Monthly Archives: April 2018

Cold as Claydon: The Unquiet Canal

We were itching to be off on our journey North, but Sunday dawned a bit dour and chilly. But the forecast for Monday was awful – torrential rain, gale force winds and cold to boot. So to put a peg in the ground so to speak, after filling Song & Dance with fuel and water, and unfilling the unmentionable tank, we noted the mileage on our car (which we were leaving behind) and said our good-byes to the chaps at Cropredy.

The wind wasn’t as bad as the previous time we’d left (gosh – was that really nearly a fortnight ago) and we exited the marina without heeling over or any undue drama. There was a fair bit of boat traffic about, and we stopped for lunch after three locks, before tackling the five in the Claydon flight climbing up to the summit pound.

By the time we reached Claydon Top Lock it was windy, and absolutely freezing: 20 degrees colder than the same time a week ago. The weather’s gone crazy.

We’d noticed a few swallows had arriving a few days ago, but the ones at Claydon Top Lock really looked as though they wished they hadn’t. Quite a few just perched the edge of the lock looking miserable, barely bothering to get out of our way; a few made desultory flits over the water but there was nary an insect in sight. Hope they make it through the next few days. Strangely, we haven’t seen any Martins yet – just swallows.

Turned out several other boats had made it to the top before tucking up for the night; none of us expected to move on the Monday and we all battened down the hatches. Last time we spent the night near here (a couple of years ago) it snowed.

The Boring Bit–What a Difference a Week Makes

Leaving Banbury just after the banks opened, we were tucked back up in Cropredy Marina by Friday lunchtime, and connected to the mains… the laundry fairy was soon hard at work. And we were glad to be tucked up too – it was cold and wet and miserable.

A power cut Friday night meant things didn’t progress quite as fast as normal, and Saturday was also spent going round not just the enormous Tesco, but the trendy New Waitrose (as the road signs say). And then, a sucker for punishment, I wandered round the DIY sheds looking for bits and pieces.

And the weather was again cold and damp and windy. What a contrast to the previous weekend. Anyway, we got lots of stuff done, ready to venture North on Sunday. We wanted to make a getaway, as the forecast for Monday was absolutely dire. Welcome to Spring!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Oxford Canal

The plan (ha!) was to get back to Cropredy Marina for the weekend, where we could use the car to do a major supermarket and sheds shopping exercise while thrashing the washing machine, leaving us all set to start North. This meant we had a decent distance to go from Thrupp, so we were going to pretty much just reverse our trip down, rather than pootle along slowly like we usually do. Consequently we ended up mooring up just above Upper Heyford – by Double Bridge this time. It was noticeable that the warm weekend had dramatically brought on the rape fields dramatically: going down they were green just starting to yellow; coming back up they were fully in their rather acid yellow “glory”. Prefer green grass, I must say (and not just because you really don’t want to try a forced landing in a rape field, however smooth it looks). And when the sky’s glowerin…

Weather Closing In 

Thursday we were aiming for Banbury, so without much ado, we passed through Aynho Weir Lock onto the Cherwell, and under Nell Bridge into Nell Bridge Lock, back up onto the canal. Whereupon we picked up a hitchhiker. Didn’t even ask or stick a thumb out!

We’d had the odd duck on the roof while moored up, and sometimes heard webbed footsteps padding around at night. But we were surprised when a pied wagtail landed on the roof while we were underway leaving the lock. He stayed for a couple of minutes, flitting off the side now and then to try and catch an insect before reversing in mid air back to the boat. Our ghast was well and truly flabbered. As we approached the Pig Place he left us, presumably knowing that we were going in search of items of a porcine variety. They were decorating the mobile kitchen, so no bacon sarnies though. Mutter mutter.

After lunch, after going under the M40 and locking up through Kings Sutton Lock, another pied wagtail (or maybe the same one, but we’d come some way) alighted on the roof. Spent several minutes exploring the roof, coming right back near us, with occasional flits off the side for a few feet before returning. Stayed with us for over half a mile – quite amazing.

