Saturday, 30 June 2012

Rain, rain, go away ....

Into every life a little rain must fall ... but really, this is ridiculous! Patience has hardly left her moorings all year because the briefest periods of poor weather haven't coincided with our free time. We've cancelled several trips and aborted our recent journey to Oundle because of wind, rain and Strong Stream Advice from the Environment Agency.
I said I was a fair weather boater but the stats now prove we've had ... (wait for it) ... the wettest April to June period SINCE RECORDS BEGAN!
Rainfall amounts for this period range from 268mm (Anglian region, where we are) to 427mm in Wales.
Total rainfall from April 1 to June 27 2012 was 323.4 (previous record: 296.5mm in 1931; average 208.4mm).
June was later confirmed as THE WETTEST JUNE SINCE RECORDS BEGAN! with 145.3mm (5.7ins) of rain in the UK.
And on that basis I declare our summer boating a washout! On the other hand it is the wind that has caused most of our problems.
Nevertheless we are going ahead with The Shelford Feast,  we will try very hard to visit Ramsey and Benwick on the Middle Levels while we are confined to (sorry, based at) Fox's Boatyard, and who knows, in September we might be able to break  out and make it at last to Oundle!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Stanground standstill

Monday 25th
Off before 8 to be sure to catch our Stanground appointment (make sure you phone ahead to warn the lock keeper).
On the western outskirts of Whittlesey there is a very narrow channel with a sharp bend (next to The Hero pub, named after local hero Sir Harry Smith, not Nelson).
Narrow channel, sharp bend, at Whittlesey

There follows an attractive rural stretch spoiled by a desperate and chaotic farm where sad and filthy cows lick at the crooked timbers of a lopsided barn floating in a muddy marsh and where the only visible working machine is a tractor with no front axle. Cold Comfort Farm lives on here.
Beyond this, representatives of yesterday and tomorrow stand tall, side by side, slender old brick chimneys echoed by modern wind generators.
Arriving at Stanground lock at 9.30 we find that strong stream advice has been notified so we phone the Lower Nene linesman for clarification.
Nene River Inspectors -
upper: 07760 422263
middle: 07768 171256
lower: 07714 064034
He confirms strong stream conditions, worsening over the next few days as they reverse locks to send water down and out of the system. The Stanground lock keeper confirms we pass through at our own risk, and would have to sign an indemnity form. We are not to so foolish and have little option but to retreat. If we had gone through and moored at Peterborough there is a good chance the moorings would become awash.
Stanground lock and lock keeper, with John. Patience sits expectantly in the background.

The number to phone is 0800 80 70 60
Thanking our forward planning, we now aim to go back to Fox's at March, and scold ourselves that we didn't clarify the situation before making the journey this far.

The return journey echoes the  approach but though we have now seen  a temporary end to our expedition to Oundle, this is a pleasant trip. After all, "going up and coming down the river" is what we do. On the bright side we also now have the opportunity to explore the middle level's other channels, probably visiting Ramsey and Benwick, while we're based safely at Fox's - which will be for a month, we imagine. It's a calculated retreat, not a failure. Honest.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

March to Whittlesey

Sunday 23rd
Heavy rain overnight but we fill up with water, (there's a tap, accessed using the key we bought at Salters, but no pumpout), newspapers and essentials and next stop Fox's Boatyard.
We clarify some things about the flooding, lock closure, important phone numbers and the like and go on our way with a more suitable windlass and feeling welcomed and more confident in our future plans. For the record the windlass is a two-sizer rather than the tapered one we are more used to on The Ouse. We also confirm that the key for the padlocked area around middle level locks, and the water tap at March (as bought at Salters) is one thing, while the key to downstream guillotine lock gates on the Nene is the same as that used by the Environment Agency along the Great Ouse (a half moon, in section).
Passing more attractive riverside gardens we spy a large torpedo in the garden of the Middle Levels Watermen's Social Club. Oh, the fun they must have at barbecues!
We now crack on under leaden skies though the rain keeps off and it's warm enough not to be uncomfortable.
Crossing the meridian at Floods Ferry we leave the Nene Old Course and head into increasing wind towards Whittlesey on Whitlesey Dyke.
We've seen barn owls, terns, heron, kestrels, woodpeckers and a peacock, but unfortunately it will be the weed and roots we most remember. Treatise on weed and wind here.

