My Boating Past
The world is getting faster. Social media, online shopping, high-speed trains, cars and planes. Working in the computer industry and having a passion for fast cars, this fast pace is incorporated deeply into my own life. Which is why a year ago when I took my first holiday on a narrowboat, I was very surprised to find that I was able to switch off, relax and enjoy travelling at 4mph.
We hired a 70-foot narrowboat, named Windemere, from Anglo Welsh, capable of sleeping all 10 of my extended in-law family – My wife and me, her parents, her mother’s parents, her siblings and one partner. The family had all been on a narrowboat before, and I was to be taking instruction from Sarah’s Grandfather on how to control the boat, operate the locks etc.
In the week before the holiday, I found myself worrying that I wasn’t really looking forward to it. My in-law family are loud. VERY loud! I’m generally a quiet person. I think this is what I worried about most.
My calculations pointed to just under 40 square metres of space on Windemere. That felt small, particularly for so many noisy people! I figured the best way to avoid most of the noise would be to keep myself around the back of the boat. If nothing else, the sound of a diesel engine sat at 2,200 rpm was bound to provide enough white noise to stop me being driven crazy.
I spent a week being mocked by Sarah for swapping my usual YouTube viewings to videos about narrow boating. Living aboard a narrowboat, how to drive a narrowboat, the types of toilets found on a narrowboat, turning a narrowboat around (winding). I found myself drawn to the videos and getting excited wanting to try it out for myself. The time soon finally came and as we loaded the Fiesta ST with our stuff and our grandparents, we headed off up towards Cheshire for the start of the trip.
Unsurprisingly, we were first to arrive at the base. Our boat was moored up in view of the car park and my first thought was that it was huge! I had misjudged the size, I was short by around 20 feet. The excitement levels remained higher than the thought of this being a very bad idea and we headed over the bridge to the office to start signing the paperwork. The fear must have shown slightly when I was asked if I wanted to be “Second Skipper” as, after a brief pause, it was decided to put Sarah’s father down instead.
We travelled from Bunbury, Cheshire along the Shropshire Union Canal (Main Line). I was at the helm of the boat as we passed Barbridge Marina when a large gust of wind caught the side of the
brick boat and started blowing us into the junction we didn’t wish to turn into! A lot of apologising to other boaters and manual work by the other crew members and we were back on our way.
The aim of our journey was to reach the extravagant Pontcysyllte Aqueduct at Llangollen, in North Wales. Once over, we moored up for the night, before turning around and travelling back along the canal to Bunbury.
By the end of the week, I found I had surpassed my expectations and really enjoyed myself. Before we were even off the boat, we had all agreed (except the grandparents) to hire another boat next year and do a ring route. After a short discussion, we decided the Warwickshire Ring would be a nice mix of hard and easy days and urban and rural environments.
We completed the feedback form for Anglo Welsh leaving our suggestions, – mostly about the towels all being the same colour – said our goodbyes to one another and all headed to our final destinations.
We’d had a Facebook Messenger chat group set up (aptly named, Boaty McBoatface) with all of us in, which for the next week was a hive of activity before a shock announcement – a boat for the Warwickshire Ring had been booked! We were so happy with Anglo Welsh, that we’d happily booked again to go from their Stockton base. We’d hired another 70′ boat, this time named Coniston.
I never completely removed narrowboats from my YouTube viewing, I actually found myself subscribed to a couple of extra channels of people buying and living aboard narrowboats. I kept to my usual repertoire of car channels too, so I wasn’t completely dull. The year soon passed, although the final month seemed to pass extremely slowly. I had been handed our copy of Canal Companion, a canal map book, that covers the Warwickshire Ring, presumably to study so I knew where we were going.
Unbeknown to my Mother-in-Law at the time, I had already studied the route on Google Maps and then, once I’d discovered it, the Canal and River Trust’s (C&RT) interactive map.
A 70′ boat takes a big shout to be heard from one end to the other, the crew at the bow of the boat need to know when we are approaching locks so that they can get the windlass’ ready and be prepared to set the lock ready for use.
On the Llangollen trip, we actually had two copies of the Canal Companion, as Sarah’s parents had bought one specifically, and her grandparents had an older copy, from when they had previously done the trip themselves.
Having the two books – one in the saloon at the bow and one on a shelf at the stern – came in handy, as it saved our voices and meant the crew knew where we were at any given point.
As I had the book, access to a colour printer and some card, I decided – probably breaking a lot of copyright rules in the process – to scan the pages we would be travelling through and reproduce them.
