Friday, 29 July 2011

Afloat again: out west and up north

Friday 22nd July: River Avon in Bath
    It was a reunion, this year in the lovely Georgian city of Bath, of "the Coven", the name so cruelly given to our pack of six (four sisters, two cousins) by the generation below. 
    Baby Sis had requested suggestions for activities post arrival in Bath and pre-dinner, so Boatwif had dutifully researched some options... How surprised she was that the idea of a late afternoon boat trip was so well received. Coven members had checked into their centrally located hotel (summarised by one as "shabby chic without the chic") and needed to start the weekend gathering. The trip was a mere 60 minutes out and back cruise, from the historic Pulteney Bridge (shops built above a bridge) to pretty Bathampton and back.
    Weary from our respective journeys we clambered aboard a double decked sightseeing boat. The river water splashed neatly over the distinctive horse-shoe shaped weir below the bridge, the boat moored just above it. Why sit under cover when the warm sun was shining? In a line five of us sat on the top deck, Scottish Sis absent as yet but just about airborne from Inverness. As the boat got under way, passing under Pulteney Bridge and heading upstream past leafy gardens and below Georgian terraces, Senior Sis, Number 1 Cuz and Baby Sis sipped wine. "Why not," said one, "after all, we're on holiday!" Seriously dehydrated after their respective cross-country train journeys Brum Cuz and Boatwif (at that point) glugged down tea.
    The cruise chugs upstream, along the River Avon (one of eight English River Avons, apparently). This Avon rises in the southern Cotswolds and flows into the Severn at Bristol. There are glimpses of hillside, sometimes embroidered with honey coloured Bath buildings, sometimes lined with dark green trees and patches of bright green field. The river twists and turns; other sightseeing craft are seen, as are punts roped up in line ready for a busy Saturday. At Bathampton the noise of roaring water deafens the deckhand's commentary. Then powerful bow thrusters are deployed to turn the boat just in front of the weir, which some eight feet in height stretches across the river.  Above it an ancient pub, tollhouse and water wheel are attractive tourist draws. It was here, gazing at such close quarters at the weir, that Senior Sis consigned a spare camera battery to the waters below!
    This can be kingfisher and otter territory but neither species was spotted. Willows trail into the water. Somewhere on the south bank a small rowing boat was tied up at the end of a garden, just the craft for a gentle afternoon's book-reading  session. The babble of voices rose and fell: there was an English commentary but all manner of languages spoken by the other passengers signified the international appeal of this World Heritage city. Back through Pulteney Bridge, more roars from the bow thrusters and with mere millimetres to spare it seems the boat is turned and tucked back into its mooring spot above the weir, ready for its next load of visitors.
    By mid-evening the five plus Scottish Sis were again by the river, rain-sodden now - gazing at the miracle of the rabbit escapologist, but that's an entirely different tale...

