Friday 22 December 2023

Leighton Buzzard to Marsworth. Grand Union Canal.

Having decided to slow our boat moves down gave us the chance to start looking at our plans for next year. We booked the Newhaven - Dieppe ferry in January to go and see Frankie and Harry for a fortnight, and a flight to Belfast in February for another couple of weeks with Chloe and Shandy. We would have preferred to go to Ireland on the P&O Liverpool to Dublin freight ferry - we’ve done it before and it’s a really nice crossing - but for some reason, although the website is up and running, it wasn’t taking bookings. :-(

Being moored within walking distance of Leighton meant we could easily get all our last minute present shopping done, so we had a couple of days not joined at the hip getting ready for our respective birthdays in December, and the Big Day at the end.

After four days at the lock, the sun came out and we discovered that despite them not having any leaves left, the big whomping willows between the canal and the river were really overshadowing our mooring. Just round the bend there were far fewer trees and a gap had opened up, so we did a little hop out into the sunshine. Wow, what a difference that made! In the short December days every second of sunlight on the solar panels is precious, but more than that, being out of the shade and having the sun streaming through the windows - even for just a few hours a day - really lifted our mood.

Getting to Leighton crossed the imaginary “one-and-a-half hours to Fleet” line, and driving down to see the folks for the day was now a possibility, so that’s just what we did. We had lunch in Mum and Dad’s new favourite café and swapped presents and cards, then later on did the same with a chippy tea at Karen’s. Of course it was dark when we got back, which was when we realised that - once again - we’d not brought torches with us. It’s not difficult is it? We’ve got two really nice chargeable head torches that Ann Marie and Brian gave us when we were at the Bollington Wharf last year, yet we continually seem to find ourselves walking back to the boat with the pathetic little light from a phone.

Dave’s sixty-sixth birthday was something we’d both been especially looking forward to. Not only was it the day he qualified for his state pension, but also the day he got his bus pass. Also - the icing on the cake - it was a Saturday, so we got to do a birthday parkrun as well! We’d chosen Dunstable Downs for its amazing views, however the dawn temperature was minus three and didn’t get much above that all day. At the top of the Downs it was foggy and icy, visibility was about ten meters and everything was covered in frost.

 We put it off for as long as possible, but finally had to get out of the car and join the other nutters, jigging up and down before the start in an effort to keep some blood circulating to our extremities.

The run director’s briefing was funny; “You run down there towards that… well you can’t see it, but there’s a bush… then turn left to the….. well….um, just follow the person in front!”

We had a good time though, in the café afterwards, while we hugged our hot chocolates and Ann-Marie’s pigtails defrosted, there was a really great atmosphere and a wonderful feeling of comradeship with all the other lunatics that had got up that morning and braved the weather.

Ann-Marie had brought breakfast with us in the form of beans and sausages in the big flask, so we had that in the car and were treated to a special birthday moment when the fog cleared momentarily, the sun came out and we could see right across to the woods on the other side. Seconds later it was foggy again. Spooky, but so, so beautiful.

There was a Christmas festivally type of thing in Bletchley that day, including a “Santa Dash”. We first thought it might be a 5k run, but upon reading the small print found out that it was a sprint up the high street. About two dozen people turned up, mostly kids, but with a good few supposedly grown-ups, all wearing something Christmassy. It was a shame it was so cold, there were three sheets of A4 of people who’d signed up, and if it had been a week earlier it would have been ten degrees warmer and amazing. The race was started by Bletchley’s Santa, who was the closest to the real thing that we’d ever seen. No false beard or Nike trainers for this Saint Nick, he was truly splendid.

The older kids were off like greasy whippets from the go with Dave in hot pursuit, but they don’t make teenagers like they used to - they all began flagging after half way - and despite telling them he was older than their grandad and other encouraging stuff, Dave had to hang back at the end to let a few of them get there first.

Everyone got a Santa Dash Medal,...

...and we hung around for the Children’s choir and about five freezing minutes of the outdoor panto before we dived into the warmth of the Italian café for lunch.

