Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Our Own Thames Barrier

Last week should have been dominated by our passage down the Thames from Oxford to Reading, and I suppose it was, but not in the way we had imagined.
As I mentioned in last week’s blog, we had to wait around a bit in Banbury before we made our passage as old Father Thames had been in flood for weeks and the red warning boards were showing. This began to ease as the weather picked up so by the time we went through the last lock on the Oxford Canal last Thursday morning and as we swung into the river we were expecting the “normal stream conditions” displayed on the web site for Thames conditions.
Our last lock on the Oxford Canal

Ohhh no..... She took off like a rocket: we flew under the first bridge and as we approached the first lock at Osney, which is known as a tricky one to moor up at, it became very apparent that the boat was going to be nigh on impossible to stop – even in full reverse. It was a pretty hairy experience and Pat had to jump off as we bounced off the jetty and pull me slowly in. I was very glad of every one of those 43 horses under my feet that morning. However, I felt a whole lot better when the boat that came up behind us, had exactly the same issues and the one in front reported a similar docking.
Pat queues for Thames licence at Osney Lock (Always wear life jackets on rivers folks!)

Even though we pay a hefty annual licence to cruise the canal network, if you go on to the Thames, you have to pay separately and it is not cheap. We had planned a leisurely four to five day cruise from Oxford to Reading, but on finding they would charge us £38.50 a day for the privilege, we agreed to go for it over two days, paid the lock keeper, got our paperwork, and pressed on. Once through Oxford the current calmed down, the river opened up, and the biggest hazard were the skullers from the university rowing clubs and their coaches .
I had high expectations of this part of our odyssey, and I think both of us were a little disappointed with it. That’s no fault of the river. It is very relaxing, and for the most part undemanding. It is, of course, stunningly beautiful, especially the part downstream from Goring, where we were joined by dozens of red kites souring above us as we approached the outskirts of Reading. But mooring is a nightmare in any town you care to stop in. Cabin cruisers can pop in under a tree and moor, but not a 60ft narrowboat and I think Pat missed her lock keeping duties. And it has to be said, that a narrowboat is not the perfect vessel for a fast flowing river. Other narrowboaters we met said that after a few days you adopt a new mind set in dealing with rivers and their demands, and it has to be said we had superb weather all week so we saw it at its best. But to do 42 miles in two days in a boat like ours, meant two very long days at the tiller, in 30+ temperatures, so when we swung off the Thames at Caversham Lock, last Friday afternoon neither of us were too disappointed.
Somewhere around Goring on The Thames

Pat checks out the Red Kites flying over us as we enter Reading

Our mooring over the weekend was in central Reading, in a little loop, which was once a wharf that served the Huntley & Palmers Biscuit Factory. Considering its location, it was very quiet, and there was an abundance of wildlife to enjoy, even though we were surrounded by modern office blocks and a Homebase.
It was only two minutes away from a Wetherspoons and that is where we ended up at 8.30pm last Friday night to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012. We were joined by our boating neighbours Peter and Linda, on NB Bullfinch, who we had moored against the previous evening at Wallingford, and all was going very well, until five minutes to midnight when all the TV’s were turned off and we were asked, very politely to leave. So we had to hot foot it back to the boat to see Team GB make their entrance and the flame lit.
One of the major disadvantages of these flash hot spells are the insects that want to invade your space and feed off you. I have been bitten to bits over the last 10 days, mainly by horseflies, yet they leave Pat alone.  We’ve got stuff in our first aid box to relieve stings, but it is not that effective, so over the weekend we bought the strongest “after bite” Boots could offer us, as we hear they bite even harder on the Kennet & Avon.
I like Reading. It’s a town I know well. Especially Reading F.C., on the outskirts of the town on the M4. The club shirt is sponsored by Waitrose, and we held our John Lewis internal five-a-side tournament there for several years until I retired. I notice that hasn’t happened this year.  I also worked at John Lewis Reading, when it was called Heelas, for several months in the late 1980s and at the Waitrose branch over the river at Caversham, so finding our way around wasn’t much of a problem, though like so many towns they have knocked it around a fair bit. Ever-ready to absorb ourselves into local culture, on Sunday afternoon we went into the park above the canal, with our fold-up chairs, and watched the local town band. We also took an umbrella, which we had to press into action on a couple of occasions.
What could be more British than listening to the band on a Sunday afternoon

