Wednesday, 28 September 2016

South Oxford canal, in summary

So we took 5 days to get to Lower Heyford, rather than Oxford, and 4 days to get back.  We went 61.5 miles and through 43 locks - each way.
We moored at Lower Heyford for the weekend rather than go to Oxford because Heyford is a pleasant mooring, whereas Oxford can be rather busy, and by cutting out the 14 miles and 9 locks each way to Oxford we managed to replace it with a pleasant five mile walk and a 15 minute train journey.
Heyford has a very convenient station, water and rubbish facilities, a handy shop, 3 nearby pubs, a house and garden to gawp at, 2 pleasant churches, good towpath walks and a very fine tithe barn.
We enjoyed the Oxford Canal southern branch very much and would recommend it for its scenery, kingfishers, general interest and good waterside pubs. Its many locks, though single width, have the virtue of a stepping area just beyond the gate so that the boat can stop, the gate closes behind it and the crew member working the locks can step aboard without needing to moor up. Handy.

It should be added here that our engine bilges are usually wet - mostly just water leaking in from rain, as the gutter around the trap door clogs up with leaves and the outlets too. Occasionally there is a sign of anti-freeze and once even a hint of diesel. None of these has ever been a significant problem, but something in the bilges may indicate a problem now or in the future.
John regularly checks all this using a shaving mirror to magnify or a mirror-with-light on a stick to access hard to reach hoses and connections. Given that Patience may charge along for up to 8 hours non-stop, heat will expand joints and vibration will loosen connections. Age and hot fluids will perish rubber too, so it is always valuable to inspect, tighten and replace if necessary as part of daily maintenance.

 So at end of September 2016 here, in yellow, are the canals and rivers where we have taken Patience.
Gradually the yellow lines showing our travels are extending from the Ouse and its tributaries to The Grand Union and beyond.  Zoom in online to see the map more clearly.

Where next?

From Oxford 4. Braunston to Welford

Thursday 22nd September
Off at 8.45 amid showers and through Braunston locks (double width, what a change!) alongside a group of Dutch people enjoying our canals.
Part way up we're interrupted by a cranky old boy with full grey beard and yellow oilskins who seems to be shouting at his boat as it careers across the pound ahead of us and turns to 90 degrees. I go up and try to help whereupon it seems he is shouting at his unfortunate, disabled, wife who is within, while his boat is partly grounded in the low water of the pound and swinging around from the stern as he tries to gain control. Opening the lock for him raises the level, eases his grounding and at last enables him to get in to the lock and away.
We too get in and away, charging on to Norton Junction and to the bottom lock of the Watford Flight by lunchtime. As usual there is a queue, though not as long as last time (only 2 hours!), and we begin to think we could regain our home mooring at Welford before night fall.
We are out of the top lock (there are 7, gaining 16 metres) at 3pm and with the estimate from the lock keeper that it's just 4 hours to Welford we consider being home tonight instead of tomorrow as we'd believed.
It's a beautiful day now, bright low sun through trees highlighting furrows in freshly ploughed fields, and we are going at a good pace (John calculates just under 3mph and believes we are going a bit too fast) so at this rate we can make it in time - if we want to.

In my own mind I set a target of arriving at the Welford junction by 7pm. Any later I thought would be too dark and it would be preferable to moor up just before the junction and rest up with the food and drink we had on board. With the temperature gauge warm but not quite overheating, and with sunset at 7.01 pm, we arrive at 7.07 and I make the decision to go for our marina.

Down the dark Arm we went, surprised to be crossed by another boat heading back to the main canal, cautious but confident in gathering gloom, and then assisted by our trusty hand-held spotlight, we approached the pound. The spotlight illuminates the narrow entrance and we are through without a bump. John leaps off, dashes to the lock, opens it and I glide in effortlessly in near total darkness.  What little light remains in the sky helps make it lighter than down the tree-lined Arm.
In minutes we are through and at the marina, helped now by the electric lights from the Basin. We moor up at 7.45. It is late September. It is very dark. We are home.

I found it really quite exciting (narrow boating isn't usually exciting, is it?!) and certainly memorable, if not entirely sensible. Of course we had lights - spotlight, headlight and navigation lights -, plus experience and familiarity with this stretch, so it was less tricky than, say, a long tunnel. CRT don't recommend it (please don't try this at home, youngsters).
But what fun!

21 miles, 14 locks, 11 hours

From Oxford 3. Fenny Compton to Braunston

Wednesday 21st September
Passing the water buffalo again at Adkins Holt Farm ... noting long term moorings up The Engine Arm off the Napton Flight, we push on with the aim of arriving in good time at Braunston. Being a busy place we know moorings can be tricky to find.
We arrive at the Braunston Turn at 5pm ...

