The trip continues
With Monte back onboard Pea Green has continued her summer adventures, heading for Braunston and a marvellous sunny weekend of trading. Along the way I have met some lovely people, including a customer from Norfolk Island in the South Pacific who bought a teapot! (I am going to claim teapot visitation rights…..) Plus a woman going on her first narrowboat holiday, she lived in Scotland and her partner lived in the South of England so Braunston was their midway meeting point. She asked me to inscribe a horseshoe for her partner – who was yet to arrive. I later saw them heading out of Braunston on their boat. Overwhelmingly the people I have met have been interesting and kind, though of course there are always dark and dubious exceptions, and I know it is wrong to speak ill of people, but I am afraid I will later in this post!
Anyway, on the Tuesday morning after capturing Monte I waved a grateful but sad goodbye to Barbara and Bridge 36/34, trying to put the ginger boy’s escapade behind me. I must admit I almost turned back to Welford and the house, but friends and my sister encouraged me to keep going, so we did.
I spent a night at Crick where I was able to catch-up with my friend Kate and have a gin in an attempt to finally calm down after Monte’s tricks. Next day as the sun was still shining and hot, Pea Green headed out of Crick early and into the cold, darkness of the Crick tunnel before emerging into the sunshine and heading onto the Watford flight. I sang my way through tunnel and was glad to not meet any oncoming boats, not because my singing is so poor, but rather because I hate tunnels.
The Watford flight
Once in the sunshine again it was only a few more bridges and bends before I arrived at the top of the Watford flight of locks where I received an uber-special service. The top lock gate opened as I appeared and I was waved in by a CRT volunteer. She then took me down the entire flight, which at Watford consists of both single locks and a staircase. In answer to my question, ‘What do you need me to do?’ she replied, ‘Just stay on the boat’ -I love the lock volunteers!
As we (me, Monte and Pea Green) had made such good time at Watford I decided to continue onwards towards Braunston. The next stretch of the Grand Union always makes me feel as though there is a feature film running in parallel to the canal as the M1 with speeding cars runs alongside. (Imagine North By Northwest but with the wrong film playing out of the rear view window.) It always feels quite surreal and despite all the time times I have travelled the M1 I have never noticed the canal.
Magical Hobbit house
At Norton junction I swung the boat right on to the Grand Union proper, it’s a tight turn, but made all the better by the hobbit-esque, stone built cottage on the junction. I am always intrigued about who lives there. It appears to have no road access, and is bordered on two sides by the canal. There is a huge weeping willow in the gardens, along with a shepherd’s hut. This time I was even more curious as the back door was open and and a note reading ‘back in 5 minutes’ hung on the door knob.
Tunnel number 2
As we approached Braunston I braced myself for the second tunnel of the day. Braunston tunnel is longer than Crick’s and unless you go through at 7am there are always oncoming boats to contend with. I dislike tunnels (have I mentioned this before?!), especially long ones where you can’t see the light at the end – like Braunston. Braunston tunnel has the added ‘fun’ of a slight bend deep inside and plenty of scrapes on the walls where unlucky boaters have misjudged and hit the tunnel sides.
I know I should be grateful I have an engine to take me through- after all the early working boats had to be ‘legged’ through. There is no towpath in the tunnel so the towing horse would have been led over the top, whilst the boat crew lay on a board on-top of the boat and walked their feet along the wall or ceiling, so ‘legging’ the boat through.
I should also mention these tunnels feel ridiculously narrow, even though there is room for two narrowboats to pass side by side. Albeit with little room for boating error. They are pitch black inside, and in some spots drip water. Braunston also has two large air vents, marked by chimneys up on the outside of the tunnel. The vents cast gloomy, eerie shadows onto the water, and as you travel through the tunnel these shadows of light loom into view and can be quite disconcerting.
With no tunnel lights you have to rely on boat lights. Pea Green does have a headlight, and I turn on my internal lights, plus I have a headtorch that I shine on the walls. As a single hander I have to make sure everything is ready before I reach the entrance, as I can’t just nip into the boat to flick light switches or find torches.
All was OK until about 2/3rds of the way through when my headlight went out. AHHAHAHHHHHHH. Now I was just relying on my head torch and internal lights for light. My other large emergency torch was tucked away deep inside the boat, and if I were to go and find it Pea Green would be playing pinball off the tunnel walls. Almost as soon as it went off the headlight flickered back on again, staying lit for a while before once more plunging me into darkness.
I will spare you my swearing, but I was pretty much blind to the tunnel walls, and of course oncoming boats couldn’t really see me. At this point I was alongside a boat heading in the other direction, a woman sitting in the bow was yelling at me that I hadn’t got a headlight – the response in my head was fairly unrepeatable but contained the name of a Conan Doyle’s detective and the mention of excrement. Did she really think I had chosen to go through a tunnel with no light?! Extremely helpful of her.. not.
The light continued its on/off flickering, but there were no more boats coming towards me and the end of the tunnel now loomed large. As I began to breathe again, another boat appeared in the tunnel entrance, just as the light went black once more. I sounded my horn so they knew I was there and this time I was spared the smarty pants comments, and received a sympathetic note of understanding instead. Finally, I was through, but clearly, I need to sort out that headlight, and ensure the emergency torch is handy.
The final locks
Once through the tunnel, there was one more hurdle before reaching Braunston proper – Braunston locks. Unlike at Watford, Braunston locks are wide enough for two narrowboats, they are not especially deep, but the water fills fast, and you do have to keep an eye on your boat. With water in short supply it is always better to share locks and as I pulled up I could see a boat waiting in the top lock, towpath side. I pulled in alongside and a cheerful woman on the lock-side closed the gate and slowly opened the paddle, I soon learnt she was from another boat, and not with the couple on the boat I was sharing the lock with.
