Sunday, 30 June 2013

Bells, brides and buskers

Moored in Bancroft Basin, Stratford-upon-Avon
          First to the brides referred to yesterday. Above the cacophony yesterday afternoon of laughter and applause coming from the large crowd surrounding the fire-torch juggling unicyclist, church bells could be heard. The delicate spire of Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, soars upwards above the riverside scenery. This prominent graceful landmark draws thousands of visitors each year, being “probably England’s most visited Parish Church,” according to its website Its bells were ringing on Saturday afternoon and curiosity drew Boatwif towards the church. There was a pause at a performance in the park (more later) before there were whispers of “brides”. A fleet of wedding cars was assembled outside the church - and a bride was just choosing her vehicle.
          “When’s the next bride?” a passer-by asked her companion. Was this another entertainment event, performances about or by brides? Crowds lined the long pathway to the church expectantly. And within minutes another bride had arrived (late apparently) for a 3pm wedding. Two jolly chaps in top hats preceded the bride’s nervous mother. Then came the full bridal retinue.
Adjustments were made for photos, a bridal veil pulled over the pretty face and then came a long wait. Would the crowds along the path hear the bride announced by a triumphant organ? No, she glided in to the tuneful drones of a bagpipe...
           All of Stratford’s a stage (to misquote the Bard). The unicyclist has done at least three other performances: his pitch is the grass area on the RSC side of the wide lock leading down to the Avon.
On a hot midsummer weekend there is performance and spectacle everywhere: guided tours in Stratford’s streets, musicians busking,
huge bubbles being dispatched across the basin by eager bubble-blowing children, rowers under training, canoeists, pontoon pleasure boats, the hand-turned chain ferry.
While the strains from a brass band playing at the bandstand floated across the river this afternoon, Venus and Adonis, a narrative poem, was being brought to life in a dramatised production by the Shakespeare Young Company.
           All day long folk have thronged along the paved areas outside the theatres, browsing and buying, tasting and eating from Stratford’s Sunday “UpMarket”.
         If fatigued by what to do or watch or eat there's always somewhere to sit down.
          Back beside the boats late afternoon there was entertainment of a different kind. The statues behind the boat draw endless attraction. A young boy posed beside Hamlet, his football held as a skull...
Boaters from the next berth came on board, specifically for a guided tour of the composting loo – and then two French ladies politely asked to see aboard. That was a more general tour, with no specific reference to the bathroom throne; they returned gratefully twenty minutes later with a gift of cupcakes.
          As for tomorrow – a trip is planned to the RSC Box Office and after 48 hours moored here, a trip down onto the river for an overnight mooring – as well as cupcake eating, of course!


Saturday, 29 June 2013

Trains and boats and locks - and brides

‘Canalorak’ readers – skip to paragraph 2*.
         Boatwif’s childcare mission was accomplished just after midday on Friday when she was the sole passenger to leave the train at Wootton Wawen’s request stop. On Wednesday a kindly Walsall–bound couple had guided her (via Debenhams second floor perfume department in the Bullring) from Moor Street Station to Birmingham New Street Station.  On Friday a kindly gent offered help in finding the way out of the New Street maze:  when it was apparent that the wrong end of the bridge concourse had been reached he sighed and said “Well, it’s the blind leading the blind...” The eyes were sufficiently open though on the crowded concourse to see Superman (X3), plus a Batman and a Robin, all hastening somewhere (probably to a Stag Do!) Somehow the exit was found and somehow, aided by signposts (until they all but disappeared) and by one enquiry, Moor Street Station was found again, with ten minutes spare to catch the onward train.  During Thursday Boatwif and the Cheshire One had amused themselves well.  On Friday morning, In monsoon conditions, the Cheshire One was back at school, dressed for the day in her twenties outfit.
The school is celebrating its centenary and for this week each year group is focusing on the art and fashion of a prescribed decade.

