Monthly Archives: September 2015

Closed All Hours

Monday saw more lovely weather, as we wound our way back to Watford Locks. On the continent you quite often see large barges with a car parked on top and narrowboats are frequently adorned with bicycles on the roof but we were quite surprised to see this chap bearing down on us. Must be quite a struggle to unload.

Keeping Mobile

Apart from that, our meander in the sunshine back down the Grand Union Leicester Line passed slowly, gently and delightfully, albeit with little more to remark on.

We’d been so taken with the deli cum butcher at Yelvertoft (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) that we’d slowed down – if that’s possible – and arranged to moor again on Tuesday evening back at Yelvertoft, ready for another assault on Wednesday morning. Which (it’s getting boring) again dawned crisp and bright,  and after a ten minute walk down the hill we reached the establishment at 10 o’clock, the time it was supposed to open. Ten minutes later there was still no one around: a call to the mobile number on the door established that the butcher was some way away getting his van fixed and might or might not be opening sometime after 11, depending on whether the part for said van arrived. A subsequent conversation in the post office elicited the remark that they didn’t know why he bothered to publish opening times on his advertising and web site, as basically he just opened when he fancied it. You can go off places surprisingly quickly…

Just before Watford Locks sir decided to jump ship for a constitutional, so after an early lunch we found ourselves number three in a queue that were already starting to go down, but would have to wait and be the first in the next batch, as there were three coming up who’d been waiting a while.

Watford Locks Queue

Mooring up properly, Captain and Cook went off for a decent wander, and after about 45 minutes we headed downhill (“White before Red – smack on the head”); there were another five in the queue behind us by then. (Incidentally, the bridge just visible in the picture at 2 o’clock from Song & Dance carries the M1, so not the quietest place to while away some time).

Once down, we made our way via Norton Junction back onto the Grand Union Main Line to Welton Wharf, just before Braunston Tunnel. Only about 2 miles from Daventry town centre, Google Maps suggested that the new housing estates had spread north, and there was a Tesco and a Boots in small parade of shops about three-quarters of mile from the bridge where we were tied up. In need of provisions from both supermarket and pharmacy we set off late in the afternoon: the Tesco shop was way smaller than you would have deduced from Street View and didn’t have much of what the chief cook required. And – having been reliably informed by t’interweb that Boots closed at 19:00 – were somewhat put out to arrive at 18:02 to find them locking up and be refused entry because they closed at 18:00. Obviously our day for opening/closing time hassles.

A discussion established that (a) we’d made a special trip down from the canal on the basis of their website and were marginally unamused, and (b) they’d told head office several times that the website was wrong. On the basis that we merely wanted something over the counter rather than a complicated prescription, they agreed to let us in, and we parted on friendly terms…

… only to get some way back to the boat before having a light-bulb moment, and on checking the bill, found that Tesco’s computer hadn’t done the biz on the “special offers”, and overcharged us by nearly £10. So back to the shops, and by the time we were back at the boat it was nearly dark… a frustrating day. Maybe the sunshine will come out again tomorrow.

Foxton Frolics

Sunday morning, and another beautiful day. The good weekend weather had been forecast and we expected there to be lots of traffic around, so decided there probably wasn’t really time to go down Foxton Locks and into Market Harborough, even though the latter boasted a Waitrose emporium for herself. A cruise to the top of Foxton to watch the fun and games before heading back South for Cropredy seemed a good move though.

Leaving Welford Basin, we swiftly arrived back at Welford Lock, to find a boat in front of us, but who wanted us to go first. Rather odd behaviour, to say the least. Turned out to be a pleasant elderly American couple who had left Market Harborough the day before, and made it up Foxton Locks and into Welford without actually having to work a lock themselves. This was their first, acknowledged they hadn’t a clue, and hoped that by watching us they could follow us successfully. So we leapfrogged them, giving the Operation of Locks 101 course as we went, then left them safely in the hands of another crew who by now had arrived to lock up.

Pump out, diesel and milk at Kilworth Wharf all sorted, – someone’s building another huge marina opposite the wharf – and we arrived at the top of Foxton locks mid afternoon, to be told “there’s at least six ahead of you”. So we just smiled, moored up just before the place we could wind, and went for a wander.

