Saturday, 11 July 2020

Grand Union Canal. Flecknoe to Kingswood Junction.

 We stayed at Flecknoe for six nights, five pointing East and one pointing West after we’d been to Braunston and back for water and elsan. After weeks and weeks of Covid 19 lockdown when we didn’t see any of our mates, the easing of the restrictions not only brought a glimmer of light in the tunnel, but also made Flecknoe feel like a bit of a social whirlwind. First Bob and Mandy came to see us; they had intended to bring Matilda Blue and do a bit of boating with us, but that plan got scuppered when one of the lock gates on the Watford flight broke so they came in the car instead. It was lovely and sunny when they turned up, Dave had cut the hedge and put some chairs out...
...but the moment Ann-Marie brought the scones and tea outside it started raining. Of course physical distancing was still in force so we couldn’t all just go and sit in the boat, and it seemed very bad form for us to go inside and leave Bob an Mandy out in the downpour, so despite handing out umbrellas we all got thoroughly soaked. As did the scones, the tea, the butter dish, the jam pot and the cream. We should have all been miserable and abandoned the whole thing as a failed disaster, but boaters are made of sterner stuff, and we all found it rather funny

That evening, after the rain had stopped, we went just the other side of the hedge to have a lovely meal with Gordon and Helena who’ve moved out to Flecknoe from their house overlooking Braunston marina. Even with the restrictions, they still managed to be the perfect hosts. Gordon never let anyone’s glass even approach empty, and Helena produced some amazing food without fuss or apparent effort. They’re some of our most favourite people and so easy to be with. We love spending time with them.

When Colin and Julia came to visit a couple of days later, in order to avoid a repeat performance of the cream tea drowning, we erected a makeshift shelter made from an old tent groundsheet.
They’d come up to Braunston to order a new cover for the wheelhouse on Smith’s Lady, so it was a perfect opportunity for them to come over for lunch under our canopy and to have a catch up. It was great to see them again and we’re really pleased that they got to see Legend in its natural environment, ie in a canal with more than just the roof visible from the bank. Of course not one spot of rain fell while they were there.

Before we left Flecknoe we scored a friends jackpot by driving over to Rugby to see Lindsay and Paul and had lunch in their ever growing garden. Linz has done an amazing job repainting Happy Daze, it looks really stunning and has spurred us on a bit with ideas about touching up and sign-writing Legend. Another happy afternoon with some more of our favourite people.

Far too soon the social fairground ride came to and end. We said goodbye to Flecknoe and retraced our steps back to Wigram’s Turn where we made a right turn under the bridge to stay on the GU.
It is a bit unusual to have to turn off a canal in order to stay on it, but this is because of a historical anomaly that is worth explaining.

The Oxford canal was up and running years before the Grand Union was even thought of, completed in 1790. For 15 years it was the only - and therefore very profitable - route from Birmingham to London. However, to use it, boats had to follow a huge Z across the country, firstly via the Birmingham & Fazely and Coventry canals to Hawksbury junction, then round Brindley’s tortuous contour bends on the Oxford with the final leg down the unpredictable and just as bendy River Thames. For the first few years this wasn’t a problem as most of the trade on canals was local; coal from mines to cities, lime from blast furnaces to fields, wool to the mills and finished products back to the market etc. But very soon the long distance trade that canals made possible became more lucrative and investors began looking for something better. After the earlier canal building techniques of following contours gave way to William Jessop’s more ambitious cuttings and embankments of the Canal Mania years, a more direct route was proposed in order to speed things up. The Grand Junction Canal, later to become the Grand Union, had to cross the Oxford at some point, and it seemed sensible to do it between Napton and Braunston where the former could use a couple of miles of the latter’s navigation to save a bit of digging. As it turned out, the tolls that the Oxford Canal Company charged GUCC boats for using their five mile stretch of water were so extortionate that it might have been more prudent to build an aqueduct. Eventually the Grand Junction bought out Oxford and swallowed up the five mile stretch, cutting the Oxford into north and south sections.
Which is why the North Oxford Canal doesn’t go anywhere near Oxford, why the South Oxford Canal confuses everyone by going north from Oxford, and why boats on the Grand Union turn off it at Wigram’s Turn in order to stay on it.

