Sunday, 16 June 2019


Wallingford on Thames
June 2019

We indulged in a couple of pints of Ghost Ship at the Nags Head in Abingdon, a pub conveniently located next to the river bridge which also served good quality food.

Our Thames schedule isn't exactly stretching as we have two weeks to cover the hundred or so miles down to Brentford, and our next rendezvous is with Dutch Barge Edith at Beal Park on Tuesday. We there have effectively two days of travel and time for a one day lay over which in this trip will be spent at Wallingford.

This is the fourth time I have navigated the Thames and it has always been a downstream run. With a butty strapped to the side our speed is much reduced and I am always curious to know how much current assist we are getting. Our typical canal speed in 2.3mph but on the deep dater lock cuts where the water is still we seem to manage about 2.8mph, compared to the 3.8 we achieve on the open river. On that basis the average current is about 1.0mph, rising in the narrows / shallows beneath the locks. I really don't fancy an upstream journey which would take twice as long and use three times as much diesel.

The journey down river was made a bit challenging by the very high winds which howled over the flat water meadows, creating a distinct chop as it crossed the strong downward current. Speaking of current, I was nearly caught out at Clifton Hampden Bridge where the current flows at an angle to the arches rather than straight through. I got myself all lined up only to find myself very close to the left hand pier and in need of an unexpected burst of throttle to get us in without a bump.

Relics of the Wilts and Berks Canal
On the subject of bumps, one of my sternest steering challenges cropped up below Days Lock. Just below the lock there is a landing jetty which provides access to a little used elsan point. The issue is that the fast flowing stream flows both under and past the jetty and a rate of knots and this is a problem when approaching from upstream. It is really hard to both stop and come alongside without a jarring crash. This is doubly complicated when a butty is strapped to the side and two years ago I made a very heavy landing. This time I made a better fist of it and came to a fairly dignified stop, but encountered hassles getting away later on. The flow presses you onto the jetty and the trees jut out 8 feet at the end of the walkway, so its a case of getting the bows out and then a  big blast of acceleration to try and get free into the stream before the butty is all tangled into the undergrowth.

Benson lock is the next obstacle, with a strong side on weir stream trying to push you into the trees on the other side of a very narrow navigation channel. Fortunately, nothing was approaching upstream and we could use the full width of the river to ferry glide across.

It was about here that we saw the most enormous yellow duck approaching, which turned out to be some sort of fund raiser for the RNLI.

Wallingford moorings were pretty full but, as in Abingdon, there was one 50ft gap on the town side of the river. The challenge here was the presence of a shiny (expensive) plastic boat at the downstream end and there is no way I want to bump into that. We travel with the butty on the starboard side of the motor and its not really practical to moor with the butty on the bank side so we needed to turn around. With so many boats present we opted to go below the bridge to wind and its always a bit hairy to be dead in the water going broadside on in a fast stream. But we made it only to have to punch a fierce flow  back up under the main arch. 

We made it back to the mooring, helped in by the narrowboat moored immediately upstream - a very welcome extra pair of hands.

History Walk videos - Droitwich Spa

History Walk - Droitwich
June 2019

With the Canal Hunter videos completed for the season I have been having some withdrawal symptoms. I have therefore decided to make a few history walk videos as I find suitable material during our travels.

The first walk is around Droitwich focussing on the impact of the Salt trade on this small community. I actually filmed it back in May just before the St Richards Festival, but I hit some technical snags getting it uploaded.

A work around was found when I was last at home so here is a link to it:

History Walk in Droitwich

Hopefully a few more history walks will follow over the summer.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

All aboard for Abingdon

Thrupp to Abingdon
June 2019

What a wet week!

We have spent nearly a week moored at Thrupp, starting with a weekend with our friends Fi and Andy. We decided to do the Oxford "mini ring" and went out onto the Thames at Dukes Cut in what turned out to be incredibly windy conditions. Had I known that the wind would be so strong I would have stuck to the canals which do offer a bit more shelter.

Back onto the Thames

On the plus side, we were waved through Godstow Lock with instructions to pay our license fee at Osney Lock, but as we were turning in at the Sheepwash Channel it meant we had out short excursion on the river without paying a toll. We moored opposite the old Jericho boatyard and by misfortune it turned out to be hosting a street party night, with loud live music playing till 11.00pm. So with music ending late and the railway marshalling yard starting early we didn't have the best nights sleep.

Riverside really does mean riverside in Oxford

We then returned to Thrupp and then back to Birmingham for a planned visit home. It turned out that we couldn't have timed our trip better. It rained all the way home, rained all day every day we were there, and rained all the way back to Oxford. All the rain has scuppered lots of river based plans in other parts of the country, but thankfully the Thames Catchment has been largely spared. 

Our time at home was devoted to jam making, this time Strawberry and Elderflower, Strawberry and Raspberry with Raspberry Gin and Goosberry. There was supposed to be  a lot more Elderflower jams, but you can only pick the flowers in the dry - and we didn't see any if that!