Day 1 – 23rd June
We’d been told the boat would be ready from 1pm and there was a pub next door to the base. So we arranged to all meet at the pub around noon. As expected, once again, we were first to arrive, although the others joined us before we had even thought about getting out the car. The canalside pub was a great meeting place and allowed time for a couple of family announcements and a quick drink before we headed around to the base.
The base at Stockton was rather confusing, as Anglo Welsh operates from the offices of Kate Boats. A helpful workman, who had obviously seen I was confused, shouted out to me to inform me of this. So we parked up and went into the offices to sort the paperwork.
This time, I’m guessing confidence showed as I was asked if I wanted to be Skipper, not just the second skipper, but the skipper. “OK,” I said, “but I can’t write neatly, so you’ll have to do the paperwork.”
All 9 of our names were written down – we’d gained a new partner a few months prior – the paperwork was signed and we set to the task of loading all of our stuff onto the boat.
When we were ready, a member of staff from Kate Boats joined us and showed us through what we needed to know. I then pointed out to him that the boat was facing to go around the Warwickshire Ring in an anti-clockwise direction and we wanted to go clockwise.
There were two reasons for this, the first being that most of the locks were to our west, and we didn’t really fancy leaving them until our last day or two of the trip. Secondly, the Braunston Historic Boat Rally was due to start that weekend, and we ideally didn’t want to be anywhere near it!
After almost getting the boat stuck, and requesting advice from colleagues, the helpful chap had spun the boat around in the Wharf and we were ready to set off. Finally, we were advised that the Garrison/Saltley Locks were shut and that would affect our route. A quick flip through the Canal Companion maps found that the locks were in Birmingham, and there was an alternative route around the closure, that should only add a couple of hours to our journey.
A little after 2pm and we were off, heading west along the Grand Union Canal (GUC). We ran at tick over speed whilst we passed other moored boats, some with other holiday goers loading their own luggage for their own little adventure. This slow run for the first half-mile gave me a short time to settle myself back into the rhythm and get myself acquainted with Coniston, finding that it naturally wanted to pull to the right ever so slightly. A small amount of swing in the tiller, also to the right, accounted for this and we were travelling straight and true.
No sooner were we passed the moored boats and up to speed, that great 4mph, had we arrived at our first set of locks. These were the Stockton Locks, a run of 8 locks, passing under bridge number 22 in the process. Despite being short two crew members due to illness, and the locks being broad (room for two narrowboats side-by-side), we all soon found our flow and passed through the locks with ease.
Under bridge 23, passed some more moored craft and we found ourselves at the first of two locks at Long Itchington. Once through, the crew climbed back aboard Coniston and had a short rest whilst we carried on down the GUC. Bascote Locks were next, a staircase lock first, followed by two more. Disaster! Upon entering the first lock of the staircase, we’d had a short discussion of how a staircase lock operated, and from where I was at the stern, everything sounded OK. But the bottom of the staircase was already full, and we were emptying our lock into it. A plastic cruiser boat was at the bottom of the locks, and the chap came up and advised us that the best thing to do would be to carry on and overflow the bottom lock. It’s not the end of the world, but I’m sure it’s caused a small amount of extra wear on the lock gates – sorry C&RT!
Bascote Locks and a further 6 completed and we found ourselves in Royal Leamington Spa. Meandering on down the canal and before you know, or even realise it, you’re in Warwick. This was our planned stop for the evening, the Canal Companion pointed us to both a Tesco and Fish and Chip shop, so we moored up nearby, and arranged our dinner for the evening.
Day 2 – 24th June
We set off at 7:30 the next morning, as we knew what lay ahead of us. A roughly 2 mile cruise, found us at the first 2 locks of the day. Nice and simple, Cape Locks, we were straight through. As we were leaving the second lock, a lady called out to us from a moored boat and asked if we wanted to pair up for the next flight of locks. We agreed, and she hopped out of the boat with her dog and headed along the towpath towards the Hatton Locks. A few minutes at tick over passing moored craft and we could see that the chap has set off in chase of us. A 90 degree right turn at the Saltisford Arm and we were there. The bottom of the Hatton Locks.
I had already warned the crew that this was going to be a hard day, the hardest of the trip. Thankfully the couple we had paired up with were very experienced and had only great advice for us. We entered the first of the twenty one locks at around 8am and came out at the top at around 11. Three hours. That’s three hours of non-stop lock operating for the crew – my job of driving the boat being comparatively easy, I’m sure. Although Eric, the chap on the other boat, was soon talking me through leaving, travelling to and entering the locks side-by-side. It soon became easy and helped us up the flight quicker than would have been otherwise possible.