We came down the Calcutt and Stockton flights with a very shiny, newly painted boat called Rickman.
We’d noticed it a couple of times around Braunston and we’d commented on how perfect and expensive looking the paintwork was, so there was quite a bit of trepidation as we carefully followed them into the locks, trying to avoid scuffing against them. It was quite windy in some of the pounds, which didn’t help, but they were lovely people and happily forgave Dave the odd bump.

At the bottom of Stockton we stopped on the Aqueduct at Long Itchington and moored up behind a very gorgeous looking pair of historic boats…

… a Star Class motor called Phobus and a Town Class butty called Alperton. They turned out to be lived on and owned by a really interesting couple who we spent a fabulous impromptu towpath evening with.

While we were at Radford Semele it was so hot that we had a couple of days just crashed out with all the windows open. The weather this summer is crazy, it’s either so hot we can’t move ourselves, or so windy we can’t move the boat, or raining so we don’t want to do either. It doesn’t make getting across to Stourport in a hurry particularly easy, but considering our recent history, anything that involves navigation of any form is fine by us.

Going up Hatton really brought home to us just how far we’ve come as boaters. When we first came up these 21 wide locks nine years ago, we really didn’t know what to expect; it’s a big challenge if you’ve never done something like that before. We put a call out on social media for volunteers to come and help and ended up with 14 people, all eager to wind paddles and push gates. And although we had a fabulous fun filled day, when we look back we realise just how chaotic it was. Now, with just the two of us and two and a half thousand more locks under our belts, Legend gracefully ascends, drama free and controlled under our watchful eyes,

...and we even have time to shut the gates behind the pair of boats going up ahead. We’ve learnt a lot.

We stopped at the top of Hatton for a few days before crossing the long pound to Kingswood Junction. While we were there we walked over to Kenilworth to look at the castle...
...and pick up - of all things - a couple of copies of the Waitrose newspaper. While we’d been at Wallingford we’d got hooked on doing the crossword and the sudoku puzzles on a Friday morning. (We’d also got hooked on the free coffee and a sticky, but we think its probably a good idea that we can’t do that till lockdown is properly lifted) So now, on a Thursday or Friday, if we find ourselves within three or four miles of a Waitrose, we’ll feed our compulsion and get a bit of exercise at the same time. To be fair, we have been walking a lot since we left the Thames and have only missed going out on the days when it has really been horrible. Here’s some nice walking pictures.

 Some farmers don't make it easy.
 A Beacon of Light. And a beacon

The section of the GU from Braunston to Birmingham was drastically modified in the 1930s; all the locks were widened to accommodate two narrowboats side by side and a good deal of the edges were concreted. Lots of the concrete edges still remain and are very useful for painting and other maintenance jobs. Better still, the towpath changes sides quite regularly, so after three weeks, by the time we left the GU, we had brand new paint on our red stripes and gunnels on both sides of the boat, and Legend was looking better than ever.

So, after three very enjoyable weeks on the GU, we turned left and slid under the Lapworth Link towpath bridge at Kingswood and through the lock to join the north Stratford Canal for the next step on our journey.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

South Oxford Canal. Oxford to Napton.

