Friday 28 October 2005

Honey - Calf Heath to Grub Street

Calf Heath to Grub Street
October 2005 (3 days)

52 Miles
4 Locks

This trip represented my first Autumnal solo journey, which has become a regular feature of my annual calendar.

I am not sure of the exact date but is was very close to the end of October, sometime before the end of British Summertime. The reason the exact date has been forgotten was the circumstances that triggered it. For the previous year Tilly had been home educated as we struggled to accommodate her unusual educational needs, and she was becoming increasingly resistant to this approach. At the same time Jeff made his transition to secondary school and his then undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia turned the experience into a nightmare. The combined impact was difficult for Belle and I reached breaking point myself. I came very close to losing it completely and called Mr Primrose to see if I could borrow Honey for a few days (I had been working on her and had a key). Mr P was his usual accommodating self and assured me it was fine - oh and by the way - here is a list of 10 things that don't work - can you have a go at fixing them while you are away! It want a trial and I was very happy to oblige.

The first day, a Sunday, was clear and mild, taking me through Autherley and on to Brewood where I met up with my brother, moving on to Gnosall for the night and a meal at the Navigation Inn.

The second day was cold and windswept. I took a slow trip through Grub Street cutting and, being in a fragile state, gave in to canal rage for the first and only time. A very slow boat was crawling through the cutting followed by another boat and then me. Both I and the boat in front would have liked to pass but the front boat wasn't about to oblige, to we settled down for a very slow passage and enjoyed the view. This wasn't good enough for a silly old duffer behind me. Oh no, he was all over my back end itching to press past. As I was stuck between boats I maintained a straight course but, lo and behold, after the "telegraph pole" bridge he started to ram on past. I admit to calling him a stupid old fool and somehow the combined effect of the two boats moving in parallel resulted in my stern coming round and giving him a huge knock - shame. I then watched in bemused amazement as he rammed his way past the next two boats, taking 45 mins to complete the overtaking manoeuvres. I never forget a boat and I am still on the lookout!

I winded a couple of miles beyond Grub Street, returning to spend the night on the embankment outside Wheaton Aston. I remember it as a clear but windy night and somewhere amid the silence and the gentle warmth of the stove, my equilibrium returned.

I completed the return journey under wintry squalls, reaching Calf Heath in mid afternoon and rejoining the battlefield called home in in a balanced frame of mind, able to resume the ongoing fight.

The canals hold amazing restorative powers for me, sucking be into their beguiling stillness and calming my soul in a way nothing else can match. They are my escape, a haven from life when things get too much. If I can't actually get on them I find myself away thinking about them, or perhaps in my workshop making something for WB. I may not be there in body but that doesn't stop me being afloat in spirit.

Friday 1 July 2005

Honey - Windsor to Hampton Court

Friday 31st June 2005
Windsor to Hampton Court
River Thames

19 miles
8 Locks
7 hours

The last stretch down from Windsor isn't the most beautiful. From Windsor one is escorted by an endless procession of jumbo jets descending from their ariel stack to the runways of Heathrow Airport.

The river starts to enter suburbia as you pass under the M25 and the character alters with each passing mile. Its not unpleasant, nor does it assume the drain like qualities of the Trent but the magic is lost and it becomes a mere route to a destination.

The latter stages are home to houseboats of all shapes and sizes, the most famous of which belongs to David Gilmour, serving as Pink Floyd's recording studio. All was quiet as we passed - I don't think that they wished I was there.

We made a final visit to a sanitary station at the lock above Hampton Court Palace, and then sought out a suitable mooring where we could leave Honey pending Mr Primrose's return. We passed the palace and its landing stages on our left and moved down the river some four hundred yards, at which point discovered an ancient flight of concrete steps descending to the water, all covered with scrub and weeds. This looked like a good spot so we turned Honey to face the current and moored her up using every rope and mooring pin. The mooring was alongside the deer park and next to a gate in the perimeter wall, which facilitated a fantastic evening stroll in the park, before contacting a taxi to ferry us to Euston Station the following morning.

