Bus challenge looming
From Braunston Pea Green’s summer narrowboat journey continued to Rugby. All new territory for me, though I am sure Pea Green has been to these spots before. Little did I realise that the challenge ahead was more to do with buses than boats.
On yet another hot and sunny morning, so very un-British, we set off early to try and beat the heat. I waved goodbye to the New Zealanders moored next to me, who had bought lots of painted bits and pieces the night before, filled up with water and turned around outside the marina. We were off. I had my guide books on the hatch and was following every bridge and turn. My aim was to make it to Rugby in time for food shopping, stocking up with things to paint, and the opportunity to buy a new cafetiere. I had had a major disaster that morning as I had smashed mine to pieces. (This was up there in disaster stakes with losing Monte!)
Ridge and Furrow
The canal meanders out of Braunston, passing the junction with its two impressive iron bridges and then onwards through rolling countryside. Along the way there were great views of Braunston church high up on the hill, and lots of ridge and furrow fields full of sheep bordering the canal. Incredible to think those ridges pre-date the coming of the canal by a few hundred years. I always wonder who last people were to farm those strips and why they gave up. It is incredible to think the uniform rolls in the landscape have been there since the middle ages and that historians still are not in agreement about how or why they were formed.
I was now well into hire-boat territory, passing boats from Napton, Braunston and Rugby and even Union Wharf in Market Harborough. As it was still early most were still moored up, sometimes using interesting mooring techniques, long lines, mooring pins when there is Arnco and tied off on the pin rather than the boat. Now, I don’t know a lot about mooring, but I was told you always tie off on your boat, for one thing you are not leaving long tails of rope across the towpath.
I do wonder if the hire companies provide ‘nappy pins’ with their boats to use on the Arnco, as so many hirers seem to be whacking in mooring pins. Or perhaps it is just over zealous blokes who see it as a rite of passage to hammer in long stakes? Personally, I try and avoid pins, being singlehanded the whole logistics of holding the boat, holding the pin and whacking it in is just too much, and even worse is getting the wretched things out!
Before long I arrived at Hillmorton locks, and by now the sun was blazing. Hillmorton locks are two single locks in parallel to each other. I arrived with unusual perfect timing as another boat was just leaving the top lock. After I had closed the top gate a man appeared with a windlass and said he would get me through the first lock, his boat was being crewed and coming up. It turned out that my lock hero was Tim, the human behind Cracker the Boat Horse who regularly tweets. Double bonus points – not only help at a lock, but a celeb doing it for me! (I was disappointed that Cracker wasn’t there, but you can’t have everything.)
In the parallel lock was a hire boat, with a gaggle of people onboard. They arrived at the locks with a huge number of hand-signals and lots of shouted instructions. I have noticed that the hand-signals seem to be a theme with hire-boaters. Usually one person stands in the bow and raises a hand with fingers extended or closed in various configurations to the person helming. This is all reminiscent of a racecourse bookie – and makes about much sense to my untrained eye. I doubt that they are sharing the odds of the latest runner, but the handwaving is quite intriguing, made even more so when the person on the helm is yelling ‘what does that mean?’ Usually getting no response… These hand signals aren’t just reserved for moving along the cut, but also happen in locks, whilst mooring and at other random moments.
The man on the helm of the Hillmorton hire-boat was clearly military (he was wearing a cap after all). As he tried to moor at the lock landing he began shouting commands at a couple of his crew to jump off and to pull the boat in from the bow. The women duly followed the command leaping a huge distance between the boat and bank, in flip-flops, onto the towpath and grabbing the bow rope. The boat though, wasn’t really close enough in, so as they tugged on a long length of bowline the stern just moved further out into the canal.
The commander became increasingly agitated as the woman couldn’t haul the boat in close, and after a few minutes started yelling at the woman to use the centre rope, which was neatly coiled in the centre of the boat and totally inaccessible. The urgency of this whole incident made me wonder whether they had hit an un-exploded mine. I also must admit to a feeling of inadequacy as I wasn’t managing my boat as though I was on military manoeuvres in the Med, maybe I need to dress Monte in a naval outfit and have him hauling in – OK perhaps not.
Finally, having pulled their boat in they waited as another hire boat left the top lock. This waiting time was essential for an ensuing crew briefing, afterwards some of the crew strode purposefully down the canal, windlasses in hand. Once in the lock the military operation continued with frenetic hand gestures from those in the bow, followed by shouting and gesturing from Military Man on the helm. At the second lock a couple of the folk from the multi-crew hire-boat escaped their military operation and joined me offering to work the lock. This was greatly appreciated, though I felt bereft I was unable to use proper hand-signals. (Admittedly they did appear to relieved to not have a military commander yelling at them!)
Hillmorton locks are very pretty, and apparently the busiest in the country. In the middle is Grantham’s Bridge, which goes across an arm leaving the main canal with a few old buildings – one of those frustrating moments when I didn’t have a camera handy. At the bottom lock I was taken through by Hillmorton CRT volunteers and was quickly out the other-side and moving closer to Rugby. (I knew this due to the rugby – sport- murals under the canal bridges.) By now it was 11ish and getting very hot. The engine was hot to stand on. Monte looked hot in his box and I felt hot on the back, so the plan was to moor asap.
To moor, or not?
The problem with narrowboats is when to moor, do you take a spot that is probably further away from the place than you want to be? Or do you risk continuing, find everywhere full and have to keep going? With no cafetiere I really couldn’t take the risk of not getting moored, so pulled up not far from Bridge 66 – home of Clifton Cruisers and Black Prince Hire Boats. I am sure this used to be a very lovely peaceful spot, however a bypass is currently being built through this area, and the peace is being lost. Very soon there will be an additional monolith road bridge over the cut.
