Day 19 – On the Shroppie

Posted first thing on day 20 as no internet connection last night, and having enjoyed a pie and pint at the Wharf Tavern, Goldstone I couldn’t be bothered rebooting everything.

Started on the Shropshire Union at Autherly stop lock, a drop of 6″ created to stop the Shroppie stealing Staffs & Worcs water. Filled up with diesel at Water Travel next to the lock. It took 2l. It seems that on the rivers where the speed limit is 7mph and Seren is pushed to do 5-6mph fuel consumption is around 6-7l per day. But on canals where we cruise along at 30-4mph it’s more like 2l per day and when I have a day like Friday doing 21 locks and leaving the engine off much of the time it’s down to 1l per day.

The Shroppie is beautiful, a mix of cuttings and embankments means very few locks on the southern section so there’s time to look around. There were a few noticeable landmarks for someone who still thinks of Llangollen as home. Passing under the M54, crossing the A5 on an aquaduct, seeing The Wrekin and then, later, the Shropshire hills. I took some photos as I went but no time to deal with them now…

Day 18 – Wolverhampton Locks

Yesterday afternoon I passed a depressing signpost, ‘Aldersely Junction 2 Miles, 21 Locks. Then I cruised along for a while longer before stopping by the top lock. The actual flight is probably not much more than a mile. And falls 132 feet. It’s a slog and one lock looks much like another if they weren’t numbered you’d have no idea where you were.

Early on a CRT worker came along to tell boaters that two of the pounds were dry, after lock 12 and 15. I think I was on 5 at the time so it seemed unimaginably far ahead. Eventually I got to lock 12 just as a boat that had been held up got permission to proceed. At 15 I met a boat coming up that had been delayed three hours. The only thing holding me up was the need for tea and toilet breaks every hour or so!

The locks start in urban Wolverhampton and end in what feels like countryside, though a look at the map shows it isn’t really. It’s an illusion you often see on canals, tree lined banks and hedges make them feel remote.

I stopped close to Autherley Junction where the Shropshire Union canal starts, with an all together more encouraging sign post ‘Chester’ and a mile post ‘Nantwich 39 miles’. Nantwich is where I’ll turn onto the Llangollen Canal. There are 29 locks about half of them singletons or short flights and 15 at Audlem. So two to three days.

Day 17 - Weed (again)

Day 17 – Weed (again)

Cambrian Whaff Birmingham

After yesterday’s lock marathon (some people run 26 mile, I operate 25 locks) I was looking forward to an easier day. The Birmingham Level Main Line is wide and flat. It was built by Telford to straighten out the old Brindley designed canal. It’s typical Telford, deep wide cuttings, straight lines and monumental bridges. At the end just three deep locks connect it to the Wolverhampton Level.

Just before the end I noticed that weed was building up on the edges and corners. And then I picked some up on the prop. To make matters worse it was a mix of weed and plastic bag but I got it off and made the first lock. A granny and grandson were watching and the lad was pleased to ‘help’ open and close the gate while granny videoed him. Coming out of the lock the wind blew us sideways and I could tell from the steering we had a weed problem again.

Wolvo Weed is evil

This time we ended up in a sort of layby at the side of the pound. They were built to give boats room to pass going up and down, and to increase the amount of water in the pound available to fill the lock below. In those days they were dredged. Now it isn’t I was stuck 5m from the bank on mud with something on the prop.

The something turned out to be a piece of rope and more weed. That was bad enough, but worse still we couldn’t get off the mud. Eventually with a lot of poling, and it’s hard to pole in mud there’s nothing to push against, I got Seren facing the opposite bank and she managed to drag herself free.

Lock two was OK, but we picked up weed and some kind of stretchy fabric leaving lock three.

This time I had no power at all and hence no steering so we drifted sideways across the cut while I got the weed off. Three more times I managed to get to the bank and moor while de-weeding and at one point I bow-hauled Seren through a patch of weed which was easier than trying to get through, failing and having to get down the weed hatch again. At the moment I like Wolverhampton about as much as the Nene. And there are 21 locks in the Wolverhapton Flight for tomorrow.

