Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cruising the Grand Union

I returned on Saturday from a lovely week's holiday with the Groovy Gang cruising the Grand Union Canal from Linslade to Braunston and return, crossing three counties, through 27 locks (although I am sure there was more but this is what our guide book says!), over 2 aqueducts and through 2 tunnels. It was a wonderful experience, seeing a different side of England and the countryside that is often hidden from the road or the railway. I would love to do the trip again and already my appetite for walking more of the canal has been whetted.

We started our holiday in Linslade, which is the sister town to Leighton Buzzard. Not too far for me, as its only one stop down the line from Bletchley! Our home for the week was a narrowboat called Pearl, a nicely appointed craft with all the facilities needed for a holiday. I was surprised at how spacious the boat was; the bathroom was a decent size with a full-sized shower, wash basin and toilet. The kitchen was a little cramped with barely any workspace at all. The living area was comfortable, although a bit cosy for the five of us! The beds were okay, although I found mine a little narrow, especially when I turned over in the night to suddenly find myself balanced on the edge! There was a seating area to the front, in what is called the cockpit although the boat itself was steered from the stern (rear). This was probably my favourite place of all, being sat outside in the dry or wet, just watching the canal and attendant countryside slip peacefully by.

The canal from Linslade takes a winding and twisty route through the Bedfordshire countryside. We were guided to our first lock by Pete from the company we'd hired the boat. Operating the locks was surprisingly straightforward and by the time we'd navigated the Three Locks at Soulbury we were old hands, lol! Doing the locks is fun, although at times hard and occasionally miserable work, when you're cold and being lashed by heavy rain. Fortunately on the first stretch we were going through the locks with another holiday boat crewed by Swedes, who Jamie was convinced were swingers! Having the extra hands certainly made the work that bit easier. Theresa did the driving for the first part and proved to be a natural, I on the other hand was not!

We moored up for the first night at Fenny Stratford; after several hours gentle cruising we'd arrived barely 40 minutes walk from my home! Even though this was familiar territory there is something quite different about being on a canal boat. The world seems different, the pace of life is much slower. There is no hurry to be anywhere, no deadlines to meet, no stress or pressure. After all, top speed is a pedestrian 4 mph. I think a couple of days of that slower pace was reflected in how I saw things. Apart from our stops in Fenny and Milton Keynes, we barely touched the bustle of civilisation. About the only, almost constant companion on our journey was the West Coast Main Line. There was a brief part flirting with the M1 and a couple of busy roads but even they seemed worlds away, we were going at our own pace, in our own slowed down England, while the hustle and bustle of modern life continued somewhere else.

The second day was mostly navigating through Milton Keynes and although I've walked parts of the towpath before, this was still a different experience and a secluded part of the city that is often never seen and probably forgotten. Indeed, it is so green and bucolic it was difficult to imagine that we were in the heart of Europe's fastest growing urban area.

One of the nicest aspects of the holiday was stopping either for lunch or an evening meal at a canalside pub. All but one was enjoyable and the convivial atmosphere, good food and drink that we enjoyed at each was a welcome respite at times from the seemingly relentless rain on those first few days. Plus, most had a games machine, where we must have wasted a good deal of spare change not to mention time trying to win something on 'Deal or No Deal' or '1 vs 100' although admittedly by the end of the week we were getting rather good at it.

The week was not without its incident. Monday for example we were delayed for several hours at the bottom of the Stoke Bruerne Lock Flight as some idiot had decided to drive a car into one of the locks. The lock had to be drained before the car could be recovered. Needless to say there was the canal equivalent of a traffic jam as boats queued up to use the locks. Even this irritation was not really one at all, as Tim and I took the opportunity to have a game of Star Wars Miniature Battles, which inevitably I lost! Once under way we made good progress. In need of sustenance at the end of the locks (there are seven I seem to recall) we stopped at a pub although to our disappointment and unhappy rumbling of stomachs had arrived too late for food. Fortunately another pub a bit further down the canal towpath was serving food, so we could slake our thirst and satisfy our hunger.

