Sunday, 8 November 2015

Braunston to Bricks - the end of navigation

It's been exactly two months since our last blog. It's reassuring to know that our loyal blog readers have better things to do than worry about why the blog hasn't been updated. We have been overwhelmed by a wall of silence and precisely zero enquiries along the lines of "Where are you? Have you sunk? Have you been washed out to sea?".

I'm pleased to put all readers' minds at ease that we are still alive and kicking. So no more sleepless nights for you lot now.

What we have done over the last couple of months is something rather rash and unforeseen. With a degree of sadness after 6 years living afloat, we have now moved back to dry land. Pas Mèche is safely tucked up at a marina in the midlands and is now for sale through Great Haywood boat sales.  Oh go on then, here's a shameless plug

But before we get into all that, we were last seen in Braunston. On the way out we passed the iconic double arched bridge where the Grand Union meets the North Oxford canal.

Next, after a bit of a queue we joined the mayhem at Hilmorton Locks. Mayhem because these locks are paired and one of the top ones was out of action so boats were coming up faster than they could get down. Does it really take a genius to work out that when you have more boats coming up into a pound and not enough going down the water runs out? Apparently it does, and geniuses were in short supply at the middle lock so boats were going aground all over the place in the pound above. Fortunately we made it down and, after trying to no avail to explain why people shouldn't rush up the locks just to join the queue of stuck boats above, we left everyone else to it.

The cruise through Rugby is pretty unremarkable, the highlight being the embankment above the town which has a number of short aqueducts. Rumour has it this isn't a particularly safe place to stop though, which is a shame as it would be handy for shopping.

Instead we moored for the night in Newbold on Avon and walked over the tunnel where we met some rather over-friendly cows. Fortunately these ones were behind a gate, unlike the ones we were herded by on the South Oxford last year.

The next morning we passed nb Chalkhill Blue, belonging to friends and fellow bloggers Neil and Karen. We'd met them in Warwick when they came to look round PM for inspiration as they're thinking of downsizing to a 'go anywhere' 57' boat like ours (oops, was that another plug?).

Next stop was Hawkesbury Junction, where the North Oxford meets the Coventry Canal in a rather contorted U-shaped junction. Over Victoria's left shoulder is the North Oxford and over her right is the Coventry.

I have to confess I was a little nervous about this manoevre, still traumatised by doing it on only our second day of owning PM back in 2009.

Pressure is added by the presence of The Greyhound pub right by the junction, which is normally full of drinkers sat out watching for boats making a mess of this junction. Fortunately it was raining and the good people of Coventry clearly don't start drinking this early so we didn't have an audience.

We must've learned a thing or two about handling a narrowboat in the six years we've had PM as the turn is actually pretty straightforward (actually that's not the right expression...). When we did this back in 2009 we did make the turn but with a lot less dignity. I remember my mum making a brave but ultimately doomed attempt at pulling the front round with a rope from the towpath. Not very professional but at least it was only the rope that ended up in the water!

Once you get out of Nuneaton the Coventry canal is surprisingly pleasant and rural. Here we are passing the old workshops at Hartshill Yard...

... just before we moored for the night in the wide open valley of the River Anker.

Continuing on towards Atherstone the Coventry is probably at its best, following a winding course through a beautiful landscape of re-claimed spoil heaps from the old quarrying industry round here.

Atherstone locks is never a quick flight but it's attractively set and there always seem to be plenty of boats going up and down.

After a gap you get to the last two locks on the Coventry at Glascote. This sign pinned up by the bottom locks pretty much sums up the attitude and lifestyle of boating as it should be. We've noticed in the time we've lived aboard that people often forget that waterways are not like motorways, and the general etiquette and respect for other boaters isn't what it used to be. Oh dear, I must be getting old!

Turning right at Fradley Junction we were back on the Trent & Mersey - fittingly the first and last canal we cruised on PM.

We crossed the River Trent near Alrewas...