We topped Dave’s retirement birthday off with pizza for dinner and afterwards got a call from Chloe and Shandy to say not only happy birthday, but also to tell us that they’d moved out of the caravan and were living in the house. It wasn’t finished by any means, but it was weather tight, warm, and the power was on. They were still using the caravan for washing and the loo, but that was only till the septic tank got connected in a couple of days time. They’d been aiming to be in by Christmas since they started building in February, and considering how much of the build has been “direct labour” (in other words - them) their progress and what they’ve achieved is astounding. We're so proud of them. A perfect end to a great day.

In the morning there was a smattering of ice on the canal, but it was slightly warmer. After volunteering for Junior parkrun in Leighton, we had a good clean round in the boat, packed up all the ornaments and whatnot that adorn (clutter up?) our boat for the rest of the year, relished the clear spaciousness for ten minutes or so, then filled it all up again with Christmas decorations.

As well as being really cold at Leighton, it was also very wet and there was a couple of days when it rained non-stop. With the river and the canal right next to each other this made things a bit interesting, with the canal overflow sending a deluge into the river, which promptly burst it’s banks and flooding the riverside path.  

Over the next few days we had one of our Grand Tours. First we went over to Wenlock Edge to Alison and Laura’s, for house sitting duties and to look after Jaffa and the chickens while they went to a wedding (Alison and Laura, not the chickens.)

House sitting is such hard work.

Before they left we had a day with them and went to the newly reopened pub down the road for dinner.

On the Saturday we did parkrun in Telford. On the way there in the car it was raining and we very nearly turned back, but thankfully we carried on and had a really good time.

After L&A got back we said our goodbyes and drove across the country to Ilkeston where we were staying with Angie and Dave for the night. After a quick catch up and a brew, we all got changed into our glad rags and headed off into Nottingham for Paul and Steve’s second 70th birthday party. It was brilliant to see so many of our family and friends. Chloe, Shandy and the kids were there, as well as our nieces and nephews and all their families which was a lovely surprise. The pub was quite crowded and very noisy, so it wasn’t that easy to chat to people, but we managed, and it was worth everything to have a hug from the grandkids.

After breakfast with Dave & Angie the next morning we headed back southwards, stopping in on Diane and Richard in Peterborough for dinner and a hand of cribbage before going home. Back at the boat we got the fire going and the electric blanket on and were toasty in no time.  

While we were at A&L’s, Mum and Dad phoned to say that Dad had been admitted to hospital and they were concerned about his heart, so the whole time away was a bit of a worry and Ann-Marie was constantly in touch with Mum and Karen to check on how he was. By the time we got home the news was better but he was still in hospital.

In the morning we moved Legend - you remember Legend? - to Grove Church, about two miles further on. We’d moored there a couple of times before and hadn’t remembered it being muddy, but then we realised that it hadn’t been December then. That night it rained even more, so the tow path was a real swamp in the morning. We deployed the wellies and squelched our way to the car, then drove over to Nottingham for Ann-Marie’s final five nights on her clinical trial. While she was in, Dave had arranged to go down and help Steve and Annmarie, (our friends on the River Thames with the glamping site and the hire boat) with a boat move. They’d bought an ex Black Prince sixty-two footer and needed to bring it back from its base in Bath. Ann-Marie’s intake was at 6pm so after he’d dropped her off, Dave was going to go straight down to the Kennet and Avon to be assistant crew. In the meantime we’d arranged to meet up with Steve and Les for the afternoon. Les couldn’t make it, but Steve brought Tony and Colleen (more boat dwellers) with him and we had a very pleasant time in the Portobello Lounge chatting about batteries, toilets and gongoozlers.

After that we drove round to Quotient which is where it all went as bit pear-shaped.

Ann-Marie tested positive for Covid.

Luckily, Dave hadn’t got far, so we were soon on the road back home. We phoned all the people we’d been in contact with, which after a week travelling round the country was a lot, plus Steve and Annmarie to say that there would be no assistant crew, as Dave would be staying home looking after the poorly lady who, now she thought about it, was feeling rather crap. When we’d left the boat, we’d emptied the fridge, so we had to do a masked-up rush round Tesco to restock before we got back.

Three days later Ann-Marie was feeling worse, no energy, and a wheezy cough. Dave was testing positive as well, but with only minor symptoms, probably because he's had a relatively recent over 65's vaccine.

Jules Fuels came past Grove lock on their fortnightly run up the GU aboard fuel boat Bletchley and butty boat Bideford, so we stocked up with diesel, coal and a bottle of gas.

