2017 The Thames Trip
Our first long trip after retirement. Almost six months cruising the Oxford canal, the river Thames and the Grand Union.
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.
It was a bit of a struggle but we finally managed to break out of Berkhamsted. On Wednesday evening we had decided that we would leave on Thursday but after overnight rain and waking up to an overcast morning, we decided to stay another day. On Thursday night we agreed to leave the following morning but after a short conversation at 8am on Friday we decided to stay and catch the bus to Aylesbury for the day.
On our return we were finally agreed that we would leave Berkhamsted on Saturday morning. At ten o’clock on Friday night we had a random idea to walk to the local pub. This was a first for us, yes we like going to the pub but usually in the afternoon, sometimes in the early evening but never at night and certainly not at bedtime!
We walked the short distance to the Boat Inn and spent a couple of hours there. It was noisy but we soon got used to it and had a lovely time there.
When Saturday morning came around, staying in Berkhamsted for yet another day wasn’t a difficult decision to make so we had a lazy start before walking into town.
The Saturday market was in full swing when we reached the High Street and we bought some fruit and veg there before returning to our boat for lunch.
After lunch we walked to Waitrose and made a few more purchases for the next part of our voyage and then returned once again to our mooring.
The sun came out and I realised that we hadn’t visited the Rising Sun pub which sat a few hundred yards away. It seemed a little unfair to neglect the establishment having spent money in the other canalside pubs, The Crystal Palace and the Boat Inn. So we walked along the towpath and enjoyed a drink, sitting outside the pub, next to the lock on what was a sunny afternoon. We later agreed that we should end our stay in Berkhamsted and move on the following morning.
When Sunday morning came around we were resolute, despite the temptation of the monthly Farmers Market which we knew was taking place that morning in the town. We set off just after nine o’clock and started the climb out of town towards the summit at Cow Roast. It didn’t take us long considering we had eight locks to do and did all of them on our own. We saw a few boats coming down the hill so that, combined with the instruction on some locks to leave bottom paddles drawn meant that almost all locks were set in our favour. The only boat that we saw travelling in the same direction as we were was a widebeam that we caught up when we reached our seventh lock of the day. Caxton’s water tank was in desperate need of replenishment so our target had been the services above Cow Roast lock where we also took the opportunity to get rid of the “Get-riddables”. Once sorted, we moved on a few hundred yards and tied up just beyond the marina.
After lunch, showered and dressed in fresh clothes, we went for a walk. Along the towpath to Tring Station and then to the village of Aldbury. This place is very pretty with a duck pond in the middle of the village, a small shop and a fairly large church. After a walk around the church, we paid a brief visit to the nearby Greyhound pub for a much needed refreshment before we started the walk back to the canal. We were returning by a different route to give us a circular walk and that caused us to pass the second pub in the village, The Valliant Trooper. “Pass” as in “pass through” rather than “pass by”. We were soon on our way again and walking along the narrow lane that would eventually get us back to the boat. The sunshine was by now, giving way to dark clouds and by half past five it had started to rain, so that was us in for the rest of the evening.
Berkhamsted is old, very old according to Wikipedia with there being evidence of human settlement in the area dating back 5,000 years. The first written reference to the town was in 970AD and it gets a mention in the Domesday book. The town has clearly benefited from trade over the centuries and still has a very solid feel of prosperity to it, or so it seemed to us as we explored its streets.
We visited the ruins of the castle which is adjacent to the railway station and then spent the next few days exploring the long high street which runs through the middle of the town. There are many independent shops in Berkhamsted which makes a nice change from seeing town centres which have been cloned by the national retail chains. In an age when pubs are supposedly closing at an alarming rate, this town still manages to support what seems to be more than its fair share of them. The Rex is a fully restored Art Deco cinema which shows a different film every day although there was nothing that we fancied seeing when we were there. There are so many interesting looking buildings that it would take forever to describe them all so here are a few pictures taken around the town. And here is the town’s Blue Plaque Guide.
The next leg of our journey would take us from Winkwell to Berkhamsted, a town that we had loved when we visited it in 2012 so it was a destination that we had been looking forward to revisiting. First though there was the small matter of eight locks to negotiate our way through. All was well until we reached the last pound below the town itself, we were warned by another boater that the pound was low and to stick to the centre of the channel. This we did but with a boat descending the lock above, we had to wait for them to come through. Two boats were moored below the lock, both listing heavily towards the middle of the canal. With Sue on the bank I floated between the two boats, waiting for the lock to empty. As soon as the water rushed out of the lock, the level in the pound rose quickly and the narrowboat behind me also rose. Clearly, its lines had been secured when the pound was on the low side so as it rose the lines tightened and first the stern pin was pulled out of the ground quickly followed by the centre pin. The water current immediately pulled the boat straight across the canal, blocking passage for the boat coming down. Caxton was unaffected except that I had to wait until the boat was re-moored by the lady from the boat descending the lock whose husband sat in the chamber until he had a clear passage through. Surprisingly, the pound above the lock was at a normal height so once we were through we made good progress to the water point where we filled our tank.