.... then detoured into Burton on Trent. It's a sign of how much we've learned boating that we managed to wind (ok, "turn" - keep up landlubbers) here and reverse through the bridge behind us in the photo below without a hitch, when in 2009 we were terrified going through the same bridge forwards!

As the sign over the canal suggests, this is the brewing capital of the UK. The Marston's brewery tour was fully booked when we came this way earlier in the summer so it would've been rude not to give it another go. Fortunately there was plenty of space this time so we had a good couple of hours being shown round the historic brewery in what turned out to be a private tour just for the two of us.

As any ale fans will know Marston's Pedigree is the only beer to be brewed using the Burton Union system. I won't go into detail (partly because I was too distracted by the imminent tasting session by this point in the tour to really take it in...) but suffice to say it's an amazing sight and makes a pint of 'Peddy' seem pretty good value.


Freshly educated, and with my wallet lubricated by the (very) generous tasting session, we spent the rest of the day making sure Burton's ales were up to scratch. Next day we had a short cruise to Branston water park, where we were treated to a lovely evening for our last night on PM.

We spotted Chalkhill Blue just round the corner so invited Neil and Karen over for drinks that evening. It was great to catch up with them properly and find out about their plans for their new boat. It definitely helped dispel the 'final night afloat blues' too.

Our last day on PM dawned bright and sunny (secretly I was hoping for pouring rain to ease the pain of leaving her!) . We waved to Neil & Karen as we set off (apologies N&K for the post-shower hair photo) ....

... then climbed our last ever lock (!) at Barton Turn...

... before reaching PM's home for the time being while she awaits a new owner.

I know I would say this given she's for sale but PM has been an excellent boat. We've covered most of the waterways, some in very challenging conditions and, as blog readers with good memories will vouch for, we've barely had any issues with her. She's been the best liveaboard you could hope for over the last six years.

The decision to move off wasn't an easy one but we feel it's time to get on with other things in life. Unfortunately that also means spending more time working and it's just not fair to a narrowboat to leave it cooped up in a marina all the time. They're boats (and that's different to "house boats" as most landlubbers seem to call them) and they need and deserve to be used as such. That means they should be out cruising, and for us that's just not compatible with real life. 

So we've moved on. It's been a great six years afloat and we will always have a real soft spot for boats and the waterways but other things beckon and we are taking to life on land very well after so long on the boat. Toilets that empty themselves, heating that just comes on and taps that keep on flowing without having to refill a tank from a frozen waterpoint definitely help!

We're living in Bath but not far from the river/canal here (we're even in the Nicholsons!) so we still feel in touch with the waterways. We've met some great people on the canals so if anyone who know us is doing the K&A do let us know - we're not far away!

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Wonderful Warwickshire

Resisting the temptation of Cadbury World a little further up the canal, we left the Worcester & Birmingham at Kings Norton Junction, turning right onto the North Stratford Canal. This begins with a very narrow stop lock with guillotine gates at either end. The lock is no longer in use and has unfortunately suffered from graffiti.

The North Stratford is a great link route into Birmingham (probably the most pleasant route in actually) but is not all that remarkable in its own right. One highlight is the Shirley Draw Bridge where a busy suburban road crosses the canal and boaters get to disrupt the traffic as they chug slowly through. We followed a hire boat who worked the bridge for us and so took the brunt of the glares from delayed motorists - thanks!

There are a couple more lift bridges on this canal, thoough both are very minor crossings. We had a couple of days of really heavy rain on the North Stratford but then again it was Bank Holiday weekend so we couldn't really expect anything else!

We didn't fancy doing the 15 locks of the main Lapworth flight in the pouring rain so we stopped at the top of the main flight and lit the stove to dry out. We were delighted to have a visit from local friends Richard and Jackie from nb Mad Hatter who we met on the Basingstoke Canal back in April. It was great to see them again and catch up on each other's summer boating stories.

