Round in a Circle (well more like a Q if you look in a mirror and stand on your head!)
Having just survived the Beast from the East twins, it was with some trepidation that our boat was de-winterised and even then, the water system wasn’t tested, as the night before we were due to leave a -7C overnight temperature was forecast.
We had been planning our Easter Spring cruise with the crews of Bobbles and Sloe. It was decided that we could fit in a 12 day cruise to our diaries and that we’d like to do the Warwickshire Ring, as some of us had never done bits of it, other bits had last been done many moons ago before now grown up children had made an appearance. The search was then on to find a slipway on or close to the ring. Some were happy to help but couldn’t store cars and trailers as their club members’ boats were still out on the side, others didn’t answer phone or emails, probably as they weren’t manning communications, as it was still early on in the season. Eventually we made arrangements with the Ashby Canal Association at Snarestone Wharf to use their lovely slipway, located almost at the far end of the Ashby. As we were all members of the ACA, having joined last year at the IWA National Trailboat Rally held at Moira Furnace, this also made financial sense.
Wednesday 21st March
Bobbles arrived on the Wednesday as they wanted to include a cruise right into the centre of Coventry, something they hadn’t done for over 30 years and on their first boat. Sloe and Tophyl didn’t want to include this as they had only done it last year.
Thursday 22nd March
Sloe and Tophyl arrived midday and were soon on the water, with the cars and trailers parked up and secured.
After filling with water we noticed that we had a slight leak on a push pipe fitting was weeping on the high pressure side of the water pump. Might have spotted it had I had a chance to test the water system before leaving home. However 10 minutes fiddling seem to cure the problem. Time for a spot of lunch and then we were soon cruising through Snarestone tunnel and the beautiful Leicestershire countryside. We cruised passed Shakerstone, the heritage Battlefield Railway Line station at present quiet before Easter activities were to wake it up, and on past Congerstone, to moor between bridges 45 and 46. As we started to get ready for bed we found another reason why you should test your water system before coming away! One pillow, which is stored adjacent to one of our water tanks was damp. A quick inspection revealed that one of the fill hoses was weeping. It was soon cured by tightening the jubilee clip by 3/4 of a turn. Now it really was time for bed after a busy day.
Friday 23rd March
After a quiet night, we were up and off by 9am, aiming to get to Hawkesbury Junction by the evening to have a meal with the crews of Sloe, Bobbles and by road, the crew of Marie II. We were lucky with the weather and made good progress, only stopping for lunch by bridge 8, which one of Tophyl’s crew took as an opportunity to walk up to the closed St Botolph’s church, within the village of Burton Hastings.
We were soon off again and quickly arrived at Marston Junction and within a further hour we had arrived at Hawkesbury junction, passing the prominent pumping house and through the iconic wrought iron bridge, located in front of the our venue for the evening meal at The Greyhound.
Passing through Sutton stop lock, we were soon moored up with Bobbles, who had completed their run down to Coventry and back. We had previously booked our meal and as there were 8 of us, the pub allowed us to use a private upstairs room. The staff were very attentive and the food and beer was very good. A very pleasant evening with much enjoyable conversation between friends was had.
Saturday 24th March
Waking to rain pattering on the roof, which soon eased, we were off again at 9am, this time heading down Oxford canal (North) for over 15 lock free miles. After a few miles we were joined by the main railway line with frequent high speed trains whooshing past between Birmingham and London. 7 miles in, we stopped at Rose Narrowboats at Stratton Stop for water and for Bobbles crew to buy two propane cylinders which is used for amongst other things their Propex heater. On arrival at Rugby, we stopped for the crews to buy food and petrol from a Tesco located near to bridge 58.
Off again, we completed the 15 lock free miles at the bottom of the 3 narrow but paired and all working Hillmorton locks. We amused a descending narrowboat crew, as all 3 of us easily squeezed in and locked up through the locks together, so saving water.
We were soon looking for somewhere to stop for the night. Discounting the first stretch as the railway was nearby. We then passed under railway bridges (near bridge 73) and a Hungry Horse pub. We were looking for a suitable edge to moor against. Unfortunately we discovered the towpath edge from bridge 73 to bridge 79 had angled stones on the towpath side, which are not good for GRP hulls with a 90deg edge, and so we went on and on. We eventually passed under the M45 bridge but still we found nothing suitable. Steel narrowboats appear to have similar problems in this section, as many were moored up against the only section of steel shuttering we found. We eventually found a straight concrete edge just after bridge 79, near Barby Hill farm, here we pulled over for the night.