To ensure that the delivery was contact free, before they arrived Dave unlocked the filler cap, put the empty gas bottle on the back deck and left them to it, then put it all away after they gone. Just not having to think about supplies made us feel better.

On the plus side of things, instead of being on the trial, Ann-Marie was at home for her birthday, so we celebrated with a boat move to Slapton lock (two miles away and less muddy) and an invigorating walk back to the car. It was fabulous being outside, but physically draining and we couldn't believe how little energy we had. Despite all that we still felt quite fortunate; it was the first time we'd had Covid, and compared to the severity of  the virus in it's early stages and the absolute terror we all felt, what we were going through was peanuts.

We were on the phone to Frankie a bit later on that day when there was a tremendous kerfuffle outside, which turned out to be a Muntjac deer that had trapped itself between the boat and the Armco and couldn’t turn round. The poor thing was panicking and looked close to drowning.  We let the front rope off and it swam out and over to the far bank where it climbed out, apparently non-the-worse for the experience.

Over the following days we just felt like curling up, but mustered ourselves each day and did little hops to Seabrook bottom lock, a nameless bit of tow path just after Cooks Wharf, and finally to Marsworth, where we moored up opposite the Aylesbury arm junction.

Plenty of  winter fu-oo-el 

Working up Seabrook locks on the way to Marsworth.

The wing-wall steps on GU locks make life a lot easier for single handers.

It's relatively easy to isolate yourself on a boat, especially in winter. In fact if you don't make a positive effort you can go for weeks without seeing or talking to anyone, so we're quite sure we can get through this without passing it on, and with any luck we'll have the all-clear in time for Christmas.

Merry Christmas Dear Reader, thank you for joining us this year. We'll be on Southern Waters again next year, hopefully we'll get all the way to the most southerly navigation limit at Godalming this time, and we'd love you to come with us.

Have a fabulous 2024, lots of love, D&AMxx    


Tuesday 19 December 2023

Milton Keynes to Leighton Buzzard. Grand Union Canal.

Late Autumn on the Grand Union.

Another Saturday dawned, so we left Legend at Bolbeck park and wound our way through the Milton Keynes maze of footpaths to Linford Wood for parkrun - followed by a very nice coffee - and managed to get back without getting rained on, despite the uninspiring weather forecast.

Back at legend we phoned No.1 grandchild to say happy 7th birthday (where does it go?) then in the evening made a big bowl of popcorn ready for watching Strictly in Blackpool.

The next morning we walked down to Campbell park where we’d left the car and drove to Emerson Valley - near Milton Keynes football club - to help marshal the junior parkrun. After that we moved Legend on a bit to Campbell Park, putting car and boat together again. The local wildlife were clearly used to boats and bird tables.

Diane and Richard came for a visit the next day. It was the first time Richard had been on our boat - or anyone else’s for that matter - so there was the usual period of tottering about and unsteadiness that narrowboat virgins go through, which Ann-Marie cunningly cured by distracting everyone with lashings of tea and her wonderful scones. We had a very pleasant walk around Willen Lake before lunch, then a cozy afternoon chatting and catching up.  A perfect day with good friends, and it was especially good to see Diane looking so much better.

This close to Christmas, we felt that we couldn’t leave MK without visiting the bright lights of the shopping centre, so the next morning we walked over there and immersed ourselves in retail extravagance.

A couple of hours was more than enough though, so laden with no shopping whatsoever, we grabbed a couple of coffees from Pret and walked back to the boat via the Light Pyramid and the Circle Dance on the MK Art Trail.

Ann-Marie was up early the next morning, and out for a run round Willen Lake before we moved in the chilly sunshine to Fenny Stratford where we moored just before the stop lock for a couple of nights. Fenny Stratford is conveniently close to Ikea and there were a few things we needed (isn’t there always?), so we went for breakfast the next morning. For a while now we’ve been on the lookout  for some artificial flowers to add a bit of colour to Legend’s roof in the winter, Ikea had a good selection and we came home with a rucksack full of plastic busy lizzies. They are very obviously artificial, but they really brighten it up, and we’re hoping they’ll provide a modicum of shelter for the poor, brave little cyclamen that we’ve abandoned to their fate up there.

