Sunday, 29th August: Just south of Hopwas to Rugeley, Staffs: 16 miles, 3 locks
There were musings yesterday on the forms of greeting on and near canals. There have been some more"You alright" remarks from time to time, but also "Hi-ya" and twice, to me, "Hello, me duck". It was pleasing to see, however, as we cruised past Hopwas Primary School a clear notice upon the entrance gate: "Good Morning Children" it read. I will keep my ears (and eyes) open for any other variations on the theme of Hello. As we slowly crawled towards the little footbridge at Fradley Junction there was one very specific greeting. On reading our boat's name another boater announced " Aah, a man from Pembroke." It was said clearly, with a definite Welsh accent.
The wind had kept up its force throughout the night and as I looked out of a porthole this morning my heart sank at the sight of the grass and vegetation bending in the gusty breeze. Initially the route was relatively sheltered and we wound our way past the breasted up hotel boats about to start their day's stint, onwards, not losing sight of the nearby television mast for ages! At Whittington many houses backed onto the canal; from behind his tightly closed French window a man gave a cheery wave from his dining room table. There was the sound of Sunday football and then some seriously large new houses. Hereabouts you see classier ducks (though still fake) and smarter garden seats. At Huddlesford Junction the Captain called to Brace, boats crashing into each other. Not quite so, but difficulties experienced in turning in the wind. Hardly a mile was cruised without slowing right down for moored or oncoming boats. Then both; an oncomer slowed, was blown, the stern hugging hedges and branches, bow advancing on a moored up boat. Out came its owner; he advanced down the gunnel. " What is he trying to do? It only takes a small amount of sense." Expertly he pushed the hire bow away with his foot, then returned towards us. " Only a small amount, " he said again. Would the self-confessed novice, sliding through the gap now, have paid more attention to his geometry lessons had he realised its boating application...?!
The route curves and twists its way through overhung trees to Fradley; plenty of sharp showers, the garb by now gaiters, overtrousers, peaked cap, longer waterproof - and sunglasses. Think of a T, we going up the T to where it meets the Trent and Mersey, right for down locks leading east to Sawley (towards Nottingham), left for up locks heading west towards (ultimately) Cheshire. Where the downstroke of the T meets the east/west T&M is a popular gongoozling point, a Braunston of the Midlands. Add some permanent moorings, the attraction of a canalside shop and a pub - and the crowds gather, crowds of boats and crowds of people. The two boats ahead of us turned right to form a queue for the down lock; we turned / tried to turn left for the first up lock, about a hundred yards along. People lined the path, watching. The wind intervened, we arrived where we hadn't wanted to, a gongozzler's leg was deployed from the wharf to push us off. How I would have liked to keep that longer leg as my personal useful fending off device! We struggled up towards the lock: mad wavings, semaphore - we were to become the third in the queue. More guiding ourselves in alongside another boat, more fending off - more showers! Two locks there, helping hands, boats cruising through, hire boats returning to base, boats just coming down for lunch - then intending to turn and go back up! I walked the next mile to the third lock, minus cap, but the sun shone (and the waterproofs rustled) as I raced past old canal mileposts to prepare lock number three for the Captain. No gongoozlers here, just one helper from an approaching boat. These bottom gates at Wood End lock were wilful, swinging open when the lock was ready to be filled. The helper sighed "The only other one I saw that difficult was ten locks back." Eager to gain advance information I enquired "Where was that?" A not helpful reply was returned: "Oh don't ask me, I'm from Australia."
On we went to Rugely, past Armitage and the narrow tunnel (puzzled still about the torch holding figure) approaching the giveaway Trent Valley view - power station cooling towers.
Curious thought of the day: some boaters like to forage from the wayside during their voyages. A first today then to see white-capped mushrooms on the path. Delicious, if they're safe to eat. And then, on Gardeners' Question Time, (readers, you may have heard it), Bob Flowerdew intoned a canal boat's bilges as the only place a mushroom growing kit will work! We'll give that due thought over the coming weeks!
Tomorrow, Bank Holiday opening hours allowing, there will be some essential restocking in Rugeley before heading on for Tixall Wide (on the Staffs and Worcs), that great lake in front of a grand house, formed to give an expansive scenic view rather than that of a working canal.