Saturday, 18 April 2009

A bridge, a horse and a cooke

The sorry saga of the replacement Long Horse Bridge at Derwentmouth continues. An earlier bridge, which carried the Trent towpath over to the Trent & Mersey Canal, was demolished by British Waterways back in 2003, who then chucked the whole thing over to the witless planners of Derbyshire County Council.

They devised a scheme whereby a direct replacement (designed for use by horses, remember; it was a towpath bridge) had to be replaced by a different, wider, bigger bridge in a different place so it would be suitable for horses. Sometimes this stuff just makes itself up, eh?

One dogged opponent - John Cooke of Shardlow - has refused to let the various authorities get away with it and has been harrying them at every turn. Sadly, the nonchalant, stubbornness of council staff knows no bounds and despite the absurdities and inconsistencies of the Council proposals, their bridge will probably get built now. Boaters are moreorless the only user group not directly consulted but almost the only ones who directly pay for waterways facilities, unlike pedestrians, cyclists or horse-riders.

The arrogant nonsense written in several e-mails by both BW and particularly Derbyshire County Council staff is breathtaking, as is the way they now blame opponents for the delay in getting a bridge in place. It's like that story about the lad, after being found guilty of murdering his parents, pleading leniency on the grounds that he's an orphan! This really is "New Britain" at its greasy, spin-doctored worst: smooth-talking council officials talking crap and taking an age to provide information to anyone.

All that's necessary is a replacement bridge for towpath users: this requires no compulsory land acquisition, no extended planning processes, no hedgerow surveys, ecological audits, parish council debates, evaluations by the "cabinets of Derbyshire and Leicestershire County Councils" or anything else.
If Sustrans, the British Horse Society, the County Council or anyone else wants a hook-up for horses and cycles doing the Midshires Way (Yes, that's what I thought; it's a long-distance path that links two other non-entity long-distance paths), then they can pay for a separate bridge elsewhere. Or make do with a 1.9 metre wide bridge. Or start paying a shedload of money every year for a licence like boaters. Only if you pay the money, people in organisations like British Waterways and Derbyshire County Council tend to completely ignore you. Since when have horse-riders been a socially-excluded or deprived group? Even close by, horse-riders need to make do with paths considerably narrower than the direct replacement bridge, busy roads and low arch bridges, yet all this is ignored by the great and the gormless intent on spending considerably more ratepayer money than necessary. It's all fairly shameful.

The full story is available on John Cooke's website and I'd really urge you to contact John or speak out in opposition to the plans, especially if you live locally. Anyone from outside the area will get short thrift from council officials, because that's the way they are.

I always thought his was the kind of pioneering campaigning that the IWA was supposed to do. What do they do these days? Everyone has a go at Aickmann, but I bet this was a battle he would have won. Where have all the campaigners gone? At least there are people like John Cooke around who don't give up easily.

Long Horse Bridge should be replaced with a simple, bridge in the original position because:
  • it's all that's needed - it's a waterway facility.
  • it's a safety issue because this is a flowing, deep river and easy access to the bank is important. A bridge with high railings is not a waterways facility.
  • it's a heritage issue - the bridge has been on that site since the Trent & Mersey Canal opened
  • it's less money
  • there are good, acceptable, low-cost alternatives for horse-riders if they don't like using a bridge that was acceptable for horses down the ages

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Back to Nottingham

It's a relatively early start and with our full crew, as Pat and Bill join us today for the short trip back into Nottingham. We are running to a schedule today as we are meeting more in-laws in town today.

We set off gently, and with no sign of the winds of earlier in the week, and pass quickly through the wonderful skewed turnover bridge. It's a listed monument now, unlike the lockside cottages at the weir. Odd.

The next mile is alongside the once extensive Boots complex to the north, with plenty of little intakes and shady spots where houseboats lie. It still is Boots - or whatever they are called now - but many of the factory buildings have been demolished. Although formerly industrial, this stretch of the Beeston Canal is now remarkably peaceful and green. It is irritating to see that there are high-voltage cables set in the towpath with warnings not to use mooring spikes. As there are no rings, it is therefore impossible to stop along here.

The peace is broken as the buildings crowd in around us again though. Most of the canal into Nottingham from Beeston is either industrial or post-modern cheap flats, but there is a short stretch of terraced houses and nearly all of them respect the canal that passes by behind them - tidy gardens, benches, even a few short moorings.

While we have been away, Castle Marina has had a new footbridge installed over the entrance. These days all footbridges have to meet the mobility and access requirements so they are all far bigger and far more grand than necessary. At least this one is not as bad as the staggeringly enormous affair that utterly obliterates the view of the front of the old South Mill maltings at home in Bishop's Stortford. You get to the stage sometimes that you reckon you'd rather go the long way round than have more of these enormous eye-sore bridges.

We moor up at the wonderfully named Tinker's Leem and wait for our guests: they include two toddlers so everything has to be tidied up and hidden away. Not much we can do about the stove though. Narrowboats need to be carefully toddler-proofed. Soon enough we spot them ambling along the canal, chattering away about the ducks. The kids are thrilled to be on the boat and even more so to watch her descend through the lock in town. We turn again at the Devil's Elbow, this time T does it and does a nice job, keeping the momentum at the back and we slide round smoothly, not touching at either end.

