Monday, 25 August 2014

Blogging in the bank holiday rain

We called time on our extended Thames jaunt at Henley, mooring up to do some shopping as well as gawping in estate agents at the multi-million pound properties in the area.

Returning upstream we stopped above Shillingford lock for the night before joining the Kennet & Avon navigation at Reading early the next morning.

Even though it hasn't rained much recently the Kennet is a frisky little river and there was noticeably more flow against us as we worked through the city. Part of the navigation is one-way and controlled by traffic lights so we had to press the button and wait for the green light.

The Kennet winds out of Reading in a narrow, fast flowing channel. Virtually every lock seems to be a different size or design and the first one out of Reading is a whopper, probably over 100' long, which is no bad thing given the strong bywash which crosses the lock at its entrance.

We stopped early once we got a little way out of Reading, giving David time to mentally prepare himself for his annual baking effort - a (belated) birthday cake for Victoria.

Next day we came across a really unusual lock - these are turf sided locks which have no walls as such, the water fills all around the boat and the boat is held in place by metal beams. They were a feature of the K&A (amongst others) but only two now remain.

Because this end of the K&A is a mixture of river and artificial canal cuts it can be hard to find moorings. We eventually stopped above Aldermaston lock, after a long wait at the lift bridge (time delay in rush hour, 8 minutes between lifts) which seems to be a major irritation for local motorists!
From Aldermaston the next lock upstream has a lot of big red warning text in our guidebook as there is a skewed swing bridge followed by a lock where the river flows strongly across the entrance. Victoria walked on to prepare the lock and it all went smoothly - as seems to be the way when nobody is around to watch.
We were glad to meet nb Quaintrelle above Woolhampton lock. The K&A locks are pretty ferocious, many only have gate paddles which let a lot of water in at once and throw a single narrowboat around. Sharing locks is much quicker and easier and we had a great run to Thatcham with nb Quaintrelle, where they stopped to meet friends. We carried on to Newbury where we moored at Victoria Park.
Newbury is a lovely town with a bustling centre. We liked it so much we somehow didn't get round to moving on the next day and ended up having two nights there.

The river is right at the heart of Newbury and the channel up to Newbury lock is really pretty. This is another lock the guidebook suggests you set ahead as the river current can be quite strong through Newbury and there are cross-flows beneath the lock. Again we did as we were told and had no problems.
Another boat had set off from above the lock just as we were coming up and waited for us after West Mills swing bridge. We made good progress with nb Darcy, especially as she had plenty of crew to help with the locks.
Darcy's ship's cat tried to make a break for freedom at every lock and probably used up a few of his nine lives but we enjoyed the cruise to Hungerford with them. We are most likely staying put today enjoying the usual bank holiday rain.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Over thirty and still.....boating!

Oops, being the technological wizzards we clearly aren't we have managed to delete the last blog... so here's a quick summary - completed the south Oxford, did the tourist thing in Oxford, got on the Thames at Dukes Cut and went upstream to Lechlade. All clear? Good, we'll pick up where we left off then!

Lechlade is the official upstream navigable limit of the Thames. The river is wide right through Lechlade itself but the Nicholsons guide assures you there is ample room further upstream to turn a full length (~70') narrowboat.

So we tried in our 57' boat and failed. Quite badly. The turning point is at the junction with the river Coln and the disused Thames & Severn Canal, which looks like this:

The idea is to put the bows into the River Coln on the right and pivot the stern upstream in the Thames, stage left. Maybe it was the after-effects of a dodgy meal and a few too many pints at the Boat House pub the night before but we made a bit of a mess of this. The flow from the Coln took the front of Pas Mèche into a tree and the stern became firmly wedged on the opposite bank.

In our defence the river level is very low and the left bank in the top photo is very silted up from cows walking down into the river to drink. It was also reassuring to note that the tree that caught us was covered in all shades of narrowboat paint so we're obviously not the first to make a mess of this turn.

With the help of a lot of shoving on poles and a few passing walkers pulling a rope we managed to get ourselves free and tried again.

