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.

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