Monthly Archives: August 2015

Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a would-be Affair

It was proving to be an eventful Sunday… the weather was holding fair so we decided to potter on from Fotheringhay to some recommended moorings just above Elton lock, spying several Kingfishers on our way. There seemed to be plenty of Red Kites and Buzzards around. And several times

[We] caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

although the air was anything but steady, but it didn’t seem to cause them any problems. We’ve rarely seen Kestrels while on the boat, apart from the last few days. They’re always lovely and spectacular to watch. Spotted a Sparrowhawk too.

The moorings at Elton lock proved perfect, and closeness to the village suggested a quick walk for some suitable refreshment and a shared packet of crisps before returning to the boat for a rather late lunch.

Crown Inn, Elton

Losing brownie points for not having draught Guinness for him or a dry cider without fruit-salad flavourings for her, The Crown Inn – officially only serving Sunday Lunches – won them back by happily conjuring up a splendidly cooked and large bowl of cheesy chips. There goes the diet again.

Completely unlike the rather artificial Ashton, Elton is clearly a real village with character, even if Stocks Green no longer has the stocks that are still there according to the 2012 updated river guide we had. Seems they disappeared well over 25 years ago…

Elton VillageElton


And, not at all perturbed by the Ashley Madison farrago, Fran was all set, there and then, to embark on a serious affair with a young brindled Great Dane found attached to a local gentleman.

Young Brindled Great DaneYoung Brindled Great Dane

Her previous experiences of Great Dane ownership don’t seem to have put her off, but I shudder to think what the Captain would think. Fortunately, the promised rain arrived on queue, and we had to beat it back to the boat before things got seriously out of hand.

Sunset - Elton Lock 

And just in time for a nice sunset, the weather front cleared through. A fitting end to a long and interesting day – over 12 miles, 5 locks and a wet water stop before a late lunch is something of a record for the Song & Dance captain and crew. Could get to like this life…

Spires, Towers and Beheadings

One of the noticeable things about the Nene down from Northampton was the fact that you could invariably see two, sometimes three, sometimes more church spires in the distance, though we rarely passed really close to them as we wound around the apparently delightful but inaccessible towns and villages. So it was with some surprise that came round a corner to find the decidedly towered and unusual St Andrew’s church at Cotterstock right on the waterside, dating from the 12th century.

St Andrew's, Cotterstock

Just down river, the church of St. Mary and All Saints at Fotheringhay, with its impressive lantern, is a well known landmark on the Nene.

Fotheringhay ChurchFotheringhay Church

Notable not only for it’s splendid appearance from the waterside, but for the large number of good moorings just below and on the other side of the bridge. The moorings (£4 overnight, £2 short stay) are also rumoured to notable for the speed at which the farmer arrives to collect the fee.

As it was a bit early for lunch, Sunday lunches in the local pub were likely to be mobbed and fully booked, and we were expecting to spend the night here on the way back to meet up with some friends, we merely put someone ashore to locate the Environment Agency water point supposedly installed. Before we’d even temporarily tied a centre rope to investigate, a man appeared out of nowhere… he was a bit miffed that we were only stopping for water once we’d located the tap! Reminded me of the time we drove across the High Atlas in Morocco: you could park in the middle of absolutely nowhere to take a photo, and within 30 seconds a scruffy urchin would materialise out of thin air demanding money sweets or cigarettes with menaces.

As for the tap, it was one of those that only had two settings: off and rocket assisted deluge. Several times the first mate relaxed his grip enough for the end of the hose to escape and jump around like a demented snake showering everything within 10 yards with cold water. Memo to self: must find a better way to wedge the hose into the water tank…

Anyway,  a complete change of clothes later, just under the bridge is the remains of Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots came to a sticky end. Not much left now (of either of them).

Fotheringhay Castle

Round and Round Oundle–Part the…

… well you get the drift.

Sunday, and again the forecast for the day was a splendid morning followed by rain and thunderstorms later. So SWMBO broke the habit of her retirement and we actually managed to set off by 09:00! Meantime, we’d spotted Crackerjak, another Piper Boat heading downstream.


Van Diemen, who had moored up right behind us, proved to be occupied/crewed by a single-handing chap from Tasmania, who keeps his boat at Ramsay in the Cambridgeshire Fens and comes over to cruise the English canals and rivers for several months every summer. He’d already intimated he was one of the 7o’clock brigade (off at crack of sparrows, moored up by lunchtime) so we were surprised when he came out to say goodbye while we locked through the heavy hand-wheel operated Ashton Lock for the third time. He confessed we’d shamed him yesterday into having a day of housework and cleaning!