... and struggle to find anywhere not dedicated to long term moorings, near a water tap or a bend or otherwise inappropriate. Finally we are uncomfortably near a busy road bridge and a dog poo container overflowing with people's rubbish - but it'll have to do. We can't find anywhere nearby to deposit our own rubbish (come on, Braunston, it's not hard ...) so we hang on to it.
Evening meal at The Globe on Braunston High Street. Not as posh as The Admiral but perfectly adequate in the dining room.
17 miles, 9 locks

From Oxford 2. Banbury to Fenny Compton

Tuesday 20th September
Overcast  at first, dull but thankfully no rain, we set off from Banbury in good time and head north, reflecting on the very fine waterside, newly pedestrianised old centre - but the tortuous back street route from one to the other. Perhaps they ran out of money .... though that doesn't explain the lack of life in the evening in the centre. Has the huge shopping centre, so busy during the day, sucked the night life out of Banbury?
On and up, under drawbridges, past gardens that border the canal, and now with the sun on our backs, yesterday's dampness squeezed out of us.
We stop in at Cropredy marina for a pump-out which appears to confirm that we can go longer than a fortnight without needing to pump out, though without a gauge to measure accurately we are not much further forward. Cropredy is a huge posh marina, but we push on, up the old Oxford with its quaint lock-keepers' cottages ....

And before we know it we are at Fenny Compton, at "the summit" so from tomorrow we start heading downhill.
Fenny Compton is packed with boats and we're lucky to find a place 1/4 mile from the Wharf Inn. There are more than  50 boats lined up here and the pub is very busy, but food is good and very well priced.
10.5 miles 12 locks

From Oxford 1. Heyford to Banbury

Up early knowing we have places to go and we are at the water point at 8.45 - to find a) someone already there b) there is only the one tap c) it is the slowest tap on the network d) if we do ever get to it and fill up we'll have to reverse through a bridge and do a 3-point reverse into the wharf to turn round and face in the right direction. Oh yes, and it's started to rain ....

So we don't actually set off until 10.30 and we make a note to tell CRT they've got a useless tap.
And it's raining .... so my memories of the rest of the day are just increasingly damp, very very damp.

We arrive in Banbury at 6.15 and it hasn't stopped raining, so changing into dry gear and hanging up the damp clothes is the first priority. Standing outside at the tiller for 8 hours of constant rain isn't so much fun.
We are moored right next to Tooley's Historic Boatyard.
Look closely and you will see that they offer "The ISIS school of boat handling." Is that the terrorist's alternative to the SAS and Special Boat Service?

At last with umbrellas up we head for The Old Reindeer, Banbury's oldest pub and quite atmospheric. We are served by an enthusiastic young man and a charming blonde ex-ballet dancer (see her pirouette as she changes direction with our meals!) and she also shows me around The Globe, the old panelled room where, it is said, Oliver Cromwell planned his campaigns.
Back at the boat, having negotiated the back streets of Banbury, we light the fire and try to dry our kit.
And still it rains ....

12.5 miles, 7 locks

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

To Oxford! The weekend

With John back in Cambridge I'm on my own for a short while until Jenny comes across for the weekend. I do some washing and run the engine for a while to test the battery charge.
Jenny comes via dreadful traffic and local floods (Didcot station just the other side of Oxford is flooded and impassable) though there's no problem here, just 15 miles north. She is armed with spare clothes and good food so after lunch we stroll around Lower Heyford (pleasant, though it doesn't take long), afternoon tea at Kizzie's café on the wharf and a supper on the boat followed by an evening drink at The Bell.
Next day, Saturday, we work out the train times and set off to walk past Lower Heyford station to the next one down, Tackley, which is 5 miles south on a pretty good towpath.
At Tackley we catch the train to Oxford and wander the streets of the dreaming spires with more than an hour at the Ashmolean which has been recently revamped and is very accessible. Some excellent pre-Raphaelite paintings high upstairs and all manner of ancient pieces and fine work.
The Radcliffe Camera

Back in Heyford Jenny remembers a local pub which she visited a while ago while on a cycling holiday and she drives us to The Red Lion at Steeple Aston for a very good evening meal of sea bream (Jenny) and an enormous pizza (me). The pub / restaurant also has a surprisingly good second-hand bookshop with profits going to local charities. Worth a look!

