Category Archives: Aviation

Ne’er Cast A Clout Until May Be Out

Not a terribly useful proverb this year! Up on the summit pound, it was positively Baltic. Setting out from Claydon on a 11 mile lock free cruise, we swiftly beat a retreat to The Wharf Inn at Fenny Crompton for a warming lunch: it’s a pub, restaurant, shop, hairdresser, launderette, and it’s really handy for the substantial Cherry Picker farm across the road.

May - maybeWarm enough for a walk

Even though the May was thoroughly out, a short walk had the Captain’s best friend in warm woolly knitted hat and gloves, warm fleece from the Isle of Skye, thick knitted outdoor jumper from the Isle of Harris, cotton top, T-shirt and heavens knows what else to keep the cold wind at bay. Michelin woman takes on the warm Oxfordshire spring evening…

Ladder Bridge (129)Ladder Bridge & Napton

Climbing up on the Ladder Bridge over the canal afforded a splendid view of Napton on the Hill disappearing under another ominous wintry looking cloud.


We’ve got quite used to large military helicopters hedge-hopping and appearing out of nowhere, and having spent a lot of time in the Scottish hills, so seeing fast jets flying below ground level is quite common.  Nevertheless, large transport aircraft training for nap-of-the-earth flying are a decided novelty… unconstrained by Rule 5 of the ANO this chap was decidedly low, but at least the cloud-base was not an issue and visibility was good here: more than can be said for the Dakota pilot near Banbury the other days.

The dreaded Antenna

And the summit pound is dominated by this radio mast, which the canal winds round and round, so a sunset view from the boat seems appropriate.

Take Me Back to the Black Hills…

Friday tea-time, damp, moored up just in time to avoid a proper soaking, hatches battened down, and we were warming ourselves up while watching the cloud base lowering to about 400ft and the wind picking up, when a loud noise startled all of us our of our post cruise lethargy.

Straight over the boat, scud-running under the solid low overcast at (at most) 300ft above the ground, was a Douglas DC3, a large old twin-engined airliner more often known as a Dakota. Hanging a smart left and right to avoid the Banbury housing estate, then barely clearing the ridge of hills that runs alongside the canal  from Banbury down to Adderbury it disappeared from view: we were holding our breath waiting for the bang and cloud of black smoke to appear over the ridge-line (and which fortunately never materialized).

It’s bad enough watching the helicopter heroes scud-running at low level in crap weather, but at least they can slow down, hover and if necessary land in a field. Can’t imagine what the Dakota driver thought he was doing or think of any close airfields to Banbury these days. Perhaps he was making an ill-advised visual recovery into Kidlington (sorry, “London Oxford Airport”), but military style nap-of-the-earth flying in an antique airliner is not only in direct contravention of Rule 5 of the Air Navigation Order, but downright suicidal, one would have thought. Quite discombobulating.

Tits and Boats and Planes

Moored up at the top of the Claydon flight of locks, not far from Fenny Compton and the lethal cider, the weather was still so nice that SWMBO went to walk off lunch while your scribe got out the deckchair and sat in the sun for a quiet read.

First interruption was a small party of Long Tail Tits moving down the hedgerow. For about five or ten minutes they chittered and squeaked no more than three feet from the chair. They really are very pretty little birds.

Next up was the unmistakeable sound of a vintage engine working hard. Turned out to be an old commercial tug plus butty carrying a full load of coal. They were destined for the Kennet and Avon! With the days getting shorter, and having to bow-haul the butty through the narrow locks, the K&A must be at least a week’s cruising away. And with all that crew on board, shipping coals to Newbury could hardly be a real commercial concern.

DSCF3473Coals to Newbury

Coals to Newbury

Finally, heard in the distance (twice) was what sounded like some seriously heavy metal going around or climbing out after a low pass at an air show. Couldn’t think of anywhere or anything locally, so went back to my book – only to hear a strange rumbling behind me…

And there, flying at not more than about 1000ft just behind the boat, was Vulcan XH558 herself, on one of her farewell tours. Always an impressive sight, it’ll be a real shame if they don’t find some way of keeping her flying. Being so close to Cropredy, it would be nice to think she could have even more farewell tours and gigs than Fairport Convention.

More afternoons should be like this!

Nipping Along to Napton

After a sunny Friday morning wandering around Braunston, the Captain decided that it was about time the crew had a recurrent line check, to ensure they were still safe to operate his boat. Decamping from his usual position in the cruise (fast asleep in the crew rest area or the bed) he settled down in the cockpit jump-seat to watch proceedings.

