Jumping on the train at Kintbury, as I went to sit down the chap on the opposite seat put a copy of the Metro “newspaper” on it. Barely glancing up I asked “have you finished with that” and he said he had. Then we both did a double take, as it was Joe Phillips, a dear old friend from Bracknell and Uxbridge Folk Club days, who we knew lived in Great Bedwyn – the previous station / end of the line – and who we were planning on phoning a couple of days later as it is on the canal. He never normally travels by train, but that day by chance was going up to London, collecting a friend en-route at Virginia Water (on our beloved slow train from Reading to Waterloo) rather than going direct to Paddington. What are the chances of that?
Not having seen each other since a funeral several years ago, there was lots to talk about!
Mooring up at Great Bedwyn a couple of days later, Fran was heading off to the village shop when she was hi-jacked in the wharf car park by Joe and his musical partner in crime Clive Buckingham (an old Bunjies resident!) and we were dragged off to a splendid dinner in Wilton then a music session in Ramsbury before being returned to the boat well after normal bed time. It’s a hard life…
Joe’s also a volunteer at the fascinating Crofton Pumping Station, so we had the luxury next afternoon of being heavy-crewed on the short cruise up through a few locks to the Crofton Moorings, from where we got the full guided tour. The boiler was fired up already, in preparation for a special evening steaming event the next day, at which Joe and Clive were singing. A fascinating afternoon… thanks, Joe!
Meanwhile, outside the martins were gathering on the wires, and inside the swallows were keeping warm above the boiler while waiting for the flitting time to arrive. Won’t be long now!
After Newbury the locks become more consistent, but no less hard work, and the scenery improves too. The car that Sir normally uses needed an MOT so we moored up at Kintbury railway station near to a posh gastro-pub with positively the most expensive Guinness seen outside London. The first mate stayed with the boat and cat (falling instantly in love with Kintbury village and already making plans to move into the Wharf flats) while someone else caught a train home, and sat around a VW garage for a couple of hours while they prodded and poked and pronounced all was well.
Too late to get back to the boat that evening, an evening home alone beckoned. But fortunately our friend Alan Kluckow was having a champagne and canapés reception for a sculpture exhibition at the Coworth Park/Dorchester Hotel just at the end of our road, so the evening wasn’t entirely wasted…
An early start and train back to Kintbury, where we just had to walk into town to sample the butcher and baker (the most divine and expensive Chelsea bun ever). No candlestick maker, but maybe the cake maker counts these days instead.
We use a web site Canal Planner to help us know where we are and where we’re going and how long it might take. When you go to the main page it tells you where it thinks you are, in relation to the nearest point on an inland waterway. Most of the time it is astonishingly accurate, on several occasions pretty much coming up with the view outside the boat window. If it doesn’t get it right, it always says we are at Hungerford Bridge on the Thames (the one near Waterloo station). No idea why: it’s quite consistent – guess it’s something to do with the boat’s MiFi internet system.
So there was a modicum of confusion when we moored up in Hungerford Town next to the bridge… this wasn’t the picture that came up.
Nice place, Hungerford, the railway really does go through the middle of town on another fine bridge. Even managed to stock up on Sir’s special dietary requirements (no, not marinated mice).
While waiting for the last few inches of the aforementioned turf-sided lock to fill, an adult swan took off “up-hill” from the pound below the lock. Not sure whether he started from the wrong waterway intersection, or attempted a reduced thrust take-off, or lost an engine, or only calculated the requirement to clear the bottom gate, but he only cleared the actual take-off obstacle – Fran’s head – by about 11 inches, and the down draft definitely disturbed her hair. One for the SAIB to investigate perhaps: a few inches lower and it could have been messy – another potentially peculiar epitaph.
First time on the Kennet & Avon, and initial impressions are not entirely favourable… but everyone says it gets better after Newbury. The scenery heading West from Reading through Thatcham and Theale is pleasant enough, but the big locks are a bit of a pain.
Locks are (to our way of thinking) best either a long way apart, or close enough that one can roll up one’s sleeves and get stuck in, sending extra lockwheeling crew walking on ahead if possible/available. On the K&A they seem spaced for optimum inconvenience… too far apart to walk on (requiring you to pick up and drop crew all the time), not quite far enough apart to even boil the kettle, let alone drink the coffee. And places where you can actually moor up for a while within jumping distance of the bank are rare indeed, and in places a flame-thrower on the bow would be more useful than a bow-thruster.
Not only is going uphill through big heavy locks with only the two crew hard and slow work – Biggles merely supervises – each lock is different. Some have really vicious gate paddles at the top that create a Geneva-like Jet d’Eau that could sink you in seconds, others have turbulence inducing ground paddles. Some have straight walls, some have scalloped walls, and there are a couple of rare turf sided locks with no walls at all. And they’re all different lengths too, with varying gears / hydraulic mechanisms to add to the fun. And some need emptying again after use. A far cry from the well maintained and usually manned Thames locks! If you can buddy-up with another boat to share the load, well and good (assuming their crew are not gung-ho boat sinkers), but there’s hardly anyone about now the schools are back.
