Wednesday 9 August 2017

Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. Splatt Bridge to Rea Bridge.

The Waterways Recovery Group – WRG - is a (very) active arm of the Inland Waterways Association. We got involved last year after we attended the IWA AGM and met some highly enthusiastic “WRGies”. We went along to two weekend camps; the Bonfire Bash last November and the BCN clean-up earlier this year. On the strength of those we decided to volunteer for two week-long camps this year, one on the Mon and Brec and one on the Grantham.

Although every canal camp is unique, they loosely follow a well-rehearsed and trusted basic formula. Each camp has a Leader, an Assistant Leader, a cook and up to fifteen additional volunteers. They are all accommodated in somewhere like a church or village hall, so sleeping arrangements are fairly primitive, but fun and quite often cosy. Meals are all taken together and there is always plenty of food. Chores are shared out between the volunteers. Each camp gets the use of two of WRG’s fleet of nine-seater minibuses along with a trailer for all the cooking, digging, scrub bashing, surveying and brick-laying kit,  plus first aid and PPE.
All the volunteers arrive on the Saturday afternoon and after dinner there is a safety brief. During the rest of the week, days are spent on site, which is usually, but not always, at the focus of the next big push by one canal restoration society or another. These places are rarely somewhere our boat can go, and in a lot of cases never will be in our lifetimes, but with successful restorations like the Ashton, Rochdale, Droitwich and Huddersfield canals behind them - all of which were, at one time or another, deemed impossible – having only a vague deadline, or even none at all, does not faze WRG in the slightest. They turn up, get stuck in, put one brick on top of another, and low and behold, another impossible-to-restore stretch of waterway gradually comes back to life.

The restoration society we were assisting was the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust and our accommodation was in the Methodist Hall in Cross Keys.

Ralph had phoned Dave a few weeks earlier asking him if he would like to drive one of the minibuses. This meant that we needed to arrive at lunch time so that Dave could be assessed and ticketed. While Dave was out on his assessment, Ann-Marie helped to count all the kit into the hall from the trailer, then when he got back we both went off to the train station at Newport to pick up four more volunteers.
This year the two Mon and Brec Canal Camps had a slightly different focus to previous years. Past camps have rebuilt bridges and lock walls...

...but this year Ralph Mills, the camp leader, wanted to bring his two passions together and explore the history of the Ty Coch lock flight with an archaeological excavation of the site of the lock keepers cottage. The cottage was knocked down in the 1950’s but there are a couple of photographs and an old OS map which pinpoint its location.

Apart from Ralph, (who was born with a trowel in his hand) only two of our band of modern day Navvys had any experience of archaeology, so before letting us loose on the real thing, we had a day digging and scraping a test trench a bit further down the site.
The next day Ralph marked out the excavation trench proper and we began removing turf and working our way down. By Tuesday morning we had uncovered a rock fall...
...and in the afternoon, to great excitement, Ann-Marie discovered the foundations of a wall.
Further up the trench, after Ralph had photographed the fallen rocks, Dave removed them and carried on digging down through a thick layer of clay and discovered another wall.
While all this was going on, other members of our team were also making discoveries. A growing pile of finds built up on the picnic bench waiting to be cleaned. Lots of pottery in various colours, various bolts, nails and other metal objects, several pieces of clay pipe plus surprising things like a pot noodle wrapper with a 1980 sell-by date and two plastic toy soldiers from the 1950s.
By close of play on Thursday the trench had gone out sideways, floors and a doorway had been discovered and the pile of find-bags was bigger than ever.
Cleaning the finds.
On Friday it threw it down, so we went for a visit to Big Pit mining museum.

Mention needs to be made about the food. Ayushi was Ralph’s assistant leader but, as no-one had volunteered for cooking duties; she kindly took on that role as well. Canal camps have a reputation of being well catered and this one was no exception. The meals were terrific and seemingly never ending. Ayushi also provided some inspired evening entertainment, becoming a Transylvanian games master for a hilarious role-playing game called Mafia.
It was interesting and very pleasurable to watch, and be part of a group of complete strangers coming together to live, trust and work with each other as a team. It was all over too quickly and we can't wait till the next one.
Before breakfast each morning Dave, when he wasn’t on sandwich making duty, took himself out for a walk. Here are some early morning photos of the hills around Cross Keys.

