It was strange returning to England for several months after many years away. Many things have not changed and probably never will. The little villages with their pubs and pointy spires clustered on the hilltops or clinging to the river valleys. Acres of rolling green farmland. The villages are largely populated by carefully coiffed ladies of a certain age; stalwart members of the British Legion and the Women’s Institute. They make rhubarb jam in their spare time and tut-tut-tut at the news. This is the England that the waterways roll gently through, going nowhere in particular. The villages are largely devoid of shops as Britain has been overrun by the supermarket and automobile culture. The tiny, winding roads are clogged with cars. Even the motorways, which are at least as good as American freeways, are stuffed to the shoulders with tides of traffic.
The waterways, although also suffering from a boating boom in recent years, still offer a blissful escape from the hurly-burly of modern life. We felt like gypsies as we drifted from town to village, stopping where we pleased for as long as we liked. Barbara has always been a hippie at heart and this life suits her fine. We saw plenty of real hippies, too, with their rusting, cluttered, run-down boats. They scratch a living by making fenders, painting canal scenes or selling folding bicycles. A cynical taxi driver we met claimed that many of them are divorced men escaping child support. There are also plenty of people like us; middle-class folk nearing or in retirement with newer boats and cash in the bank. We made a lot of friends and we never met a single abusive person the whole trip. Canal cruising still attracts an eclectic mix of people, thank God; it hasn’t been taken over by the toffs and the nouveau riche, except perhaps on the Thames. Even the fishermen were friendly. We all greeted each other with a smile and a wave, shared locks wherever possible, and swapped stories about the "wettest summer since records began".
Indeed, south of us in Gloucestershire, Hereford and Worcester there were serious floods. The rivers Severn and Avon and parts of the Thames were all unnavigable for a time. We had intended to pursue a course down to Stourport-on-Severn and cruise the Severn through Worcester to Tewkesbury where we would have turned on to the Avon and headed upstream to Stratford. None of this was possible because of the floods. Our friends Stacy and John, who live in Worcester, showed us where the floodwaters had advanced almost to their front door. So, we changed tack and went through Birmingham instead. That turned out to be a gas, but more about that later.
To begin at the beginning, as one should. Our plane from Phoenix was cancelled because of a bomb scare at Heathrow. This was just the first of several travel related nightmares which dogged us through the summer. British Airways ground staff were as arrogant as ever, expecting us to be grateful that they were rebooking us at all in light of the fact that “it wasn’t our fault”, it was Heathrow Security. “So, we should ask them for a flight?” I thought, while smiling sweetly at the desk clerk. Barb threw a wobbly but I managed to calm her. BA are quite good if you actually manage to get into the air with them and you can put up with a three hour wait for luggage at Heathrow. Of course, that’s not their fault either, it’s the fault of BAA, the British Airports Authority. BAA is one of the most reviled companies in Britain and a source of national shame, even though it’s owned by Ferrovial, a Spanish company. The team at Phoenix Sky Harbor could teach them a few things about airport management including how to manage huge growth rates with nary a glitch.
I digress. We left three days later on the same flight, which didn’t matter too much as our boat was delayed anyway.
Once in the UK, we drove down to Kent and collapsed gratefully into the arms of my brother Michael and his wife Angela. We spent a couple of nights with them before venturing north to Stoke-on-Trent where our boat was still under construction. On a drizzly day, we booked into the Premier Inn in Northwich. I can highly recommend Premier Inns, a chain of hotels primarily for business travelers. Their hotels are reasonably priced with clean and roomy rooms, usually attached to a pub or restaurant. The staff in Northwich were phenomenal, helping us out with all kinds of things as our stay dragged on because of the delay in finishing the boat.
Our boat "Basil the King" was gleaming white and green and in showroom condition when we arrived at Piper's yard with our marine surveyor (another Michael Carter, by chance) for a look. Len the signwriter was busy inscribing our names on the outside and inside it seemed like hundreds of workers were beavering away putting the finishing touches to the boat. We were knocked out by the quality of the work. It was way better than I was expecting and beyond anything that I had seen in their yard before. One of the fitters, Lee, questioned me about what we wanted in the lounge around the TV. I gave him some rough ideas and left it to him. Next day, a tasteful entertainment unit in ash surrounded the TV. "Good grief", I said, “It would have taken me a week to build that, and nothing half as good, to boot”. He beamed at me fondly. I trod some wet green paint from the well deck on to the new carpet and we beat a hasty retreat. We were so perturbed by the amount of work left to do that, on Michael’s advice, we persuaded them to delay the scheduled launch on Friday until the following Tuesday so that they could take their time finishing up.
