Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Empty Quarter

While moored up in Devizes, we saw our “old friend” John Pinkerton (last seen looking a bit abandoned in Savernake forest) heading down to the winding hole with a few youngsters who were the new owners, and then back up towards the summit; saw it again moored up a day or so later. Wonder what they’re going to use it for: The K&A Trust have pretty well sown up the trip boat market down here. If they’d acquired it for business purposes, it’s a clearly long time coming to fruition, and it’s not an obvious boat to use for pleasure/cruising.

Heading into the Vale of Pewsey, the villages are [a] small; [b] rather remote from the canal; [c] have odd names like Cuckoo’s Knob, Ram Alley and All Cannings (a lie because there’s Bishop’s Cannings next to it; and [d] don’t have shops that sell basic provisions, let alone freshly baked croissants and newspapers – Biggles does like a freshly baked newspaper. Meandering between the chalk hills of the Marlborough downs and Ridgeway to the north and Salisbury plain to the south, one canal guide suggests that this is England’s nearest thing to La France Profonde but I rather suspect the Upper Thames from Eynsham to Lechlade comes closer. Mind you, the long lock-free pound comes as a welcome change.

We’d stopped at The Barge at Honeystreet Wharf on the way to Bath, but it was a hot and beautifully sunny Sunday lunchtime, we had a visitor, and the place was unsurprisingly mobbed and in the general melee nothing seemed obviously out of the ordinary. Just another canal-side pub in the middle of nowhere, with a camp site out the back serving food all day to the masses, On a quiet Monday evening, it became obvious that although pretty quiet, there was a higher than usual proportion of “unusual people”  and boats around.

For example: inside the pub, sitting next to a stack of instruments for anyone to pick up and play, a smartly dressed woman of a certain age (as they say)  was sitting on the sofa with a slightly younger middle-aged gentleman in T-shirt and scruffy shorts. She couldn’t keep her eyes, hands or lips off him, behaving like a teenager in lurve used to when we were young, while a beautiful seal-point Siamese sat on the sofa armrest staring them out, and we could have sworn the large photograph of Jimi Hendrix (sitting at a drum kit!) immediately behind them was growing a  speech bubble that said “get a room”. Even the Siamese got bored with watching after a while, and stalked outside onto a boat that an old lady was painting with primer in the dark.

Then you see that Honeystreet is twinned with Roswell, the lethal scrumpy is called Area 51, the local real ale is called Croppie, and you realise that you have accidentally stumbled into “The Most Famous Pub in the Universe” – Galactic HQ of crop circle enthusiasts.

The Barge Inn, Honeystreet Wharf

The Barge Inn, Honeystreet Wharf

And then a few more locks uphill soon brought us to Crofton Top Lock, the end of the all-too-short summit pound. It’ll be downhill all the way to Reading from now on – and you can take that any way you want…

The Big One

Well, we went for a walk in the early morning sunshine, stopped off at Spencer’s Boatyard for some more of his cheap diesel and Calor gas (his supply boat Aquilo was moored up for once, despite seeing him several times after the previous refuelling session in Wilcot). And then we stopped overnight in Caen Hill marina to get a shore line and catch up on some washing. But come Friday morning there was no putting it off any longer… [cue dramatic music] going up the Caen Hill Locks to Devizes.

These big locks on the K&A are hard work, and worse going uphill even when things are set fair – particularly with a light crew consisting only of self, SWMBO, and the ship’s cat. We waited at the bottom for a while, were delighted when another boat came along (it’s much easier when two boats share the locks and lockwheeling) and then disappointed when they dropped out after the first lock. And so we went all the way up, on our own, with every lock set against us. Just before lunch we saw some CaRT volunteers helping an already heavy crewed boat down, and our hopes were raised… they took one look at us, knocked off for lunch and never reappeared.

Coming down last week with company was a doddle compared to this! Six hours and 29 broad and deep locks later we tied up on Devizes Wharf, breathed a sigh of relief, and went in search of sustenance as the cook had gone on strike. Biggles disappeared into the bushes.

Nice spot, Devizes Wharf. Two minutes walk from the town centre. The museum, K&A Trust HQ, a canoe club and trendy theatre to provide interest, and enough boats without being mobbed and overcrowded. Even the local rat family the other side of the bridge provides local amusement by teaching their young ones to swim across the canal and nick the bread thrown for the swans.

Walked into Pizza Express then out again instantly (we normally like them as useful standbys, but that night it was mobbed, unbelievably hot and noisy, and with  a distinct smoke/fat haze in the air). And stumbled into the delightful The Bistro, where we had one of the most delightful, interesting – and reasonable – meals we’ve had in a long time. Slept well, too!

