Sunday, November 15, 2009

Westward Bound – the K&A at Last!

After heading pretty consistently south on the Thames (OK, with a lot of wiggles!), we found the Kennet and Avon Canal taking us in a very definitely westerly direction. First on the agenda, almost a mile from leaving the Thames, we were suddenly in the glitz of Reading's 'Oracle Centre', heading upstream on the River Kennet. The navigation is quite narrow here, and the river's current can be quite strong, so it is controlled by traffic lights to avoid nautical pile-ups! There were very few other boats around, so the lights changed to green for us immediately, and the current was weak with the recent lack of rain. Interesting though it is, Reading and/or the Oracle Centre obviously don't want boaters hanging around, as there is no facility for mooring in the Centre itself and we were told that you have to pay at the only other moorings in town. We moved on – we had no need to stop as we had done our shopping at Sainsbury's, which has Thames moorings just a few yards away. Oh, the benefit of the various books we have with all this useful information!

Less than half an hour later, and we were back in the countryside. We had left the Thames, having witnessed its growth from a small, shallow and barely navigable river near Lechlade to a sizeable river at Reading – though of course it gets even bigger downstream! Now we were still on a river, but it was a smaller one, seeming quiet and remote again. It was about 5 o'clock, so we chugged on a little way before stopping, making sure that we didn't get too close to the M4 motorway, and stopped near Burghfield Bridge.

Next day, just after the M4 bridge, we came to the first of two unusual locks, unique to the K&A. Garston Lock is still to the original turf-sided design, very much as all 20 of the turf locks used to be between Reading and Newbury, with timber side walls to about 2 feet above lower water level, and then with the turf walls sloping away to the top. They used to leak badly, and all but two have been changed to more modern designs.

Purists may argue that the other one, Monkey Marsh Lock, has been 'inappropriately restored with copious use of concrete and steel', but they are both interesting examples of past techniques. The loss of water by leakage was (and is) apparently not a problem, as there is normally plenty of water in the Kennet!

As you can see, Jeremy was still with us, supposedly not exerting himself too much as he has been diagnosed with a slipped disk and needs to give it time to heal up. That didn't stop him taking the tiller of course (no problem there), but perhaps he should have stopped short of running ahead and operating the next locks! He did have a few aches and pains while he stayed on board, but has apparently recovered quite well since.

We needed to 'crack on' a bit, as he needed to catch a train back to London from Newbury, and we still had a few miles to cover. The autumnal scenery was great, with still a surprisinging amount of green in the trees. Almost all our photos seem to show this prolonged 'Indian Summer', and there were still very few boats on the water, though it did get a little busier in schools' half-term week.

Jeremy was not the only one 'getting up to tricks' as we progressed west. Having him around meant that Val could get off to help work some of the locks, leaving Dave to take the boat in and out of the locks – real role reversal! Just goes to show how well those new knees are working, doesn't it? Here are Jeremy and Val working together on Widmead Lock, just east of Newbury.

Planning around the winter maintenance stoppages, we had made special note of Widmead Lock, as it would be closed from 2nd November to 18th December. It was only 23rd October at this point, so there was plenty of time, but there was a sense of a door closing behind us as we moved on!

We reached Newbury in the late afternoon – the clocks weren't going back for a couple of days, so it wasn't dark yet – and tied up at the moorings in Victoria Park. A quick 'recce' revealed that there were several places where we could eat out together before Jeremy left us, and both Sainsbury's and the railway station were within easy walking distance for the next morning.

After enjoying tasty pizzas and returning to the boat and our beds, we were disturbed at midnight by kids taking things off the roof of the boat. Putting his head out of the hatch, Dave saw them running off and a sack of coal on the bank. When he got out to see what else might have gone, he could see our bag of potting compost floating slowly downstream but nothing else was missing. Some fairly frantic 'fishing' with the grappling hook, and the compost was retrieved. We told the police, but of course it was far too late to do anything about the culprits.

Jeremy got off OK the next morning, and we made our way slowly out of Newbury, under the 1770 Town Bridge and up through the lock, which was the first on the Newbury to Bath section, completed in 1796.

Then out through the attractive West Mills area, complete with an unusual diagonal swing bridge, and past the cottages which were once a 17th century weaving factory.
Back out into the countryside again, we were making very good progress westwards . . .

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