Fortunately the following day dawned a lot brighter and drier so we had a pleasant run down the Lapworth locks, assisted by a very chatty volunteer lock keeper. Boaters have a decision to make part way down the flight as choosing the left hand lock in the photo below takes you to the Grand Union, whilst going right guides you towards Stratford. We went right, even though we should've gone left. No, we haven't totally lost it - it's just that we haven't done the right hand lock before so we wanted to complete the set. There's a handy cut-through between the two locks in the pound below so it was more of a scenic route than a wrong turn.

Shortly after we got on the Grand Union we moored on the embankment near Rowington, which has fantastic views. Fantastic views which soon disappeared as it poured with rain that afternoon and evening. Out with those firelights again then... The following morning we were treated to a chilly but clear start with mist rising from the canal.

We went through the Shrewley Tunnel, which has a separate towpath tunnel for the horses...

... then arrived at the top of the Hatton lock flight. These are 21 broad locks which descend all the way down to Warwick. There are great views of the town as you descend but unfortunately we had nobody to share the views with (or more importantly the hard work) as we seemed to be the only boat going down. Thanks go to the man out walking his dog who caught us up near the bottom and borrowed a windlass to work the last few locks with us!

The best mooring in Warick has to be down the Saltisford Arm. This is a short section of restored waterway which offers visitor moorings (free for the first night) with full facilities and is only a few minutes' walk to the centre of Warwick. We liked it so much we stayed for three nights.

Whilst in Warwick we looked round the Castle - watch out for BOGOF entry offers as it's pretty expensive if you pay full price. With one free entry between us we thought it was decent value, if a bit over-commercialised.

No complaints about the views from the castle towers though, this is a great place to see Warwick from.

We also met the castle's bird collection - not sure about the short tethers they were on but we did later see a few of them out flying for a display so hopefully they do get some exercise.

We were treated to a nice sunset for our final night on the Saltisford Arm - a lovely, peaceful mooring run by a very welcoming group.

Supplies were running low leaving Warwick so we stopped at Leaminton Spa. Leamington wasn't a highlight of our travels but does boast just about every supermarket under the sun. We opted for Lidl - mainly because it is canalside but perhaps also to recoup some of the small fortune spent on entry to Warwick Castle!

We made it out of Leamington and stopped above Radford bottom lock. This pound must be a good half-mile long but somehow it dropped over a foot during the night and we woke up at a jaunty angle as PM had settled onto the mud. We never did discover where the water went - the lock below was well sealed so presumably there is a leak in the canal bed somewhere.

Using some brute force to shove PM off the mud, equilibrium was restored and we carried on eastwards. There are plenty of locks along this stretch and we soon came to Basford Staircase locks. Despite what it says on the sign, you can pass two or three boats in a staircase so here PM is climbing the bottom lock as two boats descend the top one. This does require a bit of narrowboat shuffling to pass each other but it works fine, although perhaps not if all three boats are full-length.

After a night at Long Itchington, the locks just kept coming. Here PM is passing another boat in the 10-lock Stockton flight.

We stopped below Calcutt locks and had a good walk (in the sunshine for a change!) around Napton Reservoirs and up Napton hill to see the windmill. We got a bit carried away with the distance so had to sacrifice the pub-stop on the way home :(

Today we climbed the three Calcutt locks and turned left at Napton Junction. Had we been a couple of minutes earlier we would've been T-boned by a speeding narrowboat charging across the junction. I didn't know narrowboats could go that speed - he was going so fast it looked like time had been sped up. Maniac!

After that excitement we had a leisurely cruise towards Braunston. We should've turned left at this junction but turned right instead (this is becoming a habit). Braunston is a real boaty place and we love coming here so detoured to moor in the centre for the night.

