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Sweden: the Gota canal Springtime in the East Midlands Summer 2013 part 1: the Lower Thames

The Thames, Avon, and Severn in 2013

Part 2: The Upper Thames, the Avon, and the Severn




Now it was time to leave the lower reaches and head upstream for Lechlade. Setting off in the early morning we were greeted by what looked like a small snow-white heron; this was our first sighting of an egret, and he was happy to pose for me as we passed. Never again will I bother with arriving at Culham lock early, operating it myself before the lock-keeper's arrival; the keeper can fill it in just a few minutes but it took half an hour on self-service so that by the time we were leaving the lock-keeper was just arriving anyway.

At Newbridge there was a pub at each end of the bridge; the Rose Revived was doing a good trade but its moorings were useless, and the Maybush was very closed but there were good moorings on the adjacent field so we stopped there for a couple of days - which allowed us to be collected by car and leave the boat for a day while we went to a wonderful friend's 70th birthday party.


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Rainbows at Lechlade
The changeable weather didn't stop people swimming for charity

We were surprised at how many of the lock-keepers remembered us from our previous visits in 2006 and 2010, and enjoyed chatting with them as we made our way upstream. In the near-drought the river had almost completely stopped flowing; the section above Oxford at Port Meadow was particularly shallow and we had to be extremely careful to stay right in the middle of the channel. In strong winds at Lechlade we were glad of some help from another boater who took our centre-line for us as we moored, and together we provided the same assistance to other boats as they arrived. The next day the weather changed dramatically, providing us with a spectacular rainbow followed by an amazing aerial ballet of swallows chasing the insects. We stayed for a couple of days until the weather returned to its previous form, and - unlike the boater in front of us who caught a dozen crayfish for his supper - we enjoyed the many pubs and restaurants of Lechlade as fully as we could before our departure.

After an early-morning mist that was so thick we had to wait until we could see from one end of the boat to the other, the mid-day heat was again intense as we headed back down the river. So much so, in fact, that one of our hopper windows suddenly decided to self-destruct. The bedroom floor was covered in glass, and we were worried about the dogs getting glass in their paws, but it was then that we encountered one of the few examples of an unhelpful lock-keeper who refused to let us stop on his long, empty lock-mooring while I cleared up the damage and made a temporary repair from a sheet of plastic. So we winded and went back up the river to Oxford Narrowboats at Eynsham where somebody measured the size of the window and assured us that he would easily be able to arrange a replacement for us before our departure from the Thames (which would have to be when our licence ran out two weeks later).

We usually try to find the time to stop at Abingdon when we are passing, and this was to be no exception. Since our last visit they have opened the roof of the old Town Hall to visitors, and it is well worth climbing the stairs to enjoy the most amazing views of the town. The guide there was also very helpful, and as well as explaining the sights to us, he suggested we should take a look at  the statue of Queen Victoria in the park. This we duly did; the plinth used to say something like 'donated by the people of Abingdon' but the town's name had apparently been erased during the war so that if any enemy paratroops should reach Abingdon they wouldn't be able to use it to find out where they were!


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Telford wonders how he is going to get ashore at  this mooring (above Day's Lock)
He needn't have worried, the stern is moored tightly to the bank
We sat on the bows enjoying a few bottle of beer and watching a beautiful sunset

It seemed as if there were festivals everywhere. The huge Reading festival was being assembled as we passed, with temporary roads to acres of car-parking space, a temporary footbridge across the river, and temporary campsites that were bigger than most of the villages we had visited on our travels, were all being created by an army of men in hard hats and hi-vis jackets. Then further down-river at Remenham there was a 1980's festival which meant that we had to turn around and moor on the opposite field nearer to Henley. Within just a few seconds of my driving the mooring pins into the ground, a friendly man in a fast dinghy was alongside us to collect our 8 mooring fee; it was an expensive mooring but the dogs loved the field and we had a most enjoyable evening in Henley - including a couple of absolutely superb beers in the Olde Bell which claims to be the oldest building in the town.

Bray lock has a huge illuminated sign like one on a motorway, with a rotating set of useless information such as "watch your wash" and "ask the lock-keeper about river conditions". Surely such an inappropriate style of sign could only ever be justified if the sign itself gave  you the information about the river conditions?


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Boulters Lock always attracts groups of gongoozlers
A highly inappropriate style of information sign at Bray Lock
The 16th-century Medmenham Abbey looks very smart

We travelled back down to Windsor, where we were joined for the day by a small group of my friends from 50 years ago; a fish-and-chip meal, a boat trip (on our boat but following the exact route that the trip-boats take), and a lot of reminiscences followed to make it a perfect day. Then we turned and set off up-river again, travelling quickly to Oxford with just 4 days of our Thames licence remaining. There seemed to be a great many large cruisers around, but rather than the usual river-bound "gin-palaces" it was clear that most of them were well used to making coastal and sea voyages. We talked to some of them at the locks (surely one of the best things about a lock is that it provides opportunity for such conversations) and they all said the same thing, that the cost of diesel was now so high that they were saving themselves hundreds of pounds by buying a Thames licence and travelling up the river instead of going to sea.

