After yesterday’s change of plan, we started today much firmer in our decisions. We had a goal in mind, to get to Market Harborough and find the sundial.
The only things standing in our way were six hours of travelling, including a tunnel, a double staircase, two swing bridges and a lot of green countryside scenery.
We were so ready for the challenge in fact, that we set off before breakfast.
I managed to sneak in a “pre-breakfast” bowl of cereal as we travelled, under the guise of making hot chocolate for the Captain (the kettle is so slow to boil that I had plenty of time for my tiny box of multigrain shapes in milk).
The first obstacle of the day, the 1071 metre Husband’s Bosworth tunnel, was soon upon us and – as the name implies – I got to drive it. This was my first time driving the boat through a tunnel, and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t touch the side once. I can now tick that off the list.
After that was almost two hours of pure, unadulterated green landscape – rolling hills either side of the tree-lined canal. It was fantastic, and the sun definitely had his hat on – hip, hip, hip, hooray!
This beautiful leg of the trip took us all the way to Foxton Locks; the self proclaimed “most popular locks” in the country. It’s a pair of 5-lock staircases, joined in the middle.
They get tens of thousands of gongoozlers here each year. Sometimes up to 3,500 in a single day.
“Gongoozler” is the term used to describe people who like to watch, but not partake in, boating on canals. In fact if you google “gongoozler”, the Wikipedia page is accompanied by a photo of Foxton Locks.
Due to the popularity, and the “complexity” of the Foxton Locks, you cannot travel up or down it without assistance.
Similar to yesterday’s locks at Watford, Foxton Locks operate a red and white paddle system – “red before white, you’ll be alright” is the volunteer’s mantra, to try and get people to operate the locks properly… if you use the white paddle (to let water in) before the red paddle, then all you’ll end up doing is flooding the lock pools to the side of the staircase and causing all sorts of trouble.
They also only open during certain hours, and during this still-locked-down period in history they’re only open between 10:00 – 17:15.
We arrived at 09:30 and were promptly told to wait (although we were informed we’d be the first people going down in the locks today).
This gave us time for second breakfast (technically the Captain’s first, but I won’t tell if you don’t!), which took the form of Eggs Washington Royale, which is an incredible mix of muffin, poached egg, hollandaise sauce, topped off with black pudding wrapped in Parma ham. It was incredible.
We’d just managed to finish our feast when the lock volunteer waved us on. It was time to run the gauntlet.
Now, if you’ve followed along with our adventures before – or even if this is the first time – you’ll know that we’ve done one or two (hundred) locks before, but that counts for nothing when you’re in a hire boat and the locks are controlled by volunteers.
They treat everyone as though it’s their first lock, which is helpful for lock number one (where they explain the “red before white…” bit) but on days like today when there’s no one else to occupy them (other than the aforementioned gongoozlers who turn up in their droves) they walk down every lock with you.
This could get a little frustrating, but I think in these situations it’s best to just let them get on with it, smile and nod at all the right moments, laugh at the jokes they’ve told hundreds of times before, and just generally be a good citizen.
The Captain…. also took this approach, although she was driving the boat down the locks this time, and so had the added advantage of not being able to hear a single word anyone was saying (the boat is noisy at the best of times, even more so when confined in a narrow lock).
I did learn a few interesting things along the way though… each lock at Foxton can expel 33,000 gallons of water in just over 2 minutes, via drains that are big enough to fit a human inside.
The volunteers also told the story of an old woman who recently got sucked through these drains and flushed out the other side. She survived, they said.
I have to confess I’m not convinced it’s a true story, but it certainly made all the young children watching along gasp!
Having navigated Foxton Locks, we took a sharp right and headed on to Market Harborough.
There were two swing bridges to negotiate in quick succession. The first involved pulling up a heavy metal bar, which acted as a lock to stop the gate swinging open on its own, before pushing the heavy swing bridge by hand. The second involved stopping traffic, pushing out road barriers and then pushing open the very heavy swing bridge.
More by luck than judgment I managed to open both these swing bridges before the boat had a chance to crash into them – though it was close.
The next stretch was another verdant journey, no more locks, just a series of bridges to get through, and fisherman to annoy.
We eventually made it to Market Harborough, winding (which means to turn the boat around) in the Wharf which is the endpoint to this arm of the canal system.
We moored up and spent a little while exploring the town of Market Harborough, which was pleasant enough – although there are many there who don’t seem to understand what “social distancing” means.
I have to say that our hearts weren’t really in it at this point. The Captain, the SSO, and I all wanted see the town, there was an interesting sundial etched into the local church that made for a good photo opportunity, but once we’d got there we realised that what we really wanted was to be back on the boat and heading back the way we’d come.
So that is exactly what we did.
I won’t bore you with the details of this return journey, it was largely like the above but in reverse: with two key exceptions.
Exception 1 – about half way back I got so distracted by a heron whilst I was driving the boat that I came within inches of nosediving into the bank. The Captain was in the galley at the time, and only came out to thank me for my swift corrective action. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to remember it.
Exception 2 – for the last two miles of our trip back to Foxton Locks, we were accompanied on the bank by a very lively and really quite dangerous dog.
It didn’t appear to have an owner, certainly not one that we could see, and spent all of its time barking at the prop wash the boat was generating.
There were a few time’s I thought it was going to jump onto the boat, which the SSO was understandably not happy with. In fact the SSO took himself inside the boat, with both doors firmly closed and barked his orders to the interloper to kindly go away.
At one point it jumped into the water and was just feet away from the back of our boat. A genuinely dangerous place to be. I knocked the engine out of gear and the dog retreated a little, as the water had stopped churning around. It went far enough away that I could safely turn put the engine back in gear. But this was not enough to deter it. It simply carried on following us, whilst running up and down the tow path.
This went on all the way back to the bottom of Foxton Locks, where we just about managed to escape this pest. How? We got lucky. Another boat came along heading in the opposite direction, and so the dog chased them instead.
None of this is the poor dog’s fault, it’s just behaving naturally… it’s the owners, wherever they are (if it hasn’t been abandoned, that is).
We booked in at Foxton Locks (following the procedure laid out for us in the morning), and when the time came we headed back up the staircase.
Whilst waiting to be ushered in though, we had time for a quick ice cream. They even had a special doggy ice cream, so the SSO was pleased (not that he ate much of it, after a few licks he gave up, and it has been stored in the tiny freezer compartment for another day).
I drove the locks this time, and the Captain operated all of the locks under close supervision – although I am convinced the volunteers did more of the work for the Captain than they did for me earlier in the day.
It was also noted that we were the first boat to head down the locks in the morning, and the last to climb up them in the evening.
After a short trundle along the canal, we moored up in a beautiful, rural location and settled in for a relaxing evening.
There’s another long day planned for tomorrow, so the Captain has requested an early night for all the crew.