Molly blog

Day One, Friday Sept 23 2011, Stockton Marina to Long Itchington, 1.5 miles, 10 locks = 11.5 lock miles, 2½ hours.

Stockton marina is perfectly positioned for a (reasonably) leisurely week-and-a-bit-long meander round the Warwick Ring, so we allow ourselves an easy early-afternoon Friday start on the Molly May, which since spring 2010 has been our sponsored narrowboat with Kate Boats of Warwick.

The temptation is to simply emerge from the pound and moor up even before the first of the Stockton locks heading left and West towards Warwick, and enjoy the Molly May’s spacious kitchen and mega-comfortable lounge, with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Believe me, we’ve done that before, within a couple of hundred yards of setting off.

But this time, we have friends to pick up in Long Itchington who are joining us for the weekend from London, so Sue (whose passion is the Molly May) and I head off down the 10 locks of the first flight, nice and broad as they are but at this time of this very dry year, very short of water.

A few locks down, we have to manoeuvre our way past fellow narrowboaters caught in an older boat with deeper draught and stuck on the mud in the middle of the pound. We float them free of their misery by releasing a lock-load of water as we come down towards them.

We moor up just before The Two Boats pub in Long Itchington, one of our favourite hostelries on the canals and in a most aptly-named village given that the friend who joins us has just returned from visiting mountain gorillas in Northern Congo, where she picked up an itchy bug swimming in a lake.

Day Two, Saturday Sept 24, Long Itchington to bottom of Hatton Flight. 21 lock miles (10 miles and 11 locks) in five hours.

Day two, Saturday, and after what Sue and I – doffing our hat to an American friend’s pronunciation – like to call a lee-jer-ly breakfast, it’s down the short Bascote Staircase (how odd, we always think, to emerge from one lock straight into another) with our London teammates, pairing up nicely with other boats and their friendly crews sharing the locking as we head slowly westwards towards Warwick.

In late September, with the leaves turning yellow almost before our eyes, the Grand Union at this point is surprisingly busy, and more than on any of our previous trips with the Molly May, we keep bumping into (well, not literally) other boats from Kate Boats in what’s clearly been a much better hiring year for the company than recession-hit 2010.

For lunch it’s soup on board. Sue used to cater professionally, and does the best soups I’ve ever tasted. Towards the end of the afternoon, we wave cheerily to the Kate Boats team at their Warwick yard just as they’re packing up after a busy day turning guests around.

It’s getting towards dusk, so there’s some pressure on what are, with the low water, a relatively few good mooring spots on the right bank beyond Warwick, before the long slog up the Hatton flight, so we’re rather relieved to find a good tying-up spot just beyond the turnoff left into the Saltisford Arm and before the first lock of the long, long Hatton flight.

Where, once committed, you have to keep going till you reach the top, 21 locks later.

The Cape of Good Hope pub at the bottom of the flight is one of the most popular on the canal, and walking back the few hundred yards from our moorings, we find it full of the crews we’ve spent the day locking with, and while not exactly Michelin starred, the food is reliable, tasty and first-class value.

Day Three , Sunday Sept 25, bottom of Hatton Flight to Rowington Hill Bridge, 27 lock miles (21 locks and six miles) in seven hours.

After a first-class night’s sleep – our guests on Molly May’s huge cabin bed at the front of the boat, and Sue and I at the back in what we agree is one of the most comfortable beds we sleep in anywhere – and on Sunday morning for Day Three, we gird our loins and head up the Hatton flight, teaming up again with a charming family who’ve had their boat for 25 years.

From my locking partner at the other tiller as we work our way up the flight side by side, (our guests under Sue’s expert guidance are doing the hard raising and lowering of paddles), I learn that the Matriarch of the family with which we’re sharing the locks unilaterally decided on the very early death of her husband to mortgage half the family home and invest in a narrowboat as a shared family resource. They never looked back.

Snatched conversations at the locks are priceless.

At this end-of-season time of year and with four of us working the locks, we’re able to set the gates perfectly as we glide up, and we complete the Hatton flight in an amazing two-and-a-half hours, feeling exceptionally pleased with ourselves, and, we’re told, only 15 or so minutes slower than the record, apparently set by a group of Boy Scouts some years ago.

