Monthly Archives: July 2015

Don’t You Hate It When…

… you leave home, then wonder if you’ve turned the gas off, or leave the airfield then wonder if you’ve left the master switch on, or other such quandaries. You just know there’ll be no peace of mind until you go back and check!

We were hoping for dry weather, because the floor of Song & Dance’s well deck is below the water line, which isn’t normally a problem when the cratch cover is in place. But without, we’re relying on an automatic electrically operated bilge pump to shift any water accumulation over the side. And with all the rain, and a couple of other little quandaries – we’d ended up leaving the boat on the Saturday much later than hoped for and in rather a rush – it was clear that a return trip to double check would save a lot of worrying.

All was (mostly) well, the well deck was dry as a bone, and five minutes checking everything properly was all it needed. I can feel a proper checklist coming on.

So, (why do so many interviewees on the Radio 4 Today programme start their reply to a question with “So…” – usually followed by a prepared spiel unrelated to the question) we’d been out since Friday 10th April. We’d covered 360 miles from Cropredy to Northampton, via Oxford, Reading, Odiham, Godalming and Aylesbury. We’d worked through 290 locks, mostly wide ones, in admittedly mainly fine weather. and had the engine running for some 238 hours. We’d (wisely, it turned out) abandoned the trip into the middle of London in the heat-wave, and were nicely positioned to explore the delights of the River Nene.

Definitely time for some music…

Summer Holidays and Yoda Auditions

Moorhen & ChickMoorhen & Chick

The cygnets are almost full size, the smaller wildlife well into their second crop – we frequently saw several moorhen families with mum, teenager and baby – and the forecast is for cold wet and windy weather. There were other strange portents: normally solitary except on the roost, we saw two herons, standing quietly a foot apart in the middle of a very large grass field well away from any water. Very odd. Things are on the change: must be time for our summer holiday in downtown Devon.

Eschewing our quiet urban mooring, and braving the torrential rain, we moved Song & Dance into Becket’s Park marina, ready to bed her down for a couple of weeks R&R while we went home to catch up on the mail and washing before heading off to SIdmouth Festival. The bosun’s mate caught a handy lift to the station, to head down home and fetch some transport for The Captain and all his dirty washing.

Miserable Yoda

Meanwhile, with severe grumps at the indignity of ear drops and the rain lashing down all day, The Captain decided to audition for the part of Yoda in the next Star Wars movie.

Northampton Wanderings

A pleasant day wandering around Northampton after the trials of the descent. Our moorings seemed more than satisfactory, so after a quick expedition to get some croissants for second breakfast / early lunch, we headed off to investigate the marina where we were leaving Song & Dance then into town.

Northampton WatersideBecket's Park Marina

The new Nene waterside development was a bit stark, but the marina very secure and eminently swish  (apart from the absence of any car parking). Calling your boat On Schedule! shows remarkable chutzpah.

Northampton GuildhallWooden KnightWooden Knight

The Guildhall was suitably Gothic, but we weren’t sure what the wooden knights were all about: must investigate more on our return.

Guildhall and All Saints ChurchAll Saints Church

The unusual looking All Saints Church was not only impressive inside and out but had a busy café and bistro under the colonnade. However we’d already discovered a coffee shop that sold loose Leonidas Belgian chocolates to go with their coffee… no contest!  And a mad butcher in the market, desperate to clear up, insisted on selling us nearly 2kg of what proved to be beautiful rib-eye steak for a tenner, so that was several dinners taken care of!

Coverless in Northampton, and Opportune Coincidences

The night before, we had held a committee meeting and decided that (a) we would go on to the River Nene after visiting Sidmouth, and (b) that the Northampton Marina at Becket’s Park on the Nene was more convenient than Gayton Marina for transport arrangements when it came to fetching a car to transport all the crew back home. Even though heading down the Northampton Arm from Gayton meant 16 or 17 narrow locks to reach any kind of suitable mooring, we were going to have to do those to get to the Nene anyway, and there was plenty of time before needing to head Devon-wards.