Our guests on Monday with Dorothy and Steve Woods. I worked with Dorothy at John Lewis Welwyn and we have a bit of a history with the Woods, so we were delighted to welcome them, especially as they had made the long journey from Suffolk to be with us for the day. And boy did we need them. A windy day, in conjunction with some strong currents and small landing stages at locks, saw them taking a very pro-active part.
With Dorothy and Steve Wood in our little basin in central Reading

We are currently in the middle of nowhere on the Kennet & Avon, between Reading and Aldermarston (Ban the Bomb I say! – You have to be of a certain age to understand that). The boat is surrounded on one side by six foot reeds and on the other by overhanging trees so it should be a very quiet evening. Should be in Newbury Wednesday or Thursday.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

This Is What We Signed Up For

Yes folks, in common with most of you, (except in Scotland), we are, at last, experiencing summer conditions. Most of last week was spent in Banbury, where we moored in the town centre until Monday, and over the weekend we entertained my bestest friend John, his Partner Lorraine and their daughter Cara, whose picture is below. Cara has been on the boat once before, when we were moored at Trent Lock and complained that I never mentioned her in my blog at the time. So, Cara, I have mentioned you three times now, so hope I am forgiven.
Cara tries out the tiller on TCW

We took them north to Cropredy for the day, and had drinks at the Red Lion, before returning to Banbury. Everybody had a go at everything and they all seemed to enjoy the experience. On Sunday we entertained Sue and Geoff. I worked with Sue in John Lewis and got to know Geoff on our mini weekend breaks away in Europe.
We went the other direction with Sue and Geoff and Geoff was keen to pick our brains about boating as they are about to buy a house with a mooring and they are considering a cruiser to potter around at the weekends. While The Cat’s Whiskers is a long way from a cruiser, Sue was keen to experience “life afloat” and they both seemed to embrace the life, though to be fair, the weather on Sunday was glorious, so they saw the canal at its best.
Sue and Geoff joined us in Banbury on Sunday for the day

Last Friday we decided to pop down the cut, turn the boat around and get some water and empty our loos at the lock in the centre of Banbury. While we were busy doing our business who should glide by but actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales, in their boat “Peggy Thompson”, which, we found out later, is moored just up the cut from the town. These two are well known boaters and Timothy is often to be seen on waterways programmes on TV and in the press, championing the canals, so it was good to see them practicing what they preach. Just got to see David Suchet now to get the set!

So, at long lase, this is what we signed up for. The weather is now glorious, and we registered 34 degrees at 2pm today, which is something to do with the reflection off the water, I guess. It can’t be that hot. One passing boater even said, “I wish it would rain, I’m so hot”. After experiencing similar temperatures yesterday, we were up at 7am and away half an hour later. We set ourselves a gruelling seven-hour cruise today from Aynho to Thrupp. This is quite untypical of us, but we want to get on to the Thames while the weather is still settled, so we had to put the miles in. That should happen either tomorrow or Thursday sometime as we are only a few miles north of Oxford at present and a couple of hundred metres from “The Boat Inn” at Thrupp. “Morse” writer, Colin Dexter, is a regular at the pub and set one of his books, and later an episode on TV, “The Last Enemy”, around the pub, after a body was mysteriously found in the canal. Better watch my step!
Roger tries out The Boat Inn. Shame it was a Greene King pub
The Thames is back at its normal levels now, so we should be safe to navigate downsteam to Reading safely. We are doing in over four days and hopefully meeting Dorothy and Steve, some more of my John Lewis pals on Monday.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Brakes on in Banbury