Anglers under the bridge scowl at us: we have only just passed them two minutes ago and they are having to lift their rods again. They avoid catching my eye. North Star returns to the city basin and we head for lunch at the Fellows Morton Clayton pub. The new owners are unaware of the importance of the FMC name: they know about the adjacent warehouse but the photos on the wall are from all over the network and few are relevant to FMC. Pity.

There are, I think, four pubs and bars in this little space and none are particularly good. Not one really relates to the canal outside except as a locational feature to attract drinkers to the outside terrace.

Later we return - up one lock - the mile to Nottingham Castle Marina.

5.1 miles, 2 locks - the same lock twice!

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Victoria Hotel, Beeston

We are lucky enough to be in Beeston for the Victoria Hotel's Easter Beer Festival - 28 beers on tap inside and another 30 out in the yard. The place is absolutely heaving and we wonder if we can find somewhere for six and a Spaniel to eat (and drink), but miraculously we arrive just as a big group are going.

We down a few pints - sadly I can't remember what it all was, just a few hours later but it was good. Very god. The food was excellent but completely unsynchronised which was a pain: I suppose we can forgive when they were having possibly their busiest night of the year.

The Victoria is an absolute gem, but it's a fair walk from the canal. Worth it though.

Trentlock to Beeston

A short hop east and back onto the comparative comfort of the Beeston Canal. We share Cranfleet Lock with two grandparents and their three grand-children. They are local and so are at home on the Trent. We still treat it like we were crossing the South Atlantic.

We sail out onto the river behind them, but they soon shake us off.

It's a strange sensation because we are motoring along but on a tickover and there's no was at all. I check the steering and we can move around. The only real sense of movement is when you look at the bank.

To the left, the Attenborough Nature Reserve appears. I still want to visit and hope I'll get time tomorrow. To the right, now are the big open fields of Barton and then the long line of fanciful summer homes on the bank. I do like these little mansions by the river - each one is clearly someone's pride and joy.

All too soon we are approaching Beeston Lock, and I hate how there is such a big gap between the wall and the first of the orange buoys! As we come in, there is a GRP boat ahead. I really really am beginning to dislike being around them. I have to take such enormous care not to bump into them yet they scoot around carelessly and without thinking: this one has just passed us a minute ago and is now waiting right in the very middle of the lock moorings.I am having to slow to get to the bank just out from the wall and I can really feel the pull of the weir to starboard. Just as yesterday at Trentlock, I am not in a happy mood as I come off the river.

The lock is busy now - it is Good Friday after all - and there are plenty of spectators as we lock through. We manage to stay to the side with our GRP lockmate ahead of us. We need to use the facilities which lie just beyond the lock, and this makes for an awkward exit as the moorings are occupied on both sides. We have to pull North Star back into the arm which is tricky with all that white plastic bobbing around.

This is going to be out first experience with emptying the cassette toilet and neither of us has a clue. The smell is awful and the kids hide somewhere. Helen does as well. Can't say I really blame them though.

With the job done, we move just a hundred yards towards Nottingham to moor up.

4.6 miles, 2 locks

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Turning at Weston, back to Trentlock

Sadly we have to turn near Weston and head back towards Nottingham, we are meeting up with family for the Easter weekend and - because of toddlers - don't want to be on the Trent at that stage.

We pass through Aston Lock again but with great difficulty. First we struggle to close the lower (northern) gate: it is huge but even the one opposite is comparatively easy. Then getting it open again is almost impossible without two people hanging almost horizontally off the beam and using every inch of muscle and sweat. Too much work! Then it won't stay closed. Ridiculous.

We continue apace back through Shardlow, but haven't time to stop. I do hate being on a schedule. Derwentmouth and out onto the Trent. Helen and M hate putting on the life-jackets and there is some tension on the boat. This is the problem boating with good swimmers - they are reluctant to look like nerds. I read the Riot Act. This heightens their resolve to simply ignore me and hide giggling under the cratch cover. I steer sniffily at the back.

We fly through Sawley Lock; so much easier with three or more working the boat and lock. We share with a couple who have caught us after refuelling at Sawley: it had been a real surprise to suddenly see them behind us as we slipped into the lock. Their boat is called Me and Mrs Jones - a really cool name, for some reason. I chat to the one who is presumably Mrs Jones, who is dressed in a boiler suit and a beanie. Again, the flood warning signs on the lockkeepers cottage astonish us as we gaze across the wide valley.

The Trent is now like a mirror; no sign of any wind or even much current. Within minutes we are approaching the entrance to Cranfleet Cut but there in the mouth, Me and Mrs Jones spins round to moor up on the north bank. She is a full 70' and takes up the entire width of the space, leaving me no room to pass for a couple of minutes. I am still extremely conscious that this is precisely where North Star had her hissy engine fit a couple of days ago, and I am - to be quite honest - still very nervous about rivers, so I am a little crabby at suddenly having to slow to a halt in water that is now quite clearly pulling us to the rightand away from the Cranfleet Cut. If they don't speed up their turn I'm going to have to turn fully in the river to come back for a second go. But they must have done this a lot and Mrs Jones moves her stern out of the way and we pass, smiling.

We moor up after the railway bridges and decide to head for the Steamboat Inn for dinner. We are also out of mobile phone power and really need to keep in touch with people, and the manager there kindly allows us to power up.

