GB, GB, GB

RIMG0167.JPG

After the unexploded grenade incident the rest of the journey back home was fairly uneventful, taking a mere ten days, ninety locks and three tunnels. However on the first day I did have a bit of a rude awakening caused by me not paying enough attention to signs and markers.

I was aware that we had a lot of rain, I was aware that there was a weir to avoid coming up soon and I had seen one sign that warned of it saying procedure with caution.

What I had not seen were any flood boards that indicated how high the canal and river was running.

Thus when I saw the weir on the left as the navigation took a sharp right I just carried on as normal ensuring I was keeping well to the right.

 

IMG_20190729_103647

“What a macho looking weir”, I thought. “Why not take a picture?”, I thought.

“Funny how a view finder gives an odd sense of movement, almost like one is crabbing along”, I thought.

I put the camera down, it still looked as though I was crabbing across the canal/river. In fact I was not making much headway against the current at all, having been caught almost broadside to it.

I throttled up, I steered right, I throttled some more, and slowly I made headway and was really glad to take the sharp left off the river back into the canal. I was met by a chap who told me that the boat in front of me had to be towed off the weir that morning. Pay attention Steve!

A couple of days later the alternator belt went. It only took 15 minutes to replace but I was so glad it had not broken on that short stretch of the Trent.

RIMG0184RIMG0178

Well that was the trip this summer.

I went down to the boat as summer drew to a close. It was time to decide what jobs needed doing before the winter. There was painting to do, oil change, frost prevention, rust treatment, etc etc.

When you have spent some 27 days on board mainly by oneself there is plenty of time to observe, listen and consider.

I’d seen so much wildlife and industrial age hardware, listened to the birds and chatted to the occasional person at locks, I’d had time away from the rat race for plenty of quiet reflection.

I had also experienced the effects of yet another dry winter resulting in low water levels.

There were the very many extra boats on the canal system with very large marinas being built for leisure boats and again the resulting reduction in water availability due to more “lock movements”.There are many poor quality boats that are the homes to boaters. I have seen one tiny nearly totally covered by a two man tent that serves as the only shelter.

I had listened to the moans of a few boaters about the canals and its management. Being of slightly nervous disposition I had listened to every slight variation in engine noise during the day and creaks, bubbles and splashes at night. I had also listened to the news. News of B***it, news of the weather, news of Brazilian forest fires and later on the news of the devastation caused in the Bahamas by hurricane Dorian

And I had thought a lot.

I thought about the 160 litres of diesel which I had used on the trip that had released about 422kg of carbon dioxide. One calculation suggests 7 tonnes of CO2 is equivalent to one mature tree. Of course one can plant lots of trees in a year, but they won’t take up that amount of CO2 for many years. Meanwhile we keep releasing it.

I thought about the 240 tonnes or so of water I let through each broad lock I negotiated. I will let you work out how much that was for this journey.

I thought about the places I did not see because I was moving the boat, the folk I did not talk to whilst I was on it.

I also kept thinking of the mantra, “Live simply so that others may simply live”.

I thought about my granddaughters, growing up in a world in environmental crisis, possibly asking “What did you do in the war against this crisis, Granddad?”

DSCN8785

Suddenly I knew the boat had to go. And it has gone.

It has been sold, it went where it was needed, it went with my blessing, and I hope whether or not it was God’s will, the outcome for the boat and me will be woven into His plan. If I write again it will not be centred on my boat.

So it’s GB all round. Good Bye Gentle Breeze, Good Bless all,

Almost the last leg

As the season is really over, the weather changed and summer drifts into a distant memory it is time to wind up this brief travelogue. It could have finished rather more dramatically as I shall explain but nevertheless was a significant journey for Gentle Breeze and me.

Due to the recent drought conditions and consequential lock closures I chose to take the longer route back home, down the Trent and Mersey canal, Coventry and the (north) Oxford. This entailed a further 22 miles but 18 locks less making the total return journey 340 miles and 251 locks. I started on the first really wet day for weeks. I was prepared to get wet and intended to keep going until late. Mid afternoon the rain eased as I cruised into Burton Upon Trent. A cormorant had learnt that boats disturb the fish and detritus so it was following my boat. Diving in close behind it and surfacing after I had gone some distance. It would continue to duck dive for a while then fly after the boat again, landing with feet splayed making its own bow wash before diving again in the search for cormorant snacks.

