Captain’s log: London to Bristol by narrowboat
This is a lightly edited version of the cruising log I kept on my move from London to Bristol by narrowboat. Photos of the journey can be found here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsm6dJKna
22nd July 2017.
DAY ONE. The cruise to Bristol begins!
Limehouse to Kensal Green. 11.5 miles. 12 locks. 9 hours
Beautiful cruise out of Limehouse basin with all the big boats. Up Regents Canal through Mile End – first time on this stretch. Lock-shared from the beginning, which was so helpful – I didn’t have to work a single lock. Nell, Rosie and Richard came. Horrible weather! Started off nice – we toasted the journey with Prosecco in the sunshine. Rain started at lunch time – soggy pita bread and empty glasses filled with rain. Everyone ended up wearing my waterproofs – luckily I have many. Torrential at points. Paused before Islington tunnel to fill water tank and go to my favourite hair dressers for the last time – £8 for a cut, no appointment necessary. Nell and Rosie headed home after a cup of tea.
Tunnel was fine – my lamp is terrific and I have attached it to my new cratch frame, which also gave a point of reference for the centre of the boat. Far different to my first tunnel experience – no light, no idea where I was going, much crashing and scraping into the sides and a few extra grey hairs by the time I emerged at the other side.
New lock-sharing partners through Camden. Bit of a slog after that – wet and cold. No more locks. Moored up on 4-hour bollards at Kensal Sainsburys, but no one was around so we hoped it would be ok to stay the night (it was). Went to say goodbye to Alex, moored a few boats down, heavily pregnant with twins. Picked towpath blackberries.
Engine smoking a fair amount – had to empty filters three times as so much weed clogging up the water cooling system. Cooked curry. Hard day but good to get started.
23rd July 2017
DAY TWO. Kensal Green to Boston Manor. 15.5 miles, 9 locks, 8.5 hours
Easy cruise for the first 11 miles – no locks! Fine weather with a few rain showers. Stopped briefly at Greenford for lunch. Richard did most of the driving while I cleaned my boat – it is Sunday, cleaning day, after all. Made crumble with the blackberries and stewed apples that my aunt Vanda had given me. Turned off the Paddington Arm onto the Grand Union at Bull’s Bridge. Beautiful cutting for the canal. Hanwell flight of locks took almost as long to get through as the previous stretch! Met a boat coming up through the flight – the three men on board couldn’t work out the sluices so we helped. Apparently they had been there for 30 minutes and had decided to give up, back out of the lock and moor up for the night. I think they were grateful we came along. Rained on and off all afternoon. Rainbows. Tarp on and off the cratch frame – I need to get a coat of gloss on it so I don’t need to cover it up any more. Moored up just south of where the Piccadilly Line crosses the river – an impressive iron bridge. It’s a beautiful and peaceful stretch. Feels very far removed from London even though the M4 is right around the corner. First time I have only seen darkness out of the windows.
Mat and Anna came for dinner. We had picked more blackberries and froze them to put in the Prosecco. Lovely meal, wine and company.
24th July 2017
DAY THREE. Boston Manor to Kingston-upon-Thames. 8.5 miles, 4 locks, 6.5 hours.
Left our beautiful mooring on the leafy River Brent and cruised down to Brentford Dock. Gauging lock at Brentford marina operated by volunteer then a small stretch before the Thames lock. We arrived with three hours to wait before tide was right for locks to open. Second in a long queue of boats. I spent the time sponging out the diesel spill in the bilge – how pleasant. Also went for a walk to calm my nerves about the big scary Thames. Horrible stretch of canal – very industrial, no greenery, no facilities, nothing. I was expecting to be able to fill up my diesel tank before going out on the Thames. Oh well. Slightly nervous now.
