Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Lee Navigation

Lee Navigation
June 2017

We spent last night on the diminutive Hertford Union Canal, a one mile short cut which leads from the Regents Canal at Old Ford, around Victoria Park, down three locks and onto the Lee Navigation immediately opposite the Olympic Stadium.


The mooring proved to be quiet in the extreme, the peace only disturbed by a flock of wild Parakeets, which feasted on the bird feeders suspended from the balcony of a flat opposite. The origins of these exotic alien settlers, who appear to have acquired full UK citizenship, are unclear but two particularly attractive urban myths persist: 

1. They were released from Pinewood Studios in the 1950 during the making of Africa Queen or
2. Jimmy Hendrix released them at an Adam and Eve gig in Carnaby Street in the 60's

Either way, Greater London is home to about 30,000 of these dazzling green birds whose early morning squawking is not a blessing to everyone.

Olympic Stadium

With a less than great weather forecast we were up and away by 9.30am, dropping through the three heavy locks and onto the Lee. It appears that the navigation has a weed problem and the issues we encountered on the Paddington Arm were back with a vengeance. Great areas of water upstream from Hackney Wick were covered with weed, which resulted on many blasts of reverse gear and when the ball round the shaft got too big several weed hatch visits were needed.

Whilst there are a lot of boats moored in Hackney Wick or next to Hackney Marsh, there were lots of spaces should you want or need to stop in the area. That said, word on the street is that the area is not as safe and other options are preferred, if possible.

Its around here that the navigation runs along the River Lee itself, a broad but shallow waterway which even in dry periods like now flows quite swiftly and slows our progress when breasted up. At least the flowing water creates clearer water. CRT have a couple of weed cutters and skimmers moored in the Tottenham Hale area, but they were not in use and did not appear to have been operational recently.

When I moored up I was puzzled that the two boats didn't bump together. Closer examination revealed an immense mass of weed between the two hulls, reaching over 12in over the waterline.

Up to Tottenham the huge locks are duplicated and some were manned, but upstream they reduced to single locks, with massive heavy gates. The waterway must once have been a hive of industry, one which will have died along with London's Docklands. Today its just ghosts of the past, rotting wharf areas and here and there clusters of houseboats. All the industry has gone and for the most part the eastern side of the canal is a long succession of embankments which hold back reservoirs, storing a significant proportion of London's drinking water. 

We pressed on through intermittent showers till we reached Alfie's (Pickett) Lock. By now the forecast rain had started in earnest so we moored up in an amazingly quiet spot, reservoirs to one side and a golf course on the other. In fact, as I type, all I can hear is birdsong and sheep bleating!

We used our enforced stop profitably by making the three batches of Lemon and Lavender Marmalade prepared yesterday and prepared a further two batched for making tomorrow.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Its Ackney, innit

Paddington to Hackney
June 2017

Time to go east again, this time turning onto the Regents Canal and then onto the Hertford Union, which offers a short cut to the River Lee.

Camden, Regents Canal

I have to say that today was a day of huge contrasts, and at all times the towpath has been buzzing with activity. No sooner had we left Little Venice than we were into the Maida Hill Tunnel which in turn launches you into the edge of Regents Park. 

Approach to Maida Hill Tunnel

The start of the park is lined with huge houses, either home to the super rich or, more likely, Embassies. Then the canal runs in something of a shallow tree lined cutting, cutting off any views across the park. The bit you can see is the Zoologial Gardens and the aviary which straddle the canal. This is a well tended length of canal, completely free of moored boats.

Blow up Bridge, Regents Canal

Posh houses on the edge of Regents Park

Then it was sharp left at Cumberland Basin with its multi story floating Chinese restaurant and you are at the top of the three Camden Locks. Perversely THE Camden Lock sen in all the photos is actually adjacent to Hampstead Road Lock, and progress is helped with a lock keeper and overseen by a multitude who line the bridges to watch boats pass up and down.

Cumberland Basin

Then its a bit more remote till you reach St Pancras, with its basin full of boats overlooked by a park built inside the frame of an old gas holder and two other similar structures containing cylinders of flats. Innovative and bold. Then you are into Battlebridge Basin with an eclectic bunch of boats, including a floating bookshop and on into the 960 yard Islington Tunnel which takes you pretty much beneath Pentonville Jail. The tunnel has no ventilation shafts and most unusually it was hotter and muggier inside than out.