So there I was, beginning to dry out and relax, minding my own business, contemplating the eight to ten days ahead of me when I noticed a policemen waving his arm. I looked about and could see no one else, no other boaters, no pedestrians, not even a police dog. Nor did he appear to be on the the phone, you know like those folk who walk down the street talking into their concealed head set, waving their arms about to assist in some explanation or otherwise express their feelings to the unseen, unseeing recipient on the other end of their phone call. At least I assume they are on the phone, they could just be schizophrenic.

Eventually the policemen and I made eye contact and he asked me, in a very polite policeman way, to pull over. I thought briefly of saying “no, just you try to stop me”, but it dawned on me that he would not need blue lights or even a push bike to keep up, so I reluctantly pulled over to find out what this out-of-place official had against me. Had I passed through a canal speed camera at 4.5 miles per hour, or inadvertently taken a lock from an oncoming boat, the equivalent of jumping a red light perhaps, maybe he thought I was drunk in charge and wanted to breathalyse me. Fat chance of that, if I had been trying to have a drink it would have been more than adequately diluted by the rain. All these seemed unlikely, but they turned out to be a bit more likely than reality.

“I can’t let you go any further. You will have to stop here, sir.” Oh no, I thought, there is that awful “sir”.

“There is unexploded ordinance under that bridge.” You what?. “There is a grenade on the tow path and the bomb squad are on their way. We don’t want any vibration to set it off.”

I suggested I could kill my engine and glide past.

“ Sorry sir, we don’t want anyone getting killed.” I don’t think he understood what I said.

So the canal was closed, the road was closed. The tow path was closed.

Another police officer turned up and tied a “Police keep out” tape between the fence and my boat. The police were the only ones who didn’t keep out, that tape needs a comma inserted.

 

RIMG0165Boats queued up behind me and I had to explain to each one what was happening. They went off to make tea.

Walkers turned up and I had to explain to each one what was happening. They had retrace their steps for a mile or so.

Sponsored canoeists turned up and clambered over gardens to by-pass the blockage.

Apparently cars and lorries turned up and Burton Upon Trent was gridlocked.

Eventually the bomb squad turned up, in their sumo wrestling suits, and put something in a shopping bag and blued and twoed it off to Lowestoft, where another neighbourhood was at standstill.

I made tea and turned in for the night. Oh well another early start tomorrow, maybe it won’t rain.

The hottest days and the wettest days of the year were yet to come but I was treated with a stunning July sunset as I returned to the boat. RIMG0048

What made the ride notable was the number of flying insects. There were many more than I had come across in recent years. Maybe it was the different farm land of Leicestershire, or unusual weather, whatever it was I was reminded to keep my teeth clenched to filter them out.

RIMG0067

Having joined the Soar it did not appear to be much different from canal cruising at first. However I had a rude awakening when pushing the boat out at a lock and stepping on I quickly realised it was caught by wind and current and was heading out towards the weir.RIMG0066I had to promptly step off and rope her in prior to starting in a more careful and somewhat abashed attitude.

RIMG0086

Apparently the river Soar has a tendency to rise to flood quickly then fall again and this can leave the unwary boater aground on a meadow. Fortunately for me it was not in flood and the going over the next few days was not technical as I passed through the city of Leicester, famous as a dye capital, then the sleepy meadows north of the town finally emerging at the Tent.

Now I am used to being able to find somewhere to turn my 41 foot boat somewhere locally on the canals, without too much trouble. In some places I have been able to step onto one side of the boat and off the other to cross a lock. And of course in many places in the canals if you fall in you just stand up and wade to the side.

Although I had seen the Trent from its bank to be on it was initially an unnerving and exciting experience. One that had me grabbing my life jacket and ensuring that there was nothing that I could trip over. I did not want to end up treading water whilst seeing the back end of Gentle Breeze disappearing into the distance.

RIMG0123

The Trent is big, GB is small and felt very vulnerable.

The lyrics of one Christian song include the verse

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain,
Will your anchor drift or firm remain?

