Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Abingdon to Kidlington

Before leaving we had a good nose at the bridge built by the Wilts and Berks Canal company. The canal used to enter the Thames near here once, a link from the Kennet and Avon canal at Semington near Melksham. Sadly the canal was never very profitable and was abandoned in 1914. There is a long running restoration project to restore it, which if completed would create a popular and no doubt lucrative cruising ring. There is, however, the small snag that Swindon has been built on top of it. But there's nothing wrong with a bit of vision.

Where would we be if Isambard Brunel or Thomas Telford had said "Oh I'm not doing that, that'll take years and anyway whose going to pay for it? It can't be done!" More vision is what we need in this country if you ask me.

For once we had managed to get away early, it was not yet seven o'clock and the river was quiet. The early morning sun lit up swarms of damsel flies hovering like a mist above the water. There was no sound except the chugging of the engine. Except for Mick, of course, saying, "isn't it time you made another cup of tea?"

Coming into Oxford, we passed the boathouses of the various colleges and Christchurch Meadow after which we had a minor panic at Folly Bridge, a low balustraded bridge, where a channel went off to the left of the bridge.
"Which way, which way?" I yelled.
Mick shrugged. "No idea," he said.
As it turned out, either way was ok, we headed under the bridge and past the pub, The Head of the River.

It is possible to join the Southern Oxford Canal at its start, via Sheepwash channel, or further up the Thames at Dukes Cut. We reasoned the Thames would probably be quicker so ignored the right hand turn onto the Oxford and continued up-river. At Port Meadow the river becomes wide and shallow, we saw one boat left high and dry.

Port Meadow is an ancient area of common land to the west of Oxford. Less frequented than Christchurch Meadow it feels very rural, despite the presence of the railway and the suburbs of Oxford beyond. The meadow was given to the Freemen of Oxford by Alfred the Greta in gratitude for help he received in defending the area against the Danes. Their right to graze animals on the meadow was recorded in the Domesday Book on 1086 and has remained ever since, we saw plenty of horses and ponies grazing alongside the river.

One summer day in July 1862 Charles Dodgson, Deacon at Oxford, and his friend Rev'd Robinson Duckworth took the three daughters of the Dean of Christchurch on a rowing trip up through Port Meadow to Godstow. On the way Charles entertained the girls with a story about a girl who fell down a rabbit hole. Ten-year old Alice asked if he would write the story down for her. Three years later Alice's Adventures inWonderland was published under the pen-name Lewis Carroll. The relationship between Charles and Alice is of course the subject of of much controversy and speculation, and not one I   want to delve into here. Whatever the truth, Alice in Wonderland was one of my favourite books as a child, and I still love it.

We tackled Godstow Lock and Kings Lock, after which I knew we should look for a turning into Duke's Cut. When we found it, we did not initially realise that it was the turning, after all the river is full of little creeks and inlets. We almost went past it before Mick yelled "Turn, turn, that's our turning!"
"All right!" I said, crossly. "How was I to know?"
The signing on the junction was pretty crap, you could only see it having practically gone past. Presumably it is assumed that upstream boat traffic will take the junction further down the river.

Duke's Cut was constructed in 1789 on the orders of the Duke of Marlborough, who owned much of the land through which the canal had been cut, finally being completed that year. By then linking the canal to the Thames, coal could be brought from the Warwickshire Coalfields down to London,and for the next fifteen years it became a major transport link until it was superseded by the wider and more direct Grand Junction Canal.

At the end of the cut was a lock, which after the K&A and the Thames locks, appeared almost miniature. This was Duke's Cut Lock, our first narrow lock, letting us down around a foot to the Oxford Canal. Immediately after turning left we had another little lock to negotiate. These were lovely, the paddles could be wound up in a few seconds, rather than the endless winding you have to do  on the K&A. We pottered slowly up the canal for an hour or so before mooring up. We had to get back to Bristol for a couple of days, so we cycled back into Oxford and caught a train to Reading and then cycled back to where I had left my car a few days before and quickly joined the M4 back to Bristol. Boat, bike, train and car in the space of two hours......

Monday, 27 June 2011

Beale Park to Abingdon

Interesting mooring

Beale Park
We had intended to set off at six but due to the beery evening we had last night, it was nearer nine when we unhitched and set off up river, towards Goring.

