Sunday, 28 September 2008

Weekend trip to Aylesbury

SATURDAY - The weather forecast for the weekend looked fine, so we thought we'd go to Aylesbury, which we haven't done for a couple of years.

As always, we were later getting started than we intended - mostly getting things sorted a bit before we left home. It was misty in the valley, and over the marina - which didn't burn off until quite late in the morning. At the marina we went and bought another cylinder of gas - and then set off just after 11 am. As the trip to Aylesbury is about 7 hours, we were a little apprehensive about possible hold-ups and maybe ending up travelling after dusk.

It's late September, the trees are still green, although the green is turning to a yellower shade, and a couple of the trees on the hillside overlooking the marina had flame red tops - but only the first few leaves were beginning to drift down onto the canal as we went across the summit. The summit was quite chilly, although the weather forecast was predicting 21 degrees - but by the time we were working down the Marsworth flight the sun was on our backs and jumpers were quickly discarded. The hedgerow was heavy with autumn fruit - I can't remember seeing so many blackberries, hips and haws - but I didn't see any sloes until we were on the Aylesbury arm, and no damsons anywhere.

Incidentally Bluebell's cafe by the last lock in the flight sells excellent ice cream, as well as a balsamic vinegar flavoured ice cream (I kid you not!) - quite the most disgusting flavour I think I've ever experienced.

We worked quickly down the Marsworth flight, and I said to Alan that I'd walk the couple of hundred yards along the towpath from the White Lion down to the Aylesbury arm. Passing the garden of the pub I saw bench tables groaning with massive ploughmans' lunches, and huge jugs of beer - the reason quickly became obvious - there were ready for the two 'teams' of morris men who were entertaining the customers. I took a couple of photos - then sprinted along the towpath to arrive panting and wheezing just as Alan was bringing the boat to the side by the first lock of the Aylesbury arm, and wondering where I was.

As we took the boat down the first two locks - a staircase - at the beginning of the arm I looked up to see a pair of red kites wheeling overhead - twisting and turning by a slight turn of their distinctive forked tails. They were too far away for me to take a photo, but this is what they look like - they were re-introduced to the Chilterns a few years back and have flourished.

The first mile of the Aylesbury arm the locks come thick and fast - nine in all. The next seven locks take another five miles. The arm is beautiful, rural and remote, it doesn't pass through any towns or villages until you get to Aylesbury itself. At this time of year the fields are empty, some filled with stubble, others already ploughed. Often with a lone heron standing, or a staghorn oak, and fringed with Corot willows, their characteristic silver green turning yellow. Here on the Herts/ Bucks border, where the canal crawls slowly away from the still misty Chiltern hills, you can look to the west and see the cars and lorries scuttling by on the distant A41 - seemingly a hundred years away.
We ate on the hoof, grabbing a mug of soup, and a bite of baguette when we could - we didn't want to have to slow down. Strangely the locks are wider than most narrow locks - leaving a good 18 inches room at the side of the boat. However, the bridges seem extremely narrow - we took our chimney off to ensure it didn't meet the same fate as it's predecessor.

As we approached Aylesbury we went through a section where there is only about 6 feet between the reeds on each side of the canal. We've been down here before, and the reeds have been rampant, but nothing like this, with reeds brushing both sides of the boat. We were a little apprehensive about meeting another boat in this long section. Notice the missing chimney in this photo

Aylesbury arrives, as does the need for a key to operate the locks. Two of the locks on the final run-in to the town have anti-vandal locks requiring a British Waterways key. As I've left my keys behind in these types of locks before now I detached my BW key from my keyring and tied it to my jean's belt loop by a long piece of string, then tucked it into a pocket.

We arrived at a little after six, still with an hour or so of light. The Aylesbury Canal Society's basin was completely full, so we turned the boat and reversed into the mooring outside the Inland Revenue offices. We each had a shower then headed into the town.

