Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Leaving of Linslade

Moored up in pleasant countryside just North of the the urban delights of the Leighton Buzzard/Linslade metropolis, we rued our fate-inviting observation that there was hardly any boat traffic around, as loads of Wyvern boats went steaming past at OMG O’clock, running late for their 9:30 handover. Actually, we must be approaching the school holidays, as quite a few other boats were on the move as well – perhaps heading home for some peace and quiet in August.

Even without that, it’s not exactly quiet, because there’s a long gentle curved three mile stretch of the A4146 between two roundabouts. On exit from said roundabouts, the owners of high-revving powerful motorcycles seem to find it a perfect spot to demonstrate just how amazingly small their penises are. Rudely awoken several more times before elevenses, and with several further demonstrations during the early afternoon, the locals must be a bit fed up with it – even worse than Mr Branson’s Incredibly Noisy Trains.

Setting off, we soon passed The Globe Inn, a well known watering hole, and started running alongside the railway again. And speaking of trains, this stretch, through what was quiet countryside then, received some unwanted publicity back in 1963.

Globe Inn

The low point of this section of the Grand Union is Milton Keynes (no jokes necessary ), but before reaching it (is it called the bottom pound?) there were still a few locks to go, including Soulbury Three Locks. Maybe it was the proximity to transport, but all of a sudden we had a lot more boats moored up on the towpath for the duration: couldn’t see some them moving every two weeks.

Continuous Moorers?Sunken Cruiser

The canal widens out and becomes almost river-like for a while, but while we suspect that Muddy Waters was named in honour of that legendary bluesman McKinley Morganfield, it was kind of appropriate here too, especially as the pound was a bit low.

Grand Union River?Grand Union River?Muddy Waters

At Soulbury Three Locks, there were some CaRT volunteers actively trying to manage the traffic into sharing locks to preserve water (but fortunately still no mention of the R Word); it was certainly pouring all over some of the top gates.

Soulbury Three LocksSoulbury Three Locks

We can understand why some boaters clutter up their roof with supplies of wood, coal, bicycles and the likes, but one of the things that constantly amazes us is the number of boats looking more like waterborne Rag & Bone carts, carrying every imaginable piece of scrap wood as well as all sorts of rubbish of little conceivable use. Sort of mobile landfill sites, really: a couple of (relatively tame and tidy)examples passed through while we partook of lunch at the conveniently situated but oddly named pub The Three Locks.

RA-Bone... RA-Bone...

Rather delayed, we ended up passing through Stoke Hammond lock and, needing milk, called it a day and wandered into the village for supplies. Only one lock to go to the bottom pound and the delights of MK, but still within earshot of the minimally endowed motorcyclists, sadly.

The Other Kind of Buzzard

Climbing up to the Aylesbury Arm junction, then starting back on the descent, Tuesday saw 13 locks pass slowly: quite enough. The journey is quite pleasant, with views across the Chilterns to Dunstable Downs and the like.

Dunstable DownsSweet Painted Lady

The rather fine paintwork on Sweet Painted Lady was reminiscent of the old WWII Bomber nose art, particularly given the old Airstream caravan parked in the field.

Water had always been a consideration around here, and at several places the canal company built a second, parallel narrow beam lock, partly to improve traffic flow, but mainly so that solo narrowboats didn’t waste as much water. The locks are long disused, but the double-arched bridges are still there.

Double lock bridge

With the slowly increasing distances between locks as we come off the hill, the Chief Engineering Officer had time to think, and was getting concerned that we needed an engine service and oil change. A phone call down canal to Wyvern Boats – the local hire company – established that they had the bits and would be happy to accommodate us as long as it wasn’t one of their change-over days, so we arranged to slow down, and arrive at their wharf mid-morning on the Thursday for a few hours engineering TLC and thumb-twiddling.

Stopping the previous evening near Grove Lock, where there’s a pleasant Fuller’s pub serving food, it was clear that CaRT’s towpath maintenance had gone awry. We got moored up eventually, but with all the gardening required forgot to take any pictures.

Memo to Captain: we need a few extra items for the ship’s inventory, sir. 1 scythe, 1 strimmer, 1 pair of shears, 1 flamethrower…

Wyvern Boats

Since leaving Cropredy (at what seems a very long time ago) we’d seen very little boating traffic apart from sunny weekend cruisers on the Thames and the occasional travellers like us. As it was now mid-July, some schools were already out, and Wyvern had quite a few boats gathering dust on the wharf we wondered if the hire boat industry was in terminal decline. But no. Wyvern said they had 35 boats, so there were about 25 out, and nearly all their customers headed North as there were so many locks heading South (as we knew!)

