Category Archives: Aviation

Hats Off to Bramble Cutting

Having made it up to Orchard Marina Sunday night, the original plan was for one of us to take the car back home and catch a train back to Northwich. But after a rather disturbed night’s sleep (Orchard Marina is exactly where all Manchester Airport’s Easterly inbounds turn onto finals – all night), and the sun belting down again, making a quick escape seemed a better idea. There was also a possibility of some friends joining us through Harecastle Tunnel if the dates worked out.

Realising that we had unused and still valid Stoke-on-Trent to Northwich train tickets, a call to Festival Park Marina established that they would be happy to let us leave a car there for a week or two – much more convenient given Song & Dance’s position than either Northwich or Sunningdale. So a quick trip to the big Tesco to stock up was followed by driving down to Stoke – a mere half hour – and then coming back by train – a mere several hours – while the cook finished off some washing and prepared the boat for cruising. We even managed to locate the laid back marina manager and compelled him to settle up.

Orchard MarinaAnd so, at about 16:30 we set off (late even for us). Or rather tried to. One of the boats next to us – it arrived while we were away – was tied with a top rope to Song & Dance’s central roof cleat. Not uncommon when moored on short pontoons, it helps stop the far/loose end from wandering around in the breeze. Closer examination showed that it was only tied to Song & Dance. Not to its pontoon, the bank, or anything else. Odder still, the doors at the front and back were wide open, but no one was on board, and we hadn’t seen anyone all day.

We retied our neighbour to the boat on the other side – it had no other ropes to tie to the pontoon – and noticed that it appeared to be firmly aground. It was also firmly pressing Song & Dance against the tyres/fenders on our pontoon, wedging us in nicely and rendering us immobile. It took considerable power and rocking around to extract her, but we eventually made it out of the marina and turned South onto the cut. It was nice to be boating again, even if not in the direction we’d originally planned.

Twenty minutes later, as we crossed an open stretch of water – a “flash” where a salt mine had collapsed – a pleasantly brisk breeze sprang up from nowhere, and removed the steerer’s  hat. By the time we’d completed the “hat overboard” drill in a shallow spot with a tricky wind trying its best to make life difficult, the hat had sunk without trace, so with tears in our eyes we said a few appropriate words and continued.

An hour or so down towards Middlewich is a lovely mooring spot called Bramble Cuttings. An old abandoned quarry, on the opposite side of the canal from the towpath and inaccessible other than by boat, it is grassy, sheltered, equipped with some picnic tables, and room for about three boats. We’d spotted it heading North, and hoped there might be room for us on a lovely sunny afternoon. There was, and by six o’clock we were tied up, with the deckchairs out, the wine poured, and preparations afoot for an al fresco dinner were in progress. It’s a hard life. Seemed we were sharing the establishment with four dogs and a cat, but all were well behaved, so that was fine.

Bramble CuttingBramble Cutting

Bramble CuttingBramble Cutting

If the old rail-track tipper mechanism was connected to a Waitrose, it would be perfect.

Bramble Cutting

And even the picnic tables were from a sustainable source!

Lichfield Lorries, and Frazzled at Fradley

Waving goodbye to Hopwas, we headed for Fradley Junction to join the Trent & Mersey Canal. Making good progress on a sunny Sunday, we stopped for lunch at the end of the farm airstrip near Streethay Wharf that we discovered last time we passed this way.

Those sad enough to while away long motorway journeys by spotting offerings from the various “logistics” companies will find canal travel highly unrewarding, despite the frequent proximity to railways, motorways and main roads. However, there are one or two notable stretches where one can indulge this harmless eccentricity, one of these is just past Streethay Wharf, where the canal runs extremely adjacent to the A38 near Lichfield for a mile or so. In the twenty minutes or cruising along, we spotted 1 Eddie, 2 Norberts, and got a bonus point for a Fire Engine hammering along with full Blues and Twos.

With a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon in full spate, Fradley Junction was predictably mobbed with people and boats, so we pushed on up through the locks chaos as quickly as possible. On the way in to the junction we noticed a load of parked cars out in the sticks with a sign saying “Fred & Ethel’s wedding”  or words to that effect; passing the Kingfisher Holiday Park car park, that was wall to wall with shiny motorbikes all sporting yellow ribbons.

Once clear we were on our own, and twenty minutes later locked up through Wood End Lock to find we had the place to ourselves. Perhaps the ghost of Biggles knew we were coming and had scared off everyone else for the day. Anyway, with weather significantly better than when we scattered his ashes it was a pleasant and peaceful spot to raise a glass or two to the memory of our much missed late Captain.

