We woke early this morning, the Captain and I with the same thought on our minds; we’d already had enough of the very busy Oxford Canal. The SSO’s opinion on the matter was left unspoken, but if his snoring was anything to go by then he was in total agreement.
So then, what were we to do?
The answer, as is ever the case, had already been worked out by the Captain. We were going to head back up the Oxford Canal, retracing our steps from the day before, and then push on to the Leicester branch of the Grand Union Canal (known to those in canal circles as the GU). Before anyone starts to worry about us approaching Lockdown Leicester, risking catching Covid-19 and all that, the canal at Leicester is already shut, and we won’t be going anywhere near it.
This new plan would also give us some rather interesting things to do, such as several tunnels and a few staircases – why didn’t we think of doing this originally!
The first thing we needed to do (even before breakfast) was to press on a little further down the Oxford Canal so that we could turn around at the next winding hole.
An advantage in have a smaller boat is that it’s a little easier to find places to turn, and so as soon as the canal became wide enough, we pulled a slick 180° manoeuvre and high-tailed it northwards again, back to Braunston.
Braunston is where we needed to hang a right (“hard to starboard!”, “aye-aye, Captain!”) and make our way up through the Braunston Locks.
The Captain decided that she wanted to tackle a few of these locks herself, leaving the SSO and I to drive the boat through each lock.
The Captain decided that I needed some extra boat handling lessons, and executed this by only opening one of the entry lock gates on each lock – the upshot of which is that I had to try very hard not to crash the boat into the closed gate.
I’m pleased to report that my lesson must’ve been a success, as the Captain didn’t feel the need for any more lessons that day; in fact she didn’t feel the need to operate any further locks at all.
When you pick up a hire boat, one of the things the hire company does is to get an engineer to show you all the important functions of the boat – where to find the gas bottles, how to fill the boat with water, how the lights work… that kind of thing. One of the key elements is general maintenance, including checking the prop by lifting up the weed hatch (on some of the canals you can get all sorts of plant life and other things snagged up in there).
So it was odd then, when yesterday the engineer said “we don’t worry about the weed hatch, you shouldn’t need to check it”.
We thought nothing of it at the time, just thankful for one less manual check to do. That all changed just after Braunston locks when we heard a noise and decided to open the weed hatch, just in case something was stuck around the propeller.
Twenty minutes later, I’d pulled out a metre of nylon rope, several bits of different plastic bags, some cable tie stuff, a bungee cord, and the best part of someone’s navy blue t-shirt (torn to shreds). I had to cut the rope with the bread knife, to work it loose and then tug at everything else to unravel it.
There’s no way that we picked up all this rubbish in less than 24 hours.
In the end, having cleared it all out, we carried on our journey.
Braunston tunnel was next, it’s the 7th longest navigable tunnel on the network, and one that is definitely not straight, there were some big kinks in it.
It is a two-way tunnel (meaning traffic can flow in both directions at the same time), but it definitely doesn’t look wide enough when you first enter.
However, we were passed by several boats heading in the opposite direction, and we didn’t come close to hitting any of them, so appearances can definitely be deceiving.
This then put us on the Leicester arm of the GU, and we were well on our way, following our new plan.
The next exciting adventure came at the Watford staircase, a set of seven locks, five of which are joined together in a straight line, the top gate of the lower lock acting as the bottom gate of the higher lock.
If that sounds complicated, that’s nothing when compared to how these locks are managed. You have to register upon arrival, so that the (admittedly helpful) volunteer can call up to the other volunteer at the top end of the staircase on his walkie-talkie.
Then there’s a whole process for getting you up (or down) the staircase: there are red paddle gears and white paddle gears, each of which let in water from different places and must be wound and unwound in the right order. If you get it wrong, there’s a high chance of flooding the lock (or even spilling water out over the towpath).
In fairness I can understand why they control these locks, as it would only take one inexperienced person doing the wrong thing, for it to become a bit of a disaster.
Fortunately we simply followed the advice given, and made our way to the top without incident.
After the staircase, came Crick tunnel which was shorter, straighter, and very much wetter than Braunston. Towards the end of the tunnel, the Captain and I received a cold, smelly shower of drips. The SSO had sensibly chosen to remain inside the boat, nice and dry.
We spent the rest of the day travelling along the GU until we found a beautiful spot to moor up, just in time for tea (home made fish pie).
It has been a long day, for sure, but a good one. We are all much happier on the GU than the Oxford Canal.
Of course we could wake up tomorrow morning and change our minds again. Tune in next time, to find out…