Sunday, 27 May 2012

Through the Midlands

While technology is wonderful these days, it is not infallible and I have once again had a few days when I’ve been unable to access the internet from the laptop.  All miraculously came right this afternoon for no logical reason that I can see, so I’m taking the opportunity to update the blog.

From our last point we soon came to Kingswood Junction where the Grand Union and the Stratford Canals come very close together and have a short arm linking them.  The picture here shows the junction looking back – we came from the left and the house in the background is actually on an island surrounded by three canals.

Kingswood Junction
 From the junction we climbed 160 feet up the 19 locks of the Lapworth flight.  The Stratford Canal took us back to narrow locks so the two boats went up separately.  After another evening in the country, Thursday took us to Birmingham with no further locks, though we did have some fun and games with an electrically powered lifting bridge called the Shirley Drawbridge.  This was on a quite a busy road so the canal boaters were stopping the cars.  However there were a lot of boats waiting to come through and it caused quite a traffic hold up on the road, so we let the bridge down between boats to avoid too many irate motorists.
Shirley Drawbridge
 We had quite a lot of difficulty along this canal which was quite shallow and Leo struggled with a full tank of diesel weighting down the stern and dragging the hull through the mud on the bottom of the canal.  That and plastic bags and bits of wire round the propeller.  The final difficulty was a very narrow (no room for fenders however thin) guillotine lock which used to act a stop lock to restrict loss of water from one canal to another.  We only just managed to fit through this lock which was also very shallow.

 And so finally to the centre of Birmingham where we moored the boats side by side in Gas Street Basin.
Moored at Gas Street Basin

Worcester Bar, Gas Street Basin

On Friday we had a day off from boating, visiting the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum, including viewing the Staffordshire Hoard of Saxon Treasure and some wonderful Pre-Raphaelite paintings.  The building itself is splendid.

 In the afternoon we did a tour of the Birmingham Back-to-Backs, a small remnant of the many such houses, which has been restored by the National Trust.  The stories of the families who had lived in the houses were fascinating and we would certainly recommend a visit.  Man, wife, 10 children (though the older ones were probably working and staying elsewhere) and a lodger all in one very small 2 bedroom house.  In the evening by way of a complete change we went to the National Indoor Arena just 5 minutes walk away from the boats to watch the World BMX Bike Racing Championships.  An easy sport to get badly injured!

Our friends Maurice and Carolyn joined us at the bike racing and stayed the night with us.  As Maurice put it, “We’re sleeping next to a pavement in the middle of Birmingham”.  They stayed with us on Saturday on the canal journey from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.  There are more canals and canal junctions in this 13 mile stretch than probably anywhere else in the country and the start from Gas Street takes you under Broad Street and past a ‘canal roundabout’.  
Broad Street Tunnel

Canal Roundabout

For the first few miles you have a choice of the old windy canal built by James Brindley and the ‘straight as an arrow’ canal built by Thomas Telford.  We started with Telford and soon branched off with Brindley and then our troubles started with the 3 locks taking us up to the higher level.  We were unable to close the bottom gates of the second lock and Leo struggled with gluey mud and sundry Birmingham rubbish including baling wire around the prop.  Eventually we succeeded in making the lock work and carried on under the M5 and through industrial scenery to Wolverhampton where we said goodbye to Maurice and Carolyn who returned by train to Birmingham.
Under the M5
And today we’ve left the industrial heartland behind, coming down the 21 locks of the Wolverhampton flight early this morning before the heat of the day. The descent was surprisingly rural and pretty and the only boat problem today was as we tried to enter the second lock: The engine simply stopped and we feared a major engine failure but it turned out that a really tough double blanket was wrapped round the prop so securely that the prop would not turn even by hand. It took a long time to cut away but eventually we succeeded and carried on down the flight and finally out into open country on the Shropshire Union Canal heading for Cheshire in a few days time.  There were some lovely bridges along this stretch including this one built in a grand style to match the wishes of the Giffard family of neighbouring Chillington Hall.
Pretty Bridge

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

To Warwick and beyond

Leaving Braunston on Sunday we had to exercise caution to avoid a duckling which seemed to have adopted our boats.  The poor thing seemed not to have a mum nearby, so we hope it is OK.  Here is a photo of our feathered friend:

 Earlier today we had another altercation with ducks when two landed in a lock just in front of our boats coming in.  Both became trapped between the two boats and we feared the worst.  However one escaped from the gap at the stern, the other swam around in front of the boats as the water poured into the lock.  Once the top gates opened she swam out only to be jumped by a passing drake and submerged as he had his wicked way with her!