Monday morning was equally sunny, and realising we were very low on milk, we decided to walk the mile or so back to Fradley Junction, and see if we could purchase some: there used to be a small shop there. Seems the shop only opens at weekends…

Still, a Guinness at the Mucky Duck, and first lunch at the Kingfisher Cafe (decent sandwiches, but just one Harley Davidson today) set us up for a wander round the conservation area / lake / converted side pond / fishing spot, which set us up for second lunch at the CaRT Visitor Centre Cafe (good cakes). No milk to be had anywhere, though.

RushesPond Dipping platformFradley Junction

On the way back, we noticed a rather fine Caterham sports car, and a Morgan that attracted Fran’s attention, both with “taps aff”, as our Scottish friends would say. It was certainly the weather for it.

Fradley JunctionFradley Junction

Getting back to the boat late afternoon and milk-less, the only thing to do was put on some more sun cream, and raise another glass or two to Sir, with something that didn’t need milk added…

Across the Summit Again

It rained a lot on Sunday night / Monday morning, but not enough to get terribly excited about. Expecting to stay put given the Met Office Yellow Alert, when we surfaced we found that the rain had stopped, and the wind blustery but not overly remarkable. Looking at the latest info, it was clear that the really bad stuff had missed us by about 50 miles to the East. Looked a bit grim back home though!

So, dry, but with overcast skies and fair old wind, we decided to set off, if only as far as The Wharf Inn at Fenny Compton to grab a pint of milk. As it happened, it wasn’t too bad boating, so we carried on, eventually mooring up near the radio mast that keeps appearing from different directions, and on Tuesday, in sunshine and warmer air we carried on the familiar route down Napton Locks to moor up right outside The Folly Inn. A May Day Steak DInner called!

As always seems to be the case crossing the summit, we saw something interesting flying (fairly) low level. This time it was a Douglas DC3 (Dakota). We’ve seen one around the Oxford Canal before: wonder if there’s one based at Kidlington or Coventry.

We’ve done this stretch quite a few times now, and there’s more blurb and some pictures from our 2016 trip here.

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 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.

Aliens, Aircraft, Jabs and Otters

Waving farewell to all the activities at Trent Junction, we chose our path carefully, and headed off down the River Soar. Initially very winding, with loads of fat bottomed girls and not a few Dutch barges too, we soon got to Redhill. The alien invasion seems to have temporarily stalled East of the river, but it’s still worrying.

Aliens at Redhill

This section of the Soar is right under the final approach for East Midlands Airport, and even if RyanAir were cancelling flights left right and centre, they were still piling into East Midlands. Actually that’s an unfortunate choice of words, as Kegworth, where we intended to stop for the night, was the scene of an infamous disaster that eventually caused major changes in commercial aviation training and operations.

The few moorings at Kegworth Flood Lock were occupied. Some people were returning to their two boats – Joss and Corniche – after visiting the shops, but were staying put to watch the Grand Prix (whatever that is). They were quite happy for us to breast up while we went shopping.

Needing to fill some prescriptions as well as the fridge, we climbed up the hill to the village, ducking each time Michael O’Leary’s finest swept overhead so low you could count the rivets, and we popped into the smallest Boots we’d ever seen. The delightful pharmacist didn’t need to check her stock – she knew immediately she’d got what we needed (we couldn’t easily return to collect if out of stock). And then said “while you’re here, would you like a flu jab – I can do it immediately”. We thought we were going to have to wait until we got home, or somehow make an appointment somewhere en-route. And then she sorted out a minor problem for SWMBO with something cheap and cheerful. Made a real change from some of the grumpy ones you come across.

Returning to the boat, somewhat concerned that it was getting late in the afternoon, and on some rivers suitable moorings can be difficult to find, we untied from Josh and carried on down a delightful section of the River Soar.

The chief otter spotter – a bit out of practice as it’s a while since we’ve been to Mull – was delighted to spot one just when we needed to. It seemed an opportune time to call it a day, and go for something to eat before watching the planes landing just a little behind us.

The OtterRiver Soar

Homeward Bound–Part the First

With everyone suitably repatriated onto the boat, we commenced a revisiting of our first year’s journey in Song & Dance, although with shortening and cooling days and largely indifferent weather, there was much less to write home about.

Tuesday night saw us mooring opposite the World of Wedgewood factory and visitor complex: the quartermaster’s first job was to tour the establishment stocking up on Christmas and Birthday presents of the bone china variety. As well as travelling this way on Song & Dance’s first proper cruise, we had been on this stretch of the Trent & Mersey canal many times before; Wednesday saw us tying up in Sir’s favourite spot just below the Star Inn at Stone bottom lock, and by Friday evening we’d reached Fradley Junction without any problems with the Captain disappearing. This success was celebrated by dinner in the well known pub The Swan (aka The Mucky Duck), which was surprisingly quiet.

