Monday, 31 May 2010

Back to Sutton Stop

We leave Coventry Basin rather sadly. We have enjoyed our day in the city and know there is a lot more to see, but we do need to head back to Braunston.

We have only a short hop this afternoon, back to Hawkesbury Junction, where we will make another attempt to sample The Greyhound's legendary meat pies.

An interesting art trail has been created along more than 5 miles of the Coventry Canal, placing charmingly surreal sculpture that really brightens up the now rather run-down urban surroundings. The art adds to the increasingly eclectic architecture of canalside residential developments - although most of these still see the canal as an entity to be put firmly behind fences, barriers and the truly hated 'No Mooring' signs. (Funny that moored boats are always, but always, a feature of the developers' publicity brochures!)

Sadly, some of the art has been obliterated by the work of vandals' graffiti.

Equally sad is the disappearance of Coventry's industry: no more Courtalds, no more Rover (?), no factories at all. Big expanses of crushed brick, the occasional remnant wall and a few chimneys are all that remain of Coventry's canalside industry. To my surprise (because I don't like Jimmy Hill, I suppose) I have rather taken to Coventry.

The Greyhound lives up to its reputation with an excellent range of real ales and great pies.


5.1 miles, 1 lock

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Sent to Coventry

We have spent a small fortune on creating our six-berth boat from the original two-berth boat we bought. Not even all that small, in fact. So I am sitting on the roof with a cup of coffee wondering why we have crammed seven people in for the maiden voyage. Moving around the boat now requires choreography. It's easier being on the roof with a cup of coffee. While the water tank fills from the tap.

The water point at Hillmorton is slow beyond all possible description of the word. You have this sense of clouds passing, along with entire weather systems and Ice Ages. While the water dribbles out of the hose, I watch as new tropical seas cover the Midlands, dry out and become new coal seams. A man walking a dog passes several times. The dog looks visibly older.

We set off for Rugby, a comparatively modern town which hasn't been "ignored" by the canal as some guidebooks suggest. The town simply didn't exist when the canal was dug out of the sandstone and clay and, instead, the canal linked together the towns of the day - Hillmorton, Brownsover and Newbold-upon-Avon. Today, the Oxford Canal cuts a swathe across embankments and through cuttings; originally, the canal meandered up the Avon and Swift valleys some distance. Close examination of the maps suggests that considerable stretches remain in water, although not particularly accessible.

We chug slowly through Newbold Tunnel and on out into the streaming rays of dusty sunshine. Almost every bridge reveals an old cut off arm some with moored boats, some just guarded by long reeds and overhanging boughs. Who would have thought such sylvan delights lie between Rugby and Coventry?

We wind our way round the bends at Hungerfield and into All Oaks Wood, after which is a particularly popular mooring stretch. Beyond we plunge headlong into the south-westerly winds at Grimes Bridge; if this was at sea, we would heel over and pick up speed dramtically. On the North Oxford we concentrate on keeping the boat off the moored boats.

We track the West Coast main line towards Ansty, feeling rather insignificant as the big Virgin trains flash past above us. The cutting shelters us from the wind and set our sights on Sutton Stop for the evening. Despite the wind, Bill and T bring North Star round the tricky junction perfectly but we have to moor up at the far end of a line of boats, rather too close to where cars park by the bridge. A small hatchback is already sitting there with windows throbbing in tune with the sub-woofer.

We wander back to The Greyhound, only to find that they have stopped serving food. We need to press on towards Coventry as we have little food on board. We look to moor by the Longford Engine pub but are put off by fairly dodgy activity on the tow-path. Instead we search out fish and chips - successfully - before slipping the lines in search of central Coventry.

The light is fading, and we are a little alarmed by a lad warning us of stone-throwing ahead. However, we don't see a soul as we putter through the suburbs of Coventry, a city none of us have visited before.

It is really getting dark and the shadows of old factory walls and wasteland trees spread over us. We are suddenly brought to an ignominious gliding halt as something stops the prop dead. Quick thinking in the bow gets a line ashore, but I have to spend an hour in extreme discomfort unravelling what feels like a complete keepnet from the prop. I need two knives and am cursing anglers by the time we are free.

Just twenty minutes later, shortly before 10pm and we inch quietly through Bridge 1 and into the terminal basin, a place that is very atmospheric but clearly lacking in real usage. It's a picturesque finish to today's journey, but we had expected it to be teeming with boats: there are just three of us for the night and one resident boat adrift by the bridge.

