With wa­ter­ways in her blood – af­ter all her grand­fa­ther was a lighter­man and a Free­man of the River Thames – it’s re­ally no sur­prise that in­trepid Ju­dith Basham plans a trip ev­ery few years and rev­els in her time afloat

Canal Boat - - Contents -

Icame to boat­ing late in life, I was-look­ing for a short term stop­gap be­tween houses, and I kept see­ing a phrase in var­i­ous places in the pa­per and on the in­ter­net which caught my eye, it was low-cost liv­ing op­tion.

When I dis­cov­ered it meant buy­ing and liv­ing on a nar­row­boat I thought, well I can do that, hav­ing lived in a car­a­van, been self-suf­fi­cient, built a house, set off to cy­cle around the world. It held no ter­ror, only a new ad­ven­ture.

I could bring it down to the Glouces­ter-Sharp­ness Canal to be near my ail­ing mother and stay on it for a just year or so un­til I de­cided where to buy my next house. Some seven years and two boats later, I’m still here. Not know­ing any­thing about sail­ing a nar­row­boat, I set off on a dark, cold Novem­ber day and it was a bap­tism of fire with win­ter stop­pages,

failed weirs, ice break­ing – and was even frozen in.

I loved it all and wished my grand­fa­ther had seen the boat. He was a Free­man of the River Thames, hav­ing been a lighter­man af­ter a six-year ap­pren­tice­ship to a mas­ter dur­ing the World War One – I think the wa­tery life has missed a gen­er­a­tion and come down to me.

Ev­ery few years, I set off for a trip and in 2017 went away for about 15 months, sin­gle handed (al­though with an el­derly whip­pet in tow) on my 60ft cruiser stern nar­row­boat. It’s al­ways trep­i­da­tious to lock out of Glouces­ter Docks onto the River Sev­ern but needs must and the lock keep­ers ad­vise on river con­di­tions and tides.

The river was run­ning very fast and the level was just onto the red zone com­ing into Diglis! I made my way leisurely to Stoke Prior where friends came to meet me and we then set off up the mighty Tarde­bigge flight of 35 locks.

It took about six hours but we had a great day with a pic­nic at the top and I was re­ally grate­ful for the com­pany. I find that friends al­ways want to visit as it’s such an un­usual hol­i­day for them but nor­mal daily life for me so it works per­fectly. I love the long slow climb of 20 or 30 locks up a hill, a sum­mit or tun­nel, then a de­scent, you re­ally get a sense of the land­scape.

You see won­der­ful wildlife when there are no hu­mans about, a stoat run­ning across a lock gate, king­fish­ers, red kites, a swim­ming grass snake. Com­ing un­der a bridge one morn­ing I could hear lots of high-pitched squeak­ing. I looked round to see two weasels chas­ing each other and hav­ing a scrap, it was like a Tom and Jerry car­toon. Some terns were dive bomb­ing a heron, then I re­alised it was eat­ing one of their chicks on the bank. I shared a lock at the top of the Caen Hill flight with an ot­ter, the first one I have ever seen.

I moored in fields of cows a few times and I’ve gone off them! They started to chew the boat, no sooner had I chased them off the front they’re at the back nib­bling away. I was out at 6am run­ning up and down in dress­ing gown and slip­pers! One was so keen it ac­tu­ally fell into the river and got stuck be­tween the bank and the boat, it looked like a mas­sive hairy fen­der and had to swim about 200 yards to get out.

I got wet in the Wast Hill tun­nel but in the very hot sum­mer the drips and wa­ter from the tun­nel turned to steam on the boil­ing hot steel roof of the boat, so I was go­ing along in clouds of steam. I used to be ner­vous of tun­nels but I’ve grown to love them, even the Hare­cas­tle where they shut a big door be­hind you, so it feels like you’re trapped.

Some nar­row canals have lots of lift bridges but, luck­ily, most are left open al­though I per­suaded a chap hav­ing a pic­nic to open one for me once and have re­sorted to ask­ing walk­ers, cy­clists and run­ners.

I was stuck on the mud one morn­ing wak­ing up at an alarm­ing an­gle, but luck­ily a pass­ing boat pulled me off. An­other time I woke up adrift as pass­ing boats whizzing by had pulled my moor­ing stakes out. I much pre­fer the nar­row canals to wide wa­ter­ways, al­though I lose the ben­e­fit of shar­ing locks. I moored up near a hire boat com­pany and four boats in a row went past full of lads drink­ing on stag par­ties.

Only two of them hit me, but an­other group on a wide­beam boat got caught in­side the top lock gate and lifted it clean out of its hous­ing. More work for the CRT.

I turned west onto the Thames from the Ox­ford Canal as I wanted to see the other end of the Thames and Sev­ern where it joins up at Lech­lade; hope­fully one day we’ll be sail­ing di­rectly from Saul.

I vol­un­teer on the restora­tion of the 36-mile sec­tion of derelict canal from Saul on the G&S to Lech­lade on the Thames. I dis­cov­ered the Cotswold Canal Trust a few weeks af­ter mov­ing down to Stroud and have never looked back; what a fan­tas­tic bunch they are. Some of the rivers and canals are so twisty and turny, but have lots of over­hang­ing branches. It makes me re­alise how well we main­tain the Stroud­wa­ter, with not a hair out of place.