Foxton LocksFoxton Locks: side pond

It’s a favourite spot for gongoozlers, with cafés, pubs, a museum and quite a lot to see. The place was indeed packed with non-boaters as well as the boaters trying to get up or down.

Stuck in the middle with you...

There are 10 locks, arranged as two 5-lock staircases, with a short “passing” pound between them. We reckon this chap in the middle pound was waiting over an hour while the staircase above cleared down. The volunteer lockkeepers were certainly busy!

Foxton JunctionFoxton Junction

At the bottom lock there is the junction with the Market Harborough Arm – it’s the only place that comes to mind where there is a canal-side pub on both banks opposite each other.

Foxton Inclined PlaneFoxton Inclined Plane

The Foxton locks were such a bottleneck that they built an alternative way of climbing the hill: an inclined plane/boat lift. It didn’t last long (1900 to 1911), but they’re still talking about restoring it!

Near FoxtonNear Foxton

Getting away from all the furore, we turned round, headed South again and found some lovely moorings out in the sticks. Another boat was similarly inclined, and we realised we’d met before somewhere last year. Whio – named after an antipodean blue duck – was owned by a New Zealand couple who kept it at Aylesbury during their summer, and came over to cruise the system for several months during their winter. Sounds good to us. So we’ve met a Tasmanian chap and a New Zealand couple: wonder how many others from down under do the same.

Biggles dozing on the gunwale

Anyway, it was such a nice evening, even Biggles broke his usual rule when other people are around, coming out to say “hello” and pose.

A Wander Around Welford

After a restorative Guinness at The Wharf, a late afternoon walk into Welford village for some loo-rolls meant crossing the nascent River Avon and the county boundary back into Northamptonshire. A pleasant village with lots of different styles of houses, we were particularly taken by some barn conversions up the hill, with a superb view over the area, and some mediaeval ridge and furrows just out the back.

Welford Barn ConversionWelford Ridge & Furrow

Thatched Cottage, WelfordWelford ChurchGargoyles

The church had some odd gargoyles on the tower.

Fran meets an old friend 

And SWMBO met an old friend. No idea what he was doing there. Normal for Northamptonshire perhaps.

Safely back in Leicestershire, dinner at The Wharf proved suitably amenable, but walking back to the boat in the dark, it was definitely getting pretty cold, and clearly the nights are seriously drawing in. Winter draws on…

Indian Summer Cruising

Saturday, and the weather stays glorious: we seem to be having a real Indian Summer. The canal periodically closes in and the hedgerows are turning golden, and heavy with hawthorn berries, blackberries, rosehips and sloes: we really are in the season of mists and mellow whatsit-ness.

Welford ArmWelford Arm

Welford ArmWelford Arm

Turning off the Leicester section into the Welford Arm, and creeping through the narrow cut we arrived at Welford Lock. Not a very deep lock, but the first that several hire-boaters out of Market Harborough had had to work themselves, so a queue and chaos reigned.

Welford Basin & MarinaWelford Basin

Once sorted and up, the short section into Welford Basin and marina is the highest pound of all the parts of the Grand Union Canal system, at 421 feet above sea level. With space to moor up, a pub on the wharf called (shock, horror!) The Wharf Inn offering reasonable food, and lots of gliders whizzing around, this seemed like a good spot to stop for the night.

Brillat-Savarin & Old Spot Sausages–Wide Beams Need Not Apply

If it’s Friday, it must be Watford Gap Services. Just up from Norton Junction the canal, railway and motorway run closely side by side again, and the canal forms one boundary of that jewel in the crown of the British transport system, Watford Gap services. Last time we were here, you could moor up easily, hop over the low wooden fence, and avail yourself of the facilities (should you wish to). Nowadays, you still get motorway travellers hopping over the fence (despite forbidding notices to the contrary) to go for a walk along the towpath or fish, but the bank is much more overgrown, and mooring would be decidedly more of a challenge.

Moving swiftly on, we soon arrived at the bottom of the notorious bottleneck of Watford Locks. A four chamber staircase with two extra locks close in at the bottom and one at the top gives the volunteer lockkeepers a major scheduling headache, particularly when busy. And the staircase locks use side pounds, so you have to operate the red and white painted ground paddles in the correct order: “Red before White, you’ll be all right. White before Red: smack around the head.” seems to be the easiest guide.