On Sunday we visited Rousham House and gardens, an easy stroll from the wharf and on a beautiful day it was a pleasure to browse the gardens. They are well kept but not pretentious and not manicured like some National Trust places. The house is open only to pre-booked parties, but the grounds are open for anyone except children and dogs. Also a pleasant change - there is no shop, no cafeteria, and they encourage you to bring your own picnic and stay as long as you like. We had a wonderful morning and would have stayed longer if we'd remembered a picnic ....
The photos show the gardens, dovecote and chapel at Rousham.

If you are in need of a meal you should visit The Red Lion, or for afternoon tea go to Kizzies (see above).
In the afternoon we collected the last of the blackberries (lots in number but small in size at this late stage in September).
Finally hello to John who has returned from the Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire's Garden Party, goodbye to Jenny who is driving home, and I knock up a stir fry with ingredients bought in Oxford.
After a delightfully relaxed and leisurely weekend tomorrow we are back on the water and ready to start for home. All change!

To Oxford! 5. Aynho to Lower Heyford

Thursday 15th September
Leaving Aynho, the morning is misty. We make a precautionary removal of aerial and chimney as some of the bridges have been low and we fear they may become lower and narrower.
We negotiate Somerton Deep Lock - which, at 12 foot, it is).

Then on past more very pleasant online- moorings-with-gardens and several sightings of kingfishers.
It is cooler than yesterday by far and I wear my jumper for the first time this week. It has been the hottest September day since 1911, affecting mainly the east side of the country (34 degrees in Gravesend) and today is predicted to be the last really warm day before a brief spell of heavy rain introduces cooler weather for the weekend.
We moor up at lunchtime, choosing a space a few minutes from the wharf as this takes us further from the railway line and the noise of passing trains. John catches the train home while I explore Lower Heyford, along the towpath ...

and up to Upper Heyford where there is an interesting church and a very fine old tithe barn.

In the evening, after many genial towpath conversations with walkers and passers-by, to The Bell for a reasonable, inexpensive meal. They are under-staffed and very busy with boaters and locals, working hard to offer a friendly atmosphere for an evening drink or a full scale meal.
6 miles, 3 locks

To Oxford! 4. Cropredy to Aynho

Wednesday 14th September
Snorting and with a head cold I disturb the peace of the canal with several series of 6 successive sneezes (how about that for alliteration?).  A delightful morning through dappled shade and green countryside as we head further south to Banbury.
An article in Waterways World unfairly slates Banbury and its Castle Quay shopping centre:
[the Mall] "tramples all over the Oxford Canal like a mindless skinhead at a peace rally."
Apart from the archaic reference we found this to be simply untrue.
"The town planners must have all been on holiday in the Bahamas when permission was granted for this incongruous development ..." the article goes on (Waterways World July 2015).
Well, for the record, we found the new development a pleasant change, a convenient and safe mooring and an excellent place to top up supplies. Yes, it is certainly not the quaint brick lock keeper's house or the charming rural mooring, but it seemed to us to be a good example of a canal in a modern setting.
We grumbled about the odd back street route we had to take to get from waterfront to The Reindeer (Wood-panelled pub with exposed ceiling beams and an open fire, serving cask ales and very good British food) but had no complaints about the mooring, the floral-decorated bridge and the excellent - and free - museum. A surprisingly poor and prejudiced review from the usually excellent Waterways World.
The draw bridge in the centre of Banbury waterfront.
We found the entry to Banbury from the north was delightful and the south side only passes through an industrial estate for a short time before passing back into country and parkland.
Banbury also has a very fine old Victorian fluted pillar box (in continuous use since 1876!) and Tooley's Boatyard where Rolt had Cressy rebuilt.

Exiting the lock in Banbury we featured prominently in a primary school trip. We've rarely been spied by so many gongoozlers in one place! We all waved, to mutual delight ....

After lunch we headed for Aynho Wharf, passing the pleasant cottages of Twyford Wharf and the deep lock at King's Sutton. The Waterways World review had completely ignored Aynho despite its wharf and plentiful moorings, as well as a perfectly good pub, The Great Western Arms. We found it comfortable and convenient.

12 miles 9 locks

To Oxford! 2. Norton to Napton

Monday 12th September.
Awake early to a world where everyone knows the result of The Great Archers Trial except me. I spend the morning avoiding newspaper reports, Radio 4 chatter and force myself to wait till the evening to listen to my downloaded version. [Spoiler alert: Helen is not guilty!]
Six hours today from Norton, through the Braunston tunnel (trying to avoid losing another navigation light) and locks through Braunston to an inline mooring between locks 13 and 14 at Napton. This gives us a fairly long walk back to the pub at lock 8 but we're well set up to move on in the morning.

The Folly, like most of the pubs we visit on our route, offers good local real ale and never less than adequate food presented by friendly hosts.
Surprisingly, there are two fields of water buffalo next to the canal. A humid night makes me wonder if we are really in southern India .....