Turning onto the Coventry Canal at Fradley on the Saturday morning, we stopped at Streethay Wharf for fuel: an interesting little spot with a novel approach to mooring boats: they’re randomly scattered over the cut up to three deep, and if there’s a queue for diesel…


Just beyond Streethay we moored up for lunch, then realised we were in the overun area of an airstrip we’d never noticed before, and kept our fingers crossed.

Staying on the Coventry Canal at Fazeley Junction, we stopped just short of Tamworth, and on Sunday morning stumbled on the Tamworth 10K Charity Run, which kept the towpath busy! They seemed to have a novel approach to stewarding.

Tamworth 10K RunTamworth 10K Run

Just  a bit further down, we wondered what this builder chap was doing filling his containers with canal water, when there was a perfectly good tap a few yards away at the lock.

Water Water Everywhere

The weather was by now so pleasant that we stopped for an al fresco Sunday lunch at the Samuel Barlow

Pub Lunch, The Samuel BarlowNeeds a wash & polish

Where's my lunch

… where Sir posed in the best place to ensure that everyone knew the boat needed a wash and polish, then demanded pudding. Fran and Biggles had stayed here for a couple of days on the first cruise, due to a funeral your scribe had to attend. Pub seems to have changed hands since then. Eventually, a post-prandial cruise saw us mooring up on the outskirts of Atherstone after a busy week.

Vampires, Teeth, Visitors and Chores

If it’s Monday it must be Nantwich… and an early phone call provided details of a local dentist who could slot the navigator in for a repair later that morning. Meeting up with the head gardener afterwards, lunch at a charity creperie (a new one on us: food amongst the hand-me-down clothes racks), a wander round the shops and a visit to a local vet to collect some of Sir’s special diet, and the day soon passed.

Our peace and quiet was somewhat rattled by two Vampires in close formation flying low over the boat. T’Interweb suggests there’s only one airworthy example at the moment, so either the FOs aircraft identification skills are getting worse and one of them wasn’t a Vampire, or he’s seeing double. Maybe one was a Venom. Or they’ve got another one flying.

We’d had a communication from the Captain’s favourite standby staff, saying that they were going to be heading from North West Wales back to Windsor on Tuesday, and would like to call in en-route to pay their respects, so we ended up staying another night in Nantwich: technically overstaying, but the CaRT chap we spoke to didn’t seem that bothered.

Our friends duly arrived on Tuesday for a snack lunch at the local marina cafe, before departing late afternoon to do battle with the M6 and M42. Rather them than us.

Wednesday morning, and we left Nantwich Aqueduct, turned the boat round and headed back up the Shropshire Union; we waved at the Llangollen Canal as we passed Hurlestone Junction again, and  turned Right at Barrbridge Junction onto the Middlewich Branch. We were now back where we’d planned to go, and were on unfamiliar territory. We also hadn’t decided where we were going after that, but never mind.

One thing we had decided was that the laundry mountain was beginning to reach crisis levels, so we’d booked ourselves into the Aqueduct Marina near Church Minshull for the night, to plug in Song & Dance and get some washing done. It really is a lovely spot, and the marina certainly has splendid facilities, including a decent cafe, serious league chandlery, superb showers and so on. It is also eye-wateringly expensive as marinas go, and renowned for it, seemingly. Ah well, never mind. At least we got the washing done, and stocked up on some boat bits.

Mind you, we nearly didn’t make it. At a lock some way before the marina, there was quite a queue, and it was hot and sunny, so while we had lunch on the hoof, moving down the queue, the Captain decided to go walkabout, disappearing down a steep overgrown hedgerow loaded with barbed wire. By the time we’d got to the front of the queue, there was still no sign, so we tied up and waited. And waited. And… about 14:45 he strolled nonchalantly across the towpath, jumped aboard and investigated his food bowl.

As a result, it was actually about 16:30 before we were properly ensconced in the marina. If we were going to make serious inroads on the laundry and make the most of our extortionate overnight mooring fee, we clearly weren’t going anywhere further until quite late on Thursday!

Peace, Quiet, Buzzards and “Heritage”

After the hustle and bustle of the Llangollen Canal, and Ellesmere  gift shopping, we’d set our sights on a few days peace and quiet on the Montgomery Canal, which heads for eight (navigable) miles down from Frankton locks. Due to a nasty outbreak of great crested newts, the nature conservation people’s rule is strong, and there are significant restrictions on the number of boats.

