Saturday, 27 October 2012

Back to base

So that’s it for year one of our sojourn around the waterways of England and Wales. Some 850 miles and around 600 locks I make it, which is a ridiculous figure really, and I reckon we will halve that next year.
We are now back at Trent Lock on the Erewash Canal, from where we departed in April and I think we are quite pleased to be stopping now. As much as we love the life, the cold and damp are starting to seep into this “soft southerners” bones, and my lower back, which is held together with mechano, is aching more that it has of late. The system is looking lovely though, with the reds, yellows and browns of autumn being very much in evidence.
Our journey up the River Soar from Leicester saw us cruising into Loughborough last Saturday lunchtime. After a shuffle around the shops to look for suitcases, Pat went off to have her hair cut and I adjourned to “The Swan In The Rushes”, which is an outstanding pub, and close to the basin. I was only going to stay for one, but the beer was so good, I had a couple more before Pat joined me for a fourth. “Strictly” was a bit of blur that evening and Pat assures me that I slept through most of it.

A cracking pub
The Soar goes up and down like a yo-yo, and we were acutely aware of its reputation. The weather forecast seemed to change whenever we checked and the river levels on the Environment Agencies website see-sawed wildly. We had built in three to four days of possible hold-ups but we were only held up at one lock where the red traffic light advised us not to proceed, and that was only for 24 hours. Some boaters chose to ignore the warnings, but having never cruised the Soar, I was not going to take any chances. The Soar certainly has a lot of charms, but both of us would prefer to be on the canal network.
At one lock we had our photo taken by the Leicester Mercury, a daily paper serving that area. Volunteers from The Canal & River Trust were out maintaining a certain stretch of canal north of the city, and the photographer from the paper who was taking pics wanted a boat in the background as we approached the lock.
From Loughborough it was a slow meander north where the Soar meets the Trent. The river got wider and when the cooling towers of the Radcliffe Power Station emerged through the mist we knew we were nearly there.

A local landmark
As soon as we crossed the Trent and entered the lock the skies opened and it poured most of the afternoon. What a welcome back.
It was good to see Mick and John again, who built TCW. We have a bit of a list for them to go through while we are away, which they can do at their leisure. And we now have our "Mythical Manual", for the boat. Hooray!
“Chynadour” arrived at back at the  lock on Thursday. This was the next bespoke boat built here after ours. Now two weeks old it is looking fabulous and Fred and Lisa are very proud owners. They left Saturday morning for a trip up to Nottingham, and I did a bit of painting while Pat got to work cleaning the boat from top to bottom.
We now have under two days left on the boat. Monday lunchtime we head south to my sisters in Potters Bar for a few days before we depart for Thailand on 1 November. As much as we are excited at the prospect of our travels to come, we will certainly miss life afloat. TCW has become our home and we wouldn't want to be living anywhere else. I am sure come next March, we will be itching to get back to her. The Boating blog will resume then, but I expect I will put the odd posting up as we travel round the world.
Thanks for all the comments, by the way.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Warm, Wet, Wild and Windy!

Conkers banging on to the roof – “Strictly” back on the box – it was only a matter of time before we broke out the gloves and woolly hats as the temperatures started and the winds picked up. And it does seem that the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” has arrived with a flourish with the canal network starting to appear very autumnal. No frosts, as yet, but there is still time before we finish cruising and head for sunnier climes at the end of the month.

Roger models this season's autumn collection
I am pleased to be able to report that our progress remains steady and we have easily averaged the five miles a day, we set ourselves as we left London and headed north, some three weeks ago. As I write this we are on a very nice mooring in Birstall, a village to the north of Leicester. There is a nature reserve opposite, a good-looking pub I will investigate later and the village shops are only a couple of minutes away.
Last weekend we experienced another of our canal networks major features. The Foxton flight of 10 staircase locks, about 10 miles south of Leicester, attracts huge crowds every weekend. They turn up to watch as boats climb and drop 75ft, in a very attractive setting, with two pubs and a tea room. On busy summer days you can wait in line for hours to navigate this flight and the nature of them means that five go up and then five go down. Luckily, we were first in line in the queue on Saturday morning and we were down at the bottom in around 40 minutes.
Foxton is unique for having been the sight of an “inclined plane” in the early years of the 20th century. The remains of this spectacular lifting mechanism can still be clearly seen. Boats would enter a “caisson”, a sort of floating bath, and this would be lifted on cables and rails, sideways on, up the side of the hill and dropped back in the water at the top.