Day 16 - Worra lorra locks

Day 16 – Worra lorra locks

Left Catherine de Barnes around 8.30 or so for a nice lock-free stretch to Camp Hill locks in Birmingham. Two of our grandchildren (Milly and Georgie) comment on ‘Tree Tunnels’ whenever trees meet over a road. They’d have loved the canal through Solihull which was a tree tunnel almost all the way. It would have been nicer with dappled sunlight instead of occasional glimpses of a grey sky but you can’t have everything.

What looks like 4 locks at Camp Hill on my map turned out to be 6 but they are easily operated narrow locks. Unlike those on the Northants Arm the bottom pair of gates have their walkways on the downhill side so when one is open it isn’t too big a stretch even for me to walk across which saves a lot of walking.

Lock 12 Farmer's Bridge
Lock 12 Farmer’s Bridge, waiting for a key

After lunch I did 6 more on the Digbeth Branch. Then a dilemma, the next flight of locks is Farmers Bridge down to the CRT facilities at Cambrian Wharf. But there are 13 of them. It was early afternoon, too early to stop so on I went. At the second one (#12, they start from the bottom) I got in but the bottom gate was secured by something CRT calls a Handcuff Key, or anti-vandal key. Not the same as the Yale-type CRT that opens the Northampton gates and CRT facilities nationwide. I didn’t have one.

I phoned CRT and a member of staff from Cambrian Wharf brought one within a few minute and charged me a fiver for it. Good service but it’d been nice to know beforehand.

So only slightly delayed I pressed on. This section of the canal is interesting if you like seeing the underneath of modern architecture. There’s a lot of flats and commercial buildings lining the canal and many of overhang the water and are supported on piles into the wider areas of water. I think maybe the locks were doubled once but aren’t now there are just weirs.

13 locks after 12 earlier in the day is a slog, but worth it. Cambrian Wharf has facilities I need and a nice pace to moor overnight and do some shopping in the morning.

Day 15 – Progress is good(ish)

This should have been published days ago, but owing to unidentified tech gremlins it wasn’t. So here’s hoping it works now and I can catch up. It’s been an eventful couple of days…

Still 2½ days adrift but getting on well. I started on the remaining 11 Hatton Locks and as I left the fifth one of the day three CRT volunteers turned up to help. The remaining six were a doddle, I stayed in the cockpit and they did all the work opening and closing paddles and gates.

Then a nice long cruise in weak sunshine (better than heavy rain) through Shrewley Tunnel and on to Tom o’the Wood and Kingswood Junction.

My Canal Plan route continues up the GU Canal but when I was planning I decided to go left/right onto the North Stratford Canal into Birmingham, it goes through Edgbaston and is reckoned to be prettier than the newer GU route through Solihull. It came down to locks. On the GU they are large, if I’m by myself I only open one side but the paddles are big, hard to operate but fast. One the Stratford the locks are narrow which means I have to open both gates, which means walking up the lock and down again, twice. So I stuck with the GU. The next set of locks at Knowle were a slog, and it started to drizzle. Thankfully there are only five.

Next stop Copt Heath wharf where I bought some diesel. Seren’s fuel consumption (and tank capacity) is a mystery. Yesterday and the day before I put in 10l from a jerry can, before that I hadn’t filled up for nearly a week so I reckoned it must be nearly empty. But at Copt Heath we could only get just over 4l in the tank. I suspect foaming is the problem. I refilled the jerrycan with >9l so I’ll try putting that in sometime tomorrow.

Then on in the pouring rain to stop for the night at Catherine de Barnes Bridge.

Still having problems with the fridge. During the day with the engine running it works OK, but as soon as the engine is off the load on the ‘leisure’ battery is much too high and the battery soon starts to fade. My multimeter only reads up to 10A and it goes off the scale. I think the problem is the inverter but the only way to be sure is to plug the fridge into a proper mains supply and measure its current consumption. Transforming up from 12V to 240V one would expect a current increase of x20 so if the fridge takes 0.5A then the inverter will draw 10A plus a bit for inefficiency. But as far as I can see the fridge is taking more like 0.1A. I’ll organise a mains ‘hook-up’ in Llan (or Chirk Marina) and see how the fridge performs then.

