Back to the, er... BCN
December is a time to reflect on a year’s cruising. (I know you’re reading this in November but in the strange parallel world of monthly magazines, it’s December.) It’s been a year that certainly has not panned as anticipated. If you had asked me back in January what we would be doing during 2015 well, it certainly wouldn’t have included tackling the Kennet & Avon for one thing.
I’ve said before that I’m someone who likes a plan. I’m not one to drift aimlessly along, stopping and starting at a whim. In some ways I wish I was. No, neither Mrs B nor me do our boating that way. We both like to get a shift on; cruise somewhere pleasant and then explore around. What we very much don’t do is cruise for an hour or two, stop for a long lunch, perhaps put in another hour and then moor up midafternoon and spend the rest of the afternoon putting up the TV aerial. ( We don’t even have a TV). A typical year’s continuous cruising for us is precisely that: we cover around 750 to 1,000 miles.
This past year has been no different. We started from Shardlow and I had a plan: explore the BCN and then head down to the Gloucester & Sharpness. After that, I admit, things were left a little bit vague.
Some boaters love the BCN and would never want to stray far from it. I can’t say that I am among them. Birmingham’s canals had some of the high spots of our year – but also some of our lowest moments. High spots? Central Birmingham, of course; a city we love and which wraps the canal in its arms with a passion other towns could well look at.
Lowest moments? Confronting a gang of teenagers one night who were jumping on and off our boat. They were a harmless bunch, just trying to impress their girlfriends really, but en masse, became a threatening presence that demanded a mix of firmness and tact that was almost beyond me. Sadly, this happened at Windmill End, a delightful oasis of green created from old coal workings near Dudley.
There were several such surprising oases on the BCN, like Chasewater Reservoir at one of the extremes of the Curly Wyrley. And surprising moments, such as spotting a pair of kingfishers on a derelict stretch of canal by the M5 motorway.
In our three feet draught Harry, we struggled with the predictable underwater detritus and shallow waters on parts of the BCN, though rarely to the extent the naysayers would have you believe but, unfortunately, the lasting memory of our time there is of the rubbish to be seen everywhere: cans, bottles, plastics, industrial waste, fly tipping. The longer we were there, the more our spirits sank.
Nothing tarnishes the memory of the great highlight of our year: Sharpness. The whole canal is a delight. Not for itself – it’s short, straight and wide – but for its surroundings, from the magnificent Gloucester Docks with their warehouses and visiting tall ships, to a chance to see the famous Severn Bore and, above all, the beauty of the estuary at Sharpness. We visited the haunting Purton Wrecks and watched the ebb and flow of the tides across the wide river. For once, we couldn’t drag ourselves away.
In the end, the lure of the estuary became so hypnotic that we decided it had to be experienced. So we hired a pilot and took the trip down under the two Severn road bridges to Portishead and from there up the Avon and into Bristol.
Which meant tackling the K& A, a trip we’d sworn never to repeat (but which proved much more pleasant second time around) and then led us on a huge waterway ring via the Thames, the Oxford Canal, River Avon and Worcester & Birmingham Canal... back to the BCN! If I recall, I’d said we’d never do that again, either. Yet, there we were.
‘The BCN had some surprising moments, such as spotting a pair of kingfishers on a derelict stretch of canal by the M5’