Wyvern’s wharf is pretty much in the middle of Leighton Buzzard, and with ten or more boats expected to arrive the next morning long before the Captain and Cook normally stir themselves, after a wander round town and checking out the cook’s favourite supermarket, we beat a hasty retreat a little down the canal to somewhere likely to be less chaotic.

Water Water Everywhere…

… or nearly so. The locks of most of the canals we’ve travelled in the past have by-washes, so that if the pound above the lock has too much water, it flows down a culvert or channel around the lock into the pound below. Coming up the Grand Union from Brentford, and compounded by rivers joining and departing the navigation, several times we found water overflowing the lock gates. There’s a picture here.

In some cases the “bible” (Nicholson’s Guide) advises against mooring in certain pounds due to highly variable water levels. We’d avoided one such pound coming up to the summit, mooring a couple of pounds below, only to find the next morning we were thoroughly aground, and tilting over enough that the shower water didn’t stay in in the shower tray. With some pre-breakfast cursing and swearing, and the first ever use of the Song & Dance barge pole in anger we got waterborne and made it to the next lock. Dragged our bottom all through next pound, only to find that the following one – the one with the caution – had several moorers still afloat, plenty of water and no problems. Oh well…

The lockkeeper at Aylesbury also warned things were getting a bit difficult on the main line, as one of the back-pumping systems had gone U-S, and warned us about mooring in several other places too. But heading back up from Aylesbury, again we found plenty of overflowing water, apart from one pound where again we were dragging the bottom and were quite relieved to reach the lock at the end. (We subsequently found this pound had sprung a leak somewhere).

Coming back down the main line again, again there have been several pounds where the levels looked a little low, but not enough to cause concern. Fingers crossed there’s enough water to get us where we going…

Slow Exit From Aylesbury

It’s all very well mooring next to a Waitrose – you can get fresh croissants for breakfast – but when you lose track of the days and find (a) it’s Sunday, (b) they don’t open until 11:00 and (c) the weather is inclement, then the promised early start never happened, and we didn’t get off until after lunch. Much the same happened the next day, so we had plenty of time to reflect on the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union.

It descends/climbs through pleasantly remote countryside, but it’s not that quiet: there are loads of old narrow canal bridges carrying roads across: they’re all little country lanes, but with relatively lots of traffic, so being anywhere near a bridge means being subject to a fairly constant barrage of “beep beep beep”s from vehicles going too fast and adopting the Italian approach to collision avoidance on hump-backed bridges. And due to the wonders of SatNavs and lorry drivers too mean to buy the more expensive commercial versions, watching a 44 tonne artic trying to negotiate a small brick bridge that’s hundreds of years old makes you wonder why there are no obvious weight restrictions, and glad you aren’t underneath at the time.

The (many) locks are a bit neglected, too. The grass areas around the lock are rough, untended, and present plenty of tripping risks, while the concrete or brick edges to the lock are pretty rough and crumbling, and in some cases seem to be coming away altogether. This happened a couple of years ago at Lock 12 when the lock wall collapsed completely, resulting in the arm being shut for months; CaRT had to crane out quite a few boats stick between there and the town as there was no other way out. One local retailer remarked that boat traffic has never recovered on that section: one can see why.

So, in iffy weather, we slowly climbed our way back up to the main line, then resumed our descent off the Chilterns.

Aylesbury Afternoon

Odd sort of place, Aylesbury. Town centre crammed inside a smallish inner ring road, brave new world (from the same people that brought you Woking?) outside. Inside (if you can get across the road from the basin) mainly a very mixed and busy area, seemingly genuinely multicultural, if perhaps a little down-at-heel. But then they named a street after the first mate, so who’s complaining.

No commentAylesbury Waterside Theatre

Still, someone was having a nice day for their nuptials, even if we were somewhat disturbed by the shiny new sign next door over the road from the concrete City Hall. That’s “traditional” in the “shiny new marketing wheeze” sense, we presume.

Wedding CarTraditional Pub

In complete contrast, up in the the hill, around the church with its large and higgledy-piggledy graveyard, there’s a delightful old town residential area full of nice old buildings and quiet streets. A different world.

St. Mary's Church AylesburySt. Mary's Church AylesburySt. Mary's Church Aylesbury

AylesburyAylesbury

AylesburyAylesbury

And doubtless there’s something deeply meaningful about the sign on this house, but it temporarily escapes us. (Rumour has it that clicking on the picture will reveal all).

Beware...

Aylesbury Duck Sandwich

Escaping from the Wendover Arm in the Friday morning sunshine, it was back to the descent off the Chilterns from Bulborne Junction through Marsworth Locks.