A long first day for the entire family on the boat and we are realising the shortcomings of North Star quickly - but it's all great fun and we look forward to fixing the problems.

8 miles, 5 locks


There is a fabulous page devoted to Weston-on-Trent at Wikipedia - far more than usually found on Wiki.

Shardlow to Weston and beyond

This is such a lovely stretch of canal, every inch of it, despite the constant presence of airports, major roads, power lines and railways. All add a little interest and confirm the importance of the Trent Valley to communications and industry in Britain. The cooling towers of Ratcliffe peek shyly above hedges or around corners, the raggedy fluff reminding you which way your boat will drift when the towpath hedge vanishes.

Along the bank outside Shardlow, wood-smoke curls along under the branches, as the copse shelters the moored boats from the fierce gusts. I find myself admiring other boats less now, but instead I inspect features to get ideas or just to see how others fit their TV aerial or mid-cabin rooftop cleat or hand-rails. When you own a boat, you become a bit of a fender geek, comparing the various methods of protecting the hull. Narrowboating is still, for me, a contact sport. However, after a few days I am now getting used to the way North Star handles: she really is a graceful lady and swims cleanly, but once she starts swinging in the wind, she needs quite a lot of brute force to reestablish control.

I am still not entirely convinced that the BMC 1.5 engine is in perfect order though. Fortunately, Bill - my father-in-law - arrives in a couple of days and there isn't much he doesn't know about boats. He headed up the UK's marine surveying department for a long time and he loves getting on the canals now.

We try out walkie-talkies at Aston Lock out in the middle of nowhere. We are a bit embarrassed to use them because it seems so ridiculous but I am anxious that often T is on his own at deep locks. He is a great swimmer, but I am never completely comfortable when I can't see him working on the paddles or beams out of sight. Chatting into the walkie-talkie makes everything run a lot more smoothly.

Very quickly we have moved away from the River Trent, and it is just visible away to the south. We pass a long field where swans nest in the long grass - we can see many white necks sticking up like orchids. At the far end of the field by the bridge is the particularly attractive Weston Grange, and beyond it the village of Weston-on-Trent, a village with strong Ukrainian connections.

Weston-on-Trent stays away from the canal but now the railway shuns Weston: the village would have been better sticking with the waterways. There used to be a station, but no more.

We flick through the awkward railway bridge as a freight train rumbles over it. It is moving more slowly than we are. As we emerge, I see activity at the lock and use the binoculars to see if we can catch them. It seems reasonable, and they must have seen us. It's a big lock and a waste of water to lock through singly. But no, they decide to go it alone.

As we moor below, T sets off to help, but I won't let him. I'm annoyed that they have gone through without a backward glance. They can do it themselves. We decide to have lunch there and keep an eye out for boats catching us up: none do and we have a relaxed hour there. The occasional freight train passes. Freight trains seem to be just long lines of colourful boxes these days.

We continue after lunch but not far, as we intend to turn at the winding hole after Bridge 11. The cutting after Bridge 9 - why is it called Fine George's bridge? - is my favourite kind of place: a deep, dark, green cutting, dripping in ferns, alder, ash and lush undergrowth. A small, rusty old boat is moored up below the cliff. Just above us here, and out of sight from the canal is an important part of the Ukrainian community in England - a place called Tarsivka, where summer camps are used to teach the teenage children of the Ukrainian diaspora about their culture.

Further along, we are ordered to stay on the right of the canal, because of a shelf on the towpath side. Why? We slow for the turn and sweep round neatly: when there is no wind or current it is so straightforward.

4.5 miles, 3 locks

Thrumpton Hall

Having spent a week assuming that Thrumpton Hall was locked away from public gaze, I now discover that the gardens are open on Wednesdays, 11am to 3pm.
There is a wonderful article about the woman who inherited the house, and how much it costs to run a creaking old pile here.
If you want to see the inside, it is necessary to find someone to marry first, or arrange a corporate event.
So, no need to buy it now.

It is such a pity that the two old ferries – at Barton and Thrumpton – no longer operate, because there is absolutely no way of getting to either village from the Trent – river or towpath. It's odd that there are no visitor moorings, nor any ferry. Even today, it would seem to be useful and valuable to operate a ferry across the river, even if only on summer weekends. After all, it’s the Trent, not the Styx.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009


T needs time and space to revise, so I set off back to Derwentmouth to sit and watch the grebes. The towpath is peaceful beyond the lock, as the towpath is now a dead-end, petering out at big lumps of dislodged concrete; these are the last remains of the demolished towpath bridge.

A chaffinch sits in a bush alongside to keep me company. There are three grebes fishing, popping up on the surface for a few seconds before plunging again into the depths. They reappear a long distance from where they dive. A harrier briefly hangs around overhead, but the air is mainly filled with crows that wheel around the meadows endlessly. Crows always seem like the ornithological punks, hanging around bored and listless, but aggravated by everything around them.
I watch a steady procession of boats motor up the river: some are clearly on a charge, and reach the still waters of the T&M with a sense of very audible relief. Others, however, are more relaxed about it and saunter up, happy to be puttering in at a snail's pace.