Wednesday 27th July: around the Farne Islands, off the Northumberland Coast
    It was Techno Son-in-Law's idea, a birdwatching boat trip around the offshore islands, he, the Cheshire One and Boatwif.  Tickets bought, layered up in windproofs, the threesome headed the queue at the top of the slipway at Seahouses harbour.  The boat arrived, an open craft fit for about fifty passengers. Storms had called off all boat trips over the previous four or five days so with calm seas now and fair visibility this was a popular trip. Out of the double harbour the boat headed, straight for the islands. An early and warm spring has meant departure already for some of the Farne islands' nesting birds. The boat approached birds bobbing on the sea, puffins, shags, and common and  Arctic terns. It was slowed while dozens of cameras and binoculars were focused. Onward: then seals hove into view, two enormous females basking on the rocks of a small island, many pups bobbing inquisitively in the sea. Further out the boat motored to sea stacks, now inhabited only by shags and kittiwakes, the 30,000 guillemots having already departed.     Next on towards Longstone, its massive red and white lighthouse built in the 1830s highly visible. Here the well known story of 7th September 1838 was regaled, of how the young Grace Darling and her lighthouse keeper father twice rowed through heavy seas to rescue a total of thirteen people from the shipwrecked Forfarshire.
    The circuit of the group of fifteen islands continued (twenty eight at low tide).  Attention was drawn to the pretty plump eider ducks bobbing on the flat grey sea and the boat then headed past the island with the stone tower (first light, lit by paraffin) and Grace Darling's childhood home. An hour ashore was allowed on the last island, Inner Farne. National Trust membership cards gave the trio free access. Wardens urged day trippers to walk only between the blue ropes.  The beach teemed with terns of various different types, feeding on and being fed sand eels. The noise of the birds was intense, though not harsh.  inside the tiny chapel a Grace Darling  memorial stone recalls the Victorian heroine. Here the Cheshire One skulked, reluctant to become food for the low flying birds. "Put your hood up," advised Boatwif.  "Anyway, birds don't usually go for red coloured food!" Boatwif's role in this trip was just becoming apparent: Techno Son-in-Law was unloading gadgetry from his rucksack: a telescope, a tripod and binoculars to add to camera and i-phone. Keep the Cheshire One safe and happy!
    A board walk leads around the island to various viewpoints. A strong smell, not totally unpleasant, of fish and seaweed, assaulted the nose. The young terns huddled on the ground,  waiting to be fed. Holes in the turf indicated puffin nests. Out on the cliff behind the solar-powered lighthouse black shags preened themselves in seaweed nests and kittiwakes clung to tiny ledges. A razorbill closely guarded its sickly offspring. While the Techno Dad conducted precision photography the Cheshire One scoured the ground. Treasure! A feather and a rabbit's bone were her island souvenirs.
    A fast trip back to Seahouses: sunlight flashed over Bamburgh Castle, further north Lindisfarne Castle was visible on the pinnacle of Holy Island. Mission very successfully achieved.
    It was a good Wednesday morning riding on the North Sea - and a good Thursday morning too, splashing and paddling in that same North Sea...!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Running away to sea

15th-18th July: MK Marina to Slapton and back, 18 locks total.
    “Did you have many adventures then, when you were away on your boat?” asked a friend last week.

“Well, there was a breakdown and the business with the fence pole jammed in the propeller, but not really Adventures...” Boatwif then went into paroxysms of delight as she recalled the three theatre productions, the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, the vast views across the Severn Estuary. Time (or amnesia) has obviously healed the scar of the Mr Angry episode at Nafford Lock on the Lower Avon as that didn’t come to mind. (see ). Above all memories now are of unexpected conversations, of nosing around unfamiliar locations and the satisfaction of getting the boat up (or down) a number of locks.

Since being berthed in Milton Keynes we had slept at home in our own bed for all of nine nights when the opportunity and a reason for a weekend boat escape arose. Plans for day trips with friends needed to be translated into reality. How far could we get from Milton Keynes Marina? More to the point, where could Cleddau be turned round? So, on Friday afternoon a few supplies and the waterproofs were thrown into the car and off we sped to Milton Keynes. Before 5 o’clock Cleddau was out of her moorings and heading south along the Grand Union. The first wave of weekend hire boats from Leighton Buzzard surged towards us. One helmsman engaged panic mode on seeing a bridge, over–corrected his course, battered the bridge, reversed, lined up again and weaved his way through. The second wave of hirers was altogether more alarming. It wasn’t just the pirate outfits and flags (a cliché now) or that both boats were crewed entirely by alpha males or that most of the crew members were clutching beer cans or even that several of the crew were standing on the boats’ roofs. No, it was their determination to travel together, side by side, slewing and weaving their way along the canal...

Cleddau passed in the opposite direction, collision averted. Not much further on a towpath stone caught the eye: To the Thames: 55 miles. Would that we could just keep going, up over the Chilterns, then downhill to the Thames – and out to sea. A glorious evening it was, sunny, balmy and bliss to be afloat and out of earshot of traffic, if not of the trains. But towpath talk was of the weekend’s weather forecast, of the steady unrelenting rain to come.

Why then, in that steady unrelenting rain on Saturday morning, did Boatwif and the Captain even untie the boat from its mooring above Stoke Hammond Lock?  It was something to do with the Green Bag (into which all day and bed time reading gets pushed) which had not appeared on the boat but was still, pointlessly, positioned in the car.  A weekend without newspapers?! It was also to do with the madness that makes the Cleddau crew enjoy moving their boat, pretty well regardless of the weather.  So, once gaitered and over-trousered, jacketed and peak-capped, the crew untied the boat and headed for the three locks at Soulbury. The lock side pub seating was deserted. Rain was sloshing down, puddles were deep lakes. A boat was coming down the locks, heading for the IWA Festival at Burton-on-Trent. In no particular hurry and preferring slow safety to rash speed the locks, gates and paths were treated with great respect. The ropes grew heavier by the minute as more and more water gathered in the twine. As Cleddau moved from the middle lock two boats emerged from the top lock. The hire boat careered about, crashing into both sides of the middle lock. Its partner boat withdrew, preferring to wait and to do the remaining locks singly rather than as a pair...

