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!      

Sunday 9 May 2021

GU Leicester Line. Kilby Bridge to Leicester.

Plan A on May Morning was to move to Kilby bridge, but it was so lovely at Wistow that we decided to stay another night. We went back down to the garden centre with our measurements and returned with a new rug for the lounge. We wanted a red one but they only had blue or green left, but having got it home we think it looks better. There's already enough red.

We potted up some of our herbs, taking Bob’s advice to add some grit to the compost for drainage. Bob gave us a little chocolate mint plant and a huge bunch of Rosemary that he’d trimmed off theirs. We took some cuttings and saved the rest for drying.

We also booked a couple of flights to France for August. We know it’s a risk, at the moment foreign leisure travel isn’t allowed, but things are starting to open up, and Ann-Marie booked them through an easyJet offer which allows changes to the booking, free of charge, up to 24 hours before check-in. The only slight snagette is that at the moment compulsory pre- and post-flight Covid tests are £200 per person. All the time flying is for business only the money flows like water with impunity, (don’t get me started) however we’re sure that once leisure travel is allowed, neither Joe Public or the airlines will stand for that.

Anyway, Chloe has booked flights down there as well, so if it all goes ahead we’ll get to see all our children and grandchildren for the first time in a year and a half, all at once, for a fortnight in the south of France. It’s 14 weeks away and we just try to not think about it too much because we both get far too emotional when we do. Originally we’d thought we’d go down for three weeks, but that would mean putting Legend in a marina (££) and an extra week of airport parking (££). We decided that instead of three weeks in the summer, we’d rather have two and another two in the winter.

In the afternoon we took our car to Kilby Bridge and walked back. After that we had a brew and a planning meeting with our mates about the next leg of our journey through Leicester.

Just as we were about to set off the next day another boat came past. The next lock was only just round the corner so we gave them a little while before we untied. When we got to the lock we were surprised to see them still waiting, but it turned out there was a little river cruiser coming up, crewed by a couple who’d only just bought it and had never been boating before. Everyone pitched in to help, imparting what little knowledge time allowed, and we gave them a couple of piling hooks. They were very appreciative, but just between us, they were doing us a favour. Over the years we’ve acquired about a dozen piling hooks, as they often get left behind or dropped, and these days we use chains on the armco so we were glad to see some of Legend’s excess weight go.

Then we were off down a few more locks...

Rather dodgy brickwork! That's going to need some attention before long. 

Wide locks are so much easier with two boats.

...and on through the lovely Leicestershire countryside to stop on the 48hr moorings at Kilby bridge.

We had a wander up to Wilko in Wigston, but they didn’t have any exterior black gloss either. There’s still no rush though, the tow path is on the wrong side for a while yet.

The next day we moved both cars up to Birstall on the other side of the city. After a coffee in the White Horse we had a delightful walk back down the river corridor, through the parks and gardens, passing the National Space Centre and the Abbey.

The site of Leicester Abbey

We then followed the tow path into the city centre to check out the moorings at Friar’s Mill and Castle Gardens. After that we got a cab back to Kilby Bridge. We could have done a shuffle and brought one of the cars back, but we’d have missed out on a beautiful walk and the taxi fare was only £10 so it really didn’t seem worth the hassle.

At 10am the next morning we set off for Gee’s Lock. We’d checked it out on Google Earth and found  a stretch of straight armco between there and Blue Bank Lock, below which Linzi had marked some mooring rings, giving us a couple of options. After boating through the ever encroaching city at Wigston, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves out in the countryside again as we went round the loop at Glen Pava.

Just before we got to our final lock of the day, dark clouds gathered and suddenly we  were heading straight into a vicious, freezing hail storm. Ann-Marie hunkered down inside, leaving Dave to shelter behind the umbrella, occasionally peeking out to make sure he was still pointing in the right direction.

It started to ease off as we worked the boats down Gee’s lock...

...and stopped just as we pulled in. The towpath had recently been resurfaced so there was a strip of raw earth between the edge of the path and the armco which will be perfect in a couple of years when the grass has re-established itself, but made mooring up without getting muddy a little tricky. However it was lovely and quiet and had a lovely view over Glen Hills nature reserve.

In the afternoon we had a walk up the river to Aylestone Meadows, passing King's Lock, where the river joins the canal for the first time...

...and the 15th C Aylestone packhorse bridge...

...then back down the Great Central Way, a well used and well maintained cycle and walking route on the bed of the disused Great Central Railway line running south from the city centre.

Click here for a very rail-centric description. It forms part of National Cycle Route 6, the London to Keswick route that Dave’s got this barmy idea about doing on a couple of Ebikes in our dottage.

In the morning we got the life jackets out and attached the anchor to it’s chain and rope and secured it to the front T, making Legend ready for the river. We know full well that the River Soar, although a pussycat for 90% of the time, can bite back quite quickly after heavy rain which - at this time of year -  is quite possible. We set off again heading for the city moorings at either Castle Gardens or Friar’s mill. After we passed Aylestone Meadows and went through the lock, it felt as if Leicester had suddenly popped up in front of us.

Just before, we’d been in rural countryside, and now, spread before us were tall buildings and unban majesty. At Freemans Meadow lock, overshadowed by it’s huge weir and Leicester City football ground, it really feels like you’ve arrived...

and boating down the Mile Straight  reminded us of the approaches into York and Bristol.

At the end of this beautiful and no doubt once bustling thoroughfare we came to the floating pontoon at Castle Gardens. We’d heard that there was work being done there, so we weren’t surprised to find a CRT work barge tied up, but we reckoned there’d be room to get both boats in front of it. And there was. Just.

The workmen were very accommodating, they were rebuilding the steps under the gate, but kindly put a plank over the new brickwork so we could get out to the gardens, and were happy to have Matilda’s stern rope tied to their barge. They got a brew and some of Mandy’s date slice for their co-operation.

With the boats tucked in behind the wall the pontoon made a good sun trap so - despite the chilly wind - when the sun came out it was glorious and we sat out on deck chairs for lunch.

Later on we wandered through the gardens...

...and climbed up the Motte before following the King Richard III History Trail round some historic bits of the city, which are surprisingly numerous when you start looking behind the shiny modern façades.

With its Roman roots and wealthy medieval background there is much to see, and King Richard III’s final resting place famed - in 2012 when it was excavated - for being a dingy car-park, is now a beautiful, peaceful, urban oasis. We were unexpectedly impressed with Leicester; it has a dodgy reputation amongst boaters - just about everyone we’ve seen over the last few weeks was either going straight through or only stopping for one night - and although experience has taught us to take tales of doom with a generous pinch of salt, we were still slightly apprehensive about coming here. However, we can report, Dear Reader, that this historic city is well worth a visit and we felt perfectly happy here.

New Haw Lock to Boveney. River Wey. River Thames.

After pulling the pins at New Haw we dropped down the last four locks on the Wey... Cox's Mill Lock Town Lock The final stretch of the W...