Me and my boats: swapping the Canal du Midi for the Kennet and Avon
PUBLISHED: 12:20 07 September 2015
In CB, Aug 2014, Chris told us how, after touring the canals of France, he was going to explore the UK's waterways. Now he's back to tell us how he got on…
My 62ft traditional SM Hudson narrowboat had been languishing in Roydon Marina for the winter but now, at the beginning of April, it was time for me to explore the UK canals, in particular the Kennet & Avon.
I was sad to leave Roydon as it was strategically well placed for me, near to rail links to Stanstead and London (I live in France and have family at Chelmsford); the quaint village boasts three pubs and the marina has a useful clubhouse. But I do believe that boats are to be used so it was time to de-rig the shore supply and let go all lines. Bath here we come... lock up your daughters!
The previous July I had travelled down from Northampton in a whistle-stop journey via London and the Regent’s Canal and the River Lee to Roydon but I was looking forward to the return journey along part of the same route to Brentford and the Thames. A canal does look different travelling in the opposite direction and safe bends going one way present hazards going the other.
The journey through London was uneventful and even Camden Lock posed no problems apart from the verbals from drunken gongoozlers – an expected and occupational hazard in this area.
As we moved west out of London I was more aware of the change in scenery and canal craft. Gone were the tatty barges with their cabin tops stacked with coal, logs and other debris with dreadlocked glum faces peering through dirty windows; to be replaced by polished and well kept barges with flower tubs and painted billy cans and well dressed people smiling and waving excitedly through gleaming windows. It is a funny world and, at one stage, it seemed as though we were the only moving boat on the whole of the system.
Down to Brentford and a hour’s wait or two before catching the tide up river, giving a speedy trip to the first lock at Teddington. The Brentford lock-keeper had to check that our exit would not interrupt the Oxford-Cambridge Boat race which had just started. Although we were now wearing lifejackets (I continued to wear one while I was single-handed); I foolishly had no anchor and had a picture flash in my brain of the race being disrupted as a narrowboat drifted out of control down the Thames and sunk both rowing boats!
It was an hour’s trip to Teddington and the first lock on the Thames, which has the luxury of a lock-keeper. Some £70 lighter, I moored alongside. I had forgotten about the licence for the Thames and some clever accounting means that it is cheaper to buy a week’s licence than one for the three days the trip to the K&A would take.
For all of the trip up river my eyes were agog as we passed some of the most fantastic houses I have ever seen. I could not even afford the boats that some of them had in their boathouses or moored at the bottom of their gardens.
So it was into the Thames Locks, with bow and stern lines and engine off, if you please, the only exception being where there was a large self service sign after 5pm or at lunchtime.
Entering the locks was sometimes uncomfortable with high winds and eddies and swirls caused by side weirs and took all of my experience to avoid embarrassing events, but more of that later…
The Thames is beautiful and most enjoyable, the only upset being the continual noise of screaming jet engines as they take off and land at Heathrow. I am surprised Her Majesty has not complained about the noise at Windsor. My crew left me at Henley after 53 hours’ cruising from Roydon, 60 locks and 90 miles and a few challenges – I was now on my own.
I slowly completed the rest of the journey up the Thames and swung left into the entrance of the Kennet Navigation at Reading. After the wide Thames the entrance, with its two railway bridges and gasworks, looked like a wrong turning so I had to ask if I was on the correct stretch of waterway.
At the first lock a passing skipper informed me that the canal was impassable west of Reading but I continued only to be halted at the traffic lights in the town centre which were out of order. A sunken speed boat had broken the cable so I had to wait for two hours while the boat was recovered and the lights fixed; I was stuck by the lights, dwarfed between two high rise buildings on what must have been the hottest day of the year; I stayed at the back with the sun beating down on me… lovely.
I continued slowly heading west along the K&A towards Bath. My waterways guide said “in spite of its benign appearance the K&A can make a considerable impact on the navigation when in spate. Boaters should carefully (‘should’ should be replaced by ‘seriously’) consider their own capabilities and those of his craft before proceeding between Hungerford and Reading”. I can concur with this; no one told me about the waterfall at right angles to the pontoon before the lock at Fobney lock, and I was single-handed, for goodness sake.
My vintage Lister JP3 engine had made smoke and soot on many occasions as full power had been requested. The guide is not wrong and although so far it was beautiful, every passing boater I met had passed on tales of caution at many of the locks and swingbridges.
My faith in human nature was restored when I found my Amazon-purchased BW key would not open Tyle Mill swingbridge. A kind man on a nearby liveaboard opened the bridge for me and then told me I could borrow the key and return it on my return trip… “but that will be a few months,” I said… “no problem,” he replied. I hope he enjoyed his chateaubottled Bordeaux.
As I headed further west I could see there were a few pubs en route and I guess, because of my new found like of real ales, there would be lots more tales for my blog. So, if you were on the canal around that time and you were woken in the early morning by the rhythmic thumping of a Lister JP 3 and a red eyed, white haired ghostly figure who looks like uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses, it was not a ghost ship, it was me.
However, Keswick is up for sale. I do love the English canals but I miss the Canal du Midi...
Since sending in this feature Chris tells us that Keswick has now been sold and he’s back in France.
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