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.