At one point, the towpath between Theale and Thatcham was disrupted, and there were signs from the local fishery in the adjacent vast gravels pit apologising, saying that due to continued predation of their fish stocks despite earlier measures, they were busy installing otter-proof fencing. Which suggests there are loads of otters about, or a few very fat ones. Or some paranoid anglers.
Unlike many towns, Newbury embraces the canal: the bridge in the picture just beyond the lock carries the pleasant and largely pedestrianized high street over the canal. Fresh Orange Juice and croissants for breakfast within 2 minutes walk. Works for us!
Once upon a time the intention was to have Song & Dance launched at Thames & Kennet Marina, (because it’s close to home, and Piper Boats launch most of their Dutch Barges there), then spend our first season exploring the Southern canals, which we don’t know at all. But as launch date approached the Thames was still a bit up and down, and learning the new boat’s ropes on a volatile river didn’t seem that smart, nor did the chance of getting stuck there for weeks appeal much either.
So we launched in Longport – closest point to Piper’s factory – and stayed close by having a shakedown cruise on the Caldon Canal, before heading south for what remained of the summer. Good job we did, as it happened, as there were a number of problems with the boat that needed urgent attention. We had originally intended to do the Upper Thames, Kennet and Avon and Wey Navigation before heading back north for the winter, but as a result of the change in plan we were at Kennet Mouth / Thames & Kennet Marina some 2-3 months behind the back-of-an-envelope schedule!
So: down the K&A to Bristol if possible before turning round, or down the Thames and Wey to Godalming? The latter would mean we could go to the Piper Boat event/meet in September, but given the ongoing unresolved issues with the boat and Biggles’ unfortunate tendency to say what he thinks I’m not sure Song & Dance’s presence would have been entirely helpful or welcome! It’ll be no hardship coming back down the Oxford Canal again next spring.
So Bath and maybe Bristol here we come… an early start (for us, anyway) soon found us at the traffic lights controlling boat traffic through the Oracle Centre in Reading… Westward Ho!
Autumn is a-coming in: with all the hedgerow fruit well advanced, and only a few swallows still lurking in the flocks of martins, the conker trees have clearly decided to call it a day. Magic Dragon, the rather fine steam-driven half-scale Clyde Puffer moored at Beale Park started a Peter Paul & Mary ear-worm that lasted far too long. Would have been nice to see her in steam.
We don’t know Reading very well. Having persuaded Caversham Boat Services (right between Caversham and Reading Bridges) to provide us with a mooring for the night that had an electric hook-up so we could exercise the washing machine, we were surprised when they said “you do realise we’re on an island, and there’s no way off once we go home, don’t you…”. Mind you, their address – Fry’s Island – gives a clue I suppose.
Hope the residents of the posh flats across the water enjoyed the view of our boat and washing drying in the sun. Lots of interesting traffic passing , but somehow this boat (see below) did NOT inspire any ear-worms. We suggested he change the name to Banjo.
The next day, we picked up some very dear old Reading dwelling friends avec bicyclettes outside the posh flats, then had a very pleasant meander down the Thames to Sonning Lock before returning to the junction of the Kennet River with The Thames where they pedalled off to put dinner on. (And from where we were subsequently chauffeured to and from a delightful repast chez Mayor). Before leaving we were visited by some equally friendly Antipodean strays, who seem to still have their seasons mixed up. They were so much more polite than their white UK compatriots.
In the morning, we discovered that we were moored rather closer to the entrance of a 24-hour Tesco than most car drivers could park (unless handily equipped with a disabled disc or a small baby). Fresh croissants and a newspaper for breakfast within a minute’s walk – a rare treat…
Mind you, en-route back for said breakfast, the rodent seen scurrying across the path was clearly a rat rather than a stoat or water vole. Ho Hum.
All the “B”s and not just Biggles.
Down river from Wallingford, a fine Brunel bridge built on the slant: you can’t really see it but the brickwork under the arch is astonishing. And just down the river, a splendid little brick cottage in the woods.
Mooring up at Beale Park, and eschewing the delights of the zoo, we walked across the fields to Basildon Park (after which the writing paper was named), attempting to avoid the main road. And hence cunningly avoiding the problem that the National Trust membership cards we had on the boat were only valid to the end of August, while the new ones are – hopefully – at home.
Quite an interesting place: commandeered during the war, used afterwards to billet the builders of AWE Burghfield, then refurbished and used as a rather spacious family home in the 1950s.
Fran got upset they were digging up the wild flower beds, but to be honest, they were nearly over.
A wettish wander down from Wallingford to Cleeve Lock for urgent taking on of water… the water point’s large hose is too big for us, and the bigger boats using it reduced the flow from the small hose to a trickle. It takes a long time to uplift 200ltrs at a trickle.
Moored up on the meadow just below the lock, as the dark descended the Swan team came out to play. Song & Dance fielded its best striker, who unfortunately chose to attack from the fore-deck with the cratch covers down, so cutting off his best line of retreat. A hiss and snapping beak from the lead cygnet saw Biggles taking an early bath rather than pursuing a more considered course of action. Still don’t know how he got back on board!
Still, at least his tail’s up properly now and he’s walking without a rear end limp, so he should be ready for a return match soon.