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Day 52 – (much later)

The final day was rather uneventful. I went through the all the locks to Godmanchester with Nick, then U-turned onto the town moorings for lunch while he carried on. It rained on and off during the morning though I managed to dodge most of it passing through the locks during dry spells and closing Seren’s cockpit roof while cruising.

Linda had heard that the northbound carriageway of the A1 was closed between Sandy and the Black Cat roundabout which would have made it it impossible to collect me from Kelpie but by the time I arrived (about 6pm) traffic was flowing normally.

I’ve been home over a week now and still wake up each morning wondering where I am,

Day 51 – Teaching Ducks to Fly

I walked to the petrol station in Outwell shortly after 7.00 and it was already getting hot. Walking back carrying 10l of diesel in a steel can was getting hard when a car stopped and gave me a lift. So plenty of fuel to complete the trip.

The run from Outwell to Salter’s Lode was uneventful, but hot. I got here about three hours early then did some maintenance on Seren; greased the propshaft, cleared the prop (again), checked engine oil and water. And spent a lot of time sitting under a tree trying to keep cool.

Sometime after 12.00 the lock-keeper said it was time to go, it was a lowish tide and very little water coming downstream so he go us lined up when the water made level, me in front in the lock, three others behind. Then opened the bottom gate and told us to go out fast.

I tried but got stuck on mud and rammed against the tyre-wall. Managed to push free eventually and turned upstream only to see the next boat, bigger than Seren also stuck.

The I heard a clunk, I thought we’d gone over a piece of wood or something, but almost immediately Seren’s engine slowed like it does when there’s some thing on the prop. Not a great experience in the tideway halfway between Salter’s and Denver. I’ve never had the weed hatch open so fast. There was a bit a bit of weed but the real problem was plastic string. I hacked that off ASAP and was on my way.

Looking back I couldn’t see anyone catching me up, they other boats must have still been stuck at Salter’s. I assume they all got out but I went straight up the New Bedford River and they were all planning to go via Denver Sluice so I never saw them again.

The first third or so of the NB was great, tide pushing us up and the river wide and deep and free of weed. Hottest day of the year apparently today, 36° according to the BBC weather app. I had the cockpit roof closed to keep the sun off and thankfully there was a bit of breeze blowing in through the sides.

Around Manea it gets narrower and the weeds encroached from the side but it was still clear and deep in the middle so we motored on. By then the tide was slackening and soon the water was still. By Mepal it was starting to flow against us, but very slowly. A bigger problem was the weed. Loads of floating blanket-weed caught on fronds of bottom-growing weed, then every so often a floating island of weed broken free of the bottom. Inevitably I caught some but with plenty of bursts of reverse gear managed to keep it down to a minimum.

Over the last couple of months I’ve seen a lot of ducklings. In June they were little balls of fluff paddling along now there are a lot of half-grown ducks, many of them fledged but still not flying. Near Manea I cought up with one. It swam as fast as it could using paddle power then for extra thrust using it’s wings too in an ungainly butterfly stroke. Just like adult ducks though (and other waterfowl) once it got a safe distance from the boat it relaxed.

Then flapped a bit more, and relaxed. I was starting to think it’s die of exhaustion before it had the sense to go sideways into the reeds when I noticed it was flapping so hard it was lifting half out of the water. Next time it rose a bit higher. Then a bit more. Then right out of the water for a single wingbeat. Then for a metre or so. Each time it flew a little further and eventually lifted right off and flew way down the cut and into the reeds.

As the long boring slog went on I saw two more young ducks do exactly the same. I supose they are quite comfortable paddling around on a hardly used stretch of water, maybe it takes the threat of something like a boat bearing down on them to give them the incentive to fly.

Eventually I got to the landing stage at Hermitage Lock and cleared the prop before setting off for Brownshill. I caught up with a sort-of narrowboat. One I’d seen before on the T&M near Northwich. It’s narrow and 60′ long but doesn’t look like a narrowboat. The bow is bluff and low like a dumb barge and the stern square. It has narrowboat style controls at the back under a folding canopy, but also a wheel house at the very front with a sort of bay-window effect almost up to the bow. No foredeck to speak of. Even more surprising it’s painted to look like an Orient Express carriage. We passed through the lock together end to end (it’s only 12′ wide Brownshill lock but very long.) They are en-route to Bedford.

