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2017: Many miles despite an early injury

 

Debbie

Even with a broken wrist Debbie could still hold a windlass

 

After last year's emergency repairs - in which the whole underwater length of both sides of the boat had been over-plated - we had a wonderful Christmas on board in the beautiful countryside near Braunston. Because many of the locks on the Grand Union were being repaired during the winter it would have been difficult to get the boat back to Milton Keynes, so instead we rented out our home mooring and arranged a temporary berth for ourselves in Northampton Marina. For this we had to buy a "Gold Licence" which allowed us to use not only the canals but also the rivers Nene, Great Ouse, and Thames; so we made grand plans to explore as many rivers as we possibly could during the year, starting with the Nene and the Great Ouse. But the best laid plans ...

We set off happily at the beginning of April, but just a couple of days later while struggling to pull the boat into a mooring against a strong wind, Debbie fell backwards and broke her wrist. A quick trip to Peterborough Hospital saw her suitably plastered, but clearly she would be unable to help with operating the locks for quite some time. So we cancelled all our plans and instead we headed back up the Nene to rejoin the canals at Northampton, then for a month we pottered around on canals such as the North Oxford and the Ashby which have very few locks and also which are also conveniently close to the railway line that would allow Debbie to catch a train back to Milton Keynes for follow-up appointments at the Hospital. At her first such appointment they changed the temporary white cast for one of her own choice of colour; she chose red plaster with a black sling so that she would match the boat!

 

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You cannot drive a mooring spike into the ground one-handed
In the beautiful spring weather, swans everywhere were building their new nests ...
... and teaching their new babies what to do
Oddity #1, at Milton Keynes: a boat shaped like a giant egg
Oddity #2, in the pub at Newbold: a piano in the Gents toilets

With Debbie's wrist starting to mend properly, we could make a new set of plans. The River Thames was still a good option, as the locks there are all power-operated (or keeper-operated), so we pointed the bows southwards down the Oxford Canal. On the way we stopped at Aynho where we were met by a journalist from the canal-based newspaper 'Towpath Talk' who wanted to interview us for their regular feature 'Characters of the cut'. She interviewed us for nearly 3 hours, and then wrote a really excellent column about us - which with Towpath Talk's permission I have copied here.

After joining the Thames we found a wonderful mooring next to Osney Bridge in Oxford, and spent a couple of days in this beautiful city. We took the opportunity to meet up with some old friends, went to the theatre for a wonderful evening of Motown music memories, and even went on a walking tour of some of the colleges. The tour included a visit to New College (which is of course one of the oldest colleges in Oxford) where the famous Reverend Doctor Spooner had been first a Fellow and then Dean. I was disappointed that his memorial plaque did not contain any Spoonerisms - but then, do YOU know any Latin Spoonerisms? (Note: I have found just one, it reads as "obit anus, abit onus" )

 

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Moored immediately below Osney Bridge
This heron had  a prime fishing soot under the bridge
A statement of the obvious for the Oxford students
Beautiful colleges in Oxford

In beautiful sunshine we drifted slowly downstream. to Kingston, where we had chosen to turn around and head back upstream. Before arriving at Kingston however, we moored outside Hampton Court Palace and spent another couple of days being tourists. There have been many improvements for visitors since our previous trip here many years ago, including excellent audio descriptors to carry around with you, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time at  the Palace. It was gloriously hot weather as we wandered around the beautiful gardens, and we even managed to find our way to the centre of the famous Maze (and out again)

 

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Moored by the gates of Hampton Court Palace
Inside the gates
Welcome to the Palace
Debbie thinks she's Katherine of Aragon
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We wished they'd turn on this fountain, it flows not with water but with wine!
At the centre of the Maze
At the centre of the Maze
At the centre of the Maze

Heading back up the River Thames, we diverted at Shepperton and travelled up the River Wey to visit some friends at Pyrford Marina. The Wey is owned by the National Trust, so we had to buy another licence for our brief visit, but it was well worthwhile. I had forgotten just how beautiful this little river is; and with the sun shining through the trees it was simply stunning!

There is an unusual arrangement when you first enter the Wey. After a 19th-century improvement scheme lowered the level of the Thames by a couple of feet, the Wey's entrance lock was not deep enough for boats to enter it. Instead of rebuilding the lock at great expense they simply installed another pair of gates a hundred yards downstream, so that they could use the intervening section to make a staircase with the existing lock - albeit a staircase in which the lower chamber, because of its length,  had a rise of only 3 ft.