At the top, an ice-cream shop was a pleasing sight, and some of the crew swiftly popped in to get some for us all. Leaving the last lock, I spotted a lovely blue narrowboat and found myself recognising it, but not expecting to. I nodded and said good-morning to the owner. It was only once it was too late, and we’d gone too far past, that I realise the boat belonged to one of the YouTuber’s I’d been watching – David from CruisingTheCut. The reason I wasn’t expecting to see that boat, was because, at the time, the last video David had uploaded was of him going through the Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal. I knew he uploaded his videos slightly delayed, but I didn’t expect it to be by that much!
It was time for me to take a break, and hand over the tiller to my Father-in-Law, I moved to the saloon area to try and relax for a while. We carried on up the GUC through the, slightly leaky, Shrewley Tunnel and passing Lapworth Junction. Here the Kingswood Arm joins the GUC with the South Stratford Canal, which could be used to take an alternate route of the Warwickshire Ring, adding a couple of extra days and taking in more of Birmingham.
A couple of miles further up the canal and we reach the base of Knowle Locks. The sun came out, quite strong at this point and I’m afraid to say, I did get rather burnt on my right arm and hand. Despite a strong wind blowing us around at the start, we were up through Knowle Locks rather quickly. Here is a short video (sped up, obviously) of the locks in action.
The water in the locks was actually quite silty and low, when we got to the top lock, we found the propeller was unable to spin freely and propel the boat. The crew pulled the boat out of the lock and tied up on the lock landing temporarily. As a habit, as we got the boat in the position we wanted it, I applied a small amount of reverse throttle and found that the prop span freely. Despite this, we still decided to stop the engine, and open the weed hatch – a panel for inspecting the prop and removing debris. As expected, we couldn’t see any obstruction, so assumed it was just the silt and low water level causing the issue. We put the weed hatch back in place – tight, or you’ll sink the boat – and carried on up the Grand Union. We carried on, passing under the M42 motorway. A short while later, at a small village called Catherine-de-Barnes on the outskirts of Solihull, we found our mooring for the night. We’d stopped to fill our 100 gallon water tank at some point between the locks and mooring up, too.
Day 3 – 25th June
Day 3 started for us at around 8:30am, we weren’t sure how long the diversion route in Birmingham was going to cost us, or how busy is was going to be, so we decided the early(ish) start would help make up for any time we did lose. A few hours after setting off, we found ourselves at the top of Camp Hill Locks. The first three, relatively straight forward. However, the run from the third lock to lock four, in a 70′ boat, is not the easiest manoeuvre in the world! Two very tight turns and a bridge to navigate required a lot of man-handling of the boat in forwards and reverse gears. I’m pleased to say, I completed the task, without bumping the boat or requiring any of the crew’s manual assistance. After that, locks 4, 5 and 6 seemed like a walk in the park.
At the bottom of Camp Hill Locks, we should have turned right onto the Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal and passed down the Garrison/Saltley Locks. Hanging Canal & River Trust signs informed us of the Lock closures, which I had already double checked were still in place on the C&RT website. We carried on down the Grand Union instead, passing through an open flood lock (I presumed, it’s not marked on any maps!) and turning right onto the Digbeth Branch of the GUC. The small Curzon tunnel brought us out at the bottom of the six Ashtead Locks, including the Ashtead Tunnel between locks 2 and 1. Another short run and an extremely tight right hand turn onto the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. Another turning not really designed for amateurs in 70′ boats, especially with the first of the Aston locks being immediately after you pass through the junction!
Being on the diversion route, I was expecting a lot of traffic, a bit like when the Highways Agency closes the M3 and route people over to the A30. However, along this entire diversion route, including the 11 Aston Locks, we saw one other boat. Rather great timing too, he was coming out of one of the locks, so left it open for us, as we did likewise.
We started to leave Birmingham as we turned right again, underneath Spaghetti Junction and ran past the back of the Star City leisure complex. Unfortunately, Birmingham’s youths were hanging around on dirt bikes underneath the M6. One lovely boy, around 7 or 8 years old, gave us a lovely smile and wave, before changing his mind, frowning and showing us his middle finger instead. Just as they were starting to get out of sight, a small stone was thrown at the back of the boat, luckily no-one was hit by it.
I was surprised along the canal in Birmingham, I was expecting more of this sort of behaviour. The amount of graffiti was astonishing, and I’m sure the advice to avoid mooring up is very wise. However, the amount of greenery was more than I expected, with key Birmingham landmarks clearly visible off in the distance.
