A far-flung corner of a remote province

Braunston to London: Days  9 – 10

Motoring on a highway is about getting from A to B as comfortably and as fast as possible.

Narrowboating on a canal is about the details of the journey. The destination – when you remember there is one – is of secondary importance.

Motoring on a highway is about mile-long sweeps of cambered concrete, about the large print on the road map, about last-second instructions on the GPS.

Narrowboating on a canal is about the secret views you catch through gaps in the hawthorn hedge… It’s about small signs erected almost shyly, along the way, promising cream scones or local ales… It’s about maps that plot your progress on a scale of a mile to an inch…

Motoring on a highway, above all, is about the big picture. Narrowboating, above all, is about the miniature.

And that’s what today’s blog, nominally tracking our progress from Berkhamsted to Uxbridge, is dedicated to: miniatures.

Take the plants that have found a niche within locks, for instance. They grow on the walls, or on the gates; they flourish in the cracks along the margin of locks; they’re small and infinitely tenacious… For the moment they must be nameless, because, to my shame, I haven’t yet mastered the botany of nondescripts.

Or take the wildflowers that flourish… everywhere. Fields of dandelions and buttercups and daisies… Banks of Queen Annes Lace… Forget-me-nots in extravagant profusion.

And then, of course, there are the details you notice scrawled in the shadows beneath bridges, or more flagrantly, on the buttresses that support them. We followed one artist through the bridges spanning the canal as it dropped down through Hemel Hempstead and Kings Langley.

So down we came through Apsley to Watford’s Cassiobury Park, through Rickmansworth to the outskirts of Uxbridge. En passant, we threaded our way delicately through a canalboat festival in Rickies at which some vintage boats, lovingly restored, prepared to show themselves off in all their finery. (And what some of them lacked in age and distinction, they more than made up for in colour and exuberance.)

And finally, thirty three locks after we left Berkhamsted, we’ve come to rest along a quiet stretch of canal just a mile or two from Uxbridge. We’re in London. We were left in little doubt about that when we witnessed with our own eyes an underground train passing across the canal on its way to the heart of the metropolis. And yet here, if we mute the distant thrum of traffic, we might be in some far-flung corner of a remote and watery province, the haunt of moorhens and herons, of mute swans and cormorants.

Reflections

Damp pilgrims beneath a weeping sky

We’re sitting in Berkhamsted while the rain descends steadily about us. Trickles of icy water make their way through our window frames – one of the unintended consequences of the big paint job. At breakfast this morning, the temperature was nine degrees centigrade. Now, at the very height of the afternoon, it has dropped to eight degrees.

These are not great hardships, of course, but we shiver in Patience because our diesel stove, after some years of disuse, now refuses to release the thin line of diesel it needs to fuel it. We curse, and swear we’ll have it replaced with a solid fuel stove… next year.

We’ve come from The Globe, past sheep farms and reservoirs, up through the Marsworth Flight onto the Tring Summit pound. In the distance, on the Dunstable Downs, the Whipsnade Lion.


A summit pound, I hear you ask? Some writers hyperbolically talk about the “rollercoaster ride” of the Grand Union between London and Braunston. What they mean is that there are two high points along the hundred mile span of the canal: one above Braunston’s six locks; and another at Tring.

Tring’s summit pound was cut largely through a hill. That it was done without benefit of earth-moving equipment, more than two hundred years ago, is an astonishing thought, since hundreds of thousands of tons of rock and earth had to be dug out and shifted elsewhere. The legacy of that monumental effort is a beautiful stretch of canal, lined with sycamores and oaks and a dozen other species of trees I can’t identify. I throttled down to move as slowly as possible through the cut, savouring the play of light and shadow on the water.

So from Tring to London, a distance of forty miles or so, it’s all downhill. We enter each of the fifty locks between the summit pound and Paddington Basin full, and leave them behind us, empty.

