Category Archives: Wildlife

Duckling Rescue

Moored pretty much where the Macclesfield canal crosses over the Trent and Mersey canal before joining it from the “other” side, you wouldn’t guess we were right in the middle of Kidsgrove.

Poole Aqueduct run off - Macclesfield CanalBy Poole Aqueduct

Just opposite was a run-off control/weir system. Excess water runs over, and there’s an enclosed shelf about five feet below or something. Before leaving to worship at the local 24 hour Tesco cathedral, we’d noticed a couple of families of mallards (two adults, and numerous ducklings per pair) straying perilously close to the weir.

On our return, the adults were there, paddling up and down in a most agitated manner, and there were distressed noises from below: clearly the ducklings had sailed over, and were stranded on the ledge below. Occasionally an adult would drop down, then reappear flapping wildly after conducting what’s known in aviation as a “short field take-off”, but the ducklings had yet to complete their first solo so they were there to stay.

It didn’t really seem like a job for RCR or the Coastguards, but fortunately, a couple were walking a dog that side of the canal, and wading through the long grass went to have a look. Our hero took one look, rolled up his sleeves and trouser legs, and climbed down the access ladder. Over a period of ten minutes – doubtless trying to catch them – numerous ducklings were unceremoniously lobbed over the lip into the wings of their devote mums and dads.

All was well for the time being, foxes and pikes permitting…

A Walk on The Cloud

Those sad followers of this Blog will know that the plan was to cross the Pennines – probably by the Rochdale Canal, returning by the Leeds and Liverpool. Crucial to this plan was the ability to pass through the Marple flight of locks, which had been closed for months for repairs. The promised Easter opening date had passed and gone, as had the early May bank holiday date; as part of the popular Cheshire Ring, the hire fleet companies were getting cheesed off. The latest opening date was the second, late May bank holiday, and the lock flight was indeed opened to traffic.

We were still suspicious, but decided we’d take CaRT at their word, and left Westport Lakes to transit Harecastle Tunnel then head up the Macclesfield Canal, which goes up to Marple. We ended up mooring at a favourite spot near Little Moreton Hall, a National Trust of some repute. We’d moored here a couple of years ago: a pleasant spot. This time the weather was exceedingly nice, so we actually walked across the fields to Little Moreton Hall to partake of their excellent café; we’d been around the hall itself some years ago when we were having Song & Dance built. And for the first time this year, we actually saw some House Martins… the swallows had been around (and initially freezing) for a while.

It was so nice we chilled out here for another day; on Sunday we moved on through the Congleton outskirts and tied up in another favourite spot by the Dane Aqueduct, just at the bottom of the flight of twelve Bosley Locks. That afternoon, there was some excitement as between the first and seconds locks there is a tight-ish bend, with a winding hole; for some reason the water level in the pound was exceedingly low, and one or two boats were having an epic time sorting themselves up.

Meanwhile, the Chief Sherpa had made it clear that she wanted to upload herself into The Cloud, so preparations were made for an early start on Monday morning.

The Cloud

Unlike the modern usage (for the cynics amongst us “The Cloud” is just a different name for “Someone Else’s Computer”), this The Cloud is a hill just over 1000 feet high just alongside the canal, with – apparently – splendid views over the local area. It’s actually quite a tramp across the fields just to Base Camp, then it starts getting seriously steep for canal travellers.

The CloudThe Cloud, Summit

Actually if we had a car we could have driven pretty nearly all the way up. Mutter, mutter. We made it to the top, though, even if the promised views were disappointing: it was warm and muggy and pretty hazy, so the visibility was less than desirable. And not a Hang Glider in sight.

Fancy House, The CloudFancy House, The Cloud

Car ParkDescent from The Cloud

Cutting across the fields coming down rather than staying on the road, we came across this rather splendid modern house with fabulous views in decent weather. We were, however, somewhat bemused by the car parking arrangements (photo taken from same spot as those of the house).

Thoroughly exhausted, we made it back to Base Camp then across the fields to Song & Dance in time for dinner. One of is jolly glad that – by and large – canals do not travel through mountainous terrain.

Kingfishers Are On After All

The morning dawned a bit cold, misty and damp. Madam was keen to visit the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust reserve, while your scribe had some CD reviews to catch up on, so she went off on her own. Had a great time, it would seem. Fell in with an elderly local gentleman enthusiast cum photographer who was there most days, and gave her a personal guided tour. Although actual wildlife spotted was fairly small, she found it fascinating – kingfisher nest sites, vole burrows, and all sorts of local history. Apparently we have to visit again on the way home.

After lunch, the weather was picking up, so we decided to head up past the Shugborough Estate to Great Heywood, then divert down the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal mile or so to moor in Tixall Wide, a favourite spot. It’s only a short run (3 miles and 2 locks), and just after the junction we spotted the first Kingfisher of the cruise. Mind you, Tixall is renowned for Kingfishers, it would seem. And even though it was late afternoon, there was plenty of room to moor up, the sun was coming out, there were plenty of birds around including some Cygnets, and a pleasant post-dinner stroll made the trials of yesterday seem a long time ago.

Kingfisher’s Orf, Dear

Every year, we see loads of wildlife, but the frequency one spots things seems to vary from year to year. One year – loads of Robins. This year – fewer Robins, but loads of Reed Buntings. Another year, hardly any Sparrows, this year loads.