Below Shiplake lock we were flagged down by a large (and rather pretty) green cruiser that had broken down. The steerer said that the engine had stopped in mid-river so he had simply pushed his teenage daughter overboard and then thrown her the bow rope, telling her to swim to the bank with it and pull the boat to safety from there. Her version of the story matched his exactly, except with the addition of some slightly more colourful language as she hung her wet clothing out to dry. We  took them in tow, using cross-straps which were an amazing new technique for these river-folk, and had an interesting time taking them up-river. The bridge at Sonning needed particular care as they were considerably wider than us; the navigation arch is quite narrow and is particularly awkwardly placed if you are trying to take a photograph of the pillar-box at the time (why would there be a letter-box built into the piers of bridge, where it can only be reached by water?). Our entry into Sonning lock with the two boats went very well indeed, and I was pleased to be complimented by the lock-keeper who had been warned of our approach by the keeper at Shiplake and had made sure the lock was ready for our arrival.


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Lining ourselves up for Sonning. Note the postbox in the brickwork
With a boat on cross-straps behind us, we just fit into Sonning lock
Abingdon lock has gained a fine new signpost
Moto-cross riders reach amazing heights near Abingdon

And so we made our way back up to Eynsham to collect our new window from Oxford Narrowboats.; except that after two weeks they hadn't yet bothered to do anything more than telephone the original manufacturers in Worcester on the number that I had given them. They suggested that if we were to buy another months' Thames licence we could wait until they could arrange for a replacement window to be made for us but  that it wouldn't be possible to use the original catches so we would have to devise a new way of opening and closing it ourselves. Telling them that we no longer needed their services because we would be in Worcester within a couple of weeks anyway, we turned and left with our temporary sheet of plastic still in place!

We were really sad to leave the Thames after a wonderful month, but at the same time it felt good to be back on the canals again. The Oxford canal seemed so small after the mighty river, much to Telford's relief, he really doesn't understand rivers, but being on familiar waters we met up with some old friends to share a few drinks with. Sadly I had to stop at Kidlington to buy a black tie because a much-loved aunt had died and I wanted to go to her funeral; the charity shop supplied not only a tie but also a very smart jacket which will now remain in my wardrobe.

The winds had brought a tree down across the canal at one point, and several boats were waiting in front of it. They had telephoned C&RT a couple of hours before our arrival, but as yet there had been no sign of action from them. Realising that only the thinnest of the topmost branches actually reached the far side of the canal, I pushed our bows aground on that side of the canal and quickly removed them using the telescopic pruner that I keep for just such situations, and within 5 minutes I had cleared a space that was big enough for us to squeeze through (followed by a couple of the other boats). As we left the scene some C&RT workmen arrived, and proceeded to swear mightily at me for not waiting for them to fix the problem!

We had arranged for Vicki, Paul, and Lauren to jn us again at Warwick. A large crew is particularly useful for the Hatton flight, and we were lucky enough to meet another boat whose family were joining them at the same place at the same time. Together we flew up the locks in just over 2 hours, giving us plenty of time to carry on to Lapworth and part of the way down the Stratford canal. Paul had left us at the top of Hatton but Vicki and Lauren were able to stay with us for the rest of the week which was delightful. We had time to enjoy the sights of Stratford, although we didn't go to the theatre this time, and then confused everybody by going backwards down the lock to the river because that avoided a lot of manoeuvring in the crowded basin.


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A willing, if somewhat tired, crew on the way to Stratford
This lighthouse at Offenham lock always makes me smile
The plaque on the side of the lighthouse explains all
You have to make sure you can stop for the rope ferry below Evesham

The Avon was absolutely delightful, flowing slowly beneath wonderful summer sunshine. Telford, of course, did not like it as much as he liked the canal, but even he had a thoroughly good time running around the fields where we moored overnight. The river seemed to be almost deserted, until we reached Pershore which for no apparent reason was jam-packed solid with boats. As we travelled down the river from there we began to worry that we may not be able to find a good mooring for the night, but after a couple of hours we spotted that the last three feet of the public mooring at Comberton Quay were clear. We reversed back to that point, and tied the stern to the bank leaving the rest of the boat swinging around in the river, then dropped the mud-weight from the bows to hold them steady. This was perfectly fine for us, but caused amazement amongst the cruisers who were moored on the rest of the Quay; as I walked past with the dogs I could hear people talking on their phones and saying to their friends "you'll never guess what a great big narrowboat has done so that he can moor up!". As it drew darker I was worried that our bows were at least 30ft from the bank and could be a hazard to any night-time traffic; although such traffic would be very unusual I took the precaution of setting up a  riding light which would remain alight all night, and I was glad that I had done so when a number of inflatable rescue-boats came flying past us on a late-night training exercise.