The canal started to straighten out at this point, so I gingerly passed the tiller to another crew member, who wanted to try it out. She got the hang of it pretty quickly, although occasionally needing a reminder to “steer in the opposite direction”. As we approached a whole row of fishermen, I was handed the tiller back. I slowed the boat to tick over speed, in order to not disturb the fish below too much. It turned out a fishing competition was underway, and there were around 60 fishermen along this stretch of the canal! Some avoided eye-contact, pulling out their mobile phones. Some took the opportunity to re-bait their lines. Some complained, but most were polite enough to at least say hello, or thank us for passing at a nice steady pace. After passing around a third of the fishermen, we had to navigate through the first of the 3 Minworth Locks. The fishermen continued to line the canal’s towpath until we were through the bottom of the third lock. By the time we got to the end, most of the fishermen seemed to be packing up, although I must say, I hadn’t seen many fish about.
The very short Curdworth Tunnel was up next, on approach it just looked like a large bridge, but the Canal & River Trust sign says it’s definitely a tunnel. We were then ready to tackle the Curdworth Locks, crossing under the M6 (Toll) and running almost parallel with the M42, the roar from the road was quite loud at times. After the ninth lock, we took a quick stop to top up that 100 gallon water tank again. Once through the last of the eleven locks at Kingsbury, the M42 went in a different direction, so we found a quiet spot and moored up for the night.
If you look carefully at the image below, you’ll notice the boat is leaning to one side slightly. It wasn’t until a few hours into the evening that we noticed the boat was leaning. Too late to mess about trying to move, we left it and coped for the night.
Day 4 – 26th June
The following morning, we awoke to a family of ducks sat by our rear mooring line. We set off, continuing to get further away from the M42 motorway, which could no longer be heard. We were heading in the direction of Drayton Manor Theme Park. The park itself could not be seen, nor heard, from the canal.
The Drayton Footbridge makes for an interesting attraction, built in the 18th century, the Grade II listed structure is a Gothic folly, consisting of two turrets with crenellated tops, and the footbridge running between the two. We had a bit of fun here, mooring the boat just after the bridge, setting up the camera on a tripod on the stern and attempting to capture a family photo on the bridge. The camera’s self-timer only allowed 10 seconds, and the remote didn’t work at the range we needed. After several attempts, we managed to find our fastest runner and captured the photo we were after.
Next up was Fazeley Junction, we needed to leave the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal and join the Coventry Canal towards Tamworth and ultimately Coventry. The B&F Canal has a narrow bridge at the mouth of the junction, and the turn to the right that we needed also had a narrow bridge. Thankfully the junction itself was quite wide, and despite an onlooking crowd, including C&RT workmen, I managed to wrestle the 70′ Coniston through the junction without incident.
How does a canal cross a river? Using an aqueduct! The River Tame, presumably where Tamworth gets its name from, passes under the canal along this stretch. The A5 then crosses over the canal, a little quieter than the M6 and M42 we’ve seen before, but the lorries and cars were still whizzing by, getting on with their fast paced lives. Glascote Locks were up next and another boat had just come down as we arrived, so were able to enter and go straight up. On arrival at the second lock, we were lucky enough to have yet another boat just ready to leave the lock. I slowed the boat, rather than mooring at the lock landing and timed arriving at the lock exactly as their boat had left. Straight into the lock and straight up, a queue of 6 or 7 boats moored along the towpath waiting to come down. At this point, Coniston had started pulling even harder to the right and seemed to be underpowered, this could only suggest that we had debris caught around the propeller, so we carried on gently in search of a suitable place to moor up temporarily.
With the boat held by the centre line, we shut off the engine again and lifted the weed hatch. This time I was able to find the problem pretty easily, several plastic bags had wound themselves around the prop. Reaching in through the weed hatch, into the cold canal water it was easy enough to pull the bags free from the prop and we were soon back on our way.
The next 2 or 3 mile stretch of the canal was nice and quiet, just a few boats coming the other way, whom we warned of the queue to get down Glastcote Locks. At bridge 66 a few members of the crew hopped off, in search of a Tesco that had been marked in the Canal Companion. The remaining crew carried on up the canal, in search of Alvecote Marina, and their “lean green pump out machine”. Although we were successful in finding the pump out machine – required to empty the toilet waste containers – there was nobody on site, it appears this marina is closed on a Monday! We weren’t desperate for one, so 10 minutes later when the rest of the crew had caught up, we set off continuing along the Coventry Canal.