Sunday 25th March
Waking to a sunny Palm Sunday morning, we could hear the bells of local churches. In fact, we were all a bit bleary eyed as we set sail at 9am. Overnight the clocks had all sprung forward an hour as we had entered British Summer time.
In the distance could be seen the embankments and bridges and other remnants of the Great Central railway main line that ran between Rugby and Aylesbury and closed in the mid 1960s. Between bridges 84 and 85 can be seen a lone signal post that appears to be still waiting to control long gone passing trains.
The town and parish church of Braunston could be seen silhouetted against the morning sun as we approached the significant canal junction of Braunston Turn. We took the opportunity to stop at the Midland Chandlers shop. Well you have to don’t you! Having found something we really needed to buy, we negotiated the turn and other boats at this busy junction and headed off along the Grand Union Canal towards Napton. This was one of the few times so far that we were following other boats as the canals generally had been very quiet. We arrived at Wigrams Turn / Napton Junction and having turned right at the junction, soon arrived at the top of Calcutt Locks.
We were joined at the top wide lock by a steel narrowboat that had just completed topping up their water tank. It was good to hear that they were aware that GRP and metal boats needed careful handling when locking together. They went in first and we placed our 3 boats alongside. Once the lock was emptied, the Wilderness boats all came out and got out of the way so the steel narrowboat could go straight into the next prepared lock, following in again by us all. As we came out of the second lock, we all had to cross a boat coming up, but with careful choreography it all was easy to achieve. Soon after leaving the last lock, we pulled over to have a lunch break, but this time on the towpath, taking advantage of the warm Spring sunshine.
We set off again noting the number of boats tied up in the large marinas along this stretch. We were soon at the top of the 8 Stockton locks and 2 Itchington locks. Being on our own this time, we soon descended these, the crews quickly filling and emptying the locks. It was coming up to 5pm as we moored up. We were nearby the Two Boats pub at Long Itchington, which we entered and bought a few drinks and asked what time they served food to. The answer was unfortunately 5pm. Back to plan B, we ate onboard.
Monday 26th March
Another sunny morning and at 9am (have you noticed a pattern here yet?) we were off but soon arrived at the Staircase double lock and 2 other locks at Bascote. These wide locks were also quick to cycle so we were soon cruising again.
By lunchtime we were moored outside some new student accommodation near bridge 40 in Leamington Spa. Here some of us took the opportunity to walk up to the town centre. Unfortunately this only went to prove to some of us that our 30 year old memories were inaccurate and we might be remembering Tunbridge Wells instead!!
Back at the boats we cruised on to a Tesco near bridge 46 to buy food and petrol and then on to Cape Locks, the first wide locks we had to climb. We stopped above these to visit the Cape of Good Hope pub, where we took part in an electronic controlled quiz (coming nearly last!) and in their food and drink which was good.
Tuesday 27th March
We took time here not to start at 9am, but to spend time to visit the interesting town of Warwick. Back at the boats by noon, by 12.15 were were entering the bottom Hatton lock, 2 hours 25 minutes later, after a lot of hard work by the crews of our boats, we came out of the top lock. After a period of much needed rest, we cruised on to Turner’s Green to have a very nice evening meal at the Tom ‘O the Wood pub.
Wednesday 28th March
Looking at the weather forecast on Tuesday evening, we were concerned by a predicted 3 or 4 hour long period of heavy rain from 7am on Wednesday. Because of that and the fact we were running a day ahead of schedule, we took the decision to have lazy morning and allow the rain to pass. In the end it dried up and the sun came out just after noon, but as we hadn’t had lunch yet we delayed setting off until 1pm. When we did set off it was only to go a couple of hundred yards to a water point to top off our fresh water tanks. After about 15 minutes we were off for real. We soon arrived at Kingswood junction, only to find our way blocked by a long narrowboat turning in towards the Stratford canal from the Birmingham direction. It appeared to be a tight turn, not that it would have bothered us! In fact it wasn’t going to bother us as we were going to continue up the Grand Union Canal as Tophyl’s crew had never been into Birmingham that way before.
We passed the Black Buoy Cruising Club base as we spotted a dark grey bank of cloud off to the west, even though the sky was blue and the sun was shining brightly where we were. The cloud approached rapidly as we reached the bottom of Knowle locks. There was a boat coming out who warned us that it was windy on the flight. As we rose up in the first lock, we were hit at first by hail, then as we reached the middle lock, this turned to rain and wind and then, only as we came out of the top lock, did it start to brighten up and the rain ease.
