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Summer 2004 trip to Gloucester, Bristol, & Bath.

Returning via Kennet & Avon Canal and River Thames

After a slight detour 'the pretty way' round to the north of Birmingham and through Tixall Wide, we were fuelled up from the cheap diesel at Wheaton Aston and ready to go down to Gloucester. The weather was dreadful again, and we'd just met a couple who had waited at Gloucester for a month before they gave up hope of getting a calm day when the tides were right. We were determined to wait for good weather at Gloucester no matter how long it took, so that we could go out at Sharpness. The newly-fitted VHF radio proved to be working exceptionally well on the River Severn, which was useful in talking to the lock-keepers as we led a convoy of boats past Tewkesbury including one which was under tow to save its small reserve of petrol.

The weather had changed for us as we cruised down-river and it was a hot summer's day when we moored in Gloucester basin to complete all 50 items on my checklist, including "Board up the vents in the front doors, the ones that say Ventilator, do not obstruct" and "Fit rubber bung in the air-vent of the toilet tank". We listened avidly to the weather forecasts from the coastguard stations, and after just two days we heard "South-Westerly Force 3 dropping to Force 2". We immediately phoned the pilots to ask about the prospects of making the trip to Bristol, and they replied that everything looked perfect so we should get to Sharpness by 1030 the next morning for a mid-day tide. That didn't give us nearly enough time to enjoy the Gloucester and Sharpness canal so we'll have to go back next year.

 

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Gloucester Docks
Looking across the "Barge's Graveyard'
Variety of boats on the G&S Canal
Sharpness Docks
Sharpness Lock
Sharpness Basin

The lock at Sharpness is absolutely huge. It's big enough to take a seagoing ship, a narrow boat can turn circles in the middle of it, and you need long ropes to allow for the 30-foot drop. We locked down with a small motor cruiser that shot out to sea while we pulled up on the floating pontoon in the tidal basin. Keith our pilot arrived soon afterwards; an extremely friendly man whose knowledge of the Severn Estuary was astounding. For 36 years he had spent his time piloting all sizes of boats and ships up and down the Estuary, so he had a fund of stories to keep us entertained, and it seemed he knew every inch of the river bed underneath us as he gained precious time by taking shortcuts across submerged mudflats until the tide turned. Soon we were in the deep water under blazing sunshine, riding high with 15 mph of spring tide, but it wasn't long before our fortunes changed. The wind had not listened to the weather forecast, and was blowing strongly over the tide to make it quite choppy and slow us down. There was a slight lull through 'The Shoots', where I was very happy to let Keith steer through the treacherous currents while I got some good photos of the underneath of the motorway bridges, but after the second bridge the wind increased to a force 4/5 and it started to get really rough. Keith was in constant contact with all the coastguard stations getting weather reports, and said there was a 50/50 chance that we'd have to run for shelter up the Wye. To tell the truth I was a bit disappointed that we didn't have to do that!

 

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Leaving Sharpness
The first Bridge
Under the Bridge
The view from the front window
Looking back at the Bridges
Portishead Lock

We couldn't stay in the main channel where the current was strongest, because it was now so rough that the waves were breaking right over the bow, so Keith took us through the shallows across to Avonmouth where it was calmer, but we lost all that lovely speed and were in danger of missing the last opening of the lock at Portishead before the entrance dried out. Eventually, after 3 hours of high-speed running, we made it into Portishead with just 5 minutes to spare. Both Keith and I were overjoyed at how well Keeping Up had coped with the bad weather, her heavy 13mm base-plate making her remarkably stable even when we had to take the waves broadside-on as we ran for the shore off Avonmouth; indeed our only problem had been that one of our two dogs had been seasick. We had certainly had a much pleasanter trip than the little cruiser that had left Sharpness with us; the owner's girlfriend was threatening to leave him there and get a train home.

As we approached Avonmouth I took the opportunity to cling to the hand-rail with one hand and take a short movie clip with the other. This gives quite a good idea of how well the boat ploughed its way through the waves.