Cormorant airing itself on Dukes Cut.

After returning the van to the very convenient Enterprise site on the London Oxford Airfield site, we waited out the last of the bad rain, used all the Thrupp services, and then set off back down the canal heading for Dukes Cut.

I guess it was the break in the drizzly wet weather, but suddenly everyone really NEEDED jam... so our departure became something of a process with the sam store going down and the cash box filling up.

On our return to the Thames we found the water levels ok, but the flow rates well up. It's a good job out journey is downstream. We were toying with the idea of paying an upstream visit to Lechlade, but given our slow speed all those winding bends we decided to leave it for another time. In the end we simply went down two locks, paid our EA dues for two weeks and stopped just above Osney Bridge, next to the allotments on the island. On the subject of fees, last time we were here there was much confusion about how to approach the butty. At that time it was classed as an unpowered craft and attracted a fixed fee of about £25. This time its a houseboat and cost about £40 - which is 50 % of a motor boat of the same dimensions and is consistent with CRT policy and is therefore fine.

Loads of these today

Our plan is to drop down the Thames in 10 mile stages so today's (Saturday) objective was Abingdon. Being the weekend there were a lot of rowing boats out and about but very few powered craft. One boat I noticed tied up beneath Oxford contained a bee hive. We are often asked if we supply honey and our stock answer is that the bees wont follow the boat - but maybe this off the cuff answer is wrong?

Bee hive boat

Further down the river at Nuneham Railway Bridge I was idly watching the trains cross when there was a rumble and a blast and, would you believe it, the Flying Scotsman came past, steam billowing, pistons pounding and whistle screeching. Of course, I didn't have my camera to hand to capture the fleeting sight of green crossing the river!

Heads of the River, Oxford

I was not entirely surprised to see Sue and Vic on No Problem XL moored above the lock as I had been following their progress up river for the last few days. I had, hiowever expected to see them somewhere on the meadow below the lock.

With poor weather forecast (again) we decided to stop in Abingdon  and were warned to avoid the "camouflage boat" beneath the lock on account of the generator they seem to run night and day. In the end we moored just downstream of the bridge, doing a slightly ungainly 360 degree pirouette to ease ourselves into a 50ft mooring space - the only one available in the park.

We like Abingdon - the pace we first learned to play six handed rummy.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Banbury to Thrupp

Banbury to Thrupp
June 2019

We finished our stay in Banbury with a trip to the town's Odeon Cinema, which offers two screen entertainment. I have heard that the new development at Spiceball Park will include a multiplex, so I guess that will be the death knell for the old style cinema near the Cross.

Anyway, we went to see Rocketman, a biopic of Elton John, who's music featured quite prominently in my youth. In terms of production and insight it stands above Bohemian Rhapsody, and his ability to write music is nothing short of staggering. That said, I marginally preferred Bohemian Rhapsody, but that is because Queen really did represent the soundtrack to me teenage years.

Our departure from Banbury was a staggered affair, with trips to the bank and the mobile phone shop plus a visit to Tooleys to pick up some flyers, all fitted in before we set off. No sooner had we left Banbury Lock than the heavens opened and soaked me as I moved on to the moorings near Morrisons.

This was never going to be a long day with just seven miles to cover on our way to Aynho, zig zagging back and forth under the M40. Its on this stretch that you pick up the rail track which carries a massive volume of container traffic and these rumbling convoys are never really out of earshot all the way to Oxford. In the end so we moored just above Aynho Wharf where the freight and passenger trains cross on box girder bridge, but luckily the noise was tolerable. 

The reason we needed to moor above Aynho was because we needed to refill with diesel. We last filled at Hawne in Halesowen about two cruising weeks ago, and the tank will have been down to two thirds full (I don't often bother to check with the dipstick because you get a feel for consumption rates). That may sound like a lot left in the tank, but we have a long trip down the Thames ahead of us and you never want to pay Thames prices for fuel if you don't have to. As it was the price per litre was 95p - about 30p more than Hawne. The price rises as you go south.

For some reason we have made fewer towpath sales as we travel this year, but as we worked through Somerton Deep Lock a Dutch party decided to buy some preserves to take home. Of course, boats were approaching from both directions so the transaction had to be swift and concluded before the butty sank too far in the chamber!

We had been slowing our progress because we had agreed to meet Bones for the evening at Lower Hayford. Rather stupidly I had forgotten to find out exactly where her boat was and decided to cruise on and stop after I found it. Bad Mistake. No sooner had I passed the vacant visitor moorings (in a downpour) than I passed her boat after which there were no viable mooring spots. I tried one rather close to a bridge, but after the first boat to pass bumped us I moved on and ended up half a mile away. Getting back involved a long and squelchy walk.