Day 14 – More big locks

Before setting off I made a list of things I needed to do:

  1. Empty loo
  2. Fill water tank
  3. Fill diesel tank (to be on safe side I put my reserve 10l in)
  4. Get more gas (I swapped the bottles over a few days ago)
  5. Find launderette

I expected to find a marina where I could do all five. No such luck. Royal Leamington Spa has a boaty place, on the river Avon, not the canal. But Warwick has three. Delta Marine is a boatyard that does repairs and refits. They suggested Kate Boats about 100m along. It’s a hire boat place that graciously allowed me to empty the loo and fill up with water, but they run out of gas in bottles the size I need and they only keep diesel for the hire fleet, not for sale. So onto Saltisford Canal Centre which did have gas, but no diesel and would only let me use the launderette if I stayed over night.

So with enough fuel for now and everything else sorted I pressed on to the bottom of the Hatton Flight of 21 locks. There I stopped for an early lunch and did some hand-washing and the washing up I’d not done earlier to save water.

I made a start on the locks after lunch doing five of them accompanied by a narrowboat. I couldn’t keep up the pace though and they pressed on while I had a tea break. Then I did another five and stopped for the night.

I was starting to worry about the fuel, Seren has no gauge so I rely on a rough estimate of how big the tank is and the assumption I use 6-7l per day. So after dinner I found a petrol station on line and went for a walk. It wasn’t far but 10l of diesel in a steel can gets heavy after ½mile!

11 more locks first thing tomorrow, then a nice relaxing pound to Knowle.

Day 13 – Big Locks

I wrote this yesterday but then found I couldn’t publish it because I had no internet connection. So here you are 24 hours late.

Unlike the Northampton Arm the GU Mainline has large locks. Those encountered today (17 or 18 depending how you count a 2 lock staircase) have the 1930s big ground paddles. They are amazingly efficient at emptying or filling a lock, but hard to turn. I did the first few at Stockton single handed, then a chap from a boat at the top who was out walking his dog borrowed a spare windlass off me and set a few locks in advance for me. Very kind.

Round about the 5th lock he saw a boat coming up and set the lock for them and asked them to leave the next two open for me coming down. Eventually I got to the bottom.

There’s a brief pause after that until Bascote locks, the staircase pair and a single. There were two Australian couples on a hire boat coming up and two others ahead of me waiting to go down. The Aussies were having a logic problem, filling locks they should be emptying and generally getting it wrong. Eventually it was my turn and as I entered a narrowboat arrived to share the lock.

We shared the next couple but I needed a rest by then and he pressed on. I need to empty the loo soon and spotted a ‘Sanitary Station’ on the map below Fosse top lock so I decided to make for there, and teamed up with another hire boat with 3 couples on, 2 probably in their 50s and someone’s parents who just stayed in the cockpit. The younger ones were fit and organised though so we made good progress.

The Sanitary Station was closed. We did one more lock together then I had to call it a day above Fosse bottom lock. I’ll get to Warwick tomorrow and there are three marinas there. I might even find one with a launderette.
I’m still two days behind, in fact two days ago I should have been through two more locks and stopped in Royal Leamington Spa, so I guess that’s about two days plus an hour. If I keep to schedule from here on I should arrive on June 27. So I can drop another few days and still get to see Jools Holland at Llan on July 1st.

Day 12 - No fresh disasters

Day 12 – No fresh disasters

Bright and sunny this morning, though it soon turned grey. Having dried out the inverter it works again and the fridge is on, which will be useful if ever the weather turns warm. I’ve tried to shield it from future downpours but in the long term I should re-site it, probably in the engine compartment.

Three lots of locks today, and thankfully got help with all of them, I made an early start on Buckby locks, but after the first two came to a halt as CRT had padlocked them to save water. I guess the policy precedes the recent weather, there was so much water some locks were overflowing. We had to wait until 10.00 and a queue built up. That’s the idea of course, when there are boats waiting they double up and the lock is used less often,

After Buckby locks I passed through Braunston tunnel. It’s about a mile long and quite spacious (the Grand Union was widened in the 1930s) I followed a boat through but none came the other way so we didn’t have to test that the tunnel really is wide enough for boats to pass.

View from Seren’s cockpit

After that, Braunston Locks then a long lock-free stretch to Calcutt locks. About an hour from Calcutt we had a thunderstorm, heavy rain and hail and strong wind. I avoided most of it by edging up to the bank and letting the wind pin Seren there, I wasn’t going to get out and moor!