Went through tidal lock and turned onto the Thames. Following larger boat – makes it a bit easier. Slightly windy but not too difficult. Flooding tide carried us along. Thames wide and absolutely beautiful. We felt very small. Two narrow boats behind us. Looked tiny. Came through Teddington lock after an hour – end of tidal Thames. Purchased temporary licence for non-tidal Thames. No dramas coming along the river – only difficulty when boats coming the other way and creating wash. Lovely bridges. Moored up just upstream of bridge at Kingston-upon-Thames. Dinner and wine on the river and a walk around Hampton Court Palace grounds – got locked in so had to jump the fence!
25th July 2017
DAY FOUR. Kingston-upon-Thames to Old Windsor. 17 miles, 6 locks, 9 hours.
Really sunny day – very hot at times. I was hoping to fill my diesel tanks at Thames Ditton (there’s an underlying fear that I’ll run out at any moment) but the diesel pontoon is private. Next available – Shepperton marina, near Walton-on-Thames. Went into Walton marina first and had to pull off a spectacular turn to get out again without bumping anyone. Similar spectacular manoeuvre to get onto the diesel pontoon in the marina – managed well (and received compliment from passing worker) but then wind caught the bow and nudged me into the neighbouring boat which cracked the window! Grrr. Really nice cruise up to that point – very grand buildings and loads of riverfront chalets. Filled up on diesel – turns out tank was half full so no need to panic. Really must get a dip stick. Cycled into Shepperton to buy something for lunch – very disorientating being on the road again after having been on the river for so long. Forgot which side to ride on!
Continued to Windsor. River is very green with tree-lined banks. Calm and wide. Little other traffic. All locks except one manned so it was an easy cruise. Stressful trying to find a mooring spot! It has to be hardstanding as you can’t just moor anywhere, and most of the moorings are private. But I found a perfect one opposite some beautiful boats in Old Windsor. Free for 24 hours. Engine going strong all day.
26th July 2017
DAY FIVE. Old Windsor to Boveney. 6.5 miles, 3 locks, 3 hours.
A short cruise today – I went to visit Lila and Kerry for lunch. Very rainy ride to the station! Lovely lunch. Got back to the boat at 1645 and set off on the cruise through Windsor. Met another (huge) boat at first lock. Slowly overtook them on the long curve round Windsor Castle grounds. View of the castle slowly emerging. Great coming through Windsor under the town bridge – I’ve been here before a few times. Round the race course – remember going there to see the races! Final lock self-service, helped by the people in the big boat. Upstream moorings full so I doubled up.
Had to really push the engine to get past the big boat. Hope it’s ok. Running well so far.
I can’t say I’m enjoying it so far. The Thames is huge and overwhelming and my boat feels very small. I’m not familiar with rivers and can’t wait to get back to the canal network. At least all the locks are manned which helps.
27th July 2017
DAY SIX. Boveney to Henley-on-Thames. 18.5 miles, 7 locks, 7.5 hours.
Great to have made Henley – means I’ll be off the Thames tomorrow. It was tough mooring up – lots of rowers to avoid, a bit of wind, had to turn as I went into the town where the moorings were private so came back. Paid £10 to moor.
Cruise was sunshine and showers. River at Maidenhead was beautiful and has remained beautiful since. Talked to a few of the lock keepers about my cruise. Seems that the river is quite quiet at the moment. Apparently it becomes more narrowboaty further upstream, beyond Reading.
Spent a few hours this morning painting the cratch frame so had a late start. Engine running well. Spent most of the day listening to Radio 4. “I envy you,” says one lock keeper – a nice change from “You’re brave!” or, “Isn’t it hard by yourself?” <— I know people are just being interested and mean no harm but the implication of statements like that is that I shouldn’t be capable of a solo cruise. It becomes wearing after a while.
The river is beautiful though still overwhelming. Many homes back onto the river with boat houses built into them or constructed at the bottom of the garden. The river often winds around a hill with stately homes built into the hillside. It’s very rich and posh.
28th July 2017
DAY SEVEN. Henley-on-Thames to Reading. 8.5 miles, 3 locks, 3 hours.
