Thursday, 9 August 2018

Sussing out Soulbury

Soulbury Locks
August 2018

These last couple of year I have found myself chugging up and down the Grand Union between Tring and Braunston and taking a closer look at the layout of the canal. In particular I have been having a look at the abandoned narrow gauge locks which accompany so many of the broad ones which are still in use. 

Soulbury Locks

Given my north Grand Union base my initial take was that the Grand Junction Canal was built narrow and then widened to cater for increased trade, as evidenced by the 1930's widening from Wigrams Turn at Napton through to Camp Hill in Birmingham. But a closer look at the dates on the lock furniture castings made me realise that the sequence of events was rather different.

Duplicated locks at Slapton

The Grand Junction was indeed built to wide dimensions, capable of carrying barges of 14ft x 71ft (thereabouts) but the wide beam traffic tended to be between London and Berkhampstead. Thereafter most trade comprised narrow boats, often single when horse drawn and later as motor and butty pairs when the use of diesel engines became common in the early 20th century.

Soulbury Pumping Station

This  dry summer has highlighted the Achilles heel of the direct route to London - the twin summits at Tring and Braunston. Both summits need copious water supplies and these are hard to find, particularly at the southern one. Almost as soon as the canal was built a series of pumping stations were built to recirculate water back up the locks, which in most cases still stand a silent reminders of busier times. They may no longer contain steam engines but if you pass on a summers day you will probably hear a steady hum as electric pumps continue the endless cycle of water movement.


Side pound paddles

Pumps are all very well but they were only part of the solution as a body of reserve water was always needed to cover leakage and evaporation and the result were the ranked reservoirs of Marsworth and feeder channels such as the Wendover Arm, gathering water from miles around.

The one problem these schemes didn't address was the volume of  single narow boats using the canal. Each boat used a lock full of water, which was over 50,000 gallons so each boat moving along the canal would take 100,000 gallons from both summit pounds, the same as a pair. With water in short supply the option was either to make narrow boats wait for another one and travel together (which could create long delays) or to develop systems which limit water use.

At Soulbury, as elsewhere on this canal, the problem was addressed in a couple of ways. 

Firstly side pounds were created beside the main lock chamber to that a descending boat would open a side paddle and drain water into it, saving it for later used by later boat coming up. In the case of the CGC there were two side pounds and two paddles so my assumption is that effectively 2/3 of the water was stored at intervening levels and the passage of a boat released only 1/3 of a lock of water (leakage ignored). Can someone with greater knowledge correct me if I am wrong here please?

Cottage in side pound

These side pounds must have remained in use till after 1860's this being the date embossed on the paddle gear castings. That said, many of the top side pound chambers were later built over for lock keepers cottages, with the chamber used as a (damp) basement. At Soulbury the  cottage is dated 1906. So somewhere in the intervening 40 years the side pounds were abandoned, probably as trade volumes transferred to the railways.

Date of cottage construction - shape matching the pound.

In the 1830's the new railways were making inroads into the canal carrying trade and to compete the tolls were reduced. This resulted in a considerable increase in tonnages carries (but a downturn in revenues). This put added pressure on the canal infrastructure and in turn on the limited water supplies. The solution was to build duplicated narrow gauge locks alongside the older wide ones which both increased capacity and used less water when a single boat was passing through. The remains of these single locks can still be found in many locations, including the double arched bridges which stand at the foot of many locks. I have yet to identify when the narrow locks were filled in.

Double bridges to cross wide and narrow locks.

So, all is not as ot seems at Soulbury or elsewhere in the area, where the line of the single locks can still be traced and the remnants of the side pounds can spotted either as basements of lock side cottages, ornamental ponds or covered in decking and used as a pub beer garden.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Hot Hot Hot!

Marsworth to Old Linslade
August 2018

John Jackson has a lot to answer for. With the end of heatwave imminent I have been pondering its origins and whilst there is much speculation about global warming, ice melt and altered jet streams, my personal conclusion is that's its all John's fault.

Sunset at Old Linslade

I distinctly remember buying two sacks of smokeless coal from him when Roach passed through the Droitwich Festival and observing that if I bought them I would almost certainly guarantee a summer long heatwave. Oh how I wish I had limited my purchase to one bag because it would have almost certainly resulted in a much more temperate summer. Better still, no coal at all and I could have had some value from my wet weather gear. He is, without question, the meteorological Jonah of the Midlands.

