London and the Tideway 1

Work commitments caused changes of plan again, which at least shows that shared ownership was not really a option for us. I get offered a job that takes in all but the last week of the school holidays, so we ask to take Elizabeth out of school for the first four days of the new term, the Monday being an inset day. I figure that what we have planned will be a education. (This is before Schools started getting heavy with parents who did that, and she was only seven…)

Saturday 23rd August. Having flown back from Ireland last night, there is a great deal of packing, organising and general life to get on with. We get to the boat around 5pm, unload and head for a meal and planning meeting at the Queen Victoria at Gayton.

Sunday 24th August. I decide to do some maintenance on the boat before we set off, including tightening the alternator belt. This has almost run out of adjustment, so I fit a new one, which involves removing the water pump belt, so I replace that one as well. Much struggling to adjust the pump belt, which later turns out to be one size too big, but because of the mounting arrangement I eventually get rid of the slack – by too much I’m to find out. The whole arrangement is not that satisfactory and I plan to re-engineer it one day – after a few other jobs. The practical upshot is that we don’t leave the marina until 12:30, and then our progress is halted by the number of boats jockeying for position at Gayton Junction – being the only winding hole for many miles and a combined sanitary station it can get busy, and the scene of many a good argument!

Chaos at Gayton Junction
Ex-working boats near Stoke Bruerne

The new marina just to the south that we had heard would be open in June is still just a hole in the ground with a digger in it. Having passed through Blisworh tunnel we moor above the museum, but its 2:55 before we get to The Navigation for Elizabeth’s Sunday Roast. By now the weather is glorious and we are there seems no point in hurrying anything.

However, the Stoke Bruerne locks are all set for us, and all seven take 1 hour 20 mins – not bad. We decide to moor at bridge 57 and take an early evening stroll into Grafton Regis.

The church is very picturesque, but just as we reach the White Hart, the sun goes in. We pop in for a quick drink, and observe that they are now doing food on Sunday evenings and are very busy, but as we didn’t have lunch until late, we aren’t tempted. Over a nice pint of Abbot, I contemplate the cruising plan, and realise that we are only 2 hours behind my rather relaxed schedule, while Elizabeth is entertained by the Pringle Eating Parrot. Back on the boat, we cook some supper snacks and decide not to put the heating on. In fact, it didn’t go on for the whole holiday! 4 hours 35 mins. 9 miles and 7 locks.

Monday 25th August. Underway by 9am in cloudy weather, which slowly lifts through the morning, Spotted the first Kingfisher of the holiday just before Cosgrove, and then continued to potter along the familiar territory of Milton Keynes.

The Mural at Wolverton

We decide to moor for lunch on the boat at 1:50 opposite Milton Keynes Marina, and I indulge in a pint of Bass in the Peartree, which saves me from temptation (and the digestive effect Bass has on me) by closing at 3pm. We share the comically shallow Fenny Stratford Lock with a boat belonging to the vice-chair of the Bedford-Milton Keynes Link campaign. With their enthusisiam, the link could be in with a good chance! (in 2020, the plan was still alive, but only a little further forward.)

It’s 6:35 when we exit the top of the Soulbury 3 and decide to call it a day. Elizabeth has taken to picking Blackberries, which we do for a while, and I recognise the owner of the very nice boat we have moored next to as he heads for the pub – the actor Timothy Spall. We head for the pub too, while Fiona has a shower, and it being Bank Holiday Monday, they have either run out of food or staff to cook it. I admire Mr Spall’s solution to the problem – a taxi to the nearest Indian restaurant. My solution is to phone Fiona (she is all of 50 yards away) to suggest she puts a pie in the oven, then join us for a drink. The meal, with the addition of some veg, goes down very well. 7 hours 5 min. 18.7 miles and 6 locks.

Tuesday 26th August. We are now only a little behind schedule, the weather is still good and we are nearly on canals new to us – apart from a day boat at Marsworth, we have not traveled south of Linslade before. Setting off just before 9am, the locks start to turn up at closer intervals, and we pull over for lunch and blackberry picking about 1:30pm. I’m not sure what we are going to do with them all. It’s still fine after lunch, and although alone we make good progress. We meet both the Grebe wide beam boats returning to base and before we know it we are at Marsworth. This as a location we visit frequently, often strolling round the reservoirs on Sunday afternoon, or walking the canal. We have visited the White Lion quite often, but never eaten there, so although it’s only 4:35, when a mooring appears right opposite the pub, we decide to stop – we are back on schedule, after all!

Once a thriving pub – in particular the garden, the White Lion is sadly now closed.

I shower while Elizabeth and Fiona walk up to the reservoir to do a little bird watching, and return with even more blackberries. Then to try out the pub food, which was a little disappointing. After deciding to order a bottle of wine, we chose one, then another, then another from the long list until they told us they only had two types – white or red. Red then. It also seems to have the loudest air conditioning in the world. 12.3 miles and 12 locks, 6 hours 50 mins.