Started the day by getting stuck on the bank – bow was blowing out with the wind but stern was struggling to get off with no propulsion in the shallow water. Rower coming! Managed eventually though nearly ended up being blown totally around. Met another narrowboat far side of Henley and lock-shared all day. Not sure about their lock etiquette (made it tricky for me by motoring out at the same time as me, and left before me even though I got there first and was going faster).
Very windy against me all morning and a few showers. Many rowers on the whole stretch. Nearly missed the entrance to Kennet and Avon – quite hidden! One lock then backwater to the town moorings where I knocked the chimney off on the extremely low footbridge. Really dented it. Grrr. Moored by Chestnut Walk Gardens. Roz came for lunch then it rained all afternoon. I couldn’t face going any further so here I am for the night.
It’s such a relief to be off the river. Though the canal is full of weeds and rubbish and my mooring overlooks the back of businesses and industrial estates, I feel far more settled and at home.
29th July 2017
DAY EIGHT. Reading to Thatcham. 14 miles, 16 locks, 11 hours.
First full day on the Kennet and Avon. It starts in Reading by going through the middle of a shopping precinct with a traffic light system to allow one-way traffic only. Turns out this is actually the Kennet navigation rather than a true canal so it really has the feel of a river: very winding with loads of vegetation, a weir at each lock and sluices/weirs along the way. It’s nice being back on the calm of the navigation although it’s often shallow and there are loads of weeds and rubbish and oil. Beth stayed with me til lunchtime. Sunny to begin with but soon started drizzling. Beth at tiller most of the time but sometimes I had to grab it. She went home at Theale, just past the first swing bridge. These are something I’ve not come across before, some operated electronically but some where you have to push them open. Process can be very slow when single handed: moor up, open bridge, take boat through, moor up again, close bridge, go.
A few rainy hours then Jess came to join in. Afternoon/evening was a complete wash-out – got through three waterproof jackets! and my overtrousers started leaking. Jess helped keep the spirits up with white wine and good banter. Nearly had a boat slam into us on a tight bend – ended up entangled in a hawthorn bush in effort to avoid it. Probably our fault as we were on the wrong side… only because there were so many overhanging branches and I didn’t want them to drag anything off the roof. While winding down the sluice at a lock, the windlass flew off the handle then bounced into the water. Jess was mortified. I fished it out with the magnet. We were cruising a bit too fast towards the end – wanted to get to a town by nightfall and to get out of the rain. Caused a bit of surf on the banks which you’re not allowed to do. Engine smoking towards the end of the day. Soggy pint and curry in the pub.
30th July 2017
DAY NINE. Thatcham to Hungerford. 12 miles, 16 locks, 10 hours.
Mostly sunny today but got completely soaked coming through the last lock. So far it has rained every day. I can’t wait for some sunshine. Really pretty stretches of river, some very overgrown with reeds. Came through the second turf lock, a listed ancient monument, that you’re supposed to leave empty – I didn’t realise til after I’d gone, oops. Newbury was really pretty with old mills backing onto the river – a different aspect of the town to what you might usually see. Today I went nice and slow, partly because the river is narrow so you can’t really go fast, but also because the tranquility of boating is somewhat disrupted by a great diesel engine motoring away. Now I’m no longer ploughing through the miles trying to get off the Thames I can take my time a bit more. Lock-shared today – asked a guy to wait at the next lock which he did. Nice guy, constant cruiser around this area. One of the locks wasn’t filling properly – massive hole in the downstream lock gates – so we had to empty it and start again. I chucked a stick in which blocked the hole sufficiently so it filled properly. But it meant I got to jump the queue – I went in with the next family ahead of the the guy who had waited for me. Felt bad. Had a pint at Kintbury. Saw TR! He’s been cruising around these parts for the last year or so – thought I hadn’t seen him for a while. Had a nice chat while my boat got cosy in the reeds. Not much further to Hungerford. Moorings are hard to come by as the river bank is not very firm and it can be shallow towards the edge. Managed to jump ashore to moor up. Walked into Hungerford – lovely little town. Engine is doing fine and is not smoking as long as I don’t push it too hard.