St Pancras

Then it was relentlessly down and east as we pushed further and further into the East End. We were warned that mooring becomes more dense on the Regents Canal, and so it was. It was boats nose to stern wherever mooring was permitted, and often two abreast. There were spaces here and there but they were the exception. Given the number of boats it was no surprise that water points and elsan facilities were common, appearing every two of three miles. 

Pirate Castle, glimpsed to many times as I pulled into Euston

All these boats offer interest and as we travel pretty slowly with the butty they didn't slow us up to an appreciable extent. I did have a bit of a surprise when I came round a corner and there was Jim's old boatmoored on the offside. It could do with a bit of TLC but it was unmistakably Starcross. This brings me to another observation - its a bit like the united nations of boats down here, bearing locations from all over the country and few owners appear to have any desire to repaint them, so they just fade and grow tatty as the owners used them as floating caravans. Some will, no doubt, be experienced boaters but the ones we met along the way had little understanding about how the mechanics of their boats work, the history of the canals or in some cases how locks are best operated. I guess this isn't entirely unexpected, but you do need to make some allowances and not assume too much.

Starcross revisited

Victoria park came and an unexpected bonus as we approached Hackney, a large and popular public open space with the canal forming a two mile boundary to the west and south. Naturally, the moorings by the park are popular and I decided to see if I could find something along the Hertford Union Canal, before the three locks which drop it down to the River Lee. I did spot one half chance where I could have moored Wand'ring Bark, if I moved one boat 15 feet, but I was too late to make the manouver. With the first lock coming up fast I was getting a  bit nervous and then, to my immense relief, a 60ft gap appeared maybe 400 yards before the lock gates. Not quite big enough for both boats but that's one benefit of being articulated - we can unhitch the butty and moor it alongside.

And so we have stopped, quality residential flats to one side and a park with shady trees on the other. In fact, I think its the quietest mooring we have encountered since we were up on the River Wey a week ago. As for the water quality, its gin clear and has been that way most of the day. Certainly all that choking weed on the Paddington Arm is long behind us.

So tomorrow moring we set out up the River Lee, but before that there is the small matter of three batches of Lemon and Lavender Marmalade to be made.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Paddington Basin

Paddington Basin
June 2017

We have been on the move pretty much continuously since we left Thrupp three weeks ago and, having found a seven day mooring in Paddington Basin, we decided to stay put for the day. The next leg is along Regents Canal with its locks, which will undoubtedly be busy during the weekend so a Monday transit will probably be easier.

Paddington Basin is a place transformed with flats and office buildings towering 15 stories around the far end. The canal basin has been incorporated into the heart of the redevelopment and at the very end a funky floating pocket park has been built which incorporates trees, planters, astroturf, benches and shaded areas. During our visit lots of people were using it, with children playing and parents chilling out. I was a bit sceptical about the idea but it has been done well and seems very popular.

There are a couple of rather interesting bridges around the basin, one a fan bridge and the other one which rolls up into a hexagon. The movable bridges are operated at published times three time a week and are becoming something of a tourist attraction.

An added attraction is the fleet of electrically propelled day boats which are operated from a jetty opposite our mooring. These little craft have found a market and are constantly flitting around Little Venice. The basin is also home to a paddle board centre, catering for beginners and experts alike. This morning found us doing our weekly wash with nervous novices kneeling precariously on their boards for the first time.

Whilst footfall on this side of the basin is low, we put out our stock boards and flew some bunting, which brought in a steady trickle of customers. We also took the opportunity to prepare three batches of Lemon and Lavender Marmalade which will be made up tomorrow.

The day was enhanced by Reverie being moored up in front of us and as its two years since we last saw each other we generally caught up and put the world to rights.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Paddington laid bare

Bulls Bridge to Paddington
June 2017

Not the most dignified start to the day.

Within 10 minutes of pulling away from Bulls Bridge I noticed a sharp pricking sensation from my nether regions, and was dismayed to discover that a hoard or ants had invaded the back of the boat during the night. I had, in a very literal sense, got ants in my pants. Helen was below having a shower so I resorted to rummaging inside my trousers to try and remove the offending insect. Fortunately no one was around to witness my antics, much less report them to the relevant authorities!

West Kilburn

With the embryonic ant colony dealt with it was down to the serious task of navigating the boats the four miles to High Line Yachting and their supply of diesel. Initially all went well. The water was clear and clean and it was happy days, but then things took a turn for the worse as the channel clogged up with thick weed which floated mid canal like an aquatic stinger.