Further on in the afternoon we came across a narrowboat, adrift in the canal, at first looking suspiciously like a Mary Celeste discovery until we realised that it had come free of its moorings. After sorting that out, we were on our way again and moored up for the night in a tranquil setting, distant from any civilisation. It is amazing how dark and clear the night is outside of the city or town and how many stars you can see in the sky. Such a change from that awful orange hue that seems to surround the urban night sky.

By the end of Tuesday we arrived at our northernmost destination, Braunston. A lovely little village perched above the canal, some miles north of Daventry. Another enjoyable evening meal at the Old Plough in the High Street, before returning to the boat where the others watched Doom. Feeling exhausted and very tired I went for a lie down and fell asleep, although perhaps it was a mercy as I am told the film was awful.

Wednesday we started our journey back, which seemed to be a lot quicker than the outward run. Perhaps we had become quite adept at the locks by this point and so were able to get through them quicker. Or maybe more confident in handling the boat, although less said about that for me, the better! Yes there were a few scrapes and quite a bang while I was piloting but the less said about that probably the better.

Little disappointed on the way back that we didn't have the opportunity to visit the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne as I would have liked to have done that. Still, it is not far from here and if I can find a suitable bus to get me there I intend to visit in the next couple of weeks.

I forgot to mention earlier in my description of the outward passage the two tunnels that we passed through on the journey. The first (going north) was at Blisworth, a 2-mile long voyage into the abyss. It is a quite incredible feat of engineering, having stood the test of more than 200 years and a quite eerie experience. The latter was not helped by Jamie's crys of some deranged soul who'd been trapped in the tunnel for years! Atmospheric, cold and very damp, it was quite an experience. The second tunnel was just before Braunston and this one has a notable kink in it because the tunnel was apparently excavated from either end and unfortunately did not meet up in the middle! Consequently you can't see from one end to the other.

A incident of note on the way back was a walk that myself, Tim & Sharon decided to take whilst we were moored for the evening at Haversham, just to the north of MK. It was meant to be a gentle stroll for an hour or so but turned into much more of an adventure as we got hopelessly lost, ending up in a nature reserve! Muddy paths, climbing over gates, crossing cattle grids and even clambering over some barbed wire! We made it back to the boat though for another fine supper prepared by Theresa, who it has to be said, was an absolute star when it came to keeping us fed. The walk despite its hairy encounter with the barbed wire was worth it not least for the ruined church and the fantastic sunset that we saw walking back to the boat, a beautiful bath of light on the ruins and a nearby tree, surely a watercolour masterpiece just crying out to be painted.

The final full day, Friday, was a leisurely one with a lunchtime stop in Milton Keynes. I love showing people MK and I am sure that I probably bore my friends with the same stories. I soak up all sorts of details about the city and try to learn as much as I can about it. I was the same when I lived in Portsmouth, I have a voracious interest in the place where I live and Milton Keynes is particularly exciting because of its mix between old and new, city and countryside. Later on Friday we met Jane at The Three Locks, north of Linslade, where we would have our final evening together on the boat. I still don't think my ears have quite recovered from the experience of everyone singing along to Grease, which Jane had brought with her. I personally didn't sing because I am tone deaf and hearing me sing is slightly less pleasant than the sound of a strangled cat.

By the end of the week it seemed like we had been away for ages. Saturday morning came around all too soon though. We were up early, underway by 8am to get the boat back to Linslade and the yard before 9.30, which we did. After saying our brief farewells at the station, Jane and I made our way back to MK. It was a shame that we didn't get a final photo of all of us before we left as I would have liked a group photo of the weary sailors.

In short, it was a fabulous week and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. In fact I would go so far to say as it was one of the best holidays I've had. I'd love to do another narrowboat holiday, probably visiting a different canal or a different route but there is much that I've seen on the Grand Union Canal that I would like to visit again. It was certainly an experience that will stay fresh in the memory for many years.