Friday, 8 July 2011

Flecknoe to Weedon

We were finally only a few miles away from the junction with the Grand Union Canal and within striking distance of our destination. There was one major canal feature to come though...Braunston Tunnel...of which more later.

We quickly reached Braunston Turn, with its beautiful Horseley Ironwork bridges and swung left. Mick said he wanted to go to Midland Chandlers to make some purchases so we moored up and walked along the canal to the road bridge before trudging back down the other side to the shop. After much browsing and admiring of various items he finally dug into his wallet and bought a small brass plaque for £2.50 - bet they were glad we went to the effort of stopping by!

We had dithered in the chandlers over a Nicolson Guide to the Grand Union, but finally decided it wasn't worth it as we weren't going far, and if the boat did sell, we may not be here again for a while. Instead we made do with OS Pathfinder Series maps which Mick had had the foresight to get out of the library before we set off. But great though they are on land, OS maps are not brilliant for canal navigation.

Ok, we weren't going to get lost, after all the opportunities for taking a wrong turn are limited. But it's difficult to make out any canal features such as locks. I peered at the map.
"I think there are about six locks before the tunnel," I said eventually.

It was very busy below the bottom lock, what with chandlers, hire boats and wot not. I liked it here, it felt like proper canal country. Which of course it is.We hung onto the side of a hire boat which was in the process of being cleaned out before the turn-round and next customer, until the lock was free. We were followed into the lock by a delightful couple from Norfolk who had been cruising the system for a good few months. We shared the flight up with them and got into a good rhythm as we went up. At the top they decided to stop for lunch and so we bade them farewell and headed on to The Tunnel.

I had meanly been teasing Mick, who had confessed to being a little anxious about Braunston Tunnel. It's over 2000 yards long and not very wide. But as we entered the small dark space it was me who had a fit of anxiety.
"The fenders!" I yelled as we motored in. "We should pull up the fenders, we might get stuck!"
"For fuck's sake!" said Mick, angrily. "Why did you wait until we were in the tunnel?"
"Because I've only just thought of it!" I yelled back. Mick obligingly edged down the sides of the boat and pulled up all the fenders.
We both still felt anxious though. What if we met a widebeam? What if we got stuck? What if the boat caught fire?

It is a long tunnel. Very long. There was a boat in front of us and we realised that we were catching it up so slowed down a little. In the middle of the tunnel it was not possible to see either portal which we found slightly un-nerving. The air smelt of our engine so I then began worrying about air quality and so forth before giving myself a good pep-talk.
"Of course it's safe," I said to myself. "No-one suffocates in here, if they had I would have read about it in Waterways World. Pull yourself together."
I felt a bit better after my solo talking-to and we plodded towards the exit. Not far from the western portal we passed the first boat coming the other way. Well, not passed exactly, as they were rubbish at steering and crashed straight into us.
"Sorry about that!" said the helmsman cheerily. The boat, a hireboat, was packed with a family obviously out on a grand outing. It seemed churlish to complain so we smiled and said, "No problem!" then turned and watched them as they weaved their way up the tunnel, shouting and making woo-hoo noises.
"Well, they're not bothered about the tunnel," observed Mick.

Nevertheless we were both relieved when we reached daylight.
"Dunno about you," said Mick, "but I could do with a pint!"

I agreed that some alcohol would be most welcome at this stage and so we resolved to look for a suitable place to stop.

Luckily it wasn't long before we arrived at Buckby Wharf. We moored up and wandered over the lock to the New Inn.
"Hmm," I said with approval. "I think this will set us right."
Two pints and a jacket potato and chilli each and we were feeling very contented. The staff were friendly and the beer was served up to the brim. We approved of the pub very much and it was with some reluctance that we dragged ourselves up to head on.

The New Inn is situated at the top of the Buckby Flight of seven locks. Whilst we were in the pub a boater who was moored below the top lock had come along to let some water down from the upper pound.
"I have to do this every now and again, or I'll be on the bottom," he explained.

We trotted down the flight and then along the short distance to Weedon and Rugby Narrowboats. At last! The journey had taken longe than we thought. But we had enjoyed it, it had been a great experience to get up into the proper canal country and enjoy some continuous cruising.

Northampton skittle game at Weedon
"Cheeses" for Northampton skittles

"Hope you don't sell her," I muttered. "Then we'll have the fun of taking her back."

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Cropredy to Flecknoe

"Well a new day," I said brightly as we flung open the back doors.

It was seven am and all was quiet as we set off.  Boating at this time of day is lovely, with the sun low and birds singing.

Without hindrance from other boats we had a fine system going up  the next two flights of locks, clearing all eight in an hour and a half. We were now on the summit pound, Oxford Canal's long pound. Like the top pound of the K&A, this was the canal's quietest, most rural stretch, although all the Oxford is rural really. Indeed, the Oxford Canal Walk is a long distance path that during the 83 miles that it covers, crosses only one road.

