Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bascote to Yarningale Common

Friday 31st July 2008
Bascote to Yarningale Common
Grand Union and Southern Stratford Canals

12 hours
18 miles
40 locks

The day of the locks
The day started with a grim weather warning, which the BBC signify with those grey clouds and two raindrops. Not a good prospect for the locks which were to follow.

We woke early and worked down the last six locks to the Grand Union sump pound where it passes through Leamington Spa and Warwick and over the upper reaches of the Avon..

The canal does not so much visit Leamington as pass it with a glancing blow. From the canal there is little to indicate the rather lovely Georgian Spa town which well deserves a visit. All traces of industry have been obliterated and been replaced by non descript "warehouse style housing" which isnt dating too well. Warwick follow quickly, and again fails to make much impression from the water, but the ancient town with its fantastic castle is well worth a visit. However, we didn't stop on this occasion save to pause at Kate Boats and fill up the diesel tank, all the time hoping to see another boat heading in our direction with whom we could share the Hatton locks. No one arrived so we made our way to the foot of the flight and hung around for another 20 mins while the water tank was refilled. Still no one came up behind us so, at 12.00 noon we started up the Hatton 21 on our own.

The flight is relentless with the locks coming more and more frequently till in the end there appears to be a hill completely covered in masonry and balance beams. As we were running solo we opted for the slower but less exhausting single side approach, using the sluice streams to hold the boat snugly against the side of the lock. For all their size, the locks are 1930's hydraulic perfection, with all the ground paddles opening quickly with 22 or 23 (stiff) turns on the windlass. This releases water into the lock via three underwater appetures which fill the chamber in about 3 minutes with a minimum of fuss (2 mins if both sides are operated).

These magnificent locks are a fortunate legacy from the 1930's depression, when canal and rail schemes were used to create jobs. I was particularly impressed that the unique paddle housings are all intact and working after 75 years.

Most of the locks were in our favour so, with Tilly steering all the way, Belle lockwheeling on ahead and the Capt working alongside the boat. We managed the flight in three hours which we felt was petty good in the circumstances. Our completion of the flight and the continued absence of the forecast rain was celebrated with ice creams from the refreshment kiosk.

With the Hatton flight being such an obstacle it wasn't surprising to find the reaches above to be very quiet. The towpathless Shrewley Tunnel takes the canal right under the village onto which Belle ventured via the old horse path over the hill, trying to find a post office. The path over the top is very indistinct and the small foot tunnel back down the other side was tricky to find and so dark inside that she had to grope her way through holding onto one slimy wall. The canal tunnel is also very wet and WB suffered numerous drenchings, particularly at the northern end where water spurts in horizontally under pressure.

Moving on you come to the cuttings and embankments of Rowington, which are grand and comparable to those found on the Shroppie, complete with lofty views and unstable tree lined cuttings. Kingswood Junction, our planned destination for the day is a place of contrasts. From the Grand Union is entrance is marked by a plain and unassuming hump backed bridge, which gives no hint to the unique triangular junction which lies behind it, all with choices of locks for northbound travellers. As it was still early we decided to press on down the South Stratford Canal, beyond the roar of the M40 and to a secluded mooring spot at Yarningale Common.

After all the industrial efficiency of the Grand Union, the slowness of the Stratford came as something of a surprise. All the locks are stiff and mostly filled / emptied by one small paddle, resulting in a rate of progress unlike that found anywhere else on our travels. I completed this route as a teenager in the 1970's, when the canal was newly re-opened and still under the control of the National Trust. The channel is a bit deeper now and the gates less rotten, but the speed of filling and emptying hasn't changed a bit!

As our progress slowed the noise level rose to deafening howl at lock 27, passing under the M40 where the noise was so great we had to shout to make ourselves heard. The drone of the tyre noise dies away as the canal pulls away to the south and is merely a faint hum by the time you reach the Fleur de Leys, a popular canal side pub. Don't miss the lovely barrel roofed lock keepers cottage beside lock 31 - gorgeous.

We favoured a quiet mooring so moved on a bit further to a wooded site just below lock 32. Here we were sheltered from the wind with panoramic views over the meadows. All very reminiscent of Dibley no, no, no - yes!.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Rugby to Bascote

Wednesday 30th July 2008
Rugby to Bascote - Day 5
North Oxford and Grand Union

21 Miles
20 Locks
10 Hours

What was it Lou Reed sang - long before the charity version butchered it? Ah yes: "O What a Perfect Day".... That just about sums it up.
The forecast for sunny spells turned into wall to wall sunshine, with the hint of a cooling breeze to take the edge off the heat. Like I said - perfect.

