Saturday, 11 September 2010

Gloucester 2010 - Gloucester and Sharpness Canal

Gloucester and Sharpness Canal
26th August 2010

32 Miles - 0 locks - 8 hours

After yesterdays rain today's misty murk appeared positively attractive, and having reached Gloucester we just had to explore this unusual ship canal.

Misty Chilterns

It was immediately apparent that this was no ordinary canal, it is broad and deep - 16ft deep when operational. All this deep water meant that we were able to maintain a steady 5mph and give the shaky coupling a bit of a test before it is asked to face the might of the River Severn.

Lock keepers cottage

The canal is beguiling in the scenery it offers. In some ways it is similar to the Weaver Navigation but in others similar to the Wittam Navigable Drains with its long straights. The great thing is the number of embankments which raise the canal up to offer excellent views on either side - the Cotswolds to the east and the Forest of Dean to the west, their peaks wreathed in mist.

Slimbridge Boat Station

In the absence of locks, the notable feature are the bridges - all of them swing (except the very new bypass bridge just south of Gloucester). A few near Gloucester have sufficient airdraft to allow narrowboats to pass, but the rest are all manned and operate a traffic light system to indicate when it is safe to pass. Few of these bridges are mechanised and opening is preceded by the sight of the bridge keeper emerging from a hut before dropping the safety barriers and then winding furiously.

Gloucester Sharpness swingbridge

To a man they were friendly and polite, waving as we passed. There must be at least 10 of these manned bridges which are open from 8.00am to 7.00pm at this time of year - that's a lot of wages for very few boats. In fact we only saw six boats moving in 32 miles of water travel. A couple of bridges are operated by CCTV and it did make you wonder if a bridge can be operated at a distance of a half mile why not operate the whole lot from a central control post? In a time of extreme funding constraints I can well imagine that the individually manned bridges will be a thing of the past.

Abandoned barges

The Gloucester Sharpness is a waterway in a time warp, devoid of commercial traffic and so far off the beaten track that it is enjoyed only by a small band of enthusiasts, and enthusiastic they are. The sleepy nature of the waterway embraces you and its easy to see why boaters decamp to this backwater and spend several weeks chilling out on the banks of the Severn.

Our visit was all to brief and it would be very easy to spend a week or two exploring the numerous hamlets and attractions along its 16 miles. Sadly, we missed Frampton on Severn, the remains of the Stroudwater Canal, the Purton Hulks and of course the Slimbridge Wildfowl Centre. All good reasons for a return visit one fine day.

Sharpness Docks

Don't expect too much of Sharpness, otherwise known as 'the end of the world'. It's still an active port but you can't get anywhere the action. Boaters are limited to the old port with its basin next to the estuary and it's abandoned sea lock. At low tide there are acres of mudflats and fine views down the estuary to the Severn crossings. From this perspective the estuary is huge and the idea of taking a tiny narrowboat out onto its writhing surface is a bit sobering. I know it can be done, but my enthusiasm for the passage has been tempered. It may be a bit bleak but it is a veritable metropolis compared to the wastelands of Weston Point. Like the Weaver, the waterway is haunted by the ghosts of traffic past, and at each turn you expect find a coaster steaming towards you, hull low in the water and propeller thrashing, unaccustomed to the fresh water.

Saul Junction

It was interesting to watch the changing water quality as we moved south, turning from a muddy yellow in Gloucester to crystal clear in the south where water is abstracted to satisfy the needs of Bristol.

The journey time from end to end is a mere four hours, with plenty of waterpoints along the way and full services at Saul Junction.

Our visit was unseasonaly cold, being obliged to don full winter gear including four layers and waterproofs from top to bottom. Not an ideal way to see the canal, but enough to be seduced by its simple charms and added to my 'must visit again'' list.

We returned to exactly the same mooring in Gloucester by 6.00pm, ready for an early start up the Severn at 8.00am tomorrow.

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