Weedy around the North Circular

We pressed on and breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at the boat yard with less than a quarter of a tank of diesel remaining. This lack of fuel was also causing the stern to lift two or three inches and impairing our towing configuration. The price was about 74p per litre which is more or less on a par with the fuel boats and about £110 was pumped in, enough to keep us moving for another month.

Quiet cruising

This trip into London along the Paddington Arm is all new water for us and given the horror stories about mooring congestion, I was a little apprehensive about what we would find. The key question for me is "can boating into London be an enjoyable experience?". I was a little taken aback at Bulls Bridge were a couple were taking over a wide beam, clearly for the  first time with surveyor marks here and there all over the hull. If this happens when I chance by, what sort of mayhem are we sailing into?

Redevelopment at Ealing Road, with towpath improvements

Whilst there are a good number of moored boats here and there, its fair to say that in all areas, even in popular areas like Kensal Green, spaces did exist should I want to stop. In the more outlying areas it was mostly open canal with just a smattering of wildlife for company. The first six or seven miles are comparable with the Worcester Birmingham as it touches urban areas from time to time, but mostly stays remote in parkland and next to a golf course. When it does change it becomes more like the approach to Wolverhampton with weed everywhere, but also with the ever present line of boats in all shapes and sizes.

Gardens that float

I would have to say that the population of the Paddington Arm does have a couple of advantages. 1. The presence of other boats means that there is never any of that threatening isolation which can exist in some parts of the BCN and 2. the presence of boats means that there is safety in numbers and there are now a whole host of mooring options where you wouldn't have previously even considered stopping.

 Graffiti and art

As for the boaters, they all seemed a cheery enough bunch. They waved and clearly liked the butty, although I suspect a lot were more than a little bemused. From my discussions so far and reading the posts on London Boaters Facebook page I can see that many have little boating experience and even things like lock chambers have been referred to descriptively as "tanks". So the observation is to be friendly and keep the language simple and not too "boaty". 

I was surprised at the lack of boat movements. I had expected Saturday to be a mele of boats chugging to and fro, making sure they didn't overstay the 14 day maximum. Perhaps they all move on Sundays, but given the number of birds nesting in the tyre fenders I rather suspect a lot hardly move at all.  

We used the facilities at Little Venice and then proceeded up the Paddington Arm to the terminus in the hope of finding a mooring spot, and maybe seeing Dan Hetherington and Keri-Leigh Poxon and their two boats, Lyra & Harrier.  Between them they run Reverie Canal Trading Co selling candles and amazing bespoke metal artwork. We found them right at the end and, as luck would have it, there was a space behind them which was just big enough for our two boats - to the inch.

After all that travelling we have decided to have a pause and spend Sunday on this mooring, moving off on the Regents Canal on Monday when the traffic should be at its quietest.

Friday, 23 June 2017

A load of Bull

Brentford to Bulls Bridge
June 2017

Perhaps we stopped a bit soon last night. We stopped just before the third lock up from the Thames and the city noise was pretty intrusive, especially with the hatches open to relieve the stuffyness. The end result was a rather disturbed nights sleep and as we progressed up the flight we realised there were plenty of better options further on.

Grand Junction Canal bridge, made in Tipton

The River Brent section is quite attractive but given the recent hot weather the weed growth is really bad, huge floating islands of tenacious stuff which grabs the prop and was only cleared with lots of reverse and several trips down the weed hatch. There was wildlife in abundance with birds everywhere.


Our encounter with the big Grand Union Locks was a bit of a shock after all those easy days on the Thames. The deep Hanwell flight are notoriously hard, relatively little used and prone to very strong water flows. Several times the boat was dragged from one side of the lock to the other and on other occasions the by wash was so strong the boat was pinned to the offside bank and stubbornly refused to go into the lock.

We were encouraged by a sign on the lock telling us to call or text the volunteer lock keepers to get help, so we did. However we got no reply so we plodded up on our own only to discover the on duty at the top lock! We mentioned the text and were told we should have called because they don't check for texts! So note to self, call them next time.

Asylum Lock

Along the way we passed the rather forbidding walls of the Mental Health Centre known to boaters as Asylum Lock. The place was pretty much self sufficient and had its own canal arm to take in coal and ship out surplus produce. It was at this lock we met a group of ladies taking a walk at lunchtime. They were very taken with the butty and product was duly sold.