No sooner had we set off, we were passing under the M42 motorway again, before meandering around the town of Polesworth. After Bradley Green Bridge, number 48, we moored up for yet more water – that 100 gallons doesn’t last long with 9 of us! 20 minutes later and we were heading for the first of 11 Atherstone Locks. After coming up through lock 10, a helpful boater coming the other way warned me that the pound between the next two locks, 9 and 8, had a very low water level and one boat was currently stuck. Lock 9 was set in our favour, so we entered the lock and waited. Most of our crew went on ahead in a bid to help the stuck boat. We couldn’t go any further until it was free, as filling our lock would have made things worse for them, and ultimately ourselves too. Around about 40 minutes later, I’m told the lock above had been filled and emptied three times, and the boat above had been pulled and forced free. An impatient boater was now waiting to come down the lock we were sat in, so a quick call ahead to check the pound was now at a sufficient water level and our remaining crew got us up the lock.
The speed limit on the canal is 4mph, which is fine normally. The general rule to tell your speed is if your wash is hitting the banks, you’re going too fast. There was no way I wanted to get stuck, I kept at a very slow pace whilst I was in the deeper part of the pound until I could see that the lock gates had been opened for me to enter. Then I went for it, 5, 6 or 7 mph, I have no idea. I figured the more speed I carried through the shallow, muddy section the less chance of us getting stuck. One crew member later commented saying they hadn’t seen such a big bow wave as I’d approached any other locks. I felt the boggy section trying to grip onto the flat baseplate of Coniston, it slowed us down by a good few miles per hour. Thankfully, the extra speed had meant that I was able to enter the lock without getting stuck. Straight in, straight up. The remaining 7 locks were passed without any problems, though we warned other boaters about the shallow pound ahead of them.
Once at the top, we found somewhere to moor for an hour, whilst one or two us went off to the find the Fish & Chip Shop marked on the Canal Companion and the rest of us readied the Raviolli to go with the chips. After our dinner, we decided the spot we were moored at wasn’t the quietest, so we moved on up the Coventry Canal a little further and found a suitable mooring. Unfortunately, we were now in ear-shot of the high-speed rail line, but the trains were only every so often, and with most of us having lived under the Heathrow flight path for most of our lives, we soon drowned the sound out.
Day 5 – 27th June
It started with us looking at the Canal Companion map book, in order to find somewhere to get a pump out, again we weren’t desperate but we didn’t want to fill the tanks. A suitable marina was located and we set off in search of it. Springwood Haven Marina and Chandlery, we moored up, with most of the crew entering the Chandlery to purchase goodies to remind themselves of their holiday. I stayed outside and helped with the pump out, although I was bought an ice cream too.
A nice steady pace today, with no locks until we reached Coventry. As the canal meanders past Nuneaton, the graffiti reappears, although this time without the youths on dirt bikes. As you leave Nuneaton, the houses backing onto the canal get larger, with larger gardens that are well tendered. Some of the homeowners had their own narrowboats and plastic cruisers at their own private moorings, whilst others appreciate the peace and tranquillity of the canal with a picnic table or bench on the waterside.
Marston Junction soon arrives as we saw another hire boat leaving the Coventry Canal and joining the Ashby Canal through a rather narrow bridged entrance. Despite a large turning space, the acute angle meant the boat did take a little knock on the way in. For us, it was straight through the junction, sticking with the Coventry Canal. We realised at this point, just how far ahead of schedule we were, and so decided we would continue on into Coventry. The Canal Companion map showed only one winding hole – a space to turn a narrow boat around on the canal – that was large enough for our 70′ boat, but it was only half way into town and there wasn’t much in the way of mooring around the area. We decided we would continue towards the winding hole and see what we could do.
I handed the tiller back over to my Father-in-Law for the next stretch, a lovely rural scenic area, with little canal traffic just moored boats here and there. At Hawkesbury Junction, to complete the Warwickshire Ring, we should have turned 180 degrees onto the Oxford Canal, but as time was still on our side, we carried on along the Coventry Canal towards that winding hole. From what we could see the canal didn’t have much in the way of places to sensibly moor up. I took the tiller again to complete the winding manoeuvre – again, those YouTube videos had paid off and I completed it in one, without bumping the boat. Now heading back the way we came, we carried on up the canal towards the Ricoh Arena, where we had spotted a couple of places available for mooring. Thankfully, although one narrowboat was moored up, there was still room for all 70 feet of Coniston to moor up in front.