Launch day, July 17th, dawned bright and sunny but soon turned dismal. We turned up at Wincham Wharf, the launch site, at the appointed hour of 9:30 a.m. The boat had not arrived and the grumpy looking crane driver sat in his cab and talked on his mobile phone, ignoring us completely. When the boat hove into view on a giant truck, he disappeared for a “break”. Andy and Vinny from Pipers and Barb and I sat around twiddling our thumbs and making up fenders for an hour until he showed up again. The launch was quick and smooth and Basil dropped silently into the water with scarcely a ripple at 11:30 a.m. “Amazing, it floats!” I said to Vinny. “So far.”, he replied darkly. Andy conducted a tour of the boat’s systems for us.
Narrowboats, once simple craft, have become very hi-tech since my hire boating days. There are four different ways of heating water on Basil. A sophisticated 12 /240 volt electrical system powers the on-board appliances. Two engine-driven alternators, one a huge 150 amp unit, charge 7 batteries of 110 amp-hours apiece. Central heating is provided by a diesel fired stove in the lounge or a Webasto heater under the aft deck. Cooking is by LPG. The electric toilet has no fewer than three ways to suck the crap out, all of them noisy. It’s not possible to have a discreet shit on Basil. Twin water pumps provide B52 sound effects and plenty of pressure for a good shower. The poor old steerer, though, still stands on the back in the driving rain grasping the cold steel tiller in his or her shivering hand. The steerer does have a bow thruster to help get out of those sticky situations that make narrowboating so much fun and earn it the label of a “contact sport”. It’s sometimes hard to see what’s going on at the other end of a boat that’s as long as our house. We ordered a hospital silencer and additional soundproofing for the engine, so it’s actually quieter than the toilet, though there is a lot of clanking and grumbling from the rest of the propulsion system. By contrast, up in the bow one can sit serenely slipping silently through the water at 4 mph or less. An intercom connects the steering position with the galley, equally useful for summoning the crew in an emergency or rustling up a cup of tea.
At 3:20 p.m. after the introductory lesson from Andy, we all set off up the cut on the maiden voyage. This lasted for about 200 yards as by now it was raining steadily so we moored up and fell into the nearest pub. The bank was so sodden that our mooring pins came adrift every time another boat passed. This was of concern to Barb the next day as I had to disappear for several hours to return the rental car. As usual, a friendly experienced boater stopped to help her out. After I returned I managed to slip off the wet gunwale into the canal. That would not have been so bad had I not made a grab for the handrail and swung hard against the side of the boat, bruising my ribs so badly that I could not lay on my side for weeks. I’ve been canal cruising for 40 years and never fell in until the day after I get my own boat!
The next week or so was spent stocking up with provisions and navigation aids (such as decent mooring spikes) and pootling up the Trent and Mersey and Bridgewater canals towards Manchester. It rained steadily most days, but it was during a rare sunny spell that I did the first real damage to the boat. Entering the Stygian black hole of Preston Brook tunnel from the bright sunshine, I was completely blinded and drove Basil into the overhanging side of the tunnel, ripping the canvas cratch cover off the gunwale, complete with two or three pop riveted fasteners. I was depressed for a day or two but later managed to effect a reasonable repair. There were numerous teething troubles with the boat. Most of them were due, I believe, to the hasty completion. However, Piper’s were extremely responsive and came out for two full days on different occasions to fix problems. They also dispatched someone from Newage, the gearbox manufacturer, to fix an oil leak on the gearbox.