When we lived in Welwyn Garden City we had a train company that served Hertfordshire and the northern Home Counties called WAGN. I think it was an acronym for “West Anglia Great Northern” but regular rail passengers joked it meant “We Are Going Nowhere”. That could well become the motto of “The Cat’s Whiskers” this week for, although our progress has been good, heading south on the Oxford Canal, we now know that once we reach Oxford (sometime next week), we could be there for a while.
For much of the Thames over its navigable length is in flood and the red boards are up at all the approaches. The same is true for most of the main river systems. So here we go again. We had days and days of staring at the Trent, through the rain in April, waiting for it to subside before we could get going, and history looks like it’s going to repeat itself. Weather experts are predicting a shift in the Gulf Stream and some more settled fine weather due next week, so we might be OK if we take our time.
It hasn’t been a vintage week, and events of the last seven days have been pretty mundane. I think the most exciting thing that has happened was to talk to another boater coming through a flight of locks with us, who told me that the previous evening he had pulled out a snake from his weed hatch. I assume it was dead, but I didn’t ask. We have slowly chugged south, had some good moorings, (and some quite decent beer, namely Purity) and are currently in Banbury, a town I already knew fairly well.
So the weather continues to dominate our travels, but we are keeping to our rough schedule and Thames-permitting we will be in Reading and ready enter the world of the Kennet & Avon over the weekend of 4th & 5th August.
I am able to predict this quite accurately as when I left John Lewis I was brought a super-dooper waterways mapping system  for my laptop and I use it every day. I sat down for an afternoon last week, when it was particularly wet, and mapped out a proposed route down the Oxford and the Thames to Reading and then down the Kennett and Avon to Bath and back to Newbury. It means that we can predict where we will be fairly accurately within a day or two and means that those of you threatening a visit can see where we are likely to be over the next couple of months. I’ve even factored in some rest days.
I must say I am enjoying re-visiting the Oxford Canal. I haven’t cruised the northern section from Napton to Cropredy and on to Banbury for nearly 20 years and I forgot how stunning the scenery was. Gentle, rolling, verdant hills populated by nothing but sheep. No houses, people or vehicles, and not many boats either, with every sweeping bend offering a new vista. Pat’s become a big fan and received valuable lessons last weekend in how to deal with a flooded flight of locks. And we finally got a day of sunshine on Sunday and I broke out the sunglasses for an hour or two.

A view from the tiller of the Oxford Canal, south of Napton
We spent a couple of days in Cropredy. It’s a “chocolate box” village, best known as the gathering every August when Fairport Convention and friends have a weekend’s festival in the village. Richard Thompson, one of its founding members, often performs, and Richard and I go back to around 1966/7, when his mum and mine worked together in North Finchley. I was drumming then and he rang me up to ask if I would be interested in joining his new band, which turned out to be Fairport Convention. I thought my printing apprenticeship was a bit more secure than taking a chance on a folk/rock group.

The Cropredy Festival is advertised everywhere
One of the best gadgets (as Pat would insist on calling it) I insisted on purchasing before we boarded TCW was a good digital radio and I went for an expensive portable Roberts that can take a memory stick. So if I feel like a bit of Fleetwood Mac, Elgar or even Fairport Convention I can download the album from the master database on a portable hard drive and listen to it through the radio. It works excellently and when it rains I just pop the radio in a carrier bag. Simples...!
One event of historic waterways importance that happened last week is that all boaters who live and cruise the nation’s canal network now have a new landlord. For British Waterways, who oversee most of the nation’s waterways, officially became the “Canals & Rivers Trust” on the 12 August. BW was one of the quangos that the coalition government busted up shortly after being elected and the new outfit, a charity, is positioning itself as “The National Trust of the Waterways”. So please, all you non-boaters, join the new organisation or our licence might double next year!
Somebody from C&RT has been busy with sticky labels in these parts

We are staying in Banbury now until the weekend when we are entertaining friends and family. Currently moored neared “The Tom  Rolt bridge”. Tom Rolt was an early waterways campaigner who wrote the book “Narrowboat” in the late 1940s. This book was instrumental in starting the revival of the inland waterways and founding of The Inland Waterways Association. The book chronicles his journies of his boat “Cressy”; a journey started just a 100 metres down from where we are moored, hence the bridge name.

