For the last week or so, there has been a distinct feeling that we are on our way back home. Of course, we’ve been on our way back ever since we set off but when you are exploring new waters, it doesn’t feel that way. Part of the feeling that we are returning is due to the fact that the seasons are changing and that the summer is now behind us. The other part is because we have some familiarity with this section of canal, we know that there are not too many places left to visit and most of them are not new to us anyway. Add to all of that the constant reminders from the numbers on bridges, locks and mileposts that we are gradually getting closer to Braunston where all those numbers end up at either one or zero. (Our Sunday night mooring is 22 miles, 20 locks and 54 bridges from Braunston). The locks at Stoke Bruerne total seven and they are quickly followed by Blisworth tunnel and an eleven mile pound to the bottom of the Buckby flight which also boasts seven locks.
We were up and about early again, pulling on to the service point before starting our ascent just after eight. We didn’t have much to do and so we were entering the bottom lock just twenty minutes later. All of the locks, with the exception of just two, were empty and therefore were in our favour. As a result it took us just an hour and a half to reach the top lock and this was where we met the first boat travelling down the flight. After swapping places with them, Sue just had time to make some toast on the short length between the top lock and the tunnel mouth where all naked flames have to be extinguished before entering. No doubt this is in case methane or some other flammable gas is lurking underground but I suspect that the risk of explosion is very low. Nevertheless, we complied with the rules and as a result, Blisworth tunnel survived our transit.
The tunnel is the third longest canal tunnel in the country but it is dead straight so it is possible to see the light at the other end even though it is some 3,076 yards (2,813 m) away. It was easy to see that there were no other craft in the tunnel with us so I opened the throttle and aimed for the tiny light dot ahead. There are markers on the wall inside giving distances to the nearest end and with nothing else to look at I began counting in 100m lengths. The tunnel had to be partially rebuilt in the 1980’s and the centre section, probably a third of its length, is lined with concrete rings: the same tunnel technology employed in the construction of the channel tunnel. With 700 metres left to go, a boat headlight appeared at the northern portal meaning that I had to slow down and move to the right of the tunnel in order to pass the incoming vessel. A few minutes later and we were both in position to pass safely and without incident and a few minutes after that, the end was very much in sight.
We passed another boat just outside the tunnel mouth and another just two minutes later. By the time we had passed Blisworth mill, we passed two more, had we entered the tunnel ten minutes later, we would have had five boats to pass in there rather than just one.
Blisworth village held little interest for us on this occasion so we passed on by and although we considered mooring near Gayton junction there were no free spaces. Carrying on through rural Northamptonshire, we eventually found a mooring near the village of Bugbrooke. Despite the fact that we had made good progress through the locks at Stoke Bruerne, we had still been travelling for four and a half hours and therefore it was lunchtime.
After lunch, we walked into the village and visited the local shop, then we visited the nearby pub which has now been closed down and the Post Office which has also closed and been moved half a mile away to the local pharmacy – the lesson being, don’t believe all of the information on Google Maps! The shopkeeper told us that there was another pub on the other side of the village but we decided to give it a miss and return to the canal where we knew that there was a pub/restaurant next to Bugbrooke Marina. When we reached the edge of the village, we looked at the map again and saw that the Five Bells pub, the other one in the village, was only a five minute walk away so we decided to pay it a visit. On arriving, we discovered that that it doesn’t open until 5pm on Mondays and it was only 3pm.
We walked back to the Wharf and had a drink there before returning to Caxton along the towpath. Who should we see chugging along but our old lock buddy from the Marsworth flight, nb Que Sera Sera. They had been down the Northampton arm but had only stayed one night after mooring next to a park (no idea which one). They said that the pounds were low and there were lots of weeds along the way so it hadn’t been worth it and they wouldn’t try it again. They asked about mooring and we pointed out that the Wharf pub had mooring for patrons so they pulled over and tied up. We have been leapfrogging each other since mooring near them at Berkhamsted and again at Leighton Buzzard, no doubt we haven’t seen the last of each other. They are heading for the Oxford canal so there are still plenty opportunities until we reach Braunston.