“Come up the first lock, then wait in the pound above” said the man, so we did, and didn’t end up waiting too long.

The seven Watford locks, and the Foxton Locks (two 5 lock staircases – another bottleneck!) at the other end of the Grand Union Leicester section summit pound are both narrow lock flights. If the builders hadn’t been such penny-pinchers, and built the two flights with wide-beam locks, you could cruise a wide-beam boat from North to South or vice versa. As it is, there are two major wide-beam cruising areas, and ne’er the twain shall meet without a crane and lorry or a significant sea/tidal passage. And if they’d built the Northampton flight down to the River Nene with wide locks you could throw in the Nene, Ouse and Middle Levels too. Ah well. Perhaps today’s transport chiefs will learn from history. Pink Piggy Airlines, anyone?

Watford Locks

The locks were pretty busy, but with the volunteers around it didn’t take too long once we’d been given the (second) go-ahead and carry on uphill.

Watford Top LockBiggles checks out the facilities

At the top, we took the opportunity to take on second-hand books while Biggles went off to investigate the rubbish and waste disposal departments, and smiling ruefully at the queue to go down.

Battening down the hatches and donning cagoules, we were soon in the drippy and lengthy Crick Tunnel before emerging back into the sunshine and a delightful cruise through lovely countryside, with rolling hills, fields, fox coverts, woods and all the other sort of stuff. Too busy enjoying the scenery to take pictures, we ended up mooring near Yelvertoft.

Yelvertoft Skew Bridge

A late wander into the village for a pre-dinner drink, and we discovered a superb if tiny Butcher / Delicatessen that opened late on Fridays, and indulged: wonderful sausages from Gloucester Old Spot pigs, some Brillat-Savarin cheese that was just perfectly ripe, lovely Soda Bread to accompany, and some beautiful dry-aged steak too. Could get hooked on that place!

Roman Roads, High Speed Travel and Decision Day

Wednesday, and with the weather improving we headed up the Grand Junction/Grand Union Canal in the general direction of Braunston and/or Leicestershire. With a need to get back to Cropredy or similar by the first week of October, we weren’t sure how far we would roam before heading there, but until reaching Norton Junction no decision is required.

Where's the chicken wire?Rail and Canal

A trip into Weedon Bec for provisions, a nice and genuine village, notable if only for the first time this year we’d seen a thatched building without a hairnet of chicken-wire. Here the canal runs very close to the West Coast Main Line, with Mr Branson’s Incredibly Fast Trains whizzing past every few minutes. Mind you, if his railway bridge needs that many ties to hold it together, perhaps going by boat is safer. We managed to moor up in a short section of canal where the railway was the other side of a small hill, and the M1 hadn’t yet got too close.

There used to be an Royal Ordnance Depot at Weedon Bec which had its own canal feeder arm, and was rumoured to be a Royal bolt hole should Napoleon get his wicked way. The water and buildings are still there, but these days it’s an small industrial estate and the security guard wouldn’t let us take photos. Their website has some piccies, but the “24 hour manned security” was a pleasant but tiny slip of a young lady who would need to run around in a shower to get wet. Perhaps she had a big stick somewhere.

Between rail and motorway.Rail and Motorway

Thursday, and we were aiming for Norton Junction and somewhere hopefully reasonably quiet. For some distance the A5/Watling Street, the West Coast Main Line, the Grand Union Canal and the M1 all run close alongside each other.

Determined to take it easy now we were back on the canals, we moored up in short order for second breakfast near an out-of-town shopping village so SWMBO could indulge in some quick retail therapy.  In the first picture above you can make out the M1 traffic on the right, and the trains are just behind the trees on the left. In the second picture, taken from Watling Street, you can just about make out the railway gantries and the M1: the canal lies between the two. Not the best place for a peaceful mooring!

Flight planning in progressFlight planning over

On return the Captain was clearly hard at work with the flight planning computer working out our cruising options, but by the time we were ready to cast off he’d clearly had enough and reached a decision. We’d go up the Leicester Branch a little way before returning south to Cropredy. Onwards…

At the bottom of the Buckby Locks there was a fair amount of chaos, as a CaRT maintenance boat was apparently staying in the chamber and going up and down doing something while one boat at a time of the queue each side locked through round them. Eventually CaRT finished, and we teamed up with a Wyvern boat from Leighton Buzzard plus its friendly crew, and made short work of the seven locks in the flight. They were about three days out of Leighton Buzzard; we were about two and half months, but then we did detour a bit!