The Tom Rolt Bridge in Banbury

Monday, 9 July 2012

A Soggy Blog

Phew... It’s been a rough few days weather-wise. Luckily, the worst of last weekend’s storm conditions hit us when we were moored up snugly in a small arm, off the Grand Union in Warwick, so we were not cruising.
Anyway, friends, family and followers, we soldier on and having studied the weather forecasts for the week ahead in some detail, we decided that our best chance of making good progress was to go for it last Thursday, so with the suburbs of Birmingham behind us, we set off early to tackle the Hatton Flight of 21 locks, that descend over two miles into Warwick.
We are now back in “wide lock” territory and I didn’t want to tackle this flight on our own particularly. Having gone up and down the Hatton flight  on one our “Big Chins*” weekends I knew how heavy the paddles were to raise and thought, if the worst came to the worst, we would do five locks each and change over. So, we hung around the top lock and waited for a boat to join us. We have not experienced a lot of traffic on this part of the canal system so we expected to wait an hour or two, but after 20 minutes or so, Alan and Geraldine chugged up in their new boat, and we went down with them. What a great day. The weather was... hot. Yes, friends, I was down to a T-shirt for the first time in over a month. With a third member of their crew setting the locks in advance we were down the flight in just over three hours. To finish the day off we went over to the Cape pub in Warwick and had a good scoff on a table overlooking the cut and a couple of pints of “Hooky”. (Note to self: must stop banging on about beer.)
Just about to pass two boats coming up through the Hatton Flight of 21 locks

Just to prove I don't stand on the back of the boat all of the time.

Pat has gone all “crafty” over the last few weeks and has been crocheting like mad to make a throw for our couch. It’s nearly finished and I hope to include some pix in this blog. Next she is going to make some seat covers for our bar stools. I must say the results are very impressive.

Pat's "Crochet Creation"
So we were in Warwick for four days and I can’t say that either of us were that taken with the place. Of course, its dominated by the Castle, which let’s face it, is now little more than a theme park and cost around £25 to get in. I have visited the castle before in my previous existence with John Lewis, when we were looking at ice rinks, so have been round the place, and would have gone again, but the first mate was not that keen. There are lots of independent shops in the town centre though, so Pat was able to get some more wool for her creation.
The mooring was run by a trust and included electric hook up. What a luxury. The water point was about 3 metres away and we were able to dispose of our rubbish, and empty our loo there as well. So it was bliss. Opposite us were moored two hotel boats, that decamped a load of North Americans for a few days to take in the delights of Warwick and Stratford-On-Avon, which is close by. I checked their prices out on the internet and for a week it’s around £750 each. We could do it for half that price! 
Our hotel boat neighbours at Sandsiford in Warwick

Early morning breakfast visitor

The place also had a laundry which has been a real boon as our washing machine will only work on shore power. The boys at Kingfisher are working on the issue with Zanussi.
On Monday we cruised for a couple of hours into Leamington Spa, or should I say Royal Leamington Spa. I had great hopes for Leamington and was not disappointed. This is definitely a posh place with lots of manicured lawns, overflowing hanging baskets and grand arcades. The architecture is late Georgian and Victorian and the town centre has not the makeovers so often suffered by other towns and retains its “Spa” character.
The only thing that really annoyed me was the amount of “chuggers” about: those young twenty-something charity collectors who approach you in the street. They were everywhere.  
We have now completed over 400 miles and been through 250 locks. I will have to carry out our first oil change over the next week or so once I can source the correct oil filter and oil. Pat was keen to let an engineer do the work but I don’t think she realised the costs involved with labour and VAT. The engine, and more or less everything else, apart from the washing machine, is all working well, and we got 10 weeks from our last bottle of gas, which is somewhat better than the week I got out of the first one!
We reckon we will be in Banbury on the Oxford Canal sometime early next week.
*BIG CHINS (Boating Interest Group Chasing Herons In NarrowboatS
 (Roger, Roy, Malcolm, Paul B, Paul H, Mark W, Mark (the pig farmer), Barry )