First thing on the Wednesday morning, it was clear that – ear mites or something else – the Captain urgently needed to visit a vet. Google being our friend, we could either get a taxi to Towcester, or try and get down to Northampton (yes, all 16 locks) that day, and take it from there. Even though the weather was forecast to get seriously grotty, we opted to head downhill again, and see how we got on.

But first, we needed to visit Gayton Marina to tell them we weren’t going to leave the boat there next week, get a key for the River Nene locks (it’s an Environment Agency waterway, not a CaRT one: different keys!), get a piling clip to replace one dropped in the deepest part of the canal, and hopefully a guide to the Nene.

Northampton Arm Junction / Gayton

Turning into the Northampton Arm there seemed to be boats coming in all directions, but the marina is just a few yards down, and it’s a big one to boot.

Our cratch and rear deck covers came from Wilson Covers in Kinver, as did our reclining chairs (from Ralph, who lets his sons do the covers, and just handles the furniture side of things these days). The cratch cover had needed a minor repair from about day 3 on the Caldon Canal last year, and since the same crew member took a large lump out of Aynho Bridge in the strong winds this spring it needed rather more serious surgery or maybe even replacement. There were also some minor issues with the chairs.

As a result, we’d been meaning to take the cover to Kinver for inspection or condemnation when an opportunity presented itself, and discussions regarding the chairs had tailed off into boat-induced lethargy on our part. We’d seen a Wilsons van in the Thames & Kennet Marina in Reading back in the spring, but failed to track their chap down there, and he didn’t respond to the message we left asking him to contact us before leaving Reading. Ah well.

And then, just as we were approaching the marina’s visitor moorings, what should we see but a Wilsons van being driven alongside the canal. By Ralph Wilson, no less. And a long way from Kinver! Frantically waving him down, mooring up at the same time, and throwing our last caltrops in front to slow him down, we asked if he would mind taking a look at our cover to see if it were repairable. “Yes it is” he said, before he’d even got out of the van. So the cover was quickly removed, and bundled into the back of his van. while the chief cook bearded him about the foot stools.

The other errands at the marina quickly accomplished, the rain was starting when we reached the first of the locks, signalling a precipitous descent down into Northampton. Various people said it took about four hours to get down – not including a lunch break. The Captain took one look at the flight and the renovated-out-of-all recognition (or new) lockkeeper’s cottage, and jumped ship, and the likelihood of getting into town in time to find a vet seemed to be receding rapidly.

Start of Northampton FlightNorthampton Top Lock Cottage

Sloshing around in the rain, a few locks down they were dredging the canal, adding fun and games and delays to the exercise, and we moored for lunch right by the M1 crossing: a glorified if huge culvert. At least they were narrow locks.

For once, things went to plan! We’d established that (if we could get moored there) there were probably suitable moorings just shy of the River Nene lock, seemingly just a ten minute walk from a veterinary surgery that could fit us in if we got there before 18:00. The rain eased off a bit, and we reached the moorings about 17:00 – seemingly quiet, virtually no dog walkers, and overlooked by some posh new waterside flats, so little likelihood of the area being a vandal’s training camp. Only 5 minutes walk from an Asda, 10 from a big Morrisons and 15 from the town centre, we couldn’t understand why there was only one other boat there. He’d been there several days and confirmed it was a most amenable spot, albeit not overly scenic.

Coverless in NorthamptonCoverless in NorthamptonNaked Cratch

So Biggles was bundled into his carrying box for a quick walk down the road, and a nice vet lady confirmed that he did appear to have a nasty ear mite infestation, did the biz, and sent us away with some drops.

The Captain appears to prefer ear mites and nasty suppurating scratches on the forehead to ear drops… battle will commence daily at 18:00.

And Song & Dance does look rather naked without the cratch cover…

A long day: we all slept well that night.