That said, the Met Office is suggesting that today is the last day of hot weather and from tomorrow normal service will be resumed with temperatures returning to the low 20s. Bring it on because I am getting fed up with creeping from one tree to another. 

Remains of the narrow lock at Slapton

With 10 days to cover the 36 miles to Blisworth there is really no hurry, so we are taking our time. We flirted with the idea of visiting All Saints Church in Marsworth in Sunday morning but the idea of getting there for an 8.00am start didn't really appeal. Instead we set off down the Canal with the aim of mooring in a nice shade spot mid way down the Seabrook flight of locks. Much to my annoyance someone else had the same idea, so we carried on, teaming up with a Sea Otter on the understanding we would stop for shade whenever we could find it. In the event there were no shady options, so we stayed together all the way to Slapton Lock and its associated water point.

Slapton's isolated lock cottage

With the afternoon really hotting up we found a suitable tree below Slapton Lock and settled in for the day, waiting out the heat. 

Abandoned side poinds - maybe worth getting them back in service?

There were few boat movements after we moored but as dusk approached there was something of a flurry and one showed huge enthusiasm for the butty and our produce, promising to return. Now if I has a pound for every time someone says they will come back I would be a rich man so I hold such announcements very lightly and it was no surprise when darkness fell and the till remained untroubled. I did hear muttered voices outside at about 10.30 but as we were getting ready for bed and the butty was in darkness I decided we were definitely closed for the night!

Back pumping at Church Lock has lifted the level by 10 inches in the last week

 Monday's forecast was sunny and hot (again) peaking at 30C so we upped sticks at 8.00 and headed in to Linslade, arriving at 10.30 and found a shopping mooring waiting for us.  As I loitered about the boats in the shrinking pool of shade I sold a few packs of duck food when a breathless cyclist appeared - it was the chap from the boat last night who had cycled in to work and was hoping he would find us having tracked our progress from moored boats along the way. I figured a jar or three, but the order just kept growing and he left weighed down with a dozen jars. 

We didn't go far after Linslade, dropping through Leyton Lock in the noonday heat and going past the Globe to the loop at Old Linslade, where the canal twists away from the railway and the stand of willow trees offer shade right through the day. As we were travelling Ryan (the jam enthusiast) contacted us to see if he could get some more, particularly the new Lemon and Lavender Marmalade if we got the labels on. You don't turn down business so we agreed to meet. It seems he was sharing the jam around at work and with every text the order grew till the final list reached a record breaking 24 jars! 

And so here we sit at Old Linslade in Tuesday, dappled sun filtering through the trees waiting for the heat to break. The breeze has picked up and its clear that there are changes afoot in the sky so maybe, just maybe, it will be cool enough to get the preserving pans out and start making some more jam.

Back to Maffers

Marsworth Junction
August 2018

Our ambitions on leaving Aylesbury Basin were not exactly taxing.

Shop at Waitrose, use the service block and find some shade.

Cruising the Aylesbury Arm

On my way down I had been keeping an eye out for shady mooring options and had sussed out a possible spot just above Lock 14 (Broughton). We arrived, already having worked up a bit of a sweat and just as I was moving in I saw a swarm of wasps buzzing in and out of a nest, bang in the middle of the shade. That was a non starter.

We swung out into the canal again and I decided to return to the mooring by Bridge 12 which I had used a couple of days ago. It is in dappled shade rather than deep shade, but at least I knew there were no wasps. Fifteen minutes cruising and we were there, so I swung in to get the motor in the best of the shade and the butty came into the reeds behind me. I tied up and then as I secured the butty I found its middle section enveloped in a cloud if wasps - another nest! No way was I going to be driven off by a hoard of Satans spawn, so I recovered my big pot of ant and wasp killer which we have in hand for just such an occasion. The weeds were raked away exposing the entrance and poof, one big cloud of dust later and the nest was done for. I watched for a while and after an hour or so the number dropped off and just the odd straggler hovered about for a bit, and then drifted off. We didn't see a single wasp in the motor all day. Nippon is good stuff.

Its a bit narrow here and there!

We hid away in the shade all day, Helen doing crafty stuff and I caught up with the blog. The canal was as quiet as a grave and we saw no boats till two passed us in the cool of the evening.