           *The train route to Macclesfield goes via Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent. Heading north through Birmingham there were frequent sightings from the train of a wide straight canal (the Main Line?); there were classic lattice-patterned canal bridges, canal loops to warehouses and wharves; there was a glimpse of a lock at Wolverhampton (the Wolverhampton 21?), there was a lock at Stone, boats moored at Barlaston, the wide Trent and Mersey passing through Stoke, a snatched view of Hardings Wood Junction at Kidsgrove, the sensation of paralleling the Biddulph Valley Aqueduct as the train glides over the viaduct above Dane-in-Shaw Pasture...  Yet again a train journey has been a reminder of how canal routes preceded the advent of the railway!
          Back then to the watery road: Friday afternoon allowed for three hours cruising further downhill from Wootton Wawen, vital stats: 4.83 miles, 9 locks, 2 aqueducts.  The first aqueduct at Wootton Wawen
crosses above a road through the village
while the second one is altogether more impressive. Edstone Aqueduct soars above farmland and a road and railway lines.
Last seen in January during a memorably muddy walk, on Friday two trains rattled below and ducks fussed in the water in front of the boat.
 By 5pm eight of Wilmcote’s 11 locks had been completed
(hey, that’s the bench where a picnic lunch was eaten in January)
and the boat moored up for the evening...
Saturday: 2.25 miles, 8 locks. There’s a certain point on the Wilmcote Flight when a long white modern building hoves into view, it’s the first inkling that the canal is changing from a rural to an urban environment.
Initially this morning just dog walkers passed by as Cleddau’s descent continued, then another boat, then small groups of people. Patrick (about 7), his dad and baby sister shadowed the boat down the locks and at the last one young Patrick took a guided tour and rode on the back deck with Boatwif. On every previous occasion this way the pounds out of the town have been short of water but not so today. “Someone left a back paddle open up the top of Wilmcote last night,” explained a lock keeper. “”That’s why there’s so much water down here.”
          The last stretch into the town inches past apartments towards a low road bridge – and then you emerge into Bancroft Basin,
a riot of colour and seething with activity. On today’s summery afternoon crowds filled the seats overlooking the basin, gathered around a street entertainer, lay on the grassy lawns in front of the theatre, thronged past the finger pontoons. Moored on  a boat in Bancroft Basin you become part of the  Stratford scene, you are the performer, taking questions from many in any number of languages –  and today one particular reply had to be made: “No, madam, sorry, we are not a trip boat. Try down on the river!”

           As for the brides in the title – that will wait until tomorrow...

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Downhill on the Stratford Canal

TUESDAY: Hockley Heath to Preston Bagot, 7 miles, 33 locks 
          “Yes please!” was the reply to two separate canal volunteers today when help was offered. There were two draw bridges
in the first mile and then after the next mile the locks started.
Down through the first Lapworth lock and a gentleman in tweed jacket appeared.  He wore a C&RT Volunteer badge but “lived locally”. In fact he lives in the cottage below the first lock where his wife, daughter of a canal company carpenter, was born. He had run a hotel boat for 25 years and although his volunteering day is on Sundays he just pops out most days to see what’s going on. Hidden by the tweed jacket was a windlass – so he helped the boat through a couple of locks. Intriguingly he spoke with a trace of an American accent:  he’d been born and brought up in Massachusetts.
          No boats approached for quite a while so the crew developed a two at a time routine whereby the Captain did the heavier winding and gate-pushing while Boatwif steered and dealt with rear ground paddles and back gates.  Initial impressions: Lapworth, village of pretty properties, a cricket ground next to the canal; Lapworth Flight: strong flow of water from the by-washes which can push a vessel in an unintended direction.
          At about the tenth lock a long procession approached. Led by the local vicar and a steward bearing a tall pole, two classes of school children (Years 3 and 5) were tracing the walk pupils used to make between school and church.

 Cleddau and crew became the visual aid, the vicar providing a teaching commentary. “Nice radio,” said a lad, looking into the engine room. It’s elderly but his remark sounded genuine enough.
           On down the locks: at the 18th lock another (uniformed) lock keeper offered help. It was just above Kingswood Junction – still unfamiliar territory.
There are permanent moorings, the cut through to the Grand Union, some C&RT buildings (rubbish disposal point) and separately a white barrel-roofed cottage beside which is the elsan point and then the start of the Southern Stratford locks. A guide and helper at that point proved very useful...
          The territory is at least familiar south of the Junction: the barrel-roofed cottages,
the split bridges to allow horse towing ropes to pass through without unhooking,
the reminders of how this canal was restored,
the leafy overhangs, the ducks that own a lockside,
the Fleur de Lys pub,
the aqueducts (little Yarningale today)
– even the roar from the M40.
On the cruise went.
           There’s about a third of a mile between locks 35 and 36. Go through lock 36 and you’re committed to locks 37 and 38. A day had to be called, a mooring found. It’s isolated here, only a runner has passed by but voices drift across the canal from a rugby training session nearby. You hear a lot about poor broadband signal in rural areas – just like here! Despite the lashing together of more poles than ever before to create a tall mast
there is no signal, hence a day’s delay in posting this blog...           Why the madness to complete so many locks in a day? It’s a slow boat to an express train. Thursday sees “industrial action” in balloted schools in the north west, so Boatwif needs to get to Macclesfield to do childcare duty with the Cheshire One. There’ll be a yomp to Wootton Wawen station on Wednesday afternoon, several changes of train but there's the pleasure of a Techno-cooked supper and a Cheshire One hug to look forward to.
          For Pembrokeshire readers – no Monkton Moments* recently, but how about this boat name:

(Should be back on the boat some time on Friday: look out for the next post on Saturday).