 

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Surely those arches are too low for us to fit underneath?
Yes definitely too low - but what's that to the right?
Ah yes, that's the way to go - but it's not an easy turn to the right
Properly lined up with the bridge, it is easy to see the way through

Just a short way up-river is another conundrum. The arches of the road bridge look impossibly low, and sure enough the navigation actually turns sharply to the right, under a flat bridge that is slightly higher. Apart from the correct route being far from obvious until the last moment, also the lock is immediately after the bridge. The 4th photo above shows it with the lower lock gates open for entry, but when they are closed it is extremely difficult to get off the boat to operate the lock - because you missed the lock-landing that is actually before the bridge (just visible on the extreme right of the first photo). The photo below shows how close the lower gates are to the bridge; if like us you have come under the bridge without putting a crew-member ashore first, you must shuffle along the gunwales to reach the front of the boat, then get on to very front of the roof and finally jump up to the lock-side!

 

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In a Wey lock. Note the unusual attachment for the stern rope
An additional strut stabilises the bottom gates
The old mill beside the lock here is really beautiful
In the lower pound of the "entrance Staircase" (Photo taken on return journey, with main lock behind us)

Many of the locks have an additional strut attached to the bridge that is below the bottom gates, to help support the gates against the pressure of the water. I haven't seen this arrangement anywhere else, and as an ex-engineer I am still weighing up in my mind the pros and cons of the feature. We did not travel the whole length of the Wey as we have done this journey before, instead we took just one short day to travel up to Pyrford, and after a wonderful evening and dinner with our friends we had another short day to travel back to the Thames.

Continuing up the Thames, the weather was so hot that most afternoons we actively sought moorings that were under the trees or in the bushes for some shade. Apparently we had the hottest June day since 1976 (which we remember well as it was the year when we married). Jessop meanwhile was thoroughly enjoying the river; almost every day he could spend time swimming in the river to cool down after chasing his tennis ball in the fields, and then he could chase his tennis ball around the fields to dry off again. And repeat ... Once again he was on his very very best behaviour while he was on the boat, earning himself plenty of treats as rewards but staying slim and healthy because he was having so much exercise.

 

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The world's smallest paddle steamer? (actually powered by a small electric motor at the stern)
The beautiful reach below Cliveden (we moored in the shade under the trees on the right)
Moored in the shade of the reeds above Pangbourne, this was our view out of the window
Creatively moored at Abingdon with only two feet of the boat next to the bank
I loved this "insect hotel" at one of the Thames locks.

The  lock at Abingdon is surrounded by an ever-increasing number of carved wooden animals. Apparently new ones appear spuriously from time to time, courtesy of an anonymous local artist who puts them in place secretly when nobody is watching. The lock-keeper is rumoured to be the only other person who knows the artists identity. Certainly they are a welcome, whimsical addition to the lock furniture.

 

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Sign

Abingdon Lock surely deserves an award for having the best, clearest, and most memorable signboard on the river. Instructive to novices without being condescending, and humorous to the experienced without detracting from its message, I just love it!

Continuing up to Lechlade, we moored as usual on the meadow below Halfpenny bridge. Hearing a commotion outside the boat soon afterwards, we looked out of the boat to see that a cow had seized our mop from the roof and was now chasing the other cows around the field whilst swinging the mop in his teeth and attempting to hit them with it. They obviously thought this was a great game, but after 5 minutes they tired of it and dropped the mop back beside the boat for us to retrieve.

In our 5 weeks on the river we had met up with many old friends, had made many new friends, and had enjoyed absolutely wonderful meals in the Trout at Tadpole Bridge, the Perch at Binsey, and (for our wedding anniversary) the Beetle and Wedge at Moulsford. We also had excellent meals at many of the other riverside pubs, but it is highly unlikely that we will ever again consider eating at  the Shillingford Bridge Hotel.

Bidding farewell to the River Thames, we returned to the canal at Oxford. Canal speeds seemed so slow after travelling on the river, and Jessop was most disappointed to leave his beloved river, although secretly rather pleased that there were once again many 'towpath friends' for him to meet and greet.

Near the village of Thrupp, the South Oxford Canal briefly joins the River Cherwell. At the entrance and exit locks, as with similar locks on most other canal/river junctions, there are markers to indicate whether or not the river is running at a suitable level for safe navigation. Traditionally these markers have always consisted of a simple painted strip with green, yellow, and red segments; as such they were simple, cheap, long-lasting, virtually maintenance-free, and utterly reliable. Here however they have been replaced by modern electronic versions which have none of these desirable properties. Much as I may be in favour of genuine progress, this seems to me to be a ridiculous over-complication!

 

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The old way: a painted strip
The new way: complex electronics
On the Shroppie: a bench dedicated to Ike Argent

 

We now made our way rapidly northwards by means of the Oxford, Coventry, Trent & Mersey, Staffs & Worcester, Shropshire Union, Llangollen, and Middlewich Branch Canals. On the Shroppie we were delighted to come across a bench dedicated to Ike Argent. Although we had met him a few times in the distant past, we couldn't claim to have known him well; but whenever I watched him steering I used to realise that no matter how long I practised them my own skills would never, ever come close to his.