Honey was completely invisible from the riverside path, so invisible that I received a call from an agitated Mr Primrose a few days later asking what I had done with his boat. I heard him crunching down the gravel path and told him to stop when he drew levelwith the pub on the far bank. Then to look down and see if he could see any ropes leading into the bushes. With some trepidation I waited for him to pull on the ropes, fearing that they would emerge with a frayed end and no |Honey. In shouldn't have worried, Honey was safe and sound and was moored a mere 200 yards from Mr Primrose's trade stand. Perfect!

Honey returned to the Midlands two weeks later, with Mr Sealess taking her to Banbury, mid way up the Oxford Canal. This leg was not without incident, as her alternator failed and needed a replacement. I received regular updates by mobile phone and was relieved when I could hear the thwang, thwang, thwang of the Lister pounding away in the background. I was less encouraged when the call started with an erie silence and the wind rasping across the mouthpiece - never a good sign. If anything, Mr Sealess's return journey was better than our downstream trip. He continues to rave about the journey, undertaken during a particularly difficult period of his life and the experience shines like a beacon of pleasure in a season of darkness. The final leg was undertaken in a series of hops my Mr Whateley and his son, ending with a mooring in Stone, which was as close to Tatton Park as time allowed.

Thursday 30 June 2005

Honey - Henley to Windsor

Thursday 30th June 2005
Henley to Windsor
River Thames

21 Miles
8 Locks
8 Hours

The first stop of the day was Henley Lock, where the keeper handed me a photocopied A4 sheet of instructions telling us how to pass the regatta reach. I have, of course, heard a lot about Henley and its regatta but it never occurred to me that we would be passing during regatta week itself.

Up till this point the river had been remarkably quiet, with less boat movements than one experiences on the canals of the Midlands. Henley changed all that. There were gin palaces and slipper launches a plenty , a veritable Cannes on Thames. We arrived just after 10.00am so the crowds had yet to arrive, but the races were well underway. The golden rule seemed to be to keep well to the left and slow to crawling speed. I have always had a certain inverted snobbery when it comes to cars and take a perverse delight in being the boss but having the oldest car in the car park. My approach to boating is similar and I was amused to navigate Honey past all these ultra posh, ultra expensive plastic boats. Honey was decrepit, which large areas of rust, no chimney and trailing a blue haze of exhaust fumes, which set her apart from the rest!

We pressed on down river but now accompanied by more boats moving to and from the regatta. It was funny to exit a lock amid millions of pounds worth of gleaming boats, all of which dashed down to the next lock, only to wait impatiently as the lock keeper held the gates open pending our arrival, having been warned of my progress by the previous locky. Honey became something of a landmark right down the Thames - all the lock keepers knew she was coming and many complimented me on her unique livery.... the times I tried to explain that I was only moving her for a friend....

Perhaps the funniest moment was towards the end of the day as we approached a lock down a canalised cut. A huge gin palace complete with radar and flying bridge was determined to beat me to the lock and came thrashing up behind us. The snag was that the cut also contained one of the lowest bridges on the Thames and the gin palace ground to an ignominious halt alongside us, amid a downpour of expensive looking electronics torn off the flying bridge. I smiled sweetly, waved and continued on to the lock trying very hard not to laugh.

Locking down amid these expensive boats, all festooned with dozens of huge fenders was an interesting experience in itself. As you can imagine, the proud skippers (complete with dorky little captain caps) were very careful with their craft, nudging them this way and that with a myriad of thrusters. Honey, on the other hand, was a 15 ton steel slug, with a bit of forward and not much reverse. Her approach to fenders was also minimal with a small button fore and aft. The skippers were are visibly twitching as Honey lumbered in and slewing to an ungainly stop, her rear end stepping smartly to the right. I never touched another boat, but they weren't to know that.