Back home after a week away it took us a couple of days of recovering to get back into action.
The automatic plant watering system was deemed a success, there was a lot of dead heading to be done and the petunias were looking a bit leggy, but everything was still alive and green and the batteries were fine.

We had a bit of a hitch with our next boat move. We’d thought that the summer bridge opening times were 8 till 8, so we’d planned to let the washing dry and have an evening cruise from Splatt Bridge to Saul Junction. At just after 7, with hardly a breeze and the promise of a glorious sunset, we set off towards Fretherne Bridge; the only obstacle between us and our chosen mooring. We knew we’d cocked it up when we rounded the corner and instead of either a red or green light, there were no lights at all. A closer inspection also revealed a very definite absence of bridge keepers.
If, Dear Reader, you should travel this way (and we sincerely hope you do) please note that summer bridge opening times are 8am to 7pm. And we’d missed it. There being nowhere to moor near the bridge we turned round. (We are really going to miss the ability to turn a 57’ boat anywhere we like!) About 200 yards away, on the off-side, we found two little clearings between the brambles, no doubt kept clear for fishermen, but conveniently spaced for our front and back end, so we turned around again and, with no small measure of thorn prickles and a good deal of swearing, managed to secure ourselves to the bank with fore and aft access, while the middle of the boat was squashed into the blackberry bushes.
Hardly ideal, but it was only for one night. By half past eight in the morning with, it appeared, a whole new population of spiders who had taken advantage of the proximity offered by the blackberry bushes and installed themselves on board overnight, we were through the bridge and tied up just before the café at Saul Junction.

In the afternoon we went for a rather hot walk along the line of the as-yet unnavigable Stoudwater Canal.
The Cotswold Canal Trust is well on the way to full restoration; it is quite possible that when we come this way again we’ll be able to do this journey by boat. At the moment though, 200 yards from Saul Junction, it is crossed by Walk Bridge on the level. A little further on there is the “Missing Mile” where the original line has been obliterated by the A38 and the M5. There are plans afoot to dig a new channel through the middle of a roundabout and to share a culvert under the motorway with the river.
After that, however, things begin to look brighter. At Duck Lock we came across a WRG canal camp in full swing, rebuilding the steps and wing walls.
We hadn’t realised that WRG were doing anything near to where we were. Maybe next year we’ll volunteer for a camp on the Cotswolds, then maybe at some point we’ll be able to bring our boat through a lock or bridge that we’ve had a hand in restoring. That would be fantastic.
We walked as far as Nutshell Bridge where the sandwiches ran out... we turned round and saved the rest for another day.
Just over a mile from home. Ooh-er

On one of our towpath walks we came across two leisure batteries that some uncaring boater had dumped. We noted their position and when we came past with the boat we picked them up; partly because they’re worth weighing in, but mostly because we hate seeing stuff dumped on the towpath. We see boat life as the perfect opportunity to reduce our impact on the planet, we are acutely aware of every watt of electricity we generate, every pint of water we put in the tank and every ounce of rubbish we carry to the disposal point. So it really disappoints us when we see evidence of other boaters who seem determined to leave as much mess as they can. Anyway, at Rea Bridge we transhipped them into the car and took them to a nearby metal recycling place where we got £25, which we promptly spent on a new bottle of gas in Go Outdoors*. Thank you, Mr Scuzzy Boater.

That afternoon we went up to Gloucester Quays where the food festival was in full swing.

We could easily have spent our £25 again on cheese and fudge in the first five minutes, but we restricted ourselves to buying some lemon oil and sampling all the tasters on offer.

