Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Warning for arachnophobes - and everyone else

They seem to have thing about spiders at Legoland. If I'd known that, I wouldn't have hankered after going there all these years. I especially wouldn't have hankered after going there if I'd known how lame it was. Don't get me wrong: I'm a Lego fan from way back, I've done my time with the bricks, I've knelt on my share of their sharp corners. I still think they're a wonderful toy and will conscientiously move our boxes of bricks to our new house, unable to get rid of them.
When I heard about the original Legoland's construction in Denmark, I really wanted to go there then, and even wondered how I could manage it when I was in Copenhagen not long ago. By then the one here in England had been built near Windsor, but still I never managed to get there. Until today, when we had some stray time to fill in the vicinity of Heathrow. And what a let-down it turned out to be!
Tame, tired, unimaginative, it's a low-key theme park for little kids that no way, no how measures up to expectations refined by Disneyland. It's faded, weathered, a bit battered, and very ordinary. And also, quite astonishingly expensive. Don't go. Instead, buy yourself a new set and stay at home to play with the real thing. So disappointing. I could hardly bear it.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Farewell to Florence Edith

It’s only the stinky toilet that made me pleased that today was our last day on the canal. It’s really become quite breath-taking. But otherwise, it’s been such fun. So much busier than I expected, and challenging, and a bit fraught now and then – but there’s been achievement too, and satisfaction, and pride.

Also, simple enjoyment at this leisurely way to traverse the pretty English countryside, up close with the birds and the trees and the farmland, all under a big, big sky. And the pubs! With the towns and villages, though, not so much: as with trains, canal boats use the tradesmen’s entrance, and not only have we seen the back sides and industrial bits, there’s been a dismaying amount of litter on the water. While I’m at it, I am also disappointed that the system isn’t greener: having diligently sorted our rubbish during the week, we then had no choice but to dump all the bags into the same bin. No recycling at all! Poor.
But that’s the only complaint. Everything else was brilliant, and it was quite sad to get to our last lock, and then to the Kate boatyard, where James showed masterful control in making a tight 90-degree turn into the mooring. It was a shame, then, that the Kate man tutted and came on board to reposition the boat further along, with insouciant ease.

He couldn’t fault my tidy rope, though.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Winding up

Today I took my turn on the end of the windlass, after spending most of the trip so far at the tiller, concentrating hard but not exerting myself much (though you do get a sore right shoulder, and tired feet). The locks came evenly-spaced so the work was steady and there wasn't much time in between for relaxing. We started with the staircase lock, where this time a boat was coming up, and there was some confusion amongst the chief-less Indians about how to handle it, with an alarmingly-exposed cill at one point. The unusually tall gates on this one weigh 3330kg each (the others are mostly around 1500kg).

We're going down the canal now, which makes things easier, and despite feeling unhurried and chatting with the boaters going up, we were finished with the day's quota of locks by lunchtime. It was lovely to be surrounded by fields and trees and flowers; but some of us were feeling pressured to secure a mooring by the pub chosen for our last night's dinner, and we pressed on again, into the messy suburbs, under bridges busy with noisy traffic.

All was well: we moored right outside the pub - The Moorings - well within staggering distance of the boat, and enjoyed a well-earned Scrumpy Jack or Erdinger outside on the terrace in the long, warm evening. The food there, by the way, is terrific, the best of the trip - a great way to end our last full day on the Grand Union.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Get knotted, mate

Pretty much everyone on the canal has been friendly. Cows watch us pass, dog-walkers and strollers on the towpath pass the time of day, joggers and cyclists give a cheery nod, and other boaters exchange greetings and comments about the weather or the cricket. There’s a feeling of camaraderie especially at the locks, where we’re all sweating over our windlasses to raise the paddles, or heaving on the gates, or fidgeting with the gears to keep the boat straight in the pen.

Occasionally there’s a boat-owner, as opposed to a hirer like us (identified by the company name on the side of the boat), who watches with suspicion as we skim past their precious vessel, or who sails past without even acknowledging our presence – but today’s old codger took the biscuit. As we passed him, moored but perched on the railing at the back of his boat, he looked critically at poor old Florence Edith and delivered one scathing comment: “Your rope’s untidy!”
So it was, our stern mooring rope, in a heap under the tiller – just as it’s been all week, causing no problems at all. We didn’t acknowledge him, of course, or even look at the rope till we were round the bend; but after that we did a survey of everyone else’s and, true, most of them were tidied in some way.
We made a token effort to be a bit more shipshape thereafter – but it was a busy day today, lock-wise, and there were more important things to think about. There were three on our own, then a series of eight where we had a lock buddy and, despite steady traffic coming the other way, everyone worked so efficiently as a team that we cleared them all in 90 minutes – very satisfying.

Less pleasing was the country mile, and more, we had to walk into and especially back from the pretty village of Long Itchington. The fundraiser afternoon tea inside the old church was good, and the plaque on the wall of a cottage was funny, but we missed the track back to the canal and if it hadn’t been for a helpful cyclist carrying messages between us as we strung out along the road, there might have been a moment of ill temper. But an excellent dinner at the Cuttle Inn put everything right again.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Canal algebra

Miss Cree would be so disappointed in me. She was such an enthusiastic maths teacher, and today's problem wouldn't have given her a moment's hesitation, but I gave up on it, eventually. Here it is: if miles + locks ÷3 = hours, and you took 7 hours to do 13 locks, then how many miles did you cover?