The Trent is still navigable beyond this junction, and the entrance to Shardlow Marina is a short distance upriver by Cavendish Bridge. Hundreds of years ago, the Trent was navigable much further still as there are the remains of locks at King's Mill near Weston-on-Trent and, I think, further up. There is very little interest in rivers now unless you can get 40' of steel narrowboat up them. The canoeing community keeps most of them open, but the canal community seem largely uninterested. The remoter sections of the system, and those bits not really considered part of the system, are mainly accessible to the GRP cruisers, but these are distinctly unfashionable now. Photographs from even the late 1980s show a profusion of GRP boats but they now stick primarily to the rivers and few are seen on the narrow canal network. I had seriously considered a GRP boat - a Viking 26 - last year but everyone online suggested they were not such a good idea as they are so easily damaged by 15 tonnes of steel boat. I still find it irritating that the main reason for not using these cheaper, more accessible boats is the incompetence of others.

A pair of kayaks appear from the Derwent, and again I am jealous of their ability to explore the wilder parts - where the Nicholson and Pearson simply don't reach. They continue down the Trent.

A man appears on a bike, asking how he gets to Sawley. I break the bad news. He takes it in good humour.

On the return, I follow a footpath across Derwentmouth lock and into the fields alongside the Derwent for a mile. Oxbow lakes are now stocked with fish for the local angling club, the Pride of Derby Club. Given the state of their football team, angling is about as much pride as they get in these parts, I suppose. Lambs and attendant ewes bleat hopelessly as I pass them. The fields here seem open to the elements, just a foot or two above the waters of Trent and Derwent. Despite the proximity of the roaring M1 a mile away east, East Midlands Airport to the south and the eternal presence of the power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, it is easy to disappear from the beaten track and find solitude among the trees, meadows and rivers here.

On to Shardlow

An even shorter river trip this morning, and we set off early. Sawley Weir is very close to the exit from Sawley Cut, but I don't feel any real pull as we exit behind another boat. It glides away in front of us quickly. I increasingly believe our BMC 1.5 engine to be a bit under-powered for North Star, but then several people have said that it is fine and needs only a different prop. How on earth do you get the "right prop" for a boat. Trial and error can become expensive.

The GPS shows we are making progress, but it is slow - only 3.5kph. Barely 2mph.
We plunge under the vast M1 bridge where the wind channels viciously and slows us more. The live online UK wind map [Note: this link only works from a mobile/WAP device] for nearby East Midlands Airport shows 18mph southerly wind. The service is intended for glider pilots. I bet they never reckoned on it being used so diligently by narrowboaters.

After the M1 bridge we pass lagoons to our left and elegant trees on the right. A curious pipe bridge crosses, described as an aqueduct on the OS map, and as we pass under it I see Derwentmouth. Crested grebes glisten in the sun ahead of us, the sun catching their russet necks for an instant before they dive into the glassy waters. I relax and ease up on the throttle further, to appreciate this important watery junction. The Derwent contributes 40% of the river flow here, and I suppose the Trent & Mersey Canal, contributes a fair amount too, as it ends here. A little known fact is that the River Derwent flows entirely in Derbyshire.

Until recently, there was a bridge here - known as Long Horse Bridge - that carried the towpath over the Trent and onto the Trent & Mersey. The bridge was demolished by British Waterways in 2003 and not replaced. Walkers now have to follow the Trent up to Cavendish Bridge and walk through Shardlow village to return to the canal. Plans for replacing the bridge have been stymied by the usual hapless and hopeless local government attempts to combine leisure development with heritage management: Derbyshire County Council want to construct a "multi-user path bridge", 140m away up the Trent. It's typical looney local government, but the trouble is these days that local government officials have so little respect for any real consultation that they usually refuse to back down even when confronted with sanity. (Derbyshire's new bridge proposal is dramatically more expensive than a direct replacement and faces considerable local opposition)

We continue straight in to the Trent & Mersey, which suddenly feels narrow and claustrophobic. The north bank is smothered in reed beds, fronting poplars, ash and willows. The Derwentmouth lock is framed by a huge tree - an oak perhaps? Can't tell without the leaves. All very tranquil: to the south, the green flood meadows of the Trent, to the north those of the Derwent. Sheep and cows loiter.

Once up onto the T&M, it's all a little neater: proper canal banks and lots of boats moored. A long marina accompanies the canal much of the way into Shardlow. We slow for the awkward turn through the flood lock. I notice a boat moored nearby that seems to be an early conversion of a working boat. Maybe, maybe not.

T notices that the first house in the village has a miniature railway in the garden; I'm more impressed by their having their own wharf. Minutes later we are turning carefully under the bridge outside the New Inn. The wind has dropped completely and the sun is out: life is good. I see a space on the bend and slip straight in, coming to a perfect halt with minimum throttle and absolutely no thrashing about in a 59' space. If I had a pipe, I'd lean on the tiller, light it up and grin smugly at the assorted drinkers on the terrace of the New Inn. I don't smoke, so I decide - instead - to join them.

"Nice boat," says one drinker. I nod and grunt. This is what one does when on the canal. Inside I beam, appropriately, from side to side.

1.9 miles, 1 lock, excluding the Sawley flood lock. Why is it that the Sawley flood lock is a proper lock, while the same feature on the Cranfleet Cut is simply a flood gate?