Through Ashline Lock using that padlock key again and moored for the night a few hundred yards further on, on the edge of a large recreation ground.
Patiently waiting at Whittlesey in the golden light of evening

Whittlesey on a Sunday night is totally different from March on a Saturday night. In the pub, where the beer and the food is even cheaper than at March, the lads preparing to watch the England v Italy match are quiet and good natured and on the recreation ground groups of lads play five-a-side or skateboard determinedly on a purpose-built course while girls stroll amiably around the field.
Bathed in a golden sundown we watch an outclassed England team struggle to a well deserved exit on penalties. Tomorrow we head for an early appointment at Stanground and hope to hit the Nene at about 11am. Note that Stanground Lock must be booked 24 hours beforehand (phone 01733 566413), and is not open on Sunday afternoons. If river conditions are adverse (too low, too high, too fast) even prior bookings can be cancelled for operational reasons.

Enjoying the Middle Levels

Still Saturday 22nd. A long day ....
After the adventure of crossing from the Ouse into the middle level, then the challenge of the weed and wind, at last we were beginning to enjoy ourselves.  We admired a wedding scene at Upwell, though we really did have to duck under several low bridges along the way. The Middle Level Commissioners do produce a map highlighting the exact height of their low bridges.
We do find a shortage of up to date online information about river conditions. You could try the Middle Level site but I note that after the wettest June in living memory it still refers to "the current drought in the coming spring". You'd do better to use mobile numbers.
For the record: Stanground Lock is 01733 566 413 and Salters Lode is 01366 382 292.
Fox's Boatyard is 01354 652 770.
After Marmont Priory (please phone ahead, 01945 773 959 ) with its very helpful lock lady, beautiful cat and surprising peacock, the river has less weed for a while, is broader and we pick up speed.
Wind generators stalk the countryside, the entrance to March is attractive with riverside gardens and an infinite variety of sheds and summer houses and we go past the main moorings to tie up past the Broad Street bridge. It's shaded by trees and opposite the water tap (pump out closed down) and vulnerable to vandalism perhaps, but it's convenient to the town centre for newspapers, pubs, and food.
March could be attractive, and has had money spent on it to enhance its Victorian splendours, but on Saturday evening the kids run wild in the parks while older folks get shouting drunk in the Olde Griffin on cheap beer and loud music. We eat inexpensively, make our excuses and retreat.
Organising our journey onward now throws up several problems.  Stanground lock is closed on Sunday evening so we have to book a precise time slot for Monday morning and to leave early to reach it. Meanwhile we hear there is strong stream advice for the Nene but we can't find out precisely what's going on.
We opt to visit Fox's Boatyard on the way up as it's only a mile away on the other side of March, and ask their advice. Could we retreat to there if all else fails?
Pondering our options onward we retire and sleep despite the lunacy around us. The kids keep at it well into the night and in our dreams we hear the screams of girls and the roar of boys interspersed with police sirens.

Challenge on The Middle Level

If we thought getting through Denver and Salters locks was The Great Challenge and all would be easy thereafter, we were being over-optimistic. The greatest was yet to come!
While in normal times this section through Upwell, Outwell to March would be a pleasant cruise, we had reckoned without that lethal combination of wind and weed. We wrote before about being blown onto the bank and trapped without power thanks to weed on the prop - and it happened again! Being experienced didn't help much as we battled fierce crosswinds while picking up weed and roots. And not a mooring place in sight!
So - engine off, weed trap up, sleeves up, clear the tangle of roots of Yellow Flag Iris and the skeins of Blanket Weed , like the hair of drowned sailors, reassemble, start up ... and we are immediately entangled again. Aiming to push against the wind to the opposite bank, away from the worst of the weed, we even broke our pole!
At one point we were close to despair. However discarding all the alternatives in turn (drag her by hand, flag down a passing tractor for a tow, scuttle her and walk home ...)with a supreme effort on the remaining pole, a balancing act on the gangplank and an uncommon stream of cursing, we wrenched her free in a rare moment that the wind slackened momentarily.
However I can't continue our journey without a lengthy aside about the cursed weed. Wind and weed together are the perfect storm for narrow boaters. What's to be done?
The obvious thing is to avoid the weed in the first place. How?
  • Take the centre channel unless you have to swerve to avoid a floating raft of weed.
  • switch briefly into neutral if you can't avoid a block of weed
  • If passing another vessel don't let yourself be dragged into the edge where weed and reed collects
  • Take every mooring opportunity to clear the prop (a stitch in time etc, and a little weed does seem to fast accumulate more weed on the prop).
  • Keep aware of the boat losing power, slowing down, overheating, steering awkwardly or trailing vegetation in its wake. These are all possible signs of entanglement.
  • Clear that weed as soon as you can. Losing power through a combination of wind and weed means you need to take urgent action or you'll be stuck!

