Monday 23rd August: Northampton to Bugbrooke, 9 miles, 17 locks
Was it an omen that just as we were about to cast off Wandering Star (owned by residents of Congleton) sped by? Yesterday they were moored at Northampton Park, he head down into the engine compartment, doing some routine servicing work. They were going to be ahead of us as we toiled uphill ... The Captain had words to say about my very reasonable desire for a newspaper from an outlet that didn't open until 8 am. We set off, under the stone bridge, round the corner to the bottom lock. There was Wandering Star, her crew hauling her backwards from the lock. Glum faces, no obvious cause but that the gearbox was completely jammed. We shuffled about, changed places and proceeded up what would have been "their" lock. A green carpet was spread in front of the upper gate - weed. Now I've heard it said that marital harmony is much enhanced by the provision of separate bathrooms (a sane and sensible viewpoint!) but I would maintain that the same could be said about - boathooks. He on his side of the lock, I on mine, and we fished and we fished and we fished a huge harvest of weed (and one very water-logged football) out of the canal until we felt it was safe to open the gates and move on. Meanwhile news was not good on the boat behind, their prop completely stuck. We sludged on, a mile or so until the next lock. Now drastic action was called for on Cleddau: a weedhatch inspection. Out emerged the tired and tattered remains of a sports bag! Within half an hour Wandering Star had caught us up, prop and gearbox fully functional, once the remains of some horsehair-filled item (a sofa?) had been cut away. The canal seemed narrow, the reeds encroaching upon the course. But unexpectedly the water ran clear as slowly we edged towards the roads. Who would know that Lock 12 sits right below Junction 15A of the MI?
We came upon a happy fishing party, three grandparents and two children. The Australian grandfather, never before out of his home country, was mesmerised by the activity. His camera was in constant operation, every action of the pushing, pulling, winding, boat rising and gate opening photographed. Behind him the children caught a fish - but that was not recorded! And other potential catches today - at least one more football, a car wheel and two shoes (a pair maybe). Here where we are moored lies a forgotten dog's water bowl, at least not causing a watery obstruction. Dogs were much in evidence today, the tail-wagging mongrel, the small spaniel coralled onto the top hatch, the two West Highland terriers on a combined lead, the collie that barks at all men but never at women, the two terrier puppies from the same litter, fastened into checked life-jackets, the cautious one with a curlier tail, but the other, Henry, overconfident, over the gate and over our front deck. Then here at Bugbrooke I took a walk down to Bridge 36. A woman hailed me. Had I lost a dog; she'd found one wandering across the bridge and kennelled it, phoned the owner who'd said his boat had a blue tarpaulin ... Then strolling down the towpath came owner and same dog, a very large alsatian whose escapist tricks perplex: "How can she find large enough holes to escape fom my boat?"
Holes. Despite last night's torrential rain there were few raindrops during our uphill passage. But at Gayton Junction, while taking on water the heavens provided it .... A series of sharp showers and thunderstorms has marked the afternoon. We pulled in hurriedly and took shelter. An inspection of the engine room below deck level has revealed 5 gallons of rainwater ("But how does it get in?") and 1 gallon of oily diesel water. There's been a prolonged mopping up operation - but the good news is that the waste pump has been discovered as accidentally disconnected, and even better, a waste water drain hole in the weed hatch insert was discovered as solidly blocked. So if the boater can stop his alsatian from escaping - and the Captain can keep the waste water hole free - there will be two happier boaters on the network.
We're back on the canals, close to the Midlands mainline, Virgin trains hurtling past at regular intervals. The canals breed an intimacy, people stop and chat, or pass and hail.
"Lovely weather - it keeps the dust down and the canal topped up," from a boater moored along the towpath. From a passing boater, clad in heavy jacket and wide-brimmed hat came "Turned out nice again," rueful expression on his face. Tied against the opposite bank is Touchngo, before it a warning sign. "I take it you're not the grumpy old git?" sang a female voice from a passing boat. But most surprising conversation of the day came from the grandmother on a hire boat, going down the second of the 17 locks. "We started at Napton, we thought we were going to Oxford. I tried to tell them they'd turned the wrong way. Now we're short of provisions. I'd hoped there'd be something for everyone..." While the rest of the family were rope throwing, bargepole wielding, steering, paddle-competing she felt under-used, hungry - and done out of a day in Oxford.
On tomorrow up the Whilton Flight (big wide Grand Union locks) and to Braunston.