A Mite Uncomfortable in Stoke Bruerne

Stoke BruerneStoke Bruerne - Sculptor

Stoke Bruerne is supposedly the archetypal “canal village”, and with decent pubs and restaurants, busy locks and a Canal Museum it is unsurprisingly busy. The morning weather was forecast to improve, so we locked up the seven lock Stoke Bruerne flight in company with an ex Naval Engineer and serious long distance walker plus his lady friend from San Francisco on an old boat, and moored right at the top in time for lunch, where it proceeded to get busy.

The Captain was duly examined again, and although bathing his scratches had helped, the inside of his ears were starting to look as though he was suffering an infestation of ear mites. He was clearly a bit uncomfortable, but didn’t seem too bothered, and the nearest vets were in Towcester and Northampton, both a significant taxi trip away, so procrastination was the order of the day.

Stoke BruerneStoke Bruerne

Fortunately for the purser, the Canal Shop was closed for some reason. Let’s face it, we didn’t really need any Rosie and Jim knitted toys.

Stoke Bruerne - Double LocksStoke Bruerne - Narrow Lock

As well as the extra bridge hole. the narrow “second” top lock still exists, although it’s not in use.

Stoke BruerneStoke Bruerne

Stoke Bruerne Top Lock

The sun duly came out at lunchtime, everywhere got very busy, and the best place to watch the proceedings was from the upstairs door/window of the Canal Museum.

The original plan was possibly to stay in Stoke Bruerne for a day or so before mooring up in Gayton Marina (just up the water at Blisworth Junction) for the annual pilgrimage to Sidmouth. But with all the boats buzzing around, the possible need for a vet, the call of the River Nene, and promise of a decent and inexpensive marina mooring in the middle of Northampton for a couple of weeks, we decided to head off through Blisworth Tunnel, and give us a chance of reaching Northampton the next day.

At over 3000 yards, Blisworth Tunnel is third longest useable tunnel on the network, and surprisingly the first real serious tunnel we’d taken Song & Dance through (ignoring a few that were little more than bridges on steroids). Wide enough to allow two narrowboats to pass, it wasn’t as big a challenge to steer the boat through as some though.

Blisworth TunnelBlisworth TunnelBlisworth Tunnel

Biggles was eminently impressed with the moorings in Blisworth, the other side of the tunnel: the towpath runs along a pleasant selection of back gardens with open fences just ripe for him to explore, while we went off to explore the town, and possible land based trips to a vet. Stopping at the pub (surely not!) we bumped into our companions from the morning’s locking exercises: they were looking at mooring up for a week or so at Gayton: we said they could have the space we’d tentatively reserved…

Sunset, Scratches and Another Musician

Late boater

As if the idyllic mooring near Yardley Gobion wasn’t enough, a late boater made us look out the window and find a spectacular sunset.

Sunset near Yardley GobionSunset near Yardley Gobion

But the next morning, the Captain let us know he wasn’t happy (and not just with the weather). He had some unpleasant inflammation and scratches round his ears and forehead, sometimes  a sign that he’d been in a fight. We bathed them with the vet’s answer to Dettol, and – being nowhere near a vet – hoped they would clear up if we kept things clean.

Aiming to reach Stoke Bruerne, we moored up just below the bottom lock of the seven in the early afternoon, walked up into the village in showery and uninspiring weather, somewhat preoccupied with the possibility of needing to find a vet.

Frank's BoatTowcester

Moored across from us was the splendidly named Zappa – a rather different musician to Muddy Waters – and the puzzling Lactodorum which clearly had something to do with milk. Subsequent investigation suggests it means “Dairyman’s Fort” and was the Roman name for nearby Towcester, where there was a vet if we needed one.

Somewhat preoccupied by the Captain’s difficulties and wondering what there was on the boat for dinner, we passed The Navigation pub, discovered that they were doing two sirloin steak dinners and a half-decent bottle of wine for £20, and decided that would do.

Ley Lines, Cornfields and Flying Buttresses

Not far beyond Cosgrove Lock, between Thrupp Wharf and Yardley Gobion Wharf we came across a most pleasant spot to moor for the night, pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Between Thrupp and Yardley WharvesBetween Thrupp and Yardley Wharves

We were right next to a big cornfield with an intriguing public footpath right through the middle, joining up to the towpath.