Oundle is apparently a delightful town, the “Jewel of the Nene”, but like everywhere else around here it doesn’t encourage river-bourn visitors. With the fishing match over, we could have stuck our nose in the bank near Waitrose and the North Bridge, but the supermarket wouldn’t yet be open, and being Sunday, all the nice individualistic emporiums in the town centre would be closed. So chugging off round the outskirts for the third time, we ruefully decided that we’d have to try harder on the way back. Maybe.

Still it was nice to be cruising in the sunshine.

We came across some young or small heavy horses who were enjoying the sunshine too.

Small Heavy Horses

Round and Round Oundle-Part the Second

Friday, and Oundle Marina is an odd place: loads of – err – not so new small cruisers and a few narrowboats in a large chunk of water pretty much surrounded by an industrial estate, but it’s a river marina seemingly without rising and falling pontoons and moorings, and clearly without much money being spent on facilities. Never seen such a scruffy, narrow and difficult entrance into a marina either. Yet amongst other things, it’s still the place where Fairline Boats – serious yacht manufacturers for millionaires – started out, and they still have a large presence. Their HQ is still in Oundle too.

But needing a pump-out, diesel, and some Calor gas, we needed to brave the (well documented as difficult) entrance in gusty winds: oh the crew does love a challenge. The service/visitor mooring was occupied as we approached, so we aimed at another mooring pontoon temporarily, at which point the Captain decided to inspect the facilities in a hurry, jumped ship, ran down the pontoon, then dived into a large overgrown area of shrubs, clearly unhappy with the nearby gardener’s strimmer. At this point we discovered that the rather dodgy pontoon had no mooring rings or cleats… so one of us had to hold the boat on a centre line in strong gusty winds while the other persuaded the gardener to stop strimming for a bit and help in the search for a cat. After some cursing and encouraging noises, Biggles eventually emerged from the undergrowth, and looking rather embarrassed quickly ran back down the pontoon, dived aboard with alacrity and rapidly took up his normal cruising snoozing position as though nothing had happened. Clearly this bit of the marina was less to his liking than the Boat Club moorings the other side. By the time we’d completed the various chores it was lunch time.

Oundle Marina is a mile or so SSE of the town. Buoyed by the information that at the NNE end of town there were useable if unofficial field moorings by the North Bridge that were within a few hundred yards of a new Waitrose store – the cook’s favourite hobby – we headed off. But in getting from one end of Oundle to the other the river makes a huge loop through a couple of locks and several miles, so given the time spent in getting there, mooring up and traipsing around the supermarket we’d decided that we’d stay there the night as it would be late afternoon before we’d finished. Man plans…

Ashton Lock

Halfway round the loop we passed through Ashton Lock, which lies between Oundle and Ashton, and is one of those guillotine locks that one has to wind by hand. And jolly hard work it is too. We’d spotted some really nice, quiet (and empty) moorings just above the lock in the weir stream, but with the scent of Waitrose in her nostrils there was no stopping the chief cook.

The moorings near Oundle North Bridge proved reasonably accessible and suitable, with Waitrose a 200 yard walk across the fields. But the regular gaps in the overgrown undergrowth each had a piece of paper nailed into the ground saying something like “B6 – no mooring please” from which we deduced that there was an angling match that had either just past or was due to happen. Ah well – shopping first.

200 yards across the fields was indeed the object of affection. Another 400 yards across some more fields and cows to gain access to the road without climbing barbed wire or security fences, and another 400 yards along the road we should have taken in the first place, and we were there…

On the way back, we saw an angling club notice (in about 10 languages including Polish, Russian, French, Greek and several completely unrecognisable ones). The match was tomorrow, and moored boats were expected to be off by 07:30. One member of the crew doesn’t do 07:30 starts, so rather than head off downstream into the unknown at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, we decided to head back upstream around the Oundle loop again to the moorings above Ashton Lock we’d spotted earlier.

Even harder work the second time that day, but despite being latish on a sunny Friday afternoon, there was only one other boat, although another one called Van Diemen soon joined us.

Saturday, and the forecast was for a absolutely sweltering sunny morning with thunderstorms later in the afternoon, so rather than cruise in the sunshine, the Captain decided that we’d stay put and catch up on the cleaning and housework. Good decision to be stuck in the boat on the hottest day this month, sir… We’d also heard that at 10:00 the angling match had still not started. Nice moorings and a sunny Saturday and the moorings soon started filling up. Ah well. It had been quiet!

