Saturday, 12 June 2021

River Soar (Loughborough Section). Erewash Canal. Loughborough to Trent lock.

  Our week in Loughborough started with a hilarious Eurovision party next door.

 Bob and Mandy had strung the flags of all nations inside Matilda Blue and we had a sweepstake so that each of us had two countries to cheer on. When our chosen song was being performed we waved our flags and passed round country themed food and drink items (some liberal imagination was used for this; what do Lithuanians eat and drink anyway?). There was a prize for the highest scoring country, which Ann-Marie won with France, and all in all it was a roaring success. Unlike the UK entry, of which the less said the better.

  The following day we all went to the recently re-opened and very interesting Charnwood museum in the town and had a coffee in the little café. We learned Ladybird Books used to be printed here, and all about the history of lace making, renown for the Luddite revolts as it moved from cottage industry to mass production in the mills, as well as the history and geology of the district. We still had to wear face masks and only a few people were allowed in at a time, but sitting round a table and chatting made it feel like things really were starting to get back to normal.

  There was rain forecast for the next afternoon, so we decided to have an early start and go for a walk up Beacon Hill. However, the rain had a different definition of ‘early’ and caught up with us just as we got to the country park. The map at the entrance showed a 50 minute walk up to the top and back down to the café, so we figured that as we had our coats on we could do 50 minutes in the drizzle without too much bother. Only it wasn’t drizzle. And the 50 minutes was measured by Usain Bolt. By the time we got to the top the rain was horizontal and we were decidedly moist.

  Dave said “Was that a lightning flash?” Ann-Marie said “I’m not sure, I didn’t hear any…” and the rest was drowned out by an almighty thunder roll that seemed to go on for ever, accompanied by even more rain. It didn’t let up all the way back down to the bottom, by which time we were both soaked through to our pants. In the little café, we stripped off as much of our sodden clothing as common decency would allow and draped it over the chairs round a thankfully spare table. Then, along with other equally sodden walkers, we hugged our coffees and gently steamed while outside the clouds parted and a very smug looking sun came out. We were sure we heard it laughing.

  The Great Central Railway goes from Loughborough to Leicester and trains had just started running again, so we planned a walk across the fields to hopefully coincide with one of them. Bob came along with us and the timing almost worked; although we saw it emerging from a cutting, we were just a minute or two too late to actually be on the bridge when the train went underneath.

  We could have waited on the bridge for 45 minutes for it to come back, but walking to Quorn and Woodhouse station, where we could sit outside with a cream tea and watch it pull in seemed a much more civilised option. 

  To say we were impressed by the attention to detail of the station platform and the splendour of the train when it pulled in would be a massive understatement. It was all so perfect, from the beautifully restored rolling stock in the yard, to the immaculate uniforms of the Station Master and his staff. We truly felt transported back to the 1940s.

  Just as we finished our tea, the train pulled out on it's way to Leicester.

  A wonderful spectacle to finish off a brilliant day out. And the cream tea was lovely too.

  Things had been rather emotional that week. We’d learned that Dad had gone into hospital for a couple of days after a blood test and we were really worried about him. We’d already planned to take the car down that weekend to fit the new radiator, so we brought it forward a couple of days. When we arrived it was good to find him back home and looking better than we’d expected; he still had more tests to follow, but thankfully the Doctors were on top of it and he would soon be on the mend.

  Outside on the drive, Dave soon had the new radiator in. Every time he does anything to our ageing Kia he always finds himself impressed by how much thought has gone into the design of the thing to make working on it simple and straightforward. He cut his teeth on the 1970s offerings from Ford and British Leyland where every small mechanical problem involved squirming about in the floor and the disassembly of half the car. During our 2cv years (we met through the owner’s club) the simple, minimal and easy-to-get-at mechanics of little air-cooled Citroens made a nice change, and the need for constant tinkering to keep them going was all part of the fun. However, since we’ve been boating we’ve purposely had a succession of unobtrusive invisible hatchbacks that we can leave parked on an urban street without worry, but it means that even with the increasing reliability of modern cars, Dave still sometimes finds himself squirming about on the floor, the starter motor on the Astra being a prime example. (You can read all about that here.) The Kia is a complicated turbo diesel, with an inter-cooler and air-con and absolutely no free space under the bonnet. It looks daunting, but somehow they’ve made it accessible.

Euro Car Parts delivered the new radiator to Mum and Dad's house.

Removing the cooling fan.

Everything is easy to get at. No squirming on the floor for this job.

New radiator in place
Fan back in and  nearly done.

