Wednesday 31 August 2011

Severnth Heaven - Tideway Adventures

The Severn Estuary -
Portishead to Sharpness in a floating library - sshh! quiet please.
30th August 2011

Its not every day you wake up to a text message offering a trip up the tideway from Portishead to Sharpness.

Portishead harbour at dawn

Sarah of the Book Barge fame finally sought refuge from the officialdom of Bristol, where the powers that be  were so fearful of her mind expanding library that she received a visit from the boys in blue to ensure she was not  pedaling her illicit literary wares.

Portishead lock at high tide

The Book Barge at Portishead

On Monday she made her way down the Avon to Portishead in the company of Stu and her pilot and the question was: do you fancy a trip up the Severn to Sharpness? - we leave on the flood tide at 6.00am on Tuesday, be here at 5.00am. Well, this is a trip I have drooled over for ages. Of course I want to do it, its one the inland waterway's great tidal challenges, and not being the skipper or steerer I would be free to savour the experience and hopefully take lots of photos. The issue was the day and the time. 

Portishead Lock at first light 5.20am

Sadly work keeps getting in the way of my boating interests and my employers were kind of expecting me to put in an appearance. A few frantic texts and voice mails and I got what I took to be consent so I signed up, but to be in Portishead for 5.00am from Birmingham would mean pretty much getting up before I went to bed (cue: they don't know they are born...). As alternative Jeff and I cadged a few square metres of floor on the Book Barge and kipped down for the night having dined on kebab shop fish and chips washed down with Belle's surprisingly agreeable rhubarb schnapps.

Portishead Lock

The night passed relatively uncomfortably, I think I am getting too old for hard floors and camping mats and I was well awake when Stu's alarm started to buzz at 5.00am. Every 10 mins we peered out of the windows concluding "not dawn yet". Finally, at 5.20am the sun made a bleary appearance and we staggered off to avail ourselves of the Portishead Marina facilities - and very good they are. Mind you, so they should be at £30 a night.

Pressing out into the main navigation channel 6.15am

We we one of two narrowboats making the northward crossing to Sharpness, the other being Francesca Leah which was fortunate as her presence added interest to the photo opportunities. For all the articles written about it, this crossing is still relatively rare with only about 60 narrowboats making the trip each season, and some being held up for weeks waiting for favourable conditions. The rule is that anything more than a force three is considered too dangerous. The forecast for today was benign in the extreme, but worsening as the week progresses to Sarah's passage was advanced. The wind was a gentle three or four knots  from the north west which meant no discernible swell.

Francesca Leah approaches the New Severn Crossing

We made our was out of the huge Portishead sea lock at 6.00am precisely, initially making placid progress out of the inlet but then suddenly we watched as Francesca Lea swerved bodily to the north, she had found the main current. The tide was particularly high which meant we made a lot of leeway as we crabbed our way out into the middle of the main navigation channel, clear of the adjacent docks and out under the massive towers of the New Severn Crossing.

Severn Bridge

Its very hard to get any idea of our progress when you are so far out in the estuary, apart from the pilot's GPS which indicated about 8 knots. The speed of travel was rammed home as we were swept under the twin towers of the new suspension bridge and watched the huge pile of water mounded up in front of the piers. At this point the flood tide reaches its peak speed and the GPS told us that we were travelling at 12.2 knots (that's over 14 mph in real money), with the engine chugging along sedately as if we were out for an afternoon cruise down the Grand Union.

Strong tidal flows under the bridge

Between the two Severn Crossings the fast flow runs over some huge holes in the river bed and this throws up some awesome turbulence near the west bank. Water swirls and roils lumping up and spinning round. These back currents are so severe that even big sea going boats are sometimes spun through 360 degrees.

Navigation Buoy near the New Severn Crossing

Given the number of photos I will take a break here and pick up the tale in my next post. Click here.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Huddersfield Ring 2011 - Torksey Castle

Huddersfield Ring
Torksey Castle
3rd August 2011

As is my habit, if I find something of particular interest I pause my blog and give it a bit of focus. Today its the turn of Torksey Castle.

Remians of Torksey Castle

If you venture downstream from Torksey you may notice some ruins on the southern bank of the river, surprisingly close to the river itself. In summertime the view is obscured by foliage but its enough to encourage a closer inspection.

The interior - very unstable

Now the problem with Torksey Castle is its location. It is on private land and access is very difficult (actually its impossible if you are determined to be absolutely legal about these things). But by now you will appreciate my somewhat loose approach to the laws of trespass when exploring abandoned canals - get in quietly and fast, take photos fast and apologise profusely if and when caught.

Partially submerged beneath the flood barriers

The castle remains can be accessed from the main Gainsborough road, but you will have to follow some very indistinct tracks across some wasteland to get there.

We made the effort and were rewarded with some excellent views of this unusual and unstable structure. 