And then, sometime later, we saw a house sparrow on the gunwale, doing the same trick. He didn’t stay long, but something is clearly going on. Don’t have a avian hitchhiker for years, then three in a day? I blame the Tory government. Or global warming.

Coming into Banbury, as we had speculated on the way down, the diggers had already moved into the nice but now fenced fields, and had already dug up a huge amounts of earth. Ah well, that’s progress.

In the spirit of reversing the trip down – we moored up in exactly the same point in the middle of Banbury. Only pointing the other way…

What a Difference a Day Makes

The nip in the air coming home from last night’s gig wasn’t a figment of our imagination. Monday was overcast and cold, in complete contrast to the weekend. Sue left for the station short order, as she had to get back to Southampton, wash her morris uniform, and get back out again to dance in Odiham in the evening. Some people have it bad!

We soon set off too, as we had an appointment in Thrupp on Tuesday morning with Mark Paris, a Boat Safety Scheme Surveyor. Yup. Song & Dance is nearly 4 years old!

The winding hole on the Oxford Canal proper is eight feet too small for Song & Dance. So, locking down onto Castle Mill Stream/The Thames (technically needing an Environmental Agency licence – oops) we quickly locked back up again before anyone noticed. Then, pausing only for a croissant and coffee at the excellent Hayfield Deli right on the canal, before averting our eyes from the Agenda 21 dwellings, we soon escaped Oxford, noticed that the red board at Dukes Cut Junction had gone, and were soon passing Mark’s boat in Thrupp before finding a mooring right outside The Boat Inn. How convenient!

The Boat Inn, Thrupp

Anyway, it was so cold and miserable, we decided that we’d better eat there – not a hardship. And later we saw Mark playing cribbage in the bar, so kept our fingers crossed that he won, and would be in a good mood.

Shortly after we’d arrived, Joss turned up. We’d spent a week or more crossing paths with them and their mates in Corniche back in September while coming down the River Soar and Leicester section of the Grand Union. Last week, we’d passed them moored in Banbury on the way down to Oxford: this year they were heading to the Kennet and Avon, but all the Thames red boards and a poorly dog had caused them to delay for several days in Banbury while we hit the fleshpots of Oxford. With dog and river sorted, they’d obviously decided to move on now, as they came into Thrupp shortly after us. More catching up to do!

The next morning Mark arrived, spent an hour or so prodding and poking around the boat and testing the gas and stuff before pronouncing himself satisfied. A couple of very minor issues that need addressing but that’s us all legal for another 4 years. We celebrated by going for a walk in the Thrupp Community Woodlands by the Cherwell in the cold and rain before retiring for tea and cakes at Annie’s Tea Room before a cosy evening “at home” on Song & Dance.

Fake Morris, Furrows and Welsh Elves

I’m afraid that we can’t escape Morris dancing. Real people can skip this post.

An early start on Saturday morning had our friend and morris dancer Sue arriving from the station weighed down by TWO morris outfits. Some people don’t know when enough is enough. Still, at least it was sunny, and on the way to being seriously hot for the time of year. Jam today! The Red Queen will be turning in her grave. Rather different to dancing in the snow, like a couple of years ago.

Jackstraws, Ashmolean Museum

First up was the Ashmolean Museum. You might think that Jackstraws had forgotten their hankies and their sticks, but this dance was actually sponsored by government cutbacks. It also cunningly disguises the fact that Shirley had forgotten to bring some kit for country member and sister Chris. Good job she had a Jackstraws T-shirt.

Basingclog MorrisBasingclog Morris

Basingclog Morris seem to appeal to both the young and the – errm – slightly more mature dancers. And no morris display would be complete without the ever-young octogenarian Bob Prince lurking in the background.

Jackstraws, Oxford Botanical GardensJackstraws, Oxford Botanical Gardens

After lunch, it was the first time Jackstraws had danced in the Botanical Gardens, which was a nice spot apart from the rather unsuitable loose gravel dancing surface. And when numbers are short, dances for four-up are definitely a good move.