I was thinking that my anchor would not even reach the river bed let alone hold if the engine packed in. But there again perhaps I was worrying over nothing, at any rate I didn’t mention these thoughts to the two in-laws that I took for a short cruise on the river.

The navigators built several cuts to ensure that goods could be transported along the Trent during most conditions. One of these cuts runs right through Nottingham and alongside the canal are buildings still emblazoned with the names of famous canal carrying companies.

IMG_20190726_101756

July finished with some scorching days and it was with reluctance hat I had to begin the journey back south after too short a time spent cruising with my brother and wife in their boat, which seemed altogether better suited to this expanse of water,

RIMG0119

Hot flushes

When I last wrote I told of the beginnings of the trip up towards the Trent. It was June and the heat was increasing, the water levels were critical and as a result the authorities were having to take measures to preserve what little water there was in the canals. This is done mainly by locking the flights of locks overnight, allowing water levels to recover by back pumping water.

I was travelling on The Grand Union Canal. The portion from London to Braunston in the Midlands was built to shorten the distance to Birmingham and provide a more reliable route than travelling via the older route of up the Thames to Oxford then up the narrow Oxford canal.

Finally opened in 1806 the then Grand Union Junction canal climbed several small ridges at Tring, Stoke Bruene and Buckby where the Leicester canal branches off. The Grand Union then drops down to Braunston where the north Oxford canal branches off and the GU continues to Birmingham. The Leicester canal climbs a ridge at Watford gap ( not Watford Herts but Watford, Northamptonshire) and finally drops down the river Soar to the Trent.

This terrain necessitates having adequate water at the top of the ridges to keep the canals watered and the more boats passing through the locks the greater the strain on the system.

As I approached Stoke Bruene in mid afternoon I learnt that the top locks would be .. locked .. at 5pm. That gave me just under 2 hours to get through the 7 locks. Possible as long as the locks were mainly empty and ready for me. They wern’t, in fact at each lock I had to watch a boat in front of me just leaving the next lock, full of course. If only I could catch it up or they could see me and wait to pair up. No such luck.

 

I don’t want to grumble. I try not to remember that my “dog” on the end of my “lead”, i.e. rope, is about 12 tons. Also that although those lock gates can weigh up to two tons, once I have blown gaskets in my neck straining to close one, its fellow on the other side just swings open again as though it was a garden gate swinging in the wind, forcing me to walk around the lock and close it again. Whereupon its mate decides that this is a fun game to play, and opens again. I get them shut to find that GB has backed herself into the gates and needs an shove from behind whilst trying not to slip into the cut.

Sometimes doing this by oneself seems a bit too hard.

But I did have one bit of luck, a helpful volunteer radioed ahead to ensure that the volunteer at the final lock would unlock it for me to exit after 5pm. What a relief, I could have kissed them both. But the first one had a bushy beard, not inviting, and I didn’t meet the second until a few weeks later. Even if the inclination for a kiss hadn’t worn off by that time, her domineering manner and stature and features as she told me to move my boat would have put me off. Helpful both, but not kissable.

RIMG0185

The next day was a very early start, straight into the cold blackness of the Blisworth tunnel before 6.30 am. It is 3075 yards long, wet in places, cold and eerie. It takes about forty minutes to motor through. My aim of starting early was to get to the Watford locks before they shut for the afternoon.

dscn4825I was there in the heat of the afternoon at 2.15, easily time enough. Except there was a queue and the volunteers decided to stop all upstream movements at 2.30. Thus I got through these seven locks at noon the next day, twenty two hours for seven locks is a record for me, a record of the wrong sort. And it was so hot. We had waited with canopies up, windows down, umbrellas for shades and drinking plenty. Next stop Foxton and the drop down to the Soar.

IMG_20190629_102550IMG_20190629_102526IMG_20190629_103825

Fortunately although the ten Foxton locks were also on restriction things moved much better and I had only lost about a day over this fairly short distance. By the time I moored up near Leicester I had had enough of the heat, took to the bike and hence caught a train home for a bit.

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.

DSCN8169

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.

DSCN5485

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.

download (1)

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.

IMG_20190505_114505

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.

DSCN8511

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.

DSCN8342

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.

IMG_20190620_162809