31st July 2017
DAY TEN. Hungerford to Crofton. 6.5 miles, 15 locks, 7 hours.
Not many miles but slow progress – loads of locks. I was really frustrated to begin with and made hard work of the locks, but faced up to the fact that boating is slow! and after that I enjoyed the day. Started off by following someone through the locks so had to reset each one, so cycled ahead to ask him to wait for me. We shared a few locks then I shared with a family. Stopped at the moorings by the Crofton pumping station for the night.
Nearly at the top of the hill! I’ve been climbing since I left London – only six more locks til I start going down again.
I had picked blackberries and apples in the morning so I made a crumble.
I saw a couple of kingfishers and some fish.
Put another layer of paint on the cratch frame. Then it rained.
1st August 2017
DAY ELEVEN. Crofton to Devizes. 18.5 miles, 10 locks, 10 hours.
Reached the summit pound today. The pounds on the way up were very shallow and I got stuck on the bottom in one. Penultimate pound was a couple of feet lower than usual – the water line was way below where it should be. The landscape continued to rise leaving the canal in a deep wooded cutting which then became a tunnel. Four locks descending then a glorious 12 mile stretch without a single lock. My hands are red raw from all the rope work getting into and out of the locks. The Vale of Pewsey is very beautiful with farmland, hills and white chalk horses on the hillsides. It did get a bit tedious though – nothing to break it up. Would’ve been nice to have just one more lock, haha. Lots of boaters live here so there are long stretches of going very slowly. Lots of narrowboats here, hardly any barges or cruisers. Pill boxes at intervals – turns out the K&A was to be a second line of defence after the south coast if England were to be invaded in the war. Canal banks dominated by reeds, often leaving only a narrow channel. All the boats need a gangplank in order to disembark. Shallow in parts. Got told to slow down as I went past Devizes marina – oops. Moored on the visitor moorings opposite Devizes wharf.
2nd August 2017
DAY TWELVE. Devizes to Foxhangers. 2.5 miles, 29 locks, 5 hours.
Yes, that does say 2.5 miles, 29 locks. This is the famous hill. It took all day.
What a day! Terrible weather, really windy and rain that alternated between light sprinkling and heavy downpour. Knowing I had a full day of locks ahead, I waited at the top lock in Devizes for another boat to lock-share with. 45 minute wait! Totally worth it. I got a holiday narrowboat with seven people on board who did ALL THE LOCKS for me. This was basically amazing. We flew down the flight in a few hours and it was brilliant despite the rain. Although they did ram my boat a couple of times, once quite badly! But it was a slick operation and very much appreciated. Dad and Valmai came along and helped as well. Moored up at the bottom and had hot soup and crumble for afternoon lunch.
The valley was laid out beneath as we came down the hill in varying degrees of visibility – sometimes we could see the whole valley, other times just a load of grey cloud. Hills misty with rain. At the top of the locks it felt as if we were cruising off the hill, or just about to tip over the top of a roller coaster. I cycled back up the hill for a pint at the canal-side pub at the end of the day. It had lots of canal-related photos, charts and posters on the walls. No pub at the bottom of the flight. I reckon it’s far harder going uphill than down.
3rd August 2017
DAY 13. Foxhangers to Bradford-on-Avon. 9 miles, 7 locks, 5.5 hours.
It was very, very windy today. I considered not cruising because the morning was so ridiculously windy but it was not so bad once I got going. Tricky sometimes in the locks and at the landings for the swing bridges but mostly it wasn’t too much of a problem. Nice slow cruise. Lock-shared the first few but the rest by myself, although people helped. Most boaters using the canal were holidaying (been the case for most of the trip) – most don’t really know what they’re doing which can be tricky. There are lots of boat hire companies on this stretch.