With a heat wave settled in we have switched to "Wey mode" which means getting up at 6.00am and moving till maybe 10.30am when it starts to get really hot. Then find a big tree and moor there either all day or move again after 18.00.

We were up and away before 7.00 am but much to my irritation the top gate of the first lock was left open and the paddles left up. This is a pet irritation of mine and I gritted my teeth and had to do double the work. It was particularly galling as I knew exactly which boat had gone up last the night before.

Thatched cottage at Marsworth

True to form, I found the same at subsequent locks, even those which quite clearly stated the chambers were to be left empty and paddles up. As it happens I saw the "offender" setting off from the Wilstone moorings into lock 8. He must have seen us at he lock below  but he still left the lock with top gate open and paddles up. Grr, This really hacked me off so I legged it up to the next lock to remonstrate. I got a " It wasn't me lower down" and "the bloke by the last lock told me to leave them up". I accepted his excuses for what they were but was delighted to see him moor (using a lock landing bollard, but what else would you expect). 

We emerged at Masworth Junction by 11.00am and after a quick stop at the services we found a shady mooring in the same pound and went to ground for the day. Working in the heat means the use of a massive number of tee shirts, so we had an impromptu wash day and got everything clean. At least we can be assured of a good dry.

There is no hurry as its two weeks before we need to be at Blisworth, so ne need to make a move in the evening.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Aylesbury

Aylesbury
August 2018

Thursday in Aylesbury at 4.17 pm - that was my agreement with Helen, so the final batches of marmalade were completed in the shade at Bridge 12 and off I went through the last three locks and the final two miles into the town basin.

 New Visitor Moorings by Tesco, on the old Nestle site.

Aylesbury stands back from the canal in its final approach although new housing developments are springing up to the east of the town. The old Nestle site just above lock 16 is currently the focus of a huge building effort, next to the new Tesco superstore. With visitor moorings right beside Tesco I can see this becoming a popular stopping point, but right now its noisy and dusty. The towpath from town to Lock 13 has been upgraded to a high standard in recent months and has become an immediate hit with cyclists and joggers, all paid for with funding from the local developers.

Aylesbury Basin today

The Aylesbury Canal Society has a big basin and club house between locks 14 and 15, replacing their old home in the town basin. 

And how it used to look

The original plan was to continue the canal to link to the Thames at Abingdon, but this never happened and the arm comes to a halt in a waterfront basin now surrounded with a Travelodge, Waitrose, theatre and a University Campus. These buildings are all very new and the basin is now a focal point in the town and a far cry from how it used to look.

Most of the 48 hour moorings are in the basin to the north of the canal, with boats tied to 70ft solid pontoons. None of those stubby bouncing jobbos here! The pontoons are surrounded by a 6ft moat which discourages non boaters from reaching the craft. Fortunately there was one slot vacant in the middle.

Ronnie Barker and Godber

There is also a good service block and a long run of service moorings and several taps. I suspect that the extensive service moorings are to prevent visitors mooring opposite residential boats rather than a particularly high demand for water.

The train station is just a quarter of a mile from the basin so I legged it and met Helen off the train.

There is one problem with the basin moorings - the lack of shade. When I left the boats at 4.00pm it was 27C inside, but by the time we returned 30 mins later it was up a very sticky 32C and the sun beat down mercilessly till gone 7.00pm when the nearby university building created a bit of shade. I know it sounds like we are a bit obsessive about shade but believe me, life in a boat beyond 25C is a bit uncomfortable.

Heron got one

If we cant get shade on the boat we figured we would go and find it for ourselves, preferably in an air conditioned building. We started off with a very good burger followed by two tickets to see Mama Mia 2 at the nearby Odeon. I was a bit shocked to be shown the seating availability and discover that only the one half of the front three rows were free. Clearly we were going to be part of a sell out crowd! 

Heron getting it in there

We trouped in to air conditioned heaven and I started to realise it was an estrogen heavy environment. I looked round and for every man there were 20 women! I didn't realise quite how female the target market was. As a film the plot was a repeat of the last one and hit after hit from Abba's back catalogue were squeezed into the storyline. Now I like Abba, they were part of the soundtrack of my youth and the renditions were generally good, especially Julie Walters who manages to introduce slapstick into any role. Then there was Cher singing Fernando. Her face may be a bit immobile but wow has she still got a pair of lungs on her. So all in all a predictable and somewhat stretched plot, but lots of fun if you like Abba.