Late afternoon, we decided to walk into Ashton for a drink: it was too late (and much further) to go wandering round the much vaunted shops in Oundle. Ashton’s an odd little place. The pub and green (including resident peacocks) are very pleasant, but all the cottage terraces are the same, doors and windows painted in the same colour as the footpath gates, and built in the early 1900s by some worthy. Kind of a thatched council estate – all a bit strange and vaguely unnatural.

Fran & CiderFran and no Cider

Ashton Cottages

The forecast isolated thunderstorm arrived just as we’d finished our drinks but narrowly missed us, so we merely got a bit damp walking back to the boat.

Round and Round Oundle-Part the First

Thursday morning, and Sir made it clear he was ready to get going again: no more hanging around hoping for an otter or three.

The Captain takes control

We seemed to cruise along in an almost meditative state, the river scenery all very pretty and winding and remote, without anything specifically grabbing the attention. Not for nothing is Northamptonshire renowned for its church spires, and there were always several in sight. Trying to work out which is which as the river keeps changing direction is a real challenge.

Somehow we managed to cruise for 6 hours, covering over 12 miles and 7 locks: a long day for us. As usual on the Nene, we’d not found too much in the way of useable moorings, but had noticed that the pub/restaurant/hotel Oundle Mill had limited moorings for customers. And if that didn’t work, Oundle Cruising Club just under the bridge was rumoured to be friendly towards itinerants with their bankside moorings just outside Oundle Marina.

Well, Oundle Mill was closed (somewhat suddenly, it would seem – a shame as it had looked like a good spot for a dinner out); their limited moorings were empty but too shallow for Song & Dance so under the bridge it was… a club member graciously moved his boat up to make room for us, and as the club was shut there were no formalities. Not only that, Sir really took to the site and went off exploring before we’d got the kettle on. Stayed out most of the evening too. No exploring for us… as unofficial visitors we  could get out of the marina site, but the gates were locked at 17:15 and we had no way of getting back in, so dinner in Oundle was out.

Otter Spotting in Northamptonshire

Tuesday: setting off from our field near Ditchford and bumbling further down river the weather wasn’t that great but the scenery pleasant enough, with the occasional navigational challenge thrown in. Wouldn’t fancy Irthlingborough Road Bridge when there’s a serious flow on, but the cook coped admirably.

Irthlingborough Road Bridge

Just before there, we locked down through Higham Lock between Irthlingborough and Higham Ferrers, where some chaps were digging post holes. The lock is in the middle of a small nature reserve, and they were preparing for some new marker/interpretive boards. One of them mentioned that one of the small bits of water was called Otter Lake, whereupon the chief otter spotter got very excited: even she misses our trips to Mull occasionally. Apparently they’d only been seen at night on the infra-red cameras, but were around somewhere, just like on the Kennet and Avon near Newbury.

Passing through the rather chaotic Woodford Mill Lock area and the Willy Watt  Marina pausing only to buy a guide to the Middle Levels in case we went to Ely, we aimed for the Friends of The River Nene mooring at Woodford: it turned out to be accessible and amenable and  empty. Arriving later than we liked, a quick wander into the pleasant village of Woodford itself, and the Dukes Arms was doing a decent carvery for £6.00 a head. A no brainer, really. There was also a hairdresser in town, so it looked like we might be spending a second night…

Woodford MooringsWoodford Moorings

Wednesday morning dawned bright and clear, but being in no great hurry to move, it wasn’t overly early before herself raised the bedroom blind and squawked “There’s an otter over there!” Our chief otter spotter had struck again… or had she? By the time the Captain and I had sorted ourselves out it had disappeared, and never reappeared.


We had, however, picked up a temporary passenger who stayed for the day.

A gentle morning’s ramble along the Nene Way over the hill to revisit Woodford Mill chandlery, and it  turned out that the café cum restaurant’s good reputation was well founded. With second breakfast/elevenses/first lunch suitably accomplished with cream tea and cakes we headed back to the boat for second lunch, pausing only to savour the newly fledged swallow chicks whizzing around low level and parting one’s hair. Only to find our nice peaceful mooring spot had filled up with boats, dogs and children. Ah well, some you win!

Woodford MooringsWoodford Moorings - getting busy

Mind you, still mindful of the otter sighting and the rumoured presence of plenty of mink (which are often mistaken for otters), a conversation with someone local established that there were plenty of water voles around. Which meant that they weren’t being preyed upon by mink. Think we’ll definitely count that as one otter spotted.

