Thursday, 30 April 2015

Bring on the Basingstoke!

Don't believe everything you read on the internet (apart from this blog that is). We almost didn't bother venturing down the Basingstoke Canal, having read stories of poorly maintained locks, rubbish in the canal, low water levels and even lower bridges. We're very glad we braved it and explored this seriously under-used waterway. The Basingstoke has been great!

I must confess things got off to a bad start when we turned off the Wey at Woodham Junction and seemed to virtually come to a halt working our way towards the first lock. The water was shallow and stirring it up with the propeller released murky black gunk and all sorts of strange smells. We were pleased to see another boat waiting to share the locks but less pleased to see it had its stern way out into the canal as the water was too shallow to get into the lock mooring.

After chatting with Richard and Jackie from nb Mad Hatter we got underway up the Woodham Flight and things quickly improved. The flight is attractive, despite a bit of characteristic Basingstoke duck weed (another moan we'd read about) and well maintained.

You have to book passage up the four lock flights on this canal (another of those moans we'd come across) but it's no hardship and does mean you get a private lock keeper who opens up the locks, sticks around to check everything's ok and then seals up the gates after you've gone through. This is done by pouring ash or sawdust down above the top gates so it's sucked into the gaps to stop water leaking out. Our "Canal Ranger" Matt was great.

After the six Woodham locks the canal passes through Woking, which is near where David grew up and is only slightly less unremarkable from the canal than it is from dry land.

The next lock flight follows soon after Woking - five locks up to St Johns. Here we did encounter our only difficulty with a lock on the whole canal as we couldn't get the bottom gates to close behind the boat. Ranger Matt appeared and soon had us on our way - on any other canal this would've involved a lot of head scratching and aimless poking around in the water with poles to find out what was wrong.

As you can see Richard couldn't let Matt do all the hard work so had a good poke around with their long pole to help out.

Next day we climbed the three locks of the Brookwood flight to reach the recently reopened Deepcut flight of 14 locks. This is a lovely flight, climbing through woodland on the edge of Pirbright army camp. You may hear gunfire here and if you really look you can see soldiers in the woods - camouflage gear really doing its job in this photo.

There are wide pools and the locks are easily spaced to walk between - a fantastic flight of locks.

After a night at the Basingstoke Canal HQ at Mytchett we brimmed both boats with water and cleared the roofs of all the usual boating detritus. Richard and David were seen balancing poles across the highest points of the roofs and wielding tape measures down to the water line - why? The remaining moan about the Basingstoke lay ahead!

Nerves were eased by the beautiful scenery around Ash Vale where the canal passes through wide 'flashes' (lakes to landlubbers).

We crossed from Surrey into Hampshire on the Blackwater Valley aqueduct

Approaching Fleet the infamous low bridges loomed ahead of us. Farnborough Road Bridge is the first, and slopes upwards away from the towpath so it pays to go through as far to the non-towpath side as possible. We approached very slowly...

... and crept through, with a few inches to spare on this one. Mad Hatter followed behind and made it through too.

After a couple of all-too-quick miles to calm our nerves we came up to the next challenge - Pondtail bridges. There are two bridges together here and the easterly one is the tricky one, this time it slopes downwards away from the towpath side so you need to hug the towpath going through.

This one was definitely lower but we still had a couple of inches to spare

Low bridge number three, Reading Road South bridge, is reputedly the worst - according to our guide this one is 5'9" high - lower than our boat's highest point.... Fortunately the guide is pessimistic and we made it through with a few inches to spare.

We moored in Fleet to recover from the morning's dramas and to put all the junk back on the roof. Richard couldn't resist getting his tape measure out again and measured the clearance under the bridge at 6'. I should add that this obviously depends on water levels which can fluctuate so it pays to be cautious when approaching these bridges. We not only brimmed the water that morning but had also filled with diesel just before joining the Basingstoke to ballast the boat as low as possible in the water.

The next day was a relative breeze, we had just eight miles to the terminus of the canal. The far end is winding and scenic with a couple of swing/lift bridges to liven things up. We even met another boat at one (a real rarity on this canal with just 100 visiting boats last year).

Around Dogmersfield there has been a landslip and the canal narrows to a one-way system.

After one final 'bonus' lowish bridge which we weren't really expecting (Lodge Farm bridge so boaters can look out for it) we passed Odiham Castle and winded (pulled a U-ie in car-speak) before Greywell Tunnel, the limit of navigation.

Greywell Tunnel is collapsed in several places inside and now home to a bat colony. It has been declared a SSSI so the chances of restoring the rest of the canal to Basingstoke look pretty slim. To see what it's like the other side we walked over Greywell hill, passing the crystal clear water at the eastern portal.

The western portal is somewhat less boat-friendly

and the canal ends abruptly a couple of miles later so that really is it for the Basingstoke. A great trip though and we got to do it all again on the way back.

So we squeezed under the low bridges

Spotted the million pound private jets at Farnborough Airfield

Got chased for about a mile by a seriously angry swan - surely a relative of Mr ASBO who we crossed paths with during our time in Cambridge.

