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.



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

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