There was something quite surreal about the town. The streets were empty, and there didn't seem to be very many restaurants where we were. Then in the square in the middle of the town was an ambulance, with it bored looking paramedics waiting for the night's work - making us somewhat apprehensive about what it would be like later. We wandered on, and we found the streets where the restarants and bars were - rejecting the possibility of a Portuguese restaurant. Pizza Express said that unless we had booked then they couldn't accommodate us for at least an hour and a half. We were beginning to feel that the only possibilities were KFC or a takeaway pizza, and Alan had already turned to go back towards the boat when I spotted Prezzo. They could offer us a table quickly, and we had excellent pizza and pasta meals with good service, and good coffee afterwards.

We went back to the boat, half expecting disturbance from the town during the night, but quickly fell asleep and heard nothing.

SUNDAY - despite having set an alarm we really couldn't be bothered to get up early - it was cold and very misty outside. Eventually Alan got up and lit a fire, then we made coffee and porridge before setting off through the fading mist at after 10 o'clock.

Chalice moored opposite nb Chiswick, and next to the IR offices in Aylesbury

Aylesbury Canal Basin in the morning mist.

We moored up after the first lock, and went into Tescos.

Looking at the tins of soup in Tescos I decided that it would be far better to make our own, using the heat from the boat's stove to cook it. So I went back to the fruit and veg section and picked up a wide selection of vegetables. Then back to the boat and the next few locks - by now we were in full sunshine.

This heron was on the towpath opposite factories or warehouses in Aylesbury, and seemed fairly unperturbed by me walking along carrying a boat hook to allow me to push the both the bottom gates open without having to cross the lock.

Once out of Aylesbury I cut up the root veg and put them on the stove with some stock and a tin of tomatoes to cook. Then we got to some more locks and I was needed to help with them. After those I put in the other veg - beans, leeks, mushrooms, peppers, etc and put the soup - now looking very chunky - back on the stove to finish off.

We worked on until about 1 pm, and decided to stop for lunch - quite unusual for us - so we moored, and ate what was far more like a stew than a soup with some cheese and crusty bread from the supermarket.
There was lots of water, often pouring over the gates, as seen in this photo of Black Jack's lock (No. 4).

Near Puttenham I saw one of the red kites again, but this time being mobbed by angry seagulls.

We were finally out of the Aylesury arm by about 4:00 pm, and had good luck working up through the Marsworth flight - with many of the locks for us, and many spectators out in the autumn sunshine. Several times I was asked if we wanted help with the gates on the other side of the lock, and people seemed quite surprised that we only needed one opened. We got back to the marina at soon after six, tidied up, loaded the car, and off home. A great weekend - time to spend together - time out in the fresh air - but very tired after 20 miles and 46 locks.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Summer Cruise - Thrupp Wharf to Cowroast

Thrupp Wharf to Leighton Buzzard
14th August 2008

A strange day weather wise, everything from sunshine to pouring rain. We were now trying to get home as quickly as possible - well, seriously, how long would you leave an 18 year old in the house on his own? It's not quite as bad as it sounds, apart from the fact that we know he's sensible, I had left my mobile number with several neighbours "in case of an emergency". I knew that if anyone was concerned, for any reason, I'd get a phone call, and that I could be home by train in a few hours. However, we knew we'd been out a long time, and despite Michael being happy to be left on his own for ages, we felt it was time to be back.

A long slog through lockless miles around Milton Keynes, we took turns steering, while the other stood or sat at the back while we talked. We decided we wanted to find a last meal out before getting home, but the only place that we knew of in Leighton Buzzard that would feed all of our very different tastes was the Lytton Tree - a place with large TV screens showing sports. Not the kind of place we wanted to find ourselves in in the evening. So we were faced with finding somewhere for lunch. We stopped at the Plough in Milton Keynes, and I went in to check the menu was OK. When I went in the place was full of people eating, but by the time I had gone back to the boat, and we'd finished locking up the pub was almost empty and were only just in time to order food.

When we got going again it was just taking turns at steering through more miles. Through the locks at Fenny and Stoke Hammond and on towards three locks at Soulbury.