With no plans to move for the weekend, Joe visited with a lady friend who wanted to look at the boat, Bob Berry kindly delivered us some fRoots mail and then gave us a bollocking for not roping him in as crew on the locks even though he’d been at work (damn!), and we all bumped into each other again doing the cafe society bit later in the day. Nice place, Devizes – neither of us are really town-folk, but even Biggles thought he could live there.

Sunday, saw Joe driving us over to Crofton – he’s a volunteer there – for their end of season Gala, and the beam engines working are definitely impressive. Having had the guided tour a few days earlier, here’s just a couple of pictures of some other stuff there for the day.

Crofton Gala: Three WheelersCrofton Gala

And then another pal, who’d heard we were moored up on the wharf, changed his dog walk route to come and say hello too. A busy weekend…

Fran goes Trainspotting

In order not to exceed the allotted 48 hours on the mooring at Bath, and it being a beautiful late afternoon, we started the long trek back towards the Thames after tea, turning round in the Sydney Street winding hole, before having a short but pleasant meander and mooring at Bathampton for the night.

Setting off the next day past  Dundas aqueduct and approaching Avoncliff aqueduct, running parallel to the railway, we heard a steam engine hauled train heading up the valley, and Fran was most disappointed not to see it.

Cross Gunns, AvoncliffRiver Avon at Avoncliff

Managing to get moored at Avoncliff, the pub was as quaint as advertised, and the views from the aqueduct splendid. It would have been rude not to have a Guinness before continuing our potter east-wards.

River Avon from Avoncliff AqueductRiver Avon from Avoncliff Aqueduct

And although it wasn’t a steam train, we did see an ordinary one stopping at the miniscule Avoncliff station.

Avoncliff Station

Passing through Bradford-on-Avon it was much quieter than it was on the previous weekend, and with no particular reason to stop, we parked up in the middle of nowhere but fairly close to the railway, on the outskirts of Hilperton cum Trowbridge.

Whereupon, with that lonesome whistle calling again, Fran grabbed the binoculars and rushed out, to return a few minutes later proclaiming proudly that “it was 35028”, which as any train-spotter worth her salt will know is the Merchant Navy class Clan Line. Must have seen it many times in my boyhood while waiting for trains to/from school at various stations on the Waterloo main line, or standing on the foot-bridges  between Raynes Park and Wimbledon after school, getting steamy and sooty. Wonder where my old Ian Allan book of numbers went…

Bath Sojourn

Having found such amenable moorings, it wasn’t hard to stay in Bath for a couple of days. Too many words and too many photos from other people to worry about putting anything in here, so just a few random pictures of some things that caught our eye.

West Entrance, Bath AbbeyBath Abbey

Bath Abbey and its magnificent fan vaulting.

Angel Band, Bath AbbeyRachmaninov's Piano

The band of Angels (all playing a different instrument) over the choir in Bath Abbey, and Fran ignoring Rachmaninov’s piano in the Holbourne Art Museum (which also did damn fine coffee).

Sally Lunn's HouseTea on the Bridge

Sally Lunn’s house – the oldest house in Bath, apparently, and the home of the Bath Bun. We couldn’t get in for foreign tourists, so retired to the cafe on Pulteney Bridge.

Croquet Club Turnstile

Splendid old-fashioned turnstiles on the entrance to the Croquet Club.

Some nice old fashioned shops too, of which Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is quite the nicest bookshop I’ve come across, with the possible exception of the delightful (but much smaller) Ceilidh Place in Ullapool, which is the only one I can think of with rooms. And just down the road from Mr B’s, a guitar shop with rare second hand guitars, including a Martin at some £25K! Think I’ll stick to my Thornborys.

Down to the Avon by foot

There are actually visitor moorings right under the weir at Pulteney Bridge, but for some reason CaRT had “temporarily”  closed them, so we opted not to lock down through another half-dozen or so just to turn round on the Avon and head back. Would have been a nice trip, but Shanks’ pony won out this time.

K&A Canal HQ once upon a time

The canal tunnels under the old K&A Canal HQ. There’s a small hole in the tunnel roof leading up into the building, which was used for passing paperwork up and down (and money up, no doubt).

DSCF1263Sydney Street Wharf

Sydney Street Wharf, with at least one stealth Anglo Welsh hire boat without any markings. Suppose that’s better than mis-spelling the boat’s name!

Entrance to Bath Locks / Kennet & Avon Canal

End of the canal, at the bottom of Bath Locks, where it joins the River Avon. The river had calmed down after Thursday’s storm, but we decided to stick with the decision to turn around here rather than head for Bristol. A decision stuck to… another rarity!

Boaters Welcome?