We had a pleasant run in the sun soon passing under the M42 and on to Catherine de Barnes, where we pulled over and moored up for the night. Here we ate onboard Sloe. Tomorrow we planned to reach Gas St Basin, but with the weather forecast to be pouring down later in the day we decided to get underway at 7am.
Thursday 29th March
Due to the introduction of British Summer Time (BST) it was still quite dark at 6.30am and when we emerged to set off at 7.00am, we found it was frosty with stiff icy ropes. As we set off to run past Solihull, we were mostly in a cutting, and in the cutting a kingfisher and a “daily” squirrel were spotted. This run to Camp Hill locks was about 8 miles long and so we expected it to take around 2 hours. We would have achieved this if it hadn’t been for Tophyl who was in front picking up a large heavy plastic sheet that had to be cut from around the propeller. Then a dumpy bag stopped the engine, followed by a child’s duvet which had the same result. A variety of plastic bags on all boat propellers, meant we were about 15 minutes behind schedule as we finally reached the CRT combined sanitary station at the top of Camp Hill locks.
These were the first narrow locks for a while, and as we all fitted in with no problem, we soon dropped down the 6 lock flight. At the bottom we turned left at Bordesley Junction, (well we really went straight on) and soon reached the Digbeth branch and rose up the 6 locks past many new buildings around an Aston University Engineering centre. The shape and tightness of Ashted tunnel caused a few problems with it catching the roof on the offside of Tophyl and the throttle control of Tophyl and Bobbles. These boats had to be walked through using a rope. At Ashton Junction, we turned left and quickly rose up the Farmers Bridge locks under the BT tower and moored outside the NIA at 12.15. A good 5 ½ hour run all in all.
The afternoon was taken up by the crews visiting the area as the rain finally arrived. Isn’t New St Station with John Lewis and many eating places amazing. In the evening we braved the rain and went and had some food at the Jimmy Spices international buffet style restaurant overlooking the moorings in Gas St Basin, and very nice it was too.
Friday 30th March
After a very wet but quiet night, we were up and off at our usual 9am, with thoughts of visiting the boatyard in Ozzells St loop to buy gas and coal. We heard from a friendly boater that it was unlikely to be open on Good Friday as it was a bank holiday. Sloe did manage to obtain some coal from a passing boater so they were set fair for the forecast colder and wetter weather over the coming Easter weekend.
So with it being bright, cold and a bit of low cloud shrouding the top of the BT tower, we started down Farmer’s bridge locks, with one of the crew going ahead to set the locks that nearly all needed filling. We reached the bottom in around an hour, passing only one boat going up near the bottom. We then cruised around to Aston Junction and proceeded down Aston lock flight with the same well oiled machine efficiently working the locks.
Once we reached the bottom, we stopped at a combined sanitary station to refill water tanks and dump loos. After a brief bite of lunch, we proceeded to Salford junction, under the start of road users “Spaghetti” Junction, turning right at the bottom on to the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. We quickly passed the end of the Grand Union canal and proceeded out through the industrial areas with much rubbish in the canal and around our propellers!
Passing through Minworth locks we noticed a sign over a lock house door that proclaimed this was the national winner of the BW lock and bridge award in 2002. It seems sad to see it as it is now after the time of austerity, which seems to have lost us all colour around public spaces. Between Minworth top and middle lock, there is no sign of what must have been the large Cincinnati factory on the left, as it is all newly built houses. Cincinnati bridge linking their staff car park and the factory has also disappeared. There were warnings all down the this flight about restricted depth after the middle lock. Even though we are shallow drafted, Tophyl’s propeller fouled the remains of the bund underwater, which stopped her engine and sharpened the blades of the propeller.
The weather forecast was predicting heavy rain starting at 3pm and we could see dark clouds building off to the east. We started to look for a suitable mooring as we approached Wiggins Hill bridge, and were attracted by the newly tarmaced footpath and solid edge as well, as the rain that was starting to fall. We all adjourned to our individual boats till we had evening G&Ts on Bobbles and our meal courtesy of Sloe’s accommodation. The rain hammered down most of the night but it was quiet otherwise.
Saturday 31st March
Again the poor forecast was foremost in our minds as we had a crew conference on where we should head for tonight, tomorrow and Monday, which had a particularly bad forecast, ranging over a number of days from heavy snow to heavy rain, with no sunshine in sight.
