Saturday, 31 May 2014

A very busy day on the Stoke Bruerne Flight

(Boat Chalice - posted by Cath)

A very sluggish start this morning. We went for a wander through the woodland with Odin, then had a leisurely breakfast. By the time that we finally got going, there had been several boats moving through in both directions.

We got to the top lock to find that we were third in the queue, and there were no volunteer lock keepers around - they were further down the flight checking the pound levels.

The first boat in the queue was Tuptonia - the Northamptonshire and Birmingham Girl Guide boat. We met up with the previous Tuptonia on a trip into London several years back - when a party of guide leaders were making a farewell visit with the aging boat. A very jolly lot they seemed to be, and we were very impressed by the idea of using a boat with Guides.

I wasn't quite so impressed this morning. That doesn't mean that I don't still support the idea - I do, wholeheartedly, I just felt that the way that the instruction of Brownies was done could have been done better on what seemed to be a very busy morning.

The steerer got all of the Brownies, and their leaders, off the boat, then began to explain how the lock worked, including all the important safety features. While this was happening a queue was beginning to build up. I know that the whole idea of canal boating is to take it easy, but some boats do have places to get to by a certain time.

What I've seen people do in the past, is to stop short of the lock, then take everyone up to it, and watch a couple of boats through - then go through themselves. This would have been a much better strategy in this case - the girls could have seen what needs to be done, rather than having it explained.

Finally progressing down Stoke Flight, but delays could have been much less.
As it was, I went below the lock, and saw a boat just preparing to come up from the lock below - not something that is visible from the top gates of Top Lock.  As I walked back up the steerer of Tuptonia began to start to wind the paddles. I suggested that he wait for the boat coming up, and that in that case the Brownies would have a chance to see the lock working before they tried to do it.

As more boats were beginning to arrive at the top, and the other boat going down with Tuptonia was a hire crew that seemed completely overwhelmed by the idea of using locks, I walked down and got the second lock ready, then went to find the volunteer lock keeper, and let him know that he was getting a long queue at the top.

Our boat eventually appeared, with an experienced and jolly hire boat crew, and we worked down the rest of the flight with them.

I don't think I've seen the flight this busy in a very long time, boats going in both directions - the two volunteer lock keepers were kept very busy.

Crossing Wolverton Trunk Aqueduct.
It was a dry day, mostly white cloud, with some sunshine, and no rain. We headed south through the Northamptonshire fields, the route we do more than any other. As Sickle needs to be back at Stoke Bruerne in two weeks time for the Boat Festival we began to wonder about whether we wanted Chalice to be taken all the way back to her home mooring. We think that we will still need her as a support boat - as Odin really shouldn't be making the big leap into Sickle's cabin yet. We started to plan whether it might be possible to stop short, so that we haven't got quite so much boat moving to do - we do have other things to think about in our lives.

 Ruins of St Peter's Church, Stantonbury
I've often wanted to go out to look at the 12th century ruined chapel of St Peters Church at Stantonbury,  and we were feeling very tired, so we moored up, deciding to call it a very short day.

There is no evidence of this church ever being other than in the middle of fields.
We walked Odin down to the chapel, which is fenced off, but the gate is broken, and that it is obvious that many people have gone into the chapel. It's an interesting ruin, made somewhat more evocative, by a huge, dead oak tree nearby - with large black crows hunched on the bleached branches. Although the chapel is ruined, with no roof, and much of the walls tumbled, it was still in use in 1927. By the 1950s the roof was falling in and some of the best Norman architecture was removed to elsewhere.

A beautiful place, but we wouldn't want to share it with the off roaders!

He is not supposed to be going to wild, (but so good that he is now able!).
However, it became obvious that the field next to the canal was occasionally used for illicit 4 x 4 off-roading. We decided that we didn't want to be woken early tomorrow morning by noisy landrovers - so we set off again, finally stopping at the very attractive mooring at Great Linford. Still a very short day for us, but Odin got the advantage of another walk in the excellent parkland here.

