Two big challenges
Finding a marina was probably the most pressing issue I faced, having bought the one and only boat I viewed. The second problem was moving her. (I still find it odd to refer to a generally inanimate object as ‘her’. This was especially true of my boat because she had a decidedly male name – more of that in a future post!) Strangely, the helming issue seemed less pressing than finding a marina, but there was no logic to my boat- anxieties.
A marina too far
In my opinion a 50 minute one-way drive from home to the mooring at Cosgrove was too far – though Willy Nilly felt otherwise. His argument was that the view at Cosgrove was beautiful, and anyway why rush into anything?* My more rational view linked to petrol cost and time. I wanted to be at the boat for a few hours and not feel I had to spend a whole day. Nor did I want I want to be negotiating ever increasing traffic and spending money on tanks of petrol getting to the other side of Northampton. So, the search for a marina closer to home began.
Marina finding challenge
As mentioned in previous posts marina finding seems to need magical, divining powers. I was also feeling a rising level of panic as I read copious online forums on the scarcity of marina moorings. Posts admonished those who didn’t secure a mooring before even entertaining the idea of buying a boat. Tales abounded of people who had paid for a mooring for years, before buying a narrowboat. Such pieces were not helpful.
I have since learnt that the need to secure a mooring before buying boat is true in some parts of the country, especially in and around London. However, with a little boat, on a relatively quiet stretch of canal, I found a number of places where I could have moored. I also learnt that although there are many fabulous, supportive types in the narrowboating/canal world there are some, particularly when given an online space, who like the sound of their own voices little too much!
Marina finding and costs
Over the course of a weekend Willy Nilly and I trudged around a plethora of marinas, looking for the ‘right one’. I was amazed that having lived in Northants for 20 plus years I had never considered the presence of the waterways and the boats that occupy them. During that time, I had visited Foxton locks on a number of occasions but had not connected the locks to a network of canals extending across the country. This is fairly embarrassing admission for someone with an MA in local history…
I soon learnt that choosing a marina is a subjective game. Did I want to be in a place with lots of satellite dishes and an entrance through a junk yard? (Quirky?) Or, was I seeking a bright, new marina with drinking water to every jetty and a club house? (Posh?) Did I need access to fuel/gas/ pump-out/ boatyard? (Handy?) Did I want a spot surrounded by trees? (Nature?) Did I want off the beaten track? (Rural?) Did I want to be on a river or a canal? (AAAhhhhhhhh.) The list seemed to be endless, and with every marina we visited, barring one, Willy said ‘this is it’. Ultimately it was pragmatism relating to cost and distance became the deciding factors.
Marina space is charged by the footage or meterage of you boat, however in some instances marinas add extra for the rudder. I can’t help but see this as the Ryan Air of marinas. Rudders on narrowboats are not an optional extra so to charge in such a way seems quite bizarre – though I look forward to hearing a reflective and worthwhile rationale for this! Other marinas have a minimum footage charge (eg 40ft) which makes mooring a small boat, such as mine, more expensive. (I do have more respect for this policy as some marinas with shorter finger moorings only have one boat per pier.)
My search for marina listings online also proved challenging, some had swanky websites, others barely mustered a web presence. In the end I resorted to Google maps, following the line of the Grand Union as it wove through Northants, trying to work out where marinas might be located. This slightly obsessive tracking of the bendy Grand Union eventually led me down a canal cul-de-sac to the village of Welford.
Welford was, according to Google maps, only 17 mins drive from home. From the map it looked like there maybe a marina at Welford Wharf. Shortly after my Google map breakthrough, in fact probably on the same day as anxiety-boat-buying was replaced with anxiety-mooring-seeking, I zipped over to Welford. I drove through the village and I kept an eye out for the mythical ‘enter the world of canals here’ sign. The clue was finding the Wharf Inn, and the sign for the marina soon followed.
Welford Wharf and its history
The canal at Welford is an arm off the Leicester line of the Grand Union, built in 1814, originally to move water from two nearby resevoirs to the main canal line. The arm soon began to be used to service the local lime kilns and to sell coal. In its working heyday Welford Wharf must have been quite an industrial site and sight. The wharf would had the lime kilns fired up, the buildings alongside used for storage as a working boats were loaded and unloaded onto the wharf.
Clues to this heritage can be found in the photos and documents on display inside the Wharf Inn, the crenellated pub alongside the wharf. What can’t be recreated are the noises and smells that must have accompanied the industry. All of this is quite different from the peaceful dead-end that is Welford Wharf today. In the late 1940s with the decline of the canals, the wharf and canal fell into disrepair. The canal was almost lost, only being dredged and re-filled with water during the rise of leisure boats in the late 1960s.
I was taken with the spot – two small marinas, a pub on hand and a village shop, plus as a historian the industrial heritage appealed. There was also the added bonus of close to home and reasonable mooring fees. After a little more too-ing and fro-ing with people on site my mooring at Welford was secured. Now all I needed to do was to get the boat there!
With a mooring sorted all that remained was to move the boat 39 miles up the Grand Union canal from Cosgrove to Welford. At a max speed of 4MPH this was going to take substantially longer than the 50 min car journey. Added to the distance 22 locks, two tunnels and two absolute novices helming, it was going to be quite a trip. My boat helming ‘course’ had consisted of a couple of hours with the previous owner of my boat. She had quite literally shown me the ropes. In the process she had also terrified me, morphing from unassuming retiree, into superhero-helmswoman. Leaping from the the boat to haul it in, and swinging the tiller huge distances to turn the boat around.
As I took the helm, and looked down the length of my boat 4 MPH seemed ridiculously fast as I tried to negotiate not hitting bridges or other boats. A moment of sheer terror crept through me as I questioned whether I could actually do this alone. If there were two of us we stood more chance of making it to Welford, even though Willy Nilly had as little boating experience as me. (Nor had he taken the time to read the legendary Ladybird ‘The Story of Our Canals’ despite my protestations that he should.)
Logistically, the journey meant having a car at either end, in both Cosgrove and Welford, and a return to Cosgrove to retrieve the car left there once the boat was in Welford. Just thinking about it made my head hurt. This was not going to be a quick outing and required Willy Nilly’s help, not to mention cat sitters and the goodwill of other boaters as we floundered.
With rising excitement/terror I spent days before cleaning and stocking the boat. I removed bags of stuff (aka rubbish) all of which had to be hauled over the Cosgrove lock. This stuff consisted of 100s of tealights, candles, dog bowls, 20 year old Liebfraumilch and a revolving bookcase with a gas burner on top. Additionally, there was enough Blutak to plug a hole, should we spring a leak. (I have since developed an irrational hatred of Blutak… )
I also needed essentials for the trip. A large torch, as the headlight didn’t work and we were going through two tunnels. (I should have bought a handheld claxon too, as the horn didn’t work. ) Fairy lights in abundance as after I handed over the cash I learnt the boat only had one battery. This meant there was the distinct possibility of flattening the battery if you had the internal lights on. This would result in the engine not starting. Other kit included an asthma inhaler – the previous owner’s dog had left a generous coat of fur on the multiple layers of carpet which was leaving me wheezing.
With all of this on-board, plus copious amounts of alcohol we appeared to be ready for the move. (Though clearly we didn’t have enough alcohol as we had to stock up with more at Weedon Bec.) We were set to depart Cosgrove on Saturday 20th August 2016. This was less than one month since I had decided I needed a narrowboat on that fateful day at Oundle Marina.
* In retrospect this was a clear signal about his life outlook. Applied more broadly it translated into: ‘not rushing into anything that might be considered commitment’. Clearly commitment phobic – hindsight eh?!