The day concluded with a run past the Eaton rowing course, soon to become the 2012 Olympic rowing venue, the Windsor racecourse and finally round the bend to the meadow mooring opposite Windsor Castle. The mooring carry a charge but no one asked for money and I didn't try too hard to pay.

We rounded off the day with a wander round the town of Windsor and a trip to a Chinese restaurant. It turned out that it was the first time Matilda had ever eaten a Chinese meal, which she loved. I guess that North Norfolk isn't a hotbed of culinary improvisation.

Wednesday 29 June 2005

Honey - Long Wittenham to Henley

Wednesday 29th June 2005
Long Wittenham to Henley
River Thames

29 Miles
7 Locks
9 hours

We woke to a clear blue sky, washed clean by the overnight thunderstorm.
The pub mooring in the Clifton Weir Stream are small but perfectly formed - and we were the only visitors, completely invisible from the pub gardens.
This was a perfect spot to spend a quiet night but sadly our night was far from uneventful, thanks to Matilda. She had clearly been pondering on the depth of water under Honey's keel and my concerns about the excessive ingress of water from the sterngland. So, she sat bolt upright at 2.00pm absolutely convinced that the boat was sinking and we had to evacuate, straight away. It took all my powers of persuasion to assure her that were remained afloat and that if she went back to sleep she would wake safe and dry in the morning! Honey leaks but not that badly.
This proved to be another lovely day passing through Goring and Pangbourne which were achingly pretty. By lunchtime the heat became too much for us so we moored up under some trees, created a rope ladder from the mooring rope and jumped in for a swim. This was the first time Tilly and Jeff had ever swum in anything free of chlorine or Mr Matey and it rated as a first class Swallows and Amazon type adventure. We did find that climbing back onto the boat was a lot harder than getting in, as the makeshift rope ladder kept swing in towards the swim, but we made it back to the deck in the end. This is what the Thames is all about.
Towards the end of the day we paused at a boatyard in Pangbourne to refill with diesel. I had to wait for another boat to be filled first and there couldn't have been a greater contrast with poor old Honey. This other boat was an open launch, with two engines capable of driving it at 40 mph (hopefully not on the river!). It was clearly the first time the owner had been in it and he was having the controls explained to him. He was accompanied by a trophy wife - all blond hair and long legs if you know what I mean, who was clearly completely bored by the whole thing and kept chivvying him to leave. When they were done I asked the attendant how much the launch was worth - £50k - £100k??? No mate, its a hand made Italian boat and they only make five a year. Actually they cost about £250k. Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds - for a wooden two seater day boat - wow.
He cheerfully filled me up with my diesel and accepted my £10 note in payment (Honey burns £2.50 worth a day) and waved me on my way with a comment that the previous boat had just been filled from empty and had cost £2000! Its a different world.
Towards the end of the day we passed through Reading and heeded the advice in the guidebook to carry right on through. Reading is a sharp contrast to the neighbouring riverside towns, being one of the most impoverished areas in the home counties and therefore not an ideal place to stop. Reading also offers a BW route off to the River Kennett and then to the Kennett and Avon Canal. One day I will return and make the journey to Bath and maybe, just maybe, make a piloted journey up the Severn to Sharpness.
With the day coming to an end and as we approached Henley Lock, Jeff found the female company just too much for him and went pop, as is his way from time to time. It's a diagnosed condition and not really his fault but seeing him trying to strangle himself with his bare hands in sheer frustration was a bit disconcerting. Tilly and Matilda can be a bit irritating at times but this was a bit of an over reaction. I put the boat in neutral and dived below to sort him out - all the time hoping nothing was coming. A couple of mins of fast talking calmed him enough to allow me to return to the helm and pull over to a Eyot (island) where I could stop for the night and hopefully calm him right down.
Well, I made it to a convenient island but Jeff was having none of this conversation malarkey. Oh no, he decided to make a bit for freedom and jumped ashore to run away. In his rage he hadn't twigged that it was an island and after 15 minutes of bashing his way down the riverbank away from Honey's stern he re-emerged, scratched and stung at her bow. Oddly, he didn't see the funny side of the situation so climbed a tree which overhung the river with the stated aim on jumping in and ending it all. I couldn't leave him there so I climbed an adjoining tree with a trunk which had a similarly water ward trajectory and chatted over his options in the gathering gloom. Matilda later told me that this was one of the more surreal experiences of her life, hearing the murmur of our combined voices way out in the dark and apparently hovering, angel like, about 30 feet over the turbid water.
Jeff finally settled, climbed down had a cuddle, tea and by bed time you wouldn't have known that he had ever lost it. That's life with ADHD - although we didn't know what it was at the time, nor had we discovered the calming powers of Ritalin.