Top: Foxton Inclined Plane, c1905
Bottom: What it looks like today

It was unique to the waterways and plans are underway to restore it, which will be impressive if the trust concerned, can pull it off.
We met up with our boating pals Dai and Jan at Foxton, on their Kingfisher-built built “Jandai”, and had a very pleasant evening with them in The Boathouse Inn, at the bottom of the flight. We last bumped into them in central Birmingham earlier this summer and it was good to catch up again, and see “Foxy”. Dai also helped to lock up down the flight – thanks mate, despite the derogatory T-shirt you insisted on wearing.

Pat, Dai and Jan is in there somewhere
In the last blog we posted, I whinged about tunnels, and how I wasn’t too keen on them at all. So imagine my deep joy when, on approaching two more this week we discovered that our tunnel light had packed up, and that it was a sealed unit. Pat stayed at the helm shining a Maglite on to the ceiling as I edged through, picking up the wall with another torch. We have no more tunnels, thank God, but our next lamp with have a replaceable bulb.

Why is Pat so excited about this bridge coming up?

Ohhh. That's why.
The rest of the week has been trouble free, but today, was very, very windy. It was a bit silly even going out in these conditions, but we have a schedule and I thought we would be sheltered as we were coming right through the centre of Leicester. Wrong! It was very....challenging and we were bounced around a lot. The fact that we did not meet one boat coming the other way probably says it all. Tomorrow we will be in Mountsorrel and are considering having a couple of days at Pillings Lock Marina this weekend, to start preparing the boat for its winter incubation. Then, all being well we will have a couple of days in Loughborough, before arriving at Trent Lock towards the end of next week.
We are hopeful of meeting Fred and Lisa before we leave. They took possession of Kingfisher’s boat after ours last Friday. It looks stunning on their blog so we are keen to swap notes and have a good nose around, before they set off on their adventures on the Trent and Mersey. We believe they are cruising the Erewash Canal for a few days.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Tunnel Vision

We’ve been gearing ourselves up for lashings of rain as we slide north westwards through Northants, but it’s been positively barmy over the last few days, well since the weekend anyway. The forecast keeps saying rain is on its way, but, as that old adage says, “the sun shines on the righteous”, and that’s me “Righteous Rog”.
It has meant, though, that we have been able to put a bit of a spurt on, as this cannot last for much longer, and today we are resting on the Welford arm of the Grand Union. We spent much of last weekend in the environs of Milton Keynes. I have been through the city by canal a few times, but it was a first for Pat. It is an attractive route, bordered by the linear park that runs along one side for much of its length, though the canal does skirt some of the more “well heeled” areas of the MK. Joining us was our old pal Laura, who I think, on reflection, I have known since I was about 15, so we go way back. Laura is a keen boater and I felt very confident in handing over the tiller to her. However the combination of her height and the huge suitcase bursting out from under our top box, made steering difficult for her. We also picked up another boating chum  Paul, who I cruise with every year under the “BIGCHINS” flag, and Viv. It was Viv’s first time on a narrowboat, and I think she had brought her seasick tablets. She soon got into it though. They got off at Wolverton and Laura stayed until we got to Cosgrove Lock.  
Our weekend guests. Viv, Paul and Laura

Considering that we often cruise on a Sunday (when not at the launderette), and have now clocked up over 600 miles, we had not encounted club fishing before. Perhaps the season is just starting. Throughout our cruise on Sunday there seemed to be miles of poles reaching out across the cut, almost daring you to collide with them, until the very last second, when they raise them skywards or shuffle them in beside them. Now, I have nothing at all against fishing. Personally, I don’t get it, and the waterways system is for all, but this phenomena just went on and on and on. Most of them were charming and we nodded to each, and passed the time of day with others, but it became quite tedious after an hour or two.
Of course, Stoke Bruerne is something else. Described as the “perfect canal village”, we arrived at the top lock in the centre of things at 2pm, and, it seemed, the whole world and his wife, had pitched up, as the weather was so nice.