As Legend is now 30 years old, our insurance company has asked for a survey in order to continue our cover. It should have been done for our renewal this year, but due to the pandemic they gave us a years grace. So, because of that and the fact that the boat needs another blacking, the first thing we did once we were on the Oxford was ring round slipways and dry docks for availability. Lime Kiln Chandlery, who run Stourport dry dock where we were three years ago, came back with a few dates in June and July which were too soon for us to get there, but they also had a week from the 7th of August. We had a quick chat and decided that if we got our skates on we could get across to Gloucestershire in time, so we booked it. Afterwards we sat down and worked out a moving plan.
113 miles, 167 locks and 10 weeks to do it in. So moving every three days, less if we can, will get us there in plenty of time. Our route will take in the South Oxford, Grand Union, North Stratford, Worcester & Birmingham and  Droitwich canals, and the River Severn.
It includes three big lock flights - Hatton (21), Lapworth(15) and Tardebigge (30, the longest flight on the network).  Our three day moving plan is move the boat, move the car, go for a walk. So with all that, by the time we get to Stourport we should be super fit. The Worcester & Birmingham south of King's Norton Junction is uncharted territory for us, so we’re ticking another waterway off the list.

Once we had a dry dock booked the next thing was a surveyor. Lots of emails, lots of quotes, lots of questions and we finally picked one. We're going into the dry dock on the Friday and he’s coming on the Monday morning, along with his assistant, at 9am and will take approximately 4 hours to examine our boat. The insurers have also asked for a valuation, which should be interesting. Unlike houses, boats depreciate over time, so we’ll find out what effect the improvements we’ve made have had. Not that it matters. At the end of the day, Legend is our home; we love and cherish it, giving it a monetary value won’t alter that but it would be interesting to know.

So far our journey has been covering old ground on the South Oxford. We know this canal well; mooring up at places we’ve been before and walking familiar footpaths feels like coming home. Thrupp, Upper Heyford, The Pig Place at Nell Bridge, Banbury, Cropredy, Clattercote, Fenny Compton, Marston Doles, Napton, each holds memories for us and has a story to tell.
One place we hadn’t been to before though was Jericho in Oxford. In the past the bottom stretch of canal into the city has been a bit of a no-go area for boats that are passing through. If you wanted to get to the Thames, the way to go was to turn right just below the A34 and get to the river via Dukes Cut. That’s the way we went two years ago when we were heading upstream, but this time, coming from the south, we decided to go through Isis lock and have a cruise through the badlands. And we found that it’s not the badlands at all.
We stopped on a very nice mooring spot right by Jericho wharf, and there were plenty more to chose from further out from the city centre. Because of the pandemic restrictions, actually being in the city wasn’t a very attractive proposition, but we didn’t want to move any further until we’d gone back to Wallingford for the car. So we moored up in Oxford and we can report that the natives are friendly and don’t try to eat you.

Car recovery required some serious logistical strategy. Because of all the twists and turns in the river, and the enormous loop at Abingdon, retracing our steps by foot would have taken over 22 miles along the Thames path. However there was a much more direct route across the fields taking in the delightfully named village of Toot Balden, then following a Roman road to Dorchester where we could pick up the Thames path to Wallingford. That knocked about 7 miles off, and the best bit was that we could do the first 5 miles on our bikes, getting us right out of the city down National Cycle Way No. 5 to Sandford lock. There we could lock the bikes up in the pub car park and do the rest of the journey on foot. It was tremendously satisfying to not have to resort to using public transport.

When we untied and set off for Thrupp the next morning, Oxford didn’t seem to want to let us go. It started well, going under the beautifully decorated bridges,
However, when we got to the A34 we came to a lift bridge that wouldn’t lift. The lock was firmly holding it shut, but there wasn’t anything to put our key into and pulling on the chain just made the whole thing twist.
We phoned CRT and tied up, expecting a long wait. Ann-Marie put a post about our predicament on a facebook boating group, and a couple of people came back telling us that there hasn’t been a lock barrel in there for years, and all we had to do was give it a good yank. Dave bounced on the chain a couple of times twisting the bridge rather alarmingly, then there was a big CLONK, the bridge swung up and we got going again, but it really felt like we were going to break it.

We got a super mooring in Thrupp just before the services.
With the cafe and pub closed it was very quiet.