Bus trauma begins
Once moored I did some Googling and worked out I was about 5 minutes’ walk from a bus stop and that there would be a bus in about 20 minutes time. Perfect – or so I thought… The saga of the bus into Rugby, and back out again, turned into a journey of the most epic proportions. This was all quite ridiculous when you consider I was only a 45 minute drive from my house, and this was Rugby- not some of the Global South countries I have travelled and negotiated public transport without timetables or obvious bus stops.
Admittedly Rugby wasn’t quite the epic of trying to get from Mozambique to Malawi which consisted of: truck (and being dumped on the road side), pillion on a bicycle for 15 miles, pillion on a motorbike – which broke down twice, plus hitching in a truck. All taking 15 hours for a journey that should have taken 2 hours.
So, I set off and waited at the bus stop and no bus came. I looked up more bus times which suggested that a bus would arrive in another 15 minutes, so I waited, but it didn’t arrive. By now I had decided that despite the heat I would walk, after all it was only 30 minutes. I set off and arrived at another bus stop with yet another timetable posted up, this one gave yet another version of bus departures and apparently a bus would arrive in 5 minutes, so I waited. Miraculously a bus appeared – hurray!
I boarded the bus, and asked for a return to the town centre, ‘We don’t do returns, you have to buy a day rider and you can ride all the buses all day,’ replied the driver. Mmmm not impressed as I really had no interest or desire to ‘ride the buses all day’, I just wanted a new cafetiere. I begrudgingly handed over £4.20 for the ticket for the 10 minute journey and sat down. Relieved to be finally heading in the right direction.
I left the bus in what appeared to be the town centre and headed straight to Wilkos for a cafetiere, before having a wander around the town. Ridiculously, I have never visited Rugby before but was quite impressed with the compact town, with lots of interesting architecture. I hadn’t quite anticipated its reliance on the sport of rugby as a tourist draw. Giant rugby balls all decorated are positioned in a number of streets. There is also the newish rugby hall of fame, a statute of Webb Ellis the public school boy who decided to pick up a football and run with it, and of course the Webb Ellis rugby museum in the building where Gilbert rugby balls were first made, named after the man who made them, and continue to be handmade. (It used to be called the Gilbert Museum.)
I know that my brain isn’t engaged in the level of thinking it used to be, however as a feminist, social historian I couldn’t help but do a bit of eye-rolling at this very male, very elitist birth of a game and the role a male dominated public school played in it. But, heyho such is life…
Panic buying yoghurt
After a trawl of the shops I found yet another cafetiere in Oxfam (and it was a Bodum) so took the other one back to Wilkos (ridiculous I know), before calling into Asda to stock up on food. Shopping expeditions from the boat are always a challenge as invariably I buy too much to carry any distance.
The issue is I panic buy essentials, such as natural yoghurt, which always seems to be extortionate or non-existent in village shops. I realise this sounds quite deranged, and to be honest it probably is! True to form I bought to much, but managed to pack it all into my backpack and the large bag I had brought with me, and as I was catching the bus it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. I wouldn’t have to struggle in the heat walking with a tonne of food, the cafetiere and the teapots I had acquired for painting.
I made it to the bus stop with a few minutes to spare, the bus number was on the sign, and it seemed to be the right place. Fifteen minutes later and no bus had arrived. I Googled buses again and there should have be another bus arriving at any minute. A bus did arrive but not the one I wanted, so I asked the bus driver if I was in the right place for a bus heading towards Clifton upon Dunsmore. He looked blank and responded ‘what?’ in a tone reminiscent of the woman running Fat Club in the comedy ‘Little Britain’ – this with the heat, and the weight of my shopping, riled me just a bit. After all he was a bus driver- surely they have some concept of the route/ direction and stops that buses in the town make?
Another bus pulled up a few minutes later, still the wrong number, and I repeated the quizzing of the bus driver and received exactly the same blank, incredulous look. I realised I may have had a better response if I had asked for a bus to Timbuktu.
Bus number 3
With the third bus driver (yes really) I was told I was at the wrong stop, and needed to be at the same stop as where I left the bus. This seemed totally wrong to me, but after 45 minutes of waiting and becoming increasingly hot I trundled across the road. Finally, the right bus appeared and I got on, double checking it was going to Clifton on Dunsmore – the driver once again gave me a blank stare and had no idea where that was or, and this is even better, whether his bus went there. Luckily some of the passengers on the bus seemed to have more knowledge of the locale and told me I was in the wrong place, and on the wrong bus and sent me packing once again.
By now I was done, and decided I would walk, but was equally peeved that I wouldn’t get my ‘money’s worth’ from my day rider ticket. I felt cheated that I couldn’t even find the right bloody bus to catch. I strode off -weighed down with teapots to paint, enough natural yoghurt to see out nuclear war, and the precious cafetiere and started lumbering back to the boat. After 10 minutes walking I passed yet another bus stop which also had the bus number I was looking for, and there appeared to be someone at the bus stop in bus driver uniform. (By now I was convinced I was looking at a mirage.)
Once more I asked if the bus went to Clifton upon Dunsmore and once more got the blank look. I randomly started adding local landmarks – the canal, the building works, the golf course, random dogs, street names etc and finally bus driver number 5 was able to confirm I was indeed in the right spot…
I swear buses in Guinea Bissau are less hard work.
Beer as reward
Finally, back at the boat, I opened everything up to let out the heat, but found Monte still curled up in his blanket filled hidey hole. I collapsed in a heap on the sofa with a beer, blimey who’d have thought UK buses could cause such trauma? My lesson was learnt and when I returned through Rugby after my trip up the Ashby I decided I would barge my way into a tiny gap and moor walking distance from Tescos rather than contend with bus lunacy.