The first part of winter 2018-2019 has been unseasonably mild in Northamptonshire. The canal and marina have hardly frozen, unlike the winter of 2017-18 when it was frozen hard early in December. I have been out both walking and on Pea Green. Monte the Cat and I headed out of the marina on New Year’s eve. The weather has been so mild that even the local hire boat has continued to trundle down the Welford Arm.
Recently, I have been taking regular walks up the Welford Arm. Its only 1 3/4 miles from the marina to the junction with the Leicester Line of the Grand Union. It is generally very quiet and great for watching birds and other wildlife and the random hire boat.
There are very few boats moving, and most hire-boat companies close at the end of October. The days are too short and if the canal freezes boats can get iced in. Hiring a boat which then gets stuck due to ice doesn’t make for a good holiday. Nor is it good for the hire companies, if their boats are stuck.
Romantic or what?
The notable exception is a local one-boat hire outfit whose marketing takes the ‘romantic getaway’ approach. They claim full training is given to novices. The issue of hire-boaters and training is a sticky one. Unlike cars there is no need to pass a test before helming a narrowboat, as my early boat antics demonstrates. I, of course, I had read the Ladybird ‘The Story of Our Canals’ . This ensured I was au fait with jaunty bonnets and locks.
Perils of hiring
The level of training on hire boats seems to be quite arbitrary. Most will only have to turn their boat once during a holiday. At Welford, the allure of the pub at the end of the arm seems to negate the issue of turning. Often they are turning a 60-70ft lump of steel with no brakes, in front of a boatshed, opposite a waterpoint and often with an inquisitive audience.
Mind the lock
Back in November, when returning from a walk I met the local hire boat trying to navigate the lock. Gendered roles had been assumed, woman with windlass / man on the helm. I never understand why this is so often the case. Surely the physical power of many men is better spent on heavy lock gates than the lighter weight boat helming?
How not to open a lock
Anyway, in this case the woman was trying to work the lock, with little success. Having attempted to wind-up the sluice in the pound – which had a big padlock on it, she moved to the top lock gate. The lock needed emptying from the bottom gate paddles before the gates could be opened and the boat could enter. Instead of draining the lock through the bottom gates the woman began to open the top gate paddle. Her efforts made absolutely no difference to the water level as the lock was already full.
Ground paddles first…
I am not a very scientific person, but it does seem fairly obvious that a lock needs to be emptied before you can open the bottom gates. I went to chat with the woman and to help. Despite coming up Foxton Locks –the longest staircase flight of narrow-locks she had no idea how to operate a single lock. The volunteer lockies at Foxton had instilled in her that you open ground paddles before gate paddles. This is a good thing to know but not all locks, including Welford, have ground paddles. As a result at Welford lock she had tried to open anything that looked like a ground paddle. I explained what she needed to do and stood by as she did it. The boat finally went in, and the gates were closed.
At this point my friend and her little dog were wandering back to the marina and so we headed off. I gave the hire boaters one last glance. Only to see the boat was now in the lock and the woman had left the bottom gate paddles open and was about to open the top paddles. This handy flow through would have led to her draining the bottom part of the arm and the marina. I left my friend and ran back to stop the hirer pulling the plug on the marina….
The comedy of errors continued. Once through the lock they grounded the boat in the winding hole closest to the marina. Both my friend and I had suggested they turn the boat in the second winding hole. It is nearer the pub and not as shallow. Clearly up for a challenge, they chose the more difficult option.
They might have got away with it if they had tried to turn bow first, but instead they reversed the heavier back end of the boat into the hole and were then immediately grounded. As they tried to get out a tree wrapped itself underneath and above the bow of the boat… The boat was stuck on the opposite side to the towpath there was nothing I, nor anyone else could do to help. After an hour, now in darkness, they managed to untangle the boat. Personally, I am not convinced that pulling the plug on the canal and wedging a boat aground would be my idea of a romantic getaway, but each to their own.. I must admit that I was impressed they weren’t screaming at each other throughout these antics.