Hanwell Top Lock

We finished the day five miles and ten locks up the canal at Bulls Bridge, taking advantage of the adjacent Tesco store with their 24hr mooring. The moorings are just beyond the old Grand Union lay by where iconic images exist of steerers and their families awaiting orders. These days the wide section is full of houseboats and all trace of the the anticipation of voyages to come is gone. 

Bulls Bridge Lay By

The location has a feeling of deja-vue about it, with the constant drone of road noise and industrial activity. Welcome to the big smoke.

As for us, our next leg is into the heart of London and hopefully a mooring tomorrow night in Paddington Basin, picking up some much needed diesel along the way.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

To Brentford

Hampton Court to Brentford
June 2017

Of all days which would you pick to visit Hampton Court Palace? The hottest day since 1976 when the thermometer hit 34C?. Yup, that's the day we picked for our visit!

These last few days have been stifling and I was really not happy about dropping down to the Hampton Court moorings, which mean both the motor and butty would sit for the whole day in full sun. Instead I decided to look for a shady spot before the lock and came up trumps tight opposite the weir. The water was deep and there were some trees which would offer shade all day. There were no notices to say we couldn't moor there so I decided to go for it and apologise if necessary. There were some convenient trees so we roped in on three places and headed off to the Palace in blistering heat.

The old Tudor Palace really was the place to be on such a hot day. True it wasn't exactly cold' but it was very good at keeping the heat out and allowed us to explore Henry 8th's palace in reasonable comfort. We also visited the Maze which proved surprisingly easy.

By 3.00pm we had had enough and returned to the boat and the shade of the stern deck. To freshen up we had another swim and concluded that the easiest way out is to climb up the butty's elum. The rest of the evening was spent trying to stay stay cool accompanied by the distant refrain on a Bryan Ferry concert taking place in the Palace grounds. The only sad aspect was the arrival of an air ambulance and the emergency services who ended up pulling the body of a young lad out of the river, a lad who had apparently got into difficulties trying to swim across.

After a suffocatingly hot night Adam and Adrian (Briar Rose)  popped in for a drink and a catch up, which was a lovely bonus.

But then it was on to the main event of the day - the tidal crossing from Teddington to Brentford. We cast off at 11.00am and reached Teddington at 1.15pm, joining the line of boats waiting to be lowered to the tidal Thames, just before high water. High water was 2.10pm and we are out and at it by 2.00pm. 

Just before we entered the lock we saw a flash of gold and realised that Gloriana, the Queens royal barge was on its was upstream to Staines. The vessel was made for the Golden Jubilee celebrations and still looks absolutely amazing.

They let us out knowing that a narrowboat can safely make a passage to Brentrord before the water level drops too far to get them over the cill of Thames Lock. The problem for us is our speed, or lack of it. Most narrowboats can make six or seven mph over still water but I know that with a butty on the side the best we can do is about 3.5 mph. So, the question was : could we make it to Brentford in time?

We pushed the revs up from the usual 1300 rpm to 1600 which increased our speed a bit, but the other four narrowboats soon left us behind and we were on our own as the tide turned and swept us downstream at an alarming pace. Landmarks at Richmond flashed past as we hurtled under the various bridges and then over the Richmond weir which retains some water in the upper section. Beyond this we really were on our own, powering away through all sorts of floating detritus, and all the time with the nagging worry that if we miss the turn into Brentford we probably don't have the speed to punch the current and claw our way back upstream.

We kept a close eye on the map and edged over to hug the northern bank ready to turn in as soon as the channel to the locks comes into view. The key here is to turn in upstream of the scuplture on the point. We swung the boats out of the ebb current with a huge sense of relief and slid into the welcoming CRT lock which had been set by volunteer staff. By this time the water level had dropped four or five feet and the passage had taken us exactly 1.5 hours. Brentford lock may not win any stakes in a beauty pageant, but few locks have been as welcomed!

The CRT staff were charmed by the concept of hr butty and we had sold three jars before we even exited the lock!

Almost at once the change in moorings were apparent. Gone was the empty channel of seven years ago, and in its place it was nose to tail boats. Fortunately we found a 45 foot gap before the A4 and edged in with the butty still on our side. We will sort out the towing straps to run in line astern tomorrow morning as we make for Bulls Bridge.