  On our way home we stopped off in Wallingford to join in with the launch party that Steve was having for his new venture into the boat hire business. With a bit of Dave’s help, over the previous few months Steve has been getting Nb Barking Mad II ready for hiring out for holidays on the Thames.

  Originally a plugged-in live-aboard boat, Barking Mad II needed a lot of changes to make it a holiday home for 6, plus all the additional requirements of commercial Boat Safety Scheme. That had meant installing a second alternator and solar panels, re-wiring the batteries, lots of painting, adding non-slip coatings to the gunwales, fire escape signs, converting the central heating pump to 12v, and the biggest job, which was converting the toilet from cassette to pump-out. We had a barbecue on the riverbank in the company of all our old Wallingford mates, got very drunk and stayed over on Andelanté.

  In the morning we walked up the towpath, past ‘our’ mooring, to have a look at Ruth’s new 45’ tug.

  What a lovely little boat; just perfect for one and such beautiful lines. After that we had a cuppa with Colin and Julia on Smith’s Lady before coming back to Legend.

   We really didn’t expect to enjoy Loughborough as much as we did and we were quite sad to leave. It’s an honest little unpretentious market town and we felt happily at home there. There is a restored basin in the town, but although it is nicely presented with landscaping and mooring pontoons it is surounded by high rise buildings and very close to the town pubs, making it a bit of a numpty magnet. Most people go in there for services then, as we did, moor just before the junction bridge.

   With Matilda Blue behind us, we boated down the rest of the canalised section to Bishop’s meadow lock, where we breasted up and filled both water tanks (at another slowest tap ever) then rejoined the river down to Zouch, (pronounced Zotch) as the sun came out.

We hovered in the river to allow the little chain ferry to make it’s crossing...


...then carried on through Zouch lock... Devil’s Elbow where we pulled in for a couple of days of sitting outside in the sun and bank-side barbecues.

  We did manage to drag ourselves out for a car move from Zouch to Kegworth, including a trip to Shepshed for Ann-Marie’s second jab. We met Bob and Mandy in Kegworth and had a very enjoyable pint or two in the Red Lion before walking back to the boats.

  Next morning we were off to Trent Lock. More lovely sunny boating down the Soar with a quick stop at Kegworth flood lock where the car was parked to transship the shopping out of the boot.

  At Ratcliffe lock we had to wait while a boat below the lock got pulled off the sandbank by the lower lock landing. The sandbank was well known by local boaters, and was due to be dredged, but there were no warnings for the unprepared, apart from a small, worse than useless notice that you couldn’t see from more than 3 feet away, saying “Danger - Shoals” stapled to one of the upper lock gates. A fat lot of good that’ll do you when you’re pushing your way up to the downstream lock landing!

  On we went down the last bit of the lovely River Soar to the mighty Trent. Matilda Blue was way ahead and as we approached the mouth of the Soar we could see them turning into the entrance for the Erewash.

  There were several 48hr mooring sites around Trent lock; a floating pontoon on the river, some bankside moorings at the beginning of the Cranfield Cut, and some visitor mooring bollards on the first bit of the Erewash. We ploughed our way accross the river and followed Matilda Blue into the entrance...

 ...then joined them in the lock. just above the lock is a services block, followed by the moorings where we tied up for a few days. 

  Being at Trent Lock is a big nostalgia rush for Dave. Half a century ago, along with his mate Mick, he used to cycle here from Spondon on sunny weekends such as this. They’d mess about and ‘help’ with the lock and generally get in the way, and it’s where he first caught the living-on-a-boat bug. After 10 years on board Legend and after travelling round most of the network, it feels slightly surreal to finally be here.          

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

River Soar (Leicester Section). Birstall to Loughborough.

Birstall was a fantastic place to be moored, especially as we were there with Bob & Mandy and the third lock-down was just beginning to ease up. And especially as Leicester City managed to win the FA Cup while we were there! The first we knew about it was a bunch of blue and white clad young lads dancing along the towpath in their socks (why socks?) just after the final whistle blew. We are far from being anything remotely resembling football fans, but we must admit that being moored in a city in a buzzing party mood was quite exciting. We rode into the city on the Sunday and it was brilliant to see all the cafés and restaurants full and everyone smiling.

The easing of restrictions meant that we were allowed to hug and go into each other’s boats so we took full advantage of that and had a lovely arm-in-arm walk round the Waterpark (which was so much more fulfilling with an ornithologist)...

...followed by a completely impromptu and rather drunken games afternoon.