We have been tackling lots of locks in the last few days.  First up the Stockton flight of 10 locks then gradually down to the Avon valley at Leamington Spa.  Coming down we passed a pair of 100 year old canal boats – a motor boat driven by the man towing an unpowered butty steered by the wife with two young kids on board.  Just like the cargo boats of times gone by.  In Leamington we walked down to the river Leam and tried the Spa water by the Pump Rooms.  Rather salty and slightly sulphurous.  Not very pleasant but I’m sure it’s very good for you.  Here are some photos of Leamington:
The Pump Rooms
Bridge over the River Leam

Last night we spent down the Saltisford Arm near the centre of Warwick.  This was a delightful backwater with loads of narrowboats.  To reach the visitor moorings near the end of the Arm we had to go gently half way down, turn round in a winding hole and then reverse the rest of the way.  Quite tricky as a narrowboat does not go that well backwards!
Saltisford Arm, Warwick
Today we spent a good four hours climbing 150 feet up the 21 locks of the Hatton flight.  The weather today has finally turned to summer with hot sunshine, so lots of water and squash was necessary up this flight.  We found the best way to tackle the flight was to tie the two boats together so that one of us could drive both boats leaving 3 people to work the locks, including one to cycle on up the flight to set the next lock.  The picture here shows Ian driving both boats together.  In the distance, down the flight, you can just make out the tower of St. Mary’s Church in Warwick.

After a very late lunch at the top of the flight we went on a little way including through the Shrewley tunnel, a very drippy 400 yards!  If you look at the picture you can see another tunnel to the right of the canal tunnel.  This unusually is a towpath tunnel for the horses pulling the boats.  More commonly the horses were walked over the summit of the hill.

And tonight we are moored on a delightful stretch of canal with good views over the surrounding countryside.  The next few days should see us moving on into Birmingham where we hope to spend a night at the famous Gas Street Basin, once a commercial hub of the whole canal system and these days gentrified and civilised with restaurants, bars and the like.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Now at Braunston (near Rugby)

Since the last post we have climbed up the flight of 8 locks from Claydon onto the summit pound of the Oxford Canal.  The Canal meanders around then for 11 miles in a zig-zag fashion so that at times it seemed we were going round in circles.  We spent one night in an isolated spot with new born lambs and their mothers for company.

For some of this stretch of canal we had distant views of Warwickshire.  It always amazes us to find a waterway near the top of a hill with extensive views.  It is this that really sets canals apart from rivers which have a habit of only living in valleys.

On Friday we came down from the summit (about 400 feet above sea level) which entails a descent of 8 locks down to Napton where the Oxford Canal meets the Grand Union.  After some debate at lunchtime we decided to go a few miles beyond the junction to Braunston near Rugby where we are now moored.  Braunston is a famous canal place with lots of boats and a second canal junction with signs to Birmingham, Oxford, Coventry and London.

Today all four of us got on our little folding bikes (David refers to these as ‘circus bikes’) and cycled about 9 miles to Crick partly for the exercise and partly to amuse ourselves looking at some other narrow boats in a marina there.  One 70 footer we looked at had a super bathroom with a bath and a huge living area, but overall we prefer our boats Leo and Pas Mèche.

Plans from here are to go up the Grand Union via Leamington Spa and Warwick to Birmingham later this week.  Lots of locks to look forward to and these are double ones so we can get both boats in one lock.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Progressing up the Oxford Canal

After all the problems getting up the swollen Thames, the last few days have been a breeze.  The countryside is idyllic, the only difficulties are the really deep locks (one at 12 feet is the deepest on the canal system) and a few stretches with many boats to avoid.

And then there are the lifting bridges

 But most of these are left in the open position so they are not as much of an aggravation as they could be if we had to stop and open each one.

There have been some strange locks, such as Aynho Weir lock pictured here:

 This is a diamond shape to increase its volume as locks lower down the canal are very much deeper than this one, so a shallow lock of large area produces the same volume of water as a deep lock of small area.

And so on Monday we reached Banbury which is a much more interesting and attractive place than we expected.  We stayed two days as David had alternator problems and took the offending appliance to be tested.  In the end he has had to buy a new one, but it seems now to be charging the batteries properly which the old one was not.  Here is David installing the new one:

And finally here are some pictures of historic Banbury:
Ye Olde Reindeer Inn - good food and beer

Fine lady on a white horse

Tonight we are moored at Cropredy a few miles on from Banbury and our aim tomorrow is to reach the summit pound of the Oxford Canal.  We aim to reach Napton and the junction with the Grand Union on Friday evening and then Birmingham will be within our reach.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Escape from Wallingford

Yes, we’ve done it, we’ve finally got away from Wallingford and the fast flowing Thames.  We are now a few miles up the Oxford Canal North of the city of Oxford.