Meet the Sour Weasels
Usually in double locks there is a bit of chat between the boaters – finding out who people are, where they have been and where they are heading. I have met some interesting people in locks, from the owners of Amsterdam and Lion both old working boats, to hire-boaters all excited and on holiday. This time however, I had unfortunately met the absolute antitheses of the majority of boaters they were quite simply sour-faced and mean with it. They were also in a hurry – for no apparent reason.
The couple reminded me of the caricature villains of Roald Dahl or JK Rowling – remember the poker faced miseries the Dursleys in Harry Potter? This pair both sported pinched up, stony faces, which if a smile was cracked would no-doubt have ended with their heads falling off. Hunched over the tiller with her back towards me as often as she could, the woman could hardly bear to look my way let alone speak. The same applied in equal measure to the man, he however did give me one clear directive.
Bully boy tactics
When I told them I was single handed, to which most people encourage you to take your time and not rush, Mr Sour Weasel responded with, ‘Well make sure you whack the paddle up fully and jump back onto your boat fast, to speed the process for everyone’. With a look of incredulity I didn’t utter a word – too taken aback at such a stupid demand. I was also left wondering if I had been a 6 ft, bearded, beer-bellied bloke whether he would have taken the same tac? Probably not.
There was quite simply no way I would be opening paddles at full pelt. Last year when going down Braunston locks Pea Green got caught up on the wall, with the paddle half open, and both boats had to wait for things to right themselves. It wasn’t catastrophic, but it made me aware of how quickly things can go wrong. Plus the additional stupidity of suggesting jumping onto the roof of a boat as it goes down in a lock was beyond me. (And you can’t jump or stand on my roof as it is fibre-glass of not very good quality.)
Playing them at their own game
Leaving the top lock with Mrs Sour Weasel on the helm of the other boat, I sadly waved goodbye to the lovely woman who had helped and trundled behind the Weasel’s boat. I decided at that point that as the Weasels demonstrated neither empathy nor kindness to a single hander and were in such a hurry I would have to take matters into my own hands. It was quite straight forward I needed to ensure that everything I did was both measured and safety conscious aka a boaty lock go slow.
At the second lock as we waited in the pound the Weasels didn’t tie up, as a result I couldn’t tie up either. This was a pain as I was desperate for the loo. (Locks really aren’t a problem for single-handers going to the loo is!) So, in lock number two I declared, ‘I am very sorry, but I do need to go to the loo,’ and disappeared inside Pea Green. I didn’t quite put the kettle on, but it did take a while.
I emerged to find the Weasels glaring and no-doubt interpreting my loo break as an attempt at slacking. This of course would never do and to ensure I pulled my weight they had left the lock gate open for me to close. I climbed off the boat, and slowly heaved the gate shut, after all I didn’t want to re-trap that nerve in my back – I had been off work back in June and unable to walk.
With the gate closed I loosely wrapped the boat rope around the bollard, and then opened the paddle on the bottom gate, slowly to the half-way point. I then needed to pull the boat back a bit to stop it slamming into the gates, before returning to the paddle and carefully opening it fully. With the lock level lowered, I wound the paddle down, and opened the gate. I then needed to untie the boat, secure the windlass in my belt, wind up the rope and carefully descend the slippery lock ladder back to the boat. The Weasels were long gone by the time I was back on my boat.
What to do
By this point I was pretty done with this unpleasant pair and was on the verge of ditching them and mooring up in a lock pound. However, at the next two locks I was helped out by others who were coming up through the locks and I must admit I was probably far too gushing in my loud gratitude and grateful for some normal conversation.
In the third lock Mr Sour Weasel finally engaged in conversation and asked where I was going. Clearly, he was fearful of having to share a lock with me in the future, but there was no way I was going to discuss my plans. I vaguely answered, ‘through Braunston’, to which he replied with an element of contempt , ‘Yes, but there is a junction, which way are you going then?’ In response, mustering as much stupidity as I could, I muttered that I didn’t know as I hadn’t decided yet. He grunted something under his breath and went back to whispering to Mrs Sour Weasel (this had been their way of operating through three locks).
Sigh of relief
In the bottom lock, as the final lock gates were opened by another wonderful CRT volunteer I breathed a sigh of relief. The Sour Weasels had disappeared at speed, without giving me a second glance, and I was left incredulous at their bitter behaviour. I kind of wanted to tell them to go buy a motorhome – but then that seems unfair to road users. However, I did enjoy a certain dark smile at with the knowledge I had slowed down and that his would-be bullying tactics had backfired.
I did see the Sour Weasels a few days later as I headed up the Ashby canal, though they clearly didn’t recognise me and still wore the same pinched up faces of misery.
Mooring up, ready to trade
Finally, able to breath a sigh of relief with the Crick tunnel, Watford flight, Braunston tunnel and Braunston locks completed in one day Pea Green began to dance in the water as she passed the boatyard where she was built. We trundled through Braunston looking for a spot to moor. I ended up close to the junction with the Oxford Canal. A bit narrow on the towpath for trading, so I walked back through Braunston trying to spot boats that might be moving on. I struck lucky and the next day with almost military precision I moved into a spot being vacated by 3 men on a boat. This spot near the Stop House and Gongoozler Café so perfect for a busy weekend of trading and a visit from my sister and her partner.