While B&M were away for their second jabs, we got the bikes out and rode up National Cycle Route 48, winding our way through the water meadows and old gravel workings that make up the huge Watermead Country Park. NCR 48 uses some of the towpath, but CRT had closed it while they put new piling in, so we had to do a bit of a detour on the road. Never mind, it was a very nice bike ride and we’re really happy with our new seats.

The weather in the middle of May was dismal. Every morning we listened to Alex Deakin from the Met Office as he tried and failed to find something encouraging to say. Phrases like “Unseasonably low  temperatures”, “Widespread showers” and “Areas of low pressure” were beginning to grate, and although our daily walks took us past hedges that were now awash with beautiful May blossom, the only sign of clout casting has been Dave stubbornly wearing shorts despite having purple knees most of the time.  

Ann-Marie got a photo sorted and got her passport renewal application in the post. We had a good deal of grumbling about a ten year passport lasting less than 9 1/2 years. We can perfectly understand why you need to renew six months before the old one runs out, but surely the new one’s expiry date should be ten years from that of the old one, rather than from when you apply; anything else is a blatant extortion. And advising you to do it ten weeks before that ‘in case of delays’, then sending it back within one was just rubbing salt in.

We picked one of the better weather days and moved the boats up to Barrow-Upon-Soar.

We stopped at  the Hope and Anchor at Syston to fill up from the well hidden water tap. This was where we'd had to do a detour on our cycle ride, so we got to see what the towpath closure was all about.

Boating past the work boat. They kindly stopped the piling hammer as we went past.

This heavy duty piling will stop the towpath collapsing. 

Bob and Dave had done a car shuffle the previous afternoon and had recced the moorings, so they knew not only where we were going to end up, but also that the Navigation Inn did a nice pint of Woodford Wherry.

It was a glorious day, the only bit of rain turned up at lunch time just as we got to Silbey lock, so we were able to batten down for lunch and stay dry. Matilda Blue needed diesel and a pump-out, so just below the lock Bob pulled alongside the services barge at Sileby Mill Boatyard, while we carried on to Barrow.

Wherever we moor up, if there’s a hedge by the towpath, we like to put our bird table up outside the dining room window. It’s nothing fancy, just a bit of old plywood on a pointed stick with a couple of feeders hanging off it, but the birds don’t seem to mind. In more remote areas it can be two or three days before we get any visitors, but if it’s a well used mooring we’ll often see a brave little blue tit or robin coming to investigate within a couple of hours. At Barrow-upon-Soar it only took half an hour before something was perched on top of out rickety little table having it’s dinner. However, that something was a big fat squirrel, with his equally fat friend waiting on a branch behind him.

 As we watched, the equally fat friend got tired of waiting and attempted to join in. At that moment, as if it wasn’t exciting enough already, a spaniel turned up. Supporting leaping squirrels was never part of the bird table design brief, and their panicked exit sent it flying, scattering fat balls, peanuts and sunflower seeds all over the towpath. Realising that squirrel was now off the menu, the spaniel settled for the fat balls instead and gobbled all three of them up before his owner arrived, no doubt making life interesting back home for the rest of the afternoon.

When we parked our car in the car park at Barrow, Ann-Marie noticed an ominous wet patch under the front. Dave had been aware that the coolant had needed topping up more frequently of late, and closer inspection revealed a dripping radiator. A search on Youtube told us that it wasn’t too difficult, but we’d need somewhere flat, so we arranged to get a new radiator sent to Mum and Dad’s and to go down there and swap it out on their driveway.

The incessant rain and worrying about the car was getting to us a bit, so to take our minds of it all we invited Bob and Mandy round for a dinner and a games night. We taught them how to play Skip-Bo, which we first came across whilst visiting Dave’s cousins in Australia, and as Matilda Blue carries an Aussie flag, we though it only fitting that they knew how to play. It was a brilliant evening and gone midnight by the time we got to bed.

Over the next couple of days we had a re-think about our moving plans so that we had somewhere we’d be happy to leave the boat while we went down to Mum and Dad’s. Being on a volatile river adds an extra element into the calculations, but at least travelling with friends means that when we get back we don’t have that worrying few moments just before rounding the last bend in the towpath.

Our trip from Barrow to Loughborough got off to a rather exciting start. Although there was a green light on the lock, the recent rainfall had increased the flow quite considerably, something which experienced navigators would automatically allow for when leaving a lock and re-joining the main river. Dave keeps forgetting that although he’s been on rivers several times, most of his experience is on non-moving canals so he really should pay more attention at times like this and not just expect his instincts to tell him what to do. Needless to say, it all went a bit wrong; there was an arched bridge just after the confluence...