Another easy day of about seven miles covering attractive ground with the Cherwell running close to the canal. After the rush to the Wormleighton summit all these half days feel like a holiday.
Our destination is Thrupp, a sleepy village just north of Oxford with two pubs and a tea room. It's a popular spot for boaters with its own rather complex set of mooring restrictions. These moorings are monitored daily by a warden from Thrupp Cruising Club, so it's important to get the right spot. As it turned out, both Maffii and Ken were about as we approached the lift bridge and opened it for us, laughing at my failure to correctly anticipate the amount of butty assistance I would get as I turned the 90 degree angle. 
The aim was to moor on the 7 day section and much to our delight there were a couple of full length spots available, mid way between the bridge and The Boat pub.
The evening was spent nursing a pint or two in the Boat and catching up on boating gossip from far and wide.

A non moving day and we decided to take the S4 bus into Oxford, fitting in a visit to the Ashmolean and the department stores. Helen was successful in Debenhams but frustratingly they had none of the trousers I liked in my size. We spent a few pleasant hours pottering around and visited the Green Cafe, perusing their impressive poster wall. I was particularly amused by the way the Old Time Revival Tent rally organised by Oxford Baptist Church rubbed shoulders with an advert for a Cannabis Cake making course!
The day finished with yours truly doing a spot of paint repair work on Wand'ring Bark. The problem seems to be that paint just does not want to stick to the welds attaching the cabin to the gunwhale. The original paint sticks ok, but the "new" paint comes off after about four years and then water starts to creep under the non stick surface and lift it up. So my task was to address the towpath side, sanding off the flaky bits and applying both undercoat and top coat with a small flat artists brush. The sight of me paining a huge boat with a tiny brush raised more than a few eyebrows (and comments) from dog walkers passing by.
Looking more closely at he paint I can see that the cabin will need attention before next season, particularly the roof where the paint is starting to flake. I will put that in the diary for early April.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

The Canal of the Pharaohs

The Canal of the Pharaohs
June 2019

I visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford today, mainly to take a look at a very ancient ceremonial mace head, which depicts a ruler known as King Scorpion (on account of a scorpion near his head) formally opening what appears to be an irrigation canal.

King Scorpion opens a canal in ancient Egypt

The reason for my sudden interest in ancient Egypt is some research I have been undertaking looking into the various ages or phases of canal building, and it soon became apparent that canal building goes back to the dawn of civilisation. There is a fine line between irrigation canals and those which are navigable, but the ancient records of the Pharahos indicates that they were avid navigable canal builders. 

Map of the Nile / Gulf of Suez area

First they constructed canals round the cataracts on the Nile, sections which are shallow and fast flowing. These will have been short lived water shoots but we soon find records of huge irrigation projects, taking excess water off the Nile when in flood to store in vast artificial lakes and feed huge networks of irrigation channels in the Nile Delta. The administration of this complex system of water management involved an army of administrators who occupied a massive complex known as the Labarynth. These canals were so numerous and interconnected that they became the sole means of transport in the region.

Satellite image which highlights the east west route of Wadi Tumilat

But these are not the canals which really grabbed my attention. The ones which I have found so interesting are the routes which were built through the Wadi Tumilat and in so doing connected the Nile near what is now Cairo to the Red Sea, and from there to their trading partners in India. There is a Killers song "Spaceman" which refers to the Nile flowing from east to west, but it's certainly true that at least a portion of the Nile used to flow west to east. 

The records suggest that 4000 years ago Pharaoh Senwasret II at least started to build this canal which followed the route of an ancient dried up distributory of the Nile east to the Bitter Lakes, which were at that time tidally connected to the Red Sea. Its believed he gave the project up not because he couldn't do it, but because his advisors believed that the Red Sea was higher than the Nile and that if dug it the salt water would flood into the breadbasket of the Egyptian civilisation and poison their fertile lands.

One of the stones commemorating the opening of the Darius canal

This view persisted till Persian King Darius (who probably wasn't so worried about the fertility of Egypt) dug the canal in 454 BC. This accomplishment is evidenced by a number of "proclamation stones" found along its route which, in four languages, declared the glory of his achievement. This was a seasonal canal which was flooded with surplus Nile water when the water level was high enough, and it only remained in water till the river levels dropped.

The problem with canal building in the area is that sand gets blown into the channel and in time it was lost. The waterway was re-dug by Ptolomy II in 285 BC and it is recorded that the passage to the Red Sea took 4 days, which is about right for a waterway 60 miles long. The next version was built by Roman Emperor Trajan in about AD100, but by the time he constructed the canal the Greeks had developed flood gates which he built across the mouth of the Canal, and possibly higher up, raising its level, slowing the outflow and extending the navigation season.

These ancient links between the Nile and the Red Sea all succumbed to the advances of the sand and so the connection lapsed, this time for nearly 2000 years. 

In 1869 the Suez Canal was cut linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, this time as a ship canal on a route due south from Port Said to the Bitter Lakes where it joins the line of the ancient canals and it was during its construction that fragment of the old waterways were unearthed.

Brindley may have kick started the British Canals in the late 1700's, but I think it's fair to say he stood on the shoulders of some heavyweight engineers going back literally thousands of years.