ve moored to leave the treats of Loughborough for tomorrow.
It’s been a great day on the water and that the canals, with their ranks of shiny clonecraft and grumpy owners grumbling about people ‘going too fast’ (or not going at all) are maybe missing something. The waterways are there to be enjoyed; in a canoe, a cheap plastic boat or even a pedallo.
On the river even the grumbling is entertaining

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

A lap of Leicester

The lively, likeable St Martin's area
We only spent a day and a half in Leicester but that was long enough to say we like it.
The compact city centre seems to have a bit of everything. Except traffic, which is of course a good thing. Even the ring road that keeps the cars away isn't too daunting for the pedestrian to deal with.
And the glamorous modern John Lewis led zone
Once inside (and it's only minutes from the mooring) we found a healthy mixture of old and new, of flashy stores and arcades and cosmopolitan independent bars, shops and restaurants in the picturesque St Martin's district near the cathedral-ette. Sorry but that little church really doesn't cut it with the likes of Winchester or Ely.
But never mind, the city has a youthful multicultural vibe, as it should with two large universities and a large Asian population. It has a terrific indoor market which reflects that cultural diversity too and elsewhere you'll find everything from an Eritrean restaurant to a Serbian Orthodox church. Oh and plenty of signs telling you that Richard III would have, could have or might have visited just about every old part of the city.
Frog Island; the graffiti is great, the rest is not
Anyway our time on the moorings was up so we headed out of town today to discover that Leicester, like so many of our old industrial towns, is still a city of two halves. Literally round the corner from the moorings comes the familiar picture of industrial decay. Frog Island – a genuine island between the river and the canal cut – is pretty squalid though the graffiti was imaginative – and the water beneath us had become a treacle of thick, gluey blackness oozing a stench of diesel and filth. A few ducks and a lonely heron braved its polluted waters (oddly, we saw a heron here on our last trip eight years ago: I wonder if this one was related?)
But things are happening: the demolition teams were at work on the landmark old Wolsey factory and only the tall chimney remained of the famous purveyor of Y-fronts.
The lonely chimney: a sign of the past
And the Space Centre: a sign of the future maybe
The surroundings did improve once the river re-entered at Belgrave Lock, where the futuristice Space Centre can be seen in the distance, and as we eased out of town the waterway followed a picturesque, wandering course between old, worked-out gravel pits that are now Watermead Country Park. Tomorrow Leicester will finally be behind us but I'm sure we will be back.
And in case you're wondering this is that cathedral:

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Richard III experience

Simple but striking tomb of history's favourite villain
Finding a few bones in a car park seems to have transformed Leicester's fortunes. Suddenly an unremarkable east midlands city has become the Richard III Experience.
There are banners everywhere and anything remotely old has a display panel linking it to the crook-back king, one of history's great villains, whose remains were discovered under an old car park here that had been built on the site of the church in which he'd been buried after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth.
You can't escape the Richard III experience
It was a discovery that caught the imagination and has got the tourism tills jangling. After a bit of argy-bargy with some distant relatives, Richard of York was re-buried not in York but here in Leicester Cathedral. It's given a rather modest little cathedral (a parish church until its1929 promotion into the episcopal premier league) a whole new life: the simple but striking tomb is centrepiece of a completely re-worked interior.
Don't get me wrong; I don't blame Leicester for cashing in - it certainly got us exploring what turned out to be a very likeable city. A fuller look is demanded tomorrow.
More of a weak and feeble stream today
The run into Leicester finally brought us off the canal and onto the River Soar, a change marked by a large 'Strong Stream' warning board. Today's stream was a feeble weakling: the pound north of Aylestone so low we were scraping through the bottom.
Seadog Brian can't enthuse about a football stadium
The mighty Freeman lock weir by the football stadium – the subject of hair raising warnings in the guidebooks – was barely trickling and we could watch egrets and terns feeding there while gliding past.
More prosaically, on the way in we also passed a canalside Aldi with a handy mooring - our first supermarket shop stop since back in Market Harborough.
The river runs into central Leicester along its Mile Straight, past smart new university buildings and high rise office blocks. It's lined with mooring bollards – all of them empty because boaters are warned off staying there in 'bandit country'. Instead we moor in a securely locked compound by the pretty Castle Park and, like the foxes and badgers, venture out at night when the locked park is empty.
And finally...seen on St Mary's Mill Lock:

