"Elton" has always been the Cinderella of our fleet. It's years since she was docked but she's now got 3 weeks on the dock at the marina. Long overdue anyway but precipitated by the damage caused when she was rammed by "Community Spirit". It's pretty amazing that we've managed to keep her afloat since the damage was done in March. The damage extends below the waterline yet it didn't start her leaking. If she had gone down it would have been a struggle to get her up again with that gaping hole in her stern. It's now being plated up. Here's some pictures of Aaron shafting her across the basin and the damage.
Today we sold the wheelchair lift that we didn't use on "Hazel". It came from the old "Still Waters", built by Cammell Lairds apprentices, which sank and was sold off. The new owners donated the lift, but it needed a lot of work. We got given a better (unused) one later. It's gone to Lincoln to be refurbished.
As we needed some muscle to shift the lift I invited people to come and help. Aaron, Tony and Kim came along and we spent the rest of the day tidying and sorting out the yard. Still plenty to do but sales of surplus tackle are gradually clearing space.
We stacked a pile of cabin building timber on top of one of the containers. This is Leylandii, surprisingly, though I don't much like the tree, it produces good, rot resistant timber. This lot came from a friend's garden in South Manchester. It was felled by the excellent tree surgeon Joe Hodgson and planked at a local fence manufacturer. There's a pile of smaller wood to collect for keeping us warm when we get a chance, and Joe has another bug tree to fell there, which may yield more useful timber.
It's become a bit of a Boxing Day tradition that we go for a trip on the east Lancashire Railway. This morning Em wasn't feeling well, so we thought we'd go this afternoon. By 2 PM she was still feeling grotty, though busy researching a friends noble bloodline on tinternet. She said I was getting like dog who's been promised a walk and more or less ordered me to go on my own. I decided to see if I could join a train at Ramsbottom but I was just too late. It was crossing the level crossing as I arrived. I parked up and watched it leave, tender first, towards Bury. I was puzzled by the locomotive. It looked a bit like a Great Eastern J15, but something about it didn't seem right.
The next train from Ramsbottom was a diesel multiple unit, which didn't appeal to me, so I drove to Bury where the train was still in Bolton St station waiting to leave for Heywood as I parked up. I photographed it leaving, volcanoing black smoke into the fading light of the afternoon. I went to find a takeaway as I was getting hungry.
Back on the platform the imminent arrival of the 15.45 to Rawtenstall was being announced. I decided to try to photograph it, even though the light was rapidly disappearing. The slightly shaky results appear below.
The brass worksplate on the side of the cab revealed the identity of this mystery engine. It said "Hunslet Engine Company 1943" along with its works number, which was also boldly displayed along the smooth, unrivetted tender sides, which betrayed its recent construction.
This loco is a bit of a pleasant fake. It started life in 1943 as one of the World War 2 standard design of shunting engine for the War Department, based on a design of 1937. These highly successful locomotives were spread around Europe after the war as well as being used by the LNER as class J94. Many went into industrial service and more were constructed up until 1964, particularly for the National Coal Board. In total 485 were built, not all by Hunslet, of which 62 survive on heritage railways, making them the most abundant surviving class. I must admit that I feel a little dismay when I show up for a steam train ride to find an austerity in charge, though, were I running such a railway I would be pleased to have one in my fleet as they are such reliable and economical locos.
Being so abundant, heritage railways have had no qualms about modifying these engines. One has been transformed into a replica of a Great Western broad gauge locomotive. One has been rebuilt as a side tank to play the part of Thomas the Tank Engine. This particular example has mutated into a tender engine and has sometimes played the part of another Rev W Awdry character, "Douglas".
On this occasion there was no nameplate or smokebox face. The engine was playing the part of an early 20th century goods engine. Only the purist rivet counter would be offended by the all welded tender and cab.
I boarded the leading coach and, hanging out of the window, listened to the hard work of the fireman as he readied his little engine for the long climb into deepest Lancashire. 5 BR mark1 coaches is no insignificant load for such a small loco and I could hear the injectors singing, the fire being stoked and the blower roaring as the crew worked to raise steam for the task ahead.
The engine made a spirited start away from Bury and I enjoyed its confident barking progress up the line. I like to be hauled by small engines that have to struggle a bit. A 9F, for example, would chuff along hardly noticing its rake of carriages while it quietly reminisced about hauling hundreds of tons of iron ore up from Tyne Dock to Consett. After each stop the engine hauled the train away confidently, its strident exhaust leaving a long white cloud in the still air.
Beyond Summerseat I enjoyed watching a firework display of red hot cinders as the engine hauled its train through the curving tunnels, the smoke reflecting the orange glow from the firebox door.
At Ramsbottom we met the DMU on its run back to Bury, carrying no more than a taxiload of passengers.
I had decided to gt off at Irwell Vale, the penultimate station, watch the train depart, wander about for a bit, then rejoin it for the journey back to Bury. I stepped down on to the dark platform and stood beside the engine as the fireman continued his constant stoking. The guard walked up to inform me that the train didn't stop there on the way back. I thanked him for saving me a long walk and resumed my perch in the leading vestibule to enjoy the ride through the pitch dark to Rawtenstall.
There was sufficient artificial light at the terminal station for me to get some nice pictures of the engine running round, its safety valves roaring with excess steam. The fireman had perhaps worked a little too hard. The singing of the injectors told me that he was now doing his best to quiet the boiler.
Still no-one had asked for payment. I mentioned this to the guard as he supervised the coupling of the loco to its train. He said there were ticket inspectors on board but they obviously hadn't found me yet. If they did I could pay, if not, it was on the house.
There were now few passengers aboard. Most had detrained to recover their cars at Rawtenstall. I, once more, hung out of the window in the leading vestibule next to the engine, though now at the downhill end of the train. The return journey was less exciting as, save for a few chuffs to get the train going after each stop, the engine had little to do and could leave most of the effort to the force of gravity on the gently sloping track.