If you do lose power or steering:
  • Moor up as soon as possible in the lest weedy and most sheltered place you can find, even if it means switching off, poling on or across
  • If the wind blows you on to a bank, consider poling or hauling across to the opposite bank and make a temporary mooring while you clear the prop. Generally the opposite bank to the one you're being blown on to will be more sheltered and less weedy, which will give you the best chance to restart the engine and head for the central channel.
  • Note that while a line from another narrow boat could get you out of trouble, a line from a light cruiser will be ineffective. 
  • Consider a pole with a broad end to avoid getting stuck in the mud.
  • Roping to a firm fixing on the bank might give you the chance to haul the boat in to bank by taking advantage of intermittent slackening of the wind.
  • Remember that revving the engine for more power is OK for a few moments but generally it is likely to over-heat the engine rather than increase power to your weed clogged screw.
And this is what the Middle Level Commissioners are doing about it.

While one little buggy chops up the weed, the other shovels it up and casts it onto the bank (the clip and scoop method). Unfortunately two little buggies can't cover the whole level and, as we found, they left a great floating trail of ragged salad leaves which - guess what - wrapped itself round our prop once more. With less wind this time we manage to stop mid stream and hastily clear the blades just before we nudge the bank.
So, memo to MLC: get into partnership with the EA or the Waterways Trust to start collecting moderate sums for licenses from boaters. Then spend on clearing weeds and providing simple moorings. We note there are few moorings on the recommended route through the Middle Levels except at Upwell, March and Whittlesey town, plus private moorings at Fox's and Flood Ferry Touring Park. So, few reed-free places to pull in for a quick coffee or a weed clearing.
Phew! That's that! Now back to our journey!

Braving wind and tide

Saturday 23rd and I'm up at 6 am in bright sunlight to recce the area, including the lock, the sandbank and the sharp turn through Salters Lock. The wind is blustery, the sand bank large and right in front of the lock. This is going to be fun! 
Important note 1: you have to book 24 hours ahead for passage through the lock. This will also verify the time of your passage, which depends on the tide. Phone 01366 382 340 for Denver, or if approaching from the Middle Levels use 01366 382 292 for Salters Lode Lock.
Important note 2: narrow boats should clear their roofs including aerials and chimneys as bridges are very low after here. Access Middle level maps including low bridge heights.

First, the recce. Taken from the bridge over the sluice and looking north at low tide, in this picture the lock is on the right and the sandbank dead ahead, between lock and river channel. Another channel is coming in from the left.
Walking a few hundred yards up the west bank you can see  the entrance to Salters Lock. It is at an acute angle so boaters heading east have a very sharp left turn to make into quite a narrow entrance (hence the many tyres). Another reason for booking your passage is to coordinate boats coming through Salters and Denver locks.

 A more straight-on view of Salters Lock. Any further north of this and you'll be heading for The Wash!
 Returning to Denver lock, so facing south to the lock on the left, sluice to the right and the sandbank in front.
 Now the action. Moving up to the landing stage in good time we are first into the lock, out ...

... and negotiate the now hidden sandbank by turning sharp left to the middle of the stream then sharp right to avoid a hidden mudbank, 200 yards downstream then very sharp left down the narrow alley to Salters, under a series of very low arched bridges and into the lock.
In Salters Lock facing west

In Salters Lock, facing east
We buy a £3 key giving access to middle level lock padlocks and off we go!

Leaving Home

On Friday 22nd June Patience left home, slipping her anchor at The Lazy Otter, quitting Stretham,  The Old West River and heading for The Middle Level.
Over 2 1/2 years we have fond memories of the marina at The Otter, The Old Bridge, the irascible Cyril, liveaboard Tim and his two barges, Alan our guide, and even the stuffed otter in the pub itself. It was where we found Patience in November 2009 and where we learned to handle her.
But nothing stands still and the next challenge is a new mooring in a different part of the river system.
We are stocked with enough food and water for 5 days, we've checked the weather and the EA warnings as far as we can, surveyed Denver lock, yet we don't really know what lies ahead given recent drought, floods, heavy rain, unpredictable winds ... and it's June!
So, a brief stop at Ely and another at The Ship, Brandon Creek, but onward, crabwise at times, up the Ouse, with a 20mph tailwind and occasional heavy showers. Wet weather gear at all times.
Despite gusts forcing us towards the bank we arrive at Denver at 6.30pm, 21 miles from Stretham. Plenty of moorings and now fine weather, with the prize of a meal at Jenyns Arms and a lateish start tomorrow.
Patience in early morning at Denver. The sluices are in the background.