Tuesday 28 June 2005

Honey - Oxford to Long Wittenham

Tuesday 28th June 2005
Oxford to Long Wittenham
Oxford Canal and Middle Thames

17 Miles
7 Locks
7 Hours

We woke to the rumbling of trains setting off from Oxford Station. After a mile or so we stopped again at the park by Bridge 240 to go and get supplies. Pearson showed a shop a couple of streets away and whilst their range was small it carried an eclectic mix of deli type goods for an affluent market. From there it was a short trip to the End of the Oxford and Louse Lock - the last narrow one of the trip.

Finally, we were out of the shallow, narrow canals and onto the Thames and wow does it seem deep and wide. Honey is a bit of a basket case of a boat and suddenly having metres of water under her fragile keel felt precarious. If honey sank she would just disappear.......
No sooner had we entered the Thames than we stopped at Osney Locks to purchase a months river permit. I had visited the Environment Agency's website and brought along the nearly expired BSC document to support my claim that Honey was riverworthy. In the event a pass was issued and through we went.

The run out of Oxford is fascinating, past the huge and impressive university boat houses which line the banks. From the off the Thames reeks of money. On through Iffley and Sandford Locks before emerging into a featureless landscape of scrub and electricity pylons. This bleak reach concludes with Nuneham house, site of Victoria and Alberts honeymoon and then Abingdon, the ancient and rather beautiful market town.

The rivers wanders around, stretching the "crow flies" 2 miles to nearly eight before reaching Clifton Hampden. Tiring of the non progress we decided to call it a day just beyond Clifton Lock and turned back up the Weir stream which is navigable for a mile or so and provides access to the moorings at the foot of The Plough's gardens. We wandered up to the pub for a drink returning just before the heavens opened for a summer storm. When the downpour ended and we emerged we found the boat covered in thousands and thousands of drowned flies - surreal!

The rain broke the heat and we settled to a quiet night, bobbing around for our first night on the river.

Monday 27 June 2005

Honey - Somerton to Oxford

Monday 27th June 2005
Somerton to Oxford
Oxford Canal

14 Miles
10 Locks
8 Hours

If anything the sun got hotter and hotter. The Captains skin progressed from pale blush to a more ominous shade of crimson but there was no escaping the sun's baleful glare. This stretch heads due south and however you position yourself, ultimately you have to look it the direction you are going!

Tee shirts and shorts were discarded in favour of the more expansive Fatface "Chairman of the Board" long sleeved alternative coupled with Craghopper longs, all topped off with a baseball cap. Over hot yes, but not unduly burned.

Matilda and Tilley seemed to get on fine sharing the front cabin, Tilley at her most orderly packing and repacking her suitcase with Autistic precision. She and my mother got on well together and enjoyed each others company. Jeff was left a bit out of this girls club and whilst he joined me from time to time, he found the dynamic harder to settle into. Matilda took charge of the galley and supervised the preparation of all meals.

All were agreed that the toilet had scope for improvement. It was a very basic porta potty on a ledge which needed emptying daily, and on this occasion I didn't attend to my duty in a sufficiently timely manner. I was informed by a gleeful Jeff that Nanny couldn't make the toilet work cos it was full. I was told I had to sort it out because she was desperate. I would have preferred to find a sanny point but faced with a mutinous crew unable to move their bowels I elected to make a swift stop in some dense woodland and discharge the contents into a hole I dug under a big log. I am sure it was environmentally unfriendly, but needs must in a crisis.