Between Thrupp and Yardley Wharves

The ground was baked hard, and it wasn’t clear whether the farmer took his public footpath duties very seriously, or the local ramblers association had been establishing their right of way with extreme prejudice. The line of the path pointed unerringly to thespire of St. James the Great at Hanslope, with its impressive flying buttresses. Visible for miles around, it’s also very noticeable from the M1 near Newport Pagnell. So unerringly did it point, we did wonder if the path was part of a ley line, but of course, they don’t really exist.

Biggles heads offDSCF2618

The Captain decided that as it was a Sunday evening, he ought to attend evensong, and set off across the field, while the chief cook decided to indulge in some al-fresco beauty regime or other.

 Al-fresco beauty regime

As the sun went down we walked across the field in the company of hundreds of martins and swallows, skimming low across the corn harvesting the invertebrates. An idyllic evening.

Uphill Again

The 11 mile lock-free pound round Milton Keynes which started at Fenny Stratford comes to an end at Cosgrove Lock, with it’s modest 3’4” rise. En–route one passes over the Great Ouse Aqueduct. Crossing it is reminiscent of the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct: it’s an iron channel with no protection on one side. But being much shorter, not so high and wide enough for a broad-beam boat (so you don’t have to go quite so close to the edge) it’s rather less terrifying and vertigo inducing for the helmsperson, but still a novel experience.

Great Ouse AqueductGreat Ouse Aqueduct

Approaching Cosgrove Lock

Just past it, coming up to Cosgrove Lock we saw a rather old Dutch sailing Tjalke: not something very common on the canal system!

Soloman's BridgeSoloman's Bridge

And just past the lock is Solomon’s Bridge. A very ornate job, the reason for which is lost in the mists of time, or something.

Great Linford

Just on the way out of MK lies the village of Great Linford, still laid out like the mediaeval village, with the manor house, church, alms-houses and pub all close to hand. A spot on the wharf set us up for a mid-afternoon Guinness, a wander around and dinner at the pub. Sometimes life’s hard.

Great Linford Wharf

The pub from Song & Dance.

Great Linford Alms HousesGreat Linford tourist

The alms-houses.

Entrance for big peopleEntrance for small people

The church, with entrances for large and small people.

Milton Keynes Arts CentreMilton Keynes Arts Centre

The old barns, now Milton Keynes Arts Centre.

Great Linford Manor HouseGreat Linford Manor House

The manor house, under refurbishment. Apparently owned by the chap who’s chairman of the local football team, there’s a recording studio too.

Great LinfordDownhill to the boat

The main street, which passes the pub, and continues on down to the the boat.

A lovely place to while away a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Sign of the Times

The city of Milton Keynes provokes mixed reactions, but as far as we can see the people who actually live there seem to like it a lot. Swallowing up, or surrounding several old villages like Fenny Stratford and Bletchley, it covers a large area; the canal snakes around the Eastern and Northern boundaries with glimpses housing estates or even The Open University,  but it’s pretty much all parks or woods or walking areas along the canal so you never feel you’re close to a big city.

Fenny Stratford Lock

Fenny Stratford provides the last lock on the descent into Milton Keynes and a long lock free pound. The drop is only thirteen inches, and there’s a swing bridge across the middle of the lock: a lot of effort for such a little descent.

You occasionally see people running businesses from boats: we’d already encountered fuel sellers and the honey-cart boat that services the area from Rickmansworth to Milton Keynes. You see boats advertising traditional fenders, a mobile bookshop seemed to make the news recently, tea shops, and all sorts of other types. Some friends of ours who liked making exotic bread had even explored the possibility of a narrowboat bakery, but the logistics proved a little fearsome.   And that morning The Cheese Boat passed us en-route to Leighton Buzzard.


Even so, we were impressed by the striking looking Vanitas: a mobile tattoo parlour and signwriter no less. The Captain suggested we stop and I get some rabbits tattooed on my forehead, in the hope that people might mistake them for hares, but there didn’t appear to be anyone in. The Captain went without lunch.