On the way home we had a wander round Bletchley...

...had coffee and cake in the Italian cake, and picked up a couple of charity shop jigsaw puzzles. (More about them later.)

The next day we took the car down to Soulbury three locks and although it was sunny walking back, we had a freezing northerly headwind. Brrr. When we got home, while we were adding more layers and more coffee, Nb Wandering Willow came past us on its way to the lock, and we quickly got ourselves sorted so that we could share. Ann-Marie walked down to the lock just in time to find Anna in a muddle because, with the winter sun in her eyes, she hadn’t seen that there was a bridge across the open lock that you need to swing before you go in, (well who would?) and was in the process of pulling her boat back to make room for the bridge swing. Dave hovered while they sorted it out then pulled in alongside. Anna told us she hadn’t had the boat for long, she’d bought it in Skipton and after living on it up there for a while was now heading for Aylesbury for Christmas.

Anna on Wandering Willow leading Legend into Soulbury bottom lock.

We shared Stoke Hammond and the Soulbury three locks and by the time we got to the top we were firm friends. We moored both boats at the top of Soulbury Three and Anna joined us for dinner, during which we discovered that while she was in Skipton she’d become really good friends with Anita, who we’d helped down the locks from Standedge in the summer. They’d been moored near each other and boated together till going their separate ways at Coopers Bridge. It’s been so quiet on the northern waterways this year that with one hand we can count the number of people we’ve met that we’ve felt inclined to exchange details with. (What is it that tells you you’re going to be friends with someone as soon as you meet them? Whatever it is, when you know, you know.) What a small world it is that we should have met, and really got on well with both of them.

Another Saturday arrived - the coldest one so far at -3.5°C. We got the bikes out and cycled to parkrun at Rushmere Country Park. Google described the route as “mostly flat”, and was clearly lying through it’s googling teeth. We had to get off and walk three googling times and got there just as the first timers briefing finished, so as soon as we’d gone through transition from cyclists to runners we were off. Now we know what triathletes feel like. (No, we really don’t).

Rushmere's Mudometer in action!

It was a tough run as well; two trail laps with hills, woods, mud and tree roots; the total antithesis of the flat, paved runs we’ve recently had in and around MK. We both enjoyed it but we were totally knackered by the end.

We got chatting to some local runners in the café afterwards and learned that there was a much flatter - if slightly longer - way back to the canal, which was a great relief because we were seriously contemplating abandoning the bikes and phoning for an Uber.

So, the jigsaw puzzles. Although we love doing jigsaws, there really isn’t enough room in our little boat to indulge in them. However we had the idea of making Advent jigsaws as Christmas presents for Anne & Andy and Karen & Andrew this year and we’d convinced ourselves it was just a matter of discipline and logistics. Step 1 - do the puzzles.  A 1000 piece jigsaw only just fits on our dining table, with room for about twenty bits round the edge, all of which seem desperate to throw themselves to the floor at any given opportunity. Add to that, Dear Reader, the fact that the table, being one of the few horizontal surfaces we own, performs a myriad of vital functions, and you can imagine how much stress this little endeavour introduced into our lives. Oh, and advent was only a week away when we started. Instead of being a calm, relaxing, genteel pastime, completing these two jigsaws suddenly became a mammoth military exercise and very nearly ended with both of them in the at the bottom of the canal.

Unless they read this, the respective recipients will never know how close they came to getting a box of biscuits each instead. However, over the next four days we gritted our teeth, girded our loins, withered our shins and knuckled down. Once they were complete, we took them apart systematically and put 41 pieces into each of the little numbered boxes that we’d made...

...put the little boxes into each if the big boxes and wrapped them up. Despite it being - or maybe because it was - almost impossible, we actually did have a lot of fun doing it, and the little boxes really made it come together.

During all that we managed to fit in marshalling at Leighton Buzzard junior parkrun, and a boat move to Leighton Lock where we stayed for a fortnight. We hadn’t meant to stay that long, but it’ll come as no surprise, Dear Reader, to learn that our plans have changed once more. Instead of charging ahead to get below Rickmansworth before January, we’ve decided to slow things down and stay above there till March when the winter closures should all be finished. Smell the roses, watch the world go by, mess about in the river, that sort of thing. Much more our style.  

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 ...