We rejoined Mad Hatter at the top of the Deepcut flight for the journey back down the locks and had a great run back down to Woodham Junction with them. Here both boats are leaving Woodham bottom lock.

In case you haven't guessed, we've really enjoyed the Basingstoke. It was definitely the right decision to explore it and we highly recommend it to other boaters. Don't let the moaners discourage you!

Sharing with nb Mad Hatter really made the trip too, good luck to Richard & Jackie for the rest of their travels. Next stop for us - London!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Wey down south

We had a lovely few days on the River Thames. From Sonning we travelled to Henley-on-Thames. At times on the river we felt rather small.

At Henley there are nice moorings by the park although it does cost £10 per night. You can moor for free 10-3 but outside of these times it's £10. At 20 past 3 the park ranger came for the money or you can buy a ticket from the car park machine. Once I had killed all the moths released when Dave prised open his wallet we enjoyed our stay in Henley. 

We headed downstream the following day and although conditions were a lot better than our last visit to this part of the river in 2012 (when there were red boards and we got flooded) it was really windy and we had to have two goes at getting on the lock landing at Hambleden Lock. 

That night we stayed at beautiful Marlow. There are free moorings (much to David's delight) right next to the ones that are even more expensive than Henley. This was our view for the evening:

We set off the next morning and came unstuck at Marlow lock where the "lock mooring" is a trick as you can't actually reach the shore to do the lock. Most of the locks on the River Thames are becoming increasingly 'self-service' so this must cause a bit of head scratching.

Luckily another boat turned up at the right time to help out.

We made it all the way to Windsor and moored on Eton College's Brocas field (another paying mooring but only £6 a night this time). The Queen was in residence at Windsor Castle so we moored in sight of the castle so she could a good view of Middlewich Duck. 

We spent a day exploring the Queen's weekend home in glorious weather. I was a bit dissappointed she didn't invite us for afternoon tea.

We continued to enjoy our nicest mooring so far and realised this is probably the closest we will ever sleep to the Queen!

We then left Windsor and shared enourmous locks with other boats 

We moored at Laleham, enjoying running down the Thames path, and continued the following day through Chertsey

River Wey

We then made the journey onto the River Wey at Shepperton turning into Thames Lock. The ascent in Thames Lock was more eventful than we would have liked. You pass through a set of lower gates and moor up to wait for the lock keeper's instructions. Depending on the level of the River Thames the lock keeper may have to let water down through the main lock into this 'holding pen' to allow you over the cil.

Water was let through and we were waved into the main Thames Lock. I was on the front deck and suddenly the boat made a huge crashing noise, stopped dead and I lurched forward almost falling over. There was not enough water in the lock so we had hit the bottom cill instead of floating over it.  The lock keeper was very apologetic and went to let more water down from the Wey so we could clear the cill. I went inside later on to pick up everything that had fallen over. No fatalities this time.

Until you get used to it the River Wey seems a little daunting after having had the luxury of lock keepers and electric locks on the Thames. There are vicious bywashes at locks and the paddles were sometimes too stiff for me to handle on my own. The lock keeper gave us an extra long Wey Handle to be able to do the stiff paddles. 

We moored at The Anchor in Pyrford, then Send, and Guildford before turning at Godalming. It is a great River and we have spent a few days exploring Dave's old haunts from his youth with him having grown up near Woking. 

Broadford bridge is very low bridge but we just managed to squeeze under. 

At Godalming we met Buddy who works pulling the trip boat

The Wey is pretty twisty in places and if you day dream when going round these tight bends you might need to be handy with the long pole!

Our favourite mooring near Guildford was on Shalford Meadows, just upstream of Millmead lock. The other recommended mooring is the National Trust's Dapdune Wharf and we were advised not to stop anywhere in town as the Guildford drinkers like to mess with with moored boats!

Having retraced our steps back down the Wey we have joined the Basingstoke Canal at Woodham Junction. You have to book passage up the locks on the Basingstoke and luckily we have been booked in with a good boat partner for Pas Meche in NB Mad Hatter. We will update you on our Basingstoke adventures in a few days time!


Friday, 10 April 2015

Sunny Easter on the Kennet

After staying put in Great Bedwyn to ride out the stormy weather we set off in beautiful blue skies to continue our journey along the Kennet and Avon Canal. The canal mostly runs alongside the railway and you can see some fantastic trains.

We had the odd delay as CRT were still busy clearing up debris from the storms.

We moored by the church in Hungerford which is a great mooring, popping into town to find the local Wadworth's establishment to cling on to a bit of Devizes before we get too far away.

The following day we headed to Kintbury. Unfortunately the visitor moorings were full so we reversed back under the bridge to find the best bit of bank that we could.

As you can see it was a bit of a leap ashore. This was OK until the pound dropped nearly two feet overnight. Waking up in the middle of the night and feeling drunk like you have done an Otley Run but then remembering you didn't go out is a bit strange. The boat was on the bed of the canal at one side and at an angle. What do you do in this scenario? You wake your boyfriend up to push Pas Meche off back into deeper water. When it came to set off that morning Dave had to untie as the leap was too far for me.

