Index Magazine - June 07

Boating up the M1

Martin Causer investigates an alternative way to travel to the Midlands

HOW OFTEN, whilst travelling up the M1, have you been struck by the sculptural beauty of a perfectly laid hedge, or been mesmerised by the flash of colour and chattering song of a couple of kingfishers? That's the thing about the British canals — they're often set in prosaic surroundings, but you see everything from a totally different perspective.

We (my wife Jenny and I) hired a narrow boat for a long weekend from the Alvechurch Hire base (part of the Drifters group) at Gayton on the Grand Union Canal, close by Rothersthorpe service station on the M1. The plan was to pick up the boat at about three on Friday afternoon, travel to Braunston, turn round and get back to Gayton by 9am Monday morning. The route would take us north towards Watford Gap Service station (honestly!), then west to travel to Braunston. The trip would involve navigating a junction, up a flight of seven broad locks, another junction, a 2042-yard long tunnel and down a flight of six broad locks into Braunston.

Jenny and I have done quite a bit of narrowboating, and generally speaking we prefer narrow locks. These are only wide enough (seven feet) to accommodate one boat, and the gates are light enough for one person to operate. Broad locks will allow two boats to enter side by side. The gates are massive, and we weren't sure we could rely, in March, on meeting other crews with whom to share the work.

The weather had recently been gloriously warm and sunny, but we arrived at Gayton in cold drizzling weather. Obviously the warm weather had inspired many others to hire a boat, as the office was busy dealing with arriving crews. I was buying a pair of gloves when I was told the boat was ready. Jean showed us where everything was (bed, cooker, etc - not too challenging so far.

Teal was a Duck class narrowboat 56fft in length and seven feet wide. Nautical terminolgy tends not to be used on a narrowboat. One talks of the front, back, left, right, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen - none of your port, starboard, heads, galley etc. here. technically Teral sleeps up to seven, but that would be very cramped, so with just the two of us we had plenty space.

We were then told to load all our belongings into the boat before Paul the engineer would tell us the technical stuff. this he did clearly and with patience ( he must have done it before!). Engine start, engine stop, forward, neutral, reverse, tickover, cruiding speed, stern gland greaser, oil and water levels, how to get rubbish untangled from round the propeller. How to fill the water tank, and change the gas bottle if need be. How to use the TV, radio, cooker, loos, shower and control the heating. For anything we hadn't understood or missed then were extensive manuals.

Departing from the base at Gayton has to be a leisurely affair. There are boats moored along both sides of the canal up to the junction and beyond, and moored boats should be passed with the engine at tickover, as any speed at all will cause a surge of water and the boats to rock about and strain at their ropes. I was particularly anxious not to cause anyone to request me to slow down ( as in "you've lost your water-skier mate"), as hire boats do have a reputation for speeding.

Jenny took over the steering while I went below to make a cup of tea and cut some cake (nowt like a slice of cake and a cup of tea). Wearing my thermal underwear, thick shirt, thick sweater, fleece, anorak, jeans, waterproof trousers, hat, scarf, gloves and boots, I was a bit slow off the mark in finding the camera (which I'd put in one of my pockets) as we passed an impromptu gathering of musicians sitting on the towpath. “Come and join us love,” one of them called to Jenny. They had instruments of various kinds and were “livaboards' from an encampment of old canvas covered narrowboats.

The evening light was fading when we decided to stop for the night between the villages of Bugbrooke and Nether Heyford. You can stop anywhere you like on the canals, on the towpath side, so long as you're clear of bends and bridges. We're no great fans of stopping at pubs for a meal, preferring instead to have a quiet night, miles from anywhere and cook our own dinner.

The morning brought no improvement in the weather. In fact the night had been so cold I'd left the heating on. We were on holiday, so of course had to treat ourselves to a full English breakfast, meaning we weren't ready to start the day's cruising till gone nine.

The countryside was pleasantly rolling — the Northamptonshire Uplands. The motorway was some way off behind low hills, so was not intrusive — my attention was caught by two wheeling buzzards overhead — a sight I have seen more often from the deck of a narrowboat than anywhere else!

We passed, high on an embankment, through the village of Weedon Bec, looking down on the church. According to our Pearson's guide, during the Napoleonic wars it was decided that this was a safe site to hide King George III should the need ever arise. An arm led off the canal to a barracks that was built for the guards to protect him.