I’d decided to stop at the GOBA moorings just past the Pike & Eel. As I approached I recognised the boat already there, Ebenezer. And Nick recognised the sound of Seren’s exhaust (I must make it quieter). He left Llan a week before me but has been taking it easy having more of a holiday cruise than me. Surprising to catch up though.

As I was eating dinner we had a half-hearted thunderstorm but not enough to seriously lower the temperature. It’s still too hot and I’m being plagued by midges. Time to close the blinds and smother myself in Jungle Juice and fly-spray the cabin…

Day 50 – Middle Level Blues

Yesterday I booked passage through Stanground lock at 10.00 so first I went to the sanitary station in Peterborough, possibly the dirtiest sluice I have ever seen and only a little over 12 months since it was installed. Then to Asda for some veg for a curry. From peterborough Embankment it’s about 10-15 minute cruise to the lock.

The middle level drains were constructed to drain the fens for agriculture. They are managed by the Middle Level Commisioners primarily to keep the area from flooding and to provide irrigation water during the summer. The system was made navigable initially for agricultural produce to be shipped out and things like building material brought in. Later vast amounts of coal were shipped in to power the steam pumps that kept the fens dry. Leisure boating is way down their list of priorities. It shows.

The central section from Ashline Lock at Whittlesea to Priory Lock near Upwell is especially tedious because there is nothing to look at except flood banks until you pass through March in a cutting, and nothing after that. Mooring is not allowed on the floodbanks and in any case you wouldn’t go within 5m of them if you could avoid them because of the weed growth spreading out from the banks.

I planned to stop at Fox’s Narrowboats in March for fuel, but their Diesel pump is broken. I suspect there is probably enough ikn the tank to get back to Tempsford but I daren’t risk running out on the New Bedford tomorrow. So I’m moored in Outwell tonight (by the chippy, the veggie curry can wait) and have found out there’s a petrol station about ½ mile away. First thing tomorrow I’ll walk/hitch with my fuel can.

Day 49 – Peterborough

Oundle to Peterborough isn’t that hard but the extremely hot weather didn’t help.

The map shows an EA water point at Fotheringhay so that was my first target. Fotheringhay is a very pretty and posh village with plenty of mooring space. All of it chargeable, £5 per night, £2.50 short stop and even £2 to take a canoe out of the water. There’s a half mile stretch of signs setting this out.

Right next to the bridge EA own (or lease?) a tiny patch of land, about 3m long frontage on the river and maybe 5m back, on which stands their water point. Obviously it’s too short to moor anything longer than a kayak so whoever it is owns the moorings will gracioulsy allow one to over lap for as long as it takes to fill up. A sign warns that if you don’t move straight away you will be charged for mooring.

Just to make life even more tricky the plot is fenced and gated and there are no mooring rings or bollards just a steep, nettle-covered bank.

There was just one final flywheel operated lock and as I approached I could see official looking vans and people grouped around the guillotine gate end. Surely not another closure?

In fact much better, the guys were there to strim and mow the grass around the lock, but they aren’t allowed to do it whilst there is a boat using the lock, so hurry things up they did most of the lock winding. Great contrast to last year when contractors, not EA staff, strimmed long wet grass while Seren was in a lock and pretty much covered her. I told them about the Fotheringhay nettles and they said they’d go and strim there too. Amazing.

Closer to Peterborough, where the Ferry Meadows park starts there were groups of teens and families enjoying the river. Some of the teens are a bit clueless, one bunch of lads, seeing me approach spread themselves out across the channel so there wasn’t a gap big enough to pass. I knocked Seren out of gear so at least no-one would get mangled by the prop and drifted with the wind and current toward them. They parted and let me pass but then swam round behind making me very nervous about engaging forward gear again.

At a lock a bunch of teenage girls were sunbathing on the lock surround. It was one of EA’s ‘special’ locks where the landing stage is on the opposite side to the control box so as often do I pulled in on the ‘wrong’ side avoiding the girls and a walk over the lock. A couple came around to talk to me. They wanted to know if they could swim in the lock once I’d filled it. I pointed out I’d be putting the boat in then emptying the lock so it’d be dangerous. Then they asked if I could leave the control box open when I left so they could refill it. I felt mean in refusing but I’d feel worse if one had drowned. They took my refusal well and went back to sprawling on the grass.

Finally I turned into the cut leading to Thorpe Meadows where I’d arranged to meet Linda for a meal at The Boathouse. She got lost, apparently the signage is terrible and the meal wasn’t that good, but nice to see her. Loads of people, families, teens, young men and women (mostly Polish I think) were on the landing stage or in the water. Very friendly and co-operative though and they’d all drifted away by bedtime.