Entering a full lock, and descending to the next level down is a much more peaceful process than entering an empty lock and having it filled to take you up to the next level. It’s less turbulent. You don’t have to tie up to a bollard. You don’t have to strain to keep the boat from being buffeted from side to side by the inrush of water.

A typical lock on the GUC, by the way, is seventy two feet long, fifteen feet wide, and anywhere between five and ten feet deep. Which means, if you work out the maths and do the conversion, that a typical lock contains about 230 000 litres. That’s about the equivalent of four average South African domestic swimming pools. So efficient were the 18th and 19th century engineers who designed and built the original locks, that, by means of an ingenious system of pulleys and chains, operated entirely by hand, they can fill – or empty – in between five and ten minutes.

And so through Tring and Cowroast, from swerve of shore to bend of bay – as James Joyce might have said – we come by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Berkhamsted, a gracious town once served by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of Berkhamsted Castle. The castle has been reduced to a few stone stumps in the grass – but Chaucer’s reputation has never been higher.

And we are ourselves, of course, on a pilgrimage of sorts. We’re not heading for Canterbury Cathedral – our destination is both more prosaic and less identifiable: it is a life we seek, of peace and serenity, of chance encounters with other pilgrims, of sunny days and, yes, miserably cold and wet days.

We met two other narrowboaters on the locks descending into Berkhamsted. Andy and Barbara on their boat Libertè. Living on the Lee River in London, with a boat moored in a marina in, wait for it, Yardley Gobion, they make an annual pilgrimage to bring their boat down to their house for the summer.

You can make a friendship over the course of a dozen locks. We’ll call them when we get to the Lee later in May, or early June.

And two more pilgrims in Berkhamsted itself. Three years ago we met Lindy and Brian on the way back to Braunston, sharing an impromptu feast on the canalpath at the end of a day of locks. We called them just a few days ago to say we’d be passing through, and they invited us to moor up at their private mooring in the heart of the town, where once they ran a boat hire business.

Since then, Lindy’s gone on to be mayor of the town – and, to petition the House of Lords in a passionate and successful plea, to prevent the effective privatization of aspects of the canals.

So here we sit, damp pilgrims beneath a weeping sky. Tomorrow, they say, will be drier and just slightly warmer.

Rainy day in Berkhamsted

Milton Keynes – the city that is no city

Braunston to London: Days 4 – 6

It blew all day at our mooring north of Cosgrove, blew until it felt as if it would flatten the landscape, obliterate the canal and all who cruised upon it.

We went to sleep with the gale blowing us hard against the canalside shore.

And woke to discover the truth of that old cliché that I’ve known since Swallows and Amazons days: every gale eventually blows itself out. And the sun was trying with some little success to make its presence known.

So we cruised on, over an aqueduct crossing the River Ouse, and so into Cosgrove itself, entry into which is marked by the most elegant of Georgian bridges, built in 1800 and going strong.

We holed up here, almost in the shadow of the bridge, for a night and most of the next day, working on Allaboutwriting, doing our tax returns and wondering how long we could (a) delay taking on water (b) rely on our 13kg gas cylinder, and, most importantly, (c) avoid a pump-out. Much more about this last, nasty but necessary chore, later.

Next day we chugged just a mile or two to the outskirts of Milton Keynes, and another overnight stop.

While Trish went to stock up at a nearby Tescos, I took my leisure on a bench on the canal path, where I was joined by a man and his dog. We fell to talking. He had had his dog, he told me, for four years, and in that time he had taught him considerable wisdom. Chief of the lessons the hound had learned was to put aside the anger and the viciousness that had so characterized his behaviour during his first year. But he, his trainer (he went on), had also learned a great deal.

What lessons had his dog taught him, I asked.

“He taught me that it is possible to decide to do something, to find out how to go about it, and to do it.” He said this with considerable satisfaction. He was talking about teaching his dog to give up his former disreputable behavior.

We steamed on then into the depths of Milton Keynes, a chill rain setting in, freezing me despite my Barbour and gloves. We stumbled to a halt opposite Great Linford Park, fumbled with the mooring hooks, threaded what we nautical types call “lines”, but which might be more familiar to you as “ropes”, through the hooks, before taking refuge in Patience from the downpour.

