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.

Saturday 6 June 2020

River Thames. Wallingford during Covid 19 Lockdown.

Stay Safe. Stay at Home.

All in all, while we were at Wallingford the river broke the banks 5 times, but eventually, as we knew they would, the red strong stream warning boards went to amber, and the River Thames opened up for navigation once more. That happened while we were on our way up to the lock on our daily water walk the morning after Boris' speech of March 23rd asking everyone to stay at home. By the time we got to the lock, Justin, under instruction from EA, was busy wrapping red and white tape around the gate to the lock cottage and putting a big sign up forbidding entry to the lockside, and Covid 19 Lockdown had become a reality. He said it would be ok for us to carry on getting water from there which, over the following weeks, gave us our daily exercise.

EA responded to the government's lockdown rules by banning all but essential boat trips and withdrawing assisted passage through locks, meaning that the lock keepers would not be taking ropes and opening gates. Also, in order to discourage boaters from making non-essential journeys, they cut the electric power to all the Thames locks so that if you did go through, you had to manually wind the hydraulics; not an easy task.
Our anxiety levels were a bit up and down for the next week or so. As the infection and mortality numbers began to rise and the shops began to run out of things, even in lovely Wallingford where everyone is polite and civil it quickly began to feel scary. It must have been awful to have been in a big city when Lockdown first started. On top of that it occurred to us that normally, from the end of March Wallingford Town Council start to charge visiting boats £10 a night. Since October they'd not charged us a penny because we were in Safe Haven on a flooded river - effectively a free winter mooring - but now it wasn't flooded would they start charging? Also, Waitrose had closed their toilets, and we were only supposed to go shopping alone for necessities. Our cassettes weren't going to last very long now.
To take our minds off things we started on a list of boat jobs. Dave had already stripped and re-waxed the floor throughout the boat while we were up on the floodwater, but now his efforts turned to the outside, and mainly the roof, which only got half done last year on the K&A. Over the next few weeks of lockdown as the weather got better and the water level got lower, the remaining sections of roof got scraped, sanded, red leaded, undercoated and two coats of gloss.

The mushroom vents got polished for the first time since we've owned the boat.
The handrails finally got painted properly.
The back deck and tiller got a real spruce up - new paint, new ropework and Danish oil on the tiller handle.

The rear hatch cover got stripped and re-painted to match the rest of the boat, and had new hardwood sliders installed underneath.
The pigeon boxes got painted and the brass tops got polished, again for the first time since we've owned the boat and they look lovely.
The cratch cover got scrubbed.
By April, the flow on the river had subsided enough that we could easily turn the boat round, so the sides and back got polished and the left hand gunnel got scraped and prepped ready for painting, but by then the water was so low that it wasn't possible to get down there with a brush.
Although it was what we had been wishing for all winter, the falling water level made it increasingly difficult to get into the boat. Where we'd had to clamber up a gang plank and our Handy Step to get to the gunnel, we were now having climb down, so it was a nice surprise when we found that our Handy Step is even more handy and works both ways.
While Dave was entertaining the locals, Ann-Marie was busy being crafty inside making beautiful cross stitch birthday cards for everyone and knitting environmentally friendly cotton dishcloths so that we don’t use any more (un)disposable ones.

As the weather got better we swapped the fading daffodils, tulips and pansies for summer bedding and vegetable plants to adorn our newly painted roof and sowed lettuce seeds in our new tiny cold frame.
 Spring bulbs drying out for storage till Autumn.
 Summer Bedding
4 Different lettuce in our new mini cold frame
All the plant saucers got little wooden feet to minimise the contact area on the roof and so do less damage to the paint; they seem to be working, but obviously time will tell.
Colin and Julia, on Smith’s Lady, the lovely Dutch barge behind us, brought a couple of old, faded garden chairs round for us to use as fire wood, we gratefully accepted them and were about to smash them up when Dave had a closer look and realised that they were beech and quite well made, and with a bit of time and care they could be brought back to life. So that became a project for a week or so.
Missing slats and a bit bowed, but otherwise sound.

Dissasembled and ready for sanding.
First coat of Danish oil, three more to go.
After and before.

To great interest from the passing dog walkers and joggers, our folding bikes got a strip down and service. The last time that happened we were in Cambridge, so they were well overdue.

Throughout all this activity the weather just kept getting better. The Wallingford residents made the most of it and many of them regularly came to take their allotted daily exercise along the river bank, often stopping for a chat and to see what we were up to today. We have never felt so much part of a community since we left the house.  
We know that for a lot of people Lockdown was a complete nightmare. Parents who were trying to work from home and be teachers at the same time, people living alone in inner city flats, those not able to visit sick friends and relatives, or attend funerals, as well as all the cancelled weddings, holidays and numerous other important events that 2020 will be remembered for not having. However, apart from not being able to go to foreign countries and see our grandchildren, and having to learn to use Zoom instead, Covid 19 was a time that, despite feeling guilty about it, we can’t help but look back on fondly.
 Easter Morning
 Family chat on Zoom
 Celebrating Richard Fox's birthday.
May Morning with a Pagan Star.