Our trip on Sunday finally took us away from the Milton Keynes area having skirted around the town for the last eleven or twelve miles of waterway. It was just after seven when we got underway as we wanted to use the services at Cosgrove before the canal became busy with weekenders and holidaymakers. The air was quite cool and fresh when we started our journey across the Great Ouse aqueduct but after working up through the lock, we landed on the services at quarter to eight. There was already a hose attached to the water tap when we arrived so Sue followed its trail along the towpath until she found a boat on the long term moorings. The occupant seemed a bit miffed that we wanted water but agreed that we could switch hoses and fill our tank on condition that we didn’t pinch his tap connector. The water pressure was low and a few minutes later we were talking to another boater who was taking on water below the lock; he told us that everyone locally tried to get water early before the nearby village and caravan site residents woke up and the pressure dropped even further. Our tank took the best part of an hour to fill and even then we didn’t fill it completely. With the grumpy boater’s hose reconnected and the tap switched on, we were soon on our way again, through Cosgrove and out into the countryside or wilderness as I prefer to think of it. The visitor moorings above and below Cosgrove lock were remarkably empty which was surprising for the first weekend in September.
The five mile pound between Cosgrove and Stoke Bruerne winds its way into the county of Northamptonshire through a patchwork of green fields. There’s nothing much to see along the way, a couple of wharves and marinas break up the otherwise empty landscape.
When we arrived at the bottom of Stoke Bruerne, we saw that we had the pick of the moorings so we tied on the first available part, had lunch and then walked up to the village, just over a mile away. The sun hadn’t managed to pierce the white cloud and the wind was getting stronger, not enough to make the walk unpleasant but enough to remind us that autumn is almost with us. There were a few boats working up and down the flight and a reasonable number of people milling around the top lock and museum. We stopped for a drink at the Boat Inn but the odd spot of rain in the air, the temperature dropping and the wind strengthening even further, we decided to walk back down the hill to our mooring.
We seem to have slipped into September and the beginning of Autumn without really noticing. The signs are all there, the days are getting shorter and the night time temperatures have been dipping ever lower but it has still been sunny during the day so it has been easy to feel that we have been hanging on to the summer season.
The sun was shining when we awoke on Saturday morning at Great Linford and after our normal morning drinks, we got up and prepared to move on. It was twenty past nine when we untied and set off and after a few minutes, a quick glance behind revealed a boat which had been moored on the opposite bank was moving over to the spot where we had been moored. They had attempted to moor behind us a day earlier but there hadn’t quite been enough room, clearly they weren’t going to miss the opportunity this time around.
It was one of those deceptive sort of days where, when the sun shone it was absolutely lovely and warm but as soon as a cloud obscured it, the air felt very cool. It took us just over an hour to reach Wolverton where we stopped for a shopping trip to the local supermarkets. We wanted to stock up with enough food to see us through the coming days as we were about to venture into the wilderness!
On returning to the boat, Sue stashed the provisions while I started the engine and set sail. We didn’t travel far, another twenty minutes brought us to Galleon Wharf where we found a good mooring. After lunch on board we walked over to the other side of the canal and visited “G Dad’s Collectables” which is an antiques emporium. We had seen this place on previous occasions when we had passed by but had never had the time to visit it. As we expected, it is a delightful place full of all sorts of treasures and all of them reasonably priced. The difficult part of our visit was keeping our hands in our pockets and resisting the temptation to buy but resist we did so no purchases were made on this occasion.
We also resisted the adjacent pub, The Galleon and returned to Caxton where we spent the rest of the afternoon in the sunshine on the front deck. Cyclists and walkers passed by on the towpath and boats passed us on the canal, a perfect afternoon only spoiled by a number of screaming kids playing in the pub garden.
The Grand Union really hugs the perimeter of Milton Keynes and as a result it takes a long time to leave the town. We didn’t do much on our second day on Campbell Park, I washed the outside of the boat and Sue cleaned the inside. In the afternoon we went for a walk and at Sue’s suggestion found ourselves at a pub called the Barge. It is a part of the Vintage Inn chain and as such we can get a 25% discount on food and drink so we had our dinner there and very nice it was too. The nights are starting to draw in now but we were still back on board before the daylight had gone.
After a late night sitting up talking and having a laugh together, we had a good night’s sleep and woke up to yet another blue skied, sunny day. Neither of us had any idea what we wanted to do but after a bit of deliberation decided that we should move on with no particular destination in mind. Once we had set off we had intended to stop at Giffard Park and make use of the services but when we got there they were fully occupied so we carried on and stopped next to Great Linford Park.