Bulborne JunctionMarsworth Locks

With traffic coming up to set the locks for us, and an energetic volunteer, we soon made short work of seven wide Marsworth locks, which brought us to the start of the Aylesbury Arm. The Captain wished to investigate Aylesbury Ducks, so it was another diversion… 16 narrow locks (some also called Marsworth Locks, just to confuse) descending through pleasantly remote countryside into Aylesbury Basin. Starting with a two chamber staircase surrounded by a new posh housing development, the first narrow locks for months came as a bit of a surprise.

Aylesbury Arm Staircase Lock

We did 13 of the little perishers before calling it a day (20 locks in a day is quite enough), leaving just three to take us into Aylesbury Basin the next morning, which is now being “developed”. The basin used to be Aylesbury Boat Club, but as part of the Waitrose/Travel Lodge/new University buildings project, the developers built the club a nice new marina and club house just outside the town, so the basin itself is a bit quiet, boat wise.

Aylesbury Basin

And the only thing special we could find about Aylesbury Ducks were that some come already pre-packed into sandwiches.

Duck with packed lunch

Ecclesiastes 3:1 and the Wet Dog Shake

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” and this must be the season of the tern. The crew seem to remember a group with an avian name like “The Birds” singing a Pete Seeger song with these words, and the chorus “There  is a season, tern, tern, tern”, but maybe the old grey cells are failing. We never knew you could see so many of the handsome if noisesome seabirds inland, and what a pleasure they are.

Anyway, after an evening watching a couple of terns dive bombing the winding hole,  soon after setting off from the end of the Wendover in bright sunshine the next morning we’d acquired some accompanying entertainment. Wheeling and spiralling around the boat, sometimes coming within a foot or so one’s head, and sometimes even pulling up into an Immelmann turn (a WW1 aerobatic manoeuvre much beloved of the other Biggles and his chums).

Don’t know how they can see through the murky water stirred up by our transit, but  at one point, literally just behind the boat, a tern dived in four times: the first three it came up empty-beaked, but the fourth time it was successful,  and emerged with a sizeable fish and flew off to find some chips to go with it.

But what we’d never seen before (and you’d have to be fairly close to see it)… on the third dive it went deeper than the other, and when it had reached about 6 feet on the climb out, it did a wonderful “wet dog shake” from beak to tail while still airborne. Never seen that before…

Tring Tring and the R Word

The Tring summit pound is only three miles long, and most of it is in a steep wooded cutting (cue a pathetic excuse for one of the cook’s favourite bits of music – heavens don’t they look so young).

So not much to see, but after lunch, when the rain stopped, the interrupt free section was most welcome, and we spotted a Little Egret flying overhead above the cutting, up the canal. We’d decided to head down the Wendover Arm, off the main line – it’s currently being resurrected all the way to Wendover, and the end of the first section looked to be in pleasant countryside, close to the several reservoirs around Tring needed to supply all the water flowing downhill off the summit to Brentford, Milton Keynes, Wendover and Aylesbury.

Bulbourne JunctionBulbourne Junction

The sun came out as we approached Bulborne Junction, where the Wendover Arm turns off, and the main line starts its long descent. Just before, one of the old canalside buildings seemed to have been taken over by a metalwork sculpture emporium.

Bulbourne JunctionBulbourne Junction

The turn onto the Wendover Arm just by Marsworth Top Lock is interestingly tricky and a bit tight for a longish boat. (Crunch).

Intrepid SteererEnd of the Water

There’s quite a flow on the arm as it’s a feeder for the main line, and a lot of water is pumped up from the reservoirs not far from the current end of the navigable section. Also, the cut is narrow, with some tight bends, and poorly positioned moored boats. Add to that the distractions of warm sunshine, pleasant open scenery, hundreds of damselflies and dragonflies buzzing and zooming around, and a common tern following the boat doing gannet impersonations just behind us, and it was an interesting steering challenge, but we made it to the end. Where there was indeed a most pleasantly rural spot to moor up (and after a quick exploratory foray up the path to check out the facilities) take a well earned break.

Biggles returns for teaCrew tea break

The starboard side of the boat hadn’t been so perfectly positioned since we started out, and was in desperate need of wash and brush up, so next morning – unable to find any willing gang of Eastern Europeans with a pressure wash in the adjacent field – a start was made before the sun became too hot. And although it really looks nice when it’s done, there really is an awful lot of boat paintwork to wash and polish just on one side, let alone the front, back and other side. There’s no way you could do the whole boat in one day, so somewhere’s always dirty!

Wendover Winding HoleWalking to Wilstone

With the promise of a farm shop (for her) and café (for him) at the far end, a post lunch walk over the hill  – the pretty way – to Wilstone Reservoir seemed necessary, even though it was getting pretty hot again. We were moored up just by the winding hole: you can just make out the boat in the picture above.

Unwatered SectionUnwatered Section

The route took us back over the unwatered section of the canal currently under restoration. Apparently that section was always leaky from day one, and the main challenge is making it watertight for the first time.