The Rugby moorings are not the best with a fair amount of traffic noise during the night. That said - its not the worst urban mooring by far. We were off again at 8.30am through a pleasantly wooded section to Hillmorton Locks which are all paired up in readyness for through traffic to the Grand Union beyond. We stumbled upon a group of boaters staring glumly into the bottom lock as though baleful glances would cause the dropped windlass to re-emerge from the turbid waters. Two boats were travelling together and they only has two windlass's between them so their progress was halted whilst the offending crew member was dispatched to Hillmorton Boat Services for a replacement. He decided to buy an extra one as penance and emerged huffing and puffing up the towpath as we set off. It appears that the boats were completing the Leicester Ring and are fresh back from a trip down the Tidal Trent, complete with an impromptu overnight stopover on the Normanton Sunken Islands!

WB therefore leaped ahead and became the first boat down the cut that morning. We made good time down a desolate stretch to Braunston passing some wonderfully isolated moorings at Barby, all with privately owned parcels of land some of which appeared abandoned. There moorings have great views over the fields of Warwickshire.

Predictably, the boating traffic built up as we approached Braunston, canal capital of England. Moorings were, as usual, in short supply but we had no plans to linger. Instead we bore right, through the first Iron roving bridge which carries the towpath into the village. The next section between Braunston and Knapton carries both the Grand Union and the Oxford Canals but there is no doubting which canal it really is - the Grand Union. The bridge holes are wide and the banks are all piled in distinctive 1930's concrete. This is a very pretty area, running between rolling hills to Knapton Junction (AKA Wigrams Turn). Atlas and Leo were moored up at the junction all freshly painted in classic BW blue and yellow, looking like they were just waiting for their next load.

We turned north into the Grand Union "proper" whereupon it immediately acquired a quieter, more remote feel. THis is probably an illusion given the huge marinas at Wigrams Turn, Calcutt and Ventnor Farm. For all the boats moored up, few were on the move and we quickly found ourselves at the top of the 8 locks at Stockton.

By good fortune we arrived at the same time as Susan of Kate Boats. After a brief discussion we decided to breast the boats up, with the skipper of Susan navigating both vessels and the Captain overseeing matters on the shore.

The wind died are we descended and we got hotter and hotter, with arms and legs burning in spite of generous applications of sun cream.

Part way down proceedings assumed a carnival atmosphere with a group of 24 from Sudbury Baptist Church working two Willow Wren boats back to base. As we approached the last lock Belle suggested she take a couple of pint mugs to the Blue Lias to refresh both Captians and returned with a couple of pints of Tribute - cracking on a hot day. The younger members of the crew too exception to this treat and were only pacified when ice creams were purchased at the bottom lock.

We uncoupled the boats to navigate the known narrow bridge near the Blue Lias but didn't mention the one before Itchington Bottom Lock. It was attempted breasted up with disastrous consequences, holding up the traffic for five mins whilst they were untied and prised out of the gap. Tilly was steering at this point and did a great job negotiating the many obstacles.

Susan stopped off for the night at the Two Boats but we continued, re-watering at Bascote Wharf and then descended the Bascote staircase pair and the following two singles.

We finally called it a day above Welsh Road Lock and enjoyed a BBQ in the shade of a tall hedge.

Tilly and the Ahab fished with the last of the maggots with a score of: Tilly 4 perch - Capt 0.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Bradley Green to Rugby

Tuesday 29th July 2008
Bradley Green to Rugby - Day 4
Coventry and North Oxford Canals

25 Miles
12 Locks
10 Hours
The weather broke overnight with a torrential downpour drumming on the roof and precipitating a dash to the hatch we had left open to cool the boat.

The new day dawned overcast and cooler which was really good news with the 11 lock Atherstone flight facing us first thing. There was lots of traffic through the locks and we made the ascent in 2.5 hours - the same time we take for the Wolverhampton 21 with twice as many locks! This slowness is testimony to the flights runty ground paddles.

Beyond Atherstone there is an abundance of quarries and associated wharves, all overgrown and blended into the landscape. The picturesque BW workshops at Hartshill were passed with the infamous Granny Buttons moored up alongside (famed throughout canal Blogdom).