Whereupon the sun broke through the clouds, and within minutes any memories we might have had of rain and discomfort seemed outlandish. Trish went for a walk, and came back with reports of a cricket match on the sward.

Cricket at Great Linford

And thence, the next day, on through the mighty metropolis that is Milton Keynes. Here are some impressions of this city that is, when you look hard at it, not a city at all. In fact, when you look hard at it, from the canal at least, it seems not to exist in any sense.

A man walking a ragtag pack of eleven dogs.

A teenager skating along the track that parallels the canal path along an avenue of poplars, using ski sticks to propel himself.

A little — ravishing — graffiti to suggest that beige is not Milton Keynes’ only colour.

A pair of swans gliding along followed by their brood of nine cygnets.

Endless parkland with the occasional outcrop of houses and flats. It all looks remarkably like the sets I remember in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451: a setting for a perfectly authoritarian society.

A distant hum of traffic. Children’s voices rising behind hedges.

A pair of equestrians on horseback who might or might not have been mounted police. They were numbered: 28 and 29.

A motorway overpass, lapped by stretches of grass thick with tiny daisies turned to catch the occasional bursts of sun.

A heron eyeing the water with ecclesiastical intent.

And then a peculiarly English phenomenon: sixty men each sitting about a boat length (which is to say, 15 metres) or so apart along the bank, fishing.

It was a competition, held often in these parts, on Sundays. The angler to land the heaviest catch wins. Not the biggest fish. There are few big fish in the canals. But dozens and dozens and dozens of small fish, tiny little bream (I think), some no longer than a couple of inches.

No fish is discarded. Once caught, they’re tossed into a giant concertina net hanging in the water at the side of each fisherman. At the end of the day, they’re tipped into a scale, and weighed by the umpires.

We chugged very slowly down the centre of the canal. To begin with, I tried to stay as far away from the anglers as possible, until I was told in no uncertain terms that the fish they seek take refuge on the far side of the canal, and my creeping along that side stirred up the mud and upset their prey.

“What sort of catch will win today,” I asked one fisherman in lowered tones, fearing that even my raised voice might disturb the anglers, or the fish, or both.

“Agh,” he said, “about twenty five pound.”

If each fish weighed on average, let’s be generous, two ounces, then twenty five pound of fish would be 200 fish.

It struck me that amongst the sixty people competing, there was not a single woman. I called out to another fisherman: “Why don’t women fish?”

“That’s a very good question,” he said, “and very well presented…” And then, after a pause, just as we were moving out of earshot: “I have no idea what the answer is.”

It took fifteen or twenty minutes to pass the long line of hunters. During that time we saw a great many fish being caught, tiddlers as I say, wriggling furiously as their captors deftly removed the hooks from their mouths, and popped them into what my researches tell me are called sanctuary nets.

Anglers

I wondered how many of these little fish had been caught before. Perhaps there are amongst them veterans of these competitions, who’ve been caught two, three, four… perhaps dozens of times before. They could have turned the experience into myth. “Then,” a grandfather tiddler tells his multitudinous offspring, “a great force pulled me out of the world and into a bright and glorious place…”

All that effort, I thought – the sanctuary nets, the catapults (to drive fish food across the canal to draw likely candidates into a caucus), the carbon-fiber rods, which I understand can each cost thousands of pounds, the specialized seats with built-in drawers for the storage of maggots (pink) and maggots (blue) – and all to catch a fish weighing an ounce or two, at most…

And then, before my very disbelieving eyes, a fisherman drew towards his hand-held net a fish of enormous proportions. In fact, it wouldn’t fit into the net at all! He snatched a larger net from somewhere behind him, flipped the fish into it and held it up for other anglers along the line of the canal to admire.

A prodigy of a bream. Like something out of a Japanese fairy tale. The sort of fish that possesses the power to grant wishes, and dole out punishment. A prince amongst fish.

