Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wintry Journey to Oxford

All the time we had been stuck and/or delayed by ice, Dave had been checking the Thames website regularly to see whether there were any 'Strong Stream' warnings. It had looked good, if only we could get out of the Kennet and Avon in time! Our licence for the Thames ran out on 31st December, and of course we had planned to get off the K&A and up to Oxford long before then.

And then there were lock closures to consider! A couple on the Thames, and one at the junction of Thames and K&A. It was all getting a bit tight!

Then, not long after we 'escaped' from the broken swing bridge, the 'Strong Stream' warnings started appearing on the Thames! Was it worth travelling down to Reading, only to have to turn back and spend the rest of the winter on the K&A?

We began to look for alternatives, and made some enquiries about mooring up for a couple of months on the K&A near Aldermaston or Reading. Two possibilities, two vacancies, so we opted provisionally for one of them, and were about to move back up the Kennet towards Aldermaston when . . . the stream on the Thames began to diminish again !!
Hasty phone call to the first lock on the Thames! The lock-keeper at Caversham Lock said she thought the stream was likely to go on decreasing, and thought we should be OK to come out of the K&A and moor up next to Tesco's on the river, and wait there for the stream to go down some more.

So we did just that! Coming down the Kennet, we found that the flow there was fairly strong too, especially through the Oracle shopping centre in Reading! No problem; we had psyched ourselves up for a really bumpy time, but we had a smooth ride and got through Blake's Lock onto the Thames just a day before it was due to close for maintenance.

Mooring outside Tesco's was easy enough, and we certainly didn't seem likely to run out of food! Water was another question, though. Since before Reading, we had been trying to fill up with water, but the taps are very well spaced out, plus we just couldn't find one that was supposed to be there, so we were in danger of running out.

Tesco's filling station had a tap, so it was possible to fill up our jerry can and take it back to the boat, but it was quite a laborious process. We went on limiting our water use as much as possible – and then the tap froze up! This was the big freeze, after all!
There was another tap, with HOT water for the carwash guys working in the car park, and they said it was OK for us to use it, so we changed to that instead.

Three days after we arrived, the Strong Stream warnings started coming off the Thames, just as the rest of the UK ground to a frozen halt. At that stage, there was talk of a thaw fairly soon, so we made our move and started upstream. The guy at the boatyard where we bought fuel said that he thought we were crazy, but sold us the diesel anyway!

These photos, by the way, start from Reading! Our first day's travelling upsteam brought us to Goring, just arriving in the evening twilight, through scenery very different from when we last saw it with Jeremy in October.

So far, we had seen NO OTHER BOATS MOVING! Most of the locks were on self-service, but sometimes the off-duty lock-keeper would pop out to see who was crazy enough to be travelling in these conditions, and usually lend a hand. They were all really helpful, alway advising us to be careful on lock-sides, where the snow was thick.

We developed our own modified Thames lock technique, with Dave taking the boathook with him when he got off to operate the lock. Then, when the lock was ready and the gates open, Val brought Zindagi in and Dave carefully hooked the (frozen) rope off the bows and tied it securely to a bollard, then hooking the stern rope from Val before taking it round another bollard and passing it back to her. Dave then closed the gates and filled the lock, while Val controlled the boat by taking up the slack in her rope. Minimising danger, but always being VERY careful!

Seeing the lock-keeper's cottage at Goring in the early morning was like looking at some imagined winter scene – they do say that this stretch of the river is one of the most beautiful!

Everything else all around was frozen solid, but flowing water doesn't freeze (well, not until it is a lot colder!), so our passage actually on the river was straightforward, just a little more flow than sometimes, but nothing worrying. The Goring lock-keeper told us that the night-time temperature had dropped to minus 18ÂșC! Just a little bit of ice to break up in the lock itself, and we were soon on our way upstream again.

Not very far upstream, just after Cleeve Lock, we came across an enormous flock of birds, mostly seagulls of various sorts, including Great Black-Backed Gulls, usually a coastal bird but also 'locally inland in winter' according to our bird book. We are used to seeing the much smaller Black-Headed Gulls almost everywhere on inland waters, but this large flock was quite a surprise.

Sorry to labour the point, but it continued to amaze us that there was nobody else around to enjoy the Thames in these surreal conditions. There WERE two canoeists ahead of us near Wallingford, and one of the lock-keepers said he had heard there was another boat coming up some way behind us. News of our travel upriver was being phoned through as lock-keepers kept in touch with each other, so we were sometimes greeted with "so you're the ones who are trying to get up to Oxford, are you?" Anyone who has travelled on the Thames in the busy summer months, especially on a sunny weekend, would hardly recognise this delightfully deserted river. Just look at the glorious light – what a privilege!