With the tank filled and all toilet cassettes emptied we were ready for our stay in Berkhamsted. Amazingly we yet again found a mooring in a place where we had tied up before (Harefield, Apsley and Winkwell being the others in recent weeks) opposite Castle Wharf.
When we stopped here before, we inadvertently wandered into the private garden of the house opposite. Having tied up and got ourselves ready to walk into town, Sue reacquainted herself with the owner and local celebrity councillor, Lindy.
Our stay in Berkhamsted (Berko to the boating fraternity) will be covered in the next post.
We embarked on the next leg of our journey on Sunday, the day after our trip to London. We were still climbing as we have done since we left the Thames and despite the fact that there are many locks on this section of the Grand Union, we have plenty of time on our side so we are only travelling for two to three hours at a time covering two to three miles and working six or seven locks. Sunday was no exception and our target was to get above the swing bridge at Winkwell but first we had to get through the first lock and carry out the services. This we did and took advantage of the fact that we were inconveniencing no one by catching up with the laundry while filling with water.
Once serviced we were on our way again and continued with our journey uphill, a journey with very little to report except to say that the temperature rose quite quickly and we were glad that we didn’t have a long day of travelling to do. Eventually we reached the swing bridge near the Three Horseshoes at Winkwell and we were pleasantly surprised to see that we would be able to moor there with the bonus that the VM rings were well spaced for our boat. We quickly tied up, had lunch, got showered and changed before setting off up the hill to explore the village. The village turned out to be mainly housing served by a small central parade of shops but nevertheless a nice little enclave. By the time we returned to the canal, the pub had become very busy and the moorings had completely filled up so we sat on the front deck and lounged. Well we would have lounged except for the fact that Caxton was listing heavily to starboard caused by the lack of water in the pound and shallowness of the canal near the bank. The fat fenders had been deployed and the lines slackened but still we listed until every time that a boat came down through the lock above. I did quip that we were up and down like a …… ……. but the rest of the phrase isn’t really for publishing here. With Caxton having a crossway bed, we were prepared to sleep the opposite way to normal to avoid the dreaded early morning headache caused by sleeping with your head below the height of your body but by the time bedtime came around, the pound had risen and the bed was level.
By morning time, the pound had risen further and the boat was listing in the opposite direction but no matter, we were moving on anyway.
Well, as the song says, what a difference a day makes. We awoke on Thursday to the sound of silence, the continuous drumming of the rain had gone and although it was quite cool and cloudy outside, it was pleasant enough for travelling. We didn’t go far, only a couple of miles and four locks but that got us to Apsley which is on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead. We found a suitable mooring just above the lock that sits just above the marina and is in pretty much the same spot as we moored when we were here five years ago, what a coincidence!
After getting ready and having lunch on board, we walked back to the footbridge which carries the path over the canal towards the Paper Mill pub, although we didn’t stop there. Instead we walked up to the main road and walked into Apsley itself. Small shops line the main road for a few hundred yards, nothing of great significance but interesting to see yet another place that we had skipped through in previous years. On the way back to the boat we did some shopping in the handily placed canal side Sainsbury’s.
While we were Apsley, we saw Barnowl No8, Octavia, the boat built just before Caxton.
On Saturday morning we were up and about and heading into Hemel Hempstead for no other reason than to have a look around. We didn’t really know what to expect but we were very pleasantly surprised. We walked along the towpath for a while and then reached a main road leading to the town centre. We soon discovered Hemel Hempstead’s “Magic Roundabout”.
Hemel Hempstead was one of Britain’s New Towns so this sort of thing is to be expected but once beyond the ridiculous road layout, we were in for a bit of a treat. The main shopping area is wide, open and pedestrianised with lots of retail shops. We had a stop for coffee at one of the independent coffee shops there (we counted three but there may be more). They have to compete with the big three coffee chains but they all seemed to be thriving – no doubt down to good service as well as a good product.
The town hides a secret from the casual visitor, the old town or specifically the High Street. To get there, we had to walk through the centre and on for about another half a mile but it was worth it. The High Street today has a number of barber shops, hairdressers antique shops and pubs as well as the old town hall. It’s lovely and is in stark contrast to the new town centre. That’s not to say that the new part is hideous, it’s just different and is lovely in its own modern way.
If, like me you were a fan of “Pie in the sky“, a 90’s light hearted police drama starring Richard Griffiths, you would be happy, like I was, to see the location of Henry Crabbe’s restaurant, Pie in the Sky in the High Street.
After lunch in the Old Bell, we walked back through the new town to the park and then to the canal towpath. On our way back, we called in at the farm shop near Two Waters and bought some locally produced honey which will find its way to mother’s kitchen in late November when we visit her. Sunnyside Rural Trust run the venture and they provide work and experience for those with learning difficulties, a very good cause in our opinion.
We rounded the afternoon off with a visit to the nearby and aforementioned “Paper Mill” where we sat on the canalside terrace and watched the odd boat go past for a while. As you could probably guess there was once a paper mill here and nearby there is a museum although unfortunately, because it has limited opening times, we didn’t get a chance to see it. We did see this clock, however and that gives away the type of paper once made here. I must admit that I didn’t look closely at it at first, thinking that it was just another factory clock but Sue spotted the detail.