We have a great mooring right by a very busy winding hole which has provided hours of entertainment as we watch people turning (or, in some cases, failing to turn!) in the marina entrance.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Tunnels, Tardebigge and a tree-tache

Boating is never a speedy affair but we didn't make it far from Kinver before having to stop again. As we came round a bend near Caunsall we found 72' of ex-working boat stranded across the canal. A nearby boater explained that too many speeding boats had ripped the mooring pins out. David was dispatched with the long pole to push her back in to the bank. After some scavenging on the stricken boat for a spare pin we had her moored up again and were on our way.

Cookley Tunnel is only 65 yards long but we love the houses sat ontop of it. I wonder how many flower pots from the end garden have finished up in the canal below...

Kidderminster provides a handy shopping spot on the Staffs and Worcs with a choice of two canal-side supermarkets. If you don't need shopping, the view of the church is about the highlight!

We had an unusually long day to Stourport - which has a real seaside feel to it, complete with funfair and seagulls. The canal joins the river via two narrow staircase locks for narrowboats or two broad locks for fat boats so you have to watch where you're going to make sure you end up at the right set of locks.

These are the staircase locks, with the second set next to the arched roof of the dry dock.

The canal builders must've had a sense of humour as they built the two pairs of staircases offset from each other. Getting from one pair of staircase locks into the next must be one of the most awkward lock approaches on the system (Keadby and other tidal locks aside I suppose). Fortunately we made it perfectly due to no wind, no cross currents and, more importantly, nobody watching.

We had a good trip down the River Severn, the levels were low so we didn't break any speed records as we headed downstream to Worcester, passing the cathedral on the river bank before stopping for the night on the floating pontoons near Diglis lock.

That evening and the following morning it rained really heavily. The river had definitely come up, just nudging into the 'amber' on the level guage. After sitting tight for the morning's rain we made a move up into the Diglis canal basin to get off the river. This was a selfless act for the good of all river boaters as we have a history of making rivers flood when we go on them.... one of our boating friends nicknamed Dave 'Noah' for this talent.

Leaving Worcester the heavens opened again and we were drenched by the time we made it under the M5 to a pleasant if soggy mooring at Tibberton. So much for the summer!

The following day dawned bright and sunny and we had a pleasant cruise to the top of the Stoke flight. The Worcester and Birmingham is a narrow canal so it was a bit strange squeezing through two enormous widebeams at Hanbury Wharf. There is a broker here which cranes wide boats in to a narrow canal, presumably to then be craned out again when someone buys them.

The moorings at the top of the Stoke flight were pretty busy, the reason being that if you go beyond this point you then can't stop for another two miles and 30 locks. This is the bottom of the infamous Tardebigge flight, the longest flight of locks in the country. With this in mind we made an early start today, setting off at an almost unheard of time of 7:15.

This proved to be a good move as we *just* beat another couple of boats to the first lock, meaning most of the locks were empty for us (ready to go in) whilst they had to reset them behind us. No hard feelings we don't think and we worked quickly so as not to hold them up - the early bird caught the worm!

Despite its length, Tardebigge is a lovely flight - all the gates and paddle gear work well and the views as you climb just get better and better. This is the top lock, which is deeper than the rest at 11'.

The engineers of the Worcester & Birmingham obviously got bored of locks by the time they got to Tardebigge Top Lock, as a 600 yard tunnel lies just beyond, saving any more windlass wielding as it burrows under the hill.

Thanks to our early start it was barely coffee break time when we got to the summit level so we thought we'd better keep going. We passed through Alvechurch, having forgotten how pretty the canal round here is from when we did it last year. We particularly liked Lower Bittell Reservoir but unfortunately you can't really moor here as the towpath is so overgrown. The long term moorers on the otherside have got a great view all to themselves though.

After 38 lock-miles (our longest day ever I think...) we stopped at Hopwood. Progress for the last half-mile or so seemed to be really slow which we had thought was due to shallow water in a cutting. When we stopped, we discovered PM had acquired an enormous submerged tree-moustache which spanned most of the width of the canal! Here is the offending item when we'd dragged it out from under PM - we hadn't even noticed this but it's been a long day!