Wilstone Reservoir

Wilstone Reservoir looked very low, and while we were waiting a CaRT chap turned up in a van with a clipboard taking measurements, and a long chat ensued. With no significant rain since Easter they were getting decidedly twitchy, on two fronts. Apart from the obvious lack of water, they were beginning to worry about blue green algae. The reservoir had numerous hay bales dumped in it, which is supposed to help prevent it, but the jury’s out on how effective that is. And if the algae starts up, CaRT can’t pump water from the reservoir into the canal system, even if there’s any water to pump. And we’ve just seen that Daventry Reservoir has a suspected outbreak.

So there’s beginning to be mutterings about the “R” word: restrictions (on navigation). Wouldn’t be surprised – let’s hope they’re not too onerous.

Anyway, we saw some more Little Egrets on the island, and we made it to the farm/tea shop before they closed, so that’s all right. And there was a pleasant wild flower meadow to wander round as well. On the return journey we bumped into a bird photographer that had travelled out for the day all the way from East London to the Tring Reservoirs despite rail and tube strikes, so this is clearly a popular spot. He’d failed to get any decent pictures of a tern, so perhaps our pathetic attempt isn’t too bad.

Tern & Swan

Berkhamstead Port and Croissants

A late start, SWMBO’s knee still a bit iffy, and nine wide locks out of Apsley and we’d had enough, mooring up as far as practical from Mr Branson’s Incredibly Noisy Trains – the promised delights of Berkhamstead would have to wait for another day. First up the next morning were Sewer Lock and Bottom Side Lock, and we were seriously wondering whether we should worry about the water quality. And then some more locks and we finally staggered into Berkhamstead just before lunch.

The promised moorings right next to the shops proved much more secluded than we’d dare hope: the Captain was most impressed. A most splendid café lunch in the busy high street, a mooch around the shops and the obligatory visit to the cook’s favourite grocery emporium preceded a late afternoon nap for the entire crew. (Well, to be honest, there aren’t many daylight hours when Sir isn’t napping).

Too late to start cooking, an evening walk along the towpath in pleasant sunshine worked up an appetite for dinner – two meals out in one day! Shock Horror!

Berkhamstead

We’re not sure why a canal-side block of flats should sport an (apparently genuine) totem pole.

Berkhamsted Totem PoleBerkhamstead Totem Pole

This old building seems to have jumped the gun on that nice Mr Osborne’s threat or promise to allow vertical home extensions without planning permission.

Berkhamstead

And while this towpath residence seems to have cornered the market in blue plant pots, it also seemed to be home for another friendly feline.

Blue PotsFran being unfaithful again

But most important of all, the proximity to Waitrose’s entrance meant one could indulge in that rare treat (on the canals, at least) of a second breakfast of croissants still warm from the baker’s oven, to go with the free coffee. Definitely a result.

The Summit Attempt

The various “authorities” are a bit vague as to the maximum beam (width) available on the Grand Union Canal (but then it was built in several different sections – there’s a clue in the name). Up to Berkhamstead the locks seem to accommodate barges up to 14’6” – certainly we could get 6’8” wide Song & Dance into a lock with only one gate open without any problems. Beyond there the locks seem a tad narrower, and just using a single gate more of a challenge. Mind you, some of the bridge holes seem even narrower – even a 12’6” wide-beam might be struggling. Still, not a problem for us.

Anyway, leaving Berkhamstead, we had another seven of those wide locks to surmount before reaching the Tring summit pound. We eventually exited the oddly named Cowroast Lock and moored up outside Cowroast Marina, wondering when exactly it was that the Argentinian Polo Team held one of their infamous post-match barbeques in the Chilterns.

Sherpa Bigglesworth had originally proposed a little celebration at successfully dragging his 16 tonnes of steel cat basket uphill through 35 miles and 57 broad locks, but just as we pulled alongside the bank the skies absolutely opened. With no option other than to complete mooring up in the sudden torrential rain, without any chance to tog up in waterproofs before the boat was secure, it was then necessary to batten down the hatches and indulge in a complete change of clothes, shoes etc. and find somewhere to dry the old ones. By which time all thoughts of ceremonially planting a flag at the summit had passed, and he’d gone for his lunchtime nap.

Going uphill through broad locks largely without a companion boat or even just one extra crew member to share the locking is quite hard work. The climb up from Brentford is fairly unremitting with the locks averaging less than a mile apart so there’s not much chance to rest in between! Still, for a couple of old narrow canal hands, it seemed quite an achievement.

Someone (can’t remember who) at Apsley had asked how far we’d come this year. So far, since leaving Cropredy just after Easter we would appear to have covered approximately 300 miles, and passed through 209 locks to Cowroast. Wonder how much further we’ll go this year – last year our total was 522 miles and 372 locks.