Brackley Morris Men

As well as dancers and musicians, Brackley Morris Men seem to have a Morris Dog too. Seen horses, cows and fools, but not seen a dog before: wonder if they come under the same rules as other assistance dogs. Perhaps they can warn of anyone likely to suffer ill effects or emotional outbursts from an outbreak of unnecessary Morris Dancing,

Oxford Botanical GardensOxford Botanical Gardens

After all that, a late afternoon coffee watching the stunts of the punts on the river, and a wander round the gardens, we adjourned to the boat. With the girls spruced up, we were all too tired from all that sun and exercise for a ceilidh, and retired to the Lebanese Restaurant across the bridge in Jericho for the third year running, for some decent food and some nice wine courtesy of the late Serge Hochar.

Sunday was again nice and warm. Sue whizzed off in her different kit, followed by us… not quite sure where the day went: strolling around Oxford tripping over Morris and other dancers of all shapes sizes and varieties. To avoid causing offence, there are no photos of the Belly Dancers, even if this lot seem rather less bellied than last year’s. And I was frankly appalled to discover that the Outside Capering Crew’s Bacca Pipes dances used fake pipes made of copper tubing painted to look like clay. No wonder they never seem to break one.

Having travelled down through Oxfordshire, where the old Ridge and Furrow mediaeval agricultural system is often still highly visible at the edge of the canal, it only seemed appropriate to finish the weekend by going to see  the excellent Furrow Collective, who weren’t as a loud as False Lights, despite Alasdair Roberts’ electric guitar. We were also very taken by the support act, a Welsh trio called Elfen (with the emphasis on Fen).

And after a gloriously warm and sunny weekend, we noticed a decided nip in the air as we walked home at about 22:30. Milly M and Bones were still tied up at the end of the cut  at Hythe Bridge, having overstayed the 48 hours, just like Song and Dancei  and Mallard (a fellow morris dancer) a few hundred yards down. Seems par for the course at Oxford Folk Weekend.

False Fears and False Lights

Setting off again in bright warm sunshine – we could get to like this – we were soon at Dukes Cut Lock/Junction, where there was a genuine Red Board warning us about the Thames, but t’Interweb suggested that things were improving rapidly even though we’d seen very little traffic.

Ploughing down through Wolvercote and the Agenda 21moorings (read floating “ecological” slum), we arrived at Jericho to find a mooring – on proper rings – right where we wanted it. Our worries were found-less.

After taking advantage of the sunshine to touch up some paintwork and a spot of lunch, we headed into Oxford centre to sort out some tickets and stuff. After an hour of wandering around the city centre, the cook noticed she was missing a much-loved earring. Another three-quarters of retracing our steps led to her heading back to the boat “just in case” to see if the earring was there while I went off to get some tickets. The missing item was on the floor of our bedroom on the boat. Walking around a busy city centre shopping area with your eyes glued to the pavement and gutter is an interesting experience. Not.

Mind you, one little mystery was solved. As you walk from the Jericho moorings into town, you reach Isis Lock letting down onto the Thames, and a small arm of the Oxford Canal continues for about 500 yards past residential boats to a small basin at Hythe Bridge where there are a couple of 48 hour visitor moorings. It’s a busy, noisy spot right by the main road; the water is full of “end of waterway” rubbish and litter; you probably need a gang plank to access the shore; and in the absence of a winding hole, you either have to reverse down the 500 yards or reverse back when you leave. We’ve never bothered, and rarely see anyone else down here. But tied up were Milly M and Bones. Obviously sloped off for a weekend together…

Actually, we’ve bumped into Maffi in Oxford Cornmarket on previous Folk Weekends, and he has a boat full of guitars so perhaps he’s a closet folkie.

Anyway, with earring restored and tickets purchased, we went off to see Sam Carter and JimDoug in their folk rock band False Lights in the splendid Wesley Memorial Church. They were loud. The PA struggled. And so to bed.

What a Difference a Year Makes

Coming down this stretch of canal the last few years at the same time, one can’t help notice the differences. Two years ago, the hedgerows were alive with birdsong, and noticeably a robin in every hedge, and much the same last year. This year things were much more subdued, with hardly a robin or sparrow in sight. I guess the long and cold winter has seriously affected survival. A greater proportion of goldfinches, blackcaps and chaffinches than before, and fewer sparrows. Overall, numbers seemed significantly down. We’ve yet to see a coot or any mallard chicks.