Trampolines and Kingfishers

Last year we’d had loads of Kingfisher sightings throughout the cruising season. This year, hardly any… I’d had a couple of sightings on the Oxford Canal in April, but Fran hadn’t seen one since we’d started out this year. So I was quite pleased leaving our mooring near Doddington to catch a glimpse of turquoise and russet flashing past.

Chief Cook and Steerer

Pottering through remote countryside, unmoor-able  but pretty river views and lock after lock for the second day, with just a brief diversion into the Wellingborough Tesco for lunch and provisions, we were just beginning to get concerned about somewhere for the night when we ran under a double railway viaduct and stumbled over a pleasant and useable piece of bank with a sign saying Friends of the River Nene – 24 hour mooring for members. Deciding to join post-hoc, we set ourselves up, and the Captain announced his satisfaction.


There's a fish there somewhereSticking the nose in the bank

According to the map, we moored on a small 50 yard wide piece of land separating the river from a Water Ski Club in a large gravel pit. Didn’t see any water-skiers, but across the far side were numerous sheds/lodges/caravans/motorhomes. Many of these had large trampolines right at the water’s edge, or even jutting out over the water. Strange what some people do for fun…

And over our side, SWMBO saw her first Kingfisher of the year.

Guillotines and Gangplanks

Pre-cruise inspection

After a comprehensive pre-cruise inspection, and with the patched cratch cover now in place, the Captain signalled his impatience to get under way, and off we set, wondering what the River Nene would have to offer.

Quickly leaving Northampton behind, the going rapidly becomes rural and river-like, and with all the fine descriptions of how pretty and remote everything seemed to be fine. And – despite being a pleasant Sunday in August – there was little sign of other boaters.

However, although the locks are pretty well maintained by the Environment Agency compared to the CaRT system, they are broad locks, mostly with a small-ish drop, and occur – at least initially – about every mile (i.e. about every 15-20 minutes). This is not only hard work, but makes achieving a leisurely coffee break while cruising somewhat challenging. We suspect the whole setup is more about controlling water flows and avoiding floods in Northampton and Peterborough than it is about making a user-friendly navigation.

Most of the locks are of a design not seen on the canal system: instead of two downstream gates with paddles set in them at the bottom which are raised and lowered to let the water flow (or not), here the gate itself is a giant paddle like a guillotine, raised completely out of the water on chains that one earnestly hopes don’t break!

Guillotine bottom gateGuillotine bottom gate

Fran putting her back into it

Most of these guillotine gates are electrically operated. When you push the button to raise the gate, it just goes up a tiny bit and stops, while the water in the lock rushes out underneath impressively quickly. The boat goes down in the lock like a fast elevator. You then have to wait for two minutes before holding the button down to raise the gate again – oh so grindingly slowly. The other downside, having raised the gate, is that it then proceeds to drip water all over you as you move under it, although the river water is crystal clear compared to the average canal.

Rumour has it that further down some of these locks are still manually operated by a big hand-wheel that means exercising quite a heave to break the seal, great caution to avoid raising it too far too quickly, and a great deal of puff and time to raise it all the way. We shall see.

Meanwhile, there were other challenges…

Little Weed...Blocking the bridge!

Before long we came to a section so weedy, it was more like the Sargasso Sea than a British River. And the lock where the enclosed access bridge was occupied by four adult horses and two foals – one lying down – made crossing the canal to get to the control box an interesting exercise for non horsy people. The thin steel guillotine only just above the lock water level creates an interesting infinity pool effect that distracts you from realising how little is stopping your boat from a plunge over the top…

The Captain, who was so excited to be back on the water again that he jumped ship every time we stopped at a lock was doing his best to slow us down, too. We think he might have been looking for somewhere quiet to do his business rather than use the on-board facilities, but never quite found anywhere suitable before we needed to get going again.

The magazines suggest that perhaps the reason for the River Nene’s apparent unpopularity – despite its remote rural beauty and all the pretty villages you pass en-route – is the number of locks (about 36 in the 60 odd miles between Northampton and Peterborough). There were some hints that “proper” moorings were a little hard to come by, and that one might have to just moor up against the bank somewhere – not a problem for us in principle.

But by late afternoon we’d a different view: mooring somewhere other than at one of the very  few visitor or marina moorings, was absolutely impossible. Since passing Billings Aquadrome with its hoards, fun fair, the remains of the hot-air balloon festival, poor visitor moorings and naff pub, we hadn’t seen a single place we could even realistically tie up for lunch, let alone a suitable spot for an overnight stay.