Two lengths of 5/16" rope
Four shackles
Two Crewsaver lifejackets
Two Crewsaver buoyancy aids
Two BWB keys
Two anti-vandal keys
One 12V socket
Three 10a fuses
Trent charts
Four books
One gas bottle level detector
Two rubber fenders
Four floating key fobs


I thought this was supposed to be cheaper than sailing?

A long, heavy, expensive walk back to the boat. It is moored about 20m away across the canal from the chandlery, but I have to walk around. Someone has locked up the side-gate as well so I have to trudge up to the road and all the way back again.

Sawley is an old Norse word meaning "middle of nowhere, but close to M1"

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Plank & Leggit, Sawley

This large modern pub is behind Sawley Marina, but doesn't figure in any of the guidebooks. A large range of identikit lagers and not much else. I have an unmemorable pint - was it Theakston's? Can't remember. It was one of the guests anyway. T had a J20.

The food was filling but unexciting and very much 'chain pubco restaurant'.

Just behind Sawley Marina

Address: Tamworth Road, Sawley, Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire, NG10 3AE
Phone: 0115 9721515
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 11-23. Sun 11.30-22.30
Serving Food: Mon-Sat 12-22. Sun 11.30-21.30
Two regular guest ales.

"Downstream" by Tom Fort

The last few days I have been reading Downstream: Across England in a Punt by Tom Fort, the only book I can find about the Trent. Tom Fort is the fishing correspondent of the Financial Times.

Yes. That's what I thought, too.

I can't quite satisfy myself with it, though. I am a fussy reader, and I am probably one of the few who doesn't like Peter Ackroyd's book on the Thames. (I much prefer Schneer's). I think the reason is that both Fort and Ackroyd write about the river itself: the waters and the life beneath the surface. There is frustratingly little about the places and landscape through which these rivers flow. Fort, for example, deliberately avoids Nottingham, largely in a hissy fit because Nottingham has always - and largely to this very day - turned its back on the Trent. He provides considerable context for the ferryman of the Styx, which is interesting but not going to help you much nosing around Beeston or Long Eaton.

I'm not finished with Fort yet, but then I never did finish Ackroyd.

Trentlock to Sawley

Immediately we slip the mooring ropes, the wind catches North Star and we flit across the Cut, towards a brand new boat; her owners rush around to keep the two boats apart with feet and lots more fenders. Meanwhile, the steerer of a boat waiting for the lock to fill waves us ahead. Very courteous, but I have already planned to come in behind him. In this wind, a late change of plan plays havoc with my steering and once again, North Star is where she shouldn't be with no elegant solution in sight.

The other boat decides to go into the lock first and I manage to get in alongside. I just know that I am not going to be able to keep North Star on the starboard wall after the lock, and indeed as we exit, T can't get down quick enough and we drift across the canal. Their shorter boat hangs on in the lock, while T runs around to catch up. We set out onto the mighty Trent once again, and conscious of the wind - we learn later that it is a 25mph wind gusting to 37mph - I open the throttle as we turn through the vicious eddy and head west for Sawley. Within a matter of seconds I am conscious of a very serious burning smell. My mind starts racing, trying to plan a way out. Should I do a quick 360 degree turn and head into the comparatively calm and shallow Cranfleet Cut? Should I head for the bank, which is now extremely close thanks to the damned wind? Should I get T to the back of the boat with me in case a serious fire starts? We are just 500 metres upstream of the dreaded Thrumpton Weir. I decide to throttle back and within a ten seconds, the smell dissipates. My heart is thumping madly but I decide to press on. Logic suggests that if it was a fire, it would not disappear like that, so we are relatively safe for now. It is only a short trip up the river before we swing under the railway bridge into the Sawley Lock basin. However, this is not one of the easiest basins to use as there are no low-level moorings at all - merely ladders onto a jetty on the right and a slightly lower wall on the left. T hops off on this lower wall and I back off while he prepares the lock. Even ten minutes later, I feel quite sick inside. It's one thing to screw it up on your own, but quite another to take risks with your child's life - even if he is 16.

Behind us, three boats appear, and one peels off to join us in the southerly lock, while the other two head for the other. They are travelling together - a good move on this river. It's all electric here, so no back-straining pushing and shoving, just silent motion. The time in the lock gives pause for reflection and I decide to get properly kitted out for a river emergency. We have two anchors - a Danforth and a mud-weight - but we need to get a lot more.

I notice the plaque marking the level of the November 2000 floods on the wall of the lock-keeper's cottage: it's at waist height. It must have been awful.

Once out of the lock we motor gently along the Sawley Cut, with Sawley Marina on the south side. This is Britain's largest inland marina, with 700 berths. Our lock companion had planned to nip in and get an overnight pontoon mooring for free, but he is also struggling with the wind and moors up on the towpath side. I am relieved to tie up in front of him and put my feet up for a while. There is a bright red sky out west; hopefully the wind will disappear tomorrow.

1.4 miles, 2 locks

Monday, 6 April 2009

Through Trent Lock

The plans have to change at short notice so after a long lunch at the Steamboat Inn, we bring North Star a short distance to Trentlock and come through to moor at the entrance to the dry-dock of Kingfisher Narrowboats.

I need to be in constant communication for a work project, and I cannot seem to get the 12V charging system to work on the boat. We need to moor overnight for power, but also it is good to get someone else - Mick from Kingfisher - to have a quick look at the electrics. He rigs us up a 240V connection and we are back in contact with the world.