However, we did spot a ring-necked parakeet as we came out of Banbury. Never seen one up here before, even though they are loads at home. Pests really: they are really irritatingly noisy, The new inhabitants of outer Banbury will doubtless enjoy them at first, and then change their mind.

Saw several yellowhammers at various spots too. But don’t tell SWMBO, because if that “yellow bird” song becomes her earworm like last time I pointed one out, we may have to abandon the cruise prematurely

Anyway, setting off from Upper Heyford in sunshine that was becoming noticeably warm – maybe the Met Office was right for once – we once again started noticing that joyful noise of commercial pilot trainees practising single engine approaches and go-arounds at Kidlington Airport, which  – with delusions of adequacy – wishes to be known as London Oxford Airport. My knees promptly ached in sympathy. Another unusual noise – not often heard in UK skies – was a Piaggio Avanti. It’s a relatively modern turbo-prop that flies as almost as fast and high as many biz-jets, but at a much reduced operating cost. The airports tend to mutter about them though. Although they meet all the latest jet noise constraints and requirements, the engine exhaust gets chopped up by the pusher propellers, giving it a rather unusual sound quality that provokes “disgusted of Kidlington (or London Oxford)” to phone the tower to complain…

Madam decided it was warm enough for shorts, we had our first outdoor Guinness at the Rock of Gibraltar pub, and passing through Thrupp managed to say “hello” to Mark Paris in his boat (of whom more later), before mooring up just below Kidlington Green Lock – a good jumping off spot for the final trek into Oxford tomorrow.

We’d noticed several free mooring in Heyford and Thrupp, and quite a bit of the Thames was coming off red boards, so maybe our fears of finding space in Jericho tomorrow would prove unnecessary. In fact, talking to another crew moored next to us, they said they’d brought their narrowboat up the Thames from Walton-on-Thames without any trouble at all (on red boards all the way). Mind you, it’s easier going upstream, even if the stretch round Osney and Jericho is always the last to clear.

Passing through Heyford, we’d noticed that Bones, a narrowboat owned by Mortimer Bones, who has a regular column in one of the canal magazines was missing, as was Milly M, a narrowboat owned by local character Maffi Oxford, missing from its usual spot at Thrupp. However, another Heyford resident – the small Shetlander tupperware lunchbox cruiser called Clarrie Grundy looked even more unloved and sadder than usual. Apart from wondering who on earth would call their boat Clarrie Grundy, we wondered if this was a subtle form of nominative determinism…

Anyway, with 11.5 miles and 8 locks, another long day, even if the warm sunshine made it seem easier.

A False Dawn and a Dead Tree

They’d been forecasting warm and sunny – hot even – for several days, so awaking to glorious sunshine we wondered if they’d got it right for once, especially as  the lovely weather was always going to be “the day after tomorrow”.  (The Red Queen has nothing on these Met Office chappies). Anyway, Wednesday morning was fine, dry and not terribly windy – but still chilly. With a deadline for getting to Oxford, after a very quick whizz round the shops we were off.

LTC Rolt Bridge, BanburyBanbury Lock

There was still plenty of water around, as witness the excess flowing over the top gate at Banbury Lock. I guess there’s no bywash / culvert here. The Thames was still pretty well solidly on red-boards too when we checked first thing.

DSCF6775Banbury Oak

Once clear(ish) of Banbury heading South, there is a nice stretch of open green fields on the Starboard side falling away down from the Adderbury road. Favoured by dogwalkers, with a couple of lift bridges to decorate the view, a few years ago Biggles used this as his swimming pool. Anyway, this year a huge area had been surrounded by temporary six-foot high fencing. “Reckon this will be a huge housing estate soon” we remarked to each other…

Stopping for a brief lunch near Twyford Wharf, we pressed on…

Fortunately, we were able to get under Nell’s Bridge – it’s at the exit of Nell’s Bridge Lock where the canal locks down onto the River Cherwell for a bit, and if there’s been a lot of rain the headroom can be somewhat limited. It had been impassable for a day a few days ago, so that was one hurdle out of the way!