We chugged past huge mansions and immaculate gardens. Even the boat houses were des res. So this was where all the money was! Some of the money was out on the river, in fancy cruisers and yachts. I noticed they kept well away from our steel box in the locks. At Cleeve Lock we were about to go into the lock when a huge yacht appeared behind us. They wanted to wait but the lock keeper waved them in. I was fairly sure I caught a glint in his eye as he smiled at us. They were a family of three, a man and woman in their forties and a plump young child of about twelve. They were all dressed in matching red jumpers, blue trousers and deck shoes. He had a sailors cap on. As the lock started to fill he began barking orders to the other two.
"Hold her tight there!" he yelled to his wife.
"DONT LET HER TOUCH THE NARROWBOAT," he yelled to his daughter, stood on the side.
His daughter stood there looking miserable. "I bet she can't wait to get back to boarding school," I said to Mick.
"There you go," said the lock keeper as he opened the gates. "Now mind you don't dirty their paintwork on the way out!"
"Oh, we won't!" I laughed.
We were enjoying ourselves though, and it was nice to be able to open the engine up a bit, a change from the usual three miles an hour or so on the canal. The engine sounded like it appreciated it too. We now had a long pull upstream without any locks. We thought we would pull in at Wallingord for lunch but decided against it when we saw the yacht family pulling in as well.

We went through Days lock and looked for again.
"It's ok for him," I said, pointing to a cruiser moored on the bank. "He can moor anywhere!"
The chap obviously heard me as he popped his head out of the cabin and said "You can moor just by the next bush. It's deep enough there!"
We thanked him and moored up. It was a smashing spot, just next to Dyke Hills, a distinctive Iron Age earthworks which ran at right angles to the river. We decided we could do with stretching our legs and so walked the half-mile or so into Dorchester-on-Thames, a pretty village of thatched cottages. Unusually for  us we resisted the pub and headed straight to the co-op. Stocked up, we wandered back to the boat, regretful that we did not have more time. It would have been nice to stop for the night here.

After Dorchester, the Thames goes a bit loop-the-loop, with a massive sweep around Clifton Hampden before finally heading into Abingdon from the south. We had originally planned to try and make Oxford but we had both had enough for the day and decided to stop at Abingdon and set off early instead. We passed some moorings on the right which were marked 'private'. A chap was out on deck, touching up his paintwork so we steered a course near enough to call out and asked him where the town moorings were.
"Oh you can moor here," he said, "These haven't been private moorings for over ten years. I keep telling the council to take the signs down but they don't do it."
So we conducted a hasty reverse manoeuvre and tied up behind him.
"You'll be fine here," he said. "It's pretty quiet. It was, and only a short walk from the centre.

We called in the lounge of the Punchbowl, which, with its dark oak panelling and cosy feel we quite liked. The beer was fine and the landlord friendly, so it did us well enough until closing time and so back to the boat and a good nights sleep.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Reading to Beale Park

Turf sided lock

I had to go home for a couple of days, by the time I caught up with Mick he was heading into Reading. I had parked at the end of the town and cycled back along the towpath to meet him, just outside the town. He was just coming through Garston Lock, one of the two remaining turf sided locks on the canal. These have vegetation rather than brick walls, almost all the locks at this end of the navigation were once turf sided, now only Garston and Monkey Marsh remain. As the boat roof drew level with the side, I stepped on the roof and deposited my bike before demanding a cup of tea.

The canal to Reading was much nicer than I had expected, mainly river fed through meadows, we were not really aware of the proximity of Reading itself until we were right in the town. At county lock we had to wait at the traffic lights. Yes, traffic lights on the canal! The lights control boat traffic through "brewery gut".At one time Simonds Brewery buildings stood on both sides of the channel, forcing the River Kennet to flow fast and furious downstream. In order to maintain steerage boats would have to belt downstream and there were occasions when collisions occured with boats coming the other way. The brewery has long been demolished, and Reading town centre looked very different to the last time I boated along here, circa 1991. Now we were right in the centre of "The Oracle" shopping centre, and the place was full of people out enjoying lunch in the sunshine.

We passed the only surviving building of the once great Huntley and Palmers biscuit company. Estrablished in Reading, in 1900 this was the largest biscuit manufacturer in the world, and employed a local workforce of 5000. Reading was known as "Biscuit Town". The building that survived was the old social club, although now it has been turned into (what else?) flats. Still, at least it wasn't flattened along with the others, to be replaced by shops and restaurants. From beer and biscuits to shopping and services. Like most places in the Uk, Reading no longer makes anything at all really.

Blakes Lock is the official end of the Kennet and Avon navigation. From now on we were under the care of  the Environment Agency rather than BW, the lock is unique in being the only EA lock not actuall on the River Thames. We needed to buy a licence but there was no-one at the lock. As we started to turn the huge wheels that open the paddles on the lock, a chap crossed the lock wearing blue overalls and a PFD around his neck. (Personal Floatation Device), bouyancy aid to you and me. Aha, I thought, this must be the lock keeper and I went to ask him about licences. He laughed.
"I'm not the lock keeper," he said. "I'm an electrician. I have to wear this because I'm crossing the lock. Health and safety." Ah yes. Of course.