We returned to Gloucester Quays the next morning. This time we did buy some of the yummy cheese plus a pasty for the drive to Bristol. Our cousin Libby from Oz was over in the UK for a tour with Maeve as “Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin” and we’d got tickets to see them at the Old Market Assembly Rooms. Joining us were Anne, Ben and Anne’s friends Lesley & Pete. We had a VIP table booked, including a cocktail and nibbles (ooh, look at us!) and we arrived early and had a meal before the performance.
The support act was a brilliant close-up magician who did seamless sleight of hand tricks right under our noses, leaving us amazed and baffled...
...then at 10 o’clock the girls swung into action with an entertaining and educational journey through the history of gin.

Raucous, reflective and talented, they packed an amazing amount of entertainment into an hour. Following on from Bristol they are off to the Edinburgh Fringe then London and Birmingham, before going back down under at the beginning of September. If you get the chance, go and see them. it's a fabulous evening.

Back in Gloucester we had a final trip to the food festival and had a look at the historic lifeboats that were gathered in the docks for the weekend...
...before heading for the demonstration tent to see Bake-Off winner Candice Brown.
In an hour she made a cornflake tart, a savoury pancake and a swiss roll, which may sound easy but when you’re trying to do it in front of 100 people whilst being interviewed probably isn’t.

After a weekend of being party-going tourists we thought we ought to get back to a proper boating life. Dave did an oil change on the Lister, and while he was at it he finally got round to fitting the new lift pump that we’ve been carting around since Easter. With that in place we’ll be able to use the bottom 50 litres of diesel in the tank, and hopefully not run out half way through a tunnel.

The next day we returned to tourist mode and went to Westbury Court Water Gardens (NT) which, as the name suggests, were beautiful and tranquil.

As we were west of the river, we carried on down to Lydney Harbour where we had an ice-cream and a walk around.

We stood on the hard and watched a narrowboat following one of the historic lifeboats from Gloucester on their way out of Sharpness and down the river towards Bristol. The lifeboat was hustling along quite happily..
...but it looked like hard work for the narrowboat.
They were only just making headway and, not that we really needed telling, made us even more sure that we will not be putting Legend to the task. (Apologies for the grainy pictures, the camera was right at the end of its zoom)

We didn’t need the car again for a couple of days, so we left it in the carpark at Rea Bridge. We’ve left our car in car parks like that no end of times without problems, but our luck finally ran out. Dave went out to get some petrol for the genny and found the rear quarter-light broken and stuff strewn all over the car.
The satnav, which had been in the glove box had gone, along with the rucksack that lived in the boot containing our waiting-for-a-recovery-truck gear, (two fleece sleeping bags, two hi-viz vests and a lightweight waterproof jacket) obviously taken in case there was anything of value in it. On the positive side, they’d not had the battery, they’d shut the door so it wasn’t all wet and, apart from the window, hadn’t damaged anything. Theft rather than mindless vandalism, but very upsetting and annoying all the same. By 11 the next morning, for less than £200, we had a new satnav and a very nice man called Andy was putting a new quarter-light in for us. We still need to replace the rucksack and its contents, but if that’s as bad as it gets, we’ll consider ourselves to be still on the winning side.

In the afternoon, to cheer ourselves up, we drove out to Wych near Malvern and had a breezy, bracing walk down the ridge path to British Camp, round the Motte and back through the woods on the east side.

The views from the top of British Camp were particularly stunning.

When we came home we parked in Gloucester, on a road with street lights and within view of some very nice looking houses, then walked back to the boat. We went via Tesco and just happened to get there at yellow labelling time. Just as well really; after all the emotion and a ten mile walk up and down the Malvern Hills, a pizza and a film was about all we were fit for.

*Go Outdoors sell Calor gas for a lot less money than most marinas, however it is only cheaper if you don’t have a wander around the shop first and find a new pair of Brashers in the sale, or a purple Berghaus jacket that you can’t live without.**

**Wandering round the chandlery in a marina can make their gas incredibly expensive as well. On reflection, the cheapest gas is from a fuel boat.

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