This being the last train of the day it stopped in platform 3, the engine uncoupled and chuffed away to the shed. I took a couple of photos of this process then ascended the Christmassy steps and through the Christmassy corridor on to Bolton Street, my wallet still unopened.
Back home Em was still in bed. She was excited by what she had discovered about her friend via her laptop, having traced back through Norman nobility almost as far as the invasion itself. Ironic as the lady whose noble roots were being explored is an ardent socialist.
Neither of us felt like cooking so I went out to Al Bilal, the best takeaway in Ashton. As usual the proprietor and his bearded friend were watching Pakistani TV behind the counter. I watched too, trying to guess what was happening in the televised game show as I don't understand Urdu. The news came on with pictures of politicians. Someone had resigned. The only person that I recognised was former cricketer Imran Khan.
The bearded friend ducked under the counter to leave, then turned to me and vented his frustration about the corruption of politicians. Apparently, recent hacking of accounts have revealed that 540 Pakistani politicians have between them salted away countless billions in tax havens whilst the national infrastructure languishes for lack of investment. I tried to acquaint him with the concept of the psychopath. "Yes" he declared "they all psychopaths, they not Muslims". With that he left. The gentle old proprietor brought me my lamb bhuna. We wished each other goodnight and I returned home where we enjoyed our excellent meal.
"Hazel" is on dock for a fortnight for a general overhaul. On the outside she's getting extra ice plates as some of the original ones ended up underwater. Seams are being repitched and the caulking hardened up on one seam, a bit of damaged shoeing repaired and a general tarring. Andrea came and helped on Monday. Inside Tony and Aaron are repainting and we've taken the floorboards out to be oiledAaron and Tony busy inside the boat.
I've had a tiring couple of weeks.
On Monday 23rd October we started our canal clean ups. We were expecting two groups to join us and I was a bit concerned that there would be more people than I could find jobs and equipment for. It was drizzling. Phil Smith from CRT arrived with lots of litter pickers, grappling irons etc. Luke arrived and we decided to hang on to wait for others. No-one showed up, so me and Luke set off for lock 1W. We hauled out a few shopping trolleys then went up the lock.
Aaron and Kim joined us and we looked for the obstruction in Whitelands tunnel. I think it's mostly stone, which we're unable to get out, but Aaron and Kim pulled out a huge lorry tyre which couldn't have been helping things.
(This series of photos by Luke Clarke)
At lock 2 we used the boat to access an area covered in rubbish that had been annoying me for ages and cleaned it up. Kim had to leave above lock 3 and time was pressing so we moved on to Stayley Wharf.
It had been a bit disappointing but we had a respectable haul. I cycled down to Portland Basin to get the van and, as dusk fell, me and Aaron loaded the van with scrap iron, piled cut foliage in a neat heap and piled non recyclables on the bank.
Being a Monday I was fasting, so I enjoyed a bit of solitude aboard “Forget me Not”, reading a book. I went to sleep early but was up again well before dawn. I drove to the boatyard to pick up batteries and more scrap, then to Portland Basin to pick up even more scrap and change batteries on various bilge pumps. From here I went to Mullaneys scrapyard up near Hartshead Pike, unloaded the scrap, then back to Portland Basin where the van was to be collected for shop deliveries. I cycled up the towpath to get back to the boat about 9.30 in time for Phil to pick up the rubbish.
Tuesdays team were mostly volunteers organised by Peter Hawley, the Stalybridge Town centre Manager. About half a dozen arrived. I suggested backing up to clear the narrows near the aqueduct as this is a favourite place for getting stuck if the level is down a bit. Trainee skipper Alan took the controls as I steered the reversing boat with a shaft from the bow. We got plenty of road signs, bikes and trolleys out of the narrows. Some of the trolleys were so embedded in mud that we had to drag the grappling irons with the boat to get them out. One raised concerns that the iron might be caught on a plug to drain the canal, but it was only a trolley.
Some of the volunteers preferred litter picking, and there was plenty to find. They dragged bulk bags along the towpath to contain it all. Above lock 4 Phil met us with the CRT pickup to take away the rubbish. As I pulled away with the boat I noticed that the grappling iron that I was towing was causing much disturbance and globs of oil. I'd hooked on to a motor scooter which, with much effort, we dragged on to the bank, then pushed to above lock 5 to load it. I informed the police of our find.
The narrows below Armentierres Square is a happy hunting ground for shopping trolleys. “Forget me Not” stuck on one, but we soon had it out.
With the deck well loaded with soggy smelly scrap again everyone left at lock 6 and I travelled on alone through 7,
then winded and backed up to the boatyard. This wasn't easy as a wind had sprung up and there was stuff on the blade. A passer by helped me remove some clothing from the propeller and I told him about recycling trips which he says he'll join us on. With the boat tied at Knowl St I was off home for the night.
Wednesday was a sorting out and repositioning day. Tony and Aaron arrived to help unload the boat, filling the boatyard with dripping smelly bikes and trolleys. We loaded on to the boat foliage from the boatyard trimming of the previous week then set off back down the locks, collecting the brash that we'd left at Staley Wharf. At the railway bridge behind Asda there was a stack of trolleys that someone had previously fished out, rusting in the undergrowth, so we stopped and loaded these up, then ferried them to the inaccessible space under Cavendish St Bridge, where they were exchanged for more foliage which someone had left there and some bags of rubbish.
At Portland Basin we turned left into the Peak Forest canal and unloaded the brushwood at the intended site for the Samhain fire, a patch of himalayan balsam next to the Great Central railway bridge.
We haven't used the winding hole at Jet Amber Fields for a few years, since a huge raft of american pennywort prevented us from winding. However, this seems to have subsided, so we decided to try it, rather than carry on to Hyde to wind. “Forget me Not” just managed to get round, though I doubt if we would succeed with “Hazel” as she is deeper at the bow.
We tied the boat at Portland Basin to await the next days adventure.