Something of a contrast in messages

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Down from the hills

Those big locks were hard work today
We have left the gently rolling hills of lovely Leicestershire at last and dropped down thirteen locks into the flat river valley that is taking us through the busy suburbs and soon into the city of Leicester itself.
It's been lovely weather but, boy, the locks have been hard work. I've known heavier and I've known stiffer but these are still plain awkward.
They're quite slow to fill – the last inch or two takes forever and the darned things often just won't stay shut. Try to drive in or out through one gate and the other is guaranteed to drift open. Worse, often as not when you try to shut the bottom gates behind the departing boat one simply swings open again and you have to run round the lock and pull it shut. Whereupon the other one starts to drift open...
I could have buzzed forever round the gates of Bumblebee Lock. The gates of that one resolutely refused to stay shut. Which is probably why the pound above it was so low we were scraping through the mud to reach the lock.
The canal was still quiet – we met only one other boat in the morning; a Norwegian couple on a four week canal holiday. They've come every year for seven years and done different parts of the network. I've met so many overseas regulars on the canals. Sometimes I think we don't realise just how highly our system is regarded by others.
Though we did get a bit of help through this one
All changed after Kilby Bridge; boats started appearing and we paired up with Nb Aylestone for the last half dozen locks of the day. They'd been going for even longer than us and were even more glad of some help with the locks – a lockwheeler either side to stop those blasted gates swinging.
By now we were right on the southern edge of Leicester and not much of it looked suitable for overnight mooring. Especially not after Mrs B hooked a shopping trolley out of the cut. A large gaggle of kids drifted out of the bushes at the next lock where they'd been hanging about as kids do and vaguely helped us through in a haphazard, teenager-ish way.
We plodded on looking for somewhere away from trolleys and teenagers and suddenly found it as the canal swung through ninety degrees and entered the pretty water meadows of the River Soar and, at least for one night, we were back in the country.

Rescued from the cut and above to go in a rubbish hopper

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Be prepared

Be prepared - even for canoes in the lock
I like to think we are prepared for most eventualities on Tug Harry but getting tangled up with a gang of Venture Scouts on the Leicester section locks was something new.
We met them at the first of the big, double locks that are now the trademark of the canal as it winds down from the final tunnel and heads into Leicester and the River Soar.
The scouts had come from Leicester for a weekend's 'venturing' and were portaging their canoes and kit around the first lock but with four more to go we decided that if we could lock with plastics on the Thames, we could lock with canoes on the cut. So from then on they piled in with us and those not in boats became an eager gang of lockwheelers.
If I were a scout leader on a field trip around water with a dozen teenagers – most on their first canoe outing – I reckon I'd need a hefty dose of Valium to see me through but these leaders were remarkably calm and the kids were having a ball without ever getting out of line. A good bunch to spend a Saturday afternoon boating with.
One of the narrow, reedy tight bends on this stretch
Before we'd reached the locks we'd gone through some of the most winding, narrow and shallow sections of the canal. Hard to imagine it was originally planned as a major line from Leicester through to Northampton to join the Grand Union. Like a lot of these schemes did, it ran out of money and stopped just short of Foxton. Enough was raised to take it on to Market Harborough five miles away but no further. And then some more cash was drummed up to take it on a new line through Foxton and Watford to Norton Junction. Except this stretch had narrow locks.
That meant there was a Watford Gap before ever there was an M1 motorway. Widebeam boats couldn't connect from south to north – and they still can't. Which some of us narrowboaters think is a Good Thing.
But the line to Market Harborough still exists. It nearly didn't but the first campaigning rally of the new Inland Waterways Association was held there back in 1950 to save it and rekindle interest in the moribund canal system.
Market Harborough basin, a model of regeneration
The old canal basin was to remain semi-derelict for another fifty years but is now a model of regeneration with a hire boat base, offices, flats and a bar all built in the old buildings and some well matched new ones. It's tidy, boaty and busy – way different to those all to common sterile blocks of canalside apartments that pay no more than lip service to being 'waterside'.
The canal that reaches it is almost river like: winding, wide and edged with reeds and weeds – save for a smelly passage past a 'meat rendering' works. Then it turns past the sizeable gardens of substantial pre-war homes toward the basin. We had spent a couple of days exploring this very likeable small town. The handsome main street has retained many of its handsome old Georgian shop and office frontages and the place feels affluent without being pretentious. In a smart planning move the town has also located all its supermarkets together in one town centre site to keep the centre alive. Sainsburys, Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl all sit there cheek by jowl. And living next door to its posh neighbour has clearly rubbed off on Aldi – it's the poshest one we've ever seen. Even the jumble sale aisle of bargain buys are all neatly folded and stacked.
Brian takes a final sniff at the bone crushing plant
But after the bustle of a town – our first since, oh, way back in the Midlands, we headed off towards our day of Venturing. Via a final overnight stop at the bottom of Foxton locks and a visit to the great little Bridge 61 pub there. It's a great pub: sat in the centre of one of the area's biggest tourist attractions it still manages to have the cosy feel of a village local. It's tiny and busy but full of charm. And it serves decent Adnams beer. We stopped for a pint and ended up having two – plus a couple of plates of sausages and onions in giant Yorkshire puddings. You have to be prepared don't you.
And finally...we first saw this boat at Streethay, then a couple of years later semi-sunk at Milton Keynes and now four more years on, being refitted by a couple at Debdale Wharf up here. Originally a hire boat and over 30 years old, it'll soon be a classic.
From 1980s hire boat, via a sinking to a floating home

