Thursday, November 26, 2009

Joining Up The Ends

When we re-started canal boating in 2004, our shared-ownership boat was based initially at Trowbridge on the K&A and, because we normally only had it for a week at a time, our 'range' was limited. We had never come very far east, only getting as far as the top of the flight of locks at Crofton.

Now we were beginning to get a little closer, but we were still in 'new territory' for us as we made our way through Kintbury and on towards Hungerford. Gradually the River Kennet was becoming less and less in evidence as the navigation subtly changed itself into a canal. Here we are at Dunmill lock, autumn colours still very much on show.

Soon we arrived in Hungerford, only to realise that we were running low on diesel. We should have checked earlier, but we now realised that there were no boatyards selling diesel in the 27 miles between Newbury and Honeystreet. There was only one thing to do, so Dave made 3 trips to a convenient filling station with our 20 litre jerry can on the frame of Val's shopping trolley!

Hungerford's visitor moorings are very attractive and, apart from walking to the filling station, we also enjoyed a short 'wander' up the high street. We expected to be back here again soon, as we were planning to meet up with Terry and Di, Val's brother and sister-in-law, and a trip from Kintbury to Hungerford and back seemed about right. Meanwhile, we were going to continue westwards for a while.

Autumn was still moving on, and there were more spindle berries in the hedgerow – what a unique colour! Apart from a VERY few that we have seen in Devon over the years, we don't seem to have seen this many since childhood years. Maybe it's just that we haven't been in the right place at the right time, maybe it's the season, or perhaps the soil round here suits spindle bushes really well!

Anyway, we continued west (now actually a bit more south-west) through some places with lovely names, like Froxfield, Little Bedwyn and then Great Bedwyn, before pressing on towards Crofton.

Back in 2004, when we were approaching Crofton from the west, Val's knees had been showing early signs of trouble, so Adam and Dave had left her with the boat above the top lock and had walked down the locks to see the old pumping station. It was closed then, so we had not been able to see inside, and had just walked back up the hill, turned the boat around and headed back westwards towards Pewsey.

This time, Val was very much in the picture as she took 'Zindagi' in front of Crofton Pumping Station towards the bottom lock. Not much hope of finding the pumping station open to visitors at the end of October, but we had heard an interesting story about it. Back in July, the electric pump (which normally pumps water up to the summit level) failed and the canal had to be closed to boats. Then British Waterways asked whether the old Pumping Station could help, so volunteers kept it running for several days and boat traffic was able to move again. Read the whole story here. It looks fascinating – we shall just have to try to visit some time when visitors are admitted, and preferably on a 'pumping day'.

There was just the matter of six more locks, and we had 'joined up the ends' of our earlier and current boating trips. We reached the top lock of the Crofton flight, found a pleasant spot to moor, and stopped for lunch!

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 . . .

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Really Heading South This Time!

Since we left Blisworth in mid-September, we knew that we were really planning to head south, down the Thames to Reading and then on to the Kennet and Avon, but we seemed to have been trundling up and down the Oxford Canal, with short trips on the Thames thrown in for good measure. We enjoyed it, but now it was time to begin the journey south in earnest!

Ironically, to start off southwards we needed to travel northwards just one more time. We had a couple of days after Colin & Jan left before Jeremy was going to join us for a while. We needed shopping and somewhere to meet Jeremy easily – good old Banbury again!

Then it was time to head south. We even made a few early starts to make the best of the shortening days – so here is some glorious autumn colour in morning sunshine, just south of Lower Heyford, mid-October. Another reason was to meet up with one of Jeremy's friends at about noon just north of Oxford, and we made it with pinpoint timing! By late afternoon we were on the Thames.

We passed the place where we had seen red kites with Colin & Jan, and came on to Clifton Hampden with its handsome brick bridge. The afternoon light seemed to catch it just right.

Then, just a little further on, near Burcot, we saw red kites again and this time managed to get a couple of pictures. Even with the telephoto lens, you can't see much detail, but at least practised kite-spotters will recognise this as definitely being a red kite – the forked tail is such a give-away! It is amazing to remember how very rare these birds were until only a few years ago, and they really are a joy to watch in flight.

Further downriver, we found an idyllic overnight mooring spot near Dorchester (Oxfordshire), with the oddly-named Wittenham Clumps on the skyline. The little River Thame joins the river at Dorchester, and from here on downstream it is very definitely the Thames, whereas it is also known as the Isis upstream from here.

