Saturday 30 January 2016

Grand Union Canal. Market Harborough to Weedon.

The visitor moorings next to Union Wharf at Market Harborough was about as close as we could get Legend to a marina without actually being in one. The perfect place to leave it while we went away for a week.

A couple of days before we left, we had a very surreal trip to Kettering services on the A14 to collect Chloe. We pulled in and parked up. After ten minutes two BMWs arrived and parked next to us. We ran over, grabbed Chloe from the back of one of them, threw a blanket over her head and bundled her into our car before speeding off. Ok, we didn’t do that, but we thought about it.
What actually happened was that Paul & Janice and Jon & Jo and their kids, along with Chloe, were on their way from Granny and Grandad’s house in Stowmarket, to Jon & Jo’s house in Matlock and we’d arranged to meet them and tranship Chloe. We all trooped into the forecourt shop, then after a quick chat and a cuppa went our separate ways. It was a brief encounter but good to see everyone, especially Jon & Jo’s latest edition – Layla - who we hadn’t met before. The blanket kidnapping thing would have been funnier though.

Chloe stayed with us over night, then we took her to East Midlands the following morning for her flight back to Antrim. While she was aboard she dyed Ann-Marie’s hair pink and blue.
Christmas in France with Frankie and Harry was, as we’d hoped, fabulous. Over the last year, along with Janice & Paul, they’ve been very busy converting their new place from a big French farmhouse and a barn into two houses and a workshop.
While all the work has been going on they’ve been living in a couple of mobile homes, and we haven’t seen them for ages. Over Christmas their ex-neighbours asked them to dog sit while they were away, which meant they had use of a 6 bed gîte and we could spend the festive period with them.
We were looking after two lovely Labradors called Harmony and Rocky as well as Iggy and Zac, so we had a dog each when we went out.
The first afternoon was taken up by making our temporary home look festive with all Frankie and Harry’s decorations, most of which were ours before we left our house, which made it very special. 
On one dog walk we found a big chunk of mistletoe to hang over the porch.
We had a tour of their new house...

And the workshop...

which is amazing, with a mezzanine floor where the very tidy stores are.
They also took us out to their nearest town, Montendre, to see the Christmas market.

There was lots of Christmas baking, Frankie and Ann-Marie made mince pies…

Harry and Dave cooked Beef Wellington for Christmas dinner…
Christmas afternoon was lovely and sunny so we sat outside on the patio.
Needles to say, the Christmas afternoon dog walk was later than usual, so it was getting dark by the time we made our way back to the gîte. As we walked towards the gate, we were treated to an amazing full moon rising up above the trees. We’ve never seen it so big.
Back indoors, we threw a healthy dollop of brandy over the pudding.
We couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas day.

Our next rip out was to Bordeaux which, according to some sources, has the longest shopping street in Europe.
It certainly is very long.
In the evening we went for dinner in a proper French restaurant, which was delicious, and came out to a twinkly city.

All too soon we were back at the airport saying goodbye. It was so good to see them, Frankie is looking fabulous, and we can’t wait to come back when all the building work finished see them in their new home.

Back at our home we had a late, but very festive Christmas morning of our own.
We spent New Year’s Eve with Bob and Mandy from Nb Matilda Blue. They had a winter mooring in Union Wharf, almost next door to us, so we invited them over for one of Ann-Marie’s catering triumphs. Balmoral Chicken, with whiskey sauce. Ooh-er!
On New Year’s Day we left lovely Market Harborough and chugged our way very slowly towards Foxton. We hadn’t wanted to go quite that slow, but the engine had other ideas and wouldn’t get much above tick-over without spluttering. It seemed to recover over the last quarter of a mile or so, so we put off any major investigating till at least the top of the locks.
We’d arranged for Richard & Kathryn and Rachael & Mark, along with all four of their children to come and meet Legend and help us up the locks. Anne came along as well to boost the numbers, so it was with a crew of eleven that we ascended the staircase.
The weather on New Year’s Day was fabulous. Just the sort of day that, in our previous life, would have had us making a picnic and heading for one of our favourite beauty spots. By our reckoning, the favourite beauty spot for about two hundred people that day was Foxton Locks, and the main attractions were the only two boats moving - Legend and a little hire boat coming up behind us. We have never seen so many gongooslers!