View from the lock landing. The river flows left to right under the bridge.

...and we were extremely lucky that there was a set of very sturdy guard rails in front of it which Legend hit - and for a heart stopping moment tried to climb up - but which stopped us being swept sideways into one of the bridge piers.

The guard rails as viewed from the bridge.
The very hard looking bridge and the equally hard guard rails.
We still don't know how we came through there in one piece.

More by luck than judgement we made it through the arch with everything still on the roof, nothing broken and even our paintwork unscathed.

A bystander on the bridge, who’d witnessed the whole debacle, managed to shout a warning to Bob in time for him to take a much wider swing at it, and Matilda Blue popped through the arch with no worries. Sweet as.

While Dave tried to get his heart rate back down, Ann-Marie went below to see how our cabin had faired, but apart from a melon that had left the fruit bowl and rolled down the full length of the boat, we’d gotten away with it. Just the bucket full of adrenalin to get rid of.

Immediately before Pilling’s flood lock there was a big sign that said if the red light was flashing boats shouldn’t proceed. It was a bit of a nonsense because there was nowhere before the sign to either turn round or stop. Our only option was to go 50 yards past it and stop at the lock landing which, even though the (very small) light was indeed flashing, is what we did. Of course, once we were out of the flow and on the lock landing, we couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t then go through the lock onto the nice, safe, sheltered canal section, so that’s what happened. We spent the rest of the trip chugging gently and - we’re happy to say, uneventfully - down the last couple of miles of the Leicester Navigation to where it meets with the Loughborough Navigation, mooring up just before the junction. Bob and Mandy carried on down into Loughborough Basin to use the water point, then came back to tie up with Matilda Blue and Legend nose to nose.

 It’s nice to have the boats like that; it means it’s not so far to stagger home of an evening. 

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Grand Union Canal, (Leicester Section - River Soar Navigation). Leicester to Birstall.

Among the many publications and maps depicting the navigable route from Norton Junction to the River Trent, there appears to be some confusion about the naming of parts. Google maps seems to scatter the names “Grand Union Canal” and “River Soar” willy nilly on any bit of blue, while the OS at least has a plan, labelling the man-made bits between weirs as the canal and everything else as the river.

We’re going with Canal Plan AC, a very well researched on-line database that we’ve found to be 100% trustworthy when it comes to watery facts. That has three very long names for various bits of the route. It looks confusing but each name gives a clue to the history of the individual waterways that now make up the navigation.

The River Soar was made navigable to Loughborough from the Trent in 1778 and then through to Leicester shortly afterwards. For a while the Loughborough Navigation Company owned the most profitable waterway in Britain and in 1793 the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Canal was authorised, to link the navigation to the River Nene and the proposed line of the Grand Junction Canal at Northampton, but by 1801 the money had run out twice and it had only got as far as Market Harborough. After several changes in plans (and chief engineers) a link with the rest of the system was made in 1814 by building a narrow gauge canal from Foxton to Long Buckby where it joined the Old Grand Union. As the railways at first chipped away, before eventually completely wiping out profits, the downward spiral of underfunding and reduced tolls saw both the LNC and the L&NCC bought out by the new Grand Union Canal Company by 1932.

So the navigation from  the River Trent to the GU Main Line, these days simply called the GU Leicester Line, comprises of no less than three separate waterways, each with its own distinct history. These are:

Trent Junction to King’s Lock - “Grand Union Canal (Leicester Section - River Soar Navigation)”

King’s Lock to Foxton - “Grand Union Canal (Leicester Section - Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Canal)”

Foxton to Norton Junction - “Grand Union Canal (Leicester Section - Old Grand Union)” 

Interestingly, the majority of the waterway is wide gauge with 14’ x 72’ locks, and the original proposal for the L&NC was for a wide canal all the way to Northampton. This would have made a crucial wide beam link between the northern and southern waterways. The Norton to Foxton link came very close to joining the two halves of the country with wide bridges and two wide tunnels at Crick and Husband’s Bosworth, but that was only so two narrowboats could pass each other. The lock flights at Foxton and Watford were both, (in a money saving exercise that has become the bane of many wide beam owners lives) built to the 7’x72’ narrow gauge. In 1910, in what must be the most short sighted decision in canal history, the Foxton Inclined Plane - a very effective wide beam boat lift built just ten years earlier to bypass the bottleneck at the locks - was mothballed and then sold for scrap due to lack of traffic. The designer, Gordon Thomas, must have been tearing his hair out; the lack of traffic was nothing to do with the lift itself, indeed it was a success, saving hours of time and thousands of gallons of water, but simply because the matching inclined plane, scheduled for construction at Watford, was never built.   