In the evening sunshine the trees were beginning to release their seeds. White down floating over the canal like snowflakes, settling into any corners in the boat, and making a white fluff over the surface of the water. Many years ago I read that there are great drifts of this downy fluff in Moscow - where it is called 'pookh'. It settles into the roadside gutters and kerbs, where it is sometimes set on fire by local children. I love this time of year, when downy snowflakes drift past the boat on the canals.

Stoke Bruerne to Great Linford - (Milton Keynes)
Miles: 12.1, Locks:7

Total Miles: 268.3, Locks: 209

Friday, 30 May 2014

Continuing a Stress Free Home Run.

(Boat Chalice - posted by Cath)
Truly one of the most unusual boats to be found in this area
A very common days boating for us - it's a fairly stretched day, but it's one that we do all the time, so it can seem to be a bit repetitive.

On this occasion we had an appointment in Stoke Bruerne for 6:00 pm. Our son Michael, who doesn't like boating much, but who works anyway was planning to come up and meet us for the evening.

Odin & Clio check each other out from their respective boats.
At the Braunston flight we met up with a couple moving their boat back to its marina near Nether Heyford. I got on well immediately with the woman, and we worked up the flight very quickly chatting as we went. At the top she said that if we were working down Whilton they would be happy to work down with us.

Through Braunston Tunnel with no incidents, David practicing his cornet again.

At the top of the Buckby/Whilton flight, there was a boat waiting to go down. Strictly we should have gone down with them, but I called over to the boat that had come up Braunston with us - did they want to go down with us? "Love to!" was the reply.

Bottom lock at Buckby, (Whilton), after a nice smooth passage through.
Another boat was due to come off the water point so we persuaded them to go down with the lone boat ahead of us, and I introduced us properly to the boat we were going down with - Tan and Steve, with their dog Clio.

Tan is a teacher, and we were quickly into discussions about teaching, and boating. I got on really well with her, enjoying the talk, and finding the flight passing almost without notice. I don't particularly like the Whilton flight - the locks are deep, the gates are heavy. However, it was really good to work down with an efficient and friendly crew.

Dominic Miles craning a boat at his Stowe Hill base.
On through Blisworth Tunnel - David doing his practice again. A woman standing at the end of the tunnel was watching, trying to see where the music was coming from, and cheered when we appeared. It turned out later that she had assumed that David was a great deal younger than he really is - he does look young.

In Stoke Bruerne we found that our friends Paddy and Ruth were there - with Odin's very good friend Lister - so we had a cup of tea and the chance to catch up after the winter. Paddy and Ruth trade on the canals during the summer, so we see them quite often when out boating, but then not at all in the winter, when they take more 'regular' work.

Michael turned up, we took Odin for a walk. Michael tried him on a number of tricks that he couldn't do after his illness and he was able to do them easily. "Limp" and "Where's your tail?" were just too difficult for him only two weeks ago - so he has made considerable progress with balance and coordination since then.

We went to the pub for a meal, then played Northamptonshire Skittles in the bar. Michael had come equipped to stay overnight, but opted for the 1 hour drive home - it was really nice to see him.

Braunston to Stoke Bruerne

Miles: 21.0, Locks: 13
Total Miles: 256.2, Locks: 202

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The "Bascote Shuffle", and the advantages of sharing locks with competent crews.

(Boat Chalice - Posted by Cath)

One downhill and two uphill boats in Bascote staircase lock
We set off for the Radford Locks, and were joined by a hire boat crew. We worked up through several locks, and then got to the staircase lock at Bascote. One boat was in the top lock waiting to come down, so, being only three boats, we did an exchange in the middle of the staircase - with two boats swapping with the one coming down. We explained to the hire crew that this was 'advanced boating'.

One uphill boat has moved forward, and Chalice has moved over creating space for downhill boat

Chalice is short enough to move diagonally across with no other boat moves.
The locks in this stretch as very similar to the Hatton locks, but are much more spread out, so the whole day is much less intensive.