Thursday was the day for dibbling for rubbish in the Peak Forest canal. As well as the usual suspects we had Albert and Adam from the shop and a couple of new volunteers who had seen it advertised. We started right at the exit from the basin, looking for whatever the boat had bounced over there the previous day. We found nothing, it must have moved. Slowly we worked our way through Dukinfield to the lift bridge. Our new volunteers tended to hang back, constantly and mostly fruitlessly casting their grappling irons in the same spot as the boat left them behind.
I managed to gather everyone together at the lift bridge, a known trouble spot, and do some intensive grappling. The results were disappointing, though we did pull out some tyres. I found a clue to the problem here when I pulled out a brick with the keb. I think someone has tipped a load of rubble in here, which will need one of those rare and fabulous beasts, a dredger, to remove it.
I was eager to get to more problem areas further up the canal. The Great Central railway bridge was the next one. Some homeless people were camped on the old pit loading wharf there. It had been adopted as park land but appears to have been abandoned by the council as a result of funding cuts.
“Forget me Not” frequently touches the bottom along here but my hunch was that the problem was mostly railway ballast, carelessly cast into the canal by the railway authorities. This turned out to be the case, though we found quite a lot more debris in the water which we were able to remove. This included quite a lot of scaffolding, I suspect lost by contractors painting the bridge girders, and several more tyres.
I had an idea about the source of the tyres. Some time ago I had noticed a load of tyres dumped near Dunkirk bridge. These had now disappeared. My hunch was that they had found their way into the canal, which would explain the difficulty sometimes experienced in traversing this narrow bridgehole.
Tempus was busily fugiting so we hurried on to the afformentioned Dunkirk bridge, which “Forget me Not” frequently struggles to get through. Here, as anticipated, we pulled out lots of discarded tyres as well as the usual bikes, trolleys and what looked like the remnants of a pottery kiln.
A grappling iron got hooked on something that all the huffing and puffing of volunteers couldn't shift. I followed my usual procedure of attaching the line to the dollies and towing it out, but this time the line parted, so, we were one grappling iron down.
At the M67 motorway bridge there was a line of items that someone had clearly pulled out before us leaning against the concrete (there's a You Tube video of someone fishing them out with a powerful magnet) They included a large number of wheelclamps! We went through the bridge and winded. I would have liked to have backed up to Manchester Road bridge, another trouble spot, but time was pressing and volunteers were ebbing away. Returning through the motorway bridge we picked up the wheelclamps etc and enjoyed the trip back to Ashton in the fading light.
Friday was spent clearing away the spoils of the week and preparing “Hazel” for some overnight guests.
Early on Saturday morning I started getting “Forget me Not” ready for the trip. Our guests were a family from the North East, though coming originally from Chelmsford and all round the world. One of them was celebrating a milestone birthday and his wife had booked the stay on the boat and a trip to Roaches lock and back as a surprise.
Some were dubious about our ability to get to Roaches in a day. Though it's only about 5 miles and 14 locks it's on the difficult and unreliable Huddersfield Narrow Canal. As well as the usual suspects, myself, Tony and Aaron, Luke joined us again and I had recruited tree surgeon Joe and leaflet deliverer Andy.
We started at 9 and were soon starting to work up the locks towards Stalybridge. The weather was dull and drizzling. Things went smoothly at first, though I was a little concerned that, though the water levels were OK, there was no water running over the weirs. This made me think that there may be trouble ahead.
Trouble presented itself in the pound above lock 8, Grove Road. The pound was well down. This was a surprise as several substantial streams feed this pound. I've no idea where the water was going but it wasn't feeding down the canal.
I walked on to set the next lock, but, before I reached it, I got a call from Tony to say that the boats were stemmed in mid channel.
The affected pound is long by Huddersfield canal standards. The next one up is short. I virtually emptied it supplying enough water to bring the boats up to the lock. This meant I had to run down water from the pound above to get through this pound, thus lowering the next pound up. Going uphill, if you get a low pound you are constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul in this way.
Between 11 and 12, through Scout tunnel, the pound is slightly longer and I hoped to get through without robbing any water from further up. Sludging carefully along the middle it looked like we would succeed, until the boats firmly stuck just a few yards from lock 12. This meant stealing more water to get into the lock.
The next pound up runs through Mossley and was the longest that we would pass through. Despite this, getting the boats those last few yards took enough water to drop it a few inches below weir level.
Still, things looked good and we made steady progress until the second bridgehole, where “Forget me Not” got firmly stuck. It was only after much hard work that we got her moving again.
By the time we got into lock 14, Woodbank lock, it was dark. Some of our crew were getting anxious about getting home and our guests were expressing anxiety about their 6.30 booking at the Roaches Lock pub. There was only a short distance of winding canal to traverse and Tony made a good job of steering the pair through the pitch black.
As we reached the wide below Roaches we breasted up and, as a moored fibreglass cruiser loomed up ahead of us, tied rather clumsily just short of it. Our guests hurried up the bepuddled towpath to the pub whilst our crew trudged off down the road towards Mossley station, where the trains turned out to be buses, so they got a bus instead.
With the boats secured I went out in search of food, which I found in an Indian takeaway. I sat on the balance beam of lock 16 in the continuing rain, eating my meal and listening to the water running over the weir.
That night, the clocks changed. I used the extra hour to tidy up and organise firewood. I wondered if the crew would arrive on time. It was important to get moving early to avoid running on into the night. I walked down to the lock and got it ready so that, if necessary, I could start the boats moving with just a little help from our guests.
Today the usual suspects were to be augmented by Keith and Elsa Williamson, who gave some people lifts from Ashton. I'd just got the engine started when they began to arrive. A towpath walker warned of a low pound in Mossley.
Soon we were winded and on our way, working smoothly through Woodbank lock. A short pound brought us to lock 13, where we saw with dismay that the walker had not been exaggerating. The longest pound of our trip, through the centre of Mossley, was nearly empty.
We ran the motor down the lock and she sat, with her counter well out of the water, on rubbish in the bottom. We drew the top paddles then rushed to jump aboard at the tail of the lock as the boat, carried by the rush of water, shot out like an express train, only to stem up and sit awkwardly across the canal.