I was studying the map whilst Mick steered. Suddenly I jabbed my finger at the page and exclaimed "We have to go through a tunnel!" Fenny Compton Tunnel, there it was on the map. We're not that keen on tunnels. We knew we had a long one to go through at Braunston but this one was a surprise.  I didn't remember reading anything about a tunnel on the Oxford Canal.

When we got there we realised our mistake. There had been a tunnel, once. But now it was simply a very narrow cutting. So narrow we scraped the side of the boat all down the wall. I was glad it was Mick's turn to steer, at least I wouldn't get the blame. "Oh no, my paintwork," he groaned.

Fenny Compton Tunnel, 1138 yards long and just 9 feet wide, proved to be something of a bottleneck when canal traffic on the Oxford began to increase. In the 1840,s the tunnel was effectively turned into two shorted tunnels, allowing boats to pass more easily, but this failed to solve the problem, and in the 1860's the tunnel was dismantled completely.

After the tunnel the canal begins to really twist and turn in earnest. This is a "contour canal" par excellence! Contour canals were favoured by the early canal engineers (and their financial backers) as, by following the contours of the land, they minimised the need for costly locks, embankments and tunnels. Raising the finance for the canal had been tight to say the least, and James Brindley, the engineer, was aware of the importance of keeping costs down wherever possible. Brindley died in 1772 and responsibility passed to his assistant, Sanuel Simcock. As it was, funds ran out partway through and the final Banbury to Oxford section had several cost cutting measures: wooden bridges rather than stone ones, single lock gates rather than double ones and using the River Cherwell rather than dig a new one.

At Wormleighton the canal performs a long four mile wind around Wormleighton Hill before meandering northwards again towards Napton Flight, the series of locks which would take us off the summit pound. At the bottom of the flight we stopped for essential sewerage duties. Opposite the sanitary station was a tempting looking pub but it was only five o'clock and we decided we should get a couple more hours under our belt before stopping for the night. As we rounded the corner we spotted the rushing hire boaters moored up for the night. For all their rushing, they still hadn't gpt any further then!

On the hill the Napton Windmill was clearly visible as we wond round the village. There was a mill on this site as far back as 1543 although this one was built in the late nineteenth century. It has been restored and is now a private house.

Not long after Napton the first junction with the Grand Union joined from the left hand side at Napton Junction. This marked an immediate change in the dimensions of the canal. Wide and deep it marked a distinct change with the narrow winding course of the Oxford up until now. Just after the junction a group of lads on a hire boat asked us where the nearest pub was.
"Five miles on and then a mile walk from the canal!" I shouted. I knew this as I had already checked it out on the map and this was where we were headed. "Follow us if you like!"

An hour later we reached Flecnoe and, leaving a large space for our companions, we squeezed in between two boats. Waving jovially the other boat went past us - and then carried on!
"It's up there!" I called out, pointing to the lane that wound up the hill to the village.
Mick laughed. It's a mile away up that track," he said. I bet they decided to carry on and find a canalside pub.
We'd had enough boating though so we moored up and trudged into the village. The pub The Old Olive Bush turned out to be a reasonable pub with a proper bar area, separarate from the food bit, rather than a restaurant by another name.  We enjoyed a couple of pints before wandering back down the lane to the boat.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Aynho to Cropredy

At last we had a few days to get some uninterrupted boating under our belts. We drove to Aynho and parked the car on the verge by the wharf. We didn't get there until the evening and decided to treat ourselves to a meal in the pub rather than start cooking.

The Great Western Arms served a good meal of steak pie which we enjoyed. Sadly the Hook Norton Ales was not quite up to scratch, it was a bit cloudy and tasted flat. Not off exactly, just not tip-top. Neither of us could be bothered to make a fuss about it although when we got the bill and realised they had not charged us for a round we didn't say anything. It meant the beer worked out at about £1.50 per pint rather than three quid: we reckoned that was all it was worth.

When we got to the boat we realised someone had kindly re-tied our ropes for us, putting the mooring pins down the side of the piling rather than into the ground, a much more secure arrangement. Maybe the boat had come loose. Anyway we thanked the mystery person for their consideration.
The weather was not too bad in the morning and we got off to a fairly (for us) prompt start. We had an enjoyable morning pottering up to Banbury where the canal goes right through the centre of the town. We decided to stop and have a nose around the town. We liked the centre of Banbury very much, it has some interesting buildings and a wonderful Victorian postbox dating from 1856. We had some lunch in a cheap and cheerful pub and then headed off to Morrison's to get some provisions.