Not many, is the innumerate answer. You’re lucky on a busy canal to hit 4mph – when passing other boats, either moored or travelling, you have to knock the throttle back to tick-over speed, which is much less – and even luckier to sustain that for any distance, so the miles you cover in a day, even one that that begins at 7.55am,  and especially if it includes locks and a tunnel, add up to very few.
But it was a good day: there was some dramatic weather that timed itself perfectly for lunchtime, and for the rest we had pleasant sunshine, cows, ducks, ducklings, a blue flash of kingfisher, woods, fields and pretty lock cottages. There were also, I have to say, the M1 where for some distance it felt as though we were on the hard shoulder; and the railway line the other side with the frequent silver scream of a Virgin train flashing past.
But then we were back to more bucolic scenery where, on return trip now, we recognised cottages and moored boats. There was a pretty shop selling ‘Canalia’ which is much less raunchy than it sounds – tea towels with a pattern of narrowboats, brass canal plaques, model boats, and metal jugs painted with the traditional Roses and Castle motifs.

Our lock buddy today was a cheerful, friendly, scruffy guy with few teeth and a pretty girlfriend, very proud of his Lister engine and who shared some non-judgemental helpful tips on steering. They were no help to me, sadly, when I entered the tunnel and got hung up in the dark on its kink soon after. We lost a fender to the struggle, but the day ended well anyway, back at Braunston’s peaceful mooring with a colourful sunset and sleeping ducks after salmon and spinach tart (with free Wifi) at The Boathouse.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


When you're not on the tiller, steering and constantly reminded that getting distracted for just a few seconds will always result in an embarrassingly noticeable zig or zag; and there aren't any locks with gates to heave open and closed, with paddles to wind up and let down again - when none of that applies, cruising the canals is a peaceful and relaxing business. There's hardly any engine noise, you can hear the birds singing, ducks quacking, the water rippling through the rushes, and smell the leaves as the boat glides under bridges and overhanging trees. It's totally relaxing. It's the sort of boating holiday you expected, before you discovered the reality of the effort and concentration required to control the boat.
By you, I mean me. I had a shift just sitting at the bow today, and the biggest stress was waking up the ducks fast asleep on the water right in front of us. There were other boats to inspect (one of them with my name), boaters and fishermen to exchange greetings with, and sweeping generalisations to make. Like, there are four sorts of boaters: novice hirers like us, experienced owners, hippy liveaboards (that's the official term) and house-proud liveaboards. Some of the last group, far from getting away from it all, have beside their mooring little lawns that need mowing, you know. Also, we passed the six-mile post from Braunston, which we left one and a half days ago. Speedy!
We've done 36 locks since starting, and today was our turn-around, so we're halfway through our journey. First, though, there was a cream tea in the shop at Whitton Marina with the cherry trees outside, where the plump, friendly lady who served us insisted that she wasn't the model for the painting in the loo there.
After Weedon Bec, we got to Bugbrooke Wharf, and this brought the day's only real stress. We had to turn around, you see, and when your boat is 16m long, which is about the width of the canal, what you need is a winding hole. That's winding as in the thing that blows, and that was a problem today, a chilly Icelandic breeze pushing us in the wrong direction when James tried to get the bow poked into the specially-dug big notch in the bank. Of course, that was the very moment another boat came along, adding to the stress of trying to work out what combination of throttle, gear and tiller direction we needed.

But boaters are, generally, a friendly and helpful bunch, and the kind man on this one gave unhurried advice, hauled on our stern rope, and helped to turn us around. The reward for all this effort and anxiety was a mooring right outside The Wharf pub, where we drank several soothing ciders and enjoyed our dinner.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Despairing Matilda

The thing about narrowboats - or one of them - is that you're very close to the water. When you're feeding the ducks, that's just fine, even if I'm always getting caught out by their sharp eyes: feed the four by the boat and within seconds there's an entire flotilla of them skidding alongside, coming from all directions. Swans, though, they're a different story. Much bigger than you think (like pigs, in real life) it's no problem for them to reach inside and deliver a demanding nip to the arm when the bread is finished.
After six locks to get our eye in, today's challenge was the Braunston Tunnel, 1843m long with a sneaky kink at the far end. It was built in 1796 and is, as you see, two-way, although that's hard to believe when you first enter it. The technique is to stick to the middle until you need to pass, but that's actually quite tricky to judge in the dark, especially when the oncoming boat has a dazzling, straight-ahead light like this one. There was much complaining about it afterwards, once the 20-minute journey was over and we were back out in the bright sunshine and surrounded by greenery again.
After cruising along, disconcertingly, above the surrounding fields, we arrived at Long Buckby Wharf where the New Inn sits beside the lock, as it has for most of the Grand Union Canal's life. It was too pretty to leave behind so, despite intensive research, googling and discussion, we ended up having both lunch and dinner there, surrounded by traditional Roses and Castles decorative touches, which are common on narrowboats. The sad background to all of these hand-painted water jugs and buckets was that they were done by Matilda, who was kept a virtual prisoner by her publican uncle to paint them all, forbidden to have contact with anyone at the pub, even the man she fell in love with. She committed suicide and is said to haunt Table 11, which was conspicuously empty during our visits.


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