Thursday, January 31, 2008

Getting There . . .

For the last few weeks, we have been steadily plodding along, gradually getting through the heart of the Midlands. The canals in winter are different from summer time – for one thing, we seem to be almost the only ones who are moving! In the summer, we often passed several boats each hour; now we sometimes go for several days without meeting another moving boat.

We had originally expected to moor up for a few months in the winter, but we are pleased that we didn't do that after all. Keeping on moving is much more fun, though of course we are not covering so much distance, as the days are shorter and sometimes we just 'stay put' if the weather is bad.

In our last blog 'posting', we were in Blisworth for a few days. Good friendships developing there – we expect to be back again! Then on up the Grand Union to Braunston again, (a very familiar stretch) and along a short length of canal that we haven't been on for a couple of years, joining up with where we came down in late April last year.

Once again, we met up with Jeremy on his 'home turf' as we spent a few days in Leamington Spa, enjoying a birthday meal for Val in the 'Delhi Palace' (really good Punjabi food – home from home!). And again, he helped us work through the towering Hatton flight of 21 locks, though we made more progress before he arrived than any of us had expected. This picture shows you just about half a dozen of the higher locks. As the canal was virtually deserted, we 'broke the rules' and moored up between the top two locks to enjoy a meal in the little cafĂ© there.

As we were moving gradually closer to Birmingham, we phoned Noona, the daughter of our friends in Punjab, who is studying there. When would it be good to meet her for a day together? With a date agreed, we found we had a few days to spare, so (once again) we took a short trip down part of the Stratford-on-Avon Canal. Oh, the luxury of a narrow canal, with easier locks and just a cosier, remoter 'feel'! Even some interesting oddities, like a tiny aqueduct leading into a lock. You can just see it in the photo. (Do you like Val's new winter hat?)

Yes, sometimes it's cold outside, but isn't it beautiful?

Back to the Grand Union again, and a bit of a shock to the system as we came to the next flight of locks at Knowle – big, wide locks (enlarged in the 1930s) climbing up the hill and exposed to vicious south-westerly winds. We had a few bumps as we battled the breeze to go from lock to lock. Well, they say that boating is a contact sport!

And so to Birmingham! The grand scheme to widen all the locks 70 years ago came to an end before it reached the Birmingham locks, so we found ourselves winding through the hidden back ways of the city in narrow locks (and one short but VERY narrow tunnel). Noona joined us for her first experience of canal boating, and she seemed to enjoy her unusual day out, even joining in with operating the locks once she had got the idea of how they worked.

Birmingham canals are full of contrasts. It has always been the heart of the British canal system, and they say that it has more miles of canal than Venice. Noona had seen the canal in the city centre, and knew she would recognise where she was when she came to 'the bit that looks like Venice' – so we went there! Right in the heart of the city, with a little tunnel under Broad Street, the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the Sea Life Centre, not to mention the very continental-style canalside bistros. Despite the cold weather, it was still pretty busy!

And then, just a few miles along the 'New Main Line', an old brick pumping station, only just rescued from demolition, fairly recently. We also took the opportunity to wander along some of the side loops that were left when the Main Line was straightened in the 1820s and 1830s.
Our planned route was to go south-west to join the 'Staffs & Worcs' canal, and that meant going through the Netherton Tunnel, nearly 2 miles long but high, wide and spacious with towpaths both sides. Straight through in exactly half an hour, and we were out of Birmingham and officially in the Black Country – we are told there is a BIG difference between the two!

Our journey has taken us DOWN through Dudley and Stourbridge. We had not realised how high Birmingham really is! Eight locks at Black Delph brought us down 85 feet on Tuesday, and another 16 dropped us a further 145 feet into and through the old glass working area around Stourbridge on Wednesday. You can see the famous 'cone' of the Redhouse Glassworks right alongside the canal.
We planned to just spend one day in Stourbridge, but wondered whether our visit might be extended when we found that a tree had fallen across the canal in this morning's high winds. Dave phoned British Waterways and it was cleared by mid-afternoon, when we wanted to leave. Good old BW!
We are now back out in the countryside again, with the canal following the River Stour down to the 'Staffs and Worcs'. This is going to be a trip down memory lane, as this was the first canal we cruised on, back in 1976!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Dodging the Deadline!