With the boat moored, we walked back to the bridge we’d just passed under, and up the stairs to the main road. An ever helpful Tesco was waiting for us, a small shop for essentials and we were on our way, walking into Coventry City Centre. My Fitbit recorded 11,438 steps on this day, with the vast majority of those being completed during the walk into the city – a little under 5 miles. We were aiming to find the Cathedral, I thought. It turns out we went for Waterstones instead. A book (or two, or several) in hand each and we decided to find a bus to take us back to the Arena Shopping Centre, containing the Tesco by the canal.
Once back on the boat, we set off heading back towards Hawkesbury Junction, the advantage now being that we weren’t turning 180 degrees, but merely a soft 90 degree right, then left onto the Oxford Canal. Hawkesbury Lock awaits, it’s the most interesting lock on the Warwickshire Ring, with its rise of only about foot. It’s a stop lock, historically there to stop companies stealing water from one canal, the Oxford, and using it for the other, the Coventry.
Passing some more moored boats and the rain that was due for the next day started to arrive. Wearing borrowed Hi-Vis jackets, Hi-Vis waterproof overtrousers and a pair of wellies, we carried on parallel with the M6 again, deciding to aim for the mooring points in Ansty. As the rain came down even harder, and we approached Ansty, we found all of the moorings to be taken! Passing under bridge 16 and the towpath is all overgrown and weedy, the edge of the canal is curved and has a few rocks, so isn’t suitable for mooring.
As we start to pass through bridge 17, the towpath is even more overgrown and our mood became even more miserable. I glance behind and see a small patch of towpath that could be suitable, so put the boat in reverse and try to moor there. No matter how much we pulled the boat over, we couldn’t get close enough to the bank to moor safely, so reluctantly we moved on. Passing through bridge 17, a warning sign from C&RT letting us know that there are large rocks and obstacles on the canal bed on the offside for the next 100 metres, the sign suggested we avoided this. Travelling a little too fast, desperate to get to the next official moorings, the towpath starts to become less weedy, though the bank is still at an awkward angle. I spotted another space to try, so again, reversed the boat back and this time we were lucky enough to be able to pull ourselves close enough to the bank. Not perfect, by any means, but it’ll do. The high speed trains were audible again at times, but we were moored and able to get in out of the rain.
Whilst I finished my shower, the water pump started to struggle. Oops, we’d just ran out of water! We’d forgotten to fill up with any today, we should have got some whilst at the pump out, but in all the excitement of the Chandlery and planning to trip into Coventry, we’d all forgotten. There was nothing we could do, so with a few ground rules set about not using the toilets, we went to sleep. The rain continued to come down very hard, the canal water rushing past the boat even causing it to sway a couple of times. By far, the worst night of the trip.
Day 6 – 28th June
We had planned originally to have a lazy day, as the weather was due to be quite bad. But due to the complete lack of water, we set off in search of the nearest water point. A few miles along the canal, back under the M6 motorway again, and the water point was waiting for us. At this point, the high speed rail line had become ever closer to the canal and the high speed and freight trains were within touching distance as they passed. After filling the water tank we moved out of the way and found somewhere to moor up temporarily to make our plans for the day. We decided that we still had just over a day over where we actually needed to be, so decided we would head towards Rugby, re-fill the tank with water – now being extra cautious – and find somewhere to moor up, before ordering a Chinese takeaway. In total, we only moved around 8 1/2 miles further along the canal, but it was nice to have a relaxed day.
Just Eat helped us to locate a Chinese and we decided upon the spot where we would aim to moor. Then we set off on our journey, leaving our temporary mooring and the high speed rail line behind. A lovely quiet stretch of the Oxford Canal, with very little traffic around us. A very rural stretch, with only trees and fields, we separate once again from the high speed rail line, although the trains can still be heard off in the distance. The Oxford Canal one took a much longer route, passing through other towns and villages, but as the workers used to be paid by the mile, the canal was straightened. The old routes are still visible in places either by short arms, converted to Wharfs or Marinas or just by the bridges that are sideways along the towpath rather over the canal. The straight route, the one in use today, passes through Newbold on Avon, with the Newbold Tunnel on the outskirts.
The Canal Companion map books have icons symbolising where facilities – like the water points – are, so we knew there was one almost immediately after the tunnel. We spotted it, just after some moorings, right by a pub – the Barley Mow. We moored up in the dedicated moorings for the water point. Unfortunately, due to a combination of the last moored boat using a part of the water point moorings, the length of the supplied hose and the position of the water tap, we were unable to fill up at this water point. We needed an extra foot, foot and half of space behind us, or extra length in the hose to make it work.