Denver sluices and lock are crucial barriers to the sea. Without them it could surge down from the Wash. They also take water from inland out to sea, in a highly complex series of channels and sluices that drain the fens using a system developed by Vermuyden in 1651. Beyond Denver lies a route out to The Wash, where it is possible to cross to Boston, Lincs. We are attempting an easier option: to go up the tidal section for a very short way before turning acutely east down Salters Lode, gateway to The Middle Levels, those rivers joining The Ouse through the Nene to the Grand Union. Our destination is Oundle on The Nene, 76 miles and maybe 4 days from The Otter.
Good weather is expected tomorrow, followed by heavy rain overnight, so we feel confident as we retire on Friday evening.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fair Weather Boater

Okay, I admit it, I'm a fair weather boater. I enjoy sunlit scenery, dappled shade from overhanging trees, light and shade to give life to my views. Into every life a little rain must fall, and Patience has enough waterproofs to keep us dry and warm for days on end if necessary, but I'm not wild about setting out on days that promise only dull cloud and steady rain.
So it was that John and I cancelled a proposed trip up The Lark. Old softies? Maybe ... but boating is supposed to be fun and as I write this it's dull with constant rain and more wind than is comfortable.

I don't have much of a photo collection for Narrow Boats and Rain, but it does remind me of the day we took the wrong route and found ourselves in a boating pageant being saluted by a small chap with a toothbrush moustache. Choppy day, lots of rain, and I asked a bloke from a nearby submarine to take a  a photograph for me. I reasoned no-one would believe me....

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Crick Boat Show

First the Royal Pageant and now the Crick Boat Show, I'm making up for not taking Patience out during this dull weather.
Lots of helpful people at Crick. The first was the chap on the door, looking down at my shoes and muttering  in a doom-laden voice that I should have brought wellies and I'd be up to my knees in mud when it started to rain come midday. Well I should have done, but the rain didn't come, so it wasn't as bad as Sunday must have been, amidst downpours.
Nevertheless I think the threatening skies put some people off so the crowds were thin, giving us good access to many splendid boats.
Calcutt Marine were very helpful and knowledgeable with John's questions about our engine cooling  and the prospect of a new instrument panel (we feel the need for something to tell us engine speed). We bought some Miracle Wax in an optimistic gesture to encourage the beautification of Patience, and a splendid tea towel from the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust whose mission is to bridge that frustrating river gap between the two cities, linking the Great Ouse and The Grand Union.
We also tracked down someone who has LED bulbs shaped like fluorescent tubes, so you can swap them out and gain the more efficient lighting of an LED without changing your fittings.
No sign of any meters for showing water and foul waste levels (any suggestions, readers?) but apart from that a fair day out in dull weather which could have been a great deal worse ....
Let the boats speak for themselves:

Note this last one and its raised prow, shaped like a sea-going vessel. An interesting shape but while it means the double bed in the forward section is wider than usual, there's no easy access to the bow area. Tricky for mooring, we thought.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Jubilee Pageant

Though Patience was not in the Pageant (Canal Planner estimates 14 full days to get there from our present moorings, and there are so many stoppages it would be bound to be even longer), I was there to see the stream of more than 1000 boats pass along The Thames at a stately pace.
Stationed near Wandsworth Bridge, with occasional forays towards Putney, we had an excellent view of the area where the mustering took place, before the formal start of the Pageant.

Arriving at 10.30 we managed to see narrow boats go upstream towards their far mustering place before they joined the formal parade. We also saw all the man-powered boats before the rain set in.
Royalist or Republican, there is no doubt this was a Grand Occasion and a unique display of our boating heritage. I was glad to be there!
Oh, and a word for the rowers and paddlers: Fantastic job! The powered boats in convoys had their challenges, but those rowers were on the water continuously for more than 7 hours, through rain and cold winds mostly without protective gear. Well done all!
nb President was built in 1909 at a cost of £600 in Fellows, Morton and Clayton’s company dock at Saltley, Birmingham.
President and another narrow boat,Kildare, are owned by the Black Country Living Museum
More information and evocative photographs at their website.

Pirate Castle


Canal River Trust
Quercus and Beatty, with gondola

Wandsworth Bridge - man-powered boats mustering

From Wandsworth Bridge - man-powered boats mustering

Dragon Boats from Wandsworth Bridge

Just some folks we met on the bridge ....