I discovered that boat ownership is a very different proposition from hiring boats, running a Club boat, or even borrowing a friend’s boat – all of which had been the sum total of my previous experience over the last 40 years. I lay awake at night worrying about every little thing that was wrong with Basil from the leaking gearbox to the inability to light the stove. It took me several weeks to relax into my usual waterways euphoria but I did eventually. Next season will be much more relaxed, I’m sure. On the other hand Barb, to my unending delight, immediately took to it like the proverbial duck. She seemed to struggle with the paddle gear and lock gates but reassured me when I asked her about it that she loved doing the locks. Her naturally gregarious nature infected all the other boaters that we met and she loves the freedom, being out in nature all the time and the exercise. We walked for miles by necessity, not only at the locks and lift bridges but also into towns and villages to shop and eat. The boat is our only transport.
One day we moored up at the Anderton Lift, one of the wonders of the waterways and a European Heritage site. A massive Victorian edifice in iron and steel, it was built in 1857 to raise boats 50 feet from the Weaver Navigation to the Trent and Mersey canal above. Huge hydraulic rams support dual water-filled caissons. Each caisson holds two narrowboats side by side. Originally the rams were filled with water and connected underground so that one caisson counterbalanced the other and a relatively small steam pump was needed to operate the lift. Corrosion was a problem, however, and in the early 1900’s the lift was converted to electrical operation with sets of giant overhead pulleys supporting the caissons via steel cables. With the decline of commercial carrying the lift fell into disrepair and when I last saw it in the 90’s it was deserted, sad and derelict. It has now been restored to its former glory with the aid of lottery and European Heritage money. The old pulleys are now dismounted and placed in a museum and the new hydraulic rams are filled with oil instead of water so that they won’t rust. The new rams were built in Germany and guaranteed for 100 years. It is now quite a tourist attraction with a museum, visitor center and a trip boat operating. Not wishing to risk Basil in the Weaver (we had no anchor and the river was in flood), Barb and I rode the lift in the trip boat.
I was impressed by the Bridgewater canal. It was started in 1759 and was the first canal to be built along a man-made course entirely independent of natural waterways. It was built by Francis Egerton, the Duke of Bridgewater, to carry coal cheaply from his mines at Worsley to Manchester. It is wide and deep with solidly engineered environs which belie its ripe old age. It has the feel of a more modern waterway. We journeyed east as far as Stockton Heath where we “winded” (a canal term for turning around) and retraced our route back to Northwich through the blasted industrial wastelands of the Cheshire salt mines.
Passing our original launch site on a grey day with the huge salt factory belching steam beyond, we headed for Middlewich where a branch canal leads across to the Shropshire Union canal. We were intending to travel to Chester where my brother Michael and his wife Angela were to join us for a week’s vacation. We found Middlewich to be jam packed. It took us three hours to traverse the four town locks. With another day’s delay to fix things on the boat, I became concerned that we would not be able to make it to Chester in time, so we changed the pick-up point to Nantwich. We then had plenty of time to explore Nantwich which is an attractive market town with numerous black and white half-timbered buildings in the Tudor style. It was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1583 but Queen Elizabeth I came to the rescue and helped rebuild the town in the style of the day. A thriving market operates in the town square on Thursday morning and all day Saturday, offering all kinds of fruit, vegetables, and local cheeses and pies. The town also has more Indian restaurants than Delhi, or so it seemed.
We were moored next to a couple who had also just taken delivery of a new boat. They had tried to take it through nearby Hurleston lock and it had stuck fast – the boat measured 7 feet 1 inch wide. Looking along the gunwale, we could clearly see how the boat bulged out in the middle like an old bathtub. They were totally disconsolate, as I would have been. They had no recourse but to return it to the broker and start afresh. The hull was built by Liverpool Boats, one of the most prolific builders in the business, who should have known better. I later saw other Liverpool boats which did not exhibit the same bulge. Anyway, it put our own minor new boat blues in perspective.
With Michael and Angela aboard we greased through the aforementioned Hurleston bottom lock with at least half an inch to spare, and were off into Wales on the Llangollen canal, reputed to be the most scenic canal on the system. After the Middlewich experience, and knowing that we were on the most popular canal in Britain during peak season, we were expecting a huge amount of traffic. We were pleasantly surprised. There were, by and large, no queues for locks or for the lift bridges which are a feature of this waterway. The canal begins by meandering for miles through totally rural scenery, seemingly avoiding any sign of civilization. A resident heron guards every section. Most fly up and circle lazily to a new vantage point as each boat approaches, but a few stick their ground and watch closely as you go by. Wild and domestic animals abound. Ducks, moorhens, coots, sheep and cows all use the canal. We pottered up the Prees Branch which terminates in a little nature reserve. Here Barb joined the “falling in club”. She landed heavily with one leg in the water and hit a metal retaining wall painfully on her crotch. She was bruised and limping but unbowed.