The easiest way to move up broad lock flights if you are happy to do it.
At the bottom of the Itchington flight we were interested to see Ajax moored, a boat that we were interested in buying earlier this year. The owner was on board and told us that he is taking it cruising for the summer, and that it will be on brokerage later this year.

Shared broad locks are always easier if steerers confident to go in like this.
We worked up the rest of the flight with a good hire boat crew, the only major incident being right at the top, when one of their crew, a wiry, older man. Fell off the bow into the lock. He surfaced still with glasses, cap and his windlass. He then stripped off in the cratch area - waving his underpants at the rest of the crew.

Approaching Braunston on the "Puddle Banks" - Famous spire in distance.

Not too far to walk to the pub tonight!
After that, up through the three locks at Calcutt, then several miles to Braunston. We moored outside the pub in sunshine, but by the time that we went for a meal, the garden was very chilly, and we were the only people eating outside - because we had Odin with us. A large group of rowdy children swung and screeched from the jungle gym - their parents warm inside.

Radford Semele to Braunston
Miles: 13.9, Locks: 23

Total Miles: 235.2, Locks: 189

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Hatton, mostly.

(Boat Chalice - posted by Cath)

Leaving the short Shrewley tunnel -it's usually a little bit wet in this one.
A drizzly start to the day. We were woken by the noisy freight trains, so got going fairly early on, setting off towards Hatton Flight.

We got both Odin and the folding bicycle off. David would cycle between locks, while I walked Odin.

A large part of the way down the Hatton flight - hard work if you start it tired!
We fairly quickly caught up a cheerful couple on a hire boat. They were efficient, and we got on well with them, but halfway down they decided to take a break.

Carrying on we caught up another crew to finish the flight.

 President and Kildare, (who wrongly assumed diesel would give way to steam!)
At the bottom we were tired, so moored up for lunch before setting off again through the Cape two.

Alan and I went shopping at the big Tesco, then we carried on until shortly below Radford Semele lock. A pleasant spot in the fields, where we could walk the dog up the towpath.

Pleasant mooring and fine end of day near Radford Semele.
A damp day, and tiring, with lots of deep locks. I'm not a great fan of Hatton, there are so many locks, with little chance of a break.

Lapworth to Radford Semele
Miles: 12.9, Locks: 23

Total Miles: 221.3, Locks: 166

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Fallen tree, poor value pub food and very noisy railway.

(Boat Chalice - posted by Cath with additions by Alan)
Broad Street "Tunnel", Birmingham
We were disturbed for a lot of the night by a property alarm, perhaps because of this we rather slow getting started. This meant that by the time we actually got going there were several boats already heading out through Gas Street towards the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. There was a long string of boats heading that way, but fortunately the slow hire boats moved over to let us through.

"Chalice" turns onto the Norther Stratford - the other boat had failed to!
There are many lock-less miles to get out of Birmingham, which should have been entirely straightforward, but ceased to be so, at the point we found a fallen oak tree completely blocking the Northern Stratford canal from one bank to the other.  It must have happened very recently, as we had passed boats coming the other way.  Frighteningly the day was not windy at all, so the fact that it had uprooted must have been entirely due to the sodden ground.  As at least one boater has been killed in recent years when a tree fell on heir boat, it is worrying how many tree falls you encounter - this is the second we personally have run into in maybe only half a year.

Shirley Lift Bridge - Northern Stratford canal
Cath quickly declared "there is no way you will clear that yourself", but was asked to ring the Canal & River Trust, (CRT), whilst Alan and David assessed, and eventually set about the obstruction with hand saws. CRT said they would have a team out as soon as possible, but we discovered that although it was a big tree, it was possible to cut enough away, provided a 7 foot wide boat would float right against the tow-path bank.  Another set of boat owners helped drag the cut branches out, and after an hour or so we were ready to see if we could squeeze through.  We could, so leaving a lot of debris on the bank, we moved off before anyone from CRT appeared.  If CRT West Midlands actually answered their phone we could have told them that, but it rang and rang, and eventually we could only send them an email.

Route blocked, but worst stuff is away from the tow-path.

