Thursday, 18 August 2016

Caledonian Canal

I've been up to the far north recently, following parts of the route that is now known as the North Coast 500. Most of that trip was by motor home (well, converted VW van) but on the way back we followed the route of the Caledonian Canal, which treks from Inverness through the length of Loch Ness down to Corpach near Fort William. Sea-going yachts do it as a short cut from one coast to another and all types of cruisers take the route too. We are familiar with the Neptune Staircase at Banavie, which as we noted in a previous post is also a rail junction and a road crossing, but we hadn't visited Fort Augustus, at the south end of Loch Ness for many years, so we dropped in on our journey to return the hired van to Jamie at Fort William Car Hire.
By chance who should we see but Timothy West and Prunella Scales, recording a future Great Canal Journeys programme. Look out for us as we hovered innocently alongside when the lock gates opened. They'd exchanged their narrow boat for a posh cruiser this time and it bobbed about like cruisers do ....

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Leicester Line - Kilby Bridge to Welford

Back now through the heavy locks south of Kilby, though this time with a jolly little 20 foot cruiser who helped with the winding, while bobbing about trying to avoid being crushed by us in the locks.
We reach Foxton in good time and find there is one boat coming down and we are first going up. So after 20 minutes wait we attack the flight with relish and sprint to the top in just 35 minutes - which is about as fast as it can be done. A triumph celebrated by another pint and a meal at the Foxton Locks Inn as the sun goes down.
Next day is an easy trip back to Welford through delightful countryside in sunny conditions.
After a few small maintenance jobs - John having already tightened up a squeaking belt and now replaced the weed hatch seal we retire to The Wharf at Welford for another very well-priced lunch and the hour-long journey home.
Next we must repaint the stern deck which is flaking in places, paint non-slip powder on the gunwhales and replace the co-ax connectors on the TV which have rusted away. Always something to do on the cut ....

Kilby Bridge and Leicester

I've mentioned our arrival at Kilby Bridge and our meal at The Navigation in the previous blog entry  and now we took a day off to visit Leicester which neither of us had visited for many years.
It wouldn't be fair to diminish the huge success of the unexpectedly league-leading football club by saying that we were underwhelmed by Leicester city centre. After all, it was a day of dull weather and we were quite focused on what we wanted to see, but the people did seem very friendly and helped us with finding the right buses and pointed us (usually) in the right direction. Regional TV is asking "Joan from Leicester" how she's going to vote in the referendum, but we are happy for her to tell us that we can easily walk 15 minutes from Kilby Bridge to Wigston and catch a bus into Leicester City Centre.

We found the famous car park where Richard III's body was found, visited his grave in the modest cathedral and found the visitors' centre well laid out and interesting. Richard's life is well explained and the discovery of his grave is described in detail.
From the excellent bus station (yes, really, great information and lots of space) we headed out to the National Space Centre (yes, in Leicester! - with cooperation from University of Leicester's Space Research Centre and land from a redundant pumping station).
With its child-friendly exhibits (a space toilet explained, interactive experiences, walk-through capsule etc) and impressive artefacts (a Soyuz capsule, space suits, actual rockets) the museum appeals to young and old, with hard questions about the origin and destination of the universe as well as "what would an alien look like".

The open design, determinedly avoiding a defined route through the six galleries areas plus planetarium and upper levels meant we felt a bit lost at times, but there was great variety for us and for the many children swarming around on school trips. Curiously the translucent 42 metre tower made apparently from plastic inflatables didn't allow for any viewing over the city. But then the view was less than impressive. Sorry, Leicester, but true.

Finally we visited the free Abbey Pumping Museum with its wonderful Victorian brass and mahogany pumps, created in the days when engineering had to be visually awe-inspiring even if it was just pushing effluent into pits. There are also rather random collections of plumbing, Meccano and a knitting machine. We enjoyed this and gather that their Events days with working steam pumps and narrow gauge railway are justifiably popular.

Leicester Arm - Foxton to Kilby Bridge

All is sunshine as we leave Foxton and head for Kilby Bridge.
This is delightful countryside, with boundless buttercup-laden fields, many with ridge and furrow, many with sheep and their well-fed lambs. Very relaxing.

But first there is 881 yards of Saddington Tunnel and its bat boxes, followed by Kibworth Top Lock, first of 12 locks in 10 miles to Kilby. Many of these locks are substantial, all widebeam, most with ground paddles as well as gate paddles and can be slow to fill and heavy to wind. Sharing with another boat is a very good idea ....
We break off for lunch and a stroll to The Church of St Luke, Newton Harcourt, unfortunately locked, but with a sturdy stone tower in an attractive setting.