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Fun in Brum

Fun in Brum
(Double clicking on photos brings them up to real size)
It is estimated that over 20,000 people live on boats on the canal system.  So you can imagine our surprise last week when in the space of 48 hours, we met up with three boats and their crews that we knew. And this was even more remarkable, being in an area where if you pass one or two boats during the day, you are doing well.
First it was Mel and her husband Neil. I had met Mel at “The New Inn” in Shardlow on our very first time out with the boat back at the end of March. It was her last day working behind the bar there, and she had similar plans to us, cruising the network with her husband. We saw them at Dudley and then moored in Central Birmingham about 100 metres down from us. Opposite us was “Free Spirit”.  Ian and Eileen had been at Trent Lock over Easter, maintaining and blacking their boat, while I was waiting for Pat to return from New Zealand and we had kept in touch through our individual blogs. And a couple of boats down from them was “Jandai”, Kingfisher’s previous build before “The Cat’s Whiskers”. We knew Jan and Dai were south of the city, from their blog, but was surprised to bump into them in central Birmingham as well.
This called for a drink or two, and the picture shows us in “The Malt House”, at the very heart of the city network. Both couples are long-term live-aboards and teased us for being “fair weather” boaters, as we are not planning to over-winter on board TCW, at least not this year. But it was good to catch up with their news and see them both again.

Dai, Ian, Jan, Roger, Pat and Eileen in "The Malt House"

Our mooring under St Vincents Street Bridge. TCW is on the left

We had two days on a good, secure mooring and you really have to admire the way this bit of the network has been developed. Twenty years ago it was a rundown corridor that meandered through the city that nobody knew about. Now it’s a vibrant magnet drawing visitors to its bars and restaurants. Hotels and major visitor attractions complete the scene. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it seems to work.

A bit over the top, but very popular with tourists
The weekend saw us entertaining Paul, brother of my best pal John. Pat spent the weekend calling Paul, “John”, but he didn’t seem to mind. Paul had grown up in Birmingham and knew the city centre pretty well but readily admitted that he had never ventured on to the canal system as it was a dirty, unwelcoming place, and best avoided.
It certainly is an area of contrasts. Sure, there is plenty of evidence of Birmingham’s claim to be the “the countries engine room”, but turn a corner and suddenly you have a pastoral parkland with weeping willows and quacking ducks and then round another corner you are back to the rusty wharves, run-down industrial units and walls of graffiti.
Paul got “The Full Monty”. Dead animals, jammed gates; dead animals in jammed gates, and hand hauling and freeing TCW on several occasions when she got grounded. And then there was the Olympic torch relay. We walked into the city centre from where we had moored in Digbeth on Saturday evening, about 2 miles from the city centre. Had a bit to eat in Wetherspoons and then caught the cavalcade as it came around Paradise circus. So it was a good weekend’s cruising, though not typical of what we have experienced up to now.

Paul and Pat

One of the weekend’s highlights for me was Pat’s decision to take on a flight of locks at the tiller. She has been rather reluctant to do this and was quite nervous but she had no problem at all. In fact she went into nearly all the lock chambers without touching the sides. I decided to walk on to set up the locks so she didn’t feel like I was watching her every move. Despite this new found skill she still prefers to be on lock duty, but it gives us some flexibility.

Pat at the tiller on the The Farmers Bridge locks in central Birmingham

Pat pilots TCW through the centre of Birmingham. PO Tower in background

We dropped Paul off at Olton to catch a train back into the city to make his connection home, and carried on to Catherine-de-Barnes, just outside Solihull, the first official mooring we had seen since leaving the Gas Street area on Saturday morning.
Regular readers to this blog may have noticed I haven’t mentioned the weather yet. Several have commented that I am a bit obsessed about it. Amazingly it’s been OK. When the flash floods happened last Friday morning, we were chugging out of Dudley. The water cascaded in torrents over the motorway that we were travelling beside, but we just cruised through it under a golf umbrella and waterproofs. It’s been dry since, though it did rain all day Monday and most of Tuesday, but we had already decided to stay put in the Solihull area to do our laundry, and do some shopping in John Lewis.
On Wednesday we cruise on to Knowle and then down the Hatton flight to Warwick where I guess we will be over the weekend. I’ve experienced this bit of the network before with the “Big Chins” boating crew two Octobers ago, so if any Big Chins fancy braving the showers and joining us, you know how to contact us.