Day 48 – Down to Oundle

I phoned EA at 8.00 and the river manager Ian Cook told me he needed to speak to te engineers, and they weren’t on site yet so he had no news. Phone back at 1pm.

So I went for a walk to Woodford village. It’s one of those chocolate box villages that Northants seems to specialise in, with TWO village greens. But only one small Post Office / general store. I got some milk and a few other bits and pieces and treked back via a different path taking through the middle of the allotments and past the ‘social housing’ tucked well away from the village greens.

It was only 10.00 when I got back so I was planning a long rest and abit of pottering about, but just before 11 a boat came upstream that I hadn’t seen go down, so I spoke to them and was told there were engineers on site at Denford helping boats through the lock.

I set of immediately in case they decided to lock up and leave. They were still there and while two younger guys did all the work I spoke to the senior engineer about the problem.

The basic configuration of guillotine locks is a large, heavy vertical gate counter-balanced by a large heavy slab of cast iron connected by chains over sprockets high up on the supporting framework. The problem is the chains are very heavy too (about 75kg apparently) so as the chain rolls over the sprockets one side (gate or weight) gets heavier and the other lighter. That’s a difference of 150kg between open and closed.

On the electrified gates that’s not important, the motor and gearing can cope with the change. On flywheel operated gates (like Denford) it’s an issue because there comes a point when the difference in weight between the gate and counterweight is enough to overcome the friction in the system and the flywheel can ‘run away’. Apparently at Denford the gate was too light compared to the counterweight so it was hard to close it the last few cm and it tended to rise too easily. They’ve applied an extra 50kg of weights to the gate and were testing it to make sure it was OK. Apparently it’s now hard to open but I had two big strong guys to do it for me. The long term plan is to electrify the last six gates, one over year over the next six years.

Nothing of interest to report after that, except that this stretch of the Nene is deficient in moorings. I passed several early on in the day but by afternoon there were none. Eventually I moored on a meadow just outside Oundle (the town doesn’t have a river frontage, probably due to flooding).

Need to stop for water at Fotheringhay tomorrow, I’d hoped to get there this evening but two more locks is too many. Meeting Linda for dinner at the Boathouse in Thorpe Meadows, Peterborough. Must remember to book passage through Stanground Sluice for Wednesday morning.

Day 47 - I've had better

Day 47 – I’ve had better

Now where shall I moor to remove weed from the prop?

Cruising slowly out of White Mills everything felt great. The water in the marina is clear and deep, Seren’s prop had been cleared, the cooling system was gurgling nicely. And then we came out onto the river. Or ditch. Shallow and very weedy. There are six locks from White Mills to Wellingborough and I was down the weed hatch seven times in that distance. Two of the locks, Wollaston and Upper Wellingborough were almost impossible to enter such was the thickness of weed that had piled up in front of the gates.

It took an hour to pass this lock

Downstream of Wellingborough the river was a bit deeper, the weeds further away. Only two more weed hatch operations during the afternoon.

The Nene locks are more varied on the upper reaches than I remembered. I mentioned the three ‘conventional’ locks in Northampton yesterday. After that there are eight normal Nene locks with electrically operated guillotine bottom gates. The Upper and Lower Wellingborough locks resemble thos at Northants though with better paddle gear. Ditchford Lock has a curved guillotine that rotates up/down in curved grooves in the lock walls. The only advantage I can see is that the lock tower is lower, below the level of nearby trees so perhaps it was installed to mollify some VIP who didn’t want his view spoiled. Higham Ferrars is another poining door lock and below that Upper Ringstead is the first of the notorious flywheel operated guillotines. Given that the fall in water level was about 0.5m raising and lowering several tonnes of steel lock gate seemed a lot of effort to little point.

Woodford lock is the next flywheel lock. I was just beginning to lower the guillotine when a bloke moored below the lock came to talk. He told me that the next lock, Denford, was closed, and there are already two boats down on the mooring. He himself was doing a spring clean before heading back up. I stayed above the lock for a hour or so until he came up leaving the gates set for me. I am currently moored just below Woodford. Tomorrow I phone EA and find out what’s happening.

Day 46 – Sarah & Family Visit

I’d arranged to meet Sarah & family at Weston Favell lock, near Northampton Boat Club. Last year we organised a meeting at lock by a club and although the club had visitor moorings it had no provision for visitors arriving by car. This time I stopped on the Washlands Mooring which is accessible by the Nene Way footpath.

