In the swing

The locks at Marsworth, combined with the nature reserves, canal reservoirs and of course the pubs make for a busy and attractive day out for many, and a favourite overnight stop for boaters. However it a relief to leave it all behind along with the junction with the Aylesbury arm which gradually descends to that ancient lace making town.

But there are times when boating alone does raise some anticipation, and this stretch gives rise to such a time. As the canal passes down through a few locks one can spot the Whipsnade Park chalk lion on the hillside, a sure sign that one is approaching Pitstone and with it the swing bridge.

Image result for swing bridge pitstone

If one didn’t know differently one would have to say these were designed by some sadist in an office who really did not like bargees, especially those who travel alone. And it is not only me, only this week I asked a professional boat mover how he handled them. His face grew serious and down cast. He eyed me from below bushy eyebrows in silence for a moment then said purposefully, “with some difficulty”, then changed the subject.

So many families and other groups see these as a bit of a novelty, open and close them and go on their way. So what’s the issue?

Well, I guess to keep the tow path clear for the towing horses the bridges are operated from the off side, whilst the mooring points are on the tow path side. That is OK if the single hander can walk on water (it doesn’t work for me, I’ve tried). If you are lucky there is one bollard on the off side to which you can tie one end of the boat. You can guarantee that the hedge is overgrown, with thorny things of course, and that the wind in blowing away from that bank. So you stop the boat just short of the bridge, shimmy along the outside with a rope to the front where you jump off, if you have not already been snatched off by the thorny hedge.

Then tie up and heave the bridge out of the way. Reverse the shimmy and drive through and tie the back of the boat to a bollard, if you are lucky or to the bridge and get ready to close the bridge.

Meanwhile another boat appears with a family, waving and saying thank you who go happily on their way which starts a) your boat to moving diagonally across the cut and b) your blood pressure rising as you think unkind thoughts about them for not realising your difficulty.

Then you close the bridge while shoving the upteen tons of boat out of the way, gather your wits and through gritted teeth say thanks to the walker who has just turned up on the farm track and says ”I would have done that for you.”

Well it is all part of the fun, I suppose.


Ancient routes

Heading northwards the canal passes some pretty ancient sites. North of Watford is Berkhamsted a mere thirteen miles by car, an hour by bike or ten hours and 25 locks by boat. There the canal passes close by the ancient site of the castle given to William the Conqueror’s brother. Originally a wooden fort it then had a typical moat and bailey with stone keep. It is now mainly in ruins but still stands in contrast to the rail and canal as they pass by.

Along the canals are water points. These are places to moor whilst filling up with drinnking water from stand pipes. They are rarely in convenient places to stop because when first installed water pipe would have been expensive lead pipes thus they are often located close to lock cottages or other dwellings. Filling up at Berkhamsted I met two of our Waterways Chaplains who walk the towpath on a regular basis, looking to help those in need of practical or spiritual aid. It was pleasant to chat to them but reminded me that I was not going to be doing much of that for the next few weeks whilst cruising.

A few locks further on one gets to the pumping station at Northchurch. This was used to maintain waters in the canal which at this point is above any significant inflows from rivers as it climbs towards the summit.

The summit is reached at Cowroast. This small hamlet has older origins than the Normans, dating back to Roman and even bronze age settlements. The name is probably derived from Cow Rest, a place where drovers could graze their cattle on the route south. Thus this is evidence that generations have used this cutting through the surrounding hills as a route south. The canal, the east coast rail line and the A41 trunk road all pass through this gap.


Getting through this last lock upwards leads to several miles of relief from locks. The canal has gradually climbed for 30 miles through 45 locks from the outskirts of London. With the prospect of gradually dropping onto the Aylesbury vale one feels that one has at last put the metropolis behind and quieter days await.


Turning north

Hello folk, I’m still here, hope you are still out there. Writing these blogs is a bit like stepping out on a stage with the spot lights in your face, the house lights out and the audience silent. Although the actor may appear to be looking at the audience to be honest they can not see a thing. Unless they raise a laugh, hear a cough or worse hear that dreaded mobile phone ring they do not know for sure if there is anybody out there at all.

Well not to worry, the muse has again fallen on me and Gentle Breeze has been up north so it is time I sent a few posts out, whether or not you are there. Forgive me while I pause and consider the literal interpretation of a Greek muse falling upon me.

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OK, now back to the real world.

Gentle Breeze has been on quite a journey of which I will fill you in but first to say that although not an ideal solution to CO2 emission I have at least offset the boat’s usage by contribution to reforestation through Climatecare. That is the serious bit over and all that I am going to say about it here.


On a less serious note I took the boat to both the Little Venice, Paddington and Rickmansworth festivals this year. There was lots of boat dressing up and Gentle Breeze (GB) wanted to join in but did look like she was pouting when adorned with eyelashes and lipstick.