By the time I realized I should have been photographing it, and not gawking, Patience had glided by, and you’ll have to be satisfied, as I am, with this reconstruction…

We are moored now at The Globe, a pub just a mile or two from Leighton Buzzard. In one of our books published as guides to narrowboats on the canal, I had written on a previous trip, alongside this spot: “Lovely looking pub and great moorings.”

The moorings are indeed good. As to the pub, well, Trish and I are about to savour its delights. She will, no doubt, have a small red wine, and as for me, well, some local ale, appropriately dark and creamy, will suffice.

Written in wind

Braunston to London: Day 3

The story of the next stage of our odyssey to London is written in wind – specifically an unrelenting south westerly gale that started gusting as we set off from Weedon Bec, and whipped us along the 15-mile pound that ends only at the seven-lock flight at Stoke Bruerne.

Let’s start with a definition: a pound is a length of canal between locks. It can be just eighty or ninety feet in length, between locks in a leisurely flight up a hillside. Or it can be miles in length.

What it gives the intrepid traveller, of course, is several hours of lock-free travelling. Bear in mind that we average three m.p.h. on a lock-free section of a canal – so fifteen miles translates into five hours of cruising bliss.

Or in this case, hell. Because that gale, which gusted about us unevenly for the entire duration of the day, was not only freezing, but it severely challenged my steersmanship.

A narrowboat of our length – 50 feet – possesses a side-on profile of about 200 square feet. That’s the size of a small yacht’s (say the Beetle 14’s) main sail. So when the wind’s coming at you beam on – to landlubbers that simply means, at right angles to your direction of travel – it’ll tend to push you very rapidly to the side of the canal.

To counter this, you have to steer into the wind. Which means that from above it looks very much as though you’re scuttling along at a decided angle both in terms of your horizontal axis, and in terms of your procession through the water.Canting before the wind

But aesthetics aside, it also means that when you pass a line of narrowboats moored to the canal path, you have to take great care not to risk colliding with them. And even greater care when another narrowboat approaches and the two of you cautiously pass one another, exchanging worried gestures of greeting as you do so. And the greatest care when both events occur simultaneously.

Ah, the delights of simply messing about on boats!

(A short digression:

‘Believe me,’ (said the Water Rat,) ‘my young friend, there is NOTHING – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simple messing about in boats. Simply messing,’ he went on dreamily: ‘messing—about—in-boats; messing – ’

‘Look ahead, Rat!’ cried the Mole suddenly.the-wind-in-the-willows-illustration-e-h-shepard

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

‘— about in boats — or WITH boats,’ the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. ‘In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.’ )

Virgin train with birdsSo after several hours of buffeting, we arrived at a likely spot, far from any tree that might be uprooted by the blast to fall on us, and moored up snugly against the bank. On our left, a hawthorne hedge leaning compliantly away from the wind. On our right, the railway line on which at regular intervals a banshee wail presages the passing of a Virgin train.

And above, rooks like sheets of black paper, tumbling before the wind, and clouds scudding across a pale blue sky at simply astonishing speed.

 

Braunston to London MapAngela asks, where precisely are we, and can I provide a map so that she can keep track of our slow progress south? I hope this helps. We’re travelling from Braunston near the top left of the picture down to London, bottom right. Right now we’re just north of the village called Cosgrave — although, if the wind ever lets up, we’re hoping to pierce the complexity of Milton Keynes tomorrow.

 

King George’s bolthole

You might say, what’s the point of a blog that simply records a journey of just five miles? Because that’s how far we’ve travelled today, from our idyllic spot overlooking Crockwell Farm, to our current mooring which looks out on the steeple of the church of St Peter and St Paul, the parish church of Weedon Bec. It would take you five minutes or less in your Audi 6 on the M1, and you’d be able to record nothing at all of note.

Travelling by narrowboat is different.