David attempts to saw underwater branches
Next follows a flight of 19 narrow locks to get to Kingswood Junction where the Northern Stratford canal joins with the Grand Union main line.

Dragging the boat behind us through the cleared gap.
The weather was damp all afternoon, but we worked down the flight, arriving to moor on the visitors' moorings near the railway line. This proved to be a bit of a mistake - we are rarely disturbed by railways, but this one had some very heavy freight, which woke us early the following morning.  Another time we would go through and moor on the Grand Union itself.

Odin and Alan at Lapworth locks - still the drizzle continued!
We decided to eat in the Navigation in at Lapworth, which accepts dogs and has a menu that will feed vegetarians - and we were really too tired to cook for ourselves. The food really was delicious, we had risotto from the set menu. However, the portions were not at all generous, particularly for hungry boaters, and the risotto was the same price as the steaks and other meat options. Despite being very tasty, we are unlikely to go back to eat, as this just was too expensive for what it was.

Overnight mooring - we had no idea how many trains cross that bridge!
Back to the boat, and the very loud railway line, but having sawn up an oak tree, and worked a flight of 19 locks did help the sleep process regardless,

Birmingham to Lapworth
Miles: 18.8, Locks: 20 (includes permanently open stop lock).

Total Miles: 208.4, Locks: 143

Monday, 26 May 2014

Moving into Birmingham

(Boat Chalice - posted by Cath)

Narrow boat "Firefly" leaving the basin.
We didn't set an alarm, but work fairly early to let Odin off to go and do his necessaries. We then pottered around, not doing too much for a few hours. Boats were beginning to leave, and we finally decided that enough had gone to allow us room to move out of the corner we were in.

View through Tividale aqueduct towards Netherton tunnel - lots of boats.
This was not going to be a difficult run into Birmingham, just miles, no locks - but of course, the two tunnels we had gone through the previous day - Gosty Hill and Netherton Tunnels. Then onto the main line and into Birmingham centre.

Passing through a former toll island, with Engine Arm aqueduct in the distance.
We arrived at around 2:00 pm, moored up in one of the few remaining places, near to the NIA. Birmingham moorings were very busy, lots of hire boats, lots of private boats, and, of course, the boats moving away from the BCN Challenge.

Alan and I went shopping for a while, walking down to New Street. We had some kind of plan for our son Michael to visit us the following day, but it turned out to be difficult, so we decided not to stay another day.

Narrow boat "Peacock" passes an unusually congested Birmingham.
Soon after we got back from shopping Nick on Telemachus came past, having spent some time looking for a mooring, and asked if he could 'breast up' - no problems - I don't think I've ever seen central Birmingham so full of boats.

A quiet meal on the boat, then off to bed. For us, a very quiet day.

Hawne Basin to Old Turn - Birmingham
Miles: 12.5, Locks :0

Total Miles: 189.6, Locks: 123

Sunday, 25 May 2014

BCN Marathon Challenge - Day 2 - Sunday

(Boat Chalice - posted by Cath)
Leaving Ocker Hill moorings just after 05:00 a.m.

Sometime in the dark I head a paddling sound of water - Albion were slipping off into the night having had a short sleep. A couple of minutes later I head the thump of their powerful engine starting up once they were out of the mooring arm, and onto the main line.

First locks of the day at Ryder's Green
It was just starting to get light as our own alarm went off at 4:30. We didn't get going straight away - coffee and some kind of breakfast were in order before the next flight of locks.

A lot of different crews will have moved this out of the way this weekend!
Ryders Green locks were dispatched fairly easily, although I was beginning to feel very physically tired by then. At the top there was a large raft of weeds blocking the top gate - poled out of the way.

Bromford Junction where we went left up Spon Lane locks.