And this despite some quite busy dancing with other boats through the pounds, including Kate Boats’ Dorothy Constance coming the other way down the flight, as we amiably jostle for space.

It’s Sunday lunchtime, so after another spectacular Sue-soup, it’s time for our guests to leave for London, carrying their pillows, suitcases and regrets, and Sue and I move on just a couple of miles to another of my favourite spots on the Midlands canals, the high embankment just before Rowington Hill Bridge.

From here there are bucolic views south-west and north-east as the autumn sun sets in a bright orange glow, firing the autumn landscape with warm reds, yellows and browns.

The local ducks enjoy our presence as much as we do, and it’s impossible to resist their begging for biscuits. How canal ducks don’t end up obese I will never understand.

Day Four, Monday Sept 26, Rowington Hill Bridge to Waring’s Green, 26 lock miles (seven miles and 19 locks) in six hours

The ducks may stay slim, but that’s not very true of homo sapiens on the canals.

Have you noticed just how many of our fellow canallers are becoming obese? Perhaps it’s the evening beers and sausages and chips. Perhaps it’s all that sitting at the back of the boat while the girls do the hard work on the locks. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of our modern civilisation – obsessed with consumption and unable to say no to that extra-large glass of wine and extra plate of chips.

But, that’s not the point of this blog, which is to enthuse about yet another magnificent day cruising gently towards Birmingham.

If last night’s mooring point was one of our favourites on the Grand Union, the Lapworth flight is certainly our favourite locking experience on the Warwick Ring, or indeed (perhaps with the exception of the Tardebigge between Birmingham and Worcester) anywhere on the canal system.

Turning left off the Grand Union – the canal system’s equivalent of the M1 – is like turning from a motorway onto a charming B-road country lane. The Lapworth locks are the size of Dinky Toys, and twist and curve their toytown way up to the north-west, past one of the best Canal shops on the system and with barely room for two boats to pass before we’re through the pound and into the next tiny lock.

Here, we lock largely on our own, leapfrogging up ahead to set the next lock as the Molly May’s skipper – the two of us take it in turns – brings the boat to a gentle halt on the exit to each lock, trusting that she’ll stay motionless as we jump off to close the lock gate and lower the paddles before heading on into what by now is a neatly-prepared next lock, gates invitingly open already.

Water levels continue very low up here, with the reservoirs that feed the canals apparently down to 20% of their capacity. Indeed, as we moor up for lunch just beyond the confusingly named Lock 2 at the very top of the Lapworth Flight (number 1, on the right, is much closer to Birmingham, at the end of the Stratford Canal and an old stop lock designed to protect the canal’s water from rival canal companies on the Birmingham and Worcester), it takes at one point just one emptying of the uphill lock behind us to tip us gently to one side as the Molly May finds herself aground in a suddenly much emptier stretch of canal. A bit like being in the bath as the water level dips below the waistline…

We quickly untie the ropes and head off into open, central water before a further approaching boat drains even more water from our stretch.

From here it’s a gentle slide in hot early autumn sunshine past one of the best bakeries on the canals (100 yards to the East from Bridge 20) to a friendly, adequate if, again, not exactly Michelin-starred pub supper at the Bull’s Head in Waring’s Green. And another early night.

Day Five, Tuesday September 27, Waring’s Green to Birmingham Gas Street Basin. 14 miles, no locks, 5 hours.

Quite how I thought we might be able to make it all the way to Gas Street in Birmingham yesterday, I’m not sure, as today we found ourselves moving surprisingly slowly through the southern suburbs of Birmingham past Cadbury’s Bournville headquarters (how sad that the company is no longer British-owned) with its uplifting odours of chocolate.

Before reaching Birmingham, the character of the canal changes quite sharply, and moored boats suddenly have solid window protection against vandalism, and there are shopping trolleys abandoned in the water, and nylon cables that wrap themselves around our prop shaft, reminding me that it is indeed important EVERY morning to check the prop for debris.