Lunch was eventually taken on the hoof, as it were, about 14:30, and with all this, a decidedly Sunday Morning Coming Down mood seemed to settle on proceedings. It was quite clear that our normal canal habit of just cruising until we’d had enough then look for somewhere amenable for the Captain and crew wasn’t going to work here! Meanwhile, as we continued downstream, the river banks were unremittingly overgrown – even if the water was deep enough you couldn’t get anywhere near enough to leap ashore and tie up. So even if you fancied visiting one of the much vaunted nice villages described in the book, you were stuck.

Beginning to get somewhat concerned and  tired, and wondering if we’d have to keep going until dark then tie up on a lock landing until the morning (bad manners, apart from being strictly verboten) , we finally noticed on the map a place near Doddington Lock labelled “Unofficial Mooring”. We’d passed one of these before: a nice enough field, and the water might have been deep enough, but the high bank, 6 foot high man-eating reeds, nettles and Himalayan Balsam were a challenge too far. And if this  one was useable, we were probably too late…

As it happened, it was empty and perfect, even if we did have to get the gang plank out (and by now felt like making Biggles walk the plank the other side).

Bankside mooringBankside mooring

Guard Cat - 1Guard Cat - 2

We are obviously going to have to do some more research about suitable mooring places for a 58ft narrowboat before setting off again: don’t want days like that very often, thanks!

Even the Captain seemed to be regretting his decision not to sign off the crew’s earlier purchase request for a scythe, a strimmer, a pair of shears and flamethrower…

Nene or Nene

Returning from Sidmouth via Ferndown and Bournemouth with another mound of washing, serious sleep deprivation, and minor coughs, colds and sore throats, we’ve been a little slower getting back to the boat than originally planned. But after moving the Captain and clean washing up to Northampton, returning the car to home then returning by train yesterday, today was spent on chores such as cleaning all the spider webs off, re-fitting the cratch cover, replenishing food and wine stocks, and generally getting the boat ready for some serious cruising on the River Nene, we’re ready for the off at crack of elevenses tomorrow.

The marina here is probably the most pleasant and civilised we’ve moored up in, but with quite a large residential contingent the Captain finds it a bit too full of dogs and other cats for his peace of mind, and can’t wait to be off. Being pretty much in the middle of a large city one expects things to be a bit noisy with the usual sounds of human and vehicular traffic, speeding blues and twos and the like. But we hadn’t expected to be kept awake all night by alternate partying and fighting from two teenage gangs – of Canada Geese. Time for some peace and quiet we think.

Only two things need to be resolved: where we are going, and where the River Nene (pronounced “Nen”) becomes the River Nene (pronounced “Neen”). Life’s full of quandaries.

But before that, there’s kangaroo and Shiraz for tea (don’t ask!)…

A Surfeit of Nutters

Leaving the Captain to re-establish his home base and recover from his ear-drops induced indignities, Sidmouth Folk Week was, err, Sidmouth Folk Week. If you’ve been there, you’ll know what we mean. If you haven’t, it’s about time you went: it’s only been going 61 years, and the Logistics Support Officer(a mere beginner) has only notched up some 35 consecutive years. Bit of a shock to be working, with places to be at specific times, but once a year doesn’t hurt I guess. It’s nine days totally orthogonal to the usual universe.

As Biggles and boating don’t figure, and – unfortunately Morris Dancing does – just a few pictures…

Sally & Eilidh

Sally Poozie and Eilidh Poozie gi’in it laldy on the main concert stage. Sally Barker, picked by the recently sacked Tom Jones, came dangerously close to winning BBC’s The Voice but common sense prevailed. A folkie winning a major competition like that – don’t be daft.

 Halsway Hothouse

Put 35 teenagers/complete strangers together for a week’s intensive music making at the splendid Halsway Manor, and what do you get? A stage full of enthusiastic players and singers playing and singing their hearts out (although the backstage medic suggested some other likely results too).

Britannia Coconut Dancer from BacupBritannia Coconut Dancers from Bacup

A couple of pictures of some Nutters… there is absolutely no doubt that the weirdest folk dance tradition in the world comes from Bacup in Lancashire. No contest.

Jackstraws Morris from near FarnhamJackstraws Morris from near Farnham

Some pictures of a few other nutters, this time from Surrey.

Britannia Coconut Dancers from BacupBritannia Coconut Dancers from Bacup

And the chief cook asked for some more pictures of the Nutters. How could one refuse?