I have a rou­tine do­ing the locks. I don’t jump across gates, I take it steady and check things. I had a very nasty scare nearly fall­ing in a lock on the GU and it was such a wake-up call.

The Thames lock-keep­ers open the locks for you, tend their beau­ti­ful gar­dens and care for their lovely cot­tages. It lulls you into think­ing it’s all so civilised; then I turned onto the Ken­net and Avon at Read­ing and straight­away back into hard work on the locks.

And what hard work it is, not only huge locks, but heavy gates, stiff pad­dle gear, and if that isn’t enough, hun­dreds of swing bridges, which makes trav­el­ling any­where twice as slow.

But it is what it is and I didn’t even re­tal­i­ate when a woman in a car wait­ing for me to close a swing bridge started beep­ing her horn. I had tied up be­fore the bridge, gone to set the lock, then stopped traf­fic and swung the bridge, gone to get the boat and sailed through the bridge into lock, climbed up, tied up, gone back to swing the bridge.

All fine un­til she started beep­ing so I walked over to apol­o­gise for the de­lay but be­fore I could draw breath came a tirade of “hurry up and shut that f****** bridge, I want to f****** get home, I pay to be on the f****** roads” and lots more of the same. I saw a boat in the dis­tance so waved it on to come into the lock with me and she went berserk. Don’t let that f****** boat in etc, so I just waved it in and went as slowly as pos­si­ble. Canal rage, it’s a new one on me!

The flight down through Bath has one of the deep­est locks in the coun­try, at 19ft 6ins deep, what a long lad­der that is, then I turned right just to have a lit­tle trip up to Pul­teney Weir. Walk­ing into town we met a chap with a tele­scope trained on the church tower op­po­site and asked to have a look. There was a fam­ily of pere­grine fal­cons, seem­ingly so close you could touch them. I moored in Bris­tol har­bour op­po­site the SS Great Bri­tain. Lots of hus­tle and bus­tle there in stark con­trast to the mid­dle of nowhere on the beau­ti­ful river Avon. I love it when ap­proach­ing a lock and you see the fa­mil­iar uni­form of the CRT vol­un­teers, al­ways help­ful and pleas­ant, such a treat for a sin­gle han­der.

I have a rou­tine do­ing the locks, I don’t jump across gates, I take it steady and check things. I had a very nasty scare nearly fall­ing in a lock on the GU and it was such a wake-up call. I could have died, no­body about, no life­jacket on. Things changed af­ter that.

I had a good old dose of his­tory com­ing down the Thames to­wards Lon­don, tak­ing in Wind­sor Cas­tle, Run­nymede, Hamp­ton Court, Kew Gar­dens. The river is pretty and very clear and at some points it was packed with swim­mers, dinghies, pad­dle board­ers, ca­noeists, row­ing boats, plas­tic boats, gin palaces, pad­dle steam­ers, trip boats, barges and nar­row­boats all at the same time. Bril­liant. Came through Hen­ley right down the mid­dle of the re­gatta course, I think I won the cox­less pairs.

I went through Ted­ding­ton lock (long­est lock on the non-tidal Thames at a whop­ping 265ft long) at 8am to catch the high tide at 8.15. I thought I had plenty of time to get down to Brent­ford which takes about 45 min­utes, but I was dawdling as usual and as the lock cut is not well marked and goes right back on it­self,

I over­shot it. I be­gan to turn and re­alised how fast the tide was run­ning out as I was go­ing side­ways and fi­nally got round and started go­ing back­wards, had a small mo­ment of panic as I pushed the ac­cel­er­a­tor full blast and hardly moved, eek,

I just about made it into the lock cut and had to act very non­cha­lantly as if I did that sort of thing ev­ery day, when in­side I was ex­hausted with panic and adrenalin. Com­ing into Lon­don it gets busier and busier on the wa­ter and the tow­path. There are lots of tents with rough sleep­ers, very dodgy look­ing boats with un­pleas­ant smells, and even, wait for it, a dead body at the side of my boat in Padding­ton. I re­ally have seen it all now.

There are lovely towns and vil­lages to visit, ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent, and the canals all seems to have their own dis­tinc­tive­ness. Peo­ple say it must be odd be­ing in a dif­fer­ent place ev­ery night but I’m in my lit­tle home ev­ery night but with a new view which is won­der­ful. Canals in towns and cities are like hid­den green tun­nels, you run up the steps to the road and can’t be­lieve the noise and chaos above you.

Ev­ery­one on a boat is part of the same club, we all have a chat at locks, with anec­dotes and ad­vice. I love trav­el­ling about see­ing our won­der­ful coun­try­side, the An­der­ton boat lift, the tun­nels, the bridges, build­ings, bot­tle kilns, but all eclipsed by the Pon­ty­cys­llte aque­duct near Llan­gollen.

I loved it so much I stayed for about a week go­ing back­wards and for­wards. I quite of­ten think I’m hardly get­ting any­where and then sud­denly I’ve done the GU, North Ox­ford, Coven­try and on to the Trent and Mersey, that stretch has the nicest canals I’ve been along, al­though hope­fully my next trip will be the north and the Leeds Liver­pool. I love the time away but al­ways feel a sense of “Oh I’m home” when I get back to the G&S. Give me a cou­ple of years and I’ll be off again.

Brav­ing the Pont­cy­syllte cross­ing

Hairy fen­der greeted me one morn­ing

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