The Llangollen is unusual in that it flows like a river. It carries water down from the River Dee to the population centers of the Midlands. All the locks have bypass weirs which were running quite heavily and made steering into the locks quite difficult as the bow was caught by the wash from the weirs. The only towns of any size are Wrenbury and Ellesmere and we stopped in both to stock up with supplies. The only major delay was at Grindley Brook locks where a hire boat had sunk in one of the lock chambers. It took British Waterways four hours to pump it out and move it so that we could be on our way. The steerer had allowed the stern of the boat to hang up on a ledge (called the “cill”) which projects out under the top gates of each lock. The cill is a hazard when locking downhill because the stern of the boat can get hung up on it and, as the water drains out, the boat tilts and the bow disappears under water. Quick action by the crew operating the lock can save the situation but apparently in this case they had not noticed what was happening.
After Ellesmere, the hills of Wales appear on the horizon, and the character of the canal changes. It is forced into places no waterway should have to go as it enters the Welsh mountains. Tantalizing glimpses of green valleys below are seen through the trees as the boat winds a torturous path along the hillsides. Suddenly, the canal crosses the Chirk aqueduct, a mighty stone structure carrying the canal over the River Ceiriog. Right next to it but slightly higher is the equally impressive railway viaduct. Then into Chirk tunnel and out into a deep cutting with Chirk station conveniently adjacent. Then another short tunnel and you emerge halfway up the side of the Dee valley, clinging to the edge.
There follows immediately the premier wonder of the waterways, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. Consisting of a narrow cast-iron trough straddling stone columns held together by mortar made from straw and oxblood it carries the canal 120 feet above the River Dee and is over 1,000 feet long. To the right of your boat is a cantilevered towpath but to the left there is nothing but the four inch flange of the trough between you and certain death. Indeed, it is a popular spot for suicidal Welshmen who have lost the will to sing.
“We won’t top this”, said Barb breathlessly as we crossed the halfway mark, and she was right. Completed in 1805 by the brilliant civil engineer Thomas Telford, the aqueduct is a triumph of form and function. The simple elegance of the iron trough, which was a completely new concept at the time and was entirely Telford’s idea, is complemented by the beauty of the stone columns and arches which sweep the structure over the valley. Recently, British Waterways drained the aqueduct and carefully examined the structure. They replaced a few bolts on the trough but could find no problems with the ironwork, the stonework or the mortar after 200 years of service exposed to one of the wettest climates on Earth.
After Pontcysyllte, the canal does a sharp left turn and enters a narrow and shallow channel which takes it all the way to Llangollen. In places, the channel is too narrow for boats to pass and Michael ran ahead with a walkie-talkie to clear our passage. The current is quite strong as the stream is now confined by the narrows. Finally, the canal arrives above Llangollen, having traversed 12 miles of the most difficult terrain without the benefit of a single lock. There is a brand new marina here now with plenty of room and electrical hook-ups for the boats. There is a £5 a night (max 48 hours) charge for mooring but it is well worth the cost.
I had not been to Llangollen for many years and I am impressed. It used to be a pleasant, sleepy place with not much happening but this summer it was crammed with people having a ball. There are several excellent places to eat, the Dee rushes hastily through the town center and there is a steam railway which snorts up into the hills and back. The annual Eisteddfod in July featured Joan Baez and numerous classical concerts. We suffered the stiff climb up to the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran and were amply rewarded by sweeping views over the town and valleys. We moored overnight and would have liked to have stayed longer but Michael and Angela were at the end of their holiday and we had to take them back down to Chirk where their car was parked at the station.
