2017 The Thames Trip
Our first long trip after retirement. Almost six months cruising the Oxford canal, the river Thames and the Grand Union.
There was a definite chill in the air on Thursday morning when we slipped out of Braunston, heading north to Hillmorton. Our eight o’clock start was designed to give us a mid morning arrival above the locks, improving our prospects of finding a good mooring. It seemed that no-one else was keen to make a start on the cool September and we didn’t see another boat on the move for almost two hours. By “we”, I mean me because Sue had been excused deck duties on account of her having a problem with her back. So with her tucked up safely in bed and only a few boaters beginning to make half hearted attempts to venture out, I was alone with the world of nature and it was good, very therapeutic!
It was just after half ten when we reached the top of Hillmorton and we were able to pull in at the end of the mooring, just after the bridge.
It’s a five minute walk to the shops at Hillmorton and from there you can catch the number 3 (or 3A) bus into Rugby and that is exactly what we did on both Thursday and Friday. We’ve visited Rugby many times before so this wasn’t a sightseeing tour, just some essential shopping being done.
Our original plan had been to move on Saturday morning but that changed when we had a text from David and Lisa on nb What a Lark! They were at Newbold on Avon on the other side of Rugby and wondered if we would be around for coffee and a catch-up in the morning. We really enjoy their company and as it had been three years since we last saw them at Dadlington on the Ashby canal, it was a very easy decision for us to sit tight for another day and move on Sunday.
I took a windlass to the bottom lock at about quarter to nine and waited for WAL and crew to arrive, which they did a few minutes later. The bottom lock was empty, there was a lock keeper on duty and there were a couple of boats making their way down the flight so it didn’t take long before What a Lark was tied securely above the top lock and we all went to join Sue on board Caxton for coffee. After what seemed like twenty minutes but was actually two hours, they had to go and resume their journey. When will we see them next, who knows but we look forward to it whenever it happens to be.
The sun came out after lunch so we took a walk down the bottom lock and visited the café there and it was very pleasant just watching the odd boat go by in the September sunshine; not many days like this left this year I suspect.
We’ve moored both our boats in Braunston marina in the past so we are very familiar with the area. After a peaceful night moored in the pound between locks two and three, we got up and caught the bus to Daventry where, after having breakfast in Wetherspoons, we did some grocery shopping in the local supermarkets while dodging some heavy downpours.
On Sunday morning I got up early, made some coffee and got back in bed, there was nothing remarkable in that but an hour and a half later, Sue got up and couldn’t walk through the boat. I got up when I heard her proclaim that the boat was sitting at an angle unlike any that she had ever known before and I was faced with something resembling the crazy house at a funfair. Caxton has a cross bed so we hadn’t noticed that we were listing heavily to starboard. Had we been in our previous boat with its in-line bed we would have either rolled to the wall or out on to the floor. We got dressed quickly and climbed outside to see that all of the boats moored by us were listing in a similar fashion to ourselves. The water level in the pound was down by more than a foot so we grabbed a couple of windlasses and hurried up to the lock above us. Another boater was already there running water through the lock and into the pound but being cautious about draining the pound above. There were already boats trying to ascend and descend the flight so there was no point in us trying to run more water down, the normal lock operation would eventually take care of the water levels. It was impossible to know the cause of the draining of the pound but we knew that it had been quite sudden. On returning to the boat we decided to untie and move down below the bottom lock even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to find another mooring in the Braunston area. The water level in our pound had risen but it was still lower than normal; this made for slow progress to the next lock but we managed it and as we worked the lock we could see that the top lock gates were leaking badly, it looked like the paddles weren’t closed properly as well as the usual leaks from the gates.
Thankfully, we found a space just beyond the private entrance to the marina, the ring spacing wasn’t great but it was good enough for us. An hour or so after we had tied up, a small narrowboat pulled into the gap that we had left behind us. Sue was in the kitchen when she heard a cry for help, the boater had fallen in while trying to secure his stern line. I went to try and help pull him out but he was struggling to get his leg up on to the bank. Fortunately, Caxton has a step built into the rudder and another on the stern just below the waterline. I was then able to help him back on to dry land. Sue, meanwhile had managed to stop another narrowboat which was about to pass and thus prevented the unsecured boat from moving around and endangering the man overboard. Another boater had also arrived and grabbed the centre line of the rogue vessel, he suggested to the half drenched skipper that he should get inside and change into dry clothing while we secured the boat. It turned out that the soggy steerer was only moving the boat for someone else, didn’t have any other clothing but was due to be picked up in a few minutes. After he had sorted his ropes out, he realised that despite everything that had happened, he had managed to keep his cigarette firmly clamped between his lips!
Our new mooring has a limit of 48 hours so we had our two days there before moving on a little way on Tuesday, carrying out our services and then finding another 48 hour mooring opposite the Boathouse pub.
Unfortunately Sue had aggravated the painful combination of a hip and back injury, brought on we think, by the heavy gates and paddles on some of the Braunston locks. This meant that from Sunday she was pretty much resting while I used the time to visit the two chandlers shops, the butcher and the local convenience store. There was some improvement by Tuesday when we walked to the Boathouse and had lunch but she was still suffering so it was a matter of continuing to take things as easy as possible while still trying to keep active.