Once through Blakes Lock it was not long before we saw the Thames up ahead. Gosh it looked big. As we approached, a boat shot downtream past the entrance from which we were about to emerge.
"Bloody hell! I'll go on lookout," I said, making my way to the front of the boat. "Blast on the horn! What's the signal for 'out of the way we're coming across'?"
"Three long blasts, two short ones," Mick said.
I looked at him, impressed. "Really?"
"No, I've no idea, I made that up."

Anyway, we blasted the horn a lot and then made a run for it across the river to the right hand side and turned left.

The Thames was glorious. And wide. We thoroughly enjoyed our passage up through Caversham Lock, how nice to have the lock worked for you. Things did not go quite so smoothly at Mapledurham lock however. As we approached the lock a buoy was tethered midstream.
"What does it mean?" said Mick? "Left or right?"
"Dunno, um go left," I said, just as Mick steered right of the buoy and glided onto a sandbank where we stuck fast.
"Bollocks!" he exclaimed.
We tried forward and reverse but didn't move an inch. Then Mick had a go with the pole which simply sank into the soft mud.
"Shit, shit, shit."
A couple of women were walking down the path in the far side. "Hey, do you fancy pulling me off?" shouted Mick.
God he's embarrassing.

Eventually we managed, by both standing on the bow and pushing hard on a pole to float the boat off. By then the current had pulled the front round and we found ourselves floating back downstream.
"No worries," I said. "I'll turn round here in this inlet."
I then proceeded to miss the inlet as I tried to turn and we continued downstream, now sideways on.
"Let me do it," said Mick irritably. He grabbed the tiller and we finally managed to turn around and head back upstream towards the lock, this time passing on the left hand side of the marker buoy.

If the lock keeper had noticed our antics he gave no sign of it, passing comment about the weather.
"Wife's been on the phone," he said. "Torrential rain in Reading at the moment, yet here there's nothing!"
We nodded politely, too shaken by our ordeal to think of anything to say.
Love a glass of wine on in the Thames!
"Dunno about you, but I could do with a pint after that," said Mick.
We moored up outside Beale Park and I took the opportunity for a quick dip in the Thames to cool off before we headed into Pangbourne for a pint.
Three men out of their boat
Whilst we were in the George Hotel a group of three men came in, whom Mick recognised as having seen rowing a skiff on the river an hour or so earlier.
"Hey its the three men in a boat!" he exclaimed.
"You recognise us?" they said, evidently gratified.
We nodded. "But where is Montemerency?"
"Couldn't manage a dog as well," they groaned. "It's been bloody hard work." Turned out they had only managed one nights camping before bailing out and booking into the hotel.
Provisions for today....

Still we enjoyed a few beers before Mick and I trotted back down the now very dark towpath to get some well earned zeds.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Great Bedwyn to Newbury

After a soaking first thing, the weather picked up as we headed east towards Hungerford. We did have to perform a duckling rescue at one lock, where a duckling at got swept down the side sluice. Its mother was quacking frantically by the side of the lock and the duckling was paddling upstream frantically, but getting nowhere. Gallantly we jumped in and scooped up the duckling, delivering it to mum on the other side. My sympathy for the mother's anxiety abated however when, after throwing them a bit of duck food, I noticed that she was grabbling it all, leaving nothing for the poor chick.
"That one is a crap mum," I observed.
We have noticed whilst boating that some birds are distinctly more family orientated than others. Last year one duck, whom we nicknamed "supermum" managed to rear nine ducklings without losing one. When we watched her we realised that she always made sure the youngsters had food before she ate any herself. Other, less family orientated parents grab everything they can and leave the chicks to fend for themselves.
Anyway, crap mum or not, we felt we had done our bit. I stuck my soaking boots on the back to dry out and we pressed on. 

At Hungerford Marsh, the lock is awkward, having a swing bridge across the top of it. The bridge has to be opened before using the lock. Mick went on to deal with the lock whilst I secured the boat. The lock was against us so Mick closed the bottom gates, opened the paddles and, whilst the lock was filling, wandered off. When I got up to the lock I realised that the bottom gate had swung fully open and the water was rushing through, creating mini whirlpools beneath the paddles. Ooops! Luckily the pound above the lock was long and full. I yelled for Mick and we reset the lock again. 
"I remember this one, now," said Mick ruefully. "I had the same trouble last time, and I was on my own. I had to prop the gate shut with a pole."

The Rose of Hungerford passed us at Hungerford Wharf. This is a trip boat for the K&A Trust and was the boat that the Queen travelled down Caen Hill aboard for the official re-opening of the canal on 8th August 1990, 180 years after its first opening. 

 By the time we reached Newbury it was nine o'clock and we were pretty bushed. There was no room at West Mills so we wearily made our way through the swing bridge and tied up above Newbury Lock for the night.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Honey Street to Great Bedwyn

The party had gone on long into the night at the Barge Inn and at the campsite next door. This morning all was quiet save for a few early birds who were packing up their gear. I watched them as they moved about gingerly, as if any sudden movement or loud noise would have made their head explode. It had obviously been a good night.