Second time around we powered up into the Coln and beached the bows well enough to stay put while we swung the stern around. Success at last but with the river this low and silted up I'd recommend anyone with a boat over about 50-55' turns further downstream nearer the bridge in Lechlade.

Drama over, we set off at a decent speed going with the flow downstream and managed an unusally long day to Farmoor Reservoir on the outskirts of Oxford.

On Sunday we stayed put as ex-hurricane Bertha passed over. We managed a wet and windy walk around the reservoir but fortunately the weather wasn't as bad as forecast.

The following day we were up and off early, aiming for Oxford. This is a stretch of the Thames we haven't done before and the reach below Godstow lock is more like a flooded field than a river - the edges are incredibly shallow so it pays to stick to the middle of the river.

Unless that is you enjoy a dip. We spotted a boat aground and offered to tow him off the mud. The owner seemed surprisingly relaxed and declined, prefering to jump in wearing just his swimming shorts and push the boat off himself. Takes all sorts but we think he was French so maybe that explains it.

Passing the Sheepwash Channel entrance to the Oxford Canal we had cold sweats and flashbacks to 2012 when we were towed off the river on red boards. Fortunately the river was calm this time and we squeezed under Osney Bridge (the lowest on the river) with room to spare and moored above Osney Lock (free for 24 hours).

From Oxford we took our time over the next few days, stopping in Abingdon and Dorchester on the way.

The next day we were due to have university friends visiting so we gave Pas Mèche a thorough clean in their honour. Even David was spotted wielding a duster - Tony I hope you appreciated the effort!

We got to Wallingford (home for 11 days in the floods of 2012 so we know it well!) and moored up in time to meet Tony & Charlotte and their son Harry who had come to see us.

It was great to catch up and we even managed to sleep 5 onboard which is a record. Thankfully little Harry wasn't the least bit bothered by having to sleep in the kitchen and we set off for a short cruise the following day with Captain Salmon at the helm.

Amazingly we all survived Tony's steering and moored up in Goring before Tony and David recreated their university cycling team days with a flat out folding bike sprint back to Wallingford to collect the car.

The following day was Victoria's birthday and it was an important one. Being a gentleman I won't say how old she is but it was such an important milestone she was treated to special birthday porridge
Victoria's friend Carolyn and partner Rob came to visit which was well timed for the birthday girl. It was lovely to see them and we had a nice walk in the hills above Goring.

As we still have a few days left on our Thames visitor license we have gone past Reading today instead of turning onto the Kennet & Avon canal (which we will soon) and carried on to Wargrave. In Reading we saw a familiar boat who we were marooned in Wallingford with in 2012. Rachel - if you manage to find our blog it was good to see you again albeit briefly and we hope you don't mind us giving your boat its 15 minutes of fame on our blog!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Awesome foursome

Since our last update we've travelled on four different canals. That makes it sound like we've been doing a lot more boating than usual but it's really just down to where we are on the system having a lot of junctions.

We left the Ashby Canal at Marston Junction and turned left to continue where we left off on the Coventry. After a few miles we reached Hawkesbury Junction, where the Oxford Canal joins in what must be the most contorted junction on the system. The two canals run parallel for a short stretch and to join the Oxford from the north you have to do a 180 degree U-turn (back over Victoria's left shoulder below).

Looking back to 2009 it's amazing that we managed this manoevre having just picked up the boat. This time we avoided this handbrake turn junction by carrying straight on into Coventry.

The run into Coventry is mostly unremarkable - urban and industrial most of the way. It was at least much freer from litter than we had been warned and we caught nothing on the propeller all the way in. The basin at the end is quiet and well kept and we managed to moor in a prime photo opportunity right underneath the statue of James Brindley.

For boaters reference the arm behind us is now for use by the hire firm based here, the public moorings are in the other arm in front of Pas Mèche.

We had a look around Coventry - highlights of the city seem to be the cathedral which was heavily bombed (along with the rest of the city) in the Second World War, and the transport museum which is free to get in and excellent (if hot!).