WEDNESDAY: 3 miles, 3 locks. Moored at Wootton Wawen, ready to hike to the request stop railway station and set off for Macclesfield via Birmingham...


Monday, 24 June 2013

Four-tunnel day

Tardebigge to Hockley Heath, 18.27 miles, 4 tunnels, 1 open stop lock
        First Mate delivered the Cleddau crew back from Bromsgrove to the boat at Tardebigge New Wharf this morning. Unloading of weekend gear and the top up food shop was quickly completed, a top up of water followed – and then it was off – off along the summit level of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Within 10 yards there was tunnel number 1, Tardebigge Tunnel,
a 580 yard* starter for the day. After a winding mile long stretch through a tree-lined cutting came tunnel number 2, Shortwood Tunnel (613 yards).
The next four miles or so takes the canal past Alvechurch Marina (and some delightful moorings),
under the M42 (for the first time, there was a second one later), past the rather lovely Lower Bitell Reservoir,
through Hopwood – to the next tunnel. This one, Wast Hill, is a big one.
It had been the Cleddau crew’s first ever tunnel, on a hire boat from Stratford-upon-Avon, way back in 1989. So scared had the would-be Captain been on the stern that he had kept the little hire boat (the Angela Jane) creeping oh so slowly along the right hand wall.  A voice from a boat behind had hailed:
        “Are you alright? Is there a problem?”
         “First time in a tunnel, just scared...” had been the back deck reply.
         This morning Cleddau approached Wast Hill tunnel and a pinprick of light glowed in the far dark distance.
On the towpath stood a German family holding on to boat ropes, waiting, waiting... Greenery covered the tunnel signs.
          “It is two way,” called the Captain encouragingly – and Cleddau plunged into 2726 yards of blackness. How well Salty’s new tunnel light on the cratch board spreads its light. The boat purred through the tunnel, passing two other boats coming south. How high was the roof! How wide was the channel! Veterans now of the seriously long one-way tunnels at  Harecastle and the Standedge! Users now of the timed tunnels on the northern Trent and Mersey! Wast Hill now seems, well, a motorway in contrast to a country back lane!
           On the cruise went: to King’s Norton, the suburbs of Birmingham, a right turn at the Junction and on to the Stratford-on-Avon Canal.  In less than a mile came the final tunnel of the day, Brandwood Tunnel,
a mere 352 yards. Some tunnels are wetter inside than others, but all are cool. “Going through the tunnel?” a lady boater had asked at Hopwood before Wast Hill. “It was sooooo coooold in there yesterday.” It may be late June, but having hat and gloves close by can be useful!
           Other than tunnels what of today’s curiosities? Well, there was the bridge on the Birmingham outskirts with a metal plate built into the brickwork
– handy for fire crews in WW2 to access an easy water source. Then there was the guillotine stop lock at King’s Norton.
The gates are fixed open now but originate from when rival canal companies protected their water levels.  A complicated pylon caught the eye:
functional, presumably, but not pretty!
         The Shirley Draw Bridge was a delight,
turn key, press button and result! Barriers down, bridge up, boat passes through...          The Nicholson’s Waterway Guide (new edition 2006) shows Dickens Heath as a rural area: it was a surprise then to see new apartments and water tumbling tidily down a designer water feature.
         Along the north Stratford there were two very sleek cruisers,

sports cars came to mind.  Then, moored up late this afternoon at Hockley Heath, there was time for a quick look around. Is this a smart money area? Across the road is a McLaren showroom...
Notices proudly announce success in Britain in Bloom competitions – and it’s reassuring to know that the object perched on the canal bridge ahead is a firmly fixed flower planter
- and not a casket of missiles to lob at unsuspecting boaters passing below...
      Onward tomorrow to Kingswood Junction, to join the southern Stratford Canal and to get as close to Wootton Wawen as possible.
     *Tunnel distances given in yards, as in the Waterways Guide, though portal plaques are now displaying distances in metres.