I do sometimes despair of human beings, ready to chuck anything into the canals and anywhere else without a thought for other users. At the turnoff right towards Birmingham – left heads towards Worcester and the Avon river – we catch up with a delightful couple encountered during earlier locking, piloting a boat called Pipe Dream and stuck, we discover, with an abandoned car tyre wrapped around the propeller.

Such is the rubbish that ends up in the canals around here, but we’re delighted in Birmingham that evening to meet Pipe Dream now safely moored up for a couple of days, sent on their way by the canalside equivalent of the AA who were able to remove the offending tyre…

… now displayed as a special piece of canalware on the roof of their vessel…

My faith in the goodness of people is further restored by a lovely couple we meet on Birmingham’s Gas Street moorings who come from Maryland in the US and love the English canals so much that they’ve bought their own small boat and now holiday here twice every year, six weeks at a time.

Day Six Wednesday Sept 28, Birmingham to Kingsbury Water Park, 46 lock miles (11 miles, 35 locks), 9 hours.

From Birmingham along the Brum and Fazely canal, dropping away from the town centre along the Farmers’ Locks under Birmingham’s distinctive BT tower, we now have the canal system virtually to ourselves.

It’s a hard, delightfully but also disturbingly warm early autumn locking day, one of our busiest yet in 10 years of canal boating, and it also reminds me how dangerous it is to lower one’s guard even for a moment on matters of safety.

I’m aware as we set off from Birmingham how slippery my plastic Crocs are on the brickwork of the lockside, so I don my much sturdier walking shoes. Lulled into a sense of greater safety, I decide to take a short cut across the front of one of the lock gates, and lose my grip. Thankfully, my responses are quick enough to catch my fall, and it’s only my legs that get a soaking up to the knees before I manage to catch myself and pull myself back onto the lock gate.

But I scuff my shin quite badly, and lose a windlass into the water. Moral of the story – even after years in this game, never, ever let your guard down, not that I want to put anyone off, but it’s worth taking care – and thank goodness the Health and Safety brigade haven’t yet discovered how most canal boaters learn their craft by trial and error and with the minimum of tuition. It works, so while being appropriately careful, let’s not allow the system to be changed.

Other thoughts from today, other than that the M6’s famous Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham is no prettier from below than it is from above?

Locking, once you get into the rhythm, is rather like meditation. Total focus on the task in hand, and entirely in the moment as paddles are lowered, locks filled and emptied, gates prepared further along the flight, moving assuredly back and forth to allow the boat to move through the locks as smoothly and rapidly as possible.

Also, more prosaically, don’t be alarmed at Aston Junction to find that the locks are, well, locked. Here, and further along the locks as you head out of Birmingham, you need the anti-vandal key that’s in Molly May’s locker at the back of the cabin on the right as you stand in the stairwell. We were on the point of turning round and taking the rather longer Grand Union arm, when a friendly local who knew the system turned up and explained what we should do. Who says there are no such thing as angels.

Hard and rewarding work, ending after nine hours cruising and an awesome 35 locks with the best glass (or two) of cool German wine, and two tired boaters warmed by the warm autumn sun. A concluding thought for the day? It’s certainly possible to do the Warwick Ring in a week – but you have to keep going.

Day Seven, Kingsbury Water Park to Atherstone, 8½ hours, 15 miles, 14 locks = 29 lock miles.

We didn’t realise on setting off at just after eight this morning just how important it was to get moving and then maintain that momentum.

All became clear at Atherstone locks just after one o’clock, when we learned that because of the current desperate water shortages, this critical flight opens only at 0830 in the morning – and closes, more crucially for us, at 1600, to preserve water in this driest canal year since the legendary summer of 1976 (when we read, in a local newspaper, that at Foxton Locks not far to the East one could walk across the dry canal bed.)

As it happens, the angels are smiling again, and we contrive to begin the Atherstone locks at pretty much the precisely perfect time to reach the top on the dot of four. In fact, with literally 60 seconds to spare, although the charming couple who occupy the Lock Cottage at lock one tell us that British Waterways do do a last-minute sweep of the locks before the top gates are padlocked for the night, to make sure that no-one is just tackling the final five locks above number six.

To anyone planning this route, at least as long as the water is as low as it is at the moment, bear in mind that locks 1, 6 and 11 are padlocked at four o’clock.