For the section from Upper Heyford to Nell Bridge, we had crew (if you can call someone who isn't allowed on the boat "crew") in the shape of Paul, a friend of ours from WRG who lives nearby. He was only too happy to help with the windlassing and gate pushing and even a spot of unexpected bridge opening.
This one is usually left open. Today it was shut.
When we got to Nell Bridge we pulled over to the Pig Place landing stage to buy some gas.
Black clouds had been gathering for some time and as we were tying up the heavens opened and it threw it down. We had no choice but to just chuck a brolly to Paul and head inside where we could watch him getting soaked.
It wasn't long before the sun came back again and Paul's other half, Amanda turned up. We pushed over to the towpath and put a couple of chairs out for them. Ann-Marie produced lunch and lashings of tea and we all sat in the sun two meters apart.
A social distanced cream tea.
With all this moving and walking over the next ten weeks there won’t be a lot time to do anything else, so it’s just as well that we got so much done at Wallingford. There were only three fairly small painting jobs left; the inside of the well deck, which we got on with at Thrupp...
...the front doors and door frames, which got started at Upper Heyford and finished in Banbury...
...and a non slip sand coating on the right hand gunnel which is waiting for three sunny days with the gunnel on the towpath side. However there are always little jobs to keep us on our toes. On the way up Claydon locks, the wire that we pull to stop the engine came off, so Dave had to dive into the engine ‘ole and re-attach it before we could turn it off. There’s never a dull moment.

On the days between boat and car move we’ve got back into the habit of going for proper walks. At Wallingford, just going a mile and a half to the lock and back for water each day had made us soft, so we were determined to get back into the proper long all day walks that keep us fit. The OS maps came out and we started rediscovering the beautiful bits of England once again.  

Boating through Banbury was a bit of a surprise; the council are half way through a redevelopment scheme so the carpark and the footbridge have both gone and instead there are the foundations of a Premier Inn and a new multiscreen cinema.

 Poor old Tooly's boat yard is going to be even more swallowed up by big new buildings.

Cropredy and Clattercote were just as quiet as Thrupp...

 ... but by the time we got to Fenny Compton more boats were moving and although the pubs were still shut, and the hire boats were very conspicuous by their absence, the canal was getting busier again.
 From Fenny, we'd meant to move to Marston Doles, but as we wound our way round the Wormleighton bends we came to the most idyllic mooring spot and simply had to pull over. It's in the middle of nowhere and we've called it Ladder Bridge.
Why have we never moored here before?
It was quiet and peaceful and there was a fabulous view out over a rippling barley field to the rolling hills on the horizon. We put the chairs out and sat and looked at it for about four hours. Of course having a nearby phone mast helped with the idyllicness. 

The weather couldn't really make it's mind up when we reluctantly left Ladder Bridge the next morning. As we passed the HS2 construction site the clouds were gathering once more.
The big nasty railway. 
We thought we'd only get to the top of the Napton flight before we got wet, but it held off so we dropped down the locks to moor up by the Folly. That was the first time that we'd gone down a lock since leaving the K&A last October.
They'll not be much help with the locks.
 This years winter maintenance.

After leaving the bottom lock we went round the corner and moored up just before the windy 'ole, but we soon found out there was no phone signal whatsoever, so after lunch we carried on again, this time heading for Flecknoe and Bridge 102 on the bit of the Grand Union that joins the North and South Oxford canals together. This means that we've now completed the first leg of our journey to Stourport
 We were two days ahead of our busy schedule so we'd decided to go and do some social distanced visiting of friends before going the other way on the GU and down the Stockton flight.

Here's some photos of our roof garden this year. We don't  know if it's the river water, or because it was so hot in April and May or what, but we've got a bumper crop so far.

Grand Union Canal. Flecknoe to Kingswood Junction.

  We stayed at Flecknoe for six nights, five pointing East and one pointing West after we’d been to Braunston and back for water and elsan....