I walked to the next lock to see if I could find the reason for the problem. Elsa was ahead of me. We found that a top paddle was up and the bottom gates were leaking badly. I was worried that it could be our fault, did we leave a paddle up? Thinking back to the previous day I recalled that, at that particular lock, I had repeatedly asked one of our crew to shut the paddle until he eventually did, so clearly the problem wasn't our fault. This is why I try to drum into new crew members to shut the paddles as soon as the gates are open, otherwise its so easy to forget.
Later we heard that , the previous night, a dog walker had chased off some kids who were messing with the lock machinery. On this particular paddle the anti vandal lock was broken.
Our crew began running water down, but the short pound above the lock would soon be depleted so I walked up to Woodbank lock to steal some water from the longer pound up to Roaches. Eventually, Tony rang me to say that “Forget me Not” was afloat again. I shut the paddles and, after working the butty down, the pair set off, carefully, slowly, sludging along the muddy middle of the canal. Aaron stayed at lock 13, alternately filling and emptying the lock to send waves of water along the canal to lift the boats over any obstructions.The boats stuck solid in the same bridgehole that we had had problems with on the way up.
I ran down more water from Woodbank to help the now nearly empty short pound then, when I dare take no more, returned to the stuck boats. Elsa, who had stayed at lock 12 asked if she could bring an uphill boat up the lock, then we could use the same water to take our boat down. I asked her to hold the boat below the lock. Taking a lockfull off the pound would delay getting our boats unstuck, we wouldn't be able to pass each other and the leaky gates would soon empty the full lock anyway.
Eventually, with the pound nearly full and the ballast tanks emptied, we got moving again. Elsa rang again. The Eastbound boater was getting impatient. I explained that we were nearly there, as we stemmed up again. This time it just needed a bit of work with the shaft to get the boats moving . We reached the lock, worked the motor through, the impatient boat came up then the butty followed down and we carried on through Scout tunnel.
We were now on a waterway well supplied with water. Things went smoothly for a while but it was already well into the afternoon. At lock 7, near the boatyard in Stalybridge, some of our guests had to leave to catch a train. They thanked us profusely for the trip and said they would be back.
The procedure for working the pair down a narrow lock is as follows:- First the motor is worked down while the butty lies against the top gate. The lock is then refilled and the motor backs up, tiller removed, to sit with her fenders against the bottom gates, ticking over in reverse gear. It's very important that the boat is in contact with the bottom gates. When the bottom paddles are drawn to bring the butty down a powerful eddy holds the motor in place. The steerer can do nothing so they can go into the cabin and attend to the range. If the motor is not against the gates it will be brought back and crash into them with tremendous force. When the lock is empty the reversing boat simply pushes the gates open, the steerer picks up the towline and attaches it to the dollies and the pair steam on along the next pound.
As we approached lock 7 I had been preparing 6 bacon and egg butties for the crew. 6 rounds of bread were buttered on the table and the fillings were cooking on the range. I asked the motor steerer to back up to the gates and finish making the butties (sandwiches). We worked the butty (boat) down, but when I went to see about distributing the butties (sandwiches) I was told we had a problem. The swans neck was pointing in completely the wrong direction. The rudder had got turned far beyond its normal arc of operation and was now jammed under the counter, where it had hit the propeller and stalled the engine.
Clearly the boat had not been against the gates when the paddles were drawn and the rudder had caught on something as the power of the eddying water hammered the boat backwards. Our attempts to untangle the ironwork only resulted in bending the tiller. As I tied up the motor to allow the butty through the butties (sandwiches) were distributed. I was rather miffed not to get one.
There was nothing for it but to bowhaul the butty for the rest of the trip and leave the disabled motor where she was. Me and Aaron took turns at bowhauling, Tony was suffering from a bruised leg as a result of being hit by a flying pallett during the cleanup, so he steered. Luke lockwheeled without a bicycle.
The remaining locks were dealt with quickly and efficiently in the gathering dark. At the Asda tunnel some of us lay on the roof and stretched our legs up to walk upside down along the smooth concrete, then we shafted the boat along the towpathless stretch past Cavendish Mill to tie up at Portland Basin at about 6 PM.
I had been a little concerned that our guests may have been disappointed with their experience. They had spent most of the trip inside the cabin and didn't seem to be taking much interest in the boating activity. As they left, however, it was quite clear that “Hazel” had worked her magic on them. They told us they had really enjoyed the trip. They had rather stressful jobs and had appreciated the relaxation afforded by their time on the boat.
Once everyone had left I headed back up to Stalybridge. There had been some young scallywags hanging around the town centre as we passed through so I wanted to make sure that “Forget me Not” was safe. After spending a pleasant night in the back cabin I started shafting the boat down the locks. Near the Tame aqueduct she stemmed up in mid channel. A little work with the keb brought out a tyre, one that we missed during the cleanup. At the Clarence St moorings the boat stemmed up again, this time on a submerged tree trunk. It took the efforts of myself and several of the residents to dislodge the boat then recover the offending log. One of the moorers caught me up at lock 3 offering to help, but I turned him down, partly because you can't really have 2 people shafting and partly because I was just enjoying doing it on my own.
As I neared my destination I got a 'phone call from Janet, our neighbour at Knowl St. She thought that someone had climbed into the boatyard. As soon as I got the boat tied abreast of “Lilith” I cycled post haste to Stalybridge. There had indeed been an intruder as I could see that things had been disturbed, but I couldn't identify anything as missing. I collected the van and drove home for a good rest.
Tuesday night should have been the night of the Samhain fire, but I was too busy to organise it so the brushwood will have to wait until the Winter Solstice before it is ignited.
I had arranged to meet a police officer on Friday morning to hand over the motor scooter. When she arrived at the boatyard I led her to the place where we had unloaded it. There was nothing there! Perhaps this was the target of our Monday intruders.