During the late morning we stopped off at Oxfordshire Narrowboats (Lower Hayford) to refill with diesel, purchase a barge pole (the old one fell apart in my hands - it was so rotten) and most importantly to buy an anchor and chain for use on the Thames. The guys in the chandlery were really friendly and spliced the hawser onto the chain as if they were doing a conjuring trick. I think that there was some magic involved because I have since tried to repeat the exercise on WB's anchor. Whilst the end result is entirely functional, it isn't the object of symmetry and beauty I saw created for Honey.

We decided to have a pub meal in Oxford missing out The Duke's Cut, instead we planned to proceeding right through the town and onto the river via Sheepwash Channel. On the run into Oxford we passed any number of liveaboard boats, a regular community of "alternative" types. With so many boats and so few free moorings we moored up within walking distance of The Plough, who served good food out in the fresh air. The proximity of a railway line made the spot less than ideal but you can't always have everything.

Sunday 26 June 2005

Honey - Croperdy to Somerton

Sunday 26th June 2005
Croperdy to Somerton
Oxford Canal

16 Miles
10 Locks
8 hours

We awoke to that most English of sounds, church bells calling the faithful to prayer in the nearby village of Croperdy. Now don't get me wrong, I am not belittling the faithful and would include myself among their number if push came to shove, but nothing (apart from Christmas or Easter) has ever tempted me off the cut to attend a local service. But you don't have to go to church to appreciate the contribution a peal of bells makes to a quiet Sunday morning on the canal. The atmosphere they create is so thick you can almost taste it.

Another clear blue sky and another day on Honey.

An odd (and rather unpleasant) aspect of Honey is her engine noise. Her ancient two cylinder Lister SR2 kicks up the heck of a racket which starts to penetrate your very being. You are standing immediately over an antiquated power plant with dodgy timing, rubber free engine mounts, and a suspect exhaust. Initially this seems OK but after a while your whole head becomes an echo chamber, resonating in time to the bang, bang, bang of the ignition sequence. After 3 days you become immune to its negative impact on your physiology but till then it calls for a steady stream of Neurofen. Mr Whiteleaf had encountered a similar problem and attempted to muffle the noise with sound deadening matting - which had absolute no effect whatsoever, apart from insulating the engine and causing it to over heat!

I figured that the pain had more to do with the vibrations rattling my brain than the noise itself so I has taken a couple of planks of timber decking screwed together to either form a gangplank (its official purpose) or to act as a flexible seat across the stern, supported on the rails which surround the cockpit. This innovation has some positive impact, but again, not enough to avoid the headaches completely.

On our travels we paused at Banbury, mooring opposite Tooleys Boatyard, just below the Tom Rolt Bridge. Tooleys will always be associated with Rolt's Cressey and the time he spent there as described in Narrowboat. My guess is that he wouldn't be too impressed at what has been done to Banbury with its twee and already dated "warehouse" style shops lining the canal. It is a far cry from the grimy workaday industrial centre he describes.

On the subject of Mr Rolt, I have some views. Yes he was a key character in the preservation of the canals and the impact he and the rest of the group (Aickman et al) had was substantial. However, I do find it disturbing how figures like these get "deified" over time. He was a good guy, no doubt, but I would suggest that he was far from perfect and as something of a loner, probably not the easiest person to get on with. I may be way off the mark, but that was the impression left in his writings. Maybe the waterways press have played a part in all this, revisiting the start of the IWA so frequently.

After a pause in Banbury when I fine tuned the decking seat (it was too long to fit inside a lock) we were off again, moving down the Cherwell Valley to Lower Hayford. This stretch is lovely, with intermittent locks every couple of miles breaking up the day and putting gaps between any boats going the same way. As it happened, we didn't see and southbound boats all day and for a fine Sunday in June, the canal was surprisingly quiet.