British Waterways recommend that boaters begin the locks at midday, on the basis that it takes four hours to complete them. We managed them in two–and-a-half hours, with a very lovely boat heading up before us and setting the gates for us. But, better not to risk it – and be appraised that the locks on this flight fill VERY slowly.

Otherwise, it’s been a pretty hard locking and driving day, great fun, and stupendous weather again. One of the hottest days of the year – not right, not right at all. But lovely, of course. Sue and I have to bite our lips when a skipper coming down the other way complains as we pass that British Waterways need to get a grip on this situation.

Er, no. The problem is lack of rain, and that’s very probably climate change that’s doing it. BW are doing their best to manage an increasingly worrying situation. Still, people being people need to blame someone, so I guess the carping is to be expected.

Talking of carp, interesting sign spied near the top of the Atherstone locks a little further on, which illustrates some of the changes in England brought about by the immigration from Eastern Europe of the past decade.

The sign warning that fish in this canal, if caught, MUST be returned to the water (and, therefore, not eaten), is in English, Polish and Russian. I recall that The Sun once ran a rather nasty anti-immigrant front-page headline accusing East European asylum-seekers of capturing and eating swans. That one wasn’t true, but English canal fish do appear to have been having a rougher time of it.

Otherwise, as we relax with a glass of wine in the warm setting sun, a curiously uneventful day. Food for thought, perhaps, from a passing couple driving the Mother of All Narrowboats, complete with hydraulic steering and, we are importantly informed, a hugely sophisticated system of underfloor heating.

Apparently, he and his wife only recently took delivery of the boat, and are now needing to find a buyer since he, after signing the boat contract, was diagnosed with cancer and has had to have a shoulder rebuilt, while his wife on the back, delicately manoeuvring her complicated steering wheel as she struggles into the lock, has had to have a second hip replacement.

And, the boat cost a cool £170,000 – perhaps even half a million, as we learn from someone else further along our route who has also heard the story.

All this we learn within two minutes of our lock conversation starting. Such is the nature of boating – you may not get to know each other’s name, but you very quickly glean each other’s basic life story. In this case, a sad reminder that even the most passionate and expensive retirement plans can fall victim to one’s health. Never take it for granted.

Day eight. Atherstone to Rugby, 22 miles, one lock, 8¼ hours = 23 lock miles.

Another full-on day. Doing the Warwick Ring in one week is doable – indeed, I know it is having done the Ring on my very first canal boat holiday with a friend and our shared four daughters in 2000. But, slogging our way round the Ring this time, I’m reminded that I must have been somewhat younger and more vigorous then, as this has been an equal measure of fun and hard work.

Moral of this story – pack in the distances and the long locking flights in a first few long days, and enjoy a more leisurely back end of the week confident that you’ll make the boatyard in time for your handover.

That said, my own day has been rather relaxing, having left to Sue most of the steering along the long, pretty but fairly uneventful rolling landscape of the Oxford Canal.

In part, I’m sparing a shin bone that got a rather nastier battering in that lockgate fall on the way out of Birmingham than I’d realised. Also, there’s been serious guitar to be played and emails to be attended to. The delights of Google and an Android phone…

Time also to enjoy contemplation, of the meditative nature of canal boating, the way we’re cast gently back into an early time in the English countryside (remember these old telephone poles from the railways of the 50s and 60s?) – and of the character of boaters and their boats.

Like meditation, I muse once again, canal cruising slows down and quietens the thought processes – an outcome reflected interestingly in the names boaters give to their craft.

Here’s a selection from the past couple of days, elegantly indicative of what boating is all about, and some thoughts on what the owners might have meant:

• It’s Five o’clock. Somewhere. (Sun over the yardarm, elsewhere six o’clock, but on the canals, clearly it’s OK to open that beer or wine an hour earlier…)

  • I Don’t Believe It (I think the owners do)
  • Dawdler’s Dreams (self-explanatory)
  • Stealyn Away (ought to be, maybe is, a Fairport Convention song, as we are indeed close to Cropredy…)
  • Widdershins (a term, Sue explains to me, which in witchcraft means doing things the other way round in a profoundly meaningful way…)
  • Another Smart Move (how true – that tax-free lump sum from the pension?)
  • At Last (a long life hard-lived, now enjoyed in retirement?)
  • Me Mother’s Yacht (paid for from the inheritance?)
  • Comfortably Numb (homage to Pink Floyd)
  • Narrow Escape – one of our favourites.
  • Molly May….