I was thinking of stopping above Calcutt Locks but as I approached I cought up with a guy in an old narrowboat who was planning to go through, so we went together. The locks have big paddles operated by ‘modern’, ie 1930s, hydraulic gear so they fill and empty quickly. We made short work of the three then I cruised on to Stockton, stopping near Stockton top lock.

Day 11 - Things are looking up

Day 11 – Things are looking up

As I prepared dinner last night Seren tilted slowly nose down. Looking outside the reason was obvious, the ‘pound’ (section of canal between locks) was almost empty with just a narrow stream running down the middle. Seren was on the sloping mud at the side.

The single lock gate behind us (lock 8) had blown open and the twin gates at the other end of the lock were leaking. So I closed the gate, walked up to lock 7 and opened the paddles both ends to let enough water through to fill the pound. Snag is of course that leaves the next pound empty but I hoped it would fill overnight via the overflow channels.

Low water, in this weather?

It didn’t. So this morning I had to fill the pound between 6 and 7 with water from above 6 then refill the pound between 5 & 6… At this point a CRT (Canal & River Trust) guy appeared in a pick up. Apparently it happens every night, the lower locks all leak but the top one has been replaced and doesn’t so it doesn’t top up the lower ones. Someone has to refill the Northampton Arm most mornings.

All the walking back and forth and up and down between locks doubled the distance and time taken and left me worn out. Fortunately there are no more locks for miles after Rotherthorpe.

The weather cooperated too. While I was doing the locks there were a few very light showers, then some prolonged rain while I cruised along with the cockpit roof shut. Then, amazingly, at lunch time the sun came out. There were a couple more showers but for the first time in a week I haven’t ended the day with a pile of wet clothes and the cockpit drenched.

Unfortunately before the weather improved it looks like water got into the inverter, a gadget that converts battery power to mains to run the fridge. I’m hoping it will dry over night but unless it does, no fridge.

Day 10 – On a canal at last

It was pouring down this morning which wasn’t a surprise. It does make it difficult to get up much enthusiasm for boating though. If you haven’t seen Seren, let me explain. Unlike most GRP cruisers Seren has a front cockpit with a sliding roof, Perspex windscreen and PVC curtain sides. This gives her a low roofline for navigating narrow canals with low bridges and tunnels. Theoretically one can steer with the roof closed and stay dry.

In practice it’s tricky because the perspex windscreen has no wipers (it would scratch) and the inside steams up, but you can manage by folding the side curtains back and poking your head out for a clearer view when necessary. The big problem is locking. It’s impossible to get out of the side of the cockpit in order to handle mooring ropes, you have to slide the roof back and at that point the rain pours in. It’s hard to open too, especially under way so to be safe you have to do it some way out from the intended mooring. And get soaked. Then it’s hard to close and if you do you can’t get back in to move the boat into the lock.

So this is the best routine I’ve worked out so far for canal locks (going up):

  1. Don’t moor on landing stage, cruise right up to the lock and get off at the last minute. Tie the front rope to some convenient part of the lock gate.
  2. Switch off engine and if raining, close roof.
  3. Drain lock if necessary, open gates.
  4. Bow haul Seren into lock and tie front rope to bollard (or top gate).
  5. Close bottom gates.
  6. Open paddles on top gate, then open gate when lock is full.
  7. If raining bow haul Seren out of lock and tie stern rope to top gate. If not raining get onboard and cruise out, but still tie up as above.
  8. Close top gate.
  9. Climb on stern of Seren and depart.

Canal locks rarely have bridges, there are walkways on the gates themselves, but once you’ve opened a gate the only way to get to the opposite one is to walk to the other end of the lock. Well not quite the only way. On a narrow canal the lock is just over 7′ wide so when one gate is open there’s a gap of 3’9″ or so. Nick on Ebenezer was in front of me for part of the afternoon and being taller, younger and braver than me he climbed across the gap saving himself a lot of walking.

Normally you don’t have to reset canal locks, but you do have to close the gates as they are often old and leaky and relying on a single gate isn’t wise. Nick though had taken pity on the ancient mariner and was leaving the lock empty and the bottom gates open ready for me. Despite that I couldn’t keep up. I gave up for the day at lock 7 (ie 7 from the top of the flight) but Nick and Tony got to the top. Unless I set off early I doubt I’ll see them again before Llangollen.

The weather has blasted my schedule a bit, I’m about 2 days behind where I expected to be. Good job I allowed 27 days for a 21 day trip!