 

Portishead has a real luxury lock. It's quite big, with a 30-foot rise; but it has floating pontoons inside so you can tie to a bollard and get off to stretch your legs and talk to the other boaters. The marina has every facility you could want, although itís rather expensive for narrow boats which at over 20 metres are classed as 'Luxury Yachts'. Then after an overnight stay in Portishead, the next morning found us crossing the bay to Avonmouth on flat calm waters in sparkling sunshine, and pottering up to Bristol with the engine at tickover and 6 mph of current behind us. The Avon Gorge was just magical, and all too soon we were locking up to Bristol Docks. We shared the lock with a sailing boat, so they had to swing the big main-road bridge above the lock; at last I felt that I'd got my own back for all the times I'd been held up at that bridge when I lived in Bristol 30 years ago, and it was with an immense feeling of pride and satisfaction that we headed East through Bristolís Floating Harbour.

Soon we were at Bath. We stopped on a wonderful mooring just below Pulteney Weir while we explored the city; it would have cost hundreds of pounds to get a hotel room with such good a view of Bath's ancient buildings. Then after a few days it was time to head along the Kennet and Avon towards the dreaded Devizes flight, whose one consolation is that it leads to the town where Wadworths beer is brewed! We met up with a shared-ownership boat, and told them about the benefits of breasting up for a long wide flight, and they excitedly agreed to do most of the hard work on the gates and paddles while I brought the two boats up the flight. Even when we reached the top, they still felt they'd had the best part of the deal, and provided us with copious amounts of beer and food.

 

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The M5 bridge over the Avon
The Clifton Suspension Bridge
A seagull hitches a lift under Bristol Bridge
Approaching Pulteney Weir in Bath
Winding in Bath
Moored in Bath

Devizes was wonderful. One pub decided it couldn't be bothered to charge us for the beer as we'd only had 3 pints each; another provided food and drink for 2 people for less than the price of a couple of pints of beer alone back home. We found lots of interesting shops, and even went to the wharfside theatre for a rousing performance of West-End songs. By now the weather was perfect too, and we were two happy boaters as we headed east again. We didn't find the locks particularly difficult on the K&A, and had no difficulty in mooring where we wanted every night as long as we didn't mind using pins and a gangplank. We soon met up with another boat which was also going to Reading, and apart from having extra help in the locks, it meant we could work turn-and-turn-about at the swing bridges, with the lead boat stopping to open the bridge for the second boat before following through and closing the bridge, then swapping roles at the next bridge. In sweltering heat we journeyed ever eastwards, until finally the weather broke in torrential thunderstorms on the outskirts of Reading. For a couple of hours we just let the rain fall on us, still wearing just our shorts, but the temperature had dropped by 15 degrees C (25 F) in the space of a few minutes and we knew it was time to stop for the night. Listening on the radio it seemed as if nearly every road in the country had been closed by the storms that afternoon.

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Claverton Pumping Station
Devizes Flight
A turf-sided lock
Swimming in the Thames at Henley
Friends
The Thames at night

Reaching the Thames at Reading, we re-stocked at Tescoís and were joined by some friends for the next week. We now had 4 adults, 2 teenagers, and 4 big dogs on board; things were getting a bit crowded. The river was crystal clear, perfect for swimming when we stopped each night, and we had a fabulous trip down to Hampton Court and back. Just before we reached Reading again, we met a narrow boat anchored mid-stream with a steaming engine. He'd burst a water hose, so we turned around and took him in tow back to his mooring; he seemed amazed that we didn't want to claim salvage rights over his boat. Heading back up to Reading again, we were flagged down by another stranded narrow boat. This one had been rather enthusiastic about coming in to moor up at a place that was too shallow, and they were very well stuck. It took us quite a while to get them off, during the course of which we were passed by the tug that the EA had sent to rescue the overheated boat that we'd towed earlier.

We carried on to Lechlade, dropping our friends off at Oxford on the way, and considered seeing how much further we could get as the river was quite high again, but we arrived at the Roundhouse in torrential rain and a howling gale which would have made any reversing impossible so we just turned round and went back. After a few days in Lechlade, and a few days back at the excellent moorings in Abingdon, we turned up the Oxford canal and headed for home. By the time we reached Stoke Hammond we'd traveled over 1500 miles this year, passing through nearly 900 locks, and had the most wonderful year's boating. We can't wait to get started on 2005's adventures.

 

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