Barb and I were sad to see them go, as we were to say goodbye to Nigel and family a couple of weeks later. Both my brothers are expert helmsman and they are not just family but great friends. We all get along so well. The tight confines of a narrowboat strengthen the best friendships and expose the divisions of the weak. Many a fragile relationship has foundered and many friendships strengthened in the foundry of a steel hull. Nevertheless, Barb and I cruised back down the Llangollen together, pleased with our own company again. We took a good look at the Montgomery canal which is being lovingly restored to the highest of ecological standards. The derelict canal is a refuge for wildlife and, while it is being restored to navigation, boat traffic is limited to preserve the natural order. We resolved to travel down it one day. Basil is designed to have minimal impact on the environment. The engine only uses about a liter of diesel fuel an hour and is designed to meet the highest European standards for emissions. The hull causes very little wash and thus very little damage to the canal banks which are a refuge for all kinds of plants and animals.
A few days later we found ourselves in Nantwich again waiting to meet my other brother Nigel, his wife Sandra and son Josh who were to join us for an eight day trip down the Shropshire Union canal to Birmingham. The “Shroppie”, as it is affectionately called, is a later canal with many impressive engineering works. The early canal builders constructed contour canals, which wound around the hills on convoluted routes to reach their destinations. By the time the Shroppie was built, engineers had developed the cut and fill techniques that were later to be used so effectively on the railroads. The canal travels in long straight lines over massive embankments and through impressive cuttings with high bridges carrying roads aloft over the waterway. The downside of this form of construction is that, to this day, embankments tend to leak and collapse and cuttings tend to erode and collapse into the water. We saw several examples of this during the wettest summer on record, though fortunately none halted our progress. The locks on the Shroppie are gathered together in flights with long pounds (lengths of canal) in between. This promoted the efficient operation of working boats, which would deploy crews to go ahead and set the locks in advance of the boat, a practice which we followed whenever we could. It is a waste of water and bad manners to set a lock against a boat approaching in the other direction so we were always careful to give way to oncoming boats if the lock was set in their favor.
One such flight is at Audlem, a pleasant village with a general store, a post office and a canalside pub. We moored for the night on a nice quiet mooring above lock 14. Market Drayton, further south, was not so impressive – a run-down scummy place, according to my log. Church Eaton was another disappointment. We walked a mile into the village and found it to be dead. The pub was closed, nobody about, and no shops. Brewood was an excellent mooring with shops and services in town and a charming pub.
We put in long hours with Nigel and Sandra because we wanted to make it through the dreaded Wolverhampton 21 and on into Birmingham while we had help. We also had to take another day off at Brewood while Vinny and I worked on the boat. The 21 locks at Wolverhampton are in a single flight and run through a seedy industrial area beloved of vandals and graffiti artists. The locks are protected by anti-vandal padlocks which make them even slower to operate. In the event we did the flight in about 3 ½ hours although we were following another boat which meant that every lock was set against us. I once did the flight in 2 hours but that was long ago when I was twenty-something and in the company of a gang of fit young reprobates.
At first, the journey along the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigation) is much as it was on that trip 40 years ago. Factories still line the banks, though most have turned their back on the canal and erected steel fencing along the former wharves. Their products now disgorge on to the roads in articulated trucks instead of into boats. The French upgraded their canals over the years and they are still commercially viable and ecologically sensible modes of transport. With a few exceptions, the British have not, and are paying the price in clogged highways and excessive pollution. The Brummie yobs still throw all their trash in the canal and we had to stop three times to clear the prop of plastic bags. On the 1967 trip we collected a steel cable which stopped the motor dead and required a set of bolt cutters, borrowed from a construction crew, to cut it off the prop. Fortunately, nothing like that happened this time.
There are some fine old buildings along the route and several great examples of cast iron bridges built by Horsely Iron Works and others. At Spon Lane, we passed under another section of the BCN, a rare “canal flyover”. There was a railway station built on a bridge over the canal with commuters waiting for their train idly watching us from the platform. In another weird vignette, I saw a women being frogmarched off by a policeman. She was waving and laughing at us and he was grinning broadly as he took her away. Drunk? I don’t know. The air hummed around us with the sounds and smells of commerce. Trains roared alongside the canal at breakneck speed. It was a far cry from the solitude of the Llangollen. There are more miles of canal in Birmingham than in Venice and we hope to explore them all one day. We did leave the Main Line to do the Icknield Port loop and the Soho loop, which passes alarmingly close to Winson Green prison. Somebody threw a rock at us from a bridge but it missed. There are several islands on the Main Line which are the sites of former toll offices. The passages past them are very narrow and Sandra and I bumped almost all of them. We worked hard all day, cruising from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and covering a record 25 locks and 20 miles from Brewood to Birmingham.