Only three locks to do and a few miles cruising but I left early hoping to clean up the boat a bit while waiting. The first three locks on the Nene are traditional with ‘pointing doors’ at both ends, manually operated and very heavy. The paddles (or slackers as they call them down here) are operated by an enclosed screw mechanism and very low geared taking 70-80 turns to open/close.

The weed that plagued me on the lower Northampton Arm was evident here too but with plenty of to-ing and fro-ing on the gear lever I got to the mooring without resort to the weed hatch.

Milly & Georgie were delighted to see me, and Georgie has lost her fear of the boat now and was soon at the helm poking all the switches and twirling the wheel. I haven’t seen them for seven weeks and Georgie has matured in that time. She was proudly demonstrating how she can unscrew the top of a bottle to drink out of it, and screw it on again. No need for a special drinking bottle. Apparently her new word this week is ‘literally’. She claims not to know the names of kids at nursery but dropped into the conversation that they had a story about Tutankhamen.

They were breaking their journey to the Peak District where they are going camping so after a brief picnic lunch they left and I carried on through another five locks (typical Nene type with guillotine bottom gates) to White Mills marina.

More weed of course and I realised the engine cooling water flow was lower than usual. The exhaust note changes (more bark less splash/burble) and the exhaust fumes (right under the helmsman’s elbow) become more noticeable. There was still some flow though so I crept on keeping a close watch on the temperature gauge. One of the locks, Whiston I think) had a great mat of weed piled up in front of the gate. I bow-hauled Seren through that and into the lock then on leaving let the wind and current take us out of the lock and away from the weed before starting the engine.

One reason for stopping at White Mills was to use their laundry, the other to do something about the cooling. I checked the impeller (OK) and blew through the various pipes. Disconnected the feed from stopcock and opened it carefully. Just a trickle, so weed in the opening under the boat. Fortunately putting a pipe on the stopcock and blowing hard eventually produced a stream of bubbles from under the hull. With everything back together the water flow looks healthier and the exhaust sounds more normal. Hope there’s less weed tomorrow.

Day 45 – Northampton Arm

The Northampton Arm of the Grand Union is an oddity. It’s narrow unlike the main line but apes some of the main line design details, particularly the locks. Most narrow locks have walkways, planks basically, on the downhill side of the double lock gates so when you open one you can stride across to open the other. On the main line GU the walkways are on top of the gates but on a wide lock no-one could step across anyway so it doesn’t matter. For some reason the people responsible for design on the Arm have chosen to copy GU practice, and make the locks a lot harder to operate.

To add to the trouble, when locking singlehanded it would help a lot if the ladder, the lock gate beam on the top end and the mooring bollards were all on the same side. On most locks they are. On the Arm they are distributed randomly. So, going down as I was today you can go into a lock and get off the boat on the side where the lock beam is, and find no bollards to tie to. So you climb over the other side to secure the boat, walk back to close the gate and realise that when you let the water out you’ll need to use the ladder to get back in the boat, but that’s on the opposite side to the mooring bollards.

For most of the first 12 locks that are all close together I bow-hauled through, it’s just easier than faffing about with inconvenient ladders, and as it was pouring with rain for the first six I was able to leave the cockpit roof closed. After lunch it stopped raining while I did down to lock 14, then started again.

Between lock 14 and 15 the canal is VERY weedy. From the boat you can’t even see the towpath it’s cut off by several metres of reeds, rushes, shrubs, even trees. The off-side is if anything worse. Where the reeds stop the water lilies begin. Pretty, but they have stems like rope. There’s a narrow channel of apparently clear water down the centre but look down and you realise that the weed growing on the bed of the canal is only a few cm from the surface. Close enough to wrap around the prop, and even when it doesn’t you can feel it dragging against the keel and rudder, slowing the boat and making steering tricky.

I know it’s not one of CRT’s more popular canals but it’s crying out for a bit more maintenance.

I eventually made it down to the Northampton Embankment on the Nene. It’s raining again and the forecast for tomorrow is more of the same. Joy.

Day 44 – Familiar Territory

I woke up early this morning but couldn’t leave until the Braunston Locks opened at 9.00. So I did some cleaning, swept the carpet, cleaned out the cockpit which gets messy with me climbing in and out all the time. Even cleaned the shower and handbasin. And the cooker. At about 8.50 I started the engine ready for the off and – it started raining.