The Comfy SeatExam Nerves

The Comfy SeatAviation experts will note that – like all good jet captains– he had ensured that his crew seat had the super comfy lambs-wool seat cover option.

It was quite a short and undemanding line check along the straightforward and wide section of the Grand Union that connects the North Oxford Canal and the South Oxford Canal. Even so, the chief cook, whose sector it was, looked decidedly uneasy at being watched so carefully.

She needn’t have worried: with bright sunshine, no locks and nice scenery, the Captain soon decided all was well, and took his well earned crew rest.

Grand Union, near BraustonGrand Union, near Brauston

Now much more relaxed, we made short work of this section of the Grand Union, which is very picturesque with lovely views over the nearby countryside, even if some of the bridges are not only minimalist, but have clearly seen better days.

Napton junction (aka Wigram’s Turn) where you can go South to Oxford or North West to Warwick and Birmingham, has several large marinas in very close proximity, and several hire companies that turn their boats round on Fridays and Saturdays. With the fine weather forecast to continue over the weekend and beyond, by late afternoon there were boats everywhere, and at the junction itself chaos reigned. Good job the Captain was still asleep.

The Cook's Next HouseLeaving most of the chaos behind, we skirted Napton on the Hill, and moored just below the Napton flight of locks, right by a pub called The Folly, and underneath a house that SWMBO has been eyeing up ever since we stopped here last year. It’s a good spot to moor, as the pub is decent, and there’s a shop within easy reach that is decidedly a cut above the usual small remote village Post Office store.

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.

We’re Boating Backwards to Kittyhawk

Living – during the winter, at least – near Heathrow, we’re used to the almost constant appearance of airliners in the sky, either arriving, departing or overflying up high in the airways. Out in the wild flatlands of East Anglia (you can see why they build loads of airfields there during WWII) things are a bit different: you are well away from major civil airports, and the upper level airways that carry the transatlantic traffic North West and out across the Atlantic to North America.

We hadn’t noticed a great deal of anything while heading out over the Middle Levels to Ely, but there again, it was fast approaching August Bank Holiday Weekend. Heading back down the River Great Ouse from Ely was a different matter. With several nearby RAF airfields providing bases for the boys in blue and their USAnian brethren, there was hardly a moment during the day when you couldn’t see, or at the very least hear, one or more state-of-the-art fast jets passing high overhead, growling around.

As we passed back through back the Middle Levels they seemed to get lower and noisier: near March we saw several lower fly-pasts and something fast-ish seriously buzzed Upwell and Outwell (or maybe Outwell and Upwell).

Petering out as we approached Peterborough (no pun intended), moving on – as the River Nene wanders in an almost complete circle round Sibson airfield – the only aerial traffic was a steady succession of spam-cans, a couple of light aerobatic jobbies, and the occasional parachute dropping aircraft climbing out to rain people. In fact, moored at Wansford Station we saw a spam can doing basic aerobatics, and a shower of parachutists hosing down before  0830Z – must have stronger stomachs than Song & Dance’s crew at that time of the morning.

Moving away – eventually – from Sibson, the next day the only airborne traffic we noticed were a pair of Spitfires heading South (probably aiming for the Battle of Britain bunfight at Goodwood) and a De-Havilland Rapide (who was probably not).

The next day, all we saw was a biplane with the distinctive De-Havilland tail but wings longer than a Tiger Moth. With rumours on Facebook of a Fokker Tri-plane being spotted locally, at this rate we were fully expecting a visitation from Orville and Wilbur themselves by the end of the weekend.

It’s a Small World (Part 732)

Back from our train trip, the Captain was taking a constitutional, and we’d vaguely noticed a boat mooring up behind us. Somewhat surprised to hear a voice say “Hello, Biggles”, it turned out to be a couple of chaps on a narrowboat who we’d chatted for a while back in Elton, when we were both heading the other way. One was a cat lover, with a new British shorthair kitten at home and on his iPhone: probably why he remembered us. Since we’d pottered slowly down to Ely and back, they’d been all the way to Bedford and Cambridge, intent on covering serious mileage during their three week break.

It being a bit chilly, and well after whisky o’clock, we invited them in for a drink and a natter, as you do. Turned out the other chap was retired, but had worked for Raytheon and British Aerospace, and knew quite a lot about the Raytheon Premier I business jet that was for some years the bane of the bo’sun‘s life (in a past existence). Seems he was for some time an oppo and sidekick of another British Aerospace/Raytheon chap who we actually knew quite well. Over a couple of years the latter sold several Premier I jets to “Russian” outfits operating via a Jewish New York lawyer’s office, who wanted them put on the Bermudan or Cayman registry, and got the bo’sun to do some of the regulatory paperwork: a strange affair, but a mutually beneficial arrangement!