This junction at Spon Lane is literally directly under the M5 motorway
Left onto the main line, then up Spon Lane locks (3 locks) onto the 'Old Main Line', which is the original route through Birmingham (1770s). The 'New Main Line' was cut straight through the loops of the old route, some 60 or so years later than the original canal.  Once there we turned onto the Titford Pools arm, and worked up the 6 locks to the summit. By the time we were there the locks were very busy, with some 7 or 8 challenge boats in the flight at the same time. Canal and River Trust CEO, Richard Parry, was busy working boats through the locks with Team Tawny Owl as we came down.

CRT's CEO Richard Parry hard at work at Oldbury locks
Back onto the Old Main Line, I steered for a while again, then we turned onto the Brades Branch, and down the staircase lock to get back to the New Main Line again. Having got there we headed as fast as we could towards Hawne Basin - the finishing point. This meant going through two tunnels - the double width Netherton Tunnel, which has railings along the towpaths on either side - meaning that in the dark of the tunnel (2768 metres long) you find cyclists riding past. In this tunnel a light approaching may not be another boat, but a cyclist. Also, we had to pass through the very different single width Gosty Hill Tunnel - only about 500 metres long, but the roof comes down very low and you need to proceed with caution to make sure that you hang onto your boat paintwork. In both tunnels David practiced his cornet again.

Netherton tunnel - one of the last built - and unusually with a tow-path each side
We arrived at Hawne Basin at about 12:30 - theoretically we could have done another hour and a half's boating, but we couldn't have got many more points, and would have risked being penalised on points for arriving after the finish time.

So, a drink, a well earned rest, and we watched the other boats arriving while we took time to catch up with everyone on the stories of the challenge. The Hawne Basin bar ran out of beer very quickly - next time, perhaps they will order in more for 42 boatloads of thirsty boaters arriving en masse. However, we cannot fault the hospitality of the Basin. They made us all very welcome, and made a very good end to a very challenging, and enjoyable, BCN Challenge.

Entering Netherton tunnel, with Tividale aqueduct behind.

This end of Gosty Hill tunnel looks generous, but things quickly change!
Ocker Hill Services to Hawne Basin
Miles: 15.5, Locks: 26

Total Challenge Miles: 50.9, Locks: 56

Total Holiday Miles: 177.1, Locks: 123 

Gosty gets suddenly lower - there were potential points for naming the ghost!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

BCN Marathon Challenge - Day 1 - Saturday

(Boat Chalice - posted by Cath)

"Telemachus", "Chalice" & "Albion" ready to go at Salford Junction
BCN - Birmingham Canal Navigation. Once a year the BCN Society stages a 24 hour Marathon Challenge - to publicise the BCN, and get more boaters onto the Birmingham Canals. The challenge involves gaining as many points as possible for navigating the BCN. Points are awarded for different things: miles, locks, length of boat, number of crew, answering some questions about the locations, etc. Additionally, some less used sections gain double or triple points to get more people to navigate these stretches. The Challenge starts at 8:00 am on the Saturday, and finishes at a given location at 2:00 pm on the Sunday. You must take at least 6 hours of rest in that time. This year the number of boats entered had almost doubled, to 42 entries.

Ceremonial opening of "not to be opened until 08:00 am Challenge pack.

Our team leader Odin control operations at Perry Bar locks
Saturday morning at Star City moorings. We set the alarm for 6:30, not really sure why, but we felt that with an 8:00 am start we needed to be up, coffee'd and fed well before the off. The rain was fairly unrelenting almost all day - until the afternoon, when it lifted a bit for a while.

Surely the happiest boater taking part!
There were 5 boats moored at Star City, which is a short distance around the corner from our start point at Salford Junction. You can start anywhere on the BCN to do the Marathon Challenge, but there are additional points for starting at certain locations. Most of these boats were going up Perry Bar flight, with one going in the opposite direction to the others - but they still had to reverse to the junction to get their extra 5 points. About 7:30 one boat moved off, and the others followed soon after. Team Albion suggested that as they had arrived at Star City moorings after the other boats then they should be last off at Salford Junction - very gentlemanly of them.

Hudson owners have sophisticated ways of dealing with the rain!

