Going all the way
More people climb the summit of Everest in a single day than attempt the Bristol Channel and the River Severn in a narrowboat in a year. But once you’ve started telling folk that’s what you are going to do, it becomes very difficult to back down
Twenty years ago while holidaying with my family in Wiltshire we stumbled upon the Caen Hill flight on the Kennet & Avon. I didn’t know much about them but learned that the 29 locks have a rise of 237ft in two miles or a 1 in 44 gradient.
The locks come in three groups. The lower seven, Foxhangers Wharf Lock to Foxhangers Bridge Lock, are spread over 1.2km. The next 16 locks form a steep flight in a straight line up the hillside. Because of the steepness of the terrain, the lock pounds are very short.
As a result, 15 locks have unusually large sideways-extended pounds, to store the water needed to operate them. A final six locks take the canal into Devizes.
For the whole of that Sunday morning, as we helped a boat crew lock up the flight, I was fascinated by the fact that a boat weighing more than 15 tons could be transported a great distance uphill by water alone. Archimedes himself would have been amazed (before, of course, the well publicised incident with the bath tub).
Slow forward 15 years and after one or two narrowboat holidays I started drawing plans for the possible interior layouts of a narrowboat. Ikea might be the kings of space utilisation but I don’t think even they have cracked how to fit a full-size bathroom, full-size beds for four adults and a galley kitchen plus a dining area in a cabin that measures 33ft by 6ft 10in.
Of course it is possible to have a much larger cabin, for example, in a widebeam or a 70ft narrowboat, but such luxuries come additional features called initial cost, increased license fees and on-going maintenance costs.
During the next five years I seemed to spend a lot of time pouring over online adverts for narrowboats and barges. At one stage I reckon I had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the barges on sale in Europe.
All this research paid off because one day, completely out of the blue, my wife Pippa said: ‘Why don’t you buy one?’ I was even more amazed than Archimedes.
Shortly afterwards we were visiting relatives in Staffordshire, just a short hop from a couple of boatbuilders. The nearest was Nick Thorpe. I’d read in Canal Boat that one of Nick’s boats Snail’s Pace had been voted the people’s choice of best boat at the Crick Boat Show. It was therefore imperative that I called in to see Nick on the way home.
As I entered his workshop Nick came over to greet me. Don’t be misled by reports that metal-bashing is dead in the Midlands. It ain’t so. Boatbuilding workshops are dirty, noisy, smelly, filthy places. It’s wonderful.
Inside his workshop were the hulls of two narrowboats at different stages of completion. I was, and still am, in awe of
the way Nick and his small team can cajole and bend steel to create the gracious curves in a hull, given that the baseplate is 10mm thick, the hull sides 6mm thick and the cabin and roof 5mm and 4mm.
What’s even more remarkable is that the team works to a tolerance of just 1/8th of an inch over a 70ft boat which they tack weld within a week. From then on the really hard work starts of welding all the joints and then angle-grinding the welds.
A few weeks later I drove back to Staffordshire and handed Nick a set of drawings based on what I thought my ideal narrowboat should incorporate.
Years of research had convinced me that I wanted a 45ft Trad sailaway with some additions. These included battening, spray foam insulation, double-glazing, a 200-gallon stainless steel water tank and an integral waste holding tank for a pump-out toilet.
I had set my heart on a colour for the boat – that of some mugs that I had purchased 20 years earlier from Woolworths. Matching the colour was a problem until I was advised to pay a visit to a car paint supplier in Stoke-on-Trent. I presented one of the mugs to the staff. It took just three quick attempts to achieve the perfect colour match. When I asked how he managed it so quickly he replied that he’d spent 25 years colour matching in the pottery industry – talk about luck.
Given that I would be cruising the Thames every time I left the Wey, I decided on a Barrus Shire 45hp engine with twin alternators one of which is rated at 250 amps.
I was planning to do the fit-out myself and as I definitely did not want to be responsible for the electrical installations, Nick recommended Marc, who is a qualified MIEE. He set about installing the five 135Ah domestic battery bank linked to a 3kW combined inverter/charger.
Not necessarily a cheap option but as it provides 240 volts it meant I could buy a mains fridge for half the price of a 12 volt version. It also meant that I could install a full-size washer/drier and an induction hob, which plugs into a 13 amp socket.
While Nick and his team were busy constructing another boat, I was able to install bulkheads, which in effect created a walk through bathroom and the rear and main cabin. It also meant that I could install a full-size bath (with shower over) and a Jabasco pump-out toilet.