Friday, 30 June 2017

Tempted by a boat and lured by a canal

Early morning temptation, this Simon Wain seventy footer
We woke up at Norton Junction, looked outside and both remarked on how handsome the big 70ft boat moored across the water was.
Two hours later we had nearly bought it!
The boat belonged to our mate from the Tollhouse. Tony buys and sells boats so anything he owns is up for sale. At the right price. Tony is also a delightful, patrician charmer who knows plenty about boats and even more about selling them. His patter is so smooth it melts in your brain. Not for nothing do we call him 'Swiss Tony' after the legendary Fast Show character.
"Everyone should own a 70ft boat at some time in their lives," he enthused. "And this one is proper. You won't find one like it these days. Simon (Wain) built it and hardly builds these days, Roger (Fuller) has given up, so has Graham (Edgson). It's too expensive; there's no money in it." You'll notice that Tony calls everyone by their christian names.
Trouble was, it was hard to disagree with anything he said. The boat was great: acres of space, handsome lines, a lovely JP2M engine, a fine back cabin ("look at that scumbly-wumbly"). We wanted it but we didn't want it. Why did we need a 70ft boat? We didn't. Tony agreed: we didn't need it. Which only made us want it more.
Sense prevails and we head in Watford locks in Harry
Then the dead hand of commonsense prevailed. We decided to go off and have a think – and fortunately perhaps got ourselves lost in the enchanting Leicester Section. It's about eight years since we came this way so we'd forgotten pretty much all of it bar its famous Foxton Lock flight of staircase locks and Foxton's less famous but arguably more charming smaller brother, the Watford flight. Watford of Gap fame, that is. Between the two is 20 miles of rural bliss; the canal only touches the edge of one modest village, Crick, and otherwise secrets itself in the undulating countryside of Leicestershire where sheep and cattle graze on the gentle slopes. It's utterly delightful, the more so for being so empty of boats.
When we were last here the villagers of Yelvertoft were up in arms about plans for a big new marina and, worse, applications for several windfarms in the area – all cunningly put in my different developers to different councils. The marina is now built and doesn't seem to have impacted on life and there's at least one windfarm, which is probably one too many for the locals.
We moored and walked down the short Welford Arm, like everywhere busier than I recall it, and then headed via the three-quarter mile Husbands Bosworth tunnel to Foxton. The Leicester is certainly a cure for tunnel-phobia – there are three, the longest being the 1500 yarder of Crick. Fortunately all are two-way so they lack the smokey claustrophobia of narrower ones.
And down the Foxton locks in the rain
The weather was the only thing spoiling our fun: it was grim. Wet and cold. The lockies at Foxton were hoping for a break in the warm. Then we arrived. Sorry! Foxton's two five-lock staircases are too complicated to be left to boaters (well they're not really but the price of a mistake could be the flooding of two houses and a pub.) It's a fiendishly clever set-up: one paddle sends water out of the lock into a big side pond while the next paddle reclaims it to fill the next lock down. In theory then a boat goes all the way down using up just one lock's worth of water.
The remains of the Inclined Plane from above
And from the old feeder canal at the base
It takes time, though – about 45 minutes – and when someone's coming down, no-one can go up. Which means queues and these days that demands lockies as referees. In the working boat days it probably meant rows and fist fights. Little wonder that they built the Inclined Plane around the corner to haul boats up and down in ten minutes. A boat was loaded into an iron tank or 'caisson' and hauled up using steam power and the counter-balancing weight of a boat coming down.
Unfortunately it wasn't reliable, cost a lot to run and the queues just re-formed at the Watford Locks which weren't improved so the Plane was abandoned and sold for scrap. Its remains can still be seen. What a tourist attraction a new one would be, they say. Hmmm. I'm inclined to think there are enough visitors there already and coachloads of trippers might just spoil the charm of this quiet country canal.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Enjoying an English summer!