Once out of the top lock the territory was familiar, if rain-sodden. Between here and the florally enhanced Globe pub Boatwif and the Captain had walked last March, he trying out his GPS gadget. Here the land begins to rise to the left, the views widening. (  An increasingly wet hour or so later Leighton Lock was reached, where the Captain lay down on the sodden lock side to fish out a stray traffic cone. Saturated ropes: shrivelled fingers.  After yet another thundering downpour Tesco was reached – and once fresh newsprint was on board small gaps developed between the showers. There were new views now since last we came this way, perhaps some thirteen years ago.  Attractive warehouse style apartments have sprung up alongside the canal, old sand pits are now nature reserves, a new boatbuilding yard is in business. Then, at Grove Lock there is a modern pub, beyond it a new marina, moorings at right angles to the canal. We pressed on, recalling that soon favourite vistas should reappear.  Church Lock: here the pretty little church is now a private dwelling, its garden busy with small birds and a greedy grey squirrel. The next stretch, in past memories the quietest of places, was resonating with a public address system. Over a hedge horse trials were glimpsed, riders straining to sail over the jumps in fastest time. To one more lock, Slapton. Site of the London Gliding Club and the Whipsnade lion visible, the wind rustled the rushes of the Slapton sidepond.

Just above Slapton Lock Cleddau was turned around. A trip on the Thames would have to wait for another time...  An overnight mooring was found, just a five minute walk above Church Lock. The grass had been trampled down, by previous moorers maybe? And as we were banging in  the mooring pins a fisherman passed, laden with seat, kit and rods, his eyes narrowing it seemed at our activity. A pleasant evening, a good night’s sleep, a lazy start. Then, still in night gear, on Sunday morning, a peek through an offside curtain confirmed the delight of being afloat: a wide expanse of water, a curiously new view of a boat some hundred yards ahead. REALISATION - this was not the view last night. We were adrift, cast out on an open sea! The back end, the engine end of the boat, was right across the canal, only the bow rope remained attached. CREW ALERT: boots with no socks, jumper with no underwear, out onto the towpath. The Captain scrambled into the engine room, retrieved the stern rope and pin from the water, coaxed the engine into life, set the tiller to port and worked the boat back towards the bank. Was the ground so soft from the rains that the pin became loose? Did a boat come by fast and its bow wave dislodge the mooring pin? Or did a mooring in that spot engage the wrath of local anglers who crept by in the night and pulled out the pin...?

Since running away to sea had proved somewhat alarming it was comforting that the rest of Sunday, a return cruise back to below Stoke Hammond Lock, proved less stressful, well apart from the “Excuse me Madam” tap on the arm from the Tesco security officer (whose job is it to take security tags off items? the customer’s?) and the three mile long fishing competition from the Globe to Soulbury.  So slowly we had crept along, every ten yards a hunched figure surrounded by an elaborate display of kit.

“I don’t want to damage your rod,” said the Captain to one.

“Oh, you won’t do that,” was the reply, “just you watch, we’ll look after them, they cost three grand a time.”

By 10 am on Monday Cleddau was tucked up, back in her temporary berth, missions achieved for her crew. Notes had been made of where to turn a boat and for a moment or two, during a mini unanticipated adventure, it had really seemed that we “had run away to sea”!

Monday, 4 July 2011

In dock – at Milton Keynes

Monday July 4th: Stoke Hammond – Milton Keynes Marina,  5 miles, 1 lock (See final journey stats below)

            There was a skype session last night with the Californian Clan, they just back from a Florida vacation. There was Cal Son, Cal Toddler bouncing on his knee, Cal Guy peeping from behind.

            "Where are you, Grampy?" (the last word sounding as "Graamp-ee" to the British ear.)
            "On my boat," replied Grampy / the Captain.
            "Are you in dock?" enquired Cal Guy.
            "No, tied up on the towpath."
            "So do you mean you're in dock...?"