Trentlock is a peaceful place, partly because of its isolation from the road network. Access by road is down a narrow country lane that ends in a splay of little tracks and lanes, each leading to a different building. The small cluster of buildings here are focused on one of Britain's major river junctions, with the Trent, the Cranfleet Cut, the Erewash and the Soar Navigation all joining here. Just a few yards away lies one of Britain's busiest railway junctions too - Trent Junction. Until the 1970s there were all manner of sidings, marshalling yards, carriage sidings and depots in this area, but even today there is a train passing every few minutes.

On the south bank of the River Trent, behind the weir, the railway emerges from a red sandstone castellated tunnel entrance and leaps the rent on a long girder bridge, before the railways split apart, passing over the Cranfleet Cut on two separate bridges. Just north the railways diverge again, several times, crossing each other, diving under, soaring over: all very industrial. I really want to have a close up look at Thrumpton Weir but it is difficult: it is madness to approach by boat and there are no public footpaths anywhere near.

Plan B: Buy Thrumpton Hall.

4.9 miles, 3 locks

Jan Deuchar and Signwriting

I am very lucky to catch Jan Deuchar at work, painting the cabin sides of the boat Johel's Cut. It turns out that she painted North Star's water can many years ago. She recognised her handiwork as we locked up and spun roound to moor on the other side of the basin.

She works in a manner that is methodical, yet quick and smooth; it's almost mesmerising watching the strokes creating the shapes and letterforms. Jan makes it look so easy, but even attempting to recreate a letter on a piece of paper will show how difficult it is really. Mick of Kingfisher Boats said that Jan manages to keep signwriting while people are jumping on and off a boat.

The owners of Johel's Cut stand and watch Jan as she works. We all do. Signwriting really is a wonderful skill. It must be great to be asked what you do and to be able to answer "I am a signwriter". There's something timeless about it.

Chris and Jan Deuchar's boats, motor Jackal and butty Hereford are moored opposite the Steamboat Inn and make a spectacularly colourful addition to an already iconic waterways scene.

Beeston to Cranfleet

An early morning departure through the lock on a calm, misty morning. Picking T up is easy and he hops aboard as we push past the stone jetty. I have cleared the rear cross-bed so that we have access through the interior of the boat; it’s just too dangerous to use the gunwales on an open river above big weirs. I am also conscious that we do not yet have any life-jackets and the gunwales do not have non-slip surfaces. The engine motors up nicely although I am convinced it is misfiring under load.
The languid Trent seems benign enough, but the GPS shows we are moving very slowly. I spent last night reading up everyone’s comments about this stretch so stick to the left bank. All is quiet on a Monday morning, and we motor on past the Attenborough Nature Reserve. This great network of managed wetlands has become one of Britain’s best known bird migration centres and one of the very few places one can see bitterns. I am hoping we will have time on the way back to spend some time there.

The left bank is lined with willows and ash, while the right bank holds an eclectic linear community of river-dwellers. There is no road access on this side, so the houses – of all kinds and shapes and sizes – are constructed with whatever is brought across by boat from Beeston. Several houses have developed a long way beyond the wooden shack, and have seen the services of good architects. One particular house, on long stilts, is particularly impressive: no expense spared. Its roof rears up at the front like a sail and swoops low at the rear; the pale wooden beams glow in the sunshine. Just doors away, others are content with rusty caravans.

The cool water sluices past us as we continue round the bends. The River Erewash, one of the Trent’s smaller tributaries trickles in through the Attenborough reserve and big steel flood gates. A steady procession of mums walk the riverside path on the flood berm – it’s not really a towpath when it is behind trees so much of the time.

The big river narrows noticeably at the village of Thrumpton, where the remains of a stone wharf indicate the location of the former ferry. Nowadays there is no crossing between Sawley and Clifton, other than the old Midland Railway line near Trent Lock. As the tall trees close in on the dark waters, a curious sign suggests that we go straight ahead while those heading downstream move over to the right bank. Why? There is an obstruction in the water but there would seem absolutely no room for downstream traffic to squeeze between it and the bank as the signboard suggests. Curious.

The Cranfleet Cut appears ahead of us and we slow down onto the pontoon. A small cruiser is inconveniently moored two-thirds of the way along it, and the current from the Trent curving away here pushes us towards it. Most narrowboaters take a lot of care to avoid the GRP cruisers, but it is surprising how a small number of cruiser owners seem to deliberately put their boats in harms way.

A gang of helpful BW maintenance men help us up through the Cranfleet Lock and we slowly emerge past the lovely little marina – maybe just 20 boats moored miles from anywhere. We pass a collection of residential boats and tie up for lunch.