The river is still in spate with red warning boards down most of its length so how have we managed to get away?  Last Wednesday a curious rusty tugboat arrived from Oxford and moored on the opposite side of the river.  The following day David went to speak to its skipper, Steve, who explained he had been called to rescue the boat on its side pictured in our last post.  David enquired whether it would be possible for the tug boat to tow our two narrow boats back to Oxford and the answer amazingly was ‘yes’.  So later that day we were towed just over a mile up river to Benson and moored above the lock for a day because Steve was busy on Thursday.  He returned on Friday morning and towed us all the way to Oxford against the strong stream with red warnings all the way.  Several lock keepers gave Steve a strong mark of confidence saying he was the only person who they would trust to do this.

 The waves between the boats from the propeller wash of the tug was something worth seeing:

 As the day went on our confidence in Steve grew.  His skill in pulling the two boats to avoid collisions with trees, boats and to stop us being swept away by weirs was amazing to see.  Though we both had our engines going fairly fast, in truth it was Steve and his tug that decided where we were going.  The bridge at Clifton Hampden was a real test with shallow water racing through the arch and a strong flowing stream beyond. 

 Abingdon bridge was similar but nothing prepared us for conditions in the city of Oxford itself.  At Oxney Lock Steve left Pas Mèche and took Leo alone past the two Oxney weirs which have a staggering pull to one side and then on up the narrow stream which was flowing more fiercely than we had seen anywhere, through the low Osney Bridge before making the final turn onto the Sheepwash channel which was a safe haven leading the start of the Oxford Canal at Isis Lock.  Here Steve left us to make our own way and went back to rescue Pas Mèche in the same way.
Rough waters above Oxney Weir
Oxney Bridge
 So we are delighted to say that now we are on the safe and navigable waters of the Oxford Canal a few miles north of Oxford.  We are so grateful to Steve for rescuing us in this way and allowing us to continue our journey.  So far we like the Oxford Canal very much with its narrow locks (only inches wider than the boat at around 7 feet) and its lifting bridges.  We are looking forward to more of this lovely rural canal as we spend the next few days travelling up towards the Midlands.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Becoming accustomed to life in Wallingford

There haven’t been any posts to this blog for a while primarily because we are still marooned at Wallingford by the river conditions.  For landlubbers this may be difficult to understand, so allow me to explain.  The River Thames, in its navigable stretches, normally flows at a speed somewhere between zero and perhaps a mile or two an hour.  A narrowboat has a speed of perhaps 6 mph when it is in deep water.  So normally upstream we would be making around 5 mph.  At present by contrast the river is flowing at perhaps 5 mph downstream so our maximum speed relative to the bank is 1 mph if we are lucky.  Add to that the increase in flow at bridges where the river is narrowed and at weirs where the flow sometimes strikes the boat sideways and you can see that the Environment Agency’s present red warnings probably do make some sense.  As a cautionary reminder here is what can happen when the flood waters recede:

 So what have we been up to in order to alleviate the ‘cabin fever’ which has surfaced some of the time?  We had a day going by bus to Oxford and Helen and I went on a guided walk around the colleges and the other sights.

Bodleian Library, Oxford
Old Building in Oxford

We also had a day when 3 of us used our folding bikes to cycle about 12 miles each way to Abingdon to visit a chandler’s there.  This enabled us also to assess the river conditions upstream – pretty scary in places.  Here is a photo of Helen and David cycling back. 

 This ride also enabled us to climb up to the Wittenham Clumps where there are fine views.

 And we have welcomed the MacFarlane family for a visit when we managed to get 8 people around the new dining table in Leo.  Thanks to Mick Wilson who made and fitted our dinette.  We have truly used it to the full now!

 After lunch we managed a walk but some had to be carried, not having brought any wellingtons.

David carrying Sue
 So we remain in good spirits, but would dearly love to return our floating holiday cottages back to their proper function as boats meant for travelling the country.  Maybe this will happen by June?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Delights of Wallingford

Sad to say we are still moored at Wallingford.  The river continues to race past us and we cannot yet move from here.  We now have had 4 days here and our mooring which started looking like this:
Now looks like this:

We have spent our time visiting the castle and the museum, touring the charity shops and most importantly taking precautions against the boats drifting out of the river onto the towpath and getting stranded there.  Victoria used her charms on some local builders who have given us some scaffold poles to hammer into the river bed beside the boats and today a local riverside resident has allowed us to fill our water tanks from her garden tap.  As I type this we need wellington boots to leave the boats.  If the water rises any further we may be unable to get off the boats without swimming.

The crews of the 7 boats moored here have got to know each other and we have been helping each other to  get through this problem.  Last night one chap ran a book on when the towpath would flood.  The river did not rise as fast as we expected and it was the morning before we saw this had happened overnight.  Since then the river has risen further but we have hopes that things will improve tomorrow.

Watch this space as we disappear without trace.  Just hope the mooring ropes hold.