Josher Emu passes us en route to Braunston
First we spent a few days sweltering in thirty plus degrees heat – that's 90+ degrees in the sort of old money that we pensioners still prefer. Now we are enduring little more than half that temperature and miserable drizzle to boot.
But, as they say, what would we English talk about round the locks if it wasn't the weather.
After hiding under the shade of a tree in Whittington for a couple of days waiting for Mrs B's emergency dental treatment, we pottered gently down towards Braunston in the company of various working boats all going to the same destination as us – the annual Boat Rally there.
We are a bit over-familiar with the route. It was the scene of our first ever canal boat owning journey ten years ago; a race against winter closures which turned into a race against winter itself as snow fell and the canals iced up.
The Coventry Canal hasn't really changed. The eleven spaced out Atherstone locks felt familiar and busy too. Nuneaton was an unchanging dump – a cameo of life there being the sight of two blokes swigging lager and fishing while a year old in a pushchair gazed blankly at an iPad: daddy day-care, Nuneaton style, while Charity Dock is still the same shambolic crazy mess of junk, rubbish and weird statues. I hope Nuneaton changes but Charity Dock never does.
We moored near Hawkesbury Junction where the Coventry meets the northern Oxford Canal. Moored behind us was a working boat en route to the show. Or rather half of one as it turned out. The owner had bought the front half of 'Gorse' and built a suitable cabin to match it to. Somewhere, it seems, is another owner with the original back half and a new front!
The northern Oxford, with its long straights, is rarely interesting but it still has memories for us of entertaining stops in pubs and a near flooding of Harry when Seadog Brian got on a worktop and knocked a tap on. No such incidents this time. We did see yet another monster marina under construction in this always crowded area though.
Braunston was inevitably doomed to be busy so we pulled up as soon as we saw moored boats – and left ourselves a half a mile walk through one of the most overgrown and crumbling away towpaths I've experienced. Down at Braunston Turn we passed the sad remnants of a burnt out Sea Otter – these are built in aluminium and so when they burn, they melt. There was virtually nothing left!
Not just burnt out but melted; the remains of a Sea Otter
I do like a crusty boat show. Last year we went to Lymm where boats, cars and traction engines provide the full classic transport experience). Braunston sticks to boats but there are more of them and the canal parade is a kind of vaguely organised chaos as boats attempt a circuit via a three-point turn at Braunston Turn, then back along the canal and through the marina.
The Braunston parade: organised chaos or maybe just chaos
Anything can happen and usually does from an ‘I know my rights’ private craft which has turned a blind eye to the multiplicity of boat rally warning notices around the area and then discovered that a 70ft boat and butty pair are a pretty formidable obstacle to encounter on a crowded canal, to a bunch of happy (in the alcoholic sense) hireboaters who panic at the sight of a enormous oncoming Big Woolwich bow, engage hard reverse and find themselves broadside across the cut.
The Turn is the place to watch, not just for the antics but for the artistry with which the steerers can manoeuvre their big boats. As someone who has never mastered the art of reversing a car and trailer, I'm in awe of people able to reverse 140ft of boat and butty back round a bend.
My favourite picture: English eccentricity
The boats are everything from painstakingly accurate pieces of history to battered and sometimes much altered survivors of nearly a century of life. I kind of prefer the latter, to be honest.
We were joined on Saturday afternoon by our youngest daughter and her large lurcher puppy - which seemed even larger inside a small narrowboat cabin...especially when he decided our bed would be his bed too for the night. After a fine Sunday lunch at the Old Plough up in Braunston village, daughter and dog headed home and we headed up the locks in the company of an Aussie couple who'd come over, bought a boat and were spending six months on the canals.
A large lurcher in a small boat
As I headed into the near mile and a half long Braunston Tunnel, I spotted the headlight of a working boat behind. He seemed to be catching up which gave me the excuse to wind the speedwheel and get a shift on. Twenty short minutes later we shot out the other end.
We cruised on down to Norton Junction and turned onto the Leicester Section of the Grand Union, mooring opposite the pretty Toll House where another mate of ours lives. What happened next was certainly a surprise.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Heading home