It was a late start as I had a lazy morning tidying but I arrived in time to have a look around Bradford – just in time for it to start raining, groan. That makes 13 consecutive days with rain.
4th August 2017
DAY 14. Bradford-on-Avon to Bath. 10.5 miles, 7 locks, 7 hours.
Bradford-on-Avon is a beautiful little town similar in appearance to Bath – buildings made of Bath stone built into the steep hills that come down to the river. Lots of ancient buildings. I had a lovely time wandering around this morning, plus I found a ‘Sustainable Supermarket’ – finally! All this time without organic lentils – that won’t do. Beautiful cruise along the Avon valley, partway up the hill – river is at bottom of gorge and canal is elevated. Twice crosses the river on aqueducts. Stunning views (between the rain showers) across the countryside and of Bath as I approached. Canal steadily curves round the hills. Steep descent into Bath – six locks, one of them twice as deep as a standard lock – scary! My boat looked tiny at the bottom. Came onto the river and turned upstream but no mooring so turned below Pulteney Weir and came down to the visitor moorings opposite the old wharf buildings. Good location although currently a building site so not that pleasant.
Took it really slow today as there were loads of moored boats. Two swing bridges where the landing was on the wrong side! Therefore impossible to operate single-handed. Apparently it’s possible with a clever configuration of ropes – luckily there were boaters passing on the towpath who helped. Really sunny evening! But grey day and a couple of rain showers just to keep up the consistency.
5th August 2017
DAY 15. Bath to Keynsham. 8.5 miles, 4 locks, 4.5 hours.
Becca, Lara and Oliver came with me today. We had a really nice day – it was mostly sunny with a couple of scattered showers, and it wasn’t too much hard work. Perfect for a 10 and 8 year old. Lock-shared with a couple cruising their daughter’s boat. Locks were large and took ages to fill up. Everyone took a turn at steering and helping with the locks. We repeatedly passed beneath the Bristol-Bath railway path and passed the spot where I had camped on my LEJOG ride. Got dragged onto a weir boom at one point while trying to hover waiting for the lock, and had a real struggle to get off. That was nerve-wracking.
Moored up on an attractive concrete wall at Keynsham and Bec and the kids got the train home.
The engine has been running amazingly well, considering that I have worked it more in the last two weeks than I have in the last three years combined. But I think the oil has sprung a leak – it went from nearly full to way below the limit in a matter of days. Definitely need a service.
6th August 2017
DAY 16. Keysham to Bristol. THE LAST DAY. 8 miles, 2 locks, 3 hours.
Sara and Lucie, my two Bristol friends, came for the cruise. It was a beautiful day – no rain! It was sunny all day! Sometimes a bit cold though. It was a lovely relaxed cruise, long waits at the locks but that was OK. The river between Keynsham and Hanham then up to Netham was beautiful. It’s tidal beyond Hanham and at low tide it was fairly shallow at the edges. Sara drove for a while.
At Netham lock we stopped to meet the lock keeper and purchase my licence for Bristol floating harbour – this is under the jurisdiction of Bristol City Council so not covered by my CRT licence. Real character – John. He didn’t believe my boat was quite that long, which was very helpful given that you’re charged per metre. Issued a two week visitor mooring for the floating harbour (and a couple of extra days for good measure). All there was to do was motor up the feeder canal into Bristol centre – I felt truly, genuinely excited for the first time. Passed beneath all the bridges, seeing a different view of a city I partly recognise. The last bridge (swing bridge) was very low and nearly knocked Lucie’s bike off the roof – she had to walk up the gunwales and grab it. Moored up outside Arnolfini, right in the middle of it all. We opened the Prosecco I had been saving since London. Amazing location. Loads of boats. Private pontoon so lovely and quiet. Lights on the water at night. Seagulls everywhere. No grey water in the harbour – means no showering and no washing up for the next two weeks! But I’m here. Bristol. Finally made it. I was warned this bit would be horrible and rowdy, but it’s not. It’s lovely. Welcome Slow Gin to your new home.