There wasn’t a lock keeper on duty, so Ann-Marie took on the job of supervisor; not an easy task with so many people around, she needed eyes in the back of her head. The kids, under close supervision to prevent tooth loss, wound all the paddles, and there were at least five people pushing every gate beam.

It was fabulous! You may wonder why we were going up on such a popular day; why not choose a weekday morning when there’s no-one around? Well when were gongooslers ourselves and came here, seeing a boat going up or down the locks made it all the more exciting. Now that we’re privileged enough to live this life, we feel we owe it to all the people who come along to let them see what the canals do and how it all works. Dave’s enthusiasm for canals came from messing about at Trent Lock when we was a kid; maybe one of the kids that saw Legend and pushed a couple of gates for us on New Year’s Day will be fired up with the same passion as a result. We like to hope so.

Before we left Foxton Dave did a bit of investigative work to see if we could find out what had gone wrong with the engine. He took both the fuel filters apart, emptied out the water traps and checked them for the dreaded “diesel bug”. Although he couldn’t say with certainty that he’d found the cause of the problem he re-assembled everything and started it up. After 15 minutes of slightly uneven running while it got all the air out of its fuel lines, our trusty old Lister picked up and ran like a clock for the rest of the day.
From Foxton, we retraced our way to Welford,
stopping at the tunnel entrance again for another roof-full of firewood, and moored up in exactly the same spot as we’d been in the last time.
The weather had been pretty dreadful at the beginning 2016; there had been severe rainfall in the north of the country with lots of flooding and we were feeling extremely lucky to be tucked up safely where we were. That’s not to say that Welford was lovely and dry - far from it – the Midlands hadn’t escaped the deluge and the footpaths and towpaths were like the Somme. Albeit quieter.
Despite the conditions, we joined Lindsay for several Jack walks…
And went for a couple of our own…

The high rainfall had filled up the reservoirs at Welford. The last time we were there they were we could walk down to the water to clean our boots;

this time they were right up and spilling over the overflows into the baby River Avon, which then goes behind the marina. It got close to overflowing one night, but thankfully stayed in its channel.
After another yummy dinner in the pub with Lindsay and Paul, we once more had to say goodbye to our friends and lovely Welford. If ever we decide that we don’t want to carry on cruising, this happy, homely little marina will be top of our list of places we’d like to stay.
The day we left was lovely and sunny.
With Ann-Marie on the tiller we went under the busy A14 and on towards Yelvertoft.

While Ann-Marie was steering, Dave managed to get a shot of a crow mobbing a kestrel.
On the way we found an ash tree that had fallen across the canal. Happily, when we got there it had all been cleared up and chopped into easy-to-handle pieces.
Thank you CRT. At Yelvertoft Dave attacked it with the Log Grenade; our very handy splitting wedge.
In our opinion it is the best thing for splitting big lumps – it’s quick, accurate and small – the perfect combination for storage in a boat.
Over the next couple of days, with the weather forecast threatening a freeze, we made a dash for the GU main line at Norton Junction. Our first stop was back at Watford Park..
Then the following day, just before it froze, we set off down Watford Locks.

With the help of the two volunteer lock keepers, our descent was swift and painless and we were back at Norton in no time.

We had thought we’d missed the Wittlesey Straw Bear Festival, but in a chance conversation with Bob & Mandy we found out that it was a week later than usual and we hadn’t. So, layered up with thermals and eager to see all our old Morris Dancing buddies, we set off in the car.
In all the excitement we actually went twice. Once on the Friday evening for the Pig Dyke Molly party…

And again on the Saturday for the Parade and dancing in the streets.

Although it wasn’t tropical, it was good 15˚ warmer than 2009, when Ann-Marie was dancing in tights and a tutu, and Dave and Anne were in the pub with about 200 other red-nosed revellers and condensation running down the windows.