Yesterday at Devizes we had stopped for a chat with a family from New Zealand, a young couple with their uncle and aunt,  who were heading up the same way as us. At Wootton Rivers we cam upon them again. Here are the last four locks that take the canal up to the summit pound, and they were waiting for the first one to fill as we approached. 

"They're indulging me, " said the uncle as we sat on the back of the boats whilst the others took care of filling the lock. "I wanted to go through the tunnel. Who knows when I'll get another chance?"
It meant they were on a tight schedule as, due to low water, these locks were closed at three in the afternoon. "I'm sure we'll make it," he said optimistically. 

We have been surprised by how many visitors we come across from New Zealand, Australia and North America on the canal system, it  seems to be an increasingly popular holiday destination. And everyone we spoke to told us how much they loved it. 

With all hands to the lock we made good time up the flight and then pressed on to Bruce Tunnel. Its only a dinky one, lengthwise, by canal standards, a mere 502 yards long, but it takes a good few minutes to navigate through, and I could see why he was keen to do it. We took photos of them exiting the tunnel behind us to email off to them, sharing email addresses as they executed a turn at the winding hole above the Crofton flight which takes the canal down to Great Bedwyn south of Savernake Forest.

The first couple of locks were uneventful. Then pandemonium broke out. We were coming through the third lock when a chap rushed up to the lock. 
"We're all on the bottom down there!" he said. ""When you've come through I'll have to let another lockful of water down." 

The wife of the chap at the lock asked frantically where her husband was. "We're tipping right over!" she said. We went to help her hold a rope. 
"He's letting more water down to try and float you off," I explained.
The woman from the other widebeam came along the towpath. 
"Its those two down there," she said grimly. ""They've been at that lock for half an hour, they don't know what they're doing. My husband has gone to have a word."
We looked down the canal to the next lock where a smallish narrowboat had just gone into the lock. A man on the bank was gesticulating and we and could hear a lot of shouting going on. After a while he came storming back.
"Bloody idiots!" he exclaimed. "They haven't a clue what they're doing. They've opened the bottom and the top paddles at the same time. This, of course, had the effect of allowing the water simply to wash though the lock. No wonder they were grounded. 
"We only stopped for a cup of tea," the chap groaned. "Now we're going to be here until tomorrow."

"We'd better tell them to wait," I said, heart sinking. We can't let them go on or we'll have to waste another lockful of water. Mick gingerly edged the boat along the very low pound, scraping along the bottom the whole time. At the lock the culprits were still faffing about. They were a couple in their sixties. He was clearly ex-army, it stood out a mile. He was shouting and blustering, the way men do when they have made a cock up but can't admit it. She was looking weary, but in a way that showed she was used to this sort of thing. They had picked the hire boat up in Devizes and clearly had no idea whatsoever what they were doing.

"Do we have to share locks with bloody Colonel Blimp?" I hissed to Mick.
He nodded glumly. "Yes I think we do, we can't risk them going alone. The whole effing canal will be empty, he's a complete disaster area."

The worst thing was, although he clearly had no idea what he was doing, "the colonel" refused to listen to anybody else. As soon as one of us tried to show him anything he would  say, "yes, yes I know I know," before going on to completely fuck it up. Even worse, he would insist from charging around the lock, shouting and waving his arms about like a demented hippo.

And so, together we limped down the canal to Great Bedwyn where we moored both boats up for the night. Great Bedwyn only has two pubs so it was hardly surprising that we ran into the two of them later in the evening. 
"Oh hi," said Mrs Blimp, clearly delighted to see us. "Thank you so much for your help today. I don't know how we would have managed without you!"
"Oh that's ok,"I said. "It's difficult the first time you go boating isn't it."
"Oh it's not the first time," she said. "Last year we did the Warwickshire ring."
I looked at her in disbelief. 
"And um, any plans for next year?"
"We thought we might try the Thames."
I made a mental note to look out for them on news at ten.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Devizes to Honey Street

When we arrived at the bottom of the flight last night there had been another boat waiting to lock up. They looked a bit horrified when we said we wanted to set off at eight o'clock, we eventually agreed on eight-thirty. As it was, we weren't quite ready at eight-thirty anyway, as we realised at the last minute that we had forgotten to load up our bikes which were tied to a post on the towpath. 

But we were still the first pair of boats up the flight when we set off with John and Carolyn on their narrowboat, Chalico. We made good progress halfway up the flight but then got held up by British Waterways who were doing running repairs to one of the paddles  on the lock.  This blew our schedule out of the water (as it were). I wondered whether John and Carolyn were secretly thinking, "Hah, that'll teach you, with your damn early start, huh?" If they were, they were far too nice to let on though.