These of some of the features worth recording about our journey today:

We skipped merrily past the junction of the Grand Union Canal (GUC) (Leicester Arm) and the GUC (Birmingham Arm): both rich in history.

We passed four cast-iron mileposts on the way, each of them sporting the acronym, G.J.C. Co.GJCCo Milepost This is a reference to the previous incarnation of this canal – as the Grand Junction Canal, which ran from London to Braunston. It was bought up and amalgamated with the canals between Braunston and Birmingham, thus linking England’s two premier cities. But this happened only in 1929, and although there were grand plans to use the canal to transport goods during the war, sadly it had, to use an apt figure, missed the boat. Rail by then was the undisputed king of transportation.

We stopped at a farm stall – the Canal Turn Farm Shop – and, overwhelmed with the range and quality of its meats and vegetables, went on a modest spending spree that will keep us in provisions, we reckon, for four or five days. (When your fridge boasts a capacity of 50 litres, and your pantry consists of a single cupboard that has to house your – rapidly diminishing – stock of wines and whiskies, you can’t plan for much more than four or five days, tops.)

We descended the Buckby Locks – and bought a Buckby bucket decorated with the famous Buckby roses, long a feature of narrowboat culture. We got stuck in the last lock because of a superabundance of water flowing down the flight, over the lock gates and into the lock,

preventing Trish, and a number of other boaters, waiting to come up the flight, from opening the gates to release Patience into the placid waters below.

The waters might have been placid, but the air certainly wasn’t. To the right of us, a railway line going from god knows where to heaven help us; and to the left, within a couple of hundred metres, across a blazing field of rape (or adultery, as a deeply embarrassed maiden aunt once likened it to) the M1, England’s main north-south motorway. The noise from the motorway isn’t so much a roar, as a… monstrous susurration, an unnaturally loud whisper of continuous sound, with the occasional buzzing of a motorbike weaving its way through traffic at high speed.M! beyond rape seed fields

And yet, between us and the motorway, an avenue of crab apples, wild cherry and hawthorn, all in various phases of their blossoming cycle, and on the right, woods of sycamore and oak, with the occasional chestnut with its great drooping leaves, and perky candelabras of flowerets.

I was suffering from the after-effects of the one-day cold that had laid Trish out last week, and as the afternoon gathered itself about us, and cooler breezes worked their way between my scarf and throat, we decided to call it a day. We were at that point entering the outskirts of Weedon Bec. We’ve been this way before, and so sought out a mooring that we remembered.

The canal at this point traverses an embankment, high above the village on either side. The mooring lies next to the Church of St Peter and St Paul, on a level with the Norman (I think) bell tower, which you can see through the upper branches of the sycamores growing on the embankment. To get to the old village, you climb down a twisting flight of steps. A moment ago I heard a child climbing them and chanting out the number as he went: “Forty four, forty five, forty six… forty seven!”

So here we are, snug against the canalside, looking out upon a village made famous (in a very limited, historical way) by the government’s decision in the early 1800s, to create a bolthole here for King George the Third, in the event that that scoundrel Napoleon successfully invaded the emerald isle.

Fortunately, he didn’t.

Braunston to London: Day 1

The Oxford Canal came to Braunston in 1774. This enabled goods to be moved to and from the Midlands to London via the Thames River. A shorter, quicker route was proposed that would link London directly to Braunston bypassing the Thames altogether — and that was built by 1800. The two canals secured Braunston’s place as the hub of the entire system.

Today, more than two centuries later, Braunston is a not-so-sleepy village boasting four pubs, a fish and chip shop, a community cafe, a bustling little butchery and a convenience store. It’s a dormitory town for Rugby and Coventry. But it hasn’t forgotten its glory days. Because down the hill below the village lies a knot of businesses devoted to the canals and canal boats: Tradline Ropes and Fenders; Wharf House Narrowboats, a chandlery; Tony Redshaw’s Vintage Diesels; Union Canal Carriers, a holiday narrowboat rental company… and more.