On Friday evening I shafted “Forget me Not” to Ashton Packet Boats boatyard in Guide Bridge. On Saturday morning they pulled her out on the slip and we found that the damage was nothing that a few good blows with a sledgehammer wouldn't put right. With the rudder untangled “Forget me Not” was ready for action again, just in time for the November recycling trips, which were excellent.
Em has long wanted to visit Oxford. Previous attempts to visit have been frustrated by illness. We usually go away somewhere for our birthdays so I decided to surprise her with a visit to Oxford for a few days. I booked us into Browns Hotel on Iffley Road and got cheap advance tickets through https://wcbs.trainsplit.com/main.aspx
The journey was an uninterrupted ride on a Cross Country Voyager. Oddly, our reservations were for seats some distance apart, but the reservations system on the train had broken down anyway. The seats we sat in claimed to be reserved from Bristol to Cheltenham, a route the train wasn't taking today. The random seat allocations caused much confusion among passengers boarding along the way, but no-one challenged us in our choice of seats.
Voyagers can be very fast https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_220 but this one seemed to dawdle all the way. The seats, crammed into the limited bodyshell, become uncomfortable after a while. At Wolverhampton a stylish young Muslim woman sat opposite us. It amuses me to see someone adopting a style of traditional dress intended to prevent over excitement among males, then tweak it to make it as sexy as possible within the constraints given.
Between Leamington and Banbury we passed through my childhood trainspotting territory. Our train was a far cry from the Great Western Kings and Castles that used to thunder along this way back in 1962.
We were pleased to get off the train at Oxford. Em took a taxi to our hotel (never again at that price) and I cycled. the taxi driver asked about house prices in Manchester and was shocked that you can buy a 2 bedroom terrace for under £100,000. In Oxford they cost around £350,000. No wonder he charges so much!
I didn't know the way but I had glanced briefly at a map. Inevitably I fook a wrong turn, so I asked someone. Either the residents of Oxford are deeply ignorant of local geography or, like the natives of Bootle, they derive a perverse amusement from sending strangers the wrong way.
Eventually I reached the hotel, via the Thames towpath and Iffley Lock. At each entry point to the towpath the council have put up a big notice warning people not to use the towpath when it is flooded. It seems to me that only the terminally foolhardy would do such a thing. Presumably their legal department is worried that, should someone drown on the flooded towpath, they could be sued for not being there to stop someone doing something stupid. Such is the craziness of the modern duty of care.
Em had already checked into the hotel when we got there. She was not impressed by the stairs up to our room and I had to explain that when I booked I had to take the only room available that was affordable as they were being booked up rapidly. Browns Hotel http://www.brownsoxford.com/ is pleasant with a really good, if expensive, cafe downstairs. We found the bed uncomfortable though and I was disturbed that I kept having to unwedge the fire door at the top of the stairs, only to find it wedged open again later. Oh, and the shower on our floor didn't work.
Em rested and I went out to explore Oxford. I enjoy the amazing architecture, all built in honey coloured stone, but feel more at home in more plebeian places like the covered market. I like the cosmopolitan atmosphere. As you walk along a street you hear many languages spoken and see people from different cultures mingling happily. In Lancashire I'm afraid we have a sort of unspoken apartheid and, while there is cultural diversity, intermingling is, at least in my age group, limited.
My internal homing device failed again so I asked a group of mixed race teenagers hanging about outside a park. They spoke in the poshest accents imaginable but had no idea of local geography. Their best suggestion was to follow a bus.
At a right angle turn in the road I decided to follow a footpath/cycleway that went straight on. It led me into meadows and a crossing of the Cherwell. This seemed good as I needed to cross the Cherwell, but I was a little upstream from where I needed to be. The busy path led to a 1970s estate. A young cyclist had stopped so I stopped to ask. He said he'd had an accident and was trying to make a running repair on his damaged front carrier. I helped with the repair. He didn't know where Iffley Road was but suggested I travel with him back to the city centre. Back at the start of the path I veered off left and soon found my way back.
Back at the hotel, Em had rested. She'd discovered that nearby was an Anglican convent who host 'pay as you like' retreats. She's interested. Most retreats seem to be only for the wealthy. With rye bread bought from the cafe below we ate a simple picnic, then scoured the TV channels for something interesting to watch.
Next morning was Em's birthday. I dug out her present. She had mentioned the need for a better camera, so I got her one. She wanted to explore Oxford. We went to catch a bus, but it was rush hour and the first one to come was full, so we started walking. Em hadn’t brought her new camera so she asked me to photograph this wooden tower on top of a building.
Eventually we got to the City centre. Em was keen to see Christ Church. We walked slowly down pretty stone streets until we found it. Tours were available but Em thought sh would get too tired to complete one. She wanted to rest so I went exploring nearby streets. When we met up again she was keen to see the Bodleian Library, an impressive place and we paid a pound each to be admitted to a bit that was used in the Harry Potter films with an amazing stone ceiling.
It was dinner time and Em had read about the Vaults & Gardens restaurant which was nearby. A sort of healthy posh Hogwarts themed fast food place. We went there and enjoyed middle class portions of healthy but nice food.
Em was tired so we got a bus back to Iffley Road. She needed to rest so I went out on my bike.
My plan was to repeat the route of a walk that I remembered from last time I stayed in Oxford. This would be about 1985. I had a friend called Julia who lived on an old wooden joey whilst studying at the university. I visited to help and advise on repairs. Julia shifted the ballast to one side to attend to problems below the waterline on the other side. A sensible strategy, but with its dangers. In the early hours I was woken by an agitated Julia shouting my name. I got up and followed the calls to find Julia sitting naked on the toilet, which happened to be next to the bilge pump, pumping like mad. A niagara of water was pouring through the side of the boat behind her. It was lucky that she had needed to get up for a pee in the night, otherwise we may not have noticed that the downward side of the boat was steadily filling up until it was too late and we woke up underwater.
It almost was too late. Julias frantic pumping was no way fast enough to reverse the sinking process. I picked up a newspaper, opened it out and went out on to the sterndeck. I was able to reach round underwater and plaster the paper over the porous area. This slowed the leaks sufficiently so that, taking turns at pumping, we were able to empty the bilge and eventually return to our slumbers.