A little bit of history:

Torksey Castle isn't a castle at all. It looks castellated from the river but it was never more than a Tudor Hall, possibly built on the foundations of an earlier castle built to protect an important trading route. Yes, the river used to be busy. 

It was built in the 16th century but was owned by a family of Parlimentarians during the civil war and was burned out by the Royalists of Newark in 1645, and never rebuilt. The land around it changed hand over the years but the hall, built on boggy ground and very close to the flood plain was left to its own devices. 

Torksey Castle from the River Trent

The locals used it as a quarry for building materials till English Heritage stepped in and did some work in the 1990's, stabilising the remains and staving off complete collapse for a further few decades. Perhaps the amazing thing is that the gaunt remains have stood at their full height in this bleak location for 350 years. 

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Sunday 28 August 2011

Huddersfield Ring 2011 - Newark to Torksey

Huddersfield Ring
Newark to Torksey
3rd August 2011

The prevailing tides dictated the pace of the day, with passage through Cromwell restricted till 13.00 and then an enforced layover at Torksey. Not only were the tides running at an inconvenient time, it was also a period of spring tides when the rise and fall is at its greatest, denying us the opportunity to make the trip to Keadby in a single hop.

Newark Market

During the morning we visited the expansive Farmers Market which takes place in the town centre on the 1st Wednesday in the Month, and the less impressive informal "crap" market beside the visitor moorings where all sorts on worthless junk are auctioned off. Actually this smaller market has its high spots - it has an excellent bike stall and a really good old tool supplier. Its well worth a look even if you don't buy anything.

I like Newark. When the market is on the whole place has a buzz about it, and its got an excellent array of mainstream shops too all in a splendid Georgian setting.

Flotilla assembles at Cromwell Lock for the last penning out of the tide

By 11.15 we were off to the visitor pontoon which offered the only prospect of some water. Unfortunately, all the moorings were taken so we breasted up against and empty narrowboat and trailed our hose over their roof. They returned mid fill and were completely unfazed by our presence, happily passing the time of day and recounting their scary moments on the tideway a couple of days before. The tank was very empty and it was 12.15 before we set off for Cromwell lock, the last in a long line of boats heading for the safety of Torksey Cut.

Out on the Tideway

The trip through Nether Lock (VHF set to the right channel this time!) and over the five miles to Cromwell takes quite a while and we tacked onto the back of  large gaggle of boats being penned out onto the tideway.

We emerged at 1.30pm and were soon overtaken by the swarm of white plastic river cruisers, settling into a formation with a pair of Sea Otters, barely moving 100 metres apart during the whole 16 mile journey. The last 5 miles were spent beneath gathering storm clouds , spattering us a few times but reserving the real downpour for after we had stopped.

Fledborough Railway Viaduct

We happened to select a day when the South Yorkshire Cruising Club were out on a club trip so when we got to Torksey the airwaves were full of chatter and the pontoons full of boats. There was a solitary narrow boat hanging on the end of the pontoon expecting a night in isolation, but it wasn't to be. We three narrow boats had to moor somewhere so and were soon breasted up lying four deep across the cut.

Safe refuge in Torksey Cut

With the storm over Belle and I decided to take a wander into fleshpots of downtown Torksey and see what pleasures were on offer to the intrepid traveller. In short, not a lot! Apart from the lock area there is a pub, and the castle - but more of the castle in my next post.

Fossdyke after the storm

The heavens opened again in the evening, cooling things down a bit and relieving the sultry heat of the last few days. The instructions are to be off by 12.15 tomorrow so no real hurry. Plenty of opportunity for games of 6 handed rummy - stupid game (guess who lost?). 

But that wasn't the end of the day. At about 11.00om, just as I was slipping off to sleep, I noticed a strange release of gas - no it wasn't Belle! Gas was bubbling up from the bed of the river and hitting the bottom of the boat - very strange. A few minutes later the boat tipped alarmingly to one side and the mooring ropes creaked and groaned and the boat settled onto the muddy river bed. Heads emerged from the other boats beside us just as a huge wall of water rushed up the river channel and swirled into the cut, re-floating us and causing our raft sway and heave in the other direction. Outside on the river the sound of churning water was very apparent - welcome to the Trent Aegir (the Trent's version of the Severn Bore). 

The books say that up at Torskey it "barely rattles your anchor chain" but tonight the river didn't seem to appreciate that rule. It was the highest of high spring tides and the Agier was in full force. I wouldn't like to be caught out in it.

The next high tide is due shortly after 11.00am, so it will be interesting to see if its repeated then.

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Friday 26 August 2011

Huddersfield Ring 2011 - Newark

Huddersfield Ring
3rd August 2011

Due the the tide times we couldn't pass through Cromwell Lock till 12.30, so we were able to spend some time exploring Newark.

Newark Castle

This is an attractive market town which I used to visit from time to time to time as part of a training job. 

 Newark Church

Newark's period Palace Theatre

 Town Bridge

Newark Town Lock

Newark Market

Our visit was on a Wednesday when an excellent farmers market takes place in the market square.