Braunston Butcher

I’m trying to drum up a little enthusiasm for the place, but it is has to be admitted it’s not precisely the throbbing heart of entertainment.

Which begs the question: what did we do in Braunston, aboard Patience, for two weeks that wasn’t purgatorial?

And the answer is: plenty.

Some f’r instances:

We watched the play of light through every day and especially at the close of day. Marina skyline

We had breakfast in the Gongoozlers’ Rest Narrowboat Cafe, a few steps past the entrance to the Marina, and listened in on the conversations of eight elderly men all tucking into the full English breakfast — eggs, bacon, baked beans, sausages, black pudding,  scalloped potatoes and a slice of bread — and talking volubly and simultaneously about an endless series of subjects. One told an anecdote about an occasion when he pretended not to be English: “I notta spika English.” And when he was asked what language he did speak, he said: ‘I spika Welsh.’ Which gave rise to much laughter, and then various disparaging remarks about the Welsh.

We went for walks up the hill to Braunston, pausing at the bench thoughtfully provided beside the path half way up, from which we looked down over the marina, and the avenue of trees flanking it, home of a raucous village of rooks.Bench on the hill

Trish went to nearby Daventry (once the site of the largest building in the UK — the Ford Spare Parts warehouse, covering 137 acres) by bus to buy provisions. She walked, endlessly, to the village, the chandlery, the fish and chip shop. I did more walking than I’ve done in a while, and could feel my biceps and triceps start to respond to the treatment.

We played Scrabble on Patience.

And cooked.

And ate.

And drank wine and a few drams of Talisker and the odd ale.

(And worked our arses off doing our 2014 tax; and writing begging letters to the Spanish Consulate in London requesting that they look favourably on our application for a visa to visit their fair country in June; and wrote scripts for Isibaya; and kept the machinery of Allaboutwriting oiled and productive.)

And then, today, our duties done,  we cast off and, very very slowly, threaded our way through the maze of boats in the Marina to the entrance which leads into what is both the Oxford and the Grand Union Canal. A short right — turn to starboard, I mean – and we were away.

The first hurdle that faces the intrepid boater heading south from Braunston Marina is a flight of six locks. The Grand Union Canal’s locks are all double the size of those on a typical narrow canal, and so, if you don’t have a boat to partner with, you find yourself occupying half of a space big enough for two. The consequence, unless you’re holding tight to a rope which in turn is looped about one of the bollards lining the lock, is that you’re dashed hither and yon as water cascades into the empty lock to lift you to the next level.

So there I was, hanging on to my tether with all my might, while Trish opened and closed the locks.

Alongside the third lock stands a well-known hostelry — The Admiral Nelson, which serves great food and a range of real ales. When we descended this flight in 2013, on our way back to our berth in the marina, I had the very bright idea of sending Trish into the pub with a pint glass from our galley. She returned then with a pint of Hook Norton… Delicious stuff, well served.

This time she knew before I asked her what my request would be. A minute later, I had the pint pot in one hand, the other on the tiller, and was steaming forward to the fourth lock a truly happy man. It wasn’t Hook Norton this time, but an ale the pub has made up exclusively for it by Merriman: Nelson’s Nectar, they call it, and it certainly is. (One of Merrimen’s other ales is called, memorably but not repeatably, Old Fart Beer.)

After the sixth lock, the canal takes a deep breath and then heads straight into a hill… and emerges 1867 metres later on the other side.

A few hundred metres along from the mouth of the tunnel is a stretch of canal which, but for the distant hum of traffic, could have been whisked straight out of the 18th century. It overlooks a tranquil rural landscape, featuring an ancient farmhouse. A patchwork of fields, divided by traditional hedgerows, lies between us and the farm buildings… I’m checking the scene from the window now and see that that mush about the 18th century simply won’t do: there’s a road snaking down the hillside with 21st century cars rolling down it; and a large wind turbine pokes its head above the hill turning at a fairly brisk pace.

But at last our journeying has begun, and, although that ale is long finished, I remain a happy man.Patience mooring first night