It was day one of my
annual solitary cycling trip. The plan was to pick up last years
trail atSwindon, carry on across the Cotswolds to Banbury, then turn
South East, my new destination being Neasden.
First though, I wanted to visit Jaqui near Bath. Jaqui has lived aboard and lovingly maintained the wooden Josher motor “Aster” for many years. Some time ago she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was determined to stay aboard her beloved boat to the end. As she's got weaker however, she's started to review that decision. Last winter was difficult and she doesn't want to spend another winter afloat. I was going to visit her to discuss the future of “Aster”.
Buying cheap advance tickets online is a great way to set up your train journeys. The only snag is that, if you're taking a bicycle, different train companies have different rules about carrying bikes. It's wise to book your bike on the train, which is free, but has to be done at a booking office. I got caught out with this on my last journey as Great Western had brought in compulsory bike booking on their Inter City 125 sets, how was I supposed to know?
When I tried to book my bike on my train from Manchester to Bristol I found that all the bookable slots were taken, but there was one first come first served slot left. I determined to be there as the train arrived to be the first comer.
My ticket was from Guide Bridge but I decided to cycle to Picadilly. Emily works at Bridge 5 Mill, the environmental resource centre. She had stayed aboard Hazel recently and left her jumper, so I was going to deliver it on the way. I loaded my bike handlebars with two bags for life full of stuff and put my rucksack on my back, then set off down the Ashton new road. Near the velodrome I diverted on to the towpath to stop at bridge 5 and deliver the jumper. I followed the road again until I came to the new basins that almost connect the Ashton canal with the Rochdale, where I followed the empty Ashton canal basin back on to the towpath.
This area, always known as Ancoats, is now being renamed “New Islington” by the regeneration experts. Presumably Ancoats wasn't upmarket enough.
The basin accessed from the Ashton Canal is empty of boats, purely ornamental. The one accessed from the Rochdale is full of boats, but they are being chucked out with nowhere to go. Despite living afloat now being seen as a deeply cool lifestyle, anti boater prejudice remains high among bureacrats.
Soon I was at Picadilly station, an hour early for my train. I went through the automatic ticket barrier and sat down at the platform end to enjoy watching the coming and going of trains. After a while my train arrived and, once it had disgorged its passengers, I hung my bike in the space provided and locked it in place, before seeking out my reserved seat in the next carriage.
Voyager units are not for the claustrophobic. They are tilting trains, leaning into corners like a motorbike. While this allows them to go a lot faster it means that the upper part of the body has to be relatively narrow to fit into the loading gauge whilst leaning. Added to this you have as many seats as they could cram in and limited luggage space. This particular unit was also excessively hot, though it's allegedly air conditioned.
Despite this, and the fact that none of my co-passengers could be tempted into a conversation, I enjoyed the journey, watching the towns and country whizz by. Stoke, Stafford, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Cheltenham then into Bristol with me standing by the door ready with my rucksack and heavily laden bike.
Besides the rucksack on my back I had a supermarket 'bag for life, slung from each handlebar. As I pushed the bike along the platform, both straps on one of these gave way and the bag dropped to the floor. A helpful passenger picked it up for me. I tied the straps together and carried on, though it was clearly not going to last very long with half its fixings gone.
A huge crowd had gathered on platform 11 to await the 15.20 to Portsmouth, which I had to take as far as Bath. The sign flashed up that the train was only 2 carriages and was full and standing. A helpful platform manager (or whatever they call porters nowadays) suggested that anyone for Bath could take the Inter City 125 in the next platform.
My bike was booked on the 15.22 Portsmouth. I was once arrested at Bristol Temple Meads for unauthorised loading of a bike onto an Inter City 125. It cost me £40. I didn't take up the offer but instead I stood, holding on to my bike, for the short journey.
Bath is, of course, a
beautiful city.This attracts tourists, so, the city cetre is pretty
much geared fgor tourists. It's not the pace to find a cheap shopping
bag. For the first time in my life I entered a Waitrose store, where I
was able to purchase an organic fairtrade jute bag, which certainly
is strong, if costly.