Unusually it is not Alan looking miserable!
 We found that it was not really a case of a series of boat crews working up the flight of locks. Because all the crews were experienced boaters, it was far more like one large team moving several boats up the flight. The points for the BCN Challenge are partially dependent upon the size of crew, but the reality is that all the crews were working together all the time. Once into a lock we were sending David ahead, where he was helping the team there to close up and readying the lock for us. The team behind us were sending someone forward to do the same for us. All the boats flew up the locks.

Even Hudsons need a bit of assistance sometimes.
We were out of that section well ahead of our predicted time, and the crew began to start re-planning our route to take advantage of the additional time.

After the Perry Bar flight, into the Daw End Branch and up Rushall Locks - this time with a different team behind us, who had slipped in between us and team Albion at the junction. Telemachus waved us past, as being deep draughted they were slower than us - however, as we passed we got onto the shallows, making our overtaking rather inept. However, we all flew up the locks, and emerged at Catshill Junction ahead of schedule.

"Tawny Owl" with CRT CEO Richard Parry on the crew.
So, up to Anglesey Basin at the end of a lockless arm. It's one of the most attractive parts of the BCN, although there was no time to stop to admire the view. David leapt off the boat to gather our clue for the location, and we were off again. Under the bridge we found team Telemachus stuck on a shoal - once again a problem for deep draughted boats. Dredging is expensive, but some of the less used parts of the BCN are in need of it.

Out of the arm, another short distance, and into the Pelsall arm for just a mile. On the way back we passed Team Tawny Owl - last year's winning team - with the CEO of Canal and River Trust on board. All credit to Richard Parry who took over the post last year - he has really taken up the challenge of learning about the canals and boats.

Walsall locks - the thunder and lightening had now stopped at least
We reached the Walsall flight of locks as a thunderstorm started. As lightning flashed overhead we started to work down the locks. A group of youths were fairly rowdy under the road bridge, but gave us no trouble. At the second lock there were firemen who we had been told would be practicing rescuing bodies from the lock. We had also been told that they would know that the BCN Challenge would be on, and that boats would be coming through. The reality was that they didn't know, and seemed quite disconcerted that so many boats were travelling down the flight. They asked both David and I if more boats were going to be coming down, but seemed not to understand why we couldn't possibly tell them where the other boats doing the challenge were, and whether they would be coming that way. Somewhat more disconcerting was that they seemed to have lost one of their headless dummies through a sluice. We were told the next day by another boat crew that it looked like a very useful exercise for the firemen, as they had no experience of using locks, working the paddles, or of the anti-vandal keys that need to be used in some built up areas.

Brief stop for emergency supplies at Walsall town basin
Team Albion, who came down the locks about half an hour later than us were pelted by the youths under the bridge - with the steerer using a removable perspex window as a shield.

Walsall Basin looks like a good place to moor overnight, and there is an Art Gallery that comes very recommended, but we didn't have time to stop. We were out of food, and very hungry by that time, so I jumped off the boat and did a flying visit to Tesco, while David found the answer to the next location clue.

Night boating in the style of an impressionist painter!
We carried on down the Walsall canal - very shallow and weedy, hoping to make it to Ocker Hill, where we knew there were safe moorings, but not whether there was still any room there. It got dark around 9:30, so we were steering on headlight, with David on the front shouting instructions back to Alan.

We got to Ocker Hill Moorings at 10:30, in the pitch dark, and moored up. We found Team Iona, with Ange and Dave, were moored there, as was another challenge boat. Albion arrived some time after us and tied up to a C&RT mud hopper - they had just had a very difficult journey down from Walsall, with people chucking things at the boat, and even people trying to board it. Given that the crew was 4 hefty men I was surprised that they had these difficulties and very grateful that we hadn't had the same problems only a short while before them.  I set the alarm for 4:30, and we managed lights out some time after 11:30 - last thing I remember Alan saying is "You haven't really set the alarm for 4:30, have you?"

Star City, near Salford Junction  to Ocker Hill Services
Miles: 35.6, Locks:30

Total Challenge Miles: 35.4, Locks: 30

Total Holiday Miles: 161.6, Locks: 97