After the festivals I began to cruise northwards, although cruising for me always ends up as a slow motion dash due to some deadline or other. Watford residents may well be familiar with the grounds of the Grove hotel which was once the residence of the Earl of Clarendon. Fewer are familiar with the cream teas that they apparently serve, I am told they are pricey but very nice. The Grand Union canal wends its way through the grounds, with the river flowing in and out of it. E are told that when the canal was built in the late 1700’s the Earl insisted it meandered and that the new bridges were decorative. Hence we see here one of the most ornate bridges over the canal in the vicinity.


I often wonder how many notice the juxtaposition of some poverty stricken boaters moored no more than 40 feet from the golfers in the grounds, with their buggies, fancy clothes and helicopters by which quite a few of them arrive.

Now having adorned my boat with eye lashes I can not pass too much comment on this one. I normally spot it in London, but it seems to have made a visit into rural Watford. It leaves me speechless. More of the journey to the Midlands in the next posting.


A ride and back

Summer had truly arrived and the day could not be denied a cycle ride thus a purpose was devised as an excuse to treat the day. A dianthus, abundant in flower and scent, was placed with care in the bike bag, a small token for a gravely ill lady. But first a visit to the boat to collect a prayer magnet for her fridge.

The water flowed sloth slow past the boat which was lazily shifting in the mid day sun. Magpie arguments and robin trills gave backdrop to the gentle rustle of lime green leaves, barely out of their spring fresh furls.

Passing boats had made her restless and she had pulled at her mooring pins, loose in the drought parched towpath turf. I bent with club hammer tap to them further in, one by one. The natural sounds were cut through by the toign, toign, toign of hammer blows, echoing off the old school flint wall.

The job easily completed with little effort I straightened, or tried to, as all nature’s greens, blues and browns exploded like a mad kaleidoscope and sounds were muted as my back expressly desired that I refrain from standing straight. I could not, can not, understand what had brought on this stubbornness, this ingratitude for being taken for an afternoon ride. Although I remonstrated with it, it remained inflexible, it would not resume its normal service today.

Boat pinned back and fridge magnet retrieved I shuffled off, no not off this mortal coil, but off the towpath to the road. History has taught me and reminded many times that the bike is more forgiving of an injury that shank’s pony. However at times like this I do wish I had the saddle lower. First the hobble to get to the kerb, then the shuffle to get the feet in position, then the leg lift and stretch, will it go or will it just go off like one of those small elastic bands too small for the job in hand? Ah the relief to sit, pedal and enjoy easy movement again.

So off to Ricky by road, a climb in sun then past shady horse chestnut trees, just losing their spring blossom. A drop, a climb, then the swoop down, past the speed camera, trying to get it to picture me, alas three miles per hour too slow.

And so to meet and greet the boaters, to get tea and cake at the lock side cafe and chat in the shade along the towpath.

“Ahh” they think, “here comes a lean and fit cyclist”. Then I alight and shuffle like a penguin, both of us being creatures best suited to a different mode of travel. “Ohh” they then think, “see how bad cycling is for you”.

And so, purposes fulfilled, ride completed, that is why I sit here this evening, watching the sunset on one of the warmest days of the year so far, leaning against, a hot water bottle.

Oh happy days


As one tow path rambler put it, “ it’s a grand day for it”. A sunny ride down the path, stopping to chat to boaters sitting out with mugs of builder’s tea and a cheery “OK?”, “yeah, you?” when passing the boater with a can of lager in his hand. An almost idyllic day to go and finish off fixing the leak on my boat.
Rolling up at the boat there was immediately something amiss, or rather missing, the chimney had gone. Instead of the black and, admittedly dirty, brass flue there was just a sooty hole in the roof.
Now vandalism and petty theft is pretty annoying but when a fellow boater takes an important part of the boat it leaves a feeling of being betrayed and even violated.


As it was but is no more

It is not that I often have things stolen, and most of the time it has been small things that I can hardly remember. There was the old bike when at uni. My Welsh grand mother declared “well I hope he falls off under a bus!”. Not very forgiving I thought, and it might wreck my bike spoiling any chance of getting it back. Then there was my maroon coloured Conway Stuart fountain pen, nicked by someone in the third year of secondary school. I liked that pen, not that I hold grudges for long, but come on! And my PE kit, Mum was not very happy that I “lost” that, nor was I.
But nicking someone’s chimney on what is going to be a cold night is a bit rich. Perhaps the perpetrator could not afford a new one, so if I consider it a charitable, albeit involuntary, donation then it does not hurt so much. And it gives me chance to get a new one.
I put it out of my mind and fixed the leak. I ate diner and when darkness crept in decided that the boat was too cold and damp to stay so decided to ride home. It is quite peaceful to ride in the quiet and dark along the tow path following the small pool of light. The owls were calling to each other, now and then a sudden rustle told of birds or small mammals moving away from the path. The rush of water through the leaky locks showed as dull grey waterfalls down the gates. This all somewhat redressed the balance of the low point of finding the chimney gone.
Cycling in the dark, alongside a barely visible drop into deep cold water raises the senses. Of those senses the ability to feel the precise track of the bike, each bump and stone on the path, the sound of the tyre on the grit is so important yet familiar. When that suddenly feels like riding over deep raw pastry it only takes seconds to realise something else is not so good. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s two miles to home and yes the front tyre is flat. I had noticed this morning that the contractors had been out trimming the undergrowth. A thorn had gone through the side wall of the puncture resistant tyre.
Ahh well , worse things happen, a walk to a road to find better light, change the tube and pump it up and home again for a warm cuppa, and to order a new chimney. I think I will have chrome bands this time, save all that polishing, I might even lock it on.