Stoke Bruerne
One of the features of Stoke Bruerne is the Blisworth Tunnel, just a couple of hundred metres from the centre of things. This is the third longest tunnel on the system, coming in at around 1 ½ miles long. I think we were in there about 40 minutes, which was about 39 minutes too long for me. And then we had the Crick tunnel which is a bit shorter and took us 20 minutes to get through. Pat informs me we have a couple more as we head north. I’m not that keen on tunnels but we managed to get through without meeting another boat coming the other way.

Half way through the Blisworth Tunnel
We moored at Crick one night, and then turned right at Norton Junction, and are now on the Leicester Arm of the Grand Union, which will become the Soar at Leicester and take us right the way up to the Trent, and then we just have to cross that and get through the lock and boat is back home.
Yesterday was a long cruise through very remote locations and we decided to turn right off the main navigation and travel the mile or so down to the little village of Welford. I think the front of the boat is in Northants and the back in Leicestershire as the boundary is only yards from where we are moored in a very attractive basin with a marina on one side, all the facilities we need on the other and a decent free house, The Wharf, in the middle. The pub had a beer festival over last weekend and there are still a few tasty beers left, so as soon as I have finished this I am off down there.
Tomorrow, we cruise up to the famous Foxton flight of locks, where we are meeting our pals Jan and Dai, the Kingfisher boat before ours, for a night out.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Who’s pinched the water?

You can do without a lot of things on this boating lark but one thing you definitely can’t do without is a drop of water, so as soon as we looked out of the window on Monday morning we knew we had a problem. It was reinforced by all the drawers in the kitchen gaping open and a definite list to starboard. Walking from the stern of the boat to the bow was very “Titanic-ish”.
Overnight the stretch of canal we were on had dropped about a metre. We were not too bad, being in a deeper part of the cut, but the rest of the boats in front of us in this part of Berkhamstead, were cheekily showing the world their rudders and one its propeller.
That leaning feeling

Looks like the tide has gone out

We thought it all quite exciting, especially as we had not planned to go anywhere on Monday, but we should have guessed that mooring close to the summit of the Grand Union could present issues. The boys from C&RT (Canal and River Trust), scratched their heads and walked from lock to lock, saying their boss was on it, and sure enough, within an hour or two, we were floating again. It must be some borehole,  that they tap to balance either side.
This was in Berkhamstead, a delightful town on a very attractive stretch of the Grand Union, with three good pubs on the towpath and some good mooring (water permitting) outside Waitrose.

Cheeky swans in Rickmansworth
The last week has been very hectic aboard The Cat’s Whiskers with a number of comings and goings. First up was our pal Vic who joined us in Rickmansworth and stayed overnight as we chugged through Watford, mooring in Casiobury Park overnight. He left the following lunchtime and we continued to Apsley, close to Hemel Hempstead. Here, my pal Claire, who I worked with at John Lewis, joined us, with her Partner Phil. Neither of them had ever been on a narrowboat before and it was very much a baptism of fire, with 14 locks negotiated over a four-mile stretch into Berkhamstead.

Phil & Claire - First time boaters
They left and our pals Penny & Bob arrived the following day and left this morning. As attractive as this part of the Grand Union is, there are a flipping large number of locks to ascend and then descend and in the last two days we have done 24 of them, many with very “Sticky” paddles and heavy gates. That will ease over the next few days as we skirt Milton Keynes, heading for Stoke Bruerne and the Blisworth Tunnel, as this area is “lightly locked”, if such an expression exists. Finally, this afternoon, my sister Carol and her hubby Rob, popped up to see us at our mooring outside Tesco in Leighton Buzzard.

Sister Carol, Rob, Pat and bag of rubbish...oops
We have more guests this weekend and then it is just Pat and I. We have to average about five miles a day to get back to Long Eaton and Trent Lock by the last week in October. Weather and more importantly, river levels permitting, that shouldn’t be a major problem. Hopefully our next blog will come from somewhere in deepest Northants.