Back inside to get all togged in waterproofs and boots that have been out of site for a couple of weeks. By the time I’m ready the lock is open and there’s another boat come up behind me, so we do the six locks together. (They’re wide locks on the GU).

Funny the effect accents have. Most don’t bother me at all as long as I can understand them but ‘Eshturee En’lish’ used by the guys on that boat got to me.

I asked one where they were going. He looked pained. Frowned, then called to his mate on the other lock gate, ‘Ere John wha’s tha’ place where we got the bo’ from? Lu’erwerf was i’?

‘S’righ.’

‘Oh so after these locks you’ll be going up the Leicester Line then while I go straight on through the Buckby flight.’

‘Dunno.’

We didn’t talk much through the rest of the flight.

Just as we got to the top the rain stopped. Of course the cockpit was soaked by then and I’d carried in grass and mud climbing in and out so it looks like it did fist thing this morning before I cleaned it. Since then it’s been alternating hot, cool, windy, still and humid. I’ve had on every combination of shirt, tee shirt, fleece, waterproofs, shorts, jeans, sun cream, sun hat on/off, sun glasses or normal glasses. Several times.

Shortly after the locks there’s the Braunston Tunnel. Like the Harecastle that marks the watershed between Trent and Mersey, Braunston is where you cross from the Trent catchment area into the Nene Valley. It’s down hill all the way to Peterborough from here. In fact beyond, the low point is in the middle of the Middle Level between Ashline and Marmont Priory locks. Then it’s uphill again to Tempsford.

At Buckby there were a couple of boats preparing to leave the lock and one waiting to go in, so I tagged along with them. The boat was called ‘Waterway Routes’ and the woman doing the largest share of lock work was wearing a ‘Waterway Routes’ logo on her sweatshirt. It turns out it’s her husband’s hobby/business. They publish waterway maps as downloads or GPS format for phones. They update them by cruising around checking what’s changed. They are on their way to London and plan then to go up the Lee & Stort making a video. See http://www.waterwayroutes.co.uk for more.

After Buckby it’s a long lock-free trip to Gayton Junction where I stopped for the night. I should have filled the water tank today but thought I’d get away with it until tomorrow. Mistake, it ran out making my after-dinner cuppa. I discovered there’s a CRT Service station about 200m away but I’m too idle to move the boat. I filled a 2l bottle, that’ll do for tonight and for a breakfast cuppa, then I’ll move.

17 locks down to Northampton tomorrow,

Day 43 – Back to the GU

From Hawksbury Junction to Braunston is 22 miles and three locks (not counting Sutton Stop I did yesterday. The Oxford canal continues to wind along the contour line, only occasionally resorting to cuttings and embankments and a short tunnel at Newbold just north of Rugby. From the canal Rugby appears to be a small village with a park down to the water. There are a few glimpses of roads and commercial development through the trees but you don;t get a sense of it being a big town at all.

Soewhere along the route between Hawkesbury and Rugby I passed ‘Equinox’ heading in the opposite direction. That’s the boat that got in terrible trouble on the Nene during the floods about 5 weeks ago. Tony (I think) was amazed I’d been to Wales and was on my way back. Didn’t have time to ask as we passed where he’d been.

The locks come in a group at Hillmorton south of Rugby, they had some CRT volunteers but I only got helped through one. They are all in need of serious work, the gates sway alarmingly on their posts and the paddles are incredibly hard to wind.

Braunston is one of the system’s busiest hubs with chandlers, marinas and hire bases grouped around the junction.

I arrived here about 5pm assuming I could go through the locks and find a mooring before Braunston Tunnel, but the lock opening hours are being restricted to save water. They closed at 4pm. I’m moored on the wharf of one of the hire fleets just below the first lock.

From here on I’m back on the route I took 6 weeks ago, GU to Gayton, Northampton Arm, Nene, ML and Gt Ouse.

No easy locks from here on, the GU are wide and heavy, the Northampton Arm are narrow but awkward with the bollards on the wrong side and the walkways on the ‘pointing doors’ on the wrong side of the gates so you can’t hop across the half open lock to open the other side.

The Nene is a slog. It’s pretty and I guess if you keep your boat on it and potter up and down between your favourite watering holes it can be pleasant enough but for the long distance voyager it’s 3-4 days of heavy locks that for some reason have to be left empty with the guillotine raised, whichever direction you are going in. I’m dreading it.

I got a text from Nick Sharp this evening, he didn’t stay for the Eisteddfod and set off home a week before me. He’s currently on the Nene around the area where we met during the floods.