The people on a hire boat on the other side of the stoppage were getting a little worked up, as they were behind schedule, we could hear some rather bad language so we retreated and put the kettle on. Boating is like that, there are often unexpected stoppages and hold-ups, just when you are thinking you are making good progress. If you like rushing about, or indeed actually getting somewhere, boating is probably not the best pastime. With boating its all about the journey.

Three quarters of an hour later we were on the move again and we finally found ourselves wearily arriving at Devizes wharf at half past two, having waved goodbye to our new acquaintances at the top of the flight. We popped into Devizes for some provisions.

If you ask me, Devizes is very under-rated. Its a lovely market town and, unlike many town centres, it still has plenty of independent shops, despite the presence of several supermarkets in town. it has two independent bookshops. We stopped at Walter Rose and Sons, an excellent butcher/deli and stocked up on meats and cheeses for the journey.

Back on board, by the time we had filled up the water tank and what not, it was a) gone four o'clock and b) tipping with rain. At least now we were at the start of the "long pound", a fifteen mile stretch with no  locks and just a couple of swing bridges, so we put up the hood on the boat and pressed on through the rain. And rain. And rain. We put the hood out and peered out glumly as we pottered along.

Honey Street is a small settlement by the canal, focused around The Barge pub. For some years now it has been the focus for crop circle hunters and one or two crop circle creators. This "phenomenon" has nothing to do with alien forces or the supernatural. It's down to a group of "trustafarians", upper middle class drop-outs with too much time on their hands, and no way of using that Oxbridge degree. So they compete to come up with the most complex designs, some of which, it must be said, are quite beautiful.

Anyway, today was the summer solstice and so the pub was brimming with space cadets, all out of their heads. No sooner had we moored up then a woman staggered over to ask for a light. When I produced one she flung her arms around me in delight, declaring that she loved me, the world and just about everything else.

"Not sure I can cope with too much of this," muttered Mick.
So after a quick pint we retreated to the safety of the boat, opened a bottle of wine and both fell asleep before drinking a drop. It  had been a long day.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Bradford on Avon to Devizes

The section of the canal around Bradford on Avon is always busy and this morning was no exception. By nine o'clock when we set off there was already two boats moored by the lock. By the time we had waited for them o go up and another one to come down, it was over an hour before us and our companions in the rental boat had cleaed the lock. We gave them a wave as we headed off.

"Ask for your money back!" I called out as we motored away. I hope he did.

The section of canal through Hilperton and Trowbridge is not that salubrious and there were so many moored boats it was slow going. (It is not good form to go too fast past moored boats, the resulting wash can pull out mooring pins, cause nasty bumps and make people on board spill their cornflakes . Or worse. I know because some years ago my boat was sunk on the K&A just below Bradford lock. A narrowboat had gone past very fast pushing my wooden boat onto the bank and making a hole in the hull. Some witnesses thought it was a boat that belonged to the Royal Navy and used by their personnel for holidays, but I had no proof. Still, at least I can claim to be probably the owner of the only boat on the canal system to be sunk by the Navy!)

Once past Hilperton the landscape began to change to open fields. At Semington two locks continues the gradual climb of the canal .On the left was a bricked up side bridge marking the spot where the Wilts and Berks Canal used to join with the K&A. The canal was abandoned in 1914 by an Act of Parliament. There is an active restoration group (here and here) who have gained considerable support in their efforts to re-open the canal. Considering that quite a lot of Swindon and the M4 have been built on it, I have a great deal of admiration for their determination and commitment.

Emptying the toilet
This is what the toilet smelt of - not!
Further on at Semington are the next five locks. There is also a "sanitary station" where we stopped to perform the gruesome task of emptying the toilet.
We wished Vince was with us to volunteer. (previous post).

After a quick beer stop at the pub opposite we pressed on to Devizes and locked up the first seven to the bottom of the Caen Hill flight. We were both feeling pretty weary which was a bit of a worry as at eight o'clock the next morning we were due to start the long climb of twenty-two locks which separated us from Devizes Wharf two miles up the hill.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Saltford to Bradford on Avon

Narrowboat John Damsell is going to Rugby.  By car the journey would probably take between two and three hours. By boat, it is more like two to three weeks. The journey will take us along the length of the Kennet and Avon, up the Thames to Oxford then a right turn up the Oxford Canal.