My idea was to follow the canal towpath up to the Dukes Cut then follow that across to the Thames, perhaps, if there was time, go upstream a little, then back down the Thames to rejoin a refreshed Em.
The Oxford Canal terminal basin was filled in in the 1930s to provide a site for Nuffield College.
Now it simply peters out at a road about 100 yards short of its former end. When I was there 30 years ago this dead end was full of unofficial residential boats that British Waterways were trying to get rid of. At one point they even hired a private detective to spy on people. Their case was boosted by complaints from a local resident who said the boats were spoiling her view. It was later discovered that to see the boats from her house you had to stand on a chair and open the bathroom window. The compromise solution was for BW to provide official serviced moorings that the existing residents said were too expensive.
The smart new moorings are still there, now looking a bit run down, but the boats on them are less interesting than they used to be. As well as Julias boat there was a wooden tug with a huge Gardner engine and the Josher motor “Aster”, now on the Kennett & Avon with an uncertain future. At that time she was occupied by an American couple.
The lock to the Thames under the bridge. Straight on are residential moorings and a dead end.
A new development is taking place at Jericho. I believe a boatyard has been destroyed here to make way for more upmarket waterside residences.
Beyond the lock through to the Thames I
was pleased to see that an anarchic jumble of boats survives, no
doubt to the chagrin of the various autorities and snooty residents.
The Thames backwater that runs parallel to the canal is a particular
hive of anarchy. The chaos of cheap old boats is fascinating to me,
though I can see that those of a tidy and tiny mindset will be hugely
offended that such disorder is allowed to survive.
The towpath was busy with walkers and
cyclists. Interesting looking people predominated. As I progressed
the individuality of the moored boats seemed to increase, away from
the standard welded steel boxes towards vessels that would have
brought joy to the heart of JRR Tolkien himself.
I stopped to photograph one rather attractive boat. As I was doing so I noticed two cats perched on top of the next boat. This looked like it would make a good picture so I turned, aimed my camera at them and zoomed in. As I did so I heard a growling shooing noise to my left. I glanced that way and saw, some distance off, a very hairy man heading my way making angry noises and waving a stick. I wasn't sure whether he had a problem with me or with the cats, but I thought I'd get my picture before he arrived. I made chushing noises to get the cats to look my way and pressed the shutter. Unfortunately, in the split second that it took to activate the shutter the cats detected oncoming danger and turned their heads to look at the noisy man, before scarpering into the hedge.
The man was not angry with the cats, he was angry with me. He told me, loudly, that he was fed up with tourists coming here taking photographs. He kept repeating that this was private, not council. I decided not to engage with him for he was speaking nonsense. Bizarrely, he asked if I was here for the beard competition, one that he would surely win.
Rant apparently over he carried on his
walk towards Oxford. More cats appeared wide eyed from the hedge to
join the original pair. Probably they were psychically asking each
other 'what the**** was all that about?'. I saw another photo
opportunity so I raised my camera and pointed it towards the cats.
The angry man must have had eyes in the back of his head for he
detected further photographic activity, turned and ran back towards
me with his stick raised. I turned from the cats, who were once more
beating a hasty retreat, and aimed my camera at the approaching man.
Once more he berated me for my allegedly papperazzi like behaviour,
then left, muttering.
I rode on. A sort of smallholding occupied the strip between canal and railway, with corrugated iron barns and old caravans bursting at the seams. The Oxford bypass crossed overhead on stilts.
I came to the junction with the Dukes cut. The entrance lock, which prevents the Thames from flooding into the canal, had a boat working through it. I soon found the towpath to be almost impassible woodland. At one point an old willow arches low over the path and you have to almost kneel down to get under it.
I found the entrance to the mill
stream, where once number ones delivered boatloads of coal from
Coventry. The motor and butty would go down the stream tied stem to
stem, using the flow of water for motiive power and the engine to
steer. After unloading the motor would reverse out, hauling the butty
From here on the route is a winding backwater populated by what, when they were promoting the British Waterways Bill, the authorities chose to call “colonies of illegal houseboats”. Actually they're just people who refuse to be boxed, doing their best to survive in an over regulated land. I entered one such colony in search of a path. I was greeted by a man with a friendly facade who wanted to know my business. After complimenting me on my T shirt, depicting a bicycle towing the Tardis, he directed me towards the Thames over a soft mown field that was hard going. I dismounted and walked as it was easier. The water route turned back on itself and I began to wonder how far it actually was to the main channel.
I examined my Ordnance Survey map. Close inspection showed that there was no way through on foot or bike to the Thames towpath. This was at odds with my 32 year old recollection, but, knowing the way that memory can be embroidered over time, I decided to believe the map.
I dragged my bike straight across the middle of the huge soft field and joined a noisy trunk road. I followed this until it crossed the canal where I carried my bike down a steel staircase to regain the towpath. A short ride brought me to a lock, where I left the waterway to take a pleasant little lane through the picturesque village of Wolvercote.
Where the lane crossed the navigable channel of the river I went through a gate to join the towpath, or Thames Path as it is now referred to. There's no way you could do any towing from this path nowadays for the actual waters edge is lined in many places with substantial trees and the path often travels through fields some distance from the water.
I came across the ruins of Osney Nunnery, then on to Osney lock, where I lingered to eat some bits and pieces of food I'd brought with me.
Some young rowers appeared from the
weir stream and went off down river. Shortly afterwards an odd
looking catamaran, with an outboard motor and a single seat, followed
the same course. I later discovered that such craft are common on the
Thames and I think are used to carry coaches for the purpose of
shouting at rowers.
With food consumed I headed downriver on the rough but busy path. I passed a converted barge moored randomly in the middle of nowhere.
At Medley Marina the path crosses the river on a long arched footbridge. I crossed this and realised how my memories had got confused. I had conflated two different walks, one to, and partly along, the Dukes Cut and one across Port Meadow then down the Thames towpth back into Oxford.