Assuming you can actually get through to CaRT – a miracle in itself – passage has to be booked through Frankton Locks in advance, and you have to transit between 12:00 and 14:00, so we left Ellesmere on Thursday morning after another quick whizz around Tesco (the Montgomery’s a bit remote), expecting to get to the top lock just after the initial 12:00 rush. The third trip back along this by now familiar section this year passed smoothly enough, and we arrived at Frankton about 12:45 only to find a large queue of boats. Oh well – lunch on the hoof again, holding the boat on a rope!

Once down the four Frankton locks (the first two are a staircase) and past the Western arm – a favourite mooring spot – the other traffic had seemed to vanish. We suspect most people just belt down to Queen’s Head, have a late lunch or early dinner at The Queen’s Head pub, then head back again. Fools. We pottered gently down a delightfully rural canal with lovely views across the countryside, and moored up at Perry Aqueduct – a favourite mooring spot of ours. There’s only room for one boat either side, and we had the place to ourselves.

Perry Aqueduct mooringPerry Aqueduct mooringPerry Aqueduct

Friday morning, and the sun was shining, so some bramble picking was called for before setting off for Queen’s Head. It’s not all that long since Queen’s Head was the limit of navigation, but you can go a bit further these days. Stopping for lunch, we decided the moorings – next to two busy roads – were a bit too busy for the Captain, and headed off again. One of the roads leads back to what was once Rednal Aerodrome (now an industrial estate, we think),  and on an earlier exploration by road to see if the runway looked useable (some years ago), we counted 17 buzzards riding the sunny day thermals over the tarmac; it’s still seemingly a feature of this stretch of canal that one is never out of sight or earshot of a buzzard or three.

Approaching Aston Locks it was clear that there was a volunteer working party painting everything in sight. With wet paint everywhere, we graciously allowed them to work the locks for us.

Painting Party - Aston LocksPainting Party - Aston Locks

They were painting everything black and white, just like the Llangollen Branch of the Shropshire Union, so we asked the chap in charge if he knew why the Shropshire Union Main Line balance beams were painted grey. Apparently our wild speculation wasn’t that wide of the mark. During the war, the canal company ran out of black paint, and their sister railway company had a serious excess of grey paint, so they “borrowed” that. There was so much that by the time supplies actually ran out it had already become a “tradition. It’s now part of the canal’s “heritage”, and they have to keep painting it grey.

Not far beyond Aston Locks one comes to Maesbury Marsh: a much quieter spot to pass a day or two.

Maesbury MarshMaesbury MarshMaesbury Marsh

The old warehouse on the wharf is now The Navigation Inn and proved to be a fine homely and welcoming local pub, as well as a splendid spot for a piggy dinner. Or rather a cow dinner – a very nice steak.

The Milk Run

We knew wanted to go back to Slimbridge, were 99% certain we weren’t going to head down the Severn Estuary to Portishead and Bristol even though weather conditions had been clement, and we needed some milk… Sharpness was calling. The cruise down alongside the River Severn didn’t take long, and we were soon moored up at Sharpness Junction. That’s where there’s the old arm that leads to the original basin and lock down onto the river. Proceeding any further would have taken us into the docks themselves, and needed 24 hours notice (presupposing we were heading down the Estuary).


Severn at SharpnessHere’s the old basin and lockkeeper’s cottage, and a photo looking down the old lock exit. The river was at high tide and running fiercely. If you click on the picture and enlarge it you can see the flowing area. If we ever needed confirmation that this wasn’t the place for a unseaworthy narrowboat without a qualified pilot, this was it!

Sharpness DocksSharpness Dock

Sharpness Low Bridge

Although little large ship traffic goes up the canal to Gloucester these days, a wander round the docks showed plenty of activity.

Sharpness LockSharpness Lock

This is now the lock / basin leading down to the river from the docks proper: the gates at the far end can only open around high tide, so all movements have to be planned. It all makes Song & Dance look very small.

Quick GetawayKeep Out

Not sure why this boat carries its own helicopter… it would be more useful if had some rotors. Perhaps it’s a early prototype for the Super Puma (he said, cruelly). And while we often see electric fences for keeping animals in place, this one seems a bit OTT.

Flower BasketCrane Farm

Having located the shop and pub (miles from where we were moored) and purchase the milk, wandering back Fran decided she’d found the perfect hanging basket for home. There also seemed to be a crane factory, as well.

Sharpness JunctionLow Tide

And when Song & Dance hove back into view, we’d clearly been long enough for the tide to go out.

We’d heard, anecdotally, that most of the 60 or so small boats that transit the estuary per year did it from Bristol/Portishead to Sharpness. As such a trip may well involve waiting days for the right combination of tides and weather, we now understand why, and resolved there and then that if we were going to do it, we’d start from the Kennet & Avon. With nothing to keep us at Sharpness, we turned the boat around and headed back for Slimbridge and Gloucester.