After two weeks in Lapford, it seemed a little strange to leave our bungalow again. Despite 'camping' there with minimum furniture, it somehow began to feel like home again, and it was tempting to try and get stuck in to too many tasks. There were things that needed to be done before handing over to Steve and Lin (our new tenants), but there were plenty more that we just did not have time to tackle – just as well we had a deadline, or we might be there still! Here's a little reminder of the lovely light of a December morning over Lapford School.

So, back to 'Zindagi', safe and secure at the moorings in Cheshunt on the River Lee, northeast of London, then in to Stoke Newington the next day to meet Adam at Shireen and Frankie's home and give him back our car – and to enjoy seeing Shireen and the baby again, of course! Still no name at that stage, but we shall reveal it below! Jeremy was also in London and came over, so we had a big family photo on the massive sofa! Then back on the train to Cheshunt.

When we looked out of the boat the next morning, the canal was covered with ice! Not too thick, so we thought we should be able to get moving. Fortunately, some other boats had been moving, so we didn't need to do all the ice-breaking ourselves. Southwards to London!

Once again we found ourselves really enjoying our route through London and this time we almost had the canal to ourselves – very few other boats on the move, though the mooring sites were full – 'double parked' in many cases – as here in Islington, where we stopped to do a little shopping. The light had that crisp, winter clarity but there was no ice as we chugged through. Here are the locks at Camden – rather different from when we came through on a Sunday in the summer, though there were still quite a few people around.

Then out west again – not stopping in Paddington this time – to a strangely picturesque mooring near the gasometers by Kensal Green cemetery. Ice on the canal the next morning, and quite thick; we were glad of our central heating and woodburning stove and waited to see whether other boats would be on the move. Sure enough, some were, so we moved on a little further.

The next morning, starting the engine, Dave saw a warning light to say that the alternator was not working properly. Where could we find anyone to fix it on the Friday before the Christmas break? Boatyards were closed or closing, no electrical engineers around, certainly! Fortunately, we were heading towards 'Little India' – Southall – and if anyone would be able to fix it for us, that was a good place to try. A little cycling around eventually revealed an auto electrical dealer who would do it for us (Punjabi – of course!) and we were off again on the Sunday!

Our main reason for travelling at this time of year was to avoid the 'stoppages' (canal closures for maintenance), some of which were due to start on 7th January. The most northern of these on the Grand Union were at Stoke Bruerne, several miles (and locks) north of Milton Keynes, so we decided to keep going in case we HAD to stop again for bad weather. So it was that Jeremy joined us at Rickmansworth and travelled on with us to Berkhamsted, where Adam drove to meet us and Shireen brought little Thor for his first trip on the train. We enjoyed a very tasty takeaway on board together.
Yes, that's our little grandson's name, and actually the name they originally had in mind for him. It just took time for them to be sure about it! Here are some more up to date snaps of him, taken by Shireen (rapidly transforming into a doting mum!)

Shireen took Thor back on the train that night, Adam drove off the next morning and Jeremy stayed on board for 2 more days, getting some exercise by running back along the towpath to collect his car a couple of times! Then he went back home and Adam brought Rachel for a visit. First time she had steered a narrowboat, but she doesn't look TOO worried, does she?

We continued chugging northwards, including the long process of getting through Milton Keynes, which seems to treat the canal as a sort of linear park. Nicely done, but there is a lot of it! Just after MK, we crossed the Great Ouse over an iron trough aqueduct dating from 1811, still in good order after nearly 200 years, and half a mile later the first lock for 11 miles started the canal's climb up towards Norton Junction.

You will be pleased to know that we got through the Stoke Bruerne locks on 2nd January, beating the deadline by 4 days, came through Blisworth Tunnel (3057 yards) the next day and are now enjoying a little break in Blisworth again before heading on northwards.