Saturday, July 4, 2015

Grand!

Today a new adventure began. It's something I've fancied since I first read about it as a teenager: cruising in a narrowboat along England's canals. So for the next week, with James and Gill, two (fortunately) experienced friends, we'll be getting a taste of the Grand Union Canal from Warwick eastwards, on a 16-metre boat called the Florence Edith hired from Kate Boats. When we first laid eyes on her, she was hemmed in by three other boats and apparently trapped, but she was freed with ease by the experts, and in no time at all we were on our way.
Quite quickly, there were two viaducts, one over the railway and the other over a river, impressive evidence of the toil, skill and vision of the canal builders back in 1929 when it was opened. It unites London with Birmingham, and is the longest canal by far in the system, at 461km, with 166 locks. Every bridge is numbered, although the one that carries the Fosse Way which I learned about in Latin classes back in school is disappointingly modern and concrete, and nowhere near as picturesque as the many arched brick ones like this.
We were soon out into the countryside, passing through cornfields dotted with poppies, the occasional village church on the horizon beyond, and pasture grazed by sheep and cattle. It was wonderfully peaceful, nothing but ducks, moorhens and geese, all with fluffy chicks, the canal lined by trees, rushes or pretty arrangements of weeds like buddleia, rosebay willow herb, cow parsley, brambles and nettles.
We soon encountered our first locks, which turned out to be less scary than I expected, mainly because there wasn't much other boat traffic today and we were able to blunder through unobserved. The staircase lock was even so quite challenging, though: two locks joined together, the middle gates high and heavy, where the water foamed through very impressively when the paddles were wound up. After 18, though, things got easier, to the point where we - I! - were steering Florence through just one of the gates.
Our journey's first section finished at Itchington Bottom Lock, disappointingly not labelled as such but still a pleasing place to stop for the night near the Two Boats pub, and reflect on new skills learned which include a potentially disastrous disregard for vehicular bumps and scrapes.

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