At Soulbury there was a boat going up in the lock and a lone figure was sitting on the balance beam drinking a pint of beer, so we pulled over to the moorings below the lock and David and I jumped off with windlasses ready to help if needed. From where we were moored it was easy to see water turbulence below the bottom gates - a paddle was partly up, so David ran across the gate and dropped the paddle quickly. The single hander who was drinking the pint had only one top paddle half up, but said to us that the lock was taking forever to fill - undoubtedly because she had a bottom paddle half up too.

Once she had gone on we emptied the lock, and were joined by another boat that seemed to have problems with its gearbox - they shot into the lock and braked it by wrapping the centreline around a bollard - an interesting process, but a very cheerful and willing crew. At this point we saw the state of the short pound above the lock - perhaps two and a half feet down, with little more than a ribbon of water through the mud.

I wandered up to the top lock of the three since I knew that I'd need to let some water down as the other boat in the lock with us was very deep draughted. At which point the dog on the boat ahead of us decided to abandon ship over the back. It was harnessed, with a short lead, so that it just hung in the water, unable to swim, or to get back on. "I'll go and get it out," I offered, starting to climb down the ladder, somewhat concerned about the dog as it was only a short boat, which was banging about quite a lot in the lock. But no, she wanted the dog left, to teach it not to do it again - I have to be honest I was somewhat concerned that it wouldn't get the opportunity to do it again.

When we had filled the lock and the two boats attempted to cross the pound we were accompanied by screeching noises as the boats tried to cross the cill and drag across the bottom of the pound. Now, I know it's easy to miss the fact that someone else has not completely dropped a paddle, but if you are sitting there for ages with the lock failing to fill while you watch the very short pound ahead of you emptying.... you might think that the penny would drop.

Near Old Linslade we passed the boat of a former teaching colleague, Barbara, who is now retired, and who was setting off towards the north on an extended trip with her husband. I shouted news about our trip across, saying that I'd catch up properly later. Just around the bend, where we'd moored on the first night of our trip was a BW boat across the cut. Now, most people would just push it out of the way, but somehow... Well, David likes to do things right, so we 'rescued' the boat, making the only use of our boarding plank during the whole trip.

David rescues "Blaby"

Only two hire boats moored outside Wyvern Shipping, and one of those was "Ocean Princess", the sea going narrowboat. Virtually every boat was hired out.

Anyway, on to Leighton and we moored up at Tescos. I went to get essential supplies, while Alan did various checks on things. Back at the boat we were exhausted, so we moored where we could, ate, and fell into bed.

Daily Total: 20.66 miles, 7 locks
Running Total: 331.3miles, 346 locks, 19 tunnels.

Leighton Buzzard to Cowroast
15th August 2008
So, our last day, with very mixed feelings, both wanting to be home, but also wanting to continue cruising for much longer. "Why don't we just keep going when we get to Cowroast?"
For us this stretch is very familiar, across the flat plain north of the Chilterns, seeing the white lion of Whipsnade Zoo carved into the hillside to the east.

We had some burst of bright sunshine interspersed with the threat of rain, which thankfully held off. We made good progress, working through most of the locks with a boat from Harefield.

Outside the White Lion at Marsworth in sunshine

We went up Marsworth in good time, and then the three miles of the summit, which I used to strip beds, load bags into the front cabin and unload perishables from the cupboards in the kitchen. We turned into the marina, refilled with diesel, emptied the cassettes, and made the final trip down the marina to our mooring - at which point the heavens opened and drenched us completely. Home again.

Two days later, we were passing the marina so went in quickly to drop something off at the boat. I saw another teaching colleague and her husband just leaving their boat after a trip out. "I saw Barbara while I was out," she said, "she told us you were out for three weeks, and you'd had a great time". Towpath Telegraph.

Daily Total: 11.83 miles, 18 locks
Running Total: 343.1 miles, 364 locks, 19 tunnels.

The figures for miles and locks for this trip don't agree with those suggested by Nic Atty's Canal Plan AC - so I'll check these when I've got a bit more time (Cath)