Sunday, 12 September 2021

Heading north on the Leicester Line of the Grand Union

 Having turned right at Napton Junction we are now heading north on the Leicester branch of the Grand Union so here are some highlights particularly of the delights of the summit section from Watford to Foxton Locks:

First I promised in our last update to give more information about Weedon where we arrived last Sunday (5 September). Here you can see Helen standing outside a lovely old thatched building in the village. This used to be a pub but is now a private house.

In the early 1800s we were at war with France and the government took the decision to find a place to store weapons and explosives for war well away from the coast where it might be taken by invading French forces. So the Royal Ordnance Depot was built at Weedon and it was linked to the Grand Union Canal by means of a branch canal so armaments could be moved by boat. In this picture you can see the separate buildings for storing armaments either side of the branch canal and further down there were magazines for storing ammunition. Since the last time we came here, a visitor centre has opened giving more details of the history and is well worth a visit. Entry is free but donations are, of course, welcome. The volunteer guide was also keen to show us the collection of Lee Enfield rifles including allowing us to handle them but not to fire them!

This terrace of upstairs and downstairs flats is just across the road from the depot and was built to house the firemen attached to the Ordnance Depot. There were only three significant fires in its history but clearly there are obvious risks in storing ammunition.

Here is the village sign for Weedon Bec (effectively part of Weedon). The top pictures, left to right, are of a soldier at the Ordnance Depot, a Saxon princess and a bargee with horse towing a narrowboat out of the Depot. The main west coast mainline runs through Weedon and this explains the steam engine, a streamlined A4 pacific.

We left Weedon on Monday and here we are approaching the bottom of the 7 Buckby locks, sharing with another boat called Halcyon. It was a pleasure and so much easier with two boats in the lock.

Here at lock 9 (I think) we waited for this widebeam hotel boat, Tranquil Rose, to come out.

We moored in the long pound below the top lock and this picture was taken in the evening light showing our view across the canal. It's a lovely spot and several boats were moored here. The shop in Anchor Cottage nearby sells ice creams and also an assortment of traditionally painted ware including plant troughs of which we bought two last year.

We moved on and up the top Buckby lock on Tuesday. A short way above the locks is Norton Junction where the Leicester branch of the Grand Union turns right off the main line. In the picture the Leicester line goes to the right of the weeping willow tree and the main line to Braunston goes left behind the gates.

And here is the sign at the junction. We had come from the direction of Brentford and were turning towards Leicester.

A few miles up the Leicester Line we joined a queue of boats waiting to go up the Watford flight of locks. There are 7 narrow locks here, two singles then a staircase of four locks and finally a single lock at the top. It tends to be a bottleneck on this popular canal and we had to wait for about one and a half hours for our turn to go up. This is managed by volunteer and full time lock keepers who assist boats through. The name Watford might ring bells with non-boaters as the canal here is alongside Watford Gap Services on the M1. Here the narrow valley carries the A5, the M1, the canal and the railway all very close together.

Our turn at last, and Leo is in the first lock.

Having come up two locks we are now lining up to enter the bottom lock of the staircase. There are side ponds to the left of the canal which are still in active use. Each lock has two paddles one of which connects to the side pond and the other to the lock above. You must open the red paddle (linked to the side pond) before the white one (linked to the next lock). Remember "red before white, you'll be alright: white before red, you'll wish you were dead!"

Here we are in the top lock looking back down the flight to the top of the staircase.

And this is looking forward from the top lock with the service block to the left. There were lovely flowers all the way up the locks making it all very attractive.

Above the top lock the canal passes under the M1 and we moored as soon as we were a reasonable distance beyond the noise of the motorway. We walked into Watford village and found several Speckled Wood Butterflies on the way. Back on the boat in the evening, we watched bats hunting insects up and down the canal.
On Wednesday we set off on the 20 mile summit pound of the canal which has two tunnels. Here we are approaching the southern portal of Crick Tunnel which is about three-quarters of a mile long. You can see the headlight of a boat in the tunnel coming towards us. Fortunately two narrowboats can pass each other in this tunnel and in fact we passed four on our way through (going the other way that is - not overtaking).