The next task was to find the canal. This isn't easy as canals tend to sneak into cities by the back door rather than proudly announcing their presence. Eventualy I tracked it down and set off at speed aong a wide and tarmacked towpath, busy with wakers, runners and cyclists.
The inside of the canal was dotted with moored boats of every description. Wide beam, narrow beam, steel, wood, fibreglass etc. Most were in some way or other personalised by there owners. Some were works of art. There was clearly a vibrant and creative waterway community here, just the thing that bureacrats hate. This is a waterway of The Shire, not of Mordor.
Eventually I spotted "Aster" on the outside, a little way short of the Dundas aquedct and the junction with the Somerset Coal Canal. I crossed the swing bridge to the moorings, which are run by a co-operative. I picked up wonderful friendly vibes as I rode down the path towards "Aster", with smiling adults and laughing playing children.
Jaqui invited me aboard. Inside was a lovely cosy hobbity space with lots of real wood fittings and a big range to keep the place warm. Over a cup of tea we chatted about what could be done with Aster.
Jaqui plans to move on to the bank in the Autumn. The boat will then have to move from her mooring as the co-op has made an exception to its r4ule that only co-op members can moor there because of Jaqui's ilness, and they're not accepting more members. Jaqui showed me pictures of substantial replanking work being done by the previous owners. She had docked the boat too, but had only been able to tingle over the suspect bits, and she'd had to sell the engine to pay for the work. Nevertheless, Aster is in pretty good nick, but she will need some real planking work done soon.
The Wooden Canal Boat
Society can't take any more boats on, we're overstretchede with what
we've got.My thoughts were going towards getting mine and Jaqui's
friends together to form a charity to look after the boat, possibly
raising funds by letting her as accommodation via online platforms,
something that's working well to subsidise “Hazel”s charitable
work. In the Bath area this should do well, though she would need a
suitable mooring, with planning permission if she stays in one place,
a higher spec boat safety certificate and suitable licence.
We chatted on about the difficulties of getting people working together, but it's worth the effort. I began to notice that Jaqui was looking tired and wondered if I should leave soon. She pre-empted me, explaining that she'd been to the hospice that day and she was getting pretty tired. I climbed out of the boat and said goodbye.
I have over 1000 Facebook friends. I've never met most of them, but they are mostly people who support the work of the Wooden Canal Boat Society, though, generally it's only moral support. If rather than likes whenever I post something they would all join the society, which has a ridiculously small membership, then the WCBS would have another £12000 a year to spend on restoring boats.
Jaqui also has a long friends list. Now, if Jaqui's friends and my friends in the South got together to form a Save Aster Society then it would be a pretty powerful group. Money could be raised, work done on the boat and Aster could be given a long term future, hopefully doing something useful to society. I don't know Jaqui well, but she strikes me as a really wonderful woman. She's facing something that we all dread. It will help her a lot if she knows that the boat she's loved for so long will have a bright future. Over to you!
I pedalled away through the lovely wooded moorings and over the swing bridge. I decided to have a look at the Aqueduct and the Coal Canal. The aqueduct is an impressive classical structure built in the local Bath stone. The Somerset Coal Canal, a narrow waterway built to tap the Somerset coalfield, was mostly converted into a railway in the 1870s. This, in turn closed down, but shortly after closure was used as the location for the classic Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt. A short length of canal at the junction has been restored as moorings.
Having ticked these two off my list, I set off back down the towpath towards Bath. I had noticed some intriguing derelict buildings across the railway line on the edge of Bath, so I manhadled my bike and luggage over the footbridge that led to them. I couldn't make out whether they were originally residential or industrial, but it looks like they're beenig refurbished as houses anyway.
At Bath railway station I sked for tickets for an old codger (senior railcard) and bike to Swindon. Armed with my ticket and cycle reservation I waited at the designated spot on the platform for the 125.