We also took the opportunity to visit the Lion Salt Works, a fascinating museum that has been created from Britain's last open-pan salt works, and I can thoroughly recommend that you stop and visit the museum for a few hours if you are ever passing that way. Finally we reached Anderton where a couple of good friends again joined us for the passage on the spectacular Anderton Lift followed by a trip up and down the beautiful River Weaver. One change that has taken place on the River since our last visit, is that the lock-keepers now no longer bother with using the VHF radio for communicating with boaters; instead you must now telephone if you want to give notice of your impending arrival.

After coming back up the Anderton Lift we had lunch with our friends at the Stanley Arms pub. This is a pub where they certainly know how to treat their boating customers properly, serving absolute mountains of delicious food.

Having still a little time to spare, we decided to head for Macclesfield and meet some  friends who live there. It was interesting to see that the boatyard at Bollington where we had helped with testing the winding hole in 2015, is now operated by people whom we know from the Canal World Forum including the fuel boat Alton - and the winding hole has been properly cleared and signposted too.

 

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Bollington winding hole in 2015
The same winding hole, with much better access in 2017
The new sign opposite the winding hole

The Macclesfield and Peak Forest Canals were as beautiful as ever, and we enjoyed a fantastic weekend in Bugsworth Basin. For Jessop the ball-throwing and swimming opportunities were so good that I think he even forgave us for leaving his beloved River Thames! We had to wait for a day while CRT closed Bosley locks to repair a leaky cill, but coming down the locks the next day I must say that I couldn't see much sign of any improvement (I still got soaking wet when I backed up to let the bottom gates open!)

 

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This restaurant (at Adlington) caters for weddings ...
... but presumably couldn't do so in late August, if this sign on the track next to it is to be believed
The Macclesfield Canal is spectacularly beautiful
This is what CRT call a "repaired" leaky cill
Sunset over Westport Lake

So finally we returned via Stoke-on-Trent (where we spent a most enjoyable day visiting the Middleport Pottery) to our new temporary mooring at King's Bromley Marina. We had arranged a winter mooring for ourselves at this marina, but first we stopped and left the boat there for a month so that we could take a foreign holiday - 10 days in Portugal on the River Douro. The boating there was rather different from in Britain, so I hope you enjoy visiting my page of pictures and commentary from that trip.

Returning from Portugal we decided to take a trip down the Trent and along the Fossdyke and Witham to Boston. Progress on the T&M canal was rather more erratic than usual as there were so many leaves in the water; the problem was that every few minutes they would build up around the propeller and stop it from working properly. The problem was always quickly and easily fixed by a quick burst of power in reverse gear, but this of course kept bringing the boat to a virtual standstill. By way of compensation, however, the upper Trent was absolutely beautiful with its trees in their autumn colours, and we also had a most enjoyable run down the tideway to Torksey. As we progressed down the River Witham we had a wonderful aerial escort: not only were there the usual low-flying Euro-fighters, but also - much to Debbie's delight - we were overflown by a Lancaster bomber/

For my birthday this year we had booked a table, with our daughter and her family, at the "Witham and Blues" restaurant which is just a few miles before Boston. It had previously been a fairly typical local public house, struggling for trade in its isolated location, but a few years ago it was converted to a New York diner and became an extremely popular destination. The meals there (primarily burgers, of course) are just fabulous, and my birthday evening there was simply perfect!

 

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The lock gates at Torksey must be unique in housing a display of teapots
There seemed to be cormorants everywhere on the Fossdyke and Witham
Perhaps this sign by the Witham should have read "Traffic Overturning Ahead"

Our return journey was also most enjoyable, The weather continued to be kind to us, and we also had the most wonderful Spring Tide to push us up the tideway towards Newark. More friends joined us for the last 2 days of  the trip back to King's Bromley, and Jessop worked his usual magic particularly with one of them who was very nervous of dogs after being bitten by one recently. By the end of the weekend our friend was confident and totally at ease in Jessop's company; Jessop recently qualified as a 'Pets As Therapy' dog, and this weekend was a classic demonstration of the value of such therapy.

I would particularly like to mention here the Barton Turns pub which is at Barton-under-Needwood; it is a beautiful old house with a cosy warm fire, serving excellent beer from the local Marston's brewery and providing huge portions of superb home-made food. We received such a warm and friendly welcome that we just know we will return as soon as we can.

Finally we returned to King's Bromley where the boat is to remain for the winter. It will make a nice change to be based there for a while, but it does seem strange for the boat to be so far from Milton Keynes.

 

Witham

One of the sculptures beside the River Witham

 

 

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