Tug talking with Tebay at Tixall
We are on familiar territory now, heading down the Trent & Mersey towards Fradley and then off to Streethay Wharf to say hello to old mates.
Streethay was where we refitted Harry and turned it from fire ravaged wreck to handsome tug, and before that where we based our first boat, Star, for refitting. It's our boating home, I guess.
We paid a brief visit to Stafford; brief because it's such a dismal place: a variety of edge of town malls have sprung up, pulling away all the big stores, and leaving a vacuum in the town centre. Walking down the wide, pedestrianised main street with its closed shops and shabby seventies parades you expect to see tumbleweed rolling past. And all of it presided over by the vast ugly council offices, looking like something out of Soviet era East Germany.
From Stafford, the run is a level, lock-free one for several miles, generally accompanied by the railway. In a rare bout of incuriousity, we passed three people standing on isolated canal bridges looking into the distance. By not asking them what they were watching for we missed a steam train, which roared past just as we disappeared behind a belt of trees. I'm guessing it was the Flying Scotsman. Damn!
Hot air balloons rise into the clear sky
The final lock on the Staffs & Worcs brought us to the beautiful open expanse of Tixall Wide where we moored behind another handsome tug, Tebay and settled in for some tug talk. It's a historic 1929 boat with a Kelvin engine and even deeper in the water than us. On an evening stroll we saw a pair of hot air balloons go up and drift off across the clear sky, then spoke to some lads fishing - and one caught a pike right in front of us. It was young and about ten pounds but big enough and with teeth looking mean enough to make me stand well clear while he released it.

Just keep well clear of those teeth!
Today we've wandered down from Great Haywood where the S&W joins the Trent & Mersey amid an increasing number of boats and a corresponding decreasing number of mooring spots. Finally we've tied up just above Wood End Lock on the run in to Fradley junction.

Monday, 12 June 2017

What a difference a year makes

This canal is not short of locks - 33 since we started
Pretty much exactly a year ago we were coming through Awbridge Lock on our way down the Staff & Worcs and got talking to a couple of old boys about the forthcoming EU referendum.
“Oh yes, we’re voting leave” they agreed. “We want to make Britain great again.”
A year on, coming back up the canal we reached the same lock and reflected on what an extraordinary amount had changed in that twelve months. Contrary to what most of us anticipated, the country did vote for Brexit. We lost one Prime Minister and got a new one, the ex-Chancellor became a newspaper editor, the people’s apparent favourite as P.M. didn’t stand and Theresa May crept almost un-noticed in Number 10. And now she’s on the brink of going after Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘looney leftie’ proved to be a formidable campaigner and she proved to be anything but the ‘strong and stable’ leader she claimed to be. A lot happens in a year even when you’re enjoying life at 4mph. One thing's for sure: Britain's not yet great again.We are boating our way slowly east round the S&W after returning from a glorious week of walking on the Pennine Way. Well, five days’ of glorious walking and two of hiding from the rain in galleries, museums and shops! Where we are going, I can’t tell you because we don’t know ourselves!
Over the past three days we have meandered our way from Stourbridge to the outskirts of Stafford. The Staffs & Worcs is a strange canal; delightful in long stretches yet it’s hard to recall many individual locations. I frequently look at the name of a lock and can’t for the life of me recall what it looks like.
Terry the Terrapin looking lonely on his rock
The canal is at its best in the miles beween Stourton, where we joined, and before Wolverhampton rears its head. Weaving along between high trees, low cliffs and a small river, with locks often hewn out of the sandstone rockfaces, it feels more country river than once-industrial canal.
We enjoyed it in good weather (we spotted a large but lonely terrapin sunning itself on a rock) though the rain started as we neared the notorious narrows at Wolverhampton, where a section of hard rock meant the early navigators could only make a half mile of it, one boat wide, with occasional passing places. And, of course, on a day when there had been hardly any boats about, we met two exactly there. Fortunately the first warned us about the second so we were able to hang back and avoid traffic chaos. The rain got worse and we moored as soon as we were clear of Wolverhampton ‘bandit country’ within earshot of the M54.
We were now on the ten mile lock-free summit level which wanders around the desolate flat landscape there, passing a huge rail-interchange freight site which was just a plan a year ago but now looks well into the build.
After that, we began our descent towards the little town of Penkridge (one of few towns on the route. What peace this countrified route once enjoyed has long been shattered by the M6 which runs noisily close to the canal for miles here.
The massive B52 climbs into the sky
Smaller but no less thrilling, the Flying Fortress
And there was more noise, too, when a huge USAF eight engined B52 Strato-cruiser banked across the sky, followed shortly by a tiny (in comparison) WW2 Flying Fortress. They were stars of the nearby Cosford Airshow, though sadly the only ones we saw.
Today we’ve moved on through more miles of bland country, interspersed with scattered locks to the edge of Stafford. Tomorrow it will be Great Haywood and then where? Who knows. A bit like the state of the country right now.