Social Media trickery
Ironically, later that night an advert for the same hire boat appeared on my Facebook feed. It boldly claimed ‘full training is given’ to all hirers. I couldn’t help but wonder if this couple had opted out, and it did take me all of my will power not to add a comment about the day’s events!
At the end of December in an attempt to escape New Year’s Eve and the accompanying bomb-sized explosions, Monte the cat and I escaped on Pea Green. With no sign of snow or ice it seemed safe to leave the marina and head for the mooring-rings at Bridge 36.
I quite like winter cruising, as long as there is no threat of the cut freezing over. There are not as many boats vying for moorings, or passing too fast, the birds are easier to spot as the trees are bare, and with a bit of cunning you can keep the boat warmer than a tropical beach.
The downside of winter is that my old boat doesn’t like starting. The limited daylight means the solar panels aren’t as effective. The day before leaving the marina I had done as much boat preparation as possible. I had started her up – in the hope it wouldn’t take an hour the next day, sorted side fenders and ropes, taken essential and non-essential food ready for heading out.
And we’re off
Next day, in grizzly, grey weather, all I had to do was get Monte the Cat onto the boat, light the fire and head Pea Green out of the marina and towards the lock. Passing my favourite oak trees on the way. I timed the lock well as the crew from the boat behind me kindly worked the lower lock gates, meaning I dodged having to climb down the slippery ladder or moor up once through.
Looking for the gold
After the lock and the old swing bridge hole we were onto the arm proper. By now it was raining and sunny all at once so it did mean a lovely rainbow appeared ahead of the boat. The rain passed quickly and we were soon turning left at the junction onto the Leicester Line proper. We disturbed a couple of dog walkers as Pea Green trundled alongside them at walking pace.
Sods law meant that with so few boats out there had to be one approaching as I got close to the winding hole, just past bridge 36. After a few moments of hovering, waiting for the boat to pass, I turned around and headed back through the bridge hole to tie up.
Bridge 36 is a favourite spot, not least because of the fixed mooring rings, which as a single hander are so much easier to moor on. With Pea Green safely tied up Monte was excited to be let out of his box and ran to his hidey hole. Whilst I removed my layers, stoked the fire and sat down for a busy time of doing nothing. The exception to this is pretending to do something, usually non-existent washing-up, so you can legitimately gongoozle the passing boat through the window!
New Year’s Eve
Another marina friend had also brought his boat out for a New Year escape, and he moored a little way down the canal from me. He kindly invited me to his boat for New Year’s Eve drink. Around 8.30pm with Monte toasty warm and fast asleep on the sofa, and the fire nicely ticking over, I headed out. It was only a 10 minute walk, from my boat to his, but demon December dark had kicked in, and a cloud filled sky turned the short walk into a 200 mile trek across ghost/monster/axe murderer filled moorland.
Wind blowing in the trees along the towpath added to the sinister feel. This was further compounded as an animal whipped around my wellie clad feet, flipping its tail on my legs. I swung round and shone my torch down the towpath. I was looking for the human accompanying the deranged dog at my ankles, but couldn’t see anyone. This freaked me out even more. I was now convinced that the hidden human had sent their dog to drag me to the ground before the human robbed me of my head torch. (I should point out that it is a 25 ish minute walk to the nearest road bridge and the likelihood of an axe-wielding psychopath choosing this dark stretch for their next murder, on New Year’s Eve, was somewhat slim.)
By now I was running towards my friend’s boat. It was only when I heard a splash and shone my torch on the water that I realised the ‘dog’ was in fact an adult otter. There was, of course, no human in tow.. Clearly Ottoline the Otter was not impressed with my walk in the dark. She having a laugh at my ridiculous night fears.
Back in the daylight
After a lovely evening returning to Pea Green was far less scary. Perhaps aided by the very nice red wine consumed throughout the evening.
In comparison to the otter incident the rest of Pea Green’s time out of the marina was low-key and toasty warm. This was helped by some bright winter sunshine and an otter free daytime walk.
Pea Green is now safely moored back on the marina. Hopefully if we have another ice-free few days Monte and I will head out up the cut once more. Who knows we may even make to the top of Foxton Locks.