The overnight stop was just before Somerton Deep Lock where the canal pulls away from the ever present Oxford railway track.

Saturday 25 June 2005

Honey - Napton to Croperdy

Saturday 25th June 2005
Napton to Croperdy
Oxford Canal

15 Miles
17 Locks
8 Hours

The morning dawned clear and bright, reflecting in the muddy brown waters, so typical of the Oxford Canal around Napton Junction. The absence of electricity was an inconvenience but with bottled water available, a full gas cylinder and rinsing water in the Porta Potty reservoir we had all we really needed.

Having seen the state of Honey when fixing the broken door, I had taken the precaution of including huge bucket of assorted tools. I therefore spent the first hour or so with my head and shoulders in the engine bay fixing a multitude of small snags, including a non functioning bilge pump.

We got underway at about 9.30 and were straight into the nine locks up to the summit pound. It had been 25 years since my last encounter with a lock and whilst I hadn't forgotten the mechanics I had forgotten to keep an eye out ahead for oncoming traffic. Within a couple of locks I found myself in the embarrassing position of having emptied a lock of water in the face of an oncoming boat. The boater was justifiably irritated and made his feelings known... bad form.... right of way.... our lock etc. Belle would have been impressed at my response. I walked over the the other boat (as Honey was rising) and apologised outright, explained that my mind had been elsewhere and offered to lock him down if he liked to stay on his boat. Of course, there was little he could do in the circumstances but to accept my apology and decline my offer of help.

Tip for life: If you are going for an abject apology you may as well go the whole hog - kill them with kindness.

The remainder of the day passed under a brilliant blue English sky, with us covering a tortuous 15 miles winding round and round Wormleighton Hill on Brindleys most convoluted of contour canals.
It was then downhill all the way from the watershed, joining the Cherwell at Croperdy and then onto the Isis / Thames and so down and down all the way into London, seven days away.

We found a nice isolated spot for the night neat Prescote Manor, just before Croperdy and on an offside bank for a change. Cows grazed on the meadows beyond the canal and on the other side birds chased each other through a woodland coppice.

Friday 24 June 2005

Honey - Napton Bottom Lock

Friday 24th June 2005
Napton on the Hill
Oxford Canal
Following her journey back up the Grand Union, Honey had been moored next to The Folly, just below the Napton flight. She had then been left unattended for a week or so pending the arrival of Mr P, but during this time she was broken into. The thieves must have been very disappointed with what they found as we couldn't see that anything was missing, indeed even the wine had been left intact in the larder. I paid brief visit with Mr Whiteleaf, the last skipper, and bodged up the broken door and made sure all was ok. Mr W took the opportunity to show me round the boat and walk me through some of its numerous foibles.
Mr Primrose duly camped out on Honey for the following week during which time a fridge failure caused him to make a short trip back to Calcutt Narrowboats, seeking a replacement. On Honey's return to Napton the mooring pins were not driven in firmly enough, allowing her to drift free. I know this because of the note left by the kind boater who took Honey in hand and brought her back to the towpath, leaving her tied up safe and sound. Thanks anonymous boater!
By the time I got back to Honey on the Friday the fridge, which had been left on, had completely drained the batteries and there wasn't a glimmer of energy left to light the boat.
Even at this early stage I could see that the trip to Hampton Court with my mother (Matilda) and two children (Tilly and Jeff) would probably be eventful. As this trip took place during term time, you may be wondering how my children could be out of school. Well, at this stage Tilly was being home educated by my wife Belle. This proved to be pretty stressful and, after 12 months, I figured she needed a break. Jeff also had his issues at school and when I floated the idea of an extra week off to do the journey the teachers couldn't conceal their glee, and started suggesting that two weeks might be better than one! The inclusion of my mother was to give me some quality time with her following the death of the Captain (senior).
So this happy band of four found Honey in the gathering gloom and hastily made our beds, just as the last of the evening sunlight drained from a cloudless sky. Tilly shared the front cabin with Matilda whilst Jeff and I shared the cross bed in the saloon.