Here we are out in the daylight once more passing through Crick village.   
Beyond the village the canal goes round three sides of Crack's Hill seen here. We have walked to the top in the past and there is a beacon at the top and a good view.

We moored on Wednesday night out in the wilds but a couple of miles across the fields from the village of Welford. We decided not go down the canal branch to the village this year but to walk in from the main canal. You will recognise these two. The first time we came to Welford there was a Postman Pat statue made out of wire but the second time we came he was in a sorry state. Last year it seems the statue was replaced by this carved wooden one.

On Thursday we cruised on across the rest of the 20 mile summit passing through Husband's Bosworth Tunnel and on to the top of the Foxton Locks. This bronze sculpture of a lad with the towing horse is on the left approaching the top lock. Foxton has 10 narrow locks in two flights each of five staircase locks. It is another bottleneck and this time we had to wait about two and a quarter hours for our turn to go down. But time passed quickly what with having lunch and accepting help from other boaters to join several hoses together to fill the boat's water tank.

Here is Leo finally approaching the top lock. This flight really is on the brow of a significant hill with a fine view as you go down. For a short period (1900 to 1911) as well as the 10 locks, boats had the option of a quicker descent or ascent on a boat lift with two caissons holding boats floating in water running on rails down or up an inclined plane. You can visit the remains of this by the side of the locks.

Here we are in the top lock. Again we have red paddles and white ones just as at Watford and the same adage applies.

In this photo we are looking back up the first staircase from lock 3. The house at the top used to be for the lock keeper but today it is mainly used for a cafe.

The lock keepers allow several boats to follow each other down (or up) the flight, so we had six or seven going down before a number were allowed up. Here we are looking down on the boat in front of us from a footbridge over the locks.

Here Leo is in the bottom lock of the first staircase. Beyond us is a very small pound and then the top lock of the second staircase of five locks. You can see that there is an upcoming boat in this pound that was obliged to wait until all of our six or seven boats came down before it could continue up the flight.

Going down a staircase the gates behind you seem enormously tall above you and it was unnerving to see another narrowboat nudge these gates as it followed us down.

But all good things come to an end and this view looks back to the bottom of the flight of 10 locks as we came out and turned right. It had taken us only 50 minutes to come down assisted by various volunteer lock keepers and helpful boaters.

At the bottom of the locks is another canal junction. The main route to Leicester carries straight on while a five and a half mile winding branch leads right to Market Harborough. We took the branch line and having done so almost immediately we had to go through a swing bridge. So Helen walked across from the Foxton bottom lock to join Ian at the bridge. There are lots of tourists at Foxton and you have to wait for a gap in the pedestrian traffic to open the bridge.


Soon we were through and moored shortly afterwards. That evening (Thursday 9th September) we met our friends John and Ali who have a narrowboat called Triskaideka (I hope I've spelt it right). We had a lovely meal at the Black Horse at Foxton and enjoyed catching up with them. On Friday it was off to Market Harborough but that is a tale for another day.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Leaving the Nene for the canals

 After two and a half months of cruising the East Anglian rivers we have finally come up the Northampton locks and back onto the Grand Union Canal. Here are some highlights from our last few days on the Nene and of our climb up the 17 narrow locks from Northampton:

On Monday (30th August) we moored on a delightful grassy mooring (FOTRN - Friends of the River Nene) at Woodford and walked up to the village. This photo of the church though was taken as we cruised past on the river.

One thatched house in the village had some wonderful animals also made out of thatch.

Another gable from the same house has hares and a spider. The thatcher certainly had a creative surge here - perhaps the thatcher lives in the house?

A friend in France sends us pictures of fields of sunflowers, so this was the best we could do to copy him. We found these in some allotments at Woodford.

On Tuesday we carried on just a short way to Irthlingborough where we knew there was a level EA mooring ideal for completing part of the present painting project, namely painting the rails on the top of the boat. Having done the starboard rail (a long job in every sense of the word) we went for a walk, passing through this tree tunnel which is between the mooring and the lock.

We crossed the river by the lock and came into Stanwick Lakes park. There are quite a few giant frogs there!