Kelston Lock
The sailing club were out at Saltford, whizzing up and down in small dinghies. We waited for them to move down river then turned the boat round and headed upstream to Bath. There were two river locks to negotiate, Kelston and Weston Locks, before we turned off the river and onto the Kennet and Avon proper. The river locks are a hundred years older than the canal ones. The development of Bath in the early eighteenth century as a fashionable Spa town had involved transporting materials by packhorses and carts along untarred tracks.  Ralph Allen and other big names from Bath decided to invest in making the River Avon navigable and six locks were built on the river at a total cost of £12,000. The Avon opened as a navigation in 1727. Railways were built from the Bath quarries to the river and Shropshire coal was taken down the Severn and then brought up from Bristol. This caused a bit of trouble with the Somersetshire miners who were unhappy with the threat to local jobs and industry. In 1738 the lock at Saltford was almost destroyed by Persons Unknown.  The wreckers left "threatening papers" demanding a stop to sending any more coals by water.

Newbridge, River Avon near Bath
Bath Deep Lock
After passing the railway station at Bath we turned right off the River under an arched bridge and started up the Kennet and Avon, retracing the route we had taken with MANKINI MAN a couple of weeks previously, up the Widombe flight of locks. This time all was quiet and we navigated the horrifying Deep Lock uneventfully. The Kennet and Avon canal was completed in 1810, last year it celebrated its bi-centenary. We had been at Bedwyn in Wiltshire at the time, Timothy West and Prunella Scales, keen boaters on the K&A, had arrived to join the celebrations and unveil a commemorative plaque.

After the flight we went through the short tunnels of Sydney Gardens and under Cleveland House, the old headquarters of the K&A company. In the roof of the tunnel is  a small hole which apparently was used for delivering and picking up packages from the barges below. The two cast iron bridges, dating from 1800, have just been restored this year, and a very good job they have done of it too.

We meandered on through the Limpley Stoke valley and over Dundas aqueduct. The Somerset Coal Canal arm, a short length of the original coal canal, enters the K&A next to the aqueduct. The SCC was lost to the railway which was built along its route. If you've seen the excellent film The Titfield Thunderbolt (Ealing Studios) you'll recognise it, Monkton Combe just along the valley is Titfield. I went to a showing of the film in Monkton Combe village hall: several of the more senior members of the audience had been extras in the film!

When we got to Bradford-on-Avon it was getting late. We hoped to moor beneath the lock but it was packed with boats. A chap was sat on the back of a hire boat just down from the lock. Cheekily we asked if we could moor alongside him for the night. "No problem," he said, "if you'll help me through the lock in the morning."

It turned out that he and his wife had hired the boat from a hire company at Trowbridge. His wife was disabled and was unable to assist with any of the locking or bridge operations. The chap had explained this to the hire company and said that he had never been boating before. The hire company had said that it wouldn't be a problem. Of course it was a problem. The K&A is not an easy canal to boat single handed even for experienced boaters. The locks are large and one swing bridge is impossible to boat through alone as when you have manually opened the bridge you find you are stood on the opposite side of the canal to the bridge! The poor couple had only gone a couple of miles and through Bradford on Avon lock before realising they couldn't manage, they were about to head back to the hire company base. I hope he complained to them, he had in effect paid a thousand pounds for two half days boating. The hire company should have suggested that he at least try boating on an easier, single width, canal first.

So we tied our boat to his and set off into the town in search of fish and chips. There is a nice chip shop with seating next to the railway station so we went there and ordered fish, chips and mushy peas, yum! When the food arrived, Mick leant over and nicked a large chip off my plate. In retaliation I leant over and picked up a huge fistful of chips off his plate and dropped them on mine. Unfortunately this act was witnessed by the waitress who had just returned with the condiments.
Totally embarrassed, I glared at Mick. "That was your fault!" I hissed.
Mick was laughing so much he couldn't eat. "Ha ha!" he said, "only you could be too uncouth for a chip shop!"

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Three Greedy Gubbins

Unusually, my brother, sister and I all happened to be in the country at the same time (my brother is the globe trotter not me) and all free for the day, so we decided to go for a stroll in the countryside.

We had agreed that it was important to get an early start, so my sister duly turned up at ten o'clock with Millie, who as usual was going beserk at the idea of a W.A.L.K.

Unfortunately Richard and I had overslept so we didn't leave the house until eleven and then Richard announced that he had some essential tasks to be done, involving photocopiers, scanners and suchlike.

Katie, Millie and I got quite thirsty hanging around so 12.30 saw us sat in the garden of the Lock Keeper pub enjoying a pint of Waggledance, whilst waiting for Richard. The pub is roughly half a mile from my house. Not the most auspicious of starts then. Richard finally joined us, and partoook of the refreshments offered by the hostelry before we finally set off along the section of the Monarchs Way which runs past the marina and out of Keynsham.

Before long we parted company with the route King Charles II allegedly took and continued alongside the Avon to Swineford. By now it was two o'clock and so we decided to stop for lunch at The Swan, accompanied by a pint of Gem (me) and Summer's Hare (Katie and Richard) from Bath Ales Brewery.
Summer wasn't "hare" though, as it soon started to rain. So we got out our macs in stoic fashion and put up the sun brolly for good measure. Brits love this sort of thing: pressing on despite the weather, triumph in the face of adversity etc. It makes us feel good. Anyway, we shrugged off the rain as a mere trifle and were enjoying ourselves so much than when Richard said: "Fancy another?" Katie and I both replied, "Ooh yes please!"