The Canal Companion came back out and we discovered the next water point was only 8 bridges up on the towpath side, before bridge 58. As we approached the bridge, a crew member hopped off the boat and started walking ahead to scout it out and make sure it was accessible. We saw him still walking on the towpath underneath the bridge and assumed at this point that we’d either missed it entirely, or the water point had was no longer there. Under the bridge, there were moorings, most taken up, certainly not enough room for our 70 foot boat. On the opposite side to the towpath, I suddenly spot the water point – recently moved – and we moor up alongside, leaving our crew member on the other side of the canal. Another boater, moored at the moorings, was using his long hose to fill his boat’s tank. He kindly let us fill our tank, as he was moored for a while, so could continue to fill his later.
The canal users form a very close community, and you’re immediately a part of this community even on a hire boat. The other boater started telling us his life story, how he’d retired at 30 and spent 6 months of each year on his boat. He told us that C&RT had recently moved the water point, as we’d suspected, but that it wasn’t all bad, as they’d also improved the moorings and added new mooring rings. We spoke about our journey so far and that we had the boat for a week and were ordering a Chinese tonight! He informed us that the previous Wednesday, an aluminium boat had caught fire in Braunston, and advised us never to buy an aluminium boat. Once the tank was full, we continued a short distance, passing the moored boats at tick over speed and found one last suitable mooring, large enough for Coniston. The mooring was exactly where we had planned for, just before bridge 59, with access to the main road and Tesco. We didn’t specifically need the Tesco this time, but it’s postcode was easily obtainable, and the Chinese takeaway were more than happy to deliver to it, seeking the people by the entrance in the bright orange hat and orange coat.
Day 7 – 29th June
Our final full day on the boat. We needed to get back near to where we started for two reasons. The first being that one of our crew needed to head off this evening as she and early start at work tomorrow morning. The second being that we needed to return the boat to the base by 9am and be unloaded by 9:30. I’d remembered that the pub that we all rendezvoused at, back at the very beginning of our trip, had suitable moorings by it, so we made this our destination for the day. A target 6 locks and approximately 17.5 miles away.
No sooner had we set off had we left the urban nature of Rugby and the canal was lined with trees once again. A not-so-impressive aqueduct over the River Avon and more disused arms from the original route rejoining the newer, straighter cut of the Oxford Canal. Within a couple of hours, we arrived the first three of the six locks we faced today. A water point was marked on the map, and since quite a few of us had had showers since we last filled up, we stopped to fill the tank once again.
The Hillmorton Locks are an interesting view, narrow locks no different to the many we had already passed through, except that these were paired up. More efficient than broad locks, as one boat could be coming up as one is coming down, but less efficient for the boaters as wide beam boats wouldn’t fit so traditional narrow boats needed to be used, carrying their smaller loads. Volunteer lock keepers, wonderful people, were operating these locks, but as there were a few boats coming down and we had a large crew, we operated them ourselves, leaving the volunteers to help others. The comradery of using the canals shone even brighter, as one of our crew helped a lady with her heavy cassette toilet to the elsan point between the bottom and middle locks.
Plenty of moored boats at the top of the locks meant tick over speed for a good ten minutes. Canal etiquette means you pass moored boats slowly, so as to not move their boats around either pulling them off of their moorings, leaving them potentially stranded, or jolt them against the side of the canal, potentially causing damage either to the boat itself, or contents or people within. I received a few thank you’s on our trip from moored boaters for my choice of low speed. I wished a few of the private boats that passed us at times would have slowed down themselves.
I handed the tiller back to an inexperienced crew member a few times on the straighter, wider parts where she felt most comfortable. Not much changes in the scenery here, a few fields, some with animals, others with crops. A couple of old bridges that looked like a slight knock would have them down. One was even showing signs of having been repaired with expanding foam! A sudden roar of traffic as you pass under the M45 snaps you back to reality and reminds you that you’re nearing the end of your trip and to prepare to speed back up to the normal pace of life.
Bridge 89, and there were moorings on the towpath, at the very start of the mooring stretch was a space big enough for our 70′ boat. We decided to moor up for a while, and take a walk along the towpath up towards Braunston Junction. We found the burnt out aluminium boat we’d been told about in Rugby and stop to take a look. Further up, over the bridges that form the junction, 93 & 94, I once again spot a lovely blue boat – the same one from the top of the Hatton Locks. David (CrusingTheCut) wasn’t around and his boat was locked up, so no chance to say hello this time. We continued along the towpath, passing some very lovely doggies and found our way out to the main road. We followed signs showing the public footpath and headed off towards All Saints’ Church Braunston, which was visible from where we had moored the boat.