As we were crossing the road to the supermarket we narrowly missed being run over by a large 4x4, if we had not jumped out of the way he would undoubtedly have hit us. We watched him turn into Morrison's car park.
"He's not going to get away with that," said Mick.
He strode over to the car just as the driver was getting out.
"You fool!" he shouted. "What do you think you are doing?"
"You shouldn't have been jay walking!" the driver, who looked like a retired colonel or something, retorted.
"There's no law of jay walking in this country!" said Mick. "And even if there were, do you think that's a good enough reason to run us over?"
The altercation continued for a few minutes, and people began stopping to see what was going on.
I had just begun to wonder whether it was going to come to blows when Mick threw his arms in the air and strode off.
The rest of the shopping trip passed off uneventfully and once we had completed our shopping we headed back to the boat. Time was getting on and we set off pretty quickly. Banbury lock is right in the middle of the shopping centre and there were a fair few gongoozlers watching us. They were also watching us go through the swing bridge which was a shame. The bridge must be slightly lower than the other swing bridges on the Oxford Canal. With our bikes on the roof, we normally cleared the bridge with a good two inches to spare. On this one, however, I realised, too late, that the bikes were not going to clear the bridge. They collided with the bridge and I watched helplessly as they slid off the boat and into the canal.
"Oh well, they needed a wash," said Mick as he fished them out with a boathook.

As we waited at the next lock another boat came up behind. It was hire boat with half-a-dozen middle aged men. Two of them strode up to the lock and began opening it up for us. We went in and one of them fully opened up the top paddles to fill the lock. The trouble with this on a narrow lock is that the water surges backwards and forwards, rushing the boat against the top gates. I glared at him but said nothing. At the next lock the same thing happened, they took over the lock and rushed about like idiots.
By the third lock we were thoroughly fed up with them.
"Could you not open the paddle fully?" said Mick. "We prefer to fill it gradually."
"Well that'll take too long," said the guy. Mick pointed out that as there were two boats in front of us, it wouldn't really make any difference.
"They should let us go in front then."
"Are you late taking your boat back or something?" asked Mick.
"No, but we like to get a move on."
"In that case," replied Mick, "you've chosen the wrong holiday."

Oh dear. Two arguments in one day! This was not good. We reckoned they had all fallen out, they certainly all seemed stressed and impatient.We arrived at Cropredy in a bad mood after all the aggravation of the day. The village was busy with boats and the water level was very low. Several of the boats looked like they would have trouble moving anywhere at all. We went through the lock and managed to squeeze into the last remaining space above it. No sign of our friends in the hire boat, for all their impatience they had got no further than us or anyone else that day.
"I can't be bothered to go to the pub," I said.
"The way today has gone we'll only have another row. Anyway I expect the hire boaters will be in there."
Mick agreed and instead we stayed in with a glass of wine and a game of cards before going to bed exhausted.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Kidlington to Aynho

A spare day so we decided to edge the boat a little further along the canal towards Rugby Boats, our destination. At this rate it would take us months to get there! We parked the car at Thrupp and then cycled back down the canal to Kidlington where we collected the boat, slung the bikes on the roof and then headed back up the canal the way we had come.

The sharp bend at Thrupp took us by surprise and I completely cocked it up and had to execute an embarassing ten-point turn before the boat was pointing in the right direction. The Oxford does provide some wonderful opportunities for practising one's steering!

Mick took over the tiller. A few minutes later a boat came down the channel in the opposite direction. We moved far too far to the right, grounded on the bank and tipped alarmingly to the left. The plates on the draining board slid onto the floor and a very loud smashing noise emanated from the galley (it's a reverse layout!).

Mick swore loudly. I gave an apologetic smile to the chap on the other boat who was looking at us quizzically. "We're used to the Thames," I said, omitting to mention we had run aground there as well.

I explained to Mick that the trick is to steer right at the nose of the other boat until the last minute and then swing right. From then on we viewed passing boats as a game of "chicken", heading right for them, then veering aside and passing them with a couple of inches to spare. It worked!

At Upper Heyford we stopped and had a walk into the village in the folorn hope that the Barley Mow would be open. It wasn't. Beyond the village was the now disused Upper Heyford Airfield which has recently got planning approval for a thousand new houses to be built on the site. The last time I was here the US were leasing the site and the local pub had a plaque on the wall stating that CND members were not welcome!

Somerton Deep Lock was pretty deep. It was also pretty narrow. Mick was up on the lock and as I passed under the bridge and entered the lock I got wedged against the wall. I had negelcted to take up the fenders and despite the fact that they were only narrow ones, the extra width was enough to jam us tight. After a lot of cursing and revving I managed to reverse back and took up the fenders before trying again. Once in the lock Mick opened the top paddles and the boat immediately surged forwards and backwards, with me revving hard to stop the boat smashing into the gate. More cursing and revving. We were making a hell of a din.

"I hate this fucking lock" I yelled out to Mick over the revving of the engine. I was then was slightly embarassed to notice that there was a chap lying on the grass in the garden of the adjacent cottage, once the lock keepers cottage, trying to have a nap in the afternoon sunshine.

We crept quietly out of the top gates and chugged round the corner. This was a nice mooring spot, and we decided that we had had enough excitement for one day. We tied up John Damsell and cycled back to Thrupp where we couldn't resist a swift pint in the Boat Inn to calm our jagged nerves.