The following day we made an early start to get back to Hawkesbury Junction. Joining the Oxford from this direction is far easier; simply a wiggle under the bridge and you're in the stop-lock outside the Greyhound pub. You can just make out all the tables in the photo below for drinkers to sit and watch boats make a mess of this turn.

The Oxford is immediately different to the Coventry, being green and rural. Apart from the stop lock at Hawkesbury it had been a few days since we'd done any locks so the three paired locks at Hilmorton made quite a change from lazy boating.

We like paired locks - you can see Pas Mèche is climbing one lock here and just to the right is another chamber where a second boat can either climb or descend at the same time.

Here a boat is descending the lock on the right while another climbs in the left chamber. These locks did cause a bit of confusion for some newbies from a nearby hire firm who had never worked a lock before, let alone figured out which way everyone was going in two at the same time! We stopped in some shade at the top where David's friend Ben came to visit.

The next day we were up early again, trying to avoid the heat. We were heading to Braunston which is a really busy spot as it's a junction of several canals and generally seen as the heart of the canal system (although the signs in Birmingham claim that honour).

The approach from the north is rural and very scenic. Braunston church is visible from a fair way away as the canal winds towards the village.

The double arched bridge below marks where the Oxford and Grand Union Canals meet, we kept left and were aiming to cruise into the centre of Braunston near the marina.

 However, Pas Mèche had other ideas as we managed to catch a coal bag on the propeller just after the junction and coasted to a stop in a perfectly sized 57' space in front of the immaculately kept nb Chance who kindly helped us moor.

We met Ben again for Sunday lunch before walking up the wide locks of the Grand Union through Braunston to remind us of our route from 2009. We must've been getting the hang of it by this point of our boating initiation as we could remember a lot more from Hilmorton onwards!

Evening entertainment was provided courtesy of a very drunk stag do on a hire boat weaving across the canal along the line of boats. In their defence they were at least going very slowly past the moored boats, which is something a lot of boaters seem to have forgotten how to do!

The following day we continued into Braunston but only as far as the water point and winding hole (turning place to landlubbers reading). We then moored up to do a bit of wallet draining at the chandlers.

We left Braunston and moored that night near Napton on the South Oxford canal where we were treated to a fantastic sunset.

We decided to make an early start up Napton locks and timed our arrival perfectly to meet a boat coming out of the bottom lock. This is a lovely flight with views of the village as you climb.

We reached the summit level at Marston Doles before carrying on for a couple of miles to find a shady mooring.

The summit level of the South Oxford is the definition of a contour canal (i.e. one that follows the flattest course rather than using locks/cuttings/embankments to shorten the route). It is over 10 miles long but spends half its time going in the wrong direction. Nevertheless it is incredibly scenic so we didn't mind it being slow going due to shallow sections.

Near the end of the summit level we met nb Brendon who we hired from Union Canal Carriers back in 2009. This was the boat that gave us the idea of living on a boat so we were really pleased to see it.

After a quick lunch at the top of Claydon locks we descended the five locks, meeting lots of hire boats returning to Napton/Calcutt/Braunston, and moored at the bottom. We cycled into Cropredy where there is a festival in about a week's time. We were amazed how many boats were moored already - they must've stretched a good half mile out of the village.

So the following morning was a slow start, tickover past all the moored boats either side of Cropredy and squeezing past oncoming boats in what was left of the canal. All part of the fun though and most people were good natured.

We made it to Banbury for a late lunch and moored by Spiceball Park as there was a floating market at the main town-centre moorings so it was pretty busy there.

After a bit of shopping in the morning we left Banbury after lunch - just in time for a biblical downpour! It's been that long since we've had rain that it was actually quite a nice change... although we don't want too much as we're heading for the River Thames where we have a history of getting stuck with floods.

We haven't come far out of Banbury but the canal seems a lot quieter already now we're away from the Braunston/Napton hire boat hotspots and the Cropredy festival. We're looking forward to the rest of the Oxford Canal as it's been a beautiful canal so far.