20.3 miles, 1 lock

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Onto the North Oxford

We have had difficulty choosing our route for this commissioning voyage. The Crick Show means it will just be too busy to get to Yelvertoft and Welford, our preferred choice. I am keen to go back up the Grand Union, but a discussion with the crew suggests the North Oxford is preferred.
It has been raining all morning, and we are all rather anxious as we leave Wharf House, slipping out among the UCC hire-boats. They are now too busy to fuel us up, so we head for Braunston Boats a little reluctantly: they had been extremely rude to us last year, and they never responded to my polite e-mail complaint. We motored down the half-mile, light rain forming a million glittering ripples on the brown water.
Coughlan himself serves me and is pleasant and helpful. I wonder about mentioning my irritation with our reception before, but decide against it. We joke about the damn diesel declaration and I go on my way.
Our departure is spoilt by the impatience of an arriving boat being so pushy, turning in before we have completed our reversing out. We are forced back onto the far bank, and mutter darkly about our continued bad luck with any link to Braunston Marina. It also distracts us from having a better look at the land currently up for sale in the village. The house two along from the Braunston hotel is on the market (as is the hotel itself) and has land that stretches right down to the canal. It has about 100' of canal frontage, but much of it is right opposite the marina entrance and the narrow stretch opposite the toll office.

We turn north and pass familiar fields of rich green, deeply furrowed by hundreds of years of ploughing. We see the house at Willoughby Wharf that is still for sale, then the big barn conversion at the end of the cutting. Why do we know the location of all the houses for sale?

We wait a while at the start of Barby straight for the in-laws to head off for church, and then motor on with the sun dipping into the clouds to our left. A gang are clearing out the lovely old buildings clustered just south of Rugby: men stand by a flatbed truck and watch us pass.

The tall masts loom up ahead, and we pass under the railway arches, turning west for Hilmorton and Badsey's, where we head after mooring below the locks. Pints of Church End's Vicar's Ruin are downed quickly. Followed by pies. Yes, we are back on the Cut!

7.9 miles, 3 locks

Friday, 28 May 2010

North Star returns

At last, North Star is back with us. After six months, the boat is ready for us again. The first few months she was at Calcutt Boats where a lot of electrical and engine work was completed, then Phill Abbott and Wharf House Narrowboats took her to pieces to create a 6 berth boat.

What started as modification has become a complete refit: only the engine room remains untouched by Phill. The cross-bed has become a lengthways bed with fitted wardrobes. The bathroom with a cross-bath and lousy shower and a Thetford is now a smaller, neater affair with a shower cabin and a proper toilet and pump-out system. The massive, largely unused, kitchen is now shorter, fresher and there is now a dinette/double berth. The old stove has been replaced by a smaller one and up front are two single berths doubling up as bench sofas. Three new windows replace two small portholes to add light at the front end.

I am a little sad at the loss of the portholes. Although of doubtful historical validity, I love the tug look and even now I look lovingly at tugs moored up (and there's one advertised on ABNB this week).

After arriving at Braunston, T and I head for the Admiral Nelson for dinner. I feel I should like this place more as it has such a history but I always feel there's not enough range of ales and the food is good - but nothing special. I like it, but want to like it more.

The mattress has not been delivered so we have to both use the single berths up front.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Cafe Leopold

I have been in to Cafe Leopold on Colaba Causeway in Bombay a few times this last week, and also the Taj Mahal hotel, just around the corner. I am sure most people usually refer to these the other way around.
The scars are still there - physical and psychological - 18 months later. I am impressed with the spirit of the staff there, with one waiter complementing me on my boots. In fact, the second time I went in, he introduced me to one of his colleagues as "the guy with cool boots". Possibly only in India is friendship ever so warm and so instantaneous.

On arrival at one place, I asked the taxi fare and immediately said "150?" as it had been 150 Rupees earlier in the day in another taxi.
"No, sir," came the smiling reply. "It's only 75. Only a fool would pay 150 Rupees."

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The worst and the best of England today

After driving more than an hour to see the Landguard Fort in Felixstowe, I arrived at 4.02, just two minutes after "last tickets issued" and 58 minutes before it actually closes. I asked at the ticket office if I could come in as I had been a little delayed by traffic on the A14 and had come a long way.

The staff member by the ticket office was brusque and unhelpful. "Can't you read the sign?" he asked bluntly, pointing at the sign saying The Fort is Closed.

I explained again that I had come a long way and it was just two minutes after the 'last tickets' time.

"No. It's against the insurance. You can read the hours on the sign outside." He pointed me out then, as if to prove the point, slammed the big heavy doors closed behind me.

How do these unfriendly, unhelpful people hold down a job in the tourism/heritage industry? I donate money every year to English Heritage but I have noticed time and time again that there is a huge difference between them and staff at, for example, the National Trust. I occasionally come across rude and unhelpful staff at the former; never at the latter. I would have let it lie had it not been for his brusque and unsympathetic approach. If there really was a genuine reason he couldn't let me in less than an hour before it closes (and Tilbury Fort let me in within the last hour last year), there were a thousand ways he could have done it better.

On the drive back, I listened in to Colin Berry on BBC Suffolk. I am sure that his programme is the kind of radio show I mocked when I was younger. But Colin Berry, who I remember from occasional BFBS programmes, plays an incredible range of music from the 1960s and 1970s. It's not just the top hits from those years, but the lesser-known songs. He fills the intervening gaps with a variety of wonderful anecdotes. It's not particularly surprising that his show runs on no less than five BBC local stations across East Anglia. Colin Berry is the kind of anachronistic, enigmatic character that ranks up there among the "Best of England" for me.

Isn't it typical that within a couple of hours I can come across the worst and then the best of England?