After the wide open spaces of the river Avon, David Johns returns to more familiar (and narrower!) territory
David Johns heads back to the Cut after his river cruise. With help from a few friends
Spoiled. That’s what I’d been. Utterly spoiled. And by what? One word: width. Oh, and another one: height. Actually, now I think of it, all three dimensions.
That’s rivers for you. Seven days chugging serenely up Shakespeare’s Avon with a further couple of days before that down the Severn and I’d become accustomed to channels so vast that you could couldn’t see from one side to the other! (I may be exaggerating slightly)
It certainly felt like that once I’d gone back onto the canal at Stratford, specifically when I moved off the mooring to exit the basin and head North. If you haven’t done it before then be aware that there’s a very low road bridge overhead with the passage just wide enough for one narrowbeam craft.
After my river travels this suddenly felt weirdly cramped. I breathed in, ducked, and made it, thankfully having remembered to take down the TV aerial before I set off. That bridge is closely followed, round a corner, by another one with the first lock on the other side. Mooring to go and set that lock, I grounded on the shallow depth, causing me to recall wistfully the many feet of unfettered water that had been below the hull only a day or so before.
How the lower Stratford likes to tease boaters coming off the Avon! Those low bridges kept on coming, the single locks were tight and for good measure a smattering of narrow brick bridges also pepper the canal, my fellow boaters’ surprise at the tightness also being apparent, largely from the big chunks taken out of the brickwork.
I’m not moaning, honest I’m not; it was just a shock and a reminder that I needed to switch back to “canal” mode and steer with a bit more precision than of late. Soon enough, like riding a bicycle, it all came back and a normal level of navigational competence was restored (you can make up your own mind as to what that level is).
Let’s mention those locks again briefly. A single gate spans the bottom rather than the more conventional two half-gates. I’d read that this made the canal rather awkward but as far as I was concerned this was a delight. Being a solo boater, the fewer gates you have to muck about with
- and the less jumping precariously from one side of the canal to the other that you have to do - the better. Bring on single gates to all the narrow canals, I say.
It’s a bit of an odd one, the south Stratford. Quite pretty, lots of countryside. A long aqueduct - my first! - at Edstone, going over a road and a pair of railway lines. Yet the locks are plentiful and once you get above Preston Bagot rather equally spaced out so that you’re neither cruising for any distance nor getting up through a flight. It’s a bit stop-start but on a pleasantly sunny day it’s an amiable way to pass the time.
So good was progress in fact that where I’d planned to split the remaining 17 locks over two days, I instead made a rare Herculean effort and finished the lot in one, helped by almost every single lock being empty on my arrival and in many cases another boater coming out to leave the gate open for me as well. Before I knew it - well, mid-afternoon actually - I was back at Lapworth which I’d come through on the previous year’s cruise so this was now familiar territory; almost home in fact.
Switching channels at the junction, my path was now down the Grand Union towards Warwick, Leamington and ultimately back to the Braunston area. After traversing the invariably soggy Shrewley Tunnel, there was just the small matter of Hatton’s 21 double-width locks to overcome.
For this I enlisted Crew - the wonderfully energetic and effervescent Anna and Kath, two fellow video-bloggers and narrowboat liveaboards (search for “The Narrowboat Experience” on YouTube to see their channel) who even drove up from London to help me out.
That spirit of community and a ready willingness to help a fellow boater is one of the most marvellous things about narrowboating, do you not agree? I’ve lost count of the times that people, many of whom I’ve never met before and likely won’t meet again, have offered a hand at one thing or another.
I recall when I began my canal life one of the queries often received was about how tricky it would be to cruise alone and truly it hasn’t been hard at all. Certainly I’m in good health and quite able to do any obstacles encountered so far on my tod but in many instances I haven’t needed to. Thank you, lovely people of the cut.
With three of us aboard - and another lovely day, thankfully - the locks were despatched with relative ease and the boat moored for a night at the Saltisford Arm. We even had time to pop into Warwick for a late lunch and a chinwag.
With the crew departed I was solo once more the next day and onto the home stretch, round Warwick, through Leamington and out into the countryside. Here I had one of those weird coincidences you only seem to get on the canals when I promptly met another boat vlogger, Tony Saxby (“It’s A Narrowboat Life”). It lead to an amusing moment as we both stood with one hand on the tiller, the other wielding a video camera, filming each other as the boats crossed side by side in a lock pound. Neither of us had known the other was going to be there; for 2,000+ miles of canal, the cut surely is a small world!
I’d forgotten how many little batches of locks there are between Leamington and Calcutt but the good fortune from the Stratford seemed to have followed because lock after lock was dealt with in record time.
That said, there was an alarming joint venture with another boat in some of them; their method of lining up in a lock was to go full tilt into it (and I really do mean getting quite a lick on) until the bow smacked into the cill, raising the boat up and out of the water and then crashing back. I was genuinely open-mouthed watching this and thanked my lucky stars each time that I went in second each time.
I can’t imagine this technique finds favour in the CRT Handbook Of Good Boating but it was amazing to watch - and it made me feel much better about any time I’ve ever gently bumped the end of a lock.
Look! There’s the newly-dug out and restored arm at Willow Wren Training, still awaiting its first moorers when I went by. Ahh! There’s Wigram’s Turn again, as I heaved on the tiller for the sharp left towards Braunston.
The end of The Big Cruise of 2017 approached as first Braunston’s church and then the familiar double-humped bridge came into sight. This did not mean a chance to sit back and take it easy of course. One thing you learn quickly about narrowboats is that the list of maintenance items that need to be dealt with is never ending. So it was that bilge repainting, blacking, a stove chimney repair and many other tasks would have to be completed in the coming months.
More on those in the next instalment here in Canal Boat; until then, you can watch my adventures in video at www. CruisingTheCut.co.uk or chat with me on Twitter (@ CruisingTheCut).
Mooring at Wilmcote
Moored at Saltisford again
I enlisted crew to help at Hatton!
The approach to Shrewley Tunnel