There was no fuss and no-one checked my ticket. The guard was a cheerful felow with a west country accent, a beard and his dark hair tied back in a pony tail. Dressed differently he could have been a pirate.
By the time we reached Swindon I was seriously hungry. It was getting late so I didn't want to go to the trouble of loighting a fire to cook my tea, a takeaway was in order. I went looking for a chip shop but, finding none, I thought I'd try a carribean takeaway.
I ordered jerk chicken with fries and home made coleslaw. That's £7, said the man “It says £5 in the window, I replied”. “Oh, that's the lunchtime meal deal” he said. OK, no problem, my mistake I said handing over a £20 note. “Have you got a pound” he asked. “Yes” I said, giving him a shiny new coin. He gave me £15 change. A quick calculation told me that I'd only been charged £6. I handed over my flask, “Any chance of filling this with hot water”, “i'll see if they'll do that” he said, taking it into the kitchen.
There were quite a lot of people sitting around waiting. A steady stream of polystyrene clad packages emerged from the kitchen, were wrappped in carrir bags and handed over to waiting customers. I was in no hurry as I was enjoying the reggae music. The lad wrapping and serving had his jeans hanging below his arse, which, thankfully, was covered by a sturdy pair of underpants. I wonder if he realises what that style of dress signifies.
My charged up flask returned, so I wouldn't need to light a fire for my morning coffee. Shortly afterwards my food came through the hatch. The man with the hanging pants apologised for it taking so long, “it was because of the fries” he said “we had to send out for them” (?!!!!?).
I cycled off back along the route I had followed into Swindon a year ago, along the filled in line of the Wilts & Berks canal. I knew this was crossed by thr Midland & South western Junction railway route, now a cycleway. I thought I would follow this to where it crossed the active Great western main line and sit there watching trains and eating my meal. Unfortunately the railway bridge is gone and the cycleway diverts down a rough lane that went under the railway through a concrete rathole. I found myself in one of those urban fringe area that are resrved for the less salubrious functions like rubbish tips and sewage works. This secluded lane is ideal for those people who shun the official disposal methods and creep away in the night to unload their rubbish unobserved.
My food was cooling so I gave up looking for a pleasant spot, instead, opening my meal on a barren mound surrounded by discarded foam mattress fillings. As I ate I thought there was something missing. The chips were OK, the chicken was good, the jerk sauce was very tasty, but there was no coleslaw! I liked that takeaway shop, but it was very random!
I needed to find a campsite for the night as dusk was a near prospect. With my takeaway container added to my burden I carried on up the cycleway, but had no idea which way to go when I reached a junction. Swindon has an excellent network of cycleways, if you know where you're going. There are signposts but many have been vandalised, some have been turned round (to confuse invaders perhaps) and if you set out along a route signposted to a likely sounding place you can guarantee that at the next junction you will be given a completely different menu of options.
I was aiming for the Swindin & Cricklade Railway, laid along the Midland & South Western trackbed and starting in a country park just North of Swindon. For added interest, it ran parallel to the North Wilts Canal, which there are ambitious plans to re-open.
I found myself on a cycleway that looked like it was a railway trackbed, so I followed it. At one point I had to cross a busy road. Someone leaned out of a passing car and shouted “hobo” at me. I'd rather be a hobo than a motorised prick!
Sure enough, the path led me to a country park and the rather bleak Southern terminus of the Swindon & Cricklade. The gate was locked, the information boards blank and no scope for camping, so I headed off into the country park.
I passed a fishing lake but plunged on through young woodland following the wandering path. I kept seeing likely spots but carrying on to see if there was anywhere better. I passed a bunch of teenagers carrying skateboards, then came to a road. I went up the road, thinking it would take me back to the railway line but, after several twists and turns, there was no sign. It was getting dark so I turned back and returned along the cycleway. I left the main route and went deep into Purton Wood, a young Woodland Trust plantation, and hid myself deep in the closely spaced young poplars.
It was spitting with rain, so I unfurled my pop up tent and unrolled my sleeping bag inside. Soon I was deep in the land of Nod.