A curious gravestone in the shape of the church commemorates a young boy
while another unusual modern shape reminds us of the estimable Lucy Charlton, who "made a difference to so many".
Shunning the village itself we continue towards Leicester with more energy sapping locks until we reached Kilby Bridge in good time. Picture below thanks to James Bell.
Here there is an unpretentious pub, The Navigation, offering mid week "Pauper's Supper" of three courses for £9.99. And very good it was, too, helped by an indefatigable waitress who deserves a tip.

The Leicester Arm - Welford to Foxton

Welford is on a short arm off the Leicester Arm of the Grand Union. We've often been up to Foxton Locks (previous blogs here) as it's just a three hour trip to the top lock with good moorings, interesting museum, attractive scene and the only lock is that at the end of the Welford Arm.
This time we thought we'd go further north and maybe venture into Leicester itself. However there are negative comments about the canals around Leicester, suggesting yobbish behaviour, broken windows, damaged locks - none of which we have any proof for, but tended to put us off. The general opinion was that Kilby Bridge was a useful and safe place to stay and by mooring there for two nights we could avoid the suburbs and more locks, while having easy access by bus to Leicester.
And so it proved. Foxton Locks was unfortunately busy with boats heading for the Crick Festival so we were queued at the summit, then again in the central pond while eight boats went up. It took just short of three hours to get to the bottom - including a challenging couple of minutes while Duncan conducted a complete circle in the central pond, whisked around by undercurrents. Or so he said.

Memo to users of Foxton Locks: the ten locks are deep but the paddles are easy to wind and the gates well balanced so the two flights are less threatening than they first appear. However the locks are fed by side ponds which recycle the water and while economical on water use there is a danger for spectators (and there are always spectators at Foxton) of falling in (it has happened ...) and the inrush of water causes treacherous currents which can drive a boat in odd directions.

Anyway, we eventually moored just north of bridge 62 (see above) and enjoyed first a thirst-quenching pint at Bridge 61 then a pleasant meal at the Foxton Locks Inn. Tomorrow we would be in unfamiliar territory as we aimed to pass through 12 locks and a tunnel from Foxton to Kilby Bridge.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Grand Western Canal

Like the Somerset Coal Canal and the Bude Canal, here is another remote and land-locked West Country waterway, which was visited by John while staying in West Somerset, but which is off limits to Patience without the help of a low-loader.

The Grand Western Canal currently runs 11 miles through the beautiful mid-Devon countryside, from Tiverton in the west to Loudwells at its eastern end.  The Grand Western Canal was part of a planned 46 mile link from Topsham on the River Exe to Taunton, where it connected with the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal and, had it been completed through to Topsham, would have provided a link between the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. The Tiverton section opened in 1814 and for more than 100 years carried limestone from quarries at Holcombe to extensive lime kilns at Tiverton Basin, where quicklime was produced as a fertiliser.  However,  the section to Topsham was never built and by the mid 19th century the Tiverton to Taunton section was facing competition from Brunel's Great Western Railway.  It finally closed in 1924.

In recent years, the 11 mile lock-free section from Tiverton to Loudwells has been restored by Devon County Council as part of a country park. A few private narrow boats and day boats use it, as does a wide-beam horse drawn trip boat, the 'Tivertonian'.
Near Manley bridge there is a memorial to the two-man crew of an RAF Canberra bomber, which crashed into the canal on 21 November 1961 while on a training flight from Germany.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Still cold

We affirmed our belief that we are fair weather boaters by aborting a planned trip up the Leicester Arm. In intermittent heavy rain showers we did some basic maintenance, tanking up with water, disinfecting pipes and clearing air blocks while using the rain to scrub the rather grubby roof.
At a very good lunch at The Wharf (Welford) we agreed that the weather forecast (cold, sunny intervals broken by bands of rain, occasional light snow showers ...) wasn't attractive enough to entice us out, so we wrapped dear Patience up for another few weeks before we take her out.
On an impulse we decided to go down to the museum at Stoke Bruerne (an hour by car - three days by boat!) and enjoyed the displays and the tea and cakes. A very friendly museum and a good spot near the Blisworth tunnel.
Last year we reached the Blisworth (north) end and opted not to continue to Stoke Bruerne as we were uncertain about moorings and turning. At 3,076 yards (2,813m) long it is the third-longest navigable canal tunnel on the UK canal network after Standedge Tunnel and Dudley Tunnel (and the ninth-longest canal tunnel in the world). On yesterday's inspection we need not have worried: there is extensive inline mooring and a good winding hole plus two pubs and two restaurants as well as the museum and café.
Here's the view of the lock - taken from the loading bay window of the old store that is now the museum. What appear to be two locks, one on either side of the central island is in fact one operating lock (on the left) and an old non-functioning one on the right.

 Hailstones start falling heavily as I write this. A good decision to call off our trip.