The Coventry continues to follow the river Anker, clinging to the valley side into Nuneaton which stretches on and on. Nuneatonians seem to have a fascination with allotments which continue for a couple of miles, all complete with ramshackle sheds built out of whatever scrap was to hand. The allotments are fighting a running battle with weeds and brambles. Sometimes an area is wrested back from the torrent of weeds but mostly the allotments are in retreat, forced back by a horticultural Monserrat which overwhelms everything in its path. A sea of green lava creeping on and on.

Finally the allotments give way to countryside around Bedworth and the unassuming Marston Junction, entrance to the rural Ashby Canal. Next was the enchanting Hawkesbury Junction with is collection of tourists sipping a pint at the canalside pub. Belle, knowing the Captains enthusiasm for ale, popped in with a plastic pint glass and emerged with a cool glass of Pedigree - excellent.

From here we move onto the North Oxford and its flirtatious relationship with the areas brash new (relatively) motorways. First it dashes south to kiss the M6 at Tusses bridge but then like a bashful bride pulls back, only to sidle up again at Sow Common. Clearly the M6 isn't the road for this canal as it then pulls away and encounters the M62 on the rebound.

There is no hesitation this time, the canal throws itself at the M62 and, having tasted the forbidden fruits of Motorway dalliance plunges pack to the M6, bursting through to reach the fleshpots of Ansty.

With the motorways behind us next up is Sutton Stop, the boating centre that time forgot, and home of Rose Narrowboats. This antiquated looking site offers the full range of services: repairs, chandlery, diesel, water, boat hire plus moorings on the old abandoned loop which passes under the railway line. This stretch was altered massively in the 1830's improvements, turning Brindleys winding route into something akin to the Shropshire Union and reducing the distance to Rugby by many miles.

The old canal beds were left in water to service local communities but most have been lost over the years, but still identifiable by the massive BCN type cast iron roving bridges which cross the entrances.

There is one short tunnel at Newbold and then a hop skip and a jump through cuttings and over aqueducts to Rugby and more provisions at Tescos. But food isn't all Tescos offer the canal, it also offers a ready supply of shopping trolleys which the locals use to carefully construct a trolley reef under the bridge!

The day concluded with a burger at the Harvester and then more V of D.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Rugely to Bradley Green

Monday 28th July 2008
Rugely to Bradley Green - Day 3
Trent and Mersey, Birmingham & Fazeley and Coventry

27 Miles
5 Locks
10 Hours

Out itinerary indicated a night near Wood End Lock but the volume of traffic together with the late start on Saturday had already pushed us three hours behind schedule. In the event we were behind right up till the last day!

Capt Ahab was keen to stay within shouting distance of the timetable and was awake with the larks at 6.00am. A 6.30 start paid dividends and we had the canal to ourselves for three hours, making excellent progress right through to Seethay.

Armitage is always an interesting stretch with the narows at Plum Pudding followed by Armitage Shanks, the toilet centre of the universe.

As we passed under the A38 we ran up behind a beautifully cared for Piper (hopper windows et al). Unfortunately, the skipper was unfamiliar with his craft and insisted on futile attempts to steer his craft by paddling with the tiller. This frustration was short lived as he pulled into Seethay Wharf and normal progress was resumed. But not for long. Soon we encountered a a very slow trad which progressed at such a crawl that we had to repeatedly disengage the drive to keep our speed down low enough.

A brief technical aside here - WB is a shortish 42 footer with a good 38hp Beta engine mated to a slightly oversized prop (17 X12) which results in a good turn of speed, which is fine on rivers (7 knots on flat open water), but renders it unable to maintain an ultra slow crawl.

I rarely rejoice in the suffering of others but on this occasion, after 45 mins of dead slow / neutral, I was delighted to see the boat run itself firmly aground just beyond Fisherwick. As we were fairly close at the time the skipper readily agreed that we should pass.

Harvest has come early this year, with endless fields of wheat and rape ready to be collected in. Combines were already working flat out, droning on till the dew of sunset increased the moisture content to unacceptable levels.

Fazely, like Fradley, was quiet with most boaters moored up in whatever shade they could find. Glascote locks were a furnace with heat radiating back up from the brick surround. These locks, like most on the Coventry, are slow fillers and we were dripping with sweat by the time we cleared the second one.