Fish? in my throat?

On our way there we found a statue of Ronnie Barker who started his career in Aylesbury. 

By the time we emerged into the twilight the air had cooled, but the boat remained stifling. The batteries took a caning trying to keep the fridge and freezer cool in such high temperatures. We had toyed with trading in the basin over the weekend, but with the forecast suggesting temperatures of 30C in the shade (if there were any) we just didn't have the heart. Whats more, our stock of preserves don't like the heat either so we decided to set off up the canal in search of a bit of cool.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

The Aylesbury Arm

Aylesbury
August 2018

One of my enduring regrets from last years trip up from London was that we missed the arms of the Grand Union, notably the Slough, the Wendover and the Aylesbury. The truth was we were against the clock so they were left for another day's cruising.

Single handed sloppiness on the Aylesbury Arm

With three weeks between Linslade and Blisworth festivals we had time to kill, and with stock a bit low we decided not to join the Fenny Stratford festival. Instead we decided to spend a few days exploring the much praised but little visited eight mile Aylesbury Arm.

Helen had returned to Birmingham to see her Mum and make Strawberry Jam and my task was to replenish our marmalade store with 60 jars of Lemon and Lavender, and at the same time to get the boats to Aylesbury.

Top lock at Marsworth

With the weather staying hot I decided to make preserves early in the morning and move for four hours or so each afternoon. I spent two days moving south through 11 wide locks on the Grand Union to reach Marsworth (of Maffers) Junction where the Aylesbury Arm starts its 8 miles descent to the west.

The plan for the first night went to pot due to very low water levels in the pounds and my inability to reach the bank. I carried on into the cool of the evening, stopping after eight  pm between the two locks at Ivinghoe. This isn't an ideal mooring as short pounds have a habit of draining overnight, but I dropped a precautionary lock of water down as I moored and stayed off the bottom till morning. 

Below Wilstone

With 20 jars made and another 2 batches prepped I was off again at lunchtime, passing through the Seabrook locks where I stopped for a sale and a natter with boaters I have met along the way. The final two locks at Marsworth had a very low middle pound and a fair bit of water was needed to get me over the cill. 

In theory there are lots of moorings at Marsworth but on this occasion an evening fishing tournament has set itself up and every gap was occupied by a fisherman staring sullenly at the water. As I got closer to the junction I started to despair of finding a gap without getting someone to move. I am not sure that the etiquette is in this situation, but I did find a gap by snuggling up to an unoccupied boat.

Another night and another morning making marmalade.

Wednesday was Aylesbury Arm day, so after using the Marsworth services it was onto new waters. Suddenly you are off the 1930's wide locks of the Grand Union and only the narrow locks which existed when the Grand Junction was built.

 Bates boat motel

Working a pair single handed is no small task with each step taking a lot of time and effort. Of course, the sun decided to blaze away and I was up to a pint of water every two locks  to keep myself hydrated. The plan was to cover half of the canal (eight locks) leaving the other half for Thursday when I meet Helen. However, even on this remote canal things didnt go according to plan. Eight locks takes you to Wilstone bit here the fairly extensive moorings were all occupied and the iffy ones were in the sun. 

Is that supposed to be a canal?

The plan was revised and I worked on into the evening, passing the amazing Bates Boatyard at the foot of the Puttenham Locks. There are quite a lot of boat yards dealing with historic metal craft but only one specialising in wooden ones, Here in sleepy hollow a select group of wooden narrowboats lie in varying stages of decay, some on the bank and others kept on life support with pumps operating 24/7 to keep them off the bottom.

Lock cottage at Puttenham Bottom Lock

Then is was into the reedy section where the channel narrows down to a mere yard from side to side. Fortunately the water channel is wider and the boats eased through but at a very sedate pace. Paul's Waterways Routes maps came in very handy, identifying possible mooring spots including one below Bridge 12 which offered both depth and shade.

Sloes abound

The towpath into Aylesbury has just had an upgrade so even in this remote location joggers, cyclists and dog walkers make periodic appearances, certainly more frequently than boats. In total I think three came past by noon on Thursday. 

The Aylesbury Arm certainly lives up to its billing as a remote rural canal.