Suddenly we were in the heart of Birmingham in one of the finest canal settings in the country. The whole area around Gas Street Basin and Farmers Bridge locks has been rebuilt with the canal as the central feature. Old warehouses have been turned into pubs and cafes and the Mailbox, a modern shopping complex, looms above. The bridges are ablaze with flowers and lights. We moored right in Gas Street Basin underneath the Hyatt hotel. The place buzzed with activity, especially at night when the locals poured in to enjoy the clubs, restaurants and bars that line the old wharves. We spent an enjoyable three days there even though it rained most of the time. We later met other boaters who think Gas Street has been ruined by development but we liked it and were impressed by the careful juxtaposition of old and new. In the 60’s it was a dangerous and seedy area largely cut off from the city.
My cousin Selwyn, whom I have not seen for years, came to visit us for an afternoon. Nigel and family left, and our friends Stacy and John came and took us by car to Worcester to see their house and cats, gaze at the swollen River Severn and to eat in a nearby restaurant. Stacy is an American actress, comedic author and radio personality and John is a Brit who animates the Harry Potter movies, among other things. We returned on a late train, somewhat tired out by the constant company. We were glad to be alone again. We spent a solitary Sunday in the rainy and deserted gloom of Gas Street before getting our toilet tank pumped out on Monday morning and heading off through the narrow Worcester Bar and on to the Worcester and Birmingham canal. August was waning and the weather began to improve. September was mostly fine and sunny.
We slowed down now, as we suddenly had plenty of time to reach our winter moorings by mid September. We dawdled down the North Stratford canal, in open country again. A beautifully maintained set of locks, the Lapworth flight, leads down to pretty Kingswood Junction where there is a link to the Grand Union canal and the South Stratford continues down to Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. There are several barrel-roofed cottages at Lapworth, built by the canal company to house their workers. They made the roofs barrel shaped, the story goes, because it was a familiar construction technique used on the bridge arches. We debated which way to go and decided not to go to Stratford, as it would have added a week of heavily locked cruising and put us behind schedule a little.
We turned instead on to the Grand Union, a wide canal which runs all the way from London to Birmingham and was “modernized” in the 1930’s with 14 feet wide locks and bridge holes. Larger barges can travel all the way from the Thames almost to Birmingham, but not quite as the modernization program was never completed. In spite of its status as a “canal freeway”, the GU has some very beautiful stretches and is quite as scenic as some of the more popular routes. We stopped here and there at a village we liked, found a nice pub to eat in, the “Tom O’ the Wood”, and generally took it easy.
At Hatton, we moored above the locks and walked down the flight. An intimidating spectacle it was, too; white balance beams stretching forever down the hill, enough to “strike fear in the heart of the most experienced boater”, as our guide book put it. These are no piddly little narrow locks, either, but 21 big double wide Grand Union locks with huge gates and hydraulic paddle gear. Barb was suitably impressed.
The next day we locked down 18 of the Hatton Flight in the company of another Roger, his wife Jane and their daughter and his boyfriend. We were glad of the help. We traveled “breasted up”, or tied together. I had never tried this technique before and it worked well until we met two boats coming up with only a short pound between locks to maneuver. One of the oncoming boats did not allow us enough room and Roger threw his helm over and powered up to avoid him. This caused Basil to ram the lock entrance hard. On balance, although breasting up saves a little time in flights, I don’t think I’d try it again.
Barb was sore but very proud of herself by the end of the day, as well she should have been. These are no easy locks and the Wolverhampton 21 was a comparative doddle in retrospect. Roger and Jane had two cats and two kittens on board their boat and that evening we watched fascinated as they “trained” the kittens to return to the boat in a crisis. Their older cats freely roamed about at night. It would have terrified us, not knowing if they would return, but they said they always did.