We were soon passing through more places we remembered from 2007 – Shillingford, with its old bridge and fine houses; Wallingford, where we were stuck for 5 days when the river level rose; Goring, still feeling very much like a village by the river. Now it was all highlighted by autumn, with russet leaves and even spindle berries in the hedgerow!

We had made such good progress down the Thames that we were in Reading only six days after picking up Jeremy at Banbury. We turned off the Thames under a not-very-inspiring railway bridge and chugged about ¼ mile up the River Kennet to Blake's Lock. This is the entrance to the Kennet and Avon Canal from the Thames and, like the Thames, managed by the Environment Agency. Only a hundred yards or so later, we were back under British Waterways jurisdiction.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Sampling the Middle Thames

Colin and Jan last joined us afloat in July 2008, up on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Their first canal experience with us was back in 2005, when we took a week on our shared-ownership boat and travelled from Gayton on the Grand Union to the Oxford Canal as far as Banbury and then back to Gayton. Here we were on the Oxford Canal again, so we gave them the choice of where to go – down to Oxford and then either UP or DOWN the Thames seemed like the obvious options. They chose the downstream option – either way, they would see the southern end of the Oxford Canal, plus boating on the Thames would be a new experience! It didn't take them long to get back into the swing of boating life, as you can see!

The weather stayed mostly fine, with 'sunny intervals', as we headed south. You would hardly believe that this 'rural' lock scene is actually in Kidlington, on the northern outskirts of Oxford.

It's not all hard work, pushing heavy lock gates, after all!

Soon we were at the point where the 'Duke's Cut' would take us out from the canal, straight onto a backwater of the Thames, without needing to plod on through the suburbs of Oxford. We were keeping that part for the return leg of the journey!

Turning off the canal under a small bridge, we came to Duke's Lock, a seemingly forgotten corner of the system, but our quickest way out onto 'the River'. Along the winding backwater and out onto the Thames, coming through two locks in rural settings before approaching Oxford again and passing all the University rowing club boat houses. This is where we had to wait for some of the races in the 'Eights Week' when we came down in May 2007 – all quiet now; very few boats out on the river, so we had it almost to ourselves as we headed downstream towards Abingdon, south-westwards into the setting sun.

Just round the corner from here, we found a pleasant, remote spot to moor before going down to Abingdon lock and the town in the morning.

Down through Abingdon's originally medieval bridge (rebuilt in 1927), where we moored up for a brief visit to the town. Then on down river, as we had worked out that we had better turn round that day and start heading back again. We saw several red kites flying overhead near Culham, but could we catch them on 'film'? Not this time!

Starting back upstream from Abingdon the next morning, we shared a lock with another narrowboat and then both our boats passed a 'working pair' of boats selling coal and diesel before we came to Sandford lock, at 8'10" the deepest on the river above Teddington. 'Zindagi' and 'Isadora' fitted in easily side by side and the working pair ('Bletchley' and 'Argus') came in behind with space to spare.

Two more locks and a stop at Osney Bridge for a little shopping and sightseeing, and then we were soon off the Thames (through what seemed like another almost forgotten backwater – no signs off the river!), into Isis Lock and back onto the Oxford Canal.

Soon we were making our way through what had been described by one of the Thames lock-keepers as 'the worst bit of canal I know', through the northern suburbs of Oxford. It must have been improved since he was last here, as it was really not bad at all! Rejoining our original route at the Duke's Cut, we were soon chugging back up towards Aynho and looking at all the scenery from the opposite angle!

One place we had not visited before, though, was the little village of Kirtlington, one mile's walk from the quaintly named Pigeon Lock. The continuing improvement of Val's new knees was proved by her ability to walk there and back without much discomfort. There were plenty of interesting houses and cottages, and we liked the interesting mixture of brick and stone in this one.

On the phone, a few days before Colin and Jan came to join us, Val had asked Jan to bring her hairdressing scissors with her. So it was that, not far from Lower Heyford, Jan's towpath hairdressing salon could be seen in action. If the canal had been busier with passing boats and walkers, she might have had a queue!

Back to Aynho the evening before Colin and Jan had to leave, and the next morning reminded us that we had been enjoying a bit of borrowed time as far as the weather was concerned. It was mid-October, after all, and autumn was certainly on its way.