Although we’d arrived in Bath quite late on a Sunday afternoon, is was such a lovely evening that we thought a quick recce downtown before dinner would be in order: the low sun on the honey coloured sandstone really gives the whole place a warm glow.

Sydney Gardens footbridgesSydney Gardens Tunnel

The canal running along the back of Sydney Gardens was a peaceful haven; the large building over the tunnel was the HQ of the K&A canal in the early days.

Great Pulteney StreetPulteney Bridge

The walk down Great Pulteney Street to the iconic Pulteney Bridge was notable for being almost entirely traffic free, even if the parked cars detracted from the ambience a little.

The BoaterBeating the Germans to it

But what does one make of a narrow three-story pub on the edge of the bridge and backing onto the river which is called The Boater.

A hat for a pub sign; you can have pretty well any flavour of crisps, but they don’t sell plain ones; they don’t sell Guinness and they’d run out of their Guinness substitute/clone; and they were trying to to confuse the German towel leavers by holding their Oktoberfest in September but hiding the advert around the back. Hmmm…

Bath Tub to Bath

We had already decided (a decision? a rare event) that we weren’t going to press on to Bristol: the storm had – it turned out – rendered the Avon unsafe for boaters and if it was going to be imitating a yo-yo we didn’t want to be stranded. So  – not really being city people – when we set off from Bradford-upon-Avon (or Bradford on Avon if you prefer), we were rather expecting to wind at Avoncliff Aqueduct, stopping at the recommended pub for lunch. But we got there rather early and there were no terribly easy moorings left, so we pressed on to Dundas Aqueduct.

Passing The Who’s country establishment, we came to the conclusion the herons were tamer than in the Midlands, or had been deafened by the noises emanating from the studio.

Who Heron

Dundas Aqueduct was even more mobbed, being a lovely spot on a sunny Sunday lunchtime, but we managed to squeeze in just near Dundas Wharf. Mr Dundas was a big wheel in establishing the K&A, so his name keeps cropping up, even if only as the aforementioned purveyor of extraordinarily expensive Guinness in Kintbury.

River Avon from Dundas AquaductDundas Aqueduct

The aqueduct is impressive, as are the views.

 Dundas Wharf

The wharf was busy – that’s us just under the footbridge in the distance. (Click on the photo and it should get bigger,  as the actress said…)

However, faced with the –err – challenge of reversing a 58ft boat under the bridge and into the basin and then winding in the junction of the aqueduct and the Somerset Coal Canal entrance, with boats coming from all directions, we decided to press on a bit further to the next winding hole.

By which time we were not a million miles from Bath, and it was still only mid-afternoon, so the Captain thought “sod-it”, we might as well press on and see if we can get moored somewhere amenable, and come back if we can’t.

So, while we’d never really intended to come this far, we stumbled upon a mooring in a pleasant spot right next to Sydney Gardens, overlooking the city centre, with a parade of hot-air balloons to welcome us. With such an invitation to spend a couple of days in the city, it would have been positively rude to refuse!

 Entrance to BathBallons over Bath

So, more or less by accident, we seem to have brought February’s bare steel bath tub from it’s genesis in Biddulph all the way to Bath, complete with Captain Biggles, who still seems to be opting to stay with the boat.

Now what?

Bradford Bedlam

The cumulonimbus clouds building over Devizes might have been a false alarm, the ones seen when we’d moored up for the night in Semington certainly weren’t. Quite the longest, loudest and most torrential thunderstorm we’ve ever experienced: we were quite glad to be in a steel box floating on water. Knocked the internet connection for six, that’s for certain!

The grills in the boat’s ceiling below the obligatory mushroom vents were leaking water into the boat like no tomorrow. Discovered subsequently the mushrooms had two positions: screwed up (max ventilation) and screwed down (more or less watertight). Ours had all been left up: another lesson learned. And one ceiling grille didn’t leak at all: on investigation there’s no mushroom vent above it– it’s just screwed to the ceiling for no immediately obvious reason. Another question for Piper Boats!

Arriving in Bradford on Avon (hyphens optional) you can see why it’s a proper-job Cotswolds tourist trap, even if they do bill it as a mini-Bath. Plenty of pictures on the web, but a few places that caught our eye…

Bradford On Avon - Tithe Barn

A truly wonderful Tithe Barn.

I wonder where we are.

Some lovely back streets.

Saxon Church, Bradford On AvonSaxon Church

The delightful Church of St. Laurence – an ancient Saxon church probably built in the 12th century.

Bradford Station

A super little railway station straight out of Miss Marple.