Now we’ve cleared that up, on with the story. 

Although Castle Garden moorings were 48hrs, we only stayed for one night before moving a quarter of a mile downstream to Friar’s Mill on the Friday because there was rain forecast for Saturday and we wanted to stay in the city till Sunday, also there was space there and a water point.

When we tied up we discovered that the taps weren’t working, so Dave phoned up to report it. The very nice Cheryl at CRT East Midlands told him that there was a bit of a conflict at Friar’s Mill because they didn’t own the site, but that she’d message the maintenance team and hopefully it would be sorted by Monday…. Or Tuesday…. If nothing else broke.

On Saturday it threw it down; water, water everywhere but not a cliché in the taps. As we’ve said previously, the Soar is a very excitable river, so it was no surprise that in the afternoon CRT issued a flood warning notice for the whole river. That was fine by us, it meant we got an extra couple of days in the city.

Predictably, on Monday the flood warning was cancelled. However it was blowin’ a hoolie and raining, and the taps hadn’t been fixed yet, so we stayed put. In the afternoon we picked up a box of free Covid tests from Tesco, then went to explore a bit more of the city. We discovered the Juan Centre, Leicester Prison, Victoria Park and New Walk.

Leicester Prison entrance. Not what we were expecting!

The Fire Station

Victoria Park Entrance

New Walk. almost a mile of traffic free walking from the park to the heart of the city

Later on Dave and Bob did a car shuffle to Birstall, bringing ours back so that we could get off to Mychett first thing in the morning. Ann-Marie had a doctor’s appointment and we wanted to combine it with seeing Mum &Dad and Karen & Andrew for the first time in months, hence the Covid test kit. Armed with two negative results we set off early doors and had all the official business sorted when Karen finished work at lunch time. In the afternoon we had a walk along memory lane down the Basingstoke canal to the visitor centre (where we lived for three months,) for a disappointing coffee. That’s not a slur on the visitor centre; the café staff were no doubt just as disappointed as we were that they could only provide instant decaf, had to serve it in a paper cup, and that we then had to leave their lovely cosy establishment and go and drink it outside in the cold. When we’re allowed to, the first thing we’re going to do, while everyone else is busy hugging each other, is sit in a warm tea room and drink hot tea out of a china cup. In the evening we went over to Mum and Dad’s for a fabulous bar-b-cue dinner. (Why is it compulsory for bar-b-cues to be three dinners in one?) it was really great to see them face to face, zoom calls have been an undeniable godsend, but not a patch on real conversation.

Back at the boats the taps had been fixed (thank you Cheryl and CRT) so in the morning we had another early start, water tank filled, washing in the machine, bikes in the car, drive up to Birstall then cycle back with our new comfy saddles that we’d picked up from Karen’s.

Another 2 wash-loads and a water top up when we got back then, with Matilda Blue behind us, we set off past the big weir and into North Lock at the beginning of the canalised section that passes Abbey park.

After Limekiln Lock Bob ran aground under a bridge.

It was very shallow and horribly black and smelly, with evil looking bubbles coming up under Matilda Blue as Bob tried in vain to get free. We were still afloat so we took the front rope, tied it to our stern dolly with about 20’ of slack and went full throttle. The line went taught and we jerked her free - but by then the prop was fouled. Sitting in the middle of the river, Bob had to take two trips down the weed hatch, delving into the black, smelly water, before he managed finally clear it.

As well as the usual pallet strapping, plastic bags and bits of wire, he also pulled out a sari, complete with all the frilly edge bits!

At Lime Kiln Lock, this plaque commemorates the 1967 IWA National Meeting...

...the as yet unfinished Memory Lane moorings...

Memory Lane Moorings. You could tie up ,but as yet there's no access to the land. 

...and the site of the old Wolsey textile mill, now a very pleasant housing development.

Swan’s Nest lock and the National Space Centre mark the end of Leicester’s canalised section, and we were back on the river proper where it was a lot cleaner, deeper and twistier.

We moored up at Birstall just as it started to rain. We’ll be here for a week or so; there’s lots to see and miles of footpaths through the old gravel workings that have been turned into beautiful water parks, wildlife havens and nature reserves, forming an amazing half-mile-wide green corridor that runs north from Leicester centre.

 What a fabulous place to live!      

River Soar (Loughborough Section). Erewash Canal. Loughborough to Trent lock.

  Our week in Loughborough started with a hilarious Eurovision party next door.  Bob and Mandy had strung the flags of all nations inside M...