Thursday 23 June 2005

NB Honey - Napton to Hampton Court

Honey July 2005
Napton to Hampton Court

NB Honey acted as a bridge between my boating of the 60's 70's and early 80's and our present day ownership of Wand'ring Bark.

Honey belonged to one of my more unconventional friends, Mr Primrose, mainly to provide accommodation when he visited his Birmingham based restaurant business. In addition to using Honey as a floating caravan at Calf Heath, he also used it as accommodation when he attended horticultural shows around the country including Chelsea, Gardeners World, Hampton Court and Tatton nr Manchester, showcasing his award winning collection of Hostas. The problem was that Mr P was neither a boater nor an engineer, so enlisted all the friends he could to move it round the country on his behalf.

Honey was (and I guess still is) a 36 foot Springer built around 1980 and subsequently subjected to sustained and unadulterated neglect. Don't get me wrong, I have quite a soft spot for Springers and I have seen some great examples where love and care has been poured on them by their owners, and resulted in boats of considerable character. Honey certainly had character, but little else.

  • Her original Lister two cylinder air cooled engine was a nightmare to start and tended to seize when it got too hot
  • Stern gland was shot and water came in at a steady dribble
  • Bilge Pump kept clogging with assorted debris lurking under the engine (a severe problem when taken with the stern gland)
  • Water also came in via the tiller bearing adding to the bilge pump woes
  • The batteries had been repeatedly drained to zero by the fridge being left on, so refused to hold a decent charge
  • The chimney was a solid bit of cast iron from the stove upwards, and had been knocked off at roof level by Mr P on his maiden voyage
  • About half the electrics were US
  • In spite of partial overplating, some bits of the hull were perilously thin to the point of being scary
  • The external blue paint job was at least 10 years old and the rust patches were the size of saucers.
My first and most sustained contact with Honey was when she was in her "raw" state and she had just completed her first London trip to Little Venice and the 2005 Chelsea Flower Festival. It appears that an elderly couple had completed the journey down in 10 days and were beset by mechanical failures. After a month in London (mooring rules and the like never featured high on Mr P's list of priorities) another friend had brought it back as far as Napton and within striking distance of the NEC, ready for me to take it down the South Oxford and then the Thames to Hampton Court.

My association with Honey therefore brought me back into contact with the inland waterways and more specifically, allowed me to build a relationship with Calf Heath Marina where WB is now moored.

The following blog entries cover my trips in Honey in 2005 / 6. I can't find any photos for this trip, which is strange, but maybe Matilda will be able to provide some material I can post at a later date. (Nb - have found a picture of her, now called Anna Devon on the Web - April 09 - see above)

Sunday 3 April 2005

Black Country Ring

1st Week of April 2005
Black Country Ring
Birmingham Worcester, BCN, Birmingham Fazeley, Staffs & Worcester and Stourport Canals

This was our second trip with Alvechurch Narrowboats (ABC Leisure), taking nb Spotted Crake out from their Alvechurch base. The original plan had been to complete the Stourport ring, but high rainfall was threatening to close the Severn and we therefore decided to amend our plans at the 11th hour.

Day one - Alvechurch to Gas St Basin
This was something of a busmans holiday, as I don't think we were ever more than 20 miles from our home in Sutton Coldfield. The boatyard had warned us about not mooring beyond Wast Hill Tunnel on the first day, as there are restless natives around Bournville. I am never too good at taking this sort of advice so we pressed on heading for the city centre. We arrived at Gas Street Basin at sunset and I carefully backed Corncrake into a berth at the back of the basin, beyond the moored working boats. This was alongside a nightclub but fortunately this was closed and we had a remarkably quiet night.

As belle pointed out when we moored up at Gas Street Basin, "you really know how to show a girl a good time, don't you?. Other husbands take their wives to exotic places like Barbados but you: no, you bring me to the back end of Birmingham and then on to exotic spots like Tamworth and Stourbridge - wow!" Belle can be a bit caustic at times....