The long pound through Polesworth are surrounded by old coal mines, which closed in the early 60's and with them went the last trade on the canal. Here and there there are the remains of wharfs and jetties, all overgrown and crumbling and some now used as moorings.

Having crossed the Anker at Tamworth, the canal runs alongside the railway line, playing kiss and run - one minute close together and the next moving away, but never so far away as to avoid the hissing whine of the Pendolinos heading for Euston. It was good to be outside looking in rather that inside looking out, which is more usual for a corporate drone bee.

With 10 hours under our belts and a thunderstorm looming we decided to call it a day at Bradley Green, where we topped up with water and then reversed back under Bridge 48 to moor in the shade of a stand of trees, just beyond the winding hole.

Just time for a spot more fishing (Tilly 1 - Capt 0) and two episodes of V of D before bed.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Gailey to Rugely

Sunday 27th July 2008
Gailey to Rugely - Day 2
Staffs and Worcester Canal, Trent and Mersey Canal

14 Miles
12 Locks
10 Hours

This was the best of days and the worst of days. Since our spring excursion on the Trent, Belle has indicated a preference for a canal trip, preferably with wall to wall sunshine thrown in. I could see her point, the Trent was a bit monotonous and in the two years we have had WB, we have never had a hot and sunny trip.

Today we had both, in spades. It was roasting with the thermometer just under 30 degrees and the steel roof too hot to touch. There wasn't a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind to take the edge of the heat and to cap it all, the canal was heaving with boats and progress was slowed to a crawl down the Staffs and Worcester. Its amazing how waiting for locks under a relentless sun seems to lake longer than waiting in the rain. I must remember this next time it tips down.

I shouldn't grumble, things were worse elsewhere and northbound boats reported a failed ground paddle at Colwich Lock which caused a three hour delay for northbound traffic. The tail back was still an hour when we descended at 7.00pm.

Tixall wide was its usual busy self with boats lining the south bank, including the Phyllis May - probably the only narrowboat with aircon. The Darlingtons were sitting alongside in the shade and gave a cheery wave as we passed.

We were fortunate to make it to the Anglo Welsh boatyard at Great Haywood just as they were packing up for the day. They were good enough to give us a much needed pump - out as the odour was causing something of a mutiny among the crew.

By 7.30 we abandoned our target of Kings Bromley and instead moored in a remote spot by Bridge 69, opposite Bishton Hall School from which an outdoor musical event was just audible. At this point the roads and railways pull away from the canal leaving boaters alone with the meadows, the river and the bleating sheep. The day was concluded with a bankside BBQ and a spot of fishing before the light failed and we retreated for the first episode of Vicar of Dibley, our chosen entertainment for the trip.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Calf Heath to Gailey

26th July 2008
Calf Heath to Gailey Day 1
Staffs and Worcester

3 Miles
2 Locks
1 Hour

Index of posts in this series:
1. - Calf Heath to Gailey - this post
2. - Gailey to Rugely
3. - Rugely to Bradley Green
4. - Bradley Green to Rugby
5. - Rugby to Bascote
6. - Bascote to Yarningale
7. - Yarningale to Stratford

Whilst this was the first day of the summer trip, it barely qualifies for a log entry.

By way of an introduction, this is a record of a one way trip from Calf Heath, near Cannock, to Stratford upon Avon via Nuneaton, Braunston and Hatton. Our time was limited to six days of travel, after which Wand'ring Bark would be picked up by our regular relief crew, Martin and Adam, who would complete the home leg via the Avon and Severn.

Since the last log entry WB has had its name painted on by Jim McCormack:

We spent most of the day at Tilly's school open day, having dispatched Jeff to camp for the week. The event was "very English" with all the sideshows and stalls one would expect from a village fete under a clear blue sky. The big bonus of the event was a performance by the Performing Arts Group. One usually approached such events with fear and trembling but this turned out to be something quite exceptional. Tilly is a recent, but very enthusiastic, member of the group who have discovered her talent for singing. Her music teacher has coached her intensively for several weeks and she performed in seven items, sometimes alone, sometimes as half a duet and sometimes as part of a group. The results were quite breathtaking and she was described as having "the voice of an angel". We are biased but we had to agree....

We made it to Wand'ring Bark at 5.00pm with the temperature in the high 20's, and moved the boat down the first two of the Gailey flight to a spot we use regularly, a place where the canal veers away from the noise of A5 but hasn't quite reached the M6, resulting in a quiet and tranquil mooring.