Bradford Wharf and Lock - busy Sunday Afternoon

Sunday afternoon bedlam at Bradford Wharf: a deep lock with decent moorings above and below, a winding hole, a busy hire base, a big wide-beam trip boat, pub moorings, water, sewage and rubbish service point and the Friday and Saturday hirers from Hilperton, Caen Hill and Bath all passing through make for occasional chaos and boats everywhere. A good spot for gongoozling as well as mooring for a couple of days!  And a small, friendly and splendid Indian Restaurant within 50 yards. Who could ask for more?

Devizes and Down

We rather liked Devizes when we passed through on a number of occasions in Sir’s previous motorhome transportation, and mooring up right at the wharf for a few days did nothing to dispel that. A pleasant evening at the folk club, followed by the estimable Bob Berry keeping true to his word by arriving at 09:00 the next morning demanding coffee with menaces, but crucially bearing gifts of fresh croissants…

Devizes Wharf

… consumed while we studied perhaps the most exotic boat paint scheme we’d ever seen, on the quaintly named Arbuthnot Jones, moored across the canal. There was a “for sale” sign in the window: not sure how the paint scheme would affect the price!

Devizes Wharf - Arbuthnot Jones

The Wiltshire Museum provided an interesting diversion, and what looked like storm clouds brewing late in the afternoon made us wonder on whether tackling “the big one” the next day was going to work.

Devizes Wharf - Storm Brewing?

But it came to nothing, the morning dawned fair, and there was no getting away from it. We were going to have to tackle the Caen Hill locks. If climbing up from Reading is slow and prolonged, the descent from Devizes is the canal equivalent of falling off a cliff. Starting off on our own (and light crewed, obviously), we were soon caught up by another boat who shared a lot of the work, and we were down in about four and a half hours. Not too bad in the circumstances. Going up on our own could be a challenge – next week’s problem.

Caen Hill Locks - nearly at the bottom!

Finally, mooring up outside the 3 Magpies at Scotts Wharf – a favourite pub/eating house from previous visits – the 3.75 miles (is that all?), 29 broad locks (gulp!) and lack of lunch decreed an early dinner cooked by someone else and an early night. We appear to have had a cat-burglar during the night: CSI pawprint division have been summoned.

Cat Burglar?

Over the Top, and Another Surprise Old Friend

Another half a dozen locks uphill from the Crofton Pumping Station and we had made it to the summit of the Kennet and Avon. The long haul from Reading up through more than fifty large and hard to work locks was over. Cruising 457ft above sea level, without the aid of oxygen.

But not for long! Biggles said we could take it easy for a bit, but we were soon in our first “proper” tunnel  – Bruce Tunnel in Savernake Forest – 502 yards long. Just before the entrance, in a deep cutting in the middle of nowhere, we were somewhat surprised to see moored up a widebeam barge. We were even more surprised to see that it was John Pinkerton , a trip boat that the Basingstoke Canal Society used to run, and on which we celebrated an old friend’s 60th birthday a few years ago. We knew it had been sold, and a John Pinkerton II acquired, but quite what it was doing there looking rather unloved was a puzzle.

Just after the tunnel there’s the historic Burbage Wharf, with a recently restored and rather fine wooden crane.Restored crane at Burbage Wharf

The summit pound soon ends with three locks, dropping down (a novel experience) to the Long Pound, a very welcome 15 mile lock-free stretch eventually leading into Devizes. With views opening up over the Vale of Pewsey, White Horse sightings in the distance near the delightful and delightfully named Honeystreet Wharf, the struggles of the early section of the K&A were soon forgotten.

Just as we were mooring up at Wilcot, the local fuel boat came along offering (amongst other goodies) the cheapest diesel we’d seen, was happy to sell it at the 100% domestic/red-diesel rate, and took plastic. It would have been rude to refuse! Tying up alongside, a queue soon formed…

Fuel Bowser... K&A Style

Like the Upper Thames, there were loads of pill boxes – apparently the K&A played a major role in defending the industrial Midlands against a German invasion/advance. Most of the bridges also had these strange round large concrete objects (called Dragon’s Teeth, it would seem) to stop tanks. A forerunner of the things you see at airport terminals and American Embassies these days. Wonder why no one has ever moved them.

Dragon's Teeth

Lock-free, but also towpath maintenance free it would seem: a broad beam canal with the un-overgrown width down in some reed-infested areas to just about that of a narrowboat. Don’t know how the big boats get on: just passing oncoming traffic is entertaining. Where’s the Amazon Queen when you need her. An engine failure or someone needing to put ashore in an emergency would have been a real problem.

Where's the Amazon Queen?

Still, autumn draws on – elsewhere the widely prevalent Man-Eating Rhubarb (Gunnera Manicata) is fast dying back, so there are quite long stretches when you can actually see the tow path for a change.