Soon we were at Tewkesbury. The lock-keeper expertly guided us into his lock, using our bow rope on a strapping post, and sent us on our way down the Severn towards Gloucester. We moored at Haw Bridge that night; the floating pontoon was resting on the bottom because the river was exceptionally low, which made the access walkway too steep for the dogs' paws to grip properly and I had to resort to walking behind Molly and giving her a push to help her up to the top. The next morning was beautiful; we saw a kingfisher near Wainlode Hill, and then a seal which was having a massive battle with a huge fish that it had caught; unfortunately I wasn't quick enough to get any photos of them. We then heard a call over the VHF radio, to beware of a cow that was swimming in the river near the Partings; sure enough, a few minutes later we passed it and confirmed its position to the lock keeper. Apparently the Fire Brigade launched a small boat and rescued it soon afterwards.


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This boat was stranded here at Tewkesbury by last winter's floods
It is good to see that the gravel barges are still operating on the Severn

The low water level had resulted a quantity of debris being trapped on the weir below Gloucester, but the previous day's exceptional Spring Tide had over-topped the weir and washed it all up into the narrow Partings to cause a blockage. We were advised to hold back while it was being cleared, but despite our throttling right back and just drifting down with the current, the work-boat was still grappling with a reluctant tree-trunk as we approached and I had the interesting task of holding station in reverse gear until they were clear. After a few minutes they were able to tow the tree down river, launching it towards the weir and then joining us in the lock up to the Docks. We spent just a couple of days in Gloucester this time, but this still gave us time to have a wonderful meal of Lobster, Tapas, and Pancakes in the Tall Ship pub by the docks.

Our family crew then left us and returned home, so early the next morning we locked down to the river and started back upstream. The river was still flowing very slowly so we made good time to Diglis Lock (below Worcester) where we waited for nearly an hour to be allowed into the lock, even though the keeper let some boats down during this time. We couldn't raise him on the radio, and couldn't seem to attract his attention wherever we positioned ourselves although an engineer waved to us; apparently he was only there to survey the fitting of a CCTV system that would let the lock-keeper see boats more easily, but it never occurred to him to tell the lock keeper that we were there. Eventually I found the phone number and called him that way. The (deputy) lock keeper said we should have hooted to alert him, but another boat that we spoke to the following day said that they had hooted when the same thing happened to them later that same afternoon and the lock keeper had been extremely abusive to them for doing so.

In Worcester I was able to buy a replacement for our broken hopper window, off the shelf directly from the manufacturers and complete with the necessary locking catches already fitted and working. Full marks to Worcester Marine Windows for excellent service here. The next morning was so misty that actually we travelled up-river with all our navigation lights on. When the mist cleared, all the local kingfishers came out for breakfast which made the journey absolutely magical; the sun came out and this handsome fellow posed solemnly for us as we passed him.




Our route home took us via Stourbridge and Stourport to Birmingham. In Hockley Port we met our friends John and Nicki  whose wonderful wedding party we had attended last year, and then we were very glad of John's help down the Farmers Bridge flight as were stuck behind an extremely slow boat whose target time for the 2-hour flight was otherwise 12 hours! I hope they were as grateful as we were for his help as their lock-wheeler.

We had time for a gentle diversion up the Ashby canal with some more good friends who joined us at Atherstone. After a couple of lovely days of relaxed cruising, stopping to pick blackberries as we went, they left us at Congerstone which was just a short taxi-ride back to their car. We also retraced our tracks to Atherstone to stock up with supplies at the supermarkets, but rather more slowly. The hot summer sun was just a memory now, and we took our time so that we could dodge several gales and rainstorms, then as we pulled into Atherstone we suddenly lost all drive, and I could easily see that all the oil had leaked from the gearbox into the bilges. The cause of this was just a split O-ring, which luckily I was able to replace quite easily after buying a replacement at a nearby motorcycle shop. After working on it I realised that the prop-shaft bearing nearest  the gearbox was also failing so on our way back towards Milton Keynes I arranged for it to be replaced at Braunston a month later (which would be after a weekend gathering of Canal World Forum members that was happening at Buckby). During the course of these repairs unfortunately it transpired that the prop-shaft and its main stern-tube bearing were also in urgent need of replacement, for which the boat needs be in dry-dock so now we know where our first trip next year will be taking us.

Overall 2013 was a magnificent year for us on Keeping Up, travelling a total of 1550 miles. Although this is a marginally shorter distance than in our record year of 2004, we also passed through 900 locks this year which is a record. I can hardly wait for our 2014 adventures to begin!



Sweden: the Gota canal Springtime in the East Midlands Summer 2013 part 1: the Lower Thames
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