Once our initial fears were overcome (Angie, the mooring warden who became a really good friend came and told us that we wouldn’t be charged anything all the time lockdown was in force, and we arranged with the caravan site over the bridge to use their elsan for £2 a go.) life really was a breeze. Social distancing soon became the new normal and stepping off the towpath to let other people pass became almost second nature. We made firm friends with Colin and Julia on Smith's Lady, with Steve on Andelante who was moored behind them, and with Ruth and Alex, a young couple on NB Aquarius which was moored further up the towpath in the trees.

On VE day we had a socially distanced party. The bunting went up on Legend and Smith's Lady and Ann-Marie had victory rolls in her hair and sausage rolls in the oven. With us on the back of our boat, Colin and Julia on the front of theirs, and Steve, Ruth and Alex on chairs on the bank, the party got into full swing. Angie came along as well and a lovely afternoon went on to be a lovely evening with loads of food and far too much gin.

We had such a good time that we repeated it twice more, the final one being our going away party the night before we left, which was one of the best parties imaginable.

A couple of weeks before we left, the restrictions eased and estate agents were allowed to resume business. We got a phone call from France asking if we could go over to Frankie and Harry’s flat near Enfield, put a new piece of plasterboard in one of the bedrooms where the original ceiling was bowed and cracking, making it look like it was about to fall down.
And could we spruce it up a bit so they could put it back on the market. “No worries” we said. “It shouldn’t take long.” we said. Of course, the whole country was on lockdown and everything that wasn’t simply impossible took forever.

Day 1. Left the boat at 6:30 and apart from the half hour it took to rip down the old section...
...the entire day was spent trying unsuccessfully to buy plasterboard. We finally found some and considered ourselves very fortunate to get a click and collect time slot for the same day at 3pm.

Two sheets of plasterboard only just fit in a Kia.

Day 2. Plaster board up and a rather unconvincing artex match applied without any artex or artex tools. Rather annoyed at having to buy 1000 drywall screws when we only needed 20. Applied first coat of paint to bedroom ceiling. Did lots of cleaning.

 Day 3. Did lots more cleaning and applied second coat of paint to the bedroom ceiling. It looks a lot better now, but it's quite obvious that it's been repaired.

Put two coats of paint on the lounge ceiling.

We came home very achy and tired. The flat was empty so there wasn’t anything to sit on or eat off. We had our fish & chips sitting on the floor. Hopefully what we did will speed up the sale.

When the government allowed longer walks we went back to our more usual routine and tried to get out more.


At the end of May - just over 7 months after we arrived - EA lifted the navigation restrictions. We waited until the bank holiday was over before moving, as we assumed that all the gin palaces would be out in force after being forced to stay in their marinas for half the summer. (As it turned out we were wrong, it was the hordes of paddle boarders and people in blow-up boats that would have made boating a nightmare.)

 And so, on Tuesday morning we said an emotional goodbye to our wonderful friends, slipped our mooring and finally pulled away from Wallingford riverbank.
By several months it had been the longest that we’d been in one place since we sold the house and a time we will never forget. We’d arrived almost by accident and tried to leave a couple of days later only to be turned back because of the increasing flow, so it was by absolute good fortune that we hadn’t found ourselves tied to a tree up the river somewhere when the floods came. When we think of the alternatives we are only too aware that being in lockdown in Wallingford was the best thing that could have happened to us. The local residents were so friendly and welcoming, Chris, the retired army colonel, who made us soup and some delicious goulash, Theresa, the ex-mayor who came past on her daily walk and was so lovely, and so many others who regularly came by our boat and were always interested in what was going on and how we were coping. We felt so safe and happy that it’s easy to forget the mayhem that the rest of the country was trying to cope with.

On our way upriver the weather was glorious, cloudless skies and hardly a breeze; such a contrast to the rain and gales that we would have faced if we hadn’t been turned back in October. We had two stops, the first at Abingdon, where we had a wander round and found the abandoned entrance to the Wilts and Berks canal...

and again at Osney where we met Tony Robinson two years ago. Electric power had been restored to most of the locks, but Abingdon was still on hand wind which gave Ann-Marie a good workout. We played River Bingo on the way up to Oxford, Ann-Marie won by being the first to get a line, she got swan, waterlily, damsel fly, kite and finally - running across Iffley lock gates - squirrel.

Shortly after that we turned right at an unmarked junction under an unassuming and innocuous looking footbridge onto a dingy looking narrow channel that went under a rather low railway bridge.

We were expecting the entrance to the beautiful Oxford Canal to be a somewhat grander affair. Or at least have a sign. But we were off the Thames at last, and however much we love this river, and we really do love it, being back on the main system after 2 years away felt amazing. As we worked Legend up Isis Lock, a beautiful narrow lock, the sort of lock our boat was built for, it would be fair to say that we were both a bit emotional.

Pangbourne to Sutton Courtenay. River Thames.

Summer ‘24 finally arrived while we were moored at Pangbourne, and boy, did we all know about it. The temperatures rocketed up - along with ...