Buckby Top Lock/Norton JunctionBuckby Top Lock

The top lock is right by a pub and about 200 yards from Norton Junction, but all the nearby moorings were taken. Just round the corner from the junction on the Leicester Arm (note: decision taken!) there was – amazingly – a mooring suitable for Sir, and out of earshot of both railway and motorway. After such a long morning, the only option was a brisk walk back to the pub for a healthy late lunch (Guinness and Cheesy Chips) , followed by a well earned afternoon nap.

Post lock nap

Boat Jams and the M25

Sunday morning, and with a passable forecast we girded our loins and headed up the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union, tackling the remaining 16 locks in the Northampton Flight. It starts off easily enough meandering through the rural-ish outskirts of town, with a just a couple of locks. Then it reaches the M1, where it becomes the canal version of an express lift, with 14 locks and no respite. Ironic that you can see the Northampton Lighthouse if you can spare the time and energy to turn round.

They might be narrow locks (hooray) but having had it easy both engineering- and energy-wise for over a month, it was a struggle getting back into the swing of things, and the jolly old core muscles had a work out that they hadn’t had for ages.

Halfway up, one of the gates wouldn’t quite fully open, and despite just tentatively trying, we managed to get Song & Dance firmly wedged half in and half out of the empty lock. Cue much bad language, head scratching, engine revving and boat rocking before we managed to extract it, and retry with the (minimal) fenders up.

We’d hoped to get up to Gayton by lunchtime, but gave up and stopped in a lock for refreshments (very naughty, but no one coming), and by the time we’d pulled in at Gayton Marina’s visitor/service mooring to dump some rubbish and recycling, it was past three o’clock (there’s a song title in there somewhere). We also got a quizzical look from one of the marina staff when asked if we needed diesel anything, and we said “no thanks, we’re just dumping some rubbish and recycling”, then he asked slightly oddly if we needed any water while we there. With a “thanks, but we’re fine” we set off, and 200 metres down the canal, at the junction, we passed the Canal & River Trust waste disposal and water point that we should have been using. Sorry about that, chaps!

Shepherd's Pie for TeaStill with no idea of where we were going now we were back in CaRT territory, we turned right at Gayton Junction, and continued on up the Grand Union that we’d left nearly two months ago. A little further up, we bailed out for the night and were rewarded with a splendid sunset.

We stayed over all day Monday too because the weather was unspeakably wet, and came to the conclusion that – despite the weather – we’d somehow stumbled onto the narrowboat equivalent of the M25. From late afternoon on Sunday through to the evening of a guy dreich Monday we reckon we saw more narrowboats on the move than in the entire two months we’d spent heading down to Ely and back. And schools are back, too!

(Restaurant) English As She Is Spoke…

Pretty much the nearest restaurant to our Far Cotton mooring was a curry house called Baloo, in an unprepossessing street surrounded by convenience stores and Chinese  takeaways. The young Maître D was friendly, welcoming, interested in how we’d found the place, and spoke excellent English, as did all the other serving staff. Rather unusual in our experience of curry houses nationwide. As a bonus, the food was splendid, reasonably priced, and certainly deserving of the good Trip Advisor reviews.

On the other hand,  Andrea’s Restaurant, an Italian/pizza establishment in pretty much the centre of town, was staffed by two pleasant – if rather overstretched – waitresses who both seemed to come from Eastern Europe somewhere, with an absolute minimal understanding of English, let alone being able to speak it meaningfully. The food was fine, even if not what we thought we ordered, but with the communication difficulties we just smiled and said “Thanks”.

Even when travelling abroad, the staff in foreign restaurants regularly frequented by tourists usually have a slight grounding in at least understanding “restaurant” English (and/or French, German or Italian) even if you probably wouldn’t have much success trying to discuss the finer points of quantum electrodynamics or Jeremy Corbin’s rise to success. To have severe communication difficulties in English in a restaurant in the middle of a major English town seemingly catering to local English residents, it all seemed a bit surreal. Normal for Northampton, perhaps…

A Northampton Sojourn

Safely crossing the flood storage area on Tuesday morning, the pleasant Midsummer Meadows we’d passed outbound now seemed to be a vast building site. Turns out that they’re creating a new university campus on the other side of the river, and have started building a couple of bridges: it’ll be more meadow like again in the future. Maybe.

