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

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