Breasting UpBiggles Jumps Ship

As they were catching the first train on the Sunday morning while we were merely going to watch it depart, we shuffled boats around and breasted up to allow room for the trip boat. Biggles decided that he might change boats for a while, but when we told him how much cruising time per day these chaps did, he decided to stay with Song & Dance.

Route March to March

Well, we made our 9:30 Thursday morning appointment at Stanground Lock, where Tina the Lockkeeper sold us a facilities key (the third one in our rapidly growing collection) and a special windlass, ‘cos their locks aren’t like anyone else’s either…

Stanground LockStanground Lock and Tina

Although the level change wasn’t much, the gloomy pen and huge industrial grade chains made the lock seem somewhat intimidating. Once off into the levels, it was clear we were in a different world.

Middle Levels: en route to March

Long, dead straight drains  or artificial rivers with high reed covered banks meant there was little to see except a big sky. We thought we might stop over for lunch in Whittlesey/Whittlesea of Straw Bear fame but the only mooring was occupied and somewhat far from town. Passing through the only self-operated lock we were likely meet, it was clear they were one of the most tedious on the system. 60 turns to raise or drop a paddle (or penstock, they call it hereabouts). And there are four on the lock. Both muscle and character building.

And on we went, and on, with nowhere to park, watching the boys in blue make a lot of noise overhead, and eventually made it to March, about 5 hours out from Peterborough – a long day for us.

March Visitor MooringMarch Visitor Mooring

The March mooring we found was well received by Sir, the shops were close, the Guinness was about £1.00 a pint cheaper than anywhere else so far this trip, and the nearest pub cooked superb steaks at about half the price of darn-sarf. Result.

March Baptist Church

Mind you, if the local Baptists admit to getting lit up at night, it probably has more to do with electricity than cheap beer…

Ecclesiastes 3:1 and the Wet Dog Shake

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

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

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

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

Strip Clubs, Floating Classrooms and Music Archives

We were rudely woken up on our moorings near Woolpack Bridge at Hayes by the arrival of a very large and rather odd widebeam barge with two outboard motors (!) clouting our rear end attempting to moor next to us. We’d had a surprisingly quiet night up till then: although only about two miles as the crow flies from Heathrow, we weren’t on the flight path, and well inside any downwind traffic. Didn’t hear a peep from any aircraft, nor the even nearer M4 and Paddington main line. Quite remarkable.

And just “halfway from Heathrow to Uxbridge” the only two establishments close to the bridge access were a Sky Sports Pub/Strip Club with an additional Lap Dancing establishment in the car park, and the strangely deserted brick warehouse, so foot and bike traffic on the towpath was minimal. The Woolpack is apparently one of the most famous strip clubs/pubs outside of Shoreditch, and apparently busiest at lunchtime. Go figure. Anyway, once we’d told the Captain that any pussy at the Woolpack probably wouldn’t be to his taste, he spent the time exploring the overgrown paths into the adjacent country park.

Emerging into the morning light, the driver (I use the word loosely) came up to explain that it was his large car tyre fender that had clouted us, not his boat. He then asked if we were staying the night, as his odd looking boat was a floating classroom, he had a second pick-up the next morning from the same spot, and preferred to leave his boat overnight near others who might keep an eye out for anyone who might try and break in to raid the bar. He then asked if we knew what the large brick outhouse was: he’d attempted to wind the boat there once, went aground, and attracted a large number of security chaps who thought he might be attempting to moor up on that side of the canal.

Woolpack Bridge mooring

And then his party arrived: a crocodile of about thirty kids, holding hands in pairs just like we used to do, all smartly dressed in school uniform, and not one over 5 years old. Given today’s sensitivities, no close up photos were taken, although we all thought they looked sweet and very multicultural. If you look closely you can see them in the distance.

And as we cast off for the delights of West Drayton and Uxbridge, a thought struck us. Why would a floating classroom for primary school kids have a bar?

And as for the brick outhouse: we’d already had a clue from signs down the canal a bit, pointing to “The Old Vinyl Factory”… we were in EMI territory. The old vinyl factory may now be a smart apartment block, but the new building (which Google Street Map shows as just having a entrance sign that reads “EMI”) would seem to be a repository for rare musical stuff – the EMI Music Archive, no less.