On our way back to the boat, we stopped on the bridges over the junction and took some family photos, before continuing towards Coniston. Back on board and we set off towards Braunston Junction, we would turn at the junction to keep us on the Oxford Canal, rather than joining the Grand Union towards the Braunston Locks and Tunnel. I got the junction slightly wrong and ended up scraping around on the edge of the canal. Once straightened out, but still against the canal’s edge, I waved a plastic cruiser past on the wrong side, as I was unable to get over with him where he was. As he passed, he very helpfully asked; “You do know you’re on the wrong side, don’t you?” I cheerily replied “Yes”, followed by muttering to myself “Obviously, which is why I waved you past, as I couldn’t do much else.”
Still, with that behind me, we carried on passing moored craft at tick over pace. The canal has a lot of overgrown foliage in this section, making parts ideally more suitable for one-way traffic, although you could squeeze passed if you were willing to scrape the bushes and trees. Another unimpressive aqueduct, this time over the River Leam, more moored boats, this time on private moorings to the offside of the canal. Approaching bridge 99, not one, but two fuel/coal supplies boats were sat in the middle of the canal, making the moorings there 3 abreast. A blind bridge and corner required the use of the boat’s horn to signal that you are coming through. Unfortunately, the optimistic horn on Coniston had decided it was easier not to work at all at this point, so I had to edge on through slowly but managed to avoid the oncoming boat (who just chose not to use his horn). Tight meandering corners through the next few bridges and yet more overgrown trees. I’d noticed the two supply boats were following me, so helpfully warned the oncoming boats to watch out for them on the blind bends.
Bridge 108 was the one I was keeping an eye out for, it marked one last straight section before we arrived at Napton Junction, where would need to be turning right back onto our final stretch of the Grand Union Canal. Another oncoming boat passed whilst going under the bridge, and one moored boat along the straight. I spotted ahead that the junction was a nice wide turn, although the GUC had a narrow bridge over the entrance. Not as tight as some other bridges, but it doesn’t make it easy work. Gongoozlers – a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals – were standing atop the bridge as I attempted my manoeuvre onto the GUC, thankfully not put off by them, I completed the turning in one.
A slow run followed as there were lots of moored boats here, all private long-term moorings, some boats looking like they hadn’t moved in years. On arrival at the Calcutt Locks, our final three of the journey, one boat was already on their way down, with another waiting at the lock landing. We pulled in behind, as best we could due to some poorly placed C&RT work boats, our crew hopped off and got ready to help set the locks. The boat that was waiting pulled into the lock and as these were broad locks, pulled to the left so we could enter over on the right. The boat was another hire boat, from Kate Boats, albeit their Warwick base. They too were completing the Warwickshire Ring, planning to stay over in Stockton tonight and complete their final leg back to Warwick on Friday, ready to return the boat on Saturday. We compared our climbs through the Hatton Locks and I was disappointed to hear that they had managed to complete the flight in under 3 hours, beating us by around 10 minutes despite having only a crew of 5!
Despite there being only one moored boat off in the distance, I decided to keep to tick over speed along the canal, to let the other hire boat get ahead of us and find their mooring for the night. I’d informed them of the location of the pub, and they thanked me and sought to moor there. We stopped short initially, just passed the Willow Wren Training Centre, a few of the crew walked on ahead towards the Stockton base. We had arranged for someone to meet us there to give back the car keys – they hold onto them, as they only have a small car park and occasionally need to move cars. Just as we had finished setting the boat for the evening, tying the mooring lines, stopping the engine and greasing the stern gland – the area of the boat where the propeller passes from inside the boat, to the outside – I received a call, we’d been asked by the guy at the base if we’d like to moor up in the base tonight, mostly because it’d make things easier in the morning. We decided we would, and got the boat going again and 10 minutes later had arrived at the Wharf and moored up in the only sensible spot to put their biggest boat – it made sense why they encouraged us to moor there tonight!
We said goodbye to the leaving crew member and settled into our card games for the evening. We decided that would leave in time to get to Leamington Spa and find their McDonald’s for breakfast, followed by visiting the nearby cinema, for their first showing of Despicable Me 3, seeing as it was the day of release. After this, we headed to Kenilworth Castle, to take advantage of our English Heritage memberships, before finally going our own ways and finally heading home.
Day 8 – 30th June
The following morning, we awoke to two swans happily peering in through one of our windows. We tidied the rest of the boat and loaded up our cars. After a final sweep, at 9am, we headed into the offices to say thanks, inform them of the horn and complete the hand back.
We completed our McDonald’s trip, located the cinema and even visited Kenilworth Castle as planned. It was a nice way to spend the final day of our holiday, before heading back our ordinary fast paced lives.