Owl TreeThe first time we came down this way, we moored by this tree, which had a resident owl which we spent quite a time watching. We’ve always called this spot “The Owl Tree” but may not be able to much longer – it seems to be dying fast, and have never seen an owl here again!

Through Aynho, then Somerton Deep Lock – always an experience – we ended up tying up for the night just outside Upper Heyford, near a bridge called “Single Bridge No. 202”. (The next one’s called Double Bridge No. 203).

Single Bridge 202 Still sunny, but cold, we’d covered 11.5 miles 7 locks and a lift bridge or two. A long day for us, and another one beckoned!

Yes, We Have No Peewits

Realising as we left Cropredy that the timetable for reaching Oxford was the same as last year (i.e. somewhat limited if we were leaving on the Tuesday and wanted to be in Oxford by Friday lunchtime) we decided that we’d have to get to Banbury before packing up.

Not far from Cropredy is an establishment called Peewit Farm  – it’s a pleasant stretch of the canal where we’ve moored on several occasions, although rather blustery on this occasion. And as always, we’ve never seen a Lapwing near there, even though we’d seen several in the rather wet field adjoining Cropredy Marina this year.

But every time we’ve been past the farm, we’ve heard or seen Curlews, which is odd, as we don’t really think of them as Oxfordshire birds and they’re sadly on the Red List. Seems the RSPB has being trying to change that, and maybe Peewit Farm is due for a change of name. Anyway, yet again we were treated to a Curlew flypast, so far keeping up the perfect score…

With this stretch of the Oxford Canal becoming rather familiar over the years, we didn’t hang around, and hurried into Banbury, eschewing the fresh bread smells of the moorings by Spiceball Park and planting ourselves right in the middle of the Castle Quay shopping centre, ready for a quick shopping expedition before heading off long-haul tomorrow.

Cold, tired and windswept, dinner at Pizza Calzone beckoned… and this time, NO starters. (The portions are – sufficient, shall we say – and last time we ate there, we made the mistake of each having a starter. It’s the only time we can remember needing TWO doggie bags).

This boating is hard work when you’re not used to it!

Exits Stage Right, With Gusto

Well, there’s one advantage – dammit – in not having our Captain to command our cruising. It means that relocating everything from winter quarters to the boat is rather easier, and we can get everything in one car load, rather than shuttling too and fro twice.

As the ship’s Morris Dancer is – yet again – dancing at the Oxford Folk Weekend, the initial plan is to high-tail it down to Oxford and spend the weekend in Jericho, doubtless with our friend/Morris dancer Sue in residence too. This is rapidly becoming a tradition…

Mind you, this plan is in severe jeopardy, as with all the rain the Thames has been on Red Boards (un-navigable) for weeks; we had exactly the same problem a couple of years ago (see The Best Laid Plans  and Jericho Woes).

Anyway, leaving home late Sunday morning, we were buoyed with the promise of nice weather later in the week. But until then, the unremitting dull, damp and cold weather continued unabated. It was Tuesday morning before we were remotely ready to set sail (as it were) and had said our “goodbyes” to the Marina chappies. By which time the promised nice weather now might arrive on Wednesday, but Tuesday was cold, intermittently wet, and a stonking Southerly wind was gusting around.

The marina is a large open chunk of water aligned  North-South. Song & Dance was moored on a pontoon facing West; to exit the marina required an Easterly course through a narrow channel. This meant somehow backing Song & Dance (a 58ft long sail in these circumstances) out into the middle of the marina, then turning it 180 degrees to attempt to exit the marina.

Broadside on in the middle of the open water, a gust caused the boat to heel over enough to hear crashing crockery noises from the galley, but somehow turning around and heeling the other way seemed to put everything back – at least nothing was found broken.

We finally made it out of the marina onto the cut, where it was a bit more sheltered, and hoped that things would improve…

To add insult to injury, as we approached Cropredy Lock five minutes down the cut, the wind dropped briefly and the sun came out for all of two minutes.