I carried on down the Thames path until I reached the bridge nearest the hotel.
Em was recovered, so we headed into town on a bus and, eventually, found the Odeon cinema (there are two just to confuse people) where Em had booked tickets for “Blade Runner 2049”. This was very good and raises all kinds of questions about our relationships with the non humans.
Back on the bus, and so to bed.
Next morning Em was suffering for the previous days exertions. She decided to stay most of the day in bed, so I went off on my bike to explore downstream towards Abingdon. Beyond Iffley lock the
path was good and busy with bikes and walkers, then, where the Princes Risborough line crossed on a long girder bridge.
This line once served Cowley, an industrial suburb of Oxford, and Thame on its way to join the direct Banbury to London route. Closed under Beeching, only a freight spur now survives to serve the car factory at Cowley, where they make the new Minis. There is some agitation to get the route revived as an alternative commuter route into London. Recently a new link has been made through from Oxford to join this route via Bicester, but the Cowley line would be much more direct.
Onward, the path deteriorated into a
rutted line across the fields.
I came a cross a rather Enid Blyton house built on an island in the river, Rose Island. A beautiful place to live, but you wouldn't want to keep anything nice on the ground floor because it must flood from time to time.
At Sandford lock there was a mill. An information board gave its history. It's last use, unil 1970, was as a paper mill. At one time it recieved rags by boat upstream from London and coal downstream via the Oxford canal. It must have been an interesting task getting a loaded horse boat down through Oxford. Latterly of course the mill was serviced by road. Now it is upmarket housing.
The path deteriorated so that I had to put my full concentration into keeping moving and staying upright. This was a pity as I had been enjoying the wide gentle valley with its mixture of open fields and woodlands.
As I got nearer to Abingdon the railway crossed over. A branch line once served the town but it was long ago culled by the infamous doctor. The towpath veered away from the river and wound its way through willow woods with wooden bridges over muddy streams.
I have often chuckled at the mountain
bikers brown stripe as they ride mudguardless through merde of all
varieties. I like to have proper strong mudguards. This time the
laugh was on me as my front wheel ground me to a halt, the mudguard
clogged solid with sticky mud and autumn leaves. I got plastered with
the stuff as I patiently unclogged it so that I could ride on.
Where I stopped I noticed a blue tent
among the willows. Nowadays, just like the 1980s, there are homeless
people wherever you go. Despite Oxfords prosperity there are people
who fall through the net, can't work, often because of addiction or
mental health problems, and can't deal with the fathomless and
uncaring bureacracy of the benefits system. They end up begging for
their sustenance and hiding away in tents. At least this tent is in a
I was about to get moving again when I noticed two strange machines, like alien hoovers, moving towards me. They were cutting the grass along the path. I stood back to let them pass, then carried on.
The approach to Abingdon lock is by footbridge across the weir. The lock and its buildings are immaculate, like all Thames locks. At the ancient bridge downstream I left the path and crossed over into the town. A pleasant old place with lots of upmarket shops. I veered off to the left as I wanted to find the entrance to my old friend the Wilts & Berks Canal.
I found the stanked off entrance and
saw the road that now occupies the route of this long defunct water
route. The riverside here was once busy wharves for both canal narrow
boats and the West Country barges of the Thames.
Next to the old entrance was a narrow boat that appeared to be attempting to hide from the authorities
Information on the old wharf said that
a new link to the Wilts & Berks had been built from Abingdon
Marina as part of a very active restoration project. I peddalled
along the riverside road in search of this new canal. The Marina is
predictable, ranks of white fibreglass surrounded by expensive
There are people who dream of making
the whole network like this, but I like the canal entrance, creeping
away unobtrusively under houses and into a tunnel as a narrow canal
I returned to the town, hoping to find
interesting shops where I could buy interesting food for my lunch. I
was disappointed in this, so I bought some provisions at the co-op.
The museum building, presumably the old town hall, was impressive.
Back at the river I pressed on down the towpath but, to be honest, I was starting to get a bit bored with it. The river was wonderful, the boats interesting, the scenery pleasant, the path variable but it was a bit like an endless loop, constantly repeating itself. As I neared another perfectly prim lock at Culham I noticed repetitive 'No Cycling' signs along the path. I decided it was time to head back by getting a train from Culham station.
Leaving the river at the lock, I was soon riding rapidly along a main road. I passed a private school called “The European School”. I wonder how that will fare if the current climate of Europhobia.
The station still has a Station Inn,
now functioning largely as a restaurant I think, and an original,
elegant, Station building, no longer used by the railway, a new
platform with bus shelter has been built to allow it to be let out,
presumably as an office.
I was disappointed to see that there was no train for an hour and a half but I sat in the bus shelter to eat my lunch anyway. With my stomach recharged I considered riding back to Oxford. Apart from retracing my tyremarks back up the towpath the only sensible way involved a lot of unpleasant riding on main roads. The only positive seemed to be that it would take me past a crossroads which, according to the Ordnance Survey, is called “Goldenballs”. I wonder who lives there.
I decided to spend my time
photographing trains. Unfortunately i managed to miss the freights,
which I find more interesting.i
The platform gradually developed a congregation of passengers. I think they were mostly from the nearby science park. Those who were speaking had foreign accents, mostly Spanish. The train arrived and soon I was back in Oxford.
By the magic of telephonic
communication I had arranged to meet Em in the covered market. We had
coffee and flapjack then she wanted to visit the Eagle and Child pub
where CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein and their mates used to meet for a drink.
It's still a proper old fashioned dark pub and we sat where the great
authors of old used to sit.
It was time to head back to Iffley Road. We had hoped to go to a folk night at a pub by the river but Em was too poorly so we stayed in and I started to read an interesting travel book about visiting Iran and Afghanistan in 1933, having redeemed a book token I was given at Christmas.
Next day was Saturday. We met once again for coffee and cakes at the covered market. Em then made her way slowly to the Pitt Rivers Museum while I went down to the river, perched myself near the railway bridge and enjoyed watching trains and boats and writing. Eventually I was summoned and rode up through the town centre to meet her in the picturesque Lamb & Flag alley.