Wednesday was spent in much the same way as our other days in the area with short walks to shops being the order of the day. We had to move again on thursday and because we wanted to reach Hillmorton, we were up and away just before eight o’clock.
September 11th is a date that will live long in the memories of most of the population of the western world but for all the wrong reasons.
For us it is a date with an additional significance because in 2007 we went to view nb Phoenix III, a boat that we then went on to buy. We kept Phoenix III until the spring of 2014 when we sold her and bought Caxton.
This first blog post diarises how we bought our boat.
I really dislike Braunston tunnel, almost every time that we have passed through it we have managed to meet another boat on the kink nearest to the southern portal. In addition to the obvious kink the rest of the tunnel isn’t that straight but it’s hard to complain about the hard work done by the hands of men long dead, given the circumstances in which they had to work and the low level of technology at their disposal.
We had a very simple plan, get up early and get through the tunnel before anyone else made it up through the Braunston locks on the other side. We were awake just after six underway at half past, just as the sun was rising. The air was cool but still as we travelled the two mile stretch to the tunnel and with only a handful of moored boats to slow down for, we reached the tunnel mouth forty minutes later. The contrast between the light levels inside and outside the tunnel was less than usual because the weak September sun was still low in the sky. Unsurprisingly, we met nothing in the tunnel and before too long we were back into the daylight and heading for the top lock of the Braunston flight.
Two cyclists and a dog walker provided us with the only signs of life as we descended on our own. Normally we try to time our journeys so that we arrive late morning in the hope that we improve our chances of finding a space where we want to be, the idea being that more boats are on the move during that period. Our hope had been to moor below the lock at The Admiral Nelson but accepted that our chances would be slim at half past eight in the morning. Well, the good luck that has followed us when it comes to mooring on this trip didn’t desert us and after leaving the aforementioned lock, we saw a Caxton sized space waiting for us. It started to rain shortly after we tied up but we didn’t care, we had completed our mission and moored exactly where we had hoped to be.
Despite our proximity to the West Coast Main Line, we had a good night at Bugbrooke although it was raining steadily when we awoke. We took our time getting out of bed and were unsure of our plans for the day. Eventually, the rain stopped and we decided to set off. As nice as Bugbrooke is, it is just another dormitory village where the residents believe that they live there even though they work, shop and socialise elsewhere.
We moved on to Weedon Bec and stopped at the moorings on the offside near the church. We’ve been here before so there wasn’t anything to explore that was new. Walking down from the canal bank brings you down into the churchyard, crossing a footpath which I think is the Nene Way. We had a look in the church as we passed through and then visited the One Stop convenience store which is part of the Tesco group. Next, we visited the nearby Plume of Feathers pub which was completely devoid of both staff and customers so after five minutes waiting, we left and walked along the street to the other pub at this end of the village, The Maltster’s Arms. We got served there but the place wasn’t very nice so we quickly drank up and left. Out of curiosity, we called back into the Plume of Feathers and were greeted by a very friendly landlady who explained that she had been cleaning upstairs. We had a drink and then returned to the boat.
The following day started off with bright sunshine so I did some cleaning of the roof. It’s a difficult job because it has a sanded, non-slip surface. We never walk on the roof so the surface is of no use to us but the sanded finish traps so much dirt and is a b*st*rd to keep clean.
In the middle of the day we had lunch and then walked to the upper part of Weedon by going down the steps from the canal, turning right on to the footpath, walking to Bridge Road and then going under the canal before turning left on the A5. On reaching the junction between the A5 and the A45, we popped in Tesco and bought a few bits before walking up to the Heart of England pub where we stopped off for a drink. Weedon Bec has a number of Antique shops but we have visited them all before so we did no more than look in the windows as we passed by.
We walked back along the towpath and passed by our old lock buddies on nb Que Sera Sera. Back at Caxton, I spent a couple of hours waxing and polishing the port side.
We were up and about the following morning nice and early and left our mooring in the early morning sunshine, just after eight o’clock. Our journey brought us into the Watford gap where the canal gradually gets squeezed in between the A5, the M1 and the WCML. Two boats were leaving the bottom lock as we arrived and we were soon joined by nb Grampa’s Lady, with a single hander on board. There were a few boats coming down the Buckby flight as we ascended and with Sue doing most of the physical stuff, we reached the top quite quickly.
Luckily enough we found a mooring above lock and just before the CaRT yard. We had lunch, went for a walk and then spent the rest of the afternoon outside the New Inn.
Time for a rant now!
As we sat outside the New Inn, nb Corona arrived at the lock. The steerer made no attempt to slow down and smashed into the bottom gate with such force that people came out of the pub to see what had happened. We have history with this boat and its owner who we presume to be Trevor Maggs as that is the name painted on the side of it. On a previous occasion, this boat shot straight out of the arm between Rugby and Newbold causing us to make an emergency stop to avoid T-boning it. We love the idea that there are many old working boats preserved and still in use on the system and although in the main, most owners are caring and considerate, I think that there are a disproportionate number who think that they have a priority over everyone else. They don’t, they have a leisure boat and pay a licence at the same rate as everyone else. No doubt Trevor Maggs, if that is his name, will also be one of those who complains about the poor state of the locks and that CaRT don’t maintain them properly. Here’s a clue Trevor, stop smashing the f*ck*ng gates up!!!!!!
Rant over – for now!
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.