Nick’s team commissioned the Eberspacher 5kW diesel heater connected to a vertical twin-coil calorifier and a single radiator in the rear cabin and at this point with a fridge on board, the induction hob and a hot and cold water supply, the day soon arrived for the launch.
It was memorable for a number of factors. The first being the Hiab I’d booked to lift and transport the boat to the canal. Even though it had a 40-ton lift capability, it struggled to lift the boat.
Removing a fair amount of weight from inside such as three radiators (not yet installed), the anchor and half a ton of ballast did the trick. Then, after a short drive to the canal, came the exciting bit. I knew this was going to be dodgy for two reasons: Mark, one of Nick’s team, had set his video camera running, telling me: ‘If this launch goes wrong the video would be worth at least £250.’
Secondly, when the Hiab operator had manoeuvred the boat so that it was 90 degrees to the lorry and half over the quayside and half over the canal, he turned to Daryl, another team member and said: ‘Go and put you hand on the nose of the lorry and give me a shout if it begins to lift….’. Gulp.
The next five minutes were extremely stressful as the boat was lowered gingerly into the water. A few moments later there was bang. An hydraulic hose on the Hiab had ruptured christening the boat with hydraulic fluid – still it saved on the champagne and Mark didn’t get his £ 250.
Anyone who takes delivery of a boat knows that sensational feeling of cruising her for the first time. I had the pleasure of looking forward to a two-week trip southwards to the River Wey where I’d managed to find a mooring. What I hadn’t
‘The launch day was memorable for a number of factors. The first being the Hiab I’d booked to lift and transport the boat to the canal.’
taken into account were the red boards that appear fairly frequently after a spot of rain in the Thames basin.
I was held for 60 hours at Shiplake Lock on the Thames because of the conditions. When the red boards were eventually taken down I was mighty glad I had an over-sized engine installed, given the volume of water flowing down the weirs.
During my first year I installed the central heating and fitted out the galley. I also managed a trip along the length of the Kennet & Avon and back. With friends we also did the London Ring motoring up river from Limehouse to Teddington.
The boat performed brilliantly and that made me more determined than ever to have a crack at the Bristol Channel, River Severn transit from Bristol to Sharpness via Portishead Marina.
Anyone contemplating taking a narrowboat from Portishead to Sharpness should engage the services of a Gloucester pilot. In fact, I also engaged a Bristol pilot to navigate us safely from Bristol to Portishead Marina, which proved a very pleasant transit in calm weather.
At 8am on June 8 we picked up our pilot Tim at Portishead Marina. He had been checking the weather. Although it promised to be a fine day, the wind was forecast to be from the north-east at a steady Force 3, which meant we would be heading directly into it and more importantly, we were on the cusp of being able to make the transit.
The boat was well prepared, bow doors sealed with Duck tape and the bow low level vents also sealed. Shortly afterwards the mighty marina lock gates opened and we were off. As soon as you enter the channel the incoming tide reminds you that narrowboats are designed for canals not tidal estuaries. The boat bucked and kicked.
Keeping her on a steady course over the shallow tidal waters with perilous sandbanks just below the surface made steering towards the pilot’s marks on the distant horizon extremely difficult. At one stage, Tim explained that although we were being driven forward by an incoming tide at some points the actual current was flowing in the opposite direction.
As I was finding it difficult in the conditions to keep the boat on course for the marks which Tim used to follow the deep-water channel, I asked him to take the tiller, which he kindly did. About an hour into the transit the windspeed increased and was gusting to Force 4.
Tim said that had he known it was going to be this ‘lumpy’ we probably wouldn’t have set out. However, turning back was definitely not an option. We pressed on under the Second Severn Crossing followed by the first bridge, where there were giant eddies and whirlpools of drinking chocolate-coloured water.
After nearly three hours, Sharpness hove into view. I had read how the turn into the lock is made well in advance of the entrance being visible, as the tide is moving so fast that if you leave it too late your boat will be swept way past the entrance.
A couple of hundred yards before the entrance, Tim began the turn and asked for full power. Judged to perfection the boat rocketed into the pocket just like a perfect shot with a billiard ball.
After all the adventures we have had thus far, I’m so glad I stumbled across the Caen Hill flight all those years ago.
Tim – Gloucester pilot (the most essential bit of kit!)
What it was like inside the cabin
Heading for the second Severn crossing
Portishead Marina lock gates opening