We set off at 9am and cruised up to Curdworth tunnel and then the locks. The tunnel had a difficult narrowing profile, not made any easier by the rail protecting any towpath users from falling into the canal, but which grabbed at any fenders, bouncing us off into the low tunnel roof on the offside. Bobbles again had problems with their throttle control being hit so was hauled/guided through using a rope. At Curdworth top lock the noise from the adjacent M42 was becoming increasingly evident and any birdsong was increasingly drowned out. In the flight, the crew again got into the swing of one working ahead and we were soon at the bottom.
We had misty rain which made everything damp as we approached the junction. We passed through the curious folly of a pedestrian bridge near Drayton Bassett. Bobbles had almost a Formula One speedy change of two Calor gas bottles at a boat yard on the left and by the mill we stopped briefly for some petrol up on Watling St before our right turn at Fazeley Junction to leave the Birmingham and Fazeley and re-enter the Coventry canal.
Our aim this day was to make for a pub as far along as we could so as to reduce the cruising required on a predicted wet Bank Holiday Monday, so just before we left Fazeley we called ahead and booked a table at the Kings Head at Atherstone. Glascote locks were soon past and we pulled over to call in for food at the convenient Co-op store, as we did a narrowboat that was selling crocheted porthole covers passed us and as Tophyl required a new one, we said we’d stop and buy one up the cut, which we did when we found them moored at Alvecote. The amount of rain we’ve had over the last few days became apparent as we approached and passed Polesworth, looking down at the River Anker, which looked brown and angry and had burst its banks in many places. The sky was getting darker as we approached the 3 pairs of locks at Atherstone. Mooring between Watling Street, the railway and the by-pass, we arrived at 6.45pm with 45 minutes to go till our dinner booking. The food, drink and staff were all good and importantly the room was nice and warm, which was just the ticket after the very chilly cruise.
Easter Sunday 1st April
A day to wish everyone a Happy Easter, or pinch-punch 1st of the month or April Fool. Which did you choose?
We had a surprisingly quiet night and undisturbed sleep considering our mooring location and woke to a bright morning. Off at 9am, we had our last 5 locks to rise up through and they were all empty which was a bonus. As we neared the top we were met by members of the CRT volunteer group here who helped us up the last couple of locks. At the top we pulled over to get some water and dump loos, and then were on our way along around 9 lock free miles through Nuneaton to Marston junction.
As we cruised along we came across more boats than we had at any time doing the circuit. As we approached Marston junction, we saw 8 boats moving in 15 minutes and at the junction 2 boats came out of the junction from the Ashby and turned towards Coventry as 2 boats arrived from Coventry all into the limited turning space at the junction.
As we moved on to the Ashby, we cruised another 4 miles before we stopped for some lunch and a warm up, looking at lambs gambling and bleating in the field opposite. After an hour and a half, we agreed that as the weather forecast was changing for Monday, with a drier afternoon now forecast, we’d aim for the good offside mooring between bridges 27 and 28 near Stoke Golding. This village has 3 pubs and a very pretty illuminated church. As we were planning to eat together onboard that evening, we unfortunately would not be eating at the pubs.
As we returned to our boats, having had our meal and much discussion, at 11pm, the rain was just starting and it continued on throughout the night.
Easter Bank holiday Monday 2nd April
Well the day started as a typical wet Bank Holiday. The nearby field that had lots of mud in it yesterday, today had a large pond, nearly blocking a popular circular walking route for the locals.
Our plans for today are to cruise the 7 ½ miles to Congerstone where a week ago we had booked a table online at the Horse and Jockey. One of the few pubs and restaurants at the upper end of the Ashby that were advertising that they serving food on the Bank Holiday Monday evening. This would be our last meal together before we cruise the last 5 miles to the ACA Snarestone terminus tomorrow.
So the rain continued off and on till around 1pm, which allowed us to have a leisurely lunch and we set off just before 2pm. It was still grey but as we went along it gradually brightened up. We stopped at Sutton Stop to dump rubbish and loos. What we did notice as we went along was the flooded land on either side of the canal, with the canal weirs running hard, unusual for this flat canal with no locks. As we went past Market Bosworth, we heard the whistle of a northbound Battlefield Line steam loco leaving the station. As we pulled away from the town, we saw it too and we waved as it whistled at us. We continued to just past bridge 47 where we moored up at a designated mooring ready for the visit to the Horse and Jockey.STOP PRESS! The sun just made a brief appearance and it’s definitely warmer!
Tuesday 3rd April
Well that was it. Up at 8am and we headed for the 1½ hour cruise to the ACA base at Snarestone. All in all we covered approximately 163 miles, 51 wide and 80 narrow locks in 12 days. Then it was time to recover our faithful boats onto their respective trailers and head for home.