After eating a meal unremarkable except for its price per 100 gram at a little cafe we continued down to Folly Bridge. This is the starting point for Salters Steamers who have been operating passenger boats on the river since the mid nineteenth century. Our boat was shaped like a traditional Thames launch but was made of fibreglass and powered by electricity. We whirred down the busy river, passing punts and rowers and all kinds of craft.
The variety here is amazing. We passed
“Pamela”, the butty that used to run horse drawn hostelboat
holidays. I like boats that are non standard and I particularly
enjoyed the bizzarre conversion of an old British Waterways work
Back at Folly Bridge Em was getting tired, so we made our way back up to High St for Em to get a bus. I went off to the station to check on trains as I had seen warnings of disruption due to electrification work. They said our train would be OK, it was trains to Paddington that were disrupted. Another nice ride along the towpath brought me back to the hotel. We spent another evening reading. Downstairs the hotel owners were having a party, entry by ticket, in aid of the local poetry group. We were invited but decided not to go. Instead we enjoyed the excellent jazz singing and saxaphone playing.
Sunday morning we had to leave. While Em slumbered I went out at first light and rode down to the river. I went exploring a bit and found a delightful backwater full of boats at Iffley Meadows. Unfortunately I'd left my camera behind. One of the boats was “Mafeking”, a converted iron dayboat which I remember on the Oxford Canal in the 1980s. A friend of Julia's lived aboard.
Back at Browns Hotel we quickly packed and headed for Oxford. Once more we met up in the covered market but, it being Sunday morning, hardly anything was open. We breakfasted at a cafe across the road, then made our way to the station, hours early. I was sent on an errand to find something for lunch.
As we approached the station we passed a sea of bikes. this is how things need to be, those who can cycling rather than everyone using motor vehicles.
The station was busy with people hoping to be somewere else. There were lots of extra railway staff standing about wearing different coloured plastic tabards saying things like 'customer service'. They didn't seem to be doing much servicing. One young lady had a pink tabard which said “Customer Service Ambassador”. She was lolling against a post with a vacanthttps://www.northernbelle.co.uk/northern-belle-train/ look on her face and didn't seem the least bit ambassadorial. Em pointed out that 2 good looking young customer service chaps were behaving with each other in a rather sexualised but somewhat unprofessional manner. Someone asked them what they were doing there and they said they'd been drafted in from Worcester as extra security.
As we waited the Northern Belle luxury train drew into one of the through lines and paused for a while. https://www.northernbelle.co.uk/northern-belle-train/
Diners on the train, who had paid at least £250 for the privilege, watched us waiting as they ate. At each end was a 3000HP class 57 locomotive belonging to Direct Rail Services (a subsidiary of British nuclear Fuels) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_57 Why the needed so much power I don't know, though possibly the train was due to reverse somewhere that there were no run round facilities so they needed an engine on each end.
Our Cross Country Voyager arrived and we scrambled aboard the crowded train which was soon whisking us through the pleasant undulating countryside. At Birmingham New St we had to change. Why bdon't they put information about which platform trains are going from actually on each platform? We caught our next train, which was also crowded.
At Manchester I cycled up the towpath, Em got the tram. I stopped at Portland Basin to check on the boats and change some batteries, then got told off for being late back.
That night we both enjoyed being in a comfortable bed.
September 30th was the 10th birthday of Tameside Radio and they chose to celebrate it by having a ride on our boats. On Friday 29th we got the boats ready and took "Forget me Not", "Hazel" and "Lilith" down to Fairfield. Some people from the radio station joined us in the morning and we set off. This went a bit embarrassingly. I put "Forget me Not" into gear and turned the speedwheel, but it stayed on tickover. A nut had dropped off the linkage and disappeared into the bilge. I rigged up a length of string to control the engine. The boats were now all over the place but I tried to start off again. Immediately she picked up something big on the blade. After a lot of struggling I got it off, it was a big thick onesy. We got going at last with the 3 boats in a train. "Forget me Not" pulled well. I connected the bit of string to the cabin slide so if you pull the slide back t speeded up and push it forward to slow down. It worked well.
I was aware that arriving at Portland Basin with 3 boats would be tricky and there would be a lot of eyes on us. It turned out to be busier than I anticipated as it was also the official launch of "Community Spirit 2" so there were lots of civic dignitaries about. As we came into the basin I signalled to Tom, steering "Hazel" to throw off "Lilith"s towline. Aaron shafted "Lilith" across the basin to breast up to "Southam" while we breasted "Forget me Not" and "Hazel" and tied on the towpath side. As soon as we were stopped "Community Spirit 2" came through, loaded with dignitaries.
Terry the Lion appeared to present us with a cheque for Marple and Romiley Lions Club's annual sponsorship. along with a plaque celebrating their long term support. We were interviewed on radio, photographed, then spent a bit of time meeting different people and showing them round the boat, before setting off with just "Hazel" in tow to work up the 3 locks to Stayley Wharf.
It's rare to work up these locks with adequate water. This time all the weirs were running hard and we didn't even stem up in Whitelands Tunnel. At Stayley Wharf we winded the pair and tied up. Our guests left and we stopped for a brew before setting off back down to Portland Basin. The trip went very smoothly with everyone working co-operatively with little need for advice.
We had had some problems getting "Lilith" out of the arm ready for this trip. The water level had dropped, leaving her sitting on something solid. I didn't want to put her back in the arm so we dropped "Hazel" alongside "Lilith" and I put "Forget me Not in the arm alongside "Still Waters", the trip boat.
Sunday 1st October was recycling day. I was concerned that we might not get enough people as the weather forecast was bad. In fact the weather was mostly OK and we had a good team, including several new people. Everything went smoothly and we got quite a good haul. A couple of good days.
I didn't take many photos but these are they.
The 3 boats waiting at Portland Basin to set of for Droylsden.
The 3 boats at Fairfield.