But we still haven’t seen any Kingfishers this year, or Swifts, or House Martins: maybe the latter two are really late in arriving. It’s odd, because we’re already awash with Mallard chicks, and have already seen a few small Cygnets and Goslings, though not many so far.

Having left the delights of Rugeley, we pottered on for a while – this is quite a long section without locks – and eventually decided to moor up for the night at Wolseley Bridge. A pleasant spot with views towards Cannock Chase, even if the first time we moored here back in 2005, we had a hard frost overnight!

Wolseley Bridge Moorings

Just up the road about 500 yards are a decent Vintage Inns pub/restaurant, a highly regarded Indian, a Garden Centre with a cafe, and the HQ of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust complete with a small reserve.

We’d never investigated either the Indian or the Wildlife Reserve, and the cook was hors de combat, and decided that a restorative curry was in order.

The curry was excellent. But the restaurant had some licensing issues, so Kingfisher was off. So was Cobra. Or even a bottle of Rioja, which we find goes surprisingly well with a curry. One of those days, it would seem…

Polesworth Pigeon & Peregrine, Fazed at Fazely

Setting off first thing on Saturday, we were soon passing through Polesworth. We’d stopped last time for some shopping and were rather taken by the town, but couldn’t think of an excuse to delay progress this time.

On our way in, we saw a peregrine passing overhead. Not sure if we’re getting better at spotting them, or there are more around. We’d like to think the latter is true: Braunston, Coventry, Leamington Spa (apparently) – healthy population at the top of the food chain implies underlying ecology is doing better.

On our way out, we spotted a very odd duck, which on closer inspection proved to be a wood pigeon trying to swim. Even closer inspection showed it was struggling, almost certainly with a broken wing. It had more-or-less made it across to the towpath side, so carefully backing up we fished it out with our Biggles rescue net (oddly never used in anger), and some passers by put it on the tree lined bank, but we rather suspected it would not survive for very long.

Further along, She Who Must said that we’d passed through the historically interesting Fazely Junction on the outskirts of Tamworth many times, but never stopped to look around…

Fazely JunctionFazely Junction

Fazely JunctionFazely Junction

Actually, the old parts are almost entirely hidden by modern buildings and alterations, although someone was rather taken by the fine house at the junction (apart from the roar of Watling Street adjacent to it).

Fazely Junction

Even the old mill seemed pretty derelict. Shame.

Rather disappointed, we carried on to Hopwas, and consoled ourselves with dinner at The Tame Otter. Saturday night, excellent three course meal each and a “free” bottle of wine for £50 – pretty good these days.  We’d eaten here on the way up last year: Biggles was very interested in the car park and all the outside tables and diners. We were moored right outside, and he took considerable coaxing to come back on board. No problem this time, unfortunately.

Better Than Buchan, and another Peregrine

Coventry CathedralCoventry Cathedral

The bell tower of the old cathedral remains intact, so we decided to go up to the top. While John Buchan could only manage 39 Steps, this involved climbing a spiral staircase of 180 uneven, narrow and steep stone steps. You need to be properly fit (puff, puff, wheeze), and passing anyone coming the other way is a serious challenge if they’re unfriendly. There are the expectedly fine views from the top in all directions, and of course, Eagle Eyes spotted a passing peregrine heading for the church just across the road. With people wandering around the top, we don’t suppose they roost on the cathedral spire, but some feathers lying around the top suggest they may spend a little time there during their tea break.

Coventry CathedralCoventry Cathedral

As well as student tower blocks, Coventry also seems to have a large Ferris wheel down by the bus station, but it clearly wasn’t overly popular – hardly saw a soul on it, and when we passed it on the ground, it was stationary with no one waiting at all.

Back at the Basin, we were slowly inundated with young people in 1930s outfits heading for one of the units – a  30th Birthday Bash by the looks of it – but despite our fears there was no untoward noise or behaviour, and after our exertions in the hot weather, we fell asleep well before they packed up for the night.

Three Canals, a Wetting, and a Peregrine Fly Past

Wednesday morning saw a trip to the Post Office for croissants and coffee (first lunch or second breakfast – a quandary) and a chance catch-up with the crew of nb Valentine with whom we had been playing leapfrog from Oxford, and who had also battened down at the top of Claydon due to the (slightly position ally challenged) weather forecast for Monday.

The current weather seemed OK if unremarkable and a bit cold, so we pushed on (or off!). A chance of a shower, apparently. Foolishly looking at the clearing sky, and having decided not to tog up in waterproofs, your helmsman got absolutely soaked when a vicious rain and hail shower suddenly bubbled up out of nowhere…

Just after the rain stopped, we had a fly past from a low-flying peregrine falcon. We don’t know if they’re still resident on Braunston church steeple – if so, it was probably one of those –  we weren’t that far away.

Later that afternoon we tied up just outside Braunston, at a pretty spot looking across the ridge and furrows up to the church – we’d moored here before, but were surprised to find little room: just enough for us. Still, we had managed the transit from the South Oxford Canal via a stretch of the Grand Union to the North Oxford Canal. Three different canals in a day – can’t be bad.


No sign of any peregrines here this evening though, but we’ll find out more tomorrow.

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 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.