This was Sue’s idea and although it took us a few minutes to find the right combination of mooring posts and the deployment of the fat fenders, it turned out to be a great decision. We had lunch in the nearby Nag’s Head and what a great pub this is.
The pub dates back to 1550 and claims to be the place where the drink, the Bloody Mary originated. Whether the claim is valid is debatable but it’s a good story nonetheless and it fits in with the local church and manor house. It is a lovely location with an arts and craft centre, beyond the pub there is a small shopping centre with a Co-op, chip shop, convenience store, Costa Coffee and barber shop.
We returned to our mooring and settled down for the afternoon on the front deck where Sue fed a family of swans and I just put my feet up and enjoyed yet another day of my retirement.
In contrast to Tuesday, Wednesday was very much cooler. Our mooring at Water Eaton had been a good one but we had wanted to move on to Milton Keynes. We were on our way just after half past eight and half an hour later we were approaching Fenny lock. With “Jules Fuels” working pair on the water point and a boat coming out of the lock, space was quite restricted but we quickly had Caxton in the lock and of course the swing bridge was already open. Despite the fact that this lock is shallow, it isn’t a quick operation to pass through it with the swing bridge sitting across the chamber. Nevertheless, it didn’t take us too long to get our way through the lock, helped in part by a young boy who was part of the crew of a hire boat moored below the lock who closed one of the bottom gates for us.
With the windlasses stowed inside, we started the next part of our trip which we knew would be lock free for many miles. There were very few boats on the move but one that we encountered had a steerer who had disappeared below deck, handily enough on a bend. Luckily enough he resurfaced just in time to see us and take evasive action. We encountered a day hire boat from Milton Keynes Marina which not only appeared to be sitting low in the water but was also pumping lots of water from its bilge. After following them for a mile or so, they pulled over and then waved us past. I asked them if everything was alright but they assured us that their low water line was due to their overweight crew. We carried on and eventually were delighted to find that there was lots of space on the Campbell Park moorings. Every time that we have passed this way we have been disappointed that there have been no free moorings in this area but this time we could have moored six or seven boats either side of the cut.
We were tied up just after eleven o’clock and with heavy rain forecast for later in the afternoon, we decided to walk into town and take shelter in the vast malls there. In the event, the BBC got it wrong again and the rain didn’t materialise but we were still happy enough having had lunch and a wander around the shops. Campbell Park looked lovely even on a dull day so all in all we’d had a decent afternoon.
Tuesday after the Bank Holiday, not that Bank holidays mean much to us now, dawned and we were ready to move on again. As usual, travelling day, as I like to think of it, means that we were up relatively early and eager to get going. I had the engine started at eight o’clock and five minutes later we were taking on water at the service point. With an empty tank and a slow tap it took forty five minutes to fill up although admittedly we did use the time to do some laundry while we were there.
We set off again just before nine and after passing by the huge fleet of hire boats belonging to Wyvern Shipping who always seem to have an abundance of craft which are “un-let” we reached Leighton Lock. There was a boat already coming up through the lock and while we waited we saw another Barnowl boat, “Googly”, moored on the offside of the canal. We made our way northwards and passed by the Globe Inn, a pub that we still haven’t visited and noted that there was a space outside long enough for us to have moored Caxton in. We didn’t stop on this occasion being too early in the day so we’ll have to leave this little gem of the waterways until another time.
Tickling along through empty countryside interspersed with odd enclaves of moored boats, we found nb Muleless. Gary was having a smoke while standing on the bank and as we passed, he and I had a brief conversation. Muleless had passed us twice while we were moored at Leighton Buzzard so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see them so close to the town. Interestingly enough, we last saw Muleless at Thrupp about three months ago when we were both heading in opposite directions.
The sun accompanied us as we cruised on to the three locks at Soulbury and when we reached there our passage down was assisted by boats travelling upwards and a lock keeper. We were warned that the pound below the bottom lock was extremely low and that had resulted in the boats coming up being unable to move until that point in time. The information was correct and judging by the water marks on the canal side, the pound was down by about twelve inches or so. We stuck to the centre of the channel and kept our speed down to tickover and as a result had no problem in reaching the next lock. Along the way we passed nb Myra-D who we hadn’t seen since they had suffered a breakdown when we shared some locks with them earlier this month. It turned out that the problem with the water level had been due to a combination of a blocked top gate paddle and leaking bottom gates at the following Stoke Hammond lock so once we had descended through that, the water depth was more than adequate.