Wednesday 27th August. Casting off at 9:35, we join Barron No.1, just up from the Aylesbury arm. Jim and his wife have been out for most of the summer, and the next batch of locks are enlivened with chat about moorings, boats and the suggestion we make a crumble with all the blackberries. Elizabeth is thrilled when she discovers they have a dog – a small terrier named Wee Ben, and with many of the locks so close together walks the dog along the towpath for many miles.

We soon reach the Tring summit, and as we ran out of gas last night and Barron needs a pumpout we both stop at Cowroast Marina for servicing, then lock down Cowroast lock and moor for lunch. The Cowroast pub is only a short walk away – it used to be very good, went downhill a bit, but is now rumoured to have a Thai restaurant attached. This turned out to be true, so lunch was a interesting mixture of Thai soup, chips, bagettes, prawn crackers and lychees. Elizabeth also finds some kids to play with in the garden, so we are stopped for nearly two hours. Happily, our companions are ready to set of as well, so we can continue to share the locks. It’s strange to have a holiday almost on your doorstep, as we are heading very close to home now. The afternoon is taken up with a short hop to Berkhamsted, where we moor beside the Waitrose supermarket that we sometime use at home; it’s time for some shopping, which includes a crumble mix for all those blackberries. That evening we visit Monsoon, an Indian restaurant that we have visited from home as well. 5 miles and 12 locks, 5 hours 55mins

Thursday 28th August. A 9:40 start in light rain, after visiting the supermarket again to get the things we forgot the evening before. We hook up with Barron No.1 again and make very good progress down the locks – so good, that I’ve had to recheck my calculations for today’s lock miles – but is seems we achieved more than 4 lock miles an hour today! We are looking forward to going through Winkwell swing bridge, as it’s our turn to stop the traffic rather than being in the queue of cars waiting for the boats.

The Three Horseshoes at Winkwell.

However, as we approach the bridge it is opened for a pair of boats working up the locks, so Fiona doesn’t get to press the buttons. A word of warning – the bridge is operated by a BW watermate key, but it will not release the key until the bridge is closed again, so the lady who opened the bridge had to wait for all four boats to pass. It’s been drizzling on and off and we decide to stop below the next lock, just past the new offside moorings at Herts and Middlesex Boatyard. Fiona has not brought a fleece with here and we know of a very good outdoor shop in Bourne End, so while she walks up the hill I take Elizabeth to sit outside the Three Horseshoes where we order a children’s meal and some baguettes. Fiona returns without a fleece but with a waterproof for Elizabeth which comes in useful almost straight away as the heavens decide to open. It’s quite a comedy sketch as a dozen or more outdoor diners decamp into the pub, but Elizabeth resolutely remains sat outside, “testing” her new coat. By our standards this is a short lunch stop, 70 minutes, and when we return to the boat Jim is ready to set off in Barron No.1.

Sharing a lock with Baron No. 1

Our quick lock work continues as we past landmarks we normally pass on land – Boxmoor, the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead, “our” Sainsburys and the new Marina at Apsley. We sadly say goodbye to Jim and his wife as they stop for water and the rain gets heavier and then pass the vandalised remains of the Ovaltine factory (now a swanky block of apartments). We start to look for a mooring at Hunton Bridge, but it’s too shallow to moor close to The Kings Head, and we are almost at the next lock, and rather close to the A41 before we find enough depth. At this point the rains starts lashing down again. We decide to eat on the boat, but while the meal is cooking I trudge to the pub to recce it for the return trip. Nicholson’s Guide talks about it’s ability to defy brewery revamps, but for you traditionalists I’m sorry to say it has finally succumbed! It’s a wet night, we haven’t moored too well and are very near a busy road, but with all the locking today, sleep comes easily. 9 miles and 22 locks in 7 hours 30 mins

Friday 29th August. It’s still raining in fits and starts this morning and as we set of around 9:30 we fall in with a boat with three men on it who have travelled down from Birmingham over the last couple of weeks. They are making efficient use of their bicycle to go ahead and set locks, so despite some of the gate paddles leaking, progress is fairly good. At Bridgewater Basin we decide to stop for a pumpout, and while we are stopped top up the desiel and water, then continue alone to Batchworth. The recently restored working boat Roger is moored just below the lock, opposite quite a strong outflow, and we have some trouble not to hit it. It’s going to need more work if it’s left there for any length of time. Decide to stop for lunch and discover the the White Bear is a cheap place to eat – it’s all standard fried/grilled/microwaved stuff but £4.99 for an 8oz steak on the outskirts of London is not to be turned down. The weather is starting to improve as we travel south and the locks are spaced further apart, some of them in delightfully picturesque settings that are hard to believe are so close to London. We tie up quite early right next to the Horse and Barge, not to eat but because it has a large playground for Elizabeth to let of steam – while the weather was poor she settled down in front of the laptop and has now watched the entire first two series of “Citizen Smith” on DVD. As the sun begins to set we notice signs in the pub – “Disco Fri & Sat 9 to 1” and realise that we might not be moored in the most peaceful spot, so find ourselves moving the boat in semi darkness 200 yards or so down the canal. We are lucky to get close to the bank, but it was worth the move as we don’t hear a thing. 9.3 miles and 15 locks in 6 hours 50mins.