Sunday, 5 April 2009


Beeston Lock and Weir
Before the Beeston Canal was constructed, the Trent Navigation Company got permission through an Act of Parliament to bypass the Beeston Weir by means of two locks.
The higher lock had a fall of around 5’ 2” and the lower lock a fall of around 7’. In times gone by, shallow draught boats could navigate the River Trent right up to Beeston Weir so this lock further extended the reach of navigation on the river. The deeper, lower lock, which had two sets of flood gates at the river end, has now been truncated and is simply a short side arm, with a boat seemingly permanently moored there. The recesses for the lock gates can be seen just under the footbridge. The lower part of the lock chamber is obliterated by the high banking considered necessary for flood prevention.
The working of river locks are always mysterious and here at Beeston, one lower gate paddle is left up after use: presumably to ensure a fairly regular fresh flow into the canal as this forms the main source of water for the canal right down to the centre of the city.
Sitting by the lock is a particularly attractive lock-keepers cottage, now whitewashed, although the short row of four terraced houses alongside is sadly boarded up and looking very sorry for themselves. The view from these houses must be fabulous, over the weir and both up and down the middle Trent valley. None of these clutch of buildings is legally protected, yet the assymetric towpath turnover bridge just along the Beeston Cut is a listed monument.

Beeston itself struggles to free itself from the concept of being simply a suburb of Nottingham, which it certainly is not. The area close to the canal has always been prone to flooding, most recently in 1947, although in 2000 they came close to being flooded again. In 1947, Queens Road was flooded and that is half a mile away from the canal up a noticeable gradient the whole way. Because of this flood risk, the Rylands area – south of the railway line – was generally used for cheaper housing. The development sprawling from the 1880s through the 1950s to the 1970s has left a swathe of bungalows, terraces and smaller houses with little of significance; the heart of Beeston is north of the railway and Queens Road.

The Victoria Hotel sells a range of interesting booklets on historical Beeston, but the town is not well promoted: the town has some interesting corners, some interesting associations (Humber bicycles and cars were originally made here) and some of the best wetland and river valley in the country. But if people don’t know about it, they won’t stop. “Shall we stop for a day in Beeston or press on to Shardlow?”

Typical of the mentality is that the old maltings, in Dovecote Lane, a wonderfully evocative structure which is part of Beeston’s history are due to be demolished for yet more clone suburban housing. If town’s won’t invest in their heritage, they won’t reap the rewards. Sadly, there is an innate lack of faith in the identity of many towns in Britain. However, a bright light - as there usually is - is an active local civic society, the Beeston Civic Society, who actively work to research, conserve and educate.

Beeston Weir Hydro Electric Power Station
Beeston is also the home, since 1999, of one of Britain’s biggest run-of-river hydroelectric scheme, a 1.66MWe twin-bulb-Kaplan turbine facility on the far, southern side of the weir. British Waterways are planning to fit another 25 of these installations around the system – presumably at least 1MW on each of the Trent’s big weirs. I read recently that plans were advanced for a scheme at Gunthorpe weir.

The Beeston HEP scheme uses a 2.8m head and 48 m/sec design flow to create the power. There is no separate powerhouse, as all the equipment is contained within the turbine housing. The ventilation and access shafts for each can be seen on the far side of the weir. 3% of the power generated is used by the power plant to operate an electric sonar field and a bioacoustic fence (BAFF). The sonar field stops migrating fish swimming back into the turbine tailrace and the BAFF is used to guide fish towards the 80m long fish-ladder that allows fish to bypass the weir and the power plant.

Initially, the power plant caused a slight drop in water levels for the boats but a modification restored the situation to normal. Two thousand houses get power for almost nothing.

Postscript: Cromwell Weir (1.158MWe) and Thrumpton Weir (0.95MWe) are the two other live hydroelectric power stations on the Trent currently.

Up the Beeston Cut

Early afternoon, we slip the pontoon quietly and make for Beeston, westward along the Nottingham Canal. A blustery westerly makes our turn out of the narrow marina entrance difficult, much to the glee of the assorted onlookers on the bridge and the towpath. They can’t have much to do in Nottingham.
I really don’t know if I enjoy rural or urban canals more: I really enjoy Britain’s countryside and wildlife, but I also particularly enjoy exploring Britain’s industrial heritage. I simply cannot pass an old wharf, derelict factory of disused crane without wanting to know why it is there.

Here, of course, the Nottingham Canal only runs from the Trent at Meadow Lane Lock up to Old Lenton, from where it curved north on a more direct route to Langley Mill. At Old Lenton, the Beeston Cut continues – uninterrupted – to the Trent at Beeston Lock.
On Sundays and other Holy Days, the proprietors of the Beeston Canal would string a chain across the canal to prevent its use by the ungodly. Sadly it’s the only tale commonly told of this stretch of canal, which is a pity, as it must surely hold so much more history. Both the Pearson and the Nicholson guides are fairly derogatory, talking only of the hidden industry behind high banks.

It is a peaceful stretch, winding slowly along the southern edge of the Boots complex – Nottingham is the home of Boots the Chemist, one of Britain’s better known high street companies. On the southern side, a high brick wall acts as a flood barrier of last resort from the ravages of the River Trent. It must surely be a last resort as the normal river level must be at least 13 feet lower than the base of the wall and half a mile away across the flood plain. No gaps are allowed in this wall, so pedestrians and cyclists must cross by means of long ramps.

We arrive at Beeston and decide to moor up for the night alongside the wall. A road – appropriately called Canal Side – runs next to the canal here but the area seems quiet enough and there are plenty of other boats moored up here. Further down we note several boats undergoing heavy restorative maintenance on the visitor moorings; I suspect they will still be there when we return!