We carried on to Water Eaton which is just south of Fenny Stratford and moored up in a semi rural setting. After lunch we struck out and walked the mile or so to Fenny Stratford, visited the local shops and then made our way to Fenny lock where we had a drink at the Red Lion. We also took the time to check out the local services and familiarised ourselves with the workings of the swing bridge that sits across the shallow lock.
On our way back along the towpath, we spotted nb Sunflower, the boat that we had shared some locks with a week earlier. We stopped to have a chat with the young owner, a nice enough lad who had moved his boat here to be with his brother while he found a job in the area.
After that, all we had left to do was to walk the mile or so back to our mooring where we got back on board and settled in for the evening.
We left Slapton on Thursday morning and had an almost uneventful trip to Leighton Buzzard, the only notable event was the five minute delay that we had when leaving Church Lock. CaRT contractors were dredging so we had to wait until they let us through. When we reached the visitor mooring at Linslade / Leighton Buzzard, there were only a couple of spaces left but one of them was more than big enough for Caxton so we tied up and that’s where we remained for the Bank Holiday weekend. The weather was glorious all the time we were in Leighton Buzzard, highly unusual for a Bank Holiday but very welcome for all.
On Friday, we caught the train and visited Milton Keynes, a trip of only twelve minutes. The town is laid out an almost American grid system so we enjoyed walking through this slightly unusual environment.
In addition to the usual shopping trips in Leighton Buzzard, we visited the market on Saturday morning and then went to the pub in the early evening to watch the Man Utd v Leicester match.
On Sunday, we walked to Page’s Park on the other side of town where the Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway is headquartered. Ex industrial steam engines pull the carriages through housing estates for three miles before arriving at the terminus. Twenty minutes of looking at other pieces of rolling stock and reading a bit of history and the train heads back to the starting point. There are a number of unmanned level crossings for the train to negotiate on its journey. On approaching the road crossing, the train stops and two members of staff get off and stop the traffic. The train crosses the road and then stops to pick them up again. All in all we had a great time on the rails, there was even a handful of model railway layouts in the visitor centre and we had a look at them too.
Our mooring at Marsworth had been a good one, quiet after the previous two nights when we had been within earshot of the West Coast mainline. Nevertheless, we had no reason to stay so we decided to move on and get part way to Leighton Buzzard, the next biggish place on our route. The first lock of the day was just around the corner from where had been tied and a few minutes later we were faced with a decision, turn left down the Aylesbury arm or bear right and stay on the mainline. In reality, we had already made that decision, Aylesbury had looked alright when we had visited but hadn’t appealed to us so much that we felt inclined to tackle the sixteen narrow locks down to the town. When we last passed this way, the wharf was, I think, a British Waterways service yard with boaters facilities. The facilities are still there but the site is now occupied by waterside homes, no doubt commanding a high price given their location. We stopped and topped the water tank before moving on to the next lock where we caught up with a single hander on nb Sunflower. We worked through the next five locks and the swing bridge at Pitstone with him before we tied up near Ivinghoe/Pitstone/Cheddington.
This seemed like a natural place to stop, being half way between Marsworth and Leighton Buzzard but after lunch and a short discussion, we decided to move on and do a bit more. We only travelled for just over an hour before mooring above Slapton lock but by working down another three locks, we had left ourselves with less than two hours cruising to Leighton Buzzard. In 2012 we were moored below this lock on our journey south and had, after a long day cruising, gone to explore the nearby village. We failed on that occasion so there was nothing for it but to try again. The walk only took ten minutes so I have no idea why we didn’t find the village last time around – maybe we took a wrong turning or maybe it’s the Buckinghamshire equivalent of Brigadoon and today was our lucky day! We visited the village church and then popped into the local pub, the Carpenter’s Arms, before walking the half mile back to our mooring.
In August 1963, the Great Train Robbery took place about a mile away from where we were moored at Slapton Wharf. If you take a look at Google Maps, you will see that it is marked (click here), then look at the poor reviews it gets. One person complains that it is “just a bridge”, what were they expecting, a re-enactment?