When Richard reappeared with more pints of beer we had finished our food and were feeling rather full. We both looked at the beer. "I'm not sure I want it now," I said.
"Nor me," said Katie. "And I have to drive home later. I don't want another pint, not sure why I said yes."
Richard looked at us in alarm. "I can't drink all of them!" he said.
"Well we can't leave them, " I replied, "that's nine quid's worth!"
"Yes I know," said Rich. "I paid for them!"
Katie and I sat there looking a bit sheepish, then I had an idea. "Ask them if they'll put it in a carry-out," I said.

Richard traipsed off to the bar carrying two full pints of beer. He returned ten minutes later with a plastic milk bottle.

"Well that," he said, "was embarrassing. I had to explain that you two changed your mind, I felt a right twit." The woman behind the bar had laughed but had kindly decanted the milk into a jug and had washed out the milk bottle and put the beer in it. I put it into my rucksack for later enjoyment.

We headed up the lane behind the pub and followed the track to the end where we were met by some unfriendly gates. We backtracked to the car park and found the right path off to the left and puffed and grumbled our way up the hill to Upton Cheyney.

Upton Cheyney is a quiet village. This is what Wikipedia has to say about it: Upton Cheyney is a  village in South Gloucestershire, England near to Bitton, Bristol. That's it. South Gloucestershire Council is a bit more forthcoming; from their website I learned that Upton Cheyney means "upper farmhouse" and that remains of a Roman settlement have been found in the village.

Pipley Bottom
Cottages at Kelston Mill
We passed the Upton Inn, but given the debacle down the hill at the Swan and the fact we were now lugging two pints with us, it was universally agreed that we would give this one a miss, although it did look inviting. Another time maybe. We did, however, stop for a cup of tea at Manor Farm. Although the shop was not officially open on Thursdays, the farmer told us we were welcome to  a cup of tea provided we served ourselves which didn't seem too much of a hardship.
North Stoke

Saltford Lock
From Upton we followed a path down a steep slope into Pipley Bottom, crossing a small stream before climbing out the other side (with further grumblings and mutterings), emerging in the small village of North Stoke. From here it was a straightforward walk down the steep hill where we crossed the main road and a couple of fields before emerging at Kelston Mills, next to the River Avon, but on the opposite side to Saltford. Here the furnace chimneys of the brassworks are a reminder of the industry that used to take place on the Avon. The brassmill was one of several established along the Avon by William Champion (no, not the drummer in Coldplay), this Will Champion was responsible for establishing a brass industry in Bristol and along this stretch of the River, that was one of the largest in Europe. Hard to believe now that this tranquil stretch of river was one of the early centres of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

As we made our way along the river bank we saw Mick waving from his boat across the water.
"I'll put the kettle on!" he said.

The very tiny chair
By the time we had walked along to the Bristol Bath cycle bridge and old railway bridge which would get us across the kettle had boiled and we sat on the grass enjoying another cup of tea. I sat on the smallest seat ever, I am not of great stature but even I found that my knees were level with my chin which was a little uncomfortable. It seemed churlish to complain though, especially when Mick offered us all a lift back to Keynsham. It had started to rain again and we all quickly accepted and jumped into the van before he could change his mind.

Later on when we tucked into the pints we had brought from The Swan we agreed that despite the late start it had been a very successful outing.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Climbing Kelston Round Hill

My brother Richard has turned up for a few days. He is between jobs and is taking a short break. Despite the gloomy weather forecast the sun is shining, it's a glorious day.
"Come out for a walk," I said.
Mick had also turned up for the day. They both looked at me doubtfully. Mick, I could see, was floundering around for an excuse. "We had planned to watch the Grand Prix," he said.
"I didn't know that was today was the Grand Prix," I said.
Turned out it was the Canadian Grand Prix. And not even the main race, it was the qualifying ones.

"Aw, come on," I said. "Just a short walk."
Richard looked at me suspiciously. "How short?"
"Four miles, round trip. Five at the very, very most."

They agreed to a short walk and we set off. We headed up the fields and lanes to the top of Saltford,stopping to admire a foal and its mother in one of the fields before heading down the road into the village. Today was the start of Saltford festival and we expected to see people thronging the narrow village roads, bunting, and (hopefully) burger-bars and barbecue stands. Nothing. The place was deserted. A sign advertising a display by local artists in the church hall was the only indication that something was going on.
"It's not exactly Notting Hill, is it?" said Richard.