Saturday 30th August. After a leisurely breakfast we set off in fine weather at 9:50, and as we approach London begin to encounter more boats moored online. Although Elizabeth has two lifejackets we don’t have any, and as it looks like we will be making our trip on the tideway it’s time to invest. We reach Uxbridge Boat Centre at 11:20, but as there is a boat being craned into the water we don’t try to moor at the yard, but it’s a bit of a trek from the towpath side. We shop in two shifts and settle for non-inflating jackets and a throwing line. It’s 12:00 before we are underway again, but decide that with our lack of knowledge of mooring on the outskirts of London we should try to get to Little Venice tonight.

in 2003 there was an attempt to use the Grand Union for freight

Once through Cowley lock we are not going to see another one for the rest of the day, and it’s interesting to see familiar parts of London from canal level. We pass both ends of the new Aggregate barge route that is hoping to save thousands of lorry journeys, and it’s great to negotiate Bulls Bridge junction instead of looking at from a traffic jam on the flyover. We even pass a couple of work places such as the HDS Studios at Hayes, Willowtree Marina where I’ve shot Family Affairs locations, and White City.

We spot a few possible places to stop, but don’t do so, except at the supermarket at Alperton for supplies, so it’s 18:20, when we reach Little Venice. On arrival we pass a couple of moored boats from Bugbrooke, and end up tied up under the footbridge some way before the BW office. There are no obvious places to take Elizabeth to eat; we are now referring to Mike Stevens excellent London Waterways site as well as the usual guides, so we head towards the Cafe Rouge he mentions. Before going in, we do a little more exploring and find Cafe Laville over the entrance to the Maida Vale Tunnel and cannot resist – and the location, food and service make the expense worthwhile. On the way back to the boat we use the BW key to walk along the towpath – I must look up the cost of a mooring here! Back on Pollyanna, with Elizabeth in bed, the music from the bar opposite stops at 11pm exactly, and the noise has completely stopped 20 mins later. 21 miles and 1 lock, 7 hours 10 mins.

Sunday 31st August. It’s a pleasant morning for sitting at the front of the boat, drinking tea and watching the world go by on the towpath. I do a little maintenance, check the weed hatch and prepare the boat to set off, then a large wooden cruiser blasts past, rocking every moored boat. We set off, there is no one behind and we are in no hurry, so I pootle along at tickover. The boatman aboard Jason’s Trip Boat comments that I’ll never catch them at that speed. We pass Browing’s Island, navigate Maida Vale Tunnel and are soon passing through the north side of Regents Park. The scale and architecture of the houses here can only be marvelled at, and made me feel very poor! Passing the Zoo and the Chinese “Junk” restaurant we are soon at Camden lock, where there is a familiar looking wooden cruiser hanging onto the wall by a piece of string. Shopping for drugs, I suspect. Camden Lock, by the market, Sunday morning; probably the busiest place on earth. I’m answering questions before I’ve even put the windlass on the paddles, and yes, we’ve got a toilet on board and everything. At the tail of the lock a large bleary-eyed lad asks me how deep it is, because he’s going to jump in to win a bet. I point out what a fool he will look just up to his waist and that he ought to put his trainers back on because the bottom is bound to be littered with broken glass. A helpful passing Australian alerts him to the dangers of Weils disease and I ask him to have the courtesy to wait until we have passed. We never heard the splash…

There is a trip boat coming up. We are still mystified at the behavour of the steerer, who seemed to want to get into the lock at the same time as Fiona was leaving, despite there only being one gate open.

By the time we had passed through Islington Tunnel, our thoughts turned to Lunch. From Little Venice we had not seen space available on any of the official Visitor Moorings. Then at 1pm after leaving City Road Lock, we encountered what I thought at first must be a mirage – an open pub, serving lunch, with about 200ft of completely empty mooring space! The Narrow Boat served us a very tasty Sunday lunch for £5 a head, and by the time we returned to the boat, the sun was blazing. We are now passing through some of the rougher parts of London, but apart from witnessing some cars drag racing, and being asked for a lift(!) by one rather shady looking individual, it’s not that threatening. Indeed, many families are out walking the towpaths. At Salmons Lane lock I have a pleasant chat with a local who wants to know how the lock worked. We finally lock down into Limehouse basin at 17:50. I have phoned ahead to book a mooring here; they were surprised we wanted to pay rather than use the free 24 hour BW places on the wall. We like the idea of a pontoon with gated access and a power hookup, and I’ve read that the free moorings can often be full, although this evening they are not.

Polly Anna in Limehouse Basin

Collect the key from the Cruising Association Bar, tie up and then after a look round we take advantage of the shower block. That evening we sit outside the Narrow Street bar overlooking the Thames and indulge in some starters. Just as the light is about to go a huge cruise ship, escorted by tugs makes it way out to sea. We hope that we don’t meet anything like that tomorrow! 8.5 miles, 12 locks in 6 hours 20 mins.

Hope we don’t meet anything this big!

This isn’t the end of this trip, but the page is getting too long, so the Tideway and return trip is described in Part 2