Stanwick Lakes has attractions for all the family including this 'beach' area. The children's play area was excellent - Helen tried one of the slides.

Just above the mooring at Irthlingborough is the bridge shown here which could be quite tricky to navigate if the river was flowing fast. Fortunately it wasn't and some reaches lately have been almost stationary as there has been no rain for quite a while.

At first glance this may look like one of the many guillotines at locks on the Nene, but look closely. This is Ditchford Lock which has a radial gate which turns on a pivot to open and close. It is the only one on the Nene though we have seen this arrangement elsewhere.

A couple of places on the Nene were full of floating weed which was not the case when we came down the river a couple of months ago. This weed above Wellingborough is not the usual duckweed but something with a small lobed leaf that we didn't recognise. It didn't seem to interfere with the propellor too much so that was OK. It does however give the impression of cruising across a lawn.

Here is Leo above Earls Barton Lock. The expectation with these locks which have a guillotine gate at the bottom of the lock and 'V' gates at the top is that you should leave the guillotine lifted when you leave the lock. That's fine going down but going up means you have to moor above and lift the guillotine (which takes quite a while) before we can move on. It's a bit of a faff.

On Thursday evening we moored on the Northampton Washlands above Weston Favell Lock but then walked back to look at the motte at Clifford Hill which is close by the previous lock. The castle mound (or motte) is clearly shown in this photo, though unfortunately it is on private land with no public access to explore further.

More weed, this time it is duckweed, below Rush Mill Lock on the approach to Northampton.

We came into Northampton on Friday (3rd September) but only stayed a short while to do some shopping before continuing up the first lock of the Northampton Arm towards the canals. Here we are turning off the River Nene into a short channel from which the lock leads up. The blue sign is for Canal and River Trust marking the change in licensing authority from the Environment Agency on the river.

And here is the Carlsberg brewery just by the turn. We moored just above the first lock of the Arm and the aroma from the brewery was delicious. It kept Ian going while he spent 2 or 3 hours painting the port side rail of the boat.

Here is our mooring next to some flats.

And here you see Ian, paintbrush in hand. He had started from the stern so at this stage there was a long way to go! We've now done both rails and are well pleased with result.

On Saturday we climbed the remaining 16 locks of the Northampton Arm back to Gayton Junction where we rejoined the Grand Union Canal. In this photo we are approaching Lock 16 (they are numbered from 1 at the top) - Hunsbury Lock. Lest you are concerned that Leo is about to 'nudge' the second gate open, Helen is walking round to open it before the boat reaches the lock. We don't touch gates with the boat if we can help it!

Looking back from Hunsbury you can clearly see the Express Lift Tower in Northampton. Originally for testing lifts it is now used for abseiling and is a listed building.

Here we are approaching Lock 13 and the M1 or at least one of the feeder roads to the motorway which has a junction here. The Arm goes under 3 bridges at the motorway junction.

Much of Lock 12 is hidden away below the motorway. It is a bit gloomy.

In this view, I think from lock 11, you can see the flight stretching ahead of us. Helen is preparing the next lock with the assistance of a passer-by while Ian will close up the present one before going on up. It was a delight being once more in narrow locks, just 7 feet wide and what narrowboats were made for. No broadbeams or big cruisers up here.

And here, after over 3 hours of locking we are in the top lock. We met only one boat going down but a couple followed us up later. The locks are well maintained and we had no issues with water levels but the longer pounds at the bottom of the flight from lock 17 to lock 13 were shallow and weedy and consequently very slow.

Here is the signpost at Gayton Junction. Having come from Northampton our choice is left towards London or right for the Midlands and the North. We turned right.

And here is an interesting photo to round off our relationship with the River Nene that we have been following for more than a week. On Sunday we stopped at Weedon (more about this in our next posting) and here is Helen about to paddle across the River Nene a few miles upstream from Northampton. It is little more than a shallow stream here. The prominent wall in the background is part of the Royal Ordnance depot that we will explain more about in the next posting on the blog.
From here we will be wending our way slowly north to Nottingham where Leo will be spending the winter. This entails more narrow locks at Watford and Foxton and then slowly down to Leicester to join the River Soar leading to the Trent.