Coffee Grinder with canal art - any ideas where it came from?

I spent some time exploring the town which yielded a good clutch of photo's.

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Wednesday 24 August 2011

Huddersfield Ring 2011 - Nottingham to Newark

Huddersfield Ring
Nottingham to Newark
2nd August 2011

24 miles - 7 locks - 6 hours

Castle Marina is a bit quieter than outside Sainsburys as there is no parallel road, but its still a bustling city location. The canal side is undergoing something of a regeneration, starting at the city warehouses and moving eastwards. The end result is quite pleasing but to my mind retains too little of the old.

However, the old bits which have been kept, like the old BW warehouses are quite beautiful in a Victorian sort of way. I am very familiar with Nottingham but its centre always seems removed from the canal, set up behind the Castle on its rocky sandstone outcrop. 

 The old and the new in Nottingham

Before long we were out on the Trent and as we had time we decided to take a look upstream, an area we had never explored. There is a mile or so of navigable river which is fronted by Nottingham City Hall, with a riverside park on the north bank which was being prepared for a funfair. 

Nottingham Bridge

This stretch of river offers some great views of the city, and some good moorings outside the Council House providing you watch you don't get grounded on the steps.

Nottingham's old warehouses

We made our way to beyond the footbridge and turned, heading downstream past the National Watersports Centre where a steady procession of brave white water kayakers, carrying their frail craft up to the top of the slalom course which runs alongside Holme Lock.

Nottingham's arch of remembrance

Then it was down the river through Stoke Lock, where the fire brigade were testing their kit.

Stoke Lock

Then Gunthorpe and Finally Newark Town Lock to the visitor moorings opposite the iconic castle. This was all very different to our last visit at Easter in 2007 when the sky was a leaden grey and the water was flowing high in the amber zone and kilometer posts were counted off on numb fingers. This time the sun was bright,  the thermometer was settled in the high 20's and the flow was gentle.


My trip down the upper Trent  provided an opportunity to test my new VHF radio but I was disappointed to hear absolutely nothing from the lock keepers and to receive no answers to my hails. A little bit of research revealed my problem - and the futility of using channel 76 when the keepers work on 74! By the time I realised my error, the battery was dead - another lesson, charge batteries the night before.

Sonning, an ex Salters Steamer from the Thames

With the visitor pontoon moorings all taken we resorted to the wall mooring beneath the castle walls, a bit tricky to get on and off from but very quiet and with an excellent view.

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Monday 22 August 2011

Huddersfield Ring 2011 - Swarkestone to Nottingham

Huddersfield Ring
Swarkestone to Nottingham
1st August 2011

The Trent and Mersey is suddenly big and muscular with wide beam locks and big bridge holes. This comes as a surprise after months in the West Midlands with its thin ribbons of canal. And with the wider canal come wide beam craft, which loom ominously round corners seemingly filling the entire navigation channel. I guess its the shape of things to come where we are going.

Trent and Mersey Canal near Shardlow

With all the extra width (not depth!) the boat moves along faster and we were soon through Swarkestone Lock and onto Weston Lock with its slow filling tap. The blue skies gave way to grey which proceeded to spit at us as we approached Shardlow at which point it escalated into a full blown downpour, not the best conditions to photograph the attractive canal town. A curious thing about the wide locks on the eastern extremity of the Trent and Mersey - try as I might, if only one top gate is opened for me the other one always swings open as I enter. I have never really cracked that problem.

Jeff in active mode

After dropping onto a very docile Trent we stopped at Sawley Marina, who provide a convenient DIY pump out machine for £12.50. This isn't time restricted so you can give the tank a good flush through.

This union with the Trent will last for the  next four days and move us nearly 100 miles north to the Humber Estuary. Its not the prettiest of rivers but it is an express route to a lot of places.

Cranfleet Cut

The navigation resembles a canal at Cranfleet Cut, with its lock gates, hump backed bridges and linear moorings. This flitting between canal and River goes on all the way to Nottingham. Not that the river sections are dull. The area is full of individualistic summer houses perched on stilts. They come in all shape and sizes from a glorified 1930's garden shed to a palatial edifice in steel and glass, each one someone's pride and joy.

As we made our way onto the Beeston Cut a familiar face appeared heading towards us - Matilda Rose making its way up to see Indigo Dream in Loughborough. We last saw Graham on the BCN Challenge back in May. Its a small world.

Matilda Rose

It stayed overcast all day but just got hotter and hotter, very stuffy and sticky so it came as no surprise to find the pub next to Castle Marina heaving with perspiring workers slaking their thirst on the way home. All the crowds were not attractive so we cobbled together an ad hoc mooring right outside the marine. Mooring in Nottingham is never tranquil but this spot isn't bad. The location is also convenient for Sainsburys plus the landscaped canal margin offered foraging potential for Belle, Blackberries and Elderberries in this case.

Trent and Mersey Towpath Jam