Big drip

Soap operas and other serials rely on some version of the cliff hanger to get their viewers (East Enders, not a fan), readers (Dickens original publications, can be hard work) or listeners (The Archers, I only hear it because Radio Four happens to be on at the time, honest) to come back for the next instalment. That is not what I am up to with this little saga of water inside, as well as outside, of the boat. This is just an update on progress, hopefully the last you may say.
The potentially leaking window has been tackled. Vactan, the rust to iron converter, has been applied followed by red oxide primer and top coat Union blue. The paint now has to dry completely before the silicone sealant is, reluctantly, applied. The inside is gradually drying out and it has not been possible to see the source. So today I decide to carefully detach the wall panel nearest the window to confirm the source of the leak. Careful detachment is not how I could accurately describe the removal of the sheet of plywood that has been there for 35 years and built over by subsequent refits. Gentle persuasion, turned into assertive prising which ended up as aggressive ripping out. But at least I had the answer, the source of the water was not the window. There was very little dampness, which could probably be further decreased by changing the loose fitting one inch polystyrene sheet to two inch sheets that there was room for.
I had shifted the toilet to get the board out and back again so popped it on a vinyl sheet in case, for some obscure reason like me not tightening clips up, its plumbing dripped.
Finishing up I made some soup and was about to take a rest when I spotted water ousing from under the lower bunk. To be honest it was dark against the bare boards and looked like one of the scenes from a murder story where the victim’s blood is coming out of a packing case, for example Keeping Mum with Maggie Smith, do watch it if you get chance.
This time it must be the plumbing. Yes I hadn’t adequately re-tightened the supply. I switched off the valve, and got a wet hand. Ehh? The valve shouldn’t be wet, it was not leaking yesterday when I checked it. Turn – dry, turn – wet, turn – dry, wet, wet, dry. Oh I get it, an intermittent leak on the water supply that is there when you are not looking and is not there when you check it. So it has been slowly dripping for weeks, but when it was frosty and I isolated it, it got worse. It may even have been distorted by being frozen but did not want to own up to me that it was knackered.
Problem solved just pop a new valve in, dry the place up, and re-seal the window just in case.

Floored by the floor

Well the good news is that there is no visible water below the floor boards, in board that is. Thus the boat is not sinking, but where is the water coming from?
One technique that I was taught was to ask opposing questions such as: where is the water, where isn’t the water; when does the water appear, when does the water not appear; who is around when there is water, who isn’t around when there is water. So let me thy that.
The water was on the floor not the ceiling, it appeared when I wasn’t looking and can’t be seen if I don’t look, the water is there when I am and I haven’t got a clue if it is there when I am not, but I guess that it is. I don’t think that method has helped for this problem.

So I tried another technique, i.e. what had changed just before the problem occurred. Well it was OK six weeks ago and since then it has been frosty, rainy, windy, I had moved the boat and I accidentally left it unlocked for a few days. So it could have been a frozen pipe, rain driven in through a vent or leaky window frame. It could have been some strange form of vandalism where the only damage is several litres of water poured on the carpet. Nope that method didn’t help either.
What if I could see where the water was coming from? The problem is that when you have a big patch of water stretching to the side walls and that patch is under a vent and also the toilet plumbing it could have come from any of these directions, as long as they were down hill. I pressurised the water system, oh joy no leaks but no help either. I sat as it rained and looked for drips from the vents, no. I felt around the windows, no. Then I heard it, the unmistakable drip, drip of water. At last I was on to it, like a detective flowing the trail of clues. I stealthily followed the sound, hardly daring to breath. Near the window, no a bit further back, towards the back, near the door, somewhere just up the steps. I followed it, by now I was putting my head out of the door, this can’t be right. Somewhere over the side maybe. Pushing my head between the canvas canopy I looked along the side of the boat and saw the rain drip, dripping into the canal. Yes, a false trail again.
It’s no good, the source has eluded me this time. So tomorrow I am arming myself with a gun and intend to bung up every little channel and crack that I can see on the outside with silicone sealant. And if that doesn’t do it I may consider solving the problem by mooring the boat in a deep part of the canal and drilling a big hole to let the water out.