As we ended our second day's travel upstream, we were approaching Culham Lock. According to the published schedule of closures, this one was due to have shut for works to start on 4th January, with 'weekend passage available with care by prior arrangement'. We phoned ahead to try to arrange passage and were told that we could come anyway, as work had not started yet, even though it was the 7th! The next day, we saw that work was being re-scheduled for February.

On the last few bends before Culham, Didcot Power Station seemed to change its position all the time, but it certainly made an unusual sunset scene!

Culham lock has a half-mile-long 'cut' above it before it rejoins the river, so we crunched our way out of there the next morning, soon passing through Abingdon and on up towards Oxford. That was not to be our only ice of the day, though! Sandford Lock had 100 yards of 2-inch thick ice (or maybe thicker) above it, and the lock-keeper thought we might not be able to get out. Well, we did, but only just, after quite a bit of bashing with boat and pole. We moored up, had lunch and resigned ourselves to being there for a few days, taking the opportunity to top up with some more water from the local pub. Then later that afternoon, the lock-keeper told that we were in luck: a much bigger boat was coming upstream. Maybe they would be able to crunch through the ice that had defeated us?

Sure enough, just before 4, as Dave was collecting another jerry can of water, the 'Caversham Lady' approached the lock, came up and duly crunched her way out. Needless to say, we followed!

We didn't get much further that afternoon; just below Folly Bridge, near all the University Boat Houses, where we had needed to stop for the rowers back in May 2007. There was another boat moored there, so we just pulled in behind it and moored up for the night.

Next morning, as we were about to start off, the bloke on the other boat popped out and asked if we could give him a tow, as his gearbox had died. You know us – of course we did, but it was really heavy going through some of the narrower parts of the river. We made VERY slow progress as one engine was JUST managing to take two boats against quite strong flow. We were quite glad that he didn't want to go very far!

We knew there were good moorings between Osney Lock and Osney Bridge, just before the link through to the Oxford Canal. Talking with the lock-keeper, he confirmed our thoughts that this would be the best place to moor up and wait for the Oxford Canal to thaw. So, here we have been since Saturday lunchtime! A local pub has been helpful with water supplies, and Oxford's shopping centre is easily accessible on foot or by bus.

And the canal? Picturesque but frozen solid! We shall most likely be here for a few more days!


Jason Beam said...

WoW!!! I had no idea how that weather affected you guys! Dave and Val are true adventurers, hearty folks doing some amazing traveling! I am very inspired of your spirit of adventure and ability and toughness!

Barbara said...

Sounds and looks like a great adventure. Hope you managed to stay warm. Guess you will be on your way by now. Any chance of the end in sight?

We thought about you a number of times throughout the severe weather.
Happy New Year.

Dave and Val Taylor said...

Thanks for the compliment, Jason, but there are lots of others on the UK's inland waterways, braving the continuing cold weather. After all, there is only a very fine line between adventurousness and being completely crazy!

And thanks to Barbara, too! Yes, we stay pretty cosy on board, with central heating and the wood burner too. Quite 'nippy' out at the back on the tiller, though!

No plans to stop yet. Next review due probably Autumn 2010!

Allan S said...

Great blog guys. Found it by accident and am very glad to do so. I never heard of a narrow boat before. I am going to hit your archives and see if you've wrote aa description and/or history on narrow boats in general, and yours in particular. I chuckle at your frozen adventures though, (with you, and not at your expense), as here in Canada the 'Freeze' as you put it is an annoying hiccup...lol. Hope you don't mind but I am going to have to follow your blog. Again, I love the blog....Allan

Dave and Val Taylor said...

Welcome aboard, Allan. We started writing this blog to keep our friends and family in touch with our travels, rather than pestering them with letters, phone calls or emails all the time. This way, they can look at the blog and get some idea where we have been and where we might be going soon! In the process, we have made some friends through the blog as well as meeting more in person on the waterways system. I appreciate that there in Canada you are totally acclimatised to freezing conditions. The problem here in the UK is that we get a freeze-up from time to time, but not often enough for any of us to be really ready for it, and that includes national and local government as well! We don't have any history of narrow boats in the blog, but just do a Google search and you will have plenty to read!

Alistair said...

Thanks for the lovely shot of our boat (last pic).

May we borrow it for our site?

Many thanks

Ali & Eli
nb Ethel Mary

Dave and Val Taylor said...

You're very welcome, Alistair! A link back to our blog and/or this posting would be nice, if you would like to do that . . .