I wanted to show the others Saltford Manor House, which is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited house in Britain. The house dates back to 1148 (give or take a year or two), thought to be built by Earl William of Gloucester. It's currently on the market for £1.25 million, although last year the asking price was £2.5 million. We had a quick tally up and worked out we could, if we pooled our funds, make a realistic offer for the left hand chimney stack. The chimney was about all we could see from the road so we went into the churchyard and stood on the bench to get a better look, and then had a nose around the church as, despite being atheist, I do like to look around old churches.

The church is Norman and painted white and pale blue. It has a pleasant, light feel to it. I liked it very much. There is a Norman font, which, the story goes, was taken from the church during the English Civil War after the Battle of Lansdown and was later found being used as a cattle trough and returned to the church. In the porch is a memorial to Frances Flood who, whilst passing through the village in 1723, lost her legs through gangrene after contracting smallpox. She went to ask for help from the Overseer of the poor in Saltford. He refused and they put dung in the barn where she had been sleeping to prevent her returning. Not very charitable. But eventually she found a barn where she stayed until she recovered and was able to tell her story, which is now held in the British Museum. Given our experience every time we moored our boat up in Saltford (moan, moan, moan), we were not at all surprised to learn of Saltford's, shall we say, less than welcoming attitude to strangers.

The Bird in Hand looked welcoming enough though, and the garden was packed with people enjoying an afternoon pint in the garden.
"We could stop for one," said Richard, hopefully.
"Would be a shame not to," agreed Mick.

I was being firm though, it was already gone three o'clock and I thought it much too soon to stop for a beer. Especially as one pint would turn into two and we would get no farther that day.

"No, absolutely not," I said marching up the steps next to the pub which led to the cycle path. As we made our way up, the other two still grumbling, a chap was waiting to come down with his bike, obviously heading to the pub. He shot a glance at Mick and Richard muttering away.
"Don't worry about them," I said. "They're miffed because I won't let them stop for a beer."
He gave them a sympathetic look. "That," he said, "is just cruel."

Unrepentant I continued on with the other two trailing behind. Within half an hour we had crossed a few fields and were stood outside The Old Crown at Kelston. This is Richard's favourite pub.
"There is no way you are stopping me having a beer in here!" he said, sticking his chin out resolutely.
I could tell I was beaten on this one, so we went in and had a pint and then, predictably, another one.

"Where now?" they asked resignedly when we emerged from the pub.
"Up that hill," I said.

We climbed the lane that ran perpendicular to the main road. To our left we could see Kelston Round Hill, distinctive with its crown of trees. A gate on our right and a track across the field looked promising so we took that and then edged our way up a couple more ploughed fields before the final ascent through long grass to the top of the hill.

And what a view! It was superb. In front of us Saltford, Keynsham and Bristol, and beyond, the hills of the Mendips, the Quantocks and Wales. Mick reckoned he could see Exmoor but we pooh-poohed that as ridiculous. Around the other side was a fantastic view across Bath and across the valley, Beckford's Tower, designed for the eccentric William Beckford. At the back of the hill the Cotswold Way winds its way up to Lansdown and another superb viewpoint at Prospect Stile. We could see the Westbury White Horse in the distance, over 25 kilometres away.

By now I was well and truly rumbled. The topograph said six kilometres to Keynsham, as the crow flies.
"Five miles walk!" said Richard. "Five each way, more like."
"No it's not ten miles," I protested. "Six. Seven at the very most."

It was time to head back before I had a mutiny on my hands. We passed the back of Bath racecourse and then crossed the site of the iron age Littledown hill fort. The defensive ditch was clearly visible, but the rest of the site has been cultivated. Below the fort the path took us across a field full of sheep and a lot of sheep poo. I stopped for the forty thousandth time to have a pee, beer has that effect these days. Mind you the other two weren't any better, every few minutes someone would be dashing off to find a hedge to water.

The path entered the little village of North Stoke from behind the small, twelfth century church. Mick was all for having a look around the graveyard to see if he could find any ancestors buried there (they lived in Swineford) but it was gone seven now so we decided that would have to wait for another day. Instead we trotted down the old lane towards Swineford and the Avon. There are remains of Roman settlement in North Stoke and it is likely that this route down to the River Avon has been used for many hundreds of years. Talking of age, by now we were all feeling it. Mick was complaining that his back hurt, Richard was limping slightly due to a gammy knee and I was feeling the effects of a tumble off my bike a couple of days before.

We limped into the Swan at Swineford and ordered a pint from Bath Ales. The pub is a bit foodie but the beer was nice and set us up for the last limp home, along the river and through vast wheatfields to Avon Valley River Park and then home via the Co-op. Once home the other two slumped into chairs exhausted, barely able to raise a glass of wine to their lips. As punishment for making them walk so far, I was made to cook supper.

Map of our route is here

That's what I call a cow pat!