Day two - Gas Street to Dog and Doublet
We set off in glorious sunshine but the sudden change of plan meant that instead of travelling across to Wolverhampton and having plenty of time to show Belle how to steer a canal boat and work the locks etc, we were straight into the Farmers Bridge flight. She took it in good part and we emerged into Waterlinks in one piece. Rather than take the straight route down the Aston flight, we decided on a detour down Digbeth Branch's six lock Ashted flight, taking in Typhoo Wharf, the Bonded Warehouse and the old FMC building before turning left below Camp Hill locks and then down the Garrison Flight to the Saltley Cut. We suffered some minor inbound in this area but nothing too serious - we kept our heads down and pressed on, finally reaching safety beyond Minworth and stopping for the night at The Dog and Doublet, near Kingsbury.

Day three - Dog and Doublet to Colwich
Another fine and bright day, first taking us to Fazeley, then on to Fradley and finally coming to a halt in a quiet rural location, just before opposite Bishton Hall School, near Colwich.
We paused at Whittington Bridge to restock at their village supermarket, a pleasant little village which has retained a good set of local amenities.

The rest of the day took in the delights of the Swan at Fradley, the narrows at Spode and the broad views of the upper Trent valley. Unremarkable scenery but very "Middle Engaland".

Day four - Colwich to Coven
The week turned colder by the day, so this one was spent muffled up as we made our first passage up the Staffs and Worcester. Tixall wide was a delight and the tumbledown cottage at Deptmore was an eye opener into what is, and isn't, considered habitable.

The end of the day was spent climbing up to Gailey and passing what was to become our home mooring - not that we realised it at the time. We pressed on till we reached the Fox and Anchor at Coven and ate in the pub, playing cards and generally having a good family time together.

Day five - Coven to Stourbridge (Town Wharf)
Today included the back end of Womborne, the Bratch "nearly staircase" (no lock keeper so we worked it out ourselves) and then finally turning into the Stourbridge Canal at Stewpony. The first section of the Stourbridge was very pretty, and we considered mooring at Primrose Hill. In the event we pressed on to the Town Arm, mooring at the end as the moorings outside the secure area felt very exposed. In the absence of a bankside mooring we tied up alongside the trip boat under the Bonded Warehouse just as darkness fell.

Day six - Stourbridge to Black Country Museum
A busy day through the industrial heartland of the Black Country. The Delph flight was a delight followed by the bleak open spaces of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre, good only for the Sainsburys which is within easy reach of the re routed canal. The section beyond Blowers Green lock was pretty pasture and common land with Netherton Church standing proud on the hilltop. It was hard to imagine this area as a hive in industry.

With daylight fading we made our way through Netherton Tunnel, emerging into the twilight and snowy squalls - fitting weather for the BCN Mainline! A final push in blizzard conditions saw us up Factory Locks in Tipton and then through the maze of waterways into the secure moorings offered at the Black Country Museum. The day concluded with fish and chips bought from the small parade of shops opposite.

Day seven - Black Country Museum to Hopwood
Saturday - a day for sociability with our best friends, the Bat people. T&M had never travelled the BCN before so they drove one of their cars to our destination, the Hopwood House Inn and used the other to get back to the BCN Museum. Our route for the day followed the Old Main Line to Smethwick, where we descended to the New Main Line, which then led us into Old Turn Junction having first whizzed round the various "loops" (Soho, Icknield and Sherborne). We lunched opposite the Mailbox and marveled at how boats seem to be taken as public property. We sat inside eating our lunch and every Tom, Dick and Harriett peered in at us! One Asian gentleman with very small son even climbed onto the front deck for a better view.... come on down...

The day concluded with a run past the Cadbury's factory then back under the hills, this time through the lengthy Wast Hill tunnel. Wast Hill marks the watershed between urban and country, after which it is rolling fields right up to Hopwood and a good meal.