Thursday 2nd September: Brewood to Gnosall (still South Staffordshire): 8 miles, 1 lock
[Before reading further here are some pronunciation notes: Brewood is known as Brood; Gnosall is known as Knows All.]
As a birthday treat (!) the alarm was delayed until 8 am, then tea and birthday cards presented to this Boatwif. Though not high excitement there soon was a little drama: the boat moored in front of us was not secured well and at one point yesterday afternoon the Captain had fished its stern rope and mooring pin from the water and banged it back into the fairly soft earth with a mallet. This morning there was a repeat performance: a boat had hammered past and again dislodged the stern. Just as we realised it had swung right across the canal another boat came through the bridge-hole from behind and could see neither what the blockage was - nor how they were going to proceed. A conflab from the towpath: now the high bow was at right angles to the bank and no-one could board the escapee. A few boathooks were produced but none was long enough or strong enough - and then, from Cleddau's roof was brought the giant of them all, a beauty varnished lovingly by Markland's owner a decade or more ago. The rope was hooked, the escapee caught, that boat re-pinned - and the other could move safely on.
There was no need to make great distance today. The Captain climbed the 26 steep steps up to village level, returning within the hour with a few supplies and a haircut. Indeed he too pronounced on how agreeable a place this village is and I found reason to revisit. The gentle pace here, the Fine Food Store (for those who know it, think Pembroke's Wisebuys), the Georgian feel to the marketplace reminds me a little of Usk. I took the opportunity to get an acorn shot: for days on the Grand Union and the North Oxford I had tried to get a decent photo of acorns whenever we came close to an oak tree, but wind and wobble always denied me a good result. Acorns, like blackberries and other hedgerow berries, seem to indicate the harvest we squirrel away as Autumn approaches. But here, at the church gate was a stone acorn, probably a recent addition. No sign interprets it: could it be a great oaks from little acorns grow message - or perhaps a reference to Brewood's past when nearby in the 1640s King Charles 1 hid in an oak tree while Cromwell's soldiers searched below.
So it was a mid-morning departure, ready by then to reconnect with sunlight. These deep cuttings are frequent and can be shady. We gathered speed, until a flurry of hire boats approached, and then a line of moorings was passed. The Captain had remarked only yesterday that until the lower portion of the Shropshire Union, since Northampton not a mile had been cruised without slowing down for locks or other boats... But on such a glorious sunlit balmy day what else to do than potter gently along the cut. We passed a floating water hippy commune, their flags and horticulture proclaiming their way of life. But why moor here, I pondered. With reduced sunlight would it not be very cold in winter... Ease of access to a bridge, shelter from the winds, availability of fallen wood for fuel came the reply. And a little later, beside the towpath, near to a residential floating dwelling, a boater (bearded) was heaving and dragging a large tree branch along the path. The Captain's Theory of Bearded Boaters has been refined: discounting hire boat crews it is his contention that about 50% of male boaters are bearded, which seems higher than in the general population. (No gazing now into a man's eyes, focus rather on the jaw line.)
Where fields are visible from the canal they are flat, yellowed, combine harvesters in action: once a cloud of dust surged over the water ahead. There has been little traffic noise, apart from when the canal crosses the busy A5 on the Stretton Aqueduct. We passed boatyards, marinas, wharves and one turnover or roving bridge which takes the towpath from one side of the canal to the other. After a very long, dark and narrow cutting we came to this canal's only tunnel at Cowley, only 81 yards long and unlined, you can see how it was cut out from the rock. After the tunnel we came to Gnosall, pulled in for water - and decided to avail ourselves of the pub here for a birthday dinner this evening. Live music is due to feature: will we scuttle back along the towpath, deafened or allow the old(er) feet to tap discreetly under the table?!
To salutes and salutations. Exasperated by not knowing where I would be on my birthday (but then neither did I) the sisters have all greeted via text or email, and so have others. Thank you all. Just as we pulled away from the towpath at Brewood there was a twinkling flash, the startling blue and turquoise colours of a kingfisher arrowed past, low and straight. Soon after four, five, six high birds (kites?) soared and wheeled high above. I've been intrigued by greetings as we've moved about. Two more today: "Hello Pa," said one water hippy, whereas the gentleman gliding towards on a hire boat raised his boater and bade "Good morning". It was a very good morning and a good afternoon too.
Tomorrow onwards, northwards to Market Drayton.