Mooring up at Becket’s Park just below the marina for a walk into town for lunch and shopping, on return we went into the marina, and spent the afternoon sorting out the boat waste and rubbish, and a shore line, and cranking up the washing machine, all in pleasant sunshine.

Wednesday, and the bo’sun’s mate headed for the station and home, while the housekeeper kept feeding and watering the washing machine. The weather turned unspeakable both in Northants and Berkshire (and pretty well everywhere else).

Thursday afternoon, laundry done and dusted, bo’sun back at the boat, and we waved goodbye to the marina for a last potter on the River Nene up through the Northampton Flight bottom lock, and onto the highly amenable moorings we’d discovered lying between Far Cotton and the town centre, on Canal and River Trust Waters. Farewell to The Nene.

Mind you, Biggles kept very low profile, in case we should feel the urge to whip him off to the vets again.

Mooring at Far CottonWash and Brush Up Time

Amazingly, it was the first time since staying on the Wendover Arm at the beginning of July that the port side of the boat had been on a suitable height and stable mooring with decent weather, so it was definitely time to give it a good spit and polish while the chef went off to stock up and sample the delights of Northampton’s shops and supermarkets.

There's just this one spot of warm sunshine...There's just this one spot of warm sunshine...

In fact the weather stayed fine but the boat was mainly in the shade, so staying another day, the Captain located the only spot of the boat basking in the sun while the bo’sun took the opportunity to repaint the blacking on the port side top plank, which had become a little disreputable. As they say, boating is a contact sport!

This spot may not be the most scenic, but graffiti free with very little foot or dog traffic, little traffic noise, 5 minutes from B&Q, 10 from decent supermarkets and restaurants and 15 from the town centre, it’s a pretty good place to catch up with supplies and boat chores and eat at some city centre restaurants for a change.

From Woodford to Washlands

Saturday morning, after rainy and windy night, and no smoky smell from the apparent conflagration, but we needed to be off. The housekeeper had decided that doing some laundry was creeping up the “To Do” list, and one of us needed to pop home briefly to collect the mail and do some other chores, so we’d tentatively arranged to hole up in Northampton Marina on Tuesday and Wednesday. The flight plan program said we were still several days away at our usual rate of progress, so opting for the easy way, we’d pretty much decided to retrace our steps via mooring places we’d already used. Almost immediately we came across a flotilla of paddle-boarders led by the lady we’d bumped into the night before… we told her that the fly-posting had been in vain, as her poster hadn’t survived the miserable overnight weather.

Working our way steadily up stream, lock by lock, taking turn and turn about, we managed to get tied up to the bank satisfactorily above Ditchford Lock, where we’d stopped on the way down. Increasingly of the opinion that it was about time Biggles did his share of windlass winding, Sunday went much the same way, and we had the Friends of the River Nene bit of bank near to the Water-Ski Park to ourselves.

Water Ski park

This time there were people falling in the water, and jumping on the trampolines, even though cold and miserable. We did, however briefly, get a splendid autumnal sky.

Autumnal skyAutumnal sky

In some places, the river was quite high after the overnight rains, and at least one of the locks didn’t really need top paddles… just a bit of patience!

High water level

Given the rather uninspiring weather, we’d pressed on and at one point thought we might make Northampton by Monday evening, but as the afternoon dwindled away it became wetter and windier. Faced with strong crosswinds and waves on the wide stretch of water with the delightfully romantic name “Northampton Washlands flood storage reservoir” we opted to moor up for the night before the “sea” passage. There are flood gates at each end which close automatically when things get sticky, presumably to avoid flooding Northampton.

Washlands mooringWashlands mooring

The moorings are not just floating pontoons, they clearly expect significant changes in water level around here! And only available until the end of September, so we kept out fingers crossed that we’d be OK overnight, despite the weather. The Captain wasn’t terribly amused at having to walk a long way uphill on a walkway to reach fresh ground, either.