Ah yes, that’s us. Why Molly May? Sue loved the name, and Kate Boats were ultimately open to persuasion that this would fit their practice of naming their hire boats after people close to the family.

We had originally thought of the name Duck Attack for our first narrowboat, but thankfully that really wouldn’t have fitted the Kate Boats identity. And as you can see from the picture, we turn out to be not the only people on the canals who like the name.

Mooring up just five o’clock before Bridge 58 in Rugby, near an almighty Tescos, has been utterly delightful. Giving us a much more leisurely ninth day tomorrow, Saturday, to get to the Braunston turn, a measly three locks there and then three locks beyond the Napton Junction to get us back to the boatyard by late Sunday morning.

Checking some of the facts about this rather lovely stretch of canal, I’m indebted to http://www.canaljunction.com for the following description of the Oxford canal at this point:

Braunston is an old canal town well worth a look. The section up past Rugby was straightened in the nineteenth century, almost halving the length of the original winding route. You can still see the remains of some of the straightened out loops and the entrance to the old Newbold Tunnel is near the churchyard. The “new” tunnel is at right angles to the old one and is of fairly generous dimensions, having a towpath on both sides. Rugby Borough Council and BW have created a very effective ‘Circle of Light’ in the tunnel. The Oxford Canal joins the Coventry Canal at Hawkesbury Junction.

Days 9 and 10, Saturday/Sunday Oct 1-2, Rugby to Braunston, (eight hours, 19 miles, three locks) and Braunston to Stockton marina (five hours, 12 mile, three locks)

Hottest October day in Britain since records began, and, while of course utterly delightful as we potter gently, surely more than a touch alarming as evidence gathers of irreversible, and for us humans, sooner or later disastrous climate change.

Our selfish hope today as we potter gently south from Rugby to our absolutely favourite canal village of Braunston, is that the collapse that’s coming holds off long enough for the canals to stay filled up with water and for boats to have space, diesel and leisure to enjoy this magnificent network for a few years yet.

After the excitement of the past week (excitement? Gentle amusement perhaps a better description), this last weekend of homeward pootling is largely uneventful, though as we line up behind the first of two triple sets of weekend locks behind three other boats (all piloted by friends in their late 70s who since April have been right up to the north of England together for long, long summer of cruising – proof just how long one can keep doing this) there’s a moment of what might be termed canal rage.

A very, very long residential boat driven by a middle-aged gentleman with a very, very long pony tail comes up behind the Molly May as if to pass us in the locking queue, and I gently point out that we’ve been waiting for a while already.

The response is very sharp admonition – clearly assuming that we’re novices at this – that we should have positioned ourselves closer to the locks.

I take umbrage. Partly at being told off by someone who hadn’t seen why I had sensibly positioned our boat where she was – three other boats ahead of us before the lock, and you don’t get close! – but particularly at the assumption that, because Molly May looks like a hire boat, I obviously don’t know the rules of the canal.

Fisticuffs are avoided, but as the other boat turns in the winding hole and huffily sets off in the reverse direction, it’s been a reminder that not all canal users are signed up to the same set of polite manners and friendliness that’s marked all our many trips on the canals so far.

The Braunston moorings when we get there are quite superb – best to tie up just before the two characteristic iron bridges that span the turnoff right into the Oxford canal – and the Old Plough Inn in town, under new management, does us a creditable supper and a pleasant pint of real ale before we bed down for our final, and longest night of the trip.

What is it about sleeping and the canals? Sue and I average at least 10 hours a night on the Molly May, and love every moment of the oblivion. Stress falls away like scales, and by the end of the week, what with the locking and the resting, the good food and the outdoor air, we’re feeling formidably refreshed.

And, with this moonshine view of Braunston Junction (the canalside house, by the way, is at the time of writing for sale) looking forward to our next excursion.