We had a good run that day with NB Victoria into Newbury. We wish them luck with their new boat complete with a cat and two ducklings!

We arrived into Newbury just in time to be out of the way for leg one of the Devizes to Westminster canoe race. We moored just above Newbury lock still on the canal. The moorings here are only 24hr.

The following day we descended the lock onto the River Kennet. The Kennet may seem like a small river but it is a bit frisky, especially in the narrow channel through Newbury, and it's worth keeping an eye on it especially if it's been raining. We had no problem and thankfully some helpful CRT volunteers were on the lock that morning to close the gates for me. If not you have to moor to pick up crew directly by the Kennet's inlet that would be a challenge in stronger currents.

You meander through the centre of Newbury. It is quite narrow in places and David had been losing sleep over what would happen if a widebeam came the opposite way whilst we were flying downstream with limited control. This proved not to be an issue. However, a silent canoeist sneaking past us at the narrowest point was quite a surprise. I just managed to get him in this photo below, I decided to let him off since he was racing.

Newbury has nice moorings at the park (common advice is to not moor here overnight, although we didn't have a problem in the couple of nights we spent there previously).

We continued and moored opposite the marina as we wanted to stay in Newbury longer. The moorings here are 14 day towpath moorings and you can still walk easily back into town. It's also handy for Tesco a bit furthur east along the canal. It was here that we replaced our lost but never forgotton windlass that has lasted the whole 6 years we've been boating. David bought the cheapest one (of course) that is so rough he had to file the bits off to avoid losing a finger when locking. I have named this David's windlass to teach him a lesson for losing the old one.

We amused ourselves by watching the canoe race go past squeezing past hire boats at full throttle.

We were even more surprised when boats kept coming past until 10pm in the dark! I woke the next morning worrying about them paddling along the tidal Thames... it's scary enough on Pas Meche! Although David assures me power to weight ratio of a canoe is slightly better.....

We had a day off boating in Newbury which involved getting drunk mid-afternoon (another final Wadworth's pub...) and going out for dinner. The weather was lovely and the square in Newbury is really pleasant. It felt like a foreign holiday.

We left Newbury and headed for Thatcham, sharing a good few locks with a hireboat from Aldermaston. They were very pleasant but were apologising for their ignorance as they had had absolutely no instruction or guidance on how to steer or do locks or er anything else. Apart from how the fridge worked!!??.... They did just fine in any case and it was a pleasure to have someone to share with.

The following day we woke to a sea mist:

We then went down this strange turf sided lock, with a reflection representing the glorious weather we've had this week, and headed for Aldermaston. 

We went through Woolhampton with memories of where we met NB Quaintrelle, and our now friends Mike and Alieen, last summer.

You have to lower the lock and open the gate and then walk on to open the swing bridge before the boat leaves the lock. This is becuase the river Kennet rejoins at an angle here and it comes in like a spring tide, pushing Pas Meche's bum into the widebeam moored below the lock. (Not quite but this has obviously happened due to the number of tyres placed as protection). I made David drive that bit.

I left Dave at the helm for two minutes and he was already agressively revving poor PM on the river. Do not jump to conclusions Victoria - a day hire boat was coming straight for us round a bend on the left hand side. This confirmed our suspicions that they literally get no instruction. We do not blame them for assuming you would drive on the left in this country. After various thrustings across the river and polite conversation they'd got the message that boats go on the right.

We moored in Aldermaston, where you guessed it, we couldn't get into the side, long jump again, but it was a pleasant mooring above the lock. The next day we did sightseeing in Reading, i.e. a trip to M&S and Decathlon. Then the following day we set off  and here there is a time delay for the lift bridge and you cannot operate it during rush hour.

We held up a total of 29 vehicles.... well after all what's the rush?

We moored just above lock 103, not quite making it to the Cunning Man (recommended safe mooring) but a lovely countryside view from the boat, with some overhead entertainment. Again note blue sky!

Today we have made our way through Reading. A bit chilly and misty first thing. Perhaps as it's the highest level of pollution the UK has ever seen? We were glad to wave at the commuters by train as they passed overhead. Doing their bit for leaving their car at home.

The River Kennet through Reading is a challenge: strange bywashes directly under locks.

Weirs straight ahead:

And one way systems where you have to wait for the green man, I mean erm traffic light:

The River then passes through the new Oracle development, 9-5ers dashing about for morning coffee blisfully unaware of the boating challenges below.

Swinging a right hand bend under a bridge with plenty of flow behind you:

Despite what that photo looks like to non-boaters we didn't hit the bridge and Middlewich duck was safe.

We were pleased to get our parting message from Reading:

And the swans came out en masse for a leaving party for David. Do not visit Reading if you are scared of swans like him!

Today we were then welcomed with opened arms, I mean a wide open river, onto the Thames. It is beautiful and feels HUGE after being on the canals all winter. We are very much looking forward to the rest of the trip and seeing friends on the River Wey and in London.