Back at Norton it appeared that our decision to move before the temperature dropped was justified…

However, when it thawed we discovered that we were right next to a puddle. 
It’s a little rutted track to some houses; how fast do you have to be going to get mud half way up the chimney?  Oh well, it needed washing anyway.

We stayed a week at Norton, during which time we started a ruthless declutter. After nearly five years aboard Legend, despite our best efforts, we had gradually accumulated more stuff than we had room for. We’ve always said that if something isn’t where it belongs then you’re holding it, but over Christmas we’d lost sight of that somewhat. We’d got to the point where we were moving stuff just to go to bed; a situation we said we’d never tolerate. We started at the front and in a week got as far as the kitchen. After three or four trips to charity shops and we felt a lot better. Our home looked calmer and much more spacious and we could find things in cupboards again. It helped that we also got some vacuum storage bags from Ikea and a new vacuum cleaner that did an amazing job of reducing spare bedding, towels, summer clothes and other stuff that lives under the bed, down to half their size. Never fear, Dear Reader, Legend is still pretty inside - pictures, little cuddly toys and nick-nacks abound - but now nothing is out of place.

Something else that has recently reared its ugly and inevitably expensive head, is that old boating chestnut; batteries. Our current (pardon the pun) domestic bank of 3 x 110ah lead-acid leisure batteries are coming up for three years old. They no longer have their original capacity, although they are quite capable of running the DVD player for two hours in the evening, and then keeping the fridge going till the morning, at which time either the sun hits the solar panels, or we run the generator to recharge them. We know a lot more about looking after batteries now than we did when we last replaced them and, as a result of having a volt meter where we can see it, we keep a much closer eye on them than we used to.
We used to be blissfully happy in the belief that from March till October the solar panels took care of all our power needs, but we now know that is not the case. Even in the height of summer, on dull days when we’re not moving, topping up with the gennie is essential; something we weren’t vigilant enough about when they were new, which we now think may have shortened their lifespan.

So we now have two dilemmas:

Dilemma 1. When we replace them, should we go for cheap (relatively) 110 leisure batteries again (which are little more than re-badged car batteries) like these or, now we know more about battery care, should we go for more expensive proper deep cycle industrial units, like these in the hope that we can keep them working for many years?

Dilemma 2. When do we replace them? With the short days of winter, we are running the gennie for 3 or 4 hours every day...
but as soon as the days start getting longer that reduces dramatically. By Easter we know we won’t be as paranoid about power as we were in January. The same as last year.
The extra fly in the ointment is that we think our 240v 40amp 3 stage battery charger that sits between the gennie and the batteries has blown a capacitor.
According to someone who knows, this won’t stop it charging, but the output won’t now be a ‘smooth’ as it should be, which probably won’t be doing the batteries any good. If we replace it, it would ideally be with this, which again is not a cheap option, but over the long term should prove more economical. 
What we will do for now is nothing. We’ll monitor the situation as the daylight hours increase and see how we get on this summer. No doubt next November we'll get all panicky again.

At soon as the ice melted enough for navigation we left Norton Junction and made our way down the Buckby Flight and moored up at Weedon just as dusk was approaching.

Buckby, in the heyday of canal traffic, would have been seven swift and relatively easy locks, but these days they have a reputation for being some of the toughest on the network. Each lock used to have a side pond which, each time it was emptied, stored some of the water to be used in the next fill. All the ponds are now either filled in or derelict, which means that the flight uses more water. Back pumps have been installed to overcome this, constantly replenishing the top pound, so water shortage isn’t a problem. Solving one problem has, however, exacerbated another. The overflow weirs which used to run through the ponds now divert through the ground paddle sluices so, rather than by-passing the lock, all the excess water flows through it and over the bottom gates.

Opening the top gates on a lock with water rushing through it is really hard, and as you go down the flight each lock that you empty adds more water to the flow. The fact the each gate weighs the best part of two tonnes doesn’t help. At the top it’s not too bad, the leaky gates get rid of the water almost as fast as the pumps replace it. But, ironically, now that the bottom three locks have had their gates renewed with ones that don’t leak, it only makes things harder.
Having said all that, we were down in an hour and a half and still smiling. And with a big sense of achievement.     

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