Sadly there is no pub in this area, other than in the cheap and cheerful Beeston Marina complex, but we decide to eat in the Beeston Marina café. An extremely friendly staff serve out huge helpings of food…steaks, chops, burgers…at lightning speed and with healthy dollops of Nottinghamshire humour. The café is set back a little behind the little terrace so the view of the river is restricted. We eat vast quantities of gammon, egg, chips, burger and bread and butter, washed down with mugs of tea. They just don’t make places like this any more, but this is – for me – the iconic English caff.

GCSE revision beckons for T, so I mooch around the area for a few hours to leave him in peace and quiet.

3.1 miles, 0 locks

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Maiden voyage

My first sight of “my” boat, which has been moored up away from its normal berth for an engine service yesterday. As we need to get heavy bags aboard and diesel loaded, it is necessary for North Star to be moved. I suppose it is inevitabe that this first manouevre requires two awkward turns, a reverse through a tight gap, plenty of expensive GRP boats nearby and local marina residents watching from their deckchairs. "Simples," as that annoying little Russian meerkat says on the TV. Oh, and there's a strong westerly cross-wind. Surprisingly, thanks to heavily knitted brow and stern-faced concentration, I succeed with no bumps or scrapes, although I do forget to flick the throttle back from neutral initially. I lean over the tiller, a study in professional cool, the engine belting away increasingly but with absolutely no movement from the prop. Chris, the boat broker, nods at me from a jetty near the bow and asks "Throttle out of neutral?" Damn. And I looked so good.

Completion of the paperwork is straightforward and I cough up more than 750 quid for the annual British Waterways licence: North Star is 6" into the next band. We have dealt with some difficult brokers and sellers in the last year, but Chris and Matt of Nottingham Boat Sales have made the whole process so easy. I add my signature to a ream of papers in their office and scoot back to my boat. My boat. Hear that? Mine. Mein. Wode. My boat. The blue one. It’s mine, you know. Yes. My boat.

We load almost a hundred pounds's worth of diesel and then decide that we just have to get moving: that's what boats do. We start up the engine again and T heads up to the bow to help with the awkward marina entrance. The north-westerly wind again makes for awkward manouvering but we slide round with ease. A man on a bench opposite scowls at us: I think he sits waiting only for boats to run aground.

Our trip into Nottingham is very slow, barely outrunning the flotsam in the languid current. Ducklings sail past us. North Star swims well but the engine seems to be belch fumes easily. I wonder how she will work in the Trent. I consider heading out into the river at Meadows Lock but decide to turn instead at the Devil’s Elbow, a ninety-degree turn by Nottingham’s long-disappeared Grand Central Station. In the meantime, we approach Castle Lock where there is much action. A broad-shouldered swarthy man in a pink dress gesticulates wildly. D.H. Lawrence would surely have approved of the metrosexual behaviour of 21st Century Nottingham. A waiting boat slides into the lock, but as I follow I am just too slow with the throttle, though, and we slide towards the overflow weir at the head of the lock, where we stick. The back of the other boat just yards ahead prevents the tried and tested ‘full ahead thrust’ solution. A rope is thrown to the kindly man in pink and he, and another bystander, try to pull us off the suction. It is all to no avail and I suggest that the boat goes ahead down the lock while I am left to reverse off in shame. I apologise profusely for keeping them all waiting, but they depart in good humour. “It happens to all of us,” they say. It is a refrain I am to hear repeatedly over the next week.

We pass through Castle Lock at the second attempt, pass the fine old British Waterways building and a collection of old warehouses opposite the courts, and head down to the sharp bend to turn. This time I get it perfect and spin the boat effortlessly and return to the city basin. Here we moor up by the slender brick bridge, and celebrate our first outing with a pint, basking in the sunshine and in the reflected glow of being a boat-owner at long, long, long last.

2.0 miles, 2 locks

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Survey

A long trek up to Nottingham by train, but it's lovely to see so much of Britain from the train window, although without time to have anything other than a cursory upward glance at the splendours of St Pancras. These days, trains to the East Midlands occupy a little corner of St Pancras like an afterthought after all the international trains, shopping arcades and oyster bars. In the old days, of course, the entire station was devoted to the likes of Nottingham, Kettering and Derby.

I arrived at the boatyard in Nottingham just too late to see the boat out of the water, which was a bit frustrating as it was the whole point of the journey. Nevertheless I had the opportunity to speak to the surveyor who gave the boat a clean bill of health. Lots of little things but nothing to worry about other than some broken gauges. The present owners have looked after North Star well, painting her every year and keeping her scrubbed and gleaming.

"Can't see much though," he mutters. "That's the trouble with portholes".
"Is it worth the money though? Is it good value?" I ask.
The surveyor sucks his breath in sharply and my heart sinks. But it appears that sucking breath in is a trait shared with all mechanical engineers, and isn't necessarily bad; it's just how these guys breathe.
"It's good. Good value. Pretty boat"

He looks through his report and considers his scrawls and squiggles carefully. He reads me back most of it in ever increasingly detailed technical terminology. It's all pleasingly mechanical; canal boats don't yet do electronic brains. Everything on boats is solid: made of oak, steel or iron and not much 'car bumper plastic'. I will have to start learning all this technical terminology, I suppose.

The engine needs a service, however, and I need to do some prioritising as we also have her booked in for hull blacking. There may not be enough time to get it all completed before we take North Star out on her maiden voyage; 'maiden' with us anyway. We haven't even had time to sit down and plan the first trip.