You may be familiar with the Watford Gap, where the A5, Ml, Grand Union Canal, and West Coast main railway line are all within close proximity. The canal goes very close to the motorway at that point, and the noise was tremendous as cars and lorries hurtled by. The occasional Virgin Express added to the noise, but somehow were more acceptable.

Nearing the first of the Buckby flight of locks, we could see a boat ahead of us approaching the open gates of the first lock. We hoped that they had seen us and would wait. Not only would it be easier to operate locks together, it would also help to conserve water.

Because of the heavy work involved in operating the lock gates and the paddle gear, our practice is for Jenny to steer while I work the locks. The crew of the other boat had seen us and we went straight in beside them with perhaps a couple of inches to spare on either side. Not a bump — the owner of the other boat looked relieved.

It was a very smart, brand new boat called Venice. The owners had just had her built at Stowe Hill Marine which we had passed an hour or so earlier. They were moving her to moorings beyond Napton. It was their second boat, having sold the first one to fund the building of Venice.

We thanked them for waiting, and having climbed ashore up the ladder from the depths of the lock I closed the gate beghind us, and went to the top gates to open the paddle to let in the water. Going up in a lock this has to be done gradually, as too much water at once will throw the boats about and may cause some damage. As the other crew were there first, it was technically their lock so I let them call the shots regarding how far I should wind the paddle gear on my side. Working together through a flight of locks is a companionable way to spend some time with another crew, not only for those working the locks, but also for the steerers, who inevitably are side by side in the lock and can enjoy a good chat. We parted company after the top lock — we needed to fill with water, as being unfamiliar with the boat we didn't want to risk running out halfway through a shower the next morning.

Having watered, we shortly took a left turn at the junction and stopped for lunch in a place with wide open views to the north and away from the motorway. Being so cold, it was definitely hot soup for lunch, along with bread that we had baked earlier in the morning — as it's never possible to predict in advance where you can buy a decent loaf.

Braunston Tunnel is over 2,000 yards long and takes about 20 minutes to get through. Within the confines of the tunnel, the engine note took on a booming resonance. You can just about see from end to end, so although it's fairly straight, the walls do weave about a bit. this makes it difficult to always gauge exactly where the sides are even with all the lights on, especially when a boat is coming towards you with its headlight in your eyes. That was my excuse anyway when I bumped the tunnel wall as we passed another boat about a third of the way through. The next one, with his spotlight aimed correctly up at the tunnel roof, was passed without incident.

The flight down into Braunston we had to do on our own, as there was no other boat in sight to accompany us. The canal runs through Braunston in a deep valley and is a very popular place to stop, with a big marina and a good selection of pubs. We were to always gauge exactly where the prepared to carry on through and sides are even with all the lights moor on the other side, but found a space just outside the marina, and having had a long day outside in the cold, gratefully eased the boat into it.

As we settled down inside, a dayboat chugged past us with about eight people on board. With only basic facilities and no heating, they are a reasonable price to hire for a day, but proabalby more suitable for a summer treat than a winter endurance test.

We made an early start the next morning - after the obligatory cooked breakfast - and turned the boat around in the marina entrance. The weather looked promising — a much brighter day than yesterday.

The lock ahead looked empty — but I was fooled — a totally black painted boat materialised out of nothing and chugged towards us and passed, leaving the gates open for us to enter. Nothing being in sight behind, I closed the gate behind us and filled the lock.

We were in luck — there was a steady stream of boats coming down — all in pairs — meaning the locks were all in our favour allowing us to make a quick ascent of the flight. We encountered a large party of youngsters on four boats from a school in Stourbridge having an adventure weekend. They were all very polite and considerate, helping us through the locks.

On the descent down the Buckby flight we met another couple with their own boat named Aboutime. They had had the boat five years, but having recently retired, had decided to rent their house out and spend 12 months cruising the canal system. They were from Peterborough, but had never cruised in home waters. We all worked well as a team, and the only potential problem was when one of the gates became stuck and wouldn't close behind us. This was something they'd experienced before, and having tied the stern rope to the gate and engaging forward gear while the rest of us pushed, we managed to shut the gate and empty the lock.

We stopped for the night about~ 20 minutes short of Gayton marina, leaving a short run for the morning to get the boat back by nine o'clock. Back at work on Tuesday morning, a colleague asked me how many miles we had travelled over the weekend. Frankly, I hadn't a clue. All I know is we got to Braunston and back in the time left between breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas and evening meals. Miles — what are they?