Next day, we negotiated the remaining Hatton locks and the two Cape locks and moored up near Warwick. We really liked Warwick and stayed there three days, looking at the Castle, walking the river Avon and exploring the town. Barb got her hair cut. One day we took a Chiltern Railways train to Stratford and had a very pleasant day being tourists, watching the boats in the canal basin and lounging in the sun in Nash’s garden, an Elizabethan garden right in town.
All too soon we arrived at Stockton locks, the last locks before our permanent mooring. Our mooring at Ventnor Farm Marina is great, with sweeping views of the Warwickshire countryside. It is run by Paul Flude, a visionary character who has created a nature reserve with boats, basically. The boats are not crammed in like a lot of marinas and there is no hire craft operation to destroy the tranquility. Each pontoon has water and electricity on tap and there is a lounge, toilet and laundry on site. We are in a new section which will not have those facilities for a year, so we had to walk half a mile to the older section. There is a dry dock, toilet pump-out and diesel supply in our section. The marina does have a few problems for those few of us who don’t have a car as it is a 50 minute walk to the nearest shop, pub or bus stop. Paul had said that someone could run us into Rugby if we needed such a service but when it came time to ask he ordered us a taxi which cost an alarming £22 ($44) for the 9 mile journey.
From Rugby we took a train to London where we stayed in a Premier Inn (again!) for the night before going to Paris to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We actually had just as much fun in London as we did in Paris. We went to Covent Garden which was really hopping with street theater, magicians, singers and open air cafes thronged with Londoners. We traveled the Tube (subway) to Kensington to visit the Britannia pub where we had our wedding reception. It’s been disappointingly renovated in grey clinical modern, not the cozy London pub it used to be, but the Young’s bitter was still good.
Next day we boarded the Eurostar high-speed train to Paris. It does the journey through Southern England, under the English Channel (or La Manche, if you prefer) and across the plains of Northern France in about 3 hours, cruising at 186 miles an hour. I don’t know quite what I was expecting but the Orient Express, it ain’t. The coaches have little leg room; the windows are small and so tinted that everything looks grey and the dining car is basic. Apart from the speed there’s not much to remark about it, really.
In gay Paris we stayed in a small boutique hotel. Well, alright, it was a flea pit and we were the fleas. We had a little garret room with a charming view of the leaded roofs of Paris. We did several touristy things – went on a boat on the Seine (boring and cold), went to the Eiffel tower (much bigger than I remember) and walked the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe. We did have two memorable meals. The French can still cook. We happened upon Le Grande Epicerie which is a huge grocery store near our hotel full of mouth-watering goodies. There must have been a thousand types of fromage alone. Paris was full of Rugby supporters as the Rugby World Cup was in full swing.
We spent an afternoon in the Musee d’Orsay at an exhibition “From Cezanne to Picasso” which was loosely tied to the career of Andre Vollard, a famous art dealer and patron. It was stuffed with one famous impressionist painting after another. I have never seen so many masterpieces crammed into one exhibition. There was even a film of the aged Renoir, crippled by arthritis, still painting as Vollard watched. The master works of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and others were all there – room after room of blazing color and light. We left tired but uplifted.
On the return trip our train was cancelled due to a “personal accident”. A suicide? We were not advised. Miraculously, they got us all on to a train which left twenty minutes later. We got off at Ashford where Michael met us. We stayed with them for a few days before renting a car and going back to the boat to fix it up for the winter. I got very sick after that, probably some stomach bug I caught in Paris, and the last few days were a nightmare. I had just recovered enough to drive up to the airport for our flight home. That morning there were reports of tornados touching down, almost unheard of in England. The rain slushed down in buckets and a truck was blown over on the M25 London Orbital motorway, right on our route to the airport. We were stuck for two hours in barely moving traffic and the whole trip took five hours instead of two and a half. We made the gate area at Heathrow with five minutes to spare before our flight was called. In the event it was half an hour late leaving and further delayed by another half hour in flight due to a strong jet stream. This forced a route further north than usual and we were afforded stunning views of Greenland and ice floes in the North Atlantic. The flight was comfortable but we were glad to get off in Phoenix after 12 hours on board.
Once here, I slept for 12 hours every night for several days. The weather is still hot but it cools down at night and winter will soon be here. We hope Basil won’t be too lonely and cold and we will be back in June for more adventures on the Waterways of England.
Photos by Roger, Michael & Angela.