The canal and its towpath concept was hard to visualise so the Captain, using techno super-skill and super-length extension cable on the detachable video camera clambered out through the front doors, off the front deck and pointed the camera at the mooring rope, chain and towpath.

            "So you're floating?" came the next incredulous question. Yes, and that was the last night of "floating" after 38 days. Cal Guy was full of his vacation, especially seeing the last ever space shuttle on its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. He had visited a place famous in the history of space travel, seen a moon lander and touched moon rock. As Boatwif this morning prepared Fenny Lock for Cleddau to pass through a date was spotted: 1802. Transport history from a very different era!

            It took just under two hours to reach Milton Keynes Marina. The Sunday boat rush was totally absent, the only signs of life a heron gazing at the water, a tern (?) diving, catching a fish and feeding on the wing, a canoeist and the bulky hotel broad beam boat pushing through a bridge hole. Before midday Cleddau was manoeuvred into her temporary mooring - and in rising temperatures the sorting out and unloading began. New boat neighbours seem very friendly, and one, (wait for it Pembrokeshire readers, it's a 'Monkton Moment') admitted to having run The Jolly Sailor at Burton in her past...!

            So, with Cleddau "in dock", the crew firmly ashore, Boatwif will be suspending both her tiller and her keyboard action for a while – until, of course, there is another boating adventure...

Cruise Statistics
Miles from Poynton to Milton Keynes:            311

Number of locks:                                         234
Number of tunnels:                                          6                 
Number of canals (in part or total):                   6
Number of rivers:                                            2
Breakdowns:                                                  1
Theatre productions:                                       3
Cathedrals visited:                                          2
Stately homes:                                               1
Churches and museums:                           unrecorded

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Well groomed...

Sunday 3rd July, Stantonbury Park, MK to Stoke Hammond, 11 miles, 1 lock

                With no need to rush anywhere today it was a slow start. By the time Cleddau was ready to leave her mooring a convoy of four other boats had passed. It is Sunday: regular weekenders, long distance boaters, weekend hirers, Leighton Buzzard holiday boats, day boats, double width boats – and a chap in an inflatable dinghy rowing his children to the pub at Fenny Lock – all were out to play. In short, travel was slow, but not that it mattered. Much of the Grand Union through Milton Keynes passes through miles and miles of well-tended public space: tall plane trees, wide cycle paths, parks, play areas, finely mown grass areas, lakes. Floral edges announce Campbell Park and the screams and yells of childish delight may well have been coming from the Go Ape Tree Adventure Zone at Willen Park. Not only are the parks well groomed, so also are the swans, their cygnets and the pair of horses being exercised along a path. Cyclists dominate the towpath, but occasionally family fishing parties include small girls and young mothers. An unexpected conclusion reached is that this seems to be an area enthusiastic about solar power, both on properties and on boats.

                Somewhere, towards the centre of Milton Keynes, a notice on a bridge (Bridge 82?) announces where the junction of the new Bedford – MK Waterway will be. At Peartree Bridge  drivers can take the road route from the south up to the shopping centre (MK Centre). Hereabouts is the MK Marina, the entrance area rather scruffier than other parts of the canal. May this not be an indicator of the how the marina is operated... We cruised past, ready for one last night of towpath mooring.

                At Fenny Stratford crew memories were revived: this area was Cleddau’s home territory between 1996 and 1999. We had remembered the small drop (13”) of the Fenny Stratford lock, but forgotten the pedestrian swing bridge across it. There is much new building along the canal in Bletchley. But the canal side boatyard at Willowbridge is as busy as ever. To the south the land begins to rise and there are glimpses of the steeply wooded slopes around Aspley Guise and Little Brickhill. Soon the canal heads on towards Stoke Hammond, the environment becoming steadily more rural.  As we crept towards the turning point, about a hundred or so metres before the Stoke Hammond lock, a steady drum beat could be heard. The volume grew louder: guitars, vocals. Round the corner just by a fine full-size Dutch barge a garden party was in full swing with live musicians, gazebos, seating. People were drifting about with drinks or seated in clusters. Slowly Cleddau was winded round to face back towards the city while the lyrics hung in the air: “... lazy on a summer’s afternoon...” 

                Moored up what else was there to do but pluck some mint and pour a couple of Pimm’s!