12 miles, 11 locks

Monday, 26 September 2016

To Oxford! 3. Napton to Cropredy

Tuesday 13th September
Having passed through most of the Napton Flight yesterday we are well placed to fly today. In fact, after 2 more locks we are at the summit and on a level, winding route all morning, with delightful countryside (where we can see it through thick laid hedges) and in warm sunshine.
The towpath looks short and grassy underfoot, though in some places overhung by briar tendrils and with saplings sprouting alongside. This forms the Oxford Canal Walk, of 83 miles passing 43 locks.

At Broadmoor Lock we see a community living in caravans, sheds and other interesting buildings. Some do boat repairs, while another member, Ian Staples, offers fender making and disks of his music and his stories.
I enjoyed the lock, bridge, and simple yet characterful hut at Marston Dole, top of the Napton Flight.
We arrive at Fenny Compton at 1pm and after a quick lunch are off again at 2pm having decided to aim for Cropredy tonight. There is always, for us, the balance of "getting on" versus enjoying the tranquility of the slowly unravelling journey.

A few miles south east of Fenny Compton and just north of Claydon there are a dozen little patches of land bordering the canal, used as gardens, fenced, some mainly grass, others with fruit trees, some complete allotments, all with moorings. Some have shepherds' huts on wheels for overnight accommodation. It would be a lovely idea for those short of a garden or wanting a small piece of the country.  The photo shows the Google Earth view of the gardens at an early stage; they are mainly well tilled now.

Along this stretch of canal there are drawbridges, fortunately raised for our passage, characterful additions to the canal. Here also is a narrow stretch which was once Fenny Tunnel and is now a cut, since they wisely decided to take its roof off.  Look ahead carefully as it would be difficult to pass if there's a boat coming your way. Tree growth also impedes vision and passage.

This was a beautiful day, though for a while we sat underneath a cloud divide where eastwards it was fine blue sky and westwards cloud had set in.
In Cropredy by 6pm. I sit on deck writing while John clears the bilges. It's what engineers do .... for which I'm grateful.
14.5 miles, 11 locks.

To Oxford! 1. Welford to Norton Junction

Earlier we had headed north on the North Oxford canal and up on the Ashby; now it was time to head south, aiming for Oxford.

We set off at mid morning on Sunday 11th September with five days of boating ahead before Oxford. In fact we have opted to moor up at Lower Heyford, which has good moorings, a shop and a small chandelry, is convenient for trains and from where Oxford is easily accessible.
Where we'll moor along the way depends on the speed of getting through lock flights, but we reckon to stop at Norton Junction (The New Inn), Napton (The Folly), Cropredy (Red Lion), Aynho (Great Western Arms) and Lower Heyford (The Bell).
It is lovely boating weather and we hope to enjoy the warmest and sunniest week of the year without rushing along. However our plans are soon astray as at Yelvertoft we are blocked by a crazy couple in a very slow boat towing another which sways and swings about quite dangerously. They end up having a swearing match with the boat in front of us. 
Not long afterwards we have to wait in a queue at the top lock at Watford Locks for 21/2 hours. The sun sets shortly after 7pm and by the time we get out at the bottom lock it is nearly 8pm. So, bypassing the temptation to moor up in the middle of nowhere, we drive on in darkness under a nearly full moon and, aided by our powerful spare spotlight, we squeeze into moorings at Norton at 8.30. A dash to the New Inn proved fruitless as they had ceased serving food and were closing early. Evening meal: a pint of bitter, packet of crisps and a bag of peanuts. What a start to our trip!

17 miles 8 locks

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Union Canal at Linlithgow

I've been visiting Scotland quite a bit in recent years, partly to further my aim of walking in every Scottish county, and September saw me in Linlithgowshire. Now known as West Lothian, its main town of Linlithgow is just 20 minutes from Edinburgh by train and the start of my walk was straight out of the station to the canal basin of the Union canal.
The Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal is at last re-united with the Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk by means of the excellent Falkirk Wheel.
The short section I walked was from Linlithgow to the Avon Aqueduct, the 810ft (247m) long bridge 85ft (26m) high over a valley and waterfall. A dramatic sight and well worth a visit, whether by boat, walking, cycle or kayak.
It was a lovely towpath walk which continues to Falkirk (9 miles) though I returned by way of the banks of The River Avon. Well done, Linlithgow Canal Society!
Worth noting, however, how much the renewal of this canal is due to EU funding.
It's hard to go far in the Highlands without encountering road schemes funded by the EU. Little wonder, then, that Scots are keen to stay in the EU. Selfish, perhaps, but surely England got it wrong ....