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