Another dull start awaited us on Tuesday morning but it was dry and mild so not too bad, although for August the weather continues to be pretty pathetic. Anyway, we were underway by ten and crossed the Tring summit in just under an hour. Most of the summit is tree lined and would make for a welcome respite from the summer sun for the boater if there had been any, which there wasn’t. When we reached the junction with the Wendover arm we decided to swing left and visit it again as we did five years ago. Little had changed except that this time around we had the only boat on the navigation. We turned at the end and stopped for lunch on the visitor moorings; had it not been for the fact that we had spent the previous day in Tring, this would have made the perfect base from which to explore the town which is just one mile away.
After lunch we returned to the junction and began the descent of the Marsworth flight with nb Que Sera Sera. It didn’t seem to take long and we were soon at the bottom, our lock buddies tied up almost immediately whereas we carried on around the bend and moored just above the next lock. The canal passes between Marsworth and the enigmatically named hamlet, “Startop’s End” so we decided to have a look around the immediate area. The first place that we found was Bluebell’s Tearoom which occupies the old lock cottage and is of course, next to the lock. We had tea and a scone each and by way of an apology for not having cream for the scones, we were given an extra piece of cake to take away with us which we thought was exceptionally generous. After that, we popped across the road to the local pub, the Angler’s Retreat and sat outside with a drink looking at the birds in the aviary there, I can’t remember ever visiting a pub with an aviary before.
We dropped the free piece of carrot cake off back at the boat and then went for a walk around the nearby Tring reservoirs. There were one or two fishermen, a few dog walkers and others, like ourselves, out for an early evening stroll. The sun had come out and the evening was very pleasant. It did strike me that a lot of fuss had been made about the eclipse of the sun observed in America the previous day, spectacular maybe but for those watching it only lasted a few minutes. Meanwhile here in Britain, the sun disappeared on Sunday afternoon and didn’t reappear until Tuesday evening, now that’s what I call a Solar Eclipse!
In the last post, I mentioned that we had visited Aylesbury by bus. We did this to try and help us decide whether or not to travel down the Aylesbury arm and visit the town. The bus trip from Berkhamsted took about 45 minutes and the bus station in Aylesbury is built under a shopping area in the town centre. After we had eaten an early lunch, we walked to the canal terminus to check out the facilities there. Surrounded by modern buildings, the terminus basin is very clean and impressive with plenty of mooring available. We then walked along the towpath until we reached Circus Fields marina where the Aylesbury Canal Society offer free mooring for visitors. Unfortunately, the towpath is on the opposite side and although there is a bridge about half a mile further on, a thunderstorm was just beginning. We sought shelter under a wide road bridge until it had passed over and then returned to the terminus. We walked back into town and tried to work out whether we wanted to spend a few days in Aylesbury; the question being, would the transit through 32 locks (16 each way) be worthwhile?
On our wanderings, we found the local museum which was hosting a Lego exhibition so we went in and took a few pictures of the models.
Did we reach a conclusion on whether to return to Aylesbury by boat? Not really, we didn’t see anything that made us keen to make the effort to go to Aylesbury but there was nothing that put us off either. At the time of writing, we are moored at Cow Roast so the final decision will be made later in the week.
The bus to Aylesbury passed through Tring and we saw enough from our seats at the front of the top deck to encourage us to spend a day there. The town itself sits on the junction of two ancient pathways, The Icknield Way and Akeman Street which was possibly the reason that it became a market town as early as 1315AD. Its prosperity improved with the 19th century arrival of the Grand Junction Canal and the London to Birmingham Railway.
There was still a bit of mizzly drizzle in the air when we got up on Monday but undeterred we got ready and set off for Tring, some two and a half miles away. Our original intention had been to walk there but the drizzle persisted so we walked no further than the bus stop by the Cow Roast Inn and waited for the next bus. The High Street in Tring has some lovely buildings dating from a number of centuries and with odd exceptions they house local, independent businesses. One of the exceptions is a Prezzo restaurant and since we are able to get 25% off all food and drink there now, we popped in and had lunch.
An unusual feature in Tring is that there is an annexe of the Natural History Museum in the town centre.
Originally a private collection open to the public, it was gifted to the nation by its creator, Lionel Walter Rothschild upon his death. We visited the museum after lunch and although it was busy with parents and small children, we enjoyed viewing the impressive collection of exhibits there. It was half past two when we got back to the bus stop and after a few minutes, the bus arrived and carried us back to Cow Roast.